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´╗┐Title: Mars is my Destination
Author: Long, Frank Belknap
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 "Mars is my Destination" ***

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                              MARS IS MY
                              DESTINATION

                    a science-fiction adventure by
                          FRANK BELKNAP LONG

                             PYRAMID BOOKS
                               NEW YORK

                        MARS IS MY DESTINATION

                            A Pyramid Book

                       First printing, June 1962

       This book is fiction. No resemblance is intended between
         any character herein and any person, living or dead;
             any such resemblance is purely coincidental.

             Copyright 1962, by Pyramid Publications, Inc.
                          All Rights Reserved

                Printed in the United States of America

       Pyramid Books are published by Pyramid Publications, Inc.
           444 Madison Avenue, New York 22, New York, U.S.A.

      [Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not uncover any
  evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



MARS

... Earth's first colony in Space. Men killed for the coveted ticket
that allowed them to go there. And, once there, the killing went on....


MARS

... Ralph Graham's goal since boyhood--and he was Mars-bound with
authority that put the whole planet in his pocket--if he could live
long enough to assert it!


MARS

... source of incalculable wealth for humanity--and deadly danger for
those who tried to get it!


MARS

... in Earth's night sky, a symbol of the god of war--in this tense
novel of the future, a vivid setting for stirring action!



1


I'd known for ten minutes that something terrible was going to happen.
It was in the cards, building to a zero-count climax.

The spaceport bar was filled with a fresh, washed-clean smell, as if
all the winds of space had been blowing through it. There was an autumn
tang in the air as well, because it was open at both ends, and out
beyond was New Chicago, with its parks and tall buildings, and the big
inland sea that was Lake Michigan.

It was all right ... if you just let your mind dwell on what was
outside. Men and women with their shoulders held straight and a
new lift to the way they felt and thought, because Earth wasn't a
closed-circuit any more. Kids in the parks pretending they were
spacemen, bundled up in insulated jackets, having the time of their
lives. A blue jay perched on a tree, the leaves turning red and yellow
around it. A nurse in a starched white uniform pushing a perambulator,
her red-gold hair whipped by the wind, a dreamy look in her eyes.

Nothing could spoil any part of that. It was there to stay and I
breathed in deeply a couple of times, refusing to remember that in
the turbulent, round-the-clock world of the spaceports, Death was an
inveterate barhopper.

Then I did remember, because I had to. You can't bury your head in the
sand to shut out ugliness for long, unless you're ostrich-minded and
are willing to let your integrity go down the drain.

I didn't know what time it was and I didn't much care. I only knew that
Death had come in late in the afternoon, and was hovering in stony
silence at the far end of the bar.

He was there, all right, even if he had the same refractive index as
the air around him and you could see right through him. The sixth-sense
kind of awareness that everyone experiences at times--call it a
premonition, if you wish--had started an alarm bell ringing in my mind.

It was still ringing when I raised my eyes, and knew for sure that all
the furies that ever were had picked that particular time and place to
hold open house.

I saw it begin to happen.

It began so suddenly it had the impact of a big, hard-knuckled fist
crashing down on the spaceport bar, startling everyone, jolting even
the solitary drinkers out of their private nightmares.

Actually the violence hadn't quite reached that stage. But it was a
safe bet that it would in another ten or twelve seconds. And when it
did there was no chain or big double lock on Earth that could keep it
from terminating in bloodshed.

The tipoff was the way it started, as if a fuse had been lit that would
blow the place apart. Just two voices for an instant, raised in anger,
one ringing out like a pistol shot. But I knew that something was
dangerously wrong the instant I caught sight of the two men who were
doing the arguing.

The one whose voice had made every glass on the long bar vibrate like a
tuning fork was a blond giant, six-foot-four at least and built massive
around the shoulders. His shirt was open at the throat and his chest
was sweat-sheened and he had the kind of outsized ruggedness that made
you feel it would have taken a heavy rock-crushing machine a full half
hour to flatten him out.

The other was of average height and only looked small by contrast.
He was more than holding his own, however, standing up to the Viking
character defiantly. His weather-beaten face was as tight as a
drum, and his hair was standing straight up, as though a charge of
high-voltage electricity had passed right through him.

He just happened to have unusually bristly hair, I guess. But it gave
him a very weird look indeed.

I don't know why someone picked that critical moment to shout a
warning, because everyone could see it was the kind of argument that
couldn't be stopped by anything short of strong-armed intervention.
Advice at that point could be just as dangerous as pouring kerosene on
the fuse, to make it burn faster.

But someone did yell out, at the top of his lungs. "Pipe down, you two!
What do you think this is, a debating society?"

It could have turned into that, all right, the deadliest kind of
debating society, with the stoned contingent taking sides for no sane
reason. It could have started off as a free-for-all and ended with five
or six of the heaviest drinkers lying prone, with bashed-in skulls.

The barkeep made a makeshift megaphone of his two hands and added
to the confusion by shouting: "Get back in line or I'll have you run
right out of here. I'll show you just how tough I can get. Every time
something like this happens I get blamed for it. I'm goddam sick of
being in the middle."

"That's telling them, John! Need any help?"

"No, stay where you are. I can handle it."

I didn't think he could, not even if he was split down the middle into
two men twice his size. I didn't think anyone could, because by this
time I'd had a chance to take a long, steady, camera-eye look at the
expression on the Viking character's face.

I'd seen that expression before and I knew what it meant. The Viking
character was having a virulent sour grapes reaction to something
Average Size had said. It had really taken hold, like a smallpox
vaccination that's much too strong, and his inner torment had become
just agonizing enough to send him into a towering rage.

Average Size had probably been boasting, telling everyone how lucky he
was to be on the passenger list of the next Mars-bound rocket. And in
a crowded spaceport bar, where Martian Colonization Board clearances
are at a terrific premium, you don't indulge in that kind of talk. Not
unless you have a suicide complex and are dead set on leaving the earth
without traveling out into space at all.

Now things were coming to a head so fast there was no time to cheat
Death of his cue. He was starting to come right out into the open,
scythe swinging, punctual to the dot. I was sure of it the instant I
saw the gun gleaming in the Viking character's hand and the smaller man
recoiling from him, his eyes fastened on the weapon in stark terror.

_Oh, you fool!_ I thought. _Why did you provoke him? You should have
expected this, you should have known. What good is a Mars clearance if
you end up with a bullet in your spine?_

For some strange reason the Viking character seemed in no hurry to
blast. He seemed to be savoring the look of terror in Average Size's
eyes, letting his fury diminish by just a little, as if by allowing a
tenth of it to escape through a steam-spigot safety valve he could make
more sure of his aim. It made me wonder if I couldn't still get to them
in time.

The instant I realized there was still a chance I knew I'd have to try.
I was in good physical trim and no man is an island when the sands are
running out. I didn't want to die, but neither did Average Size and
there are obligations you can't sidestep if you want to go on living
with yourself.

I moved out from where I was standing and headed straight for the
Viking character, keeping parallel with the long bar. I can't recall
ever having moved more rapidly, and I was well past the barkeep--he was
blinking and standing motionless, as white as a sheet now--when the
Viking character's voice rang out for the second time.

"You think you're better than the rest of us, don't you? Sure you do.
Why deny it? Who are you, who is anybody, to come in here and strut and
put on airs? I'm going to let you have it, right now!"

The blast came then, sudden, deafening. They were standing so close to
each other I thought for a minute the gun had misfired, for Average
Size didn't stiffen or sag or change his position in any way and his
face was hidden by smoke from the blast.

I should have known better, for it was a big gun with a heavy charge,
and when a man is half blown apart his body can become galvanized for
an instant, just as if he hasn't been hit at all. Sometimes he'll be
lifted up and hurled back twenty feet and sometimes he'll just stand
rigid, with the life going out of him in a rush, an instant before his
knees give way and there's a terrible, welling redness to make you
realize how mistaken you were about the shot going wild.

The smoke thinned out fast enough, eddying away from him in little
spirals. But one quick look at him sinking down, passing into eternity
with his head lolling, was all I had time for. Pandemonium was breaking
loose all around me, and my only thought was to make a mad dog killer
pay for what he had done before someone got between us.

Mad dog killers enrage me beyond all reason. Given enough provocation
almost any man can go berserk and commit murder. But the Viking
character had let a provocation that merited no more than a rebuke rip
his self-control to shreds.

The naked brutality of it sickened me. Something primitive and very
dangerous--or perhaps it was something super-civilized--made me out to
beat him into insensibility before he could kill again. I felt like a
man confronting a poisonous snake, who knows he must stamp on it or
blast off its head before it can sink its fangs in his flesh.

I was not alone in feeling that way. All around me there was an angry
muttering, a cursing and a shouting. If I needed support, sturdy
backing, I had it. But right at that moment I didn't need it. An
angry giant had come to life inside of me and we exchanged nods and
understood each other.

There was a crash behind me, but I ignored it. What was harder to
ignore was the barkeep straddling the bar and coming down flatfooted in
the wake of two reeling drunks who were lunging for the killer with a
crazy, wild look in their eyes. I didn't want them to get to him ahead
of me.

He hadn't moved at all and had a frightened look on his face, as if the
blast had jolted some sanity back into him and made him realize that
you can't gun a man down in a crowded bar without adjusting a noose to
your own throat and giving fifty men a chance to draw it tight.

The gun he'd killed with might still have saved him, if he'd swung
about and started shooting up the bar. But I didn't give him a chance
to recover.

I ploughed into him, wrenched the gun from him and sent him reeling
back against the bar with a solidly delivered blow to the jaw, luckily
aimed just right.

Then they were on him, five or six of them, and I couldn't see him for
a moment.

I held the gun tightly and looked at it. It was still warm and just the
feel of it sent a shiver up my spine. A gun that has just been wrenched
from the hand of a killer is unlike any other weapon. There's blood on
it, even if no laboratory test can bring it out.

I didn't know I'd lost anything until I looked down and saw my
wallet lying on the floor at my feet. The energy I'd put into the
blow had not only sent a stab of pain up my wrist to my elbow. It
had jarred something loose from my inner breast pocket that had a
danger-potential, right at that moment, that could have turned the tide
of rage that was sweeping the bar away from the killer and straight in
my direction. Some of it anyway, splitting it down the middle, causing
the drunks who were divided in their minds about what he had done to
change sides abruptly.

In my wallet was a perforated card, all stippled with tiny dots down
one side, and it said that I was on the passenger list of the next
Mars-bound rocket, and that the Martian Colonization Board clearance
was of a peculiar kind ... very special.

The wallet had fallen open and the card was in plain view for anyone
to read. It could be recognized by its color alone--a light shade of
blue--and if anyone who felt the way the killer had done about Average
Size had caught sight of it and made a grab for the wallet--

I was bending to pick it up when a voice whispered close to my ear.
"Don't let anyone see that card--if you want to stay in one piece.
You'd better get out of here before they start asking questions. They
won't wait for the Spaceport Police to get here. Too many of them
will be in trouble if they don't find out fast where everyone stands.
They'll know how to go about it."

I couldn't believe it for a minute, because I hadn't seen her come in.
I'd noticed two women at the bar, but not this one--it would have been
impossible for me to have failed to notice so slim a waist or hips so
enchantingly rounded, or the honey-blonde hair piled high, or the wide,
dark-lashed eyes that were staring at me out of a face that would have
made a good many men with their lives at stake forget the meaning of
danger.

Even if she'd been wedged in tightly between two male escorts at the
bar, I'd have noticed a part of all that. Just one glimpse of the
back of her head, with the indefinable, special quality that makes
beauty like that perceptible at a glance, so that you know what the
whole woman will look like when she turns, would have made so deep
an impression on me that not even the violence I'd participated in a
moment afterwards could have blotted it from my mind.

It left me speechless for an instant. I just snatched up the wallet,
put it safely back in my pocket and returned her stare in complete
silence.

"Better keep the gun," she advised. "Your fingerprints are all over it
now. You could clear yourself all right, considering who you are. But
it would be much simpler just to toss it into Lake Michigan, especially
if they decide to let him go and lie about who did the killing."

I could have wiped the gun clean and tossed it on the floor, but I knew
what was in her mind. You just don't leave a murder weapon lying around
in plain view when you've picked it up right after a killing. It can
lead to all kinds of complications.

I nodded and stood up. "Thanks for the advice," I said, finding my
voice at last. "There are enough eye-witnesses here to convict him
without this, if just a few of them have a conscience."

"Don't count on it," she said. "They're angry enough to kill him right
now, because they don't like to see anyone gunned down like that. But
when they've had time to think it over--"

She was right, of course. There were six or seven men struggling with
the killer now but there were others who weren't. A fight had started
near the middle of the bar and someone was shouting: "The ugly son
deserved what he got! Every man who gets a Mars clearance now has to
play along with the Colonization Board! He has to turn informer and
help them set a trap for anyone who gets in their way. Just depriving
us of our rights doesn't satisfy them. They're scheming to get the
whole Mars Colony for themselves."

It was the Big Lie--the charge that had done more damage to the Mars
Colony than the shortages of food and desperately needed construction
materials, and almost as much damage as the two major power conflicts
and the transportation difficulties that never seemed to get solved.

I wanted to go right up to him and grab hold of him and hit him as hard
as I'd hit the Viking character, because he was a killer too--a killer
of the dream.

But the blonde who seemed to know all the answers and what was wise
and sane and sensible was tugging at my arm and I couldn't ignore the
urgency in her voice.

"Time's running out on you, Mr. Important Man. If they find out just
who you are, you won't have a chance of getting out of here alive.
Every one of them will be clamoring for your blood. The pity of it, the
terrible pity, is that most of them hate violence as much as you do.
They hate what that wild beast just did. But the Big Lie has made them
hate the Colonization Board even more. Do we go?"

It came as a surprise that she was leaving with me, and that was
downright idiotic, in a way. With the place in an uproar, a killer
still trying to break loose and a fight under way it would have been
madness for her to stay, and the two other women had vanished without
stopping to talk to anyone. But in moments of stress you can overlook
the obvious and wonder about it afterward.

We had to move fast and we ran into trouble when two struggling drunks
got in our way. I shouldered one aside and rammed an elbow into the
stomach of the other and we reached the street without being stopped by
anyone who didn't want us to leave. The card was back in my pocket and
not a single one of them had X-ray eyes.

In another minute or two someone would have probably remembered that
I'd disarmed the Viking character and could have had a reason for the
fast violent way I'd gone about it. Then I'd have been in for the kind
of questioning the blonde had mentioned--a kangaroo court interrogation
before the Spaceport Police could get there. And if my answers had
failed to satisfy them they would have wasted no time in turning my
pockets inside out.

I'd been spared all that, thanks to that same blonde. And--I didn't
even know her name!



2


We'd been talking for twenty minutes and I still didn't know her
name. She wasn't being secretive or coy or holding out on me
because she didn't trust me as much as I trusted her. I just hadn't
gotten around to asking her, because we were both still talking
about what had happened at the bar and it was so closely tied in
with what was happening in New York and London and Paris and every
big city on Earth--and on Mars as well--that it dwarfed our puny
selves--extra-special as the blonde's puny self happened to be from the
male point of view.

I didn't know whether she was Helen or Barbara, Anne or Ruth or
Tanya. I just knew that she was beautiful and that we were sipping
Martinis and looking out through a wide picture window at New Chicago's
lakeshore parklands enveloped in a twilight glow.

The restaurant was called the Blue Mandarin and it conformed in all
respects to the picture that name conjures up--a diaphanous blue,
oriental-ornate eating establishment with nothing to offer its patrons
that was new, original, exciting, unique.

But there it was and there it would remain--until Lake Michigan
froze solid. For the moment its artificial decor wasn't important to
either of us. Only the Big Lie and what it was doing to the Martian
Colonization Project.

"My father was one of the first," she said. "Do you know what it means,
to stand in an empty, desolate waste, forty million miles from home,
and realize you're one of the chosen few--that a city will some day
grow from the seeds you've planted and nourished with your life blood?"

"I think I do," I said. "I hope I do."

"He died," she said, "when he was thirty years old, from a Martian
virus they hadn't discovered how to combat until two-thirds of the
first two thousand colonists succumbed to it."

"Why didn't he take you with him?" I asked. "There were no passenger
restrictions then. The Colonization Board had great difficulty in
finding enough volunteers."

"My mother refused to go," she said. "I'm afraid ... most women are
more conservative than men. Father died alone, and five years later
Mother married a man who didn't want to be one of the first ten
thousand--or the first sixty thousand. He had no problem. He wasn't
like the men we saw tonight."

"If every man and woman on Earth wanted to go to Mars," I said, "the
Colonization Board would have no problem. A demand on so colossal a
scale could not be met--in a century and a half. And laws would be
passed to prevent the scheming that's taking place everywhere, the
hatred and the violence. The Big Lie would not be believed."

"I know," she said. "It's when only twenty thousand can go and five
million want to go that you have a problem. A little hope filters
through, and the five million become envious and enraged."

I looked at her. I was feeling the glow now, the warmth creeping
through the cells of my brain, the recklessness that alcohol can
generate in a man with a worry that looms as big as the Big Lie, to
the part of himself that isn't dedicated to combating the Lie. The
ego-centered, demandingly human part, the woman-needing part, the old
Adam that's in all of us.

And suddenly I found myself thinking of Paris in the Spring, and the
sparkling Burgundies of France and vineyards in the dawn and what it
had meant to have a woman always at my side--or almost always--and in
my bed as well.

New York, flag-draped for Autumn, London in a swirling fog, the old
houses, the dreaming spires, anywhere on the round green Earth where
there was laughter and music and a woman to share it with....

All that had been mine for ten years. But now, like a fool, I wanted
Mars as well. Mars was in my blood and I could no longer rest content
with what I had.

Take it with me to Mars? And why not? It was no problem ... when you
didn't have my problem. A quite simple problem, really. The woman I'd
married wouldn't go with me to Mars.

She seemed to sense that I was having some kind of inward struggle,
and was feeling a decided glow at the same time, for she reached out
suddenly and took firm hold of my hand.

"Something's troubling you," she said. "Why don't you tell me about it
while you're feeling mellow. Considering the kind of world we're living
in, mellow is the best way to feel. It wears off quickly enough and
next day you pay for it. But while it lasts, I believe in making the
most of it. Don't you?"

Should I tell her, dared I? I might have to pay for it with a
vengeance, for she'd probably think me quite mad. And I still had some
old-fashioned ideas about loyalty and happened to be in love with my
wife.

It was crazy, it made no sense, but that's the way it was.

I looked at the woman sitting opposite me and wondered how a man could
be in love with one woman and find another so attractive that he'd been
on the verge of coming right out and asking her if she'd go with him to
Mars.

I looked at her blonde hair piled up high, and her pale beautiful face
and wondered how it would be if I hadn't been married to Joan at all.

I shut my eyes for a moment, thinking back, remembering the quarrel I'd
had with my wife that morning, the quarrel I'd tried my best to forget
over four straight whiskies at the spaceport bar late in the afternoon.

It was almost as if it was taking place again, right there at the
table, with another woman sitting opposite me who could not hear Joan's
angry voice at all.

"I mean every word I'm saying, Ralph Graham. You either tell them
you're staying right here in New Chicago or I'm divorcing you. I won't
go to Mars with you--tomorrow or next year or five years from now. Is
that plain?"

It was plain enough. To cushion the shock of it, and ease the pain
a little I stared into the fireplace, seeing for an instant in the
high-leaping flames a red desert landscape and a city that towered to
the brittle stars ... white, resplendent, swimming in a light that
never was on sea or land.

All right, the first Earth colony on Mars wasn't that kind of a city.
It was rugged and sprawling and rowdy. It was filled with tumult and
shouting, its prefabricated metal dwellings scoured and pitted by the
harsh desert winds. But I liked it better that way.

I wanted to walk its crooked streets, to rejoice with its builders and
creators, to be one of the first sixty thousand. With my mind and heart
and blood and guts I wanted to be there before the cautious, solemn,
over-serious people ruined it for the kind of man I was.

"I mean it, Ralph," Joan said. "If you go--you'll go alone. All of my
friends are here, all of my roots. I won't tear myself up by the roots
even for you. Much as I love you, I just won't."

It was five in the morning, and we'd been arguing half the night. In
two more hours daylight would come flooding into the apartment again,
and I'd probably have the worst talk-marathon hangover of my life.

I suddenly decided to go out into the cool dawn without saying another
word to her, slamming the door after me to make sure she'd realize just
how angry she'd made me.

I wouldn't even switch on the five A.M. news telecast or stop to take
in the cat on my way out. Women and cats had a great deal in common, I
told myself bitterly. They were arbitrary and stubborn and mysteriously
intent on having their own way and keeping you guessing as to their
real motives.

By heaven ... if I had to go alone to Mars I'd go.

So I'd really hung one on, had gone out and made a round of the
lakeside bars. All morning until noon and then I'd sobered up over
coffee and a sandwich and started out again early in the afternoon. It
just goes to show what a quarrel like that can do to a man's nerves and
peace of mind and all of his plans for the future, for I'm not even a
moderately heavy drinker.

       *       *       *       *       *

Early morning bar traveling is barbarous, a lunatic-fringe pastime, and
it was the first time in my life I'd resorted to it. But resort to it
I did, and as the day wore on I gravitated from the lakeside taverns
toward the spaceport in slow stages, and twice in five hours reached
the stage where I couldn't have passed the straight-line test. If I
hadn't sobered up a little at noon I'd have reached the big, dangerous
bar as high as a man can get without falling flat on his face.

The Colonization Board hadn't even tried to stop what goes on there
around the clock, because there are explosive tensions and hard to
uncover areas of criminality in a city as big as New Chicago it's
wise to provide a safety valve for--when Mars fever is running so
high practically all of us are living in the shadow of a totally
unpredictable kind of violence.

If anyone had asked me toward the middle of the afternoon what was
drawing me, despite all of my better instincts, in the direction of
death and violence I'd have come right out and told him.

I had Mars fever too. I hated the Big Lie and all of its ramifications,
knew that every charge that was being hurled at the Colonization Board
was untrue. But I knew exactly how all of the tormented, desperate
men felt, the ones who fought the Big Lie and still had the fever and
needed to be cradled in strangeness and vastness--needed space and a
new frontier to keep from feeling strapped down, walled in, prisoners
in a completely new kind of torture chamber.

The restlessness was growing because Man had lived too long in a
closed-circuit that had almost destroyed him. The great barrier that
was no longer there had brought the world to the brink of a universal
holocaust, and just knowing that it had been shattered forever was
enabling men and women everywhere to lead healthier lives, set their
goals higher.

There was nothing wrong with that. Only--not one man or woman in
fifty thousand would see with their own eyes the rust-red plains of
Mars, and the play of light and shadow on a world covered over much of
its surface with wide zones of abundant vegetation. Not one in fifty
thousand would have a new world to rejoice in, after the long journey
through interplanetary space. A world laden with springtime scents, in
the wake of the crash and thunder of the polar ice caps dissolving.

Or possibly snow piled high on a sleeping landscape, with a thaw just
starting, and the prints of small furry creatures on the white blanket
of snow, for the first colonists had taken animals with them.

It would take another thirty years for newer, swifter rockets to be
built and the supply problem to be brought under control and the colony
to outgrow its birth pangs and its tumultuous adolescence and become a
white and towering city, as huge as New Chicago.

And there were some who could not wait, for whom waiting was
destructive to body and mind, a kind of living death too terrible to be
sanely endured.

The fingers of the woman sitting opposite me were becoming restive,
tightening a little on my hand. It seemed incredible to me that I could
have gone off on that kind of thinking-back tangent when I was so close
to paradise.

For paradise was there, seated directly across the table from me,
in that crazy twilight hour, if I'd had the courage to seize it
boldly--and if I hadn't been still in love with Joan.

I could still make a stab at finding out for sure, I told myself, if
I brushed aside all obstacles, if I refused to let my mind dwell on
how I'd feel if something happened to Joan and I lost her forever. How
could she have been so stubborn and foolish, when she was sophisticated
enough to know that no man is insulated against temptation when he is
lonely and despairing and paradise can be his for the taking, if he can
kill just one part of himself and let the rest survive.

"What is it?" she asked. "You haven't said a word for five minutes.
I'm a good listener, you know. I always have been--perhaps too good a
listener."

It was the moment of truth, when I had to decide. Mars--and a woman
too. Mars--and the big, important job, and the clatter and bright
wonder of tremendous machines, with swiftly moving parts, whirring,
blurring, dust and the stars of morning, and a woman like that in my
arms.

I had to decide.

"What is it?" she asked. "Can't you tell me?"

"Someday I'll tell you," I said. "But not now. I've a feeling we'll
meet again. Where and how and when I don't know, because by this time
tomorrow I'll be on my way to Mars."

A pained look came into her eyes and she quickly released my hand.

"But we've just started to get acquainted," she protested. "You know
nothing about me--or hardly anything. I thought--"

"It might be best not to know," I said, and I think she must have
realized then just how it was, must have read the truth in my eyes, for
a faint flush suffused her face and she said quickly: "All right. If
that's the way it must be."

I nodded and beckoned to the waiter, hoping she wouldn't suspect how
vulnerable I still was, how dangerously easy it would have been for me
to alter my decision.

Ten minutes later I was alone again, with Lake Michigan glimmering at
my back, and only the stars for company. And I still didn't know her
name.



3


It happened so suddenly it would have taken me completely by surprise,
if the alarm bell hadn't started ringing again in some shadowy corner
of my mind. It wasn't clamorous this time, but it was loud enough to
make me straighten in alarm, with every nerve alert.

I was standing by a high wall of foliage, close to the lakeside and
had just started to light a cigarette. All at once, directly overhead,
there was a rustling sound that was hard to mistake, for I'd heard it
many times before, and it had a peculiar quality which set it apart
from all other sounds.

Something was moving through the shadows above me, rustling dry leaves,
slithering down toward me with a dull, mechanical buzzing.

The buzzing stopped abruptly and there was a flash of brightness,
a long-drawn whining sound. I braced myself, letting my arms swing
loosely at my side.

With startling swiftness something long, glistening and snakelike
descended upon me and wrapped itself around my right leg just above the
knee. Before I could shake it loose it contracted into a tight knot and
the whining turned into a shrill scream, prolonged, ghastly. It was
quite unlike the scream of an animal. There was something metallic,
rasping about it, as if more than animal ferocity was giving voice to
its pent-up rage in a shrill mechanical monotone.

The constriction increased and an agonizing stab of pain lanced up
my thigh. I raised my right arm and brought the edge of my hand down
with an abrupt, chopping motion. I chopped downward three times, not
at random, but with a calculated, deadly precision, for I knew that a
misdirected blow could have cost me my life.

I was in danger only for an instant, and not a very long instant at
that. The damage I'd done to it caused it to release its grip on my
leg, shudder convulsively and drop to the ground.

Damaged where it was most vulnerable, it writhed along the ground with
groping, disjointed movements of its entire body. Tiny fragments of
shattered crystal glistened in its wake, and two long wires dangled
from its cone-shaped head.

Its segmented body-case glowed with a blood-red sheen as it writhed
across a flat gray stone on the edge of the lakeshore embankment, and
reared up for an instant like an enormous, sightlessly groping worm.
Then, abruptly, all the animation went out of it, and it flattened out
and lay still. Both of the optical disks which had enabled it to move
swiftly through the darkness had been smashed. I was no longer in any
danger and it was very pleasant just to know that.

Very pleasant indeed.

An attempt had been made on my life. There could be no blinking
the fact. That little mechanical horror, with its complex interior
mechanisms, had been set upon me from a distance with all of its
electronic circuits clicking by remote control.

From just how great a distance I had no way of knowing. But I didn't
think he'd be staying around, near enough for me to get my hands on
him. Killers who made use of such gadgets usually kept their distance,
and were very cautious.

But at least I knew now that I had a dangerous enemy, someone who
wanted me dead. And there was nothing pleasant about that.

The human mind is a very strange instrument and it's hard to predict
just how profoundly you'll be upset by an occurrence that's difficult
to dismiss with a shrug.

You can either turn morbid and brood about it, or rise superior to it
and pigeon-hole it, at least for the moment. By a kind of miracle I was
able to pigeon-hole it, to keep it from standing in the way of what
I'd made up my mind to do before I'd heard the rustling in the foliage
directly overhead.

I walked back and forth for a moment, resting most of my weight on my
right leg, to make sure I could keep using it without limping and when
I was satisfied a long walk wouldn't be in the least painful I left the
embankment with a feeling of relief and took the first turn on my left.
I was pretty sure it would take me no more than twenty minutes to get
back to the spaceport.

I knew that what I'd made up my mind to do wasn't going to be easy.
I had to find out exactly how important a job the Colonization Board
had mapped out for me on Mars. She'd called me "Mr. Important Man"
because--you don't get a clearance stamped the way mine was unless
there's a big undertaking in store for you which has to be handled
in just the right way. The walk gave me a chance to think about it.
My leg didn't trouble me at all and I was very grateful for that....
I stood for a moment just outside the spaceport's railed-off,
electronically-protected launching platforms, staring up at the
three-hundred-foot passenger rockets gleaming with a dull metallic
luster in the moonlight, their nose-cones pointing skyward.

The New Chicago Spaceport has and always will attract sightseers,
because there's no other rocket launching site on Earth that can
compare with it. It's not only the largest and the most elaborately
equipped. It was built to last. Fifty years from now, in 2070, say, it
was a safe bet the big Mars rockets would be taking off at four-hour
intervals night and day. Now they took off only twice a month and there
were fifty million people in the United States alone who would have
given up comfort, leisure, a well-paying job and every joy they'd ever
experienced or could hope to experience on Earth to be on one of those
big sky ships.

As far back as I can remember I'd hated to force a showdown with people
who trusted me and believed in me. And that went double for the Martian
Colonization Board, whose members were doing everything possible to
keep me informed. Secrecy sometimes has to be imposed, and if you
try to crack an information clamp-down prematurely you deserve to be
slapped down.

But now I had no choice. I had to find out if my trip could be
postponed, if I could wait one more week--a month, even--to get Joan to
see things my way. And that meant I had to find out just how big a job
they had lined up for me.

I had no trouble getting in to see him. There was a guard at the main
entrance of the Administration Building, and when I identified myself
and the massive, double-doors swung inward I had to go through it a
second time, and six more times in all before I reached his private
office on the twentieth floor. But you couldn't call it trouble,
because all I had to do was take out my wallet and display the pale
blue card that was only an incitement to violence in certain quarters.

In that massive, almost half-mile-long building, on every floor, there
were guards who knew me and guards who had never set eyes on me before.
But what that card stood for was treated with respect.

I'd known that building to hum with activity, to come to life with a
roar. But now only one floor blazed with light and the rest of the
building was as silent as a mausoleum.

It happens sometimes and when it does everyone is grateful--including
the man I'd come to visit.

His private office was at the end of a long corridor in Section C 10
Y, and I knew I'd find him there, because a small circle of cold light
had been glowing above the office listing board on the main floor.
There was a name plate above the numbered listings--BROWN. His name
wasn't Brown, of course. Or Smith, or Jones. The "Brown" was just a
safety precaution--the sign and seal of immense power being modest in a
genuine way and for expediency's sake as well.

No man without the kind of card I carried had ever gotten as far as
that office listing board and I doubt if the most ingenious assassin
would have cared to try. But it was just as well to be on the
completely safe side.

A saluting guard stepped back and what was perhaps the narrowest, least
impressive door in the entire building opened and closed and I found
myself in his presence.

Unless you're a Gobi desert dweller or live in the precise middle of
the Sahara you've seen the blue-eyed, mild-mannered little man who was
Jonathan Trilling on a hundred lighted screens. In all respects but one
he is the kind of man most people would go right past on the street
without a second glance.

The thing that made him really not like that at all was something you
couldn't pin down and analyze. If you tried, you'd get nowhere. But it
was there, all right, an emanation you couldn't mistake that stamped
him for what he was, radiating out from him.

Equate immense simplicity with immense power and you might come up with
a part of the answer. But not all of it.

The office was stripped of all non-essentials; a hermit's cell couldn't
have been barer. And it seemed to please him when my eyes swept over
the almost bare desk, with just an inkwell and a single sheet of paper
on it, before coming to rest on his face.

I'm pretty sure he interpreted it as an indication that I was trying to
catch him up on something he took pride in, and he admired me for it,
and greeted me with a chuckle.

"Well, Ralph!" he said. "I didn't expect to see you here tonight. I
thought you'd be home wearing Joan's patience ragged with the kind of
last-minute preparations women never seem to understand. They like to
think they never forget anything. But they do. They're worse that way
than we are, but just try getting them to admit it."

There was only one chair in the office and he was occupying it. I
hardly expected him to get up and wave me toward it, but that's
precisely what he did.

"Sit down, Ralph," he said. "I sit too much. We all do here, I guess.
Can't be helped, but it doesn't give a man of fifty-five much chance
to get the exercise he ought to have, if he's going to keep his weight
down."

"No--don't get up for me, sir!" I said, then realized I was being
unnecessarily formal.

The chair was empty and he expected me to take it. And I could see that
he didn't like the "sir." He never had.

"Sit down, sit down. What is it, Ralph? Something worrying you? You'll
have plenty of time for that when you get to Mars. Why start now?"

I decided to come right out with it. I favored bluntness as much as he
did, and there was nothing to be gained by talking around what I'd have
to ask him before I left.

"There's something I'd like to know," I said. "Is the major part of my
assignment still under wraps, or could you tell me more about it--even
if you'd prefer not to?"

He looked at me steadily for a moment, his lips tightening a little.
"Well--I certainly haven't kept it a complete secret, Ralph. You'll
get full instructions in code later on. There's naturally a reason for
that. I shouldn't have to go into it, because we've discussed it at
great length right here in this office."

"I realize that," I said. "But could you see your way clear to telling
me much more than you have, if I can convince you that it would help me
solve a problem I can't solve otherwise."

His eyebrows went up a little at that. "What kind of problem, Ralph?"

"It's as old as the hills," I said. "The really ancient kind with
fossils embedded in them. It goes right back to the Old Stone Age,
and maybe a lot earlier. Joan doesn't want to go to Mars. She's very
stubborn, very determined about it. If I can't make her change her mind
I'll have to go alone. And I guess I don't have to tell you what that
would do to me. If I just had a little more time, another week or two--"

"So that's it," he said. "You want me to tell you that your assignment
can be put off, that you're not really needed on Mars. We're just
sending you there because we like to do whimsical things occasionally,
to break the God-awful monotony of thinking about the problems the
project is confronted with in a serious way."

I was startled, because I'd never known him to indulge in deliberate
irony before. He had all the intellectual equipment for it, but his
mind just didn't work that way.

Then I suddenly realized he was going to tell me everything I wanted
to know and had just used that approach to make me a little angry and
keep me alert and analytical, so that I wouldn't underestimate the
seriousness of what he was about to say.

"All right, Ralph," he said. "I'll risk angering a third of the Board.
I'm going to tell you exactly why the Mars Colony is in trouble, and
just how tremendous your task will be. You'll be in the middle, Ralph,
in the biggest clash of interests a new and growing society has ever
known.

