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Title: Highways in Hiding
Author: Smith, George Oliver, 1911-1981
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Highways in Hiding" ***

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                            HIGHWAYS IN HIDING

                             GEORGE O. SMITH



A LANCER BOOK   1967

Copyright 1956 by George O. Smith
_Highways in Hiding_ is based upon material originally copyrighted by
Greenleaf Publishing Co., 1955.

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Catalog Card No.: 56-10457
Printed in the U.S.A.
_Cover painting by Roy G. Krenkel_

LANCER BOOKS, INC., 185 MADISON AVENUE, NEW YORK, N.Y. 10016

[Transcriber's note: This is a rule 6 clearance. PG has not been able
to find a U.S. copyright renewal.]



    _For my drinking uncle DON and, of course MARIAN_



_Historical Note_


In the founding days of Rhine Institute the need arose for a new
punctuation mark which would indicate on the printed page that the
passage was of mental origin, just as the familiar quotation marks
indicate that the words between them were of verbal origin. Accordingly,
the symbol # was chosen, primarily because it appears on every
typewriter.

Up to the present time, the use of the symbol # to indicate directed
mental communication has been restricted to technical papers, term
theses, and scholarly treatises by professors, scholars, and students of
telepathy.

Here, for the first time in any popular work, the symbol # is used to
signify that the passage between the marks was mental communication.

Steve Cornell, _M. Ing._



STALEMATE


Macklin said, "Please put that weapon down, Mr. Cornell. Let's not add
attempted murder to your other crimes."

"Don't force me to it, then," I told him.

But I knew I couldn't do it. I hated them all. I wanted the whole
Highways in Hiding rolled up like an old discarded carpet, with every
Mekstrom on Earth rolled up in it. But I couldn't pull the trigger. The
survivors would have enough savvy to clean up the mess before our bodies
got cold, and the Highways crowd would be doing business at the same old
stand. Without, I might add, the minor nuisance that people call Steve
Cornell.

What I really wanted was to find Catherine.

And then it came to me that what I really wanted second of all was to
possess a body of Mekstrom Flesh, to be a physical superman....



I


I came up out of the blackness just enough to know that I was no longer
pinned down by a couple of tons of wrecked automobile. I floated on soft
sheets with only a light blanket over me.

I hurt all over like a hundred and sixty pounds of boil. My right arm
was numb and my left thigh was aching. Breathing felt like being stabbed
with rapiers and the skin of my face felt stretched tight. There was a
bandage over my eyes and the place was as quiet as the grave. But I knew
that I was not in any grave because my nose was working just barely well
enough to register the unmistakable pungent odor that only goes with
hospitals.

I tried my sense of perception, but like any delicate and critical
sense, perception was one of the first to go. I could not dig out beyond
a few inches. I could sense the bed and the white sheets and that was
all.

Some brave soul had hauled me out of that crack-up before the fuel tank
went up in the fire. I hope that whoever he was, he'd had enough sense
to haul Catherine out of the mess first. The thought of living without
Catherine was too dark to bear, and so I just let the blackness close
down over me again because it cut out all pain, both physical and
mental.

The next time I awoke there was light and a pleasant male voice saying,
"Steve Cornell. Steve, can you hear me?"

I tried to answer but no sound came out. Not even a hoarse croak.

The voice went on, "Don't try to talk, Steve. Just think it."

#Catherine?# I thought sharply, because most medicos are telepath, not
perceptive.

"Catherine is all right," he replied.

#Can I see her?#

"Lord no!" he said quickly. "You'd scare her half to death the way you
look right now."

#How bad off am I?#

"You're a mess, Steve. Broken ribs, compound fracture of the left tibia,
broken humerus. Scars, mars, abrasions, some flashburn and post-accident
shock. And if you're interested, not a trace of Mekstrom's Disease."

#Mekstrom's Disease--?# was my thought of horror.

"Forget it, Steve. I always check for it because it's been my specialty.
Don't worry."

#Okay. So how long have I been here?#

"Eight days."

#Eight days? Couldn't you do the usual job?#

"You were pretty badly ground up, Steve. That's what took the time. Now,
suppose you tell me what happened?"

#Catherine and I were eloping. Just like most other couples do since
Rhine Institute made it difficult to find personal privacy. Then we
cracked up.#

"What did it?" asked the doctor. "Perceptives like you usually sense
danger before you can see it."

#Catherine called my attention to a peculiar road sign, and I sent my
perception back to take another dig. We hit the fallen limb of a tree
and went over and over. You know the rest.#

"Bad," said the doctor. "But what kind of a sign would call your
interest so deep that you didn't at least see the limb, even if you were
perceiving the sign?"

#Peculiar sign,# I thought. Ornamental wrought iron gizmo with curlicues
and a little decorative circle that sort of looks like the Boy Scout
tenderfoot badge suspended on three spokes. One of the spokes were
broken away; I got involved because I was trying to guess whether it had
been shot away by some vandal who missed the central design.
Then--blooie!#

"It's really too bad, Steve. But you'll be all right in a while."

#Thanks, doctor. Doctor? Doctor--?#

"Sorry, Steve. I forget that everybody is not telepath like I am. I'm
James Thorndyke."

Much later I began to wake up again, and with better clarity of mind, I
found that I could extend my esper as far as the wall and through the
door by a few inches. It was strictly hospital all right; sere white and
stainless steel as far as my esper could reach.

In my room was a nurse, rustling in starched white. I tried to speak,
croaked once, and then paused to form my voice.

"Can--I see--How is--? Where is?" I stopped again, because the nurse was
probably as esper as I was and required a full sentence to get the
thought behind it. Only a telepath like the doctor could have followed
my jumbled ideas. But the nurse was good. She tried:

"Mr. Cornell? You're awake!"

"Look--nurse--"

"Take it easy. I'm Miss Farrow. I'll get the doctor."

"No--wait. I've been here eight days--?"

"But you were badly hurt, you know."

"But the doctor. He said that she was here, too."

"Don't worry about it, Mr. Cornell."

"But he said that she was not badly hurt."

"She wasn't."

"Then why was--is--she here so long?"

Miss Farrow laughed cheerfully. "Your Christine is in fine shape. She is
still here because she wouldn't leave until you were well out of danger.
Now stop fretting. You'll see her soon enough."

Her laugh was light but strained. It sounded off-key because it was as
off-key as a ten-yard-strip of baldfaced perjury. She left in a hurry
and I was able to esper as far as outside the door, where she leaned
back against the wood and began to cry. She was hating herself because
she had blown her lines and she knew that I knew it.

And Catherine had never been in this hospital, because if she had been
brought in with me, the nurse would have known the right name.

Not that it mattered to me now, but Miss Farrow was no esper or she'd
have dug my belongings and found Catherine's name on the license. Miss
Farrow was a telepath; I'd not called my girl by name, only by an
affectionate mental image.



II


I was fighting my body upright when Doctor Thorndyke came running.
"Easy, Steve," he said with a quiet gesture. He pushed me gently back
down in the bed with hands that were as soft as a mother's, but as firm
as the kind that tie bow knots in half-inch bars. "Easy," he repeated
soothingly.

"Catherine?" I croaked pleadingly.

Thorndyke fingered the call button in some code or other before he
answered me. "Steve," he said honestly, "you can't be kept in ignorance
forever. We hoped it would be a little longer, when you were stronger--"

"Stop beating around!" I yelled. At least it felt like I was yelling,
but maybe it was only my mind welling.

"Easy, Steve. You've had a rough time. Shock--" The door opened and a
nurse came in with a hypo all loaded, its needle buried in a fluff of
cotton. Thorndyke eyed it professionally and took it; the nurse faded
quietly from the room. "Take it easy, Steve. This will--"

"No! Not until I know--"

"Easy," he repeated. He held the needle up before my eyes. "Steve," he
said, "I don't know whether you have enough esper training to dig the
contents of this needle, but if you haven't, will you please trust me?
This contains a neurohypnotic. It won't put you under. It will leave you
as wide awake as you are now, but it will disconnect your running gear
and keep you from blowing a fuse." Then with swift deftness that amazed
me, the doctor slid the needle into my arm and let me have the full
load.

I was feeling the excitement rise in me because something was wrong, but
I could also feel the stuff going to work. Within half a minute I was in
a chilled-off frame of mind that was capable of recognizing the facts
but not caring much one way or the other.

When he saw the stuff taking hold, Thorndyke asked, "Steve, just who is
Catherine?"

The shock almost cut through the drug. My mind whirled with all the
things that Catherine was to me, and the doctor followed it every bit of
the way.

"Steve, you've been under an accident shock. There was no Catherine with
you. There was no one with you at all. Understand that and accept it. No
one. You were alone. Do you understand?"

I shook my head. I sounded to myself like an actor reading the script of
a play for the first time. I wanted to pound on the table and add the
vigor of physical violence to my hoarse voice, but all I could do was to
reply in a calm voice:

"Catherine was with me. We were--" I let it trail off because Thorndyke
knew very well what we were doing. We were eloping in the new definition
of the word. Rhine Institute and its associated studies had changed a
lot of customs; a couple intending to commit matrimony today were
inclined to take off quietly and disappear from their usual haunts until
they'd managed to get intimately acquainted with one another. Elopement
was a means of finding some personal privacy.

We should have stayed at home and faced the crude jokes that haven't
changed since Pithecanthropus first discovered that sex was funny. But
our mutual desire to find some privacy in this modern fish-bowl had put
me in the hospital and Catherine--where--?

"Steve, listen to me!"

"Yeah?"

"I know you espers. You're sensitive, maybe more so than telepaths. More
imagination--"

This was for the birds in my estimation. Among the customs that Rhine
has changed was the old argument as to whether women or men were
smarter. Now the big argument was whether espers or telepaths could get
along better with the rest of the world.

Thorndyke laughed at my objections and went on: "You're in accident
shock. You piled up your car. You begin to imagine how terrible it would
have been if your Catherine had been with you. Next you carefully build
up in your subconscious mind a whole and complete story, so well put
together that to you it seems to be fact."

But, #--how could anyone have taken a look at the scene of the accident
and not seen traces of woman? My woman.#

"We looked," he said in answer to my unspoken question. "There was not a
trace, Steve."

#Fingerprints?#

"You'd been dating her."

#Naturally!#

Thorndyke nodded quietly. "There were a lot of her prints on the remains
of your car. But no one could begin to put a date on them, or tell how
recent was the latest, due to the fire. Then we made a door to door
canvas of the neighborhood to be sure she hadn't wandered off in a daze
and shock. Not even a footprint. Nary a trace." He shook his head
unhappily. "I suppose you're going to ask about that travelling bag you
claim to have put in the trunk beside your own. There was no trace of
any travelling bag."

"Doctor," I asked pointedly, "if we weren't together, suppose you tell
me first why I had a marriage license in my pocket; second, how come I
made a date with the Reverend Towle in Midtown; and third, why did I
bother to reserve the bridal suite in the Reignoir Hotel in Westlake? Or
was I nuts a long time before this accident. Maybe," I added, "after
making reservations, I had to go out and pile myself up as an excuse for
not turning up with a bride."

"I--all I can say is that there was not a trace of woman in that
accident."

"You've been digging in my mind. Did you dig her telephone number?"

He looked at me blankly.

"And you found what, when you tried to call her?"

"I--er--"

"Her landlady told you that Miss Lewis was not in her apartment because
Miss Lewis was on her honeymoon, operating under the name of Mrs. Steve
Cornell. That about it?"

"All right. So now you know."

"Then where the hell is she, Doc?" The drug was not as all-powerful as
it had been and I was beginning to feel excitement again.

"We don't know, Steve."

"How about the guy that hauled me out of that wreck? What does he say?"

"He was there when we arrived. The car had been hauled off you by block
and tackle. By the time we got there the tackle had been burned and the
car was back down again in a crumpled mass. He is a farmer by the name
of Harrison. He had one of his older sons with him, a man about
twenty-four, named Phillip. They both swore later that there was no
woman in that car nor a trace of one."

"Oh, he did, did he?"

Dr. Thorndyke shook his head slowly and then said very gently. "Steve,
there's no predicting what a man's mind will do in a case of shock. I've
seen 'em come up with a completely false identity, all the way back to
childhood. Now, let's take your case once more. Among the other
incredible items--"

"Incredible?" I roared.

"Easy. Hear me out. After all, am I to believe your unsubstantiated
story or the evidence of a whole raft of witnesses, the police detail,
the accident squad, and the guys who hauled you out of a burning car
before it blew up? As I was saying, how can we credit much of your tale
when you raved about one man lifting the car and the other hauling you
out from underneath?"

I shrugged. "That's obviously a mistaken impression. No one could--"

"So when you admit that one hunk of your story is mistaken--"

"That doesn't prove the rest is false!"

"The police have been tracking this affair hard," said the doctor
slowly. "They've gotten nowhere. Tell me, did anyone see you leave that
apartment with Miss Lewis?"

"No," I said slowly. "No one that knew us."

Thorndyke shook his head unhappily. "That's why we have to assume that
you are in post-accident shock."

I snorted angrily. "Then explain the license, the date with the
reverend, the hotel reservation?"

Thorndyke said quietly, "Hear me out, Steve. This is not my own idea
alone, but the combined ideas of a number of people who have studied the
human mind--"

"In other words, I'm nuts?"

"No. Shock."

"Shock?"

He nodded very slowly. "Let's put it this way. Let's assume that you
wanted this marriage with Miss Lewis. You made preparations, furnished
an apartment, got a license, made a date with a preacher, reserved a
honeymoon suite, and bought flowers for the bride. You take off from
work, arrive at her door, only to find that Miss Lewis has taken off for
parts unknown. Maybe she left you a letter--"

"Letter!"

"Hear me out, Steve. You arrive at her apartment and find her gone. You
read a letter from her saying that she cannot marry you. This is a
rather deep shock to you and you can't face it. Know what happens?"

"I blow my brains out along a country road at ninety miles per hour."

"Please, this is serious."

"It sounds incredibly stupid to me."

"You're rejecting it in the same way you rejected the fact that Miss
Lewis ran away rather than marry you."

"Do go on, Doctor."

"You drive along the same road you'd planned to take, but the
frustration and shock pile up to put you in an accident-prone frame of
mind. You then pile up, not consciously, but as soon as you come upon
something like that tree limb which can be used to make an accident
authentic."

"Oh, sure."

Thorndyke eyed me soberly. "Steve," he asked me in a brittle voice, "you
won't try to convince me that any esper will let physical danger of that
sort get close enough to--"

"I've told you how it happened. My attention was on that busted sign!"

"Fine. More evidence to the fact that Miss Lewis was with you? Now
listen to me. In accident-shock you'd not remember anything that your
mind didn't want you to recall. Failure is a hard thing to take. So now
you can blame your misfortune on that accident."

"So now you tell me how you justify the fact that Catherine told
landladies, friends, bosses, and all the rest that she was going to
marry me a good long time before I was ready to be verbal about my
plans?"

"I--"

"Suppose I've succeeded in bribing everybody to perjure themselves.
Maybe we all had it in for Catherine, and did her in?"

Thorndyke shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I really don't know,
Steve. I wish I did."

"That makes two of us," I grunted. "Hasn't anybody thought of arresting
me for kidnapping, suspicion of murder, reckless driving and cluttering
up the highway with junk?"

"Yes," he said quietly. "The police were most thorough. They had two of
their top men look into you."

"What did they find?" I asked angrily. No man likes to have his mind
turned inside out and laid out flat so that all the little wheels,
cables and levers are open to the public gaze. On the other hand, since
I was not only innocent of any crime but as baffled as the rest of them,
I'd have gone to them willingly to let them dig, to see if they could
dig past my conscious mind into the real truth.

"They found that your story was substantially an honest one."

"Then why all this balderdash about shock, rejection, and so on?"

He shook his head. "None of us are supermen," he said simply. "Your
story was honest, you weren't lying. You believe every word of it. You
saw it, you went through it. That doesn't prove your story true."

"Now see here--"

"It does prove one thing; that you, Steve Cornell, did not have any
malicious, premeditated plans against Catherine Lewis. They've checked
everything from hell to breakfast, and so far all we can do is make
long-distance guesses as to what happened."

I snorted in my disgust. "That's a telepath for you. Everything so
neatly laid out in rows of slats like a snow fence. Me--I'm going to
consult a scholar and have him really dig me deep."

Thorndyke shook his head. "They had their top men, Steve. Scholar
Redfern and Scholar Berks. Both of them Rhine Scholars, _magna cum
laude_."

I blinked as I always do when I am flabbergasted. I've known a lot of
doctors of this and that, from medicine to languages. I've even known a
scholar or two, but none of them intimately. But when a doctor of psi is
invited to take his scholarte at Rhine, that's it, brother; I pass.

Thorndyke smiled. "You weren't too bad yourself, Steve. Ran twelfth in
your class at Illinois, didn't you?"

I nodded glumly. "I forgot to cover the facts. They'd called all the
bright boys out and collected them under one special-study roof. I
majored in mechanical ingenuity not psi. Hoped to get a D. Ing. out of
it, at least, but had to stop. Partly because I'm not ingenious enough
and partly because I ran out of cash."

Doctor Thorndyke nodded. "I know how it is," he said. I realized that he
was leading me away from the main subject gently, but I couldn't see how
to lead him back without starting another verbal hassle. He had me cold.
He could dig my mind and get the best way to lead me away, while I
couldn't read his. I gave up. It felt better, too, getting my mind off
this completely baffling puzzle even for a moment. He caught my thoughts
but his face didn't twitch a bit as he picked up his narrative smoothly:

"I didn't make it either," he said unhappily. "I'm psi and good. But I'm
telepath and not esper. I weasled my way through pre-med and medical by
main force and awkwardness, so to speak." He grinned at me sheepishly.
"I'm not much different than you or any other psi. The espers all think
that perception is superior to the ability to read minds, and vice
versa. I was going to show 'em that a telepath can make Scholar of
Medicine. So I 'pathed my way through med by reading the minds of my
fellows, who were all good espers. I got so good that I could read the
mind of an esper watching me do a delicate dissecting job, and move my
hands according to his perception. I could diagnose the deep ills with
the best of them--so long as there was an esper in the place."

"So what tripped you up?"

"Telepaths make out best dealing with people. Espers do better with
things."

"Isn't medicine a field that deals with people?"

He shook his head. "Not when a headache means spinal tumor, or
indigestion, or a bad cold. 'Doctor,' says the patient, 'I've a bad ache
along my left side just below the ribs,' and after you diagnose, it
turns out to be acute appendicitis. You see, Steve, the patient doesn't
know what's wrong with him. Only the symptoms. A telepath can follow the
patient's symptoms perfectly, but it takes an esper to dig in his guts
and perceive the tumor that's pressing on the spine or the striae on his
liver."

"Yeah."

"So I flopped on a couple of tests that the rest of the class sailed
through, just because I was not fast enough to read their minds and put
my own ability to work. It made 'em suspicious and so here I am, a mere
doctor instead of a scholar."

"There are fields for you, I'm sure."

He nodded. "Two. Psychiatry and psychology, neither of which I have any
love for. And medical research, where the ability to grasp another
doctor or scholar's plan, ideas and theories is slightly more important
than the ability to dig esper into the experiments."

"Don't see that," I said with a shake of my head.

"Well, Steve, let's take Mekstrom's Disease, for instance."

"Let's take something simple. What I know about Mekstrom's Disease could
be carved on the head of a pin with a blunt butter knife."

"Let's take Mekstrom's. That's my chance to make Scholar of Medicine,
Steve, if I can come up with an answer to one of the minor questions.
I'll be in the clinical laboratory where the only cases present are
those rare cases of Mekstrom's. The other doctors, espers every one of
them, and the scholars over them, will dig the man's body right down to
the last cell, looking and combing--you know some of the better espers
can actually dig into the constituency of a cell?--but I'll be the
doctor who can collect all their information, correlate it, and maybe
come up with an answer."

"You picked a dilly," I told him.

It was a real one, all right. Otto Mekstrom had been a mechanic-tech at
White Sands Space Station during the first flight to Venus, Mars and
Moon round-trip with landings. About two weeks after the ship came home,
Otto Mekstrom's left fingertips began to grow hard. The hardening
crawled up slowly until his hand was like a rock. They studied him and
worked over him and took all sorts of samples and made all sorts of
tests until Otto's forearm was as hard as his hand. Then they amputated
at the shoulder.

But by that time, Otto Mekstrom's toes on both feet were getting solid
and his other hand was beginning to show signs of the same. On one side
of the creepline the flesh was soft and normal, but on the other it was
all you could do to poke a sharp needle into the skin. Poor Otto ended
up a basket case, just in time to have the damned stuff start all over
again at the stumps of his arms and legs. He died when hardening reached
his vitals.

Since that day, some twenty-odd years ago, there had been about thirty
cases a year turn up. All fatal, despite amputations and everything else
known to modern medical science. God alone knew how many unfortunate
human beings took to suicide without contacting the big Medical Research
Center at Marion, Indiana.

Well, if Thorndyke could uncover something, no one could claim that a
telepath had no place in medicine. I wished him luck.

I did not see Thorndyke again in that hospital. They released me the
next day and then I had nothing to do but to chew my fingernails and
wonder what had happened to Catherine.



III


I'd rather not go into the next week and a half in detail. I became
known as the bridegroom who lost his bride, and between the veiled
accusations and the half-covered snickers, life was pretty miserable. I
talked to the police a couple-three times, first as a citizen asking for
information and ending up as a complainant against party or parties
unknown. The latter got me nowhere. Apparently the police had more lines
out than the Grand Bank fishing fleet and were getting no more nibbles
than they'd get in the Dead Sea. They admitted it; the day had gone when
the police gave out news reports that an arrest was expected hourly,
meaning that they were baffled. The police, with their fine collection
of psi boys, were willing to admit when they were really baffled. I
talked to telepaths who could tell me what I'd had for breakfast on the
day I'd entered pre-school classes, and espers who could sense the color
of the clothing I wore yesterday. I've a poor color-esper, primitive so
to speak. These guys were good, but no matter how good they were,
Catherine Lewis had vanished as neatly as Ambrose Bierce.

I even read Charles Fort, although I have no belief in the supernatural,
and rather faint faith in the Hereafter. And people who enter the
Hereafter leave their remains behind for evidence.

Having to face Catherine's mother and father, who came East to see me,
made me a complete mental wreck.

It is harder than you think to face the parents of a woman you loved,
and find that all you can tell them is that somehow you fouled your
drive, cracked up, and lost their daughter. Not even dead-for-sure.
Death, I think, we all could have faced. But this uncertainty was
something that gnawed at the soul's roots and left it rotting.

To stand there and watch the tears in the eyes of a woman as she asks
you, "But can't you remember, son?" is a little too much, and I don't
care to go into details.

The upshot of it was, after about ten days of lying awake nights and
wondering where she was and why. Watching her eyes peer out of a metal
casting at me from a position sidewise of my head. Nightmares, either
the one about us turning over and over and over, or Mrs. Lewis pleading
with me only to tell her the truth. Then having the police inform me
that they were marking this case down as "unexplained." I gave up. I
finally swore that I was going to find her and return with her, or I was
going to join her in whatever strange, unknown world she had entered.

       *       *       *       *       *

The first thing I did was to go back to the hospital in the hope that
Dr. Thorndyke might be able to add something. In my unconscious
ramblings there might be something that fell into a pattern if it could
be pieced together.

But this was a failure, too. The hospital super was sorry, but Dr.
Thorndyke had left for the Medical Research Center a couple of days
before. Nor could I get in touch with him because he had a six-week
interim vacation and planned a long, slow jaunt through Yellowstone,
with neither schedule nor forwarding addresses.

I was standing there on the steps hoping to wave down a cruising
coptercab when the door opened and a woman came out. I turned to look
and she recognized me. It was Miss Farrow, my former nurse.

"Why, Mr. Cornell, what are you doing back here?"

"Mostly looking for Thorndyke. He's not here."

"I know. Isn't it wonderful, though? He'll get his chance to study for
his scholarte now."

I nodded glumly. "Yeah," I said. It probably sounded resentful, but it
is hard to show cheer over the good fortune of someone else when your
own world has come unglued.

"Still hoping," she said. It was a statement and not a question.

I nodded slowly. "I'm hoping," I said. "Someone has the answer to this
puzzle. I'll have to find it myself. Everyone else has given up."

"I wish you luck," said Miss Farrow with a smile. "You certainly have
the determination."

I grunted. "It's about all I have. What I need is training. Here I am, a
mechanical engineer, about to tackle the job of a professional detective
and tracer of missing persons. About all I know about the job is what I
have read. One gets the idea that these writers must know something of
the job, the way they write about it. But once you're faced with it
yourself, you realize that the writer has planted his own clues."

Miss Farrow nodded. "One thing," she suggested, "have you talked to the
people who got you out from under your car yet?"

"No, I haven't. The police talked to them and claimed they knew nothing.
I doubt that I can ask them anything that the police have not satisfied
themselves about."

Miss Farrow looked up at me sidewise. "You won't find anything by asking
people who have never heard of you."

"I suppose not."

A coptercab came along at that moment, and probably sensing my
intention, he gave his horn a tap. I'd have liked to talk longer with
Miss Farrow, but a cab was what I wanted, so with a wave I took it and
she went on down the steps to her own business.

I had to pause long enough to buy a new car, but a few hours afterward I
was rolling along that same highway with my esper extended as far as I
could in all directions. I was driving slowly, this time both alert and
ready.

I went past the scene of the accident slowly and shut my mind off as I
saw the black-burned patch. The block was still hanging from an overhead
branch, and the rope that had burned off was still dangling, about two
feet of it, looped through the pulleys and ending in a tapered, burned
end.

I turned left into a driveway toward the home of the Harrisons and went
along a winding dirt road, growing more and more conscious of a dead
area ahead of me.

It was not a real dead zone, because I could still penetrate some of the
region. But as far as really digging any of the details of the rambling
Harrison house, I could get more from my eyesight than from any sense of
perception. But even if they couldn't find a really dead area, the
Harrisons had done very well in finding one that made my sense of
perception ineffective. It was sort of like looking through a light fog,
and the closer I got to the house the thicker it became.

Just about the point where the dead area was first beginning to make its
effect tell, I came upon a tall, browned man of about twenty-four who
had been probing into the interior of a tractor up to the time he heard
my car. He waved, and I stopped.

"Mr. Harrison?"

"I'm Phillip. And you are Mr. Cornell."

"Call me Steve like everybody else," I said. "How'd you guess?"

"Recognized you," he said with a grin. "I'm the guy that pulled you
out."

"Thanks," I said, offering a hand.

He chuckled. "Steve, consider the hand taken and shook, because I've
enough grime to muss up a regiment."

"It won't bother me," I said.

"Thanks, but it's still a gesture, and I appreciate it, but let's be
sensible. I know you can wash, but let's shake later. What can I do for
you?"

"I'd like a first-hand account, Phil."

"Not much to tell. Dad and I were pulling stumps over about a thousand
feet from the wreck. We heard the racket. I am esper enough to dig that
distance with clarity, so we knew we'd better bring along the block and
tackle. The tractor wouldn't go through. So we came on the double, Dad
rigged the tackle and hoisted and I took a running dive, grabbed and
hauled you out before the whole thing went _Whoosh!_ We were both lucky,
Steve."

I grunted a bit but managed to nod with a smile.

"I suppose you know that I'm still trying to find my fiancée?"

"I'd heard tell," he said. He looked at me sharply. I'm a total blank as
a telepath, like all espers, but I could tell what he was thinking.

"Everybody is convinced that Catherine was not with me," I admitted.
"But I'm not. I know she was."

He shook his head slowly. "As soon as we heard the screech of brakes and
rubber we esped the place," he said quietly. "We dug you, of course. But
no one else. Even if she'd jumped as soon as that tree limb came into
view, she could not have run far enough to be out of range. As for
removing a bag, she'd have had to wait until the slam-bang was over to
get it out, and by the time your car was finished rolling, Dad and I
were on the way with help. She was not there, Steve."

#You're a goddam liar!#

Phillip Harrison did not move a muscle. He was blank telepathically. I
was esping the muscles in his stomach, under his loose clothing, for
that first tensing sign of anger, but nothing showed. He had not been
reading my mind.

I smiled thinly at Phil Harrison and shrugged.

He smiled back sympathetically, but behind it I could see that he was
wishing that I'd stop harping on a dead subject. "I sincerely wish I
could be of help," he said. In that he was sincere. But somewhere,
someone was not, and I wanted to find out who it was.

The impasse looked as though it might go on forever unless I turned away
and left. I had no desire to leave. Not that Phil could help me, but
even though this was a dead end, I was loath to leave the place because
it was the last place where I had been close to Catherine.

The silence between us must have been a bit strained at this point, but
luckily we had an interruption. I perceived motion, turned and caught
sight of a woman coming along the road toward us.

"My sister," said Phil. "Marian."

Marian Harrison was quite a girl; if I'd not been emotionally tied to
Catherine Lewis, I'd have been happy to invite myself in. Marian was
almost as tall as I am, a dark, brown-haired woman with eyes of a
startling, electricity colored blue. She was about twenty-two, young and
healthy. Her skin was tanned toast brown so that the bright blue eyes
fairly sparked out at you. Her red mouth made a pleasing blend with the
tan of her skin and her teeth gleamed white against the dark when she
smiled.

Insultingly, I made some complimentary but impolite mental observations
about her figure, but Marion did not appear to notice. She was no
telepath.

"You're Mr. Cornell," she said, "I remembered you," she said quietly.
"Please believe us, Mr. Cornell, when we extend our sympathy."

"Thanks," I said glumly. "Please understand me, Miss Harrison. I
appreciate your sympathy, but what I need is action and information and
answers. Once I get those, the sympathy won't be needed."

"Of course I understand," she replied instantly. "We are all aware that
sympathy is a poor substitute. All the world grieving with you doesn't
turn a stitch to help you out of your trouble. All we can do is to wish,
with you, that it hadn't happened."

"That's the point," I said helplessly. "I don't even know what
happened."

"That makes it even worse," she said softly. Marian had a pleasant
voice, throaty and low, that sounded intimate even when talking about
something pragmatic. "I wish we could help you, Steve."

"I wish someone could."

She nodded. "They asked me about it, too, even though I was not present
until afterward. They asked me," she said thoughtfully, "about the
mental attitude of a woman running off to get married. I told them that
I couldn't speak for your woman, but that I might be able to speak for
me, putting myself in the same circumstances."

She paused a moment, and her brother turned idly back to his tractor and
fitted a small end wrench to a bolt-head and gave it a twist. He seemed
to think that as long as Marian and I were talking, he could well afford
to get along with his work. I agreed with him. I wanted information, but
I did not expect the entire world to stop progress to help me. He spun
the bolt and started on another, lost in his job while Marian went on:

"I told them that your story was authentic--the one about the bridal
nightgown." A very slight color came under the deep tan. "I told them
that I have one, too, still in its wrapper, and that someday I'd be
planning marriage and packing a go-away bag with the gown shaken out and
then packed neatly. I told them that I'd be doing the same thing no
matter whether we were having a formal church wedding with a four-alarm
reception and all the trimmings or a quiet elopement such as you were. I
told them that it was the essentials that count, not the trimmings and
the tinsel. My questioner's remark was to the effect that either you
were telling the truth, or that you had esped a woman about to marry and
identified her actions with your own wishes."

"I know which," I said with a sour smile. "It was both."

Marian nodded. "Then they asked me if it were probable that a woman
would take this step completely unprepared and I laughed at them. I told
them that long before Rhine, women were putting their nuptial affairs in
order about the time the gentleman was beginning to view marriage with
an attitude slightly less than loathing, and that by the time he popped
the question, she'd been practicing writing her name as 'Mrs.' and
picking out the china-ware and prospective names for the children, and
that if any woman had ever been so stunned by a proposal of marriage
that she'd take off without so much as a toothbrush, no one in history
had ever heard of her."

"Then you begin to agree with me?"

She shrugged. "Please," she said in that low voice, "don't ask me my
opinion of your veracity. You believe it, but all the evidence lies
against you. There was not a shred of woman-trace anywhere along your
course, from the point along the road where you first caught sight of
the limb that threw you to the place where you piled up. Nor was there a
trace anywhere in a vast circle--almost a half mile they searched--from
the crack-up. They had doctors of psi digging for footprints, shreds of
clothing, everything. Not a trace."

"But where did she go?" I cried, and when I say 'cried' I mean just
that.

Marian shook her head very slowly. "Steve," she said in a voice so low
that I could hardly hear her over the faint shrill of bolts being
unscrewed by her brother, "so far as we know, she was never here. Why
don't you forget her--"

I looked at her. She stood there, poised and a bit tensed as though she
were trying to force some feeling of affectionate kinhood across the gap
that separated us, as though she wanted to give me both physical and
mental comfort despite the fact that we were strangers on a ten-minute
first-meeting. There was distress in her face.

"Forget her--?" I ground out. "I'd rather die!"

"Oh Steve--no!" One hand went to her throat and the other came out to
fasten around my forearm. Her grip was hard.

I stood there wondering what to do next. Marian's grip on my arm relaxed
and she stepped back.

I pulled myself together. "I'm sorry," I told her honestly. "I'm putting
you through a set of emotional hurdles by bringing my problems here. I'd
better take them away."

She nodded very slowly. "Please go. But please come back once you get
yourself squared away, no matter how. We'd all like to see you when you
aren't all tied up inside."

Phil looked up from the guts of the tractor. "Take it easy, Steve," he
said. "And remember that you do have friends here."

Blindly I turned from them and stumbled back to my car. They were a pair
of very fine people, firm, upright. Marian's grip on my arm had been no
weaker than her sympathy, and Phil's less-emotional approach to my
trouble was no less deep, actually. It was as strong as his good right
arm, loosening the head bolts of a tractor engine with a small
adjustable wrench.

I'd be back. I wanted to see them again. I wanted to go back there with
Catherine and introduce them to her. But I was definitely going to go
back.

I was quite a way toward home before I realized that I had not met the
old man. I bet myself that Father Harrison was quite the firm, active
patriarch.



IV


The days dragged slowly. I faced each morning hopefully at first, but as
the days dragged on and on, I began to feel that each morning was
opening another day of futility, to be barely borne until it was time to
flop down in weariness. I faced the night in loneliness and in anger at
my own inability to do something productive.

I pestered the police until they escorted me to the door and told me
that if I came again, they'd take me to another kind of door and loose
thereafter the key. I shrugged and left disconsolately, because by that
time I had been able to esp, page by page, the entire file that dealt
with the case of "Missing Person: Lewis, Catherine," stamped "Inactive,
but not Closed."

I hated the words.

But as the days dragged out, one after another, with no respite and no
hope, my raw nervous system began to heal. It was probably a case of
numbness; you maul your thumb with a hammer and it will hurt just so
long before it stops.

I was numb for a long time. I remember night after night, lying awake
and staring into the darkness at the wall I knew was beside me, and I
hated my esper because I wanted to project my mind out across some
unknown space to reach for Catherine's mind. If we'd both been telepaths
we could cross the universe to touch each other with that affectionate
tenderness that mated telepaths always claim they have.

Instead I found myself more aware of a clouded-veil perception of Marian
Harrison as she took my arm and looked into my face on that day when I
admitted that I found little worth living for.

I knew what that meant--nothing. It was a case of my subconscious mind
pointing out that the available present was more desirable than the
unavailable not-present. At first I resented my apparent inconstancy in
forming an esper projection of Marian Harrison when I was trying to
project my blank telepathic inadequacy to Catherine. But as the weeks
faded into the past, the shock and the frustration began to pale and I
found Marian's projective image less and less an unwanted intrusion and
more and more pleasant.

I had two deeply depressed spells in those six weeks. At the end of the
fourth week I received a small carton containing some of my personal
junk that had been in Catherine's apartment. A man can't date his girl
for weeks without dropping a few things like a cigarette lighter, a tie
clip, one odd cuff-link, some papers, a few letters, some books, and
stuff both valuable and worthless that had turned up as gifts for one
reason or another. It was a shock to get this box and its arrival
bounced me deep into a doldrum-period of three or four days.

Then at the end of the sixth week I received a card from Dr. Thorndyke.
It contained a lithograph in stereo of some scene in Yellowstone other
than Old Faithful blowing its stack.

On the message side was a cryptic note:

     _Steve: I just drove along that road in the right side of the
     picture. It reminded me of yours, so I'm writing because I want to
     know how you are making out. I'll be at the Med-Center in a couple
     of weeks, you can write me there.

     Jim Thorndyke._

I turned the postcard over and eyed it critically. Then I got it. Along
the roadside was a tall ornamental standard of wrought iron. The same
design as the road signs along that fatal highway of mine.

I sat there with a magnifying glass on the roadsign; its stereo image
standing up alongside the road in full color and solidity. It took me
back to that moment when Catherine had wriggled against my side,
thrilling me with her warmth and eagerness.

That put me down a few days, too.

       *       *       *       *       *

Another month passed. I'd come out of my shell quite a bit in the
meantime. I now felt that I could walk in a bar and have a drink without
wondering whether all the other people in the place were pointing at me.
I'd cut myself off from all my previous friends, and I'd made no new
friends in the weeks gone by. But I was getting more and more lonely and
consequently more and more inclined to speak to people and want friends.

The accident had paled from its original horror; the vital scene
returned only infrequently. Catherine was assuming the position of a
lost love rather than a sweetheart expected to return soon. I remembered
the warmth of her arms and the eagerness of her kiss in a nostalgic way
and my mind, especially when in a doze, would play me tricks. I would
recall Catherine, but when she came into my arms, I'd be holding Marian,
brown and tawny, with her electric blue eyes and her vibrant nature.

But I did nothing about it. I knew that once I had asked Marian Harrison
for a date I would be emotionally involved. And then if--no,
when--Catherine turned up I would be torn between desires.

I would wake up and call myself all sorts of a fool. I had seen Marian
for a total of perhaps fifteen minutes--in the company of her brother.

But eventually dreaming loses its sting just as futile waiting and
searching does, and I awoke one morning in a long and involved debate
between my id and my conscience. I decided at that moment that I would
take that highway out and pay a visit to the Harrison farm. I was
salving my slightly rusty conscience by telling myself that it was
because I had never paid my respects to Father Harrison, but not too
deep inside I knew that if Father were missing and Daughter were present
I'd enjoy my visit to the farm with more relish.

But my id took a licking because the doorbell rang about nine o'clock
that morning and when I dug the doorstep I came up with two gentlemen
wearing gold badges in leather folders in their jacket pockets.

I opened the door because I couldn't have played absent to a team
consisting of one esper and one telepath. They both knew I was home.

"Mr. Cornell, we'll waste no time. We want to know how well you know
Doctor James Thorndyke."

I didn't blink at the bluntness of it. It is standard technique when an
esper-telepath team go investigating. The telepath knew all about me,
including the fact that I'd dug their wallets and identification cards,
badges and the serial numbers of the nasty little automatics they
carried. The idea was to drive the important question hard and first; it
being impossible to not-think the several quick answers that pop through
your mind. What I knew about Thorndyke was sketchy enough but they got
it all because I didn't have any reason for covering up. I let them know
that, too.

Finally, #That's about all,# I thought. #Now--why?#

The telepath half of the team answered. "Normally we wouldn't answer,
Mr. Cornell, unless you said it aloud. But we don't mind letting you
know which of us is the telepath this time. To answer, you are the last
person to have received any message from Thorndyke."

"I--what?"

"That postcard. It was the last contact Thorndyke made with anyone. He
has disappeared."

"But--"

"Thorndyke was due to arrive at The Medical Research Center in Marion,
Indiana, three weeks ago. We've been tracking him ever since he failed
to turn up. We've been able to retrace his meanderings very well up to a
certain point in Yellowstone. There the trail stops. He had a telephoned
reservation to a small hotel; there he dropped out of sight. Now, Mr.
Cornell, may I see that postcard?"

"Certainly." I got it for them. The esper took it over to the window and
eyed it in the light, and as he did that I went over to stand beside him
and together we espered that postcard until I thought the edges would
start to curl. But if there were any codes, concealed writings or any
other form of hidden meaning or message in or on that card, I didn't dig
any.

I gave up. I'm no trained investigator. But I knew that Thorndyke was
fairly well acquainted with the depth of my perceptive sense, and he
would not have concealed anything too deep for me.

Then the esper shook his head. He handed me the card. "Not a trace."

The telepath nodded. He looked at me and smiled sort of thin and
strained. "We're naturally interested in you, Mr. Cornell. This seems to
be the second disappearance. And you know nothing about either."

"I know," I said slowly. The puzzle began to go around and around in my
head again, all the way back to that gleaming road and the crack-up.

"We'll probably be back, Mr. Cornell. You don't mind?"

"Look," I told them rather firmly, "if this puzzle can be unwound, I'll
be one of the happiest men on the planet. If I can do anything to help,
just say the word."

They left after that and so did I. I was still going to pay my visit to
the Harrison farm. Another wild goose chase, but somewhere along this
cockeyed row there was an angle. Honest people who are healthy and
fairly happy with good prospects ahead of them do not just drop out of
sight without a trace.

       *       *       *       *       *

A couple of hours later I was making a good pace along the highway
again. It was getting familiar to me.

I could not avoid letting my perceptive sense rest on the sign as I
drove past. Not long enough to put me in danger, but long enough to
discover to my surprise that someone had taken the trouble to repair the
broken spoke. Someone must have been a perfectionist. The break was so
slight that it seemed like calling in a mechanic because the ashtray in
the car is full.

Then I noticed other changes that time had caused.

The burned scar was fading in a growth of tall weeds. The limb of the
tree that hung out over the scene, from which block and tackle had hung,
was beginning to lose its smoke-blackened appearance. The block was gone
from the limb.

_Give us a year_, I thought, _and the only remaining scar will be the
one on my mind, and even that will be fading_.

I turned into the drive, wound around the homestead road, and pulled up
in front of the big, rambling house.

It looked bleak. The front lawn was a bit shaggy and there were some
wisps of paper on the front porch. The venetian blinds were down and
slatted shut behind closed windows. Since it was summer by now, the
closed windows and the tight door, neither of which had flyscreens
installed, quickly gave the fact away. The Harrisons were gone.

Another disappearance?

I turned quickly and drove to the nearest town and went to the post
office.

"I'm looking for the Harrison family," I told the man behind the wicket.

"Why, they moved several weeks ago."

"Moved?" I asked with a blank-sounding voice.

The clerk nodded. Then he leaned forward and said in a confidential
whisper, "Heard a rumor that the girl got a touch of that spacemen's
disease."

"Mekstrom's?" I blurted.

The clerk looked at me as if I'd shouted a dirty word. "She was a fine
girl," he said softly. "It's a shame."

I nodded and he went into the back files. I tried to dig alone behind
him, but the files were in a small dead area in the rear of the
building. I swore under my breath although I'd expected to find files in
dead areas. Just as Rhine Institute was opened, the Government combed
the countryside for dead or cloudy areas for their secret and
confidential files. There had been one mad claim-staking rush with the
Government about six feet ahead of the rest of the general public,
business and the underworld.

He came back with a sorrowful look. "They left a concealed address," he
said.

I felt like flashing a twenty at him like a private eye did in the old
tough-books, but I knew it wouldn't work. Rhine also made it impossible
for a public official to take a bribe. So instead, I tried to look
distressed.

"This is extremely important. I'd say it was a matter of life and
death."

"I'm sorry. A concealed forwarding address is still concealed. If you
must get in touch with them, you might drop them a letter to be
forwarded. Then if they care to answer, they'll reply to your home."

"Later," I told him. "I'll probably be back to mail it direct from
here."

He waved at the writing desk. I nodded and left.

I drove back to the ex-Harrison Farm slowly, thinking it over.
Wondering. People did not just go around catching Mekstrom's Disease,
from what little I knew of it. And somehow the idea of Marian Harrison
withering away or becoming a basket case, or maybe taking the painless
way out was a thought that my mind kept avoiding except for occasional
flashes of horror.

I drove in toward the farmhouse again and parked in front of the
verandah. I was not sure of why I was there except that I wanted to
wander through it to see what I could find before I went back to the
post-office to write that card or letter.

The back of the house was locked with an old-fashioned slide bolt that
was turned with what they used to call an "E" key. I shrugged, oiled my
conscience and found a bit of bent wire. Probing a lock like that would
have been easy for a total blank; with esper I lifted the simple keepers
and slid back the bolt almost as swiftly as if I had used a proper key.

This was no case of disappearance. In every one of the fourteen rooms
were the unmistakable signs of a deliberate removal. Discarded stuff was
mixed with the odds and ends of packing case materials, a scattered
collection of temporary nails, a half-finished but never used box filled
with old clothing.

I pawed through this but found nothing, even though I separated it from
the rest to help my esper dig it without interference.

I roamed the house slowly letting my perception wander from point to
point. I tried to time-dig the place but that was futile. I didn't have
enough perception.

I caught only one response. It was in one of the upper bedrooms. But
then as I stopped in the room where Marian had slept, I began again to
doubt my senses. It could have been esper, but it was more likely that
I'd caught the dying traces of perfume.

Then I suddenly realized that the entire premises were clear to me!

An esper map of the world looked sort of like a mottled sky, with bright
places and cloudy patches strewn in disorder across it. A mottled sky,
except that the psi-pattern usually does not change. But this house had
been in a murky area, if not dead. Now it was clear.

I left the house and went to the big combination barn and garage. It was
as unsatisfying as the house had been. Phillip Harrison, or someone, had
had a workshop out there. I found the bench and a small table where
bolt-holes, oil marks, and other traces said that there had been one of
those big combination woodworking machines there, the kind that combines
circular saw, drill, lathe, planer, router, dado, and does everything.
There had been some metal-working stuff there, too, but nothing as
elaborate as the woodshop. Mostly things like hacksaws and an electric
drill, and a circular scar where a blowtorch had been sitting.

I don't know why I kept on standing there esping the abandoned set-up.
Maybe it was because my esper dug the fact that there was something
there that I should know about, but which was so minute or remote that
the impression did not come through. I stood there puzzled at my own
reluctance to leave until something satisfied that almost imperceptible
impression.

Idly I leaned down and picked up a bit of metal from the floor and
fumbled it in my hand nervously. I looked around the place with my eyes
and saw nothing. I gave the whole garage a thorough scanning with my
esper and got zero for my trouble.

