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´╗┐Title: The Friendly Killers
Author: Tenneshaw, S. M.
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 "The Friendly Killers" ***

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                         The Friendly Killers

                          By S. M. Tenneshaw

               How do you fight an alien race invisible
             to Terran eyes? Particularly when you suspect
             your enemy is really masquerading as an ally!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                               June 1958
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


"_Mankind never learned where the Kel came from. They were, apparently,
a remnant of some uncontacted island culture._

"_The first hint the FedGov had of their existence was the sudden
appearance of their strange silver globeships off Cadar. Sweeping down
with not even an effort to communicate with the helpless inhabitants,
the Kel desolated the entire planet. Other outlying worlds met the same
fate._

"_Then the FedGov rallied. A rigid defense net was set up, and the
controversial compulsory conditioning laws enacted._

"_But since the Kel maintained no fixed base of operations, it seemed
impossible to strike any really damaging blow against them._

"_The result was a stalemate, in which neither side appeared able to
gain any real advantage._

"_This situation continued for well-nigh two hundred years, until
a disastrous break through in which the Kel wiped out the entire
population of Bejak II._

"_The next four years saw a whole series of renewed assaults on the
human race. Interplanetary shipping was disrupted so badly that in many
areas worlds were virtually without mutual contact save through the
limited and highly restricted facilities of FedGov space-warp._

"_The final climax developed on the bastion world of Rizal, when it
became apparent that in this struggle man was faced with enemies
within...."_

                                           --Hedikawa, GALACTIC HISTORY



                               CHAPTER I

                            THE LUCKY ONES


Outside the space-warp chamber, Rizal's great green sun had already
set. Thick olive dusk eddied through the interplanetary transit center.

I swore under my breath and slammed shut the warp-hatch switch.

Locking bars whispered back. The hatch revolved on its axis, slow as an
asteroid eroding. I threw another quick glance at my chrono.

It still read the same as before: six Earth hours more ... six hours to
ferret out the truth or be forever reconditioned.

--Six hours, that is, if Controller Alfred Kruze didn't cut it shorter.

And if he did, Rizal might very well change status. Today, it was
billed as the FedGov's outermost bastion against the Kel. Tomorrow, it
could prove man's fatal flaw, the Achilles heel in our whole system of
defenses.

In which case--

Involuntarily, I shivered.

And still the hatch's cylinder moved at its same snail's pace.

Then, abruptly, there was a click of gears meshing. Tenons dovetailed.
The hatch slid inward on its thick, girder-rigid tracks, back between
the island banks of micromesh transistors.

Not waiting further, I squeezed between cylinder and slot and scrambled
out into the night.

"Agent Traynor--?"

The voice came from the shadows. A dull, phlegmatic, tranquilized,
conditioned voice. I stopped short; turned fast. "Who's asking?"

The man shrugged stolidly, not even picking up my tension. "I'm a port
rep, Agent Traynor. Port rep second, that is--"

"So who told you to come out here? Who said you should meet me?"

"Oh...." A pause. "Well, you see, there's this sigman, Agent Traynor.
Up in the Interworld Communications section. He had a regular 7-D
clearance report that a FedGov Security investigation agent was warping
in--you have to file a 7-D on all warpings, you know, Agent Traynor,
on account of restrictives. So--well, the rep first was out to eat, so
I just notified Rizal Security, just a routine report, and the unit
controller there, an Agent Gaylord, he said for me to meet you, and--"

I bit down hard and shifted my weight, both at once, wondering if a
broken jaw would interfere with the work of a port rep second.

Only then, all at once, I caught the unmistakable _whish_ of a grav-car
sweeping in.

The lights hit us almost in the same instant. Two seconds later a man
who said he was Agent Gaylord was jumping down and locking wrists with
me in Rizal's traditional greeting.

Even that wrist-lock set my teeth on edge. It was too solid, too
stolid, too thorough a job of conditioning.

Or was it maybe, just a trifle over-done?

Thoughtfully, I studied Gaylord.

A tiny vein was twitching, up close to his hair-line. He seemed to have
a tendency to nibble at his lower lip also. His nails--

We got into the grav-car. The routine began almost before we were off
the ground: "Sorry I wasn't here to meet you, Traynor. But we didn't
get a copy of your assignment order, or even of your warping clearance."

I shrugged. "I'm not surprised. The whole thing was pretty sudden."

"Oh?" Unit Controller Gaylord sounded as if he were trying to sound
casual. "Just what is the 'whole thing,' Traynor? Are you allowed to
tell me about it?"

"Glad to, if you'll promise not to turn me in for a psych check." I
made a business of chuckling with wry good humor. "As a matter of fact,
I'm here to become the recipient of good fortune."

"The re--What--?" The grav-car rocked as Gaylord swung round, staring
at me.

"The recipient of good fortune," I repeated. "Rizal's a lucky planet
these days: that's the word. So I'm here to see if I can hook one of
the prizes."

       *       *       *       *       *

Gaylord faced front again--a trifle abruptly, it seemed. The grav-car
speeded up.

I said "They're clever gadgets, Gaylord. Have you picked up any more of
them?"

My companion's face stayed expressionless as a mask. "Any more of what?"

I shrugged. "Thrill-mills, obviously."

"Thrill-mills--?"

I leaned back in my seat, full of the satisfaction that comes of
drawing the right card. "A thrill-mill," I observed, assuming a
mock-academic tone, "is a fantastically expensive little device known
technically as a perceptual intensifier. It's given away, not bought or
sold, and is found only on Rizal. No one knows where it comes from, or
why. Neither is there any certainty as to its true purpose. But whether
as primary function or by-product, it shatters the wall of tranquillity
established by our Educational Psych Department's inhibitory
conditioning program and supplies the user with sensory, emotional and
intellectual experiences of his selection, also vividly communicated as
to render his earlier, conditioned contacts with reality as flat and
insipid as so many pale grey shadows."

No response from Gaylord. Banking not too steadily, he slowed the
grav-car and, dropping down a hundred feet or so, eased it to a landing
on a roof emblazoned with the FedGov Security insignia.

I waited till the little craft slid to a halt. Then, quite casually, I
asked, "How about it, Gaylord? Do those gadgets really jolt you as hard
as they say?"

My companion stopped short with the grav-car's door half open. His
voice grew suddenly shriller than before. "What are you talking about?
How would I know?"

"That's plain enough, isn't it? Obviously, you've used one."

For a taut second, Gaylord sat unmoving. Then, savagely, he snatched
for the front of my tunic.

I didn't even draw back.

Gaylord's face seemed to sag. Breathing fast and shallow, he let go of
me and began chewing at his lower lip.

Still pointedly casual, I smoothed my tunic. "Take a good look at
yourself, Controller," I suggested. "How would you diagnose a man whose
temper flares, in a world where temper can't exist? How would you judge
someone who jumps and jerks and jitters under pressure?"

No response.

I leaned forward. "You know the answer, of course, as well as I do.
When the thrill-mills began to come in, you thought you'd experiment
with one a little--try it out, see how it worked.

"Next thing you knew, your patterns were cracking. You found you
couldn't stand the drabness of conditioned living. The world was too
bright, too vivid; reality was just too wonderful to give up.

"So, instead of turning yourself in for reconditioning, you've tried to
hide the truth and pretend to be just as dull and unresponsive as you
were before...."

Gaylord's face had grown paler and paler as I talked. Now suddenly, he
spun in his seat and tried to throw himself out the grav-car's open
door.

I caught his shoulder; slammed him back. "Controller, I've got news for
you! Run out on me now, and I'll see that Kruze has you blocked back to
Drudge Third."

Gaylord stared at me for so long my arm was beginning to ache with the
strain of holding him.

Finally, then, in a sullen voice, he said, "What do you want me to do?"

"That's better." I released his shoulder; gestured him out of the
grav-car. "Let's go inside where we can talk."

The office we ended up in--Gaylord's own, I gathered--had two doors,
a desk big enough to skate on, three chairs, psychostructor and
reel-case, and a custom voco equipped with scanner and scriber.

As a matter of policy, of maintaining control on all levels, I left my
host standing while I took the chair behind the desk.

For an instant his jaw tightened angrily. Then, dodging my eyes and
turning quickly, he said, "I'll get the file-reels."

I stopped him midway to the door: "What file-reels, Gaylord?"

"Why, the ones on the thrill-mills, of course." Perplexity at the
question drew his brows together as he said it.

"Why?"

"Why--?" Openly startled now, he groped. "Well, it's just--I mean, I
thought--"

       *       *       *       *       *

I said, "Let me tell you the story, Gaylord. Then you decide if we need
the reels.

"Forty-three Rizal days ago, a man named Frederick Zubin got a voco
call. It was from a woman--a beautiful woman he'd never seen before.
She congratulated him on it being his sixty-first birthday, and said an
anonymous well-wisher wanted to send him a little present.

"A messenger popped in almost before the woman hung up. He gave Zubin
a package about the size of a pound box of candy. Unwrapped, it turned
out to be a metal case with a nameplate stamped 'Apex Perceptual
Intensifier'. Another plate, on the back, said it was 'Model DXG'!
Those were the only marks on it anywhere, inside or out. There weren't
any instructions as to what it was supposed to do or how to use it.

"Zubin was curious, in his dull, lethargic, conditioned way. He fiddled
with the switches and dials.

"Eventually the thing came on, of course. It practically sent him
through the roof. Colors, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings--all his
senses were sharpened so far beyond anything he'd ever known before
that he thought at first he was going crazy.

"If Zubin had had his way, then, we'd probably never have known about
his little present. But his wife, in the next room, caught the fringe
effect. It wasn't strong enough to hook her, the way it had Zubin
himself, but it did scare her half to death. She decided anything that
potent must be immoral, or illegal, or both, so she called your office
in a hurry.

"Your psych boys ran poor Zubin through all the tests, from A to
Izzard. They couldn't find anything wrong with him, or any harm done,
except for one key point: His conditioning had been shattered. From
a dreary, phlegmatic lump of protoplasmic tranquility, he'd been
transformed into a human being--the kind of eager, intense, raw-nerved,
inconsistent, emotional human being we used to have back two hundred
years ago, before the laws that made conditioning compulsory.

"That scared everybody. As unit controller for Rizal Security, you
ordered a full-scale check.

"In ten days, your men turned up 736 duplicates of Zubin's gadget. The
story on all of them was the same: A good-looking girl had vocoed,
congratulated whoever it was on having a birthday or anniversary or
promotion, and then sent up a thrill-mill.

"Beyond that, you didn't get far. It turned out there wasn't any Apex
syndicate or cartel or work coadunate listed anywhere. No one had ever
heard of any such device as a perceptual intensifier. The messengers
who delivered the packages worked from voco calls themselves; they
even made their pick-ups at robot sorter stations. And when you tried
to track down the girl who'd done the calling, you found her face
apparently belonged to a youngster named Celeste Stelpa who's been
certified as dead ever since the Kel blasted Bejak II four years ago.

"As for the technical end of things, nine of your lab men lost their
conditioning before they could even get a thrill-mill apart. When they
finally did tear one down successfully, they found it wasn't anything
too remarkable, really--just a routine sort of gadget that regrouped
standard circuits and miniquipment to produce interpulsational patterns
of alpha and zeta waves. Effect-wise, that erases the synaptical
threadings set up by Educational Psych's conditioning process, so that
experiences come through sharp and clear, at maximum voltage, instead
of dulled and blurred. It's a permanent change, too--though whether
that's accidental or by design, we still don't know.

"Alpha-zeta erasure isn't anything new. It's been done in the psych
labs for a hundred years or more.

"And that's where the only really interesting angle on all this comes
in: In the labs, the job took a roomful of equipment. So to get the
process down to thrill-mill size, whoever manufactured these Apex
gadgets used special thronium condenser strata and variocouplers.

"That automatically pushes the cost per thrill-mill up to twice or
three times what you'd ordinarily pay for a grav-car."

