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Title: Worlds of the Imperium
Author: Laumer, Keith
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 "Worlds of the Imperium" ***

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                        WORLDS of the IMPERIUM

                            By KEITH LAUMER

                            ACE BOOKS, INC.
                23 West 47th Street, New York 36, N.Y.

                  Copyright, 1962, by Ace Books, Inc.

                          All Rights Reserved

                           Printed in U.S.A.

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



                DOUBLE TROUBLE FOR A DUPLICATE DICTATOR


For Brion Bayard, the discovery of an alternate world to Earth
where history took a different turn in the road was not a pleasant
experience. His kidnapping brought him some startling revelations.
Here was a world in which appeared identical doubles of famous
personages--including a dangerous and hated dictator named Brion Bayard!

His assignment seemed simple enough. Dressed as his double, Brion was
to enter the enemy stronghold, kill the dictator, and take his place
until law and order could be maintained.

But once having seen his mirror-image brother, Brion had as little
inclination to murder him as some other people had to let him live.



                          CAST OF CHARACTERS


Brion Bayard: How much of his double was himself?

Chief Inspector Bale: In alternate worlds, he still meant double
trouble.

Hermann Goering: The same name, the same body, yet not the same man.

Barbro Lundane: A Swedish lass with a sweetish air.

Gaston: In a second world, he still had but one life to give for the
cause.

Brion Bayard (2): His arch-enemy was his only friend.



                               Chapter 1


I stopped in front of a shop with a small wooden sign which hung from a
wrought-iron spear projecting from the weathered stone wall. On it the
word Antikvariat was lettered in spidery gold against dull black. The
sign creaked as it swung in the night wind. Below it a metal grating
covered a dusty window with a display of yellowed etchings, woodcuts,
and lithographs, and a faded mezzotint. Some of the buildings in the
pictures looked familiar, but here they stood in open fields, or
perched on hills overlooking a harbor crowded with sails. The ladies
in the pictures wore great bell-like skirts and bonnets with ribbons,
and carried tiny parasols, while dainty-footed horses pranced before
carriages in the background.

It wasn't the prints that interested me though, or even the heavy
gilt frame embracing a tarnished mirror at one side; it was the man
whose reflection I studied in the yellowed glass, a dark man wearing a
tightly-belted grey trench coat that was six inches too long. He stood
with his hands thrust deep in his pockets and stared into a darkened
window fifty feet from me.

He had been following me all day.

At first I thought it was coincidence when I noticed the man on the bus
from Bromma, then studying theatre announcements in the hotel lobby
while I registered, and half an hour later sitting three tables away
sipping coffee while I ate a hearty dinner.

I had discarded the coincidence theory a long time ago. Five hours
had passed and he was still with me as I walked through the Old Town,
medieval Stockholm still preserved on an island in the middle of the
city. I had walked past shabby windows crammed with copper pots, ornate
silver, dueling pistols, and worn cavalry sabres; they were all very
quaint in the afternoon sun, but grim reminders of a ruder day of
violence after midnight. Over the echo of my footsteps in the silent
narrow streets the other steps came quietly behind, hurrying when I
hurried, stopping when I stopped. Now the man stared into the dark
window and waited. The next move was up to me.

I was lost. Twenty years is a long time to remember the tortuous
turnings of the streets of the Old Town. I took my guide book from my
pocket and turned to the map in the back. My fingers were clumsy.

I craned my neck up at the stone tablet set in the corner of the
building; it was barely legible: Master Samuelsgatan. I found the name
on the folding map and saw that it ran for three short blocks, ending
at Gamla Storgatan; a dead end. In the dim light it was difficult to
see the fine detail on the map. I twisted the book around and got a
clearer view; there appeared to be another tiny street, marked with
cross-lines, and labeled Guldsmedstrappan.

I tried to remember my Swedish; _trappan_ meant stair. The Goldsmith's
Stairs, running from Master Samuelsgatan to Hundgatan, another tiny
street. It seemed to lead to the lighted area near the palace; it
looked like my only route out. I dropped the book back into my pocket
and moved off casually toward the stairs of the Goldsmith. I hoped
there was no gate across the entrance.

My shadow waited a moment, then followed. As I was ambling, I slowly
gained a little on him. He seemed in no hurry at all. I passed more
tiny shops, with iron-bound doors and worn stone sills, and then saw
that the next doorway was an open arch with littered granite steps
ascending abruptly. I paused idly, then turned in. Once past the
portal, I bounded up the steps at top speed. Six leaps, eight, and I
was at the top, darting to the left toward a deep doorway. There was
just a chance I'd cleared the top of the stair before the dark man
had reached the bottom. I stood and listened. I heard the scrape of
shoes, then heavy breathing from the direction of the stairs a few feet
away. I waited, breathing with my mouth wide open, trying not to pant
audibly. After a moment the steps moved away. The proper move for my
silent companion would be to cast about quickly for my hiding place, on
the assumption that I had concealed myself close by. He would be back
this way soon.

I risked a glance. He was moving quickly along, looking sharply about,
with his back to me. I pulled off my shoes and without taking time to
think about it, stepped out. I made it to the stairs in three paces,
and faded out of sight as the man stopped to turn back. I leaped down
three steps at a time; I was halfway down when my foot hit a loose
stone, and I flew the rest of the way.

I hit the cobblestones shoulder first, and followed up with my head. I
rolled over and scrambled to my feet, my head ringing. I clung to the
wall by the foot of the steps as the pain started. Now I was getting
mad. I heard the soft-shod feet coming down the stairs, and gathered
myself to jump him as he came out. The footsteps hesitated just before
the arch, then the dark round head with the uncut hair peeped out. I
swung a haymaker--and missed.

He darted into the street and turned, fumbling in his overcoat.
I assumed he was trying to get a gun, and aimed a kick at his
mid-section. I had better luck this time; I connected solidly, and had
the satisfaction of hearing him gasp in agony. I hoped he hurt as badly
as I did. Whatever he was fumbling for came free then, and he backed
away, holding the thing in his mouth.

"One-oh-nine, where in bloody blazes are you?" he said in a harsh
voice, glaring at me. He had an odd accent. I realized the thing was
some sort of microphone. "Come in, one-oh-nine, this job's going to
pieces...." He backed away, talking, eyes on me. I leaned against the
wall; I was hurt too badly to be very aggressive. There was no one else
in sight. His soft shoes made whispering sounds on the paving stones.
Mine lay in the middle of the street where I had dropped them when I
fell.

Then there was a sound behind me. I whirled, and saw the narrow street
almost blocked by a huge van. I let my breath out with a sigh of
relief. Here was help.

Two men jumped down from the van, and without hesitation stepped up to
me, took my arms and escorted me toward the rear of the van. They wore
tight white uniforms, and said nothing.

"I'm all right," I said. "Grab that man." About that time I realized he
was following along, talking excitedly to the man in white, and that
the grip on my arms was more of a restraint than a support. I dug in my
heels and tried to pull away. I remembered suddenly that the Stockholm
police don't wear white uniforms.

I might as well not have bothered. One of them unclipped a thing like
a tiny aerosol bomb from his belt and sprayed it into my face. I felt
myself go limp.



                               Chapter 2


There was a scratching sound which irritated me. I tried unsuccessfully
to weave it into a couple of dreams before my subconscious gave up.
I was lying on my back, eyes closed. I couldn't think where I was.
I remembered a frightening dream about being followed, and then as I
became aware of pain in my shoulder and head, my eyes snapped open. I
was lying on a cot at the side of a small office; the scratching came
from the desk where a dapper man in a white uniform sat writing. There
was a humming sound and a feeling of motion.

I sat up. At once the man behind the desk looked up, rose, and walked
over to me. He drew up a chair and sat down.

"Please don't be alarmed," he said in a clipped British accent. "I'm
Chief Captain Winter. You need merely to assist in giving me some
routine information, after which you will be assigned comfortable
quarters." He said all this in a smooth lifeless way, as though he'd
been through it before. Then he looked directly at me for the first
time.

"I must apologize for the callousness with which you were handled; it
was not my intention. However," his tone changed, "you must excuse the
operative; he was uninformed."

Chief Captain Winter opened a notebook and lolled back in his chair
with pencil poised. "Where were you born, Mr. Bayard?"

They must have been through my pockets, I thought; they know my name.

"Who the hell are you?" I said.

The chief captain raised an eyebrow. His uniform was immaculate, and
brilliantly jewelled decorations sparkled on his chest.

"Of course you are confused at this moment, Mr. Bayard, but everything
will be explained to you carefully in due course. I am an Imperial
officer, duly authorized to interrogate subjects under detention." He
smiled soothingly. "Now please state your birthplace."

I said nothing. I didn't feel like answering any questions; I had too
many of my own to ask first. I couldn't place the fellow's accent. He
was an Englishman all right, but I couldn't have said from what part
of England. I glanced at the medals. Most of them were strange but I
recognized the scarlet ribbon of the Victoria Cross, with three palms,
ornamented with gems. There was something extremely phoney about Chief
Captain Winter.

"Come along now, old chap," Winter said sharply. "Kindly cooperate. It
will save a great deal of unpleasantness."

I looked at him grimly. "I find being chased, grabbed, gassed, stuffed
in a cell, and quizzed about my personal life pretty damned unpleasant
already, so don't bother trying to keep it all on a high plane. I'm not
answering any questions." I reached in my pocket for my passport; it
wasn't there.

"Since you've already stolen my passport, you know by now that I'm an
American diplomat, and enjoy diplomatic immunity to any form of arrest,
detention, interrogation and what have you. So I'm leaving as soon as
you return my property, including my shoes."

Winter's face had stiffened up. I could see my act hadn't had much
impression on him. He signalled, and two fellows I hadn't seen before
moved around into view. They were bigger than he was.

"Mr. Bayard, you must answer my questions, under duress, if necessary.
Kindly begin by stating your birthplace."

"You'll find it in my passport," I said. I was looking at the two
reinforcements; they were as easy to ignore as a couple of bulldozers
in the living room. I decided on a change of tactics. I'd play along in
the hope they'd relax a bit, and then make a break for it.

One of the men, at a signal, handed Winter my passport from his desk.
He glanced through it, made a number of notes, and passed the booklet
back to me.

"Thank you, Mr. Bayard," he said pleasantly. "Now let's get on to
particulars. Where did you attend school?"

I tried hard now to give the impression of one eager to please.
I regretted my earlier truculence; it made my present pose of
co-operativeness a little less plausible. Winter must have been
accustomed to the job though, and to subjects who were abject. After
a few minutes he waved an arm at the two bouncers, who left the room
silently.

Winter had gotten on to the subject of international relations and
geopolitics now, and seem to be fascinated by my commonplace replies. I
attempted once or twice to ask why it was necessary to quiz me closely
on matters of general information, but was firmly guided back to the
answering of the questions.

He covered geography and recent history thoroughly with emphasis on
the period 1879-1910, and then started in on a biographic list; all I
knew about one name after another. Most of them I'd never heard of, a
few were minor public figures. He quizzed me in detail on two Italians,
Cocino and Maxoni. He could hardly believe I'd never heard of them. He
seemed fascinated by many of my replies.

"Niven an actor?" he said incredulously. "Never heard of Crane Talbot?"
and when I described Churchill's role in recent affairs, he laughed
uproariously.

After forty minutes of this one-sided discussion, a buzzer sounded
faintly, and another uniformed man entered, placed a good-sized box on
the corner of the desk, and left. Winter ignored the interruption.

Another twenty minutes of questions went by. Who was the present
monarch of Anglo-Germany? Winter asked. What was the composition of the
royal family, the ages of the children? I exhausted my knowledge of the
subject. What was the status of the Viceroyalty of India? Explain the
working of the Dominion arrangements of Australia, Northern America,
Cabotsland...? I was appalled at the questions; the author of them
must have been insane. It was almost impossible to link the garbled
reference to non-existent political subdivisions and institutions to
reality. I answered as matter-of-factly as possible. At least Winter
did not seem to be much disturbed by my revision of his distorted
version of affairs.

At last Winter rose, moved over to his desk, and motioned me to a chair
beside it. As I pulled the chair out, I glanced into the box on the
desk. I saw magazines, folded cloth, coins--and the butt of a small
automatic protruding from under a copy of the World Almanac. Winter had
turned away, reaching into a small cabinet behind the desk. My hand
darted out, scooped up the pistol, and dropped it into my pocket as I
seated myself.

Winter turned back with a blue glass bottle. "Now let's have a drop
and I'll attempt to clear up some of your justifiable confusion, Mr.
Bayard," he said genially. "What would you like to know?" I ignored the
bottle.

"Where am I?" I said.

"In the city of Stockholm, Sweden."

"We seem to be moving; what is this, a moving van with an office in it?"

"This is a vehicle, though not a moving van."

"Why did you pick me up?"

"I'm sorry that I can tell you no more than that you were brought in
under specific orders from a very high-ranking officer of the Imperial
Service." He looked at me speculatively. "This was most unusual," he
added.

"I take it kidnapping inoffensive persons is not in itself unusual."

Winter frowned. "You are the subject of an official operation
of Imperial Intelligence. Please rest assured you are not being
persecuted."

"What is Imperial Intelligence?"

"Mr. Bayard," Winter said earnestly, leaning forward, "it will be
necessary for you to face a number of realizations; the first is that
the governments which you are accustomed to regard as supreme sovereign
powers must in fact be considered tributary to the Imperium, the
Paramount Government in whose service I am an officer."

"You're a fake," I said.

Winter bristled. "I hold an Imperial Commission as Chief Captain of
Intelligence."

"What do you call this vehicle we're in?"

"This is an armed TNL scout based at Stockholm Zero Zero."

"That tells me a lot; what is it, a boat, car, airplane...?"

"None of those, Mr. Bayard."

"All right, I'll be specific; what does it travel on, water, air...?"

Winter hesitated. "Frankly, I don't know."

I saw it was time to try a new angle of attack. "Where are we going?"

"We are presently operating along coordinates zero-zero-zero,
zero-zero-six, zero-ninety-two."

"What is our destination? What place?"

"Stockholm Zero Zero, after which you'll probably be transferred to
London Zero Zero for further processing."

"What is the Zero business? Do you mean London, England?"

"The London you refer to is London B-I Three."

"What's the difference?"

"London Zero Zero is the capital of the Imperium, comprising the major
portion of the civilized world--North Europe, West Hemisphere, and
Australia."

I changed the subject. "Why did you kidnap me?"

"A routine interrogational arrest, insofar as I know."

"Do you intend to release me?"

"Yes."

"At home?"

"No."

"Where?"

"I can't say; at one of several concentration points."

"One more question," I said, easing the automatic from my pocket and
pointing it at the third medal from the left. "Do you know what this is?

"Keep your hands in sight; better get up and stand over there."

Winter rose and moved over to the spot indicated. I'd never aimed a
pistol at a man point-blank before, but I felt no hesitation now.

"Tell me all about it," I said.

"I've answered every question," Winter said nervously.

"And told me nothing." Winter stood staring at me.

I slipped the safety off with a click. "You have five seconds to
start," I said. "One ... two...."

"Very well," Winter said. "No need for all this; I'll try." He
hesitated. "You were selected from higher up. We went to a great deal
of trouble to get you in particular. As I've explained, that's rather
irregular. However," Winter seemed to be warming to his subject, "all
sampling in this region has been extremely restricted in the past; you
see, your continuum occupies an island, one of a very few isolated
lines in a vast blighted region. The entire configuration is abnormal,
and an extremely dangerous area in which to maneuver. We lost many
good men in early years before we learned how to handle the problems
involved."

"I suppose you know this is all nonsense to me," I said. "What do you
mean by sampling?"

"Do you mind if I smoke?" Winter said. I took a long brown cigarette
from a box on the desk, lit it, and handed it to him. "Sampling refers
to the collection of individuals or artifacts from representative B-I
lines," he said, blowing out smoke. "We in Intelligence are engaged now
in mapping operations. It's fascinating work, old boy, picking up the
trend lines, coordinating findings with theoretical work, developing
accurate calibrating devices, instruments, and so on. We're just
beginning to discover the potentialities of working the Net. In order
to gather maximum information in a short time, we've found it expedient
to collect individuals for interrogation. In this way we quickly gain a
general picture of the configuration of the Net in various directions.
In your case, I was directed under sealed orders to enter the Blight,
proceed to Blight-Insular Three, and take over custody of Mr. Brion
Bayard, a diplomat representing, of all things, an American republic."
Winter spoke enthusiastically now. As he relaxed, he seemed younger.

"It was quite a feather in my cap, old chap, to be selected to conduct
an operation in the Blight, and I've found it fascinating. Always in
the past, of course, I've operated at such a distance from the Imperium
that little or no analogy existed. But B-I Three! Why it's practically
the Imperium, with just enough variation to stir the imagination. Close
as the two lines are, there's a desert of Blight around and between
them that indicates how frightfully close to the rim we've trodden in
times past."

"All right, Winter. I've heard enough," I said. "You're just a harmless
nut, maybe. But I'll be going now."

"That's quite impossible," Winter said. "We're in the midst of the
Blight."

"What's the Blight?" I asked, making conversation as I looked around
the room, trying to pick out the best door to leave by. There were
three. I decided on the one no one had come through yet. I moved
towards it.

"The Blight is a region of utter desolation, radiation, and chaos,"
Winter was saying. "There are whole ranges of A-lines where the very
planet no longer exists, where automatic cameras have recorded nothing
but a vast ring of debris in orbit; then there are the cinder-worlds,
and here and there dismal groups of cancerous jungles, alive with
radiation-poisoned mutations. It's frightful, old chap. You can wave
the pistol at me all night, but it will get you nothing. In a few hours
we'll arrive at Zero Zero; you may as well relax until then."

I tried the door, it was locked. "Where's the key?" I said.

"There's no key. It will open automatically at the base."

I went to one of the other doors, the one the man with the box had
entered through. I pulled it open and glanced out. The humming sound
was louder and down a short and narrow corridor I saw what appeared to
be a pilot's compartment. A man's back was visible.

"Come on, Winter," I said. "Go ahead of me."

"Don't be a complete ass, old boy," Winter said, looking irritated. He
turned toward his desk. I raised the pistol. The shot boomed inside
the walls of the room, and Winter leaped back from the desk holding
a ripped hand. He whirled on me, for the first time looking really
scared. "You're insane," he shouted. "I've told you we're in the midst
of the Blight."

I was keeping one eye on the man up front, who was looking over his
shoulder while frantically doing something with his other hand.

"You're leaking all over that nice rug," I said. "I'm going to kill you
with the next one. Stop this machine."

Winter was pale; he swallowed convulsively. "I swear, Mr. Bayard,
that's utterly impossible. I'd rather you shoot me. You have no
conception of what you're suggesting."

I saw now that I was in the hands of a dangerous lunatic. I believed
Winter when he said he'd rather die than stop this bus--or whatever
it was. In spite of my threat, I couldn't shoot him in cold blood. I
turned and took three steps up the passage and poked the automatic into
the small of the back that showed there.

"Cut the switch," I said. The man, who was one of the two who had been
standing by when I awoke in the office, continued to twist frantically
at a knob on the panel before him. He glanced at me, but kept on
twiddling. I raised the pistol and fired a shot into the instrument
panel. The man jumped convulsively, and threw himself forward,
protecting the panel with his body.

"Stop, you bloody fool," he shouted. "Let us explain!"

"I tried that," I said. "It didn't work. Get out of my way. I'm
bringing this wagon to a halt one way or another."

I stood so that I could see both men. Winter half crouched in the
doorway, face white. "Are we all right, Doyle?" he called in a strained
voice. Doyle eased away from the panel, turned his back to me, and
glanced over the instruments. He flipped a toggle, cursed, and turned
back to face Winter.

"Communicator dead," he said. "But we're still in operation."

I hesitated now. These two were genuinely terrified of the idea of
stopping; they had paid as little attention to me and my noisy gun as
one would to a kid with a water pistol. Compared to stopping, a bullet
was apparently a trifling irritation.

It was also obvious that this was no moving van. The pilot's
compartment had more instruments than an airliner, and no windows.
Elaborate ideas began to run through my mind. Space ship? Time
machine? What the devil had I gotten into?

"All right, Winter," I said. "Let's call a truce. I'll give you five
minutes to give me a satisfactory explanation, prove you're not an
escapee from the violent ward, and tell me how you're going to go about
setting me down right back where you found me. If you can't or won't
cooperate, I'll fill that panel full of holes--including anybody who
happens to be standing in front of it."

"Yes," Winter said. "I swear I'll do all I can. Just come away from the
control compartment."

"I'll stay right here," I said. "I won't jump the gun unless you give
me a reason, like holding your mouth wrong."

Winter was sweating. "This is a scouting machine, operating in the Net.
By the Net, I mean the complex of Alternative lines which constitute
the matrix of all simultaneous reality. Our drive is the Maxoni-Cocini
field generator, which creates a force operating at what one might call
a perpendicular to normal entropy. Actually, I know little about the
physics of the mechanism; I am not a technician."

I looked at my watch. Winter got the idea. "The Imperium is the
government of the Zero Zero A-line in which this discovery was made.
The device is an extremely complex one, and there are a thousand ways
in which it can cause disaster to its operators if a mistake is made.
Judging from the fact that every A-line within thousands of parameters
of Zero Zero is a scene of the most fearful carnage, we surmise that
our line alone was successful in controlling the force. We conduct our
operations in all of that column of A-space lying outside the Blight,
as we term this area of destruction. The Blight itself we ordinarily
avoid completely."

Winter wrapped a handkerchief around his bleeding hand as he talked.

