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´╗┐Title: Infinite Intruder
Author: Nourse, Alan Edward, 1928-1992
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 "Infinite Intruder" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

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


                          INFINITE INTRUDER


                          BY ALAN E. NOURSE


                         ILLUSTRATED BY SMITH


     When Roger Strang found that someone was killing his
     son--killing him horribly and often--he started
     investigating. He wasn't prepared to find the results of
     another investigation--this time about his own life.

       *       *       *       *       *



It was the second time they tried that Roger Strang realized someone
was trying to kill his son.

The first time there had been no particular question. Accidents
happen. Even in those days, with all the Base safety regulations and
strict speed-way lane laws, young boys would occasionally try to gun
their monowheels out of the slow lanes into the terribly swift
traffic; when they did, accidents did occur. The first time, when they
brought David home in the Base ambulance, shaken but unhurt, with the
twisted smashed remains of his monowheel, Roger and Ann Strang had
breathed weakly, and decided between themselves that the boy should be
scolded within an inch of his young life. And the fact that David
maintained tenaciously that he had never swerved from the slow
monowheel lane didn't bother his parents a bit. They were acquainted
with another small-boy frailty. Small boys, on occasion, are inclined
to fib.

But the second time, David was not fibbing. Roger Strang _saw_ the
_accident_ the second time. He saw all the circumstances involved. And
he realized, with horrible clarity, that someone, somehow, was trying
to kill his son.

[Illustration]

It had been late on a Saturday afternoon. The free week-ends that the
Barrier Base engineers had once enjoyed to take their families for
picnics "outside," or to rest and relax, were things of the past, for
the work on the Barrier was reaching a critical stage, demanding more
and more of the technicians, scientists and engineers engaged in its
development. Already diplomatic relations with the Eurasian Combine
were becoming more and more impossible; the Barrier _had_ to be built,
and quickly, or another more terrible New York City would be the
result. Roger had never cleared from his mind the flaming picture of
that night of horror, just five years before, when the mighty
metropolis had burst into radioactive flame, to announce the beginning
of the first Atomic War. The year 2078 was engraved in millions of
minds as the year of the most horrible--and the shortest--war in all
history, for an armistice had been signed not four days after the
first bomb had been dropped. An armistice, but an uneasy peace, for
neither of the great nations had really known what atomic war would be
like until it had happened. And once upon them, they found that atomic
war was not practical, for both mighty opponents would have been
gutted in a matter of weeks. The armistice had stopped the bombs, but
hostilities continued, until the combined scientific forces of one
nation could succeed in preparing a defense.

That particular Saturday afternoon had been busy in the Main Labs on
the Barrier Base. The problem of erecting a continent-long electronic
Barrier to cover the coast of North America was a staggering
proposition. Roger Strang was nearly finished and ready for home as
dusk was falling. Leaving his work at the desk, he was slipping on his
jacket when David came into the lab. He was small for twelve years,
with tousled sand-brown hair standing up at odd angles about a sharp,
intelligent face. "I came to get you, Daddy," he said.

Roger smiled. "You rode all the way down here--just to go home with
me?"

"Maybe we could get some Icy-pops for supper on the way home," David
remarked innocently.

Roger grinned broadly and slapped the boy on the back. "You'd sell
your soul for an Icy-pop," he grinned.

The corridor was dark. The man and boy walked down to the elevator,
and in a moment were swishing down to the dark and deserted lobby
below.

David stepped first from the elevator when the men struck. One stood
on either side of the door in the shadow. The boy screamed and reeled
from the blow across the neck. Suddenly Roger heard the sharp pistol
reports. David dropped with a groan, and Roger staggered against the
wall from a powerful blow in the face. He shook his head groggily,
catching a glimpse of the two men running through the door into the
street below, as three or four people ran into the lobby, flushed out
by the shots.

       *       *       *       *       *

Roger shouted, pointing to the door, but the people were looking at
the boy. Roger sank down beside his son, deft fingers loosening the
blouse. The boy's small face was deathly white, fearful sobs choking
his breath as he closed his eyes and shivered. Roger searched under
his blouse, trying to find the bullet holes--and found to his chagrin
that there weren't any bullet holes.

"Where did you feel the gun?"

David pointed vaguely at his lower ribs. "Right there," he said. "It
hurt when they shoved the gun at me."

"But they couldn't have pulled the trigger, if the gun was pointed
there--" He examined the unbroken skin on the boy's chest, fear
tearing through his mind.

A Security man was there suddenly, asking about the accident, taking
Roger's name, checking over the boy. Roger resented the tall man in
the gray uniform, felt his temper rise at the slightly sarcastic tone
of the questions. Finally the trooper stood up, shaking his head. "The
boy must have been mistaken," he said. "Kids always have wild stories
to tell. Whoever it was may have been after _somebody_, but they
weren't aiming for the boy."

Roger scowled. "This boy is no liar," he snapped. "I saw them shoot--"

The trooper shrugged. "Well, he isn't hurt. Why don't you go on home?"

Roger helped the boy up, angrily. "You're not going to do anything
about this?"

"What can I do? Nobody saw who the men were."

Roger grabbed the boy's hand, helped him to his feet, and turned
angrily to the door. In the failing light outside the improbability of
the attack struck through him strongly. He turned to the boy, his face
dark. "David," he said evenly, "you wouldn't be making up stories
about feeling that gun in your ribs, would you?"

David shook his head vigorously, eyes still wide with fear. "Honest,
dad. I told you the truth."

"But they _couldn't_ have shot you in the chest without breaking the
skin--" He glanced down at the boy's blouse and jacket, and stopped
suddenly, seeing the blackened holes in the ripped cloth. He stooped
down and sniffed the holes suspiciously, and shivered suddenly in the
cold evening air.

The burned holes smelled like gunpowder.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Strang, you must have been wrong." The large man settled back in his
chair, his graying hair smoothed over a bald spot. "Someone trying to
kill you I could see--there's plenty of espionage going on, and you're
doing important work here. But your boy!" The chief of the Barrier
Base Security shook his head. "You must have been mistaken."