"A clash of interests can destroy any society, if they're violent
enough and have powerful enough backing and the population is divided
in its loyalties and lacks firm and courageous leadership.

"That's especially true if the society is on a pioneering level, with
serious scarcities developing everywhere and with every man, to some
extent at least, in fierce competition with his neighbors, all apart
from the massive power monopolies that are in even fiercer competition
among themselves.

"Don't you see, Ralph, don't you realize what that kind of
cross-purpose distribution of power in a new and pioneering society
can mean? When you have a three or four-way conflict, when everyone
is bidding for what you've got and can't afford to sell, or what you
haven't got but would like to sell, or what you can't sell for what
you'd like to get?"

He smiled suddenly, for the barest instant, and then the seriously
concerned look which the smile had replaced came back into his eyes.
"I didn't intend that to sound facetious. It probably did, because it
has a slightly humorous side to it, like most major tragedies. I'm just
giving you the broad outlines now, the general situation. Frustration,
bitterness, thousands of colonists who can be swayed one way or the
other by corrupt pressures, self-interest, greedy power monopolies."

"But there's a more specific situation you have in mind, is that it?" I
asked. "Everything you've just said is common knowledge."

Trilling nodded. "Yes--but the general situation has to be underscored.
It is the crucial factor in everything that is taking place on Mars. In
a more stable, and highly developed society the raw power conflict of
the two major power monopolies would not take so destructive a form."

"Two?" I said. "I was under the impression--"

He waved my objection aside. "Oh, there are a dozen power combines.
But only the two giants--Wendel Atomics and Endicott Fuel--have fought
each other to a standstill and threaten the peace, and stability of
the entire colony. I'm putting it too mildly. There's an explosive
potential in that conflict that could destroy the colony overnight."

He tightened his lips and took a turn up and down the office, then
came back to where I was sitting and gripped me by the shoulder.
"Ralph, listen. This is vital. I'll try to sum it up as briefly as
possible. You know what it cost to set up atomic generators, turbines,
transmission lines, and keep utilities no city can do without in
operation right here in New Chicago, in just one small section of the
city? How much more do you think it costs to do the same thing on Mars?
The transportation of materials alone--Have you any idea how much the
total expenditures come to?"

"I guess so," I said. "I don't like to think about it."

"Who does? But we had to think about it. We had to give Wendel Atomics
a thirty-year monopoly. No other power combine had sufficient monetary
resources to undertake it. And we had to give Endicott Fuel the same
kind of monopoly. They transport both atomic and liquid fuels at a cost
that would turn your hair white."

"And now you say they're locked in a power conflict. But why? I should
think Wendel Atomics would purchase all the fuel it needs directly from
Endicott. And Endicott would--"

I paused, troubled.

"What would Endicott do, Ralph? It has no use for atomic generators.
It isn't geared to install them, even if it could somehow absorb the
terrific expense of transporting them. And that, of course, would be
impossible. No combine is wealthy enough to undertake that kind of
two-pronged enterprise."

"But it wouldn't have to be a two-way exchange of commodities," I said.
"Not if Wendel continued to buy all of its fuel from Endicott. It
would, of course, have a tendency to dwarf Endicott, make it the lesser
of the two monopolies."

"It would do more than that, Ralph. It could bankrupt Endicott. You
see, Wendel Atomics suddenly decided it was paying Endicott too much
for the fuel it used, and cut the price it was paying in half. And
Endicott could barely meet expenses."

"Good Lord," I said.

"Naturally Wendel Atomics couldn't get along without fuel," Trilling
said. "And it couldn't transport fuel for its own exclusive use from
Earth. The two-pronged enterprise factor again. So Endicott struck back
by refusing to sell its fuel to Wendel."

"A complete stalemate, you mean?"

"Not quite, Ralph. If it were, one side or the other would have to give
in eventually. Endicott seized on the bright idea of selling atomic and
liquid fuel directly to the Colonists. A wildcat kind of madness. The
colonists buy the fuel on margin and wait for the price to skyrocket.
And every so often it does, because Wendel has to keep its generators
operating. It won't buy from Endicott, but it has no choice but to buy
from the colonists.

"Do you realize what such wild and dangerous wildcat speculation can
do to a new, rough-and-tumble, frontier kind of society, Ralph? The
colonists don't know whether they're rich or poor from one day to
the next. And with all their desperate needs, their frustrations,
their scrambling after scarce goods and services, their fierce
competitiveness, they are at each other's throats half of the time."

"I'm beginning to get the picture," I said.

"It's a very ugly picture, Ralph. Wendel Atomics buys its fuel
sporadically, cheats, steals, connives, beating the price down
artificially and then sending it skyrocketing again. It has its own
private police force. Translate--brutal roughnecks who know exactly how
to keep the colonists in line and frighten them into selling when the
fuel market sags and spending every cent they possess to buy more fuel
on speculation when the price soars.

"Endicott doesn't care what happens to the colonists. It's out to make
Wendel Atomics come to terms and has methods of its own to keep the
colonists inflamed and reckless. The whole situation has even taken
on a political cast. There are pro-Wendel colonists, who work hand in
glove with the Wendel police and colonists who would willingly lay down
their lives in defense of noble, altruistic Endicott. It's the right of
everyone to buy fuel on speculation, isn't it?"

"I see," I said. "And my job will be to step right into the middle of
all that, and try to bring order out of chaos."

Trilling didn't say anything for a moment. He just looked at me, but
his gaze was not unsympathetic.

"There's something I'd like to have you hear, Ralph," he said, when the
silence had lengthened between us and become almost minute-long. "We
have a new, round-the-clock recording to replace the one we've been
transmitting at intervals, night and day, for five years. I won't even
ask you how many times you've heard it, because you travel around a lot
and must have memorized it word for word. But this one is better, I
think. At least, it appeals to me more. A hundred million people will
hear it, starting tomorrow. It will be on every tele-screen."

He bent over his desk and removed a miniature tape-recorder from the
upper right hand drawer. He set it down on the desk and clicked it on.

"Just one passage I'd like you to listen to, Ralph. Not the whole
recording. This is it--"

The voice that came from the tape was a very good reading voice, one
of the best I'd ever heard. The man was probably a poet. But the words
themselves interested me more.

"... so bright with promise has Man's future become that all of the old
animosities, the old hates, will soon seem alien to us and strange. A
new world is in the making. Who can deny it? The colonization of Mars
has fulfilled the deepest instincts of Man's nature, and provided scope
for a growth that is as natural to him as breathing.

"The desire to know more, to explore the unknown, to reach out toward
constantly expanding horizons can only be satisfied by boldly accepting
what the advance of modern science has brought within our grasp. The
colonization of Mars is a tribute to Man's stubborn refusal to be
easily discouraged or to let mechanical difficulties, no matter how
formidable, stand in his way. A tribute as well to his constructive
genius, his daring and breadth of vision."

Trilling clicked the tape recorder off, returned it to his desk, and
turned to face me again.

"That, Ralph, is the dream," he said. "You and I know what the reality
is like. But the millions who will listen to that recording do not.
They still believe--and hope."

I was silent for a moment, not quite sure how he'd take what I was
going to say. I went over it in my mind, searching for just the right
words. It took me a full minute to find them, but he didn't grow
impatient.

"I'm not sure the Board is wise in putting out that kind of propaganda.
Or any kind of propaganda. After all, we're not trying to sell Mars to
anyone. We're doing something that has to be done--you might almost
say we're just trying, in a very earnest way, to plug up a gap in the
biggest dam that was ever built, to keep the flood waters from carrying
us all to destruction."

"You're wrong, Ralph," he said. "It isn't just propaganda. A dream
always has to go striding on ahead of reality. It may seem strange to
you, but the reality does not frighten or discourage me. Mars is a new
world and on a new world there has to be--not one, but many beginnings."

He paused an instant, then added: "That's why we're sending you to
Mars, Ralph. There will have to be another beginning. It won't show
too much on the surface. No matter how successful you are, for the
colony will remain what it is basically--an experiment in survival.
All of a new world's energy will remain, and the turbulence and the
hard-to-endure disappointments. But you can help the Colonists go
back, and feel the way they did when the first passenger rocket settled
down on the red desert sand forty million miles from Earth and the
Space Age took on a new dimension."



4


There was only one small window in Trilling's office. But I could see
that the sky outside was still bright with stars, and the glimmer of
the ceiling lamp made the metal surface above us seem to fall away and
dissolve into a much wider expanse of star-studded space.

The ceiling-mirrored image of the lamp itself looked like the Sun,
blazing in noonday brightness directly overhead and out beyond were
galaxies and super-galaxies strung like beads on a wire across the
great curve of the universe.

It was just an illusion, of course. You could see the same thing in the
light-mirroring depths of a glass of wine, if you stared hard enough.
But for an instant it seemed to bring bigness, vastness right into the
room with us.

I was conscious of the silence again, lengthening, hanging heavy
between us, as if we'd each said too much, or possibly ... not quite
enough.

Then Trilling bent and removed something else from his desk. I couldn't
see what it was until he set it down directly in front of me, because
it was much smaller than the midget tape recorder and his hand covered
it.

A flat metal box, wafer-thin, doesn't provide much scope for
speculation, and I was pretty sure that the object inside was a tiny
metal precision instrument or a watch or a medal even before he said:
"This should make Joan change her mind, Ralph!" and snapped the box
open.

The insignia caught and held the light, a two-inch silver hawk with its
wings outspread. The white lining of the box made it stand out, as if
it were flying through fleecy clouds high in the sky, and symboling in
its flight far more than just the elevation of one man to the highest
command post the Martian Colonization Board had the authority to bestow.

The significance of that finely-wrought, seldom-worn silver bird
was not lost on me. In the maze of a hundred legends, a hundred
witness-confirmed stories of triumph and disappointment, of heroic
progress and tragic back-tracking, it had remained an important link
between Earthside expectations and what was actually taking place on
Mars.

Only one man could wear it at any one time, and only four men had worn
it since the establishment of the colony. All four were dead now, their
gravestones a white gleaming on the red desert sand a few miles north
of the colony.

"Well, Ralph?" Trilling said.

I tried hard to maintain my composure, to say just the right thing,
because I'd lived long enough to know there are depths beyond depths to
some emotions that can't be put into words. Attempt to talk the way you
feel, and you're sure to sound a little ridiculous. I was only certain
of one thing. No man could wear that insignia and not feel, resting
upon his shoulders, a responsibility so tremendous that whatever pride
he might take in it would have to be tempered by humility--if he wanted
to go on wearing it for long.

Trilling seemed aware of what was passing through my mind, for he made
it easy for me. He simply smiled, snapped the box shut with a briskness
that was almost casual, and handed it to me.

"You've got real massive military prestige now, Ralph," he said. "Right
at the moment the Board would be gravely concerned if you wore that
insignia in public. But there's nothing to prevent you from wearing
it in the privacy of your own home. Later on the Board may decide you
can accomplish more by coming right out and letting the colonists know
there's a lion in the streets who intends to do more than just roar.
A safe, protective kind of lion--dangerous only to over-ambitious men
with destructive ideas."

I started to reply but he waved me to silence. "Hold on, Ralph--let me
finish. You won't be wearing that insignia in public straight off. But
I hope you'll have enough good sense to make the best possible use of
it to overcome the first really big obstacle in your path."

He nodded. "It will be a kind of blackmail, in a way--morally
reprehensible. You'll be taking advantage of something it isn't in a
woman's nature to resist. But you have no choice. You've got to go to
Mars and if you went alone you'd be about as useful to us as a celibate
kangaroo, all packaged and ready to be sent on a journey to the
taxidermist."

He seemed to realize it wouldn't have to be quite that drastic, for
he grimaced wryly. "All right, all right. You could go out and find
another woman and I probably could talk the Board into being the
opposite of stuffy about it. But I happen to know what kind of man you
are, and how you feel about Joan. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure
she's the only woman in the world for you."

There was nothing I could say to that. I had the insignia in my
inner breast pocket, and I knew that there were few obstacles it
couldn't blast away on Earth or on Mars, if I kept remembering what it
symbolized with Joan at my side.

I went out into the cool night again, past that long tremendous
building with just one of its floors ablaze, past the big sky ships
looming like sentinel ghosts on their launching pads, past winking
lights and speeding cars and pedestrians walking slowly and something
inside of me made me feel I'd undergone a kind of sea change, and could
face whatever the future might hold without grabbing for a life-line
that didn't exist.

It was a good way to feel. A man had to sink or swim without having
a life-line thrown to him--if he hoped to live long enough to change
things around in an important way on Mars. He had to keep his head and
breast the raging currents with the sturdiest kind of overhand strokes,
or be drawn down into the undertow and battered senseless against the
rocks that lined the shoreline.

The change must have shown a little on the surface, in the set of
my jaw or just the way I was walking, because no less than three
pedestrians turned to stare at me as I went striding past them on my
way to the New Chicago Underground.

I was almost at the northern entrance of the big, tree-lined square
directly opposite the Administration Building when it hit me--the
memory-recall, the swift emergence from its cubby-hole deep in my mind
of the narrow brush I'd had with Death and hadn't even discussed with
Trilling.

It had been a mistake not to discuss it, because it concerned the Board
as much as it did me. Someone who knew about the insignia--or had made
a shrewd guess as to just how big a job was awaiting me on Mars--had
wanted me dead. The attempt on my life took on a much larger, more
crucial dimension when viewed in that light.

There were three hundred million people in the United States, and if
I'd been just a private citizen, with no more than my own safety at
stake, I could have lost myself in that immense ocean of humanity for
a week or a month and gained a brief respite. There are plenty of ways
you can protect yourself against a surprise attempt on your life, if
you have the time to take safety precautions. When there's a would-be
assassin at large who is dead set on measuring you for a coffin you
have to work the problem out carefully, with a minimum of risk.

It takes skill and psychological insight, but it can be done. You've
just got to remember that an assassin is never quite normal. Even when
a socio-political motivation is the governing passion of his life
you're one jump ahead of him the instant you've figured out exactly how
his mind works.

In fact, one of those safety precautions could have been protecting me
as I crossed the square, if I hadn't let my stubborn pride stand in the
way. Why hadn't I asked Trilling to provide me with armed protection?

Two alert bodyguards, trailing me on the street and down into the
Underground and standing watch outside my apartment all night long--and
staying fifty paces behind me until the Mars' rocket zero-count ended
and the big sky ship took off with a roar ... would have given the
Board the kind of reassurance they had a right to expect.

I started to turn back, then changed my mind abruptly. I'd taken just
as great a risk by walking from the lakeside to the skyport right after
the attack, hadn't I? And I'd be in the Underground in another three or
four minutes, with people around me and--

All right. It was an out-of-focus rationalization and nothing more--an
attempt to find an excuse for not turning back. But when I do something
reckless for complicated reasons, when I've forged ahead despite
my better judgment, I'm usually just impulsive enough to carry the
folly-ball all the way across the goal line.

It was the thing I'd have to guard most against on Mars, that
damnable twisted pride and impulsiveness, that taking of too much for
granted when I started to do something I knew was unwise, but had an
overpowering urge to carry out anyway.

Every weaving shadow beneath the double row of trees that towered
on both sides of me could have cloaked a crouching figure adjusting
another small mechanical killer to the deadliest possible angle of
flight. But I had another reason for not wanting to go back. Trilling
might fall in with the armed guard idea but I doubted it like hell.
I could picture him saying instead: "Ralph, even an armed car can be
blown up. You're staying under lock and key all night ... right here in
the Administration Building."

I could even picture him saying much the same thing to Joan, her image
bright enough on his office tele-screen to be visible from where I'd be
standing: "He's not coming home tonight, Joan. We're sending an armored
car to pick you up in the morning. Wait, hold on--I'll let you talk to
him!"

And I could almost hear her replying: "Don't bother to send the car.
I'm not going with him. Please don't think too harshly of me, please
try to understand. I just can't--"

I started down the long boulevard on the far side of the square, still
walking rapidly and feeling suddenly confident I'd been justified
in not turning back. I could see the entrance to the Underground
glimmering in the darkness a hundred feet ahead of me and there were
people all around me walking in both directions. I wasn't even troubled
by the feeling that everyone gets at times--that something terrible and
unexpected can happen right in the midst of a crowd, if only because
the presence of many people exposes you to a dangerously wide range of
unpredictable human emotions.

For the barest instant, when I crossed the narrow strip of pavement
directly in front of the kiosk, fear tugged at my nerves and I felt
myself growing tense. But I became calm again the moment I looked
around and saw that the only pedestrian within thirty feet of me was a
hurrying girl with a portfolio under her arm. When she saw how intently
I was staring at her she frowned and a look of annoyance came into her
eyes.

Oh, for God's sake, I told myself, get rid of this nagging uncertainty,
and stop behaving like a fool. If he intended to try again tonight I'd
know by now. He's missed a dozen very good chances, so something must
be making him super-cautious, if he hasn't keeled over just from the
strain of watching me refuse to die. Killing's never easy, even for a
professional. It must be a little like being cut open, watching your
own blood pouring out of you, because all violence inflicts a two-way
trauma ... severe enough at times to make even a mad slayer fling down
his gun before going on a rampage of indiscriminate slaughter.

There were arguments I could have used to wrap it up even tighter--such
as the way he'd be trapped and blasted down almost instantly if he
launched another attack on me so close to the spaceport's three
interlocking, hyper-sensitive security alert systems.

But I didn't even pause to weigh them, because right up to that minute
I'd done very well, and the fear which had come upon me had been as
brief as an autumnal flurry of wind when you're coming around a tall
building at breakneck speed.

       *       *       *       *       *

I let the girl dart past me, taking my time, and in another five
seconds was descending into the big, brightly lighted cavern that was
New Chicago's intercity pride.

As every school kid knows, the New Chicago Underground is six years
old, and is the largest, smoothest-running transportation system in the
world. It cost seven billion dollars to build and has almost as many
tracks and suburban off-shoots as station guards.

It interlocks, spirals outward in a half dozen directions and
circles back upon itself. In a way, it's like the serpent you see
in bas-reliefs dating back three thousand years, in Babylonian and
Pre-Dynastic Egyptian tombs, for instance, or on totem poles in the
Northwest ... a serpent that's continually swallowing its own tail.
It's the oldest archeological art-form on Earth and is supposed to
symbolize Eternal Life.

But to some people at least the New Chicago Underground symbolizes
something far more gloomy. If you're not careful to board just the
right train you can get lost in its tomblike, spiraling immensity and
feel as helpless as a wandering ghost or an experimental laboratory
animal caught up in a blind maze. You can be carried fifty miles
in the wrong direction and look out through the windows of a train
traveling at half the speed of sound, and see a country landscape or
the wide sweep of Lake Michigan five minutes after you've settled down
in a comfortable chair and become absorbed in the news of the day on
micro-film.

You'll stare out and the section of the city where your home is located
just won't be sweeping past. You'll have to get off at the next
station, perhaps twenty or thirty miles further on, ride back, and
board another train. It's seldom quite as frustrating as that, but only
because most of the riders have been conditioned to keep their wits
about them through a nightmare kind of trial-and-error apprenticeship.

You've got to stay alert until you've boarded a train with just the
right combination of numerals on its destination plate. It isn't hard
to do, unless you're carrying a tiny silver hawk in a wafer-thin
case, and your destination may be changed without warning and with
unbelievable infamy by someone capable of great evil who would much
prefer not to have you board a train at all.

I could almost picture him weaving in and out between the platform
crowds--faceless so far, but quite possibly glassy-eyed with little
waltzing death-heads in the depth of his pupils. An unknown human
cipher intent on my destruction, refusing to be discouraged by the
failure of a small mechanical killer to do the job for him.

If I'd had a strong reason to believe I actually was being followed, if
he'd come right out into the open and I could have caught a glimpse of
him, however brief, I'd have felt a subconscious relief that would have
kept me on guard and confident. It would have given me an edge that not
even the fact that I had no gun could have taken away from me.

It's the unknown and unpredictable that's unnerving, the realization
that invisible eyes may be scrutinizing you from a distance and the
brain behind them deciding that it would be a great mistake to let a
failure of nerve or concern for the consequences interfere with what
had to be done.

He wouldn't be wanting me to wear that insignia ever--on Earth or on
Mars--and just knowing that made me almost miss my train as it came
rushing toward me.

The train was so crowded I had to stand, but I had no complaint on
that score. In a seat, with people jamming the aisle in front of me,
I'd have been wedged in even more securely. In a standing position I
could edge forward and back and keep an eye on the passengers who were
holding fast to the horizontal support rail on both sides of me.



5


There were twenty-five or thirty passengers wedged into the middle
section of the train, all standing in slightly cramped postures and
most of them unsmiling. I knew exactly how they felt. Not being able
to get a seat in an off-hour in the evening can be irritating. But
right at the moment there was no room in my mind for annoyance. A
slow, hard-to-pin-down uneasiness was creeping over me again, as if a
pendulum were swinging back and forth somewhere close to me, ticking
out a warning in rhythm--and I couldn't shut out the sound of it.

Just my over-strained nerves, of course. How could it have been
anything else? I turned and looked at the man standing next to me. He
was middle-aged, conservatively dressed, and had a square-jawed, rather
handsome face, with a dusting of gray at his temples.

He was frowning slightly and his expression didn't change when I broke
the rule of silence which was customarily observed in the Underground.

"No reason for all the seats to be gone at this hour," I said.

The crazy kind of over-exuberance mixed with peevishness that makes
some people say things like that to total strangers a dozen times a day
had always seemed inexcusable to me. But when you're under tension you
sometimes break all the habits of rational behavior you've imposed on
yourself in small matters.

My excuse was that I simply wanted to test the firmness and steadiness
of my own voice, to make sure that, deep down, I wasn't nearly as
apprehensive as I was beginning to feel.

"Yes, I know," the gray-templed man agreed. "It burns me up a little
too. But I guess it just can't be helped at times. Operating an
Underground this size must be an awful train-scheduling headache."

"Headache or not," I said. "There's no excuse for it."

He smiled abruptly, exposing large, white teeth and I noticed that
there was something almost birdlike in the way his eyes lighted up.
Small, black, very bright eyes they were, under short-lashed lids, and
quite suddenly he made me think of a magpie alighting on a limb, taking
off and alighting again, hardly able to restrain an impulse to chatter.

"What it boils down to," he said, "is the old quarrel between a
pedestrian and a man in a car. Neither can understand or sympathize
with the other's point of view. Fifteen million people ride this
Underground every day and to them it's a poor slob's service at best.
That's because they feel themselves to be the victims, at the receiving
end. But you've got to remember that safety precautions pose a problem.
Avoiding accidents comes first and the New Chicago Transportation
System, considering its colossal size, does pretty well in that
respect."

"People have been killed," I said, and could have bitten my tongue
out. Why let him even suspect that I was thinking about something that
wasn't tied in with his argument at all, why give him the slightest
hint? The Underground's accident record was good and couldn't have
justified such cynicism on my part. And just suppose he wasn't the
garrulous, middle-aged business man he appeared to be--

A very sinister game can start in just that way, with everything
favoring the alerted party until he lets the other know that he's on
his guard and is having uneasy thoughts. That's where the danger lies,
in a subconscious betrayal, a slip of the tongue that will precipitate
violence faster than it would ordinarily occur.

If a killer feels that he must move swiftly, before suspicion can
become a certainty, the odds shift in his favor. He has the advantage
of surprise. He becomes alerted too, and necessity acts as a goad--a
kind of trigger-mechanism. He'll act more quickly and decisively,
without the careful planning that may prompt him to talk too much and
give himself away.

He'll take risks that are dangerous and could destroy him, strike
with witnesses present and all escape routes blocked. If he has to,
he'll strike even in a crowded Underground train with the next station
minutes away. And that kind of audacity sometimes pays off.

I told myself that I was imagining things, jumping to a completely
unwarranted conclusion. The conversation of the man next to me was
exactly what you'd expect from a magpie. He was carefully sidestepping
all realistic appraisals of the Underground's shortcomings, trying his
best to look at the problem from all sides, even if it meant being
shallow and over-optimistic. He was the citizen with a smiling face,
the rather likeable guy--why should one hold it against him?--who was
trying his best to be fair to everybody, even if he had to burst a
blood-vessel doing it.

Realizing all that made me feel less tense and part of the nightmare
feeling I'd been experiencing went away. But not quite all of it and
when the train passed into an unlighted tunnel and the aisle went dark
apprehension began to mount in me again.

What if he was putting on an act, and wasn't the kind of man he
appeared to be at all? What does a killer look like? Certainly age had
nothing to do with it. He can be young or old--eighteen or seventy-five.

His appearance, his clothes? There were wild-eyed killers with "psycho"
stamped all over them, and dignified, soberly-dressed men who looked no
different from your next door neighbor and had criminal records a yard
long, including, in all likelihood, a murder or two the Law would have
a difficult time proving.

I didn't have to speculate about it. I _knew_, because I'd done more
than my share of social research. There was nothing to prevent a man of
distinction from becoming a killer, if he had a secret life that was
ugly and devious and a powerful enough motive.

But now he was talking again, despite the darkness, and I was listening
with my nerves on edge. I was completely in the dark as to why
something about him had set the alarm bells ringing but I was sure I
could hear them, very faint and distant this time, but clearly enough.
It was funny. Sometimes it meant something and sometimes it didn't. I
could feel that danger was hovering right at my elbow and in the end
discover I'd been completely mistaken.

I hoped I was mistaken this time, but I knew there was a
possibility--remote, perhaps, but dangerous to ignore--that the man
who had set the small mechanical killer in motion by the Lakeside had
followed me from the Administration Building into the Underground and
was standing by my side.

"You take one of the really big power combines," he was saying.
"Like, say, Wendel Atomics. It has its defenders and detractors, and
I daresay there are quite a few people who would be happy to see its
Board of Directors behind bars. I'm not defending the Wendel monopoly,
understand. If I was a Martian colonist I might feel quite differently
about it. But you've got to remember that when you give the go-ahead
signal for a project that big you're asking fifty or a hundred key
executives to do the impossible--or pretty close to the impossible."

"The impossible?" I said, trying to sound no more than mildly
interested, because I didn't want him to suspect what a jolt his
mention of Wendel Atomics had given me.

"Oh, yes," he went on. "That's what it boils down to. Every one of
those men will be as human as you or I. They'll react in highly
individual ways to every problem that comes up, every frustration,
every serious interference with their private lives. You've got to
remember that a man's private life is the most important thing in the
world--to him personally. Every one of those fifty or a hundred men
will have health worries, money worries, love life worries, every kind
of worry you can think of. And on Mars worries can pile up."

"So I've heard," I said.

"Well, that's all. That sums it up. I'm simply citing Wendel as an
example of what the New Chicago Transportation System is up against.
I'd say, in general, that most of the directors are doing their best,
when the Old Adam in them isn't in the driver's seat, to keep the
trains running on schedule."

He stopped talking abruptly. I didn't think anything of it for a
moment, for a loquacious man will often pause in the middle of a
conversation to wonder what kind of dent he's been making on the party
who's doing most of the listening. But when a full minute passed and
the darkness held, and he didn't say a word, when I couldn't even hear
him breathing, I began to grow uneasy.

Reach out and touch him? Well, why not? It was the simplest, quickest
way of finding out whether he was still at my side and he could hardly
be offended if my hand grazed his elbow in a jostling motion that would
seem accidental.

It was very strange. I didn't think he was the man I'd feared he might
be any longer, because of what he'd said, because he had brought Wendel
Atomics into the conversation. If he'd _had_ designs on my life giving
his hand away like that would have been the height of folly. It would
have been like giving me cards and spades, and a detailed history of
his activities for the past five years.

It didn't take any gifted reasoning to figure that out and I didn't
pride myself on it. Even a child could have done it. What disturbed me
and kept me from feeling relieved was something quite different. The
alarm bells were still ringing. _They were still ringing._

Louder now and with a dirgelike persistence, as if I was already dead
and buried. And neither a child nor a grown man could have figured that
one out.

That's why I felt I had to reach out and touch him, had to start him
talking again ... had to be sure he was still there at my side.

He was there, all right. He was there in the most alarming possible
way, as a dead weight lurching against me, then swaying and screaming
as I tried to straighten him up, and stop the terrible downward drag of
his sagging body.

He was sinking lower and lower, clutching at my knees now, refusing
to take advantage of the support I was offering him. I strained and
tugged, but it was no use. He was too heavy to raise and I could hear
the breath wheezing out of his throat and there could be no mistaking
the weight of horror that was making him twist and writhe as he
sagged--the deadliness of whatever it was that had struck at him in the
darkness without making a sound.

He screamed again. It was the kind of agonized protest which could only
have come from the throat of a man who hardly knew what was happening
to him ... a man with his terror heightened and made more acute by
the awful, groping-in-the-dark realization that he was experiencing a
torment he was powerless to explain.

There had to be an answer but I didn't know what it was, and when
the scream died away and the tugging stopped all I could hear for an
instant was the steady droning of the train. Then there was another
violent movement close to me and a harsh intake of breath.

My hand shot out, grazed something smooth that whipped away from me and
caught hold of a wrist that was much thinner than a man's wrist had any
right to be.

Much softer too, velvety soft, and it tugged and jerked in a frantic
effort to free itself, holding tight to the knife that it would have
taken all of a woman's strength to plunge deep into my heart.

But she could have done it, whoever she was, for there was a wiry
strength in her--a strength so great that I had to twist her wrist
cruelly before her fingers relaxed and the knife dropped to the floor
of the train.

She gasped in pain--or was it fury?--and exerted all of her strength
again in a desperate effort to break my grip. And this time luck was on
her side. No, call it what it was. Luck may have figured, but most of
it was plain blundering stupidity on my part. I was pretty sure I knew
what her first, misdirected blow with the knife had done to the man I'd
been talking to, and the thought so sickened and unnerved me that my
fingers relaxed a little when the knife went clattering, and she took
advantage of that to break free.

The passengers were crowding me now, pushing, shoving in alarm, and I
knew it would be easy enough for her to force her way between them,
still exerting all of her strength and get far enough away to be just
one of the thirty terrified people when the train roared out into the
light again. They'd all look disheveled, on the verge of panic and I
wouldn't have a chance of identifying her.

How could I have identified her with any certainty, even if she'd
been the only one with a guilty stare? I hadn't the least idea what
she looked like. I only knew that she wasn't old, was all woman in
her lithe softness, the opposite of an Amazon despite her strength.
The femininity which had emanated from her--how instantly it can make
itself felt, how instinctively overwhelming it can be!--had made me
feel like a brute for an instant, even though I'd known it was her life
or mine and I would have been quite mad to spare her.

There were men I could think of, the opposite of brutes, who would have
knocked her unconscious with a blow to the head. To spare a determined
killer is potentially suicidal, but I doubted if I could have done that.

I was still doubting it an instant later, when the train emerged from
the unlighted tunnel and the bright glare of the Underground lamps
flooded the aisle, bringing the man she'd stabbed by accident into
clear view.

I was sure by now that she'd stabbed him by accident in a try for me,
but that wasn't going to help him at all. He had flopped over on his
back and was lying sprawled out in the middle of the aisle, and his
eyes stared up at me, sightless and glazed.

There was no blood either on or beside him, but that only meant that
he'd been stabbed in the back and there hadn't been time for blood from
the wound to stain the edge of his clothes and trickle out from beneath
him across the aisle.

His face had the pallor of death and his lips were drawn back over the
large white teeth I'd noticed when he'd been talking to me. Drawn back
in a stiff, unnatural grin and I didn't have to bend down and listen
for a heartbeat I knew I wouldn't hear to be completely sure that the
words he'd spoken to me would be the last he'd ever speak on Earth.

Just the way his head lolled, back and forth with the rhythmic
throbbings of the train, would have clinched it for me. And I couldn't
have bent down, because the other passengers were all staring at him
too now, and elbowing me away from him to get a closer look, torn
between morbid curiosity and stark terror.

I was too shaken, too sick at heart, to resent the elbowing. There was
anger in me too, cold, uncompromising and right at that moment I could
no longer even think of her as a woman.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was past midnight when I got home and let myself into the apartment.
I was more shaken than I would have cared to admit to anyone who didn't
know me as well as Trilling did, because casual acquaintances can do
you an injustice and judge the extent of your control by the way you
happen to be looking at the moment.

I was quite sure that I was looking _very_ bad, and however severely
I'd been shaken up by what had happened I still had a fair measure of
control over my emotions.

I hadn't stayed in the train or on the platform to assist in the
investigation, but I didn't feel guilty about it. Trilling could square
all that with the authorities easily enough and he wouldn't have wanted
me to talk to the police and have to identify myself. I was sure of
that. My evidence would be taken down and turned over to the proper
authorities in good time. The rule for me--the only rule I had a right
to consider--was no entanglements.

I shut and locked the front door and almost called out: "It's me,
darling!" as I usually do when I come home late, because when Joan is
alone in the apartment and hears a door opening and closing she gets
angry when I just walk in unannounced. It's part woman-curiosity, part
fear, I guess--the thought that it could be a prowler and why should
she be kept in suspense while I'm hanging up my hat and coat?

But this time something prevented me from calling out. Possibly the
quarrel we'd had was still rankling a little deep in my mind and I
wasn't quite sure how she'd take the "Darling."

My stubborn pride again. Or possibly it was just the feeling I had that
the apartment was quieter than usual, that when you're keyed up and
alert enough to hear a pin drop and you hear nothing--just a stillness
that's a little on the weird side--your anxiety becomes too great to be
relieved by calling out a cheery greeting.

I felt somehow that it would be wiser, and set better with the way I
felt, if I just hung up my coat and walked into the living room without
saying a word.

So I walked into the living room without saying a word and she was
sitting right in the middle of it, on a straight-back chair with all of
her bags packed and standing on the floor by the window, and with all
of my bags packed and standing cheek-by-jowl with hers, and the three
trunks that were going with me to Mars all sealed up and double-locked,
and she wasn't angry or shaking her head or looking at the luggage with
scorn.

There was pride in her lustrous brown eyes and the adorable tilt of
her chin, and a warmth and a tenderness, and she was smiling at me and
nodding.

"Oh, darling," she said. "Darling ... darling ... come here. Did you
think I'd ever let you go to Mars without me? It was just talk--just
stubborn, wild, crazy talk and it didn't mean a thing."

If you marry a woman like Joan and ever have a moment of doubt ...
well, it means you ought to have your head examined. But you're twice
as far removed from sanity if you throw away the check. For you can
always be sure it will be redeemed eventually, in full measure and
brimming over.

I didn't even have to put on my uniform and attach the small silver
hawk to it.



6


We were not the only passengers in the eight-cabined forward section
of the big sky ship which had been assigned to us. But it had taken us
almost a week to get acquainted. To get really acquainted, that is, so
that we could relax and feel at ease and really enjoy one another's
company.

We were sitting in lounge chairs on the long promenade deck that ran
parallel with all eight of the cabins, staring out through translucent
crystal at a wide waste of stars.

Sitting in the first chair was a tall, sturdily built man of
thirty-eight, with keen blue eyes and a dusting of gray at his temples.
His name was Clifton Maddox and he was an electronic engineer. He had
stories on tap that could turn your hair white, because he had been to
Mars and back eight times.