"Your line, known as Blight-Insular Three, or B-I Three, is one of
two exceptions we know to the general destruction. These two lines
lie at some distance from Zero Zero, yours a bit closer than B-I Two.
B-I Three was discovered only a month or so ago, and just recently
confirmed as a safe line. All this exploratory work in the Blight was
done by drone scouts, unmanned.

"Why I was directed to pick you up, I don't know. But believe me when I
say that if you succeed in crippling this scout, you'll precipitate us
into identity with an A-line which might be nothing more than a ring of
radioactive dust around the sun, or a great mass of mutated fungus. We
cannot stop now for any reason until we reach a safe area."

I looked at my watch again. "Four minutes," I said. "Prove what you've
been telling me."

Winter licked his lips. "Doyle, get the recon photos of this sector,
the ones we made on the way in."

Doyle reached across to a compartment under the panel and brought out a
large red envelope. He handed it to me. I passed it to Winter.

"Open it," I said. "Let's see what you've got."

Winter fumbled a moment, then slipped a stack of glossy prints out. He
handed me the first one. "All these photos were made from precisely the
same spatial and temporal coordinates as those occupied by the scout.
The only difference is the Web coordinates."

The print showed an array of ragged fragments of rock hanging against
a backdrop of foggy grey, with a few bright points gleaming through. I
didn't know what it was intended to represent.

He handed me another; it was similar. So was the third, with the added
detail that one rock fragment had a smooth side, with tiny lines across
it, Winter spoke up. "The scale is not what it appears; that odd bit is
a portion of the earth's crust, about twenty miles from the camera; the
lines are roads." I stared, fascinated. Beyond the strangely scribed
fragment, other jagged pieces ranged away to the limit of sight, and
beyond. My imagination reeled at the idea that perhaps Winter was
telling me the literal truth.

Winter passed over another shot. This one showed a lumpy black
expanse, visible only by the murky gleam of light reflected by the
irregularities in the surface in the direction of the moon, which
showed as a brilliant disc in the black sky.

The next was half-obscured by a mass which loomed across the lens,
too close for focus. Beyond, a huge sprawling bulk, shapeless, gross,
immense, lay half-buried in tangled vines. I stared horrified at
the tiny cowlike head which lolled uselessly on the slope of the
mountainous creature. Some distance away a distended leglike appendage
projected, the hoof dangling.

"Yes," Winter said. "It's a cow. A mutated cow which no longer has
any limitation on its growth. It's a vast tissue culture, absorbing
nourishment direct from the vines. They grow all through the mass of
flesh. The rudimentary head and occasional limbs are quite useless."
I pushed the pictures back at him. I was sick. "I've seen enough," I
said. "You've sold me. Let's get out of this." I pushed the pistol into
my pocket. I thought of the bullet hole in the panel and shuddered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Back in the office, I sat down at the desk. Winter spoke up again.
"It's a very unnerving thing, old chap, to have it shown to you all at
once that way."

Winter went on talking while I tried to assemble his fragmentary
information into a coherent picture. A vast spider web of lines, each
one a complete universe, each minutely different from all the others;
somewhere, a line, or world, in which a device had been developed that
enabled a man to move across the lines. Well, why not, I thought. With
all those lines to work with, everything was bound to happen in one of
them; or was it?

"How about all the other A-lines, Winter," I said at the thought,
"where this same discovery must have been made, where there was only
some unimportant difference. Why aren't you swarming all over each
other, bumping into yourself?"

"That's been a big question to our scientists, old chap, and they
haven't yet come up with any definitive answers. However, there
are a few established points. First, the thing is a fantastically
delicate device, as I've explained. The tiniest slip in the initial
experimentation, and we'd have ended like some of those other lines
you've seen photos of. Apparently the odds were quite fantastically
against our escaping the consequences of the discovery; still, we did,
and now we know how to control it.

"As to the very close lines, theory now seems to indicate that there
is no actual physical separation between lines; those microscopically
close to one another actually merge or blend. It's difficult to
explain. One actually wanders from one to another, at random, you know.
In fact, such is the curious nature of infinity, that there seem to be
an infinite number of infinitely close lines we're constantly shifting
about in. Usually this makes no difference; we don't notice it, any
more than we're aware of hopping along from one temporal point to the
next as normal entropy progresses."

At my puzzled frown he added, "The lines run both ways, you know, in an
infinite number of directions. If we could run straight back along the
normal E-line, we'd be travelling into the past. This won't work, for
practical reasons involving two bodies occupying the same space, and
all that sort of thing. The Maxoni principle enables us to move in a
manner which we think of as being at right angles to the normal drift.
With it, we can operate through 360 degrees, but always at the same
E-level at which we start. Thus, we will arrive at Stockholm Zero Zero
at the same moment we departed from B-I Three." Winter laughed. "This
detail caused no end of misunderstanding and counter-accusation on the
first trials."

"So we're all shifting from one universe to another all the time
without knowing it," I said skeptically.

"Not necessarily all of us, not all the time," Winter said. "But
emotional stress seems to have the effect of displacing one. Of course
with the relative positions of two grains of sand, or even of two atoms
within a grain of sand being the only difference between two adjacent
lines, you'd not be likely to notice. But at times greater slips occur
with most individuals. Perhaps you yourself have noticed some tiny
discrepancy at one time or another; some article apparently moved or
lost; some sudden change in the character of someone you know; false
recollections of past events. The universe isn't all as rigid as one
might like to believe."

"You're being awfully plausible, Winter," I said. "Let's pretend I
accept your story. Now tell me about this vehicle."

"Just a small mobile MC station, mounted on an auto-propelled chassis.
It can move about on level ground or paved areas, and also in calm
water. It enables us to do most of our spatial maneuvering on our own
ground, so to speak, and avoid the hazards of attempting to conduct
ground operations in strange areas."

"Where are the rest of the men in your party?" I asked. "There are at
least three more of you."

"They're all at their assigned posts," Winter said. "There's another
small room containing the drive mechanism forward of the control
compartment."

"What's this stuff for?" I indicated the box on the desk from which I'd
gotten the gun.

Winter looked at it, then said ruefully, "So that's where you
acquired the weapon. I knew you'd been searched. Damned careless of
Doyle--bloody souvenir hunter! I told him to submit everything to
me for approval before we returned, so I suppose it's my fault." He
touched his aching hand tenderly.

"Don't feel too bad about it. I'm just a clever guy," I said. "However,
I'm not very brave. As a matter of fact, I'm scared to death of what's
in store for me when we arrive at our destination."

"You'll be well treated, Mr. Bayard," Winter assured me. I let that
one pass. Maybe when we arrived, I could come out shooting, making an
escape. That line of thought didn't seem very encouraging either. What
would I do next, loose in this Imperium of Winter's? What I needed was
a return ticket home. I found myself thinking of it as B-I Three, and
realized I was beginning to accept Winter's story. I took a drink from
the blue bottle.

"Why don't we explode when we pass through one of those empty-space
lines, or burn in the hot ones?" I asked suddenly. "Suppose we found
ourselves peeking out from inside one of those hunks of rock you were
photographing?"

"We don't linger about long enough, old boy," Winter said. "We remain
in any one line for no finite length of time, therefore there's no time
for us to react physically to our surroundings."

"How can you take pictures and use communicators?"

"The camera remains inside the field. The photo is actually a
composite exposure of all the lines we cross during the instant of the
exposure. The lines differ hardly at all, of course, and the prints
are quite clear. Light, of course, is a condition, not an event. Our
communicators employ a sort of grating which spreads the transmission."

"Winter," I said, "this is all extremely interesting, but I get the
impression that you have small regard for a man's comfort. I think you
might be planning to use me in some sort of colorful experiment, and
then throw me away--toss me out into one of those cosmic junk heaps
you showed me. And that stuff in the blue bottle isn't quite soothing
enough to drive the idea out of my mind."

"Great heavens, old boy!" Winter sat bolt upright. "Nothing of that
sort, I can assure you. Why, we're not blasted barbarians! Since you
are an object of official interest of the Imperium, you can be assured
of humane and honorable treatment."

"I didn't like what you said about concentration points a while back.
That sounds like jail to me."

"Not at all," Winter expostulated. "There are a vast number of very
pleasant A-lines well outside the Blight which are either completely
uninhabited, or are occupied by backward or underdeveloped peoples. One
can well nigh select the technological and cultural level in which one
would like to live. All interrogation subjects are most scrupulously
provided for; they're supplied with everything necessary to live in
comfort for the remainder of their normal lives."

"Marooned on a desert island, or parked in a native village? That
doesn't sound too jolly to me," I said. "I'd rather be at home."

Winter smiled speculatively. "What would you say to being set up with
a fortune in gold, and placed in a society closely resembling that of,
say, England in the seventeenth century with the added advantage that
you'd have electricity, plenty of modern literature, supplies for a
lifetime, whatever you wished. You must remember that we have all the
resources of the universe to draw upon."

"I'd like it better if I had a little more choice," I said.

"Suppose we keep right on going, once we're clear of the Blight," I
said. "That reception committee wouldn't be waiting then. You could run
this buggy back to B-I Three. I could force you."

"See here, Bayard," Winter said impatiently. "You have a gun. Very
well, shoot me; shoot all of us. What would that gain you? The
operation of this machine requires a very high technical skill. The
controls are set for automatic return to the starting point. It is
absolutely against Imperium policy to return a subject to the line from
which he was taken. The only thing for you to do is cooperate with
us, and you have my assurance as an Imperial officer that you will be
treated honorably."

I looked at the gun. "According to the movies," I said, "the fellow
with the rod always gets his own way. But you don't seem to care
whether I shoot you or not."

Winter smiled. "Aside from the fact that you've had quite a few
draughts from my brandy flask and probably couldn't hit the wall with
that weapon you're holding, I assure...."

"You're always assuring me," I said. I tossed the pistol onto the desk.
I put my feet up on the polished top, and leaned back in the chair.
"Wake me up when we get there. I'll want to fix my face."

Winter laughed. "Now you're being reasonable, old boy. It would be
damned embarrassing for me to have to warn the personnel at base that
you were waving a pistol about."



                               Chapter 3


I woke up with a start. My neck ached abominably; so did the rest of
me, as soon as I moved. I groaned, dragged my feet down off the desk,
and sat up. There was something wrong. Winter was gone and the humming
had stopped. I jumped up.

"Winter," I shouted. I had a vivid picture of myself marooned in one of
those hell-worlds. At that moment I realized I wasn't half as afraid of
arriving at Zero Zero as I was of not getting there.

Winter pushed the door open and glanced in. "I'll be with you in a
moment, Mr. Bayard," he said. "We've arrived on schedule."

I was nervous. The gun was gone. I told myself it was no worse than
going to one of the ambassador's receptions. My best bet was to walk in
as though I'd thought of it myself.

The two bouncers came in, followed by Winter. One of the two men pushed
the door open, and stood at attention beside it. Beyond the opening I
could see muted sunshine on a level paved surface, and a group of men
in white uniforms, looking in our direction.

I stepped down through the door and looked around. We were in a large
shed, looking something like a railroad station. A group of men in
white uniforms were waiting.

One of them stepped forward. "By Jove, Winter," he said. "You've
brought it off. Congratulations, old man." The others came up, gathered
around Winter, asking questions, turning to stare at me. None of them
said anything to me. To hell with them, I thought. I turned and started
strolling toward the front of the shed. There was one door with a
sentry box arrangement beside it. I gave the man on duty a glance and
started past.

"You'd better memorize this face," I said coolly. "You'll be seeing a
great deal of it from now on. I'm your new commander." I looked him up
and down. "Your uniform is in need of attention." I turned and went on.

Winter appeared at that point, putting an end to what would have been a
very neat escape. But where the hell would I have gone?

"Here, old man," he said. "Don't go wandering about. I'm to take you
directly to Royal Intelligence, where you'll doubtless find out a bit
more about the reasons for your, ah--" Winter cleared his throat,
"visit."

"I thought it was Imperial Intelligence," I said. "And for the high
level operation this is supposed to be, this is a remarkably modest
reception. I thought there would be a band, or at least a couple of
cops with handcuffs."

"Royal Swedish Intelligence," Winter explained briskly. "Sweden will
bring tributary to the Emperor, of course. Imperial Intelligence chaps
will be on hand. As for your reception, we don't believe in making much
fuss, you know." Winter waved me into a boxy black staff car which
waited at the curb. It swung out at once into light traffic which
pulled out of our way as we rode down the center of the broad avenue.

"I thought your scout just travelled cross-ways," I said, "and stayed
in the same spot on the map. This doesn't look like the hilly area of
the Old Town."

"You have a suspicious mind and an eye for detail," Winter said. "We
maneuvered the scout through the streets to the position of the ramps
before going into drive. We're on the north side of the city now."

Our giant car roared across a bridge, and swirled into a long gravel
drive leading to a wrought-iron gate before a massive grey granite
building. The people I saw looked perfectly ordinary, with the
exception of a few oddities of dress and an unusually large number of
gaudy uniforms. The guard at the iron gate was wearing a cherry-colored
tunic, white trousers, and a black steel helmet surmounted by a gold
spike and a deep purple plume. He presented arms--a short and wicked
looking nickel-plated machine gun--and as the gate swung wide we eased
past him and stopped before broad doors of polished iron-bound oak. A
brass plate beside the entrance said Kungliga Svenska Spionage.

I said nothing as we walked down a spotless white marble-floored hall,
entered a spacious elevator, and rode up to the top floor. We walked
along another hall, this one paved with red granite, and paused before
a large door at the end. There was no one else around.

"Just relax, Mr. Bayard. Answer all questions fully, and use the same
forms of address as I do."

"I'll try not to fall down," I said. Winter looked as nervous as I felt
as he opened the door after a polite tap.

The room was an office, large and handsomely furnished. Across a wide
expanse of grey rug three men sat around a broad desk, behind which
sat a fourth. Winter closed the door, walked across the room with me
trailing behind him, and came to a rigid position of attention ten feet
from the desk. His arms swung up in a real elbow-buster of a salute and
held it.

"Sir, Chief Captain Winter reports as ordered," he said in a strained
voice.

"Very good, Winter," said the man behind the desk, sketching a salute
casually. Winter brought his arm down with a snap. He rotated rigidly
toward the others.

"_Kaiserliche Hochheit_," he said, bowing stiffly from the waist at
one of the seated figures. "Chief Inspector," he greeted the second,
while the third, a rather paunchy fellow with a jolly expression and a
somehow familiar face, rated just "Sir."

"'_Hochwelgeboren_' will do," murmured the lean aristocratic-looking
one whom Winter had addressed first. Apparently instead of an imperial
highness he was only a high-well-born. Winter turned bright pink.
"I beg your Excellency's pardon," he said in a choked voice. The
round-faced man grinned broadly.

The man behind the desk had been studying me intently during this
exchange. "Please be seated, Mr. Bayard," he said pleasantly,
indicating an empty chair directly in front of the desk. Winter was
still standing rigidly. The man glanced at him. "Stand at ease, Chief
Captain," he said in a dry tone, turning back to me.

"I hope that your being brought here has not prejudiced you against us
unduly, Mr. Bayard," he said. He had a long gaunt face with a heavy jaw.

"I am General Bernadotte," he went on. "These gentlemen are the Friherr
von Richthofen, Chief Inspector Bale, and Mr. Goering." I nodded at
them. Bale was a thin broad-shouldered man with a small bald head. He
wore an expression of disapproval.

Bernadotte went on. "I would like first to assure you that our decision
to bring you here was not made lightly. I know that you have many
questions, and all will be answered fully. For the present, I shall
tell you frankly that we have called you here to ask for your help."

I hadn't been prepared for this. I don't know what I expected, but to
have this panel of high-powered brass asking for my puny assistance
left me opening and closing my mouth without managing to say anything.

"It's remarkable," commented the paunchy civilian. I looked at him.
Winter had called him Mr. Goering. I thought of pictures of Hitler's
gross Air Chief.

"Not Hermann Goering?" I said.

The fat man looked surprised, and a smile spread across his face.

"Yes, my name is Hermann," he said. "How did you know this?" He had a
fairly heavy German accent.

I found it hard to explain. This was something I hadn't thought
of--actual doubles or analogs of figures in my own world. Now I knew
beyond a doubt that Winter had not been lying to me.

"Back where I came from, everyone knows your name," I said.
"Reichmarshall Goering...."

"Reichmarshall!" Goering repeated. "What an intriguing title!"
He looked around at the others. "Is this not a most interesting
and magnificent information?" He beamed. "I, poor fat Hermann, a
Reichmarshall, and known to all." He was delighted.

"Multi-phased reality is, of course, rather a shocking thing to
encounter suddenly," the general said, "after a lifetime of living in
one's own narrow world. To those of us who have grown up with it, it
seems only natural and in keeping with the principles of multiplicity
and the continuum. The idea of a monolinear casual sequence is seen to
be an artificially restrictive conception, an oversimplification of
reality growing out of human egotism."

The other four men listened as attentively as I. It was very quiet,
with only the occasional faint sounds of traffic from the street below.

"Insofar as we have been able to determine thus far from our studies of
the B-I Three line, from which you come, our two lines share a common
history up to about the year 1790. They remain parallel in many ways
for about another century; thereafter they diverge rather sharply.

"Here in our world, two Italian scientists, Giulio Maxoni and Carlo
Cocini, in the year 1893, made a basic discovery, which, after several
years of study, they embodied in a device which enabled them to move
about at will through a wide range of what we now term Alternative
lines, or A-lines.

"Cocini lost his life in an early exploratory test, and Maxoni
determined to offer the machine to the Italian government. He was
rudely rebuffed.

"After several years of harassment by the Italian press, which
ridiculed him unmercifully, Maxoni went to England, and offered his
invention to the British government. There was a long and very cautious
period of negotiation, but eventually a bargain was struck. Maxoni
received a title, estates, and one million pounds in gold. He died a
year later.

"The British government now had sole control of the most important
basic human discovery since the wheel. The wheel gave man the power to
move easily across the surface of his world; the Maxoni principle gave
him all the worlds to move about in."

Leather creaked faintly as I moved in my chair. The general leaned back
and drew a deep breath. He smiled.

"I hope that I am not overwhelming you with an excess of historical
detail, Mr. Bayard."

"Not at all," I replied. "I'm very much interested."

He went on. "At that time the British government was negotiating with
the Imperial Germanic government in an effort to establish workable
trade agreements, and avoid a fratricidal war, which then appeared to
be inevitable if appropriate spheres of influence were not agreed upon.

"The acquisition of the Maxoni papers placed a different complexion
on the situation. Rightfully feeling that they now had a considerably
more favorable position from which to negotiate, the British suggested
an amalgamation of the two empires into the present Anglo-Germanic
Imperium, with the House of Hanover-Windsor occupying the Imperial
throne. Sweden signed the Concord shortly thereafter, and after the
resolution of a number of differences in detail, the Imperium came into
being on January 1, 1900."

I had the feeling the general was over-simplifying things. I wondered
how many people had been killed in the process of resolving the minor
details. I kept the thought to myself.

"Since its inception," the general continued, "the Imperium has
conducted a program of exploration, charting, and study of the
A-continuum. It was quickly determined that for a vast distance on
all sides of the home line, utter desolation existed; outside that
lighted region, however, were the infinite resources of countless
lines. Those lines lying just outside the Blight seem uniformly to
represent a divergence point at about 400 years in the past; that is
to say, our common histories differentiate about the year 1550. As one
travels further out, the divergence date recedes. At the limits of our
explorations to date the CH dated is about 1,000,000 B.C."

I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. This seemed to be all
right with Bernadotte.

"Then, in 1947, examination of photos made by automatic camera scouts
revealed an anomaly; an apparently normal, inhabited world, lying well
within the Blight. It took weeks of careful searching to pinpoint the
line. For the first time, we were visiting a world closely analogous to
our own, in which many of the institutions of our own world should be
duplicated.

"We had hopes of a fruitful liaison between the two worlds, but in this
we were bitterly disappointed."

The general turned to the bald man whom he had introduced as Chief
Inspector Bale.

"Chief Inspector," he said, "will you take up the account at this
point?"

Bale sat up in his chair, folded his hands, and began.

"In September 1948 two senior agents of Imperial Intelligence were
dispatched with temporary rank of Career Minister and full diplomatic
accreditization, to negotiate an agreement with the leaders of the
National People's State. This political unit actually embraces most of
the inhabitable world of the B-I Two line. A series of frightful wars,
employing some sort of radioactive explosives, had destroyed the better
part of civilization.

"Europe was a shambles. We found that the NPS headquarters was in North
Africa, and had as its nucleus the former French colonial government
there. The top man was a ruthless ex-soldier who had established
himself as uncontested dictator of what remained of things. His army
was made up of units of all the previous combatants, held together by
the promise of free lotting and top position in a new society based on
raw force.

"Our agents approached a military sub-chief, calling himself
Colonel-General Yang, in charge of a ragtag mob of ruffians in motley
uniforms, and asked to be conducted to the headquarters of the
dictator. Yang had them clapped into a cell and beaten insensible in
spite of their presentation of diplomatic passports and identity cards.

"He did however send them along to the dictator to have an interview.
During the talk, the fellow drew a pistol and shot one of my two chaps
through the head, killing him instantly. When this failed to make the
other volunteer anything further than that he was an accredited envoy
of the Imperial government requesting an _exequatur_ and appropriate
treatment, prior to negotiating an international agreement, he was
turned over to experienced torturers.

"Under torture, the agent gave out just enough to convince his
interrogators that he was insane; he was released to starve or die of
wounds. We managed to spot him and pick him up in time to get the story
before he died."

I still had no comment to make. It didn't sound pretty, but then I
wasn't too enthusiastic about the methods employed by the Imperium
either. The general resumed the story.

"We resolved to make no attempt at punitive action, but simply to leave
this unfortunate line in isolation.