"But I _wasn't_ mistaken!" Roger Strang sat forward in his chair, his
hands gripping the arms until his knuckles were white. "I told you
exactly what happened. They got him as he came off the elevator, and
shot at him. Not at me, Morrel, at my son. They just clubbed me in the
face to get me out of the way--"

"What sort of men?" Morrel's eyes were sharp.

Roger scowled, running his hand through his hair. "It was too dark to
see. They wore hats and field jackets. The gun could be identified by
ballistics. But they were _fast_, Morrel. They knew who they were
looking for."

Morrel rose suddenly, his face impatient. "Strang," he said. "You've
been here at the Base for quite awhile. Ever since a month after the
war, isn't that right? August, 2078? Somewhere around there, I know.
But you've been working hard. I think maybe a rest would do you some
good--"

"Rest!" Roger exploded. "Look, man--I'm not joking. This isn't the
first time. The boy had a monowheel accident three weeks ago, and he
swore he was riding in a safe lane where he belonged. It looked like
an accident then--now it looks like a murder attempt. The slugs from
the gun _must_ be in the building--embedded in the plasterwork
somewhere. Surely you could try to trace the gun." He glared at the
man's impassive face bitterly, "Or maybe you don't want to trace the
gun--"

Morrel scowled. "I've already checked on it. The gun wasn't registered
in the Base. Security has a check on every firearm within a fifty-mile
range. The attackers must have been outsiders."

Roger's face flushed. "That's not true, Morrel," he said softly, "and
you know it's not true."

Morrel shrugged. "Have it your own way," he said, indifferently.
"Take a rest, Strang. Go home. Get some rest. And don't bother me with
any more of your fairy tales." He turned suddenly on Roger. "And be
careful what _you_ do with guns, Strang. The only thing about this
that I _do_ know is that somebody shot a pistol off and scared hell
out of your son. You were the only one around, as far as I know. I
don't know your game, but you'd better be careful--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Strang left Security Headquarters, and crossed across to the Labs,
frustrated and angry. His mind spun over the accident--incredulous,
but more incredulous that Morrel would practically laugh at him. He
stopped by the Labs building to watch the workmen putting up a large
electronic projector in one of the test yards. Work was going ahead.
But so slowly.

Roger was aware of the tall thin man who had joined him before he
looked around. Martin Drengo put a hand on his shoulder. "Been
avoiding me lately?"

"Martin!" Roger Strang turned, his face lighting up. "No, not avoiding
you--I've been so busy my own wife hasn't seen me in four days. How
are things in Maintenance?"

The thin man smiled sadly. "How are things ever in Maintenance? First
a railroad breaks down, then there's a steel strike, then some
paymaster doesn't make a payroll--the war knocked things for a loop,
Roger. Even now things are still loopy. And how are things in
Production?"

Roger scowled. "Let's have some coffee," he said.

They sat in a back corner booth of the Base Dispensary as Roger told
about David. Martin Drengo listened without interruption. He was a
thin man from top to bottom, a shock of unruly black hair topping an
almost cadaverous face, blue eyes large behind thick lenses. His whole
body was like a skeleton, his fingers long and bony as he lit a
cigarette. But the blue eyes were quick, and the nods warm and
understanding. He listened, and then he said, "It couldn't have been
an outsider?"

Roger shrugged. "Anything is possible. But why? Why go after a kid?"

Drengo hunched his shoulders forward. "I don't get it," he said.
"David has done nothing to give him enemies." He drew on his
cigarette. "What did Morrel have to say?"

"He laughed at me! Wouldn't even listen to me. Told me to go home and
go to bed, that I was all wet. I tell you, Martin, I _saw_ it! You
know I wouldn't lie, you know I don't see things that don't happen."

"Yes," said Martin, glumly. "I believe you, all right. But I can't see
why your son should be the target. You'd be more likely." He stood up,
stretching his long legs. "Look, old boy. Take Morrel's advice, at
least temporarily. Go home and get some sleep now; you're all worked
up. I'll go in and talk to Morrel. Maybe I can handle that old buzzard
better than you can."

Roger watched his friend amble down the aisle and out of the store. He
felt better now that he had talked to Drengo. Smiling to himself, he
finished off his coffee. Many a scrape he and Martin had seen through
together. He remembered that night of horror when the bomb fell on the
city, his miraculous rescue, the tall thin figure, reflecting the red
glare from his glasses, forcing his way through the burning timbers of
the building, tearing Roger's leg loose from the rubble covering it;
the frightful struggle through the rubbish, fighting off fear-crazed
mobs that sought to stop them, rob them, kill them. They had made the
long trek together, Martin and he, the Evacuation Road down to
Maryland, the Road of Horrors, lined with the rotting corpses of the
dead and the soon-dead, the dreadful refuse of that horrible night.
Martin Drengo had been a stout friend to Roger; he'd been with Martin
the night he'd met Ann; took the ring from Martin's finger when they
stood at the altar on their wedding day; shared with Martin his
closest confidence.

Roger sighed and paid for the coffee. What to do? The boy was home
now, recovering from the shock of the attack. Roger caught an
out-bound tri-wheel, and sped down the busy thoroughfare toward his
home. If Martin could talk to Morrel, and get something done, perhaps
they could get a line. Somehow, perhaps they could trace the
attackers. In the morning he'd see Martin again, and they could figure
out a scheme.

But he didn't have a chance to see Martin again. For at 11:30 that
night, the marauders struck again. For the third time.

       *       *       *       *       *

Through his sleep he heard a door close down below, and sat bolt
upright in bed, his heart pounding wildly. Only a tiny sound, the
click of a closing door--

Ann was sitting up beside him, brown hair close around her head, her
body tense. "Roger!" she whispered. "Did you hear something?"

Roger was out of bed, bounding across the room, into the hall. Blood
pounded in his ears as he rushed to David's room, stopped short
before the open door.