Seated next to him, with her hand resting lightly on his arm, was a
woman in her early twenties, with honey-blonde hair and eyes that held
unfathomable glints and an enigmatical ingenuousness that could keep a
man guessing in an exciting way. Her name was Helen Melton and she had
eyes only for the man at her side. She had managed to make of the trip
a continuous honeymoon, despite a few lovers' quarrels and the stern
exactions which her work as a medical laboratory technician had imposed
on her.

I mention these two because they were fairly typical of the group as a
whole. They were all unusual individuals, the kind of people you take
a liking to straight off, when you meet them casually at a party and
exchange a few words with them that you keep remembering for days.

Joan and I sat in the last two chairs on the promenade deck, a little
apart from the others. Joan was deep in a book and a little weary of
talking and I ... was thinking about the robots.

The robots were a story in themselves--a story that could bear a great
deal of re-telling. If right at that moment I'd had a son--a bright and
eager lad of six or eight--I'd have set him on my knee and talked about
the robots.

The five hundred passengers in the big sky ship were not alone in the
long journey through interplanetary space. In the last years of the
twentieth century, I'd have taken pains to make very clear to him, and
in the early years of the twenty-first, a great new science had grown
from an infant into a giant.

The science of cybernetics, of giant computers that could do much
of Man's thinking for him on a specialized technological level, had
transformed the face of the Earth and was continuing to transform it at
a steadily accelerating pace.

The rocket's four giant computers were of the newest and most efficient
type--humanoid in aspect, with conical heads, massive metal body-boxes,
and three-jointed metal limbs which had all of Man's flexible
adaptability in the carrying out of complex and difficult tasks.

Robotlike and immense, they towered in the chart room with their
six-digited metal hands on their metal knees, their electronic circuits
clicking, their tiers of memory banks in constant motion, but otherwise
outwardly indifferent to the human activity that was taking place
around them.

Four metal giants in a metal rocket, functioning cooperatively with
Man in the gulfs between the planets, might have made an imaginative
fiction writer of an earlier age catch his breath and glory in
the fulfillment of a prophecy. An H. G. Wells perhaps, or an Olaf
Stapledon. But the reality was an even greater tribute to the human
mind's inventive brilliance than the Utopian dream had been.

The four giant computers were capable of solving problems too technical
for the human mind to master without assistance, usually with
astounding swiftness and always with the more-than-human accuracy of
thinking machines whose prime function was to correlate without error
the data supplied to them on punched metallic tapes, and to perform
intricate mechanical tasks based upon that data.

The robots were tremendous, by any yardstick you might care to apply,
and if I'd had a son--

I stopped thinking about the robots abruptly and sat very still,
listening. A sound I'd heard a moment before had come again, much
louder this time--a chill, unearthly screeching.

The chart room was just outside the eight-cabin section and I could
hear the sound clearly. My nerves again, my over-stimulated imagination?

In space strange and unusual sounds are as common as pips on a radar
screen. It was queer how quickly you got used to them. You had to
walk around with your ears plugged up, in a sense, but the plugs
didn't have to be inserted. They were just natural growths inside your
ears--invisible and without substance, but plugs notwithstanding.
They produced a kind of psycho-somatic deafness which didn't otherwise
interfere with your hearing.

Just the very unusual sounds, the totally inexplicable raspings,
dronings, creakings--usually of short duration--were blotted out.

You didn't hear them unless something deep in your mind whispered:
"This one is different. This is an emergency. Take heed!"

The screeching was very different. It was like nothing I'd ever heard
before, on Earth or in space.

The others must have heard it too, for it had been too loud, the second
time, to be ignored. But apparently that strange acceptance of strange
noises in space which goes with the kind of deafness I've mentioned
had only been shattered for me. The six men and women in the lounge
chairs had looked a little startled for a moment and exchanged puzzled
glances. Which meant, of course, that they had heard it despite the
mental earplugs in some inner recess of their minds. But that didn't
prevent them from shrugging it off and resuming their conversation.

Joan also looked a trifle uneasy. She stopped reading just long enough
to raise her eyes and frown, then became absorbed in the book again.

I got up quietly and pressed her wrist. "See you," I said.

She shut the book abruptly and straightened in her chair. "Where are
you going, Ralph?"

"Just stay right where you are, kitten," I said. "I'll be back in a
moment."

"That screeching noise," she said. "I was wondering about it, Ralph. I
guess you'd better see what's causing it."

So she'd been disturbed by it too, and ignoring it had taken a
deliberate effort of will which I hadn't realized she was exerting. It
made me happy in an odd inner way, because it proved again what I'd
always known ... that we were very close and there were currents of
understanding which flowed back and forth between us and I had a wife I
could be proud of.

"It's probably nothing," I said, not wanting to alarm her. "But I might
as well take a look. It seems to be coming from the chart room."

"All right," she said and squeezed my hand.

I had to open and shut two sliding panels and pass along a blank-walled
passageway to get to the chart room. To my surprise the door was
standing open. It's usually kept locked, because there's no section of
the sky ship where a man who didn't want anyone to suspect that he
harbored within himself the most dangerous kind of destructive impulses
could do more damage.

The shattering of a photo-electric eye or the ripping out of a single
live connection in just one of the four cybernetic robots could have
wrecked the rocket, and sent it spiraling down through the space gulfs
in flaming ruin, depending on just how vital to the robot's functioning
the shattered part happened to be.

There was a security alert system which would have to be disconnected
first, but anyone resourceful enough to get inside the chart room
at all, without identification-disk proof that he had a right to be
there, would have known precisely how to take care of the preliminary
obstacles.

I didn't waste any time in getting to that wide-open door, for my mind
was racing on ahead of me like the most alerted kind of alarm system,
its jaggling warning me that every second counted and that what I
dreaded most might very well be true.

What I actually saw, when I reached the doorway and stood there looking
in, took me completely by surprise. It wasn't the way I'd pictured it
at all. But it was just as unnerving, just as much of a threat to the
safety of the ship and it startled me so I must have looked almost
comic, standing there idiot-still. But there was nothing comic about
what I saw.

The woman I'd almost asked to go to Mars with me was staring straight
at me, her hair still piled up high, a look of terrified appeal in her
eyes. She wasn't alone. She was struggling furiously with a crewman I'd
talked to a few times and neither liked nor disliked--a heavyset man
with high cheekbones and pale blue eyes. He was gripping her savagely
by the wrist and they were both backed up against one of the robot
giants.

Suddenly as I stared her head went back and a convulsive trembling
seized her. She began to scream.



7


It was a christ-awful moment--for her and for me. For her because she
had no right to be in the Chart Room, or even on the ship, as far as
I knew, and there was a look on the crewman's face that chilled me to
the core of my being. It went beyond the anger of a duty-obsessed man,
outraged by her infringement of the regulations. It was a completely
different kind of anger. There was a savage cruelty, a killing rage in
his eyes, impossible to misinterpret.

It was just as awful a moment for me, because I wasn't sure I could get
to him before he broke her wrist or did something worse to her. I'd
seen a woman kneed in the groin once, by just such an enraged human
animal, and the memory of it had never left me. A strong man, turned
maniacal, could kill with his hands in a matter of seconds. I'd seen
that happen too, and the victim hadn't been a woman, but a man as
powerful as the killer.

I crossed the Chart Room in a running leap, grabbed him by the
shoulders and swung him about, raining blows on him more or less at
random. I just tried to hit him as hard as I could without caring
much where the blows landed, so long as they resounded with a meaty
smack where they would do the most good. My only aim was to stun
and, if possible, cripple him in a terrible, punishing way, so that
he'd release his grip on the wrist of the woman he'd been trying to
hurt before she screamed again and her hand dangled with a sickening
limpness, making me want to permanently demolish him in slow and
painful stages.

For a moment I was only sure of one thing. My fist had smashed very
solidly into his face at least twice and drawn blood. I could see the
gleam of blood on his jaw as he reeled back, and I was almost sure I'd
heard his nose crack. There was nothing wrong with that, but it didn't
satisfy me. I wanted to turn his face into quivering jelly. But most
of all I was hoping, praying that she'd break free before I set about
doing that, because a voice was screaming deep in my mind that if she
couldn't he might still be capable of injuring her cruelly.

She broke free. Just how I don't know, because the punishment I'd
dished out hadn't stunned him. He could still have fractured her wrist,
judging by the look of blazing fury he trained on me.

His determination to repay me in full probably explained it. He needed
both of his hands free for that, because I could see that what he would
have liked to do most was get a strangler's grip on my throat.

The human windpipe doesn't fracture easily, as every experienced
medical examiner knows. It's elastic and it gives, and post-mortem
appearances prove that you can die by strangulation with your windpipe
intact. But I have a horror of anything like that, and I didn't intend
to let his fingers come anywhere near my throat.

I smashed my fist into his groin twice, putting so much
shoulder-to-elbow resilience into the blows that he bent almost double,
wrapped his arms about his middle just above his groin and went
staggering backwards.

They were below-the-belt beltings, but I didn't give a damn about that.
Manhandling a woman just because she hasn't the strength of a male has
always seemed to be just about the worst crime on the books. All
right ... attacking a child is worse but you certainly forfeit all
right to Queensberry Rules consideration when you're called to account
for using your strength against anyone weaker than yourself, unless
he or she has done something vicious and there's a hell of a good
justification for it.

I no longer wanted to permanently demolish him, now that she'd broken
free. But I had no control over what happened. The deck of the Chart
Room is all smooth metal, and the polishing preparation that's used to
keep it bright makes it almost as skid-slippery as a skating rink, if
you happen to be thrown a little off-balance.

He was off-balance just enough to change his backward lurch from a
stagger to a swaying, spinning glide that sent him crashing against the
base of a robot giant.

Up to that instant the four robot giants had looked exactly alike. But
a robot in motion looks quite different from a robot at rest, with
its massive metal hands on its metal knees, and its gleaming central
section in an upright position. The crash was followed by a splintering
sound which continued for several seconds without stopping. There was
a whirring as well, and a blinding flash of light came from the metal
giant's conical head. Almost instantly the robot was in motion, and
the way it swayed as it raised its segmented right arm high into the
air so alarmed me that I shouted a warning to the man I'd just finished
trying to send to the sick bay for a stay of at least two weeks.

The jerky, erratic way the robot giant was swaying could only mean
that the crash had damaged its internal gadgetry, and it had gone
completely out of control. It was shaking and quivering all over and
even its ponderous central section seemed to bulge a little, as if from
hunger-bloat.

That, of course, was absurd. But it's natural enough to think of a
robot as human and take refuge in absurdity when you know that a
cybernetic brain, encased in a functional body, can do just as much
damage as a madman running amuck with a deadly weapon. Just as much ...
more ... when it's out of control.

You don't want to face up to it squarely, you shrink from it, because
some instinct tells you it would be dangerous to let the horror of
it come sweeping into your mind too fast. So you take refuge in
absurdity, you imagine things that are a little on the ludicrous side.
A hunger-bloat, a maniacal glare in photo-electric eyes.

But when you've done that, you have to stand and watch the horror take
place before your eyes and in the end you've gained nothing ... because
when anything as terrible as what I saw sears its way into your brain
the memory of it will remain with you until you die.

The robot giant's massive metal hand swept downward, descending on the
head and shoulders of the man who'd crashed into it. It hurled him to
the deck, and flattened him out with a hammer blow that crushed his
skull, broke his ribs, and tore a deep gash in his back. A red stain
spread over his ripped shirt. I shut my eyes, sickened. There was a
screaming behind me. I swung dully about and went to her and held her
head against my chest, stroking her hair, whispering soothing words
into her ear. I could do that without endangering the safety of the sky
ship, because the robot giant had ceased to move. With the descent of
its hand all of the whirrings had ceased and it remained in a bent-over
position, utterly rigid, its mace-like metal palm still resting on the
unstirring crewman's back.

I was quite sure that no jury on Earth would have held me criminally
responsible for his death. It had been brought about by an accident I
couldn't have foreseen. Every man has the right to defend himself when
he's under attack, and not just my own life had been in danger. There
was no doubt in my mind ... not the slightest.... His rage had been
homicidal and he would have killed me if I'd given him the chance.

Justifiable homicide. There could be no other verdict, if the insignia
the Board had given me hadn't conferred legal immunity when an
accidental death stemmed from my right to stay alive and I had been
forced to return to Earth and clear myself in court.

I felt no moral guilt, but still--I was badly shaken. I had been
instrumental in causing his death, however unintentionally, and it's
always better if a man can live out his life without experiencing the
deep sadness that goes with that kind of knowledge.

The only difference is--moral guilt never leaves you and grows worse
with the years. But there are so many tragic sadnesses in life that
they have a way of merging into one big, onrushing stream and when you
measure that stream against a brighter one, the joy-stream, the scales
seem to stay just about even, with the balance maybe just a little
heavier on the joyful side.

Right at the moment there was another big, onrushing stream running
parallel with the sadness. The sober-obligation stream. Or maybe
duty-stream would be a better name for it. We spend at least a third
of our lives immersed in it up to our necks and swimming against the
toughest kind of currents. Sometimes I think we could do without it
entirely.

What was it Baudelaire said about boredom? "But well you know that
dainty monster, thou, hypocrite reader, fellow man, my brother." You
could practically say the same thing about duty.

But the stream is there, and if you just stay on the bank watching
the other swimmers you won't really have the right to plunge into the
joy-stream with a clear conscience.

The first thing I had to do was get her out of the Chart Room before
she collapsed. She was close to hysteria and I didn't even want her
to look at the body again. I was careful to stand between her and the
robot, and when I guided her gently toward the door I kept my hand on
the back of her head and kept her face pressed to my chest.

It was more difficult than it would have looked on a cinema
screen--more awkward and less romantic, and that was the way I wanted
it to be, because nothing could have been further from my mind at that
moment than the romantic glow I'd felt when I had been sitting across a
table from her in a lakeside tavern on Earth, and hadn't fully realized
that Joan was still the only really important woman in my life.

Oh, all right. You can't have a head that beautiful nestling in the
middle of your chest without feeling a certain ... well, a quickening
of your pulse, at least. It can happen even in the presence of death,
when you've just been shaken to the depths in a ghastly way. Perhaps
because of that....

Sex and death. Don't be morbid, Ralphie boy. Don't turn the clock
back and let the old Freudian catch-alls of a century ago confuse and
mislead you. Half of all that has been made clearer because we know now
what Man was like five million years ago when he was a very predatory
ape.

Sure, sex and death are closely linked. Dawn man went hunting and slew
a cave bear and threw it down before his mate, all bloody, with pride
swelling in him and just the excitement of the hunt, the thrill and
danger of it, made him want to make love in just as exciting a way.

But sex and life are even more closely linked, and in life there are
loyalties to consider and one woman becomes more important to you than
all the rest and you don't need that kind of stimulation to enable you
to make love to her in the most exciting possible way.

The old stirring is still there, the death-sex linkage, and it can hit
you hard at times and you have to keep a tight grip on yourself to keep
from succumbing to it. But you can do it if you try.

Of course I was being unfair to her. The sex-death linkage had no
more relation to the glow I'd felt back in the lakeside tavern than
it did now to her as an individual. I'd have felt the same stirring
if I'd been guiding Joan out of the Chart Room with her head on my
breast--more of a stirring because Joan was the one woman in the world
for me.

What it really meant was that the woman with the hair piled up high on
her head filled me with a two-way sense of guilt. The life-sex linkage
was better than the death-sex linkage, and the one and only woman
feeling better than the promiscuous amorousness which any beautiful
woman can arouse in the male. And right at the moment she represented
both of the more primitive aspects of sex.

But the dice had just fallen that way. It wasn't her fault and now she
was close to hysteria and needed reassurance and all the comfort I
could give her.

As soon as we were out in the passageway I asked her to tell me who
she was. Her name. So much had happened between us that it seemed
unbelievable that I still didn't know that much about her.

"I thought I told you right after we left the spaceport," she said. "I
thought you knew. It's Helen ... Helen Barclay."

So ... the old wonder name, the magical name, the Topless Towers of
Illium name. How often it seemed to go with her kind of woman. How
could she have been Margaret or Janice or Barbara ... attractive as
those names were. Lilith perhaps ... yes. Or Eva ... because I've often
felt that Eve must have been a woman of glamor, red-headed and with
a temper a little on the fiery side, because how else could she have
come down to us as Earth's first legendary temptress? But otherwise ...
Helen, the glamor name that led the list.

Why was I letting my mind go off at such an absurd tangent, when right
ahead of me the stern-obligation stream I've mentioned was widening
out, filling with rapids, becoming a river which could have swallowed
up the sky ship, or wrecked it ... if I failed to take up a giant's
stance right in the middle of it. Wade in and thrust the waters aside,
Ralphie boy. It's your duty. Try to think of yourself as a giant.

What made it tough was ... I didn't feel at all like a giant. But what
had just happened in the Chart Room couldn't be ignored. A lot of
questions would have to be asked fast, and if the explanations sounded
like lies, if Helen Barclay refused to cooperate, some very drastic
action might have to be taken. I hoped she didn't have anything ugly
to conceal. Just the thought was hateful to me, because I believed
in her and trusted her. But the way I felt had nothing to do with an
obligation I had no right to sidestep for as short a distance as the
width of an electron-microscoped virus.

I was glad that I wouldn't have to do the questioning. Not straight
off, anyway--not until I knew much more than I did, and all of the big,
vital questions had been answered with candor and I could go right on
feeling the way I did about her with a clear conscience. I hoped to God
it would be with candor. If someone is dying and you can do nothing
to save him and what he's done or hasn't done is of no importance to
anyone but himself ... you don't ply him with questions. But what she'd
done or hadn't done could send the sky ship down into the gulfs in
flaming ruin, because all of the passengers are encased in a fragile
kind of bubble and the slightest pinprick could puncture it.

The pinprick, for instance, of an Earthside conspirator, traveling
along with the bubble out into space and awaiting just the right moment
to insert the tiny, darkly gleaming point of the pin under the skin of
the bubble.

And she wasn't dying, but alive--and could, if she had nothing to
conceal, have no trouble in convincing the commander of the sky ship
that any such fear was groundless.

I had to take her straight to the Commander. Otherwise I'd have to
take it up with someone of lesser authority and show him the insignia
and question her myself in private. I couldn't see any advantage to be
gained by that. It would leave the corpse in the Chart Room entirely
unexplained and the Commander would not take kindly to having anything
as disturbing as that left lying around in a loose-end way for him to
worry about.

It would mean, of course, that I would have to show him the insignia.
That was the bad part, the one thing I wanted most to avoid. But I
could see no effective way of avoiding it now, because he was, after
all, in command of the sky ship and directly responsible for its
safety. He had every right to be the first to question her, unless I
chose to supplant that right with what the insignia represented. To do
so would not have been wise for a dozen reasons, the chief one being
that when a man is in a firm position to exercise reasonably high
authority it's always a mistake to go over his head unless you're sure
you can make a better job of it than he could, despite his specialized
knowledge. I didn't think for a moment I could come anywhere near
equaling Commander Littlefield's competence in guarding the safety of a
Mars' rocket ... so to curtail his authority in a high-handed way would
have been worse than inexcusable.

But I would still have to show him the insignia ... or I would not be
permitted to sit in on the questioning.

We were at the end of the passageway now and just by making a sharp
left turn I could have taken her into the cabin section and introduced
her to Joan. Perhaps, out of compassion, I should have done that ...
let her relax in a lounge chair and look out at the cool, untroubled
stars, and regain a little more of her composure. Some of it was coming
back, she wasn't trembling quite so violently now, and women seem
to know better than men how to ease shock-engendered agitation ...
especially when it's another woman they have to soothe and sympathize
with. I could trust Joan to handle it like an expert. "Of course, you
poor darling. I know just how you feel. Ralph will know what to do.
Don't think about it. Just stay right here with us until Ralph comes
back."

It would have been the kind thing to do, all right and for an instant I
hesitated and almost committed an act of madness.

When you've something to conceal, it's much easier to avoid a
thoughtless admission, a damaging slip of the tongue, when you've had
time to collect your thoughts and decide in advance exactly how much
of the truth it's wise to reveal. She was too agitated now to guard
against slips and our chances of getting at the truth would be much
better. And like the short-on-brains, over-chivalrous lug I could be on
rare occasions--I hoped they were rare--I'd almost torn it.



8


Unlike Jonathan Trilling, Commander Littlefield was the kind of man
who was what he was in an uncomplicated way. You didn't have to try to
analyze why he impressed you as he did, because it was all there on
display, right out in the open. He was big and robust looking, with
a granite-firm jaw and the kind of features that take a long time to
develop the lines of character that are etched into them, because a
man who has his emotions well under control in his youth will pass
into middle-age before you can tell from his expression just how much
maturity and strength resides in him.

There are bland-faced lads who seem to have no lines of character at
all in their countenances up to about the age of twenty-eight. But when
you hear them talk you change your mind very quickly about them, and
when they are forty-five the lines are all there, deeply-etched, and
the mystery is explained. Commander Littlefield was that kind of man.

We had several very serious things to discuss, because five hours had
passed since I'd sat facing him in the same chair and Helen Barclay
had sat in another chair at right angles to a third chair, which he
had drawn out from his desk and occupied for a full hour without a
coffee break, his eyes searching her face as she talked. His stare
was a kind of interrogation in itself, and it must have been hard for
her to endure. I think it would have angered me a little, if I hadn't
suspected what was behind it.

Her story stood up very well and had the ring of truth and her eyes
never wavered. But he was hoping they would, then he could detect in
her eyes a flicker of hesitation, of evasiveness, which would give her
away.

But he hadn't. Her story had stood up almost _too_ well ... because the
truth always has a few flaws and inconsistencies in it. Memory is never
a perfect enough mirror to permit anyone to avoid contradictions when
they are doing their best to tell nothing but the truth, even under
oath.

But she hadn't seemed to be lying, and in the end I think she convinced
him completely, because toward the end he stopped looking at her as if
every word she said was impressing him unfavorably.

And now she was in the sick bay, recovering from shock, and I was back
again for another talk with the Commander.

He began by saying: "I don't know just how I should address you, Mr.
Graham--sir. That silver hawk gives you a Colonization Board clearance
that's a little on the special side ... you'll have to admit. The
first man who wore it got a little angry when anyone addressed him as
'General' because that's a strictly military title, and military titles
haven't been in common use for forty years. There's not supposed to be
any army anymore--on Earth or on Mars. But I've always sort of liked
'General' and that insignia is practically the equivalent of five
stars."

"I'm afraid I don't like 'General' at all," I said. "The title is ...
Ralph."

"Well ... suit yourself. _Ralph._ I'm a simple soldier at heart, I
suppose--always will be, even though I hold the rank of Commander.
You're young enough to be my son, so that informal crap doesn't go too
much against the grain, if you're that serious about it."

"I'm serious about it," I said. "And you're not old enough to be my
father. An older brother, perhaps. You can't stretch it any further
than that."

"What do you mean I can't? I'm an old man of forty-eight. Hair
thinning, going a little to fat. My God, a Wendel Atomics or Endicott
Fuel top executive couldn't look any older, and they've got a head
start on the rest of us. They start burning out at thirty-five."

"There's not an ounce of fat on you, as far as I can see," I assured
him.

"That's going to handicap you on Mars, Ralph. Eyesight not what it
should be in a five-star general. Look again, look closer. I've got
a pot belly you'd notice, all right, if I didn't exercise to keep it
down."

I'd skipped over his reference to Wendel Atomics and Endicott, maybe
subconsciously, but it must have registered belatedly in a very
pronounced way, because something in my expression turned him dead
serious in an instant. No man ever speaks with complete levity about
his age, but what there was of ironic amusement in his gray eyes
vanished and his lips tightened.

"Well ... suppose we go over what we've got," he said. "I'll be
grateful for any ideas, any suggestions you may care to make. I've
found out something that's going to give you a jolt. It may even rock
you back on your heels, depending on how easily you can be rocked. But
it will keep ... until we've discussed what she told us. What do you
think of her story?"

"I believe it," I said. I didn't think it was necessary to elaborate.

"Well ... I'm afraid I do too, more's the pity. If I thought she was
lying I'd have more of a lever to pry what we don't know loose."

There was a thin sheet of paper covered with very fine handwriting on
his desk. He picked it up and ran his eyes over it.

"I sort of summarized what she told us," he said. "But there's no sense
in your reading this. I can summarize it even more briefly by skipping
two-thirds of what I have here."

"You might as well," I told him. "She talked and we listened
for at least twenty minutes. Then we both questioned her. In a
question-and-answer session like that the vital points are apt to get a
little blurred."

"Well, we know she did something no one has ever done before--stowed
away on a Mars' ship. I'd have said it couldn't be done ... and so
would you, I'm sure, because you're as familiar with the inspection
routine as I am. You passed through it. No one could possibly get
inside a Mars' rocket without a Board clearance and a personal,
ten-point identification check every step of the way. In other words,
you can't just ascend the launching pad, be whisked up to the passenger
section and walk right in. There's only one way you can get inside
without passing the four inspection points, with machines X-raying you
from head to toe."

"I know," I said. "It was a damn clever stunt."

"It was more than a stunt. It was an achievement on the creative genius
level. It took planning and foresight. And ... luck. A great deal of
luck. But that doesn't detract from the brilliance of it. She found out
that we were installing a new cybernetic robot, to replace one that had
developed electronic fatigue and had to be removed for repairs and a
long rest. And she knew that we wouldn't X-ray a robot or subject it to
any of the usual tests. It would just be wheeled right in."

Littlefield paused an instant, then went on. "She knew there was plenty
of room inside a cybernetic robot that large, between the tiers of
memory banks and all the other gadgetry, for the carrying out of what
she had in mind--a stowaway gamble that was almost sure to succeed. She
provided for her comfort during the long trip in half-dozen ingenious
ways, as we know, and made sure that the food concentrates she took
along were high in essential proteins.

"She knew, of course, that she couldn't stay inside the robot without
coming out at all. She'd have to emerge occasionally, if only to ease
the psychological strain. But she used good judgment and only emerged
when she was absolutely sure that it would be safe."

"But once she didn't," I said.

"Once she didn't. Once she felt she couldn't stand the tensions that
were building up in her any longer and she took a chance and came out
when she wasn't sure the Chart Room would be deserted. You told me
you thought it was never left unguarded. Well ... that isn't strictly
true. There's a built-in security alert system in all of the robots and
we can risk leaving it unguarded for a few minutes, when every member
of the crew is needed elsewhere, to take care of some particularly
troublesome space headache. That's what we call the small and seldom
very serious emergencies which are always arising in a sky ship this
large."

"But if she heard someone moving about ... she must have been crazy to
emerge," I said.

"That's just it. She wasn't sure she heard anyone. In fact, she was
almost sure it would be safe to emerge. She'd learned to trust her
instincts, and the silence was almost unbroken. Just once she thought
she heard a slight sound, but she put it down to the tension that was
building up in her. She felt she _had_ to emerge."

"And he caught her," I said, nodding. "And was more enraged than he
had any right to be. His fury was maniacal. If you'd seen the look on
his face and the way he was twisting her wrist you'd have been sure as
I was that he was quite capable of killing her. And that's the most
puzzling part of it. We can't explain it--and neither can she. That's
the one part of her story I was afraid you wouldn't believe."

"I didn't for a moment," Littlefield said. "I was sure she was
lying ... until the look of bewilderment in her eyes convinced me she
was telling the truth."

"You didn't want to talk about him until you'd examined the body," I
said. "I guess I got a little angry when you were so damned insistent
on that point. I was just about to--well, use that silver bird to make
you change your mind. That used to be called 'pulling rank' on someone
you respect and who has every right to tell you off. Since you like to
play soldier--and I mean that in a complimentary way--you're free to go
ahead and tell me off now, if you want to."

"Hell no. You had every right to press me. I just felt a little guilty
and ashamed, I guess--to think that I'd let a crewman come aboard this
sky ship who had managed in some way to deceive the Board. I was pretty
sure, even then, that his clearance papers must have been forged, but
I wanted a chance to examine the body before I committed myself, one
way or the other."

"I guess I'd have done the same," I said

"Yes.... Well, I'd have gone right down to the Chart Room and examined
the body before I listened to what she had to say ... if you hadn't
given me some very sound advice. If we questioned her while she was in
a keyed up state we'd have a better chance of getting at the truth."

I'd almost tripped over that one myself, so I didn't rate the
compliment he was paying me. But it was too minor to make me feel
conscience-bound to disillusion him.

"You saw me click the officer-section communicator on and talk into
it for a minute or two," he went on. "I ordered a double guard posted
in the Chart Room, but I told them not to touch the body until I had
a chance to get down there myself. It's just as well I did, because
something was found on the body I wouldn't have wanted anyone else to
see."

He was smiling a little and I wondered why, until he exploded the
bombshell--the thing he'd said would rock me back on my heels.

"He'd deceived the Board with a vengeance, apparently. There was a
sealed envelope on him and when I tore it open there was a card in
it. It wasn't a Board clearance card. It was a Wendel Atomics private
police card and it identified him as the kind of secret agent you'd
trade in for a snake if you _had_ to have something poisonous on
board and were given a free choice in the matter. The Wendel police
are little better than hired killers--although perhaps a few of them
are generous-minded enough to feel that when you've beaten a man
insensible it's going a little too far to put a bullet in him as well.
And the Wendel secret agents are the worst sadists of the lot. They're
hand-picked for shrewdness and when you get intelligence along with
brutality there's no refinement of cruelty that won't be resorted to
when the going gets rough."

"Good God!" I said. "So that's why--No ... no. It doesn't quite explain
why just the sight of Helen Barclay emerging from the robot enraged him
the way it did. Just the fact that there was a woman stowaway on Board
shouldn't have angered him at all. It wasn't his headache, because
he was merely masquerading as a crewman. Even a man who felt some
responsibility in the matter would have only been a little angered."

Littlefield nodded. "Don't think that hasn't occurred to me. If he'd
never set eyes on her before, or had no idea who she was ... it's hard
to see why he should have become enraged, as you say. That's why I've
gone to such lengths to make sure she was telling us the full truth
when she explained why getting to Mars was so important to her."

He didn't have to read from the paper he was still holding to help
me recall in detail everything she'd said during that part of the
question-and-answer session. It had made too deep an impression on
me. It had also struck a vital nerve, because it was tied in with my
assignment. Not directly, because I could have completed my big job
without so much as talking to her again. But she was going to Mars
because of something that Wendel Atomics had done.

Wendel Atomics was the exposed nerve, because anything that had to do
with the Martian power combines was of vital interest to me, if only on
the general information level.

In her case it was a personal matter, just between Wendel and herself.
A very small matter to Wendel but overwhelmingly important to her.

Her brother, an electronic engineer, was dying by inches in a Wendel
laboratory. Slow, radio-active poisoning meant very little to Wendel
Atomics apparently, when just one small human cog was afflicted with it
and they still needed his services.

So she had used her own knowledge of electronics and a very great
resourcefulness and a high I.Q. to stow away in a cybernetic robot and
was on her way to Mars to see what a woman of courage, entirely alone,
could do to save the life of the only brother she had.

She had tried to get a clearance from the Board and failed and that
explained how she happened to be in the New Chicago spaceport bar when
my own life had been in even more immediate danger ... because slow,
radio-active poisoning takes a long time to kill and if you can stop it
in time there's always a chance that the victim will recover.

"I've been checking up ever since you left," Littlefield was saying.
"I managed to get through to Earth on the needle frequencies and
Trilling knows now that you showed me the silver bird. The code
I used to tell him that was too complicated to be broken by the
big-brained inhabitants of Alpha Centauri's third planet, if--as seems
unlikely--such a planet exists."

"And you didn't even tell me," I said. "I suppose I should be burned up
about it."

"No, you shouldn't be. I just saved you a lot of unnecessary
explaining. You can talk to Trilling all you want to from here on in,
but I've cushioned the shock for you, taken a little of the edge off
the way he seemed to feel for a minute or two."

"Well ... all right," I said. "Just what did you tell him."

"I asked him to do what he could to confirm her story. So far
everything she told us seems to check out. Of course, they haven't been
able to turn up too much, and she could still be lying. But we may get
more on it later on. Don't count on it, though. I may not even be able
to contact Trilling again. The needle frequencies are as unreliable as
hell, as you know."

"But you just said I could talk to Trilling myself--"

"If we're lucky. You can't express yourself with precision when you're
as troubled as I am right now."

I was troubled too ... perhaps more than he was. But just trying to
make that concern dwindle a little by turning all the knobs on and off
kept me from thinking about it.

"Well ... he could have recognized her," I said. "There could have
been a link there, since he was a Wendel secret agent and her brother
works for Wendel. Maybe they sent him her brother's photograph over the
needle frequencies and said: 'Look around for a girl who resembles this
man and keep an eye on her. She's one little girl we're worried about."

"Oh, sure, that could be it."

"It wouldn't sound quite so ludicrous, Commander, if it was her
photograph they managed somehow to send him. Maybe they secured one
from her brother without his knowing about it. But still--it wouldn't
make much sense. Why should they fear her enough to put a secret agent
on her trail? One helpless woman forty million miles from Mars. He
couldn't have known she'd smuggle herself on board the rocket in a
cybernetic robot ... because his rage when he discovered her precluded
that. And why would he make the trip if he was out to get her and, for
all he knew to the contrary, she was still somewhere in New Chicago?"

"If he was trailing her he could have suspected she might be on board
and may have been searching everywhere for her," Littlefield pointed
out. "That would even explain his rage when he finally got his hands
on her, if we remember the kind of sadistic human animal he was.
Frustration alone could produce a rage as violent as that in a Wendel
agent--days and nights of fruitless searching. But ... I agree with you
that it doesn't make sense otherwise. The stumbling block, as you say,
is the difficulty in imagining how Wendel Atomics could possibly regard
her as that serious a menace. Or fear her at all, for that matter."

That was as far as we got. The officer-section communication
instrument on Littlefield's desk started buzzing and he swung about to
pick it up, with an almost joyful eagerness.

I was sure that at any other time he'd have accepted that call with
no visible display of emotion, just as a routine necessity. But when
you've reached a stone wall in a discussion of vital importance and the
odds against your making any further progress seem insurmountable, for
the moment at least, practically any interruption will be as welcome as
sunlight after a drenching rain or a peasoup fog. It's certainly better
than beating your head against stone.

He listened for perhaps ten seconds with the instrument pressed to his
ear, with no pronounced change of expression. Then his face blanched
and a look of horror came into his eyes.

He slammed the instrument down and headed for the door on the run,
completely unmindful of his dignity. Then he seemed to remember that he
owed me an explanation--a man of principle will usually take a second
or two out for that even when his home is in flames--and turned a yard
from the door to shout at me.

"Someone got the nose-cone panel open, climbed outside and is crawling
along the airframe toward the jet section! He's wearing magnetic boots
and if I'm not mistaken he's equipped with everything he needs to blow
the rocket apart."

When he saw the look on my face he added reassuringly. "We've still got
a good chance of stopping him in time, because he just climbed out.
But we'll have to bring most of the airframe into sharp focus on the
viewplate, and pinpoint his every movement."