"About a year ago, an event occurred which rendered this policy no
longer tenable." Bernadotte turned to the lean-faced man.

"Manfred, I will ask you to cover this part of the briefing."

"Units of our Net Surveillance Service detected activity at a point
some distance within the area called Sector 92," Richthofen began.
"This was a contingency against which we had been on guard from the
first. A heavily armed MC unit of unknown origin had dropped into
identity with one of our most prized industrial lines, one of a group
with which we conduct a multi-billion pound trade. The intruder
materialized in a population center, and released virulent poisonous
gases, killing hundreds. Masked troops then emerged, only a platoon
or two of them, and proceeded to strip bodies, loot shops--an orgy
of wanton destruction. Our NSS scout arrived some hours after the
attackers had departed. The scout, in turn, was subjected to a heavy
attack by the justifiably aroused inhabitants of the area before it was
able to properly identify itself as an Imperium vessel."

Richthofen had a disdainful frown on his face. "I personally conducted
the rescue and salvage operation; over four hundred innocent civilians
dead, valuable manufacturing facilities destroyed by fire, production
lines disrupted, the population entirely demoralized. A bitter
spectacle for us."

"You see, Mr. Bayard," Bernadotte said, "we are well nigh helpless to
protect our friends against such forays. Although we have developed
extremely effective MC field detection devices, the difficulty of
reaching the scene of an attack in time is practically insurmountable.
The actual transit takes no time, but locating the precise line
among numerous others is an extremely delicate operation. Our homing
devices make it possible, but only after we have made a very close
approximation manually."

"In quick succession thereafter," Richthofen continued, "we suffered
seven similar raids. Then the pattern changed. The raiders began
appearing in numbers, with large cargo-carrying units. They also set
about rounding up all the young women at each raid, and taking them
along into captivity. It became obvious that a major threat to the
Imperium had come into existence.

"At last we had the good fortune to detect a raider's field in the
close vicinity of one of our armed scouts. It quickly dropped in on a
converging course, and located the pirate about twenty minutes after
it had launched its attack. The commander of the scout quite properly
opened up at once with high explosive cannon and blew the enemy to
rubble. Its crew, although demoralized by the loss of their vessel,
nevertheless resisted capture almost to the last man. We were able to
secure only two prisoners for interrogation."

I wondered how the Imperium's method of interrogation compared with
those of the dictator of B-I Two, but I didn't ask. I might find out
soon enough.

"We learned a great deal more than we expected from our prisoners. They
were the talkative, boastful type. The effectiveness of the raiding
parties depended on their striking unexpectedly and departing quickly.
The number of pirate vessels was placed at no more than four, each
manned by about fifty men. They boasted of a great weapon held in
reserve, and which would be used to avenge them. It was apparent from
the remarks of the prisoners that they had not had the MC drive long,
and that they knew nothing of the configuration of the Net, or of the
endless ramifications of simultaneous reality.

"They seemed to think their fellows would find our base and destroy it
with ease. They also had only a vague idea of the extent and nature of
the Blight. They mentioned that several of their ships had disappeared,
doubtless into that region. It appears also, happily for us, that they
have only the most elementary detection devices and that their controls
are erratic in the extreme. But the information of real importance was
the identity of the raiders."

Richthofen paused for dramatic effect. "It was our unhappy sister
world, B-I Two."

"Somehow," Bernadotte took up the story, "in spite of their condition
of chaotic social disorder and their destructive wars, they had
succeeded in harnessing the MC principle. Their apparatus is even more
primitive than that with which we began almost sixty years ago; yet
they have escaped disaster.

"The next move came with startling suddenness. Whether by virtue of an
astonishingly rapid scientific development, or by sheer persistence and
blind luck, one of their scouts succeeded, last month, in locating the
Zero Zero line of the Imperium itself. The vessel dropped into identity
with our continuum on the outskirts of the city of Berlin, one of the
royal capitals.

"The crew had apparently been prepared for their visit. They planted
a strange device atop a flimsy tower in a field, and embarked
instantly. Within a matter of three minutes, as well as we have been
able to determine, the device detonated with unbelievable force.
Over a square mile was absolutely desolated; casualties ran into the
thousands. And the entire area still remains poisoned with some form of
radiation-producing debris which renders the region uninhabitable."

I nodded. "I think I understand," I said.

"Yes," the general said, "you have something of this sort in your B-I
Three world also, do you not?"

I assumed the question was rhetorical and said nothing.

Bernadotte continued. "Crude though their methods are, they have
succeeded already in flaunting the Imperium. It is only a matter of
time, we feel, before they develop adequate controls and detection
devices. We will then be faced with the prospect of hordes of ragged
but efficient soldiers, armed with the frightful radium bombs with
which they destroyed their own culture, descending on the mother world
of the Imperium.

"This eventuality is one for which it has been necessary to make
preparation. There seemed to be two possibilities, both equally
undesirable. We could await further attack, meanwhile readying our
defenses, of doubtful value against the fantastic explosives of the
enemy; or we could ourselves mount an offensive, launching a massive
invasion force against B-I Two. The logistics problems involved in
either plan would be unbelievably complex."

I was learning a few things about the Imperium. In the first place,
they did not have the atomic bomb, and had no conception of its power.
Their consideration of war against an organized military force armed
with atomics was proof of that. Also, not having had the harsh lessons
of two major wars to assist them, they were naive, almost backward, in
some ways. They thought more like Europeans of the nineteenth century
than modern westerners.

"About one month ago, Mr. Bayard," Bale took over, "a new factor was
introduced, giving us a third possibility. In the heart of the Blight,
at only a very little distance from B-I Two, and even closer to us than
it, we found a second surviving line. That line was of course your home
world, designated Blight-Insular Three.

"Within seventy-two hours one hundred and fifty special agents had been
placed at carefully scouted positions in B-I Three. We were determined
to make no blunders; too much was at stake. As the information flowed
in from our men, all of whom, being top agents, had succeeded in
establishing their cover identities without difficulty, it was
immediately passed to the General Staff and to the Imperial Emergency
Cabinet for study. The two bodies remained in constant session for over
a week without developing any adequate scheme for handling the new
factor.

"One committee of the Emergency Cabinet was assigned the important
task of determining as closely as possible the precise CH relationship
of B-I Three with both B-I Two and the Imperium. This is an extremely
tricky chore as it is quite possible for an amazing parallelism to
exist in one phase of an A-line while the most fantastic variants crop
up in another.

"One week ago today the committee reported findings they considered to
be ninety-eight per cent reliable. Your B-I Three line shared history
of the B-I Two until the date 1911, probably early in the year. At
that point, my colleague, Mr. Goering, of German Intelligence, who had
been sitting in on the meeting, made a brilliant contribution. His
suggestion was immediately adopted. All agents were alerted at once to
drop all other lines of inquiry and concentrate on picking up a trace
of--" Bale looked at me.

"Mr. Brion Bayard."

They knew I was on the verge of exploding from pure curiosity, so I
just sat and looked back at Bale. He pursed his lips. He sure as hell
didn't like me.

"We picked you up from records at your university--" Bale frowned at
me. "Something like aluminium alloy...."

Bale must be an Oxford man, I thought.

"Illinois," I said.

"At any rate," Bale went on, "it was a relatively simple matter
to follow you up then through your military service and into your
Diplomatic Service. Our man just missed you at your Legation at
Viat-Kai."

"Consulate General," I corrected.

It annoyed Bale. I was glad; I didn't like him much either.

"You had left the post the preceding day and were proceeding to your
headquarters via Stockholm. We had a man on the spot; he kept tabs on
you until the shuttle could arrive. The rest you know."

There was a lengthening silence. I shifted in my chair, looking from
one expressionless face to another.

"All right," I said. "It seems I'm supposed to ask, so I'll oblige,
just to speed things along. Why me?"

Almost hesitantly General Bernadotte opened a drawer of the desk and
drew out a flat object wrapped in brown paper. He removed the paper
very deliberately as he spoke.

"I have here an official portrait of the dictator of the world of
Blight-Insular Two," he said. "One of the two artifacts we have been
able to bring along from that unhappy region. Copies of this picture
are posted everywhere there."

He passed it over to me. It was a crude lithograph, in color, showing
a man in uniform, the chest as far down as the picture extended
covered with medals. Beneath the portrait was the legend: "His Martial
Excellency, Duke of Algiers, Warlord of the Combined Forces, Marshal
General of the State, Brion The First Bayard, Dictator."

The picture was of me.



                               Chapter 4


I stared at the garish portrait for a long time. It wasn't registering;
I had a feeling of disorientation. There was too much to absorb.

"Now you will understand, Mr. Bayard, why we have brought you here,"
the general said, as I silently handed the picture back to him. "You
represent our hidden ace. But only if you consent to help us of your
own free will." He turned to Richthofen again.

"Manfred, will you outline our plan to Mr. Bayard?"

Richthofen cleared his throat. "Quite possibly," he said, "we
could succeed in disposing of the Dictator Bayard by bombing his
headquarters. This, however, would merely create a temporary diversion
until a new leader emerged. The organization of the enemy seems to be
such that no more than a very brief respite would be gained, if any at
all, before the attacks would be resumed; and we are not prepared to
sustain such onslaughts as these.

"No, it is far better for our purpose that Bayard remain the leader of
the National People's State--and that we control him." Here he looked
intently at me.

"A specially equipped TNL scout, operated by our best pilot technician,
could plant a man within the private apartment which occupies the top
floor of the dictator's palace at Algiers. We believe that a resolute
man introduced into the palace in this manner, armed with the most
effective hand weapons at our disposal, could succeed in locating
and entering the dictator's sleeping chamber, assassinating him, and
disposing of the body.

"If that man were you, Mr. Bayard, fortified by ten days' intensive
briefing and carrying a small net-communicator, we believe that you
could assume the identity of the dead man and rule as absolute dictator
over Bayard's twenty million fighting men."

"Do I have another double here," I said, "in your Imperium?"

Bernadotte shook his head. "No, you have remote cousins here, nothing
closer."

They all watched me. I could see that all three of them expected me to
act solemn and modest at the honor, and set out to do or die for the
fatherland. They were overlooking a few things, though. This wasn't my
fatherland; I'd been kidnapped and brought here. And oddly enough, I
could not see myself murdering anybody--especially, I had the grotesque
thought--myself. I didn't even like the idea of being dropped down in
the midst of a pack of torturers.

I was ready to tell them so in very definite terms, when my eye fell on
Bale. He was wearing a supercilious half-smile, and I could see that
this was just what he expected. His contempt for me was plain. I sensed
that he thought of me as the man who had killed his best agent in cold
blood, a cowardly blackguard. My mouth was open to speak; but under
that sneering expression, different words came out--temporizing words.
I wouldn't give Bale the satisfaction of being right.

"And after I'm in charge of B-I Two, what then?" I said.

"You will be in constant touch with Imperial Intelligence via
communicator," Richthofen said eagerly. "You'll receive detailed
instructions as to each move to make. We should be able to immobilize
B-I Two within six months. You'll then be returned here."

"I won't be returned home?"

"Mr. Bayard," Bernadotte said seriously, "you will never be able to
return to B-I Three. The Imperium will offer you any reward you wish
to name, except that. The consequences of revealing the existence of
the Imperium to your line at this time are far too serious to permit
consideration of the idea. However--"

All eyes were on Bernadotte. He looked as though what he was about to
say was important.

"I have been authorized by the Emergency Cabinet," he said with
gravity, "to offer you an Imperial commission in the rank of Major
General, Mr. Bayard. If you accept this commission, your first
assignment will be as we have outlined." Bernadotte handed a heavy
piece of parchment across the table to me. "You should know, Mr.
Bayard, that the Imperium does not award commissions, particularly that
of General Officer, lightly."

"It will be a most unusual rank," Goering said, smiling. "Normally
there is no such rank in the Imperium Service; Lieutenant General,
Colonel General, Major General. You will be unique."

"We adopted the rank from your own armed forces, as a special mark of
esteem, Mr. Bayard," Bernadotte said. "It is no less authentic for
being unusual."

It was a fancy sheet of paper. The Imperium was prepared to pay off
well for this job they needed done--anything I wanted. And doubtless,
they thought the strange look on my face was greed at the thought of
a general's two stars. Well, let them think it. I didn't want to give
them any more information which might be used against me.

"I'll think about it," I said. Bale looked disconcerted now. After
expecting me to back out, he had apparently then expected me to be
dazzled by the reward I was being offered. I'd let him worry about it.
Suddenly Bale bored me.

Bernadotte hesitated. "I'm going to take an unprecedented step, Mr.
Bayard," he said. "For the present, on my personal initiative as head
of State, I'm confirming you as Colonel in the Royal Army of Sweden
without condition. I do this to show my personal confidence in you,
as well as for more practical reasons." He rose and smiled ruefully,
as though unsure of my reaction. "Congratulations, Colonel," he said,
holding out his hand.

I stood up too. I noticed everyone had.

"You must have twenty-four hours to consider your decision, Colonel,"
he said. "I'll leave you in the excellent care of Graf von Richthofen
and Mr. Goering until then."

Richthofen turned to Winter, still standing silently by. "Won't you
join us, Chief Captain," he said.

"Delighted," Winter said.

"Congratulations, old boy, er, Sir," Winter said as soon as we were in
the hall. "You made quite a hit with the general." He seemed quite his
jaunty self again.

I eyed him. "You mean King Gustav?" I said.

Winter blinked. "But how did you know?" he said. "I mean dash it, how
the devil did you know?"

"But it must be," Goering said with enthusiasm, "that also he in your
home world is known, not so?"

"That's right, Mr. Goering," I said, "now you've dispelled my aura of
mystery."

Goering chuckled. "Please, Mr. Bayard, you must call me Hermann." He
gripped my arm in friendly fashion as we moved down the hall. "Now you
must tell us more about this intriguing world of yours."

Richthofen spoke up. "I suggest we go along to my summer villa at
Drottningholm and enjoy a dinner and a couple of good vintages while we
hear all about your home, Mr. Bayard; and we shall tell you of ours."



                               Chapter 5


I stood before a long mirror and eyed myself, not without approval. Two
tailors had been buzzing around me like bees for half an hour, putting
the finishing touches on their handiwork. I had to admit they had done
all right.

I now wore narrow-cut riding breeches of fine grey whip-cord, short
black boots of meticulously stitched and polished black leather, a
white linen shirt without collar or cuffs beneath a mess jacket of
royal blue, buttoned to the chin. A gold bordered blue stripe ran down
the side of the trousers and heavy loops of gold braid ringed the
sleeves from wrist to elbow. A black leather belt with a large square
buckle bearing the Royal Swedish crest supported a jeweled scabbard
containing a slender rapier with an ornate hilt.

In the proper position on the left side of the chest were, to my
astonishment, a perfectly accurate set of my World War II Service
medals and the Silver Star. On the shoulder straps, the bright silver
eagles of a U.S. Colonel gleamed. I was wearing the full dress uniform
of my new position in the Imperium society.

I was glad now I hadn't let myself deteriorate into the flabby
ill-health of the average Foreign Service Officer, soft and pale
from long hours in offices and late hours of heavy drinking at the
interminable diplomatic functions. My shoulders were reasonably broad,
my back reasonably straight, no paunch marred the lines of my new
finery. This outfit made a man look like a man. How the devil had we
gotten into the habit of draping ourselves in shapeless double-breasted
suits, in mousy colors, of identical cut?

Goering was sitting in a brocaded armchair in the luxurious suite to
which Richthofen had shown me in his villa.

"You cut a martial figure, Brion," he said. "It is plain to see you
have, for this new job, a natural aptitude."

"I wouldn't count on it, Hermann," I said. His comment had reminded me
of the other side of the coin; the deadly plans the Imperium had in
mind for me. Well, I could settle that later. Tonight I was going to
enjoy myself.

Over a dinner of pheasant served on a sunny terrace in the long
Swedish summer evening, Richthofen had explained to me that, in
Swedish society, to be without a title was an extremely awkward social
encumbrance. It was not that one needed an exalted position, he assured
me; merely that there must be something for others to call one--Herr
Doctor, Herr Professor, Ingenjör, Redaktör. My military status would
ease my entry into the world of the Imperium.

Winter came in then, carrying what looked like a crystal ball.

"Your topper, sir," he said with a flourish. What he had was a
chrome-plated steel helmet, with a rib running along the top, and a
gold-dyed plume growing out of it.

"Good God," I said, "Isn't that overdoing it a little?" I took the
helmet; it was feather light, I discovered. The tailor took over,
placed the helmet just so, handed me a pair of white leather gloves,
and faded out.

"You have to have it, old boy," Winter said. "Dragoons, you know."

"You are complete," Hermann said. "A masterpiece."

He was wearing a dark grey uniform with black trim and white insignia.
He had a respectable but not excessive display of ribbons and orders.

"Hermann," I said expansively, "you should have seen yourself when you
were all rigged out in your medals back home. They came down to here."
I indicated my knees. He laughed.

Together we left the suite and went down to the study on the ground
floor. Winter, I noted, had changed from his whites to a pale yellow
mess jacket with heavy silver braid and a nickel-plated Luger.

Richthofen showed up moments later; his outfit consisted of what looked
like a set of tails, circa 1880, with silver buttons and a white beret.

"We're a cool bunch of cats," I said. I was feeling swell. I caught
another glimpse of myself in a mirror. "Sharp, daddy-o," I murmured.

A liveried butler swung the glass door open for us and we descended the
steps to a waiting car. This one was a vast yellow phaeton, with the
top down. We slid into our places on the smooth yellow leather seats
and it eased off down the drive.

It was a magnificent night, with high clouds and a brilliant moon. In
the distance, the lights of the city glittered. We rolled smoothly
along, the engine so silent that the sound of the wind in the tall
trees along the way was clearly audible.

Goering had thought to bring along a small flask, and by the time we
had each tapped it twice we were passing through the iron gates of
the summer palace. Colored floodlights bathed the gardens and people
already filled the terrace on the south and west sides of the building.
The car dropped us before the gigantic entry and moved off. We made
our way through the crowd, and into the reception hall.

Light from massive crystal chandeliers glittered on gowns and
uniforms, polished boots and jewels, silks, brocades and velvets.
A straight-backed man in rose-pink bowed over the hand of a lovely
blonde in white. A slender black-clad fellow with a gold and white sash
escorted a lady in green-gold toward the ballroom. The din of laughter
and conversation almost drowned out the strains of the waltz in the
background.

"All right, boys," I said. "Where's the punch bowl?"

I don't often set out to get stewed, but when I do, I don't believe in
half measures. I was feeling great, and wanted to keep it that way. At
the moment, I couldn't feel the bruises from my fall, my indignation
over being grabbed was forgotten, and as for tomorrow, I couldn't care
less. I was having a wonderful time. I hoped I wouldn't see Bale's sour
face.

Everybody talked, asked me eager questions, made introductions. I found
myself talking to someone I finally recognized as Douglas Fairbanks,
Sr. He was a tough-looking old fellow in a naval uniform. I met counts,
dukes, officers of a dozen ranks I'd never heard of, several princes,
and finally a short broad-shouldered man with a heavy sun tan and a
go-to-hell smile whom I finally realized was the son of the Emperor.

I was still walking and talking like a million dollars, but somewhere
along the line I'd lost what little tact I normally had.

"Well, Prince William," I said, weaving just a little, "I understood
the House of Hanover-Windsor was the ruling line here. Where I
come from the Hanovers and the Windsors are all tall, skinny and
glum-looking."

The Prince smiled. "Here, Colonel," he said, "a policy was established
which put an end to that unfortunate situation. The Constitution
requires that the male heir marry a commoner. This not only makes
life more pleasant for the heir, with so many beautiful commoners to
choose from, but maintains the vigor of the line. And it incidentally
produces short men with happy faces occasionally."

I moved on, meeting people, eating little sandwiches, drinking
everything from aquavit to beer, and dancing with one heavenly-looking
girl after another. For the first time in my life my ten years of
Embassy elbow-bending were standing me in good stead. From the grim
experience gained through seven evenings a week of holding a drink in
my hand from sundown till midnight while pumping other members of the
Diplomatic Corps who thought they were pumping me, I had emerged with a
skill; I could hold my liquor.

Somewhere along the line I felt the need for a breath of fresh air
and stepped out through the tall French doors onto a dark balustraded
gallery overlooking the gardens. I leaned on the heavy stone rail,
looked up at the stars visible through tall tree-tops, and waited for
the buzzing in my head to die down a little.

The night air moved in a cool torrent over the dark lawn, carrying
the scent of flowers. Behind me the orchestra played a tune that was
almost, but not quite, a Strauss waltz.

I pulled off the white gloves that Richthofen had told me I should keep
on when I left my helmet at the checkroom. I unbuttoned the top button
of the tight-fitting jacket.

I'm getting old, I thought, or maybe just tired.

"Any why are you tired, Colonel?" a cool feminine voice inquired from
behind me.

I turned around. "Ah, there you are," I said. "I'm glad. I'd rather be
guilty of talking out loud than of imagining voices."

I worked on focusing my eyes a little better. She had red hair, and
wore a pale pink gown that started low and stayed with the subject.

"I'm very glad, as a matter of fact," I added. "I like beautiful
redheads who appear out of nowhere."

"Not out of nowhere, Colonel," she said. "From in there, where it is so
warm and crowded."

She spoke excellent English in a low voice, with just enough Swedish
accent to render her tritest speech charming.

"Precisely," I said. "All those people were making me just a little bit
drunk, so I came out here to recover." I was wearing a silly smile, and
having a thoroughly good time being so eloquent and clever with this
delightful young lady.

"My father has told me that you are not born to the Imperium, Colonel,"
she said. "And that you come from a world where all is the same, yet
different. It should be so interesting to hear about it."