Finally I snarled at myself for being an imbecile, and left.

Everyone has done what I did, time and time again. I do not recall
anything of my walk back to the car, lost in a whirl of thoughts, ideas,
plans and questions. I would probably have driven all the way back to my
apartment with my mind in that whirligig, driving by habit and training,
but I was shaken out of it because I could not start my car by poking
that bit of metal in the lock. It did not fit.

I laughed, a bit ashamed of my preoccupation, and flung the bit of metal
into the grass, poked my key in the lock--

And then I was out pawing the grass for that piece of metal.

For the small piece of metal I had found on the floor of the abandoned
workshop was the spoke of that road sign that had been missing when
Catherine and I cracked up!

I drove out along the highway and stopped near one of the standards. I
esped the sign, compared my impression against my eyesight. I made sure.

That bit of metal, a half inch long and a bit under a quarter inch in
diameter, with both ends faintly broken-ragged, was identical in size
and shape to the unbroken spokes in the sign!

Then I noticed something else. The trefoil ornament in the middle did
not look the same as I recalled them. I took Thorndyke's card out of my
pocket and looked at the stereo. I compared the picture against the real
thing before me and I knew that I was right.

The trefoil gizmo was a take-off on the fleur-de-lis or the Boy Scout
Tenderfoot badge, or the design they use to signify North on a compass.
But the lower flare of the leaves was wider than any of the more
familiar emblems; almost as wide as the top. It took a comparison to
tell the difference between one of them right-side-up and another one
upside-down. One assumes for this design that the larger foils are
supposed to be up. If that were so, then the ones along that road out
there in or near Yellowstone were right-side-up, while the ones along my
familiar highway were upside-down.

I goaded myself. #Memory, have these things been turned or were they
always upside-down?#

The last thing I did as I turned off the highway was to stop and let my
esper dig that design once more. I covered the design itself, let my
perception roam along the spokes, and then around the circlet that
supported the spokes that held the trefoil emblem.

Oh, it was not obvious. It was designed in, so to speak. If I were asked
even today for my professional opinion I would have to admit that the
way the circlet snapped into the rest of the ornamental scrollwork was a
matter of good assembly design, and not a design deliberately created so
that the emblem could be turned upside down.

In fact, if it had not been for that tiny, broken spoke I found on the
floor of the Harrison garage, never in a million years would I have
considered these road signs significant.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the post office I wrote a letter to Phillip Harrison:

     _Dear Phil:_

     _I was by your old place today and was sorry to find that you had
     moved. I'd like to get in touch with you again. If I may ask,
     please send me your forwarding address. I'll keep it concealed if
     you like, or I'll reply through the post office, concealed
     forward._

     _As an item of interest, did you know that your house has lost its
     deadness? A medium-equipped esper can dig it with ease. Have you
     ever heard of the psi-pattern changing before?_

     _Ah, and another item, that road sign with the busted spoke has
     been replaced. You must be a bum shot, not to hit that curlicue in
     the middle. I found the spoke you hit on the floor of your garage,
     if you'd like it for a souvenir of one close miss._

     _Please write and let me know how things are going. Rumor has it
     that Marian contracted Mekstrom's and if you will pardon my
     mentioning a delicate subject, I am doing so because I really want
     to help if I am able. After all, no matter how lightly you hold it,
     I still owe you my life. This is a debt I do not intend to forget._

     _Sincerely,_

     _Steve Cornell._



V


I did not go to the police.

They were sick of my face and already considering me a candidate for the
paranoid ward. All I would have to do is go roaring into the station to
tell them that I had uncovered some deep plot where the underground was
using ornamental road signs to conceal their own network of roads and
directions, and that the disappearance of Catherine Lewis, Dr. Thorndyke
and the removal of the Harrisons were all tied together.

Instead, I closed my apartment and told everyone that I was going to
take a long, rambling tourist jaunt to settle my nerves; that I thought
getting away from the scene might finish the job that time and rest had
started.

Then I started to drive. I drove for several days, not attempting to
pace off miles, but covering a lot of aimless-direction territory. I was
just as likely to spend four hours going North on one highway, and then
take the next four coming back South on a parallel highway, and
sometimes I even came back to the original starting place. After a week
I had come no farther West than across that sliver of West Virginia into
Eastern Ohio. And in Eastern Ohio I saw some more of the now familiar
and suspicious road signs.

The emblem was right side up, and the signs looked as though they had
not been up long.

I followed that road for seventy-five miles, and as I went the signs
kept getting newer and newer until I finally came to a truck loaded with
pipe, hardware, and ornamental ironwork. Leading the truck was one of
those iron mole things.

I watched the automatic gear hoist one of the old pipe and white and
black enamel roadsigns up by its roots, and place it on a truck full of
discards. I watched the mole drive a corkscrew blade into the ground
with a roaring of engine and bucking of the truck. It paused, pulled
upward to bring out the screw and its load of dirt, stones and gravel.
The crew placed one of the new signs in the cradle and I watched the
machine set the sign upright, pour the concrete, tamp down the earth,
and then move along down the road.

There was little point in asking questions of the crew, so I just took
off and drove to Columbus as hard as I could make it.

       *       *       *       *       *

Shined, cleaned, polished, and very conservatively dressed, I presented
myself to the State Commissioner of Roads and Highways. I toyed briefly
with the idea of representing myself as a minor official from some
distant state like Alaska or the Virgin Islands, inquiring about these
signs for official reasons. But then I knew that if I bumped into a hot
telepath I'd be in the soup. On the other hand, mere curiosity on the
part of a citizen, well oiled with compliments, would get me at the very
least a polite answer.

The Commissioner's fifth-under-secretary bucked me down the hall;
another office bucked me upstairs. A third buck-around brought me to the
Department of Highways Marking and Road Maps.

A sub-secretary finally admitted that he might be able to help me. His
name was Houghton. But whether he was telepath or esper did not matter
because the Commission building was constructed right in the middle of a
dead area.

I still played it straight. I told him I was a citizen of New York,
interested in the new road signs, Ohio was to be commended, et cetera.

"I'm glad you feel that way," he said beaming.

"I presume these signs cost quite a bit more than the stark, black and
white enamel jobs?"

"On the contrary," he said with pride. "They might, but mass-production
methods brought the cost down. You see, the enamel jobs, while we buy
several thousand of the plates for any highway, must be set up, stamped
out, enamelled, and so on. The new signs are all made in one plant as
they are needed; I don't suppose you know, but the highway number and
any other information is put on the plate from loose, snap-in letters.
That means we can buy so many thousand of this or that letter or number,
and the necessary base plates and put them together as needed. They
admitted that they were still running at a loss, but if they could get
enough states interested, they'd eventually come out even, and maybe
they could reduce the cost. Why, they even have a contingent-clause in
the contract stating that if the cost were lowered, they would make a
rebate to cover it. That's so the first users will not bide their time
instead of buying now."

He went on and on and on like any bureaucrat. I was glad we were in a
dead area because he'd have thrown me out of his office for what I was
thinking.

Eventually Mr. Houghton ran down and I left.

I toyed around with the idea of barging in on the main office of the
company but I figured that might be too much like poking my head into a
hornet's nest.

I pocketed the card he gave me from the company, and I studied the
ink-fresh road map, which he had proudly supplied. It pointed out in a
replica panel of the fancy signs, that the State of Ohio was beautifying
their highways with these new signs at no increased cost to the
taxpayer, and that the dates in green on the various highways here and
there gave the dates when the new signs would be installed. The bottom
of the panel gave the Road Commissioner's name in boldface with
Houghton's name below in slightly smaller print.

I smiled. Usually I get mad at signs that proclaim that such and such a
tunnel is being created by Mayor So-and-so, as if the good mayor were
out there with a shovel and hoe digging the tunnel. But this sort of
thing would have been a worthy cause if it hadn't been for the sinister
side.

I selected a highway that had been completed toward Cincinnati and made
my way there with no waste of time.

       *       *       *       *       *

The road was new and it was another beaut. The signs led me on, mile
after mile and sign after sign.

I did not know what I was following, and I was not sure I knew what I
was looking for. But I was on the trail of something and a bit of
activity, both mental and physical, after weeks of blank-wall
frustration made my spirits rise and my mental equipment sharper. The
radio in the car was yangling with hillbilly songs, the only thing you
can pick up in Ohio, but I didn't care. I was looking for something
significant.

I found it late in the afternoon about half-way between Dayton and
Cincinnati. One of the spokes was missing.

Fifty yards ahead was a crossroad.

I hauled in with a whine of rubber and brakes, and sat there trying to
reason out my next move by logic. Do I turn with the missing spoke, or
do I turn with the one that is not missing?

Memory came to my aid. The "ten o'clock" spoke had been missing back
there near the Harrison farm. The Harrisons had lived on the left side
of the highway. One follows the missing spoke. Here the "two o'clock"
spoke was missing, so I turned to the right along the crossroad until I
came to another sign that was complete.

Then, wondering, I U-turned and drove back across the main highway and
drove for about five miles watching the signs as I went. The ones on my
right had that trefoil emblem upside down. The ones on my left were
right side up. The difference was so small that only someone who knew
the significance would distinguish one from the other. So far as I could
reason out, it meant that what I sought was in the other direction. When
the emblem was upside down I was going away from, and when right side
up, I was going toward.

Away from or toward what?

I U-turned again and started following the signs.

Twenty miles beyond the main highway where I'd seen the sign that
announced the turn, I came upon another missing spoke. This indicated a
turn to the left, and so I slowed down until I came upon a homestead
road leading off toward a farmhouse.

I turned, determined to make like a man lost and hoping that I'd not
bump into a telepath.

A few hundred yards in from the main road I came upon a girl who was
walking briskly toward me. I stopped. She looked at me with a quizzical
smile and asked me if she could be of any help.

Brashly, I nodded. "I'm looking for some old friends of mine," I said.
"Haven't seen them for years. Named Harrison."

She smiled up at me. "I don't know of any Harrison around here." Her
voice had the Ohio twang.

"No?"

"Just where do they live?"

I eyed her carefully, hoping my glance did not look like a wolf eyeing a
lamb. "Well, they gave me some crude directions. Said I was to turn at
the main highway onto this road and come about twenty miles and stop on
the left side when I came upon one of those new road signs where someone
had shot one of the spokes out."

"Spokes? Left side--" She mumbled the words and was apparently mulling
the idea around in her mind. She was not more than about seventeen,
sun-tanned and animal-alive from living in the open. I wondered about
her. As far as I was concerned, she was part and parcel of this whole
mysterious affair. No matter what she said or did, it was an obvious
fact that the hidden road sign directions pointed to this farm. And
since no one at seventeen can be kept in complete ignorance of the
business of the parents, she must be aware of some of the ramifications.

After some thought she said, "No, I don't know of any Harrisons."

I grunted. I was really making the least of this, now that I'd arrived.

"Your folks at home?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"I think I'll drop in and ask them, too."

She shrugged. "Go ahead," she said with the noncommittal attitude of
youth. "You didn't happen to notice whether the mailbox flag was up, did
you?"

I hadn't, but I espied back quickly and said, "No, it isn't."

"Then the mailman hasn't been to deliver," she said. "Mind if I ride
back to the house with you, mister?"

"Hop in."

She smiled brightly and got in quickly. I took off down the road toward
the house at an easy pace. She seemed interested in the car, and finally
said, "I've never been in a car like this before. New?"

"Few weeks," I responded.

"Fast?"

"If you want to make it go fast. She'll take this rocky road at fifty,
if anyone wants to be so foolish."

"Let's see."

I laughed. "Nobody but an idiot would tackle a road like this at fifty."

"I like to go fast. My brother takes it at sixty."

That, so far as I was concerned, was youthful exaggeration. I was busy
telling her all the perils of fast driving when a rabbit came barrelling
out of the bushes along one side and streaked across in front of me.

I twitched the wheel. The car went out of the narrow road and up on the
shoulder, tilting quite a bit. Beyond the rabbit I swung back into the
road, but not before the youngster had grabbed my arm to keep from being
tossed all over the front seat.

Her grip was like a hydraulic vise. My arm went numb and my fingers went
limp on the wheel. I struggled with my left hand to spin the wheel to
keep on the narrow, winding road and my foot hit the brake to bring the
car down, but fast.

Taking a deep breath as we stopped, I shook my right hand by holding it
in my left at the wrist. I was a mass of tingling pins and needles
because she had grabbed me just above the elbow. It felt as though it
would have taken only a trifle more to pinch my arm off and leave me
with a bloody stump.

"Sorry, mister," she said breathlessly, her eyes wide open. Her face was
white around the corners of the mouth and at the edges of her nose. The
whiteness of the flesh under the deep tan gave her a completely
frightened look, far more than the shake-up could have produced.

I reached over and took her hand. "That's a mighty powerful grip you--"

The flesh of her hand was hard and solid. Not the meaty solidity of good
tone, fine training and excellent health. It was the solidity of a--all
I could think of at the time was a green cucumber. I squeezed a bit and
the flesh gave way only a trifle. I rubbed my thumb over her palm and
found it solid-hard instead of soft and yielding.

I wondered.

I had never seen a case of Mekstrom's Disease--before.

I looked down at the hand and said, "Young lady, do you realize that you
have an advanced case of Mekstrom's Disease?"

She eyed me coldly. "Now," she said in a hard voice. "I know you'll come
in."

Something in my make-up objects violently to being ordered around by a
slip of a girl. I balance off at about one-sixty. I guessed her at about
two-thirds of that, say one-ten or thereabouts--

"One-eight," she said levelly.

#A telepath!#

"Yes," she replied calmly. "And I don't mind letting you know it, so
you'll not try anything stupid."

#I'm getting the heck out of here!#

"No, you're not. You are coming in with me."

"Like heck!" I exploded.

"Don't be silly. You'll come in. Or shall I lay one along your jaw and
carry you?"

I had to try something, anything, to get free. Yet--

"Now you're being un-bright," she told me insolently. "You should know
that you can't plan any surprise move with a telepath. And if you try a
frontal attack I'll belt you so cold they'll have to put you in the oven
for a week."

I just let her ramble for a few seconds because when she was rattling
this way she couldn't put her entire mental attention on my thoughts. So
while she was yaking it off, I had an idea that felt as though it might
work.

She shut up like a clam when she realized that her mouthing had given me
a chance to think, and I went into high gear with my perception:

#Not bad--for a kid. Growing up fast. Been playing hookey from momma,
leaving off your panties like the big girls do. I can tell by the
elastic cord marks you had 'em on not long ago.#

Seventeeners have a lot more modesty than they like to admit. She was
stunned by my cold-blooded catalog of her body just long enough for me
to make a quick lunge across her lap to the door handle on her side.

I flipped it over and gave her a shove at the same time. She went bottom
over appetite in a sprawl that would have jarred the teeth loose in a
normal body and might have cracked a few bones. But she landed on the
back of her neck, rolled and came to her feet like a cat.

I didn't wait to close the door. I just tromped on the go-pedal and the
car leaped forward with a jerk that slammed the door for me. I roared
forward and left her just as she was making another grab.

How I hoped to get out of there I did not know. All I wanted was
momentary freedom to think. I turned this way and that to follow the
road until I came to the house. I left the road, circled the house with
the turbine screaming like a banshee and the car taking the corners on
the outside wheels. I skidded into a turn like a racing driver and
ironed my wheels out flat on the takeaway, rounded another corner and
turned back into the road again going the other way.

She was standing there waiting for me as I pelted past at a good sixty,
and she reached out one girder-strong arm, latched onto the frame of the
open window on my side, and swung onto the half-inch trim along the
bottom of the car-body like a switchman hooking a freight car.

She reached for the steering wheel with her free hand.

I knew what was to happen next. She'd casually haul and I'd go off the
road into a tree or pile up in a ditch, and while the smoke was clearing
out of my mind, she'd be untangling me from the wreck and carting me
over her shoulder, without a scratch to show for her adventure.

I yanked the wheel--whip! whap!--cutting an arc. I slammed past a tree,
missing it by half an inch. I wiped her off the side of the car like a
mailbag is clipped from the fast express by the catch-hook.

I heard a cry of "Whoof!" as her body hit the trunk of the tree. But as
I regained the road and went racing on to safety, I saw in the rear view
mirror that she had bounced off the tree, sprawled a bit, caught her
balance, and was standing in the middle of the road, shaking her small
but very dangerous fist at my tail license plate.

I didn't stop driving at one-ten until I was above Dayton again. Then I
paused along the road to take stock.

Stock? What the hell did I know, really?

I'd uncovered and confirmed the fact that there was some secret
organization that had a program that included their own highway system,
concealed within the confines of the United States. I was almost certain
by this time that they had been the prime movers in the disappearance of
Catherine and Dr. Thorndyke. They--

I suddenly re-lived the big crack-up.

Willingly now, no longer rejecting the memory, I followed my
recollection as Catherine and I went along that highway at a happy pace.
With care I recalled every detail of Catherine, watching the road
through my mind and eyes, how she'd mentioned the case of the missing
spoke, and how I'd projected back to perceive that which I had not been
conscious of.

Reminding myself that it was past, I went through it again,
deliberately. The fallen limb that blocked the road, my own horror as
the wheels hit it. The struggle to regain control of the careening car.

As a man watching a motion picture, I watched the sky and the earth turn
over and over, and I heard my voice mouthing wordless shouts of fear.
Catherine's cry of pain and fright came, and I listened as my mind
reconstructed it this time without wincing. Then the final crash, the
horrid wave of pain and the sear of the flash-fire. I went through my
own horror and self condemnation, and my concern over Catherine. I
didn't shut if off. I waded through it.

Now I remembered something else.

Something that any normal, sensible mind would reject as an
hallucination. Beyond any shadow of a doubt there had been no time for a
man to rig a block and tackle on a tree above a burning automobile in
time to get the trapped victims out alive. And even more certain it was
that no normal man of fifty would have had enough strength to lift a car
by its front bumper while his son made a rush into the flames.

That tackle had been rigged and burned afterward. But who would reject a
block and tackle in favor of an impossibly strong man? No, with the
tackle in sight, the recollection of a man lifting that overturned
automobile like a weight lifter pressing up a bar bell would be buried
in any mind as a rank hallucination. Then one more item came driving
home hard. So hard that I almost jumped when the idea crossed my mind.

Both Catherine and Dr. Thorndyke had been telepaths.

A telepath close to any member of his underground outfit would divine
their purpose, come to know their organization, and begin to grasp the
fundamentals of their program. Such a person would be dangerous.

On the other hand, an esper such as myself could be turned aside with
bland remarks and a convincing attitude. I knew that I had no way of
telling lie from truth and that made my problem a lot more difficult.

From the facts that I did have, something smelled of overripe seafood.
Government and charities were pouring scads of dough into a joint called
the Medical Research Center. To hear the scholars of medicine tell it,
Mekstrom's Disease was about the last human frailty that hadn't been
licked to a standstill. They boasted that if a victim of practically
anything had enough life left in him to crawl to a telephone and use it,
his life could be saved. They grafted well. I'd heard tales of things
like fingers, and I know they were experimenting on hands, arms and legs
with some success. But when it came to Mekstrom's they were stopped
cold. Therefore the Medical Research Center received a walloping batch
of money for that alone; all the money that used to go to the various
heart, lung, spine and cancer funds. It added up well.

But the Medical Research Center seemed unaware that some group had
solved their basic problem.

From the books I've read I am well aware of one of the fundamental
principles of running an underground: _Keep it underground!_ The Commie
menace in these United States might have won out in the middle of the
century if they'd been able to stay a secret organization. So the
Highways in Hiding could stay underground and be an efficient
organization only until someone smoked them out.

That one was going to be me.

But I needed an aide-de-camp. Especially and specifically I needed a
trained telepath, one who would listen to my tale and not instantly howl
for the nut-hatch attendants. The F.B.I. were all trained investigators
and they used esper-telepath teams all the time. One dug the joint while
the other dug the inhabitant, which covered the situation to a
faretheewell.

It would take time to come up with a possible helper. So I spent the
next hour driving toward Chicago, and by the time I'd crossed the
Ohio-Indiana line and hit Richmond, I had a plan laid out. I placed a
call to New York and within a few minutes I was talking to Nurse Farrow.

I'll not go into detail because there was a lot of mish-mash that is not
particularly interesting and a lot more that covered my tracks since I'd
parted company with her on the steps of the hospital. I did not, of
course, mention my real purpose over the telephone and Miss Farrow could
not read my mind from New York.

The upshot of the deal was that I felt that I needed a nurse for a
while, not that I was ill, but that I felt a bit woozy now and then
because I hadn't learned to slow down. I worked too fast and too long
and my condition was not up to it yet. This Miss Farrow allowed as being
quite possible. I repeated my offer to pay her at the going prices for
registered nurses with a one-month guarantee, paid in advance. That
softened her quite a bit. Then I added that I'd videograph her a check
large enough to cover the works plus a round trip ticket. She should
come out and have a look, and if she weren't satisfied, she could return
without digging into her own pocket. All she'd lose was one day, and it
might be a bit of a vacation if she enjoyed flying in a jetliner at
sixty thousand feet.

The accumulation of offers finally sold her and she agreed to
arrange a leave of absence. She'd meet me in the morning of the
day-after-tomorrow, at Central Airport in Chicago.

I videographed the check and then took off again, confident that I'd be
able to sell her on the idea of being the telepath half of my amateur
investigation team.

Then because I needed some direct information, I turned West and crossed
the line into Indiana, heading toward Marion. So far I had a lot of
well-placed suspicions, but until I was certain, I could do no more than
postulate ideas. I had to know definitely how to identify Mekstrom's
Disease, or at least the infected flesh. I have a fairly good recall;
all I needed now was to have someone point to a Case and say flatly that
this was a case of Mekstrom's Disease. Then I'd know whether what I'd
seen in Ohio was actually one hundred percent Mekstrom.



VI


I walked into the front office with a lot of self-assurance. The Medical
Center was a big, rambling place with a lot of spread-out one- and
two-story buildings that looked so much like "Hospital" that no one in
the world would have mistaken them for anything else. The main building
was by the road, the rest spread out behind as far as I could see;
beyond my esper range even though the whole business was set in one of
the clearest psi areas that I'd even been in.

I was only mildly worried about telepaths. In the first place, the only
thing I had to hide was my conviction about a secret organization and
how part of it functioned. In the second place, the chances were good
that few, if any, telepaths were working there, if the case of Dr.
Thorndyke carried any weight. That there were some telepaths, I did not
doubt, but these would not be among the high-powered help.

So I sailed in and faced the receptionist, who was a good-looking
chemical-type blonde with a pale skin, lovely complexion and figure to
match. She greeted me with a glacial calm and asked my business.

Brazenly I lied. "I'm a freelance writer and I'm looking for material."

"Have you an assignment?" she asked without a trace of interest in the
answer.

"Not this time. I'm strictly freelance. I like it better this way
because I can write whatever I like."

Her glacial air melted a bit at the inference that my writing had not
been in vain. "Where have you been published?" she asked.

I made a fast stab in the dark, aiming in a direction that looked safe.
"Last article was one on the latest archeological findings in Assyria.
Got my source material direct from the Oriental Institute in Chicago."

"Too bad I missed it," she said, looking regretful. I had to grin, I'd
carefully avoided giving the name of the publication and the supposed
date. She went on, "I suppose you would not be happy with the usual
press release?"

"Handouts contain material, all right, but they're so confounded trite
and impersonal. People prefer to read anecdotes about the people rather
than a listing of facts and figures."

She nodded at that. "Just a moment," she said. Then she addressed her
telephone in a voice that I couldn't hear. When she finished, she smiled
in a warmish-type manner as if to indicate that she'd gone all out in my
behalf and that I'd be a heel to forget it. I nodded back and tried to
match the tooth-paste-ad smile. Then the door opened and a man came in
briskly.

He was a tall man, as straight as a ramrod, with a firm jaw and a
close-clipped moustache. He had an air like a thin-man's Captain Bligh.
When he spoke, his voice was as clipped and precise as his moustache; in
fact it was so precise that it seemed almost mechanical.

"I am Dr. Lyon Sprague," he clipped. "What may I do for you?"

"I'm Steve Cornell," I said. "I'm here after source material for a
magazine article about Mekstrom's Disease. I'd prefer not to take my
material from a handout."

"Do you hope to get more?" he demanded.

"I usually do. I've seen your handouts; I could get as much by taking
last year's medical encyclopedia. Far too dry, too uninteresting, too
impersonal."

"Just exactly what do you have in mind?"

I eyed him with speculation. Here was not a man who would take kindly to
imaginative conjecture. So Dr. Lyon Sprague was not the man I'd like to
talk to. With an inward smile, I said, "I have a rather new idea about
Mekstrom's that I'd like to discuss with the right party."

He looked down at me, although our eyes were on the same level. "I doubt
that any layman could possibly come up with an idea that has not been
most thoroughly discussed here among the research staff."

"In cold words you feel that no untrained lunk has a right to have an
idea."

He froze. "I did not say that."

"You implied, at least, that suggestions from outsiders were not
welcome. I begin to understand why the Medical Center has failed to get
anywhere with Mekstrom's in the past twenty years."

"What do you mean?" he snapped.

"Merely that it is the duty of all scientists to listen to every
suggestion and to discard it only after it has been shown wrong."

"Such as--?" he said coldly, with a curl of his eyebrows.

"Well, just for instance, suppose some way were found to keep a victim
alive during the vital period, so that he would end up a complete
Mekstrom Human."

"The idea is utterly fantastic. We have no time for such idle
speculation. There is too much foggy thinking in the world already. Why,
only last week we had a Velikovsky Adherent tell us that Mekstrom's had
been predicted in the Bible. There are still people reporting flying
saucers, you know. We have no time for foolish notions or utter
nonsense."

"May I quote you?"

"Of course not," he snapped stiffly. "I'm merely pointing out that
non-medical persons cannot have the grasp--"

The door opened again and a second man entered. The new arrival had
pleasant blue eyes, a van dyke beard, and a good-natured air of
self-confidence and competence. "May I cut in?" he said to Dr. Sprague.

"Certainly. Mr. Cornell, this is Scholar Phelps, Director of the Center.
Scholar Phelps, this is Mr. Steve Cornell, a gentleman of the press," he
added in a tone of voice that made the identification a sort of nasty
name. "Mr. Cornell has an odd theory about Mekstrom's Disease that he
intends to publish unless we can convince him that it is not possible."

"Odd theory?" asked Scholar Phelps with some interest. "Well, if Mr.
Cornell can come up with something new, I'll be most happy to hear him
out."

Dr. Lyon Sprague decamped with alacrity. Scholar Phelps smiled after
him, then turned to me and said, "Dr. Sprague is a diligent worker,
businesslike and well-informed, but he lacks the imagination and the
sense of humor that makes a man brilliant in research. Unfortunately,
Dr. Sprague cannot abide anything that is not laid out as neat as an
interlocking tile floor. Now, Mr. Cornell, how about this theory of
yours?"

"First," I replied, "I'd like to know how come you turn up in the nick
of time."

He laughed good-naturedly. "We always send Dr. Sprague out to interview
visitors. If the visitor can be turned away easily, all is well and
quiet. Dr. Sprague can do the job with ease. But if the visitor, like
yourself, Mr. Cornell, proposes something that distresses the good Dr.
Sprague and will not be loftily dismissed, Dr. Sprague's blood pressure
goes up. We all keep a bit of esper on his nervous system and when the
fuse begins to blow, we come out and effect a double rescue."

I laughed with him. Apparently the Medical Center staff enjoyed needling
Dr. Sprague. "Scholar Phelps, before I get into my theory, I'd like to
know more about Mekstrom's Disease. I may not be able to use it in my
article, but any background material works well with writers of fact
articles."

"You're quite right. What would you like to know?"

"I've heard, too many times, that no one knows anything at all about
Mekstrom's. This is unbelievable, considering that you folks have been
working on it for some twenty years."

He nodded. "We have some, but it's precious little."

"It seems to me that you could analyze the flesh--"

He smiled. "We have. The state of analytical chemistry is well advanced.
We could, I think, take a dry scraping out of the cauldron used by
MacBeth's witches, and determine whether Shakespeare had reported the
formula correctly. Now, young man, if you think that something is added
to the human flesh to make it Mekstrom's Flesh, you are wrong. Standard
analysis shows that the flesh is composed of exactly the same chemicals
that normal flesh contains, in the same proportion. Nothing is added,
as, for instance, in the case of calcification."

"Then what is the difference?"

"The difference lies in the structure. By X-ray crystallographic method,
we have determined that Mekstrom's Flesh is a micro-crystalline
formation, interlocked tightly." Scholar Phelps looked at me
thoughtfully. "Do you know much about crystallography?"

As a mechanical engineer I did, but as a writer of magazine articles I
felt I should profess some ignorance, so I merely said that I knew a
little about the subject.

"Well, Mr. Cornell, you may know that in the field of solid geometry
there are only five possible regular polyhedrons. Like the laws of
topology that state that no more than four colors need be used to print
a map on a flat surface, or that no more than seven colors are required
to print separate patches on a toroid, the laws of solid geometry prove
that no more than five regular polyhedrons are possible. Now in
crystallography there are only thirty-two possible classes of crystal
lattice construction. Of these only thirty have ever been discovered in
nature. Yet we know how the other two would appear if they did emerge in
natural formation."

I knew it all right but I made scribblings in my notebooks as if the
idea were of interest. Scholar Phelps waited patiently until I'd made
the notation.

"Now, Mr. Cornell, here comes the shock. Mekstrom's Flesh is one of the
other two classes."

This was news to me and I blinked.

Then his face faded into a solemn expression. "Unfortunately," he said
in a low voice, "knowing how a crystal should form does not help us much
in forming one to that class. We have no real control over the
arrangement of atoms in a crystal lattice. We can prevent the crystal
formation, we can control the size of the crystal as it forms. But we
cannot change the crystal into some other class."

"I suppose it's sort of like baking a cake. Once the ingredients are
mixed, the cake can be big or small or shaped to fit the pan, or you can
spoil it complete. But if you mix devil's food, it either comes out
devil's food or nothing."

"An amusing analogy and rather correct. However I prefer the one used
years ago by Dr. Willy Ley, who observed that analysis is fine, but you
can't learn how a locomotive is built by melting it down and analyzing
the mess."

Then he went on again. "To get back to Mekstrom's Disease and what we
know about it. We know that the crawl goes at about a sixty-fourth of an
inch per hour. If, for instance, you turned up here with a trace on your
right middle finger, the entire first joint would be Mekstrom's Flesh in
approximately three days. Within two weeks your entire middle finger
would be solid. Without anesthesia we could take a saw and cut off a bit
for our research."

"No feeling?"

"None whatever. The joints knit together, the arteries become as hard as
steel tubing and the heart cannot function properly--not that the heart
cares about minor conditions such as the arteries in the extremities,
but as the Mekstrom infection crawls up the arm toward the shoulder the
larger arteries become solid and then the heart cannot drive the blood
through them in its accustomed fashion. It gets like an advanced case of
arteriosclerosis. Eventually the infection reaches and immobilizes the
shoulder; this takes about ninety days. By this time, the other
extremities have also become infected and the crawl is coming up all
four limbs."

He looked at me very solemnly at that. "The rest is not pretty. Death
comes shortly after that. I can almost say that he is blessed who
catches Mekstrom's in the left hand for them the infection reaches the
heart before it reaches other parts. Those whose initial infection is in
the toes are particularly cursed, because the infection reaches the
lower parts of the body. I believe you can imagine the result,
elimination is prevented because of the stoppage of peristalsis. Death
comes of autointoxication, which is slow and painful."

I shuddered at the idea. The thought of death has always bothered me.
The idea of looking at a hand and knowing that I was going to die by the
calendar seemed particularly horrible.

Taking the bit between my teeth, I said, "Scholar Phelps, I've been
wondering whether you and your Center have ever considered treating
Mekstrom's by helping it?"

"Helping it?" he asked.

"Sure. Consider what a man might be if he were Mekstrom's all the way
through."

He nodded. "You would have a physical superman," he said. "Steel-strong
muscles driving steel-hard flesh covered by a near impenetrable skin.
Perhaps such a man would be free of all minor pains and ills. Imagine a
normal bacterium trying to bore into flesh as hard as concrete. Mekstrom
Flesh tends to be acid-resistant as well as tough physically. It is not
beyond the imagination to believe that your Mekstrom Superman might live
three times our frail four-score and ten. But--"

Here he paused.

"Not to pull down your house of cards, this idea is not a new one. Some
years ago we invited a brilliant young doctor here to study for his
scholarate. The unfortunate fellow arrived with the first traces of
Mekstrom's in his right middle toe. We placed about a hundred of our
most brilliant researchers under his guidance, and he decided to take
this particular angle of study. He failed; for all his efforts, he did
not stay his death by a single hour. From that time to the present we
have maintained one group on this part of the problem."

It occurred to me at that moment that if I turned up with a trace of
Mekstrom's I'd be seeking out the Highways in Hiding rather than the
Medical Center. That fast thought brought a second: Suppose that Dr.
Thorndyke learned that he had a trace, or rather, the Highways found it
out. What better way to augment their medical staff than to approach the
victim with a proposition: You help us, work with us, and we will save
your life.

That, of course, led to the next idea: That if the Highways in Hiding
had any honest motive, they'd not be hidden in the first place and
they'd have taken their cure to the Medical Center in the second. Well,
I had a bit of something listed against them, so I decided to let my
bombshell drop.

"Scholar Phelps," I said quietly, "one of the reasons I am here is that
I have fairly good evidence that the cure for Mekstrom's Disease does
exist, and that it produces people of ultrahard bodies and superhuman
strength."

He smiled at me with the same tolerant air that father uses on the
offspring who comes up with one of the standard juvenile plans for
perpetual motion.

"What do you consider good evidence?"

"Suppose I claimed to have seen it myself."

"Then I would say that you had misinterpreted your evidence," he replied
calmly. "The flying saucer enthusiasts still insist that the things they
see are piloted by little green men from Venus, even though we have been
there and found Venus to be absolutely uninhabited by anything higher
than slugs, grubs, and little globby animals like Tellurian leeches."

"But--"

"This, too, is an old story," he told me with a whimsical smile. "It
goes with the standard routine about a secret organization that is
intending to take over the Earth. The outline has been popular ever
since Charles Fort. Now--er--just tell me what you saw."

I concocted a tale that was about thirty-three percent true and the rest
partly distorted. It covered my hitting a girl in Ohio with my car, hard
enough to clobber her. But when I stopped to help her, she got up and
ran away unhurt. She hadn't left a trace of blood although the front
fender of the car was badly smashed.

He nodded solemnly. "Such things happen," he said. "The human body is
really quite durable; now and then comes the lucky happenstance when the
fearful accident does no more than raise a slight bruise. I've read the
story of the man whose parachute did not open and who lived to return it
to the factory in person, according to the old joke. But now, Mr.
Cornell, have you ever considered the utter impossibility of running any
sort of secret organization in this world of today. Even before Rhine it
was difficult. You'll be adding to your tale next--some sort of secret
sign, maybe a form of fraternity grip, or perhaps even a world-wide
system of local clubs and hangouts, all aimed at some dire purpose."

I squirmed nervously for a bit. Scholar Phelps was too close to the
truth to make me like it, because he was scoffing. He went right on
making me nervous.

"Now before we get too deep, I only want to ask about the probable
motives of such an organization. You grant them superhuman strength,
perhaps extreme longevity. If they wanted to take over the Earth,
couldn't they do it by a show of force? Or are they mild-mannered
supermen, only quietly interested in overrunning the human race and
waiting out the inevitable decline of normal homo sapiens? You're not
endowing them with extraterrestrial origin, are you?"

I shook my head unhappily.

"Good. That shows some logic, Mr. Cornell. After all, we know now that
while we could live on Mars or Venus with a lot of home-sent aid, we'd
be most uncomfortable there. We could not live a minute on any planet of
our solar system without artificial help."

"I might point out that our hypothetical superman might be able to stand
a lot of rough treatment," I blurted.

"Oh, this I'll grant if your tale held any water at all. But let's
forget this fruitless conjecture and take a look at the utter
impossibility of running such an organization. Even planting all of
their secret hangouts in dead areas and never going into urban centers,
they'd still find some telepath or esper on their trail. Perhaps a team.
Let's go back a step and consider, even without psi training, how long
such an outfit could function. It would run until the first specimen had
an automobile accident on, say Times Square; or until one of them
walked--or ran--out of the fire following a jetliner crash."

He then spared me with a cold eye. "Write it as fiction, Mr. Cornell.
But leave my name out of it. I thought you were after facts."

"I am. But the better fact articles always use a bit of speculation to
liven it up."

"Well," he grunted, "one such fanciful suggestion is the possibility of
such an underground outfit being able to develop a 'cure' while we
cannot. We, who have had the best of brains and money for twenty years."

I nodded, and while I did not agree with Phelps, I knew that to insist
was to insult him to his face, and get myself tossed out.

"You do seem to have quite a set-up here," I said, off-hand.

At this point Phelps offered to show me around the place, and I
accepted. Medical Center was far larger than I had believed at first; it
spread beyond my esper range into the hills beyond the main plant. The
buildings were arranged in a haphazard-looking pattern out in the back
section; I say "looking" because only a psi-trained person can dig a
pattern. The wide-open psi area did not extend for miles. Behind the
main buildings it closed down into the usual mottled pattern and the
medical buildings had been placed in the open areas. Dwellings and
dormitories were in the dark places. A nice set-up.

I did not meet any of the patients, but Phelps let me stand in the
corridor outside a couple of rooms and use my esper on the flesh. It was
both distressing and instructive.

He explained, "The usual thing after someone visits this way, is that
the visitor goes out itching. In medical circles this is a form of what
we call 'Sophomore's Syndrome.' Ever heard of it?"

I nodded. "That's during the first years at pre-med. Knowing all too
little of medicine, every disease they study produces the same symptoms
that the student finds in himself. Until tomorrow, when they study the
next. Then the symptoms in the student change."

"Right. So in order to prevent 'Sophomore's Syndrome' among visitors we
usually let them study the real thing. Also," he added seriously, "we'd
like to have as many people as possible recognize the real thing as
early as possible. Even though we can't do anything for them at the
present time, someday we will."

He stopped before a closed door. "In here is a girl of eighteen, doomed
to die in a month." His voice trailed off as he tapped on the door of
the room.

I froze. A few beads of cold sweat ran down my spine, and I fought
myself into a state of nervous calmness. I put the observation away,
buried it as deep as I could, tried to think around it, and so far as I
knew, succeeded.

The tap of Scholar Phelps' finger against the door panel was the
rap-rap-rap sound characteristic of hard-tanned leather tapping wood.

Scholar Phelps was a Mekstrom!

       *       *       *       *       *

I paid only surface attention to the rest of my visit. I thanked my
personal gods that esper training had also given me the ability to
dissemble. It was impossible to not think of something but it is
possible to keep the mind so busy with surface thoughts that the
underlying idea does not come through the interference.

Eventually I managed to leave the Medical Center without exciting
anyone, and when I left I took off like a skyrocket for Chicago.



VII


Nurse Gloria Farrow waved at me from the ramp of the jetliner, and I ran
forward to collect her baggage. She eyed me curiously but said no more
than the usual greetings and indication of which bag was hers.

I knew that she was reading my mind like a psychologist all the time,
and I let her know that I wanted her to. I let my mind merely ramble on
with the usual pile of irrelevancies that the mind uses to fill in blank
spaces. It came up with a couple of notions here and there but nothing
definite. Miss Farrow followed me to my car without saying a word, and
let me install her luggage in the trunk.

Then, for the first time, she spoke: "Steve Cornell, you're as healthy
as I am."

"I admit it."

"Then what is this all about? You don't need a nurse!"

"I need a competent witness, Miss Farrow."

"For what?" She looked puzzled. "Suppose you stay right here and start
explaining."

"You'll listen to the bitter end?"

"I've two hours before the next plane goes back. You'll have that time
to convince me--or else. Okay?"

"That's a deal." I fumbled around for a beginning, and then I decided to
start right at the beginning, whether it sounded cockeyed or not.

Giving information to a telepath is the easiest thing in the world.
While I started at the beginning, I fumbled and finally ended up by
going back and forth in a haphazard manner, but Miss Farrow managed to
insert the trivia in the right chronological order so that when I
finished, she nodded with interest.

I posed the question: #Am I nuts?#

"No, Steve," she replied solemnly. "I don't think so. You've managed to
accept data which is obviously mingled truth and falsehood, and you've
managed to question the validity of all of it."

I grunted. "How about the crazy man who questions his own sanity, using
this personal question as proof of his sanity since real nuts _know_
they're sane?"

"No nut can think that deep into complication. What I mean is that they
cannot even question their own sanity in the first premise of postulated
argument. But forget that, what I wanted to know is where you intend to
go from here."

I shook my head unhappily. "When I called you I had it all laid out like
a roadmap. I was going to show you proof and use you as an impartial
observer to convince someone else. Then we'd go to the Medical Center
and hand it to them on a platter. Since then I've had a shock that I
can't get over, or plan beyond. Scholar Phelps is a Mekstrom. That means
that the guy knows what gives with Mekstrom's Disease and yet he is
running an outfit that professes to be helpless in the face of this
disease. For all we know Phelps may be the head of the Highways in
Hiding, an organization strictly for profit of some sort at the expense
of the public welfare."

"You're certain that Phelps is a Mekstrom?"

"Not absolutely positive. I had to close my mind because there might be
a telepath on tap. But I can tell you that nobody with normal flesh-type
fingers ever made that solid rap."

"A fingernail?"

I shook my head at her. "That's a click. With an ear at all you'd note
the difference."

"I'll accept it for the moment. But lacking your original plan, what are
you going to do now?"

"I'm not sure beyond showing you the facts. Maybe I should call up that
F.B.I. team that called on me after Thorndyke's disappearance and put it
in their laps."

"Good idea. But why would Scholar Phelps be lying? And beyond your basic
suspicions, what can you prove?"

"Very little. I admit that my evidence is extremely thin. I saw Phillip
Harrison turning head bolts on a tractor engine with a small end wrench.
It should require a crossbar socket and a lot of muscle. Next is the
girl in Ohio who should be a bloody mess from the way she was treated.
Instead she got up and tried to chase me. Then answer me a puzzler: Did
the Harrisons move because Marian caught Mekstrom's, or did they move
because they felt that I was too close to discovering their secret? The
Highway was relocated after that, you'll recall."

"It sounds frightfully complicated, Steve."

"You bet it does," I grunted. "So next I meet a guy who is supposed to
know all the answers; a man dedicated to the public welfare, medicine,
and the ideal of Service. A man sworn to the Hippocratic Oath. Or," I
went on bitterly, "is it the Hypocritic Oath?"

"Steve, please--"

"Please, Hell!" I stormed. "Why is he quietly sitting there in Mekstrom
hide while he is overtly grieving over the painful death of his fellow
man?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Well, I'm tired of being pushed around," I growled.

"Pushed around?" she asked quietly.

With a trace of scorn, I said, "Miss Farrow, I can see two possible
answers. Either I am being pushed around for some deliberate reason, or
I'm too smart, too cagey and too dangerous for them to handle directly.
It takes only about eight weeks for me to reluctantly abandon the second
in favor of the first."

"But what makes you think you are being pushed?" she wanted to know.

"You can't tell me that I am so important that they couldn't erase me as
easily as they did Catherine and Dr. Thorndyke. And now that his name
comes up, let's ask why any doctor who once met a casual patient would
go to the bother of sending a postcard with a message on it that is
certain to cause me unhappiness. He's also the guy who nudged me by
calling my attention to my so-called 'shock hallucination' about Father
Harrison lifting my car while Phillip Harrison raced into the fire to
make the rescue. Add it up," I told her sharply. "Next he is invited to
Medical Center to study Mekstrom's. Only instead of landing there, he
sends me a postcard with one of the Highways in the picture, after which
he disappears."

Miss Farrow nodded thoughtfully. "It is all tied up with your Highways
and your Mekstrom People."

"That isn't all," I said. "How come the Harrisons moved so abruptly?"

"You're posing questions that I can't answer," complained Miss Farrow.
"And I'm not one hundred percent convinced that you are right."

"You are here, and if you take a look at what I'll show you, you'll be
convinced. We'll put it this way, to start: Something cockeyed is going
on. Now, one more thing I can add, and this is the part that confuses
me: Everything that has been done seems to point to me. So far as I can
see they are operating just as though they want me to start a big hassle
that will end up by getting the Highways out of their Hiding."

"Why on earth would they be doing that?" she wanted to know.

"I don't have the foggiest notion. But I do have that feeling and there
is evidence pointing that way. They've let me in on things that normally
they'd be able to conceal from a highly trained telepath. So I intend to
go along with them, because somewhere at the bottom of it all we'll find
the answer."

She nodded agreement.

Now I started up the car, saying, "I'm going to find us one of the
Highways in Hiding, and we'll follow it to one of the way stations. Then
you'll see for yourself that there is something definitely fishy going
on."

"This I'd like to see," she replied quietly. Almost too quietly. I took
a dig at her as I turned the car out through a tight corner of the lot
onto the road. She was sitting there with a noncommittal expression on
her face and I wondered why. She replied to my thought: "Steve, you must
face one thing. Anything you firmly believe will necessarily pass across
your mind as fact. So forgive me if I hold a few small doubts until I
have a chance to survey some of the evidence at first hand."

"Sure," I told her. "The first bit won't be hard."

I drove eagerly across Illinois into Iowa watching for road signs. I
knew that once I convinced someone else, it would be easier to convince
a third, and a fourth, and a fiftieth until the entire world was out on
the warpath. We drove all day, stopping for chow now and then, behaving
like a couple out on a vacation tour. We stopped in a small town along
about midnight and found a hotel without having come upon any of the
hidden highways.

We met at breakfast, talked our ideas over mildly, and took off again.
We crossed into Nebraska about noon and continued to meander until late
in the afternoon when we came upon our first giveaway road sign.

"There," I told her triumphantly.

She nodded. "I see the sign, Steve. That much I knew. Now all you have
to do is to show me the trial-blazes up in that emblem."