The shots rang out like whip cracks, and he saw the yellow flame from
the guns. There were two men in the dark room, standing at the bed
where the boy lay rolled into a terrified knot. The guns cracked again
and again, ripping the bedding, bursting the pillow into a shower of
feathers, tearing the boy's pajamas from his thin body, a dozen
blazing shots--

Roger let out a strangled cry, grabbed one of the men by the throat,
in a savage effort to stop the murderous pistols. The other man caught
him a coarse blow behind the ear, and he staggered hard against the
wall. Dully he heard the door slam, heavy footsteps down the corridor,
running down the stairs.

He struggled feebly to his feet, glancing at the still form on the
bed. Choking back a sob he staggered down the hall, shouting to Ann as
he went down the stairs, redoubling his speed as he heard the purr of
autojets in the driveway. In a moment he was in his own car,
frantically stamping on the starter. It started immediately, the motor
booming, and the powerful jet engines forced the heavy car ahead
dangerously, taking the corner on two of its three wheels. He knew
that Ann would call Security, and he raced to gain on the tail lights
that were disappearing down the winding residential road to the main
highway. Throwing caution to the winds, Roger swerved the car across a
front lawn, down between two houses, into an alley, and through
another driveway, gaining three blocks. Ahead, at the junction with
the main Base highway he saw the long black autojet turn right.

       *       *       *       *       *

Roger snaked into traffic on the highway and bore down on the black
car. Traffic was light because of the late hour, but the patrol was on
the road and might stop him instead of the killers. The other car was
traveling at top speed, swerving around the slower cars. Roger gained
slowly. He fingered the spotlight, preparing to snap it in the
driver's eyes. Taking a curve at 90, he crept up alongside the black
car as he heard the siren of a patrol car behind him. Cursing, he
edged over on the black car, snapped the spotlight full in the face of
the driver--

The screaming siren forced him off the road, and he braked hard, his
hands trembling. A patrolman came over to the car, gun drawn. He took
a quick look at Roger, and his face tightened. "Mr. Strang," he said
sharply. "We've been looking for you. You're wanted at Security."

"That car," Roger started weakly. "You've got to stop that car I was
chasing--"

"Never mind that car," the patrolman snarled. "It's you they want. Hop
out. We'll go in the patrol car."

"You've got to stop them--"

The patrolman fingered his gun. "Security wants to talk to you, Mr.
Strang. Hop out."

Roger moved dazedly from his car. He didn't question the patrolman; he
hardly even heard him. His mind raced in a welter of confusion, trying
desperately to refute the brilliant picture in his mind from that
split-second that the spotlight had rested on the driver of the black
car, trying to fit the impossible pieces into their places. For the
second man in the black autojet had been John Morrel, chief of Barrier
Base Security, and the driver had been Martin Drengo--

       *       *       *       *       *

The man at the desk was a stranger to Roger Strang. He was an elderly
man, stooped, with graying hair and a small clipped mustache that
seemed to stick out like antennae. He watched Roger impassively with
steel gray eyes, motioning him to a chair.

"You led us a merry chase," he said flatly, his voice brittle. "A very
merry chase. The alarm went out for you almost an hour ago."

Strang's cheeks were red with anger. "My son was shot tonight. I was
trying to follow the killers--"

"Killers?" The man raised his eyebrows.

"Yes, killers!" Roger snapped. "Do I have to draw you a picture? They
shot my son down in his bed."

The gray-haired man stared at him for a long time. "Well," he said
finally in a baffled tone. "Now I've heard everything."

It was Roger's turn to stare. "Can't you understand what I've said?
_My son was murdered._"

The gray-haired man flipped a pencil down on the desk impatiently.
"Mr. Strang," he said elaborately. "My name is Whitman. I flew down
here from Washington tonight, after being called from my bed by the
commanding officer of this base. I am the National Chief of the
Federal Bureau of Security, Mr. Strang, and I am not interested in
fairy tales. I would like you to come off it now, and answer some
questions for me. And I don't want double-talk. I want answers. Do I
make myself quite clear?"

Roger stared at him, finally nodded his head. "Quite," he said
sourly.

Whitman hunched forward in his chair. "Mr. Strang, how long have you
been working in the Barrier Base?"

"Five years. Ever since the bombing of New York."

Whitman nodded. "Oh, yes. The bombing of New York." He looked sharply
at Roger. "And how old are you, Mr. Strang?"

Roger looked up, surprised. "Thirty-two, of course. You have my
records. Why are you asking?"

The gray-haired man lit a cigarette. "Yes, we have your records," he
said offhandedly. "Very interesting records, quite normal, quite in
order. Nothing out of the ordinary." He stood up and looked out on the
dark street. "Just one thing wrong with your records, Mr. Strang. They
aren't true."

Roger stared. "This is ridiculous," he blurted. "What do you mean,
they aren't true?"

Whitman took a deep breath, and pulled a sheet of paper out of a sheaf
on his desk. "It says here," he said, "that you are Roger Strang, and
that you were born in Indianola, Iowa, on the fourteenth of June,
2051. That your father was Jason Strang, born 11 August, 2023, in
Chicago, Illinois. That you lived in Indianola until you were twelve,
when your father moved to New York City, and was employed with the
North American Electronics Laboratories. That you entered
International Polytechnic Institute at the age of 21, studying physics
and electronics, and graduated in June 2075 with the degree of
Bachelor of Electronics. That you did further work, taking a Masters
and Doctorate in Electronics at Polytech in 2077."

Whitman took a deep breath. "That's what it says here. A very ordinary
record. But there is no record there of your birth in Indianola, Iowa,
in 2051 or any other time. There is no record there of your father,
the alleged Jason Strang, nor in Chicago. No one by the name of Jason
Strang was ever employed by North American Electronics. No one by the
name of Roger Strang ever attended Polytech." Whitman watched him with
cold eyes. "To the best of our knowledge, and according to all
available records, _there never was anyone named Roger Strang until
after the bombing of New York_."