"Why talk about that place?" I said. "We've forgotten how to have fun
back there. We take ourselves very seriously, and we figure out the
most elaborate excuses for doing the rottenest things to each other...."

I shook my head. I didn't like that train of thought. "See," I said, "I
always talk like that with my gloves off." I pulled them on again. "And
now," I said grandly, "may I have the pleasure of this dance?"

It was half an hour before we went back inside to visit the punchbowl.
The orchestra had just begun a waltz when a shattering blast rocked the
floor, and the tall glass doors along the east side of the ballroom
blew in. Through the cloud of dust which followed up the explosion,
a swarm of men in motley remnants of uniforms leaped into the room.
The leader, a black-bearded giant wearing a faded and patched U.S.
Army-type battle jacket and baggy Wehrmacht trousers, jacked the lever
on the side of a short drum-fed machine gun, and squeezed a long burst
into the thick of the crowd.

Men and women alike fell under the murdering attack, but every man who
remained on his feet rushed the nearest attacker without hesitation.
Standing in the rubble, a bristle-faced redhead wearing an undersized
British sergeant's blouse pumped eight shots from the hip, knocking
down an oncoming officer of the Imperium with every shot; when he
stepped back to jam a new clip into the M-1, the ninth man ran him
through the throat with a jewel-encrusted rapier.

I still stood frozen, holding my girl's hand. I whirled, started to
shout to her to get back, to run; but the calm look I saw in her eyes
stopped me. She'd rather be decently dead than flee this rabble.

I jerked my toy sword from its scabbard, dashed to the wall, and moved
along it to the edge of the gaping opening. As the next man pushed
through the cloud of dust and smoke, peering ahead, gripping a shotgun,
I jammed the point of my sword into his neck, hard, and jerked it back
before it was wrenched from my hands. He stumbled on, choking, the
shotgun falling with a clatter. I reached out, raked it in, as another
man appeared. He carried a Colt .45 in his left hand, and he saw me as
I saw him. He swivelled to fire, and as he did I brought the poised
blade down on his arm. The shot went into the floor and the pistol
bounced out of the loose hand. He fell back into the trampling crowd.

Another fellow lunged out of the dust, cutting across the room, and
saw me. He levelled a heavy rifle on its side across his left forearm.
He moved slowly and clumsily. I saw that his left hand was hanging by
a thread. I grabbed up the shotgun and blew his face off. It had been
about two minutes since the explosion.

I waited a moment, but no more came through the blasted window. I saw a
wiry ruffian with long yellow hair falling back toward me as he pushed
another magazine into a Browning automatic rifle. I jumped two steps,
set the point of the sword just about where the kidneys should be, and
rammed with both hands. No very elegant style, I thought, but I'm just
a beginner.

I saw Goering then, arms around a tall fellow who cursed and struggled
to raise his battered sub-machine gun. A gun roared in my ear and the
back of my neck burned. I realized my jump had literally saved my neck.
I ran around to the side of the grappling pair, and shoved the blade
into the thin man's ribs. It grated and stuck, but he wilted. I'm not
much of a sport, I thought, but I guess guns against pig-stickers makes
it even.

Hermann stepped back, spat disgustedly, and leaped on the nearest
bandit. I wrenched at my sword, but it was wedged tight. I left it and
grabbed up the tommy gun. A long-legged villain was just closing the
chamber of his revolver as I pumped a burst into his stomach. I saw
dust fly from the shabby cloth of his coat as the slugs smacked home.

I glanced around. Several of the men of the Imperium were firing
captured guns now, and the remnant of the invading mob had fallen back
toward the shattered wall. Bullets cut them down as they stood at bay,
still pouring out a ragged fire. None of them tried to flee.

I ran forward, sensing something wrong. I raised my gun and cut down a
bloody-faced man as he stood firing two .45 automatics. My last round
nicked a heavy-set carbine man, and the drum was empty. I picked up
another weapon from the floor, as one lone thug still standing pounded
the bolt of his rifle with his palm.

"Take him alive," someone shouted. The firing stopped and a dozen men
seized the struggling man. The crowd milled, women bending over those
who lay on the floor, men staggering from their exertions. I ran toward
the billowing drapes.

"Come on," I shouted. "Outside...." I didn't have time or breath to
say more, or to see if anyone came. I leaped across the rubble, out
onto the blasted terrace, leaped the rail, and landed in the garden,
sprawled a little, but still moving. In the light of the colored floods
a grey-painted van, ponderously bulky, sat askew across flower beds.
Besides it, three tattered crewmen struggled with a bulky load. A small
tripod stood on the lawn, awaiting the mounting of their burden. I had
time for one momentary mental vision of what a fission bomb would do
to the summer palace and its occupants, before I dashed at them with
a yell. I fired the pistol I had grabbed, as fast as I could pull
the trigger, and the three men hesitated, pulled against each other,
cursed, and started back toward the open door of their van with the
bomb. One of them fell, and I realized someone behind me was firing
accurately. Another of the men yelped and ran off a few yards to
crumple on the grass. The third jumped for the open door, and a moment
later a rush of air threw dust against my face as the van flicked out
of existence. The sound was like a pool of gasoline igniting.

The bulky package lay on the ground now, ominous. I felt sure it was
not yet armed. I turned to the others. "Don't touch this thing," I
called. "I'm sure it's some kind of atomic bomb."

"Nice work, old boy," a familiar voice said. It was Winter, blood
spattered on the pale yellow of his tunic. "Might have known those
chaps were fighting a delaying action for a reason. Are you all right?"

"Yeah," I said, breathless. "Let's go back inside. They'll need
tourniquets and men to twist them."

We picked our way through the broken glass, fragments of flagstones,
and splinters of framing, past the flapping drapes, into the brightly
lit dust-rolled ballroom.

Dead and wounded lay in a rough semicircle around the broken wall. I
recognized a pretty brunette in a blue dress whom I had danced with
earlier, lying on the floor, face waxen. Everyone was splattered with
crimson. I looked around frantically for my redhead, and saw her
kneeling beside a wounded man, binding his head.

There was a shout. Winter and I whirled. One of the wounded intruders
moved, threw something, then collapsed as shots struck him. I heard the
thump and the rattle as the object fell, and as in a dream I watched
the grenade roll over and over, clattering, stop ten feet away and spin
a half turn. I stood, frozen. Finished, I thought. And I never even
learned her name.

From behind me I heard a gasp as Winter leaped past me and threw
himself forward. He landed spread-eagled over the grenade as it
exploded with a muffled thump, throwing Winter two feet into the air.

I staggered, and turned away, dizzy. Poor Winter. Poor damned Winter.

I felt myself passing out, and went to my knees. The floor was tilting.

She was bending over me, face pale, but still steady.

I reached up and touched her hand. "What's your name?" I said.

"My name?" she said. "Barbro Lundane. I thought you knew my name." She
seemed a bit dazed. I sat up. "Better lend a hand to someone who's
worse off than I am, Barbro," I said. "I just have a weak constitution."

"No," she said. "You've bled much."

Richthofen appeared, looking grim. He helped me up. My neck and head
ached. "Thank God you are alive," he said.

"Thank Winter I'm alive," I replied. "I don't suppose there's a
chance...?"

"Killed instantly," Richthofen said. "He knew his duty."

"Poor guy," I said. "It should have been me."

"We're fortunate it wasn't you," Richthofen said. "It was close. As it
is, you've lost considerable blood. You must come along and rest now."

"I want to stay here," I said. "Maybe I can do something useful."

Goering had appeared from somewhere, and he laid an arm across my
shoulders, leading me away.

"Calmly, now, my friend," he said. "There is no need to feel it so
strongly; he died in performance of his duty, as he would have wished."

Hermann knew what was bothering me. I could have blanked out that
grenade as easily as Winter, but the thought hadn't even occurred to
me. If I hadn't been paralyzed, I'd have run.

I didn't struggle; I felt washed out, suddenly suffering a premature
hangover. Manfred joined us at the car, and we drove home in near
silence. I asked about the bomb and Goering said that Bale's men had
taken it over. "Tell them to dump it at sea," I said.

At the villa, someone waited on the steps as we drove up. I recognized
Bale's rangy figure with the undersized head. I ignored him as he
collared Hermann.

I went into the dining room, poured a stiff drink at the sideboard, sat
down.

The others came behind me, talking. I wondered where Bale had been all
evening.

Bale sat down, eyeing me. He wanted to hear all about the attack. He
seemed to take the news calmly but sourly.

He looked at me, pursing his lips. "Mr. Goering has told me that you
conducted yourself quite well, Mr. Bayard, during the fight. Perhaps I
was hasty in my judgment of you."

"Who the hell cares what you think, Bale?" I said. "Where were you when
the lead was flying? Under the rug?"

Bale turned white, stood up glaring and stalked out of the room.
Goering cleared his throat and Manfred cast an odd look at me as he
rose to perform his hostly duty of conducting a guest to the door.

"Inspector Bale is not a man easy to associate with," Hermann said. "I
understand your feeling." He rose and came around the table.

"I feel you should know," he went on, "that he is among the most
skillful with sabre and epee. Make no hasty decision now--"

"What decision?" I asked.

"Already you have a painful wound," he said. "We must not allow you to
be laid up at this critical time. Are you sure of your skill with a
pistol?"

"What wound?" I said. "You mean my neck?" I put my hand up to touch
it. I winced; there was a deep gouge, caked with blood. Suddenly I was
aware that the back of my jacket was soggy. That near-miss was a little
nearer than I had thought.

"I hope you will accord Manfred and myself the honor of seconding you,"
Hermann continued, "and perhaps of advising you...."

"What's this all about, Hermann?" I said. "What do you mean--seconding
me?"

"Why," he seemed confused, "we wish to stand with you in your meeting
with Bale."

"Meeting with Bale?" I repeated. I knew I didn't sound very bright. I
was beginning to realize how lousy I felt.

Goering stopped and looked at me. "Inspector Bale is a man most
sensitive of personal dignity," he said. "You have given him a
tongue-lashing before witnesses, and a well deserved one it was;
however, it remains a certainty that he will demand satisfaction." He
saw that I was still groping. "Bale will challenge you, Brion," he
said. "You must fight him."



                               Chapter 6


I was cold, chilled to the bone. I was still half asleep, and I carried
my head tilted forward and a little to the side in a hopeless attempt
to minimize the vast throbbing ache from the furrow across the back of
my neck.

Richthofen, Goering and I stood together under spreading linden trees
at the lower end of the Royal Game Park. It was a few minutes before
dawn and I was wondering how a slug in the kneecap would feel.

There was the faint sound of an engine approaching, and a long car
loomed up in the gloom on the road above, lights gleaming through
morning mist.

The sound of doors opening and slamming was muffled and indistinct.
Three figures were dimly visible, approaching down the gentle slope. My
seconds moved away to meet them. One of the three detached itself from
the group and stood alone, as I did. That would be Bale.

Another car pulled in behind the first. The doctor, I thought. In the
dim glow from the second car's small square cowl lights I saw another
figure emerge. I watched; it looked like a woman.

I heard the murmur of voices, a low chuckle. They were very palsy, I
thought. Everything on a very high plane.

I thought over what Goering had told me on the way to the field of
honor, as he called it.

Bale had offered his challenge under the Toth convention. This meant
that the duelists must not try to kill each other; the object of the
game was to inflict painful wounds, to humiliate one's opponent.

This could be a pretty tricky business. In the excitement of the fight,
it wasn't easy to inflict wounds that were thoroughly humiliating but
definitely not fatal.

Richthofen had lent me a pair of black trousers and a white shirt for
the performance, and a light overcoat against the pre-dawn chill. I
wished it had been a heavy one. The only warm part of me was my neck,
swathed in bandages.

The little group broke up now. My two backers approached, smiled
encouragingly, and in low voices invited me to come along. Goering took
my coat. I missed it.

Bale and his men were walking toward a spot in the clear, where the
early light was slightly better. We moved up to join them.

"I think we have light enough now, eh, Baron?" said Hallendorf.

I could see better now; the light was increasing rapidly. Long pink
streamers flew in the east; the trees were still dark in silhouettes.

Hallendorf stepped up to me, and offered the pistol box. I picked
one of the pistols, without looking at it. Bale took the other,
methodically worked the action, snapped the trigger, examined the
rifling. Richthofen handed each of us a magazine.

"Five rounds," he said. I had no comment.

Bale stepped over to the place indicated by Hallendorf and turned his
back. I could see the cars outlined against the sky now. The big one
looked like a '30 Packard, I thought. At Goering's gesture, I took my
post, back to Bale.

"At the signal, gentlemen," Hallendorf said, "step forward ten paces
and pause; at the command turn and fire. Gentlemen, in the name of the
Emperor and of honor!"

The white handkerchief in his hand fluttered to the ground. I started
walking. One, two, three....

There was someone standing by the smaller car. I wondered who it
was ... eight, nine, ten. I stopped, waiting. Hallendorf's voice was
calm. "Turn and fire."

I turned, holding the pistol at my side. Bale pumped a cartridge into
the chamber, set his feet apart, body sideways to me, left arm behind
his back, and raised his pistol. We were seventy feet apart across the
wet field.

I started walking toward him. Nobody had said I had to stay in one
spot. Bale lowered his pistol slightly and I saw his pale face, eyes
staring. The pistol came up again, and almost instantly jumped as a
flat crack rang out. The spent cartridge popped up over Bale's head and
dropped on the wet grass, catching the light. A miss.

I walked on. I had no intention of standing in the half dark, firing
wildly at a half-seen target. I didn't intend to be forced into killing
a man by accident, even if it was his idea. And I didn't intend to be
pushed into solemnly playing Bale's game with him.

Bale held the automatic at arm's length, following me as I approached.
He could have killed me easily, but that was against the code. The
weapon wavered; he couldn't decide on a target. My moving was bothering
him.

The pistol steadied and jumped again, the shot sounding faint on the
foggy air. I realized he was trying for the legs; I was close enough
now to see the depressed angle of the barrel.

He stepped back a pace, set himself again, and raised the Mauser
higher. He was going to try to break a rib, I guessed. A tricky shot,
easy to miss--either way. My stomach muscles tensed with anticipation.

I didn't hear the next one; the sensation was exactly like a baseball
bat slammed against my side. I felt that I was stumbling, air knocked
from my lungs, but I kept my feet. A great warm ache spread from just
above the hip. Only twenty feet away now. I fought to draw a breath.

Bale's expression was visible, a stiff shocked look, mouth squeezed
shut. He aimed at my feet and fired twice in rapid succession; I
think by error. One shot went through my boot between the toes of my
right foot, the other in the dirt. I walked up to him. I sucked air
in painfully. I wanted to say something, but I couldn't. It was all I
could do to keep from gasping. Abruptly, Bale backed a step, aimed the
pistol at my chest and pulled the trigger; it clicked. He looked down
at the gun.

I dropped the Mauser at his feet, doubled my fist, and hit him hard on
the jaw. He reeled back as I turned away.

I walked over to Goering and Richthofen as the doctor hurried up. They
came forward to meet me.

"Lieber Gott," Hermann breathed as he seized my hand and pumped it.
"This story they will never believe."

"If your object was to make a fool of Inspector Bale," Richthofen said
with a gleam in his eye, "you have scored an unqualified success. I
think you have taught him respect."

The doctor pressed forward. "Gentlemen, I must take a look at the
wound." A stool was produced, and I gratefully sank down on it.

I stuck my foot out. "Better take a look at this too," I said, "it
feels a little tender."

The doctor muttered and exclaimed as he began snipping at the cloth
and leather. He was enjoying every minute of it. The doc, I saw, was a
romantic.

A thought was trying to form itself in my mind. I opened my eyes.
Barbro was coming toward me across the grass, dawn light gleaming in
her red hair. I realized what it was I had to say.

"Hermann," I said. "Manfred. I need a long nap, but before I start
I think I ought to tell you; I've had so much fun tonight that I've
decided to take the job."

"Easy, Brion," Manfred said. "There no need to think of it now."

"No trouble at all," I said.

Barbro bent over. "Brion," she said. "You are not badly hurt?" She
looked worried.

I smiled at her and reached for her hand. "I'll bet you think I'm
accident prone; but actually I sometimes go for days at a time without
so much as a bad fall."

She took my hand in both of hers as she knelt down. "You must be
suffering great pain, Brion, to talk so foolishly," she said. "I
thought he would lose his head and kill you." She turned to the doctor.
"Help him, Dr. Blum."

"You are fortunate, Colonel," the doctor said, sticking a finger into
the furrow on my side. "The rib is not fractured. In a few days you
will have only a little scar and a big bruise to remind you."

I squeezed Barbro's hand. "Help me up, Barbro," I said.

Goering gave me his shoulder to lean on. "For you now, a long nap," he
said. I was ready for it.



                               Chapter 7


I tried to relax in my chair in the cramped shuttle. Just in front of
me the operator sat tensed over a tiny illuminated board, peering at
instrument faces and tapping the keys of what looked like a miniature
calculating machine. A soundless hum filled the air, penetrating my
bones.

I twisted, seeking a more comfortable position. My half-healed neck
and side were stiffening up again. Bits and fragments of the last ten
days' incessant briefing ran through my mind. Imperial Intelligence
hadn't been able to gather as much material as they wanted on Marshal
of the State Bayard, but it was more than I was able to assimilate
consciously. I hoped the hypnotic sessions I had had every night for a
week in place of real sleep had taken at a level where the data would
pop up when I needed it.

Bayard was a man of mystery, even to his own people. He was rarely
seen, except via what the puzzled Intelligence men said seemed to be a
sort of electric picture apparatus. I had tried to explain that TV was
commonplace in my world, but they never really understood it.

They had given me a good night's sleep the last three nights, and a
tough hour of cleverly planned calisthenics every day. My wounds had
healed well, so that now I was physically ready for the adventure;
mentally, however, I was fagged. The result was an eagerness to get on
with the thing and find out the worst of what I was faced with. I had
enough of words; now I wanted the relief of action.

I checked over my equipment. I wore a military tunic duplicating
that shown in the official portrait of Bayard. Since there was no
information on what he wore below the chest, I had suggested olive drab
trousers, matching what I recognized as the French regulation jacket.

At my advice, we'd skipped the ribbons and orders shown in the photo;
I didn't think he would wear them around his private apartment in an
informal situation. For the same reason, my collar was unbuttoned and
my tie loosened.

They had kept me on a diet of lean beefsteak, to try to thin my face
a bit. A hair specialist had given me vigorous scalp massages every
morning and evening, and insisted that I not wash my head. This
was intended to stimulate rapid growth and achieve the unclipped
continental look of the dictator's picture.

Snapped to my belt was a small web pouch containing my communication
transmitter. We had decided to let it show rather than seek with
doubtful success to conceal it. The microphone was woven into the heavy
braid on my lapels. I had a thick stack of NPS currency in my wallet.

I moved my right hand carefully, feeling for the pressure of the
release spring that would throw the palm-sized slug-gun into my hand
with the proper flexing of the wrist.

The little weapon was a marvel of compact deadliness. In shape it
resembled a water-washed stone, grey and smooth. It could lie unnoticed
on the ground, a feature which might be of great importance to me in an
emergency.

Inside the gun a hair-sized channel spiralled down into the grip. A
compressed gas, filling the tiny hole, served as both propellant and
projectile. At a pressure on the right spot, unmarked, a minute globule
of the liquefied gas was fired with tremendous velocity. Once free
of the confining walls of the tough alloy barrel, the bead expanded
explosively to a volume of a cubic foot. The result was an almost
soundless blow, capable of shattering one-quarter inch armor, instantly
fatal within a range of ten feet.

It was the kind of weapon I needed--inconspicuous, quiet, and deadly at
short range. The spring arrangement made it almost a part of the hand,
if the hand were expert.

I had practiced the motion for hours, while listening to lectures,
eating, even lying in bed. I was very conscientious about that piece
of training; it was my insurance. I tried not to think about my other
insurance, set in the hollowed-out bridge replacing a back tooth.

Each evening, after the day's hard routine, I had relaxed with new
friends, exploring the Imperial Ballet, theatres, opera and a lively
variety show. With Barbro, I had dined sumptuously at half a dozen
fabulous restaurants and afterwards walked in moonlit gardens, sipped
coffee as the sun rose, and talked. When the day came to leave, I had
more than a casual desire to return. The sooner I got started, the
quicker I would get back.

The operator turned. "Colonel," he said, "brace yourself, sir. There's
something here I don't understand."

I tensed, but said nothing. I figured he would tell me more as soon as
he knew more. I moved my hand tentatively against the slug-gun release.
I already had the habit.

"I've detected a moving body in the Net," he said. "It seems to be
trying to match our course. My spatial fix on it indicates it's very
near."

The Imperium was decades behind my world in nuclear physics,
television, aerodynamics, etc., but when it came to the instrumentation
of these Maxoni devices, they were fantastic. After all, they had
devoted their best scientific efforts to the task for almost sixty
years.

Now the operator hovered over his panel controls like a nervous
organist.

"I get a mass of about fifteen hundred kilos," he said. "That's about
right for a light scout, but it can't be one of ours...."

There was a tense silence for several minutes.

"He's pacing us, Colonel," the operator said. "Either they've got
better instrumentation than we thought, or this chap has had a stroke
of blind luck. He was lying in wait."

Both of us were assuming the stranger could be nothing but a B-I Two
vessel.

The operator tensed up suddenly, hands frozen. "He's coming in on
us, Colonel," he said. "He's going to ram. We'll blow sky-high if he
crosses our fix."

My thoughts ran like lightning over my slug-gun--the hollow tooth; I
wondered what would happen when he hit. Somehow, I hadn't expected it
to end here. The impossible tension lasted only a few seconds. The
operator relaxed.