I got up, then, taking my time about it ... letting the silence grow
heavy while I came around the pond-sized desk and moved to a spot
directly in front of Gaylord.

"Controller," I said softly, "who do you know who can afford to give
away 737 thrill-mills at that kind of price?"

A shrugging, a shifting, more hostile than uneasy. "No one, I guess. At
least, no one I've ever heard of." He still sounded sullen.

"That's right," I agreed. "No one. It would dent FedGov Security's
confidential budget to bury an expense that big. Kruze himself couldn't
handle it; not without a lot of doing."

Again, Gaylord shifted. But this time, nervous tension rather than
belligerence was in the action. As earlier, perplexity furrowed his
forehead.

I said, "Now you know why I'm not going to waste time scanning
file-reels, Controller. The data we need's already in. Intelligent
interpretation is the next step.--That, and"--I paused, ever so
briefly--"working up the nerve to act."

       *       *       *       *       *

For the first time, Gaylord's eyes came round to meet mine. "What do
you mean?"

I shrugged, in my turn. "I mean, Security's gone at this all wrong,
from Controller Kruze straight down to your lowest Rizalian sub-agent.
Because one and all, you've been content just to back track on those
thrill-mills."

Gaylord's frown deepened. "I don't see--"

"Nineteen of the people who've received those gadgets hold key
positions in Rizal's defense against the Kel," I interrupted coldly.
"One hundred ninety-one rank as military administrators. Forty-seven
more can be classed as vital to supplementary services."

"You mean, you think this all is some sort of crazy Kel plot?"
Controller Gaylord's brow smoothed as if by magic. A caustic note
suddenly edged his voice. "Maybe you better check those file-reels
after all, Traynor. They show 112 clerks in that group that got the
thrill-mills. There also were 98 women engaged in motherhood, 226 tech
grades, and 44 drudge grades."

"And that wouldn't strike you as protective camouflage, maybe?"

"Protective nonsense, you mean! All you're offering is a hair-brained
theory, with neither facts nor logic to back it!"

He was as bad as Kruze.

I nodded slowly. "You may be right. However, I'm still willing to bet
my record, my future, against yours on it."

"Your record--?" Gaylord stared. "What is this, anyhow? What are you
talking about?" The furrows were back in his forehead.

"It's time to cut loose, that's all. We need action--real action, not
just back-tracking." In spite of myself, anticipating, I smiled a
little, "You've got a sigman on duty here somewhere, of course?"

"A sigman--?" Gaylord's furrows deepened. "Why, sure, of course."

"All right, then." I hooked my thumbs in my tunic-sash. "I want a
message plated--an all-points, top-emergency, triple-restricted action
order."

Utter incredulity came to the unit controller's eyes. He didn't move.
He didn't speak.

"The message!" I repeated, more sharply. "Take it down. Right now."

Gaylord still didn't move.

"Would you rather I reported the fact and circumstances of your own
de-conditioning direct to Controller Kruze instead?"

Another moment of silence, while the incredulity in Gaylord's eyes
changed to sullen hate. Then, crossing to the voco, he flipped on the
scriber unit. "All right. What's your message, rack you?"

For the fraction of a second I hesitated. My hands were suddenly cold,
my lips stiff.

Then, drawing a deep breath, I spoke--slowly, distinctly:

"Attention all stations! This is Agent Mark Traynor speaking,
under special authorization of Controller Alfred Kruze, FedGov
Interplanetary Security Headquarters.

"You are hereby directed to place under close arrest within one Earth
hour any and all persons who have had possession of or contact with
the devices known as Apex Perceptual Intensifiers or, more commonly,
thrill-mills.

"A list of such persons is appended to this order. Immediately
following their arrest, they will be transported by fastest available
carrier to the nearest port area and there delivered to the port
director for prompt dispatch under guard to FedGov Interplanetary
Security Headquarters.

"No exceptions to this order will be granted. Any station controller
asking for such exception, or failing to apprehend and deliver all
listed persons within his station's prescribed jurisdiction, will
automatically be included in the shipment order.

"Immediate acknowledgment of this order will be given by all
stations...."



                              CHAPTER II

                             PRESSURE PLAY


I locked the door behind Gaylord. Then, crossing to the rack beside
the psychostructor, I began hunting down city charts, transport and
communications guides, specifications for the planet's anti-Kel
defenses.

They added up to a neat pile of reels. Clamping electrodes to my
temples, I turned on the psychostructor, slapped the first spool into
place, and settled down to the tedium of waiting for the mechanism to
hammer data into my brain.

In twenty minutes, the streets and alleys were my own. In forty, I knew
my way through every observation post and satellite control board.

At fifty, the voco rang.

Numb with fatigue, I lurched up, tore off the clamps, and hurried to
the scanner-speaker unit.

Blonde and lovely, a girl smiled up at me from the plate. "How do you
do. May I speak with Agent Mark Traynor, please?"

"I'm Traynor."

"Oh! How nice! I was hoping I might catch you in." The girl's voice was
warm and friendly. "You see, I want to congratulate you, Agent Traynor,
on your new assignment to Rizal. We feel we have a lovely planet here;
and of course we're proud of our position as the outermost bastion of
the FedGov's defenses against the Kel. And since Security plays such
a vital part in mankind's battle against these alien invaders, one of
our citizens--he wishes to remain anonymous, so I can't tell you his
name--has asked that you accept a little present; a token of good-will
from Rizal to you. A messenger will come in just a moment, and--"

I said, "Come off it, Celeste. This is me you're talking to--me, Mark
Traynor. Remember? Remember?"

The girl in the scanner-plate broke off, lips still half-parted. Ever
so slightly, the clear eyes changed expression.

"I know what happened on Bejak, Celeste." I smiled as I said it--a wise
smile, I hoped, cool and confident. "I know because I was there, right
to the last. So that means I know about you, too, and what's going on
here. That's why I came: to block you. And don't tell me that first
wrench I threw into the works didn't hit hard--you wouldn't have called
me if it hadn't! But that's just the beginning. Count on it, there's
more to come! So you'd better break clear before I let go. Otherwise,
you'll get the same as your Kel friends."

It was as if a shutter had closed behind the clear grey eyes. The
girl's hands moved in small, uncertain gestures. "I--I don't know what
you mean. I've never seen you before--"

"You haven't?" I made it a point to chuckle softly. "Have it your way,
then. Though you certainly took a different view, that last night in
the bunker.--By the way, did that cut heal all right? The skin below
your throat was so soft, I was afraid it might scar--"

Celeste's lovely features seemed to stiffen. I couldn't be sure,
though, because the scanner-plate went blank in the same instant.

Like an echo, someone began pounding on the door.

Cutting off the voco, I went over and unlocked the heavy portal.

A messenger was waiting with a thrill-mill for me.

I frowned. "How did you get in here? Does Rizal Security let strangers
wander through its headquarters in the middle of the night?"

"I dunno." The messenger shrugged stupidly. "That man in
Communications--he said it was all right."

"Man? What man?"

"This man, Traynor."

The voice came from behind me. I whirled by reflex.

Agent Benjamin Gaylord stood in the office's second doorway. He had a
paragun in his hand, and the set of his jaw said that he'd use it.

With an effort, I drew myself together. "What nonsense is this,
Gaylord?"

"That's what I wondered." He came towards me a few steps, flat-footed,
the paragun's muzzle a steady focal point of menace. "Finally I got to
wondering so hard I put in a non-channel call about it to Controller
Kruze himself."

"A non-channel call--!"

"Risky, wasn't it?" Gaylord's grin could hardly have been classified
as pleasant. "Still, though, I thought it might be worth a gamble: my
future against yours, the way you said."

"So?"

"So it turned out even better than I'd dreamed of. I found out more
things!" Gaylord's ugly grin broadened. "You know, Traynor--interesting
things. Like how the lame-brains in Psychogenetics de-conditioned you
over Kruze's protests. How you broke discipline and warped out to
Rizal, here, in direct violation of all orders. How the business of
shipping all these thrill-mill people back to the FedGov IP Center is
strictly your idea, not Kruze's--"

He broke off; gestured with his weapon. "All right, get moving. It's a
detention room for you, till Kruze warps in."

       *       *       *       *       *

The gun in his hand was uncomfortably steady. "Good enough to me. All
this line about don't care where you keep me, nor what lies you tell,
if it makes you feel any better. Though what Kruze is going to say when
he gets the truth is anybody's guess."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Gaylord stiffen. "What's that
supposed to mean?" he demanded glowering.

I shrugged. "It seems plain enough to me. All this line about gambling
your future--it's a joke. You simply haven't got the nerve to do it."

"I'll let Kruze convince you, then."

"Kruze?" I laughed harshly. "He won't care. Not when he finds the facts
put both of us out of the way."

The last remnants of Gaylord's grin were fading. "Listen, you--"

I said, "Shall I play it back for you, Controller? Shall I tell you how
it really happened?" And then, pacing a few steps: "You went down to
your communications section first, of course; had the sigman on duty
put out my all-points order. I know that, because the Stelpa girl sent
me a thrill-mill. And unless my order had gone out, she wouldn't even
have known I was here.

"Anyhow, you sent my order--and then discovered there was a message
from Kruze himself on the hook. Probably it said that if I turned up,
you should contact him non-channel.

"You saw that as a good way of getting out of a bad spot with your
hide in one piece. So you called Kruze, got instructions to pick me up,
and here you are."

Gaylord stared at me as if hypnotized. "How did you know?"

"I warped in without a clearance. But one was on file when I got here.
That meant Kruze had guessed some of what I planned and was taking
steps. And one of those steps would be to get in touch with you."

Gaylord's expression, at that moment, might have meant anything.
Smiling thinly, I moved a trifle closer to the voco. "I do hope it
works out for you, you understand. And it may. But then again, it may
not. It's hard to predict Kruze's reactions. Sometimes it's almost as
if he were unconditioned, like us--"

I gestured as I talked, a lot more than was needed, as if somehow that
was going to make the words worth hearing. I walked, too--pacing,
turning, anything to keep Gaylord just a bit off balance.

Worry already was closing in on him. It hung about him like a cloak.
The paragun's muzzle wasn't following me quite so closely.

My next turn carried me even nearer to the voco. Then, when I started
to turn again, I tripped.

It was a nice job, deftly done. I reeled, arms flailing--and crashed
bodily into the bulky instrument.

The voco rocked wildly. Scanner, scriber, audex--they all tottered,
then swept out in a big arc, faster and faster towards the floor.

Gaylord yelled hoarsely and leaped in, trying to save them.

I waited till he'd passed me. Then, coming up fast, I chopped with a
stiff palm-edge at the base of his brain.

He pitched forward. Not even waiting to strike again, or see if he was
stunned, or snatch his paragun, I sprinted for the door.

The messenger still stood in the corridor, just outside. Only now,
unfortunately, he didn't look quite so stupid or nondescript as before.

Also, he had his hands up in a strega-fighter's stance.

That made him a Security agent.

I dived at him--a literal dive: head down, arms wide, feet and body
completely clear of the floor.

The man spun sidewise, fast, with all of a trained strega-fighter's
skill.

But my left arm scooped him in, and my weight and impact bore him down.
I drove up the heel of my right hand, hard under his chin. His head
snapped back.

Spasmodically, he shoved at me with hands and feet alike--trying to
break clear, striving to regain the inter-body space that gives a
strega-man his advantage.

For an instant I held him tight, then abruptly and without warning
matched his efforts to thrust clear with similar of my own. As if
spring-propelled, we bounced to opposite sides of the hall.

Strega tactics said it was a time for maneuvering, regrouping,
consolidation.

Instead, scrambling on all fours, I rocketed down the corridor and away
as fast as I could go.

There were ramps, after that ... doors and archways ... more corridors.

Then, at long last, the building entrance yawned ahead.

Sobbing for breath, I raced towards it.