Roger sat stock still, his mind racing. "This is silly," he said
finally. "Perfectly idiotic. Those schools _must_ have records--"

Whitman's face was tight. "They do have records. Complete records. But
the name of Roger Strang is curiously missing from the roster of
graduates in 2075. Or any other year." He snubbed his cigarette
angrily. "I wish you would tell me, and save us both much
unpleasantness. _Just who are you, Mr. Strang, and where do you come
from?_"

Strang stared at the man, his pulse pounding in his head. Filtering
into his mind was a vast confusion, some phrase, some word, some
nebulous doubt that frightened him, made him almost believe that
gray-haired man in the chair before him. He took a deep breath,
clearing his mind of the nagging doubt. "Look here," he said,
exasperated. "When I was drafted for the Barrier Base, they checked
for my origin, for my education and credentials. If they had been
false, I'd have been snapped up right then. Probably shot--they were
shooting people for chewing their fingernails in those days. I
wouldn't have stood a chance."

Whitman nodded his head vigorously. "Exactly!" he snapped. "You
_should_ have been picked up. But you weren't even suspected until we
did a little checking after that accident in the Labs building
yesterday. Somehow, false credentials got through for you. Security
does not like false credentials. I don't know how you did it, but you
did. I want to know how."

"But, I tell you--" Roger stood up, fear suddenly growing in his mind.
He lit a cigarette, took two nervous puffs, and set it down,
forgotten, on the ash-tray. "I have a wife," he said shakily. "I
married her in New York City. We had a son, born in a hospital in New
York City. He went to school there. Surely there must be some kind of
record--"

Whitman smiled grimly, almost mockingly. "Good old New York City," he
snarled. "Married there, you say? Wonderful! Son born there? In the
one city in the country where that information _can never be checked_.
That's very convenient, Mr. Strang. Or whoever you are. I think you'd
better talk."

Roger snubbed out the cigarette viciously. "My son," he said after a
long pause. "He was murdered tonight. Shot down in his bed--"

The Security Chief's face went white. "Garbage!" he snapped. "What
kind of a fool do you think I am, Strang? Your son murdered--bah! When
the alarm went out for you I personally drove to your home. Oddly
enough this wife of yours wasn't at home, but your son was. Nice
little chap. He made us some coffee, and explained that he didn't
know where his parents were, because he'd been asleep all night.
Quietly asleep in his bed--"

The words were clipped out, and rang in Roger's ears, incredibly. His
hand shook violently as he puffed his cigarette, burning his fingers
on the short butt. "I don't believe it," he muttered hollowly. "I saw
it happen--"

Whitman sneered. "Are you going to talk or not?"

Roger looked up helplessly. "I don't--know--" he said, weakly. "I
don't know."

The Security Chief threw up his hands in disgust. "Then we'll do it
the hard way," he grated. Flipping an intercom switch, his voice
snapped out cold in the still room. "Send in Psych squad," he growled.
"We've got a job to do--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Roger Strang lay back on the small bunk, his nerves yammering from the
steady barrage, lights still flickering green and red in his eyes. His
body was limp, his mind functioning slowly, sluggishly. His eyelids
were still heavy from the drugs, his wrists and forehead burning and
sore where the electrodes had been attached. His muscles hardly
responded when he tried to move, his strength completely gone--washed
out. He simply lay there, his shallow breathing returning to him from
the dark stone walls.

The inquisition had been savage. The hot lights, the smooth-faced men
firing questions, over and over, the drugs, the curious sensation of
mouthing nonsense, of hearing his voice rambling on crazily, yet being
unable in any way to control it; the hypnotic effect of Whitman's soft
voice, the glitter in his steel-gray eyes, and the questions,
questions, questions. The lie detector had been going by his side,
jerking insanely at his answers, every time the same answers, every
time setting the needle into wild gyrations. And finally the foggy,
indistinct memory of Whitman mopping his forehead and stamping
savagely on a cigarette, and muttering desperately, "It's no use!
Lies! Nothing but lies, lies, lies! He _couldn't_ be lying under this
treatment, but he is. _And he knows he is!_"

Lies? Roger stretched his heavy limbs, his mind struggling up into a
tardy rejection. Not lies! He hadn't lied--he had been answering the
truth to the questions. He couldn't have been lying, for the answers
were there, clear in his memory. And yet--the same nagging doubt crept
through, the same feeling that had plagued him throughout the
inquisition, the nagging, haunting, horrible conviction, somewhere in
the depths of his numb brain that he _was_ lying! Something was
missing somewhere, some vast gap in his knowledge, something of which
he simply was not aware. The incredible turnabout of Martin Drengo,
the attack on David, who was killed, but somehow was not dead. He
_had_ to be lying--

But how could he lie, and still know that he was not lying? His
sluggish mind wrestled, trying to choke back the incredible doubt.
Somewhere in the morass, the picture of Martin Drengo came
through--Drengo, the traitor, who was trying to kill his son--but the
conviction swept through again, overpowering, the certain knowledge
that Drengo was _not_ a traitor, that he must trust Drengo. Drengo was
his friend, his stalwart--

HIS AGENT!

Strang sat bolt upright on the cot, his head spinning. The thought had
broken through crystal clear in the darkness, revealed itself for the
briefest instant, then swirled down again into the foggy gulf. Agent?
Why should he have an agent? What purpose? Frantically he scanned his
memory for Drengo, down along the dark channels, searching. Drengo had
come through the fire, into the burning building, carried him like a
child through the flames into safety. Drengo had been best man at his
wedding--but he'd been married before the bombing of the city. _Or had
he?_ Where did Drengo fit in? Was the fire the first time he had seen
Drengo?

Something deep in his mind forced its way through, saying NO! YOU HAVE
KNOWN HIM ALL YOUR LIFE! Roger fought it back, frantically. Never!
Back in Iowa there had been no Drengo. Nor in Chicago. Nor in New
York. He hadn't even known him in--IN NEW ALBANY!