"Missed," he said. "Apparently his spatial maneuvering isn't as good as
his Net mobility. But he'll be back; he's after blood."

I had a thought. "Our maximum rate is controlled by the energy of
normal entropy, isn't it?" I asked.

He nodded.

"What about going slower," I said. "Maybe he'll over-shoot."

I could see the sweat start on the back of his neck from here.

"A bit risky in the Blight, sir," he said, "but we'll have a go at it."

I knew how hard that was for an operator to say. This young fellow had
had six years of intensive training, and not a day of it has passed
without a warning against any unnecessary control changes in the Blight.

The sound of the generators changed, the pitch of the whine descending
into the audible range, dropping lower.

"He's still with us, Colonel," the operator said.

The pitch fell lower. I didn't know what the critical point would be
reached when we would lose our artificial orientation and rotate into
normal entropy. We sat rigid, waiting. The sound dropped down, almost
baritone now. The operator tapped again and again at a key, glancing at
a dial.

The drive hum was a harsh droning now; we couldn't expect to go much
further without disaster. But then neither could the enemy.

"He's right with us, Colonel, only--" Suddenly the operator shouted.

"We lost him, Colonel! His controls aren't as good as ours in that
line, anyway; he dropped into identity."

I sank back, as the whine of our MC generator built up again. My palms
were wet. I wondered into which of the hells of the Blight they had
gone. But I had another problem to face in a few minutes. This was not
the time for shaken nerves.

"Good work, operator," I said at last. "How much longer?"

"About--good God--ten minutes, sir," he answered. "That little business
took longer than I thought."

I started a last minute check. My mouth was dry. Everything seemed to
be in place. I pressed the button on my communicator.

"Hello, Talisman," I said, "here is Wolfhound Red. How do you hear me?
Over."

"Wolfhound Red, Talisman here, you're coming in right and bright,
over." The tiny voice spoke almost in my ear from the speaker in a
button on my shoulder strap.

I liked the instant response; I felt a little less lonesome.

I looked at the trip mechanism for the escape door. I was to wait for
the operator to say, "Crash out," and hit the lever. I had exactly two
seconds then to pull my arm back and kick the slug-gun into my palm
before the seat would automatically dump me, standing, out the exit.
The shuttle would be gone before my feet hit the floor.

I had been so wrapped up in the business at hand for the past ten days
that I had not really thought about the moment of my arrival in the
B-I Two world. The smoothly professional handling of my hasty training
had given the job an air of practicality and realism. Now, about to be
propelled into the innermost midst of the enemy, I began to realize the
suicidal aspects of the mission. But it was too late now for second
thoughts--and in a way I was glad. I was involved now in this world of
the Imperium; it was a part of my life worth risking something for.

I was a card the Imperium held, and it was my turn to be played. I was
valuable property, but that value could only be realized by putting
me into the scene in just this way, and the sooner the better. I had
no assurance that the dictator was in residence at the palace now;
I might find myself hiding in his quarters awaiting his return, for
God knows how long--and maybe lucky at that, to get that far. I hoped
our placement of the suite was correct, based on information gotten
from the captive taken at the ballroom, under deep narco-hypnosis.
Otherwise, I might find myself treading air, 150 feet up.

There was a slamming of switches, and the operator twisted in his chair.

"Crash out, Wolfhound," he cried, "and good hunting."

Reach out and slam the lever; arm at the side, snap the gun into place
in my hand; with a metallic whack and a rush of air the exit popped and
a giant hand palmed me out into dimness. One awful instant of vertigo,
of a step missed in the dark, and then my feet slammed against carpeted
floor. Air whipped about my face, and the echoes of the departing boom
of the shuttle still hung in the corridor.

I remembered my instructions. I stood still, turning casually to check
behind me. There was no one in sight. The hall was dark except for the
faint light from a ceiling fixture at the next intersection. I had
arrived.

I slipped the gun back into its latch under my cuff. No point in
standing here; I started off at a leisurely pace toward the light. The
doors lining the hall were identical, unmarked. I paused and tried one.
Locked. So was the next. The third one opened, and I looked cautiously
into a sitting room. I went on. What I wanted was the sleeping room of
the dictator, if possible. If he were in, I knew what to do; if not,
presumably he would return if I waited long enough. Meanwhile, I wanted
very much not to meet anyone.

There was the sound of an elevator door opening, just around the corner
ahead. I stopped. I eased back to the last door I had checked, opened
it and stepped inside, closing it almost all the way behind me. My
heart was thudding painfully. I didn't feel daring; I felt like a sneak
thief. Faintly, I heard steps coming my way.

I silently closed the door, taking care not to let the latch click.
I stood behind it for a moment before deciding it would be better to
conceal myself, just in case. I glanced around, moving into the center
of the room. I could barely make out outlines in the gloom. There was a
tall shape against the wall--a wardrobe, I thought. I hurried across to
it, opened the door, and stepped in among hanging clothes.

I stood for a moment, feeling foolish, then froze as the door to the
hall opened and closed again softly. There were no footsteps, and then
a light went on. My closet door was open just enough to catch a glimpse
of a man's back as he turned away from the lamp. I heard the soft sound
of a chair being pulled out, and then the tiny jingle of keys. There
were faint metallic sounds, a pause, more faint metallic sounds. The
man was apparently trying keys in the lock of a table or desk.

I stood absolutely rigid. I breathed shallowly, tried not to think
about a sudden itch on my cheek. I could see the shoulder of the coat
hanging to my left. I turned my eyes to it. It was almost identical
with the one I was wearing. The lapels were adorned with heavy braid.
I had a small moment of relief; I had found the right apartment, at
least. But my victim must be the man in the room; and I had never felt
less like killing anyone in my life.

The little sounds went on. I could hear the man's heavy breathing. All
at once I wondered what he would look like, this double of mine. Would
he really resemble me, or more to the point, did I look enough like him
to take his place?

I wondered why he took so long finding the right key; then another
thought struck me. Didn't this sound a little more like someone trying
to open someone else's desk? I moved my head a fraction of an inch. The
clothes moved silently, and I edged a little farther. Now I could see
him. He sat hunched in the chair, working impatiently on the lock. He
was short and had thin hair, and resembled me not in the least. It was
not the dictator.

This was a new factor for me to think over, and in a hurry. The
dictator was obviously not around, or this fellow would not be here
attempting to rifle his desk. And the dictator had people around him
who were not above prying. That fact might be useful to me.

It took him five minutes to find a key that fit. I stood with muscles
aching from the awkward pose, trying not to think of the lint that
might cause a sneeze. I could hear the shuffling of papers and faint
muttering as the man looked over his finds. At length there was the
sound of the drawer closing, the click of the lock. Now the man was on
his feet, the chair pushed back, and then silence for a few moments.
Steps came toward me. I froze, my wrist twitching, ready to cover him
and fire if necessary the instant he pulled the door open. I wasn't
ready to start my imposture just yet, skulking in a closet.

I let out a soundless sigh as he passed the opening and disappeared.
More sounds as he ran through the drawers of a bureau or chest.

Suddenly the hall door opened again, and another set of steps entered
the room. I heard my man freeze. Then he spoke, in guttural French.

"Oh, it's you, is it, Maurice."

There was a pause. Maurice's tone was insinuating.

"Yes, I thought I saw a light in the chief's study. I thought that was
a bit odd, what with him away tonight."

The first man sauntered back toward the center of the room. "I just
thought I'd have a look to see that everything was OK here."

Maurice tittered. "Don't try to rob a thief, Georges; I know why you
came here--for the same reason as I."

"What are you up to?" the first man hissed. "What do you want?"

"Sit down, Flic. Oh, don't get excited; they all call you that."
Maurice was enjoying himself. I listened carefully for half an hour
while he goaded and cajoled, and pressured the other. The first man,
I learned, was Georges Pinay, the chief of the dictator's security
force. The other man was a civilian military adviser to the Bureau of
Propaganda and Education. Pinay, it seemed, had been less clever than
he thought in planning a _coup_ that was to unseat Bayard. Maurice knew
all about it, and had bided his time; and now he was taking over. Pinay
didn't like it, but he accepted it after Maurice mentioned a few things
nobody was supposed to know about a hidden airplane and a deposit of
gold coins buried a few miles outside the city.

I listened carefully, without moving, and after a while even the itch
went away. Pinay had been looking for lists of names, he admitted; he
planned to enlist a few more supporters by showing them their names in
the dictator's own hand on the purge schedule. He hadn't planned to
mention that he himself had nominated them for the list.

I made the mistake of over-confidence; I was just waiting for them to
finish up when a sudden silence fell. I didn't know what I had done
wrong, but I knew at once what was coming. The steps were very quiet
and there was just a moment's pause before the door was flung open. I
hoped my make-up was on straight.

I stepped out, casting a cool glance at Pinay.

"Well, Georges," I said, "it's nice to know you keep yourself occupied
when I'm away." I used the same French dialect they had used, and my
wrist was against the little lever.

"The devil," Maurice burst out. He stared at me with wide eyes. For a
moment I thought I was going to get away with it. Then Pinay lunged at
me. I whirled, side-stepped; and the slug-gun slapped my palm.

"Hold it," I barked.

Pinay ignored the order and charged again. I squeezed the tiny weapon,
bracing myself against the recoil. There was a solid thump and Pinay
bounced aside, landed on his back, loose-limbed, and lay still. Then
Maurice hit me from the side. I stumbled across the room, tripped and
fell, and he was on top of me. I still had my gun, and tried to bring
it into play, but I was dazed, and Maurice was fast and strong as a
bull. He flipped me and held me in a one-handed judo hold that pinned
both arms behind me. He was astride me, breathing heavily.

"Who are you?" he hissed.

"I thought you'd know me, Maurice," I said. With infinite care I
groped, tucked the slug-gun into my cuff. I heard it click home and I
relaxed.

"So you thought that, eh?" Maurice laughed. His face was pink and
moist. He pulled a heavy blackjack from his pocket as he slid off me.

"Get up," he said. He looked me over.

"My God," he said. "Fantastic. Who sent you?"

I didn't answer. It seemed I wasn't fooling him for a minute. I
wondered what was so wrong. Still, he seemed to find my appearance
interesting. He stepped forward and slammed the sap against my neck,
with a controlled motion. He could have broken my neck with it,
but what he did was more painful. I felt the blood start from my
half-healed neck wound. He saw it, and looked puzzled for a moment.
Then his face cleared.

"Excuse me," he said, grinning. "I'll try for a fresh spot next time.
And answer when spoken to." There was a viciousness in his voice that
reminded me of the attack at the palace. These men had seen hell on
earth and they were no longer fully human.

He looked at me appraisingly, slapping his palm with the blackjack. "I
think we'll have a little talk downstairs," he said. "Keep the hands in
sight." His eyes darted about, apparently looking for my gun. He was
very sure of himself; he didn't let it worry him when he didn't see it.
He didn't want to take his eyes off me long enough to really make a
search.

"Stay close, Baby," he said. "Just like that, come along now, nice and
easy."

I kept my hands away from my sides, and followed him over to the phone.
He wasn't as good as he thought; I could have taken him any time. I had
a hunch, though, that it might be better to string along a little, to
find out something more.

Maurice picked up the phone, spoke softly into it and dropped it back
in the cradle. His eyes stayed on me.

"How long before they get here?" I asked.

Maurice narrowed his eyes, not answering.

"Maybe we have just time enough to make a deal," I said.

His mouth curved in what might have been a smile. "We'll make a deal
all right, Baby," he said. "You sing loud and clear, and maybe I'll
tell the boys to make it a fast finish."

"You've got an ace up your sleeve here, Maurice," I urged. "Don't let
that rabble in on it."

He slapped his palm again. "What have you got in mind, Baby?"

"I'm on my own," I said. I was thinking fast. "I'll bet you never knew
Brion had a twin brother. He cut me out, though, so I thought I'd cut
myself in."

Maurice was interested. "The devil," he said. "You haven't seen your
loving twin in a long time, I see." He grinned. I wondered what the
joke was.

"Let's get out of here," I said. "Let's keep it between us two."

Maurice glanced at Pinay.

"Forget him," I said. "He's dead."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you, Baby?" Maurice said. "Just the two
of us, and maybe then a chance to narrow it back down to one." His
sardonic expression turned suddenly to a snarl, with nostrils flaring.
"By God," he said, "you, you'd plan to kill me, you little man of
straw--" He was leaning toward me now, arm loosening for a swing. I
realized he was insane, ready to kill in an instantaneous fury.

"You'll see who is the killer between us," he said. His eyes gleamed as
he swung the blackjack loosely in his hand.

I couldn't wait any longer. The gun popped into my hand, aimed at
Maurice. I felt myself beginning to respond to his murder lust. I hated
everything he stood for.

"You're stupid, Maurice," I said. "Stupid and slow, and in just a
minute, dead. But first you're going to tell me how you knew I wasn't
Bayard."

It was a nice try, but wasted.

Maurice leaped and the slug-gun slapped him aside. He hit and lay limp.
My arm ached from the recoil. Handling the tiny weapon was tricky. It
was good for about fifty shots on a charge; at this rate it wouldn't
last a day.

I had to get out fast now. I reached up and smashed the ceiling light,
then the table lamp. That might slow them up for a few moments. I eased
out into the hall and started for the dark end. Behind me I heard
the elevator opening. They were here already. I pushed at the glass
door, and it swung open quietly. I didn't wait around to see what
their reaction would be when they found Maurice and Georges. I went
down the stairs two at a time, as softly as I could. I thought of my
communicator and decided against it. I didn't have anything good to
report.

I passed three landings before I emerged into a hall. This would be the
old roof level. I tried to remember where the stair had come out in the
analogous spot back at Zero Zero. I spotted a small door in an alcove;
it seemed to be in about the right place.

A man came out of a room across the hall and glanced toward me. I
rubbed my mouth thoughtfully, while heading for the little door. The
resemblance was more of a hindrance than a help now. He went on, and I
tried the door. It was locked, but it didn't look very strong. I put
my hip against it and pushed. It gave way with no more than a mild
splintering sound. The stairs were there, and I headed down.

I had no plan other than to get in the clear. It was obvious that the
impersonation was a complete flop. All I could do was to get to a safe
place and ask for further instructions. I had gone down two flights
when I heard the alarm bell start.

I stopped dead. I had to get rid of the fancy uniform. I pulled off the
jacket, then settled for tearing the braid off the wrists, and removing
the shoulder tabs. I couldn't ditch the lapel braid; my microphone was
woven into it. I couldn't do much else about my appearance.

This unused stair was probably as good a way out as any. I kept going.
I checked the door at each floor. They were all locked. That was a
good sign, I thought. The stair ended in a cul-de-sac filled with
barrels and mildewed paper cartons. I went back up to the next landing
and listened. Beyond the door there were loud voices and the clatter
of feet. I remembered that the entry to the stair was near the main
entrance to the old mansion. It looked like I was trapped.

I went down again, pulled one of the barrels aside. I peered behind it
at the wall. The edge of a door frame was visible. I maneuvered another
barrel out of place and found the knob. It was frozen. I wondered how
much noise I could make without being heard. Not much, I decided.

I needed something to pry with. The paper cartons looked like a
possibility; I tore the flaps loose on one and looked in. It was filled
with musty ledger books; no help.

The next was better. Old silverware, pots and pans. I dug out a heavy
cleaver and slipped it into the crack. The thing was as solid as a bank
vault. I tried again; it couldn't be that strong, but it didn't budge.

I stepped back. Maybe the only thing to do was forget caution and
chop through the middle. I leaned over to pick the best spot to swing
at--then jumped back flat against the wall, slug-gun in my hand. The
door knob was turning.



                               Chapter 8


I was close to panic; being cornered had that effect on me. I didn't
know what to do. I had plenty of instructions on how to handle the job
of taking over after I had succeeded in killing the dictator, but none
to cover retreat after failure.

There was a creak, and dust sifted down from the top of the door. I
stood as far back as I could get, waiting. I had an impulse to start
shooting, but restrained it. Wait and see.

The door edged open a crack. I really didn't like this; I was being
looked over, and could see nothing myself. At least I had the
appearance of being unarmed; the tiny gun was concealed in my hand. Or
was that an advantage? I couldn't decide.

I didn't like suspense. "All right," I said. "You're making a draft. In
or out." I spoke in the gutter Parisian I had heard upstairs.

The door opened farther, and a grimy-faced fellow was visible beyond
it. He blinked in the dim light, peered up the stairs. He gestured.

"This way, come on," he said in a hoarse whisper. I didn't see
any reason to refuse under the circumstances. I stepped past the
barrels and ducked through the low doorway. As the man closed the
door, I slipped the gun back into its clip. I was standing in a damp
stone-lined tunnel, lit by an electric lantern sitting on the floor. I
stood with my back to it. I didn't want him to see my face yet, not in
a good light.

"Who are you?" I asked.

The fellow pushed past me and picked up his lantern. He hardly glanced
at me.

"I'm just a dumb guy," he said. "I don't ask no questions, I don't
answer none. Come on."

I couldn't afford to argue the point so I followed him. We made our way
along the hand-hewn corridor, then down a twisting flight of steps, to
emerge into a dark windowless chamber. Two men and a dark-haired girl
sat around a battered table where a candle spluttered.

"Call them in, Miche," my guide said. "Here's the pigeon."

Miche lolled back in his chair and motioned me toward him. He picked up
what looked like a letter-knife from the table and probed between two
back teeth while he squinted at me. I made a point not to get too close.

"One of the kennel dogs, by the uniform," he said. "What's the matter,
you bit the hand that fed you?" He laughed humorously.

I said nothing. I thought I'd give him a chance to tell me something
first if he felt like it.

"A ranker, too, by the braid," he said. "Well, they'll wonder where you
got to." His tone changed. "Let's have the story," he said. "Why are
you on the run?"

"Don't let the suit bother you," I said. "I borrowed it. But it seemed
like the people up there disliked me on sight."

"Come on over here," the other man said. "Into the light."

I couldn't put it off forever. I moved forward, right up to the table.
Just to be sure they got the idea, I picked up the candle and held it
by my face.

Miche froze, knife point in his teeth. The girl started violently and
crossed herself. The other man stared, fascinated. I'd gone over pretty
big. I put the candle back on the table and sat down casually in the
empty chair.

"Maybe you can tell me," I said, "why they didn't buy it."

The second man spoke. "You just walked in like that, sprung it on them?"

I nodded.

He and Miche looked at each other.

"You got a very valuable property here, my friend," the man said. "But
you need a little help. Chica, bring wine for our new friend here."

The girl, still wide-eyed, scuttled to a dingy cupboard and fumbled for
a bottle, looking at me over her shoulder.

"Look at him sitting there, Gros," Miche said. "Now that's something."

"You're right that's something," Gros said. "If it isn't already loused
up." He leaned across the table. "Now just what happened upstairs?" he
said. "How long have you been in the palace? How many have seen you?"

I gave them a brief outline, leaving out my mode of arrival. They
seemed satisfied.

"Only two seen his face, Gros," Miche said, "and they're out of the
picture." He turned to me. "That was a nice bit of work, mister,
knocking off Souvet; and nobody ain't going to miss Pinay neither. By
the way, where's the gun? Better let me have it." He held out his hand.

"I had to leave it," I said. "Tripped and dropped it in the dark."

Miche grunted.

"The Boss will be interested in this," Gros said. "He'll want to see
him."

Someone else panted up the stairs into the room. "Say, Chief," he
began, "we make it trouble in the tower--" He stopped dead as he caught
sight of me, and dropped into a crouch, utter astonishment on his face.
His hand clawed for a gun at his hip, found none, as his eyes darted
from face to face.

"What--what--"

Gros and Miche burst into raucous laughter, slapping the table and
howling. "At ease, Spider," Miche managed. "Bayard's throwed in with
us." At this even Chica snickered.

Spider still crouched. "OK, what's the deal?" he gasped. "I don't get
it." He glared around the room, face white. He was scared stiff. Miche
wiped his face, whooped a last time, hawked and spat on the floor.

"OK, Spider, as you were," he said. "This here's a ringer. Now you
better go bring in the boys. Beat it."

Spider scuttled away. I was puzzled. Why did some of them take one
startled look and relax, while this fellow was apparently completely
taken in? I had to find out. There was something I was doing wrong.

"Do you mind telling me," I said, "what's wrong with the get-up?" Miche
and Gros exchanged glances again.

"Well, my friend," Gros said, "it's nothing we can't take care of. Just
take it easy, and we'll set you right. You wanted to step in and take
out the Old Man, and sit in for him, right? Well, with the Organization
behind you you're as good as in."

"What's the Organization?" I asked.

Miche broke in. "For now we'll ask the questions," he said. "What's
your name? What's your play here?"

I looked from Miche to Gros. I wondered which one was the boss. "My
name's Bayard," I said.

Miche narrowed his eyes as he rose and walked around the table. He was
a big fellow with small eyes.

"I asked you what's your name, mister?" he said. "I don't usually ask
twice."

"Hold it, Miche," Gros said. "He's right. He's got to stay in this
part, if he's going to be good; and he better be plenty good. Let's
leave it at that; he's Bayard."

Miche looked at me. "Yeah," he said, "you got a point." I had a feeling
Miche and I weren't going to get along.

"Who's backing you, uh, Bayard?" Gros said.

"I play a lone hand," I said. "Up to now, anyway. But it seems I missed
something. If your Organization can get me in, I'll go along."

"We'll get you in, all right," Miche said.

I didn't like the looks of this pair of hoodlums, but I could
hardly expect high-toned company here. As far as I could guess, the
Organization was an underground anti-Bayard party. The room seemed
to be hollowed out of the walls of the palace. Apparently they ran a
spying operation all through the building, using hidden passages.