Simultaneously, a knot of hurrying men appeared, crowding in from the
street and blocking off the doorway. They were grouped about a bulky,
familiar figure ... the figure of FedGov Interplanetary Security
Controller Alfred Kruze.

For me, it was a moment straight out of nightmare ... a lightning-flash
of horror, lifted from one of those awful dreams in which you run and
run and run only somehow your legs won't seem to work.

Desperately, I tried to reverse direction.

It was too late. I couldn't brake in time.

       *       *       *       *       *

Someone yelled as I careened into the group. I glimpsed distended
eyes, a startled face. Clawing, I tried to twist past the wall of
bodies and slide out the door.

I might have made it, then. But suddenly a bull-voice roared, "Hold
him, rack you! Hold him!"

Controller Kruze's voice.

Like lightning, hands came at me from all directions. I rocked
back--dazed by their blows; pinned tight against the wall.

Another moment, and Kruze himself was towering over me.

"So!" He hissed the word, as if his rage were too great for normal
speech. "I've found you, have I, finally?" And then, turning abruptly:
"Back to the warping-chamber with him! I'll deal with him no place
short of the Interplanetary Center itself!"

Now the hands that pinned me jerked me forward. Still panting, head
still reeling, I found myself dragged out into the street.

"Controller!" I choked. "Controller Kruze! Please! Listen to me--"

"Don't worry! I'll listen! And so will a trial board, and all those
fools in Psychogen!"

"No!" I was shouting now; shouting and shaking. Though whether it was
out of my own feeling or from the contagion of Kruze's rage, I couldn't
say. "Do whatever you want with me. I don't care. But not now! I've
laid the ground; everything's set up--"

"No, rack you!"--This in a bellow.

But the others pulling at me hesitated, slowed. Desperately, I babbled
on: "Kruze, you don't understand! This whole thrill-mill business--it's
a Kel scheme to break through, here on Rizal! But you'll never crack
it, trying to back track. You've got to make whoever's in it come to
you. That's why I did the things I did. That action order, all the
rest--it was just so I could make a contact, be a decoy! I said things
that would scare them, raise suspicion. But if you send me back now,
it's all wasted. Please, Kruze, please--"

Kruze didn't speak. But standing there, pinioned, looking into his
eyes, I didn't need words to know his answer. Not with his hate pulsing
out at me like a living thing.

I slumped.

Coldly, then, Kruze said, "Did any of you gentlemen hear me mention the
warping-chamber? Or am I going to be forced to take this scum back for
trial by rocket freighter?"

Wordless, my captors shoved me towards a grav-car. I went without
protest, making no effort to resist.

But as I walked, I let the feeling of the street close in upon me. The
green-hazed black of the Rizalian night took on new, subtle overtones.
Fragment by fragment, sense by sense, it blended and became one with
the mass of tight-integrated information poured into my brain by the
psychostructor.

This street--it would be AX7. And that meant the cross-street ahead was
MR2.

Which was interesting, because MR2 was also a pneumotube route,
complete with sewer-like conduits beneath the paving and access shafts
at every corner.

So, if I could by some chance reach that intersection, and duck from
sight behind the building....

How far was it? Fifty feet? Sixty?

The first of my captors reached the grav-car. Fumbling, he got out his
lock-light.

The rest of us paused. Again, narrow-eyed, I measured the distance to
the corner.

Smoothly, the lock-light slid into its tube. The grav-car's door swung
open. One agent got in. A second stood aside, waiting for me and the
men who held me.

Together, we stepped forward. Then I bent to enter the grav-car, and
all let go of me momentarily.

There was just one man to my left, now. One man between me and the
corner.

I bent still lower--and then, without warning, drove my shoulder hard
into that man's midriff, bowling him aside as I raced madly towards the
intersection.

But instantly, behind me, yells rose in wild chorus. Feet pounded
pavement. Hands clutched for me.

Something was happening to my knees, too, and my lungs. They wouldn't
work the way I needed for this kind of running. The fatigue of my
earlier bouts was telling on them.

A last gasp; a last lunge. I spilled to the street.

The yells turned to hoarse, baying triumph.

It was the end of something, and the beginning of something.

The end of mankind, perhaps? The beginning of a ruthless Kel march to
victory?

I was too sick, too tired, to even think about it.

Only then, just as it seemed certain that the hands of Kruze's men must
surely seize me, there was a sudden flash; a silent sound of energy
impacting.

Behind me, a man gave a grunt of pain and shock. My own body went numb.

A grav-car whished down from nowhere in the same instant.
Incredulously, I felt myself being seized and lifted. A face came out
of the darkness to confound my reeling senses.

A lovely face, really. The face of a woman with blonde hair and
laughing lips and clear grey eyes.

Celeste Stelpa's face.

Only that was impossible, of course.

Besides, I couldn't seem to make the face stay in focus. While I
watched, the laugh changed to a leer.

Then, quite suddenly, blackness closed in....



                              CHAPTER III

                                CELESTE


There was a musty smell about this place, and it was deathly still.
Beyond that--

I sighed, a sigh that was almost a groan, and shifted. My groping hand
slid over something rough, like a coarse fabric. Dust rose and eddied
to my nostrils.

It made my head ache even worse. Yet I moved again, and this time
caught the faint, half-whispered sounds of friction and of creaking.

Another sigh. Slowly, painfully, uncertainly, I opened my eyes.

Blackness, utter and complete.

The very circumscription of it seemed to freeze me. I lay ever so
still, running my tongue-tip along dry lips ... tasting the grittiness
of my teeth. Slowly, recollection began to flow back through me. My
mind picked up a faster beat.

Where was I? How had I come here? What had happened?

Again, I reached out, groping.

I lay on some sort of narrow couch, it seemed. On either side of me it
fell away to a rough, dust-filmed floor.

Warily, I sat up and swung down my feet, then waited till my head had
cleared.

Rising, then, I felt my way along the couch.

One end of it joined a wall. Still silent, still feeling my way, I
followed the partition.

It brought me to a door--a door securely locked.

I moved on again. Four turns later, I bumped against the bed.

That made it a room--a small, tight-sealed room, windowless and with
one door, and furnished only with the couch on which I'd lain.

My own role, apparently, was to wait here, humble and patient, till
someone came to call me.

The only trouble was, I didn't feel humble, nor patient either. There
were too many questions in me; too much anger.

And somehow, all the questions, all the anger, centered around one
lovely face.

Swiftly, I ran my hands over the couch.

Only now, it developed, it wasn't a couch; not really. What I'd taken
to be a fabric cover was nothing but a wad of sacking draped over a row
of fibrox shipping cases.

Fumbling, I located one of the case's opener tabs and sheared away the
fibrox.

Smaller cases spilled out, each about the size of a candybox.

A tremor of excitement ran through me. Hastily, I ripped open one of
these smaller cases ... ran my fingers over smooth metal and an array
of dials and switches.

A thrill-mill.

For an instant I hesitated. Then, quickly, I ripped away box after box,
lining up the mills in a neat row along the wall beside me.

By the time I'd finished, I had no couch to sit on, and the row of
mills reached well-nigh half the way around the room.

Now, by feel, starting at the door, I lined up all the dials alike,
then threw the activating switches.

All of a sudden, the room was no longer still. Every breath, every
shuffle, rose in my ears like peals of thunder. Varicolored sparks
flashed through the black. The mustiness grew to a stench that blocked
my nostrils. I coughed and choked on every particle of eddying dust.

Beyond the door, there came a rush of feet. A woman's voice cried,
"Turn them off, Traynor! Quick, before they burn your brain out!"

"Open up, then! Unlock that door!"

"Yes, yes! But turn them off!"

"Unlock it!"

A bolt flew back with a deafening crash. The door burst open in a
dazzling blaze of light.

Blinded, lurching, stumbling, I clawed down switches. My head throbbed
till it seemed it must surely split wide open.

But as the mills went off, the tide of experiential wave-shock ebbed.
Slowly, the intensity of the stimuli flooding in upon me fell back to
normal level. My vision cleared. My head stopped ringing.

Celeste Stelpa stood in the doorway. Her face was pale, her lovely eyes
dark-ringed with strain.

I said, "All right. Talk."

"Talk--?" The grey eyes widened visibly. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean. Where are we? Why'd you bring me here? What's
behind this thrill-mill business?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The girl's hand came up in a too-quick movement, smoothing blonde hair
already perfectly coiffured. A shutter seemed to close behind her eyes,
just as it had on the voco scanner. "Really, Agent Traynor--"

"Would you rather I told you, then?" I stepped past her quickly,
peering this way and that to be sure we were alone. "We'll start with
why you brought me here; and the answer is, because you're scared."

Our eyes locked for an instant as I said it. Then, abruptly, Celeste
laughed--a soft laugh, pleasant and unrestrained.

"On the contrary, Mr. Traynor." She took my arm. "However, let's go
back to my quarters, where we can be a bit more comfortable. You must
be terribly tired, after that insane ordeal with the mills."

Together, we moved down a dark aisle like that of a storage
warehouse ... then through a doorway into another room, not too much
larger than the one in which I'd been.

There was a difference, though: This place was the strangest I'd ever
seen. Even the concept was alien.

There were no furnishings, in the normal sense, save bulky, twisted
shapes, all knobs and hollows, that I'd have classed as statuary.

The floor, in turn, was weirdly geometric, a thing of slopes and
planes, angles and undulations. Pyramids jutted up, adjacent to cubes
and octagons and wedges. Color ran riot--here tinting and blending,
there contrasting.

Celeste said, "Find a spot that fits you. That's the best way."

Gingerly, I tested the footing, and discovered that the whole room was
surfaced with a substance like a superior, foam-based carpet. Following
the girl, I found a hollow at the base of a slab and slumped down.

"Comfortable?"

"Comfortable." I leaned back, studying my companion. "Are you?"

"Am I comfortable, you mean?"

"Yes."

"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"

"I don't know." I shrugged. "I just thought it might be a little
difficult for a human--adapting to the Kel."

"And I think you're trying to fish for information." The girl smiled at
me. "You know, you're really a rather remarkable man, Agent Traynor."

"Oh?"

"You asked me why I brought you here--and that's the reason. You caught
my curiosity when you talked to me on the voco. So much so I decided to
come see you. And when I saw those others chasing you--well...."

It was my turn to smile. "You're very convincing, Celeste. I might even
believe you, if I hadn't known you back on Bejak."

"Oh, yes. Bejak." For the fraction of a second, the clear eyes
shadowed. "It would have been nice if you'd been on Bejak, Mr. Traynor.
It really would. But you weren't. Those details--the things you said
to me on the voco--they came out of FedGov Security files, of course.
You wanted to upset me, to frighten me...."

Her voice trailed off, and it was as if she herself, somehow, had left
the room. I felt a strange sense of helplessness and guilt. Words
wouldn't come.

And it was a time when I needed words, the right words; needed them
desperately; needed them now, this instant, if mankind were to survive.

Yet still we sat there, looking past each other in aching silence.

Then, quite suddenly, Celeste asked in a small voice, "Would you trade,
Mark? Would you?"

"Would I trade--?"

"Yes. The things you want to know for ones I'd like to ask."

Tension crept across my forehead, stretching the skin tight. "What kind
of things?"

"About--about you, mostly, Mark."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was the second time she'd used my given name. Her voice held a
vibrance that was strangely taut and urgent.

I said, "It's a bad bargain, Celeste. There's nothing to tell about me.
Not that anyone would want to know."

"There is, Mark! For me, there is!" She moved swiftly, sliding across
the space between us on her knees. Her hand pressed my arm. "Who is it
you hate, Mark? What are you fighting, really?"

"Who do I hate--?" I stared. "Who do you think? Who do any of us hate,
except the Kel?"

"But why, Mark? Why?"

I groped; pulled back a little. "You come from Bejak II, and you ask
that? Give those monsters half a chance, and there'll be no human race!"

"That's your answer, then? You hate the Kel because of this fight, this
war between the races?"

"Of course that's why. Isn't that enough?"