It came as such a shock to me that I felt I had a good chance of
suffocating, just from the way my throat tightened up and my heart
started pumping blood at twice its usual rate.

I'm not quite sure how I managed to follow him at a distance of not
more than fifteen feet, down three intership ladders and along four
branching passageways, without once stopping to get my breath back. I
doubt if I could have done that anyway.

Right foot, then left, right left, right left, Ralphie boy, and don't
give up the ship. Never give up the ship when there's a chance to save
it. There's nothing painful about being vaporized in space. Remember
that, keep it firmly in mind. Nothing painful, nothing sad ... just a
quick end to all you've had.

I don't know why I thought the Chart Room looked deserted, like
a big, unoccupied mausoleum with tiers for coffins--dozens of
coffins--running up both of its sides. No coffins yet, just the empty
shelves, for burial time had not yet arrived. But how could the Chart
Room have looked deserted, when it wasn't at all?

There were a dozen officers standing in front of the big lighted screen
and when we crossed the room to join them without announcing our
arrival--well, that made fourteen.

I can't even explain how I got the idea there was a chill in the air
that seemed to wrap itself around me in moist, clinging folds, because
no section of the sky ship was more comfortably heated.

I didn't spend more than a minute or two trying to puzzle it out,
because the "furious sick shapes of nightmare," to quote from a poem
I wasn't sure I'd ever read, only disturb you when you give them more
encouragement than they're entitled to.

The only really important thing was that we could see him in bent
light on the big screen--a tiny, spacesuited figure climbing along the
airframe, laden down with something cumbersome that he kept pushing
before him in a completely weightless way as he inched further and
further toward the rocket's stern.

All at once, I knew what was going to happen to him. I was as sure of
it as I am that I have two big toes that point a little inward and that
Joan sometimes tenderly jokes about.

Between Earth and Mars space isn't empty. It hasn't been empty for more
than half a century, which is a pretty good record on the survival
scale for man-made, mechanical implants. The early Sputniks didn't last
one-tenth as long.

I knew without waiting for Commander Littlefield to finish what he
was saying to one of the officers and issue a command that the needle
frequencies scattered throughout the void on all sides of us were the
only composite weapon we could count on to save the sky ship and all
the people between its decks who didn't want to be vaporized. And that
took in practically everyone on board.

Sure, I know. Everyone had thought that the millions of filament-thin
wires which had been put into orbit around Earth in the seventh and
eighth decades of the twentieth century and later into orbit around
Mars and far out into interstellar space would only be used for
purposes of communication. Project Needles, or, if you want to be
strictly technical, Project West Ford.

God grant that they may some day be used in no other way. But when a
man climbs out on the airframe of a sky ship, for the sole purpose of
blowing it up----

There is only one way I can do justice to the speed with which it
happened and the awful, mind-numbing finality of it. It is not
something which should be recorded in a paragraph, a page, but in two
sentences at most.

Commander Littlefield issued a command, and a light on the instrument
panel blinked, and a million magnetized filaments converged, united and
so united, converged again on the airframe of the sky ship. There was a
blinding flash of light and the tiny human figure was gone.

The first words Commander Littlefield spoke, after that, were to me.

"Whoever he was, he must have wanted her dead pretty badly ... to have
been willing to blow up the sky ship and kill himself in the process."

There was a strange look on his face and his gray eyes met mine with a
question in them.

Then he spoke the question aloud. "Or was it you, Ralph, whom he had in
mind?"



9


The clang of the opening port was still ringing in my ears when I
walked out of the sky ship with Joan on my arm and looked down over the
big metal corkscrew directly beneath me. I knew straight off I'd made
a mistake. I should have looked up at the sky instead. I should have
squared my shoulders, drawn the crisp, tangy air deep into my hangs and
established rapport with Mars more gradually.

A delay of only a moment or two would have spared me the too sudden
shock of finding myself three hundred feet in the air, dazzled by an
unexpected brightness, and supported by nothing I'd have cared to trust
my weight to on Earth.

We were standing on a thin strip of metal, a mere spiderweb tracery,
and if I'd lost my balance and gone crashing through the guard rail
there would have been no mountaineer's rope to save me. What was worse,
I'd have taken Joan with me.

The danger was illusionary, of course ... solely in my mind. The
underwriters go to a great deal of expense and trouble to make sure
there will be no tragic accidents when the big risks have been left
behind in space.

The guard rail was chest-high and sturdy enough, and no one had ever
gone crashing through it. But you can't reason with a feeling, and for
an instant the yawning emptiness beneath me made me feel that I was
already past the rail, twisting and turning, flailing the air in a
three-hundred-foot plunge.

I was sure that Joan was experiencing the same kind of irrational
giddiness, for she drew in her breath sharply and a shiver went
through her. A fear of great heights is one phobia that is shared by
practically everyone.

The big metal corkscrew beneath us was the landing frame into which
the rocket had descended and we were standing high up on that enormous
spiral, which curved down and outward like an immense silvery cocoon.

A figure of speech, sure. But not as wide of the mark as most of the
images that flash across your mind when you're keyed up abnormally and
a lot of new colors, and sights and sounds rush in on you and upset all
of your calculations as to how sober-minded you're going to stay. Your
grasp on reality slips a little, as if you were holding it right before
your eyes like a book, and wearing glasses so strong that the print
blurs. You're in a fantasy world of your own creating, seeing things
that can't be blamed on whoever wrote the book. A fussy, unimaginative
little guy, perhaps, who has spent most of his life within sight of his
own doorstep and has never felt the great winds of space blowing cold
upon him.

There's a big, night-flying Sphinx moth with death-heads on each of its
wings, and there were times when I'd thought of the Mars ship as not so
different from that kind of moth. And now it was as if the sky ship had
turned back into a caterpillar again, and spun a cocoon for itself, and
was quietly reposing in the pupa stage, its rust-red end vanes folded
back, its long length mottled and space-eroded where the atomic jets
had seared it.

There was nothing wrong in giving my imagination carte-blanche to go
into free fall like that, because when you're standing on a dizzy
height staring down at a new world forty million miles from Earth
you've got to let the strangeness and bursting wonder of it ... along
with the dire forebodings ... take firm hold of you. Otherwise you
won't feel yourself to be a part of it, won't be equipped with what it
takes to probe beneath the surface of things in a realistic way and
feel like a native son even in the presence of the unknown.

Three hundred feet below me more activity was taking place than I had
ever seen crowded into an area of equal size on Earth. Just as a guess,
I'd have said that the spaceport's disembarkation section was about six
hundred feet square. But right at that moment I had no real stomach for
guessing games--only a hollowness where my stomach was supposed to be.

Far below the disembarkation section was in high gear, and the clatter
of it, the rushings to and fro, the grinding and screeching of giant
cranes, and atomic tractors, and rising platforms crowded to capacity
with specialized robots, most of them scissor-thin and all of them
operated by remote control ... would have half-deafened me if I'd been
standing a hundred feet lower down.

Even from the top of the spiral the clamor had to be heard to be
believed. But what astounded me most was the newness, brightness,
sharply delineated aspect of everything within range of my vision.
I could see clear to the edge of the spaceport, and the four other
securely-berthed rockets stood out with a startling clarity, their nose
cones gleaming in the bright Martian sunlight. The big lifting cranes
stood out just as sharply, and although the zigzagging tractors looked
like painted toys, red and blue and yellow, I would have sworn under
oath that not one of them cast a shadow.

The twenty-five or thirty human midgets who were moving in all
directions across the field, between machines that seemed too
formidable to be trusted had the brittle, sheen-bright look of figures
cut out of isinglass.

Another illusion, of course. There had to be shadows, because there
was nothing on Mars that could have brought about that big a change in
the laws of optics. But by the same token the length and density of
shadows can be altered a bit by atmospheric conditions, making light
interception turn playful. So I didn't strain my eyes searching for
deep purple halos around the human midges.

My only immediate concern was to reassure Joan in a calm and forceful
way and escort her safely down to ground level, without letting her
suspect that I shared her misgivings as to the stability of the spiral.

It was ridiculous on the face of it. But, as I've said, you can't argue
with a feeling that whispers that your remote, dawn age ancestors must
have felt the same way when they climbed out on a limb overhanging a
precipice, and felt the whole tree begin to sway and shake beneath them.

"Hold tight to the rail and don't look down," I cautioned. "There's
no real danger ... because a first-rate welding job was done on this
structure. Barring an earthquake, it should be just as safe a century
from now."

I shot a quick, concerned glance at her along with the warning. I guess
I must have thought she'd be more shaken than she was, for she smiled
when she saw the look of surprise in my eyes. It took me half a minute
to realize that my guess as to how she'd be taking it hadn't gone so
wide of the mark. Her pallor gave her away.

"A century would be much too long to wait," she breathed. "Another five
minutes would be too long. If it's going to collapse, I'd rather find
out right now."

I nodded and we started down. Several other passengers had emerged from
the port and were looking up at the sky or downward as I'd done. Three
men and a woman had emerged ahead of us and were almost at the base of
the spiral. So far nothing had happened to them.

I've often toyed with the thought that there may be windows in the mind
we can see out of sometimes--at oblique angles and around corners and
without turning our heads. I could visualize the passengers who were
descending behind us more clearly than you usually can in a mind's eye
picture. Each face was in sharp focus and there was no blurring of
their images as they moved. It was as if I was staring straight up at
them through a crystal-clear pane of glass.

In that astonishingly bright inner vision--why look up and back when I
did not doubt its accuracy?--Commander Littlefield was wasting no time
in setting a good example. He'd descended the spiral so many times that
great height meant nothing to him. He'd be ascending and descending at
least ten more times just in the next few hours. But this was his big
moment. I could already picture him striding across the disembarkation
section to the Administration Unit with his shoulders held straight,
and announcing officially, with a ring of pride in his voice, that the
trip had been completed in record time, and the rocket had been berthed
successfully. He was descending now with a confident smile on his lips,
his Mars' legs buoyantly supporting him.

Behind him came the small group who had been closest to us in space.
They were doing their best to stay calm, but there was a slight flicker
of apprehension in their eyes. Our section had been the first to
disembark, because Littlefield had agreed with me that it might have
seemed a little strange if I'd been accorded that privilege and it had
been denied to the others. Why give anyone who might have outwitted
every screening precaution the idea that I might be a man apart, with
so big a job awaiting me on Mars that getting started on it without
delay was damned important to me. It was natural enough for one or two
sections to be cleared fast and emerge with the Commander. But others
would have to await their turn in line and quarantine checkups could
drag along for hours.

"It's funny how long it takes to get even a little lower when you're
this high up," Joan said, her fingers tightening on my arm. "We're not
anything like as high as when we started. But nothing down below looks
any larger."

"We're not a fourth of the way down, and the human eye is a very poor
judge of distances," I said, reassuringly. "It would be better if you
let go of my arm and just kept your right hand on the rail. We sway
more this way."

"When you look down from the observation roof of the North-Western
University Building you can see all of New Chicago, and practically
half of Lake Michigan," she complained breathlessly. "But it never made
me feel as giddy as this."

"You had a firmer support under you," I said. "But not a safer one.
There's no danger at all. You can be absolutely sure of that. What
could happen to us?"

It was one of those silly questions you sometimes ask when you want to
reassure someone you're a little concerned about. But a silly question
can sometimes be answered in a totally unexpected way--suddenly,
terribly and with explosive violence. It can be answered by a voice
of thunder out of the sky, or a wild, savage cry in the night, or in
a quieter way, but with just as terrifying an outcome. There are a
hundred cataclysms of nature which can give the lie to what you thought
was only a silliness.

No matter where you are or how secure you feel, never ask what
could happen in a world where nothing is sure, where no one is ever
completely safe. Death is death. From end to end of his big estate may
be a lifetime's journey for some men. But he can cover the distance
with the speed of light, because Death is one space traveler--the only
one--who knows exactly how to outdistance light.

Even if you're alone in a steel-walled vault it's a dangerous question
to ask. It's ten times as dangerous when you're descending a swaying
metal corkscrew forty million miles from Earth and there may be someone
eighty feet above you who has failed twice as Death's emissary and
would be covered with shame if it happened again.

I felt hardly anything for an instant when the dart sliced deep into
the soft flesh between my shoulder blades. I didn't even know it was
a dart and kept right on walking. It was as if a bee had stung me--a
tired bee who couldn't sting very hard. There was just a little stab of
pain, a burning sensation that lasted less than a second.

I felt it, all right. But it didn't startle me enough to stop me dead
in my tracks. A thing like that seldom does, if you're moving steadily
forward. It takes a second or two after you've felt the pain for the
implications to dawn on you.

When they did the pain was back, and this time it was excruciating.
My whole shoulder was laced with fire, as if a red-hot iron had been
laid against it. If right at that moment I'd smelled an odor of burning
flesh I'd have been sure there could be no other explanation, despite
its transparent absurdity.

Even then I kept right on walking. I staggered a little but I bit
down hard on my underlip to avoid crying out. I didn't want to alarm
Joan until I was sure. It could still have been just a very severe
muscular spasm--the kind of agonizing cramp that can hit you in the leg
sometimes in the middle of the night, so that you awake out of a deep
sleep bathed in cold sweat, and with your teeth chattering.

That was what seemed to be happening now. My teeth started chattering
and I could feel sweat oozing out all over me. There was only one
difference. The pain was in my shoulder, not my leg, and it wasn't
easing up the way spasm pain does after a minute or two. It couldn't
have gotten worse, because it had been excruciating from the beginning.
But other things started getting worse fast. The burning sensation
spread to my lungs and my throat muscles started constricting, so that
every breath I drew was an agony.

I couldn't pretend any longer, and I didn't try to. I went down on
my knees, clutching at my chest and swaying back against the rail. I
suppose I must have groaned or made some sort of sound, because Joan
swung about and was kneeling beside me in an instant, her face ashen.

I must have looked terrible, or all of the color would not have drained
out of her face so fast, or her eyes gone quite so wide with alarm.

I made a half-hearted try at straightening up, but only succeeded in
bringing my collapse closer to zero-count by sagging more heavily back
against the rail.

"Darling, what is it? _Tell me!_" Her voice was demanding, wildly
insistent. "Please ... I've got to know. If it's your heart--"

I shook my head. I went through a kind of little death just trying to
get a few words out. "Something struck me ... in the back. See ... what
it is. Feel around with your hand."

"All right, darling. Just don't move. No--you'll have to lift yourself
up a little more. Try, darling. Your back's right against the rail."

I did more than try. I helped her by gritting my teeth and flopping
over on my stomach. But the pain that lanced through my chest made me
almost black out for an instant.

There was a clamor above us now, and I thought I heard Littlefield's
voice raised in a shout, followed by a scream of terror. Possibly
someone had seen me slump and jumped to the conclusion that the spiral
was collapsing.

There was no chance of that, so I couldn't have cared less how close to
panic the people up above were. Right at the moment it didn't concern
me. I was only concerned with what Joan might find when her fingers
started probing. If a bullet had ploughed into me and her fingers came
away wetly red I'd know for sure whether it was as bad as I feared. It
helps to know, when there's a tormenting uncertainty in your mind along
with the physical pain.

I could feel her hand fumbling with my shirt, getting it loosened. Then
they were moving up, down and across my back. Cautiously, gently, with
the nurselike competence which women usually manage to summon to their
aid in an emergency, no matter how shaken they are.

After a moment her fingers stopped moving and she drew in her breath
sharply.

Being in agony and on the verge of blacking out carries with it a
penalty. You can't always hear what someone close to you may be saying,
even when it's of life-and-death importance.

I caught a few words, however, just enough to know it was a dart before
I lost consciousness. And her look told me what kind of dart it was.

Or maybe it wasn't her look, just what I knew about darts in general.
The kind of dart that's in common use today as a weapon is quite unlike
the primitive blowgun darts of South American Indians a century ago.
Science, like everything else, progresses, especially in the field of
weapons. The modern dart is just as simple, in a way, but you take it
out of a wafer-thin metal case as you would a hypodermic needle and
you fit the three parts very carefully together and you use a liquid
propellant to blow it out of a very slender tube of gleaming metal. And
there's space in it for poison.

It's handier, tidier than the small robot killers with their intricate
internal gadgetry, even though it requires precision aiming and you're
much more likely to be observed while you're taking aim, and be
compelled to pay the customary penalty for murder.

I'd managed to roll back on my side, and lying then in agony, trying to
catch what Joan was saying, sort of telescoped all that for me, so that
it registered in my mind in a more rapid way than it does when you're
trying to explain it academically. Everything I knew about darts came
sweeping into my mind, and I remembered something else that helped to
explain the agony.

The modern dart changes shape the instant it enters a man's body,
opening up like a pair of six-bladed scissors, cutting, slashing,
severing veins and muscles and nerve ganglions. And if it strikes an
artery--

It doesn't even have to be a poisoned dart to kill a man. The feathered
part remains in the wound, only slightly embedded. But if you have any
sense you resist an impulse to pull it out, because when you do that
it's very difficult to stop the bleeding. It's a job for a skilled
surgeon and Joan's look told me that there was no time to be lost. The
wisest thing I could do was to put my complete trust in Commander
Littlefield. The quicker he got one of the passengers or a crewman to
help him carry me down to ground level and bundle me into an ambulance
the better my chances would be.

Joan seemed to be one jump ahead of me, for she leapt up quickly
and started back up the spiral. She didn't even press my hand in
reassurance, but that was all right with me. I knew why she hadn't.
Every second counted, and she loved me too much to be anything but
firmly practical about it.

I remember thinking, just before I blacked out, _how adequate are the
hospital facilities here? And what about the surgeons? Oh God, what if
they are fifth-raters, what if the hospital is understaffed? What if
they bungle it, but good?_

When you black out and stay blacked out for a long period, questions
like that lose most of their tormenting aspects. You may still feel
emotionally disturbed by them, when the darkness lifts a little and
you remember having asked yourself questions someone somewhere should
have answered--if you'd only stayed around long enough to make a lot
of friends and influence people and make them eager to oblige you in
every possible way. But it isn't too disturbing, because you can't even
remember what the questions were.

The trouble was ... I didn't stay blacked out. Not completely. I woke
up at intervals and heard snatches of conversation and I even saw--the
Mars Colony.

I saw quite a bit of the Colony before they eased me down in a hospital
bed, and covered me with warm blankets and I blacked out again.

I saw the streets I'd traveled forty million miles to visit, and the
people I'd come to make friends with, and the kids in their space
helmets, looking precisely as they did on Earth. (What further frontier
did they hope to explore ... Alpha Centauri or just one of the giant
outer planets?) I saw the prefabricated metal buildings, four, eight
and twenty stories high, with their slanting roofs, rust-red and
verdigris-green blue in the early morning sunlight and the stores
that were all glass and the strange looking supermarkets with their
almost cathedral-like domes. And just for good measure, eight or ten
bar-flanked streets with big parking lots where the bars gave way
to barracks that straggled out into the desert and had a primitive,
twentieth century, shanty-town look.

There were people everywhere, but when you're propped up on a cot in
a speeding ambulance you can't tell whether the people who go flying
past look just the way people do on Earth, or have a more robust,
happier look. Or a more restless and discontented look. It's even
hard to tell whether young people or middle-aged people predominate,
or just how many very old people there are. Or how many infants in
arms, except that there did seem to be an exceptionally large number
of children, either being wheeled or carried or toddling along in the
wake of their parents, or playing games with the fierce competitiveness
of twelve-year-olds in fenced-in sand lots which no one had taken the
trouble to pave.

There were theaters too--places of amusement, anyway--which you could
tell featured lively entertainment just from the gaudy blue and yellow
posters on their facades.

That there were machines clattering past goes without saying. A
tremendous amount of new construction was under way in every part of
the Colony and if you just say "Mars" in a word association test one
man or woman in three will come right back with "Machinery."

There were pipes, too--huge and branching, big, shining metal tubes
that arched above buildings and ran parallel with almost every street
in the Colony. A tremendous brood of writhing snakes was what they
reminded me of--the artificial kind that kids delight in scaring people
with at birthday parties, all mottled over with the bronze sheen of
copperheads, but looking more like boa constrictors in their tremendous
girth.

Another kind of snake image flashed into my mind as I stared out
through the windows of the ambulance at that interlocking power-fuel
network. It came swimming right out of the history books I'd poured
over in fascination when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Sure, they
were Diamond Back rattlesnakes and the Mars Colony was right out of the
Old West of covered-wagon and gold-prospecting days.

Of course it wasn't, because the twenty-first century technology had
made it completely modern in some respects. But it was like the Old
West in a good many other ways. It had the same rugged, mirage-bright
pioneer look, as if the desert sands were blowing right into the heart
of the colony, swirling about, filling the windy places and the sand
lots where the kids were playing with a haze that could just as easily
have been gold dust that some careless, giant-size prospector had
spilled by accident when he'd brought it in from the hills for weighing.

Actually, there's nothing on Earth or Mars that can completely shatter
that cyclic aspect of history. There's nothing so new that you can look
at it and say, "There's nothing of the past here. The break is complete
and the past is gone forever and can never return again."

It's just not true. The past does return, shining brightly beneath the
bold new pattern, the daring new way of life that Man likes to think he
has chiseled from a block of marble that human hands have never touched
or human eyes rested upon before.

There's no such block of marble in all the universe of stars. Not
really, because what Man can visualize he has already seen and it
has become a part of his heritage and the past of that heritage goes
flowing into it and he starts off with a veined monolith that is
brimming over with human memory patterns, with not a few buried deep in
the stone.

But I've forgotten to mention the most important aspect of everything
I saw through the windows of that speeding ambulance. It was ... the
blurred aspect, the way everything kept changing shape and disappearing
and pinwheeling at times. It wasn't surprising, because the agony was
still with me and I saw everything in fitful starts, in brief flashes,
between bouts of blacking out and coming to and blacking out again. But
what I did see I saw clearly, with the heightened awareness that often
accompanies almost unbearable pain. When white-hot needles of pain are
jabbing at your nerves a strange, almost blinding kind of illumination
seems to sweep into the brain. But instead of blinding you it makes
everything stand out with a startling clarity and you can think clearly
too, and even speculate about what you've seen.

It's as if you were caught up in a kind of sharper-than-life dream
sequence, or sitting in a darkened theater watching events take place
on a dazzlingly bright screen. You may be doubled up with pain, but
you keep your eyes on the screen and very little that is happening
to the actors and actresses on a dramatic level is lost on you. You
even notice small details of background scenery that would escape
your attention ordinarily, and exactly what kind of clothes the
actresses are wearing. Light summer dresses with plunging necklines or
tight-fitting, form-molded swim suits--things you can't help noticing
even when you're doubled up with pain. It's why most of us fight to
stay alive, because Nature has made us that way to keep us from letting
go of the one thing that makes us stay in the pitcher's box when Death
is batting a thousand.

Putting that much stress just on the engendering of life may be a trick
and a snare, when Death has set so cruel a trap for the winners, but
you seldom hear anyone complaining about it. It takes an awful lot
of grief and despair and pain to make anyone angrily resent the sex
snare, and take to eulogizing Death instead.

It wasn't the reason everything I saw through the windows of the
ambulance registered so sharply in fitful flashes, because I had _that_
right at my side. Joan was holding my hand and squeezing it and I only
had to turn my head to make me just about the toughest adversary Death
ever had. But what I said about the lighted cinema screen still holds.
What I did see, I saw with eyes that missed very little. And between
the bouts of blacking out the snatches of conversation I overheard came
to me just as distinctly.

Part of the time it was a woman's voice I heard and I knew it had to be
Joan's voice, because there was no other woman in the ambulance with
me. But she wasn't talking to me. She was talking to one of the two men
in white who were sitting opposite me. They seemed about a half-mile
away most of the time, but occasionally the long bench they were
sitting on floated a little closer.

The conversation, as I've said, came to me in snatches and it could
hardly have been called a running dialogue. The continuity alone would
have gotten a professional script writer fired, no matter how brilliant
he was otherwise.

The only way I can whip it into shape is by recording it as if it were
continuous, filling in the part I overheard between blackouts with what
I didn't hear--staying close enough to what was probably being said to
keep the script writer on the job and eating.

I'm pretty sure this is a fairly accurate re-write.

Joan: What kind of a hospital is it? I'm sorry, I ... I guess I
shouldn't have asked you that. You're on the staff. No matter how frank
you might want to be....

Doctor Mile-Away: If I thought it wasn't a good hospital I wouldn't
say so, naturally. But it happens to match up very well with the eight
or ten you'd want him to be taken to Earthside, if you had a choice.
The facilities are first-rate, completely up to date. There are four
surgeons I'd trust my life to with equal confidence ... and one of them
happens to be my dad.

Joan: I hope to God he gets one of them.

Doctor: There are only four surgeons. We don't get too many surgical
cases in the Colony--not nearly as many as you might think. There's as
much violence here, perhaps, as there is in New Chicago but it takes a
different form. We can't keep atomic hand-guns out of criminal hands as
easily as you can in New Chicago, because the lawless element in the
Colony has more socio-political power and can get more weapons in that
destructive category smuggled in. As you know, an atomic hand-gun has
a very limited destructive potential, since there's no fallout and it
can only kill a man standing directly in its path. But when it does ...
there isn't much margin left for surgery.

Joan: You mean _criminals_ are in control here?

Doctor: Oh, it's not quite that bad. Possibly about one colonist in
twenty has dangerous criminal tendencies. The proportion is larger here
only because it's a new society, with a pioneering outlook. You might
call it a wolf-eat-wolf society. On Earth the dog-eat-dog tendencies
will probably never be completely eradicated but we've gone a long way
in that respect just in the last half-century. Here we have further to
go, because the dogs are still wolves.

Joan: Will you ever tame them? My husband may be dying right here; that
doesn't look so tame! I think your Mars Colony is a filthy jungle!

Doctor: I didn't have much time to talk with Commander Littlefield. But
from what _he_ said I'm pretty sure you don't really feel that way.
I don't know why you and your husband are here, but the Colonization
Board seldom gives clearance to people who feel that way about the
future of the Colony. In fact ... I can't remember ever having met a
man or woman who managed to deceive the Board, because the screening
is the opposite of superficial. They go into your past history, I
understand, and give you psychological tests I'm not even sure I could
pass, convinced as I am that the Colony is still Man's best hope in a
world where to stand still is always disastrous. There's no other sane
solution to the population problem, just to mention one of the fifty or
sixty major problems we'll have to solve or perish in in the next two
centuries. I have my moments of doubt and cynicism....

Joan: You should be having one right now. How would _you_ feel if you
were taking your wife to the hospital for an emergency operation and
didn't know whether she was going to live or die? Suppose it was your
wife instead of my husband? We didn't even have time to set foot in the
Colony. If there's that much danger before you even--

Doctor: Just hold on a minute. Let's get this straightened out right
now. It will make you feel better. No one in the Colony tried to kill
your husband. That dart was aimed at him from above--by one of the
passengers. They're all being held for questioning and if the firing
mechanism is found on one of them--

That, for me, was the end of the dialogue. But just before I blacked
out for the last time I saw a sign high up over one of the buildings.
It read: WENDEL ATOMICS.

And I went down into the darkness with that sign flashing in big
illuminated letters right in the middle of the darkness. WENDEL
ATOMICS. WENDEL. WENDEL ATOMICS. And in much smaller letters, which
were not nearly as bright: _Endicott Fuel_.

The big letters growing larger, brighter ... the small letters
dwindling.

Just as I felt myself to be dwindling ... as I passed deeper and deeper
into the darkness.



10


"He's a big man," I heard a woman's voice say. "It took every ounce of
my strength to lift him. But he had to be moved to the edge of the bed,
doctor. The sheets had to be changed."

A whirling in my head, needles darting in and out. I had to strain my
ears to catch what another voice was saying in reply. It was a man's
voice, but gruff, deep-throated and somehow less distinct than the
first voice. Perhaps Gruff Voice was standing further from the bed. Or
possibly he didn't want me to hear what he was telling the nurse.

She had to be a nurse, because Gruff Voice wasn't addressing her
by name. He wasn't calling her Miss Hadley or Miss Betty Anne
Simpson-Cruickshank. He was saying "Nurse this," and "Nurse that" and
speaking with crisp authority, as if there was a gulf between a nurse
and a doctor which even the kindliest, least hidebound of physicians
had no right to ignore.

I rather liked his voice, gruff as it was. He spoke with the air of a
man who knew his business, with a kind of restrained sympathy--the "no
nonsense" approach. Too much calm self-assurance can be irritating,
because it usually goes with the inflated egos of people who think very
highly of themselves. But in a doctor you don't object to that sort of
thing so much.

"He's waking up," Gruff Voice was saying. "Just let him rest and don't
encourage him to talk. No more sedation--he won't need it. Did you take
his temperature, Nurse?"

"Just ten minutes ago, Doctor. It's on the chart. I always--"

"Put it down immediately? Who do you think you're kidding, Susan,
my love? Once in awhile you put it off, when this kind of emergency
case makes you wish you had a dozen pairs of hands. You put if off
for fifteen or twenty minutes, when you've no reason to think some
white-coated drum major is going to barge in unexpectedly, just to lean
on you. Did you ever know me to lean, Susan--heavily or otherwise?
You're doing the best you can and it's a very good 'best.' I wish we
had more 'bests' like it."

"I do feel ... sort of wobbly, Roger. I deserve to be leaned on,
because once you start feeling that way you're no longer at peak
efficiency and you become nervously over-scrupulous. That's both good
and bad, if you know what I mean."

"What did you expect, Susan? I could have had a nurse in here to
relieve you hours ago if you hadn't been so stubborn. You've been
worrying your cute blonde head off without stopping to rest for sixteen
hours, and you never set eyes on the guy before this morning. What is
there about some men--"

"It was touch and go, Roger. You said yourself that a little of the
poison got into his blood. You told me a tenth of a cc would have been
fatal."

"That was when I first looked at the lab analysis and took the
gloomiest possible view of his chances. I didn't even know you heard
me. Damn it all, Susan. Can't a doctor think out loud without giving
his most competent nurse a martyr complex? What is there about him? I'm
asking you. If he wasn't married I could perhaps understand it. I could
at least make a stab at trying to figure it out. But you've seen his
wife. A man with a wife as attractive as she is would have to be even
more susceptible than I am to look twice at another woman. That's just
another way of saying it couldn't happen."

"I've had two long talks with her, Roger. She loves him so much that
if anything happened to him I'm afraid to think what she might do. All
alone on Mars, with no close relatives or friends to turn to for help
and warmth and comfort. She'd need a lot of support, because there's
nothing shallow about her. She's the intense type, very deep in her
emotions. I'm that way myself."

"You don't have to tell me," I could hear him saying. "You're the
empathy-plus type. It's what makes a good many otherwise sensible women
embrace the toughest profession on the list. Hard-boiled, unemotional
women make good nurses too. But I prefer the kind of nurse you can't
help being. Only ... a little moderation even in people who go all out
can be a saving grace."

"But don't you see, Roger? It means I can identify with her. I know
exactly how terrible the uncertainty must be for her, because if I
loved a man that much and lost him I'd probably go right out and kill
myself. If you want the full truth ... there's probably a little of
the male-female absurdity mixed up in it too. It's an absurdity in a
situation like this, where it makes no sense. But just the fact that
he's a man and I'm a woman--"

"Talk like that will get you nowhere," he said. "I'm too sure of you."

There was a rustling sound and a sudden gasp and I was pretty sure I
knew what it meant. He'd taken her into his arms and was kissing her.
I don't know why I didn't open my eyes. I was fully awake now, aware
of every movement in the room. But I just remained quiet and listened,
grateful that the needles had stopped jabbing at my temples and my
dizziness was practically gone.

Sometimes when you awake suddenly from a deep sleep your eyes feel
glued shut, and it takes an effort just to open them. You let it ride
for a moment, while you pull yourself together ... especially if it's a
nightmare you've just awakened from. There's a kind of pleasure in it.

He was talking again. "I've yet to meet a woman who doesn't think that
clinical self-analysis will keep a man guessing about her. But that
kind of candor will get you nowhere with me, kiddo. I know you too
well. Are you convinced?"

"Yes," she said, with a meekness that surprised me.

He didn't say anything for a moment, but I could hear him moving about
and a metallic click, as if he were folding up his stethoscope or
returning a hypodermic to its case.

A sound like that is always a little unnerving and an operating table
and a long row of gleaming instruments flashed evanescently across
my mind. I wondered how bad it was and if Martian hospitals were
well-equipped, and had just the right facilities to take care of an
emergency case requiring major surgery.

But he'd said I was out of danger, hadn't he ... that I didn't even
need more sedation? Sure he had. I'd been stabbed with a poisoned
dart, but that didn't mean I'd have to go on the operating table. They
would never have let the dart stay inside me. If an operation had been
needed, it would have been performed immediately....

Perhaps it had. Well, to hell with it. I was out of danger now and
beginning to mend and that was the only thing that counted. It had been
touch and go, she'd said. And Joan loved me so much that....

Hold on tight to that, Ralphie boy. It's the best news you'll ever
hear, even though you knew it all along, were sure of it on the day you
married her. What they didn't know and would have to guess about was
the feeling of oneness we had whenever we were together.

I let that ride too, sweet as it was to dwell upon, and thought about
how mistaken I'd been about the doctor. He wasn't the kind of guy
I'd thought him. The "nurse this, nurse that" talk had been either a
performance, put on for my benefit just in case I was a little more
than semiconscious or--a routine, quickly-dropped formality.

The second supposition seemed the most likely. A kind of ritual they
went through from habit, and because it's more ethical to keep a
doctor-nurse relationship on a formal plane when the patient is under
clinical scrutiny. After that, they could relax and be human.

I had no complaint, because I liked both aspects of Gruff Voice's
personality. That I liked the nurse goes without saying, not only
because of what she'd said about Joan, but because of a certain
something....

All right. Gruff Voice had said that he was susceptible beyond the
average and so was I. A sweet soft woman bending over you, denying
herself sleep just to make sure you'll stay alive, doing her best to
ease your pain, sort of ... does things to you. It had nothing to do
with the way I felt about Joan. It wasn't actual disloyalty ... didn't
come within a mile of disloyalty. It was just the man-woman absurdity
she'd mentioned, only ... it wasn't an absurdity and never had been.

It may be a hard thing for a woman to understand, sometimes. But it's
never hard for a man to understand, if he's honest with himself and
knows just how powerful the mating impulse can be in human beings.
Call it sex attraction if you want to, but when you've called it that
it's important to remember that the mating impulse is the basic,
anthropological prime mover. Sex is simply its _modus operandi_. On
Earth and on Mars, whenever a normal man and a normal woman are in
close proximity, even for ten or twelve seconds, the mating impulse
starts unwinding. On another planet of another star the _modus
operandi_ may not be sex as we know it, but something quite different,
if you can imagine another way of choosing a mate, building a home, and
filling it with healthy, happy children.

It's a coiled-spring, trigger-mechanism kind of impulse and neither the
man nor the woman have to be attracted to each other on the personality
level, unless you want to be technical and regard the purely physical
as an attribute of personality. They can be young or old, plain or good
looking. Some attraction will be present, even under the most adverse
circumstances. But when the woman is young and beautiful and the
personality level warm and appealing you'll be deceiving yourself if
you think the impulse can be kept from arising just because you already
have a mate you're desperately in love with.