More men entered the room now, some via the stair, others through a
door in the far corner. Apparently the word had gone out. They gathered
around, staring curiously, commenting to each other, but not surprised.

"These are the boys," Gros said, looking around at them. "The rats in
the walls."

I looked them over, about a dozen piratical-looking toughs; Gros had
described them well. I looked back at him. "All right," I said. "Where
do we start?" These weren't the kind of companions I would have chosen,
but if they could fill in the gaps in my disguise for me, and help me
take over in Bayard's place, I could only be grateful for my good luck.

"Not so fast," Miche said. "This thing is going to take time. We got to
get you to a layout we got out of town. We got a lot of work ahead of
us."

"I'm here now," I said. "Why not go ahead today? Why leave here?"

"We got a little work to do on your disguise," Gros said, "and there's
plans to make. How do we get the most out of this break and how do we
make sure there's no wires on this?"

"And no double-cross," Miche added.

A hairy lout listening in the crowd spoke up.

"I don't like the looks of this stool, Miche. I don't like funny stuff.
I say under the floor with him." He wore a worn commando knife in a
sheath fixed horizontally to his belt buckle. I was pretty sure he was
eager to use it.

Miche looked at me. "Not for now, Gaston," he said.

Gros rubbed his chin. "Don't get worried about Mr. Bayard, boys," he
said. "We'll have our eyes on him." He glanced up at Gaston. "You might
make a special effort along those lines, Gaston; but don't get ahead of
yourself. Let's say if he has any kind of accident, you'll have a worse
one."

The feel of the spring under my wrist was comforting. I felt that
Gaston wasn't the only one in this crew who didn't like strangers.

"I figure time is important," I said. "Let's get moving."

Miche stepped over to me. He prodded my leg with his boot. "You got a
flappy mouth, mister," he said. "Gros and me gives the orders around
here."

"OK," Gros said. "Our friend has got a lot to learn, but he's right
about the time. Bayard's due back here sometime tomorrow, so that means
we get out today, if we don't want the Ducals all over the place on top
of the regulars. Miche, get the boys moving. I want things folded fast
and quiet, and good men on the stand-by crew."

He turned to me as Miche bawled orders to the men.

"Maybe you better have a little food now," he said. "It's going to be a
long day."

I was startled. I had been thinking of it as night. I looked at my
watch. It had been one hour and ten minutes since I had entered the
palace. Doesn't time go fast, I thought to myself, when everyone's
having fun.

Chica brought over a loaf of bread and a wedge of brown cheese from the
cupboard, and placed them on the table with a knife. I was cautious.

"OK if I pick up the knife?" I asked.

"Sure," Gros said. "Go ahead." He reached under the table and laid a
short-nosed revolver before him.

Miche came back to the table as I chewed on a slice of tough bread. It
was good bread. I tried the wine. It wasn't bad. The cheese was good,
too.

"You eat well," I said. "This is good."

Chica threw me a grateful smile. "We do all right," Gros said.

"Better get Mouth here out of that fancy suit," Miche said, jerking his
head at me. "Somebody might just take a shot at that without thinking.
The boys have got kind of nervous about them kind of suits."

Gros looked at me. "That's right," he said. "Miche will give you some
other clothes. That uniform don't go over so big here."

I didn't like this development at all. My communicator was built into
the scrambled eggs on my lapels. I had to say no and make it stick.

"Sorry," I said. "I keep the outfit. It's part of the act. I'll put a
coat over it if necessary."

Miche put his foot against my chair and shoved; I saw it coming and
managed to scramble to my feet instead of going over with the chair.
Miche faced me.

"Strip, mister," he said. "You heard the man."

The men still in the room fell silent, watching. I looked at Miche. I
hoped Gros would speak up. I couldn't see anything to be gained by this.

Nobody spoke. I glanced over at Gros. He was just looking at us.

Miche reached behind, brought out a knife. The blade snicked out. "Or
do I have to cut it off you," he growled.

"Put the knife away, Miche," Gros said mildly. "You don't want to cut
up our secret weapon here; and we want the uniform off all in one
piece."

"Yeah," Miche said. "You got a point." He dropped the knife on the
table and moved in on me. From his practiced crouch and easy shuffling
step, I saw that he had been a professional.

I decided not to wait for him. I threw myself forward with my weight
behind a straight left to the jaw. It caught Miche by surprise, slammed
against his chin and rocked him back. I tried to follow up, catch him
again while he was still off balance, but he was a veteran of too many
fights. He covered up, back-pedalled, shook his head, and then flicked
out with a right that exploded against my temple. I was almost out,
staggering. He hit me again, square on the nose. Blood flowed.

I wouldn't last long against this bruiser. The crowd was still bunched
at the far end of the room, moving this way, now, watching delightedly,
calling encouragement to Miche. Gros still sat, and Chica stared from
her place by the wall.

I moved back, dazed, dodging blows. I had only one chance and I needed
a dark corner to try it. Miche was right after me. He was mad; he
didn't like that smack on the jaw in front of the boys. That helped me.
He forgot boxing and threw one haymaker after another. He wanted to
floor me with one punch to retrieve his dignity. I dodged and retreated.

I moved back toward the deep shadows at the end of the room, beyond
Chica's pantry. I had to get there quickly, before the watching crowd
closed up the space.

Miche swung again, left, right. I heard the air whistle as his hamlike
fist grazed me. I backed another step; almost far enough. Now to get
between him and the rest of the room. I jumped in behind a wild swing,
popped a stinging right off his ear, and kept going. I whirled, snapped
the slug-gun into my hand, and as Miche lunged, I shot him in the
stomach, faked a wild swinging attack as he bounced off the wall and
fell full length at my feet. I slipped the gun back into my cuff and
turned.

"I can't see," a man shouted. "Get some light down here." The mob
pushed forward, forming a wide ring. They stopped as they saw that only
I was on my feet.

"Miche is down," a man called. "The new guy took him."

Gros pushed his way through, hesitated, then walked over to the
sprawled body of Miche. He squatted, beckoned to the man with the
candle.

He pulled Miche over on his back, then looked closer, feeling for the
heartbeat. He looked up abruptly, got to his feet.

"He dead," he said. "Miche is dead." He looked at me with a strange
expression. "It's quite a punch you got, mister," he said.

"I tried not to use it," I said. "But I'll use it again if I have to."

"Search him, boys," Gros said. They prodded and slapped, everywhere but
my wrist. "He's clean, Gros," a man said. Gros looked the body over
carefully, searching for signs of a wound. Men crowded around him.

"No marks," he said at last. "Broken ribs, and it feels like something
funny inside; all messed up." He looked at me. "He did it barehanded."

I hoped they would go on believing that. It was my best insurance
against a repetition. I wanted them scared of me, and the ethics of it
didn't bother me at all.

"All right," Gros called to the men. "Back on the job. Miche asked for
it. He called our new man 'Mouth.' I'm naming him 'Hammer-hand'."

I thought this was as good a time as any to push a little farther.

"You'd better tell them I'm taking over Miche's spot here, Gros," I
said. "We'll work together, fifty-fifty."

Gros squinted at me. "Yeah, that figures," he said. I had a feeling he
had mental reservations.

"And by the way," I added, "I keep the uniform."

"Yeah," Gros said. "He keeps the uniform." He turned back to the men.
"We pull out of here in thirty minutes. Get moving."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a ragged streak of light showing at the end of the dark
tunnel. Gros signalled a halt. The men bunched up, filling the cramped
passage.

"Most of you never came this way before," he said. "So listen. We push
out of here into the Street of the Olive Trees; it's a little side
street under the palace wall. There's a dummy stall in front; ignore
the old dame in it.

"Ease out one at a time, and move off east; that's to the right. You
all got good papers. If the guy on the gate asks for them, show them.
Don't get eager and volunteer. If there's any excitement behind, just
keep going. We rendezvous at the Thieves' Market. OK--and duck the
hardware."

He motioned the first man out, blinking in the glare as the ragged
tarpaulin was pushed aside. After half a minute, the second followed. I
moved close to Gros.

"Why bring this whole mob along?" I asked in a low voice. "Wouldn't it
be a lot easier for just a few of us?"

Gros shook his head. "I want to keep my eye on these slobs," he said.
"I don't know what ideas they might get if I left them alone a few
days; and I can't afford to have this set-up poisoned. And I'm going to
need them out at the country place. There's nothing they can do here
while I'm not around to tell them."

It sounded fishy to me, but I let it drop. All the men passed by us and
disappeared. There was no alarm.

"OK," Gros said. "Stay with me." He slipped under the mouldy hanging
and I followed as he stepped past a broken-down table laden with
pottery. An old crone huddled on a stool ignored us. Gros glanced
out into the narrow dusty street, then pushed off into the crowd. We
threaded our way through loud-talking, gesticulating customers, petty
merchants crouched over fly-covered displays of food or dog-eared
magazines, tottering beggars, grimy urchins. The dirt street was
littered with refuse; starving dogs wandered listlessly through the
crowd. No one paid the least attention to us. It appeared we'd get
through without trouble.

Under a heavy cloak Gros had given me, I was sweating. Flies buzzed
about my swollen face. A whining beggar thrust a gaunt hand at me. Gros
ducked between two fat men engaged in an argument. As they moved, I had
to side-step and push past them. Gros was almost out of sight in the
mob.

I saw a uniform suddenly, a hard-faced fellow in yellowish khaki
pushing roughly through the press ahead. A chicken fluttered up,
squawking in my face. There was a shout; people began milling,
thrusting against me. I caught a glimpse of Gros, face turned toward
the soldier, eyes wide in a pale face. He started to run. In two jumps
the uniformed man had him by the shoulder, spun him around, shouting.
A dog yelped, banged against my legs, scuttled away. The soldier's arm
rose and fell, clubbing at Gros with a heavy riot stick.

Far ahead I heard a shot, and almost instantly another, close. Gros
was free and running, blood on his head, as the soldier fell among the
crowd. I darted along the wall, trying to overtake Gros, or at least
keep him in sight. The crowd was opening, making way as he ran, pistol
in hand. He fired again, the shot a faint pop in the mob noise.

Another uniform jumped in front of me, club raised; I shied, threw up
an arm, as the man jumped back, saluted.

I caught the words, "Pardon, sir," as I went past him at a run. He must
have caught a glimpse of the uniform I wore.

Ahead, Gros fell in the dust, scrambled to his knees, head down. A
soldier stepped out of an alley, aimed, and shot him through the head.
Gros lurched, collapsed, rolled on his back. The dust caked in the
blood on his face. The crowd closed in. From the moment they spotted
him, he didn't have a chance.

I stopped. I was trying to remember what Gros had told the men. I had
made the bad mistake of assuming too much, thinking I would have Gros
to lead me out of this. There was something about a gate; everyone had
papers, Gros said. All but me. That was why they had had to come out in
daylight, I realized suddenly. The gate probably closed at sundown.

I moved on, not wanting to attract attention by standing still. I tried
to keep the cloak around me to conceal the uniform. I didn't want any
more soldiers noticing it; the next one might not be in such a hurry.

Gros had told the men to rendezvous at the Thieves' Market. I tried
to remember Algiers from a three-day visit years before; all I could
recall was the Casbah and the well-lit streets of the European shopping
section.

I passed the spot where a jostling throng craned to see the body of
the soldier, kept going. Another ring surrounded the spot where Gros
lay dead. Now there were soldiers everywhere, swinging their sticks
carelessly, breaking up the mob. I shuffled, head down, dodged a
backhanded swipe, found myself in the open. The street sloped up,
curving to the left. There were still a few cobbles on this part, fewer
shops and stalls. Wash hung from railings around tiny balconies above
the street.

I saw the gate ahead. A press of people packed against it, while a
soldier examined papers. Three more uniformed men stood by, looking
toward the scene of the excitement.

I went on toward the gate. I couldn't turn back now. There was a new
wooden watch tower scabbed onto the side of the ancient brick wall
where the sewer drained under it. A carbon arc searchlight and a man
with a burp gun slung over his shoulder were on top of it. I thought I
saw one of the Organization men ahead in the crowd at the gate.

One of the soldiers was staring at me. He straightened, glanced at the
man next to him. The other soldier was looking, too, now. I decided a
bold front was the only chance. I beckoned to one of the men, allowing
the cloak to uncover the front of the uniform briefly. He moved toward
me, still in doubt. I hoped my battered face didn't look familiar.

"Snap it up, soldier," I said in my best _Ecole Militaire_ tone; he
halted before me, saluted. I didn't give him a chance to take the
initiative.

"The best part of the catch made it through the gate before you fools
closed the net," I snapped. "Get me through there fast, and don't call
any more attention to me. I'm not wearing this flea-circus for fun." I
flipped the cloak.

He turned and pushed through to the gate, and said a word to the other
soldier, gestured toward me. The other man, wearing sergeant's stripes,
looked at me.

I glared at him as I approached. "Ignore me," I hissed. "You foul this
up and I'll see you shot."

I brushed past him, thrust through the gate as the first soldier opened
it. I walked on, listening for a sound of a round snapping into the
chamber of that burp gun on the tower. A goat darted out of an alley,
stared at me. Sweat rolled down my cheek. There was a tree ahead, with
a black shadow under it. I wondered if I'd ever get that far.

I made it, and breathed a little easier.

I still had problems, plenty of them. Right now I had to find the
Thieves' Market. I had a vague memory of such a thing from the past,
but I had no idea where it was. I moved along the road, past a
weathered stuccoed building with a slatternly taverns downstairs and
sagging rooms above, bombed out at the far end. The gate was out of
sight now.

Ahead were more bomb-scarred tenements, ruins, and beyond open fields.
There was a river in sight to the right. A few people were in view,
moving listlessly in the morning heat. They seemed to ignore the hubbub
within the walled town. I couldn't risk asking any of them for the
place I sought; I didn't know who might be a police informer, or a cop,
for that matter. They had been ready for us, I realized.

Gros wasn't as well-hidden as he had thought. Probably the police could
have cleared his outfit from the palace at any time; I suspected they
had tolerated them against such a time as now. The ambush had been
neat. I wondered if any of the boys had made it through the gate.

Apparently word had not gone out to be on the alert for a man
impersonating an officer; I didn't know how much Maurice had said when
he telephoned for his men, but my bluff at the gate indicated no one
had been warned of my disguise.

I paused. Maybe my best bet would be to try the tavern, order a drink,
try to pick up something. I saw nothing ahead that looked encouraging.

I walked back fifty feet to the doorless entrance to the bistro. There
was no one in sight. I walked in, barely able to make out the positions
of the tables and chairs in the gloom. The glassless windows were
shuttered. I blinked, made out the shape of the bar. Outside the door,
the dusty road glared white.

A hoarse-breathing fellow loomed up behind the bar. He didn't say
anything.

"Red wine," I said.

He put a water glass on the bar and filled it from a tin dipper. I
tasted it. It was horrible. I had a feeling good manners would be out
of place here, so I turned and spat it on the floor.

I pushed the glass across the bar. "I want wine," I said. "Not what you
wring out of the bar rag." I dropped a worn thousand franc note on the
bar.

He muttered as he turned away, and was still muttering when he shuffled
back with a sealed bottle and a wine glass. He drew the cork, poured my
glass half full, and put the thousand francs in his pocket. He didn't
offer me any change.

I tried it; it wasn't too bad. I stood sipping, and waited for my
eyes to get used to the dim light. The bartender moved away and began
pulling a pile of boxes, grunting hard.

I didn't have a clear idea of what to do if I did find the survivors
of the Organization. At best I might find out what was wrong with the
disguise, and use their channels to get back into the palace. I could
always call for help on my communicator, and have myself set back
inside via shuttle, but I didn't like the idea of risking that again. I
had almost been caught arriving last time. The scheme couldn't possibly
work if any suspicion was aroused.

A man appeared in the doorway, silhouetted against the light. He
stepped in and came over to the bar. The bartender ignored him.

Two more came through the door, walked past me and leaned on the bar
below me. The bartender continued to shuffle boxes, paying no attention
to his customers. I started to wonder why.

The man nearer me moved closer. "Hey, you," he said. He jerked his head
toward the gate. "You hear the shooting back there?"

That was a leading question. I wondered if the sound of the shots had
been audible outside the walls of the fortified town. I grunted.

"Who they after?" he said.

I tried to see his face, but it was shadowed. He was a thin broad
fellow, leaning on one elbow. Here we go again, I thought.

"How would I know?" I said.

"Kind of warm for that burnoose, ain't it?" he said. He stretched out a
hand as if to touch the tattered cape. I stepped back, and two pairs of
arms wrapped around me in a double bear-hug from behind.

The man facing me twitched the cape open. He looked at me.

"Lousy Ducal," he said, and hit me across the mouth with the back of
his hand. I tasted blood.

"Hold on to them arms," another man said, coming around from behind me.
This was one I hadn't seen. I wondered how many more men were in the
room. The new man took the old military cape in his hands and ripped it
off me.

"Look at that," he said. "We got us a lousy general." He dug his
finger under the top of the braided lapel of my blouse and yanked. The
lapel tore but stayed put. I started to struggle then; that was my
communicator they were about to loot for the gold wire on it. I didn't
have much hope of getting loose that way, but maybe it would distract
them if I kicked a little. I swung a boot and caught the rangy one
under the kneecap. He yelped and jumped back, then swung at my face. I
twisted away, and the blow grazed my cheek. I threw myself backward,
jerking hard, trying to throw someone off balance.

"Hold him," a man hissed. They were trying not to make too much noise.
The thin man moved in close, watched his chance and slammed a fist into
my stomach. The pain was agonizing; I cramped up, retching.

The men holding me dragged me to a wall, flung me upright against it,
arms outspread. The fellow who wanted the braid stepped up with a knife
in his hand. I was trying to breathe, wheezing and twisting. He grabbed
my hair, and for a moment I thought he was going to slit my throat.
Instead, he sawed away at lapels, cursing as the blade scraped wire.

"Get the buttons, too, Beau Joe," a husky voice suggested.

The pain was fading a little now, but I sagged, acting weaker than I
actually was. The communicator was gone, at least the sending end. All
I could try to salvage now was my life.

The buttons took only a moment. The man with the knife stepped back,
slipping it into a sheath at his hip. He favored the leg I had kicked.
I could see his face now. He had straight fine features.

"OK, let him go," he said. I slumped to the floor. For the first time
my hands were free. Now maybe I had a chance; I still had the gun. I
got shakily to hands and knees, watching him. He aimed a kick at my
ribs.

"On your feet, General," he said. "I'll teach you to kick your betters."

The others laughed, called out advice, shuffled around us in a circle.
There was an odor of dust and sour wine.

"That General's a real fighter, ain't he?" somebody called. "Fights
sittin' down." That went over big. Lots of happy laughter.

I grabbed the foot as it came to me, twisted it hard, and threw the
man to the floor. He swore loudly, lunged at me, but I was up again,
backing away. The ring opened and somebody pushed me. I let myself
stumble and gained a few more feet toward the shadowed corner. I could
see better now, enough to see pistols and knives in every belt. If they
had any idea I was armed, they'd use them. I had to wait.

Beau Joe was after me again, throwing a roundhouse left. I ducked it,
then caught a couple of short ones. I stepped back two paces, glanced
at the audience; they were as far away as I'd get them. It was time to
make my play. The man shielded me as the slug-gun popped into my hand,
but at that instant he swung a savage kick. It was just luck; he hadn't
seen the tiny weapon, but the gun spun into a dark corner. Now I wasn't
acting any more.

I went after him, slammed a hard left to his face, followed with a
right to the stomach, then straightened him out with another left. He
was a lousy boxer.

The others didn't like it; they closed in and grabbed me. Knuckles
bounced off my jaw as a fist rammed into my back. Two of them ran me
backwards and sent me crashing against the wall. My head rang; I was
stunned. I fell down and they let me lie. I needed the rest.

To hell with secrecy, I thought. I got to my knees and started
crawling toward the corner. The men laughed and shouted, forgetting
about being quiet now.

"Crawl, General," one shouted, "Crawl, you lousy spy."

"Hup, two, soldier," another sallied. "By the numbers, crawl."

That was a good one; they roared, slapped each other. Beau Joe had
picked himself up and started for me now. Where the hell was that gun?

He grabbed my jacket, hauled me to my feet as I groped for him. My
head spun; I must have a concussion, I thought. He jabbed at me, but I
leaned on him, and he couldn't get a good swing. The others laughed at
him, now, enjoying the farce.

"Watch him, Beau Joe," someone called. "He's liable to wake up, with
you shakin' him that way."

Beau Joe stepped back, and aimed a straight right at my chin, but I
dropped and headed for the corner again; that was where the gun went.
He kicked me again, sent me sprawling into the wall--and my hand fell
on the gun.

I rolled over, and Beau Joe yanked me up, spun me around, and stepped
back. I stood, slumped in the corner, watching him. He was enjoying
it now. He mouthed words silently, grinning in spite of his bleeding
mouth. He intended to keep me propped there in the corner and beat me
to death. As he came to me, I raised the gun and shot him in the face.

I wished I hadn't; he did a back-flip, landed head first, but not
before I caught a glimpse of the smashed face. Joe was not beau any
more.

I held my hand loosely at my side, waiting for the next comer. The same
fellow who had grabbed me before rushed up. He jumped the body and
twisted to deliver a skull-crusher. I raised the gun a few inches as he
leaped and I fired at his belly. The shot made a hollow whop, as the
man's feet left the floor. He smashed into the wall as I side-stepped.

The other three fanned out. It was too dark to see clearly here, and
they didn't yet realize what had happened. They thought I had downed
the two men with my fists. They were going to jump me together and
finish it off.

"Freeze, bunnies!" a voice said from the door. We all looked. A hulking
brute stood outlined there, and the gun in his hand was visible.