"I don't know, Mark. I really don't." Celeste buried her face in her
hands. Her shoulders shook with sudden tremors.

A strange uneasiness stirred in me. Shifting, I slid my arm about her;
pulled her to me. "Celeste, Celeste...."

"Mark...." Her words came muffled. "Mark, why is it that you hate them
more than any other man does?"

"I don't. All of us are fighting--"

"No! That's not true!" Celeste's face came up, the grey eyes feverish.
"The rest aren't fighting like you are. They haven't gone against
Controller Kruze's orders. They haven't violated warping regulations.
They haven't thrown a planet into chaos with a deportation edict!"

I rocked back. "Celeste--! What is this?"

"Don't you see, Mark? Everything you've done is different from the
others! All the rest--they fight out of discipline, or fear, or maybe
even desperation. But you--there's hate in the way you go about it.
You don't rest, you don't slow down, you don't stop to think of
consequences. To watch you, anyone would swear your children's blood
was on Kel hands."

The uneasiness inside me grew. I looked away, not speaking.

"What is it, Mark? Tell me! What's happened to you that makes you hate
them?"

"Nothing, rack you! Nothing at all!" The words came out in a rush,
almost before I knew that I was speaking. "I'm just like any other
agent, except that Psychogenetics picked me to be de-conditioned."

"You were--de-conditioned?--I mean, before you came in contact with the
thrill-mills?"

"Yes, of course. Psychogenetics thought a free mind might work better
in a fight like this than one pinned down to pattern."

"And what do you think?"

"You've seen what I've done, haven't you?"

"Yes, yes." A pause. "But no one else has acted like you, have
they?--Not any of the thrill-mill people?"

"No."

"Then what is it, Mark? Why don't the others behave like you?"

My head was beginning to ache. I gripped it between my hands, trying to
fight back the undercurrent of rage that somehow kept trying to well up
in me. "Let me alone, will you? I've had nothing but trouble ever since
the first time that Psychogen bunch pulled me in."

"_The first time--!_"

"What--?"

"There was--more than once--?"

"Yes, of course. There were experiments. I was de-conditioned and then
conditioned again four times. Each time, they'd send me out for a few
weeks' service, see how I reacted. This is my fifth round. I've gotten
to where I hate the very thought of being pushed back down to pattern
level. It's flat, all of it--flat and grey and ugly--"

I stopped short, rigid.

Only now Celeste clutched at me, shaking. "Mark, Mark! Don't you see--?"

       *       *       *       *       *

My hands began to tremble. Then my shoulders. Then my whole body.

And Celeste: "Mark, there's a thing they call--displacement. A way
people have of switching headaches. Maybe a man hates his wife. But
he's always been taught that he should love her, and the teaching runs
so deep he can't hit her.

"Then, by accident, he runs into some other trouble--a little thing,
maybe; someone's poor work, or a joke, or bad manners.

"Do you know what he does then, Mark? Can you guess?"

I said thickly, "Nothing. Not if he's been properly conditioned."

"That's right, Mark. Nothing. Not if he's been properly conditioned. He
can't even hate his wife in the first place. That's one of the reasons
compulsory conditioning came in.

"But back before that, he did something: He struck out; he
over-reacted; he kicked the dog instead of his wife."

I didn't say anything. I was shaking too hard.

Celeste said softly, "Could that be you in that picture, Mark? Could
you be hating one thing and striking another?"

Spasmodically, I drew up my knees and hugged my arms round
them--burying my face, squeezing my eyes tight shut in a vain,
desperate effort to blot out the room, and Celeste, and the things she
said.

Only they wouldn't blot out, because they were inside of me, too,
churning and roiling and spinning round in my brain. I had a queer,
detached feeling, as if I were two rather than one, and one of those
two was a great, yawning, black pit, and the other hung on the brink,
ready to cast himself in.

That was how close I came to madness in that moment.

Then, abruptly, the moment passed. With a curse, I sat up straight, my
mood gone suddenly savage.

Celeste's eyes distended. She started to draw away.

I caught her wrist fast; jerked her back. "Where do you think you're
going?"

"Mark, please--!"

"Forget it. It's my turn for questions." And then, tightening my grip:
"Who's supplying those thrill-mills?"

A thin white line of pain had formed round her lips. But she spoke
coolly, levelly: "The Kel, of course."

In spite of myself, I breathed in sharply. "And you--?"

"I survived Bejak II. The price was to help them."

"The thrill-mills--"

"They're part of a plan. Man's conditioned consistency was a bit
difficult for the Kel to handle. They felt the simplest solution was
to upset the conditioning." A pause. "Thanks to you, they'll probably
succeed."

"Thanks to me--!"

"Yes. You see"--a smile, without mirth--"the Kel are shape-shifters.
They can take any form. Tonight, an infiltration party will move into
Rizal's defenses and take over the posts of the men you had seized. No
one will know them from the originals. By morning, there'll be a Kel
ship dropping down in the port without interference. After which, we'll
all be utilized as laboratory animals for various experiments. The Kel
feel we're ideal for that role."

"You know, and you didn't warn us? Your own race; your own people?" I
stared at the girl in numb horror, her beauty turning to ashes before
my eyes.

Only there was no time for numbness, nor for recrimination. I had too
many things to do; too large a role to play.

I came up fast, dragging the woman bodily with me. "Get me out of here.
Now, before I kill you."

She tottered, wincing and cringing as I twisted her arm slowly round.
But as before, her voice stayed strangely level. "I'm sorry, Mark. I
can't do that."

"You're going to!"

"I can't."

I said, "Half a turn more, and something snaps. You won't like it."

"I--can't."

"Why can't you?"

"Because--the Kel--won't let me."

"They won't let you?" I paused in my twisting to make a slow, elaborate
survey of the distorted room. "You know, for a second I almost thought
you said the Kel wouldn't let you take me out."

"They--won't. Try--to leave. You'll--see--"

There was something in her voice that rasped my nerve-ends. Cat-footed,
I spun about, looking this way and that.

Still nothing. Nothing but a strange, misshapen room and twisted,
nonrepresentational statuary.

Wordless, I shoved Celeste Stelpa towards the door.

Like an echo, something seized me by the ankle.

It was a tentacle--a tentacle attached to a weird, pseudopodic body
that hadn't been there brief moments before.

Frantically, I tried to jerk free.

Lightning-fast, off to one side, a distorted lump of sculpture changed
shape ... hurtled at me.

Floundering and flailing, I went down....



                              CHAPTER IV

                          THE KINDLY KILLERS


"Sometimes you just don't know." Celeste's voice was strangely flat
and lifeless in the black. "Sometimes there's nothing you can do but
hope and try."

I didn't answer.

Celeste again: "What would you have had me do, Mark? Let them kill you?
That was their first thought, you know; you really did upset them with
those things you said about me on the voco. They were afraid you knew
so much more than you do."

"Forget it," I muttered. "There's no point to going back over it now."

"But there is! For me, there is!" For the first time, in this place,
my companion's voice showed a flash of animation. "You were the only
one who'd pushed them even a little bit off balance. I wanted to know
you--to find out what you had that the rest of mankind lacked. If I
could do that and save you too, what was the harm in it?"

"The harm?" In spite of myself, I roused and glowered through
the blackness. "What was the harm, when you urged me to tell
you--things--not knowing Kel were there?"

"But Mark, I wouldn't have done it if it had mattered! The things you
said--those were for me, not them. I knew they couldn't understand
them. They haven't any insight into human feelings, human thoughts."

"After the thrill-mills, you'd try to make me believe that?" I choked.
"They know more about the human mind than man himself!"

"No, Mark; they don't!"

"The thrill-mills--"

"I don't care about the thrill-mills! Maybe someone else developed
them. To the Kel, we're only a lower life-form, not worth the bother of
that much study. We're laboratory animals, adaptable organisms to use
as we'd use rabbits or guinea pigs or hamsters. I know; I've been four
years with them, ever since that day on Bejak...."

She began to sob, then; a soft yet somehow desperate sobbing. Bleakly,
I stared down at the hands I couldn't see for the blackness of this
dungeon ... the self-same dungeon in which I'd lain alone such a short
time earlier, except that in the interim our captors had stripped it
bare of sacks and thrill-mills.

It wasn't the kind of ending I'd planned. Not here; not locked away,
waiting out the hours till the Kel should strike, and win, and end the
game.

And me not even on the field.

I cursed under my breath; hammered one clenched fist into the other
palm.

"Mark--" It was Celeste again. "Mark, give up. Don't fight it so."

"I won't give up! I can't!" Choking on my own words, I lurched up and
stumbled blindly along our prison's walls. "If I knew anything--even
where we were--"

"I don't know myself, Mark. These weeks, I've been a prisoner here--a
prisoner talking on a voco. They've never let me come or go."

On once more. On about the walls, and on, turn after turn.

On, while mankind's life-span ticked away.

The door came under my groping fingers. I clutched the knob; shook it.

It didn't give.

Something snapped inside me. Wildly, I flung myself at the heavy
portal--kicking it, clawing it, beating on it with my fists.

No answer.

I yelled--a fierce, shrill cry to wake the dead. Again, again,
again ... hammering and screaming, screaming and hammering.

Celeste: "Mark, stop it, stop it! stop it! They won't come. You'll only
hurt yourself!"

Panting, I drew back, crouched, and then lunged for the slab that
blocked our way, hurling myself against it with all my weight and
strength.

"Mark, Mark--!"

Again I lunged. Again--again--again....

My shoulders were bruised now, my whole body aching. It was all I could
do to stumble back for still another try.

Only then, suddenly, light spilled in upon us as the door swung open.

Unbelieving, I rocked back. Celeste Stelpa gave a choked, incoherent
cry.

Wider the door swung, and still wider.

I held my breath and tensed my belly, waiting to see what form our foe
would take.

Nothing happened.

I looked round at Celeste, and she at me.

Still nothing.

For an instant I stood rigid. Then, tight-lipped, I took a quick,
cat-footed step in the direction of the open door.

       *       *       *       *       *

In one lithe motion, Celeste was beside me. She caught my hand; clung
to my arm. "No, Mark, no! Don't try it! It's a trick, a trick--"

Wordless, not shifting my eyes from the entry, I twisted free of her
grasp ... advanced another step.

I could see out now, in both directions. No one was there ... only the
black, echoing emptiness of an unused warehouse.

I said, "Stay here, Celeste. I'm going to look around."

Instead of answering, she darted past me, out through the doorway into
the open area beyond.

"Celeste--!"

She turned swiftly, well beyond my reach. "I'm not going back in there,
Mark. Not if you're coming out."

"But--"

"No, Mark. This is a trick. You and I both know it. That door didn't
open by itself. But if you go on in spite of it, then I go with you."

I stared at her for a long moment. Then, slowly, I nodded. "All right.
Let's go."

"Mark--"

I said, "There's no other way, Celeste. I'm human; this is my race the
Kel are out to kill. To me, that means I fight them. I fight them all
the way, till I drop, no matter what."

Her eyes were wide as she stared at me. "But what will you do?" She
gestured helplessly. "What can you?"

I shook my head. "I'm not sure. But Kruze is here on Rizal. I'll see
him, talk to him. He's got power. He can order action."

"But Mark, can you reach him? After that fight--the way you broke
away--"

"I'll reach him," I said. "I'll reach him. And he'll listen, too, even
if it has to be at gunpoint."

I couldn't tell whether the wordless look she gave me was of despair,
or resignation.

Down the dark aisles, then; and that in itself was a strange
experience. For somehow, incredibly, and in spite of the surrounding,
all-pervasive black, there was always just light enough for us to see
our way. Yet where it came from, or how, remained a mystery to the end.

We reached the second room, the misshapen, distorted room in which
Celeste and I had sat and talked. It was empty now, all traces of the
living sculpture gone.

On again, down yet another of the echoing aisles.

I waited till we reached the first cross-track leading off between
stacked battens, then turned aside.