       *       *       *       *       *

Roger Strang was on his feet, shaking, cold fear running through his
body, his nerves screaming. Had they ruined his mind? He couldn't
think straight any more. Telling him things that weren't true, forcing
lies into his mind--frightening him with the horrible conviction that
his mind was really helpless, full of false data. What had happened to
him? Where had the thought of "New Albany" come from? He shivered, now
thoroughly frightened. There wasn't any "New Albany." Nowhere in the
world. There just _wasn't_ any such place.

_Could he have two memories? Conflicting memories?_

He walked shakily to the door, peered through the small peephole. In
the morning they would try again, they had said. He shuddered,
terribly afraid. He had felt his mind cracking under the last
questioning; another would drive him completely insane. But Drengo
would have the answers. Why had he shot little Davey? How did that fit
in? Was this false-credential business part of some stupendous scheme
against him? Impossible! But what else? He knew with sudden certain
conviction that he must see Martin Drengo, immediately, before they
questioned him again, before the fear and uncertainty drove him out of
his mind. He called tentatively through the peephole, half-hoping to
catch a guard's attention. And the call echoed through silent halls.

And then he heard Ann's voice, clear, cool, sharp in the prison
darkness. Roger whirled, fear choking the shouts still ringing in his
ears, gaped at the woman who stood in his cell--

She was lovelier than he had ever seen her, her tiny body clothed in a
glowing fabric which clung to every curve, accenting her trim figure,
her slender hips. Brown hair wreathed her lovely face, and Roger
choked as the deep longing for her welled up in his throat.
Speechlessly he took her in his arms, holding her close, burying his
face in her hair, sobbing in joy and relief. And then he saw the
glowing circle behind her, casting its eerie light into the far
corners of the dark cell. In fiery greenness the ring shimmered in an
aurora of violent power, but Ann paid no attention to it. She stepped
back and smiled at him, her eyes bright. "Don't be frightened," she
said softly, "and don't make any noise. I'm here to help you."

"But where did you come from?" The question forced itself out in a
sort of strangled gasp.

"We have--means of going where we want to. And we want you to come
with us." She pointed at the glowing ring. "We want to take you back
to the time-area from which you came."

Roger goggled at her, confusion welling strong into his mind again.
"Ann," he said weakly. "What kind of trick is this?"

She smiled again. "No trick," she said. "Don't ask questions, darling.
I know you're confused, but there isn't much time. You'll just have to
do what I say right now." She turned to the glowing ring. "We just
step through here. Be careful that you don't touch the substance of
the portal going through."

Roger Strang approached the glowing ring curiously, peered through,
blinked, peered again. It was like staring at an inscrutable
flat-black surface in the shadow. No light reflected through it;
nothing could be seen. He heard a faint whining as he stood close to
the ring, and he looked up at Ann, his eyes wide. "You can't see
through it!" he exclaimed.

Ann was crouching on the floor near a small metallic box, gently
turning knobs, checking the dial reading against a small chronometer
on her wrist. "Steady, darling," she said. "Just follow me, carefully,
and don't be afraid. We're going back home--to the time-area where we
belong. You and I. I know--you don't remember. And you'll be puzzled,
and confused, because the memory substitution job was very thorough.
But you'll remember Martin Drengo, and John Morrel, and me. And I was
your wife there, too--Are you ready?"

Roger stared at the ring for a moment. "Where are we going?" he asked.
"How far ahead? Or behind--?"

"Ahead," she said. "Eighty years ahead--as far as we can go. That will
bring us to the present time, the _real_ present time, as far as we,
and you, are concerned."

She turned abruptly, and stepped through the ring, and vanished as
effectively as if she had disintegrated into vapor. Roger felt fear
catch at his throat; then he followed her through.

They were standing in a ruins. The cell was gone, the prison, the
Barrier Base. The dark sky above was bespeckled with a myriad of
stars, and a cool night breeze swept over Roger's cheek. Far in the
distance a low rumble came to his ears. "Sounds like a storm coming,"
he muttered to Ann, pulling his jacket closer around him.

"No storm," she said grimly. "Look!" She pointed a finger toward the
northern horizon. Brazen against the blackness the yellow-orange of
fire was rising, great spurts of multi-colored flames licking at the
horizon. The rumble became a drone, a roar. Ann grasped Roger's arm
and pulled him down to cover in the rubble as the invisible squadron
swished across the sky, trailing jet streams of horrid orange behind
them. Then to the south, in the direction of the flight, the drone of
the engines gave way to the hollow boom-booming of bombing, and the
southern horizon flared. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the
rumble died away, leaving the flames licking the sky to the north and
south.

Roger shivered. "War," he said. "Eurasia?"

She shook her head. "If only it were. There is no Eurasia now. The
dictator took care of that. Nothing but gutted holes, and rubble." She
stood up, helping Roger to his feet. Together they filed through the
rubbish down to a roadway. Ann dialed a small wrist radio; in a few
moments, out of the dark sky, the dim-out lights of a small 'copter
came into view, and the machine settled delicately to the road. Two
strange men were inside; they saluted Ann, and helped Roger aboard.
Swiftly they clamped down the hatch tight, and the ship rose again
silently into the air.

"Where are we going?" asked Roger Strang.

"We have a headquarters. Our data must be checked first. We can't
reach a decision without checking. Then we can talk."

The 'copter swung high over the blazing inferno of a city far below.
Strang glanced from the window, eyes widening at the holocaust. The
crater holes were mammoth, huge spires of living flame rising to the
sky, leaving mushroom columns of gray-black smoke that glowed an evil
red from the furnace on the ground. "Not Eurasia?" Roger asked
suddenly, his mind twisting in amazement. "But who? This is America,
isn't it?"

"Yes. This is America. There is no Eurasia now. Soon there may not be
an America. Nor even an Earth."

Roger looked up at Ann, eyes wide. "But those jet-planes--the
bombing--_who is doing the bombing?_"

Ann Strang stared down at the sullen red fires of the city for a
moment, her quiet eyes sad. "Those are Martian planes," she said.