"Unless they've changed their method," I told her, "this one leads West,
slightly south of." I stopped the car not many yards from the sign and
went over it with my sense of perception. #You'll note the ease with
which the emblem could be turned upside down,# I interjected. #Note the
similar width of the top and bottom trefoil, so that only a trained and
interested observer can tell the difference.#

I drove along until we saw one on the other side of the road and we
stopped again, giving the sign a thorough going over. #Note that the
signs leading away from the direction are upside down,# I went on. I
didn't say a word, I was using every ounce of energy in running my
perception over the sign and commenting on its various odds and ends.

#Now,# I finished, #we'll drive along this Highway in Hiding until we
come to some intersection or hideout. Then you'll be convinced.#

She was silent.

We took off along that road rather fast and we followed it for miles,
passing sign after sign with its emblem turned up along the right side
of the road and turned upside-down when the sign was on the left.

Eventually we came to a crossing highway, and at that I pointed
triumphantly. "Note the missing spoke!" I said with considerable
enthusiasm. "Now, Miss Farrow, we shall first turn against it for a few
miles and then we shall U-turn and come back along the cross highway
with it."

"I'm beginning to be convinced, Steve."

We turned North against the sign and went forty or fifty miles, just to
be sure. The signs were all against us. Eventually I turned into a gas
station and filled the carte up to the scuppers. As we turned back
South, I asked her, "Any more comment?"

She shook her head. "Not yet."

I nodded. "If you want, we'll take a jaunt along our original course."

"By all means."

"In other words you are more than willing to be convinced?"

"Yes," she said simply. She went silent then and I wondered what she was
thinking about, but she didn't bother to tell me.

Eventually we came back to the crossroad, and with a feeling of having
been successful, I continued South with a confidence that I had not felt
before. We stopped for dinner in a small town, ate hastily but well, and
then had a very mild debate.

"Shall we have a drink and relax for a moment?"

"I'd like it," she replied honestly. "But somehow I doubt that I could
relax."

"I know. But it does seem like a good idea to take it easy for a half
hour. It might even be better if we stopped over and took off again in
the morning."

"Steve," she told me, "the only way I could relax or go to sleep would
be to take on a roaring load so that I'd pass out cold. I'd rather not
because I'd get up tomorrow with a most colossal hangover. Frankly, I'm
excited and I'd prefer to follow this thing to a finish."

"It's a deal," I said. "We'll go until we have to stop."

It was about eight o'clock when we hit the road again.

       *       *       *       *       *

By nine-forty-five we'd covered something better than two hundred miles,
followed another intersection turn according to the missing spoke, and
were heading well toward the upper right-hand corner of Colorado on the
road map.

At ten o'clock plus a few minutes we came upon the roadsign that pointed
the way to a ranch-type house set prettily on the top of a small knoll
several hundred yards back from the main road. I stopped briefly a few
hundred feet from the lead-in road and asked Miss Farrow:

"What's your telepath range? You've never told me."

She replied instantly, "Intense concentration directed at me is about a
half mile. Superficial thinking that might include me or my personality
as a by-thought about five hundred yards. To pick up a thought that has
nothing to do with me or my interests, not much more than a couple of
hundred feet. Things that are definitely none of my business close down
to forty or fifty feet."

That was about the average for a person with a bit of psi training
either in telepathy or in esper; it matched mine fairly well, excepting
that part about things that were none of my business. She meant
_thoughts_ and not _things_. I had always had a hard time
differentiating between things that were none of my damned business,
although I do find it more difficult to dig the contents of a letter
between two unknown parties at a given distance than it is to dig a
letter written or addressed to a person I know. _Things_ are, by and
large, a lot less personal than thoughts, if I'm saying anything new.

"Well," I told her, "this is it. We're going to go in close enough for
you to take a 'pathic look-around. Keep your mind sensitive. If you dig
any danger, yell out. I'm going to extend my esper as far as I can and
if I suddenly take off like a startled spacecraft, it's because I have
uncovered something disagreeable. But keep your mind on them and not me,
because I'm relying on you to keep posted on their mental angle."

Miss Farrow nodded. "It's hard to remember that other people haven't the
ability to make contact mentally. It's like a normal man talking to a
blind man and referring constantly to visible things because he doesn't
understand. I'll try to remember."

"I'm going to back in," I said. "Then if trouble turns up, I'll have an
advantage. As soon as they feel our minds coming in at them, they'll
know that we're not in there for their health. So here we go!"

"I'm a good actor," she said. "No matter what I say, I'm with you all
the way!"

I yanked the car forward, and angled back. I hit the road easily and
started backing along the driveway at a rather fast speed with my eyes
half-closed to give my esper sense the full benefit of my concentration
along the road. When I was not concentrating on how I was going to turn
the wheel at the next curve I thought, #I hope these folks know the best
way to get to Colorado Springs from here. Dammit, we're lost!#

Miss Farrow squeezed my arm gently, letting me know that she was
thinking the same general thoughts.

Suddenly she said, "It's a dead area, Steve."

It was a dead area, all right. My perception came to a barrier that made
it fade from full perception to not being able to perceive anything in a
matter of yards. It always gives me an eerie feeling when I approach a
dead area and find that I can see a building clearly and not be able to
cast my perception beyond a few feet.

I kept on backing up into the fringe of that dead area until I was deep
within the edge and it took all my concentration to perceive the road a
few feet ahead of my rear wheels so that I could steer. I was inching
now, coming back like a blind man feeling his way. We were within about
forty feet of the ranch house when Miss Farrow yelped:

"They're surrounding us, Steve!"

My hands whipped into action and my heavy right foot came down on the
gas-pedal. The car shuddered, howled like a wounded banshee, and then
leaped forward with a roar.

A man sprang out of the bushes and stood in front of the car like a
statue with his hand held up. Miss Farrow screamed something
unintelligible and clutched at my arm frantically. I threw her hand off
with a snarl, kept my foot rammed down hard and hit the man dead center.
The car bucked and I heard metal crumple angrily. We lurched, bounced
viciously twice as my wheels passed over his floundering body, and then
we were racing like complete idiots along a road that should not have
been covered at more than twenty. The main road came into sight and I
sliced the car around with a screech of the rear tires, controlled the
deliberate skid with some fancy wheel-work and some fast digging of the
surrounding dangers.

Then we were tearing along the broad and beautifully clear concrete with
the speedometer needle running into the one-fifteen region.

"Steve," said Miss Farrow breathlessly, "That man you hit--"

In a hard voice I said, "He was getting to his feet when I drove out of
range."

"I know," she said in a whimper. "I was in his mind. He was not hurt!
God! Steve--what are we up against?" Her voice rose to a wail.

"I don't know, exactly," I said. "But I know what we're going to do."

"But Steve--what can we do?"

"Alone or together, very little. But we can bring one person more out
along these Highways and then convince a fourth and a fifth and a
fiftieth and a thousandth. By then we'll be shoved back off the stage
while the big wheels grind painfully slow but exceedingly meticulous."

"That'll take time."

"Certainly. But we've got a start. Look how long it took getting a start
in the first place."

"But what is their purpose?" she asked.

"That I can't say. I can't say a lot of things, like how, and why and
wherefore. But I know that now we have a front tooth in this affair
we're not going to let go." I thought for a moment. "I could use
Thorndyke; he'd be the next guy to convince if we could find him. Or
maybe Catherine, if we could find her. The next best thing is to get
hold of that F.B.I. Team that called on me. There's a pair of
cold-blooded characters that seem willing to sift through a million tons
of ash to find one valuable cinder. They'll listen. I--"

Miss Farrow looked at her watch; I dug it as she made the gesture.
#Eleven o'clock.#

"Going to call?" she asked.

"No," I said. "It's too late. It's one in New York now and the F.B.I.
Team wouldn't be ready for a fast job at this hour."

"So?"

"I have no intention of placing a 'When you are ready' call to a number
identified with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Not when a full
eight hours must elapse between the call and a reply. Too much can
happen to us in the meantime. But if I call in the morning, we can
probably take care of ourselves well enough until they arrive if we stay
in some place that is positively teeming with citizens. Sensible?"

"Sounds reasonable, Steve."

I let the matter drop at that; I put the go-pedal down to the floor and
fractured a lot of speed laws until we came to Denver.

We made Denver just before midnight and drove around until we located a
hotel that filled our needs. It was large, which would prevent overt
operations on the part of the 'enemy' and it was a dead area, which
would prevent one of them from reading our minds while we slept, and so
enable them to lay counterplans against us.

The bellhop gave us a knowing leer as we registered separately, but I
was content to let him think what he wanted. Better that he get the
wrong idea about us than the right one. He fiddled around in Miss
Farrow's room on the ninth, bucking for a big tip--not for good service,
but for leaving us alone, which he did by demonstrating how big a
nuisance he could be if not properly rewarded. But finally he got tired
of his drawer-opening and lamp-testing and towel-stacking, and escorted
me up to the twelfth. I led him out with a five spot clutched in his
fist and the leer even stronger.

If he expected me to race downstairs as soon as he was out of ear-shot,
he was mistaken, for I hit the sack like the proverbial ton of crushed
mortar. It had been literally weeks since I'd had a pleasant, restful
sleep that was not broken by fitful dreams and worry-insomnia. Now that
we had something solid to work on, I could look forward to some concrete
action instead of merely feeling pushed around.



VIII


I'd put in for an eight o'clock call, but my sleep had been so sound and
perfect that I was all slept out by seven-thirty. I was anxious to get
going so I dressed and shaved in a hurry and cancelled the eight o'clock
call. Then I asked the operator to connect me with 913.

A gruff, angry male voice snarled out of the earpiece at me. I began to
apologize profusely but the other guy slammed the phone down on the hook
hard enough to make my ear ring.

I jiggled my hook angrily and when the operator answered I told her that
she'd miscued. She listened to my complaint and then replied in a
pettish tone, "But I did ring 913, sir. I'll try again."

I wanted to tell her to just try, that there was no 'again' about it,
but I didn't. I tried to dig through the murk to her switchboard but I
couldn't dig a foot through this area. I waited impatiently until she
re-made the connections at her switchboard and I heard the burring of
the phone as the other end rang. Then the same mad-bull-rage voice
delivered a number of pointed comments about people who ring up honest
citizens in the middle of the night; and he hung up again in the middle
of my apology. I got irked again and demanded that the operator connect
me with the registration clerk. To him I told my troubles.

"One moment, sir," he said. A half minute later he returned with,
"Sorry, sir. There is no Farrow registered. Could I have mis-heard you?"

"No, goddammit," I snarled. "It's Farrow. F as in Frank; A as in Arthur;
Double R as in Robert Robert; O as in Oliver; and W as in Washington. I
saw her register, I went with her and the bellhop to her room, Number
913, and saw her installed. Then the same 'hop took me up to my room in
1224 on the Twelfth."

There was another moment of silence. Then he said, "You're Mr. Cornell.
Registered in Room 1224 last night approximately four minutes after
midnight."

"I know all about me. I was there and did it myself. And if I registered
at four after midnight, Miss Farrow must have registered about two after
midnight because the ink was still wet on her card when I wrote my name.
We came in together, we were travelling together. Now, what gives?"

"I wouldn't know, sir. We have no guest named Farrow."

"See here," I snapped, "did you ever have a guest named Farrow?"

"Not in the records I have available at this desk. Perhaps in the past
there may have been--"

"Forget the past. What about the character in 913?"

The registration clerk returned and informed me coldly, "Room 913 has
been occupied by a Mr. Horace Westfield for over three months, Mr.
Cornell. There is no mistake." His voice sounded professionally
sympathetic, and I knew that he would forget my troubles as soon as his
telephone was put back on its hook.

"Forget it," I snapped and hung up angrily. Then I went towards the
elevators, walking in a sort of dream-like daze. There was a cold lump
of something concrete hard beginning to form in the pit of my stomach.
Wetness ran down my spine and a drop of sweat dropped from my armpit and
hit my body a few inches above my belt like a pellet of icy hail. My
face felt cold but when I wiped it with the palm of a shaking hand I
found it beaded with an oily sweat. Everything seemed unreally
horrifying.

"Nine," I told the elevator operator in a voice that sounded far away
and hoarse.

I wondered whether this might not be a very vivid dream, and maybe if I
went all the way back to my room, took a short nap, and got up to start
all over again, I would awaken to honest reality.

The elevator stopped at Nine and I walked the corridor that was familiar
from last night. I rapped on the door of Room 913.

The door opened and a big stubble-faced gorilla gazed out and snarled at
me: "Are you the persistent character?"

"Look," I said patiently, "last night a woman friend of mine registered
at this hotel and I accompanied her to this door. Number 913. Now--"

A long apelike arm came out and caught me by the coat lapels. He hauled
and I went in fast. His breath was sour and his eyes were bloodshot and
he was angry all the way through. His other hand caught me by the seat
of the pants and he danced me into the room like a jumping jack.

"Friend," he ground out, "Take a look. There ain't no woman in this
room, see?"

He whirled, carrying me off my feet. He took a lunging step forward and
hurled me onto the bed, where I carried the springs deep down, to bounce
up and off and forward to come up flat against the far wall. I landed
sort of spread-eagle flat and seemed to hang there before I slid down
the wall to the floor with a meaty-sounding Whump! Then before I could
collect my wits or myself, he came over the bed in one long leap and had
me hauled upright by the coat lapels again. The other hand was cocked
back level with his shoulder it looked the size of a twenty-five pound
sack of flour and was probably as hard as set cement.

_Steve_, I told myself, _this time you're in for it!_

"All right," I said as apologetically as I knew how, "so I've made a bad
mistake. I apologize. I'll also admit that you could wipe up the hotel
with me. But do you have to prove it?"

Mr. Horace Westfield's mental processes were not slow, cumbersome, and
crude. He was as fast and hard on his mental feet as he was on his
physical feet. He made some remarks about my intelligence, my
upbringing, my parentage and its legal status, and my unwillingness to
face a superior enemy. During this catalog of my virtueless existence,
he gandy-walked me to the door and opened it. He concluded his lecture
by suggesting that in the future I accept anything that any registration
clerk said as God-Stated Truth, and if I then held any doubts I should
take them to the police. Then he hurled me out of the room by just sort
of shoving me away. I sailed across the hall on my toes, backward, and
slapped my frame flat again, and once more I hung against the wall until
the kinetic energy had spent itself. Then I landed on wobbly ankles as
the door to Room 913 came closed with a violent slam.

I cursed the habit of building hotels in dead areas, although I admitted
that I'd steer clear of any hotel in a clear area myself. But I didn't
need a clear area nor a sense of perception to inform me that Room 913
was absolutely and totally devoid of any remote sign of female
habitation. In fact, I gathered the impression that for all of his brute
strength and virile masculinity, Mr. Horace Westfield hadn't entertained
a woman in that room since he'd been there.

There was one other certainty: It was impossible for any agency short of
sheer fairyland magic to have produced overnight a room that displayed
its long-term occupancy by a not-too-immaculate character. That
distinctive sour smell takes a long time to permeate the furnishings of
any decent hotel; I wondered why a joint as well kept as this one would
put up with a bird as careless of his person as Mr. Horace Westfield.

So I came to the reluctant conclusion that Room 913 was not occupied by
Nurse Farrow, but I was not yet convinced that she was totally missing
from the premises.

Instead of taking the elevator, I took to the stairs and tried the
eighth. My perception was not too good for much in this murk, but I was
mentally sensitive to Nurse Farrow and if I could get close enough to
her, I might be able to perceive some trace of her even through the
deadness. I put my forehead against the door of Room 813 and drew a
blank. I could dig no farther than the inside of the door. If Farrow
were in 813, I couldn't dig a trace of her. So I went to 713 and tried
there.

I was determined to try every -13th room on every floor, but as I was
standing with my forehead against the door to Room 413, someone came up
behind me quietly and asked in a rough voice: "Just what do you think
you're doing, Mister?"

His dress indicated housedick, but of course I couldn't dig the license
in his wallet any more than he could read my mental, #None of your
business, flatfoot!# I said, "I'm looking for a friend."

"You'd better come with me," he said flatly. "There's been complaints."

"Yeah?" I growled. "Maybe I made one of them myself."

"Want to start something?" he snapped.

I shrugged and he smiled. It was a stony smile, humorless as a crevasse
in a rock-face. He kept that professional-type smile on his face until
we reached the manager's office. The manager was out, but one of the
assistant managers was in his desk. The little sign on the desk said
"Henry Walton. Assistant Manager."

Mr. Walton said, coldly, "What seems to be the trouble, Mr. Cornell?"

I decided to play it just as though I were back at the beginning again.
"Last night," I explained very carefully, "I checked into this hotel. I
was accompanied by a woman companion. A registered nurse. Miss Gloria
Farrow. She registered first, and we were taken by one of your bellboys
to Rooms 913 and 1224 respectively. I went with Miss Farrow to 913 and
saw her enter. Then the bellhop escorted me to 1224 and left me for the
night. This morning I can find no trace of Miss Farrow anywhere in this
fleabag."

He bristled at the derogatory title but he covered it quickly. "Please
be assured that no one connected with this hotel has any intention of
confusing you, Mr. Cornell."

"I'm tired of playing games," I snapped. "I'll accept your statement so
far as the management goes, but someone is guilty of fouling up your
registration lists."

"That's rather harsh," he replied coldly. "Falsifying or tampering with
hotel registration lists is illegal. What you've just said amounts to
libel or slander, you know."

"Not if it's true."

I half expected Henry Walton to backwater fast, but instead, he merely
eyed me with the same expression of distaste that he might have used
upon finding half of a fuzzy caterpillar in his green salad. As cold as
a cake of carbon dioxide snow, he said, "Can you prove this, Mr.
Cornell?"

"Your night crew--"

"You've given us a bit of trouble this morning," he informed me. "So
I've taken the liberty of calling in the night crew for you." He pressed
a button and a bunch came in and lined up as if for formal inspection.
"Boys," said Walton quietly, "suppose you tell us what you know about
Mr. Cornell's arrival here last night."

They nodded their heads in unison.

"Wait a minute," I snapped. "I want a reliable witness to listen to
this. In fact, if I could, I'd like to have their stories made under
oath."

"You'd like to register a formal charge? Perhaps of kidnapping, or maybe
illegal restraint?"

"Just get me an impartial witness," I told him sourly.

"Very well." He picked up his telephone and spoke into it. We waited a
few minutes, and finally a very prim young woman came in. She was
followed by a uniformed policeman. She was carrying one of those
sub-miniature silent typewriters which she set up on its little stand
with a few efficient motions.

"Miss Mason is our certified public stenographer," he said. "Officer,
I'll want your signature on her copy when we're finished. This is a
simple routine matter, but it must be legal to the satisfaction of Mr.
Cornell. Now, boys, go ahead and explain. Give your name and position
first for Miss Mason's record."

It was then that I noticed that the night crew had arranged themselves
in chronological order. The elderly gent spoke first. He'd been the
night doorman but now he was stripped of his admiral's gold braid and he
looked just like any other sleepy man of middle age.

"George Comstock," he announced. "Doorman. As soon as I saw the car
angling out of traffic, I pressed the call-button for a bell boy. Peter
Wright came out and was standing in readiness by the time Mr. Cornell's
car came to a stop by the curb. Johnny Olson was out next, and after
Peter had taken Mr. Cornell's bag, Johnny got into Mr. Cornell's car and
took off for the hotel garage--"

Walton interrupted. "Let each man tell what he did himself. No
prompting, please."

"Well, then, you've heard my part in it. Johnny Olson took off in Mr.
Cornell's car and Peter Wright took off with Mr. Cornell's bag, and Mr.
Cornell followed Peter."

The next man in line, at a nod from the assistant manager, stepped
forward about a half a pace and said, "I'm Johnny Olson. I followed
Peter Wright out of the door and after Peter had collected Mr. Cornell's
bag, I got in Mr. Cornell's car and took it to the hotel garage."

The third was Peter Wright, the bellhop. "I carried his bag to the desk
and waited until he registered. Then we went up to Room 1224. I opened
the door, lit the lights, opened the window, and stuff. Mr. Cornell
tipped me five bucks and I left him there. Alone."

"I'm Thomas Boothe, the elevator operator. I took Mr. Cornell and Peter
Wright to the Twelfth. Peter said I should wait because he wouldn't be
long, and so I waited on the Twelfth until Peter got back. That's all."

"I'm Doris Caspary, the night telephone operator. Mr. Cornell called me
about fifteen minutes after twelve and asked me to put him down for a
call at eight o'clock this morning. Then he called at about seven thirty
and said that he was already awake and not to bother."

Henry Walton said, "That's about it, Mr. Cornell."

"But--"

The policeman looked puzzled. "What is the meaning of all this? If I'm
to witness any statements like these, I'll have to know what for."

Walton looked at me. I couldn't afford not to answer. Wearily I said,
"Last night I came in here with a woman companion and we registered in
separate rooms. She went into 913 and I waited until she was installed
and then went to my own room on the Twelfth. This morning there is no
trace of her."

I went on to tell him a few more details, but the more I told him the
more he lifted his eyebrows.

"Done any drinking?" he asked me curtly.

"No."

"Certain?"

"Absolutely."

Walton looked at his crew. They burst into a chorus of, "Well, he _was_
steady on his feet," and "He didn't _seem_ under the influence," and a
lot of other statements, all generally indicating that for all they knew
I could have been gassed to the ears, but one of those rare guys who
don't show it.

The policeman smiled thinly. "Just why was this registered nurse
travelling with you?"

I gave them the excuse-type statement; the one about the accident and
that I felt that I was still a bit on the rocky side and so forth. About
all I did for that was to convince the policeman that I was not a stable
character. His attitude seemed to indicate that any man travelling with
a nurse must either be physically sick or maybe mentally out of tune.

Then with a sudden thought, I whirled on Johnny Olson. "Will you get my
car?" I asked him. He nodded after a nod from Walton. I said, "There's
plenty of evidence in my car. In the meantime, let's face one thing,
officer. I've been accused of spinning a yarn. I'd hardly be demanding
witnesses if I weren't telling the truth. I was standing beside Miss
Farrow when she signed the register, complete with the R.N. title. It's
too bad that hotels have taken to using card files instead of the old
registration book. Cards are so easy to misplace--"

Walton cut in angrily. "If that's an accusation, I'm inclined to see
that you make it in a court of law."

The policeman looked calm. "I'd take it easy, Mr. Cornell. Your story is
not corroborated. But the employees of the hotel bear one another out.
And from the record, it would appear that you were under the eyes of at
least two of them from the moment your car slowed down in front of the
main entrance up to the time that you were escorted to your room."

"I object to being accused of complicity in a kidnapping," put in the
assistant manager.

"I object to being accused of mental incompetence," I snapped. "Why do
we stand around accusing people back and forth when there's evidence if
you'll only uncover it."

We stood there glaring at one another. The air grew tense. The only ones
in the place who did not have chips on their shoulders were the
policeman and the certified stenographer, who was clicking her silent
keys in lightning manner, taking down every comment as it was uttered.

Eventually Olson returned, to put an end to the thick silence. "Y'car's
outside," he told me angrily.

"Fine," I said. "Now we'll go outside and take a look. You'll find
plenty of traces of Miss Farrow's having been there. Officer--are you
telepath or perceptive?"

"Perceptive," he said. "But not in here."

"How far out does this damned dead area extend?" I asked Walton.

"About half way across the sidewalk."

"Okay. So let's all go."

We traipsed out to the curb. Miss Mason brought her little silent along,
slipping the stand high up so that she could type from an erect
position. We lined up along the curb and I looked into my car with a
triumphant feeling.

And then that cold chill congealed my spine again. My car was clean and
shining. It had been washed and buffed and polished until it looked as
new as the day I picked it out on the salesroom floor.

Walton looked blank, and I whipped a thought at him: #Damned telepath!#

He nodded perceptibly and said smoothly, "I'm rather sorry we couldn't
find any fingerprints. Because now, you see," and here he turned to the
policeman and went on, "Mr. Cornell will now accuse us of having washed
his car to destroy the evidence. However, you'll find that as a general
policy of the hotel, the car-washing is performed as a standard service.
In fact, if any guest parks his car in our garage and his car is not
rendered spick and span, someone is going to get fired for negligence."

So that was that. I took a fast look around, because I knew that I had
to get out of there fast. If I remained to carry on any more argument,
I'd be tapped for being a nuisance and jugged.

I had no doubt at all that the whole hotel staff were all involved in
Nurse Farrow's disappearance. But they'd done their job in such a way
that if the question were pushed hard, I would end up answering formal
charges, the topmost of which might be murder and concealment of the
body.

I could do nothing by sitting in jail. This was the time to get out
first and worry about Farrow later.

So I opened the car door and slipped in. I fiddled with the so-called
glove compartment and opened it; the maps were all neatly stacked and
all the flub had been cleaned out. I fumbled inside and dropped a couple
of road maps to the floor, and while I was down picking them up I turned
the ignition key which Olson had left plugged in the lock.

I took off with a jerk and howl of tires.

There was the sudden shrill of a police whistle but it was stopped after
one brief blast. As I turned the corner, I caught a fast backwards dig
at them. They were filing back into the hotel. I did not believe that
the policeman was part of the conspiracy, but I was willing to bet that
Walton was going to slip the policeman a box of fine cigars as a reward
for having helped them to get rid of a very embarrassing screwball.



IX


I put a lot of miles between me and my recent adventure before I stopped
to take stock. The answer to the mess was still obscure, but the
elimination of Nurse Farrow fell into the pattern very neatly.

Alone, I was no problem. So long as my actions were restricted to
meandering up and down the highways and byways, peering into nooks and
crannies and crying, "Catherine," in a plaintive voice, no one cared.
But when I teamed up with a telepath, they moved in with the efficiency
of a well-run machine and extracted the disturbing element. In fact,
their machinations had been so smooth that I was beginning to believe
that my 'Discoveries' were really an assortment of unimportant facts
shown to me deliberately for some reason of their own.

The only snag in the latter theory was the fact of our accident.
Assuming that I had to get involved in the mess, there were easier ways
to introduce me than by planning a bad crack-up that could have been
fatal, even granting the close proximity of the Harrison tribe to come
to the rescue. The accident had to be an accident in the dictionary
definition of the word itself. Under the circumstances, a planned
accident could only be accepted under an entirely different set of
conditions. For instance, let's assume that Catherine was a Mekstrom and
I was about to disclose the fact. Then she or they could plan such an
accident, knowing that she could walk out of the wreck with her hair
barely mussed, leaving me dead for sure.

But Catherine was not a Mekstrom. I'd been close enough to that satin
skin to know that the body beneath it was soft and yielding.

Yet the facts as they stood did not throw out my theory. It merely had
to be revised. Catherine was no Mekstrom, but if the Harrisons had
detected the faintest traces of an incipient Mekstrom infection, they
could very well have taken her in. I fumed at the idea. I could almost
visualize them pointing out her infection and then informing her bluntly
that she could either swear in with them and be cured or she could die
alone and miserably.

This could easily explain her disappearance. Naturally, being what they
were, they cared nothing for me or any other non-Mekstrom. I was no
menace. Not until I teamed up with a telepath, and they knew what to do
about that.

Completely angry, I decided that it was time that I made a noise like an
erupting volcano. With plans forming, I took off again towards
Yellowstone, pausing only long enough at Fort Collins to buy some
armament.

Colorado is still a part of the United States where a man can go into a
store and buy a gun over the counter just like any other tool. I picked
out a Bonanza .375 because it is small enough to fit the hip pocket,
light because of the new alloys so it wouldn't unballast me, and mostly
because it packs enough wallop to stop a charging hippo. I did not know
whether it would drill all the way through a Mekstrom hide, but the
impact would at least set any target back on the seat of his pants.

Then I drove into Wyoming and made my way to Yellowstone, and one day I
was driving along the same road that had been pictured in Dr.
Thorndyke's postcard. I drove along it boldly, loaded for bear, and
watching the Highway signs that led me nicely toward my goal.

Eventually I came to the inevitable missing spoke. It pointed to a
ranch-type establishment that lay sprawled out in a billow of dead area.
I eyed it warily and kept on driving because my plans did not include
marching up to the front door like a rug peddler.

Instead, I went on to the next town, some twenty miles away, which I
reached about dark. I stopped for a leisurely dinner, saw a moving
picture at the drive-in, killed a few at the bar, and started back to
the way station about midnight.

The name, dug from the mailbox, was Macklin.

Again I did not turn in. I parked the car down the highway by about
three miles, figuring that only a psi of doctor's degree would be able
to dig anything at that distance. I counted on there being no such
mental giant in this out of the way place.

I made my way back toward the ranch house across the fields and among
the rolling rock. I extended my perception as far as I could; I made
myself sensitive to danger and covered the ground foot by foot, digging
for traps, alarm lines, photocell trips, and parties who might be lying
in wait for me.

I encountered no sign of any trip or trap all the way to the fringe of
the dead zone.

The possibility that they knew of my presence and were comfortably
awaiting me deep within the zone occurred to me, and so I was very
cautious as I cased the layout and decided to make my entry at the point
where the irregular boundary of the dead area was closest to the house
itself.

I entered and became completely psi-blind. Starlight cast just enough
light so that I could see to walk without falling into a chuck hole or
stumbling over something, but beyond a few yards everything lost shape
and became a murky blob. The night was dead silent except for an
occasional hiss of wind through the brush.

Esperwise I was not covering much more than my eyes could see. I stepped
deeper into the zone and lost another yard of perception. I kept probing
at the murk, sort of like poking a finger at a hanging blanket. It moved
if I dug hard enough in any direction, but as soon as I released the
pressure, the murk moved right back where it was before.

I crouched and took a few more steps into the zone, got to a place where
I could begin to see the outlines of the house itself.

Dark, silent, it looked uninhabited. I wished that there had been a
college course in housebreaking, prowling and second-story operations. I
went at it very slowly. I took my sweet time crossing the boards of the
back verandah, even though the short hair on the back of my neck was
beginning to prickle from nervousness. I was also scared. At any given
moment, they had the legal right to open a window, poke out a
field-piece, and blow me into bloody ribbons where I stood.

The zone was really a dead one. My esper range was no more than about
six inches from my forehead; a motion picture of Steve Cornell sounding
out the border of a window with his forehead would have looked funny, it
was not funny at the time. But I found that the sash was not locked and
that the flyscreen could be unshipped from the outside.

I entered a dining room. Inside, it was blacker than pitch.

I crossed the dining room by sheer feel and instinct and managed to get
to the hallway without making any racket. At this point I stopped and
asked myself what the heck I thought I was trying to do. I had to admit
that I had no plan in definite form. I was just prowling the joint to
see what information I might be able to pick up.

Down the hall I found a library. I'd been told that you tell what kind
of people folks are by inspecting their library, and so I conned the
book titles by running my head along a row of books.

The books in the library indicated to me that this was a family of some
size with rather broad tastes. There was everything from science fiction
to Shakespeare, everything from philosophy to adventure. A short row of
kid's books. A bible. Encyclopedia Brittanica (Published in Chicago), in
fifty-four volumes, but there were no places that were worn that might
give me an idea as to any special interest.

The living room was also blank of any evidence of anything out or the
ordinary. I turned away and stood in the hallway, blocked by indecision.
I was a fool, I kept telling myself, because I did not have any
experience in casing a joint, and what I knew had been studied out of
old-time detective tales. Even if the inhabitants of the place were to
let me go at it in broad daylight, I'm not too sure that I'd do a good
job of finding something of interest except for sheer luck.

But on the other hand, I'd gotten nowhere by dodging and ducking. I was
in no mood to run quivering in fear. I was more inclined to emit a
bellow just to see what would happen next.

So instead of sneaking quietly away, I found the stairs and started to
go up very slowly.

It occurred to me at about the third step that I must be right. Anybody
with any sense wouldn't keep anything dangerous in their downstairs
library. It would be too much like a safe-cracker storing his nitro in
the liquor cabinet or the murderer who hangs his weapon over the
mantelpiece.

Yet everybody kept some sort of records, or had things in their homes
that were not shown to visiting firemen. And if it weren't on the second
floor, then it might be in the cellar. If I weren't caught first, I'd
prowl the whole damned place, inch by inch--avoiding if possible those
rooms in which people slept.

The fifth step squeaked ever so faintly, but it sounded like someone
pulling a spike out of a packing case made of green wood. I froze, half
aching for some perceptive range so that I could dig any sign of danger,
and half remembering that if it weren't for the dead area, I'd not be
this far. I'd have been frightened to try it in a clear zone.

Eventually I went on up, and as my head came above the level of the
floor, everything became psi-clear once more.

Here was as neat a bit of home planning as I have ever seen. Just below
the level of the second floor, their dead area faded out, so that the
top floor was clean, bright, and clear as day. I paused, startled at it,
and spent a few moments digging outside. The dead area billowed above
the rooftop out of my range; from what little I could survey of the dark
psi area, it must have been shaped sort of like an angel-food cake,
except that the central hole did not go all the way down. Only to the
first-floor level. It was a wonderful set-up for a home; privacy was
granted on the first floor and from the road and all the surrounding
territory, but on the second floor there was plenty of pleasant
esperclear space for the close-knit family and friends. Their dead area
was shaped in the ideal form for any ideal home.

Then I stopped complimenting the architect and went on about my
business, because there, directly in front of my nose, I could dig the
familiar impression of a medical office.

I went the rest of the way up the stairs and into the medical office.
There was no mistake. The usual cabinets full of instruments, a
laboratory examination table, shelves of little bottles, and along one
wall was a library of medical books. All it needed was a sign on the
door: 'S. P. Macklin, MSch' to make it standard.

At the end of the library was a set of looseleaf notebooks, and I pulled
the more recent of them out and held it up to my face. I did not dare
snap on a light, so I had to go it esper.

Even in the clear area, this told me very little. Esper is not like
eyesight, any more than you can hear printed words or perhaps carry on a
conversation by watching the wiggly green line on an oscilloscope. I
wished it was. Instead, esper gives you a grasp of materials and shapes
and things in position with regard to other things. It is sort of like
seeing something simultaneously from all sides, if you can imagine such
a sensation. So instead of being able to esper-read the journal, I had
to take it letter by letter by digging the shape of the ink on the page
with respect to the paper and the other letters, and since the guy's
handwriting was atrocious, I could get no more than if the thing were
written in Latin. If it had been typewritten, or with a stylized hand,
it would have been far less difficult; or if it had been any of my
damned business I could have dug it easily. But as it was----

"Looking for something, Mr. Cornell?" asked a cool voice that dripped
with acid sarcasm. At the same instant, the lights went on.

I whirled, clutched at my hip pocket, and dropped to my knees at the
same time. The sights of my .375 centered in the middle of a
silk-covered midriff.

She stood there indolently, disdainful of the cannon that was aimed at
her. She was not armed; I'd have caught the esper warning of danger if
she'd come at me with a weapon of some sort, even though I was
preoccupied with the bookful of evidence.

I stood up and faced her and let my esper run lightly over her body. She
was another Mekstrom, which did not surprise me a bit.

"I seem to have found what I was looking for," I said.

Her laugh was scornful but not loud. "You're welcome, Mr. Cornell."

#Telepath?#

"Yes, and a good one."

#Who else is awake?#

"Just me, so far," she replied quietly. "But I'll be glad to call out--"

#Keep it quiet, Sister Macklin.#

"Stop thinking like an idiot, Mr. Cornell. Quiet or not, you'll not
leave this house until I permit you to go."

I let my esper roam quickly through the house. An elderly couple slept
in the front bedroom. A man slept alone in the room beside them; a pair
of young boys slept in an over-and-under bunk in the room across the
hall. The next room must have been hers, the bed was tumbled but empty.
The room next to the medical office contained a man trussed in traction
splints, white bandages, and literally festooned with those little
hanging bottles that contain everything from blood plasma to food and
water, right on down to lubrication for the joints. I tried to dig his
face under the swath of bandage but I couldn't make out much more than
the fact that it was a face and that the face was half Mekstrom Flesh.

"He is a Mekstrom Patient," said Miss Macklin quietly. "At this stage,
he is unconscious."

I sort of sneered at her. "Good friend of yours, no doubt."

"Not particularly," she said. "Let's say that he is a poor victim that
would die if we hadn't found his infection early." The tone and
expression of her voice made me seethe; she sounded as though she felt
herself to be a real benefactor to the human race, and that she and her
outfit would do the same for any other poor guy that caught
Mekstrom's--providing they learned about this unfortunate occurrence in
time.

"We would, Mr. Cornell."

"Bah-loney," I grunted.

"Why dispute my word?" she asked in the same tone of innocent honesty.

I eyed her angrily and I felt my hand tighten on the revolver. "I've a
reason to become suspicious," I told her in a voice that I hoped was as
mild-mannered as her own. "Because three people have disappeared in the
past half-year without a trace, but under circumstances that put me in
the middle. All of them, somehow, seem to be involved with your hidden
road sign system and Mekstrom's Disease."

"That's unfortunate," she said quietly.

I had to grab myself to keep from yelling, "Unfortunate?" and managed to
muffle it down to a mere voice-volume sound. "People dying of Mekstrom's
because you're keeping this cure a secret and I'm batted from pillar to
post because--" I gave up on that because I really did not know why.

"It's unfortunate that you had to become involved," she said firmly.
"Because you--"

"It's unfortunate for everybody," I snapped, "because I'm going to bust
you all wide open!"

"I'm afraid not. You see, in order to do that you'll have to get out of
here and that I will not permit."

I grunted. "Miss Macklin, you Mekstroms have hard bodies, but do you
think your hide will stop a slug from this?"

"You'll never know. You see, Mr. Cornell, you do not have the cold,
brittle, determined guts that you'd need to pull that trigger."

"No?"

"Pull it," she said. "Or do you agree, now that you're of age, that you
can't bluff a telepath."

I eyed her sourly because she was right. She held that strength that
lies in weakness; I could not pull that trigger and fire a .375 inch
slug into that slender, silk-covered midriff. And opposite that, Miss
Macklin also had a strength that was strength itself. She could hold me
aloft with one hand kicking and squirming while she was twisting my arms
and legs off with her other hand.

She held all the big cards of her sex, too. I couldn't slug her with my
fist, even though I knew that I'd only break my hand without even
bruising her. I was in an awkward situation and I knew it. If she'd been
a normal woman I could have shrugged my way past her and left, but she
was determined not to let me leave without a lot of physical violence.
Violence committed on a woman gets the man in dutch no matter how
justified he is.

Yet in my own weakness there was a strength; there was another way out
and I took it. Abruptly and without forethought.



X


Shifting my aim slightly, I pulled the trigger. The .375 Bonanza went
off with a sound like an atom bomb in a telephone booth, and the slug
whiffed between her arm and her body and drilled a crater in the plaster
behind her.

The roar stunned her stiff. The color drained from her face and she
swayed uncertainly. I found time enough to observe that while her body
was as hard as chromium, her nervous system was still human and
sensitive enough to make her faint from a sudden shock. She caught
herself, and stood there stiff and white with one delicate (but
steel-hard) hand up against her throat.

Then I dug the household. They were piling out of the hay like a bunch
of trained firemen answering a still alarm. They arrived in all stages
of nightdress in the following order:

The man, about twenty-two or three, who skidded into the room on dead
gallop and put on brakes with a screech as he caught sight of the .375
with its thin wisp of blue vapor still trailing out of the muzzle.

The twins, aged about fourteen, who might have turned to run if they'd
not been frightened stiff at the sight of the cannon in my fist.

Father and then Mother Macklin, who came in briskly but without panic.

Mr. Macklin said, crisply, "May I have an explanation, Mr. Cornell?"

"I'm a cornered rat," I said thickly. "And so I'm scared. I want out of
here in one piece. I'm so scared that if I'm intercepted, I may get
panicky, and if I do someone is likely to get hurt. Understand?"

"Perfectly," said Mr. Macklin calmly.

"Are you going to let him get away with this?" snapped the eldest son.

"Fred, a nervous man with a revolver is very dangerous. Especially one
who lacks the rudimentary training in the simpler forms of burglary."

I couldn't help but admire the older gentleman's bland self-confidence.
"Young man," he said to me, "You've made a bad mistake."

"No I haven't," I snapped. "I've been on the trail of something concrete
for a long time, and now that I've found it I'm not going to let it go
easily." I waved the .375 and they all cringed but Mr. Macklin.

He said, "Please put that weapon down, Mr. Cornell. Let's not add
attempted murder to your other crimes."

"Don't force me to it, then. Get out of my way and let me go."

He smiled. "I don't have to be telepath to tell you that you won't pull
that trigger until you're sorely driven," he replied calmly. He was so
right that it made me mad. He added, "also, you've got four shells left
since you carry the firearm on an empty chamber. Not used to guns, are
you, Mr. Cornell?"

Well, I wasn't used to wearing a gun. Now that he mentioned it, I
remembered that it was impossible to fire the shell under the hammer by
any means except by pulling the trigger.

What he was telling me meant that even if I made a careful but bloody
sweep of it with my four shells, there would be two of them left, and
even the twins were more than capable of taking me apart inch by inch
once my revolver was empty.

"Seems to be an impasse, Mr. Cornell," he said with an amused smile.

"You bland-mannered bunch of--"

"Ah now, please," he said abruptly. "My wife is not accustomed to such
language, nor is my daughter, although my son and the twins probably
know enough definitions to make them angry. This is an impasse, Mr.
Cornell, and it behooves all of us to be extremely polite to one
another. For one wrong move and you'll fire; this will mean complete
chaos for all of us. One wrong word from you and someone of us will take
offense, which will be equally fatal. Now, let's all stand quietly and
talk this over."

"What's to talk over?" I demanded.

"A truce. Or call it an armistice."

"Do go on."

He looked at his family, and I followed his gaze. Miss Macklin was
leaning against the wall with a look of concentrated interest. Her elder
brother Fred was standing alert and ready but not quite poised for a
leap. Mrs. Macklin had a motherly-looking smile on her face which for
some unknown reason she was aiming at me in a disarming manner. The
twins were standing close together, both of them puzzled-looking. I
wondered whether they were esper or telepath (twins are always the same
when they're identical, and opposite when fraternal). The thing that
really bothered me was their attitude They all seemed to look at me as
though I were a poor misguided individual who had unwittingly tromped on
their toes after having fallen in among bad company. They reminded me of
the Harrisons, who looked and sounded so sympathetic when I'd gone out
there seeking Catherine.

A fine bunch to trust! First they swipe my girl and erase all traces of
her; then when I go looking they offer me help and sympathy for my
distress. The right hand giveth and the left hand taketh away, yeah!

I hated them all, yet I am not a hero-type. I wanted the whole Highways
in Hiding rolled up like an old discarded corridor carpet, with every
Mekstrom on Earth rolled up in it. But even if I'd been filled to the
scuppers with self-abnegation in favor of my fellow man, I could not
have pulled the trigger and started the shambles. For instead of blowing
the whole thing wide open because of a batch of bodies, the survivors
would have enough savvy to clean up the mess before our bodies got cold,
and the old Highways crowd would be doing business at the same old
stand. Without, I might add, without the minor nuisance that people call
Steve Cornell.

What I really wanted was to find Catherine.

And then it came to me that what I really wanted second of all was to
possess a body of Mekstrom Flesh, to be a physical superman.

"Suppose," said Miss Macklin unexpectedly, "that it is impossible?"

"Impossible?" I roared. "What have you got that I haven't got?"

"Mekstrom's Disease," replied Miss Macklin quietly.

"Fine," I sneered. "So how do I go out and get it?"

"You'll get it naturally--or not at all," she said.

"Now see here--" I started off, but Mr. Macklin stopped me with an
upraised hand.

"Mr. Cornell," he said, "we are in the very awkward position of trying
to convince a man that his preconceived notion is incorrect. We can
produce no direct evidence to support our statement. All we can do is to
tell you that so far as we know, and as much as we know about Mekstrom's
Disease, no one has ever contracted the infection artificially."

"And how can I believe you?"

"That's our awkward position. We cannot show you anything that will
support our statement. We can profess the attitudes of honesty, truth,
honor, good-will, altruism, and every other word that means the same
thing. We can talk until doomsday and nothing will be said."

"So where is all this getting us?" I asked.

"I hope it is beginning to cause your mind to doubt the preconceived
notion," he said. "Ask yourself why any outfit such as ours would
deliberately show you evidence."

"I have it and it does not make sense."

He smiled. "Precisely. It does not."

Fred Macklin interrupted, "Look, Dad, why are we bothering with all this
guff?"

"Because I have hopes that Mr. Cornell can be made to see our point, to
join, as it were, our side."

"Fat chance," I snapped.

"Please, I'm your elder and not at all inclined to waste my time. You
came here seeking information and you shall have it. You will not
believe it, but it will, I hope, fill in some blank spots after you have
had a chance to compare, sort, and use your own logic on the problem. As
a mechanical engineer, you are familiar with the line of reasoning that
we non-engineering people call Occam's Razor?"

"The law of least reaction," I said automatically.

"The what?" asked Mrs. Macklin.

Miss Macklin said, "I'll read it from Mr. Cornell's mind, mother. The
law of least reaction can be demonstrated by the following: If a bucket
of mixed wood-shavings and gasoline are heated, there is a calculable
probability that the gasoline will catch fire first because the gasoline
is easier--least reaction--to set on fire."

"Right," I said. "But how does this apply to me?"

Mr. Macklin took up the podium again: "For one thing, your assumption
regarding Catherine is correct. At the time of the accident she was
found to have Mekstrom's Disease in its earliest form. The Harrisons did
take her in to save her life. Now, dropping that side of the long story,
we must follow your troubles. The accident, to a certain group of
persons, was a fortunate one. It placed under their medical care a
man--you--in whose mind could be planted a certain mild curiosity about
a peculiar road sign and other evidences. The upshot of this was that
you took off on a tour of investigation."

That sounded logical, but there were a lot of questions that had open,
ragged ends flying loose.

Mr. Macklin went on: "Let's diverge for the moment. Mr. Cornell, what is
your reaction to Mekstrom's Disease at this point?"

That was easy. It was a curse to the human race, excepting that some
outfit knew how to cure it. Once cured, it made a physical superman of
the so-called victim. What stuck in my craw was the number of
unfortunate people who caught it and died painfully--or by their own
hand in horror--without the sign of aid or assistance.