You can conquer the impulse if you try hard enough and your love for
someone else is strong enough. That's what is meant by loyalty. But you
can't keep the impulse from arising and it makes no sense at all to
feel guilty about it.

The human brain is a resourceful instrument and there are a dozen ways
of keeping a tight grip on your nerves when you wake up on a hospital
cot and hear unfamiliar voices talking about you. I chose the way that
was most natural to me. I concentrated on the scientific construct
I've just summarized, letting my mind glide over, and play around with
it for a minute or two and telling myself that I must thank the nurse
for all that she had done for me. When Gruff Voice left there would be
a glow, a brief moment of warmth between us that might have become a
high-leaping flame if I hadn't been in love with Joan and she hadn't
been carrying a torch for Gruff Voice.

I wasn't even sure she was beautiful, but it seemed likely, because you
can tell a great deal about a woman just from the sound of her voice.
Even if she bent over and kissed me, her eyes shining a little because
she'd helped me outdistance Death a yard from the finish line and was
feeling grateful and thrilled about it ... well, that would have been
all right too. I didn't think Joan or the man who had just taken her
into his arms would have held that kind of kiss against us.

I had the feeling that Gruff Voice was a generous-minded, all right
guy, and if an operation had been necessary to save my life he'd done
his best to increase my chances with all of the surgical know-how at
his command.

Just that thought made me decide to open my eyes and try to raise
myself a little, because he had a right to know how grateful I felt.

He was just going through the door. I could see that he was tall, blond
and rather sturdily built, but a wave of dizziness made me sink back
against the pillows again before I could get a really good look at him.
It's hard to tell what a man looks like anyway, when he's facing away
from you, and you can only see his disappearing shoulders and the back
of his head.

When I opened my eyes for the second time, a full minute later, the
eyes that looked back at me were just as I'd pictured them. A deep,
lustrous brown. Her face was very much as I'd pictured it too, except
that I'd no way of knowing whether she was a blonde or a brunette. She
looked a little like Joan. Her hair was done up in a different way, and
her lips were a little fuller than Joan's and her cheekbones not quite
so prominent. Her nose, too, was a fraction of an inch shorter. But
otherwise she could have passed for Joan's sister. Not a twin sister,
for the resemblance wasn't anything like that pronounced. But it was
close to the family likeness you see quite often in portraits of two
sisters when one is smiling and the other looks seriously troubled.

It flashed across my mind that if they had been standing side by side,
both wearing the same expression, the resemblance would have been
considerably more striking.

It shouldn't have surprised me too much, because of what she'd said
to the doctor. Women who think and feel in much the same way are very
likely to bear a family resemblance physically. It's the sort of thing
which makes an anthropologist shake his head in vigorous denial. But
facts are facts and who was I to dispute them?

"Just lie quiet," she whispered, patting me on the shoulder. "Dr.
Crawford says you mustn't try to talk. You're going to be all right.
I'm Miss Cherubin, your day nurse."

She smiled, her eyes crinkling a little at the corners. "You should
have a night nurse too, but I've been staying on in her place."

Cherubin. An angel? No--cherubim was spelt with an "M." And she wasn't
_that_ young or quite as rosy-cheeked as cherubs are supposed to be.

What made it really tragic was my inability to reach out and touch her
or ask her a single question, because right at that moment another wave
of dizziness swept over me and I blacked out again.



11


Right at this point there has to be a shift in the way I've been
recording events as they happened, because what happened next took
place elsewhere, while I was flat on my back in the hospital. By "what
happened next" I mean ... to me and Joan personally and to Commander
Littlefield and the Martian Colonization Board and everything I'd come
to Mars to take cognizance of, and do my best to change for the better.

I know, I know. Ten million separate events are taking place all the
time on Earth and on Mars and by no stretch of the imagination could
they be thought of as an immediate part of this record. But when
the threads all start to draw together and tighten about you in a
destiny-altering way you have to keep the time-sequence in order and
record developments as they take place. Otherwise when they become of
immediate concern later on the entire picture will seem out of focus.
The frame will start lengthening out and the people in the picture will
be out-of-kelter also, and scattered all over the landscape. The only
way you can keep them sharply in focus is to record what happens to
them _when_ it happens.

It shouldn't be too difficult, because there's a seeing eye that hovers
over the Mars' Colony day and night. The big Time-Space eye that
records everything that takes place in the universe, so that nothing
is ever really lost beyond re-capture. The past, the present and the
future keep flickering, in a backward-forward way, across that immense
retina, and some day a technique may be developed for running history
off in reverse and you'll see events that took place thousands of years
ago as if they were happening today on a lighted screen.

So ... let's look through that Big Eye straight down at the Mars
Colony, you and I together. And remember. In this particular instance
we won't need a history-reversing gimmick at all, because what we'll
see and hear is NOW. It starts as a two-person conversation:

"John, I'm frightened. What if the insulation isn't absolutely
foolproof? What if one of those Endicott Fuel containers isn't
shielded in just the right way? Suppose the radio-active stuff inside
builds up to what the nuclear physicists call critical mass and there's
an atomic explosion? Blowups have happened ... even in the Endicott
Laboratories under the strictest kind of supervision."

"Now look. There's not the slightest danger. Do you think for one
moment Endicott would take that big a risk--even though Wendel has the
entire combine backed into a corner?"

"They'd take any kind of risk now, because they have no choice. John,
if you were going to give me another baby you'd have given me fair
warning. I could have steeled myself to endure the harshness and
unfairness of it. But when you bring death home with you--"

The woman had been very pretty once. You could see that just by
glancing at her. But now her face had a drawn, haggard look and her
pallor was more than pronounced. It verged on grayness. Her hair was
thinning and turning white and only her eyes remained lustrous, truly
alive, as if all that remained of the woman she had once been had
been drawn to a focus in the gaze she was training on her husband in
desperate appeal.

"Why did you do it, John? You're not just endangering your life and
mine. If we didn't have four children ... maybe I wouldn't be talking
this way."

"I told you I was forced into it, didn't I? Wendel is calling
Endicott's bluff. We can no longer go on buying Endicott fuel cylinders
openly on margin, hundreds of them and letting all of them stay in
Wendel's custody, because we don't really own them at all. The price
goes up or the price goes down and we sell out and buy again--and we're
supposed to own four-fifths of the Endicott Combine. But there's not
a single Colonist who owns the equivalent of four or five cylinders
outright. I don't own these six cylinders. But I had to bring them home
with me."

"I just don't understand why. It's too complicated for me. A nuclear
explosion would be much easier for me to understand."

"All right ... I'll go over it again. But try to listen more carefully
this time. Before this big, cut-throat war started only one man
suspected that one of the two competing combines might try to sell
its fluid property to the Colonists on margin. They were supposed to
cooperate, not compete, because it was thought that Wendel couldn't
possibly keep its nuclear generators operating without fuel. It can't,
of course, but only one man suspected that Endicott might refuse to be
dwarfed by Wendel in a sharp-practice duel and fight to stay big and
powerful by letting the Colonists buy and sell fuel on speculation.
That would put the Colonists right in the middle, don't you see?"

"Yes ... I do," the woman who had once been almost beautiful said.
"Thank you for giving me credit for having that much intelligence. You
seem to forget that I have a fairly good memory too. We've gone over
this a hundred times."

"Sure we have. But it doesn't seem to have made too deep an impression
on you. You can sum it all up by saying that _on paper_, from day to
day, it's the Colonists who now own the Endicott Combine, or most
of it. So it's the Colonists who are carrying the battle directly
to Wendel, fighting for the right to go on wildcatting, to get rich
overnight or end up pauperized. It's wildcatting in a sense, just as
it was when oil instead of atomic fuel was the big prize to be fought
over Earthside. When a Colonist buys Endicott fuel cylinders on margin,
it's practically the same as if he were digging an oil well in his own
backyard."

"Go on, John," the woman said wearily.

"There's that much uncertainty in it, don't you see? And he's really
doing it entirely single-handed and on his own, because he's digging in
what is practically a paper graveyard in some respects, unless he's one
of the lucky ones. Endicott keeps the fuel. It doesn't go out of their
hands. But Wendel still has to buy it directly from the Colonists, who
are supposed to own it, and the price fluctuations keep Wendel from
becoming all-powerful and Endicott from going under or being dwarfed.

"In the main, it's the Colonists who have most to gain by keeping
Endicott powerful and solvent ... although the battle lines aren't so
tightly drawn that it doesn't become profitable, at times, to go over
to the Wendel side. There's a lot of sniping between the lines."

"I know all that, John."

"Well, here's what it all boils down to, what you didn't seem to grasp.
You asked me why I brought these six cylinders home. It's because
of the one man who did suspect, right from the first, and when the
charters were drawn up, that a war of this kind might be waged. I can't
even tell you his name. He was probably a minor legal expert or auditor
employed by the Board, who had shrewd prophetic gifts ... enough
foresight, at least ... to insert in fine print in both of the charters
a provision that Wendel is now using to call Endicott's bluff.

"That provision doesn't say that Endicott can't sell some of their
fluid assets on margin. But it sets a limit to that kind of speculative
buying and selling. The same limit would apply to Wendel, but Wendel
has no fluid assets to sell on margin, and it can't very well break
up its generators and big transmission lines and sell them to the
Colonists piecemeal, even on margin. It wouldn't look right, because
you can't pretend that a fragment of a pipe that is still being
operated by a combine is a speculative commodity that has passed into
other hands and is subject to day-to-day fluctuations.

"If you want to think of fluid assets as simply a share in a Combine's
profits, that's another matter. But I'm not talking about that kind of
fluid asset. Endicott has been selling to the Colonists in a literal
sense--_moveable fluid assets_. And in fine print in the Endicott
charter it says that Endicott can only sell about a third of its fuel
cylinders on margin. The others have to be purchased outright and
carried home and held by the purchaser until the price is right and he
can dispose of them at a profit. Or sell at a loss, as property."

"But you say you didn't buy those cylinders outright. How could you
have done that?" the woman protested. "Just one cylinder would cost--a
third of a million dollars."

"Naturally I didn't buy them outright. I bought them on margin. But
Wendel can't prove that. Endicott is covering up for me and because
I've brought them home and can slap my hand on the cool metal and tell
Wendel to go to hell if they try to dispute my ownership--Endicott
still has a chance to come out on top. Wendel is calling Endicott's
bluff, sure. But Endicott is countering with another bluff and they can
make it stick. Their auditing department knows just how to do that.
So every Colonist who wants to go on wildcatting now has to bring a
few cylinders home, to make it look as if he'd bought them outright.
Possession puts you nine-tenths on the winning side in any legal
argument. You ought to know that!"

"Ought I? Just suppose I did. Would that stop me from becoming
terrified, when I know exactly what could happen if the metal isn't
as cool as you hope it will be when you slap your hand on it, and the
Wendel police stay cold-blooded about it, and wait around for the
fissionable material inside to reach critical mass."

"You know damn well it would take an awful lot of accidental jarring
and jolting to trigger a fuel cylinder and make it blow up. It probably
couldn't happen, _except_ in a laboratory where they're careless about
such things because of overconfidence."

"Dinner's on the table," the woman said. "We may as well go back into
the house while we've still got a home, and gather the children around
us, and tell them a few more lies about what the future is going to
be like in the Colony, now that one father in three will be bringing
nuclear fuel cylinders home with him."

The man--his name was John Lynton--nodded and they returned into the
pre-fab. Lynton preceded his wife into the dwelling and the woman
paused for an instant in the doorway to stare back at the long metal
shed where the six cylinders were reposing ... letting her gaze take
in as well the double row of foot-high cactus plants which encircled
the yard and the sun-reddened stretch of open desert beyond. Then she
let the door swing shut behind her, and turned to face her four hungry
children.

One thought alone sustained Grace Lynton at that moment. There had
never been any need, so far, for the children to go to bed hungry.
Their hunger was due solely to the demands of healthy young appetites
when dinner was a little delayed and they had been playing strenuously
in the yard all afternoon or going on exploring expeditions.



12


They were all downstairs now, waiting to be fed, hardy perennials like
all children everywhere. Thomas with his shining morning face--it
seemed to stay that way right up until bedtime--and Susan, seven, and
still doll-wedded, and the twins, Hedy and Louise. Three girls and one
boy, and Grace Lynton felt a little sorry for her son at times, until
she remembered that a boy of thirteen isn't troubled by too many girls
in a family when he's seven or eight years their senior. The girls were
simply very young children to him and he was--well, right next door at
least to being grown up.

"All right," John Lynton said, seating himself at the head of the
table. "Let's fall to and see who gets through first."

"Did you have a tough day, Dad?" Thomas asked, reaching for a knife and
fork, and drawing a still steaming serving bowl toward him. His unruly
hair was so blond it seemed almost white and there was a double row of
freckles across the bridge of his nose.

The other three children were brunettes, with hair ranging in color
from chestnut brown to jet black. Even the twins did not closely
resemble each other, as non-identical twins so often fail to do.

"Don't annoy your father with questions now, Thomas ... please," Grace
Lynton said.

"Why not?" Lynton asked, frowning at his wife. "I did have a tough day
and there's no sense in soft-pedaling it. Sometimes I almost wish we
hadn't come to Mars. No matter how rigorous a Board screening is ...
there are some things it can't tell you about yourself. Will you make a
good father on a world without trees or grass, with no way of getting
out into the green countryside and sitting down on the moss-covered
bank of a trout stream, with your kid at your side and having a heart
to heart talk with him in the cool shade of a big oak or cedar."

"The stew's good, Mom," Thomas said. "Is it all right if I fill up my
plate again?"

"Did I ever say you couldn't, Thomas?" Grace Lynton snapped, unable
to keep irritation out of her voice, despite her son's compliment.
"There'll never be any food shortages in this house, if we have to sell
all of the furniture."

"Leave enough for me, Thomas," Hedy Lynton said.

"Don't worry, I will," Thomas said. "But if you keep on eating the way
you do you'll grow up fat, and no man in the Colony will marry a fat
woman when there are so many thin ones."

"That's very well put, Thomas," Lynton said. "I have a brilliant
son--practically a genius. But don't let it go to your head, boy.
Unless you're in the electronic field or have some other technical
specialty a straightforward, rugged he-man can do more for the Colony."

"What kind of talk is that, John?" Grace Lynton demanded. "There's
nothing unmanly about a genius, in any field."

"No, I suppose not. But I wouldn't want him to be a poet or a painter.
They just stand back and observe life and I'd like to see my son wade
in fighting."

The daylight outside had started fading before Lynton and his wife had
returned indoors. But now the quickly-arriving Mars' night was almost
at hand, and the twilight had deepened outside and was giving way to
complete darkness at the edge of the desert.

The two adults and four children seated about the table hadn't once
glanced toward the window, for the food and contentious conversation
had absorbed all of their attention.

It was Thomas who saw the light first, flickering on and off close to
the shed. He had always wanted, deep down, in a secret way that he
had never dared to discuss with anyone, to be an artist and paint at
least a hundred pictures that would show the people who looked at them
exactly what life on Mars was like. And his father's gaze, trained
upon him in such a steady way, had made him squirm inwardly, as if his
secret might at any moment be exposed. To avoid his father's gaze he'd
looked straight out the window and seen the strange light flickering on
and off.

"Dad!" he said.

"What is it, son?"

"There's a light moving around out in the yard, close to the shed."

If Thomas had suddenly toppled over dead his father could not have
leapt up from the table with more horror in his eyes.

"Why ... why ... Good God! Wendel wouldn't go _that_ far! It would be
an act of madness!"

"John, you don't think--"

Thomas' mother was on her feet too now, her face drained of all color,
her eyes darting to the window and back to the tight-lipped, violently
trembling man at the head of the table. John Lynton's face had gone as
white as her own.

For a minute Thomas thought that his father was going to rush right out
into the yard and grab hold of the intruder, as fast as he'd leapt up
from the table. Then he saw he'd guessed wrong about that.

Lynton crossed the room in five long strides, swung open the weapon
locker and grabbed hold of a holstered hand-gun instead. He strapped
the holster to his waist before whipping out the weapon and snapping
off the safety mechanism.

He was starting for the door when Grace Lynton called out warningly:
"John, don't! _John!_"

He swung about, staring at her in consternation. "Don't what? If
they've tampered with those cylinders I'll make sure they won't live to
blow up another man's home--or half the Colony!"

"You can't blast them down!" Her voice rose shrilly. "No, John! A
hand-gun blast that close to a fuel cylinder would set off a chain
reaction--"

"No, it won't. The blast is channeled. Don't be a fool, Grace. I know
what I'm doing."

"You're the fool! You'll get us all killed!"

"If they've tampered with just one of those cylinders we won't have to
worry about what a hand-gun blast will do. But they won't save their
own skins before the _big_ blast hits us. That's one thing I can make
sure of."

He turned and was gone. She started to follow him out into the yard,
but became aware of how dangerous that would be just in time. If she
followed her husband the children would almost certainly follow her,
for she couldn't order them to stay indoors and hope to be obeyed.

She rushed to the window and stared out, her face pressed to the pane.

She could feel Thomas pressing close to her--or was it Hedy or Susan?
There was a heaviness in his body which made her almost sure it was
Thomas. But that meant nothing, because she loved all of her children
equally.

Suddenly she was sure it was Thomas, because he was speaking to her.
"Take it easy, Mom! Dad'll take care of whoever it is. He's got a
hand-gun to protect him."

"Oh, I know he has!" she wanted to scream. "It will be a beautiful way
of protecting us all ... by sending us straight into eternity. God,
dear God, don't let him blast. Don't--"

The blast came then, lighting up the darkness outside, making the
windowpanes rattle. For an instant Grace Lynton could see her husband
clearly, standing by the shed with a white flare spreading outward from
his shoulders.

Then the flare dwindled and vanished and Grace Lynton had no way of
knowing what had happened outside in the dark. She was sure of only
one thing. She couldn't stay inside the house with her husband moving
about a few feet from fuel cylinders that might blow up at any moment,
for there was at least a fifty percent likelihood that the intruder had
accomplished what he'd come to do, before Thomas had seen the light
bobbing about in the yard.

She had straightened and was hugging her son to her, just starting to
turn, when John Lynton's voice rang out sharply from the doorway.

"Grace! I blasted at him but he got away! Listen carefully. I've only a
moment to talk."

He was standing in the doorway with the hand-gun reholstered at his
waist, its handle gleaming dully. His pallor was startling, for it went
far beyond mere paleness, as if all the blood had been drawn from his
face artificially, leaving the skin gray and shrunken.

"I can't be sure, but I think ... one of the cylinders has been
triggered to blow up," he went on quickly. "It isn't heating up.
There'd be no heat--just a faint vibration. When I put my hand on the
metal I was almost sure I could feel a vibration. We've got just one
chance of staying alive--and I'll have to move fast. I'm going to take
it to the Spaceport--I can get there in the conveyor truck in ten
minutes--and have them dismantle it. They'll know how. I don't. I'll
take all six of the cylinders, to make sure."

"John, no! It will blow up in the truck. I'm sure of it. We'd better
all get out in the desert, as far away from it as we can. If we start
right now and run--"

"We could go in the truck, Dad!" Thomas cried.

Lynton shook his head. "If just one cylinder blows up--it will take
three miles of desert with it. If all six go ... twenty miles of
desert. There are at least six thousand Colonists within three or four
miles of us. There are less than a thousand people at the Spaceport.
Only one big sky ship is still unloading. Better a thousand deaths than
six or seven thousand ... if it blows up before they can dismantle it."

"But John--Oh, God, I don't know."

"It's the best way, the surest way. We can't think only of ourselves.
If I drove straight out into the desert with it and it blows up within
twenty minutes the fallout would still kill several thousand Colonists.
The Spaceport's in the other direction, completely isolated. And I
can get there in fifteen minutes ... even if I'm stopped by the Wendel
police and have to blast my way to it."

"Why should they try to stop you? They'd die themselves--"

"Why did they send someone to trigger that bomb? They'll take any risk
now, because they know that Endicott's new bluff could smash them. That
cylinder is smaller than the first atomic bomb ever built--much smaller
than the one that was dropped on Hiroshima--and if they have to explode
a half-dozen of them in different parts of the Colony to demoralize the
Colonists and discredit Endicott they're prepared to do it, apparently.
Even if it kills thirty thousand people. Or maybe they figured the one
I'm taking to the Spaceport--and I _am_ taking it there, Grace--would
make the Colonists think twice about taking any more Endicott fuel
cylinders home with them."

"You're right, John," Grace Lynton said, with a firmness in her voice
which surprised her. "We can't think only of ourselves. Until you come
back--every moment will be a living death. But--you must do it. There's
no other way."

"I'll be back," Lynton said. "I--I love you, Grace."

"And I love you, John--even though I've said cruel, cutting things at
times. I love you very much."

"Take care of yourself, Dad," Thomas said.

"I will, son. Don't worry. Just be the man of the family and keep the
kids in line until I get back."



13


I had no way of knowing how long I remained on the outer fringes of
what was probably just a weakness-produced blackout before the outlines
of the hospital room wavered back, becoming so clear again that I could
see the foot of the bed, and a glass-topped table covered with small
bottles and a roll of gauze bandage that looked about as big as a
liquid fuel cylinder.

Someone who couldn't have been the doctor was sitting in a chair by
the bed, leaning a little forward, his eyes level with mine. I was
more than startled. An ice-cold measuring worm came out at the base of
my spine and started inching its way upward, bunching itself up and
lengthening out again, the way measuring worms do when they're trying
to decide if you're just the right fit for a human-style coffin.

I had a visitor whose face would have chilled a perfectly well man
prepared to defend himself against violence at the drop of a hat. He
was looking at me with a glacial animosity in his stare, as if he
resented the fact that I was still alive and would do something about
it if I gave him the slightest encouragement.

Even without encouragement I had the feeling that my life hung by a
thread which could snap at any moment, so long as he remained that
close to me with no one standing by to interfere if he lost control of
himself.

He didn't have a moronic or particularly brutal looking face.
Intelligence of a high order had given his features a cast you
couldn't mistake. It was the kind of look that went with disciplined
thinking--long years of it--and behavior that was based on intellectual
discernment, however much that discernment had been abused during
moments of uncontrollable rage. Uncontrollable rage, as every
psychologist knows, can tie the reasoning part of any man's mind into
knots. Everything that was primitive in him seemed to be at the helm
now, as if he bore me so much ill-will that he might be capable of
trying to take my life with just his bare hands, if he happened to be
unarmed. And I was far from sure of that.

His glacial gray eyes seemed to say: "I've got you exactly where I
want you, chum. It won't do you any good to shout for help. It stands
to reason that if I could get in here to talk to you at a time like
this, throwing my weight around a little further would be no problem
at all. Five minutes of privacy will suit me fine. After all, how long
will killing you take?"

He was a fairly big man, compactly built, with hands that looked strong
enough to bend a steel bar, if he didn't mind chancing a rush of blood
to the head that might have been a little risky in a man his age.

I had no idea why he was sitting there, only that the alarm bells were
ringing again. Only this time it wasn't taking place in a crowded
subway train in total darkness, or up near the top of a swaying spiral
where an assassin's aim could be a little less than sure. It was man to
man, tete-a-tete, in a well-lighted hospital room.

I was flat on my back and weak as hell and Death was looking straight
at me out of ice-blue eyes. I had only one straw to clutch at. The
hospital room might just possibly be under surveillance and an act of
violence that's likely to boomerang can give an assassin pause.

His first words ripped that straw from me and crumpled it up, with such
vigor I was sure I could hear a crunching sound.

"I've just a few questions to ask you," he said, in a surprisingly mild
tone. "We've made sure that there are no recording devices in this
room. We always make a careful check as a matter of routine, when we're
forced to demand complete privacy during an interrogation of this sort.
It's something we'd prefer not to do, but there are times--"

He shrugged, as if he'd made the point clear enough and resented the
necessity of making it any plainer.

"When the internal security of the Colony is endangered," he went on
impatiently, "we do not hesitate to invoke all of our authority. We
have no choice. Too many people take it for granted that a privately
owned combine is exceeding its authority when it undertakes police
investigations not specifically authorized by its charter. They
forget that such police powers are implicit in every charter which
provides for the exercise of reasonable vigilance in the public domain.
Safe-guarding the public, which Wendel Atomics serves, would not be
possible if we did not exercise such authority."

How true that was I didn't have enough legal knowledge at my
finger-tips to decide. But I was pretty sure it was a bald-faced lie.
But just his use of the word "power" explained how he'd managed to get
as close to me as he'd done, with no one within earshot to hear me if I
burst my lungs shouting.

The kind of power the Board had given me the right to exercise
superceded whatever display of authority Wendel Atomics had used to
turn the hospital room into a prison cell. But who would know or make
a move to save me--if the silver bird didn't get a chance to flap its
wings on my uniform until they were pumping embalming fluid into my
veins and making plans to lower me, with a ceremonial flourish, into a
desert grave?

"There are a few things Wendel Atomics has a right to know," Glacial
Stare was saying. "A legal right--make no mistake about that. I'd
advise you not to lie to me. If you do--"

He shrugged again.

I said something then that surprised me, because I didn't think right
at the moment I had that much defiance on tap.

"Shove it!" I said.

He couldn't have heard me, because he went on with no change of
expression. "Commander Littlefield is within his rights in refusing
to permit us to question him as to what took place on board the Mars'
rocket. We have no jurisdiction over such ... irregularities in space.
If we questioned just one of his officers, the Board would have every
right to revoke our charter. But two of the officers have come to
us and voluntarily submitted information which we cannot ignore. We
believe that the internal security of the Colony is in danger and we
intend to take steps to make sure that none of the questions we have a
right to ask will remain unanswered."

He was laying it on the line, all right, speaking with an almost
surgical kind of precision, so that I couldn't claim later--if I turned
stubborn--that I'd failed to understand him. It's funny how a man who's
holding all the cards will sometimes do that, just on the off-chance
that you may have an ace up your sleeve and may use it to make trouble
for him later on.

He must have been pretty sure I didn't have a concealed ace, however,
for he backed up what he was saying with the most dangerous kind of
threat. Dangerous to him ... if there _had_ been a hidden listening
device in the room and a tape with that threat on it had come to the
attention of the Board.

"I hope, for your sake," he said, "that you'll keep nothing back. It
is very unpleasant to sit in a Big-Image interrogation room and have
part of your mind destroyed. The part you value most, that makes you
what you are--destroyed, sliced away. Yes ... _sliced away_ is quite
accurate, even though no instrument would be needed and not a hand
would be laid on you. You can cut deep into the brain with vibrations
alone. But nothing ... _physical_ ever takes place in the Big-Image
interrogation room. No knife or vibrator, as you know. The destruction
is brought about in a quite different way. But it's just as drastic and
irreversible as a prefrontal lobotomy."

He stopped talking abruptly, looking past me at the opposite wall,
as if he could already see the shadow of a broken and tormented man
projected there. I could see it too, and I didn't like to think that I
was coming that close to sharing his thoughts. But it was useless to
pretend that the man who was casting that shadow might not turn out to
be me.

So they had them on Mars, too, with the Wendel police on hand to
make sure that the big screen with its multiple sound tracks and the
smoothly operating projector were kept carefully hidden from the law.
Big-Image interrogation rooms--a cruel vestige of the brain-washing
techniques that had so outraged world opinion in the middle decades of
the twentieth century that they had been castigated and outlawed by
the United Nations, the World Court and every responsible Governmental
agency on Earth.

But the criminal mind has very little respect for world opinion or
restrictions on brutal practices that are very difficult to enforce.
Big-Image interrogation had begun as a police investigation procedure,
which made it easy for the wrong kind of police force to resort to it
and claim historic precedent and moral justification as a cover-up if
their activities ever came to light.

I was sure that Glacial Stare had mentioned it solely to turn the screw
as far as it would go, hoping I'd turn pale and answer his questions
in a completely cooperative way. I was sure that if I did he'd stop
threatening me immediately, listen with attentive ear to what I had to
say and apologize for letting me think, even for a moment, that it was
just a part of my mind he'd been planning to destroy. Why should he
want to upset me that way, when the only thing he'd had in mind from
the start was to persuade me to talk and then relieve me of all anxiety
by killing me?

He wasn't giving me credit for having the kind of brain it would have
been worth taking the trouble to destroy, even in part, but there was
nothing to be gained by reminding him of that.

You don't have to be a professional historian or even a data-collecting
research specialist in the police procedure field to pinpoint the
origin of Big-Image interrogation in the middle years of the twentieth
century.

Three out of five well-informed people can tell you exactly how it
began, if you jog them into remembering by showing them a micro-film
recording of what took place during just one of those interrogations
sixty or seventy years ago.

My memory didn't need to be jogged. I'd examined too many micro-film
recordings made even earlier than that--so many years before I was born
that the grooves have to be altered if you want to run them off in the
projectors that were in common use at the turn of the century, because
they ante-date even those old-style machines.

As early as 1965 someone had discovered and pointed out that the cinema
was no longer just an entertainment medium. Everyone at the time, I
suppose, had made that discovery already, in a private sort of way,
but an entire society can have a blind spot and go right on clinging
to established patterns of thought, if only because people in general
are a little reluctant to discuss openly anything that threatens to
overturn the apple cart.

At any rate, about 1965 someone whose name has not come down to
us--quite possibly he was a drama critic, that most curious of
breeds--had pointed out that the cinema had become a potentially
mind-shattering instrument of torture, which could be used to
brain-wash a spectator until he became a hopeless psychotic, incapable
of distinguishing reality from illusion. Schizophrenic or manic
depressive, take your pick.

It was the bigger-than-life illusion that could do that--the strange,
often terrifying sense of being caught up in some super-reality that
had no real existence in time or space, in the ordinary way that
time-and-space manifests itself to us in everyday life.

The cinema became potentially that kind of torture medium the instant
the first of the twenty-million-dollar spectacles in full color
appeared on the screen.

We know what that kind of illusion can do today and when we watch a
screen spectacle that distorts reality for three or four hours by
making everything seem fifty or a hundred times as large as life ... we
make sure that we are entering a theater that is Government supervised
and not a Big-Image interrogation room presided over by a sadist in
police uniform.

Everyone knows how it is today, and stays on guard, perpetually
alert. But back in the twentieth century the danger wasn't clearly
understood, and that lack of understanding was taken advantage of by
the brain-washers in uniform to exact confessions at a terrible price.

Everyone is familiar with the disorientation I'm talking about. Even
the old stage plays and the earlier black-and-white movies and not
a few books could bring it about to some extent, when you left the
theater or closed the book, and passed from a world of dramatically
heightened illusion into the drabness of everyday life.

But the big screen spectacles in full color, with electronic sound
effects, make the world of illusion and the world of sober reality seem
as far apart as two contradictory constructs in symbolic logic. When
you look at that kind of motion picture you get the illusion that all
of the events on the screen, even the intimate, two-person closeups,
are taking place on a gigantic scale.

The sharpness and brightness of everything, the brilliance of the
colorama, the dramatic selectivity which makes each scene burn its
way into your brain as a titan encounter in a world of giants is so
overwhelming that when you emerge from the theater after watching such
a film the world of reality seems small, stunted, anaemic by contrast.

You look at the men and women walking past you on the street and they
seem to have nothing in common with the men and women you've just
seen on the screen. That quiet little guy puffing on a cigarette and
returning your stunned stare with a perplexed frown may be the director
of a big power combine, with just as much lightning at his finger-tips.
But he seems like a pygmy. It would be impossible to visualize him as
a helmeted giant stripped to the waist, breasting wild seas at the
helm of a Viking ship or a spacesuited giant in a colorama with a
present-day background.

In the big screen spectacles all of the men seem gigantic, with
tremendous, muscular torsos. Even the little guys look like titan
figures, fifty or a hundred times as large as they seem outside the
theater. And the women--with the possible exception of the very
feminine ones with overwhelming sex appeal--look like Amazons.

You can't even equate the violence you encounter in everyday life with
the violence that takes place in a big screen spectacle. After you've
watched the spectacle kind of violence for three or four hours an
army equipped with the most formidable of modern weapons, closing in
on a half-bombed out city would look infinitely less formidable--toy
soldiers in a kindergarten world which the big-image, colorama giants
could topple and scatter just by inflating their cheeks and blowing on
them.

Even the Big Mushroom, which we've miraculously managed to keep from
blowing Earth apart for almost a century now, looks fifty times as
destructive when you see it on the screen, spiraling skyward as the
crowning spectacle of a sound-color, fifty-million-dollar Armageddon.

But remember this. It doesn't cost anything like that much to put
four or five giants from that kind of motion picture on a screen in a
Big-Image interrogation room. The cost, in fact, is negligible, because
just one scene can be repeated over and over. You're seated all alone
in the middle of what looks like a medieval torture chamber--if you
leave out the racks and thumbscrews and iron maidens and just think of
such a chamber as a blank-walled, cell-like horror--and on the screen,
fifty or a hundred times lifesize, are the lads who have been given the
task of cutting you down to size.

_You're_ still very much a part of the puny world outside the theater
you've lived in most of your life. You know it, you feel it ... you
can't escape from it. When a big screen production has been designed
solely to entertain you, you can identify yourself with the giants
to some extent. You become a part of the illusion. But how can you
identify with four or five brutish looking lads with no resemblance to
yourself, with a look on their faces which says they hate your guts and
are out for blood and won't be satisfied until they've brain-washed you.

Oh, it looks easy. Resistance, laughing in their faces, should be no
problem at all, because you know damn well it's nothing but an illusion.

But just how long do you think you can go on believing that those
Neanderthaler types with five-pronged metal whip-lashes dangling from
their wrists aren't flesh-and-blood tormentors?

All right, you still think it should be easy. All I can say is ... just
sit for five hours in a Big-Image interrogation room and try staying
sane. Go ahead, insist on being granted that privilege. It might be a
little difficult to come as close to it as I was right at that moment,
flat on my back in a hospital bed with Glacial Stare reminding me just
how terrible it could be. But you never know until you try. On Mars
bringing that about shouldn't be too difficult ... with Wendel Atomics
determined to build up a reputation for ruthlessness to protect its
interests in the war it was waging with Endicott Fuel and all of the
colonists who were being forced to wildcat in a commodity field so
explosive that it could turn them into killers of the dream and blow
them apart for good measure.

But let's go back to the Big-Image interrogation room for a moment.
You're sitting there, staring up at the Neanderthaler-type giants
and they're staring down at you. Their eyes are slitted and they're
stripped to the waist and there is a fine sheen of sweat on their
chests. There is nothing trim or athletic looking about them. They're
heavyset, almost muscle-bound, with the outsize, very ugly-looking kind
of physical massiveness you see in some wrestlers, but hardly ever in a
professional boxer even in the heavyweight class.

"Well, pal!" one of them says, winking at you.

"I have an idea he'd like to high-hat us," another chimes in, winking
also, but at Muscle Bound Number One instead of at you.

"We'll have to do something about that," Muscle Bound Number Three
insists.