Instantly, we stood in utter darkness. All trace of the guiding
radiance disappeared.

Pressed to me, Celeste shivered. I gripped her tight and wiped sudden,
icy beads of sweat from my forehead as, hastily, I groped my way back
to our original route.

Like magic, light was with us once again.

More shadows, more echoing stillness, more stacked battens. Then
another door. A heavy door, barred on the inside.

Sliding back the bolts, I swung it open.

A street.

Not speaking, hardly daring to breathe, we crossed the threshold. I
wondered if it were only my imagination that made the stars so bright,
the night so still.

The base-block at the first crossing oriented me: We were less than ten
minutes' walk from Rizal Security headquarters.

Still wordless, as if by mutual agreement we turned that way.

As we did so, my belly knotted with a new and different type of tension.

Before, there'd been the awful, taut frustration of blocked action.

Now, I faced more subtle torments: the battle of the self, the gnawing
problem of decision.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a voco station a block from the headquarters. Stepping
inside, I punched out Security's number.

"Rizal Security." It was a sleepy voice.

I said, "Let me talk to Controller Gaylord, please."

A pause, a buzzing. Then, "Controller Gaylord speaking."

"You're up late, aren't you, Gaylord?" Intentionally, I made it mocking.

"What--?" The controller's voice rose, sharp with anger; then fell
again, as quickly crafty. "Who is this, anyhow?"

"Who would you think?" I countered, chuckling. "It's me, of course,
Gaylord--me, your dearest friend, Mark Traynor."

"Traynor!"

"That's right." Again, I chuckled. "Does it surprise you so much?"

"Listen, Traynor--"

"I know. You want to get together with me." I paused a moment, letting
the tension hang and build. "You know, it could be I'd like to get
together with you, too."

"Of course, Traynor." Gaylord was getting smoother, silkier, by the
second. "Look, I'm up in my office--"

"--And if I'll just join you there, you'll be happy beyond words to
turn me over to Kruze for trial and disciplinary action. Is that it?" I
snorted. "No, thanks, Gaylord. I'm not about to play it that way."

"But Traynor, listen--"

"You listen!" I let him have it flat and hard and driving. "If you want
to see me, you're coming where I am, alone. Play it any other way, and
I'll fade so fast you'll never find me."

"But--"

"Also, I'll figure a way to let Kruze know about you. _All_ about you,
thrill-mills included."

"Traynor, for heaven's sakes--"

"Is it my way, then? My way, all the way?"

"Yes, Traynor, yes!"

"Good enough, then." I hesitated. "Look: Do you know a thil-shop over
on MR2, about three squares from your place?"

"Yes."

"All right, then. Go there. If the lay of the land looks right, I'll
join you."

"But--but--"

"Goodbye," I said, thumbed down the contact, and stepped back out of
the voco station.

Celeste turned to me--wordless, watchful.

I said, "There's a place on MQ3 where you can get some Ronhnei coffee.
Just go straight over. I'll see you there in half an hour."

Still wordless, not even nodding, she turned and moved off in the
direction I had gestured.

Pivoting, I took the opposite tack, heading straight for Rizal Security
headquarters.

The building loomed dark and forbidding as a mausoleum in the dim green
of the night. There was no sign of life.

Still, for a moment, I hesitated in the shadows across the street
before crossing swiftly to the entrance.

A lone light glowed in the inner lobby. Passing through the outer
doorway, I drew back into the gloom between it and the inner portals.

A minute passed; then two. Nervously, I ran my tongue along my lips.

Simultaneously, inside the lobby, a shaft-lift's double panels slid
back. Controller Benjamin Gaylord got out, looking tense and unhappy,
and came towards the street doors.

I pressed even further back from view, flat against the wall of
the small offset area just beyond the inner doors. Whipping off my
tunic-sash, I looped an end about either hand, leaving the rest of its
length to dangle, noose-like, between.

Gaylord reached the inside door. Silently, its eye-beam opened it
before him.

I raised the sash ... poised ... held my breath....

Now Gaylord came through the doorway, intent and striding. Looking
neither to right nor left, he crossed the narrow strip between inner
door and outer. Ahead of him, the heavy portal to the street swung wide.

Swiftly, I darted in behind him; flipped my tunic-sash up and then down
in a wide loop that snapped it tight around his neck.

Gaylord jerked back in mid-stride. He started to cry out.

Savagely, I wrenched the sash-noose tighter. The cry cut off unuttered.
When my victim would have struggled, I dragged him back off balance
and rammed a knee into his spine.

Rizal's controller made small, choking sounds. His eyes began to bulge,
his face to darken.

Jerking him back into the offset niche between the double doors, out of
view, I spoke into his ear: "Calm down, you fool! I don't want to kill
you."

His eyes rolled wildly, trying to glimpse me. He stopped struggling.

Warily, I loosened the noose ... waited while he sucked in air in
great, chest-filling gulps.

But not for too long. Before he could stop shaking or have time really
to think, I said, "Gaylord, we're going upstairs. If anyone tries to
stop us, you're the one who'll get it."

       *       *       *       *       *

I shoved him forward as I finished, and the inner doors opened. The
sash a deadly bond between us, we crossed the lobby.

Into the shaft-lift, then. My prisoner shot me an uncertain glance,
half hate and half fear. "I don't see why you had to do it this way.
I'd have met you at that thil-shop like you said."

"Maybe." I shrugged. "That's not the question."

"Not the question--?"

"We're getting out on whichever floor Kruze has taken over."

A panicky stiffening. "Oh!"

"Come on, come on! Which floor is it?"

"Seven."

"Good enough." I punched the button and we zoomed upward. "There'll be
a guard on duty, of course. You might think about how you're going to
get us past him."

Gaylord looked a little green.

The lift slowed. Jerking my sash from Gaylord's throat, I snapped it
back in place about my waist and, as we halted, shoved my unwilling
accomplice out of the cage ahead of me.

There were two guards in the anteroom instead of one. The first,
beetle-browed and heavy-jawed, slumped dozing in a chair. His
companion, slimmer and trimmer, sat straighter than was necessary but
without a coat, playing a miniature sokkol wheel against himself.

"Visitor for Controller Kruze," Gaylord croaked as the non-sleeping
guard looked up. He made as if to stride past the pair to the door
beyond.

But as he did so, his head went forward just a fraction, and his left
shoulder dropped.

The next item on the agenda would be a simultaneous yell of warning and
spin to one side, out of my reach. He might as well have put it on a
placard.

I leaped first, by a split second. When the yell came, and the spin, I
was already in position to catch Gaylord's arm as he whirled by.

It changed his course a bit. He crashed bodily into the dozing,
bull-necked guard, and they went down together.

But the other guard was rising. Ducking, I snatched up his fallen
comrade's chair and hurled it at him.

The man threw up his arms to ward it off. Lunging at him full-tilt,
head lowered, I butted him in the stomach.

The wind went out of him in a gust. He tottered backward, his mouth
opening and closing in agonized, fish-like contortions as he fought to
catch his breath.

I stomped on his foot and gave him a violent reverse shove past me.
Lurching wildly, he tumbled into the heavy-set guard--now arising--just
as had Gaylord. Together, they went down atop the controller in a
comic-opera slap-stick tangle.

Then a hand came clear of the threshing clutter of arms and legs. It
held a paragun.

I kicked for--connected with--the wrist. The weapon flew wide. I dived
after it, arm outstretched.

But before I could claw it up, a voice lashed out, harsh and heavy,
from the doorway to Kruze's quarters:

"Don't touch it, Traynor!"

Kruze's voice.

The back of my neck prickled. Carefully, I drew my hand away from the
paragun, then turned.

The controller of all FedGov Security's far-flung interplanetary
operations stood staring down at me out of heavy-lidded eyes that in
this moment sparked cold malice. One slab-like hand gripped a paragun,
twin to the one I'd tried to snatch.

"So, Traynor...."

"So?" I flung the word back at him with a belligerence to match his
gloating. A sudden, swift recklessness surged through me. "I've got
some things to say to you, Controller. That's why I came here."

       *       *       *       *       *

The heavy-lidded eyes didn't even flicker. The thick body stood
granite-like, immobile. "What things?"

"Things about the Kel." I got up from the floor; stepped towards him.
Sheer urgency drained the anger from me. "Kruze, they're infiltrating.
Tonight--right now, maybe--"

"Shall we shut him up, chief? You want us to stop him?"

It was the heavy-set guard, on his feet again now. Beside him, his
thinner companion threw me a look of smoldering hate. A sullen-looking
Gaylord was dusting himself off behind them.

I said desperately, "Kruze, you've got to listen! I found that
girl--the one who called about the thrill-mills on the voco. She's been
a Kel prisoner ever since Bejak II. She knows their plan, the details--"

"And just how does she know it?"

"What--?"

"I said, how does she know it?" Never had the controller's heavy-lidded
eyes seemed colder, the bulky body less yielding. And then, as I
groped: "To the best of my knowledge, no human has ever communicated
with the Kel. We don't even know what they look like. Consequently,
I find it difficult to accept the concept of alien infiltration as a
practical threat, in the face of our warning net and proved defensive
measures."

"But they're shape-changers!" Involuntarily, my hands moved in frantic,
pleading gestures. "They can simulate men. It's only the conditioned
consistency of human behavior that's baffled them--"

Kruze's great head moved. "Guards, I'm tired of listening to this
nonsense."

"Yes, Controller."--This from the thin man. As one, he and his
companion closed in.

"Kruze, for the sake of all of us, the whole human race! What does it
matter what the Kel look like? We've seen their globeships. We know
what happened at Bejak II, at Corrigar, at Astole--"

Hands seized my arms; wrestled me backward.

"Please, Kruze! You've got to listen!"

Nerveless and unrelenting as a granite monolith, Controller Alfred
Kruze turned on his heel, stepped back into the room from which he'd
come, and closed the door behind him.

The bottom seemed to fall out of my stomach. For an instant I thought I
was going to faint.

Gaylord speaking: "Take him down to the detention room. I'll file
charges in the morning."

Spasmodically, I twisted towards him. "You, Gaylord! Do you know what
it's going to mean if the Kel break through and take Rizal? Lock me up
if you want to, yes. Or let these two thugs kick me to death, for that
matter. But get to Kruze! Make him listen--"

"I doubt if there's time for him to do much listening." Gaylord glanced
at his chrono, spoke with relish. "You see, he's already scheduled
to warp back to headquarters in less than an hour. And of course I
wouldn't think of disturbing him in the meantime."

For a moment I stared at him in the shock of utter panic.
Then--cursing, convulsing--I hurled myself forward.

Just as violently, the guards slammed me back. Ignoring my shouts
and struggles, Gaylord pivoted and strode to the shaft-lift, pausing
there just long enough to fling me one quick, mocking glance over his
shoulder.

The lift's double panels slid aside. Still smirking, Gaylord started to
enter.

Only then, inside the cage, movement suddenly flickered.

Gaylord jerked back. His voice rose in a wild, shrill scream of terror.
He tried to whirl, to flee.

But a paragun's purple beam flashed like a visual echo to the cry of
panic. With an awful, anguished intake of air, Rizal's controller
tottered backward ... crumpled to the floor.

Simultaneously, three men leaped from the lift.

They were unique in their way: Each had two heads.

Beside me, the thin guard choked; snatched for the paragun he carried
in a hip holster.

He died before he could even get it clear.

The other guard, the heavy-set one, backed up against Controller
Kruze's door, hands already raised. His breath rasped in his throat.
His face was dough-grey.

For my part, I couldn't even speak.

And now, within the shaft-lift's cage, more movement ... another
figure darting forward. A woman's figure.

I choked "Celeste--!"

"Oh, Mark, Mark...." She ran to me; flung her arms about me. "I was so
afraid!"

My throat drew tight. I held her close, smoothing the soft golden halo
that was her hair.

Only something was wrong. The hair--it didn't feel right....