He nodded when I'd gone about half-way through my conclusions and before
I got mentally violent about them.

"Mr. Cornell, you've expressed your own doom at certain hands. You feel
that the human race could benefit by exploitation of Mekstrom's
Disease."

"It could, if everybody helped out and worked together."

"Everybody?" he asked with a sly look. I yearned again for the ability
of a telepath, and I knew that the reason why I was running around loose
was because I was only an esper and therefore incapable of learning the
truth directly. I stood there like a totem pole and tried to think.

Eventually it occurred to me. Just as there are people who cannot stand
dictatorships, there are others who cannot abide democracy; in any
aggregation like the human race there will be the warped souls who feel
superior to the rest of humanity. They welcome dictatorships providing
they can be among the dictators and if they are not included, they fight
until the other dictatorship is deposed so that they can take over.

"True," said Mr. Macklin, "And yet, if they declared their intentions,
how long would they last?"

"Not very long. Not until they had enough power to make it stick," I
said.

"And above all, not until they have the power to grant this blessing to
those whose minds agree with theirs. So now, Mr. Cornell, I'll make a
statement that you can accept as a mere collection of words, to be used
in your arguments with yourself: We'll assume two groups, one working to
set up a hierarchy of Mekstroms in which the rest of the human race will
become hewers of wood and drawers of water. Contrasting that group is
another group who feels that no man or even a congress of men are
capable of picking and choosing the individual who is to be granted the
body of the physical superman. We cannot hope to watch the watchers, Mr.
Cornell, and we will not have on our conscience the weight of having to
select A over B as being more desirable. Enough of this! You'll have to
argue it out by yourself later."

"Later?" grunted Fred Macklin. "You're not going to--"

"I certainly am," said his father firmly. "Mr. Cornell may yet be the
agency whereby we succeed in winning out." He spoke to me again.
"Neither group dares to come into the open, Mr. Cornell. We cannot
accuse the other group of anything nefarious, any more than they dare to
accuse us. Their mode of attack is to coerce you into exposing us for a
group of undercover operators who are making supermen."

"Look," I asked him, "why not admit it? You've got nothing sinister in
mind."

"Think of all the millions of people who have not had schooling beyond
the preparatory grades," he said. "People of latent psi ability instead
of trained practice, or those poor souls who have no psi ability worth
mentioning. Do you know the history of the Rhine Institute, Mr.
Cornell?"

"Only vaguely."

"In the early days of Rhine's work at Duke University, there were many
scoffers. The scoffers and detractors, naturally enough, were those
people who had the least amount of psi ability. Admitting that at the
time all psi ability was latent, they still had less of it. But after
Rhine's death, his associates managed to prove his theories and
eventually worked out a system of training that would develop the psi
ability. Then, Mr. Cornell, those who are blessed with a high ability in
telepathy or perception--the common term of esper is a misnomer, you
know, because there's nothing extra-sensory about perception--found
themselves being suspected and hated by those who had not this delicate
sense. It took forty of fifty years before common public acceptance got
around to looking at telepathy and perception in the same light as they
saw a musician with a trained ear or an artist with a trained eye. Psi
is a talent that everybody has to some degree, and today this is
accepted with very little angry jealousy.

"But now," he went on thoughtfully, "consider what would happen if we
made a public announcement that we could cure Mekstrom's Disease by
making a physical superman out of the poor victim. Our main enemy would
then stand up righteously and howl that we are concealing the secret; he
would be believed. We would be tracked down and persecuted, eventually
wiped out, while he sat behind his position and went on picking and
choosing victims whose attitude parallel his own."

"And who is the character?" I demanded. I knew. But I wanted him to say
it aloud.

He shook his head. "I'll not say it," he said. "Because I will not
accuse him aloud, any more than he dares to tell you flatly that we are
an underground organization that must be rooted out. He knows about our
highways and our way stations and our cure, because he uses the same
cure. He can hide behind his position so long as he makes no direct
accusation. You know the law, Mr. Cornell."

Yes, I knew the law. So long as the accuser came into court with a
completely clean mind, he was safe. But Scholar Phelps could hardly make
the accusation, nor could he supply the tiniest smidgin of direct
evidence to me. For in my accusation I'd implicate him as an
accessory-accuser and then he would be called upon to supply not only
evidence but a clear, clean, and open mind. In shorter words, the old
stunt of pointing loudly to someone else as a dodge for covering up your
own crime was a lost art in this present-day world of telepathic
competence. The law, of course, insisted that no man could be convicted
for what he was thinking, but only upon direct evidence of action. But a
crooked-thinking witness found himself in deep trouble anyway, even
though crooked thinking was in itself no crime.

"Now for one more time," said Mr. Macklin. "Consider a medical person
who cannot qualify because he is a telepath and not a perceptive. His
very soul was devoted to being a scholar of medicine like his father and
his grandfather, but his telepath ability does not allow him to be the
full scholar. A doctor he can be. But he can never achieve the final
training, again the ultimate degree. Such a man overcompensates and
becomes the frustrate; a ripe disciple for the superman theory."

"Dr. Thorndyke!" I blurted.

His face was as blank, as noncommittal as a bronze bust; I could neither
detect affirmation nor negation in it. He was playing it flat; I'd never
get any evidence from him, either.

"So now, Mr. Cornell, I have given you food for thought. I've made no
direct statements; nothing that you could point to. I've defended myself
as any man will do, but only by protestations of innocence. Therefore I
suggest that you take your artillery and vacate the premises."

I remembered the Bonanza .375 that was hanging in my hand. Shamefacedly
I slipped it back in my hip pocket. "But look, sir--"

"Please leave, Mr. Cornell. Any more I cannot say without laying us wide
open for trouble. I am sorry for you, it is no joy being a pawn. But I
hope that your pawn-ship will work for our side, and I hope that you
will come through it safely. Now, please leave us quietly."

I shrugged. I left. And as I was leaving, Miss Macklin touched my arm
and said in a soft voice: "I hope you find your Catherine, Steve. And I
hope that someday you'll be able to join her."

I nodded dumbly. It was not until I was all the way back to my car that
I remembered that her last statement was something similar to wishing me
a case of measles so that I'd be afterward immune from them.



XI


As the miles separated me from the Macklins, my mind kept whirling
around in a tight circle. I had a lot of the bits, but none of them
seemed to lock together very tight. And unhappily, too many of the bits
that fit together were hunks that I did not like.

I knew the futility of being non-telepath. Had Mr. Macklin given me the
truth or was I being sold another shoddy bill of goods? Or had he spun
me a yarn just to get me out of his house without a riot? Of course,
there had been a riot, and he'd been expecting it. If nothing else, it
proved that I was a valuable bit of material, for some undisclosed
reason.

I had to grin. I didn't know the reason, but whatever reason they had,
it must gripe the devil out of them to be unable to erase me.

Then the grin faded. No one had told me about Catherine. They'd neatly
avoided the subject. Well, since I'd taken off on this still hunt to
find Catherine, I'd continue looking, even though every corner I looked
into turned out to be the hiding place for another bunch of mad spooks.

My mind took another tack: Admitting that neither side could rub me out
without losing, why in heck didn't they just collect me and put me in a
cage? Dammit, if I had an organization as well oiled as either of them,
I could collect the President right out of the New White House and put
him in a cage along with the King of England, the Shah of Persia, and
the Dali Lama to make a fourth for bridge.

This was one of those questions that cannot be answered by the
application of logic, reasoning, or by applying either experience or
knowledge. I did not know, nor understand. And the only way I would ever
find out was to locate someone who was willing to tell.

Then it occurred to me that--aside from my one experience in
housebreaking--that I'd been playing according to the rules. I'm pretty
much a law-abiding citizen. Yet it did seem to me that I learned more
during those times when the rules, if not broken, at least were bent
rather sharply. So I decided to try my hand at busting a couple of
rather high-level rules.

There was a way to track down Catherine.

So I gassed up the buggy, turned the nose East, and took off like a man
with a purpose in mind. En route, I laid out my course. Along that
course there turned out to be seven Way Stations, according to the
Highway signs. Three of them were along U.S. 12 on the way from
Yellowstone to Chicago. One of them was between Chicago and Hammond,
Indiana. There was another to the south of Sandusky, Ohio, one was
somewhere south of Erie, Pa., and the last was in the vicinity of
Newark. There were a lot of the Highways themselves, leading into and
out of my main route--as well as along it.

But I ignored them all, and nobody gave me a rough time.

Eventually I walked into my apartment. It was musty, dusty, and
lonesome. Some of Catherine's things were still on the table where I'd
dropped them; they looked up at me mutely until I covered them with the
walloping pile of mail that had arrived in my long absence. I got a
bottle of beer and began to go through the mail, wastebasketing the
advertisements, piling the magazines neatly, and filing some offers of
jobs (Which reminded me that I was still an engineer and that my funds
wouldn't last indefinitely) and went on through the mail until I came to
a letter--The Letter.

     _Dear Mr. Cornell:_

     _We're glad to hear from you. We moved, not because Marian caught
     Mekstrom's, but because the dead area shifted and left us sort of
     living in a fish-bowl, psi-wise._

     _Everybody is hale and hearty here and we all wish you the best._

     _Please do not think for a moment that you owe us anything. We'd
     rather be free of your so-called debt. We regret that Catherine was
     not with you, maybe the accident might not have happened. But we do
     all think that we stand as an association with a very unhappy
     period in your life, and that it will be better for you if you try
     to forget that we exist. This is a hard thing to say, Steve, but
     really, all we can do for you is to remind you of your troubles._

     _Therefore with love from all of us, we'd like to make this a
     sincerely sympathetic and final--_

     _Farewell, Philip Harrison._

I grunted unhappily. It was a nice-sounding letter, but it did not ring
true, somehow. I sat there digging it for hidden meanings, but none
came. I didn't care. In fact, I didn't really expect any more than this.
If they'd not written me at all, I'd still have done what I did. I sat
down and wrote Phillip Harrison another letter:

     _Dear Philip:_

     _I received your letter today, as I returned from an extended trip
     through the west. I'm glad to hear that Marian is not suffering
     from Mekstrom's Disease. I am told that it is fatal to
     the--uninitiated._

     _However, I hope to see you soon._

     _Regards, Steve Cornell._

_That_, I thought, _should do it!_

Then to help me and my esper, I located a tiny silk handkerchief of
Catherine's, one she'd left after one of her visits. I slipped it into
the envelope and slapped a stamp and a notation on the envelope that
this letter was to be forwarded to Phillip Harrison. I dropped it in the
box about eleven that night, but I didn't bother trying to follow it
until the morning.

Ultimately it was picked up and taken to the local post office, and from
there it went to the clearing station at Pennsylvania Station at 34th
St., where I hung around the mail-baggage section until I attracted the
attention of a policeman.

"Looking for something, Mr. Cornell?"

"Not particularly," I told the telepath cop. "Why?"

"You've been digging every mailbag that comes out of there."

"Am I?" I asked ingeniously.

"Can it Buster, or we'll let you dig your way out of a jail."

"You can't arrest a man for thinking."

"I'll be happy to make it loitering," he said sharply.

"I've a train ticket."

"Use it, then."

"Sure. At train time I'll use it."

"Which train?" he asked me sourly. "You've missed three already."

"I'm waiting for a special train, officer."

"Then please go and wait in the bar, Mr. Cornell."

"Okay. I'm sorry I caused you any trouble, but I've a bit of a personal
problem. It isn't illegal."

"Anything that involves taking a perceptive dig at the U.S. Mail is
illegal," said the policeman. "Personal or not, it's out. So either you
stop digging or else."

I left. There was no sense in arguing with the cop. I'd just end up
short. So I went to the bar and I found out why he'd recommended it. It
was in a faintly-dead area, hazy enough to prevent me from taking a
squint at the baggage section. I had a couple of fast ones, but I
couldn't stand the suspense of not knowing when my letter might take off
without me.

Since I'd also pushed my loitering-luck I gave up. The only thing I
could hope for was that the sealed forwarding address had been made out
at that little town near the Harrisons and hadn't been moved. So I went
and took a train that carried no mail.

It made my life hard. I had to wander around that tank town for hours,
keeping a blanket-watch on the post office for either the income or the
outgo of my precious hunk of mail. I caught some hard eyes from the
local yokels but eventually I discovered that my luck was with me.

A fast train whiffled through the town and they baggage-hooked a mailbag
off the car at about a hundred and fifty per. I found out that the next
stop of that train was Albany. I'd have been out of luck if I'd hoped to
ride with the bag.

Then came another period of haunting that dinky post office (I've
mentioned before that it was in a dead area, so I couldn't watch the
insides, only the exits) until at long last I perceived my favorite bit
of mail emerging in another bag. It was carted to the railroad station
and hung up on another pick-up hook. I bought a ticket back to New York
and sat on a bench near the hook, probing into the bag as hard as my
sense of perception could dig.

I cursed the whole world. The bag was merely labelled "Forwarding Mail"
in letters that could be seen at ninety feet. My own letter, of course,
I could read very well, to every dotted 'i' and crossed 't' and the
stitching in Catherine's little kerchief. But I could not make out the
address printed on the form that was pasted across the front of the
letter itself.

As I sat there trying to probe that sealed address, a fast train came
along and scooped the bag off the hook.

I caught the next train. I swore and I squirmed and I groaned because
that train stopped at every wide spot in the road, paused to take on
milk, swap cars, and generally tried to see how long it could take to
make a run of some forty miles. This was Fate. Naturally, any train that
stopped at my rattle burg would also stop at every other point along the
road where some pioneer had stopped to toss a beer bottle off of his
covered wagon.

At long last I returned to Pennsylvania Station just in time to perceive
my letter being loaded on a conveyor for LaGuardia.

Then the same damned policeman collared me.

"This is it," he said.

"Now see here, officer. I--"

"Will you come quietly, Mr. Cornell? Or shall I put the big arm on you?"

"For what?"

"You've been violating the 'Disclosure' section of the Federal
Communications Act, and I know it."

"Now look, officer, I said this was not illegal."

"I'm not an idiot, Cornell!" I noted uncomfortably that he had dropped
the formal address. "You have been trailing a specific piece of mail
with the express purpose of finding out where it is going. Since its
destination is a sealed forwarding address, your attempt to determine
this destination is a violation of the act." He eyed me coldly as if to
dare me to deny it. "Now," he finished, "Shall I read you chapter and
verse?"

He had me cold. The 'Disclosure' Act was an old ruling that any
transmission must not be used for the benefit of any handler. When Rhine
came along, 'Disclosure' Act was extended to everything.

"Look officer, it's my girl," hoping that would make a difference.

"I know that," he told me flatly. "Which is why I'm not running you in.
I'm just telling you to lay off. Your girl went away and left you a
sealed forwarding address. Maybe she doesn't want to see you again."

"She's sick," I said.

"Maybe her family thinks you made her sick. Now stop it and go away. And
if I ever find you trying to dig the mail again, you'll dig iron bars.
Now scat!"

He urged me towards the outside of the station like a sheep-dog hazing
his flock. I took a cab to LaGuardia, even though it was not as fast as
the subway. I was glad to be out of his presence.

I connected with my letter again at LaGuardia. It was being loaded
aboard a DC-16 headed for Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and
Manila. I didn't know how far it was going so I bought a ticket for the
route with my travel card and I got aboard just ahead of the closing
door.

My bit of mail was in the compartment below me, and in the hour travel
time to Chicago, I found out that Chicago was the destination for the
mailbag, although the superscript on the letter was still hazy.

I followed the bag off the plane at Chicago and stopped long enough to
cancel the rest of my ticket. There was no use wasting the money for the
unused fare from Chicago to Manila. I rode into the city in a
combination bus-truck less than six feet from my little
point-of-interest. During the ride I managed to dig the superscript.

It forwarded the letter to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, and from there to a
rural route that I couldn't understand although I got the number.

Then I went back to Midway Airport and found to my disgust that the
Chicago Airport did not have a bar. I dug into this oddity for a moment
until I found out that the Chicago Airport was built on Public School
Property and that according to law, they couldn't sell anything harder
than soda pop within three hundred feet of public school property, no
matter who rented it. So I dawdled in the bar across Cicero Avenue until
plane time, and took an old propeller-driven Convair to Eau Claire on a
daisy-clipping ride that stopped at every wide spot on the course. From
Eau Claire the mail bag took off in the antediluvian Convair but I took
off by train because the bag was scheduled to be dropped by guided
glider into Ladysmith.

At Ladysmith I rented a car, checked the rural routes, and took off
about the same time as my significant hunk of mail.

Nine miles from Ladysmith is a flagstop called Bruce, and not far from
Bruce there is a body of water slightly larger than a duck pond called
Caley Lake.

A backroad, decorated with ornamental metal signs, led me from Bruce,
Wisconsin, to Caley Lake, where the road signs showed a missing spoke.

I turned in, feeling like Ferdinand Magellan must have felt when he
finally made his passage through the Strait to discover the open sea
that lay beyond the New World. I had done a fine job of tailing and I
wanted someone to pin a leather medal on me. The side road wound in and
out for a few hundred yards, and then I saw Phillip Harrison.

He was poking a long tool into the guts of an automatic pump, built to
lift water from a deep well into a water tower about forty feet tall. He
did not notice my arrival until I stopped my rented car beside him and
said:

"Being a mechanical engineer and an esper, Phil, I can tell you that you
have a--"

"A worn gasket seal," he said. "It doesn't take an esper engineer to
figure it out. How the heck did you find us?"

"Out in your mailbox there is a letter," I told him. "I came with it."

He eyed me humorously. "How much postage did you cost? Or did you come
second class mail?"

I was not sure that I cared for the inference, but Phillip was kidding
me by the half-smile on his face. I asked, "Phil, please tell me--what
is going on?"

His half-smile faded. He shook his head unhappily as he said, "Why can't
you leave well-enough alone?"

My feelings welled up and I blew my scalp. "Let well enough alone?" I
roared. "I'm pushed from pillar to post by everybody. You steal my girl.
I'm in hokus with the cops, and then you tell me that I'm to stay--"

"Up the proverbial estuary lacking the customary means of locomotion,"
he finished with a smile.

I couldn't see the humor in it. "Yeah," I drawled humorlessly.

"You realize that you're probably as big a liability with us as you were
trying to find us?"

I grunted. "I could always blow my brains out."

"That's no solution and you know it."

"Then give me an alternative."

Phillip shrugged. "Now that you're here, you're here. It's obvious that
you know too much, Steve. You should have left well enough alone."

"I didn't know well enough. Besides, I couldn't have been pushed better
if someone had slipped me--" I stopped, stunned at the idea and then I
went on in a falter, "--a post-hypnotic suggestion."

"Steve, you'd better come in and meet Marian. Maybe that's what
happened."

"Marian?" I said hollowly.

"She's a high-grade telepath. Master of psi, no less."

My mind went red as I remembered how I'd catalogued her physical charms
on our first meeting in an effort to find out whether she were esper or
telepath. Marian had fine control; her mind must have positively seethed
at my invasion of her privacy. I did not want to meet Marian face to
face right now, but there wasn't a thing I could do about it.

Phillip left his pump and waved for me to follow. He took off in his
jeep and I trailed him to the farmhouse. We went through a dim area that
was almost the ideal shape for a home. The ring was not complete, but
the open part faced the fields behind the house so that good privacy was
ensured for all practical purposes.

On the steps of the verandah stood Marian.

Sight of her was enough to make me forget my self-accusation of a few
moments ago. She stood tall and lissome, the picture of slender, robust
health.

"Come in, Steve," she said, holding out her hand. I took it. Her grip
was firm and hard, but it was gentle. I knew that she could have pulped
my hand if she squeezed hard.

"I'm very happy to see that rumor is wrong and that you're
not--suffering--from Mekstrom's Disease," I told her.

"So now you know, Steve. Too bad."

"Why?"

"Because it adds a load to all of us. Even you." She looked at me
thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "Well, come on in and relax,
Steve. We'll talk it out."

We all went inside.

On a divan in the living room, covered by a light blanket, resting in a
very light snooze, was a woman. Her face was turned away from me, but
the hair and the line of the figure and the--

#Catherine!#

She turned and sat up at once, alive and shocked awake. She rubbed the
sleep from her eyes with swift knuckles and then looked over her hands
at me.

"Steve!" she cried, and all the world and the soul of her was in the
throb of her voice.



XII


Catherine took one unsteady step towards me and then came forward with a
rush. She hurled herself into my arms, pressed herself against me, held
me tight.

It was like being attacked by a bulldozer.

Phillip stayed my back against her headlong rush or I would have been
thrown back out through the door, across the verandah, and into the
middle of the yard. The strength of her crushed my chest and wrenched my
spine. Her lips crushed mine. I began to black out from the physical
hunger of a woman who did not know the extent of her new-found body. All
that Catherine remembered was that once she held me to the end of her
strength and yearned for more. To hold me that way now meant--death.

Her body was the same slenderness, but the warm softness was gone. It
was a flesh-warm waist of flexible steel. I was being held by a statue
of bronze, animated by some monster servo-mechanism. This was no woman.

Phillip and Marian pried her away from me before she broke my back.
Phillip led her away, whispering softly in her ear. Marian carried me to
the divan and let me down on my face gently. Her hands were gentle as
she pressed the air back into my lungs and soothed away the awful wrench
in my spine. Gradually I came alive again, but there was pain left that
made me gasp at every breath.

Then the physical hurt went away, leaving only the mental pain; the
horror of knowing that the girl that I loved could never hold me in her
arms. I shuddered. All that I wanted out of this life was marriage with
Catherine, and now that I had found her again, I had to face the fact
that the first embrace would kill me.

I cursed my fate just as any invalid has cursed the malady that makes
him a responsibility and a burden to his partner instead of a joy and
helpmeet. Like the helpless, I didn't want it; I hadn't asked for it;
nor had I earned it. Yet all I could do was to rail against the
unfairness of the unwarranted punishment.

Without knowing that I was asking, I cried out, "But why?" in a
plaintive voice.

In a gentle tone, Marian replied: "Steve, you cannot blame yourself.
Catherine was lost to you before you met her at her apartment that
evening. What she thought to be a callous on her small toe was really
the initial infection of Mekstrom's Disease. We're all psi-sensitive to
Mekstrom's Disease, Steve. So when you cracked up and Dad and Phil went
on the dead run to help, they caught a perception of it. Naturally we
had to help her."

I must have looked bitter.

"Look, Steve," said Phillip slowly. "You wouldn't have wanted us not to
help? After all, would you want Catherine to stay with you? So that you
could watch her die at the rate of a sixty-fourth of an inch each hour?"

"Hell," I snarled, "Someone might have let me know."

Phillip shook his head. "We couldn't Steve. You've got to understand our
viewpoint."

"To heck with your viewpoint!" I roared angrily. "Has anybody ever
stopped to consider mine?" I did not give a hoot that they could wind me
around a doorknob and tuck my feet in the keyhole. Sure, I was grateful
for their aid to Catherine. But why didn't someone stop to think of the
poor benighted case who was in the accident ward? The bird that had been
traipsing all over hell's footstool trying to get a line on his lost
sweetheart. I'd been through the grinder; questioned by the F.B.I.,
suspected by the police; and I'd been the guy who'd been asked by a
grieving, elderly couple, "But can't you remember, son?" Them and their
stinking point of view!

"Easy, Steve," warned Phillip Harrison.

"Easy nothing! What possible justification have you for putting me
through my jumps?"

"Look, Steve. We're in a precarious position. We're fighting a battle
against an unscrupulous enemy, an undercover battle, Steve. If we could
get something on Phelps, we'd expose him and his Medical Center like
that. Conversely, if we slip a millimeter, Phelps will clip us so hard
that the sky will ring. He--damn him--has the Government on his side. We
can't afford to look suspicious."

"Couldn't you have taken me in too?"

He shook his head sadly. "No," he said. "There was a bad accident, you
know. The authorities have every right to insist that each and every
automobile on the highway be occupied by a minimum of one driver. They
also believe that for every accident there must be a victim, even though
the damage is no more than a bad case of fright."

I could hardly argue with that. Changing the subject, I asked, "but what
about the others who just drop out of sight?"

"We see to it that plausible letters of explanation are written."

"So who wrote me?" I demanded hotly.

He looked at me pointedly. "If we'd known about Catherine before, she'd
have--disappeared--leaving you a trite letter. But no one could think of
a letter to explain her disappearance from an accident, Steve."

"Oh fine."

"Well, you'd still prefer to find her alive, wouldn't you?"

"Couldn't someone tell me?"

"And have you radiating the fact like a broadcasting station?"

"Why couldn't I have joined her--you--?"

He shook his head in the same way that a man shakes it when he is trying
to explain _why_ two plus two are four and not maybe five or three and a
half. "Steve," he said, "You haven't got Mekstroms' Disease."

"How do I get it?" I demanded hotly.

"Nobody knows," he said unhappily. "If we did, we'd be providing the
rest of the human race with indestructible bodies as fast as we could
spread it and take care of them."

"But couldn't I have been told _something_?" I pleaded. I must have
sounded like a hurt kitten.

Marian put her hand on my arm. "Steve," she said, "You'd have been
smoothed over, maybe brought in to work for us in some dead area. But
then you turned up acting dangerously for all of us."

"Who--me?"

"By the time you came out for your visit, you were dangerous to us."

"What do you mean?"

"Let me find out. Relax, will you Steve? I'd like to read you deep.
Catherine, you come in with me."

"What are we looking for?"

"Traces of post-hypnotic suggestion. It'll be hard to find because there
will be only traces of a plan, all put in so that it looks like natural,
logical reasoning."

Catherine looked doubtful. "When would they have the chance?" she asked.

"Thorndyke. In the hospital."

Catherine nodded and I relaxed. At the beginning I was very reluctant. I
didn't mind Catherine digging into the dark and dusty corners of my
mind, but Marian Harrison bothered me.

"Think of the accident, Steve," she said.

Then I managed to lull my reluctant mind by remembering that she was
trying to help me. I relaxed mentally and physically and regressed back
to the day of the accident. I found it hard even then to go through the
love-play and sweet seriousness that went on between Catherine and me,
knowing that Marian Harrison was a sort of mental spectator. But I
fought down my reticence and went on with it.

I practically re-lived the accident. It was easier now that I'd found
Catherine again. It was like a cleansing bath. I began to enjoy it. So I
went on with my life and adventures right up to the present. Having come
to the end, I stopped.

Marian looked at Catherine. "Did you get it?"

Silence. More silence. Then, "It seems dim. Almost incredulous--that it
could be--" with a trail-off into thought again.

Phillip snorted. "Make with the chin-music, you two. The rest of us
aren't telepaths, you know."

"Sorry," said Marian. "It's sort of complicated and hard to figure, you
know. What seems to be the case is sort of like this," she went on in an
uncertain tone, "We can't find any direct evidence of anything like
hypnotic suggestion. The urge to follow what you call the Highways in
Hiding is rather high for a mere bump of curiosity, but nothing
definite. I think you were probably urged very gently. Catherine
objects, saying that it would take a brilliant psycho-telepath to do a
job delicate enough to produce the urge without showing the traces of
the operation."

"Someone of scholar grade in both psychology and telepathy," said
Catherine.

I thought it over for a moment. "It seems to me that whoever did it--if
it was done--was well aware that a good part of this urge would be
generated by Catherine's total and unexplicable disappearance. You'd
have saved yourselves a lot of trouble--and saved me a lot of heartache
if you'd let me know something. God! Haven't you any feelings?"

Catherine looked at me from hurt eyes. "Steve," she said quietly, "A
billion girls have sworn that they'd rather die than live without their
one and only. I swore it too. But when your life's end is shown to you
on a microscope slide, love becomes less important. What should I do?
Just die? Painfully?"

That was handing it to me on a platter. It hurt but I am not
chuckleheaded enough to insist that she come with me to die instead of
leaving me and living. What really hurt was not knowing.

"Steve," said Marian. "You know that we couldn't have told you the
truth."

"Yeah," I agreed disconsolately.

"Let's suppose that Catherine wrote you a letter telling you that she
was alive and safe, but that she'd reconsidered the marriage. You were
to forget her and all that. What happens next?"

Unhappily I told him. "I'd not have believed it."

Phillip nodded. "Next would have been a telepath-esper team. Maybe a
perceptive with a temporal sense who could retrace that letter back to
the point of origin, teamed up with a telepath strong enough to drill a
hole through the dead area that surrounds New Washington. Why, even
before Rhine Institute, it was sheer folly for a runaway to write a
letter. What would it be now?"

I nodded. What he said was true, but it did not ease the hurt.

"Then on the other hand," he went on in a more cheerful vein, "Let's
take another look at us and you, Steve. Tell me, fellow, where are you
now?"

I looked up at him. Phillip was smiling in a knowing-superior sort of
manner. I looked at Marian. She was half-smiling. Catherine looked
satisfied. I got it.

"Yeah. I'm here."

"You're here without having any letters, without leaving any broad trail
of suspicion upon yourself. You've not disappeared, Steve. You've been
a-running up and down the country all on your own decision. Where you go
and what you do is your own business and nobody is going to set up a hue
and cry after you. Sure, it took a lot longer this way. But it was a lot
safer." He grinned wide then as he went on, "And if you'd like to take
some comfort out of it, just remember that you've shown yourself to be
quite capable, filled with dogged determination, and ultimately
successful."

He was right. In fact, if I'd tried the letter-following stunt long
earlier, I'd have been here a lot sooner.

"All right," I said. "So what do we do now?"

"We go on and on and on, Steve, until we're successful."

"Successful?"

He nodded soberly. "Until we can make every man, woman, and child on the
face of this Earth as much physical superman as we are, our job is not
finished."

I nodded. "I learned a few of the answers at the Macklin Place."

"Then this does not come as a complete shock."

"No. Not a complete shock. But there are a lot of loose ends still. So
the basic theme I'll buy. Scholar Phelps and his Medical Center are busy
using their public position to create the nucleus of a totalitarian
state, or a physical hierarchy. You and the Highways in Hiding are busy
tearing Phelps down because you don't want to see any more rule by the
Divine Right of Kings, Dictators, or Family Lines."

"Go on, Steve."

"Well, why in the devil don't you announce yourselves?"

"No good, old man. Look, you yourself want to be a Mekstrom. Even with
your grasp of the situation, you resent the fact that you cannot."

"You're right."

Phillip nodded slowly. "Let's hypothesize for a moment, taking a subject
that has nothing to do with Mekstrom's Disease. Let's take one of the
old standby science-fiction plots. Some cataclysm is threatening the
solar system. The future of the Earth is threatened, and we have only
one spacecraft capable of carrying a hundred people to safety--somewhere
else. How would you select them?"

I shrugged. "Since we're hypothecating, I suppose that I'd select the
more healthy, the more intelligent, the more virile, the more--" I
struggled for another category and then let it stand right there because
I couldn't think of another at that instant.

Phillip agreed. "Health and intelligence and all the rest being pretty
much a matter of birth and upbringing, how can you explain to Wilbur
Zilch that Oscar Hossenpfeiffer has shown himself smarter and healthier
and therefore better stock for survival? Maybe you can, but the
end-result is that Wilbur Zilch slaughters Oscar Hossenpfeiffer. This
either provides an opening for Zilch, or if he is caught at it, it
provides Zilch with the satisfaction of knowing that he's stopped the
other guy from getting what he could not come by honestly."

"So what has this to do with Mekstrom's Disease and supermen?"

"The day that we--and I mean either of us--announces that we can 'cure'
Mekstrom's Disease and make physical supermen of the former victims,
there will be a large scream from everybody to give them the same
treatment. No, we'll tell them, we can't cure anybody who hasn't caught
it. Then some pedagogue will stand up and declare that we are
suppressing information. This will be believed by enough people to do us
more harm than good. Darn it, we're not absolutely indestructible,
Steve. We can be killed. We could be wiped out by a mob of angry
citizens who saw in us a threat to their security. Neither we of the
Highways nor Phelps of The Medical Center have enough manpower to be
safe."

"So that I'll accept. The next awkward question comes up: What are we
going to do with me?"

"You've agreed that we cannot move until we know how to inoculate
healthy flesh. We need normal humans, to be our guinea pigs. Will you
help bring to the Earth's People the blessing that is now denied them?"

"If you are successful, Steve," said Marian, "You'll go down in History
along with Otto Mekstrom. You could be the turning point of the human
race, you know."

"And if I fail?"

Phillip Harrison's face took on a hard and determined look. "Steve,
there can be no failure. We shall go on and on until we have success."

That was a fine prospect. Old guinea-pig Cornell, celebrating his
seventieth birthday as the medical experimentation went on and on.

Catherine was leaning forward, her eyes bright. "Steve," she cried,
"You've just _got_ to!"

"Just call me the unwilling hero," I said in a drab voice. "And put it
down that the condemned specimen drank a hearty dinner. I trust that
there is a drink in the house."

There was enough whiskey in the place to provide the new specimen with a
near-total anesthesia. The evening was spent in forced badinage, shallow
laughter, and a pointed avoidance of the main subject. The whiskey was
good; I took it undiluted and succeeded in getting boiled to the
eyebrows before they carted me off to bed.

I did not sleep well despite my anesthesia. There was too much on my
mind and very little of it was the fault of the Harrisons. One of the
things that I had to face was the cold fact that part of Catherine's
lack of communication with me was caused by logic and good sense. Both
History and Fiction are filled with cases where love was set aside
because consummation was impossible for any number of good reasons.

So I slept fitfully, and my dreams were as unhappy as the thoughts I had
during my waking moments. Somehow I realized that I'd have been far
better off if I'd been able to forget Catherine after the accident, if
I'd been able to resist the urge to follow the Highways in Hiding, if
I'd never known that those ornamental road signs were something more
than the desire of some road commissioner to beautify the countryside.
But no, I had to go and poke my big bump of curiosity into the problem.
So here I was, resentful as all hell because I was denied the pleasure
of living in the strong body of a Mekstrom.

It was not fair. Although Life itself is seldom fair, it seemed to me
that Life was less fair to me than to others.

And then to compound my feelings of persecution, I woke up once about
three in the morning with a strong urge to take a perceptive dig down
below. I should have resisted it, but of course, no one has ever been
able to resist the urge of his sense of perception.

Down in the living room, Catherine was crying on Phillip Harrison's
shoulder. He held her gently with one arm around her slender waist and
he was stroking her hair softly with his other hand. I couldn't begin to
dig what was being said, but the tableau was unmistakable.

She leaned back and looked at him as he said something. Her head moved
in a 'No' motion as she took a deep breath for another bawl. She buried
her face in his neck and sobbed. Phillip held her close for a moment and
then loosed one hand to find a handkerchief for her. He wiped her eyes
gently and talked to her until she shook her head in a visible effort to
shake away both the tears and the unhappy thoughts.

Eventually he lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. Side by side
they walked to the divan and sat down close together. Catherine leaned
against him gently and he put his arm over her shoulders and hugged her
to him. She relaxed, looking unhappy, but obviously taking comfort in
the strength and physical presence of him.

It was a hell of a thing to dig in my mental condition. I drifted off to
a sleep filled with unhappy dreams while they were still downstairs.
Frankly, I forced myself into fitful sleep because I did not want to
stay awake to follow them.

As bad as the nightmare quality of my dreams were, they were better for
me than the probable reality.

       *       *       *       *       *

Oh, I'd been infernally brilliant when I uncovered the first secret of
the Highways in Hiding. I found out that I did not know one-tenth of the
truth. They had a network of Highways that would make the Department of
Roads and Highways look like a backwood, second-rate, political
organization.

I'd believed, for instance, that the Highways were spotted only along
main arteries to and from their Way Stations. The truth was that they
had a complete system from one end of the country to the other. Lanes
led from Maine and from Florida into a central main Highway that laid
across the breadth of the United States. Then from Washington and from
Southern California another branching network met this main Highway.
Lesser lines served Canada and Mexico. The big Main Trunk ran from New
York to San Francisco with only one large major division: A heavy line
that led down to a place in Texas called _Homestead_. Homestead, Texas,
was a big center that made Scholar Phelps' Medical Center look like a
Teeny Weeny Village by comparison.

We drove in Marian's car. My rented car, of course, was returned to the
agency and my own bus would be ferried out as soon as it could be
arranged so that I'd not be without personal transportation in Texas.
Catherine remained in Wisconsin because she was too new at being a
Mekstrom to know how to conduct herself so that the fact of her
super-powerful body did not cause a lot of slack jaws and high
suspicion.

We drove along the Highways to Homestead, carrying a bag of the Mekstrom
Mail.

The trip was uneventful.



XIII


Since this account of my life and adventures is not being written
without some plan, it is no mere coincidence that this particular
section comes under Chapter Thirteen. Old Unlucky Thirteen covers ninety
days which I consider the most dismal ninety days of my life. Things,
which had been going along smoothly had, suddenly got worse.

We started with enthusiasm. They cut and they dug and they poked needles
into me and trimmed out bits of my hide for slides. I helped them by
digging my own flesh and letting their better telepaths read my results
for their records.

They were nice to me. I got the best of everything. But being nice to me
was not enough; it sort of made me feel like Gulliver in Brobdingnag.
They were so over-strong that they did not know their own strength. This
was especially true of the youngsters of Mekstrom parents. I tried to
re-diaper a baby one night and got my ring finger gummed for my efforts.
It was like wrestling Bad Cyril in a one-fall match, winner take all.

As the days added up into weeks, their hope and enthusiasm began to
fade. The long list of proposed experiments dwindled and it became
obvious that they were starting to work on brand new ideas. But brand
new ideas are neither fast in arriving nor high in quantity, and time
began to hang dismally heavy.

They began to avoid my eyes. They stopped discussing their attempts on
me; I no longer found out what they were doing and how they hoped to
accomplish the act. They showed the helplessness that comes of failure,
and this feeling of utter futility was transmitted to me.

At first I was mentally frantic at the idea of failure, but as the
futile days wore on and the fact was practically shoved down my throat,
I was forced to admit that there was no future for Steve Cornell.

I began at that time to look forward to my visit to reorientation.

Reorientation is a form of mental suicide. Once reoriented, the problems
that make life intolerable are forgotten, your personality is changed,
your grasp of everything is revised, your appreciation of all things
comes from an entirely new angle. You are a new person.

Then one morning I faced my image in the mirror and came to the
conclusion that if I couldn't be Me, I didn't want to be Somebody Else.
It is no good to be alive if I am not me, I told my image, who
obediently agreed with me.

I didn't even wait to argue with Me. I just went out and got into my car
and sloped. It was not hard; everybody in Homestead trusted me.



XIV


I left homestead with a half-formed idea that I was going to visit
Bruce, Wisconsin, long enough to say goodbye to Catherine and to release
her from any matrimonial involvement she may have felt binding. I did
not relish this idea, but I felt that getting it out, done, and agreed
was only a duty.

But as I hit the road and had time to think, I knew that my half-formed
intention was a sort of martyrdom; I was going to renounce myself in a
fine welter of tears and then go staggering off into the setting sun to
die of my mental wounds. I took careful stock of myself and faced the
fact that my half-baked idea was a sort of suicide-wish; walking into
any Mekstrom way station now was just asking for capture and a fast trip
to their reorientation rooms. The facts of my failure and my
taking-of-leave would be indication enough for Catherine that I was
bowing out. It would be better for Catherine, too, to avoid a fine,
high-strung, emotional scene. I remembered the little bawling session in
the Harrison living room that night; Catherine would not die for want of
a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. In fact, as she'd said
pragmatically, well balanced people never die of broken hearts.

Having finally convinced myself of the validity of this piece of obvious
logic, I suddenly felt a lot better. My morose feeling faded away; my
conviction of utter uselessness died; and my half-formed desire to
investigate a highly hypothetical Hereafter took an abrupt about-face.
And in place of this collection of undesirable self-pities came a much
nicer emotion. It was a fine feeling, that royal anger that boiled up
inside of me. I couldn't lick 'em and I couldn't join 'em, so I was
going out to pull something down, even if it all came down around my own
ears.

I stopped long enough to check the Bonanza .375 both visually and
perceptively and then loaded it full. I consulted a road map to chart a
course. Then I took off with the coal wide open and the damper rods all
the way out and made the wheels roll towards the East.

I especially gave all the Highways a very wide berth. I went down
several, but always in the wrong direction. And in the meantime, I kept
my sense of perception on the alert for any pursuit. I drove with my
eyes alone. I could have made it across the Mississippi by nightfall if
I'd not taken the time to duck Highway signs. But when I got good, and
sick, and tired of driving, I was not very far from the River. I found a
motel in a rather untravelled spot and sacked in for the night.

I awoke at the crack of dawn with a feeling of impending _something_. It
was not doom, because any close-danger would have nudged me on the bump
of perception. Nor was it good, because I'd have awakened looking
forward to it. Something odd was up and doing. I dressed hastily, and as
I pulled my clothing on I took a slow dig at the other cabins in the
motel.

Number One contained a salesman type, I decided, after digging through
his baggage. Number Two was occupied by an elderly couple who were
loaded with tourist-type junk and four or five cameras. Number Three
harbored a stopover truck driver and Number Four was almost overflowing
with a gang of schoolgirls packed sardine-wise in the single bed. Number
Five was mine. Number Six was vacant. Number Seven was also vacant but
the bed was tumbled and the water in the washbowl was still running out,
and the door was still slamming, and the little front steps were still
clicking to the fast clip of high heels, and----

I hauled myself out of my cabin on a dead gallop and made a fast line
for my car. I hit the car, clawed myself inside, wound up the turbine
and let the old heap in gear in one unbroken series of motions. The
wheels spun and sent back a hail of gravel, then they took a bite out of
the parking lot and the take-off snapped my head back.

Both esper and eyesight were very busy cross-stitching a crooked course
through the parking lot between the parked cars and the trees that were
intended to lend the outfit a rustic atmosphere. So I was too busy to
take more than a vague notice of a hand that clamped onto the doorframe
until the door opened and closed again. By then I was out on the highway
and I could relax a bit.

"Steve," she said, "why do you do these things?"

Yeah, it was Marian Harrison. "I didn't ask to get shoved into this
mess," I growled.

"You didn't ask to be born, either," she said.

I didn't think the argument was very logical, and I said so. "Life
wasn't too hard to bear until I met you people," I told her sourly.
"Life would be very pleasant if you'd go away. On the other hand, life
is all I've got and it's far better than the alternative. So if I'm
making your life miserable, that goes double for me."

"Why not give it up?" she asked me.

I stopped the car. I eyed her dead center, eye to eye until she couldn't
take it any more. "What would you like me to just give up, Marian? Shall
I please everybody by taking a bite of my hip-pocket artillery sights
whilst testing the trigger pull with one forefinger? Will it make
anybody happy if I walk into the nearest reorientation museum blowing
smoke out of my nose and claiming that I am a teakettle that's gotta be
taken off the stove before I blow my lid?"

Marian's eyes dropped.

"Do you yourself really expect me to seek blessed oblivion?"

She shook her head slowly.

"Then for the love of God, what do you expect of me?" I roared. "As I
am, I'm neither flesh nor fish; just foul. I'm not likely to give up,
Marian. If I'm a menace to you and to your kind, it's just too tough.
But if you want me out of your hair, you'll have to wrap me up in
something suitable for framing and haul me kicking and screaming to your
mind-refurbishing department. Because I'm not having any on my own.
Understand?"

"I understand, Steve," she said softly. "I know you; we all know you and
your type. You can't give up. You're unable to."

"Not when I've been hypnoed into it," I said.

Marian's head tossed disdainfully. "Thorndyke's hypnotic suggestion was
very weak," she explained. "He had to plant the idea in such a way as to
remain unidentified afterwards. No, Steve, your urge has always been
your own personal drive. All that Thorndyke did was to point you
slightly in our direction and give you a nudge. You did the rest."

"Well, you're a telepath. Maybe you're also capable of planting a
post-hypnotic suggestion that I forget the whole idea."

"I'm not," she said with a sudden flare.

I looked at her. Not being a telepath I couldn't read a single thought,
but it was certain that she was telling the truth, and telling it in
such a manner as to be convincing. Finally I said, "Marian, if you know
that I'm not to be changed by logic or argument, why do you bother?"

For a full minute she was silent, then her eyes came up and gave it back
to me with their electric blue. "For the same reason that Scholar Phelps
hoped to use you against us," she said. "Your fate and your future is
tied up with ours whether you turn out to be friend or enemy."

I grunted. "Sounds like a soap opera, Marian," I told her bitterly.
"Will Catherine find solace in Phillip's arms? Will Steve catch
Mekstrom's Disease? Will the dastardly Scholar Phelps--"

"Stop it!" she cried.

"All right. I'll stop as soon as you tell me what you intend to do with
me now that you've caught up with me again."

She smiled. "Steve, I'm going along with you. Partly to play the
telepath-half of your team. If you'll trust me to deliver the truth. And
partly to see that you don't get into trouble that you can't get out of
again."

My mind curled its lip. Pappy had tanned my landing gear until I was out
of the habit of using mother for protection against the slings and
arrows of outrageous schoolchums. I'd not taken sanctuary behind a
woman's skirts since I was eight. So the idea of running under the
protection of a woman went against the grain, even though I knew that
she was my physical superior by no sensible proportion. Being cared for
physically by a dame of a hundred-ten--

"Eighteen."

--didn't sit well on me.

"Do you believe me, Steve?"

"I've got to. You're here to stay. I'm a sucker for a good-looking woman
anyway, it seems. They tell me anything and I'm not hardhearted enough
to even indicate that I don't believe them."

She took my arm impulsively; then she let me go before she pinched it
off at the elbow. "Steve," she said earnestly, "Believe me and let me be
your--"

#Better half?# I finished sourly.

"Please don't," she said plaintively. "Steve, you've simply _got_ to
trust _somebody_!"

I looked into her face coldly. "The hardest job in the world for a
non-telepath is to locate someone he can trust. The next hardest is to
explain that to a telepath; because telepaths can't see any difficulty
in weeding out the non-trustworthy. Now--"

"You still haven't faced the facts."

"Neither have you, Marian. You intend to go along with me, ostensibly to
help me in whatever I intend to do. That's fine. I'll accept it. But you
know good and well that I intend to carry on and on until something
cracks. Now, tell me honestly, are you going along to help me crack
something wide open, or just to steer me into channels that will not
result in a crack-up for your side?"