"I can see you rats," he said. "I'm used to the dark. Don't try
nothing." He beckoned a man behind him forward. One of the three in
the room edged toward the rear, and the gun coughed, firing through a
silencer. The man slammed sideways, and sprawled.

"Come on, Hammer-hand," the big man said. "Let's get out of here." He
spat into the room. "These pigeons don't want to play no more."

I recognized the voice of Gaston, the big fellow who had wanted to bury
me under the floor. Gros had appointed him my bodyguard, but he was
a little late. I had taken a terrible beating. I tucked the gun away
clumsily and lurched forward.

"Cripes, Hammer-hand," Gaston said, stepping forward to steady me. "I
didn't know them bunnies had got to you; I thought you were stringing
them. I was wondering when you was going to make music with that punch."

He paused to stare down at Beau Joe.

"You pushed his mush right in," he said admiringly. "Hey, Touhey, get
Hammer-hand's wrap-around, and let's move." He glanced once more around
the room.

"So long, bunnies," he said. The two men didn't answer.



                               Chapter 9


I don't remember much about my trip to the Organization's hideout
in the country. I recall walking endlessly, and later being carried
over Gaston's shoulder. I remember terrific heat, and agonizing pain
from my battered face, my half-healed gunshot wounds, and innumerable
bruises. And I remember at last a cool room, and a soft bed.

I awoke slowly, dreams blending with memories, none of them pleasant. I
lay on my back, propped up on enormous fluffy feather bolsters, with a
late afternoon sun lighting the room through partly-drawn drapes over
a wide dormer window. For a while I struggled to decide where I was.
Gradually I recalled my last conscious thought.

This was the place in the country Gros had been headed for. Gaston had
taken his charge seriously, in spite of his own suggestion that I be
disposed of and although Miche and Gros were dead.

I moved tentatively, and caught my breath. That hurt, too. My chest,
ribs and stomach were one great ache. I pushed the quilt down and tried
to examine the damage. Under the edges of a broad tape wrapping, purple
bruises showed all around my right side.

Bending my neck had been a mistake; now the bullet wound that Maurice
had re-opened with the blackjack began to throb. I was a mess. I didn't
risk moving my face; I knew what it must look like.

As a secret-service type, I was a complete bust, I thought. My
carefully prepared disguise had fooled no one, except maybe Spider. I
had been subjected to more kicks, blows, and threats of death in the
few hours I had been in the dictator's realm than in all my previous
42 years, and I had accomplished exactly nothing. I had lost my
communicator, and now my slug-gun too; the comforting pressure under
my wrist had gone. It wouldn't have helped me much anyway; I was dizzy
from the little effort I had just expended.

Maybe I had made some progress, though, in a negative way. I knew that
walking in and striking a pose wasn't good enough to get by as the
Dictator Bayard, in spite of the face. And I had also learned that the
dictator's regime was riddled with subversives and malcontents. Perhaps
we could somehow use the latter to our advantage.

If, I thought, I can get back with the information. I thought that
over. How would I get back? I had no way of communicating. I was
completely on my own now.

Always before I had had the knowledge that in the end I could send out
a call for help, and count on rescue within an hour. Richthofen had
arranged for a 24-hour monitoring of my communications band, alert
for my call. Now that was out. If I was to return to the Imperium, I
would have to steal one of the crude shuttles of this world, or better,
commandeer one as dictator. I had to get back into the palace, with a
correct disguise, or end my days in this nightmare world.

I heard voices approaching outside the room. I closed my eyes as the
door opened. I might learn a little by playing possum, if I could get
away with it.

The voices were lower now, and I sensed several people coming over to
stand by the bed.

"How long has he been asleep?" a new voice asked. Or was it new? It
seemed familiar somehow, but I connected it with some other place.

"Doc gave him some shots," someone answered. "We brought him in this
time yesterday."

There was a pause. Then the half-familiar voice again. "I don't like
his being alive. However--perhaps we can make use of him."

"Gros wanted him alive," another voice said. I recognized Gaston. He
sounded sullen. "He had big plans for him."

The other voice grunted. There was a silence for a few moments.

"He's no good to us until the face is healed. Keep him here until I
send along further instructions."

I hadn't liked what I heard, but for the present I had no choice but to
lie here and try to regain my strength. At least, I was comfortably set
up in this huge bed. I drifted off to sleep again.

I awoke with Gaston sitting by the bed, smoking. He sat up when I
opened my eyes, crushed out his cigarette in an ash tray on the table,
and leaned forward.

"How are you feeling, Hammer-hand?" he said.

"Rested," I said. My voice came out in a faint whisper. I was surprised
at its weakness.

"Yeah, them pigeons give you a pretty rough time, Hammer-hand. I don't
know why you didn't lay the punch on them sooner.

"I got some chow here for you," Gaston said. He put a tray from the
bedside table on his lap and offered me a spoonful of soup. I was
hungry; I opened my mouth for it. I never expected to have a gorilla
for a nursemaid, I thought.

Gaston was good at his work, though. For the next three days he fed
me regularly, changed my bedding, and performed all the duties of
a trained nurse with skill, if not with grace. I steadily gained
strength, but I was careful to conceal the extent of my progress from
Gaston and the others who occasionally came in. I didn't know what
might be coming up and I wanted something in reserve.

Gaston told me a lot about the Organization during the next few days.
I learned that the group led by Gros and Miche was only one of several
such cells; there were hundreds of members, in half a dozen scattered
locations in Algeria, each keeping surveillance over some vital
installation of the regime. Their ultimate objective was the overthrow
of Bayard's rule, enabling them to get a share in the loot.

Each group had two leaders, all of whom reported to the Big Boss, a
stranger about whom Gaston knew little. He appeared irregularly, and
no one knew his name or where he had his headquarters. I sensed that
Gaston didn't like him.

On the third day I asked Gaston to help me get up and walk a bit. I
faked extreme weakness, but was pleased to discover that I was feeling
better than I had hoped. After Gaston helped me back into bed and left
the room, I got up again, and practiced walking. It made me dizzy and
nauseous but I leaned on the bed post and waited for my stomach to
settle down, and went on. I stayed on my feet for fifteen minutes,
and slept soundly afterwards. Thereafter, whenever I awoke, day or
night, I rose and walked, jumping back into bed when I heard footsteps
approaching.

When Gaston insisted on walking me after that, I continued to feign
all the symptoms I had felt the first time. The doctor was called back
once, but he assured me that my reactions were quite normal, and that I
could not expect to show much improvement for another week, considering
the amount of blood I had lost. This suited me perfectly. I needed time
to learn more.

I tried to pump Gaston about my disguise, subtly; I didn't want to put
him on his guard, or give him any inkling of what I had in mind. But I
was too subtle; Gaston avoided the subject.

I searched for my clothes, but the closet was locked and I couldn't
risk forcing the door.

A week after my arrival, I allowed myself enough improvement to permit
a walk through the house, and down into a pleasant garden behind it.
The layout of the house was simple. From the garden I had seen no
signs of guards. It looked as though I could walk out any time, but I
restrained the impulse.

By the time ten days had passed, I was getting very restless. I
couldn't fake my role of invalid much longer without arousing
suspicion. The inactivity was getting on my nerves; I had spent the
night lying awake, thinking, and getting up occasionally to walk up
and down the room. By dawn, I had succeeded in fatiguing myself, but I
hadn't slept at all.

I had to be doing something. I got out my canes, and reconnoitred the
house after Gaston had taken away my breakfast tray. From the upstairs
windows I had a wide view of the surrounding country. The front of the
house faced a paved highway, in good repair. I assumed it was a main
route into Algiers. Behind the house, tilled fields stretched a quarter
of a mile to a row of trees. Perhaps there was a river there. There
were no other houses near.

I thought about leaving. It looked to me as though my best bet would be
to go over the wall after dark and head for the cover of the trees. I
had the impression that the line of trees and the road converged to the
west, so perhaps I could regain the road at a distance from the house,
and follow it into the city. I went back to my room to wait.

It was almost dinner time when I heard someone approaching my door. I
was lying down, so I stayed where I was and waited. Gaston entered with
the doctor. The doctor was pale, and perspiring heavily. He avoided
my eyes as he drew out a chair, sat down and started his examination.
He said nothing to me, ignoring the questions I asked him. I gave up
and lay silently while he prodded and poked. After a while he rose
suddenly, packed up his kit, and walked out.

"What's the matter with the doc, Gaston?" I asked.

"He's got something on his mind," Gaston said. Even Gaston seemed
subdued. Something was up; something that worried me.

"Come on, Gaston," I said. "What's going on?"

At first I thought he wasn't going to answer me.

"They're going to do like you wanted," he said. "They're getting ready
to put you in for Bayard."

"That's fine," I said. That was what I had come here for. This way was
as good as any. But there was something about it.

"Why all the secrecy?" I asked. "Why doesn't the Big Boss show himself?
I'd like to talk to him."

Gaston hesitated. I had the feeling he wanted to say more, but couldn't.

"They got a few details to fix yet," he said. He didn't look at me. I
let it go at that.

After Gaston left the room, I went out into the hall. Through the
open back windows I heard the sound of conversation. I moved over to
eavesdrop.

There were three men, strolling out into the garden with their backs to
me. One was the doctor; I didn't recognize the other two. I wished I
could see their faces.

"It was not for this I was trained," the doctor was saying. He waved
his hands in an agitated way. "I'm not a butcher, to cut up a side of
mutton for you."

I couldn't make out the reply.

I went down to the landing and listened. All was quiet. I descended
to the hall on the ground floor, listened again. Somewhere a clock was
ticking.

I went into the main dining room; the table was set for three, but
no food was in sight. I tried the other dining room; nothing. I went
across and eased the parlor door open. There was no one there; it
looked as unused as ever.

I passed the door I had found locked once before and noticed light
under it. I stepped back and tried it. It was probably a broom closet,
I thought as I turned the knob. It opened.

I stood staring. There was a padded white table in the center of the
room. At one end stood two floodlamps on tall tripods. Glittering
instruments were laid out on a small table. On a stand beside the
operating table lay scalpels, sutures, heavy curved needles. There was
a finely made saw, like a big hacksaw, and heavy snippers. On the floor
beneath the table was a large galvanized steel wash tub.

I didn't understand this; I turned to the door--and heard footsteps
approaching.

I looked around, saw a door, jumped to it and jerked it open. When the
two men entered the room, I was standing rigid in the darkness of the
storeroom, with the door open half an inch.

The floodlights flicked on, then off again. There was a rattle of metal
against metal.

"Lay off that," a nasal voice said. "This is all set. I checked it over
myself."

"They're nuts," Nasal-voice said. "Why don't they wait until morning,
when they got plenty sunlight for this? No, they gotta work under the
lights."

"I don't get this deal," a thin voice said. "I didn't get what was
supposed to be wrong with this guy's legs, they got to take them off.
How come if he's--"

"You ain't clued in, are you, Mac?" Nasal-voice said harshly. "This is
a big deal; they're going to ring this mug in when they knock off the
Old Man."

"Yeah, that's what I mean," Thin-voice cut in. "So what's the idea they
take off the legs?"

"You don't know much, do you, small-timer?" Nasal-voice said. "Well,
listen; I got news for you." There was a pause.

"Bayard's got no pins, from the knees down." Nasal spoke in a hushed
tone. "You didn't know that, did you? That's why you never seen him
walking around on the video; he's always sitting back of a desk.

"There ain't very many people know about that," he added. "Keep it to
yourself."

"Cripes," Thin-voice said. His voice was thinner than ever. "Got no
legs?"

"That's right. I was with him a year before the landing. I was in his
outfit when he got it. Machine gun slug, through both knees. Now forget
about it. But maybe now you get the set-up."

"Cripes," Thin-voice said. "Where did they get a guy crazy enough to go
into a deal like this?"

"How do I know," the other said. He sounded as though he regretted
having told the secret. "These revolutionist types is all nuts anyway."

I stood there feeling sick. My legs tingled. I knew now why nobody
mistook me for the dictator, as I walked into a room; and why Spider
had been taken in, when he saw me sitting.

I was leaving now. Not tomorrow, not tonight; now. I had no gun, no
papers, no map, no plans, but I was leaving.

It was almost dark; I went to the back of the house. Through a window
I could see the men in the garden standing under a small cherry tree
in the gloom, still talking. I found a door, and examined it in the
failing light. It was the type that opens in two sections. The upper
one was locked, but the lower half swung silently open--below the line
of vision of the men outside. I bent over and stepped through.

A short path led off to the drive beside the house; I ignored it and
crept along beside the wall, through weed-grown flower beds.

I turned to start out across the plowed field and a dark form rose up
before me. I recoiled, my wrist twitching in a gesture that had become
automatic; but no slug-gun snapped into my hand. I was unarmed, weak,
and shaken, and the man loomed over me, hulking.

"Let's go, Hammer-hand," he whispered. It was Gaston.

"I'm leaving, Gaston," I said. "Just don't try to stop me." Vague ideas
of a bluff were in my mind. After all, he called me Hammer-hand.

He came after me. "Hold it down to a roar," he said. "I wondered when
you was going to make your break. You been getting pretty restless
these last few days."

"Yeah," I said. "Who wouldn't?" I was just stalling; I had no plan.

"You got more nerve than me, Hammer-hand," Gaston said. "I would of
took off a week ago. You must of wanted to get a look at the Big Boss
real bad to stick as long as you did."

"I saw enough today," I said. "I don't want to see any more."

"Do you make him?" Gaston asked. He sounded interested.

"No," I said. "I didn't see his face. But I've lost my curiosity."

Gaston laughed. "OK, chief," he said. He handed me a soiled card, with
something scribbled on it. "Maybe this will do you some good. It's the
Big Boss's address out of town. I swiped it; it was all I could find.
Now let's blow out of here."

I stuck the card in my pocket. I was a little confused.

"Wait a minute, Gaston; you mean you're helping me get away?"

"Gros said I was supposed to keep an eye on you, look out you didn't
have no accident," Gaston said. "I always done all right doing what my
brother told me; I don't see no reason to stop now just because they
killed him."

"Your brother," I said.

"Gros was my brother," Gaston said. "I ain't smart like Gros, but he
always took care of me. I always done what he said. He told me to look
out for you, Hammer-hand."

"What about them?" I asked, nodding toward the house. "They won't like
it when they find us both missing."

Gaston spat. "To hell with them monkeys," he said. "They gimme the
willies."

I was beginning to feel jolly all of a sudden, by reaction.

"Listen, Gaston; can you go back in there and get the clothes I had on
when I got here?"

Gaston fumbled in the dark at a sack slung over his shoulder. "I
thought you might want that suit, Hammer-hand," he said. "You was real
particular about that with Miche." He handed me a bundle. I knew the
feel of it. It was the uniform.

"Gaston," I said. "You're a wonder. I don't suppose you brought along
the little gimmick I had on my wrist?"

"I think I stuck it in the pocket," he said. "Somebody swiped the fancy
gloves you had in the belt, though. I'm sorry about the gloves."

I fumbled over the blouse, and felt the lump in the pocket. With that
slug-gun in my hand I was ready to lick the world.

"That's OK about the gloves, Gaston," I said. I strapped the clip to
my wrist and tucked the gun away. I pulled off the old coat I wore and
slipped the blouse on. This was more like it.

I looked at the house. All was peaceful. It was dark enough now that we
wouldn't be seen crossing the field. It was time to go.

"Come on," I said. I took a sight on a bright star and struck out
across the soft ground.

In fifty steps the house was completely lost to view. The wall and high
foliage obscured the lights on the first floor; upstairs the house was
in darkness. I kept the star before me and stumbled on. I never knew
how hard it was to walk in a plowed field in the dark.

It was fifteen minutes before I made out a deeper darkness against the
faintly lighter sky ahead. That would be the line of trees along the
river; I was still assuming there was a river.

Then we were among the trees, feeling our way slowly. The ground
sloped and the next moment I was sliding down a muddy bank into shallow
water.

"Yes," I said, "it's a river all right." I scrambled out, and stood
peering toward the west. I could see nothing. If we had to pick our way
through trees all night, without a moon, we wouldn't be a mile away by
dawn.

"Which way does this river flow, Gaston?" I asked.

"That way," he said. "To Algiers--into the city."

"Can you swim?" I asked.

"Sure," Gaston replied. "I can swim good."

"OK," I said. "Strip and make a bundle of your clothes. Put whatever
you don't want to get wet in the middle; strap the bundle to your
shoulders with your belt."

We grunted and fumbled in the darkness.

I finished my packing and stepped down into the water. It was warm
weather; that was a break. I still had the slug-gun on my wrist. I
wanted it close to me.

I stepped out into the stream, pushed off as the bottom shelved. I
paddled a few strokes to get clear of the reeds growing near the shore.
All around was inky blackness, with only the brilliant stars overhead
to relieve the emptiness.

"OK, Gaston?" I called.

I heard him splashing quietly.

"Sure," he said.

"Let's go out a little farther and then take it easy," I said. "Let the
river do the work."



                              Chapter 10


The current was gentle. Far across the river I saw a tiny light now.
We drifted slowly past it. I moved my hands just enough to keep my
nose above water. The surface was calm. I yawned; I could have slept
tonight, I thought, remembering the sleepless hours of the night
before. But it would be a long time between beds for me.

I saw a glinting reflection on a ripple ahead, and glanced back. There
were lights on in the second story of the house we had left.

I called to Gaston, pointing out the lights.

"Yeah," he said. "I been watching them. I don't think we got nothing to
worry about."

They could follow our trail to the water's edge easily enough, I knew,
with nothing more than a flashlight. As if in response to my thought,
a tiny gleam appeared at ground level, wavering, blinking as the trees
passed between us. It moved, bobbing toward the river. I watched until
it emerged from the trees. I saw the yellow gleam dancing across the
water where we had started. Other lights were following now, two, three.

The whole household must have joined the chase. They must be expecting
to find me huddled on the ground nearby, exhausted, ready for the table
they had prepared for me in the presence of my enemies.

The lights fanned out, moving along the shore. I saw that we were
safely ahead of them.

"Gaston," I said, "have they got a boat back there?"

"Nah," he replied. "We're in the clear."

The little lights were pitiful, bobbing along the shore, falling behind.

We floated along then in silence for an hour or more. It was still,
almost restful. Only a gentle fluttering of the hands was required to
keep our heads above water.

Suddenly lights flashed ahead, over the river.

"Cripes," Gaston hissed, backing water. "I forgot about the Salan
bridge. Them bunnies is on there waitin' for us."

I could see the bridge, now, as the lights flashed across the pilings.
It was about a hundred yards ahead.

"Head for the far shore, Gaston," I said. "Fast and quiet."

I couldn't risk the splash of a crawl stroke, so I dog-paddled
frantically, my hands under the surface. They would have had us neatly,
if they hadn't shown the lights when they did, I thought. They couldn't
see us without them, though, so it was just a chance they had to take.
They must have estimated the speed of the river's flow, and tried to
pinpoint us. They didn't miss by much; in fact, they might not have
missed at all. I concentrated on putting every ounce of energy into my
strokes. My knees hit mud, and reeds brushed my face. I rolled over and
sat up, breathing hard. Gaston floundered a few feet away.

"Here," I hissed. "Keep it quiet."

The light on the bridge blinked out suddenly. I wondered what they'd
do next. If they headed along the banks, flashing lights, we'd have
to take to the water again; and if one man stayed on the bridge, and
flashed his light down just about the right moment--

"Let's get going," I said.

I started up the slope, crouching low. The lights appeared again, down
at the water's edge now, flashing on the tall grass and cattails.
Another appeared on the opposite bank. I stopped to listen. Feet made
sloshing sounds in the mud, a hundred feet away. Good; that would cover
our noise. My wet shoes dangled by the strings, thumping my chest.

The ground was firmer now, the grass not so tall. I stopped again,
Gaston right behind me, looking back. They'd find our tracks any
minute. We had no time to waste. The bundle of clothing was a nuisance,
but we couldn't stop to dress now.

"Come on," I whispered, and broke into a run.

Fifty feet from the top we dropped and started crawling. I didn't want
to be seen in silhouette against the sky as we topped the rise.

We pulled ourselves along, puffing and grunting. Crawling is hard
work for a grown man. Just over the top we paused to look over the
situation. The road leading to the bridge wound away toward a distant
glow in the sky.

"That's an army supply depot out that way," Gaston said. "No town."

I raised up to look back toward the river. Two lights bobbed together,
then started slowly away from the water's edge. I heard a faint shout.

"They've spotted the trail," I said. I jumped up and ran down the
slope, trying to breathe deep, in for four strides, out for four. A man
could run for a long time if he didn't get winded. Stones bruised my
bare feet.

I angled over toward the highway, with some idea of making better time.
Gaston was beside me.

"Nix," he said, puffing hard. "Them bunnies got a machine."

For a moment I didn't know what he meant; then I heard the sound of
an engine starting up, and headlights lanced into the darkness, beams
aimed at the distant tree-tops as the car headed up the slope of the
approach to the bridge from the other side. We had only a few seconds
before the car would slant down on this side, and illuminate the road
and a wide strip on either side; we'd be spotlighted.

Ahead, I saw a fence, just a glint from a wire. That finished it; we
were stopped. I slid to a halt. Then I saw that the fence lined a cross
road, joining the road we were paralleling twenty feet away. Maybe a
culvert ... I dived for shelter.

A corrugated steel pipe eighteen inches in diameter ran beside the main
road where the other joined it. I scrambled over pebbles and twigs and
into the mouth. The sounds I made echoed hollowly inside. I kept going
to the far end, Gaston wheezing behind me. I stopped and looked over my
shoulder. Gaston had backed in and lay a few feet inside his end. The
glow of the headlights gave me a glimpse of a heavy automatic in his
hand.