I straightened, stiffened; stared down at the woman in my arms more
intently.

Something was wrong with the eyes, too. They weren't the cool, clear
grey that I remembered.

Celeste laughed softly.

But even as she did so, her face began to twist, to change. The
features seemed to run together in an incredible distortion.

I tried to thrust her away from me, then.

Like magic, the warm arms twined about my neck reshaped and elongated.
Before my eyes, the fleshtones were transformed to grey-green mottling.

Woman into Kel; Kel into woman. The end of an idyll.

I began to laugh ... louder and louder; more and more wildly. When one
of the two-headed men tried to shake me, I spat in his face.

Furiously, he lashed out at me with the barrel of his paragun.

I didn't even try to dodge the blow....



                               CHAPTER V

                             SHIP OF DEATH


This prison room was like the inside of a great, glowing, metal sphere.
Light seemed to radiate from its very walls--strange scarlet light that
washed over us in pulsing waves.

Yet weird as it was, I hardly gave it a second glance, nor my
companions either. Too many other things kept preying on my
mind--things like the gnawing guilt that was mine for violating Kruze's
orders ... the unanswered question of why I, among all men, should
seethe with such headstrong hate against the Kel ... the horror of
Rizal's defenses infiltrated, shattered.

Above all, my jumble of mixed feelings as to Celeste.

Only that was a dead end, and I knew it.

Yet still her cool blonde loveliness kept slipping through the shadows
of my brain. No sooner did I block the image out on one front than it
came cajoling, laughing, mocking on another.

I cursed aloud, and squeezed my eyes tight shut, and gripped my
throbbing head between my hands.

But then thick fingers gouged into my shoulder. Their pressure dragged
me back from the blackened wastes of my self-recrimination; forced me
once again to face the reality of this pulsing scarlet prison sphere.

Wearily, blearily, I opened my eyes and looked up.

Controller Alfred Kruze towered above me, his heavy body grotesque in
the crimson radiance.

He said, "Traynor, you know as well as I do that we'll never make it
out of here alive. So I want you to know now I'm sorry I wouldn't
listen to you. After your insubordination--well, try not to blame me
too much; I simply didn't understand."

For a moment I stared at him. My eyes blurred. I choked on my own
pent-up emotions. "Controller--if I just hadn't forced Gaylord to put
out that action order--"

"I know. But it's not your fault; not really. I shouldn't have let
those fools in Psychogen interfere with your conditioning." Kruze's
heavy jowls quivered. "Besides, what does it matter now? We're all of
us as good as dead."

He turned as he finished; moved off in a restless, plodding circle
around our dungeon's canted floor.

A knot drew tight beneath my breastbone. Sick at heart, I looked from
one of my companions to another.

Six men; six FedGov Security workers gone astray. From Chief Controller
Alfred Kruze straight down to the lowly Sigman Third the Kel had
trapped in Communications.

And in between those two extremes, in the middle, stood Special Agent
Mark Traynor.

Always, always in the middle. Even here, even now, aboard this Kel
globeship.

A sudden clank of metal cut through my introspections. A hatch swung
open high overhead.

Taut silence fell over our little group. Fearfully, we stared up at the
aperture.

Now a slim rod thrust down through the opening, drill-like. In two
seconds it reached and anchored tight against the floor, like an axis
for the tiny world that was this room.

Another second, and a bulbous shape slid down the rod. In the radiance,
it was as colorless and formless as a red-washed lump of putty. A giant
lump, as a hogshead.

Then, as it reached the floor, a change took place. Swiftly, surely, it
reshaped itself, drawing taller and thinner and taking on new contours.
A man came into being--a tall gawky man, twin of the Sigman Third.

"Here, fellow!" Grinning mirthlessly, he stepped towards the sigman.
"Come along, now. Don't be shy!"

Panic flared in the sigman's eyes. Gangling and clumsy, he backed away.

But the quarters here were too cramped for maneuvering. In a rush, the
man's Kel duplicate closed in. "Now, wait a minute, fellow--"

The sigman tripped over his own feet and started to fall. Like
lightning, the Kel had an arm about him. "Here, now, fellow--"

But in the rush, the arm turned out to be a tentacle instead.

The sigman let out a wild yell. Promptly, his _doppelganger's_ head
turned into a tentacle also and, whipping round its victim, pinned arms
to sides.

       *       *       *       *       *

Flailing, screaming, struggling. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the sigman
was dragged back to the rod, while we other humans all stood there
frozen--paralyzed; unable to speak, unable to move.

Only then, suddenly, I couldn't stand it any more. With a yell of my
own, and a curse and a snarl, I lunged into the fray. Tearing, clawing,
I fought to free the sigman.

For a moment, it almost seemed I'd turned the tide.

But then, with a sudden shift, the Kel whirled on me. The sigman
fell forgotten and it was I, not he, who was beset. Spongy, yielding
pseudo-flesh pressed in upon me. Thin tendrils of it touched and
clutched me, leech-like. Long tentacles encircled and constricted. I
found myself battling for my very breath.

Mercilessly, the creature dragged me to the rod, the axis of the
crimson room. Pulpy protrusions wrapped around the metal. I felt the
shaft begin to vibrate. With a high, whining sound, it let go of the
floor and lifted Kel and me alike into the air. The sphere's dome,
the ceiling arc, rushed in upon me. As from afar, I glimpsed the
strain-straut, uptilted faces of the other prisoners below.

And now, abruptly, a strange reaction came upon me. It was as if in
throwing myself upon the alien foe I'd somehow cast aside my panic.
Like the old story of the boy who'd found the nettles didn't prick if
only he had the courage to seize them firmly.

We passed through the hatch. A seamless sheen of metal cut off the last
sight of my comrades.

Coolly, I gazed about at a room even more weird in conception than the
dungeon sphere.

Again, the arc seemed to be the basic motif. But in this place it was
a chopped-up, intersected arc, as if function here had held sway over
symmetry.

Everywhere, too, there were shifting shapes, strange bodies--bodies
long and bodies short, bodies thick and bodies thin. Some resembled
life-forms that I knew. Others bore no resemblance to anything I'd ever
seen before.

Yet headless or multi-headed, with visible sense organs or without,
drab or vivid in coloration, every one of them appeared to have some
work to do. Insectile, pulsing, they swarmed over every arc and
angle of the room. Here they pulled at mobile strips of metal. There
they maneuvered gem-bright crystal buds through maze-like tracks.
Cone-things and cube-things, niches, projections--synchronously or
erratically, they turned and twitched and throbbed and twisted.

It dawned on me, then: This chamber was the globe's control room. These
unfamiliar forms were instruments, equipment.

The kind of equipment, unfortunately, that no human mind, uninstructed
could fathom.

Letting go of the rod, my captor carried me across a parabolic wall,
then down to a spot where misshapen curves and angles came together in
such a pattern as to remind me of the warehouse room with the living
statues on Rizal. I was released; allowed to sit.

Minutes dragged by. Then, suddenly, close at hand, another hatch
opened. One of the Kel oozed through it, carrying Celeste.

In a flash, all my tensions were back. My palms began to sweat. I had
trouble with my breathing.

Gracefully, the girl came close; sat down beside me. "Mark...."

I hesitated, trying not to let the ambivalence I felt show in my eyes.
"Yes?"

"Mark, please...." Her hand rested lightly on my arm. "Look at me,
Mark."

It was a lovely face. Kel or not, it was lovely.

"My hair, Mark. Look at my hair. Feel of it."

She lifted my hand as she spoke, and brushed it against softly silken
strands.

Involuntarily, I stiffened.

"That's right, Mark. It's real. Not even the most sensitive of the Kel
can match it."

I looked at her, then. Full at her, straight into her eyes.

Cool, clear, grey eyes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Her words came in a rush: "Mark I know what you thought. But it wasn't
true, not any of it. I didn't have any more idea than you of why the
Kel let us go, there in the warehouse. I'm still not sure, unless they
wanted to follow you to Kruze.

"As soon as we separated, four of them seized me. One--became like me.
And after that...."

I nodded slowly.

"Mark...."

"Don't worry. I'm listening."

"Please, Mark--"

"Let me guess." I laughed abruptly. "They've brought you here to pry
some more, get out more information."

A little of the color left Celeste's lovely face. She didn't speak.

"It's true, isn't it?" I jabbed at her. "That's your job here--fronting
for the Kel when they have to deal with humans on anything that's more
than skin deep."

More of Celeste's color drained. With an unsteady movement, she started
to turn away.

I caught her arm and jerked her back so that she faced me. "Answer me,
rack you! Isn't it true? Aren't you here to probe me for them?"

"Mark, you're hurting!" A nerve twitched, just below her cheekbone.
"It--it isn't anything, Mark. They just--can't understand you. Why you
act like you do. Where you find the courage to keep on fighting."

"And you've told them, of course? You've let them know how much I hate
them?"

"They--don't understand hate--" She broke off, hesitating; then
suddenly swung about to face me. "Besides, it's not true! It's not
them you hate! How can you? You don't even know them!"

"Don't say that, rack you!" A red haze swirled across my vision. I let
go the girl's arm and struck out at her, slapping.

But she was already twisting, already moving. The slap barely ticked
her shoulder. Before I could seize her again, she rolled wide and
darted off across the steeply sloping floor-curve.

Surging up, I leaped after her.

But now, off to one side, a Kel swirled swiftly. Like a muddy wave,
part of his shapelessness took on form, shoving at a knob-like bulge of
metal.

The knob moved. A cone of greenish radiance lanced from an adjoining
crystal. Like a searchlight, it swept across the distorted room,
pursuing Celeste.

Her eyes came up as, flickering, the beam struck the metal wall beside
her. Face stiffening, she cried out in swift panic; flung herself down
bodily behind an angling ridge.

The beam whipped back, still reaching for her. Everywhere, the Kel
had stopped their shuttling and shifting. I stood alone, apparently
forgotten.

And there, not a dozen feet away, was the beam's control-knob.

I made for it in one mad rush, not even stopping to think lest some
Kel telepathic sense should doom me.

For a split second, nothing happened.

Then, out of nowhere, a shrill keening sound hammered at my eardrums.
The alien directing the cone of radiance changed shape and darkened to
a splotchy purple as he came round, trying to meet me.

Feet first, I plowed into him.

Like lightning, tentacles whipped up to ensnare me. Tissue slapped
across my face in a smothering plaster.

But this time I too had my strategy. Wasting no time or energy on the
monster's embrace, I hurled myself sidewise.

The Kel tore loose from his anchorage on the metal wall. For an instant
he swung in mid-air, unsupported save by his contact with my body.

Violently, I flipped him round, whirling so that sheer centrifugal
force carried his body closer and closer to the greenish cone of light
that still shone from the crystal.

Again, somewhere, the keening sound rose shrilly.

Instantly, the alien clinging to me gave a convulsive shift, so violent
it almost turned me over.

But I was whirling too fast to be stopped by anything short of complete
upset. Lurching, staggering, I stumbled still closer to the cone of
radiance.

One more step, one only--

The beam spilled across the Kel's extended body. Once--twice--three
times the alien whirled into the radiance.

And each time, something hissed, like steam escaping. Tentacles jerked
at me in a frantic spasm.

Then, of a sudden, the pseudopods released their grip. The viscous
body lost all semblance of tone and tension ... flew away from me in
a short, sodden arc, to land with a splatting sound against the wall
nearby.

How much time had elapsed? One second? Two?

I couldn't tell. I only knew that now, from all sides, Kel were
swarming at me in a rush.

I dived for the metal knob that controlled the green beam. With one
sweep of my hand, I set it spinning.

The crystal swiveled in swift coordination. The cone of light flashed
in a great, swooping arc.

And everywhere its radiance touched the Kel, there was the sound, the
sudden hissing. Bulbous bodies went limp. Pseudopodal tissue oozed away
like oil on pavement.

Grimly, I spun the knob the other way--hunting down my foes, driving
them to cover.