       *       *       *       *       *

The 'copter settled silently down into the heart of the city, glowing
red from the flames and bombing. They hovered over the shining Palace,
still tall, and superb, and intact, gleaming like a blood-streaked
jewel in the glowing night. The 'copter settled on the roof of a low
building across a large courtyard from the glittering Palace. Ann
Strang stepped out, and motioned Roger to follow down a shaft and
stairway into a small room below. She knocked at a door, and a strange
man dressed in the curious glowing fabric opened it. His face lit up
in a smile.

"Roger!" he cried. "We were afraid we couldn't locate you. We weren't
expecting the Security to meddle. Someone got suspicious, somewhere,
and began checking your references from their sources--and of course
they were false. We were lucky to get you back at all, after Security
got you." He clapped Roger on the back, and led him into the room.

John Morrel and Martin Drengo were standing near the rounded window,
their faces thrown into grotesque relief against the red-orange glow
outside. They turned and saluted, and Roger almost cried out, his mind
spinning, a thousand questions cutting into his consciousness,
demanding answers. But quite suddenly he was feeling a new power, a
new effectiveness in his thinking, in his activity. He turned to
Martin Drengo, his eyes questioning but no longer afraid. "What year
is this?" he asked.

"This is 2165. March, 2165, and you're in New Albany, in the United
States of North America. This is the city where you were born, the
city you loved--and look at it!"

Roger walked to the window. The court below was full of people now,
ragged people, some of them screaming, a disconsolate muttering rising
from a thousand throats--burned people, mangled people. They milled
about the mammoth courtyard before the glorious Palace, aimlessly,
mindlessly. Far down the avenue leading from the Palace Roger could
see the people evacuating the city, a long, desolate line of people,
strange autos, carts, even animals, running down the broad avenue to
escape from the flaming city.

"We're not in danger here," said Drengo, at his elbow. "No fire nor
bomb can reach us here--that is the result of your mighty Atlantic
Coast Barrier. Nothing more. It never was perfected in time, before
the great Eastern Invasion and the second Atomic War. That was due to
occur three years after the time-area where we visited. We were trying
to stem it, to turn it aside. We don't know yet whether we succeeded
or not."

He turned to the tall man standing at the door. "Markson, all the
calculations are prepared. The Calc is evaluating the data against the
Equation now, figuring all the variables. If our work did any good, we
should know it soon." He sighed and pointed to the Palace. "But our
fine Dictator is still alive, and the attack on Mars should be
starting any minute--If we didn't succeed, nothing in all Time will
stop him."

Roger lit a cigarette, his eyes questioning Drengo. "Dictator?"

Drengo sat down and stretched his legs. "The Dictator appeared four
years ago, a nobody, a man from the masses of people on the planet. He
rose into public favor like a sky-rocket, a remarkable man, an amazing
man--a man who could talk to you, and control your thoughts in a
single interview. There has never been a man with such personal
magnetism and power, Roger, in all the history of Earth. A man who
raised himself from nothing into absolute Dictatorship, and has
handled the world according to his whim ever since.

"He is only a young man, Roger, just 32 years of age, but an
irresistible man who can win anything from anybody. He writhed into
the presidency first, and then deliberately set about rearranging the
government to suit himself. And the people let him get away with it,
followed him like sheep. And then he was Dictator, and he began
turning the social and economic balance of the planet into a
whirlwind. And then came Mars."

Martin stretched again, and lit a cigarette, his thin face grave in
the darkened room. "The first landing was thirty years ago, and the
possibilities for rich and peaceful commerce between Earth and Mars
were clear from the first. Mars had what Earth lacked: the true
civilization, the polished culture, the lasting socio-economic
balance, the permanent peace. Mars could have taught us so much. She
could have guided us out of the mire of war and hatred that we have
been wallowing in for centuries. But the Dictator put an end to those
possibilities." Drengo shrugged. "He was convinced that the Martians
were weak, backward, decadent. He saw their uranium, their gold, their
jewelry, their labor--and started on a vast impossible imperialism. If
he had had his way, he would have stripped the planet in three years,
but the Martians fought against us, turned from peace to suspicion,
and finally to open revolt. And the Dictator could not see. He
mobilized Earth for total war against Mars, draining our resources,
decimating our population, building rockets, bombs, guns--" He stopped
for a moment, breathing deeply. "But the Dictator didn't know what he
was doing. He had never been on Mars. He has never seen Martians. He
had no idea what they think, what they are capable of doing. He
doesn't know what we know--that the Martians will win. He doesn't
realize that the Martians can carry out a war for years without
shaking their economy one iota, while he has drained our planet to
such a degree that a war of more than two or three months will break
us in half. He doesn't know that Mars can win, and that the Earth
can't--"

Roger walked across the room, thoughtfully, his mind fitting pieces
into place. "But where do I come in? David--Ann--I don't understand--"

Drengo looked Roger straight in the eye. "The Dictator's name," he
said, "is Farrel Strang."

Roger stopped still. "Strang?" he echoed.

"Your son, Roger. Yours and Ann's."

"But--you said the Dictator was only 32--" Roger trailed off,
regarding Ann in amazement.

Martin smiled. "People don't grow old so quickly nowadays," he said.
"You are 57 years old, Roger. Ann is 53." He leaned back in his chair,
his gaunt smile fading. "The Dictator has not been without opposition.
You, his parents, opposed him at the very start, and he cast you off.
People wiser than the crowds were able to rebuff his powerful personal
appeal, to see through the robe of glory he had wrapped around
himself. He has opposition, but he has built himself an impregnable
fortress, and dealt swift death to any persons suspected of treason. A
few have escaped--scientists, technologists, sociologists, physicists.
The work of one group of men gave us a weapon which we hoped to use to
destroy the Dictator. We found a way to move back in Time. We could
leave the normal time-stream and move to any area of past time. So
four of us went back, searching for the core of the economic and
social upheaval on Earth, and trying to destroy the Dictator before he
was born. Given Time travel, it should have been possible. So we went
back--myself, John Morrel, Ann Strang, and you."

Roger shook his head, a horrible thought forming in his mind. "You
were trying to kill David--my son--" he stopped short. "David
_couldn't_ have been my son!" He whirled on Martin Drengo. "_Who was
that boy?_"

Martin looked away then, his face white. "The boy was your father," he
said.