Marian Harrison looked down for a moment; I didn't need telepathy to
know that I'd touched the sore spot. Then she looked up and said,
"Steve, more than anything, I intend to keep you out of trouble. You
should know by now that there is very little you can really do to harm
either side of our own private little war."

#And if I can't harm either side, I can hardly do either side any good.#

She nodded.

#Yet I must be of some importance.#

She nodded again. At that point I almost gave up. I'd been around this
circle so many times in the past half-year that I knew how the back of
my head looked. Always, the same old question.

#_Cherchez le angle_,# I thought in bum French. Something I had was
important enough to both sides to make them keep me on the loose instead
of erasing me and my nuisance value. So far as I could see, I was as
useless to either side as a coat of protective paint laid on stainless
steel. I was immune to Mekstrom's Disease; the immunity of one who has
had everything tried on him that scholars of the disease could devise.
About the only thing that ever took place was the sudden disappearance
of everybody that I came in contact with.

Marian touched my arm gently. "You mustn't think like that, Steve," she
said gently. "You've done enough useless self-condemnation. Can't you
stop accusing yourself of some evil factor? Something that really is not
so?"

"Not until I know the truth," I replied. "I certainly can't dig it; I'm
no telepath. Perhaps if I were, I'd not be in this awkward position."

Again her silence proved to me that I'd hit a touchy spot. "What am I?"
I demanded sourly. "Am I a great big curse? What have I done, other than
to be present just before several people turn up missing? Makes me sort
of a male Typhoid Mary, doesn't it?"

"Now, Steve--"

"Well, maybe that's the way I feel. Everything I put my great big
clutching hands on turns dark green and starts to rot. Regardless of
which side they're on, it goes one, two, three, four; Catherine,
Thorndyke, You, Nurse Farrow."

"Steve, what on Earth are you talking about?"

I smiled down at her in a crooked sort of quirk. "You, of course, have
not the faintest idea of what I'm thinking."

"Oh, Steve--"

"And then again maybe you're doing your best to lead my puzzled little
mind away from what you consider a dangerous subject?"

"I'd hardly do that--"

"Sure you would. I'd do it if our positions were reversed. I don't think
it un-admirable to defend one's own personal stand, Marian. But you'll
not divert me this time. I have a hunch that I am a sort of male Typhoid
Mary. Let's call me old Mekstrom Steve. The carrier of Mekstrom's
Disease, who can innocently or maliciously go around handing it out to
anybody that I contact. Is that it, Marian?"

"It's probably excellent logic, Steve. But it isn't true."

I eyed her coldly. "How can I possibly believe you?"

"That's the trouble," she said with a plaintive cry. "You can't. You've
got to believe me on faith, Steve."

I smiled crookedly. "Marian," I said, "That's just the right angle to
take. Since I cannot read your mind, I must accept the old appeal to the
emotions. I must tell myself that Marian Harrison just simply could not
lie to me for many reasons, among which is that people do not lie to
blind men nor cause the cripple any hurt. Well, phooey. Whatever kind of
gambit is being played here, it is bigger than any of its parts or
pieces. I'm something between a queen and a pawn, Marian; a piece that
can be sacrificed at any time to further the progress of the game.
Slipping me a lie or two to cause me to move in some desired direction
should come as a natural."

"But why would we lie to you?" she asked, and then she bit her lip; I
think that she slipped, that she hadn't intended to urge me into deeper
consideration of the problem lest I succeed in making a sharp analysis.
After all, the way to keep people from figuring things out is to stop
them from thinking about the subject. That's the first rule. Next comes
the process of feeding them false information if the First Law cannot be
invoked.

"Why would you lie to me?" I replied in a sort of sneer. I didn't really
want to sneer but it came naturally. "In an earlier age it might not be
necessary."

"What?" she asked in surprise.

"Might not be necessary," I said. "Let's assume that we are living in
the mid-Fifties, before Rhine. Steve Cornell turns up being a carrier of
a disease that is really a blessing instead of a curse. In such a time,
Marian, either side could sign me up openly as a sort of missionary; I
could go around the country inoculating the right people, those citizens
who have the right kind of mind, attitude, or whatever-factor. Following
me could be a clean-up corps to collect the wights who'd been inoculated
by my contact. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?" Without waiting for
either protest or that downcast look of agreement, I went on: "But now
we have perception and telepathy all over the place. So Steve Cornell,
the carrier, must be pushed around from pillar to post, meeting people
and inoculating them without ever knowing what he is doing. Because once
he knows what he is doing, his usefulness is ended in this world of
Rhine Institute."

"Steve--" she started, but I interrupted again.

"About all I have to do now is to walk down any main street radiating my
suspicions," I said bitterly. "And it's off to Medical Center for
Steve--unless the Highways catch me first."

Very quietly, Marian said, "We really dislike to use reorientation on
people. It changes them so--"

"But that's what I'm headed for, isn't it?" I demanded flatly.

"I'm sorry, Steve."

Angrily I went on, not caring that I'd finally caught on and by doing so
had sealed my own package. "So after I have my mind ironed out smoothly,
I'll still go on and on from pillar to post providing newly inoculated
Mekstroms for your follow-up squad."

She looked up at me and there were tears in her eyes. "We were all
hoping--" she started.

"Were you?" I asked roughly. "Were you all working to innoculate me at
Homestead, or were you really studying me to find out what made me a
carrier instead of a victim?"

"Both, Steve," she said, and there was a ring of honesty in her tone. I
had to believe her, it made sense.

"Dismal prospect, isn't it?" I asked. "For a guy that's done nothing
wrong."

"We're all sorry."

"Look," I said with a sudden thought, "Why can't I still go on? I could
start a way station of some sort, on some pretext, and go on
innoculating the public as they come past. Then I could go on working
for you and still keep my right mind."

She shook her head. "Scholar Phelps knows," she said. "Above all things
we must keep you out of his hands. He'd use you for his own purpose."

I grunted sourly. "He has already and he will again," I told her. "Not
only that, but Phelps has had plenty of chance to collect me on or off
the hook. So what you fear does not make sense."

"It does now," she told me seriously. "So long as you did not suspect
your own part in the picture, you could do more good for Phelps by
running free. Now you know and Phelps' careful herding of your motions
won't work."

"Don't get it."

"Watch," she said with a shrug. "They'll try. I don't dare experiment,
Steve, or I'd leave you right now. You'd find out very shortly that
you're with me because I got here first."

"And knowing the score makes me also dangerous to your Highways? Likely
to bring 'em out of Hiding?"

"Yes."

"So now that I've dumped over the old apple cart, I can assume that
you're here to take me in."

"What else can I do, Steve?" she said unhappily.

I couldn't answer that. I just sat there looking at her and trying to
remember that her shapely one hundred and eighteen pounds were steel
hard and monster strong and that she could probably carry me under one
arm all the way to Homestead without breathing hard. I couldn't cut and
run; she could outrun me. I couldn't slug her on the jaw and get away;
I'd break my hand. The Bonanza .375 would probably stun her, but I have
not the cold blooded viciousness to pull a gun on a woman and drill her.
I grunted sourly, that weapon had been about as useful to me as a
stuffed bear or an authentic Egyptian Obelisk.

"Well, I'm not going," I said stubbornly.

She looked at me in surprise. "What are you going to do?" she asked me.

I felt a glow of self-confidence. If I could not run loose with guilty
knowledge of my being a Mekstrom Carrier, it was equally impossible for
anybody to kidnap me and carry me across the country. I'd radiate like
mad; I'd complain about the situation at every crossroad, at every
filling station, before every farmer. I'd complain mentally and
bitterly, and sooner or later someone would get suspicious.

"Don't think like an idiot," she told me sharply. "You drove across the
country before, remember? How many people did you convince?"

"I wasn't trying, then--"

"How about the people in the hotel in Denver?" she asked me pointedly.
"What good did you do there?"

#Very little, but--#

"One of the advantages of a telepath is that we can't be taken by
surprise," she informed me. "Because no one can possibly work without
plans of some kind."

"One of the troubles of a telepath," I told her right back, "is that
they get so confounded used to knowing what is going to happen next that
it takes all the pleasant element of surprise out of their lives. That
makes 'em dull and--"

The element of surprise came in through the back window, passed between
us and went _Splat!_ against the wind-shield. There was the sound like
someone chipping ice with a spike followed by the distant bark of a
rifle. A second slug came through the back window about the time that
the first one landed on the floor of the car. The second slug, not
slowed by the shatter-proof glass in the rear, went through the
shatter-proof glass in the front. A third slug passed through the same
tunnel.

These were warning shots. He'd missed us intentionally. He'd proved it
by firing three times through the same hole, from beyond my esper range.

I wound up the machinery and we took off. Marian cried something about
not being foolish, but her words were swept out through the hole in the
rear window, just above the marks on the pavement caused by my tires as
we spun the wheels.



XV


"Steve, stop it!" cried Marian as soon as she could get her breath.

"Nuts," I growled. I took a long curve on the outside wheels and ironed
out again. "He isn't after our corpse, honey. He's after our hide. I
don't care for any."

The fourth shot went singing off the pavement to one side. It whined
into the distance making that noise that sets the teeth on edge and
makes one want to duck. I lowered the boom on the go pedal and tried to
make the meter read off the far end of the scale; I had a notion that
the guy behind might shoot the tires out if we were going slow enough so
that a blowout wouldn't cause a bad wreck; but he probably wouldn't do
it once I got the speed up. He was not after Marian. Marian could walk
out of any crack-up without a bruise, but I couldn't.

We went roaring around a curve. I fought the wheel into a nasty double
's' curve to swing out and around a truck, then back on my own side of
the road again to avoid an oncoming car. I could almost count the front
teeth of the guy driving the car as we straightened out with a coat of
varnish to spare. I scared everybody in all three vehicles, including
me.

Then I passed a couple of guys standing beside the road; one of them
waved me on, the other stood there peering past me down the road. As we
roared by, another group on the other side of the highway came running
out hauling a big old hay wagon. They set the wagon across the road and
then sloped into the ditch on either side of it.

I managed to dig the bare glimmer of firearms before I had to yank my
perception away from them and slam it back on the road in front. I was
none too soon, because dead ahead by a thousand feet or so, they were
hauling a second road block out.

Marian, not possessed of esper, cried out as soon as she read this new
menace in my mind. I rode the brakes easily and came to a stop long
before we hit it. In back sounded a crackle of rifle fire; in front,
three men came out waving their rifles at us.

I whipped the car back, spun it in a seesaw, and took off back towards
the first road block. Half way back I whirled my car into a rough
sideroad just as the left hand rear tire went out with a roar. The car
sagged and dragged me to a stop with my nose in a little ditch. The heap
hadn't stopped rocking yet before I was out and on the run.

"Steve!" cried Marian. "Come back!"

#To heck with it.# I kept right on running. Before me by a couple of
hundred yards was a thicket of trees; I headed that way fast. I managed
to sling a dig back; Marian was joining the others; pointing in my
direction. One of them raised the rifle but she knocked it down.

I went on running. It looked as though I'd be all right so long as I
didn't get in the way of an accidental shot. My life was once more
charmed with the fact that no one wanted me dead.

The thicket of woods was not as thick as I'd have liked. From a distance
they'd seemed almost impenetrable, but when I was running through them
towards the center, they looked pitifully thin. I could see light from
any direction and the floor of the woods was trimmed, the underbrush
cleaned out, and a lot of it was tramped down.

Ahead of me I perceived a few of them coming towards the woods warily,
behind me there was another gang closing in. I began to feel like the
caterpillar on the blade of grass in front of the lawn mower.

I tried to hide under a deadfall, knowing that it was poor protection
against rifle fire. I hauled out the Bonanza and checked the cylinder. I
didn't know which side I was going to shoot at, but that didn't bother
me. I was going to shoot at the first side that got close.

A couple of shots whipped by over my head, making noises like someone
snapping a bullwhip. I couldn't tell which direction they came from; I
was too busy trying to stuff my feet into a gopher hole under my
deadfall.

I cast around the thicket with my sense of perception and caught the
layout. Both sides were spread out, stalking forward like infantry
advancing through disputed ground. Now and then one of them would raise
his rifle and fire at some unexpected motion. This, I gathered, was more
nervousness than fighting skill because no group of telepaths and/or
perceptives would be so jittery on the trigger if they weren't basically
nervous. They should, as I did, have the absolute position of both the
enemy and their own side.

With a growing nervous sweat I dug their advances. They were avoiding my
position, trying to encircle me by making long semicircular marches,
hoping to get between me and the other side. This was a rough maneuver,
sort of like two telepaths playing chess. Both sides knew to a minute
exactly what the other had in mind, where he was, and what he was going
to do about his position. But they kept shifting, feinting and
counter-advancing, trying to gain the advantage of number or position so
that the other would be forced to retreat. It became a war of nerves; a
game of seeing who had the most guts; who could walk closer to the
muzzle of an enemy rifle without getting hit.

Their rifles were mixed; there were a couple of deer guns, a nice 35-70
Express that fired a slug slightly smaller than a panetella cigar, a few
shotguns, a carbine sports rifle that looked like it might have been a
Garand with the barrel shortened by a couple of inches, some revolvers,
one nasty-looking Colt .45 Automatic, and so on.

I shivered down in my little hideout; as soon as the shooting started in
earnest, they were going to clean out this woods but good. It was going
to be a fine barrage, with guns going off in all directions, because it
is hard to keep your head in a melee. Esper and telepathy go by the
board when shooting starts.

I still didn't know which side was which. The gang behind me were
friends of Marian Harrison; but that did not endear them to me any more
than knowing that the gang in front were from Scholar Phelps Medical
Center or some group affiliated with him. In the midst of it, I managed
to bet myself a new hat that old Scholar Phelps didn't really know what
was going on. He would be cagey enough to stay ignorant of any overt
strife or any other skullduggery that could be laid at his door.

Then on one edge of the woodsy section, two guys of equal damfool-factor
advanced, came up standing, and faced one another across fifty feet of
open woods. Their rifles came up and yelled at one another like a string
of firecrackers; they wasted a lot of powder and lead by not taking
careful aim. One of them emptied his rifle and started to fade back to
reload, the other let him have it in the shoulder. It spun the guy
around and dumped him on his spine. His outflung hand slammed his rifle
against a tree, which broke it. He gave a painful moan and started to
crawl back, his arm hanging limp-like but not broken. From behind me
came a roar and a peltering of shotgun pellets through the trees; it was
answered by the heavy bark of the 35-70 Express. I'm sure that in the
entire artillery present, the only rifle heavy enough to really damage
those Mekstroms was that Express, which would stop a charging rhino.
When you get down to facts, my Bonanza .375 packed a terrific wallop but
it did not have the shocking power of the heavy big-game rifle.

Motion caught my perception to one side; two of them had let go shotgun
blasts from single-shot guns. They were standing face to face swinging
their guns like a pair of axemen; swing, chop! swing, chop! and with
each swing their guns were losing shape, splinters from the butts, and
bits of machinery. Their clothing was in ribbons from the shotgun
blasts. But neither of them seemed willing to give up. There was not a
sign of blood; only a few places on each belly that looked shiny-like.
On the other side of me, one guy let go with a rifle that slugged the
other bird in the middle. He folded over the shot and his middle went
back and down, which whipped his head over, back, and down where it hit
the ground with an audible thump. The first guy leaped forward just as
the victim of his attack sat up, rubbed his belly ruefully, and drew a
hunting knife with his other hand. The first guy took a running dive at
the supine one, who swung the hunting knife in a vicious arc. The point
hit the chest of the man coming through the air but it stopped as though
the man had been wearing plate armor. You could dig the return shock
that stunned the knife-wielder's arm when the point turned. All it did
was rip the clothing. Then the pair of them were at it in a free-for-all
that made the woods ring. This deadly combat did not last long. One of
them took aim with a fist and let the other have it. The rifle shot
hadn't stopped him but the hard fist of another Mekstrom laid him out
colder than a mackerel iced for shipment.

The deadly 35-70 Express roared again, and there started a concentration
of troops heading towards the point of origin. I had a hunch that the
other side did not like anybody to be playing quite as rough as a
big-game gun. Someone might really get hurt.

By now they were all in close and swinging; now and then someone would
stand off and gain a few moments of breathing space by letting go with a
shotgun or knocking someone off of his feet with a carbine. There was
some bloodshed, too; not all these shots bounced. But from what I could
perceive, none of them were fatal. Just painful. The guy who'd been
stopped first with the rifle slug and then the other Mekstrom's fist was
still out cold and bleeding lightly from the place in his stomach. A bit
horrified, I perceived that the pellet was embedded about a half-inch
in. The two birds who'd been hacking at one another with the remains of
their shotguns had settled it barehanded, too. The loser was groaning
and trying to pull himself together. The shiny spots on his chest were
shotgun pellets stuck in the skin.

It was one heck of a fight.

Mekstroms could play with guns and knives and go around taking swings at
one another with hunks of tree or clubbed rifles, or they could stand
off and hurl boulders. Such a battlefield was no place for a guy named
Steve Cornell.

By now all good sense and fine management was gone. If I'd been spotted,
they'd have taken a swing at me, forgetting that I am no Mekstrom. So I
decided that it was time for Steve to leave.

I cast about me with my perception; the gang that Marian had joined had
advanced until they were almost even with my central position; there
were a couple of swinging matches to either side and one in front of me.
I wondered about Marian; somehow I still don't like seeing a woman
tangled up in a free-for-all. Marian was out of esper range, which was
all right with me.

I crawled out of my hideout cautiously, stood up in a low crouch and
began to run. A couple of them caught sight of me and put up a howl, but
they were too busy with their personal foe to take off after me. One of
them was free; I doubled him up and dropped him on his back with a slug
from my Bonanza .375. Somehow it did not seem rough or vicious to shoot
since there was nothing lethal in it. It was more like a game of cowboy
and Indian than deadly earnest warfare.

Then I was out and free of them all, out of the woods and running like a
deer. I cursed the car with its blown out tire; the old crate had been a
fine bus, nicely broken in and conveniently fast. But it was as useful
to me now as a pair of skids.

A couple of them behind me caught on and gave chase. I heard cries for
me to stop, which I ignored like any sensible man. Someone cut loose
with a roar; the big slug from the Express whipped past and went
_Sprang!_ off a rock somewhere ahead.

It only added a few more feet per second to my flight. If they were
going to play that rough, I didn't care to stay.

I fired an unaimed shot over my shoulder, which did no good at all
except for lifting my morale. I hoped that it would slow them a bit, but
if it did I couldn't tell. Then I leaped over a ditch and came upon a
cluster of cars. I dug at them as I approached and selected one of the
faster models that still had its key dangling from the lock.

I was in and off and away as fast as a scared man can move. They were
still yelling and fighting in the woods when I raced out of my range.

       *       *       *       *       *

The heap I'd jumped was a Clinton Special with rock-like springs and a
low slung frame that hugged the ground like a clam. I was intent upon
putting as many miles as I could between me and the late engagement in
as short a time as possible, and the Clinton seemed especially apt until
I remembered that the figure 300 on the dial meant kilometers instead of
miles per hour. Then I let her out a bit more and tried for the end of
the dial. The Clinton tried with me, and I had to keep my esper
carefully aimed at the road ahead because I was definitely overdriving
my eyesight and reaction-time.

I was so intent upon making feet that I did not notice the jetcopter
that came swooping down over my head until the howl of its vane-jets
raised hell with my eardrums. Then I slowed the car and lifted my
perception at the same time for a quick dig.

The jetcopter was painted Policeman Blue and it sported a large
gold-leaf on its side, and inside the cabin were two hard-faced
gentlemen wearing uniforms with brass buttons and that Old Bailey look
in their eye. The one on the left was jingling a pair of handcuffs.

They passed over my head at about fifteen feet, swooped on past by a
thousand, and dropped a road-block bomb. It flared briefly and let out
with a billow of thick red smoke.

I leaned on the brakes hard enough to stand the Clinton up on its nose,
because if I shoved my front bumper through that cloud of red smoke it
was a signal for them to let me have it. I came to a stop about a foot
this side of the bomb, and the jetcopter came down hovering. Its vanes
blew the smoke away and the 'copter landed in front of my swiped Clinton
Special.

The policeman was both curt and angry. "Driver's ticket, registration,
and maybe your pilot's license," he snapped.

Well, that was _it_. I had a driver's ticket all right, _but_ it did not
permit me to drive a car that I'd selected out of a group willy nilly.
The car registration was in the glove compartment where it was supposed
to be, but what it said did not match what the driver's license claimed.
No matter what I said, there would be the Devil to pay.

"I'll go quietly, officer," I told him.

"Darn' white of you, pilot," he said cynically. He was scribbling on a
book of tickets and it was piling up deep. Speeding, reckless driving,
violation of ordinance something-or-other by number. Driving a car
without proper registration in the absence of the rightful owner (Check
for stolen car records) and so on and on and on until it looked like a
life term in the local jug.

"Move over, Cornell," he said curtly. "I'm taking you in."

I moved politely. The only time it pays to be arrogant with the police
is long after you've proved them wrong, and then only when you're facing
your mirror at home telling yourself what you should have said.

I was driven to court; escorted in by the pair of them and seated with
one on each side. The sign on the judge's table said: Magistrate
Hollister.

Magistrate Hollister was an elderly gentleman with a cast iron jaw and a
glance as cold as a bucket of snow. He dealt justice with a sharp-edged
shovel and his attitude seemed to be that everybody was either guilty as
charged or was contemplating some form of evil to be committed as soon
as he was out of the sight of Justice. I sat there squirming while he
piled the top on a couple whose only crime was parking overtime; I
itched from top to bottom while he slapped one miscreant in gaol for
turning left in violation of City Ordinance. His next attempt gave a ten
dollar fine for failing to come to a full and grinding halt at the sign
of the big red light, despite the fact that the criminal was esper to a
fine degree and dug the fact that there was no cross-traffic for a half
mile.

Then His Honor licked his chops and called my name.

He speared me with an icicle-eye and asked sarcastically: "Well, Mr.
Cornell, with what form of sophistry are you going to explain your
recent violations?"

I blinked.

He aimed a cold glance at the bailiff, who arose and read off the
charges against me in a deep, hollow intonation.

"Speak up!" he snapped. "Are you guilty or not guilty?"

"Guilty," I admitted.

He beamed a sort of self-righteous evil. It was easy to see that never
in his tenure of office had he ever encountered a criminal as hardened
and as vicious as I. Nor one who admitted to his turpitude so blandly. I
felt it coming, and it made me itch, and I knew that if I tried to
scratch His Honor would take the act as a personal affront. I fought
down the crazy desire to scratch everything I could reach and it was
hard; about the time His Honor added a charge of endangering human life
on the highway to the rest of my assorted crimes, the itch had localized
into the ring finger of my left hand. That I could scratch by rubbing it
against the seam of my trousers.

Then His Honor went on, delivering Lecture Number Seven on Crime,
Delinquency, and Grand Larceny. I was going to be an example, he vowed.
I was assumed to be esper since no normal--that's the word he used,
which indicated that the old bird was a blank and hated everybody who
wasn't--human being would be able to drive as though he had eyes mounted
a half mile in front of him. Not that my useless life was in danger, or
that I was actually not-in-control of my car, but that my actions made
for panic among normal--again he used it!--people who were not blessed
with either telepathy or perception by a mere accident of birth. The
last one proved it; it was not an accident of birth so much as it was
proper training, to my way of thinking. Magistrate Hollister hated
psi-trained people and was out to make examples of them.

He polished off his lecture by pronouncing sentence: "--and the Law
provides punishment by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars, or a
sentence of ninety days in jail--_or both_." He rolled the latter off as
though he relished the sound of the words.

I waited impatiently. The itch on my finger increased; I flung a fast
dig at it but there was nothing there but Sophomore's Syndrome. Good old
nervous association. It was the finger that little Snoodles, the
three-month baby supergirl had munched to a faretheewell. Darned good
thing the kid didn't have teeth! But I was old Steve, the immune, the
carrier, the--

"Well, Mr. Cornell?"

I blinked. "Yes, your honor?"

"Which will it be? I am granting you the leniency of selecting which
penalty you prefer."

I could probably rake up a thousand by selling some stock, personal
possessions, and draining my already-weakened bank account. The most
valuable of my possessions was parked in a ditch with a blowout and
probably a bent frame and even so, I only owned about six monthly
payments worth of it.

"Your Honor, I will prefer to pay the fine--if you'll grant me time in
which to go and collect--"

He rapped his desk with his gavel. "Mr. Cornell," he boomed angrily. "A
thief cannot be trusted. Within a matter of minutes you could remove
yourself from the jurisdiction of this court unless a binding penalty is
placed against your person. You may go on your search for money, but
only after posting bond--to the same amount as your fine!"

_Lenient--?_

"However, unless you are able to pay, I have no recourse but to exact
the prison sentence of ninety days. Bailiff--!"

I gave up. It even felt sort of good to give up, especially when the
turn is called by someone too big to be argued with. No matter what, I
was going to take ninety days off, during which I could sit and think
and plan and wonder and chew my fingernails.

The itch in my finger burned again, deep this time, and not at all easy
to satisfy by rubbing it against my trousers. I picked at it with the
thumbnail and the nail caught something hard.

I looked down at the itching finger and sent my perception into it with
as much concentration as I could.

My thumbnail had lifted a tiny circle no larger than the head of a pin.
Blood was oozing from beneath the lifted rim, and I nervously picked off
the tiny patch of hard, hard flesh and watched the surface blood well
out into a tiny droplet. My perception told me the truth: It was
Mekstrom's Disease and not a doubt. The Immune had caught it!

The bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Come along, Cornell!"

And I was going to have ninety days to watch that patch grow at the
inexorable rate of one sixty-fourth of an inch per hour!



XVI


The bailiff repeated, "Come along, Cornell." Then he added sourly, "Or
I'll have to slip the cuffs on you."

I turned with a helpless shrug. I'd tried to lick 'em and I'd tried to
join 'em and I'd failed both. Then, as of this instant when I might have
been able to go join 'em, I was headed for the wrong side as soon as I
opened my big yap. And if I didn't yelp, I was a dead one anyway. Sooner
or later someone in the local jug would latch on to my condition and
pack me off to Scholar Phelps' Medical Center.

Once more I was in a situation where all I could do was to play it by
ear, wait for a break, and see if I could make something out of it.

But before I could take more than a step or two toward the big door,
someone in the back of the courtroom called out:

"Your Honor, I have some vital information in this case."

His Honor looked up across the court with a great amount of irritation
showing in his face. His voice rasped, "Indeed?"

I whirled, shocked.

Suavely, Dr. Thorndyke strode down the aisle. He faced the judge and
explained who he was and why, then he backed it up with a wallet full of
credentials, cards, identification, and so forth. The judge looked the
shebang over sourly but finally nodded agreement. Thorndyke smiled
self-confidently and then went on, facing me:

"It would be against my duty to permit you to incarcerate this
miscreant," he said smoothly. "Because Mr. Cornell has Mekstrom's
Disease!"

Everybody faded back and away from me as though he'd announced me to be
the carrier of plague. They looked at me with horror and disgust on
their faces, a couple of them began to wipe their hands with
handkerchiefs; one guy who'd been standing where I'd dropped my little
patch of Mekstrom Flesh backed out of that uncharmed circle. Some of the
spectators left hurriedly.

His Honor paled. "You're certain?" he demanded of Dr. Thorndyke.

"I'm certain. You'll note the blood on his finger; Cornell recently
picked off a patch of Mekstrom Flesh no larger than the head of a pin.
It was his first sign." The doctor went on explaining, "Normally this
early seizure would be difficult to detect, except from a clinical
examination. But since I am telepath and Cornell has perception, his own
mind told me he was aware of his sorry condition. One only need read his
mind, or to dig at the tiny bit of Mekstrom Flesh that he dropped to
your floor."

The judge eyed me nastily. "Maybe I should add a charge of contaminating
a courtroom," he muttered. He was running his eyes across the floor from
me to wherever I'd been, trying to locate the little patch. I helped him
by not looking at it. The rest of the court faded back from me still
farther. I could hardly have been less admired if I'd been made of pure
cyanide gas.

The judge rapped his gavel sharply. "I parole this prisoner in the
custody of Dr. Thorndyke, who as a representative of the Medical Center
will remove the prisoner to that place where the proper treatment awaits
him."

"Now see here--" I started. But His Honor cut me off.

"You'll go as I say," he snapped. "Unfortunately, the Law does not
permit me to enjoy any cruel or unusual punishments, or I'd insist upon
your ninety-day sentence and watch you die painfully. I--Bailiff! Remove
this menace before I forget my position here and find myself in contempt
of the law I have sworn to uphold. I cannot be impartial before a man
who contaminates my Court with the world's most dangerous disease!"

I turned to Thorndyke. "All right," I grunted. "You win."

He smiled again; I wanted to wipe that smile away with a set of knuckles
but I knew that all I'd get would be a broken hand against Thorndyke's
stone-hard flesh. "Now, Mr. Cornell," he said with that clinical
smoothness, "let's not get the old standard attitude."

"Nearly everybody who contracts Mekstrom's Disease," he said to the
judge, "takes on a persecution complex as soon as he finds out that he
has it. Some of them have even accused me of fomenting some big
fantastic plot against them. Please, Mr. Cornell," he went on facing me,
"we'll give you the best of treatment that Medical Science knows."

"Yeah," I grunted.

His Honor rapped on the gavel once more. "Officer Gruenwald," he
snapped, "you will accompany the prisoner and Dr. Thorndyke to the
Medical Center and having done that you will return to report to me that
you have accomplished your mission."

Then the judge glared around, rapped once more, and cried, "Case
Finished. Next Case!"

I felt almost as sorry for the next guy coming in as I felt for myself.
His Honor was going to be one tough baby for some days to come. As they
escorted me out, a janitor came in and began to swab the floor where I'd
been standing. He was using something nicely corrosive that made the
icy, judicial eyes water, all of which discomfort was likely to be added
to the next law-breaker's sorry lot.

       *       *       *       *       *

I was in fine company. Thorndyke was a telepath and Officer Gruenwald
was perceptive. They went as a team and gave me about as much chance to
escape as if I'd been a horned toad sealed in a cornerstone. Gruenwald,
of course, treated me as though my breath was deadly, my touch foul, and
my presence evil. In Gruenwald's eyes, the only difference between me
and Medusa the Gorgon was that looking at me did not turn him to stone.
He kept at least one eye on me almost constantly.

I could almost perceive Thorndyke's amusement. With the best of social
amenities, he could hardly have spent a full waking day in the company
of either a telepath or a perceptive without giving away the fact that
he was Mekstrom. But with me to watch over, Officer Gruenwald's mental
attention was not to be turned aside to take an impolite dig at his
companion. Even if he had, Thorndyke would have been there quickly to
turn his attention aside.

I've read the early books that contain predictions of how we are
supposed to operate. The old boys seemed to have the quaint notion that
a telepath should be able at once to know everything that goes on
everywhere, and a perceptive should be aware of everything material
about him. There should be no privacy. There was to be no defense
against the mental peeping Tom.

It ain't necessarily so. If Gruenwald had taken a dig at Thorndyke's
hide, the doctor would have speared the policeman with a cold, indignant
eye and called him for it. Of course, there was no good reason for
Gruenwald to take a dig at Thorndyke and so he didn't.

So I went along with the status quo and tried to think of some way to
break it up.

An hour later I was still thinking, and the bleeding on my finger had
stopped. Mekstrom Flesh had covered the raw spot with a thin, stone-hard
plate that could not be separated visually from the rest of my skin.

"As a perceptive," observed Dr. Thorndyke in a professional tone,
"you'll notice the patch of infection growing on Mr. Cornell's finger.
The rate of growth seems normal; I'll have to check it accurately once I
get him to the clinic. In fifty or sixty hours, Mr. Cornell's finger
will be solid to the first joint. In ninety days his arm will have
become as solid as the arm of a marble statue."

I interjected, "And what do we do about it?"

He moved his head a bit and eyed me in the rear view mirror. "I hope we
can help you, Cornell," he said in a tone of sympathy that was
definitely intended to impress Officer Gruenwald with his medical
appreciation of the doctor's debt to humanity. "I sincerely hope so. For
in doing so, we will serve the human race. And," he admitted with an
entirely human-sounding selfishness, "I may be able to deliver a thesis
on the cure that will qualify me for my scholarate."

I took a fast stab: "Doctor, how does my flesh differ from yours?"

Thorndyke parried this attention-getting question: "Mine is of no
consequence. Dig your own above and below the line of infection,
Cornell. If your sense of perception has been trained fine enough, dig
the actual line of infection and watch the molecular structure
rearrange. Can you dig that fine, Officer? Cornell, I hate to dwell at
length upon your misfortune, but perhaps I can help you face it by
bringing the facts to light."

#Like the devil you hate to dwell, Doctor Mekstrom!#

In the rear view mirror, his lips parted in a bland smile and one eyelid
dropped in a knowing wink.

I opened my mouth to make another stab in the open but Thorndyke got
there first. "Officer Gruenwald," he suggested, "you can help by putting
out your perception along the road ahead and seeing how it goes. I'd
like to make tracks with this crate."

Gruenwald nodded.

Thorndyke put the goose-pedal down and the car took off with a howl of
passing wind. He said with a grin, "It isn't very often that I get a
chance to drive like this, but as long as I've an officer with me--"

He was above one forty by the time he let his voice trail off.

I watched the back of their heads for a moment. At this speed, Thorndyke
would have both his mind and his hands full and the cop would be digging
at the road as far ahead as his perception could dig a clear
appreciation of the road and its hazards. Thorndyke's telepathy would be
occupied in taking this perception and using it. That left me free to
think.

I cast a dig behind me, as far behind me as my perception would reach.
Nothing.

I thought furiously. It resulted in nothing.

I needed either a parachute or a full set of Mekstrom Hide to get out of
this car now. With either I might have taken a chance and jumped. But as
it was, the only guy who could scramble out of this car was Dr. James
Thorndyke.

I caught his dropping eyelid in the rear view mirror again and swore at
him under my breath.

Time, and miles, went past. One after the other, very fast. We hissed
through towns where the streets had been opened for us and along broad
stretches of highway and between cars and trucks running at normal
speeds. One thing I must say for Thorndyke: He was almost as good a
driver as I.

       *       *       *       *       *

My second arrival at the Medical Center was rather quiet. I went in the
service entrance, so to speak, and didn't get a look at the enamelled
blonde at the front portal. They whiffed me in at a broad gate that was
opened by a flunky and we drove for another mile through the grounds far
from the main road. We ended up in front of a small brick building and
as we went through the front office into a private place, Thorndyke told
a secretary that she should prepare a legal receipt for my person. I did
not like being bandied about like a hunk of merchandise, but nobody
seemed to care what I thought. It was all very fast and efficient. I'd
barely seated myself and lit a cigarette when the nurse came in with the
document which Thorndyke signed, she witnessed, and was subsequently
handed to Officer Gruenwald.

"Is there any danger of me--er--contracting--" he faltered uncertainly
to Dr. Thorndyke.

"You'll notice that--" I started to call attention to Thorndyke's
calmness at being in my presence and was going to invite Gruenwald to
take a dig at the doctor's hide, but once more the doctor blocked me.

"None of us have ever found any factor of contagion," he said. "And we
live among Mekstrom Cases. You'll notice Miss Clifton's lack of
concern."

Miss Clifton, the nurse, turned a calm face to the policeman and gave
him her hand. Miss Clifton had a face and a figure that was enough to
make a man forget anything. She knew her part very well; together, the
nurse and the policeman left the office together and I wondered just why
a non-Mekstrom would have anything to do with an outfit like this.

Thorndyke smiled and said, "I won't tell you, Steve. What you don't know
won't hurt anybody."

"Mind telling me what I'm slated for? The high jump? Going to watch me
writhing in pain as my infection climbs toward my vitals? Going to
amputate? Or are you going to cut it off inch by inch and watch me
suffer?"

"Steve, some things you know already. One, that you are a carrier. There
have been no other carriers. We'd like to know what makes you a
carrier."

#The laboratory again?# I thought.

He nodded. "Also whether your final contraction of Mekstrom's Disease
removes the carrier-factor."

I said hopefully, "I suppose as a Mekstrom I'll eventually be qualified
to join you?"

Thorndyke looked blank. "Perhaps," he said flatly.

To my mind, that flat _perhaps_ was the same sort of reply that Mother
used to hand me when I wanted something that she did not want to give.
I'd been eleven before I got walloped across the bazoo by pointing out
to her that _we'll see_ really meant _no_, because nothing that she said
it to ever came to pass.

"Look, Thorndyke, let's take off our shoes and stop dancing," I told
him. "I have a pretty good idea of what's been going on. I'd like an
honest answer to what's likely to go on from here."

"I can't give you that."

"Who can?"

He said nothing, but he began to look at me as though I weren't quite
bright. That made two of us, I was looking at him in the same manner.

My finger itched a bit, saving the situation. I'd been about to forget
that Thorndyke was a Mekstrom and take a swing at him.

He laughed at me cynically. "You're in a very poor position to dictate
terms," he said sharply.

"All right," I agreed reluctantly. "So I'm a prisoner. I'm also under a
sentence of death. Don't think me unreasonable if I object to it."

"The trouble with your thinking is that you expect all things to be
black or white and so defined. You ask me, 'am I going to live or die?'
and expect me to answer without qualification. I can only tell you that
I don't know which. That it all depends."

"Depends upon exactly what?"

He eyed me with a cold stare. "Whether you're worthy of living."

"Who's to decide?"

"We will."

I grunted, wishing that I knew more Latin. I wanted to quote that Latin
platitude about who watches the watchers. He watched me narrowly, and I
expected him to quote me the phrase after having read my mind. But
apparently the implication of the phrase did not appeal to him, and so
he remained silent.

I broke the silence by saying, "What right has any man or collection of
men to decide whether I, or anyone else, has the right to live or die?"

"It's done all the time," he replied succinctly.

"Yeah?"

"Criminals are--"

"I'm not a criminal; I've violated no man-made law. I've not even
violated very many of the Ten Commandments. At least, not the one that
is punishable by death."

He was silent for a moment again, then he said, "Steve, you're the
victim of loose propaganda."

"Who isn't?" I granted. "The entire human race is lambasted by one form
of propaganda or another from the time the infant learns to sit up until
the elderly lays down and dies. We're all guilty of loose thinking. My
own father, for instance, had to quit school before he could take any
advanced schooling, had to fight his way up, had to collect his advanced
education by study, application, and hard practice. He always swore that
this long period of hardship strengthened his will and his character and
gave him the guts to go out and do things that he'd never have thought
of if he'd had an easy life. Then the old duck turns right around and
swears that he'll never see any son of his take the bumps as he took
them."

"That's beside the point, Steve. I know what sort of propaganda you've
been listening to. It's the old do-good line; the everything for anybody
line; the no man must die alone line."

"Is it bad?"

Dr. Thorndyke shrugged. "You've talked about loose propaganda," he said.
"Well, in this welter of loose propaganda, every man had at least the
opportunity of choosing which line of guff he intends to adhere to. I'm
even willing to admit that there is both right and wrong on both sides.
Are you?"

I stifled a sour grin. "I shouldn't, because it is a mistake in any
political argument to even let on that the other guy is slightly more
than an idiot. But as an engineer, I'll admit it."

"Now that's a help," he said more cheerfully. "You're objecting, of
course, to the fact that we are taking the right to pick, choose, and
select those people that we think are more likely to be of good
advantage to the human race. You've listened to that old line about the
hypothetical cataclysm that threatens the human race, and how would you
choose the hundred people who are supposed to carry on. Well, have you
ever eyed the human race in slightly another manner?"

"I wouldn't know," I told him. "Maybe."

"Have you ever watched the proceedings of one of those big trials where
some conkpot has blown the brains out of a half-dozen citizens by
pointing a gun and emptying it at a crowd? If you have, you've been
appalled by the sob sisters and do-gooders who show that the vicious
character was momentarily off his toggle. We mustn't execute a nut, no
matter how vicious he is. We've got to protect him, feed him, and house
him for the next fifty years. Now, not only is he doing Society
absolutely no damned good while he's locked up for fifty years, he's
also eating up his share of the standard of living. Then to top this
off, so long as this nut is alive, there is the danger that some
soft-hearted fathead will succeed in getting him turned loose once
more."

"Agreed," I said. "But you're again talking about criminals, which I
don't think applies in my case."

"No, of course not," he said quickly. "I used it to prove to you that
this is one way of looking at a less concrete case. Carry this soft
headed thinking a couple of steps higher. Medical science has made it
possible for the human race to dilute its strength. Epileptics are saved
to breed epileptics; haemophiliacs are preserved, neurotics are ironed
out, weaknesses of all kinds are kept alive to breed their strain of
weakness."

"Just what has this to do with me and my future?" I asked.

"Quite a lot. I'm trying to make you agree that there are quite a lot of
undeserving characters here on Earth."

"Did I ever deny it?" I asked him pointedly, but he took it as not
including present company.

But I could see where Thorndyke was heading. First eliminate the lice on
the body politic. Okay, so I am blind and cannot see the sense of
incarcerating a murderer that has to be fed, clothed, and housed at my
expense for the rest of his natural life. Then for the second step we
get rid of weaklings, both physical and mental. I'll call Step Two
passably okay, but--? Number Three includes grifters, beggars, bums, and
guys out for the soft touch and here I begin to wonder. I've known some
entertaining grifters, beggars, and bums; a few of them chose their way
of life for their own, just as I became a mechanical engineer.

The trouble with this sort of philosophy is that it starts off with an
appeal to justice and logic (I'm quoting myself), but it quickly gets
dangerous. Start knocking off the bilge-scum. Then when the lowest
strata of society is gone, start on the next. Carry this line of
reasoning out to straight Aristotelian Logic and you come up with
parties like you and me, who may have been quite acceptable when
compared to the whole cross-section of humanity, but who now have no one
but his betters to compete with.

I had never reasoned this out before, but as I did right there and then,
I decided that Society cannot draw lines nor assume a static pose.
Society must move constantly, either in one direction or the other. And
while I object to paying taxes to support some rattlehead for the rest
of his natural life, I'd rather have it that way than to have someone
start a trend of bopping off everybody who has not the ability to absorb
the educational level of the scholar. Because, if the trend turned
upward instead of downward, that's where the dividing line would end.

Anarchy at one end, is as bad as tyranny at the other--

"I'm sorry you cannot come to a reasonable conclusion," said Dr.
Thorndyke. "If you cannot see the logic of--"

I cut him off short. "Look, Doc," I snapped, "If you can't see where
your line of thinking ends, you're in bad shape."

He looked superior. "You're sour because you know you haven't got what
it takes."

I almost nipped. "You're so damned dumb that you can't see that in any
society of supermen, you'd not be qualified to clean out ash trays," I
tossed back at him.

He smiled self-confidently. "By the time they start looking at my
level--if they ever do--you'll have been gone long ago. Sorry, Cornell.
You don't add up."

Well, that was nothing I didn't know already. In his society, I was a
nonentity. Yet, somehow, if that's what the human race was coming to
under the Thorndyke's and the Phelps', I didn't care to stay around.

"All right," I snapped. "Which way do I go from here? The laboratory, or
will you dispense with the preliminaries and let me take the high slide
right now before this--" I held up my infected finger, "gets to the
painful stages."

With the air and tone of a man inspecting an interesting specimen
impaled on a mounting pin, Thorndyke replied:

"Oh--we have use for the likes of you."



XVII


It would please me no end to report here that the gang at the Medical
Center were crude, rough, vicious, and that they didn't give a damn
about human suffering. Unfortunately for my sense of moral balance, I
can't. They didn't cut huge slices out of my hide without benefit of
anaesthesia. They didn't shove pipe-sized needles into me, or strap me
on a board and open me up with dull knives. Instead, they treated me as
if I'd been going to pay for my treatment and ultimately emerge from the
Center to go forth and extol its virtues. I ate good food, slept in a
clean and comfortable bed, smoked free cigarettes, read the best
magazines--and also some of the worst, if I must report the whole
truth--and was permitted to mingle with the rest of the patients,
guests, victims, personnel, and so forth that were attached to my ward.

I was not at any time treated as though I were anything but a willing
and happy member of their team. It was known that I was not, but if any
emotion was shown, it was sympathy at my plight in not being one of
them. This was viewed in the same way as any other accident of birth or
upbringing.

In my room was another man about my age. He'd arrived a day before me,
with an early infection at the tip of his middle toe. He was, if I've
got to produce a time-table, about three-eights of an inch ahead of me.
He had no worries. He was one of their kind of thinkers.

"How'd you connect?" I asked him.

"I didn't," he said, scratching his infected toe vigorously. "They
connected with me."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I was sleeping tight and not even dreaming. Someone rapped on my
apartment door and I growled myself out of bed and sort of felt my way.
It was three in the morning. Guy stood there looking apologetic. 'Got a
message for you,' he tells me. 'Can't it wait until morning?' I snarl
back. 'No,' he says. 'It's important!' So I invite him in. He doesn't
waste any time at all; his first act is to point at an iron floor lamp
in the corner and ask me how much I'd paid for it. I tell him. Then this
bird drops twice the amount on the coffee table, strides over to the
corner, picks up the lamp, and ties the iron pipe into a fancy-looking
bowknot. He didn't even grunt. 'Mr. Mullaney,' he asks me, 'How would
you like to be that strong?' I didn't have to think it over. I told him
right then and there. Then we spent from three ayem to five thirty going
through a fast question and answer routine, sort of like a complicated
word-association test. At six o'clock I've packed and I'm on my way here
with my case of Mekstrom's Disease."

"Just like that?" I asked Mr. Mullaney.

"Just like that," he repeated.

"So now what happens?"

"Oh, about tomorrow I'll go in for treatment," he said. "Seems as how
they've got to start treatment before the infection creeps to the first
joint or I'll lose the joint." He contemplated me a bit; he was a
perceptive and I knew it. "You've got another day or more. That's
because your ring finger is longer than my toe."

"What's the treatment like?" I asked him.

"That I don't know. I've tried to dig the treatment, but it's too far
away from here. This is just a sort of preliminary ward; I gather that
they know when to start and so on." He veiled his eyes for a moment. He
was undoubtedly thinking of my fate. "Chess?" he asked, changing the
subject abruptly.