Then--quite suddenly, it seemed--no more Kel were visible. I stood in
complete command of the control room of an alien globeship.

I smiled a little at that time, I think--a slow, contemplative smile,
with nothing that could be spoken of as humor in it.

After that, tight-lipped, I called, "Celeste! Get up here!"

Hollow-eyed, tousle-headed, she came out from behind the ridge where
she'd been hiding.

Not giving her a chance to speak, I said, "These things, the Kel--how
do they tell you what they want?"

"How?"--She moved uncertainly "It's--well, one of them--becomes like
me. We talk. Then--"

"That's enough," I grunted. "Look around. Start hunting for one who's
hiding like you were behind the ridges."

"I--I don't understand...."

"You will." With slow deliberation, I fanned the walls with my cone of
greenish light. I had no illusions that my grin was pleasant. "You see,
Miss Stelpa, somewhere aboard this ship there's a Kel who doesn't want
this beam to burn him. He doesn't want it so bad he'll even betray the
rest of his kind in order to prevent it.

"Starting right now, we're going to find that traitor!"



                              CHAPTER VI

                         THRILL-MILLS, F.O.B.


The first three Kel Celeste rooted out were loyal to their species.

Unto death.

The fourth, it seemed, felt differently about it. Even life in the
FedGov's interplanetary zoo, apparently, was acceptable, when weighed
against no life at all.

Our problems resolved themselves into routine, almost, after that ... a
course to set, the ship to steer, messages to send to lure other globes
into range of FedGov weapons.

Then, finally, the job was done. The last Kel ship save this one had
been swept from space and blasted into atoms.

Now, in a rush, fatigue welled up to claim me. I slumped, half-sick.
By the time our craft came to rest on Rizal, I wasn't sure I even had
strength left to climb out.

Then, at last, our hatches swung open. Aid parties swarmed aboard.

I moved back out of sight. Somehow, I couldn't face the excited
flummery and fawning.

Celeste Stelpa, too, seemed to have vanished. No matter where I looked,
I couldn't find her.

The first party into the globeship brought paraguns and proton blasters
with them. Relentlessly, they cleared out what was left of the Kel
crew, pushing past me almost without notice in the grimness of their
work.

Wave Two hoisted Controller Kruze and the other prisoners up from their
spherical scarlet dungeon.

It was a moment to remember. For if I couldn't stand the thought of
obsequiousness and adulation, Security's chief had no such inhibitions.
His heavy body seemed to swell. He beamed and puffed and pranced and
strutted.

Conveniently, too, he made no slightest mention of me. Without saying
so in so many words, he made it ever so clear that Controller Alfred
Kruze himself had saved mankind from the Kel menace.

I smiled a small and twisted smile. That was the way of officialdom, it
seemed--in this world or any other.

And what did it really matter?

Only then, without warning, someone said, "--and these people,
Controller: the ones who received thrill-mills from the Kel and kept it
secret. What do you plan to do about them?"

Kruze's heavy features grew dark. "What would you have me do--to
traitors?" He wheeled like an angry mastiff; shook his fist. "They die,
of course! All of them! The very fact of past or present possession
of a thrill-mill be punished by summary execution, without trial, as
collaboration with the Kel!"

I almost cried out, then, by instinct.

Only that could do no good. The thinking part of my brain knew it. So
I stood silent, instead; immobile. This quick wave of approval from
Kruze's adulators roused only numb shock in me.

Then the controller's aides moved him on out. The rescue parties
followed.

I let them go. For my own part, I couldn't leave. Not quite yet.

The last stragglers disappeared. The echoes died. Aching with
weariness, I began my own bleakly purposeful tour of inspection.

A dozen times, I lost my way in the maze of rooms and shafts and
intersecting passages. A hundred--a thousand--I came upon strange
sights, alien things my human mind could never hope to fathom.

Now fatigue bore me down till I had to stop and lean against a wall to
rest. I began to wonder if I'd come on a fool's errand.

Then, close to the globeship's exit hatch, I glimpsed a narrow storage
niche--a niche stacked high with neat oblong cases.

Fibrox transit boxes.

Involuntarily, my breathing quickened. Dragging down the nearest box,
I ripped it open.

A folded paper fell to the floor: a cargo manifest.

I clawed it up ... fumbled it open with fingers numb and stiff as
sticks.

And there was the stamp, the familiar scarlet label:

CLASSIFIED FEDGOV SECURITY SUPPLIES!

_PORT INSPECTION FORBIDDEN_

--The label that would permit these boxes to pass customs checks at any
port on any planet, throughout FedGov Security's whole far-flung field
of operations.

       *       *       *       *       *

I turned back to the case itself and tugged out one of the smaller
boxes within ... tore off its wrapper, read the nameplate: 'Apex
Perceptual Intensifier'.

Behind me, Celeste Stelpa asked, "Who is it from, Mark?"

I whirled, already crouching. "What are you doing here?"

Her wan smile didn't change. "Waiting for you, of course." And then:
"You see--I knew you wouldn't go till you'd run this down. There's
still too much of your hate left in you."

"Oh?"

"Hate's that way, Mark, when you displace it. Even if you win one
fight, you've got to turn around and hunt another. Because the thing
you fight isn't the thing you're really trying to destroy."

I said harshly, "I don't know what you're trying to say. I don't think
you do, either. But whether you do or don't, I don't care. So far as
I'm concerned, you're just another traitor to your race. You're like
that Kel who helped us kill the rest of them so he could live. You did
the same thing when the globes took over Bejak II. You let them bring
you here, helped them put out these thrill-mills--"

I broke off as Celeste began to shake. My own hands suddenly weren't
steady.

A minute passed, and then another and another.

Slowly, then, Celeste raised her face. "I hope you think it through
sometime, Mark Traynor," she whispered in a tear-choked voice. "I hope
you ask yourself what's back of all the hate that's in you, and then
try to link that up with me, so you can find the reason why I helped
the Kel put out their thrill-mills."

I stood very still. "Go on."

"Why should I? You already know the answer. Or if you don't, you
haven't the mind ever to understand it."

Her hands drew into fists, then. Her words came in a furious rush: "I
hated them, do you understand? I hated them more than you could ever
dream of! I was on Bejak II! I saw the things they did--the way the
people were slaughtered.

"Only I saw other things too, Mark Traynor! I saw it wasn't the Kel's
fault, not all of it. We could have fought them off, if it hadn't been
for the FedGov and its racked compulsory conditioning.

"That conditioning--it made us like so many sheep. It robbed us of our
imagination, our lust for life, our fighting spirit. And then, later
on, when my own patterns broke and I found what our world looked like
when inhibition wasn't muting our senses and our feelings--"

Another change of mood, a shift in fervor. Warmth replaced rage.
Pleading took the place of anger:

"That's why I did it, Mark. All at once it dawned on me I was hating
the wrong thing, the wrong race. I thought that if even a few of our
kind could break loose, throw off their patterns, there might be a
chance for human freedom. And with freedom, we could beat the Kel.

"You know how I felt, Mark--because you've felt the same way! You hated
going back, being reconditioned. Every time, it got harder for you to
give up freedom. Only you didn't dare admit it, not even to yourself."

"So I took it out on the Kel, you mean?" It was an effort to keep my
own voice steady. "You may be right."

"Then--"

"No. Because this is something else again." I gestured to the boxes
that held the thrill-mills. "Do you know where these came from?"

"I can guess."

"Then you know why I've got to follow through on them."

"But--"

"Say that it's for the cause of human freedom. The freedom of all those
poor lost souls Kruze has ordered executed. No matter what I have to
do, I'm not going to see them die."

Abruptly, I was tired of talking, tired of listening. I turned away.

Celeste said, "But he's gone, Mark. Beyond your reach."

I stopped short. "What--?"

"He warped back as soon as he left the globeship, here. All the way
back, clear to the Interplanetary Center."

It rocked me, for an instant. Then I shrugged. "Fair enough."

"You mean--?"

"I warped out to Rizal without a clearance. I can leave the same way."

"No Mark! You mustn't! He could kill you!"

"I'll have a paragun by the time I get there."

"Then I'll go too, Mark! Take me with you!"

"No."

"But why, Mark? Why? Don't you understand how I feel? No matter what
happens, I want to be with you."

I said, "You still can't go, Celeste. For two reasons.

"In the first place, I still don't trust you.

"In the second, and no matter what you do or have done, I'm not going
to let anything further happen to you. Not if I can help it."

"Mark, I don't care! Even if you try to leave me here, I'll follow!"

"You'll have to, then." Smiling, I pushed past her towards the exit.
"Goodbye, Celeste."

"No, Mark! I won't let you go!"

"Goodbye, Celeste," I said again, patting her cheek.

Still smiling, then, I hammered home a knockout blow....



                              CHAPTER VII

                               FINAL FOE


It was still as death inside the space-warp chamber.

But the indicators showed that I'd now reached the Interplanetary
Center. Grimly, I shoved shut the switch that released the heavy
warp-hatch ... stood motionless while I waited for the mechanism to
grind through its inexorable cycle.

A click. A whir.

I drew a swift breath; eased the paragun from my waistband.

Again, a click. The vault-thick cylinder slid smoothly inward on its
guides. Air hissed. The world outside the hatch took form, all dim and
shadowy.

For a moment I waited, not breathing ... straining my ears for the
slightest sound.

None came.

Cat-silent, now I clambered through the exit ... looked down the
corridor beyond, with its gleaming ceracoid walls and emblazoned motif
of FedGov Security insignia.

Still no one. Moving swiftly down the hall, I sought out the fifth of
the row of shaft-lifts.

Soundlessly, it bore me upward. When it halted, I stepped out onto
thick, rich veldrence carpeting, crossed to the far side of the alcove,
and peered past the draperies into the larger room beyond.

Controller Alfred Kruze sat at his desk, alone, attention focused on a
spinning reader-reel.

Shifting, I checked the other door, the one to Kruze's left.

It was closed.

Some of the tightness left my chest. Pulling back the drape, I stepped
into the room.

Kruze's head jerked up. The reader-reel clattered to the desk.

I said, "Don't move, Kruze. Don't even breathe. Not if you want to
live."

Kruze's eyes distended. His hands stopped in mid-air.

I crossed to him; gestured with the paragun. "Palms flat on the desk,
Controller. Thanks to your private warp and lift, no one knows I'm
here. Let's keep it that way. No loud noises, no tricks with buzzers,
nothing to attract the attention of the guards in the anteroom. They
couldn't do you any good. You'd be dead before they got here."

Kruze lowered his hands jerkily. An angry flush was darkening his face.
"Just what's the meaning of this, Traynor? Do you want a trip to the
blocking rooms, with orders to psych you down to Drudge Third level?"

Instead of answering, I brought up the paragun and leveled it at his
head.

The heavy shoulders shifted, just a trifle. A wariness came to the
cold, unblinking eyes.

I said, "Kruze, you've got just one order left to give. You're going to
stop those executions on Rizal!"

"Executions--? What executions?"

"You know the edict." I held my voice very flat, very factual. "It
provided that any person found in possession of a thrill-mill should
be shot summarily, without trial."

"And now you want me to countermand it? You'd have me relieve those
Kel-lovers of the penalty for their treason?" Angrily, Kruze gave vent
to a belligerent snort. "You're even more of a fool than I thought you
were, Traynor. What possible reason can you advance why I should let
such scoundrels live?"

"The best reason in the world, Controller," I answered, ever so gently.
"It's the only way you can even hope to stay alive yourself." And then,
after an instant's pause and with a gesture of my paragun: "You see, I
agree with your sentiments on treason--and I also happen to know you're
the man who gave the Kel those thrill-mill gadgets in the first place!"

       *       *       *       *       *

For an instant Kruze's knuckles went white against the desk. Then,
quite suddenly, he leaned back. His head seemed to sink down between
his shoulders. "You've either said too much or not enough, Traynor."