       *       *       *       *       *

The drone of the jet bombers came again, whining into the still room.
Roger Strang stood very still, staring at the gaunt man. Slowly the
puzzle was beginning to fit together, and horror filtered into his
mind. "My father--" he said. "Only twelve years old, but he was to be
my father." He stared helplessly at the group in the room. "You were
trying--to kill him!"

Martin Drengo stood up, his lean face grave. "We were faced with a
terrific problem. Once we returned to a time-area, we had no way of
knowing to what extent we could effect people and events that had
already happened. We had to go back, to fit in, somehow, in an area
where we never had been, to _make_ things happen that had never
happened before. We knew that if there was any way of doing it, we had
to destroy Farrel Strang. But the patterns of history which had
allowed him to rise had to be altered, too; destroying the man would
not have been enough. So we tried to destroy him in the time-area
where the leading time-patterns of _our_ time had been formed. We had
to kill his grandfather."

Roger shivered. "But if you had killed David--what would have happened
_to me_?"

"Presumably the same thing that would have happened to the Dictator.
In theory, _if we had succeeded_ in killing your father, David, both
you and the Dictator would have ceased to exist." Drengo took a deep
breath. "The idea was yours, Roger. You knew the terrible damage your
son was doing as Dictator. It was a last resort, and Ann and John and
I pleaded with you to reconsider. But it was the obvious step."

Ann walked over to Roger, her face pale. "You insisted, Roger. So we
did what we could to make it easy. We used the Dictator's favorite
trick--a psycho-purge--to clear your mind of all conscious and
subconscious memory of your true origin and environment, replacing it
with a history and memory of the past-time area where we were going.
We chose the contact-time carefully, so that we appeared in New York
in the confusion of the bombing of 2078, making sure that your records
would stand up under all but the closest examination. From then on,
when Martin carried you out from the fire, you stored your own memory
of that time-area and became a legitimate member of that society."

"But how could we pose as David's _parents_, if he was my father?"

Ann smiled. "Both David's parents were killed in the New York bombing;
we knew that David survived, and we knew where he could be found.
There was a close physical resemblance between you and the boy,
though actually the resemblance was backwards, and he accepted you as
a foster-father without question. With you equipped with a complete
memory of your marriage to me in that time, of David's birth, and of
your own history before and after the bombing of New York, you fit in
well and played the part to perfection. Also, you acted as a control,
to guide us, since you had no conscious knowledge beyond that
time-area. Martin and Morrel were to be the assassins, the Intruders,
and I was to keep tabs on you--"

"And the success of the attempt?"

Ann's face fell. "We don't know yet. We don't know what we
accomplished, whether we stemmed the war or not--"

The tall man who had stepped into the room moved forward and threw a
sheaf of papers on the floor, his face heavy with anger, his voice
hoarse. "Yes, I'm afraid we do know," he said bitterly.

Martin Drengo whirled on him, his face white. "What do you mean,
Markson?"

The tall man sank down in a chair tiredly. "We've lost, Martin. We
don't need these calculations to tell. The word was just broadcast on
the telecast. Farrel Strang's armada has just begun its attack on
Mars--"

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment the distant bombing was the only sound in the room. Then
Martin Drengo said, "So he gave the order. And we've lost."

"We only had a theory to work on," said Morrel, staring gloomily at
the curved window. "A theory and an equation. The theory said that a
man returning through time could alter the social and technological
trends of the people and times to which he returned, in order to
change history that was already past. The theory said that if we could
turn the social patterns and technological trends just slightly away
from what they were, we could alter the entire makeup of society in
our own time. And the Equation was the tool, the final check on any
change. The Equation which evaluates the sum of social, psychological
and energy factors in any situation, any city or nation or human
society. The Equation has been proven, checked time and time again,
but the theory didn't fit it. The theory was wrong."

Roger Strang sat up, suddenly alert. "That boy," he said, his voice
sharp. "You nearly made a sieve of him, trying to shoot him. Why
didn't he die?"

"Because he was on a high-order variable. Picture it this way: From
any point in time, the possible future occurrences could be seen as
vectors, an infinite number of possible vectors. Every activity that
makes an alteration, or has any broad effect on the future is a
high-order variable, but many activities have no grave implications
for future time, and could be considered unimportant, or low-order
variables. If a man turns a corner and sees something that stimulates
him into writing a world-shaking manifesto, the high-order variable
would have started when he decided to turn the corner instead of going
the other way. But if he took one way home instead of another, and
nothing of importance occurred as a result of the decision, a
low-order variable would be set up.

"We found that the theory of alterations held quite well, for
low-order variables. Wherever we appeared, whatever we did, we set up
a definite friction in the normal time-stream, a distortion, like
pulling a taut rubber band out. And we could produce changes--on
low-order variables. But the elasticity of the distortion was so great
as to warp the change back into the time-stream without causing any
lasting alteration. When it came to high-order changes, _we simply
couldn't make any_. We tried putting wrong data into the machines that
were calculating specifications for the Barrier, and the false data
went in, but the answers that came out were answers that _should_ have
appeared with the _right_ data. We tried to commit a murder, to kill
David Strang, and try as we would we couldn't do it. Because it would
have altered a high-order variable, and they simply _wouldn't be
altered_!"

"But you, Morrel," Roger exclaimed. "How about you? You were top man
in the Barrier Base Security office. You must have made an
impression."

Morrel smiled tiredly. "I really thought I had, time after time. I
would start off a series of circumstances that should have had a grave
alterative effect, and it would look for awhile as if a long-range
change was going to be affected--and then it would straighten itself
out again, with no important change occurring. It was maddening. We
worked for five years trying to make even a small alteration--and
brought back our data--" He pointed to the papers on the floor. "There
are the calculations, applied on the Equation. Meaningless. We
accomplished nothing. And the Dictator is still there."