"Oh, we will ... we will. But we ought to give him a little time to get
better acquainted with us. Maybe we can soften him up a little just by
talking to him. What do you say?"

"Sure, why not? You see a guy flat on his face, with his skull bashed
in, and you start feeling sorry for him. Right off, that's bad. It
keeps you from really setting to work on him."

At first you can laugh, almost, because who ever heard of a screen
giant stepping out from the screen and slashing you across the chest
with a five-pronged metal whiplash? But if you know what's coming you
don't feel much like laughing, even at first.

Because ... it goes on and on and on. It builds up and there's no way
you can shut it out, because they inject a drug just under your eyelids
which forces you to keep your eyes open. You can't close them no matter
how hard you try. And you can't turn your head aside, because you're
strapped to the seat and there's a clamp at the back of your head that
prevents you from moving it.

It goes on and on, and after a while the giants are no longer on the
screen, but right in the interrogation room with you. One of them is
raising and lowering his arm, bringing the whiplash down on your bare
shoulders.... You can feel the thongs cutting into your flesh, and not
even screaming will put a stop to it, because you can't put a stop to
an illusion that is ripping your mind apart and letting all of the
sanity drain out of you.

It's the hundred-times-bigger-than-life gimmick that does it, although
that slang-neat little word doesn't begin to do justice to what a
Big-Image interrogation can do to you. They're big, _big_, BIG, with
all the brutishness blown up, and showing on their faces. And they seem
to be leaning out from the screen before they emerge from it and you
can hear the whiplash swishing through the air and the sound of it is
magnified too, and just the whiplash alone seems large enough to rip
the hide off a mastodon.

Worst of all, that hundred-times-bigger-than-life illusion doesn't
depend on size alone, as I've pointed out. It depends on the over-all
magnification of reality that takes place in a big screen spectacle,
the disorientation that makes the real world seem to shrivel into
insignificance.

It seldom takes longer than five hours to complete the brain-washing.
You pass through three stages. At the end of an hour--or two,
at most--when the torment becomes almost unbearable you start
to hallucinate a little, but you're still sane enough to answer
most of the questions they ask you. Then you become so hopelessly
psychotic that your answers can no longer be relied on. But they're
satisfied, they've got what they wanted from you when they started the
interrogation.

Without wasting any more time they go on to the third stage. They
calm you down and "cure" you with the mental-torture equivalent of a
prefrontal lobotomy. They do that to make sure you'll lose the part of
your mind that can resent what's been done to you, and summon enough
will power to turn accuser.

And now I was lying flat on my back, unsure of how much strength was
left in me, and Glacial Stare was threatening me with _that_! Not
just an hour or two with the barrel-chested lads--on rare occasions
they stopped just short of the third stage--but the full, deep-cut
treatment.



14


He'd made it plain that he was representing Wendel. But he hadn't come
right out and identified himself, and I had no way of knowing exactly
what kind of Wendel agent he was. The worst kind, beyond a doubt. But
what I would have liked to know took in more territory than that.

Was he ... a replacement? Had he been instructed to step into the
shoes of the secret agent the robot had killed in space? If he had,
the satisfaction he'd get from killing me would probably exceed the
pleasure a run-of-the-mill Wendel police officer would experience.

It would be easier for him to identify with the slain crewman and feel
a sense of personal outrage strong enough to make him think of himself
as an avenger. The fact that he wasn't wearing a uniform lent support
to that grim possibility. When a man has a strong personal reason for
wanting you dead it can make the official reason seem twice as urgent.
It could also bring into his face the kind of look that Glacial Stare
was still keeping trained on me.

There was only one thing I knew with absolute certainty. Answering his
questions would do me no good--would only make the danger greater the
instant I stopped talking. I'd be signing my own death warrant with a
vengeance if I co-operated with him right there in the hospital room
and spared him the trouble of having me bound and gagged and smuggled
out of the hospital into a Big-Image interrogation room.

Why make him a present of the only card I was holding? Why be that
charitable when ... God, how silly could you get? If I'd had my
strength or there had been anyone within earshot to dispute his
authority if I shouted for help--a one in fifty chance of it, even--I
might have been holding at least a Jack or a Queen. But never an Ace,
or four of a kind or a Royal Flush. About all I was holding was the
joker. In some games the joker can be the highest card in the deck, but
not in the kind of game the three of us were playing.

It was the third player who was holding all of the really high cards.
He was hovering just behind Glacial Stare, with a shroud with my name
embroidered on it draped over his arm. He could see my hand clearly,
because he was looking straight at me out of eyes like holes in a skull.

That scythe-and-sickle round is almost unbeatable because of the way
Death has of just quietly raising the ante until all hope is gone.
Sometimes you've no choice but to let him call your bluff, lay your
cards face up on the table, and wait for the blow to fall.

Sometimes ... but not always. Death is a weird-o who doesn't really
want anyone to live to a crusty old age and that can anger you, and
there are no limits to what a certain kind of resentment can do for
you. You'll take desperate chances when you know the sands have just
about run out.

I came up out of the bed so fast the electricity my body generated made
the sheets crackle. It wasn't the helplessly weak body I'd thought
it. Not at all. When I whipped back my arm I could feel a thrust of
power and resilience in my shoulder muscles that amazed me, because it
shouldn't have been there. There was no flabbiness or lack of muscle
tone.

I crashed into him before my feet hit the floor, sinking my fist into
his mid-section and sending the chair he was sitting in skidding half
across the hospital room.

He clung to both arms of the chair, too jolted to straighten up and try
to heave himself out of it before I shortened the distance between us
by hurling myself directly at him again. I just missed fumbling that
crucial follow-up, because my legs were deficient in muscle tone and
they almost collapsed under me before I got to him.

I dragged him out of the chair and had him down on the floor and was
banging his head against the floor before he could get any kind of grip
on me. I wasn't in the least bit gentle about it. If I'd been banging
him around for five or ten minutes without stopping I couldn't have
heightened the look of shock and absolute horror in his eyes.

The best he could do was twist about under me and try desperately to
raise himself a little, thrusting his head forward to keep me from
bringing it so violently into contact with the floor. He seemed to
be trying so hard to get out from under that I decided to help him.
I lifted him clean off the floor and slammed him back against the
wall--not once, but several times.

I don't know where my strength came from, but even my legs were doing
all right now. They were still the weakest part of me, but they went
right on supporting me until I'd finished clouting him with something
that was just as good as a sledgehammer--the firm wall itself,
completely stationary as it was. If I'd been standing behind it using
it as a forward-thrusting shield his skull couldn't have cracked
against it any harder.

I suppose it wasn't really the hospital room wall I was clouting him
with, because, as I say, it was stationary. But when you're extracting
the fangs of a dangerous little reptile who has just threatened you
with Big-Image interrogation and know that your strength may give out
at any moment cause and effect get swallowed up in an urgency that
can distort reality. His face was a confused blur for a moment. But a
second or two before all of the expression drained out of it and he
slumped jerkily to the floor my vision steadied and I saw that his look
of absolute horror had been replaced by the deadliest kind of hatred.

It's always a little jolting, no matter how you slice it, to know that
a man who should be incapable of feeling anything but shock and pain
can pass out cold with that kind of look in his eyes.

I'd gone berserk for a moment, but when I have to, when there's some
compelling reason for it, I can cool off fast. _Calm down_ would be
a more accurate way of phrasing it, for I knew it would take a long
time for the way I felt about Glacial Stare to turn from anger to
enlightened scientific detachment. He couldn't really help being what
he was, because what is known as the bastard-pattern gets grooved
into the poor unhappy devils who are afflicted with it way back in
childhood. They injure themselves more than they injure others, even
though what they do to others in the process often doesn't bear
thinking about.

Right at the moment Glacial Stare had injured himself, but not
deliberately. I had done most of the injuring for him. But there would
be times when he'd punish himself twice as remorselessly, and he'd go
on doing it to the end of his days. If there's a hell on Earth the
sadistic bastards occupy it, and it's unscientific to feel anything but
pity for them.

It was equally unscientific for me to feel anything but concern for
my own safety right at the moment, because I was still trapped in a
hospital room with all of the physical weakness I'd felt a few minutes
before creeping back and with no guarantee that if I walked out of the
room in a tottering condition I wouldn't run smack into another Wendel
agent.

Quite possibly they had the hospital surrounded and when they saw what
I'd done to Glacial Stare they wouldn't talk with me as long as he had
done before I'd belted him unconscious.

They'd either blast me down, cold-bloodedly and on the spot, with one
of the compact little hand-guns Doctor Mile-Away had discussed with
Joan on the ambulance--how many days, weeks away that ride seemed--or
gag and bind me and carry me out on a stretcher.

Glacial Stare himself no longer worried me. He'd be out for as long as
it would take me to decide whether it would be better to go staggering
out of the hospital room and trust the first person I collided with not
to betray me, or flop back on the bed and shout for help from there.

You do crazy things, sometimes, when you're that uncertain. There
wasn't a chance of his coming to immediately, but just automatically I
crouched beside him and rolled one of his eyelids back with my thumb.
The glazed pupil that stared sightlessly back at me gave me a jolt,
because it could have meant that I'd killed him. I thrust my hand under
his shirt and felt around for a heartbeat and found no trace of one.
His skin was clammy and very cold.

Then I saw that he was still breathing. His chest rose and fell and
there was a sudden, dull thumping where my palm was resting.

All right, that took care of him. He would live to turn vicious again.
But it didn't take care of me. I was still in the worst kind of danger,
and sounding off might be the unwisest thing I could do. But what
chance would I have otherwise? Someone would have to know or I'd likely
as not take all of the wrong risks.

I had to fight off the weakness that was coming back and be ready for
anything--even a set-to with another Wendel agent or a half-dozen of
them. But I had to have an ally, someone who knew the hospital as well
as I knew the lines of my palm. I had to be briefed in advance, or I'd
have no way of knowing how good my chances were.

How long could I stay on my feet, despite the weakness, if I decided
on a desperate gamble and attempted to get out of the hospital alive?
Did any of the doctors have enough authority to oppose Wendel, if I
told them who I was and they believed me. Or did Wendel have so much
power here they'd have to actually see the silver bird to take risks
on my behalf which would bring the entire staff an exceptional courage
citation from the Board--if I lived to set the record straight.

And where was the silver bird and my secret-code identification papers?
Not on my person. All of my clothes had been removed and I was wearing
just a one-piece, in-patient garment with no pockets in it. It stood to
reason they'd gone through my clothes before attaching a tag to them
and filing them away, on the off-chance I might live to reclaim them.
In an emergency case they'd have displayed that much curiosity, at
least. It would have been no more than a routine procedure.

Unless--Commander Littlefield had warned them not to tamper with my
clothes and to return them to him immediately. No, no--that was crazy.
The chances were he'd removed the silver bird and the identification
papers from my inner breast pocket before they'd bundled me into the
ambulance and they were now safely in his possession. Or perhaps Joan
had them. It was all pure guesswork, but I was fairly certain of one
thing. They hadn't found the silver bird or Glacial Stare would never
have been permitted--

Hell ... why not face it. I couldn't even be completely sure of that.
If Wendel was all-powerful here the doctors' hands would be tied, no
matter how much they knew about me. I'd have to be in robust health and
on my feet, with the silver bird gleaming on my shoulder, to overcome
that kind of power.

Actually, I didn't think Commander Littlefield had told them anything.
It was the kind of secret he'd guard with his life, unless he'd had
reason to suspect that Wendel would send an agent to kill me before
I had a chance to tell him whether or not I thought the danger was
great enough to justify abandoning all secrecy ... immediately and as
a simple safety precaution. He'd respect my wishes in the matter, and
could certainly be excused for not having had the foresight to take
maximum precautions on his own initiative. It could very easily be
argued that he should have done so ... that he had blundered badly. But
I refused to condemn him for keeping the secrecy obligation so firmly
in mind that he'd failed to realize precisely how fast and ruthlessly
Wendel could move. And even if I'd been ringed about with security
precautions Wendel might have succeeded in convincing the hospital
staff that the silver bird was a lead counterfeit and Littlefield an
anti-Colony conspirator.

A lot of suspicion hovered over the heads of the big sky ship
commanders, anyway--a sinister, shadowy aura woven of lies and slander
that accompanied them everywhere and greatly curtailed their authority
when they attempted to intervene in the affairs of the Colony.

All that passed through my mind as I stood staring down at Glacial
Stare and helped me come to a decision. If I lived to get out of
the hospital I'd be on my own with a vengeance. But Littlefield was
still my best bet I'd be completely alone in totally unfamiliar
surroundings, facing a challenge such as no man had ever faced before
and survived to tell about it.

I'd have to make my way through the Colony on foot, a stranger in
a world I'd had no time to adjust to and get back to the sky ship
somehow--even if it meant talking my way into the good graces of
criminals and hiding in dark alleys and learning new ways of thinking
and acting the hard way--but fast--and resorting to every dodge in the
book to keep one jump ahead of the Wendel agents.

There'd be a hue and cry--and they'd be out for my blood. I had no
identification papers--nothing. I'd be as naked and vulnerable as the
day I was born in more ways than one--except that I'd be a grown man in
body and mind with a grown man's resourcefulness.

I could only hope I'd prove equal to the task and acquit myself well
and succeed in silencing the skeptical part of myself that was shaking
its head in furious disbelief.

I'd decided to make no attempt to get anyone into the room by sounding
off. Much as I needed an ally, the risk would be too great. No one had
come rushing in, and the fact that I'd been able to prevent Glacial
Stare from uttering a sound by taking him by complete surprise and
battering his skull against the wall until he folded was a point in my
favor. Not to regard it as a break and take full advantage of it would
have been foolish.

Slipping quickly from the room and taking my chances made more sense
than waiting around for an ally to come to my assistance, because he
might not be an ally at all, but another Wendel agent.

I was deliberately shutting my mind to the greatest danger--the Big One.

You're deliberately shutting your mind to the Big One, Ralphie boy.
Getting back to the sky ship will be tough sledding, every foot of
the way, and you'll have to dodge and weave about and you may end up
dead in the darkest of Martian alleys, half blown apart by an atomic
hand-gun. But the Big One is getting out of the hospital itself, and
you're afraid to let yourself think about that because you know how
heavily the odds will be stacked against you.

You don't know what the hospital is like--how big it is, even. You
don't know how many corridors there are, or how many alarm bells will
start ringing the instant anyone sees you. There may be a dozen nurses
to a floor and doctors constantly on the move from the operating rooms
to the recovery wards, and a Wendel agent or two on guard at the end
of each corridor.

All the exits may be blocked, with Wendel agents aimed with atomic
hand-guns just waiting for you to show up running. You don't even know
how far the hospital is from the center of the Colony, only that--just
before you blacked out for the last time in the ambulance--you seemed
to be quite a distance from the heart of the Colony.

Even if there are no guards at any of the exits and no one tries to
stop you how will you be able to find your way back to the spaceport
without a compass if the hospital is ten or fifteen miles from the
Colony, and all about you is a waste of desert sand and there are no
outgoing ambulances standing by to give you a lift.

High up in one of the rooms there'll be a Wendel agent you've belted
into insensibility and he'll be stirring and calling out for help and
when they come swarming into the hospital room to lift him up--the
nurses and the doctors who can't help but blanch a little when he
reminds them just how powerful the Wendel Combine is--he'll have only
one thing to say to them.

"Get me the Central Police Agency on the tele-communicator."

You'll be out in the red desert, fighting your way toward the Colony
through a sandstorm perhaps, but ten or twelve minutes after that call
goes through you'll hear a droning overhead and that will be the end of
you.

The hell of it was--no man ever needed an ally more desperately. I
needed a confederate, right at that moment in the room with me, if only
because I couldn't hope to cheat death for ten minutes running if I
ever reached the streets of the Colony without some Colony-type clothes
to replace the one-piece, in-patient garment I was wearing. A doctor's
white smock wouldn't do, and neither would a nurse's uniform. I didn't
have the right build to pass for a nurse even inside the walls of the
hospital, not to mention the craggy cast of my features and the heavy
growth of stubble which covered my cheeks.



15


Far back in the twentieth century, when World War II was just coming
to a close, the anti-Nazi underground movement had helped quite a few
soldiers escape from prison camps disguised as women. It certainly
wasn't a stratagem to be rejected out of hand, when your life was at
stake. But somehow my masculine pride was affronted by the thought and
I did not take kindly to it.

There had to be a lot of male patient's clothes hanging somewhere in
the hospital, but how was I to get my hands on a complete outfit if
I had to leave the hospital like a thief in the night, just one leap
ahead of Death in a Wendel police uniform?

Stealth? Would that solve it? If I moved very cautiously at first,
putting the thought of what could happen out of my mind, and trying to
find a room where clothes were hanging?

No--I couldn't afford to move too cautiously. I'd have to move fast and
boldly, trusting to blind ruck to protect me. But the clothes problem
still remained, and unless I could solve it--

She solved it for me. I didn't know that at first and neither did
she--I mean, she had no idea when she came back into the room that any
such problem would confront her. All she saw was Glacial Stare lying
slumped against the wall, his jaw sagging and the patient she'd left
flat on his back a short while before standing in the middle of the
room with his in-patient garment twisted grotesquely about his bony,
knobby knees and looking one hell of a mess. It's always been hard
for me to understand how a woman can find the angular, bony body of
a man attractive, especially when it's in a state of half-undress.
But there's no explaining the mystery of sex, and I'll give her this
much--she didn't give me a second glance for a moment. She had eyes
only for Glacial Stare. She stood staring down at him with all the
blood draining from her face, as if she'd never seen a dead man before
or a man as close to death as Glacial Stare seemed to be.

I saw the scream coming just in time. I stepped in front of her and
clamped my hand over her mouth, drawing her close to me, and keeping a
tight grip on her shoulder to prevent her from breaking away from me
and making a dash for the door.

I couldn't blame her for being scared or feeling, as she obviously did,
that I was responsible for the terrible state Glacial Stare was in. And
whatever Joan had told her about me ... and despite everything _she'd_
told the doctor ... she'd been a nurse long enough to know that even a
woman who has been married to a man for many years can never be sure
he won't develop some odd, wild quirk of character which will turn him
into a murderer overnight.

And that's even more true of a hospital patient who has been close to
death and running a fever and may still be in an irresponsible state,
his reason undermined by the suffering he's undergone.

And she was completely right about one thing. I was entirely
responsible for the terrible state Glacial Stare was in. Only ... there
had been a reason for the violence I had unleashed against him, and I
wanted her to hear the full story as quickly as possible, so that she
would calm down and become a responsible person again herself.

Hysteria is a woman's worst enemy ... and a man's too, for that matter.
But since it's ten times as common in women as in men it's a very
special problem which every man should know how to deal with. I was no
expert at it, but she helped me by listening to what I had to say in
my own defense as if her life depended on it. And when I was through
she seemed to agree with me that if someone had put an ether cone over
Glacial Stare's face in his sleep and relieved him of life's burdens in
a painless, merciful way they would have been doing humanity a service.

"It's not right to feel that way," she said. "It makes you wonder about
yourself when you even think you'd like to see someone who's that
ruthless removed from a world that has too many merciless people in it.
But I guess everyone who isn't that way ... thinks about it at times."

"I did more than think about it," I said. "But in the main I battered
him unconscious just to give myself a one in ten chance of staying
alive. The odds against me have shrunk a little, but not much. Unless I
can get out of here fast--"

"You can!" she breathed. "I'll help you. No one will try to stop us,
if we make it look as if I was just walking with you to the end of
the corridor and back. We get patients right out of bed after minor
surgery, to keep them from losing their strength. It's the best way."

"Minor surgery! You mean--"

Nurse Cherubin nodded. "They didn't have to probe to get the dart out.
It didn't go deep into your back. It was the poison that made you so
ill. The dart struck a bone and that jammed the poison mechanism. The
dart splintered just a little, but not enough poison got into your
bloodstream to kill you. But you ran a fever and once or twice I was
really frightened, because your pulse started fluttering and you almost
stopped breathing."

"Good God!" I looked at her, wondering. "If I was that close to death
how could my strength have come back so fast? I don't feel too good
right now. But I had enough strength when I crashed into him to drag
him from the chair, lift him up and slam him back against the wall."

She nodded. "Even a dying man can do that sometimes, if he's threatened
in a violent enough way and desperately wants to stay alive. But
you weren't that weak, and you're not going to die. You've got more
strength right now than you realize. And you'll get stronger--not
weaker. After minor surgery the post-operative shock is usually minor
too, and the fever didn't last long enough to seriously weaken you. The
last blood test was good. No poison--not even a millionth of a c.c. You
perspired freely, and that helped to save your life."

"All right," I said. "That's good news. Just the fact that you're the
only one who knows what would happen if I don't get out of here fast
would be better news--the best there is. Except that--"

I shook my head and looked past her toward the door. "What good would a
walk up the corridor do me if there's a Wendel agent stationed at the
end of it? A doctor might be taken in, but a Wendel agent would wonder
why a nurse was helping me to keep my strength up when I could answer
questions better flat on my back. He'd come right back into this room
with us, to find out what happened."

"There are no Wendel agents anywhere in the hospital," she said. "The
hospital would have put up a fight if a Wendel police officer had
insisted on questioning you as _he_ did--in private. It would have
been a losing battle, and we couldn't have held out for very long. By
tomorrow an armed guard would have demanded that you be released in
Wendel custody and you can't run a hospital in the Colony if you defy
the Wendel police to that extent."

I stared at her, amazed. "Then how did he get in here to see me?"

It was then that she exploded the bombshell.

"If the Wendel Combine, with all of its socio-political power, came
here in the person of just one man and threatened to make full use of
that power if he was not allowed to talk to you in strict privacy ...
and that man was Henry Wendel himself--"

She shrugged, glancing steadily for a moment at the slumped form of
Glacial Stare, with just an uncanny silence hovering over him. No trace
now of the power-aura that must have made hundreds of his yes-men turn
pale and snap to attention at various times in the past, if the look
he'd trained on me was ingrained and habitual with him. And I rather
thought it was.

Mr. Big himself! And I'd banged him around without knowing, without
even suspecting that I was slamming the Wendel Power Combine back
against a hospital-room wall. All the immense height and depth and
weight of it, the big atomic transmission lines, the towering black
turbines, the boa constrictor coils that snaked in all directions
through the center of the Colony. The war, too--the wolf-eat-wolf war
that was being waged with Endicott Fuel, and the demoralization that
was sounding taps over graves that hadn't been dug yet but would bear
the Wendel trademark.

The lawful authority that the silver bird had conferred on me would
have given me the right to act as his executioner then and there. But
you can't solve problems that way and hope to gain by it ... because
there are always other Mr. Bigs waiting to step into the shoes of the
Mr. Big you've taken care of in behalf of the common weal, with more
cocksureness than you've any right to exercise.

When you cut off the head of that kind of boa constrictor and leave the
big coils intact the new head may be twice or three times as dangerous.

That he had come to the hospital alone, completely unguarded, would
have been hard to believe if I hadn't remembered that an attempt had
been made to blast the sky ship apart in space solely because Wendel
wanted me out of the way. I was sure of that now. And if he wanted me
dead that bad, safe-guarding his person would probably have seemed of
minor importance to him. It could be waived--an inconsequential detail.
I had to be questioned and then killed, and he was the best man for the
job. He could trust no one else to handle it as well.

The joker was--he had botched it.

There were a lot more questions I wanted to ask Nurse Cherubin but
there just wasn't time for them. We'd wasted four or five minutes
already, just discussing the state of my health, and at any moment
someone might come through the door who would refuse to let me leave
when he saw what I'd done to Wendel.

It wouldn't have to be a Wendel agent. No doctor who wasn't keen
about committing suicide would have let me go until Wendel came to,
and our two stories could be compared. I didn't have the silver bird
to back up my story, and when Wendel came to he'd simply step to a
tele-communicator and the hospital would be swarming with Wendel agents
before I could hope to win any converts. The fact that he'd come to
visit me unguarded didn't mean he'd placed himself in any real
jeopardy ... in his book at least. He couldn't have known I'd knock him
out cold, and even if the hospital was located fifteen miles from the
Colony it wouldn't take the Wendel police long to get to him. Ten or
twelve minutes, at most.

Perhaps they were already on the way. It stood to reason. He'd hurried
himself and arrived ahead of them, but he'd want them to be there as
soon as he killed me, to dump my body on a stretcher and carry it out
under guard.

When he killed me--God, how easy it was to overlook the most vital
things! I hadn't even searched him. If he had a weapon on him I could
certainly use it, for nothing can boost your morale quite so much when
your life is at stake as the firm, cool feel of an atomic hand-gun
against your palm.

I was starting toward him when Nurse Cherubin said: "Stay here, and
keep the door locked until I come back. I'll tap three times. I've got
to get you some clothes."

I nodded, feeling overwhelmingly grateful, tempted to take another
minute--precious as every minute was--to tell how wonderful I thought
her. She seemed to know without my saying a word, for her wide mouth
smiled a little and she was gone.

I stepped to the door and locked it, and then returned across the room
and bent over Mr. Big.

I found the weapon but I had to roll him over to get at it, because it
was in a holster at his hip. His body was a dead weight, but when I got
the weapon free he stirred a little and groaned. I clouted him on the
jaw and he stopped groaning. Brutal? You bet it was, but I couldn't
afford to take any chances on his coming to.

What would you have done? If I'd killed him right then and there, the
Board would not have censured me. I was sure of that. Not to have done
so was perhaps foolish, a weakness in me. I was cutting down my chances
of getting as far as the Colony, before a security alert went out, and
the Wendel police started after me with instructions to blast me down
on sight.

But somehow I couldn't do it. Not only for the reasons I've
mentioned ... because a new head on the Wendel boa constrictor would
have solved nothing ... but because it went against the grain. I'd have
had a feeling of guilt I never could have completely thrown off. He'd
intended to kill me, all right ... no doubt of that. But I couldn't
return the compliment in the same coin. It made no sense, perhaps, but
that's the way it was.

The weapon pleased me. It was an atomic hand-gun that had cost a small
fortune to construct--intricate, extremely compact, the latest model,
the finest, the best. Fortunately I knew a great deal about such
weapons, because unusual-type firearms have always fascinated me.

This one I was sure I could aim and fire with accuracy, even though
some of the precision gadgetry was new to me. Twenty-five thousand
dollars at least that gun had set Henry Wendel back, but what was
twenty-five thousand to a man with a fortune of eight or ten billion?

It seemed tragic and a pity that all of that money should have been
spent on a weapon that would pass out of his hands into the possession
of a man unfriendly to him. But it didn't sadden me too much and I felt
even less sad when I'd unbuckled the holster also, strapped it to my
own hip and thrust the hand-gun back into it.

She knocked three times, as she'd promised and came in with some
clothes that some poor devil in another room would never live to put
on again. She told me as much while I was taking off my one-piece
in-patient garment.

"Cancer," she said. "They're keeping him under sedation. You think
you're in trouble, that the game is hardly worth the candle, until you
see something like that. Then you realize how lucky you are--just to be
alive."

"You don't have to tell me," I said. "I've often thought along those
lines."

She wasn't embarrassed when I stood for a moment stark naked before
her, as most nurses aren't. I wasn't particularly embarrassed either,
because right at that moment I had no more sex awareness than a totem
pole.

The clothes were a little small for me, but I had a feeling that in
the Colony not too much attention was paid to the way clothes fitted
you--or failed to fit. In a pioneering society ill-fitting clothes are
accepted as an indication that you are a rough-and-tumble sort of guy,
know your way around and are, for good measure, an old-timer, with
early-settler prestige.

There were two more questions I had to ask her before I became a
babe-in-the-woods kind of grown man on Mars, with just the hand-gun and
a few highly trained areas of native intelligence to protect me--if I
succeeded in getting out of the hospital alive. It was still a very big
_if_, but the questions were just as vital, and were directly tied in
with it.

Just how far _was_ the hospital from the Colony? And what was she going
to tell Joan to keep her from succumbing to panic when my darling
wanted to know what had become of me?

Before we left the room she answered the second question reassuringly.
It had been weighing so heavily on my mind I'd been afraid to even let
myself bring it right out into the open and face it squarely. Mr. Big
hadn't even mentioned Joan in the ugly little talk I'd had with him,
and if she was still somewhere in the hospital I had a feeling he'd
have used her nearness as one more way of tightening the thumbscrew.

I'd been right about that, apparently. "She had a talk with Commander
Littlefield on the tele-communicator," Nurse Cherubin said. "He advised
her to return to the Mars' rocket a few hours ago. He wanted to talk to
her ... said it was urgent ... and promised to check on your progress
report every half hour. She left in one of the outgoing ambulances. She
told me she'd be back just as soon as you regained consciousness. It's
a very short trip in an ambulance. The hospital is only eight miles
from the Colony."

So that answered my first question too, but only in part. If there was
just a waste of blowing sand outside it would certainly cut down my
chances. But there had to be a firm-packed road for the ambulances to
travel over, didn't there?

"No," she said, answering me in full a half-minute later, when the
door of the hospital room had been firmly closed behind us and we were
committed to the big risk and there could be no turning back. She
paused an instant to urge me to be cautious, to stagger a little and
grip her arm for support and try to look in all respects like a patient
taking his first uncertain walk after a minor operation. I didn't have
to worry about looking pale, but when she went on and explained what
she'd meant by the "no" relief swept over me and probably marred a
little the impression it was important to give anyone who chanced to
glance our way.

"There's no desert to cross," she said. "It's all built up. You'll
be passing between high stone walls with massive metal grills set
deep in the stone most of the time, with here and there a gap and a
few scattered pre-fabs occupied by aereator-system workers and their
families."

So that was it! I knew all about the Martian aerator-system and the big
turbines that pumped oxygen out over the Colony. So much oxygen, under
such stabilized pressure, that it stayed in equilibrium and didn't fly
off into space even under the light gravity. Even without the aerators
there was enough oxygen in the thin Martian atmosphere to enable a man
to stay alive for a short period, if he didn't mind going about with
his shoulders bent, gasping for breath and turning blue at intervals.
His cheeks, anyway, with the veins on his forehead standing out like
whipcords.

The first colonists, as everyone knows, went about with oxygen tanks
strapped to their backs and took a whiff or two of the stuff in
Earth-atmosphere concentration through a flexible metal tube whenever
their lungs started burning. And inside the early pre-fabs, of course,
there were miniature aerator systems which made living indoors as
comfortable as it was Earthside.

But the big aerator-system had completely eliminated the need--a health
hazard-diminishing need at best and never actually mandatory--of the
huge glass dome which imaginative science writers in the first three
decades of the Space Age had predicted as a _must_ for successful
Martian colonization. There are seldom any _musts_ when science
advances in seven league boots and you're right on the scene in person,
breathing in a planet's atmosphere for yourself and finding out that
there just happens to be a little more oxygen in it than precision
instruments on Earth had led you to anticipate.

It wasn't a precision instrument of any kind I was needing right at
that moment--even to reassure me about my heart beat. I knew exactly
how fast it was beating--much too fast. We passed a doctor in a smock
so spotless it didn't seem as if he could have been wearing it for
longer than a few minutes. But the look of quick suspicion he trained
on us was ageless, the kind of look that comes into the eyes of a
trained professional man when he can't be quite sure that a subordinate
is doing the wise thing.

What right had the nurse to take me for a walk along the corridor
when I looked that close to caving in? I feared for an instant I was
overdoing the act, but when the suspicion faded and he went past us
along the corridor I breathed more freely again. We passed a nurse who
didn't even glance at us and another--blonde and pert-nosed--who smiled
and nodded, just as if we were old friends. I wondered what she saw in
me.

Then we were standing before an elevator at the end of the corridor and
the red down light came on ... because Nurse Cherubin had pressed the
down button ... and she was urging me to be cautious for the second
time.

"We're going down three flights to the admitting ward," she said. She
smiled, as if she'd suddenly remembered there's nothing like a touch of
levity to relieve strain, even if it has to be forced. "But don't let
that dishearten you. Patients are discharged from the admitting ward
too. It's not quite as long as this corridor but it will be busier.
Patients, nurses--at least three doctors. We'll just walk right through
as if we had every right to be there. Just outside the emergency exit,
a few steps further on, there's a driveway which curves around behind
the hospital. Ambulances with accident victims use it, but there's not
likely to be an ambulance standing there. You go down a narrow flight
of stairs to get to it. Is that clear?"

I nodded. "What do I do then?"

"You just follow the driveway until it forks and the left turn will
take you into the clear-away between the aerators which leads directly
to the Colony. You won't have to pass in front of the hospital at all.
Ambulances may pass you before you get to the Colony, but you won't be
stopped and questioned. They'll think you're one of the aeration-system
workers."

I had an impulse to give her a hug and tell her I loved her, quite sure
that she'd know what I meant, even if I did it inside the elevator
where it would have more an aspect of intimacy. You love people who go
all out to help you and they don't even have to be young and beautiful.
But when they are there's an added warmth somehow--

We carried it off better than I'd dared to hope. We descended in the
elevator, emerged arm in arm and walked right through the admitting
ward without even glancing at the fifteen or twenty people we had to
pass to get to the emergency exit she'd mentioned, a third of them
in white. No one stopped or questioned us, and we followed the same
nurse-helping-patient routine which had proved its worth on the third
floor of the hospital.

And then--I did hug and kiss her, just once briefly before I went out
through the exit and down the stairs to the driveway. I hoped Joan
wouldn't mind if she ever got to hear about it.

"Goodbye," I said. "And thank you."



16


There was no waiting ambulance in the driveway. I descended the
stairway, twelve metal steps railed in on both sides, feeling grateful
for what she'd said right after I kissed her. "Don't worry about your
wife. If Wendel tries to make us send for her we'll find a way to roast
him over a slow fire until you're together again. There are three
doctors who will put up a stiff fight and I'm going to set to work on
all of them. You've no idea what a hospital can do with just the right
kind of delaying tactics."

It took me less than two minutes to half-encircle the driveway, take
the turn she'd recommended and strike out for the Colony between the
towering gray walls of the aerators.

The Big Grayness. I'd seen photographs of that tremendous engineering
project in my hell-bent-for-adventure years, when I'd sat at a desk
in a schoolroom, and imagined what it would be like to take part in
the construction work, standing on a dizzy height with an electronic
riveter in my hand, watching blue lights go on and off and sparks fly
up into the cool Martian night beneath a wilderness of stars.

The reality was very much as I'd imagined it as a school kid, except
that I wasn't a construction worker looking down over it, a human fly
with a man-size job to do, but a guy that kid wouldn't have recognized,
his footsteps echoing on the catwalk at the base of it. I had a
giant-size job to do, but how could he have known it would some day
turn into anything _that_ big?

It wasn't even a project anymore--half of it still in the blueprint
stage. It was completed and the towering gray walls were firm and
solid, and the grills were sending oxygen spiraling out over the Colony
without making me feel light-headed at all.

Right at that moment I'd have welcomed a little oxygen intoxication
but the aerator-system didn't work that way. The flow was regulated
directly at the source, kept under controlled pressure and diffused
outward high up by rotary circulators. As it spread out over the Colony
it was drawn down to breathing level by another system of circulators,
stationed at intervals about the Colony and extending twenty-five miles
out into the surrounding desert.