"Why not?" I grinned.

My mind wasn't in it. He beat me three out of four. I bedded down about
eleven, and to my surprise I slept well. They must have been shoving
something into me to make me sleep; I know me very well and I'm sure
that I couldn't have closed an eye if they hadn't been slipping me the
old closeout powder. For three nights, now, I'd corked off solid until
seven ack emma and I'd come alive in the morning fine, fit, and fresh.

But on the following morning, Mr. Mullaney was missing. I never saw him
again.

At noon, or thereabouts, the end of the ring finger on my left hand was
as solid as a rock. I could squeeze it in a door or burn it with a
cigarette; I got into a little habit of scratching kitchen matches on it
as I tried to dig into the solid flesh with my perception. I growled a
bit at my fate, but not much.

It was about this time, too, that the slight itch began to change. You
know how a deep-felt itch is. It can sometimes be pleasant. Like the
itch that comes after a fast swim in the salty sea and a dry-out in the
bright sun, when the drying salt water makes your skin itch with the
vibrant pleasure of just being alive. This is not like the bite of any
bug, but the kind that makes you want to take another dive into the
ocean instead of trying to scratch it with your claws. Well, the itch in
my finger had been one of the pleasant kinds. I could sort of scratch it
away by taking the steel-hard part of my finger in my other hand and
wiggle, briskly. But now the itch turned into a deep burning pain.

My perception, never good enough to dig the finer structure clearly, was
good enough to tell me that my crawling horror had come to the boundary
line of the first joint.

It was this pause that was causing the burning pain.

According to what I'd been told, if someone didn't do something about me
right now, I'd lose the end joint of my finger.

Nobody came to ease my pain, nor to ease my mind. They left me strictly
alone. I spent the time from noon until three o'clock examining my
fingertip as I'd not examined it before. It was rock hard, but strangely
flexible if I could exert enough pressure on the flesh. It still moved
with the flexing of my hands. The fingernail itself was like a chip of
chilled steel. I could flex the nail neither with my other hand nor by
biting it; between my teeth it had the uncomfortable solidity of a sheet
of metal that conveyed to my brain that the old teeth should not try to
bite too hard. I tried prying on a bit of metal with the fingernail;
inserting the nail in the crack where a metal cylinder had been formed
to make a table leg. I might have been able to pry the crack wider, but
the rest of my body did not have the power nor the rigidity necessary to
drive the tiny lever that was my fingertip.

I wondered what kind of tool-grinder they used for a manicure.

At three-thirty, the door to my room opened and in came Scholar Phelps,
complete with his benign smile and his hearty air.

"Well," he boomed over-cheerfully, "we meet again, Mr. Cornell."

"Under trying circumstances," I said.

"Unfortunately so," he nodded. "However, we can't all be fortunate."

"I dislike being a vital statistic."

"So does everybody. Yet, from a philosophical point of view, you have no
more right to live at the expense of someone else than someone else has
a right to live at your expense. It all comes out even in the final
accounting. And, of course, if every man were granted a guaranteed
immortality, we'd have one cluttered-up world."

I had to admit that he was right, but I still could not accept his
statistical attitude. Not while I'm the statistic. He followed my
thought even though he was esper; it wasn't hard to follow anyway.

"All right, I admit that this is no time to sit around discussing
philosophy or metaphysics or anything of that nature. What you are
interested in is you."

"How absolutely correct."

"You know, of course, that you are a carrier."

"So I've come to believe. At least, everybody I seem to have any contact
with either turns up missing or comes down with Mekstrom's--or both."

Scholar Phelps nodded. "You might have gone on for quite some time if it
hadn't been so obvious."

I eyed him. "Just what went on?" I asked casually. "Did you have a
clean-up squad following me all the time, picking up the debris? Or did
you just pick up the ones you wanted? Or did the Highways make you
indulge in a running competition?"

"Too many questions at once. Most of which answers would be best that
you did not know. Best for us, that is. Maybe even for you."

I shrugged. "We seem to be bordering on philosophy again when the
important point is what you intend to do to me."

He looked unhappy. "Mr. Cornell, it is hard to remain unphilosophical in
a case like this. So many avenues of thought have been opened, so many
ideas and angles come to mind. We'll readily admit what you've probably
concluded; that you as a carrier have become the one basic factor that
we have been seeking for some twenty years and more. You are the
dirigible force, the last brick in the building, the final answer. Or,
and I hate to say it, were."

"Were?"

"For all of our knowledge of Mekstrom's we know so very little," he
said. "In certain maladies the carrier is himself immune. In some we
observe that the carrier results from a low-level, incomplete infection
with the disease which immunizes him but does not kill the bugs. In
others, we've seen the carrier become normal after he has finally
contracted the disease. What we must know now is: Is Steve Cornell, the
Mekstrom Carrier, now a non-carrier because he has contracted the
disease?"

"How are you going to find out?" I asked him.

"That's a problem," he said thoughtfully. "One school feels that we
should not treat you, since the treatment itself may destroy whatever
unknown factor makes you a carrier. The other claims that if we don't
treat you, you'll hardly live long enough to permit comprehensive
research anyway. A third school believes that there is time to find out
whether you are still a carrier, make some tests, and then treat you,
after which these tests are to be repeated."

Rather bitterly, I said, "I suppose I have absolutely no vote."

"Hardly," his face was pragmatic.

"And to which school do you belong?" I asked sourly. "Do you want me to
get the cure? Or am I to die miserably while you take tabs on my blood
pressure, or do I merely lose an arm while you're sitting with folded
hands waiting for the laboratory report?"

"In any case, we'll learn a lot about Mekstrom's from you," he said.
"Even if you die."

As caustically as I could, I said, "It's nice to know that I am not
going to die in vain."

He eyed me with contempt. "You're not afraid to die, are you, Mr.
Cornell?"

That's a dirty question to ask any man. Sure, I'm afraid to die. I just
don't like the idea of being not-alive. As bad as life is, it's better
than nothing. But the way he put the question he was implying that I
should be happy to die for the benefit of Humanity in general, and
that's a question that is unfairly loaded. After all, everybody is
slated to kick off. There is no other way of resigning from the
universe. So if I have to die, it might as well be for the Benefit of
Something, and if it happens to be Humanity, so much the better. But
when the case is proffered on a silver tray, I feel, "Somebody else, not
me!"

The next argument Phelps would be tossing out would be the one that
goes, "Two thousand years ago, a Man died for Humanity--" which always
makes me sick. No matter how you look at us, there is no resemblance
between Him and me.

I cut him short before he could say it: "Whether or not I'm afraid to
die, and for good or evil, now or later, is beside the point. I have,
obviously, nothing to say about the time, place, and the reasons."

We sat there and glared at one another; he didn't know whether to laugh
or snarl and I didn't care which he did. It seemed to me that he was
leading up to something that looked like the end. Then I'd get the
standard funeral and statements would be given out that I'd died because
medical research had not been able to save me and blah blah blah
complete with lack of funds and The Medical Center charity drive. The
result would mean more moola for Phelps and higher efficiency for his
operations, and to the devil with the rest of the world.

"Let's get along with it," I snapped. "I've no opinion, no vote, no
right of appeal. Why bother to ask me how I feel?"

Calmly he replied, "Because I am not a rough-shod, unhuman monster, Mr.
Cornell. I would prefer that you see my point of view--or at least
enough of it to admit that there is a bit of right on my side."

"Seems to me I went through that with Thorndyke."

"This is another angle. I'm speaking of my right of discovery."

"You're speaking of what?"

"My right of discovery. You as an engineer should be familiar with the
idea. If I were a poet I could write an ode to my love and no one would
forbid me my right to give it to her and to nobody else. If I were a
cook with a special recipe no one could demand that I hand it over
unless I had a special friend. He who discovers something new should be
granted the right to control it. If this Mekstrom business were some
sort of physical patent or some new process, I could apply for a patent
and have it for my exclusive use for a period of seventeen years. Am I
not right?"

"Yes, but--"

"Except that my patent would be infringed upon and I'd have no
control--"

I stood up suddenly and faced him angrily. He did not cower; after all
he was a Mekstrom. But he did shut up for a moment.

"Seems to me," I snarled, "that any process that can be used to save
human life should not be held secret, patentable, or under the control
of any one man or group."

"This is an argument that always comes up. You may, of course, be
correct. But happily for me, Mr. Cornell, I have the process and you
have not, and it is my own conviction that I have the right to use it on
those people who seem, in my opinion, to hold the most for the future
advancement of the human race. However, I do not care to go over this
argument again, it is tiresome and it never ends. As one of the ancient
Greek Philosophers observed, you cannot change a man's mind by arguing
with him. The other fact remains, however, that you do have something to
offer us, despite your contrary mental processes."

"Do go on? What do I have to do to gain this benefit? Who do I have to
kill?" I eyed him cynically and then added, "Or is it 'Whom shall I
kill?' I like these things to be proper, you know."

"Don't be sarcastic. I'm serious," he told me.

"Then stop pussyfooting and come to the point," I snapped. "You know
what the story is. I don't. So if you think I'll be interested, why not
tell me instead of letting me find out the hard way."

"You, of course, were a carrier. Maybe you still are. We can find out.
In fact, we'll have to find out, before we--"

"For God's Sake stop it!" I yelled. "You're meandering."

"Sorry," he said in a tone of apology that surprised me all the way down
to my feet. He shook himself visibly and went on from there: "You, if
still a carrier, can be of use to The Medical Center. Now do you
understand?"

Sure I understand, but good. As a normal human type, they held nothing
over me and just shoved me here and there and picked up the victims
after me. But now that I was a victim myself, they could offer me their
"cure" only if I would swear to go around the country deliberately
infecting the people they wanted among them. It was that--or lie there
and die miserably. This had not come to Scholar Phelps as a sudden flash
of genius. He'd been planning this all along; had been waiting to pop
this delicate question after I'd been pushed around, had a chance to
torture myself mentally, and was undoubtedly soft for anything that
looked like salvation.

"There is one awkward point," said Scholar Phelps suavely. "Once we have
cured you, we would have no hold on you other than your loyalty and your
personal honor to fulfill a promise given. Neither of us are naive, Mr.
Cornell. We both know that any honorable promise is only as valid as the
basic honor involved. Since your personal opinion is that this medical
treatment should be used indiscriminately, and that our program to
better the human race by competitive selection is foreign to your
feelings, you would feel honor-bound to betray us. Am I not correct?"

What could I say to that? First I'm out, then I'm in, now I'm out again.
What was Phelps getting at?

"If our positions were reversed, Mr. Cornell, I'm sure that you'd seek
some additional binding force against me. I shall continue to seek some
such lever against you for the same reason. In the meantime, Mr.
Cornell, we shall make a test to see whether we have any real basis for
any agreement at all. You may have ceased to be a carrier, you know."

"Yeah," I admitted darkly.

"In the meantime," he said cheerfully, "the least we can do is to treat
your finger. I'd hate to have you hedge a deal because we did not
deliver your cured body in the whole."

He put his head out of the door and summoned a nurse who came with a
black bag. From the bag, Scholar Phelps took a skin-blast hypo and a
small metal box, the top of which held a small slender, jointed platform
and some tiny straps. He strapped my finger to this platform and then
plugged in a length of line cord to the nearest wall socket. The little
platforms moved; the one nearest my wrist vibrated rapidly across a very
small excursion that tickled like the devil. The end platform moved in
an arc, flexing the finger tip from straight to about seventy degrees.
This moved fairly slow but regularly up and down.

"I'll not fool you," he said drily. "This is going to hurt."

He set the skin-blast hypo on top of the joint and let it go. For a
moment the finger felt cold, numb, pleasant. Then the shock wore away
and the tip of my finger, my whole finger and part of my hand shocked me
with the most excruciating agony that the hide of man ever felt. Flashes
and waves of pain darted up my arm to the elbow and the muscles in my
forearm jumped. The sensitive nerve in my elbow sang and sent darting
waves of zigzag needles up to my shoulder. My hand was a source of
searing heat and freezing cold and the pain of being crushed and twisted
and wrenched out of joint all at the same time.

Phelps wiped my wet face with a towel, loaded another hypo and let me
have it in the shoulder. Gradually the stuff took hold and the awful
pain began to subside. Not all the way, it just diminished from
absolutely unbearable to merely terrible.

I knew at that moment why a trapped animal will bite off its own foreleg
to get free of the trap.

From the depths of his bag he found a bottle and poured a half-tumbler
for me; it went down like a whiskey-flavored soft drink. It had about as
much kick as when you pour a drink of water into a highball glass that
still holds a dreg of melted ice and diluted liquor. But it burned like
fury once it hit my stomach and my mind began to wobble. He'd given me a
slug of the pure quill, one hundred proof.

As some sort of counter-irritant, it worked. Very gradually the awful
pain in my hand began to subside.

"You can take that manipulator off in an hour or so," he told me. "And
in the meantime we'll get along with our testing."

I gathered that they could stop this treatment anywhere along the
process if I did not measure up.



XVIII


Midnight. The manipulator had been off my hand for several hours, and it
was obvious that my Mekstrom's was past the first joint and creeping up
towards the next. I eyed it with some distaste; as much as I wanted to
have a fine hard body, I was not too pleased at having agony for a
companion every time the infection crossed a joint. I began to wonder
about the wrist; this is a nice complicated joint and should, if
possible, exceed the pain of the first joint in the ring finger. I'd
heard tell, of course, that once you've reached the top, additional
torture does not hurt any greater. I'd accepted this statement as it was
printed. But now I was not too sure that what I'd just been through was
not one of those exceptions that take place every now and then to the
best of rules.

I was still in a dark and disconsolate mood. But I'd managed to eat, and
I'd shaved and showered, and I'd hit the hay because it was as good a
place to be as anywhere else. I could lie there and dig the premises
with my esper.

There were very few patients in this building, and none were done up
like the character in the Macklin place. They moved the patients to some
other part of the grounds when the cure started. There weren't very many
nurses, doctors, scholars, or other personnel around, either.

Outside along one side of a road was a small lighted house that was
obviously a sort of guard, but it was casual instead of being formal and
military in appearance. The ground, instead of being patrolled by human
guards (which might have caused some comment) was carefully laid off
into checkerboard squares by a complicated system of photobeams and
induction bridges.

You've probably read about how the job of casing a joint should be done.
I did it the same way. I dug back and forth, collecting the layout from
the back door of my building towards the nearest puff of dead area. This
coign of safety billowed outward from the pattern towards the building
like an arm of cumulus cloud and the top of it rose like a column to a
height above my range. It sort of leaned forward but it did not lean far
enough to be directly above the building. The far side of the column was
just like the rear side; even though I'm well trained, it always
startles me when I perceive the far side of a smallish dead area. I'm
inclined like everybody else to consider perception on a line-of-sight
basis instead of on a sort of all-around grasp.

I let my thinker run free. If I could direct a breakout from this joint
with a lot of outside help, I'd have a hot jetcopter pilot come down the
dead-area column with a dead engine. The Medical Center did not have any
radar, probably on the proposition that too high a degree of security
indicated a high degree of top-secret material to hide. So I'd come down
dead engine, land, and wait it out. Timing would have to be perfect,
because I, the prisoner, would have to make a fast gallop across a
couple of hundred yards of wide open psi area, scale a tall fence topped
with barbed wire, cross another fifty yards into the murk, and then find
my rescuer. The take off would be fast once I'd located the 'copter in
the murk, and everything would depend upon a hot pilot who felt
confident enough in his engine and his rotorjets to let 'em go with a
roar and a lift without warmup.

During which time, unfortunately for all plans, the people at The
Medical Center would have been reading my mind and would probably have
that dead patch well patrolled with big, rough gentlemen armed with
stuff heavy enough to stop a tank.

Lacking any sort of device or doodad that would conceal my mind from
prying telepaths, about the only thing I could do was to lay here in my
soft bed and daydream of making my escape.

Eventually I went to sleep and dreamed that I was hunting Mallards with
a fly-rod baited with a stale doughnut. The only thing that bothered me
was a couple of odd-looking guys who thought that the way to hunt
Mallards was with shotguns, and their dress was just as out of taste as
their equipment. Who ever hunted ducks from a canoe, dressed in
windbreakers and hightopped boots? Eventually they bought some ducks
from me and went home, leaving me to my slumbers.

       *       *       *       *       *

About eight in the morning, there was a tentative tap on my door. While
I was growling about why they should bother tapping, the door opened and
a woman came in with my breakfast tray. She was not my nurse; she was
the enamelled blonde receptionist.

She had lost some of her enamelled sophistication. It was not evident in
her make-up, her dress, or her hair-do. These were perfection. In fact,
she bore that store-window look that made me think of an automaton,
triggered to make the right noises and to present the proper expression
at the correct time. As though she had never had a thought of her own or
an emotion that was above the level of very mild interest. As if the
perfection of her dress and the characterless beauty of her face were
more important than anything else in her life.

But the loss of absolute plate-glass impersonality was gone, and it took
me some several moments to dig it out of her appearance. Then I saw it.
Her eyes. They no longer looked glassily out of that clear oval face at
a point about three inches above my left shoulder, but they were
centered on me from no matter what point in the room she'd be as she
went about the business of running open the blinds, checking the this
and that and the other like any nurses' helper.

Finally she placed my tray on the bed-table and stood looking down at
me.

From my first meeting with her I knew she was no telepath, so I bluntly
said, "Where's the regular girl? Where's my nurse?"

"I'm taking over for the time," she told me. Her voice was strained;
she'd been trying to use that too-deeply cultured tone she used as the
professional receptionist but the voice had cracked through the training
enough to let some of her natural tone come through.

"Why?"

Then she relaxed completely, or maybe it was a matter of coming unglued.
Her face allowed itself to take on some character and her body ceased
being that rigid window-dummy type. "What's your trouble--?" I asked her
softly. She had something on her mind that was a bit too big for her,
but her training was not broad enough to allow her to get it out. I
hoped to help, if I could. I also wanted to know what she was doing
here. If Scholar Phelps was thinking about putting a lever on me of the
female type, he'd guessed wrong.

She was looking at me and I could see a fragment of fright in her face.

"Is it terrible?" she asked me in a whisper.

"Is what terrible?"

"Me--Me--Mekstrom's D--Disease--" The last word came out with a couple
of big tears oozing from closed lids.

"Why?" I asked. "Do I look all shot to bits?"

She opened the eyes and looked at me. "Does it hurt?"

I remembered the agony of my finger and tried to lie. "A little," I told
her. "But I'm told that it was because I'd waited too long for my first
treatment." I hoped that I was correct; maybe it was wishful thinking,
but I claim that right. I didn't want to go through the same agony every
time we crossed a joint.

I reached over to the bedside table and found my cigarettes. I slipped
two up and offered one of them to her. She put a tentative hand forward,
slowly, a scared-to-touch reluctance in her motion. This changed as her
hand came forward. It was the same sort of reluctance that you feel when
you start out to visit the dentist for a roaring tooth. The closer you
get to the dentist's office the less inclined you are to finish the job.
Then at some indeterminate point you cross the place of no return and
from that moment you go forward with increased determination.

She finally made the cigarette package but she was very careful not to
touch my hand as she took out the weed. Then, as if she'd reached that
point of no return, her hand slipped around the package and caught me by
the wrist.

We were statue-still for three heartbeats. Then I lifted my other hand,
took out the cigarette she'd missed, and held it forward for her. She
took it. I dropped the pack and let my hand slip back until we were
holding hands, practically. She shuddered.

I flipped my lighter and let her inhale a big puff before I put the next
question: "Why are you here and what goes on?"

In a flat, dry voice she said, "I'm--supposed--to--" and let it trail
away without finishing it.

"Guinea pig?" I blurted bluntly.

She collapsed like a deflated balloon. Next, she had her face buried in
my shoulder, bawling like a hurt baby. I stroked her shoulder gently,
but she shuddered away from my hand as though it were poison.

I shoved her upright and shook her a bit. "Don't blubber like an idiot.
Sit there and talk like a human being!"

It took her a minute of visible effort before she said, "You're supposed
to be a--carrier. I'm supposed to find out--whether you are--a carrier."

Well, I'd suspected something of that sort.

Shakily she asked me, "How do I get it, Mr. Cornell?"

I eyed her sympathetically.

Then I held up my left hand and looked at the infection. This was the
finger that had been gummed to bits by the Mekstrom infant back in
Homestead. With a shrug of uncertainty, I lifted her hand to my mouth. I
felt with my tongue and dug with my perception until I had a tiny fold
of her skin between my front teeth. Then sharply, I bit down, drawing
blood. She jerked, stiffened, closed her eyes and took a deep breath but
she did not cry out.

"That, if anything, should do it," I said flatly. "Now go out and get
some iodine for the cut. Human-bite is likely to become infected with
something bad. And I don't think antiseptic will hurt the Mekstrom
Infection if it's taken place." They'd given me the antiseptic works in
Homestead, I recalled. "Now, Miss Nameless, you sit over there and tell
me how come this distressing tableau?"

"Oh--I can't," she cried. Then she left in a hurry sucking on her
bleeding finger.

I didn't need any explanation; I'd just wanted my suspicions confirmed.
Someone had a lever on her. Maybe someone she loved was a Mekstrom and
her loyalty was extracted because of it. The chances were also high that
she'd been given to understand that they'd accept her as a member if she
ever caught Mekstrom's; and they'd taken my arrival as a fine chance to
check me and get her at the same time.

I wondered about her; she was no big-brain. I couldn't quite see the
stratified society outlined by Scholar Phelps as holding a position open
for her in the top echelon. Except she was a woman, attractive if you
like your women beautiful and dull-minded, and she probably would be
happy to live in a little vacuum-type world bounded on all sides with
women's magazines, lace curtains, TV soap opera, and a corral full of
little Mekstrom kids. I grinned. Funny how the proponents of the
stratified society always have their comeuppance by the need of women
whose minds are bent on mundane things like homes and families.

Well, I hoped she caught it, if that's what she wanted. I was willing to
bet my life that she cared a lot more for being with her man than she
did for the cockeyed society he was supporting.

I finished my breakfast and went out to watch a couple of telepaths
playing chess until lunch time and then gave up. Telepathic chess was
too much like playing perceptive poker.

Then after lunch came the afternoon full of laboratory tests,
inspections, experiments, and so forth; they didn't do much that hadn't
been tried at Homestead, and I surprised them again by being able to
help in their never-ending blood counts and stuff of that sort.

They did not provide me with a new room mate, so I wandered around after
dinner hoping that I could avoid both Thorndyke and Phelps. I didn't
want to get into another fool social-structure argument with them and
the affair of the little scared receptionist was more than likely to
make me say a few words that might well get me cast into the Outer
Darkness for their mere semantic content.

Once more I hit the sack early.

And, once more, there came a tap on my door about eight o'clock. It was
not a tentative little frightened tap this time, it was more jovial and
eager sounding. My reaction was about the same. Since it was their show
and their property, I couldn't see any reason why they made this odd
lip-service to politeness.

It was the receptionist again. She came in with a big wistful smile and
dropped my tray on the bed table.

"Look," she cried. She held up her hand. The bleeding had stopped and
there was a thin film over the cut. I dug at it and nodded; it was the
first show of Mekstrom Flesh without a doubt.

"That's it, kid."

"I know," she said happily. "Golly, I could kiss you."

Then before I could think of all the various ways in which the word
"Golly" sounded out of character for her, she launched herself into my
arms and was busily erasing every attempt at logical thought with one of
the warmest, no-holds-barred smoocheroo that I'd enjoyed for what seemed
like years. Since I'd held Catherine in my arms in her apartment just
before we'd eloped, I'd spent my time in the company of Nurse Farrow who
held no emotional appeal to me, and the rest of my female company had
been Mekstroms whose handholding might twist off a wrist if they got a
thrill out of it. About the time I began to respond with enthusiasm and
vigor, she extricated herself from my clutch and slid back to the foot
of the bed out of reach.

A little breathlessly she said, "Harry will thank you for this." _This_
meant the infection in her finger.

Then she was gone and I was thinking, _Harry should drop dead_!

Then I grinned at myself like the Cheshire Cat because I realized that I
was so valuable a property that they couldn't afford to let me die. No
matter what, I'd be kept alive. And after having things go so sour for
so long a time, things were about to take a fast turn and go my way.

I discounted the baby-bite affair. Even if the baby were another
carrier, it would take a long time before the kid was old enough to be
trusted in his aim.

I discounted it even more because I hadn't been roaring around the
countryside biting innocent citizens. Mere contact was enough; if the
bite did anything, it may have hastened the process.

So here I was, a nice valuable property, with a will of my own. I could
either throw in with Phelps and bite only Phelps' Chosen Aristocrats, or
I could go back to the Highways and bite everybody in sight.

I laughed at my image in the mirror. I am a democratic sort of soul, but
when it comes to biting, there's some I'd rather bite than others.

I bared my teeth at my image, but it was more of a leering smile of the
tooth-paste ad than a fierce snarl.

My image looked pensive. It was thinking, _Steve, old carnivore, ere you
go biting anybody, you've first got to bite your way out of the Medical
Center._



XIX


One hour later they pulled my fangs without benefit of anaesthesia.

Thorndyke came in to inspect the progress of my infection and allowed as
how I'd be about ready for the full treatment in a few days. "We like to
delay the full treatment as long as possible," he told me, "because it
immobilizes the patient too long as it is." He pressed a call bell,
waited, and soon the door opened to admit a nurses' helper pushing a
trundle cart loaded with medical junk. I still don't know what was on
the cart because I was too flabbergasted to notice it.

I was paying all my attention to Catherine, cheerful in her Gray Lady
uniform, being utterly helpful, bright, gay, and relaxed. I was tongue
tied, geflummoxed, beaten down, and--well, just speechless.

Catherine was quite professional about her help. She loaded the
skin-blast hypo and slapped it into Thorndyke's open hand. Her eyes
looked into mine and they smiled reassuringly. Her hand was firm as she
took my arm; she locked her strength on my hand and held it immobile
while Thorndyke shot me in the second joint. There was a personal touch
to her only briefly when she breathed, "Steve, I'm so glad!" and then
went on about her work. The irony of it escaped me; but later I did
recall the oddity of congratulating someone who's just contracted a
disease.

Then that wave of agony hit me, and the only thing I can remember
through it was Catherine folding a towel so that the hem would be on the
inside when she wiped the beads of sweat from my face. She cradled my
head between her hands and crooned lightly to me until the depths of the
pain was past. Then she got efficient again and waved Thorndyke aside to
see to the little straps on the manipulator herself. She adjusted them
delicately. Then she poured me a glass of ice water and put it where I
could reach it with my other hand. She left after one long searching
look into my eyes, and I knew that she would be back later to talk to me
alone. This seemed all right with Dr. Thorndyke, the wily telepath who
would be able to dig a reconstruction of our private talk with a little
urging on his part.

After Catherine was gone, Thorndyke smiled down at me with cynical
self-confidence. "There's your lever, Steve," he said.

The dope helped to kill all but the worst waves of searing pain; between
them I managed to grind out, "How did you sell her that bill of goods,
Thorndyke?"

His reply was scornful. "Maybe she likes your hide all in one piece," he
grunted.

He left me with my mind a-whirl with thoughts and pain. The little
manipulator was working my second finger joint up and down rhythmically,
and with each move came pain. It also exercised the old joint, which had
grown so rigid that my muscles hadn't been able to move it for several
hours. That added agony, too.

The dope helped, but it also dimmed my ability to concentrate.

Up to a certain point everything was quite logical and easy to
understand. Catherine was here because they had contacted her through
some channel and said, "Throw in with us and we'll see that your lover
does not die miserably." So much was reasonable, but after that point
the whole thing began to take on a mad puzzle-like quality. Given normal
circumstances, Catherine would have come to me as swiftly as I'd have
gone to her if I'd known how. Not only that, but I'd probably have sworn
eternal fealty to them for their service even though I could not stand
their way of thinking.

But Catherine was smart enough to realize that I, as the only known
carrier of Mekstrom's Disease, was more valuable live than dead.

Why, then, had Catherine come here to place herself in their hands?
Alone, she might have gone off half-cocked in an emotional tizzy. But
the Highways had good advisers who should have pointed out that Steve
Cornell was one man alive who could walk with impunity among friend or
foe. Why, they hadn't even tried to collect me until it became evident
that I was in line for the Old Treatment. Then they had to take me in,
because the Medical Center wanted any information they could get above
and beyond the fact that I was a carrier. If someone from Homestead had
been in that courtroom, I'd now be among friends.

Then the ugly thought hit me and my mind couldn't face it for some time.

_Reorientation._

Catherine's cheerful willingness to help them must be reorientation and
nothing else.

Now, although I've mentioned reorientation before, what I actually know
about it is meager. It makes Dr. Jekylls out of former Mr. Hydes and the
transformation is complete. It can be done swiftly; the rapidity depends
upon the strength of the mind of the operator compared to the mind of
the subject. It is slightly harder to reorient a defiant mind than a
willing one. It sticks unless someone else begins to tinker again. It is
easier to make a good man out of a bad one than the reverse, although
the latter is eminently possible. This is too difficult a problem to
discuss to the satisfaction of everybody, but it seems to go along with
the old theory that "Good" does benefit the tribe of mankind in the long
run, while "Bad" things cause trouble. I'll say no more than to point
out that no culture based upon theft, murder, piracy, and pillage, has
ever survived.

The thought of Catherine's mind being tampered with made me seethe with
anger. I forgot my pain and began to probe around wildly, and as I
probed I began to know the real feeling of helpless futility.

For here I was, practically immobilized and certainly dependent upon
them for help. This was no time to attempt a rescue of my
sweetheart--who would only be taken away kicking and screaming all the
way from here to the first place where I could find a haven and have her
re-reoriented. The latter would not be hard; among the other things I
knew about reorientation was that it could be negated by some strong
emotional ties and a personal background that included worthy objection
to the new personality.

For my perceptive digging I came up with nothing but those things that
any hospital held. Patients, nurses, interns, orderlies; a couple of
doctors, a scholar presiding over a sheaf of files. And finally
Catherine puttering over an autoclave. She was setting out a string of
instruments under the tutelage of a superintendent of nurses who was
explaining how the job should be done.

I took a deep, thankful breath. Her mind was occupied enough to keep her
from reading the dark thoughts that were going through mine. I did not
even want a loved one to know how utterly helpless and angry I felt.

And then, because I was preoccupied with Catherine and my own thoughts,
the door opened without my having taken a dig at the opener beforehand.
The arrival was all I needed to crack wide open in a howling fit of
hysteria. It was so pat. I couldn't help but let myself go: "Well! This
looks like Old Home Week!"

Miss Gloria Farrow, Registered Nurse, did not respond to my awkward
joviality. Her face, if anything, was darker than my thoughts. I doubted
that she had her telepathy working; people who get that wound up find it
hard to even see and hear straight, let alone think right. And telepathy
or perception goes out of kilter first because the psi is a very
delicate factor.

She eyed me coldly. "You utter imbecile," she snarled. "You--"

"Whoa, baby!" I roared. "Slow down. I'm a bit less than bright, but what
have I done now?"

I'd have slapped her across the face as an anodyne if she hadn't been
Mekstrom.

Farrow cooled visibly, then her face sort of came apart and she sort of
flopped forward onto the bed and buried her face in my shoulder. I
couldn't help but make comparisons; she was like a hunk of marble, warm
and vibrant. Like having a statue crying on my shoulder. She sagged
against me like a loose bag of cement and her hands clutched at my
shoulder blades like a pair of C-clamps. A big juicy tear dropped from
her cheek to land on my chest, and I was actually surprised to find that
a teardrop from a Mekstrom did not land like a drop of mercury. It just
splashed like any other drop of water, spread out, and made my chest
wet.

Eventually I held her up from me, tried to shake her gently, and said,
"Now what's the shooting all about, Farrow?"

She shook her head as if to clear her thinking gear.

"Steve," she said in a quietly serious tone, "I've been such an utter
fool."

"You're not unique, Farrow," I told her. "People have been doing damfool
stunts since--"

"I know," she broke in. Then with an effort at light-heartedness, she
added, "There must be a different version of that Garden of Eden story.
Eve is always blamed as having tempted Adam. Somewhere, Old Adam must
have been slightly to blame--?"

I didn't know what she was driving toward, but I stroked her hair and
waited. She was probably right. It still takes two of a kind to make one
pair.

"Steve--get out of here! While you're safe!"

"Huh?" I blurted. "What cooks, Farrow?"

"I was a nice patsy," she said. She sat up and wiped her eyes. "I was a
fool. Steve, if James Thorndyke had asked me to jump off the roof, I'd
have asked him 'what direction?' That's how fat-headed I am."

"Yes?" Something was beginning to form, now.

"I--led you on, Steve."

That blinkoed me. The phrase didn't jell. The half a minute she'd spent
bawling on my shoulder with my arms around her had been the first
physical contact I'd ever had with Nurse Farrow. It didn't seem--

"No, Steve. Not that way. I couldn't see you for Thorndyke any more than
you could see me for Catherine." Her telepathy had returned, obviously;
she was in better control of herself. "Steve," she said, "I led you on;
did everything that Thorndyke told me to. You fell into it like a rock.
Oh--it was going to be a big thing. All I had to do was to haul you
deeper into this mess, then I'd disappear strangely. Then we'd
be--tog--ether--we'd be--"

She started to come unglued again but stopped the dissolving process
just before the wet and gooey stage set in. She seemed to put a set in
her shoulders, and then she looked down at me with pity. "Poor esper,"
she said softly, "you couldn't really know--"

"Know what?" I asked harshly.

"He fooled me--too," she said, in what sounded like a complete
irrelevancy.

"Look, Farrow, try and make a bit of sense to a poor perceptive who
can't read a mind. Keep it running in one direction, please?"

Again, as apparently irrelevant, she said, "He's a top grade telepath;
he knows control--"

"Control--?" I asked blankly.

"You don't know," she said. "But a good telepath can think in patterns
that prevent lesser telepaths from really digging deep. Thorndyke is
brilliant, of scholar grade, really. He--"

"Let's get back to it, Farrow. What's cooking?"

Sternly she tossed her head. It was an angry motion, one that showed her
disdain for her own tears and her own weakness. "Your own sweet
Catherine."

I eyed her, not coldly but with a growing puzzlement. I tried to
formulate my own idea but she went on, briskly, "That accident of yours
was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to you, Steve."

"How long have I been known to be a Mekstrom Carrier?" I asked bluntly.

"No more than three weeks before you met Catherine Lewis," she told me
as bluntly. "It took the Medical Center that long to work her into a
position to meet you, Steve."

That put the icing on the cake. If nothing else, it explained why
Catherine was here willingly. I didn't really believe it because no one
can turn one hundred and eighty degrees without effort, but I couldn't
deny the fact that the evidence fits the claim. If what Farrow said were
true, my marriage to Catherine would have provided them with the same
lever as the little blonde receptionist. The pile-up must have really
fouled up their plans.

"It did, Steve," said Farrow, who had been following my mental
ramblings. "The Highways had to step in and help. This fouled things up
for both sides."

"Both sides?" I asked, completely baffled.

She nodded. "Until the accident, the Medical Center did not know that
the Highways existed. But when Catherine dropped completely out of
sight, Thorndyke did a fine job of probing you. That's when he came upon
the scant evidence of the Highway Sign and the mental impression of the
elder Harrison lifting the car so that Phillip could get you out. Then
he knew, and--"

"Farrow," I snapped, "there are a lot of holes in your story. For
instance--"

She held up a hand to stop me. "Steve," she said quietly, "you know how
difficult it is for a non-telepath to find someone he can trust. But I'm
trying to convince you that--"

I stopped Farrow this time. "How can I believe you now?" I asked her
pointedly. "You seem to have a part in this side of the quiet warfare."

Nurse Farrow made a wry face as though she'd just discovered that the
stuff she had in her mouth was a ball of wooly centipedes. "I'm a
woman," she said simply. "I'm soft and gullible and easily talked into
complacency. But I've just learned that their willingness to accept
women is based upon the fact that no culture can thrive without women to
propagate the race. I find that I am--" She paused, swallowed, and her
voice became strained with bitterness, "--useful as a breeding animal.
Just one of the peasants whose glory lies in carrying their heirs. But I
tell you, Steve--" and here she became strong and her voice rang out
with a vigorous rejection of her future, "I'll be forever damned if I
will let my child be raised with the cockeyed notion that he has some
God-Granted Right to Rule."

My vigilant sense of perception had detected a change in the
human-pattern in the building. People were moving--no, it was one person
who was moving.

Down in the laboratory below, and at the other end of the building,
Catherine was still working over the autoclave and instruments. The
waspish-looking superintendent had taken off for somewhere else, and
while Catherine was alone now, she was about to be joined by Dr.
Thorndyke. Half afraid that my perception of them would touch off their
own telepathic sense of danger, I watched deliberately.

The door opened and Thorndyke came in; Catherine turned from her work
and said something, which of course I could not possibly catch.

#What are they saying, Farrow?# I snapped mentally.

"I don't know. They're too far for my range."

I swore, but I didn't really have to have a dialog script. Nor did they
do the obvious; what they did was far more telling.

Catherine turned and patted his cheek. They laughed at one another, and
then Catherine began handing Thorndyke the instruments out of the
autoclave, which he proceeded to mix in an unholy mess in the surgical
tray. Catherine saw what he was doing and made some remark; then
threatened him with a pair of haemostats big enough to clamp off a
three-inch fire hose. It was pleasant enough looking horseplay; the sort
of intimacy that people have when they've been together for a long time.
Thorndyke did not look at all frightened of the haemostats, and
Catherine did not really look as though she'd follow through with her
threat. They finally tangled in a wrestle for the instrument, and
Thorndyke took it away from her. They leaned against a cabinet side by
side, their elbows touching, and went on talking as if they had
something important to discuss in the midst of their fun. It could have
been reorientation or it could have been Catherine's real self. I still
couldn't quite believe that she had played me false. My mind spinned
from one side to the other until I came up with a blunt question that
came to my lips without any mental planning. I snapped, "Farrow, what
grade of telepath is Catherine?"

"Doctor grade," she replied flatly. "Might have taken some pre-scholar
training if economics hadn't interfered. I'd not really call her Rhine
Scholar material, but I'm prejudiced against her."

If what Farrow said was true, Catherine was telepath enough to control
and marshall her mind to a faretheewell. She could think and plan to
herself in the presence of another telepath without giving her plots
away.

She was certainly smart enough to lead one half-trained perceptive
around by a ring in my nose. Me? I was as big a fool as Farrow.



XX


Nurse Farrow caught my hand. "Steve," she snapped out in a rapid, flat
voice, "Think only one thought. Think of how Catherine is here; that she
came here to protect your life and your future!"

"Huh?"

"Think it!" she almost cried. "She's coming!"

I nearly fumbled it. Then I caught on. Catherine was coming; to remove
the little finger manipulator and to have a chit-chat with me. I didn't
want to see her, and I was beginning to wish--then I remembered that one
glimmer out of me that I knew the truth and everything would be higher
than Orbital Station One.

I shoved my mind into low gear and started to think idle thoughts,
letting myself sort of daydream. I was convincing to myself; it's hard
to explain exactly, but I was play-thinking like a dramatist. I fell
into it; it seemed almost truth to me as I roamed on and on. I'd been
trapped and Catherine had come here to hand herself over as a hostage
against my good behavior. She'd escaped the Highways bunch or maybe she
just left them quietly. Somehow Phelps had seen to it that Catherine got
word--I didn't know how, but that was not important. The important thing
was Catherine being here as a means of keeping me alive and well.

I went on thinking the lie. Catherine came in shortly and saw what Nurse
Farrow was doing.

"I was supposed to do that," said Catherine.

Nurse Farrow straightened up from her work of loosening the straps on
the manipulator. "Sorry," she said in a cool, crisp voice. "I didn't
know that. This is usually my job. It's a rather delicate proposition,
you know." There was a chill of professional rebuff in Farrow's voice.
It was the pert white hat and the gold pin looking down upon the gray
uniform with no adornment. Catherine looked a bit uncomfortable but she
apparently had to take it.

Catherine tried lamely, "You see, Mr. Cornell is my fiancée."

Farrow jumped on that one hard. "I'm aware of that. So let's not forget
that scholars of medicine do not treat their own loved ones for ethical
reasons."

Catherine took it like a slap across the face with an iced towel. "I'm
sure that Dr. Thorndyke would not have let me take care of him if I'd
not been capable," she replied.

"Perhaps Dr. Thorndyke did not realize at the time that Mr. Cornell
would be ready for the Treatment Department. Or," she added slyly, "have
you been trained to prepare a patient for the full treatment?"

"The full treatment--? Dr. Thorndyke did not seem to think--"

"Please," said Farrow with that cold crispness coming out hard, "As a
nurse I must keep my own opinion to myself, as well as keeping the
opinions of doctors to myself. I take orders only and I perform them."

That was a sharp shot; practically telling Catherine that she, as a
nurses' helper, had even less right to go shooting off her mouth.
Catherine started to reply but gave it up. Instead she came over and
looked down at me. She cooed and stroked my forehead.

"Ah, Steve," she breathed, "So you're going for the treatment. Think of
me, Steve. Don't let it hurt too much."

I smiled thinly and looked up into her eyes. They were soft and warm, a
bit moist. Her lips were full and red and they were parted slightly; the
lower lip glistened slightly in the light. These were lips I'd kissed
and found sweet; a face I'd held between my hands. Her hair fluffed
forward a trifle; threatened to cascade down over her shoulders. No, it
was not at all hard to lie there and go on thinking all the soft-sweet
thoughts I'd once hoped might come true--

She recoiled, her face changing swiftly from its mask of sweet concern
to one of hard calculation. I'd slipped with that last hunk of thinking
and given the whole affair away.

Catherine straightened up and turned to head for the door. She took one
step and caved in like a wet towel.

Over her still-falling body I saw Nurse Farrow calmly reloading the
skin-blast hypo, which she used to fire a second load into the base of
Catherine's neck, just below the shoulder blades.

"That," said Farrow succinctly, "should keep her cold for a week. I just
wish I'd been born with enough guts to commit murder."

"What--?"

"Get dressed," she snapped. "It's cold outside, remember?" I started to
dress as Farrow hurled my clothing out of the closet at me. She went on
in the meantime: "I knew you couldn't keep it entirely concealed from
her. She's too good a telepath. So while you were holding her attention,
I let her have a shot in the neck. One of the rather bad things about
being a Mekstrom is that minor items like the hypo don't register too
well."

I stopped. "Isn't that bad? Seems to me that I've heard that pain is a
necessary factor for the preservation of the--"

"Stop yapping and dress," snapped Farrow. "Pain is useful when it's
needed. It isn't needed in the case of a pin pricking the hide of a
Mekstrom. When a Mekstrom gets in the way of something big enough to
damage him physically, then it hurts him."

"Sort of when a locomotive falls on their head?" I grunted.

"Keep on dressing. We're not out of this jungle yet."

"So have you any plans?"

She nodded soberly. "Yes, Steve. Once you asked me to be your telepath,
to complete your team. I let you down. Now I've picked you up again, and
from here on--out--I--"

I nodded. "Sold," I told her.

"Good. Now, Steve, dig the hallway."

I did. There was no one there. I opened my mouth to tell her so, and
then closed it foolishly.

"Dig the hallway down to the left. Farther. To the door down
there--three beyond the one you're perceiving now--is there a wheelchair
there?"

"Wheelchair?" I blurted.

"Steve, this is a hospital. They don't even let a man with an aching
tooth walk to the toothache ward. He rides. Now, you keep a good esper
watch on the hall and if anybody looks out while I'm gone, just cast a
deep dig at their face. It's possible that at this close range I can
identify them from the perceived image in your mind. Although, God
knows, no two people ever _see_ anything alike, let alone perceive it."

She slipped out, leaving me with the recumbent form of my former
sweetheart. Her face had fallen into the relaxed expression of sleep,
sort of slack and unbuttoned.

#Tough, baby,# I thought as I closed my eyes so that all my energy could
be aimed at the use of my perception.

Farrow was going down the hall like a professional heading for the
wheelchair on a strict order. No one bothered to look out; she reached
the locker room and dusted the wheelchair just as if she'd been getting
it for a real patient. (The throb in my finger returned for a parthian
shot and I remembered that I _was_ a real patient!) She trundled the
chair back and into my room.

"In," she said. "And keep that perception aimed on the hallway, the
elevator, and the center corridor stairs."

She packed me with a blanket, tucking it so that my shoes and
overclothing would not show, doing the job briskly. Then she scooped
Catherine up from the floor and dropped her into my bed, and then rolled
Catherine into one of those hospital doodads that hospitals use for male
and female alike as bedclothing.

"Anyone taking a fast dig in here will think she's a patient--unless the
digger knows that this room is supposed to be occupied by one Steve
Cornell, obviously male. Now, Steve, ready to steer?"

"Steer?"

"Steer by esper. I'll drive. Oh--I know the way," she told me with a
chuckle. "You just keep your perception peeled for characters who might
be over-nosy. I'll handle the rest."

We went along the hallway. I took fast digs at the rooms and hall ahead
of us; the whole coast seemed clear. Waiting for the two-bit elevator
was nerve wracking; hospitals always have such poky elevators. But
eventually it came and we trundled aboard. The pilot was no big-dome. He
smiled at Nurse Farrow and nodded genially at me. He was probably a
blank, jockeying an elevator is about the top job for a non-psi these
days.

But as the elevator started down, a doctor came out of one of the rooms
on the floor below. He took a fast look at the indicator above the
elevator door and made a dash to thumb the button. The elevator came to
a grinding halt and he got on.

This bothered me, but Farrow merely simpered at the guy and melted him
down to size. She made some remark to him that I couldn't hear, but from
the sudden increase of his pulse rate, I gathered that she'd really put
him off guard. He replied in the same unintelligible tone and reached
for her hand. She held his hand, and if the guy was thinking of me, my
name is Sing Hoy Low and I am a Chinese Policeman.

He held her hand until we hit the first floor, and he debarked with a
calf-like glance at Nurse Farrow. We went on to the ground floor and
down the lower corridor to the end, where Farrow spent another lifetime
and a half filling out a white cardboard form.