Drengo slumped in his chair. "And he's started the war. The real
attack. This bombardment outside is nothing. There are fifteen
squadrons of space-destroyers already unloading atomic bombs on the
surface of Mars, and that's the end, for us. Farrel Strang has started
a war he can never finish--"

Roger Strang turned sharply to Drengo. "This Dictator," he said.
"Where is he? Why can't he be reached now, and destroyed?"

"The Barrier. He can't be touched in the Palace. He has all his
offices there, all his controls, and he won't let anyone in since the
attempted assassination three months ago. He's safe there, and we
can't touch him."

Roger scowled at the control panel on the wall. "How does this
time-portal work?" he asked. "You say it can take us back--_why not
forward?_"

"No good. The nature of Time itself makes that impossible. At the
present instant of Time, everything that has happened has happened.
The three-dimensional world in which we live has passed through the
fourth temporal dimension, and nothing can alter it. But at this
instant there are an infinite number of things that could happen next.
The future is an infinite series of variables, and there's no
conceivable way to predict which variable will actually be true."

Roger Strang sat up straight, staring at Drengo. "Will that portal
work both ways?" he asked tensely.

Drengo stared at him blankly. "You mean, can it be reverse-wired? I
suppose so. But--anyone trying to move into the future would
necessarily become an _infinity_ of people--he couldn't maintain his
identity, because he'd have to have a body in every one of an infinite
number of places he might be--"

"--_until the normal time stream caught up with him in the future!_
And then he'd be in whatever place he fit!" Roger's voice rose
excitedly. "Martin, can't you see the implications? Send me
ahead--just a little ahead, an hour or so--and let me go into the
Palace. If I moved my consciousness to the place where the Palace
should be, where the Dictator should be, then when normal time caught
up with me, _I could kill him_!"

Drengo was on his feet, staring at Roger with rising excitement.
Suddenly he glanced at his watch. "By God!" he muttered. "_Maybe you
could_--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Blackness.

He had no body, no form. There was no light, no shape, nothing but
eternal, dismal, unbroken blackness. This was the Void, the place
where time had not yet come. Roger Strang shuddered, and felt the cold
chill of the blackness creep into his marrow. He had to move. He
wanted to move, to find the right place, moving with the infinity of
possible bodies. A stream of consciousness was all he could grasp, for
the blackness enclosed everything. A sort of death, but he knew he was
not dead. Blackness was around him, and in him, and through him.

He could feel the timelessness, the total absence of anything.
Suddenly he felt the loneliness, for he knew there was no going back.
He had to transfer his consciousness, his mind, to the place where the
Dictator was, hoping against hope that he could find the place before
time caught him wedged in the substance of the stone walls of the
Palace. He reached the place that _should_ be right, and waited--

And waited. There was no time in this place, and he had to wait for
the normal time stream. The blackness worked at his mind, filling him
with fear, choking him, making him want to scream in frightened
agony--waiting--

And suddenly, abruptly, he was standing in a brightly lighted room.
The arched dome over his head sparkled with jewels, and through
paneled windows the red glow of the city's fires flickered grimly. _He
was in the Palace!_

He looked about swiftly, and crossed the room toward a huge door. In
an instant he had thrown it open. The bright lights of the office
nearly blinded him, and the man behind the desk rose angrily, caught
Roger's eye full--

Roger gasped, his eyes widening. For a moment he thought he was
staring into a mirror. For the man behind the desk, clothed in a rich
glowing tunic was a living image of--_himself!_

The Dictator's face opened into startled surprise and fear as he
recognized Roger, and a frightened cry came from his lips. There was
no one else in the room, but his eyes ran swiftly to the visiphone.
With careful precision Roger Strang brought the heat-pistol to eye
level, and pulled the trigger. Farrel Strang crumpled slowly from the
knees, a black hole scorched in his chest.

Roger ran to the fallen man, stared into his face incredulously. His
son--and himself, as alike as twin dolls, for all the age difference.
Drengo's words rose in Roger's mind: "Medicine is advanced, you know.
People don't grow old so soon these days--"

Swiftly Roger slipped from his clothes, an impossibly bold idea
translating itself into rapid action. He stripped the glowing tunic
from the man's flaccid body, and slipped his arms into the sleeves,
pulling the cape in close to cover the burned spot.

He heard a knock on the door. Frantically he forced the body under the
heavy desk, and sat down in the chair behind it, eyes wide with fear.
"Come in," he croaked.

A young deputy stepped through the door, approached the desk
deferentially. "The first reports, sir," he said, looking straight at
Roger. Not a flicker of suspicion crossed his face. "The attack is
progressing as expected."

"Turn all reports over to my private teletype," Roger snapped. The man
saluted. "Immediately, sir!" He turned and left the room, closing the
door behind him.

Roger panted, closing his eyes in relief. He could pass! Turning to
the file, he examined the detailed plans for the Martian attack; the
numbers of ships, the squadron leaders, the zero hours--then he was at
the teletype keyboard, passing on the message of peace, the message to
stop the War with Mars, to make an armistice; ALL SQUADRONS AND SHIPS
ATTENTION: CEASE AND DESIST IN ATTACK PLANS: RETURN TO TERRA
IMMEDIATELY: BY ORDER OF FARREL STRANG.

Wildly he tore into the files, ripping out budget reports,
stabilization plans, battle plans, evacuation plans. It would be
simple to dispose of the Dictator's body as that of an imposter, an
assassin--and simply take control himself in Farrel's place. They
would carry on with _his_ plans, _his_ direction. And an era of peace,
and stability and rich commerce would commence at long last. The sheaf
of papers grew larger and larger as Roger emptied out the files: plans
of war, plans of conquest, of slavery--he aimed the heat-pistol at the
pile, saw it spring into yellow flame, and circle up to the vaulted
ceiling in blue smoke.

       *       *       *       *       *

And then he sat down, panting, and flipped the visiphone switch. "Send
one man, unarmed, to the building across the courtyard. Have him bring
Martin Drengo to me."

The deputy's eyes widened on the screen. "Unarmed, sir?"

"Unarmed," Roger repeated. "By order of your Dictator."

       *       *       *       *       *





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