If you wanted to experience oxygen intoxication you had to strap a tank
to your back and breathe the stuff in through a tube in the old way.
But no one in his right mind would do that deliberately, for an excess
of oxygen can be five-ways dangerous on a planet where what you have to
worry about most is over-stimulation.

There were catwalks on both sides of the aerator walls, with a central
lane wide enough for vehicles to pass in opposite directions. I kept
to the right hand side all the way to the Colony, and it took me about
thirty minutes to get there. My strength amazed me. It probably wasn't
quite up to par. But I only had to stop twice to rest and then only for
a minute or two.

Two ambulances passed me, their red tail-lights blinking, but the
drivers didn't even turn their heads as the vehicles went droning
through the Big Grayness. Up above the sunlight was waning, and
turning red, but only a diffuse glow filled that two hundred-foot-high
artificial cavern.

Three aerator-system workers, walking shoulder to shoulder, gave me a
bad jolt for a moment, for they had the look of Wendel police agents.
I encountered them just beyond a break in the cavern wall, where a
cluster of pre-fabs with children playing in the yards made five or six
acres of stony ground resemble a manufacturing town suburb Earthside.

I should have known better than to be alarmed, because the three men
approaching me looked eager and expectant, as if they knew that a few
steps more would bring relaxation after toil and the warmth and glow of
a family reunion.

But they had the husky build and sharp-angled features of Wendel police
officers and I stayed alert until one of them came to a dead halt and
looked me over genially. "New on the job, aren't you, Buster? Don't
remember having run into you before. They keep putting on so many new
men it's hard to be sure."

"That's right," I said. "I live about two miles further on."

"Well, it isn't the best job in the world, Buster, as I guess you've
found out already. You get sucked into a grill sometimes, and breathe
nothing but oxygen until you feel like a blue baby they're trying their
best to save, even if they have to fanny-whack him to get the stuff out
of his lungs for a week or two afterwards."

"Don't discourage him, Pete," the tallest of the three chided. "You
have a cold, cold heart. It doesn't happen often."

"You bet it doesn't ... or my wife would have been a widow long before
this. Well ... good luck, Buster. Be seeing you around ... I hope."

I felt so relieved I didn't even resent the "Buster." He was just a big
grinning ape who liked to kid the living daylights out of his fellow
workers, whenever he thought he could get away with it. No harm in him,
and though there might have been times when I'd have been tempted to
take a poke at him ... I had no such impulse now. I just wanted to be
able to look back and see him dwindling in the distance.

I ran into only one other person before the Big Grayness terminated.
She was a stout, matronly-looking woman carrying a baby and she nodded
and smiled warmly when she saw me staring at the infant, as if she
wouldn't have at all minded if I had been its father.

For an instant there flashed into my mind the nerve-relaxing picture
that every normal male has of himself at times--the humble-station
husband, big-bosomed wife picture. You're Mr. Run-of-the-Mill, just a
simple guy, working hard at a lathe or feeding processed food tins into
a vacuumator. You come home at night with no worries, kick off your
shoes and she's there to make the creature comforts seem important.
A good meal on the table, fit for a king with a hearty appetite--do
kings ever have that kind of appetite?--children romping all over the
house--a round half-dozen upstairs and down--and the kind of night's
sleep you don't get when you have responsibilities weighing on you. The
top-echelon kind that can drive you half out of your mind. It's there
for the taking if you really want it, if you don't wear a silver bird
on your uniform when they add up the score and ask you why in hell you
haven't done better?

It's not quite an accurate picture, because that kind of guy has
worries too--plenty of them. He has to buy shoes for the children and
grin and be tolerant when his wife turns shrewish, as every woman with
a large family and a big grocery bill is bound to do at times. But
still, when you balance the good against the bad, who gets the most out
of life--Mr. Run-of-the-Mill or Mr. Big?

Well ... however much I might fume about it ... I had to be what I was.
I could honestly say that I'd never had any driving ambition to be the
kind of Mr. Big Wendel was. I just had a kind of inner compulsion to
be true to the best that was in me, to preserve my integrity and use
whatever wild talents I had to enrich human life and have some fun
while doing it. If I couldn't always have fun, if illness or death
or just plain bad luck prevented me from living life to the full and
enjoying it ... I'd known that when I'd cut the cards, hadn't I? You
have to play whatever cards destiny hands you.

Just before I reached the last quarter mile of the aerator marathon I
passed another dwelling section, with more kids scampering about and
three or four women standing in the doorways of the pre-fabs. They
didn't look big-bosomy, but slender as willow trees and very beautiful.

I certainly wasn't running, but it was a marathon in my book, the
walking kind where you keep your body held rigid, your arms bent
sharply at the elbows. There was only one good thing about it. I didn't
have to worry about out-distancing the other walkers, because it was a
one-man marathon.

I came out into the biggest square I'd ever seen. The one opposite the
skyport I'd crossed with just as much tension and uncertainty mounting
in me an eternity ago on Earth was just about one-fourth as large, give
or take a few square yards of shadowy pavement.

In a way, the Big Grayness was still with me, because there were
gigantic, interlocking shadows everywhere and although there was
nothing but open sky overhead spirals of wind-blown sand were swirling
across it, half-blotting out the waning sunlight.

When you're sure that Death hasn't played his final trump or even
relaxed his vigilance and you could be yanked right back to confront
him at any moment a square as big and empty and desolate-looking as
that doesn't give you any support at all.

All right, there was life and movement in it, if you want to call a
long line of tractors standing end to end on the far side, one of them
snail-active, life and movement.

One of the trucks seemed to be backing up a little and edging out from
between the others, but I couldn't even be sure of that before an
ear-splitting blast of sound and a blinding flash of light shattered my
last link with the sane universe.



17


I was lifted up and hurled backwards, so violently that if blind luck
hadn't saved me I'd have fractured my skull or felt, ripping through
my chest, the beaten-drum agony that sets in right after you've shaken
hands with a spinal concussion.

I came down heavily, hitting the pavement with a thud. But in falling I
went into a kind of half-spin, and landed on my side in a loose-jointed
sprawl that just shook me up a little.

I rolled over on my back and stared up in horror. For an instant I was
sure that the whole sky had burst into flame. Then the flare dimmed and
vanished and I could see that the dust spirals were still there.

I raised myself on one elbow and stared out across the square. The
long line of tractors was still there, too. Not one of the vehicles
had been blown sky high. And as if that wasn't enough of a miracle
the snail-paced one had turned about and was heading straight in my
direction.

It wasn't moving at a snail's pace now. It was coming directly at me
from mid-way in the square, rumbling and clattering as it came, its
heavy treads so ponderously in motion that the pavement under me was
beginning to vibrate.

Nearer it came and nearer, swaying a little, and if the driver had been
some crazy killer bent on crushing me to death under the treads he
couldn't have gone about it more expertly, for he was maneuvering the
vehicle just enough to make sure that it would pass directly over me.

How could I doubt it? It had veered slightly and swung back into a
straight-line course again, and if I'd tried to drag myself out of its
path there was room enough for it to veer again before I could hope to
save myself.

It takes several seconds to recover from a scare like that, even when
the danger evaporates right before your eyes. All at once the tractor
_was_ veering again, but far enough to the left to make me feel certain
that I wouldn't be flattened to a pancake if I stayed where I was.
But you can feel certain about something like that and go right on
remembering what big tractors have done at various times in the past to
men unfortunate enough to be caught off guard when there's a killer in
the driver's seat.

The vehicle came to a jolting, grinding halt a few yards to the left of
me, and the driver swung himself out of the glass-shielded front seat,
descended lightly to the ground, and was grabbing me by the arm and
helping me to rise before I could get a really good look at him.

He'd descended from the tractor lightly because he was that kind of
a man--just about the most fragile-looking guy I'd ever seen. He was
lean to the point of emaciation, with gaunt cheeks and sparse white
hair that was fluffed out like thistledown by the wind that was blowing
across the square.

He had deepset brown eyes, very sharp and piercing and they were
glowing now with a kind of feverish brightness, as if his agitation
matched my own or had reached a peak that was just a trifle higher.
There was nothing surprising about that, if he knew exactly what had
happened and it was as bad as I feared it might be.

Despite his frailness, he had the features of a strong-willed man, the
chin and mouth firm, the nose pinched a little at the nostrils, as if
stubbornness in adversity had become an ingrained habit with him. I had
the feeling I'd seen that face before, but I couldn't remember where or
under what circumstances.

I was certainly seeing it now under the most nerve-shattering of all
circumstances and would not be likely to forget it a second time.

"How are you, all right?" he asked, his eyes searching my face as if
he was far from sure I knew myself and the way I looked would tell
him more than just a guess on my part. "That explosion was miles from
here," he went on breathlessly, "but it lifted the tractor right off
the ground, treads and all, for a second. I had the craziest kind
of floating sensation until it settled down and kept right on in
this direction. I increased the speed, because I sort of felt that a
fast-moving machine would have a better chance of not overturning."

I stared at him half-dazedly, feeling like a pawn on a chessboard that
had tilted just far enough to make me wonder if it might not still be
precariously poised and go crashing at any moment. And since I couldn't
see the players I didn't know what the rules of that particular game
were or how far they had been abrogated.

"How do you feel?" he asked.

His solicitude amazed me, because if what he'd just said was true--and
I had no reason to doubt it--he should have been more shaken up than
I was and he seemed to have something on his mind that was making him
stare straight past me toward the Big Grayness.

I was staring in the opposite direction. "I'm all right," I assured
him. "Just feel ... a little dizzy." I gestured toward the tractors on
the far side of the square. "What's over there? Did the explosion come
from there?"

He shook his head. "No. I told you it was miles from here, in the
direction of the spaceport. That's the Endicott Administration
Building, fuel conveyor sections and two-thirds of the distributing
units. The tractors are all owned by Endicott. I backed this one out
from between them and had just about gotten it turned around when the
blast hit me."

"I know," I said. "I saw you. I wondered why only one tractor--"

That was as far as I got, because what hit me then was more jolting
than any blast could have been, and it wasn't even physical. Just one
word he'd let drop with a delayed-action fuse attached to it made me
snap my head back and look at him in desperation. He had no way of
knowing what was in my mind, but you don't think of that when you want
someone to do you a favor that's of life-and-death importance to you.

I wanted him to withdraw that one word, to pretend at least that he
hadn't said it. It didn't have to be true, he could have been just
guessing.

The word was "spaceport." It couldn't matter that much to him, surely.
It wasn't his wife but mine who was at the spaceport, and if he was
wrong about where the explosion had taken place it would cost him
nothing to be merciful and admit that he was far from sure about it.

But before I could hope to get such an admission out of him he sounded
a knell to the granting of favors by saying: "Wendel technicians are
activating Endicott fuel cylinders in different sections of the Colony.
They're trying to turn the Colonists against Endicott by committing
mass murder. The cylinders will only destroy an area of a few square
miles, because they're not in the multiple-megaton, nuclear warhead
category. We never thought they'd be turned into bombs."

Then came the knell. "We were warned about this, by a Colonist who's on
his way to the spaceport with one of the cylinders. Or he may be there
already. He just spoke to us briefly on the tele-communicator. That
explosion came from the direction of the spaceport, but it may not be
the one we were warned about. They may be trying to dismantle another
cylinder at the spaceport right now. They won't succeed, because only
an Endicott technician would know how to go about it."

"Do you know?"

He nodded. "Yes ... I can dismantle it. I can get to the spaceport in
about fifteen minutes, if I drive between the aerators and turn right
just before I get to the hospital. The clear-away from that point on
will take me through a section of the Colony and then straight out
across the desert to the spaceport. The Colonist who talked with us
made a serious mistake, but it wasn't his fault. He had no way of
knowing that it takes a fuel cylinder at least forty-five minutes
to build up to critical mass after it's been activated. In some
cases--fifty or fifty-five minutes."

He paused an instant, then went on quickly. "He should have brought it
here. We could have dismantled it in time. But he was afraid it would
kill several thousand people if it went off anywhere near his home,
or in this section of the Colony. He also over-estimated the area
that would be demolished by the blast. When he talked to us he was
two-thirds of the way to the spaceport and if we'd told him to turn
back then and bring the cylinder here the risks would have been too
great. We had to let him go on. I said they can't dismantle it at the
spaceport. But there's a slim chance they can ... because there may
be an Endicott man there or someone who knows enough about Endicott
cylinders to make a hit-or-miss try. With luck, he may just possibly
succeed. But I doubt it."

"You doubt it? Good God--"

"I doubt it very much. That's why it's so important for me to get there
as fast as I can. It's my responsibility--and I refuse to share it with
anyone. There are times when a man must face death alone."

"Who are you?" I asked.

"A man with much to answer for, the opposite of a good man. I'm Kenneth
H. Hillard, President of the Endicott Combine."

It stunned me for a moment, because it was as big a bombshell as Nurse
Cherubin had exploded back at the hospital when she'd nodded toward a
slumped caricature of a man and told me exactly who I'd been banging
around.

But it didn't stun me for long, because even the showdown miracle of
two Mr. Big's taking matters into their own hands when all of the chips
were down--Hillard was also a giant despite his frailness and a better
man than Wendel could ever hope to be--even the wonder and strangeness
of it was of less concern to me at that moment than the danger that
Joan was in.

I told him then. "I'm going with you," I said. "I've every right. If
I'm cutting in on your yen to face death alone ... that's just too bad.
I'm going with you, or you don't go at all. I pack quite a wallop, and
you may as well know it. Wendel does."

"Your wife. I see...."

"I hope to Christ you do--"

"Get in!" he said sharply. "I may need you. I'm not a well man. My
heart--"

We climbed in and he tugged at the brakes, releasing them and the big
vehicle lumbered into motion.

It was already pointed in the right direction, and in less than half
a minute--the second time within fifteen minutes for me--we were deep
in the Big Grayness, with the walls of the aerators looming up on both
sides of us.

Up above all of the sunlight had dwindled to the vanishing point and
the gigantic artificial cavern was lighted now along its entire length
by cold light lamps embedded in the walls at fifty-foot intervals. The
solid, three-dimensional world outside our minds, whatever segment of
reality we happen to be passing through, never looks quite the same
to any two individuals. It is always, in a sense, a special creation,
colored and altered by the human imagination.

To me the cold light lamps were chillingly like enormous eyes, keeping
us under constant scrutiny. The scrutiny of giants, standing motionless
in shadows, with just their luminous eye-sockets visible. It was as
if any moment, promoted by some wild whim, the giant forms might take
a violent dislike to us, might raise mace-like metal fists and smash
the tractor, very much as a robot giant had smashed a Wendel agent in
space, with a fiendishly mechanical rancor.

But to the frail man at my side the aerator walls may have been
chilling in a quite different way, if he was giving the Big Grayness
any thought at all.

Apparently he wasn't, because when his voice rose above the rumble of
the treads he didn't once mention the aerators or the pale blue light
that was glimmering on the hood of the tractor.

"It's the beginning of the end--either one way or the other," he
shouted. "Either Wendel will be destroyed by the Colonists themselves
for committing mass murder, or we'll go down under a juggernaut that
can't be stopped. Sometimes you can't smash absolute evil, when it's
backed up by absolute power."

I raised my voice as high as he'd done, because I wanted to be sure
he'd hear me. "It will always be stopped in the end, I think--if
you have enough moral courage. That's a dynamic in itself, the most
formidable of all weapons. All history confirms it."

"I wish I could believe that!" he shouted back. "But I'm not so sure.
And you have to fight with reasonably clean hands. Endicott is almost
as guilty as Wendel, except that it would rather be destroyed than
resort to mass murder."

"That's two-thirds of the right," I shouted back. "That's where the
biggest dividing line comes. Every tyranny in human history that has
resorted to mass murder has gone down into everlasting night and
darkness and very quickly. The few that survived to die a natural death
drew back at that point. The great, utterly ruthless destroyers always
perish."

We both fell silent then, because there are times when the whole of
the future and everything that human anger and courage can do to
safeguard the future and keep it from destruction seems less important
than coming to grips with an immediate, life-and-death emergency. When
you do that you're going all out to safeguard the future as well, but
you don't think of it in that way. Just getting to the spaceport in
time--Oh, God, yes, in time to be at least a little ahead of time, so
that Hillard would have steady nerves and could dismantle the cylinder
with cautious precision, with no zero-count demoralization to make his
fingers stray from the right wires--just getting there and finishing
the job before the spaceport could become a translucent cone of fire
was a million times as important to me, right at that moment, as the
Wendel-Endicott war.

A million times as important, Ralphie boy. Don't be ashamed of feeling
that way. If the spaceport blows up, and there's no Joan any more, and
the universe comes to an end for you, you've no sure guarantee that the
actors who will step into your shoes and occupy the center of the stage
will make any better job of it than you've been doing. So it will be a
loss, however you slice it, because the death of two lovers is always
a loss. You fight better when you've been given that best of all head
starts.



18


We stayed silent until the tractor had rumbled past eight or ten of the
breaks in the Big Grayness. They were shrouded in dusk-light now, with
no kids playing in the front yards of the housing area pre-fabs. Then,
just as we were turning into the clear-away that branched off from the
one I'd taken on leaving the hospital, Hillard shouted: "We've got to
get over to the left! There's an ambulance right up ahead!"

I heard the siren before I saw it, a banshee-like wail cutting through
the twilight, unnerving in its shrillness. It took a moment or two for
its winking red headlights to come sweeping toward us and if Hillard
had seen them before that it had to mean he had exceptionally sharp
eyesight.

It careened past without slowing, almost grazing the hood of the
tractor. I thought for an instant, when the banshee wail became shrill
again, that it was still coming from the same ambulance. Then I saw
four more furiously blinking headlights coming out of the dusk ahead of
us, and another ambulance swept past, as swiftly as the first had done,
but missing us by a wider margin.

A third followed it at a distance of less than a hundred feet, its
siren at such full blast that it no longer sounded like a banshee wail.

You can be gripped by a dread that's practically breath-stopping and
still manage to shout, if your only other choice is to die inwardly.

It may have been more of a groan than a shout. My voice sounded ragged
and it almost broke. "Could those ambulances be coming from the
spaceport? Do you think--"

He cut me off. I probably couldn't have gone on anyway.

"They could never have gotten out there and back so fast!" he shouted.
"We'll be passing through a section of the Colony in about two more
minutes. It's closer to the hospital, so it's just possible they've
picked up a few victims at the fringe of the blast area who didn't have
our luck."

"The fallout area must be pretty wide!" I shouted back. "Wherever the
explosion took place--"

He cut me off again. "No fallout--or very little. What there is is gone
within four or five minutes. Safe to go in after that, for the residue
wouldn't mutate a fruitfly. Colonists don't know that ... closely
guarded Endicott trade secret. Reason we let the Colonists store them.
A fuel cylinder can be converted into a nuclear bomb, all right, but
it will be the cleanest midget bomb ever built. Take fifteen or twenty
of them to blow up even a third of the Colony. But that doesn't mean
that one couldn't blow up the spaceport, or seriously injure hundreds
of people throughout the fringe area. The ground tremor alone could
do that. I told you what it did to this tractor. Has the force of a
small earthquake, except that the tremors are three times as erratic.
They can just shake you up a little, or break every bone in your body.
Depends on where you happen to be standing. It follows a zigzagging
pattern, so it can pass right by you."

All that didn't come in one shout, but I'm recording it that way
because I didn't interrupt him, and though he must have stopped once
or twice to take a deep breath, and keep a sharp lookout for another
ambulance I wasn't aware of any break in what he was saying. He was
trying his best to make it crystal clear, if only to calm me down a
little.

Some of it was reassuring, but not what he'd said about the spaceport.
A clean bomb with little or no fallout can leave you just as dead if
you're unfortunate enough to be blown up by it.

You see things sometimes you can't bring yourself to talk about, even
to close friends when the horror has receded a little and you know it
can't come back in a physical way to torment you.

So I'm going to draw the veil over most of what we saw when we passed
through about five square miles of the Colony, before the clear-away
broadened out to twice its previous width and we headed out across the
desert toward the spaceport.

We couldn't be sure, even then, just where the explosion had taken
place, because it was only the fringe area we passed through. It hadn't
been laid waste by the blast and there were only five or six demolished
buildings. If the big square which stretched between the Endicott plant
and the aerators had been a built-up section instead of a square the
property damage might have been just as great and would not have seemed
ruinous.

But there was one other difference. The Endicott square had been
unpopulated, with just one tractor moving out from the long line of
tractors on the far side. The five miles of Colony we passed through
had been the opposite of unpopulated. Its streets and squares and
playgrounds and vehicle-parking areas had been thronged with people.

They were still thronged with people but some of them were lying prone,
and others were leaning dazedly against the walls of buildings which
had remained for the most part undamaged and still others, who no
longer seemed to be in a state of shock, were bending over the slumped
bodies of the grievously injured and the dying, doing their best to
console them and ease their pain.

I'm drawing the veil on the rest of it--the blood and the
screaming--because it was pretty awful, and what possible purpose would
be served if I described it? How could it benefit anyone? It would
serve as a reminder of how cruel life can be at times, how uncertain
and terrible. We know that, don't we? So ... to hell with it ... I say
that in a very reverent way, with awe and respect, and not profanely.
But it's best to consign it where it belongs, to hell, and not let it
paralyze all action and make you give up when there are still sunsets,
and the laughter of children, and the happiness of lovers, and ten
thousand other things that are worth fighting to preserve.

It took us less than eight minutes to arrive at the spaceport, dusty
from head to foot, with sand choking our lungs and gasping a little
from oxygen shortage, because when there's a stiff wind blowing over
the desert the aerators don't function at peak efficiency.

I didn't know there was anything wrong until the tractor began to
zigzag a little, about three hundred feet from the massive, steel-mesh
gates of the spaceport.

He had strength enough left to tug at the brakes and bring the tractor
to a grinding halt before he slumped against me, with a strangled sob
that chilled me to the core of my being. It chilled me and stunned me
and frightened me, because I'd never thought that anything like that
could happen.

He was frail, all right, and had the look of a man whose health had
been steadily failing ... no doubt partly brought about by the battle
he'd been waging with Wendel. And he'd mentioned something about
heart-trouble--

The trouble was, I hadn't taken all that too seriously, because you
never think that someone who has displayed extraordinary energy and
firmness of will is going to collapse right when you need him most.

I swung about and looked at him, and his pallor gave me an even worse
jolt than the way he'd moaned and sagged heavily against me.

He gripped my arm and tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come. His
lips moved soundlessly for a moment and then--they stopped moving. His
body stopped moving too. All at once, as if a clock had stopped ticking
inside of him, and Time had stopped ticking for him forever just
because his life and the clock were bound up together, intricate parts
of the same mechanism, and if the clock stopped there was no way his
life could be prolonged.

I knew he was dead before I reached out and touched him. I could tell
by the dull, unseeing glaze which had over-spread his pupils and the
terrible stillness which had come upon him. A stillness and a rigidity
that made it impossible for me to doubt what the alarm bells were
telling me as well. They had started ringing again, but this time it
wasn't so much an alarm they were sounding as a dirge.

It was impossible for me to doubt, but I still had to make sure, as
he would have wanted me to do, by feeling for a heartbeat that wasn't
there and satisfying myself in other ways. It was an obligation I
couldn't evade and had no intention of evading.

It took me less than a minute and a half--a time limit I kept firmly in
mind--to fulfill that obligation. Then I descended from the tractor and
headed for the steel-mesh gates of the spaceport on the run.



19


"Ralph!" she cried, running to meet me as I walked into the big,
steel-walled enclosure where Commander Littlefield and eight or ten or
possibly twelve men in gray skyport-technician uniforms were working
over a long metal cylinder that Death had started working on well ahead
of them. He was the expert and they were just amateurs doing the best
they could to beat the time limit he had set for them. With a grim
chuckle, no doubt, because, as I said once before, Death is a weird-o.

Joan's arms went around my shoulders and she crushed herself against
me, and kissed me hard on the mouth. Then she let go of me and moved
quickly to one side, so that Commander Littlefield could talk to me
without interference or a moment's delay. She seemed to know without
waiting for me to say a word how important that was.

One look at Littlefield's white face told me all I really wanted to
know. But I decided that if he could fill in the details for me in
half a minute I could risk setting another time-limit in my mind and
clocking him second by second by second as he talked.

"A nurse at the hospital got word to us you'd be doing your best to get
back here, Ralph," he said. "The Wendel police have orders to blast you
down on sight, but now that you're here I can protect you--or you can
protect yourself. I've got your papers and insignia. Right now that's
not so urgent as what's happening inside this Endicott fuel cylinder.
It's been triggered to build up to critical mass by a Wendel agent. A
Colonist brought it here and we've been trying to dismantle it. But we
don't know just how to go about it and we don't dare experiment. We've
taken a few _small_ risks, naturally. We've had to. But we're getting
nowhere, and what looks like a small risk could turn out to be a big
one. We don't even know how much time we've got!"

He spoke almost calmly, without raising his voice, but there was
nothing calm about the way he looked. The time limit I'd set to clock
him by had run out and now it was my turn. I was going to have to ask
him to do something that might seem only a little less terrible to him
than being blown apart by a nuclear explosion.

But it would have to be done--and fast.

I clocked myself as I talked, allowing myself about forty seconds.
"Those cylinders build up to critical mass when they've been tampered
with and triggered to explode in about forty-five minutes," I said.
"Don't ask me how I know, because I haven't time to explain. I _do_
know--you can take my word for it. I knew the cylinder was here, and I
was hoping you'd find a way--"

I caught myself up. "Never mind that now. Just listen. I don't know
how long it took the Colonist to bring it here or how long you've been
working over it. But it hasn't exploded yet. _So there's still a chance
we can get it out into space before it blows up!_"

He looked at me as if he thought I'd gone suddenly quite mad. I
finished what I had to say fast, because I knew it would take eight or
ten more minutes for him to recover from his first shock, and issue
orders, and have the cylinder carried on board his big sky ship--his
pride and glory--and for the sky ship to rise from its launching pad
and be blown apart in space.

He'd have to get all of the crewmen off as well and set the robot
controls and if there were any passengers still on board--I refused to
let myself think about that.

"It may be too late," I went on. "We may all be as good as dead right
now. But we've got to try. Do you understand? You've got to get that
cylinder on the sky ship, set the controls and send it out into space.
_It must be done at once. Every second counts._"

He recovered from the shock faster than I'd dared to hope. The grin
that hovered for the barest instant on his lips startled me until I
realized it was a very special kind of grin--the kind of grin only
a man who is about to part with something that means just about as
much to him as his own life would be capable of ... if he had a
non-eradicable streak of wry humor deep in his nature as well.

"Ralph, I've always looked upon people who put property above human
life as just about the lowest worms that crawl. But for a minute--God
pity me--I almost felt that way. It's just that--it's fifty billion
dollars worth of big, tremendous sky ship and that cylinder is so
small--"

"It won't seem small if it blows up and takes the spaceport with it," I
said. "It won't seem small at all."

"I know, Ralph. I said once I was old enough to be your father and I
still think I am. But if you put me across your knee and gave me the
drubbing a dumb six-year old would rate I'd have no right to complain.
I should have thought of it myself."

"We don't always think of things that stand out like sore thumbs when
we're under tremendous stress," I said. "Don't blame yourself for being
human, Commander."

"I hope it won't take me much longer than that to finish the job,
Ralph," he said. "I'll do my best. There are only three crewmen on
board and all of the passengers have been cleared."

He swung about without another word and went striding out of the
enclosure.

I would have followed him if Joan hadn't picked that moment to come
back into my arms. It held me up for a minute or two.

       *       *       *       *       *

The incandescent burst of flame that makes a big sky ship's ascent into
space seem for an instant almost cataclysmic, as if the sky itself
had been ripped apart in some terrible and incomprehensible way, came
exactly eight minutes, thirty-two seconds later.

I timed it myself, not mentally this time but with a watch in my hand.
I stood with Joan at my side a hundred feet from the launching pad,
watching the cylinder disappear into the sky. It was the cylinder and
not the big rocket itself that I seemed to see as I stared upward,
as if the sky ship had turned to glass and the deadly thing it was
carrying out into space was beginning to stir and vibrate in a quite
ghastly way, with its contours enlarged to sky-spanning dimensions
under the glass.

To my inward vision it was bigger than the ship itself and it was hard
to understand how even a huge sky ship could be carrying anything so
enormous and death-freighted when a short while before it had been
discharging passengers in the bright Martian sunlight who had given
no thought to Death ... only what life had in store for them on a new
world.

My fingers were clenched around the watch and I wasn't even aware that
Commander Littlefield had joined me until he tapped me on the arm.

"We can see and hear it when it happens--all of it, just as if we were
taking it out into space ourselves. Every tele-communicator on the sky
ship is turned on and tuned to big screen wave length. If there was a
crewman on board he could talk to us and we could talk to him."

"Thank God there isn't a living man on board," I breathed.

"Yes," he said, nodding. "Yes, we can be thankful for that. And for
our lives as well. There are four big screens here, but we may as well
watch the one in the port clearance building. It's the largest of the
four--if size makes any difference when about all we'll see when the
cylinder explodes is a blinding flare. We won't see the bulkheads
collapsing, or a robot cyb crumbling, that's for sure. It will happen
too fast."

"What good will it do us to watch at all?" Joan asked. "I'd rather stay
right here. We'll see the flash, won't we?"

"You'll see it, all right," Littlefield said, grimly. "It will look
like an exploding star for about ten seconds. My sky ship--an exploding
star. I never thought it would ever come to that."

He started to turn away, thinking, no doubt, that I'd fallen in with
Joan's idea of passing up a view of it on the screen. But I hadn't at
all and when he started walking toward the port clearance building I
was right at his side. So was Joan, because she was that kind of a
wife. There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask him--questions of
the utmost urgency, such as how much progress he'd made in finding out
who had shot the dart at me from high up on the spiral and just what
news he'd received from the hospital, when Nurse Cherubin had informed
him I was trying to get back to the spaceport, that went beyond that
bare statement--I was sure she'd briefed him in detail--and ... well,
a lot of questions. But this hardly seemed the right time to ask him,
because his inner torment was too great.

I could sympathize and understand, because I knew what a hell he was
passing through. Nothing could prevent the destruction of his sky ship,
but he had to see it with his own eyes, no matter how much agony it
caused him.

He didn't have to do any explaining to the Port Clearance men, because
they'd either assumed he'd pick out their screen well in advance of our
arrival or their own curiosity had proved overmastering.

The screen was lighted and the sound tracks whirring when we walked
into the projection room. It was just like walking into the sky ship's
chart room and staring across it at the four robot giants who had
followed both emergency instructions in space and the routine kind and
were doing their best to perform a man's job now. A mechanical best,
which meant, of course, that they had no way of knowing how close they
were to annihilation. They would be blown apart without pain and had
nothing to lose that a man would have valued. But they were not men,
and who can be sure that mechanical brains and the thought processes
which take place in them are not faintly tinged with emotional
coloration?

Probably not ... for it would have been something that laboratory
tests have never succeeded in establishing. A cybernetic brain can
become fatigued, yes--but it is not really a human fatigue. It is on
the metal-fatigue level. But knowing all that, a chill would have gone
through me if the robots had been able to talk to us.

The image on the screen was three-dimensional, and in full color and
the illusion that we were standing right in the sky ship's chart room
was so startling that Joan whispered: "I wish we'd stayed outside. It's
terrifying. Almost as if ... we could be blown up ourselves when the
blast comes."

"No danger of that," I said, squeezing her hand reassuringly. "You'd
better sit down."

There were ten hollow-tubed metal chairs in the room, but all except
one were occupied. I reached out and drew it toward her, but she shook
her head. "No, I'll stand, Ralph. I may want to leave in a minute."

One of the port clearance lads got up and offered Commander Littlefield
his chair, assuming I'd take the one that Joan had refused. But we were
both of one mind about standing. Only Littlefield sat down, as if the
burden of torment which rested upon him had added ten years to his age.

No sound at all came from the screen for a full minute. Then a scream
broke the stillness. It was so totally unexpected, so horrifying, that
two of the port clearance men leapt to their feet, sending their chairs
spinning backwards. Commander Littlefield was on his feet too, but he
hadn't leapt up. He'd arisen jerkily, his hands pressed to his temples,
as if to shut out the sound or keep his head from bursting.

We saw her then. She had come into the chart room and was staring
directly at us, and just knowing she could see us as clearly as we
could see her made her plight seem even more terrible. To me, at least,
because it wasn't hard to imagine what was passing through her mind.

_I'm alone on the ship ... just as I feared. They've sent me out alone
into space. If Commander Littlefield isn't on board ... if he's in that
room watching me with all those other men ... what else can it mean?_

She'd be ten times as sure of it if she'd been inside the port
clearance projection room and knew what it looked like, and I was
almost certain she had, because there was an unmistakable look of
recognition in her eyes, and the Port Clearance building was where they
took passengers for questioning.



20


She looked as she always had, with her hair piled up high on her head
and the full lips drowsily sensuous, and her breasts thrusting firmly
upward against the tight-clinging fabric that ensheathed them just
below the curve of her throat, and the soft whiteness of her upper
bosom.

Only her eyes had changed. Stark terror looked out of them and suddenly
as she stared at us she pressed one hand to her throat and swayed back
against the bulkhead on the right side of the doorway. It brought
her up short. But I was sure that if it hadn't she'd have gone right
on retreating backwards until she either started screaming again or
crumpled to the floor in a dead faint.

She neither screamed again nor fainted, for Commander Littlefield gave
her no time to succumb to utter panic. But if his voice hadn't rung out
as sharply as it did--at the precise moment that it did--the outcome
might have been quite different.

"Why did you return to the ship?" he shouted. "Why did you do such a
reckless thing? Was it because we suspected you? Was it because you
knew we were about to place you under arrest? Answer me! Your life may
depend on it."

"Yes ... I went back," she said. "But only to get ... something I
didn't want you to find. I was pretty sure I'd hidden it where you'd
never think of searching, but when you started suspecting me--"

"I see. A damaging piece of evidence? Something of the sort?"

She nodded. "Yes ... yes ... a paper. It would have proven my guilt."

"You admit your guilt then? We can still save you, but not if you go on
lying, clinging to the story you told us. Every part of that is false."

"No, no!" She almost screamed the words. "Most of what I told you was
true. My brother did work for Wendel and ... I didn't know that he had
died. I just found that out a few hours ago. I came to Mars to help
him, to save him if I could. I was a Wendel agent, but only because I
had no choice. They threatened to kill my brother ... used that as a
weapon to make me spy for them and do--uglier things."

Her voice rose pleadingly. "Bring the ship back. Don't send me out
alone into space. You can't be that cruel--"

"We can't bring the ship back. But we can save you. Just tell the
truth. Wendel knew that the Board was sending someone to Mars to
investigate the combine, a man who couldn't be bribed to shut his eyes
to what he was sure to see here. You had instructions to kill that man
before he could set foot on Mars. Wendel wanted him killed because they
knew the Board was backing him to the hilt and he had been given enough
authority to make him the most dangerous kind of adversary. Wendel also
knew that you were the most resourceful and intelligent agent in their
employ.