The superintendent eyed me with a sniff. "I'll call the car," she said.

I half-expected Farrow to make some objection, but she quietly nodded
and we waited for another lifetime until a big car whined to a stop
outside. Two big guys in white coats came in, tripped the lever on back
of the wheelchair and stretched me out flat and low-slung on the same
wheels. It was a neat conversion from wheelchair to wheeled stretcher,
but as Farrow trundled me out feet first into the cold, I felt a sort of
nervous chill somewhere south of my navel. She swung me around at the
last minute and I was shoved head first into the back of the car.

Car? This was a full-fledged ambulance, about as long as a city block
and as heavy as a battleship. It was completely fitted for everything
that anybody could think of, including a great big muscular
turbo-electric power plant capable of putting many miles per behind the
tail-pipe.

The door closed on my feet, and we took off with Farrow sitting right
behind the two big hospital attendants, one of whom was driving and the
other of whom was ogling Farrow in a calculating manner. She invited the
ogle. Heck, she did it in such a way that I couldn't help ogling a bit
myself. If I haven't said that Farrow was an attractive woman, it was
because I hadn't really paid attention to her looks. But now I went
along and ogled, realizing in the dimmer and more obscure recesses of my
mind that if I ogled in a loudly lewd perceptive manner, I'd not be
thinking of what she was doing.

So while I was pleasantly occupied in ogling, Farrow slipped two more
hypos out from under her clothing. She slipped her hands out sidewise on
the backs of their seats, put her face between them and said, "Anybody
got a cigarette, fellows?"

The next that took place happened, in order of occurrence, as follows:

The driver grunted and turned his head to look at her. The other guy
fumbled for a cigarette. Driver poked at the lighter on the dash, still
dividing his attention between the road and Nurse Farrow. The man beside
him reached for the lighter when it popped out and he held it for her
while she puffed it into action. Farrow fingered the triggers on the
skin-blast hypos. The man beside the driver replaced the lighter in its
socket on the dash. The driver slid aside and to the floor, a second
before the other hospital orderly flopped down like a deflated balloon.

The ambulance took a swoop to the right, nosed down into a shallow ditch
and leaped like a shot deer out on the other side.

Farrow went over the back of the seat in a flurry and I rolled off of my
stretcher into the angle of the floor and the sidewall. There was a
rumble and then a series of crashes before we came to a shuddering halt.
I came up from beneath a pile of assorted medical supplies, braced
myself against the canted deck, and looked out the wind-shield. The
trunk of a tree split the field of view as close to dead center as it
could be.

"Out, Steve," said Farrow, untangling herself from the steering wheel
and the two attendants. "Out!"

"What next?" I asked her.

"We've made enough racket to wake the statue of Lincoln. Out and run for
it."

"Which way?"

"Follow me!" she snapped, and took off. Even in nurse's shoes with those
semi-heels, Farrow made time in a phenomenal way. I lost ground
steadily. Luckily it was still early in the afternoon, so I used my
perception to keep track of her once she got out of sight. She was
following the gently rolling ground, keeping to the lower hollows and
gradually heading toward a group of buildings off in the near-distance.

I caught up with her just as we hit a tiny patch of dead area; just
inside the area she stopped and we flopped on the ground and panted our
lungs full of nice biting cold air. Then she pointed at the collection
of buildings and said, "Steve, take a few steps out of this deadness and
take a fast dig. Look for cars."

I nodded; in a few steps I could send my esper forward to dig the fact
that there were several cars parked in a row near one of the buildings.
I wasted no time in digging any deeper, I just retreated into the dead
area and told her what I'd seen.

"Take another dig, Steve. Take a dig for ignition keys. We've got to
steal."

"I don't mind stealing." I took another trip into the open section and
gandered at ignition locks. I tried to memorize the ones with keys
hanging in the locks but failed to remember all of them.

"Okay, Steve. This is where we walk in boldly and walk up to a couple of
cars and get in and drive off."

"Yeah, but why--"

"That's the only way we'll ever get out of here," she told me firmly.

I shrugged. Farrow knew more about the Medical Center than I did. If
that's the way she figured it, that's the way it had to be. We broke out
of the dead area, and as we came into the open, Farrow linked her arm in
mine and hugged it.

"Make like a couple of fatuous mushbirds," she chuckled. "We've been out
walking and communing with nature and getting acquainted."

"Isn't the fact that you're Mekstrom and I'm human likely to cause some
rather pointed comment?"

"It would if we were to stick around to hear it," she said. "And if they
try to read our minds, all we have to do is to think nice mushy
thoughts. Face it," she said quietly, "it won't be hard."

"Huh?"

"You're a rather nice guy, Steve. You're fast on the uptake, you're
generally pleasant. You've got an awful lot of grit, guts and
determination, Steve. You're no pinup boy, Steve, but--and this may come
as a shock to you--women don't put one-tenth the stock in pulchritude
that men do? You--"

"Hey. Whoa," I bubbled. "Slow down, before you--"

She hugged my arm again. "Steve," she said seriously, "I'm not in love
with you. It's not possible for a woman to be in love with a man who
does not return that love. You don't love me. But you can't help but
admit that I am an attractive woman, Steve, and perhaps under other
circumstances you'd take on a large load of that old feeling. I'll admit
that the reverse could easily take place. Now, let's forget all the odd
angles and start thinking like a pair of people for whom the time, the
place, and the opposite sex all turned up opportunely."

I couldn't help thinking of Nurse Farrow as--Nurse Farrow. The name
Gloria did not quite come out. I tried to submerge this mental attitude,
and so I looked down at her with what I hoped to resemble the expression
of a love-struck male. I think it was closer to the expression of a
would-be little-theatre actor expressing lust, and not quite making the
grade. Farrow giggled.

But as I sort of leered down at her, I had to admit upon proper
examination of her charm that Nurse Farrow could very easily become
Gloria, if as she said, we had the time to let the change occur. Another
idea formed in my mind: If Farrow had been kicked in the emotions by
Thorndyke, I'd equally been pushed in the face by Catherine. That made
us sort of kindred souls, as they used to call it in the early books of
the Twentieth Century.

Gloria Farrow chuckled. "Unlike the old torch-carriers of that day," she
said, "we rebound a bit too fast."

Then she let my arm go and took my hand. We went swinging across the
field in a sort of happy comradeship; it must have looked as though we
were long-term friends. She was a good egg, hurt and beaten down and
shoved off by Thorndyke, but she had a lot of the good old bounce. Of a
sudden impulse I wanted to kiss her.

"Go ahead, Steve," she said. "But it'll be for the probable onlookers.
I'm Mekstrom, you know."

So I didn't try. I just put an arm around her briefly and realized that
any attempt at affection would be like trying to strike sparks off flint
with a hunk of flannel.

We walked hand in hand towards the buildings, strolled up saucily
towards two of the parked cars, made the sort of wave that lovers give
one another in goodbye when they don't really want to demonstrate their
affection before ten thousand people and stepped into two cars and took
off.

Gloria Farrow was in the lead.

We went howling down the road, Farrow in the lead car by a hundred feet
and me behind her. We went roaring around a curve, over a hill, and I
had my perception out to its range, which was far ahead of her car. The
main gate came into range, and we bore down upon that wire and steel
portal like a pair of madmen.

Gloria Farrow plowed into the gate without letting up. The gate went
whirling in pieces, glass flew and tires howled and bits of metal and
plastic sang through the air. Her car weaved aside; I forgot the road
ahead and put my perception into her car.

Farrow was fighting the wheel like a racing driver in a spin. Her hands
wrenched the wheel with the swift strength of the Mekstrom Flesh she
wore, and the wheel bent under her hands. Over and around she went, with
a tire blown and the lower rail of the big gate hanging onto the fender
like a dry-land sea-anchor. She juggled the wheel and made a snaky path
off to one side of the road.

Out of the guardhouse came a uniformed man with a riot gun. He did not
have time to raise it. Farrow ironed out her course and aimed the
careening car dead center. She mowed the guard down and a
half-thousandth of a second later she plowed into the guardhouse. The
structure erupted like a box of stove-matches hit with a heavy-caliber
soft-nosed slug, like a house of cards and an air-jet. There was a roar
and a small gout of flame and then out of the flying wreckage on the far
side came Farrow and her stolen car. Out of the mess of brimstone and
shingles she came, turning end for end in a crazy, metal-crushing twist
and spin. She ground to a broken halt before the last of the debris
landed, and then everything was silent.

And then for the first and only time in my life I felt the penetrant,
forceful impact of an incoming thought; a mental contact from another
mind:

#Steve!# it screamed in my mind, #Get out! Get going! It's your move
now----#

I put my foot on the faucet and poured on the oil.



XXI


My car leaped forward and I headed along the outside road towards the
nearby highway. Through the busted gate I roared, past the downed guard
and the smashed guardhouse, past the wreck of Farrow's car.

But Nurse Farrow was not finished with this gambit yet. As I drew even
with her, she pried herself out of the messy tangle and came across the
field in a dead run--and how that girl could run! As fast as I was
going, she caught up; as fast as it all happened I had too little time
to slow me down before Nurse Farrow closed the intervening distance from
her wreck to my car and had hooked her arm in through one open window.

My car lurched with the impact, but I fought the wheel straight again
and Farrow snapped, "Keep going, Steve!"

I kept going; Farrow snaked herself inside and flopped into the seat
beside me. "Now," she said, patting the dashboard of our car, "It's up
to the both of us now! Don't talk, Steve. Just drive like crazy!"

"Where--?"

She laughed a weak little chuckle. "Anywhere--so long as it's a long,
long way from here."

I nodded and settled down to some fancy mile-getting. Farrow relaxed in
the seat, opened the glove compartment and took out a first aid kit. It
was only then I noticed that she was banged up quite a bit for a
Mekstrom. I'd not been too surprised when she emerged from the wreck;
I'd become used to the idea of the indestructibility of the Mekstrom. I
was a bit surprised at her being banged up; I'd become so used to their
damage-proof hide that the idea of minor cuts, scars, mars, and
abrasions hadn't occurred to me. Yes, that wreck would have mangled a
normal man into an unrecognizable mess of hamburger. Yet I'd expected a
Mekstrom to come through it unscathed.

On the other hand, the damage to Farrow's body was really minor. She
bled from a long gash on her thigh, from a wound on her right arm, and
from a myriad of little cuts on her face, neck, and shoulders.

So as I drove crazy-fast away from the Medical Center Nurse Farrow
relaxed in the seat and applied adhesive tape, compresses, and closed
the gashes with a batch of little skin clips in lieu of sutures. Then
she lit two cigarettes and handed one of them to me. "Okay now, Steve,"
she said easily. "Let's drive a little less crazily."

I pulled the car down to a flat hundred and felt the strain go out of
me.

"As I remember, there's one of the Highways not far from here--"

She shook her head. "No, Steve. We don't want the Highways in Hiding,
either."

At a mere hundred per I could let my esper do the road-sighting, so I
looked over at her. She was half-smiling, but beneath the little smile
was a firm look of self-confidence. "No," she said quietly, "We don't
want the Highways. If we go there, Phelps and his outfit will turn
heaven and earth to break it up, now that you've become so important.
You forget that the Medical Center is still being run to look legal and
aboveboard; while the Highways are still in Hiding. Phelps could make
quite a bitter case out of their reluctance to come out into the open."

"Well, where do we go?" I asked.

"West," she said simply. "West, into New Mexico. To my home."

This sort of startled me. Somehow I'd not connected Farrow with any
permanent home; as a nurse and later as one of the Medical Center, I'd
come to think of her as having no permanent home of her own. Yet like
the rest of us, Nurse Farrow had been brought up in a home with a mother
and a father and probably some sisters and brothers. Mine were dead and
the original home disbanded, but there was no reason why I should think
of everybody else in the same terms. After all, Catherine had had a
mother and a father who'd come to see me after her disappearance.

So we went West, across Southern Illinois and over the big bridge at St.
Louis into Missouri and across Missouri and West, West, West. We parked
nights in small motels and took turns sleeping with one of us always
awake and alert with esper and telepath senses geared high for the first
sight of any threat. We gave the Highways we came upon a wide berth; at
no time did we come close to any of their way stations. It made our path
crooked and much longer than it might have been if we'd strung a line
and gone. But eventually we ended up in a small town in New Mexico and
at a small ranch house on the edge of the town.

It is nice to have parents; I missed my own deeply when I was reminded
of the sweet wonder of having people just plain glad to see their
children again, no matter what they'd done under any circumstances. Even
bringing a semi-invalid into their homes for an extended course of
treatment.

John Farrow was a tall man with gray at the temples and a pair of sharp
blue eyes that missed nothing. He was a fair perceptive who might have
been quite proficient if he had taken the full psi course at some
university. Mrs. Farrow was the kind of elderly woman that any man would
like to have for a mother. She was sweet and gentle but there was
neither foolish softness or fatuous nonsense about her. She was a
telepath and she knew her way around and let people know that she knew
what the score was. Farrow had a brother, James, who was not at home; he
lived in town with his wife but came out to the old homestead about once
every week on some errand or other.

They took me in as though I'd come home with their daughter for
sentimental reasons; Gloria sat with us in their living room and went
through the whole story, interrupted now and then by a remark aimed at
me. They inspected my hand and agreed that something must be done. They
were extremely interested in the Mekstrom problem and were amazed at
their daughter's feats of strength and endurance.

My hand, by this time, was beginning to throb again. The infection was
heading on a fine start down the pinky and middle fingers; the ring
finger was approaching the second joint to that point where the advance
stopped long enough for the infection to become complete before it
crossed the joint. The first waves of that particular pain were coming
at intervals and I knew that within a few hours the pain would become
waves of agony so deep that I would not be able to stand it.

Ultimately, Farrow got her brother James to come out from town with his
tools, and between us all we rigged up a small manipulator for my hand.
Farrow performed the medical operations from the kit in the back of her
car we'd stolen from the Medical Center.

Then after they'd put my hand through the next phase, Nurse Farrow
looked me over and gave the opinion that it was now approaching the time
for me to get the rest of the full treatment.

One evening I went to bed, to be in bed for four solid months.

       *       *       *       *       *

I'd like to be able to give a blow by blow description of those four
solid months. Unfortunately, I was under dope so much of the time that I
know little about it. It was not pleasant. My arm laid like a log from
the Petrified Forest, strapped into the machine that moved the joints
with regular motion, and with each motion starting a dart of fire and
mangling pain up to the shoulder. Needles entered the veins at the elbow
and the armpit, and from bottles suspended almost to the ceiling to
provide a pressurehead, plasma and blood-sustenance was trickled in to
keep the arm alive.

Dimly I recall having the other arm strapped down and the waves of pain
that blasted at me from both sides. The only way I kept from going out
of my mind with the pain was living from hypo to hypo and waiting for
the blessed blackness that wiped out the agony; only to come out of it
hours later with my infection advanced to another point of pain. When
the infection reached my right shoulder, it stopped for a long time; the
infection rose up my left arm and also stopped at the shoulder. I came
out of the dope to find James and his father fitting one of the
manipulators to my right leg and through that I could feel the darting
pains in my calf and thigh.

At those few times when my mind was clear enough to let me use my
perception, I dug the room and found that I was lying in a veritable
forest of bottles and rubber tubes and a swathe of bandages.

Utterly helpless, I vaguely knew that I was being cared for in every
way. The periods of clarity were fewer, now, and shorter when they came.
I awoke once to find my throat paralyzed, and again to find that my jaw,
tongue, and lower face was a solid pincushion of darting needles of
fire. Later, my ears reported not a sound, and even later still I awoke
to find myself strapped into a portable resuscitator that moved my chest
up and down with an inexorable force.

That's about all I know of it. When the smoke cleared away completely
and the veil across my eyes was gone, it was Spring outside and I was a
Mekstrom.

       *       *       *       *       *

I sat up in bed.

It was morning, the sun was streaming in the window brightly and the
fresh morning air of Spring stirred the curtains gently. It was quite
warm and the smell that came in from the outside was alive with newborn
greenery. It felt good just to be alive.

The hanging bottles and festoons of rubber hose were gone. The crude
manipulators had been stowed somewhere and the bottles of medicine and
stuff were missing from the bureau. There wasn't even a thermometer in a
glass anywhere within the range of my vision, and frankly I was so glad
to be alive again that I did not see any point to digging through the
joint with my perception to find the location of the medical junk.
Instead, I just wanted to get up and run.

I did take a swing at the clothes closet and found my stuff. Then I took
a mild pass at the house, located the bathroom and also assured myself
that no one was likely to interrupt me.

I was going to shave and shower and dress and go downstairs. I was just
shrugging myself up and out of bed when Nurse Farrow came bustling up
the stairs and into the room with no preamble.

"Hi!" I greeted her. "I was going to--"

"Surprise us," she said quickly. "I know. So I came up to see that you
don't get into trouble."

"Trouble?" I asked, pausing on the edge of the bed.

"You're a Mekstrom, Steve," she told me unnecessarily. Then she caught
my thought and went on: "It's necessary to remind you. You have to learn
how to control your strength, Steve."

I flexed my arms. They didn't feel any different. I pinched my muscle
with my other hand and it pinched just as it always had. I took a deep
breath and the air went in pleasantly and come out again.

"I don't feel any different," I told her.

She smiled and handed me a common wooden lead pencil. "Write your name,"
she directed.

"Think I'll have to learn all over?" I grinned. I took the pencil, put
my fist down on the top of the bureau above a pad of paper and chuckled
at Farrow. "Now, let's see, my first initial is the letter 'S' made by
starting at the top and coming around in a sweeping, graceful curve like
this--"

It didn't come around in any curve. As the lead point hit the paper it
bore down in, flicked off the tip, and then crunched down, breaking off
the point and splintering the thin, whittled wood for about an eighth of
an inch. The fact that I could not control it bothered me inside and I
instinctively clutched at the shaft of the pencil. It cracked in three
places in my hand; the top end with the eraser fell down over my wrist
to the bureau top and rolled in a rapid rattle to the edge where it fell
to the floor.

"See?" asked Farrow softly.

"But--?" I blundered uncertainly.

"Steve, your muscles and your nervous system have been stepped up
proportionately. You've got to re-learn the coordination between the
muscle-stimulus and the feedback information from the work you are
doing."

I began to see what she meant. I remembered long years ago at school,
when we'd been studying some of the new alloys and there had been a
sample of a magnesium-lithium-something alloy that was machined into a
smooth cylinder about four inches in diameter and a foot long. It looked
like hard steel. People who picked it up for the first time invariably
braced their muscles and set both hands on it. But it was so light that
their initial effort almost tossed the bar through the ceiling, and even
long after we all knew, it was hard not to attack the bar without using
the experience of our mind and sense that told us that any bar of metal
_that_ big had to be _that_ heavy.

I went to a chair. Farrow said, "Be careful," and I was. But it was no
trick at all to take the chair by one leg at the bottom and lift it chin
high.

"Now, go take your shower," she told me. "But Steve, please be careful
of the plumbing. You can twist off the faucet handles, you know."

I nodded and turned to her, holding out a hand. "Farrow, you're a
brick!"

She took my hand. It was not steel hard. It was warm and firm and
pleasant. It was--holding hands with a woman.

Farrow stepped back. "One thing you'll have to remember," she said
cheerfully, "is only to mix with your own kind from now on. Now go get
that shower and shave. I'll be getting breakfast."

Showering was not hard and I remembered not to twist off the water-tap
handles. Shaving was easy although I had to change razor blades three
times in the process. I broke all the teeth out of the comb because it
was never intended to be pulled through a thicket of piano wire.

Getting dressed was something else. I caught my heel in one trouser leg
and shredded the cloth. I broke the buckle on my belt. My shoelaces went
like parting a length of wet spaghetti. The button on the top of my
shirt pinched off and when I gave that final jerk to my necktie it
pulled the knot down into something about the size of a pea.

Breakfast was very pleasant, although I bent the fork tines spearing a
rasher of bacon and removed the handle of my coffee cup without half
trying. After breakfast I discovered that I could not remove a cigarette
from the package without pinching the end down flat, and after I
succeeded in getting one into my mouth by treating both smoke and match
as if they were made of tissue paper, my first drag on the smoke lit a
howling furnace-fire on the end that consumed half of the cigarette in
the first puff.

"You're going to take some school before you are fit to walk among
normal people, Steve," said Gloria with amused interest.

"You're informing me?" I asked with some dismay, eyeing the wreckage
left in my wake. Compared to the New Steve Cornell, the famous bull in
the china shop was Gentle Ferdinand. I picked up the cigarette package
again; it squoze down even though I tried to treat it gentle; I felt
like Lenny, pinching the head off of the mouse. I also felt about as
much of a bumbling idiot as Lenny, too.

My re-education went on before, through, and after breakfast. I
manhandled old books from the attic. I shredded newspapers. I ruined
some more lead pencils and finally broke the pencil sharpener to boot. I
put an elbow through the middle panel of the kitchen door without even
feeling it and then managed to twist off the door knob. Generally
operating like a one-man army of vandals, I laid waste to the Farrow
home.

Having thus ruined a nice house, Gloria decided to try my strength on
her car. I was much too fast and too hard on the brakes, which of course
was not too bad because my foot was also too insensitive on the
go-pedal. We took off like a rocket being launched and then I tromped on
the brakes (Bending the pedal) which brought us down sharp like hitting
a haystack. This allowed our heads to catch up with the rest of us; I'm
sure that if we'd been normal-bodied human beings we'd have had our
spines snapped. Eventually I learned that everything had to be handled
as if it were tissue paper, and gradually re-adjusted my reflexes to
take proper cognizance of the feedback data according to my new body.

We returned home after a hectic twenty miles of roadwork and I broke the
glass as I slammed the car door.

"It's going to take time," I admitted with some reluctance.

"It always does," smiled Farrow as cheerfully as if I hadn't ruined
their possessions.

"I don't know how I'm going to face your folks."

Farrow's smile became cryptic. "Maybe they won't notice."

"Now look, Farrow----"

"Steve, don't forget for the moment that you're the only known Mekstrom
Carrier."

"In other words your parents are due for the treatment next?"

"Oh, I was most thorough. Both of them are in the final stages right
now. I'm sure that anything you did to the joint will only be added to
by the time they get to the walking stage. And also anything you did
they'll feel well repaid."

"I didn't do anything for them."

"You provided them with Mekstrom bodies," she said simply.

"They took to it willingly?"

"Yes. As soon as they were convinced by watching me and my strength.
They knew what it would be like, but they were all for it."

"You've been a very busy girl," I told her.

She just nodded. Then she looked up at me with troubled eyes and asked,
"What are you going to do now, Steve?"

"I'm going to haul the whole shebang down like Samson in the Temple."

"A lot of innocent people are going to get hurt if you do that."

"I can't very well find a cave in Antarctica and hide," I replied
glumly.

"Think a bit, Steve. Could either side afford to let you walk into New
Washington with the living proof of your Mekstrom Body?"

#Didn't stop 'em before,# I thought angrily. #And it seems to me that
both sides were sort of urging me to go and do something that would
uncover the other side.#

"Not deep enough," said Farrow. "That was only during the early phases.
Go back to the day when you didn't know what was going on."

I grunted sourly, "Look, Farrow, tell me. Why must I fumble my way
through this as I've fumbled through everything else?"

"Because only by coming to the conclusion in your own way will you be
convinced that someone isn't lying to you. Now, think it over, Steve."

It made sense. Even if I came to the wrong conclusion, I'd believe it
more than if someone had told me. Farrow nodded, following my thoughts.
Then I plunged in:

#First we have a man who is found to be a carrier of Mekstrom's Disease.
He doesn't know anything about the disease. Right?# (Farrow nodded
slowly.) #So now the Medical Center puts an anchor onto their carrier by
sicking an attractive dame on his trail. Um--# At this point I went into
a bit of a mental whirly-around trying to find an answer to one of the
puzzlers. Farrow just looked at me with a non-leading expression,
waiting. I came out of the merry-go-round after six times around the
circuit and went on:

#I don't know all the factors. Obviously, Catherine had to lead me fast
because we had to marry before she contracted the disease from me. But
there's a discrepancy, Farrow. The little blonde receptionist caught it
in twenty-four hours--?#

"Steve," said Farrow, "this is one I'll have to explain, since you're
not a medical person. The period of incubation depends upon the type of
contact. You actually bit the receptionist. That put blood contact into
it. You didn't draw any blood from Catherine."

"We were pretty close," I said with a slight reddening of the ears.

"From a medical standpoint, you were not much closer to Catherine than
you have been to me, or Dr. Thorndyke. You were closer to Thorndyke and
me, say, than you've been to many of the incidental parties along the
path of our travels."

"Well, let that angle go for the moment. Anyway, Catherine and I had to
marry before the initial traces were evident. Then I'd be in the
position of a man whose wife had contracted Mekstrom's Disease on our
honeymoon, whereupon the Medical Center would step in and cure her, and
I'd be in the position of being forever grateful and willing to do
anything that the Medical Center wanted me to do. And as a poor
non-telepath, I'd probably never learn the truth. Right?"

"So far," she said, still in a noncommittal tone.

"So now we crack up along the Highway near the Harrison place. The
Highways take her in because they take any victim in no matter what. I
also presume from what's gone on that Catherine is a high enough
telepath to conceal her thinking and so to become an undercover agent in
the midst of the Highways organization. And at this point the long long
trail takes a fork, doesn't it? The Medical Center gang did not know
about the Highways in Hiding until Catherine and I barrelled into it end
over end."

Farrow's face softened, and although she said nothing I knew I was on
the right track.

#So at this point,# I went on silently, #Medical Center found themselves
in a mild quandary. They could hardly put another woman on my trail
because I was already emotionally involved with the missing
Catherine--and so they decided to use me in another way. I was shown
enough to keep me busy, I was more or less urged to go track down the
Highways in Hiding for the Medical Center. After all, as soon as I'd
made the initial discovery, Phelps and his outfit shouldn't have needed
any more help.#

"A bit more thinking, Steve. You've come up with that answer before."

#Sure. Phelps wanted me to take my tale to the Government. About this
secret Highway outfit. But if neither side can afford to have the secret
come out, how come--?# I pondered this for a long time and admitted that
it made no sense to me. Finally Farrow shook her head and said,

"Steve, I've got to prompt you now and then. But remember that I'm
trying to make you think it out yourself. Now consider: You are running
an organization that must be kept secret. Then someone learns the secret
and starts heading for the Authorities. What is your next move?"

"Okay," I replied. "So I'm stupid. Naturally, I pull in my horns, hide
my signs, and make like nothing was going on."

"So stopping the advance of your organization, which is all that Phelps
really can expect."

I thought some more. #And the fact that I was carrying a story that
would get me popped into the nearest hatch for the incipient paranoid
made it all right?#

She nodded.

"And now?" she asked me.

"And now I'm living proof of my story. Is that right?"

"Right. And Steve, do not forget for one moment that the only reason
that you're still alive is because you are valuable to both sides alive.
Dead, you're only good for a small quantity of Mekstrom Inoculation."

"Don't follow," I grunted. "As you say, I'm no medical person."

"Alive, your hair grows and must be cut. You shave and trim off beard.
Your fingernails are pared. Now and then you lose a small bit of hide or
a few milliliters of blood. These are things that, when injected under
the skin of a normal human, makes them Mekstrom. Dead, your ground up
body would not provide much substance."

"Pleasant prospect," I growled. "So what do I do to avert this future?"

"Steve, I don't know. I've done what I can for you. I've effected the
cure and I've done it in safety; you're still Steve Cornell."



XXII


"Look," I blurted with a sudden rush of brain to the head, "If I'm so
all-fired important to both sides, how come you managed to sequester me
for four months?"

"We do have the laws of privacy," said Farrow simply. "Which neither
side can afford to flout overtly. Furthermore, since neither side really
knew where you were, they've been busily prowling one another's camps
and locking up the prowlers from one another's camps, and playing spy
and counterspy and counter-counterspy, and generally piling it up
pyramid-wise," she finished with a chuckle. "You got away with following
that letter to Catherine because uppermost in your mind was the brain of
a lover hunting down his missing sweetheart. No one could go looking for
Steve Cornell, Mekstrom Carrier, for reasons not intrinsically private."

"For four months?" I asked, still incredulous.

"Well, one of the angles is that both sides knew you were immobilized
somewhere, going through this cure. Having you a full Mekstrom is
something that both sides want. So they've been willing to have you
cured."

"So long as someone does the work, huh?"

"Right," she said seriously.

"Well, then," I said with a grim smile, "the obvious thing for me to do
is to slink quietly into New Washington and to seek out some high
official in secrecy. I'll put my story and facts into his hands, make
him a Mekstrom, have him cured, and then we'll set up an agency to
provide the general public with--"

"Steve, you're an engineer. I presume you've studied mathematics. So
let's assume that you can--er--bite one person every ten seconds."

"That's six persons per minute; three-sixty per hour; and, ah,
eighty-six-forty per day. With one hundred and sixty million Americans
at the last census--um. Sixty years without sleep. I see what you mean."

"Not only that, Steve, but it would create a panic, if not a global war.
Make an announcement like that, and certain of our not-too-friendly
neighbors would demand their shares or else. So now add up your time to
take care of about three billion human souls on this Earth, Steve."

"All right. So I'll forget that cockeyed notion. But still, the
Government should know--"

"If we could be absolutely certain that every elected official is a
sensible, honest man, we could," said Farrow. "The trouble is that we've
got enough demagogues, publicity hounds, and rabble-rousers to make the
secret impossible to keep."

I couldn't argue against that. Farrow was right. Not only that, but
Government found it hard enough to function in this world of Rhine
Institute with honest secrets.

"Okay, then," I said. "The only thing to do is to go back to Homestead,
Texas, throw my aid to the Highways in Hiding, and see what we can do to
provide the Earth with some more sensible method of inoculation. I
obviously cannot go around biting people for the rest of my life."

"I guess that's it, Steve."

I looked at her. "I'll have to borrow your car."

"It's yours."

"You'll be all right?"

She nodded. "Eventually I'll be a way station on the Highways, I
suppose. Can you make it alone, Steve? Or would you rather wait until my
parents are cured? You could still use a telepath, you know."

"Think it's safe for me to wait?"

"It's been four months. Another week or two--?"

"All right. And in the meantime I'll practice getting along with this
new body of mine."

We left it there. I roamed the house with Farrow, helping her with her
parents. I gradually learned how to control the power of my new muscles;
learned how to walk among normal people without causing their attention;
and one day succeeded in shaking hands with a storekeeper without giving
away my secret.

Eventually Nurse Farrow's parents came out of their treatment and we
spent another couple of days with them.

We left them too soon, I'm sure, but they seemed willing that we take
off. They'd set up a telephone system for getting supplies so that
they'd not have to go into town until they learned how to handle their
bodies properly, and Farrow admitted that there was little more that we
could do.

So we took off because we all knew that time was running out. Even
though both sides had left us alone while I was immobilized, both sides
must have a time-table good enough to predict my eventual cure. In fact,
as I think about it now, both sides must have been waiting along the
outer edges of some theoretical area waiting for me to emerge, since
they couldn't come plowing in without giving away their purpose.

So we left in Farrow's car and once more hit the big broad road.

We drove towards Texas until we came upon a Highway, and then turned
along it looking for a way station. I wanted to get in touch with the
Highways. I wanted close communication with the Harrisons and the rest
of them, no matter what. Eventually we came upon a Sign with a missing
spoke and turned in.

The side road wound in and out, leading us back from the Highway towards
the conventional dead area. The house was a white structure among a
light thicket of trees, and as we came close to it, we met a man busily
tilling the soil with a tractor plow.

Farrow stopped her car. I leaned out and started to call, but something
stopped me.

"He is no Mekstrom, Steve," said Farrow in a whisper.

"But this is a way station, according to the road sign."

"I know. But it isn't, according to him. He doesn't know any more about
Mekstrom's Disease than you did before you met Catherine."

"Then what the devil is wrong?"

"I don't know. He's perceptive, but not too well trained. Name's William
Carroll. Let me do the talking, I'll drop leading remarks for you to
pick up."

The man came over amiably. "Looking for someone?" he asked cheerfully.

"Why, yes," said Gloria. "We're sort of mildly acquainted with
the--Mannheims who used to live here. Sort of friends of friends of
theirs, just dropped by to say hello, sort of," she went on, covering up
the fact that she'd picked the name of the former occupant out of his
mind.

"The Mannheims moved about two months ago," he said. "Sold the place to
us--we got a bargain. Don't really know, of course, but the story is
that one of them had to move for his health."

"Too bad. Know where they went?"

"No," said Carroll regretfully. "They seem to have a lot of friends.
Always stopping by, but I can't help 'em any."

#So they moved so fast that they couldn't even change their Highway
Sign?# I thought worriedly.

Farrow nodded at me almost imperceptibly. Then she said to Carroll,
"Well, we won't keep you. Too bad the Mannheims moved, without leaving
an address."

"Yeah," he said with obvious semi-interest. He eyed his half-plowed
field and Farrow started her car.

We started off and he turned to go back to his work. "Anything?" I
asked.

"No," she said, but it was a very puzzled voice. "Nothing that I can put
a finger on."

"But what?"

"I don't know much about real estate deals," she said. "I suppose that
one family could move out and another family move in just in this short
a time."

"Usually they don't let farmlands lie fallow," I pointed out. "If
there's anything off color here, it's the fact that they changed their
residence without changing the Highway sign."

"Unless," I suggested brightly, "this is the coincidence. Maybe this
sign is really one that got busted."

Farrow turned her car into the main highway and we went along it. I
could have been right about the spoke actually being broken instead of
removed for its directing purpose. I hoped so. In fact I hoped so hard
that I was almost willing to forget the other bits of evidence. But then
I had to face the truth because we passed another Highway Sign and, of
course, its directional information pointed to that farm. The signs on
our side of the highway were upside down; indicating that we were
leaving the way station. The ones that were posted on the left hand side
were rightside up, indicating that the drive was approaching a way
station. That cinched it.

#Well,# as I told both Farrow and me, #one error doesn't create a trend.
Let's take another look!#

One thing and another, we would either hit another way station before we
got to Homestead, or we wouldn't. Either one could put us wise. So we
took off again with determination and finally left that side of
erroneous Highway Signs when we turned onto Route 66. We weren't on
Route 66 very long because the famous U.S. Highway sort of trends to the
Northeast and Homestead was in a Southern portion of Texas. We left
Route 66 at Amarillo and picked up U.S. 87, which leads due South.

Not many miles out of Amarillo we came up another set of Highway Signs
that pointed us on to the South. I tried to remember whether this
section led to Homestead by a long route, but I hadn't paid too much
attention to the maps when I'd had the chance and therefore the facts
eluded me.

We'd find out, Farrow and I agreed, and then before we could think much
more about it, we came upon a way station sign that pointed in to
another farmhouse.

"Easy," I said.

"You bet," she replied, pointing to the rural-type mailbox alongside the
road.

I nodded. The box was not new but the lettering on the side was. "Still
wet," I said with a grunt.

Farrow slowed her car as we approached the house and I leaned out and
gave a cheerful hail. A woman came out of the front door and waved at
us.

"I'm trying to locate a family named Harrison," I called. "Lived around
here somewhere."

The woman looked thoughtful. She was maybe thirty-five or so, clean but
not company-dressed. There was a smudge of flour on her cheek and a
smile on her face and she looked wholesome and honest.

"Why, I don't really know," she said. "That name sounds familiar, but it
is not an uncommon name."

"I know," I said uselessly. Farrow nudged me on the ankle with her toe
and then made a swift sign for "P" in the hand-sign code.

"Why don't you come on in?" invited the woman. "We've got an area
telephone directory here. Maybe--?"

Farrow nudged me once more and made the sign of "M" with her swift
fingers. We had hit it this time; here was a woman perceptive and a
Mekstrom residing in a way station. I took a mild dig at her hands and
there was no doubt of her.

A man's head appeared in the doorway above the woman; he had a hard face
and he was tall and broad shouldered but there was a smile on his face
that spread around the pipe he was biting on. He called, "Come on in and
take a look."

Farrow made the sign of "T" and "M" and that told me that he was a
telepath. She hadn't needed the "M" sign because I'd taken a fast
glimpse of his hide as soon as he appeared. Parrying for time and
something evidential, I merely said, "No, we'd hate to intrude. We were
just asking."

The man said, "Oh, shucks, Mister. Come on in and have a cup of coffee,
anyway." His invitation was swift enough to set me on edge.

I turned my perception away from him and took a fast cast at the
surrounding territory. There was a mildly dead area along the lead-in
road to the left; it curved around in a large arc and the other horn of
this horseshoe shape came up behind the house and stopped abruptly just
inside of their front door. The density of this area varied, the end in
which the house was built was so total that I couldn't penetrate, while
the other end that curved around to end by the road tapered off in
deadness until it was hard to define the boundary.

If someone were pulling a flanking movement around through that
horseshoe to cut off our retreat, it would become evident very soon.

A swift thought went through my mind: #Farrow, they're Mekstroms and
he's a telepath and she's a perceptive, and they know we're friendly if
they're Highways. If they're connected with Scholar Phelps and his--#

The man repeated, "Come on in. We've some mail to go to Homestead that
you can take if you will."

Farrow made no sound. She just seesawed her car with three rapid
back-and-forth jerks that sent showers of stones from her spinning
wheels. We whined around in a curve that careened the car up on its
outside wheels. Then we ironed out and showered the face of the man with
stones from the wheels as we took off. The shower of dust and stones
blinded him, and kept him from latching onto the tail of the car and
climbing in. We left him behind, swearing and rubbing dirt from his
eyes.

We whipped past the other end of the horseshoe area just as a jeepster
came roaring down out of the thickened part into the region where my
perception could make out the important things (Like three burly gents
wearing hunting rifles, for instance.) They jounced over the rough
ground and onto the lead-in road just behind us; another few seconds of
gab with our friends and they'd have been able to cut us off.

"Pour it on, Farrow!"

I knew I was a bit of a cowboy, but Farrow made me look like a
tenderfoot. We rocketed down the winding road with our wheels riding up
on either side like the course in a toboggan run and Farrow rode that
car like a test pilot in a sudden thunderstorm.

I was worried about the hunting rifles, but I need not have been
concerned. We were going too fast to make good aim, and their jeepster
was not a vehicle known for its smooth riding qualities. They lost one
character over a rough bounce and he went tail over scalp into the grass
along the way. He scared me by leaping to his feet, grabbing the rifle
and throwing it up to aim. But before he could squeeze off a round we
were out of the lead-in road and on the broad highway.

Once on the main road again, Farrow put the car hard down by the nose
and we outran them. The jeepster was a workhorse and could have either
pulled over the house or climbed the wall and run along the roof, but it
was not made for chase.

"That," I said, "seems to be that."

"Something is bad," agreed Farrow.

"Well, I doubt that they'll be able to clean out a place as big as
Homestead. So let's take our careful route to Homestead and find out
precisely what the devil is cooking."

"Know the route?"

"No, but I know where it is on the map and we can figure it out from--"

"Steve, stop. Take a very careful and delicate view over to the right."

"Digging for what?"

"Another car pacing us along a road on the other side of that field."

I tried and failed. Then I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes
and tried again. On this second try I got a very hazy perception of a
large moving mass that could only have been a car. In the car I received
a stronger impression of weapons. It was the latter that cinched it.

I hauled out my roadmap and turned it to Texas. I thumbed the sectional
maps of Texas until I located the sub-district through which we were
passing and then I identified this section of U.S. 87 precisely. There
was another road parallel and a half mile to the right, a dirt road
according to the map-legend. It intersected our road a few miles ahead.

My next was a thorough covering of the road behind; as I expected
another car was pacing us just beyond the range of my perception for
anything but a rifle aimed at my hide.

Pacing isn't quite the word, I use it in the sense of their keeping up
with us. Fact is that all of us were going about as fast as we could go,
with safety of tertiary importance. Anyway, they were pacing us and
closing down from that parallel road on the right.

I took a fast and very careful scanning of the landscape to our left but
couldn't find anything. I spent some time at it then, but still came up
with a blank.

#Turn left at that feeder road a mile ahead,# I thought at Farrow and
she nodded.

There was one possibility that I did not like to face. We had definitely
detected pursuit to our right and behind, but not to our left. This did
not mean that the left-side was not covered. It was quite likely that
the gang to the rear were in telepathic touch with a network of other
telepaths, the end of which mental relay link was far beyond range, but
as close in touch with our position and action as if we'd been in sight.
The police make stake-out nets that way, but the idea is not exclusive.
I recall hazing an eloping couple that way once.

But there was nothing to do but to take the feeder road to the left,
because the devil we could see was more dangerous than the devil we
couldn't.

Farrow whipped into the side road and we tore along with only a slight
slowing of our headlong speed. I ranged ahead, worried, suspicious of
everything, scanning very carefully and strictly on the watch for any
evidence of attempted interception.

I caught a touch of danger converging up from the South on a series of
small roads. This I did not consider dangerous after a fast look at my
roadmap because this series of roads did not meet our side road for a
long time and only after a lot of turning and twisting. So long as we
went Easterly, we were okay from that angle.

The gang behind, of course, followed us, staying at the very edge of my
range.

"You'll have to fly, Farrow," I told her. "If that gang to our South
stays there, we'll not be able to turn down Homestead way."

"Steve, I'm holding this crate on the road by main force and awkwardness
as it is."

But she did step it up a bit, at that. I kept a cautious and suspicious
watchout, worrying in the back of my mind that someone among them might
turn up with a jetcopter. So long as the sky remained clear--

As time went on, I perceived that the converging car to the South was
losing ground because of the convolutions of their road. Accordingly we
turned to the South, making our way around their nose, sort of, and
crossing their anticipated course to lead South. We hit U.S. 180 to the
West of Breckenridge, Texas and then Farrow really poured on the coal.
The idea was to hit Fort Worth and lose them in the city where fun,
games, and telepath-perceptive hare-and-hounds would be viewed dimly by
the peaceloving citizens. Then we'd slope to the South on U.S. 81, cut
over to U.S. 75 somewhere to the South and take 75 like a cannonball
until we turned off on the familiar road to Homestead.

Fort Worth was a haven and a detriment to both sides. Neither of us
could afford to run afoul of the law. So we both cut down to sensible
speeds and snaked our way through the town, with Farrow and me probing
the roads to the South in hope of finding a clear lane.

There were three cars pacing us, cutting off our retreat Southward. They
hazed us forward to the East like a dog nosing a bunch of sheep towards
pappy's barn.

Then we were out of Forth Worth and on U.S. 180. We whipped into Dallas
and tried the same circumfusion as before and we were as neatly barred.
So we went out of Dallas on U.S. 67 and as we left the city limits, we
poured on the oil again, hoping to get around them so that we could turn
back South towards Homestead.

"Boxed," I said.

"Looks like it," said Farrow unhappily.

I looked at her. She was showing signs of weariness and I realized that
she'd been riding this road for hours. "Let me take it," I said.

"We need your perception," she objected. "You can't drive and keep a
ranging perception, Steve."

"A lot of good a ranging perception will do once you drop for lack of
sleep and we tie us up in a ditch."

"But--"

"We're boxed," I told her. "We're being hazed. Let's face it, Farrow.
They could have surrounded us and glommed us any time in the past six
hours."

"Why didn't they?" she asked.

"You ask that because you're tired," I said with a grim smile. "Any
bunch that has enough cars to throw a barrier along the streets of
cities like Forth Worth and Dallas have enough manpower to catch us if
they want to. So long as we drive where they want us to go, they won't
cramp us down."

"I hate to admit it."

"So do I. But let's swap, Farrow. Then you can use your telepathy on
them maybe and find out what their game is."

She nodded, pulled the car down to a mere ramble and we swapped seats
quickly. As I let the crate out again, I took one last, fast dig of the
landscape and located the cars that were blocking out the passageways to
the South, West, and North, leaving a nice inviting hole to the
Easterly-North way. Then I had to haul in my perception and slap it
along the road ahead, because I was going to ramble far and fast and see
if I could speed out of the trailing horseshoe and cut out around the
South horn with enough leeway to double back towards Homestead.

"Catch any plans from them?" I asked Farrow.

There was no answer. I looked at her. Gloria Farrow was semi-collapsed
in her seat, her eyes closed gently and her breath coming in long,
pleasant swells. I'd known she was tired, but I hadn't expected this
absolute ungluing. A damned good kid, Farrow.

At that last thought, Farrow moved slightly in her sleep and a wisp of a
smile crossed her lips briefly. Then she turned a bit and snuggled down
in the seat and really hit the slumber-path.

A car came roaring at me with flashing headlamps and I realized that
dusk was coming. I didn't need the lights, but oncoming drivers did, so
I snapped them on. The beams made bright tunnels in the light and we
went along and on and on and on, hour after hour. Now and then I caught
a perceptive impression the crescent of cars that were corralling us
along U.S. 67 and not letting us off the route.

I hauled out my roadmap and eyed the pages as I drove by perception.
U.S. 67 led to St. Louis and from there due North. I had a hunch that by
the time we played hide and seek through St. Louis and got ourselves
hazed out to their satisfaction, I'd be able to give a strong guess as
to our ultimate destination.

I settled down in my seat and just drove, still hoping to cut fast and
far around them on my way to Homestead.



XXIII


Three times during the night I tried to flip around and cut my way
through their cordon, and each time I faced interception. It was evident
that we were being driven and so long as we went to their satisfaction
they weren't going to clobber us.

Nurse Farrow woke up along about dawn, stretched, and remarked that she
could use a toothbrush and a tub of hot water and amusedly berated
herself for not filling the back seat before we took off. Then she
became serious again and asked for the details of the night, which I
slipped her as fast as I could.

We stopped long enough to swap seats, and I stretched out but I couldn't
sleep.

Finally I said, "Stop at the next dog wagon, Farrow. We're going to eat,
comes anything."

"Won't that be dangerous?"

"Shucks," I grunted angrily. "They'll probably thank us. They're
probably hungry too."

"We'll find out."

The smell of a roadside diner is usually a bit on the thick and greasy
side, but I was so hungry that morning that it smelled like mother's
kitchen. We went in, ordered coffee and orange juice, and then
disappeared into the rest rooms long enough to clean up. That felt so
good we ordered the works and watched the guy behind the fryplate handle
the bacon, eggs, and home-fries with a deft efficient manner.