I said, "I should have recognized it from the start, of course: No
alien ever could have achieved such insight into the workings of
the human mind. That made our villain a man--a man so high in the
Federation that he was allowed to operate under minimal conditioning or
none at all; a man who had access to whatever he needed in the way of
supplies or equipment or personnel, and no questions asked or answers
given.

"Give a man like that a lust for power. Then throw in a stalemated war
against the Kel--a war that neither side can hope to win.

"As a human among humans, our man's authority is strictly limited.
Conditioned or not, our race has had enough of despots.

"But supposing he can help the Kel to victory? Mightn't they be willing
to make him absolute and autocratic ruler of his kind?"

Again, I gestured. "There it is, Kruze. That's how you worked it. And
that's why you were so bitter when I kept blowing everything apart.

"All along the line, there were pointers to your collaboration. Like
the way the Kel turned loose Celeste and me, back at that warehouse on
Rizal. That was your work: You didn't want to chance my having too much
contact with them. So you ordered them to let me go.

"And don't bother reminding me they took you prisoner, too. Because
that was more of your own planning. You didn't intend to take chances
of being killed accidentally, once the actual invasion got under way.

"If that's still not enough--if you want court proof--I found cargo
manifests aboard that globeship that I captured. They show the
thrill-mills went to Rizal as classified Security supplies. With that
to go on, it won't be any trick to find the techs who made them.
They'll tie you to it tight."

Silence. A long, long moment of silence.

Then, abruptly, Kruze asked, "How many people know about this, Traynor?
Just you? Or is the Stelpa girl in on it too?"

I shrugged. "Does it matter? I'm here, now. You're trapped. That's all
that counts."

"Perhaps." Heavily, the controller shifted in his chair. "Very
honestly, Traynor, your hypotheses are all wrong. But even the
unfounded accusations could prove a nuisance, so tell me: What would it
take to persuade you to forget all this? Money? A guarantee that you'll
stay unconditioned? A planetary controllership?"

I didn't answer.

"I might even go so far as to countermand my execution edict, if that
really matters to you." Kruze frowned thoughtfully. "I hate to chance
it, though. Those mills shatter conditioning badly. And once that's
happened, someone's likely to jump to the wrong conclusions, the way
you've done."

Wearily, I shook my head. "Save your breath, Controller. The only deal
I'll make is not to kill you, providing you stop those executions.
Beyond that, you'll have to take your chances with the courts."

Silence again. And still Kruze sat granite-solid in his chair. Only his
eyes showed that he'd heard me--the emotionless, unblinking eyes that
never left mine for an instant. Between us, the desk-top gleamed dully,
bleak and bare as a sheet of the wind-polished black lake ice you see
sometimes in the wintry hinterlands of Bejak II.

I tightened my grip on the paragun's butt. "The order, Kruze. Write it
down, ready for plating, or I shoot."

A thick-shouldered shrug. "Very well, Traynor. If that's the way you
want it...."

Kruze leaned forward.

The next instant, there was the faintest of humming, whirring sounds,
apparently issuing from the desk.

Simultaneously, involuntarily, my right arm jerked forward and down.
The gun tore from my fingers and slapped against the desk-top's
polished surface with a noisy _crack!_ as if impelled by unseen springs.

For the fraction of a second I lurched off balance--incredulous, gaping.

Before I could recover, Kruze whipped a gun of his own from the desk's
sorter-slot. His voice rang with harsh triumph: "As you said earlier,
Friend Traynor--don't move, if you want to live!"

The light in his eyes said even more. I stood ever so still.

Heaving up from his chair, he came around the desk, pocketing my own
paragun in the process. "You're an ingenious man, Traynor. So I know
you'll appreciate ingenuity in another. You see, a buzzer can be under
a desk just as well as on top of it. And sometimes, instead of buzzing,
it turns on a magnetic field strong enough to jerk an anvil clear
across the room. I've found it quite effective in discouraging would-be
assassins. It's so unanticipated--like this--"

The controller had come abreast of me as he spoke. Now, without
warning, he suddenly hammered a sledge-like fist straight to the pit of
my stomach.

Retching, I lurched back; bent double.

Savagely, Kruze brought up a rock-hard knee, square into my face.

Jagged pain-colors exploded in my brain. I crashed to the floor, the
room swirling around me.

Kruze again; words coming from afar: "No noise, now, Traynor! As you
warned me, we mustn't attract the attention of my guards. We'll just
leave the way you came--down the shaft-lift, into the space-warp, and
then away on a little trip."

       *       *       *       *       *

Groggily, prodded on by kicks, I lurched to my feet ... stumbled back
to the alcove and the shaft-lift. My nose was bleeding badly. My belly
screamed protest at every step.

Down, now; all the way down, with Kruze and his gun crowded close
against me. Then a death-march that ran the length of the corridor from
the lift to the space-warp chamber.

When I lagged at the entry-hatch, my captor gave me yet another kick,
from behind and to the hinge of my left knee, so that I fell through
the slot bodily, sprawling on my face on the stone-hard floor inside.

More kicks, as Kruze himself entered. I lurched from his path and,
shaking, dragged myself onto the nearest bench. My nails gouged the
plasticon in stiff-fingered spasms of pure homicidal fury. But always,
always, there was the gun in Kruze's hand--an unwavering gun, centered
dead upon me and backed with eyes as bleak and chill as far-off Pluto's
ice-mass.

Now Kruze stepped to the warp-board, adjusting controls with swift,
sure skill. "This should interest you, Traynor." He talked as he
worked, a cool, conversational monolog. "As you know, a space-warp
calls for both transmitting and receiving units. For round-trip travel,
you have to have both at each terminal point.

"That fact gave me an idea--one designed to take care of crises just
such as this one you've precipitated.

"First, I looked for precisely the right planet: one not only
uninhabited, but completely devoid of any means of sustaining life.

"I found the ideal spot when an exploration party visited Aldebaran's
solar system. It's a world there they named Sheol--a planetary hell, an
abode fit only for the dead.

"In accordance with my orders, techs installed a space-warp chamber on
it, complete with a receiving unit.

"There's no transmitter, however. So whoever's sent there can plan on
permanent residence, alive or dead.

"That's where you come in, Traynor: You'll be the first among those
permanent residents...."

Somehow, I didn't even shudder. It was as if I'd been expecting such;
as if this only reaffirmed my insight into Kruze and his potentialities
for evil.

But the controller was still talking: "... and then, there's the
matter of the girl. From your very reticence, I take it for granted
you've confided in her. So I'll simply see that she's hunted down,
supplied with a thrill-mill, and then executed on the spot for
possession of it. I suspect it can all be taken care of before she even
realizes that anything out of line has happened to you."

I looked up, then. Slowly. Painfully. Still not quite believing.

"That hit you, did it?" Kruze laughed--a harsh, mirthless sound, deep
in his throat. "I thought it would. That's what happens, when a man's
emotions run unconditioned, unrestrained."

I gripped the bench. I had a feeling that all my nails were broken, my
fingers bleeding. But I didn't look to see.

Kruze said, "I know. You're trying to nerve yourself to rush me. Only
believe me, it wouldn't do any good. I can ship you to Sheol dead just
as well as living."

He turned from the board as he spoke, so that he faced me squarely.
Never had the gun been steadier; never the challenge of the cold eyes
more apparent, more relentless.

"Rack you, Kruze!" I choked. I wouldn't keep my voice from shaking.

"Would you like to check my logic, Traynor?" My tormentor was openly
taunting now, his whole heavy body aquiver with enjoyment. "As I see
it, once you and the girl are dead, I've nothing to fear. If you'd told
anyone else about this, any man, he'd have come here with you. Because
not even an unconditioned fool like you could have enjoyed playing out
a hand like this alone. Right?"

I didn't answer.

"You and the girl, you and the girl.--Traynor, perhaps I can solace
your final hours on Sheol. Instead of having the girl summarily
executed, it may be I can arrange a less public end for her so that she
spends a long time dying. Does that appeal to you?"

I waited for a moment before I spoke. Somehow, for no good reason, it
seemed that I had to find precisely the right words, the right pattern.

Then, abruptly, that moment passed, and language no longer mattered.

"Kruze," I said, quite levelly, "count on one thing: I'm going to kill
you."

The controller's eyes widened, just a fraction. "Traynor, you fool--!"

I got up, paying him no heed. It was a stolid, unhurried movement,
better suited to his temperament and heavy body than to mine.

"Traynor, I'll shoot!"

I laughed aloud.

"Traynor--!"

I said, "Don't worry. You'll kill me. But I'll still get to you, even
so. Dead or alive, bare-handed, I'll tear open your throat and bash
your brains out!"

"Traynor, listen...."

Flat-footed, unspeaking, I took a slow step towards him.

Kruze's knuckles whitened on the paragun's trigger.

Deliberately, I took another step.

Just as deliberately, Kruze adjusted his aim.

And there it stood: Beyond all doubt, Controller Alfred Kruze would
kill me.

What were the odds, then? How much chance did I have, for all my talk,
of charging in to strike him down?

Only I didn't have any choice but to try. Not really. Not with
Celeste's very life at stake.

Tight-lipped, I drew a long, deep breath.

Only then, incredibly, off beyond Kruze, by the warp-room's entrance,
movement flickered.

The breath caught in my throat. I forced myself to hold my eyes full
front on Kruze.

       *       *       *       *       *

Over by the hatchway, the movement resolved itself into a death-pale,
shadow-silent figure ... the figure of a woman, creeping out from
behind the solid banks of micromesh transistors.

Celeste.

Only that was impossible.

I began to shake.

Kruze laughed. "It's not so easy, is it Traynor? Not when you know the
other man will shoot!"

I didn't answer. I couldn't.

And still Celeste moved, like a figure out of nightmare. Step after
aching step, closer and closer to the entry.

Kruze again: "All right, Traynor. Make up your mind. Have you got the
nerve or not?"

Against the wall, Celeste's sleeve whispered in the stillness.
It seemed incredible that Kruze showed no sign that he heard it.
Desperately, and in a voice that cracked till it held no faintest
resemblance to my own, I said, "Don't worry, Kruze. I'm coming."

I poised, ready to lunge. Over by the hatch, Celeste was reaching out.
Stretching, her fingers touched, then grasped, the light-switch.

Her eyes flicked to me in the same instant. Her other hand came up in a
swift signal.

Like an echo, the lights blacked out.

I lunged, then. Sidewise and down, hurling myself away from the line of
Kruze's aim.

Simultaneously, almost, the paragun's pencil-shaft of purple fire
lanced through the black, straight to the spot where I had stood.

I dived in low, striking blindly for Kruze's legs. Pain from the shock
of impact splashed through my shoulder. Together, my quarry and I
crashed to the floor.

That stone-hard floor.

Writhing, I rolled clear of Kruze, then brought up my legs and smashed
my feet into him with all my might.

Breath went out of him in an anguished, incoherent gust. Hands clawed
at my ankles in the darkness--jerking me close, wrenching my leg around.

I rolled fast with the twist. Groping, I flailed and pawed at the
thick, heavy-muscled body.

An ear came under my fingers. Mouth. Nose. Hair.

Savagely, I jerked the head high, then threw my whole weight forward on
it as I smashed it to the floor.

It struck with a pulpy, popping sound. The body twitched convulsively,
then went limp.

For an instant I lay there slack-jawed, staring stupidly into the
darkness.

But Kruze still didn't move. The hands that but a moment before had
sought to break my leg now sagged like sodden sacks of meal.

Panting, half-sobbing, I pulled myself clear. Then, lurching erect, I
stumbled to the grey circle that was the entry-hatch and fumbled for a
light.

Another hand was already on the switch.

That instant--it lasted through five hundred centuries and more.

Then, raggedly, I whispered, "Celeste--? Celeste?"

The answer, just as ragged: "You didn't really think I'd let you come
alone?"

And somehow, after that, there was only the bright future stretching
out before us, our future and an unconditioned mankind's, and there
wasn't any need for light or words....



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