"You proved that, to my satisfaction, when you did what no one has
ever done before--outwitted a Mars' rocket security alert system
by concealing yourself in a cybernetic robot. I'm sure it didn't
take Wendel long to discover that you are as intelligent as you are
beautiful--both valuable assets in a secret agent. Priceless assets.
The time is very short. Am I right so far?"

"Yes ... it's all true. Please ... help me!"

"You tried to kill, without success, the man the Board was sending to
Mars to investigate and crack down on both Wendel and Endicott. You
tried to kill him three times."

"No, only once. I'm telling you the truth. I didn't fire that dart.
There were other Wendel agents on board. One tried to blow up the ship.
And there were other Wendel agents in New Chicago, with instructions to
assassinate him if they could."

"I see. But you did try to kill him in New Chicago. Why did you come to
Mars, if you didn't intend to try again?"

"I told you. I didn't lie when I said I came to save my brother, that I
wanted to see Wendel exposed ... forced to face criminal charges. When
I tried to stab him in the New Chicago Underground and failed ... I
realized what Wendel had done to me, what a vicious person I'd become.
I decided I couldn't go on being that kind of person any longer, not
even to save my brother. I took the only other way I could think of
to keep Wendel from killing my brother. I _am_ a resourceful woman, I
_am_ intelligent ... why should I deny it? I might have made the Wendel
Combine think twice about killing him. But now my brother's dead and--"

Her shoulders sagged and a look of torment came into her eyes.

"All right. One thing more. When that Wendel agent surprised you in the
chart room and the man you'd tried to kill saved you ... why were you
so frightened? Why did the agent go into such a rage? You must have
thought he intended to kill you. And if you were both Wendel agents--"

"I wasn't supposed to be on the ship. He knew it, and must have been
pretty sure I'd turned traitor. He knew all about my brother. There
wasn't much he didn't know about me, because he was a very high-placed
agent. He knew I had every reason to hate Wendel. And I think he was
also the kind of man who turns sadistic when he has a woman completely
at his mercy."

She saw me then. I could tell by the way her eyes widened and then
fastened on me, staring straight past Littlefield as if he was no
longer her only accuser.

But she was mistaken if she thought I had any desire to accuse her.
I was furious with Littlefield, sickened by his relentless attack on
her and if I hadn't been stunned for a moment, caught up in a kind
of hypnotic spell by the suddenness of that attack and the startling
candor she'd displayed in replying to it I'd have interfered sooner.

What she'd told him was evidence. It would help me to smash Wendel in
a legal way, which is always the best way, when backed up as it would
have to be by armed, completely lawful authority. All I'd have to do
would be to put what she'd just said into one package and what Wendel
agents had done to an Endicott fuel cylinder in a densely populated
section of the Colony in another and bring the two packages together
and there would take place, on Earth and on Mars, the kind of explosion
that would blow the Wendel Combine into the rubbish bin of history. The
Wendel-Endicott war would be over, and the Colonists would have a new
birth of freedom.

A death-bed confession has the strongest kind of legal validity and
when a woman thinks she has been sent out into space on an unmanned
rocket perhaps to die ... she is not likely to lie about anything.
An unforeseeable accident--a blind fluke of circumstance--had dealt
Littlefield a winning hand and he had taken full advantage of it. He
had done it to help me, God pity him ... for I hated him for it.

Every question he'd asked her and every reply she'd taken a minute or
two to make explicit had cut down her chances of staying on this side
of eternity.

She was looking straight at me.

"Ralph!" she said. "I don't want to die alone in space! What are they
trying to do to me?"

It was as much as I could take.

I grabbed Littlefield by the shoulders and swung him about and
demanded. "You said you could save her. How? Were you lying? If you
were ... I'll kill you."

"Let go of me, Ralph," he said. "A chance like that would never come
again. I had to risk it."

"All right--you've risked it. Now ... can you save her? That's all I
want to know. Nothing else matters."

"Yes ... I think so. If the cylinder doesn't blow up for three or four
more minutes. If she puts on a vacuum suit and goes out into space and
we're able to pick her up tomorrow or the next day--"

"Then for God's sake tell her. You'll have to tell her about the
cylinder, or she won't know how great the danger is. She may take her
time about it."

"All right," he said. "I'll take care of it."

He was talking to her in the big screen when Joan and I walked out of
the port clearance building.

We walked out because, if the explosion had come while he was talking,
just watching it would have killed me. No worse death can come to a
man than the one that can take place inwardly, for it can shrivel and
blacken his soul and leave him a burnt-out shell of a man until he dies
physically. And Joan could sense that, and wanted to get me out of
there as quickly as possible.

The explosion came a full ten minutes later, which meant that even
Hillard hadn't known how variable the critical mass buildup could be in
at least a few of the Endicott cylinders.

We were standing in the open, two hundred feet from the nearest rocket
launching pad, when we saw it--Littlefield's exploding star high up in
the night sky. The brightness lasted less than ten seconds.



21


You can be holding high cards, practically unbeatable, in the final
deal of a poker game and still not be sure of winning. You have to call
your opponent's hand before he gets the idea that just by drawing out
a gun and shooting you dead he can gather up all the chips, and cash
them in by threatening further violence. Assuming, of course, that he's
capable of that kind of violence and is in all respects the opposite of
an honest gambler.

You can be even less sure of winning when it isn't a game of cards
you're on the point of winning, but a duel to the death with a ruthless
power combine and time is running out on you.

I had all the evidence I needed now to smash the Wendel Combine. But it
had to be built up by legal experts, and stripped down as well, until
the documentation had the sinewy, blockbusting persuasiveness of a
champion's punch.

It would have to stir popular fury on Earth on a very wide scale,
be made so convincing that no one could possibly mistake it for a
trumped-up shakedown in another grab for power. And that would take
time--two or three weeks, at least.

And right at the moment Wendel was almost certainly out of the hospital
and back in the Wendel plant, getting ready to close in on the skyport
with his army of goons.

The problem that confronted me can be summarized in just one sentence.
I had to get into my uniform, pin the silver bird into place and
complete just two visits, or Wendel would dig my grave wide and deep.

Not just my own grave, of course--but when you fight to stay alive you
remember all of the things you want to protect and stay alive for.
There are men, I suppose, who are chiefly concerned with survival on a
more primitive plane, but I think I can honestly say I've never been
that kind of man.

My first visit was going to be to one hell of a live man--Joseph
Sherwood. Sherwood had undisputed custody, by authority of the Board,
of every nuclear weapon in the Colony with enough large-scale
destructive potential to make open defiance of that authority an
extremely risky undertaking.

I was now his superior in rank, but I had no intention of making
changes in his command or questioning the wisdom of the decisions he
was more than qualified to make. The measures he had taken to protect
the Colony I regarded as absolutely correct and he knew far more
about nuclear armaments than I did. There were limits to what those
measures could accomplish, because a large-scale thermonuclear weapon
can destroy thousands of innocent victims, and the Wendel Combine knew
precisely how far it could go without bringing down the thunder.

All I had to do was convince Wendel that it had now gone too far and
that the thunder was very close. Basically it would be quite a simple
undertaking. I would simply have to walk into the Wendel plant and talk
to him in a calm way, at the risk of being blown apart.

I was standing before a full-length mirror in a small, windowless room
which the skyport officials had assured me wasn't wired for sound.
It sure had privacy. Not that I'd need it while I was putting on my
uniform, because I'd be wearing it when I emerged and they would all
see the silver bird. And Joan was the only woman in the building ...
which made privacy a little absurd on more than one count.

It was just that--well, when you stand before a mirror and pin that
kind of insignia on a quite ordinary, regulation-fit uniform it does
something to the wearer which changes the way he looks in a quite
startling way.

I guess I just didn't want anyone to see me observing the change
in a mirror and grin, which would have forced me to do something I
just hadn't time for--take a sock at him. I suppose there's a little
garden-variety vanity in me--show me a man who claims he hasn't a trace
of it in his nature and I'll show you a first-class liar--but right at
the moment I wouldn't have been lying if I'd said that nothing could
have been further from my mind than preening myself on the way I looked.

But it was just as well I had privacy, because I had to stand before
the mirror for three full minutes to get accustomed to the change, and
feel relaxed and casual about it.

I'd forgotten to tell Commander Littlefield I'd be needing a tractor,
warmed up and ready to roll, and that the place to find it waiting for
me would be right outside the gate. The one I'd left there with a dead
man sitting in it didn't have quite the trim, speedy look of three or
four I'd noticed standing about the skyport and if he could get me a
lighter one so much the better.

Joan was taking care of it for me. She came back just as I was turning
from the mirror, with the silver bird gleaming on my right shoulder.
She'd seen me wearing it before, of course, so she wasn't startled. But
the tall, stoop-shouldered man with graying temples who had followed
her into the room had enough startlement in his eyes to have made her a
present of half of it and still made the grade in that respect.

He kept staring at the silver bird in tight-lipped silence until I
darted a questioning glance at Joan and he seemed to realize he was
putting a strain on my patience.

"My name's John Lynton," he said, hesitantly. "Commander Littlefield
told me you'll be needing a tractor. I have one, and I'll be glad to
drive you, sir. I brought the Endicott fuel cylinder to the skyport,
so I naturally feel pretty strongly about everything that's happened.
There's just one thing I'd like to see happen to Wendel. But I guess I
don't have to spell it out for you, sir."

I stared at him in amazement. I'd taken it for granted that the
Colonist who had delivered the cylinder was no longer at the skyport,
because no one had pointed him out to me, and I'd been under too much
of a strain to question Littlefield about it.

"Well ... that takes care of one thing that puzzled me," I said. "I
couldn't understand why you'd just deliver the cylinder and clear out.
But people here seem to feel they're privileged to do pretty much as
they please at times. So it didn't puzzle me too much."

"I was in the Administration Building, talking to a sky ship officer,
when you were in the shed, sir," he explained. "But I saw you come into
the projection room--"

"All right," I said. "We haven't time to discuss it and it's not
important anyway. I know how to drive a tractor, but I'm not an expert
at it. If you've got your own tractor you'll know what to do if it
breaks down. That's an advantage I'd be a fool to pass up. But if
you're going with me, you may as well know we'll be in danger the
instant we pass through the gate. The Wendel agents have orders to
blast me down on sight."

I shouldn't have said that, for it made Joan bite down hard on her
underlip and say in a kind of talking-to-herself whisper, "An armed
escort would cut down the danger. Littlefield could--"

I shook my head. "We'd be certain to be stopped then and an open clash
with Wendel agents in the streets of the Colony would wrap it up--but
good. There's no way of packaging it that would please Wendel more."

The instant Lynton realized, just from the way I was looking at Joan,
that I wanted to be alone with her he said: "I'd better check over the
tractor once more. I'll drive it through the gate, draw in to the side
of the clear-away and keep a sharp eye on the incoming traffic--if any.
I'll keep the motor running, sir."

The instant the door closed behind him Joan was in my arms. For the
most part all we did was embrace without saying a word, which is one
way of saying as much as you possibly can in the space of half a minute.

I was a little afraid that Joan would break down and burst into tears,
which would have spoiled everything. I could see the tears trembling
on the fringes of her eyelids, and decided right then and there that
she was one hell of a precious woman. And when you're parting with
something very precious you can break your heart in two if you let
yourself do too much thinking.

So I just kissed her very firmly on the mouth for the tenth time, swung
about and walked out of that small, windowless room without looking
back to see if she was still doing her best to keep the tears from
flowing.

In the ambulance on the way to the hospital I'd seen more of the Colony
than I could have covered on foot in half a day. Jogging through the
streets again with Lynton doing the driving I could have taken in even
more of it in a sight-seeing way. I could have--but I didn't.

I saw no reason to make myself conspicuous, and somehow removing
the insignia from my shoulder so soon after I'd pinned it on would
have gone against the grain. And it wasn't just my uniform or the
silver bird which would have made me a sitting duck to a Wendel agent
stationed anywhere along the way with my description dear and sharp in
his mind. It was a safe bet we'd pass at least a dozen of the Combine's
goons, strutting about in their private police uniforms, so I took care
to remain in a seated position in the back of the tractor, with my head
well below sight-seeing level.

This time I didn't look, wonder or black out at intervals. I kept a
tight grip on my nerves and refused to even let myself think what an
impasse I'd be facing if my talk with Arms Custodian Sherwood didn't
bring the kind of results I was counting on.

It's hard to maintain just one rigid mental stance when you're keeping
a great many hard-to-control emotions bottled up in your mind with a
clamped-down safety valve. But I didn't have to maintain the stance
for long, because twenty minutes after we left the skyport the tractor
rumbled to a halt before a massive, fortress-like building which stood
a considerable distance from the buildings on both sides of it and
was protected in its isolation by steel walls, pacing guards and a
well-guarded stockpile of thermonuclear weapons.

No Wendel agent would have risked blasting away at me within three
miles of that stronghold--unless he was tired of living and didn't want
to see another Martian sunrise. It made me feel secure enough to stand
up and descend from the tractor without making a production out of it,
as if I was two-thirds convinced I'd be blown apart before I could
advance twenty feet.

I neither hurried nor wasted time, just stood calmly by the tractor
until I was satisfied no one who had seen us drive up--I was quite sure
we were under long-range binocular scrutiny--would come striding out
of the forest to question us at gunpoint. Then I nodded to Lynton, and
walked straight toward the big gray building. I'd told him not to move
from his seat until I came out, so there was no need to caution him
further.

I can't remember at exactly what point in my approach to the
high-walled gate the silver bird became a thunder-bird, or exactly how
each of the three guards looked when they first caught sight of it.

I was too startled just by the way the oldest of the three, who must
have been a tow-headed twelve-year-old when the first wearer of the
insignia walked the streets of the Colony, stared at me, snapped to
attention and grounded the heavy weapon he'd been holding slantwise
across his chest with a thud. The other two guards quickly followed
suit. Quite possibly they had merely taken their cue from him and
didn't want to risk an official reprimand. But they certainly put on a
convincing performance, as if what they feared most was a full-dress
court martial. If I'd dropped down out of the sky in a golden chariot
and was Apollo, maybe, or the Aztec Sun God, I couldn't have been
accorded more deference.

A moment later the high steel gate opened and shut with a clang and I
was on the inside, with more guards on both sides of me. I'd paused
a moment, of course, to explain to the elderly guard who had first
saluted me, just why I was there and whom I wanted to see.

I had an escort of six guards as I walked to the end of the
first-floor corridor, and ascended a short flight of stairs and they
continued to escort all the way to the door of Sherwood's office.

Some men can be jolted almost speechless by an unexpected visit and
recover their composure so rapidly they seem to have retained it from
the beginning. It was that way with Sherwood. He was a big man in his
early forties, with close-cropped reddish hair and handsome features.

He was sparing of words, but everything he told me was in direct answer
to my questions and a man who can confine himself to just giving you
the information you need without wasting words is likely to be the kind
of man you can depend on in an emergency.

His final answer was the clincher. It came at the end of a
fifteen-minute conversation.

"We can do it if we've no other choice," he said.

"All right," I said. "I want you to tell Wendel exactly what you've
just told me, on a two-way televisual hookup. I'll be at the Wendel
plant in fifteen minutes, and I'm sure I can persuade him to talk to
you on the screen, right after I've laid it on the line for him.

"If," I added "--and it's a very big _if_--I can get in to see him
without ending up dead. His goons have orders to blast me down on
sight."

He looked at me steadily for a moment, with a concerned tightening of
his lips. Then he leaned back and some of the strain left his face.

"Have any of his goons ever seen you with that insignia on your
shoulder?" he asked.

It was a good question and it confirmed the opinion I'd formed of him.

"No, they haven't," I said. "But it doesn't alter the possibility
I'll be blasted down before I can get in to see Wendel. Remember--the
Wendel Combine has taken the big gamble and is waging an undeclared,
but all out war. This insignia makes me Target Number One. If I took
it off before entering the plant his goons would probably recognize
me anyway--too quickly for me to save myself by shouting at them and
trying to make them see that Wendel would want them to withhold their
fire. I may not have a chance to do any explaining, because they may
recognize me just from the description that's been furnished them."

Sherwood nodded. "Yes ... it would be foolish to deny you won't be
exposing yourself to danger. And you'll have to be wearing the insignia
when you confront Wendel. But I've a feeling that Wendel's goons
will take you straight to him. I could be mistaken, of course. But
somehow I can't picture them firing pointblank at Target Number One
without prior authorization. They'd be sticking out their necks with a
vengeance, because their instructions to blast you on sight were issued
before you pinned that bird on your shoulder."

"I hope you're right," I said. "But goons are funny people."

"I'll be right here at my desk when the screen lights up," he said.
"Don't worry too much. I'll handle my end of it with very careful
timing...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Fifteen minutes later my tractor rumbled to a halt for the second time,
directly in front of the Wendel plant.

Like the Endicott plant, it faced a big square and there were no
pedestrians in sight on the side we parked on.

"This time I'm going with you," Lynton said, very firmly.

So he was going with me! All right, it was an obligation I owed him,
and I couldn't pull rank on him, because he was a civilian and it
wouldn't have done the least bit of good. Moreover, he'd gotten over
being dazzled by the silver bird, if it had ever really dazzled him,
which I doubted. He was a too tough-fibered, independent, non-authority
conscious kind of guy. You find them in every rugged, pioneering
society--guys who will stand up in a public meeting and tell a
governmental big shot that the speech he's just delivered has a phony
ring to it and he'd be well advised to try again.

I descended from the tractor a little more cautiously this time,
keeping my eye on the ground-floor windows of the plant and wondering
how long it would take me to cross from the car to the building's wide
main entrance and if the steel-mesh blinds on the windows might not be
a cover-up for nuclear weapons pointed straight in our direction.

But actually, despite the uneasiness which we both felt, we crossed
from the tractor to the plant without hurrying and with our shoulders
held straight.

There were two guards in Wendel private police uniforms with nuclear
hand-guns clamped to their hips standing just inside the entrance and
the instant we came into view their hands darted to the holstered
weapons and their eyes took on a steely glint.

Then--both guards did a swift double take. They didn't stiffen to
attention the way the guards at the gate of the nuclear fortress had
done, but something happened to their faces which made them seem to be
wearing frozen masks. Only their eyes remained alive, alert, the steely
glint replaced by a look of stunned incredulity.

I spoke sharply, without giving them time to reach a decision on their
own initiative which might have had tragic consequences, for you can
never tell what desperate, completely unjustified measures a badly
jolted man will take it into his head to resort to.

"I'm here to see Wendel," I said. "Nobody else will do. I guess I don't
have to tell you that this is an order. You'd be very foolish not to
unbar that gate, for I have the authority to take you into custody if
you prevent me from entering the plant. You may be just guards, but
that will not prevent the Colonization Board from imprisoning you on a
treason charge."

Their eyes never left the insignia while they were swinging open the
big, iron-barred entrance gate for me. It was set well back from the
street, with enough walled-in space in front of it to accommodate a
dozen bloody corpses. I had an idea they would have tried to make use
of it in that way, if I'd attempted to force my way past them with an
armed escort and hadn't been wearing the silver bird.

The strain and uncertainty eased a little once we were fairly sure we
wouldn't be blasted down without warning. It didn't take long for that
near-assurance to harden into a conviction, for what happened after the
big gate clanged shut behind us was almost a repeat of what had taken
place in the nuclear fortress.

More armed Wendel police guards fell into step on both sides of us,
with much the same look on their faces the two at the entrance had worn
ten seconds after their eyes had rested on the silver bird.

Just one small incident took place which made it a little unlike the
reception which had been accorded me when I'd asked to see Sherwood. We
were held up at the end of a branching corridor while one of the guards
went into a small, blank-walled room and buzzed Wendel on an interplant
communicator, announcing our arrival.

We didn't know that until later, because he was careful to shut the
door of the room before he spoke into the communicator. When he came
out there was a hardness around his eyes, a look of grim satisfaction
that should have warned me that we were in danger. But you don't always
attach as much weight as you should to a quick change of expression on
the face of a man whose job requires him to resort to brutal violence
two or three times a week. The face of such a man can harden just from
habit.

Because it was the kind of mistake it was easy to make and the other
guards were keeping their hostility under wraps we didn't know or even
suspect that we were walking straight into a trap until we were almost
at the door of Wendel's office on the second floor of the plant.

If you're the head of a big power combine, and shrewd, as Wendel
unquestionably was, and there's a threat to your survival coming
straight toward you along an echoing corridor and you want to be sure
in advance he'll be a broken man when you talk with him in strict
privacy, with the chips scattered widely and the game almost at an
end--you'll either take care of it yourself, or assign just one man you
can trust to do the job for you.

Not a dozen men--or half a dozen--but just one. It's more efficient
that way, more certain, the right way to go about it.

I had no way of knowing that, of course, no way of looking through a
wall at Wendel standing motionless or possibly seated in a chair, his
eyes gleaming triumphantly, as we approached the door of his office,
with just one guard walking a few paces behind us.

Except that--deep in my mind the alarm bells were ringing again. They
were ringing, all right, but very, very faintly and I don't know to
this day what made me turn my head and look behind me just as he was
whipping out the heavy metal thong.

I caught only the barest glimpse of the thong gleaming in the corridor
light. But even if he'd kept it concealed for a few seconds longer his
face would have given him away. His eyes were blazing with a savage
enmity, and he started for me the instant he realized that I had been
forewarned.

I gripped Lynton by the arm and fell back against the wall, tugging
him around so that he was far enough behind me to give me a chance to
grapple with Hard Eyes head-on, with complete freedom of movement.

He made the mistake of coming at me too fast. It might not have been a
mistake if he hadn't been so reckless with the thong, trying to lash me
across the chest with it before he was sure of his balance. The sheer
weight of the weapon carried him forward, straight past me, and it went
swishing through the air without hitting anything.

I made a grab for his wrist and before he could recover his balance I
was twisting it relentlessly and slamming my fist against the side of
his head. He sank to his knees and I kept right on hammering away at
him, hitting him first on the right temple and then on the left and not
even stopping to take the thong away from him.

There was no need for me to relieve him of the thong, for he flattened
out on the floor still holding on to it and passed out cold. It seemed
only reasonable and just to let him keep it as a souvenir.

I was out of breath and feeling a little dizzy, because when you hit
anyone as hard as I'd hit Hard Eyes, not caring much whether I killed
him or not, it takes a minute or two to recover. I still hadn't quite
gotten my breath back when the door of Wendel's office slammed open and
Wendel himself stood there, staring down at the guard with a look of
consternation on his face.

I became a little alarmed when I saw that Lynton had moved out from
the wall and was making straight for him with his arm drawn back.
Hell--that's an understatement. I became very much alarmed, because the
one thing I didn't want was to have Wendel belted unconscious and laid
out on the floor at the guard's side before I could have a talk with
him.

I got between them just in time, and I grabbed Wendel by the shoulders
and hurled him back into his office and when he staggered a little and
almost fell I grabbed hold of him for the second time, and slammed him
down in the chair in front of his big, metal-topped desk.

He looked up at me for a moment with a killing rage in his eyes, but
I didn't give him a chance to get his breath back. For the barest
instant, though, if he had been quick enough, he might have succeeded
in getting to his feet and lashing out at me, for I saw something on
the opposite side of the room that seemed almost too good to be true,
and I took three full seconds out to stare at it.

It was a big tele-communicator screen--just the kind of screen I had
been sure I'd find somewhere in the plant, but hardly in Wendel's
private office. The fact that Sherwood had one in his office was not
quite so surprising, for Sherwood's custodianship of thermonuclear
weapons had made him more communication-conscious.

I'd counted on being able to persuade Wendel to accompany me to
wherever the plant's screen happened to be located, after I'd had a
serious talk with him. But since he hadn't wanted me to have a talk
with him until he'd done his best to get me killed or crippled for
life, and I would now have to keep him boxed up in his office by force
while we conducted the talk, having the screen so accessible was one
hell of a lucky break.

"Shut the door," I told Lynton. "And lock it."

I waited until Lynton had complied, my hands on Wendel's shoulders
with so fierce a clamp-hold that he gave up trying to rise.

"You'll never get out of here alive!" he choked. "If you think--"

"Don't press your luck, Wendel," I said, warningly. "I might be tempted
to break your neck."

"That insignia you're wearing doesn't mean a thing now, Graham. Don't
you understand? You couldn't command a fly to crawl over a bread crumb.
The Wendel Combine is taking over the Colony."

"Not a fly, Wendel," I said. "The Wendel Combine. A big boa
constrictor has nothing in common with a fly and I'm not interested
in bread crumbs. And this will surprise you. _You're_ going to do
the commanding. You're going to command the boa constrictor to start
disgorging--every kill it's ever swallowed. It's going to flatten
itself out until it's just a mass of cold mottled skin, which the Board
will know how to deal with."

"Who's going to make me?"

"I am," I said. "You have just ten minutes to make up your mind. You
either turn over all of the Combine's nuclear weapons to the Board,
break the back of the Wendel police force by arresting all of its
officers and placing yourself under house arrest and order every Wendel
employee to cooperate with the Board or--Joseph Sherwood will vaporize
the plant with a thermonuclear bomb. The rocket will be guided by
remote control and will hover directly above the plant until the bomb
has been dropped. Only the plant will be destroyed. There will be no
zone of spreading radio-active contamination."

All of the color drained from Wendel's face, leaving it ashen. "You
must be mad!" he gasped. "You'd die too."

"I'm aware of that," I said. "We'll all be vaporized together. But it
isn't too bad a way to die, Wendel. You feel no pain, never know--"

"Do you expect me to take that threat seriously?" he breathed.

"I'm afraid I do," I said. I gestured toward the tele-communicator.
"Sherwood will tell you how serious it is. He's waiting to talk to you.
Suppose we turn that screen on and listen to what he has to say. I'm
sure you know how to get the right wave-length. The Wendel spy network
would hardly fail to keep you informed when Sherwood changes the code
frequencies."

"You said ten minutes," Wendel was breathing harshly now and the veins
on his forehead were thick blue cords. "You'd have to let Sherwood
know when to drop the bomb. You haven't been in communication with
him since you arrived here. Suppose I refuse to dial? That's a very
intricate, highly specialized communicator. You couldn't operate it."

That made me change my mind about letting him do the dialing. I
was pretty sure I'd experience no difficulty in getting in contact
with Sherwood and I didn't want to give Wendel a chance to make the
communicator even more specialized by ripping put some of the wiring.

I turned to Lynton and indicated by tapping Wendel forcibly on the
shoulder that I was about to relinquish my hold on the Combine's
difficult president, and would he kindly take my place behind the chair.

"Don't let him move," I cautioned, when we'd changed places. "Keep a
tight grip on his shoulders."

"Don't worry," Lynton said. "If he moves an inch I'll do what you said
might not be a bad idea--break his neck."

It didn't take me long to discover that Wendel had lied about the
communicator, which meant, of course, that he had been hoping I'd give
him a chance to do a quick job of sabotage on the wiring.

It was just a run-of-the-mill, two-way televisual communicator, with
nothing specialized about it.

There was a humming sound for a few seconds right after I'd finished
dialing and it gave me a chance to scrutinize Wendel's face to see how
he was taking it.

He was terrified, all right. But his lips were still set in defiant
lines and I was sure that if he could have gotten a grip on my throat
right at that moment getting his fingers unlocked wouldn't have been
easy.

I thought that when Sherwood's image appeared on the screen there would
be just one minute of hard-to-live-through uncertainty--that he'd back
up what I'd told Wendel with his hand on the rocket release button and
look straight at me, as if awaiting a signal I had no intention of
giving.

But I suddenly realized I didn't know just how it was going to be.
Would Wendel stay defiant right up to the end, would he defeat me
through sheer stubbornness, even though he was mortally terrified?

But there was one thing I did know. For the first time, as I waited
for Sherwood's image to appear on the screen, I knew with absolute
certainty, beyond any possibility of doubt, that I could never go
through with it.

The rocket had to be prepared and ready--the nuclear deterrent had to
be a reality--or I could never have carried the bluff through with the
kind of confidence that just the knowledge that you're holding the
highest cards in the deck can give you.

I had to feel that I _just might give the signal_.

But vaporizing the plant would have cost the lives of thirty thousand
people and not more than a fourth of them were vicious criminals. I
just couldn't see myself ordering a nuclear bomb to be dropped on more
than twenty thousand completely innocent Wendel plant engineers and
laboratory technicians.

Perhaps I shouldn't have felt that way, because if the Wendel Combine
took over the Colony three or four times that number of innocent people
would perish, or sink into degradation and become completely enslaved.
But I did feel that way and--well, I wouldn't have to live with what
I'd done, because I'd be killed by the blast. But I didn't want that on
my conscience even as a dead man.

I couldn't go through with it, but had I ever really intended to? It
didn't mean I couldn't win, didn't change what I'd come to do. If
I could carry my bluff through without flinching, right up to the
zero-count instant, there was a very good chance that Wendel would
crack. A very good chance still.

I had the highest cards in the deck and was only handicapped in one
way. If the zero-count instant came and Wendel didn't crack I couldn't
play them.

I've never really believed in miracles. But if you're holding what
you think are the highest cards, and something happens to your hand
you never dreamed could happen--if you look and see you've got a card
that's even higher, just slipped in between the others as a gift ...
well, that's pretty close to a miracle, isn't it?

I thought when Sherwood's image appeared on the screen he'd be sitting
alone behind his desk, with his thumb on the rocket-release button.
But he wasn't alone and when I saw who was with him I almost stopped
breathing....

Joan was with him and she was looking straight at me out of the screen.

"Don't do it, Ralph!" she pleaded. "Oh, God, no--"

Then I saw that she was staring past me and without turning I knew that
she was appealing to Wendel with the same look of pleading desperation
in her eyes. "If he gives the signal his command will be obeyed. And
he'll do it unless you stop him! When you've lived with a man in the
intimacy of marriage--yes, that's important and I have to say it--you
know him better than anyone else. You know what he's capable of. He'll
give the signal unless you do as he says, because the insignia he's
wearing gives him no choice. If you don't stop him now ... _you'll die
with him_!"

I turned then and stared straight at Wendel. I'd never seen a man sag
before in quite the way he did. All of the life seemed to go out of his
eyes. His defiance gave way to a look of utter hopelessness, of abject
surrender, and he sank so low in his chair that he seemed on the verge
of slumping to the floor, despite Lynton's grip on his shoulders.

His voice, when he spoke, scarcely rose above a whisper. "All right,
Graham," he said. "You win."

As I turned back to the screen and saw the look of overwhelming relief
and gratefulness in Joan's eyes I couldn't help wondering how close she
had been to being right. Had the insignia really given me any choice?
If Wendel had stayed defiant and refused to crack--would I have gone
through with it? How much does any man know about _himself_?

I'd probably never know the answer.

In the days that followed every one of the Wendel agents were rounded
up and returned to Earth to stand trial. I never did find out the
identity of the agent who had shot the dart at me from high up on
the spiral or the one who had sent a little mechanical killer in my
direction by the shores of Lake Michigan in New Chicago.

It didn't worry me at all, because I was sure that both of those
delightful characters were among the agents who had been rounded up in
the mopping up operations.

Oh, yes--they rescued her with her hair in disarray and no longer
standing high up on her head. Three days later, drifting through empty
space about three hundred thousand miles from Mars. She's in prison now
and will have to answer charges. But I intend to go all out in the plea
I'll make in her defense when she comes up for trial.

Some judges are enlightened and merciful and others are harsh tyrants,
but with the backing of the Board I'm not too worried about the
outcome. If it goes against us, I'll take it to the highest court in
the land, and the backing of the Board carries plenty of weight there
too.

Eventually I forgave Commander Littlefield.

"I'm a hard man, Ralph," he said, standing in the starlight outside
the Port Administration Section with a crumpled sheet of paper in his
hand, right after he'd received assurances from Earth he'd be placed in
command of a new sky ship. "I did what I did because I am what I am. I
knew that her life hung in the balance, that every word we exchanged
increased the danger. But when I weighed that against the future of
the Colony--I felt I had no choice. I knew what a full confession would
mean to us."

I never saw Nurse Cherubin again. She married her doctor and they were
honeymoon passengers on the next scheduled Earth trip, which took place
while I was busy making sure that the whole Wendel Combine would come
apart at the seams. It was a little like watching a volcanic explosion
and keeping the lava flow channeled with the full weight of the Board's
authority.

Joan and I have become Martian Colony residents for the duration. I
mean by that there will always be new battles to be fought in a war
that will never end ... as long as Man stays a part of the universe.
There's something embattled about him that you don't find in any other
species. Maybe it's good and maybe it's bad, but it helps to explain
why he keeps building for the future, He never knows--and just not
knowing makes him want to build as sturdily as he can.

You never prize anything so much as when you feel you're about to lose
it. So you fight to preserve it, and when you've done that you've built
up enough excess energy to want to make a stab at something better. And
when that's threatened you'll fight again and so on until the final
curtain.

It's just the way things are.


THE END

       *       *       *       *       *



FOR SCIENCE FICTION FANS

A space-age collection of startling adventures


WORLDS OF WHEN

Groff Conklin. Five short novels of improbable todays and
possible tomorrows. (F733)


VENUS PLUS X

Theodore Sturgeon. He woke up in a world of strange creatures
and nearly went mad. (F732)


THE CASTLE OF IRON

L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt. They disappeared Into a
world of wizards, werewolves, and magic spells. (F722)


THE WALL AROUND THE WORLD

Theodore R. Cogswell. Amazing stories from spaceships to flying
broomsticks. (F703)


THE HAUNTED STARS

Edmond Hamilton. A tense tale of the near future and of Man's
destiny. (F698)


THE FALLING TORCH

Algis Budrys. He had to free an enslaved planet or die. (F693)


NAKED TO THE STARS

Gordon R. Dickson. Soldiers of Space fight Earth's wars on the
far planets. (F682)


A WAY HOME

Theodore Sturgeon. Tales of sky-high imagination and chilling
impact. (F673)


THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT

Harry Harrison. The saga of an interstellar con man and crook.
(F672)


EACH BOOK ONLY 40c

(plus 5c handling charge)

-------------------------------------------------------------

PYRAMID BOOKS, Dept. F742, 444 Madison Ave., New York 22, N.Y.

Please send me the following books. Each book 40c plus 5c handling
charge. I enclose $________________


F733 F732 F722 F703 F698 F693 F682 F673 F672

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       *       *       *       *       *



Planet In Danger!


There was trouble brewing on Mars--_bad_ trouble. Two giant industrial
empires fought for control there, and their struggle imperiled the
whole Mars colony. Civil war--atomic civil war--could break out any
second, leaving Earth's only foothold in Space a mass of radio-active
rubble.

But both antagonists were too politically powerful for the Colonization
Board to take a direct hand. One man was needed to take charge--one man
who could act fast and decisively, brutally if he had to.

Ralph Graham got the job.

And then people began dying around him....

In MARS IS MY DESTINATION, veteran author Frank Long
spins a fast suspense story in the classic tradition of "action"
science-fiction--a story of Tomorrow and a crisis in the advance into
Space.


A PYRAMID BOOK 40c

Cover Painting: John Schoenherr

Printed In U.S.A.





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