We pitched in fast, hoping to beat the flies to our breakfast. We were
so intent that we paid no attention to the car that came into the lot
until a man came in, ordered coffee and a roll, and then carried it over
to our table.

"Fine day for a ride, isn't it?"

I eyed him; Farrow bristled and got very tense. I said, "I doubt that I
know you, friend."

"Quite likely. But I know you, Cornell."

I took a fast dig; there was no sign of anything lethal except the usual
collection of tire irons, screwdrivers, and other tools which, oddly
enough, seldom come through as being dangerous because they're not
weapons-by-design.

"I'm not heeled, Cornell. I'm just here to save us all some trouble."

#Telepath?#

He nodded imperceptibly. Then he said, "We'll all save time, gasoline,
and maybe getting into grief with the cops if you take Route 40 out of
St. Louis."

"Suppose I don't like U.S. 40?"

"Get used to it," he said with a crooked smile. "Because you'll take
U.S. 40 out of St. Louis whether you like it or not."

I returned his crooked smile. I also dug his hide and he was a Mekstrom,
of course. "Friend," I replied, "Nothing would convince me, after what
you've said, that U.S. 40 is anything but a cowpath; slippery when wet;
and impassible in the Early Spring, Late Summer, and the third Thursday
after Michelmas."

He stood up. "Cornell, I can see your point. You don't like U.S. 40. So
I'll help you good people. If you don't want to drive along such a lousy
slab of concrete, just say the word and we'll arrange for you to take it
in style, luxury, and without a trace of pain or strain. I'll be seein'
you. And a very pleasant trip to you, Miss Farrow."

Then the character got up, went to the cashier and paid for our
breakfast as well as his own. He took off in his car and I have never
seen him since.

Farrow looked at me, her face white and her whole attitude one of
fright. "U.S. 40," she said in a shaky voice, "runs like a stretched
string from St. Louis to Indianapolis."

She didn't have to tell me any more. About sixty miles North of
Indianapolis on Indiana State Highway 37 lies the thriving metropolis of
Marion, Indiana, the most important facet of which (to Farrow and me) is
an establishment called the Medical Research Center.

Nothing was going to make me drive out of St. Louis along U.S. 40.
Period; End of message; No answer required.

Nothing, because I was very well aware of their need to collect me alive
and kicking. If I could not roar out of St. Louis in the direction I
selected, I was going to turn my car end for end and have at them. Not
in any mild manner, but with deadly intent to do deadly damage. If I'd
make a mild pass, they'd undoubtedly corral me by main force and carry
me off kicking and screaming. But if I went at them to kill or get
killed, they'd have to move aside just to prevent me from killing
myself. I didn't think I'd get to the last final blow of that
self-destruction. I'd win through.

So we left the diner after a breakfast on our enemy's expense account
and took off again.

I was counting on St. Louis. The center of the old city is one big
shapeless blob of a dead area; so nice and cold that St. Louis has
reversed the usual city-type blight area growth. Ever since Rhine, the
slum sections have been moving out and the new buildings have been
moving in. So with the dead area and the brand-new, wide streets and
fancy traffic control, St. Louis was the place to go in along one road,
get lost in traffic, and come out, roaring along any road desirable. I
could not believe that any outfit, hoping to work under cover, could
collect enough manpower and cars to block every road, lane, highway and
duckrunway that led out of a city as big as St. Louis.

Again they hazed us by pacing along parallel roads and behind us with
the open end of their crescent aimed along U.S. 67. We went like hell;
without slowing a bit we sort of swooped up to St. Louis and took a fast
dive into that big blob-shaped dead area. We wound up in traffic and
tied Boy Scout knots in our course. I was concerned about overhead
coverage from a 'copter even though I've been told that the St. Louis
dead area extends upward in some places as high as thirteen thousand
feet.

The only thing missing was some device or doodad that would let us use
our perception or telepathy in this deadness while they couldn't. As it
was, we were as psi-blind as they were, so we had to go along the
streets with our eyes carefully peeled for cars of questionable
ownership. We saw some passenger cars with out-of-state licenses and
gave them wide clearances. One of them hung on our tail until I
committed a very neat coup by running through a stoplight and
sandwiching my car between two whopping big fourteen-wheel moving vans.
I'd have enjoyed the expression on the driver's face if I could have
seen it. But then we were gone and he was probably cussing.

I stayed between the vans as we wound ourselves along the road and
turned into a side street.

I stayed between them too long.

Because the guy in front slammed on his air-brakes and the big van came
to a stop with a howl of tires on concrete. The guy behind did not even
slow down. He closed in on us like an avalanche. I took a fast look
around and fought the wheel of my car to turn aside, but he whaled into
my tail and we went sliding forward. I was riding my brakes but the mass
of that moving van was so great that my tires just wore flats on the
pavement-side.

We were bearing down on that stopped van and it looked as though we were
going to be driving a very tall car with a very short wheelbase in a
very short time.

Then the whole back panel of the front van came tumbling towards me from
the top, pivoting on a hinge at the bottom, making a fine ramp. The van
behind me nudged us up the ramp and we hurtled forward against a thick,
resilient pad that stopped my car without any damage either to the car
or to the inhabitants.

Then the back panel closed up and the van took off.

Two big birds on each side opened the doors of our car simultaneously
and said "Out!"

The tall guy on my side gave me a cocksure smile and the short guy said,
"We're about to leave St. Louis on U.S. 40, Cornell. I hope you won't
find this journey too rough."

I started to take a swing, but the tall one caught my elbow and threw me
off balance. The short one reached down and picked up a baseball bat.
"Use this, Cornell," he told me. "Then no one will get hurt."

I looked at the pair of them, and then gave up. There are odd characters
in this world who actually enjoy physical combat and don't mind getting
hurt if they can hurt the other guy more. These were the type. Taking
that baseball bat and busting it over the head of either one would be
the same sort of act as kids use when they square off in an alley and
exchange light blows which they call a "cardy" just to make the fight
legal. All it would get me was a sore jaw and a few cracked ribs.

So after my determination to take after them with murderous intent,
they'd pulled my teeth by scooping me up in this van and disarming me.

I relaxed.

The short one nodded, although he looked disappointed that I hadn't
allowed him the fun of a shindy. "You'll find U.S. 40 less rough than
you expected," he said. "After all, it's like life; only rough if you
make it rough."

"Go to hell and stay there," I snapped. That was about as weak a
rejoinder as I've ever emitted, but it was all I could get out.

The tall one said, "Take it easy, Cornell. You can't win 'em all."

I looked across the nose of our trapped car to Farrow. She was leaning
against the hood, facing her pair. They were just standing there at
ease. One of them was offering a cigarette and the other held a lighter
ready. "Relax," said the one with the smokes. The other one said, "Might
as well, Miss Farrow. Fighting won't get nobody nowhere but where you're
going anyway. Might as well go on your own feet."

Scornfully, Farrow shrugged. "Why should I smoke my own?" she asked
nobody in particular.

Mentally I agreed: #Take 'em for all they're worth, Farrow!# And then I
reached for one, too. Along the side of the van were benches. I sat
down, stretched out on my back and let the smoke trickle up. I finished
my cigarette and then found that the excitement of this chase, having
died so abruptly, left me with only a desire to catch up on sleep.

I dozed off thinking that it wasn't everybody who started off to go to
Homestead, Texas, and ended up in Marion, Indiana.

       *       *       *       *       *

Scholar Phelps did not have the green carpet out for our arrival, but he
was present when our mobile prison cell opened deep inside of the
Medical Center grounds. So was Thorndyke. Thorndyke and three nurses of
Amazon build escorted Farrow off with the air of captors collecting a
traitor.

Phelps smiled superciliously at me and said, "Well, young sir, you've
given us quite a chase."

"Give me another chance and we'll have another chase," I told him
grumpily.

"Not if we can help it," he boomed cheerfully. "We've big plans for
you."

"Have I got a vote? It's 'Nay!' if I do."

"You're too precipitous," he told me. "It is always an error, Mr.
Cornell, to be opinionated. Have an open mind."

"To what?"

"To everything," he said with an expansive gesture. "The error of all
thinking, these days, is that people do not think. They merely follow
someone else's thinking."

"And I'm to follow yours?"

"I'd prefer that, of course. It would indicate that you were possessed
of a mind of your own; that you weren't merely taking the lazy man's
attitude and following in the footsteps of your father."

"Skip it," I snapped. "Your way isn't--"

"Now," he warned with a wave of a forefinger like a prohibitionist
warning someone not to touch that quart, "One must never form an opinion
on such short notice. Remember, all ideas are not to be rejected just
because they do not happen to agree with your own preconceived notions."

"Look, Phelps," I snapped, deliberately omitting his title which I knew
would bite a little, "I don't like your personal politics and I deplore
your methods. You can't go on playing this way--"

"Young man, you err," he said quietly. He did not even look nettled that
I'd addressed him in impolite (if not rough) terms. "May I point out
that I am far ahead of your game? Thoroughly outnumbered, and in
ignorance of the counter-movement against me until you so vigorously
brought it to my attention; within a year I have fought the
counter-movement to a standstill, caused the dispersement of their main
forces, ruined their far-flung lines of communication, and have so
consolidated my position that I have now made open capture of the main
roving factor. The latter is you, young man. A very disturbing influence
and so very necessary to the conduct of this private war. You prate of
my attitude, Mr. Cornell. You claim that such an attitude must be
defeated. Yet as you stand there mouthing platitudes, we are preparing
to make a frontal assault upon their main base at Homestead. We've waged
our war of attrition; a mere spearhead will break them and scatter them
to the far winds."

"Nice lecture," I grunted. "Who are your writers?"

"Let's not attempt sarcasm," he said crisply. "It sits ill upon you, Mr.
Cornell."

"I'd like to sit on you," I snapped.

"Your humor is less tolerable than your sarcasm."

"Can it!" I snapped. "So you've collected me. I'll still--"

"You'll do very little, Mr. Cornell," he told me. "Your determination to
attack us tooth and nail was an excellent program, and with another type
of person it might have worked. But I happen to know that your will to
live is very great, young man, and that in the final blow, you'd not
have the will to die great enough to carry your assault to its
completion."

"Know a lot, don't you."

"Yes, indeed I do. So now if you're through trying to fence at words,
we'll go to your quarters."

"Lead on," I said in a hollow voice.

With an air of stage-type politeness, he indicated a door. He showed me
out and followed me. He steered me to a big limousine with a chauffeur
and offered me cigarettes from a box on the arm rest as the driver
started the turbine. The car purred with that muted sound of
well-leashed power.

"You could be of inestimable value to us," he said in a conversational
tone. "I am talking this way to you because you can be of much more
value as a willing ally than you would be if unwilling."

"No doubt," I replied dryly.

"I suggest you set aside your preconceived notions and employ a modicum
of practical logic," suggested Scholar Phelps. "Observe your position
from a slightly different reign of vantage. Be convinced that no matter
what you do or say, we intend to make use of you to the best of our
ability. You are not entertaining any doubts of that fact, I'm sure."

I shrugged. Phelps was not asking me these things, the inquisitor was
actually telling me. He went right on telling me:

"Since you will be used no matter what, you might consider the
advisability of being sensible, Mr. Cornell. In blunt words, we are
prepared to meet cooperation with certain benefits which will not be
proffered otherwise."

"In blunter words you are offering to hire me."

Scholar Phelps smiled in a superior manner. "Not that blunt, Mr.
Cornell, not that crude. The term 'hire' implies the performance of
certain tasks in return for stipulated remuneration. No, my intention is
to give you a position in this organization the exact terms of which are
not clearly definable. Look, young man, I've indicated that your willing
cooperation is more valuable to us than otherwise. Join us and you will
enjoy the freedom of our most valued and trusted members; you will take
part in upper level planning; you will enjoy the income and advantages
of top executive personnel." He stopped short and eyed me with a
peculiar expression. "Mr. Cornell, you have the most disconcerting way.
You've actually caused me to talk as if this organization were some sort
of big business instead of a cultural unit."

I eyed him with the first bit of humor I'd found in many days. "You seem
to talk just as though a cultural unit were set above, beyond, and
spiritually divorced from anything so sordid as money, position, and the
human equivalent of the barnyard pecking order," I told him. "So now
let's stop goofing off, and put it into simple terms. You want me to
join you willingly, to do your job for you, to advance your program. In
return for which I shall be permitted to ride in the solid gold
cadillac, quaff rare champagne, and select my own office furniture.
Isn't that about it?"

Scholar Phelps smiled, using a benign expression that indicated that he
was pleased with himself, but which had absolutely nothing to do with
his attitude towards me or any of the rest of the human race.

"Mr. Cornell, I am well aware of the time it may take for a man to
effect a change in his attitude. In fact, I would be very suspicious if
you were to make an abrupt reversal. However, I have outlined my
position and you may have time to think it over. Consider, at the very
least, the fact that while cooperation will bring you pleasure and
non-cooperation will bring you pain, the ultimate result will be that we
will make use of your ability in either case. Now--I will say no more
for the present."

The limousine had stopped in front of a four story brick building that
was only slightly different in general architecture than others in the
Medical Center. I could sense some slight difference, but when I took a
dig at the interior I found to my amazement that this building had been
built deliberately in a dead zone. The dead area stood up in the clarity
like a little blob of black ink at the bottom of a crystal clear
swimming pool, seen just before the ink began to diffuse.

Scholar Phelps saw my look of puzzlement and said, suavely, "We've
reversed the usual method of keeping unwilling guests. Here we know
their frame of mind and attitude; therefore to build the place in a dead
area keeps them from plotting among themselves. I trust that your
residence herein will be only temporary, Mr. Cornell."

I nodded glumly. I was facing those last and final words: _Or Else!_

Phelps signed a register at a guard's station in the lobby. We took a
very fast and efficient elevator to the third floor and Phelps escorted
me along a hallway that was lined with doors, dormitory style. In the
eye-level center of each door was a bull's eye that looked like one-way
glass and undoubtedly was. I itched to take a look, but Phelps was not
having any; he stopped my single step with a hand on my arm.

"This way," he said smoothly.

I went this way and was finally shown into one of the rooms. My nice
clean cell away from home.



XXIV


As soon as Phelps was gone, I took a careful look at my new living
quarters. The room itself was about fourteen by eighteen, but the end in
which I was confined was only fourteen by ten, the other eight feet of
end being barred off by a very efficient-looking set of heavy metal rods
and equally strong cross-girdering. There was a sliding door that fit in
place as nicely as the door to a bank vault; it was locked by heavy
keeper-bars that slid up from the floor and down from the ceiling and
they were actuated by hidden motors. In the barrier was a flat
horizontal slot wide enough to take a tray and high enough to pass a
teacup. The bottom of this slot was flush with a small table that
extended through the barrier by a couple of feet on both sides so that a
tray could be set down on the outside and slipped in.

I tested the bars with my hands, but even my new set of muscles wouldn't
flex them more than a few thousandths of an inch.

The walls were steel. All I got as I tried them was a set of
paint-clogged fingernails. The floor was also steel. The ceiling was a
bit too high for me to tackle, but I assumed that it, too, was steel.
The window was barred from the inside, undoubtedly so that any visitor
from the outside could not catch on to the fact that this building was a
private calaboose.

The--er--furnishings of this cold storage bin were meager of minimum
requirements. A washstand and toilet. A bunk made of metal girders
welded to the floor. The bedding rested on wide resilient straps fixed
to the cross-bars at top and bottom of the bed. A foam-rubber mattress,
sheets, and one blanket finished off the bed.

It was a cell designed by Mekstroms to contain Mekstroms and by
wiseacres to contain other wiseacres. The non-metallic parts of the room
were, of course, fireproof. Anything I could get hold of was totally
useless as a weapon or lever or tool; anything that might have been
useful to a prisoner was welded down.

Having given up in the escape department, I sat on my bunk and lit a
cigarette. I looked for tell-tales, and found a television lens set
above the door of the room eight feet outside of my steel barrier.
Beside the lens was a speaker grille and a smaller opening that looked
like a microphone dust cover.

With a grunt, I flipped my cigarette at the television lens. I hit just
above the hole, missing it by about an inch. Immediately a
tinny-sounding voice said,

"That is not permitted, Mr. Cornell. You are expected to maintain some
degree of personal cleanliness. Since you cannot pick up that cigarette
butt, you have placed an unwelcome task upon our personnel. One more
infraction of this nature and you will not be permitted the luxury of
smoking."

"Go to the devil!" I snapped.

There was no reply. Not even a haughty chuckle. The silence was worse
than any reply because it pointed out the absolute superiority of their
position.

Eventually I dozed off, there being nothing else to do. When I awoke
they'd shoved a tray of food in on my table. I ate unenthusiastically. I
dozed again, during which time someone removed the tray. When I woke up
the second time it was night and time to go to bed, so I went. I woke up
in the morning to see a burly guy enter with a tray of breakfast. I
attempted to engage him in light conversation but he did not even let on
that I was in the cell. Later he removed the tray as silently as he'd
brought it, and I was left with another four hours of utter boredom
until the same bird returned with a light lunch. Six hours after lunch
came a slightly more substantial dinner, but no talk.

By bedtime the second night I was getting stir-crazy.

I hit the sack at about nine thirty, and tossed and turned, unable to
drop off because I was not actually tired. I was also wondering when
they'd come around with their brain-washing crew, or maybe someone who'd
enter with an ultimatum.

On the following morning, the tray-bearer was Dr. Thorndyke, who sat on
the chair on the outside of my bars and looked at me silently. I tried
giving him stare for stare, but eventually I gave up and said, "So now
where do we go?"

"Cornell, you're in a bad spot of your own making."

"Could be," I admitted.

"And yet, really, you're more of a victim of circumstances."

"Forgetting all the sideplay, I'm a prisoner," I told him curtly. "Let's
face a few facts, Thorndyke, and stop tossing this guff."

"All right," he said shortly, "The facts are these: We would prefer that
you help us willingly. We'd further prefer to have you as you are. That
is, un-reoriented mentally."

"You couldn't afford to trust me," I grunted.

"Maybe we can. It's no secret that we've latched on to quite a number of
your friends. Let's assume that they will all be well-treated if you
agree to join us willingly."

"I'm sure that the attitude of any of my friends is such that they'd
prefer me to stand my ground rather than betray their notions of right
and wrong." I told him.

"That's a foolish premise," he replied. "You could no more prevail
against us than you could single-handedly overthrow the Government.
Having faced that fact, it becomes sound and sensible to accept the
premise and then see what sort of niche you can carve out of the new
order."

"I don't like your new order," I grunted.

"Many people will not," he admitted. "But then, people do not really
know what's good for them."

I almost laughed at him. "Look," I said, "I'd rather make my own
ignorant mistakes than to have some Great Father supervise my life. And
speaking of fathers, we've both got to admit that God Himself permits us
the complete freedom of our wills."

Thorndyke sneered at me. "If we're to quote the Scripture," he said
sourly, "I'll point out that 'The Lord Thy God is a jealous God,
visiting His wrath even upon seven generations of those who hate Him.'"

"Granted," I replied calmly, "But whether we love Him or hate Him is
entirely up to our own particular notion. Now--"

"Cornell, stop talking like an idiot. Here, too, you can take your
choice. I'm not ordering you. I'm just trying to point out that whether
you go on suffering or enjoying life is entirely up to your own
decision. And also your decision will help or hinder others."

"You're entirely too Godlike," I told him.

"Well," he said, "think it over."

"Go to the devil!"

"Now, that's a very weak response," he said loftily, "Doing nobody any
good or harm. Just talk. So stop gabbing and think."

Thorndyke left me with my thoughts. Sure, I had bargaining power, but it
was no good. I'd be useful only until they discovered some method of
inoculating normal flesh with Mekstrom's Disease, and once that was
taken care of, Steve Cornell would be a burden upon their resources.

So that was the morning of my third day of incarceration and nothing
more took place all day. They didn't even give me anything to read, and
I almost went nuts. You have no idea of how long fourteen hours can be
until you've been sitting in a cell with absolutely nothing to do. I
exercised by chinning myself on the bars and playing gymnastics. I
wanted to run but there was not enough room. The physical thrill I got
out of being able to chin myself with one hand wore off after a half
hundred pull-ups because it was no great feat for a Mekstrom. I did
push-ups and bridges and other stunts until I was bored again.

And all the while, my thinking section was going around and around. The
one main point that I kept coming back to was a very unpleasant future
to face:

It was certain that no matter what I did, nor how I argued, I was going
to help them out. Either I would do it willingly or they'd grow tired of
the lecture routine and take me in for a mental re-evaluation, after
which (Being not-Steve Cornell any more) I'd join their ranks and do
their bidding. About the only thing I could look at with self-confidence
was my determination to hold out. If I was going to join them, it would
be after I were no longer the man I am, but reoriented into whatever
design they wanted. And that resolve was weakened by the normal human
will to live. You can't make a horse drink water, but you can lead a
human being to a well and he will drink it dry if you keep a shotgun
pointed in his direction.

And so it ended up with my always wondering if, when the cards were all
dealt out face up, whether I would have the guts to keep on saying 'No'
right up to the point where I walked into their department of
brain-washing. In fact, I was rather afraid that in the last moment I'd
weaken, just to stay being me.

That uncertainty of mine was, of course, just the idea they wanted to
nourish in my mind. They were doing it by leaving me alone with my
mental merry-go-round.

Again I hit the sack out of sheer boredom and I turned and tossed for
what seemed like hours before I dropped off to sleep, wondering and
dreaming about who was to be the next visitor with a bill of goods to
sell.

The next visitor came in about midnight, or thereabouts. I woke up with
the realization that someone had come in through the outer door and was
standing there in the semi-dark caused by a bright moon shining in
through my barred window.

"Steve," she said, in a near whisper.

"Go away," I told her. "Haven't you done enough already?"

"Oh, please, Steve. I've got to talk to you."

I sat on the edge of my bunk and looked at her. She was fully dressed;
her light printed silk was of the same general pattern and fit that she
preferred. In fact, Catherine looked as I'd always seen her, and as I'd
pictured her during the long hopeless weeks of our separation.

"You've got something to add?" I asked her coldly.

"I've got to make you understand, Steve," she pleaded.

"Understand what?" I snapped. "I know already. You deliberately set out
to marry, or else-how tie some emotional cable onto me. God knows that
you succeeded. If it hadn't been for that accident, I'd have been nailed
down tight."

"That part is true," she whispered.

"Naturally, you've got justification."

"Well, I have."

"So has any burglar."

She shook her head at me. "Steve, you don't really understand. If only
you could read my mind and know the truth--"

She let this trail off in a helpless awkwardness. It was one of those
statements that are meaningless because it can be said by either friend
or foe and cannot be checked.

I just looked at her and suddenly remembered something:

This was the first time in my life that I was in a position to do some
verbal fencing with a telepath on even terms. I could say 'Yes' and
think 'No' with absolute impunity. In fact, I might even have had an
edge, since as a poor non-telepath I did have some training in
subterfuge, falsehood, and diplomatic maneuver that the telepath
couldn't have. Catherine and I, at long last, were in the position of
the so-called good old days when boys and girls couldn't really know the
truth about one another's real thoughts.

"So what's this truth?" I demanded.

"Steve, answer me truly. Have you ever been put on an odious job, only
to find that the job is really pleasant?"

"Yes."

"Then hear me out. I--in fact, no woman--takes kindly to being directed
to do what I did. I was told to meet you, to marry--" Her face looked
flustered and it might have been a bit flushed for all I knew. I
couldn't see color enough in the dim light to be sure. "--And then I met
you, Steve, and I found out that you were really a very nice sort of
guy."

"Well, thanks."

"Don't be bitter. Hear the truth. If Otto Mekstrom had not existed, if
there were no such thing as Mekstrom's Disease, and I had met you freely
and openly as men and women meet, I'd have come to feel the same, Steve.
I must make you understand that my emotional attachment to you was not
increased nor decreased by the fact that my physical actions were
directed at you. If anything, my job was just rendered pleasantly
easier."

I grunted. "And so you were made happy."

"Yes," she whispered. "And I was going to marry you and live honestly
with you--"

"Heck of a marriage with the wife in the Medical Center for Mekstrom's
Disease and our first child--"

"Steve, you poor fool, don't you understand? If our child came as
predicted, the first thing I'd do would be to have the child inoculate
the father? Then we'd be--"

"Um," I grunted. "I hadn't thought of that." This was a flat lie. I'd
considered it a-plenty since my jailing here. Present the Medical Center
with a child, a Mekstrom, and a Carrier, and good old pappy would be no
longer needed.

"Well, after I found out all about you, Steve, that's what I had in
mind. But now--"

"Now what?" I urged her gently. I had a hunch that she was leading up to
something, but ducking shy about it until she managed to find out how I
thought. It would have been all zero if we'd been in a clear area, but
as it was I led her gently on.

"But now I've failed," she said with a slight wail.

"What do they do with failures?" I asked harshly. "Siberia? Or a gunny
sack weighted down with an anvil? Or do they drum you out of the corps?"

"I don't know."

I eyed her closely. I was forced to admit that no matter how Catherine
thought, she was a mighty attractive dish from the physical standpoint.
And regardless of the trouble she'd put me through, I could not overlook
the fact that I had been deep enough in love to plan elopement and
marriage. I'd held her slender body close, and either her response had
been honestly warm or Catherine was an actress of very rare physical
ability. Scholar Phelps could hardly have picked a warmer temptress in
the first place; putting her onto me now was a stroke of near-genius.

I got up from the edge of my bunk and faced her through my bars. She
came close, too, and we looked into each other's faces over a cross-rail
of the heavy fence.

I managed a wistful grin at her. "You're not really a failure yet, are
you, kid?"

"I don't quite know how to--to--" she replied.

I looked around my little cell with a gruesome gesture. "This isn't my
idea of a pleasant home. And yet it will be my home until someone
decides that I'm too expensive to keep."

"I know," she breathed.

Taking the bit in my teeth, I said, "Catherine even though--well, heck.
I'd like to help you."

"You mean that?" she asked in almost an eager voice.

"It's not impossible to forget that we were eloping when all this
started."

"It all seems so long ago," she said with a thick voice. "And I wish we
were back there--no, Steve, I wish Mekstrom's Disease had never
happened--I wish--"

"Stop wishing and think," I told her half-humorously. "If there were no
Mekstrom's Disease, the chances are that we'd never have met in the
first place."

"That's the cruel part of it all," she cried. And I mean _cried_.

I rapped on the metal bars with a fist. "So here we are," I said
unhappily. "I can't help you now, Catherine."

She put her hands through the bars and held my face between them. She
looked searching into my eyes, as if straining to force her blocked
telepath sense through the deadness of the area. She leaned against the
steel but the barrier was very effective; our lips met through the cold
metal. It was a very unsatisfactory kiss because we had to purse our
lips like a pair of piccolo players to make them meet. It was like
making love through a keyhole.

This unsatisfactory lovemaking did not last long. Unsteadily, Catherine
said, "I want you, Steve."

Inwardly I grinned, and then with the same feeling as if I'd laughed out
loud at a funeral, I said, "Through these steel bars?"

She brought out a little cylindrical key. Then went to a brass wall
plate beside the outer door, inserted the key, and turned. The sliding
door to my cell opened on noiseless machined slides.

Then with a careful look at me, Catherine slipped a little shutter over
the glass bull's eye in the door. Her hand reached up to a hidden toggle
above the door and as she snapped it, a thick cover surged out above the
speaker, television lens, and microphone grille, curved down and shut
off the tell-tales with a cushioned sound. Apparently the top management
of the joint used these cells for other things than mere containment of
unruly prisoners. I almost grinned; the society that Scholar Phelps
proposed was not the kind that flourished in an atmosphere of trust, or
privacy--except for the top brass.

Catherine turned from her switch plate and came across the floor with
her face lifted and her lips parted.

"Hold me, Steve."

My hand came forward in a short jab that caught her dead center in the
plexus below the ribs. Her breath caught in one strangled gasp and her
eyes went glassy. She swayed stiffly in half-paralysis. My other hand
came up, closing as it rose, until it became a fist that connected in a
shoulder-jarring wallop on the side of her jaw. Her head snapped up and
her knees caved in. She folded from the hips and went down bonelessly.
From her throat came the bubbly sound of air being forced painfully
through a flaccid wet tube.

I jumped outside of the cell barrier because I was certain that they had
some means of closing the cell from a master control center. I don't
know much about penology, but that's the way I'd do it. I was
half-surprised that I'd been able to get away with this much.

Catherine stirred and moaned, and I stopped long enough to take the key
out of the wall plate. The cell door closed on its silent slides.

I had hardly been able to more than run the zipper up my shirt when the
door opened and I had to dance like a fool to get behind it. The door
admitted a flood of bright light from the corridor, and Dr. James
Thorndyke. The cell door must have been bugged.

Thorndyke came in behind a large automatic clutched in one nervous fist.
He strained his eyes at the gloom that was not cut by the ribbon of
light.

And then I cut him down with a solid slice of my right hand to the base
of his neck. I remembered to jump off the ground as the blow went home;
there was a sickening crunch of bone and muscle as Thorndyke caved
forward to the floor. He dropped the gun, luckily, as his body began to
twitch and kick spasmodically as the life drained out of him.

I re-swallowed a mouthful of bitter bile as I reached down to pick up
his gun. Then the room got hot and unbearably small and I felt a frantic
urge to leave, to close the door upon that sight.



XXV


I was yards away from my door before my panic left me. Then I remembered
where and who I was and took a fast look around. There was no one else
in the corridor, of course, or I would not have been able to cut and run
as I had. But I looked around anyway until my reasoning power told me
that I had done little to help my position.

Like the canary, my plans for escape ended once I was outside of my
cage. I literally did not know what to do with my new-found freedom. One
thing was becoming painfully obvious: I'd be pinned down tight once I
put a foot outside of the dead area in which this building was
constructed. What I needed was friends, arms, ammunition, and a good,
solid plan of escape. I had neither; unless you call my jailed friends
such help. And there I could not go; the tell-tales would give me away
to the master control center before I could raise my small--and
unarmed--army.

So I stood there in the brightly lighted corridor and tried to think. I
got nowhere, but I was driven to action again by the unmistakable sound
of the elevator at the end of the corridor.

I eyed the various cell doors with suspicion; opening any but an empty
room would cause some comment from the occupant, which again would give
me away. Nor did I have time to canvass the joint by peeking into the
one-way bull's eyes, peering into a semi-gloom to see which room was
empty.

So instead of hiding in the corridor, I sloped towards the elevator and
the stairwell that surrounded it, hoping that I could make it before the
elevator rose to my floor.

I know that my passage must have sounded like a turbojet in full flight,
but I made the stairway and took a headlong leap down the first short
flight of stairs just as the elevator door rolled open. I hit the wall
with a bumping crash that jarred my senses, but I kept my feet and
looked back up the stairs.

I caught a flash of motion; a guard sauntering past the top of the well,
a cigarette in one hand and a lazy-looking air about him. He was
expecting no trouble, and so I gave him none.

I crept up the stairs and poked my head out just at the floor level.

The guard, obviously confident that nothing, but nothing, could ever
happen in this welded metal crib, jauntily peered into a couple of the
rooms at random, took a long squint at the room I'd recently vacated,
and then went on to the end of the hall where he stuck a key in a
signal-box. On his way back he paused again to peer into my room,
straining to see if he could peer past the little shutter over the
bull's eye. Then he shrugged unhappily, and started to return.

I loped down the stairs to the second floor and waited. The elevator
came down, stopped, and the guard repeated his desultory search, not
stopping to pry into any darkened rooms.

Just above the final, first-floor flight, I stopped and sprawled on the
floor with only my head and the nose of my gun over the top step. Below
was the guard's desk and standing beside the desk with anger in every
line of his ugly face was Scholar Phelps!

The elevator came down, stopped, and the guard walked out, to be nailed
by Phelps.

"Your job," snapped the good Scholar coldly, "says you are to walk."

"Well, er--sir--it's--"

"Walk!" stormed Phelps angrily. "You can't cover that stairway in the
elevator, you fumbling idiot."

"But, sir--"

"Someone could easily come down while you go up."

"I know that, sir, but--"

"Then why do you disobey?" roared Phelps.

"Well, you see, sir, I know how this place is built and no one has ever
made it yet. Who could?" The guard looked mystified.

Phelps had to face that fact. He did not accept it gracefully. "My
orders are orders," he said stiffly. "You'll follow them. To the last
letter."

"Yes sir. I will."

"See that you do. Now, I'm going up. I'll ride and you walk. Meet me on
the fourth and bring the elevator down with you."

"Yessir."

I sloped upstairs like a scared rabbit. Up to the third again where I
moved down the corridor and slipped into the much-too-thin niche made by
a door. Stolidly the guard came up the stairs, crossed in front of the
elevator with his back to me, turned the far corner and went on up to
the fourth.

As his feet started up the stairs, I was behind him; by the time he
reached the top, I was half way up.

Phelps said, "Now, from this moment on, Waldron, you'll follow every
order to the absolute letter. And when I ring, don't make the error of
bringing the elevator. Send it. It'll come up and stop without a pilot."

"Yes sir. I'm sorry sir. But you understand, sir, there isn't really
much to guard, sir."

"Then guard nothing. But guard it well, because a man in your position
is gauged in success by the amount of boredom he creates for himself."

The guard started down and I darted up to poke my head out to see where
Phelps was going. As I neared the floor level, I had a shock like
someone hurling twenty gallons of ice water in my face. The top floor
was the end of the dead area, and I--

--pulled my head down into the murk like a diver taking a plunge.

So I stood there making like a guppy with my head, sounding out the
boundary of that deadness, ducking down as soon as the mental murk gave
me a faint perception of the wall and ceiling above me. Then I'd move
aside and sound it again. Eventually I found a little billowing furrow
that rose above the floor level and I crawled out along the floor, still
sounding and moving cautiously with my body hidden in the deadness that
rose and fell like a cloud of murky mental smoke to my sense of
perception.

I would have looked silly to any witness; wallowing along the floor like
a porpoise acting furtive in the bright lights.

But then I couldn't go any farther; the deadness sank below the floor
level and left me looking along a bare floor that was also bare to my
sense of perception.

I shoved my head out of the dead zone and took a fast dig, then dropped
back in again and lay there re-constructing what I'd perceived mentally.
I did it the second time and the third, each time making a rapid scan of
some portion of that fourth floor.

In three fast swings, I collected a couple of empty offices, a very
complete hospital set-up operating room, and a place that looked like a
consultation theatre.

On my fourth scan, I whipped past Scholar Phelps, who was apparently
deep in some personal interest.

I rose at once and strode down the hall and snapped the door open just
as Phelps' completely unexpecting mind grasped the perceptive fact that
someone was coming down his hallway wearing a great big forty five
automatic.

"Freeze!" I snapped.

"Put that weapon down, Mr. Cornell. It, nor its use, will get your
freedom."

"Maybe all I want out of life is to see you leave it," I told him.

"You'd not be that foolish, I'm sure," he said.

"I might."

He laughed, with all the self-confidence in the world. "Mr. Cornell, you
have too much will to live. You're not the martyr type."

"I might turn out to be the cornered-rat type," I told him seriously.
"So play it cagey, Phelps."

"Scholar Phelps, please."

"I wouldn't disgrace the medical profession," I told him. "So--"

"So what do you propose to do about this?"

"I'm getting out."

"Don't be ridiculous. One step out of this building and you'll return
within a half minute. How did you get out?"

"I was seduced out. Now--"

"I'd advise you to surrender; to stop this hopeless attempt; to put that
weapon down. You cannot escape. There are, in this building, your mental
and intellectual superiors whose incarceration bear me witness."

I eyed him coldly and quietly. "I'm not convinced. I'm out. And if you
could take a dig below you'd see a dead man and an unconscious woman to
bear me witness. I broke your Dr. Thorndyke's neck with a chop of my
bare hand, Phelps; I knocked Catherine cold with a fist. This thing
might not kill you, but I'm a Mekstrom, too, and so help me I can cool
you down but good."

"Violence will get you nothing."

"Try my patience. I'll bet my worthless hide on it." Then I grinned at
him. "Oh, it isn't so worthless, is it?"

"One cry from me, Mr. Cornell, and--"

"And you'll not live to see what happens. I've killed once tonight. I
didn't like it. But the idea is not as new now as it was then. I'll kill
you, Phelps, if for no other reason than merely to keep my word."

With a sneer, Phelps turned to his desk and I stabbed my perception
behind the papers and stuff to the call button; then I launched myself
across the room like a rocket, swinging my gun hand as I soared. The
steel caught him on the side of the head and drove him back from his
call button before his finger could press it. Then I let him have a fist
in the belly because the pistol swat hadn't much more than dazed him.
The fist did it. He crumpled in a heap and fought for breath
unconsciously.

I turned to the wall he'd been eyeing with so much attention.

There was row upon row of small kine tubes, each showing the dark
interior of a cell. Below each was a row of pilot lights, all dark.

On his desk was a large bank of push buttons, a speaker, and a
microphone. And beside the push button set-up was a ledger containing a
list of names with their cell numbers.

I found Marian Harrison; pushed her button, and heard her ladylike snore
from the speaker. A green lamp winked under one of the kine tubes and I
walked over and looked into the darkened cell to see her familiar hair
sprawled over a thick pillow.

I went to the desk and snapped on the microphone.

"Marian," I said. "MARIAN! HEY! MARIAN HARRISON!"

In the picture tube there was a stir, then she sat up and looked around
in a sort of daze.

"Marian, this is Steve Cornell, but don't--"

"Steve!"

"--cry out," I finished uselessly.

"Where are you?" she asked in a whisper.

"I'm in the con room."

"But how on Earth--?"

"No time to gab. I'll be down in a rush with the key. Get dressed!"

"Yes, Steve."

I took off in a headlong rush with the 'Hotel Register' in one hand. I
made the third floor and Marian's cell in slightly more than nothing
flat, but she was ready when I came barging into her room. She was out
of the cell before it hit the backstop and following me down the hall
towards her brother's room.

"What happened?" she asked breathlessly.

"Later," I told her. I opened Phillip Harrison's cell. "You go wake up
Fred Macklin and tell him to come here. Then get the Macklin
girl--Alice, it says here--and the pair of you wake up others and start
sending 'em up stairs. I'll call you on the telltale as soon as I can."

Marian took off with the key and the register and I started to shake
Phillip Harrison's shoulder. "Wake up!" I cried. "Wake up, Phillip!"

Phillip made a noise like a baby seal.

"Wake up!"

"Wha--?"

"It's Steve Cornell. Wake up!"

With a rough shake of his head, Phillip groaned and unwound himself out
of a tangle of bedclothing. He looked at me through half-closed glassy
eyes. Then he straightened and made a perilous course to the washstand
where he sopped a towel in cold water and applied it to his face, neck,
and shoulders. When he dropped the towel in the sink, his expression was
fresher and his eyes were mingled curiosity and amazement.

"What gives?" he asked, starting to dress in a hurry.

"I busted out, slugged Scholar Phelps, and took over the master control
room. I need help. We can't keep it long unless we move fast."

"Yeah man. Any moving will be fast," he said sourly. "Got any plans?"

"We've--"

The door opened to let Fred Macklin enter. He carried his shirt and had
been dressing on the run. "What goes on?" he asked.

"Look," I said quickly. "If I have to stop and give anybody a rundown,
we'll have no time to do what has to be done. There are a couple of
sources of danger. One is the guard down at the bottom of the stairway.
The other is the possible visitor. You get a couple of other young,
ambitious fellows and push that guard post over, but quick."

"Right. And you?"

"I've got to keep our hostage cold," I snapped. "And I'm running the
show by virtue of being the guy that managed to bust loose."

In the hallway there was movement, but I left it to head back to Scholar
Phelps. I got there in time to hear him groan and make scratching noises
on the carpet. I took no chances; I cooled him down with a short jab to
the pit of the stomach and doubled him over again.

He was sleeping painfully but soundlessly when Marian came in.

I turned to her. "You're supposed to be waking up--"

"I gave the key and the register to Jo Anne Tweedy," she said. "Jo
Anne's the brash young teenager you took a bump with in Ohio. She's
competent, Steve. And she's got the Macklin twins to help her. Waking up
the camp is a job for the junior division." She eyed the recumbent
Phelps distastefully. "What have you in mind for him?"

"He's valuable," I said. "We'll use him to buy our freedom."

The door opened again, interrupting Marian. It was Jonas Harrison. He
stood there in the frame of the door and looked at us with a sort of
grim smile. I had never met the old patriarch of the Harrison Family
before, but he lived up to my every expectation. He stood tall and
straight; topped by a wealth of snow white hair, white eyebrows, and the
touch of a white moustache. His eyes contrasted with the white; a rich
and startling brown.

This was a man to whom I could hand the basic problem of engineering our
final escape; Jonas Harrison was capable of plotting an airtight
getaway.

His voice was rich and resonant; it had a lift in its tone that sounded
as though his self-confidence had never been in danger of a set-back:
"Well, son, you seem to have accomplished quite a job this night. What
shall we do next?"

"Get the devil out of here," I replied--

--wondering just exactly how I'd known so instantly that this was Jonas
Harrison. The rich and resonant voice had flicked a subsurface
recollection on a faint, raw spot and now something important was
swimming around in the mire of my mind trying to break loose and come
clear.

I turned from the sword-sharp brown eyes and looked at Marian. She was
almost as I had first seen her: Not much make-up if any at all, her hair
free of fancy dressing but neat, her legs were bare and healthy-tanned.

I looked at her, and for a half dozen heartbeats her image faded from my
sight, replaced by the well remembered figure of Catherine as I had
known her first. It was a dizzy-making montage because my perception
senses the real figure of Marian, superimposed on the visual
memory-image of Catherine. Then the false sight faded and both
perception and eyesight focused upon the true person of Marian Harrison.

Marian stood there, her face softly proud. Her eyes were looking
straight into mine, as if she were mentally urging me to fight that
hidden memory into full recollection.

Then I both saw and perceived something that I had never noticed before.
A fine golden chain hung around her throat, its pendant hidden from
sight beneath the edge of her bodice. But my sense of perception dug a
modest diamond, and I could even dig the tiny initials engraved in the
metal circlet:

     SC-MH

To dig anything that fine, I knew that it must be of importance to me.
And then I knew that it had once been so very personally my own
business, for the submerged recollection came bursting up to the top of
my mind. Marian Henderson had been mine once long ago!

Boldly I stepped forward and took the chain between my fingers. I
snapped it, and held the ring. "Will you wear it again, my dear?"

She held up her left hand for me to slip it on. "Steve," she breathed,
"I've never stopped wearing it, not really."

"But I didn't see it until now--"

Jonas Harrison said, "No, Steve, you couldn't see it until you
remembered."

"But look--"

"Blame me," he said in his firm determined voice. "The story begins and
ends with you, Steve. When Marian contracted Mekstrom's Disease, she
herself insisted that you be spared the emotional pain that the rest of
us could not avoid. So I erased her from your mind, Steve, and submerged
any former association. Then when the Highways in Hiding came to take us
in, I left it that way because Marian was still as unattainable to you
as if she were dead. If an apology is needed, I'll only ask that you
forgive my tampering with your mind and personality."

"Apologize?" I exploded. "I'm here, we're here, and you've just provided
me with a way out of this mousetrap!"

"A way out?" he murmured, in that absent way that telepaths have when
they're concentrating on another mind. Fast comprehension dawned in the
sharp brown eyes and he looked even more self-confident and determined.
Marian leaned back in my arms to look into my eyes. "Steve," she cried,
"it's simply got to work!" Gloria Farrow merely said, "He'll have to
have medication, of course," and went briskly to a wall cabinet and
began to fiddle with medical tools. Howard Macklin and Jonas Harrison
went into a deep telepathic conference that was interrupted only when
Jonas Harrison turned to Phillip to say, "You'll have to provide us with
uninterrupted time, somehow."

Marian disengaged herself reluctantly and started to propel me out of
the room. "Go help him, Steve. What we are going to do is not for any
non-telepath to watch."

Outside, Phillip threatened me with the guard's signal-box key. "Mind
telling a non-telepath what the devil you cooked up?"

I smiled. "If your father has the mental power to erase Marian from my
mind, he also has the power to do a fine reorientation job on Scholar
Phelps. Once we get the spiderwebs cleaned out of the top dog, we start
down the pyramid, line by line and echelon by echelon, with each
reoriented recruit adding to our force. Once we get this joint operating
on the level, we can all go to work for the rest of the human race!"

       *       *       *       *       *

There is little left to tell. The Medical Center and the Highways in
Hiding are one agency dedicated to the conquest of the last and most
puzzling of the diseases and maladies that beset Mankind. We are no
closer to a solution than we ever were, and so I am still a very busy
man.

I have written this account and disclosed our secret because we want no
more victims of Mekstrom's Disease to suffer.

So I will write finish with one earnest plea and one ray of hope:

Please do not follow one of our Highways unless you are already
infected. Since I cannot hope to inoculate the entire human race, and
will not pick or choose certain worthy types for special attention, I
will deal only with those folks who find Mekstrom's Disease among their
immediate family. Such people need never be parted from their loved
ones. The rest of you will have to wait your turn.

But we'll get to it sooner or later. Thirty days ago, Steve, Junior, was
born. He's a healthy little Mekstrom, and like his pappy, Steve Junior
is a carrier, too.



       *       *       *       *       *



[Transcriber's note: Back cover]



QUEST IMPOSSIBLE


Someone had stolen an important part of Steve Cornell's life.

It was bad enough when his fiancée vanished. It was infinitely worse
when everyone in the world insisted it couldn't have happened the way he
knew it had.

In a world where ESP and telepathy were normal, it was difficult to keep
secrets. But Steve's search for his missing sweetheart brought him to
the threshold of one of the greatest secrets of all time. And it was
obvious that somebody would stop at nothing to keep him from uncovering
it.

What were the oddly sinister symbols along otherwise ordinary roads?
What was behind the spreading plague called Mekstrom's Disease? Why were
there "blank" spots where telepathy didn't work? Who was the elusive
enemy with powers even beyond those ESP had bestowed on mankind?

And, most important of all ... could Steve find that enemy before they
made him vanish too?

A Lancer Book · Never Before Complete In Paperback





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