"Good boy," I hissed. "Don't shoot unless you have to."

The lights of the car flickered over trees, highlighting rocks.
Through the open end of the pipe I saw a rabbit sitting up in the
glare, a few feet away. He turned and bounded off.

The car came slowly along, passed, moved on down the road. I breathed a
little easier.

I was on the point of turning to say something to Gaston when a small
stone rolled down into the ditch before me. I stiffened. A faint scuff
of shoes on gravel, another stone dislodged--and then a flashlight
beam darted across the gulley, played on the grass opposite, came to
rest on the open end of the drain pipe. I held my breath. Then the
steps came nearer, and the light probed, found my shoulder. There was a
frozen instant of silence, then the sharp slap of the slug-gun hitting
my palm. I caught a glimpse of the car a hundred feet away now, still
edging along, heard a sharp intake of breath as the man with the light
readied a shout. I pointed the gun to the right of the flash and the
recoil slammed my arm back. The flashlight skidded across the rocky
ground and went out as the man's body crashed heavily and lay still. I
groped for the man's feet, hauled him back toward the pipe.

"Gaston," I whispered. The sound was hollow in the dark tunnel. "Give
me a hand." I pulled at the feet. I was glad it wasn't the doctor; he
wouldn't have fitted.

I crawled out of the pipe and Gaston came up beside me.

"After the car," I said. I had what I hoped was an idea. I was tired of
being chased; the hunted would become the hunter.

I headed up the ditch at a trot, head down, Gaston at my heels. The car
had stopped a hundred yards away. I counted three flashlights moving in
the edge of the field.

"Close enough," I hissed. "Let's split up now. I'll cross the road and
come up the other side. There's only one man over there. You get up in
the tall grass and sneak in as close to the car as you can. Watch me
and take your cue."

I darted across the road, a grotesque figure, naked, my bundle dangling
by its strap from my shoulder. The car's headlights were still on. No
one could see us from beyond them, looking into the glare. I dropped
down into the ditch, wincing as sharp sticks jabbed my bare feet. The
man on my side was casting about in wide circles, fifty feet from the
road. A cricket sawed away insistently.

The car started backing, swung to one side of the road, then went
forward; the driver was in the car, all right, he was turning around.
They must have come up the road to cut us off, planning to move back to
the river, searching foot by foot until they flushed us. No one seemed
to have missed the man who now lay quietly in the steel pipe.

The car swung around and moved along at a snail's pace, headlights
flooding the road I had just crossed. I dropped down to the bottom
of the ditch as the lights passed over me. The car came on, and
stopped just above me. I could see the driver, staring out through the
windshield. He leaned forward, peering. I wondered if he was looking
for the man who had been coming along on foot, checking the ditch; he'd
be a long time seeing him from here.

He opened the door, stepped out, one foot on the running board. The
car was long and top-heavy with flaring fenders. Dust roiled and gnats
danced in the beams from the great bowl-shaped headlights.

I picked up a heavy stone, rose silently to hands and knees, and crept
up out of the ditch. The chauffeur stood with a hand on the top of
the door, looking over it. I came up behind him and hit him as hard
as I could on the top of the head. He folded into the seat. I shoved
him over, jumped in, and closed the door. It was hard to get the coat
off him in the dark, while trying to stay down behind the door, but
I managed it. I put it on and sat up. There was no alarm. The three
flashlights continued to bob around in the fields. The engine was
running quietly.

I looked over the controls. The steering wheel was in the center, and
there were three pedals on the floor. I let the center pedal in; the
car moved off slowly. I steered to the right side of the road, crept
along the edge. Gaston must be about here, I thought. I stared out into
the darkness; I could see practically nothing.

I eased to a stop. The flashlight nearest me swung back and forth,
moving toward the bridge. I reached out to the dash, pushed in a lever
that projected from it. The headlights died.

I could see better now. The flashlights to my right stopped moving,
turned toward me. I waved cheerfully. I didn't think they could make
out my face in the dim beam at that distance. One of the lights seemed
satisfied, resumed its search; the other hesitated, flashing over the
car.

There was a shout then, and I saw Gaston up and running toward me.
The flashlights converged on him as he leaped across the ditch ahead,
coming into the road. The lights came bounding toward him and someone
was yelling. Gaston stopped, whirled toward the nearest light, aiming
the pistol. There was a sharp sound. Both lights on his side dropped.
Not bad shooting for a .45, I thought. I jerked open the door and
Gaston jumped in beside me. Behind there was a faint shout from the
remaining man on the other side of the road, and the crack of a gun.
The slug made a solid thunk as it hit the heavy steel of the car. I
floorboarded the center and left pedals; the car jumped ahead, then
coasted. Another slug starred the glass beside me, scattering glass
chips in my hair. I let my foot off, tried again. The car surged
forward. I flipped the lights on. The car shifted up, tires squealing.
Ahead, a figure stumbled down into the ditch, scrambled up the other
side into the road, waving its arms. I saw the open mouth in the taut
white face for an instant in the flare of the lights before it was
slammed down out of sight, with a shock that bounced us in our seats.

The bridge loomed ahead, narrow and highly arched. We took it wide
open, crushed down in the seat as we mounted the slope, floating as
we dropped on the other side. The road curved off to the left, tall
trees lining it. The tires howled as we rounded the turn and hit the
straightaway.

"This is great, Hammer-hand," Gaston shouted. "I never rode in one of
these here machines before."

"Neither did I," I yelled back.



                              Chapter 11


The night was black, with no moon. My next problem was to get into the
walled town. The road led along the river's edge into the heart of the
city, according to Gaston. The dictator's stronghold lay at the edge of
the city north of the highway we were on. He had fortified the area,
enclosing shops and houses within an encircling wall like a medieval
town, creating a self-sufficient community to support the castle and
its occupants, easily patrolled and policed. It was no defense against
an army, but practical as a safeguard against assassins and rioters.

"That's us," I said aloud. "Assassins and rioters."

"Sure, chief," Gaston said.

There was a glow in the sky ahead. From the road only a few scattered
lights were visible. The countryside seemed almost unpopulated.

Twenty minutes of driving brought us to the bombed-out edge of the
city. The rubble stretched ahead, with here and there a shack or a tiny
patch of garden. To the right the mass of the castle loomed up, faintly
visible in the glow from the streets below it, unseen behind the wall.
To the original massive old country house, Bayard had added rambling
outbuildings, great mismatched wings, and the squat tower.

I pulled over, cut the headlights. Gaston and I looked silently at the
lights in the tower. He lit a cigarette.

"How are we going to get in there, Gaston?" I said. "How do we get over
the wall?"

Gaston stared at the walls, thinking. "Listen, Hammer-hand," he said.
"You wait here, while I check around a little. I'm pretty good at
casing a layout, and I know this one from the inside; I'll find a spot
if there is one. Keep an eye peeled for the street gangs."

I sat and waited. I rolled up the windows and locked the doors. I
couldn't see any signs of life about the broken walls around me.
Somewhere a cat yowled.

I checked my clothes over. Both lapels were missing; the tiny set was
still clipped to my belt, but without speaker or mike, it was useless.
I ran my tongue over the tooth with the cyanide sealed in it. I might
need it yet.

The door rattled. I had dozed off. Gaston's face pressed against the
glass. I unlocked it and he slid in beside me.

"OK, Hammer-hand," he said. "Think I got us a spot. We go along the
edge of the drainage ditch over there to where it goes under the wall.
Then we got to get down inside it and ease under the guard tower. It
comes out in the clear on the other side."

I got out and followed Gaston over broken stones to the ditch. It was
almost a creek, and the smell of it was terrible.

Gaston led me along its edge for a hundred yards, until the wall hung
over us just beyond the circle of light from the guard tower. I could
see a fellow with a burp gun leaning against a post on top of the
tower, looking down onto the street inside the wall. There were two
large floodlights beside him, unlit.

Gaston leaned close to my ear. "It kind of stinks," he said, "but the
wall is pretty rough, so I think we can make it OK."

He slid over the edge, found a foothold, and disappeared. I slid down
after him, groping with my foot for a ledge. The wall was crudely laid,
with plenty of cracks and projecting stones, but slimy with moss. I
groped along, one precarious foot at a time. We passed the place where
the light gleamed on the black water below, hugging the shadow. Then
we were under the wall, which arched massively over us. The sound of
trickling water was louder here.

I tried to see what was going on ahead. Gaston had stopped and was
descending. I could barely make out his figure, knee-deep in the
malodorous stream. I moved closer. Then I saw the grating. It was made
of iron bars, and completely blocked the passage.

I climbed over to the grating, leaned against the rusty iron to ease my
arms. The defense system didn't have quite the hole in it we thought it
had. Gaston moved around below me, reaching under the surface to try to
find a bottom edge. Maybe we could duck under the barrier.

Suddenly I felt myself slipping.

Below me, Gaston hissed a curse, scrabbled upward. My grip was firm,
I realized in an instant; it was the grating that was slipping. It
dropped another eight inches with a muffled scraping and clank, then
stopped. The rusty metal had given under our weight. The corroded ends
of the bars had broken off at the left side. There wasn't room to pass,
but maybe we could force it a little further.

Gaston braced himself against the wall and heaved. I got into position
beside him and added my weight. The frame shifted a little, then stuck.

"Gaston," I said. "Maybe I can get under it now, and heave from the
other side." Gaston moved back, and I let myself down into the reeking
water. I worked an arm through, then dropped down waist deep, chest
deep, pushing. The rough metal scraped my face, caught at my clothing;
but I was through.

I crawled back up, dripping, and rested. From the darkness behind
Gaston I heard a meshing of oiled metal parts and then the cavern
echoed with the thunder of machine gun fire. In the flashing light I
saw Gaston stiffen against the grating and fall. He hung by one hand,
caught in the grating. There were shouts, and men dropped onto the
stone coping at the culvert mouth. Gaston jerked, fumbled his pistol
from his blouse.

"Gaston," I said. "Quick, under the bars...." I was helpless. I knew he
was too big.

A man appeared, clinging to the coping with one hand, climbing down
to enter the dark opening. He flashed a light at us and Gaston, still
dangling by the left hand, fired. The man fell over into the stream
with a tremendous splash.

Gaston gasped. "That's ... all...." The gun fell from his hand into the
black water.

I moved fast now, from one hand-hold to the next, slipping and
clutching, but not quite falling somehow. I managed to get a look back
as I reached the open air. Two men were tugging at the body wedged in
the opening. Even in death, Gaston guarded my retreat.

I came up over the side, and flattened against the wall, slug-gun in my
hand; the street was empty. They must have thought they had us trapped;
this side was deserted. I was directly under the tower. I eased out a
few feet, and craned my neck; a shadow moved at the top of the tower.
There was still one man on duty there. He must have heard the grating
fall and called for reinforcements.

I looked down the street ahead. I recognized the Street of the Olive
Trees, the same one I had come through on my way out with Gros, ten
days earlier. It slanted down, curving to the right. That was where I
had to go, into the naked street, under the guns. I liked it here in
the shadow of the tower, but I couldn't stay. I leaped forward, running
for my life. The searchlight snapped on, swung, found me, burning
my leaping shadow against dusty walls and the loose-cobbled street.
Instinct told me to leap aside. As I did, the gun clattered and slugs
whined off the stones to my left. I was out of the light now, and
dashing for the protection of the curving wall ahead. The light was
still groping as I rounded the turn. No lights came on above me; I ran
in utter silence. The dwellers in these scarred tenements had learned
to sit silent behind barred windows when guns talked in the narrow
streets.

I passed the spot where Gros had died, dashed on. In the distance a
whistle blew again and again. A shot rang out, kicking up dust ahead. I
kept going.

I heard running feet behind me now. I scanned the shabby stalls ahead,
empty and dark, trying to find the one we had used the day we left the
palace, where the old woman huddled over her table of clay ware. It had
been tiny, with a ragged gray awning sagging over the front and broken
pots scattered before it.

I almost passed it, caught myself, skidded, and dived for the back. I
fought the stiff tarpaulin, found the opening and squeezed through.

I panted in complete darkness now. Outside, I heard voices as the men
shouted to each other, searching. I had a moment's respite; they didn't
know this entry.

I looked at my watch. Things happened fast in this war world; it was
not yet half past nine. I had left the house at seven. I had killed
three men in those two hours, and a man had died for me. I thought how
easily a man slips back to his ancient role as nature's most deadly
hunter.

I felt the fatigue suddenly. I yawned, sat on the floor. I had an
impulse to lie back and go to sleep, but instead I got up and began
feeling my way toward the passage. I wasn't finished yet; I was in the
palace, unwounded, armed. I had all I had any right to hope for--a
fighting chance.

I was no longer the eager neophyte, ignorant of the realities; I came
now, steeled by necessity, a hardened fighter, a practical killer. I
was armed and I was desperate, and I bore the scars of combat. I did
not intend to fail.

       *       *       *       *       *

Half an hour later, I eased a door open and looked down the length of
the same hall into which the shuttle had pitched me headlong two weeks
before. It hadn't changed. I stepped into the hall, tried the first
door. It opened, and I saw that it was a bedroom. I went in, and by the
faint light shining through the curtains from below, looked over a wide
bed, a large desk against the far wall, a closet door, an easy chair,
and through a partly open door, a roomy bathroom to the right. I closed
the door behind me, and crossed to the windows. There were steel
shutters, painted light green to match the walls, folded back behind
the draperies. I closed them, then went to the desk and flipped on the
lamp. I had had enough of groping through the dark for one night.

The room was very handsome, spacious, with a deep pile grey-green rug
and a pair of bold water-colors on the wall. Suddenly I was aware of my
own reek. The clothes seemed to crawl on my back. I had lain in mud,
waded a sewer, crept through ancient dust. Without considering further,
I pulled the encrusted tunic off, tossed my clothes in a heap by the
door, and headed for the bath.

I took half an hour soaping myself, and then climbed out and got my
uniform. I had nothing else to put on, and I wouldn't wear it as it
was. I soaped it up, rinsed it out, and draped it over the side of the
tub. There was a vast white bathrobe behind the door, and I wrapped
myself in it and went back into the bedroom.

The thought penetrated to my dulled mind that I was behaving
dangerously. I tried again to shake myself alert. But alarm wouldn't
come. I felt perfectly safe, secure, comfortable. This won't do, I
thought; I'm going to go to sleep on my feet. I yawned again.

I sat down in the chair opposite the door, and prepared to wait it
out. I got up, as an after-thought, and turned the light out. I don't
remember sitting down again.



                              Chapter 12


I dreamt I was at the seashore, and the sun reflected from the glassy
water. It flashed in my eyes, and I turned away. I twisted in the
chair, opened my eyes. My head was thick.

I stared at the pale green walls of the room, across the grey-green
rug. It was silent in the room and I didn't move. The door stood open.

I remembered turning the light off, nothing more. Someone had turned it
on; someone had opened the door. I had come as a killer in the night;
and someone had found me here sleeping, betrayed by my own exhaustion.

I sat up, and in that instant realized I was not alone. I turned my
head, and looked at the man who sat quietly in the chair on my left,
leaning back with his legs thrust out stiffly before him, his hands
lightly gripping the arms of a rosewood chair upholstered in black
leather. He smiled, and leaned forward. It was like looking into a
mirror.

I didn't move. I stared at him. His face was thinner than mine, more
lined. The skin was burned dark, the hair bleached lighter by the
African sun; but it was me I looked at. Not a twin, not a double, not a
clever actor; it was myself, sitting in a chair, looking at me.

"You have been sleeping soundly," he said. I thought of hearing my
voice on a tape recorder, except this voice spoke in flawless French.

I moved my hand slightly; my gun was still there, and the man I had
come to kill sat not ten feet away, alone, unprotected. But I didn't
move. I wasn't ready, not yet. Maybe not ever.

"Are you rested enough," he said, "or will you sleep longer before we
talk?"

"I'm rested," I said.

"I do not know how you came here," he said, "but that you are here is
enough. I did not know what gift the tide of fortune would bring to me,
but there could be no finer thing than this--a brother."

I didn't know what I had expected the Dictator Bayard to be--a sullen
ruffian, a wild-eyed megalomaniac, a sly-eyed schemer. But I had not
expected a breathing image of myself, with a warm smile, and a poetic
manner of speech, a man who called me brother.

He looked at me with an expression of intense interest.

"You speak excellent French, but with an English accent," he said. "Or
is it perhaps American?" He smiled. "You must forgive my curiosity.
Linguistics, accents, they are a hobby of mine and, in your case, I am
doubly intrigued."

"American," I said.

"Amazing," he said. "I might have been born an American myself ... but
that is a long dull tale to tell another time."

No need, I thought. My father told it to me often, when I was a boy.

He went on, his voice intense, but gentle, friendly. "They told me,
when I returned to Algiers ten days ago, that a man resembling myself
had been seen here in the apartment. There were two men found in my
study, quite dead. There was a great deal of excitement, a garbled
report. But I was struck by the talk of a man who looked like me. I
wanted to see him, talk to him; I have been so very much alone here. It
was a thing that caught my imagination. Of course, I did not know what
brought this man here; they even talked of danger...." He spread his
hands in a Gallic gesture.

"But when I came into this room and found you here, sleeping, I knew at
once that you could not have come but in friendship. I was touched, my
friend, to see that you came here on your own, entrusting yourself to
my hands."

I couldn't say anything. I didn't try.

"When I lit the lamp and saw your face, I knew at once that this was
more than some shallow impersonation; I saw my own face there, not so
worn by war as my own, the lines not so deeply etched. But there was
the call of blood to blood; I knew you for my brother."

I licked my lips, swallowed. He leaned forward, placed his hand over
mine, gripped it hard, then leaned back in his chair with a sigh.

"Forgive me again, brother. I fall easily into oratory, I fear; a habit
I should do well to break. There is time enough for plans later. But
now, will you tell me of yourself? I know you have in you the blood of
the Bayards."

"Yes, my name is Bayard."

"You must have wanted very much to come to me, to have made your way
here alone and unarmed. No one has ever passed the wall before, without
an escort and many papers."

I couldn't sit here silent, but neither could I tell this man anything
of my real purpose in coming. I reminded myself of the treatment the
Imperial ambassadors had received at his hands, of all that Bale had
told me that first morning in the meeting with Bernadotte. But I saw
nothing here of the ruthless tyrant I expected. Instead, I found myself
responding to his spontaneous welcome.

I had to tell him something. My years of diplomatic experience came to
my assistance once again. I found myself lying smoothly.

"You're right in thinking I can help you, Brion," I said. I was
startled to hear myself calling him by his first name so easily, but it
seemed the natural thing to do.

"But you're wrong in assuming that your state is the only surviving
center of civilization. There is another, a strong, dynamic, and
friendly power, which would like to establish amicable relations with
you. I am the emissary of that government."

"But why did you not come to me openly? The course you chose, while
daring, was of extreme danger; but it must be that you were aware of
the treachery all about me, and feared that my enemies would keep you
from me."

He seemed so eager to understand that he supplied most of his own
answers. This seemed an opportune moment to broach the subject of
Bale's two agents who had carried full diplomatic credentials, and
who had been subjected to beating, torture, and death. It was a
contradiction in the dictator's character I wanted to shed a little
light on.

"I recall that two men sent to you a year ago were not well received,"
I said. "I was unsure of my reception. I wanted to see you privately,
face to face."

Bayard's face tensed. "Two men?" he said. "I have heard nothing of
ambassadors."

"They were met first by a Colonel-General Yang," I said, "and afterward
were interviewed by you personally."

Bayard's face went red. "There is a dog of a broken officer who leads a
crew of cut-throats in raids on what pitiful commerce I have been able
to encourage. His name is Yang. If he has molested a legation sent to
me from your country, I promise you his head."

"It was said that you yourself shot one of them," I said, pressing the
point.

Bayard gripped the arm of the chair, his eyes on my face.

"I swear to you by the honor of the House of Bayard that I have never
heard until this moment of your Embassy, and that no harm came to them
through any act of mine."

I believed him. I was starting to wonder about a lot of things. He
seemed sincere in welcoming the idea of an alliance with a civilized
power. And yet, I myself had seen the carnage done by his raiders at
the palace, and the atom bomb they had tried to detonate there.

"Very well," I said. "On behalf of my government, I accept your
statement; but if we treaty with you now, what assurance will be given
to us that there will be no repetition of the bombing raids?"

"Bombing raids!" He stared at me. There was a silence.

"Thank God you came to me by night, in secret," he said. "It is plain
to me now that control of affairs has slipped from me farther even than
I had feared."

"There have been seven raids, four of them accompanied by atomic bombs,
in the past year," I said. "The most recent was less than one month
ago."

His voice was deadly now. "By my order, every gram of fissionable
material known to me to exist was dumped into the sea on the day that I
established this state. That there were traitors in my service, I knew;
but that there were madmen who would begin the horror again, I did not
suspect."

He turned and stared across the room at a painting of sunlight shining
through leaves onto a weathered wall. "I fought them when they burned
the libraries, melted down the Cellini altar pieces, trampled the Mona
Lisa in the ruins of the Louvre. I could save only a fragment here, a
remnant there, always telling myself that it was not too late. But the
years passed and they have brought no change.

"There has been an end to industry, farming, family life. Even with the
plenty that lies about us for the taking, men fight over three things:
gold, liquor, and women.

"I have tried to arouse a spirit of rebuilding against the day when
even the broken storehouses run dry; but it's useless. Only my rigid
martial rule holds them in check.

"I will confess. I had lost hope. There was too much decay all around
me. In my own house, among my closest advisors, I heard nothing but
talk of armament, expeditionary forces, domination, renewed war against
the ruins outside our little island of order. Empty war, meaningless
overlordship of dead nations. They hoped to spend our slender resources
in stamping out whatever traces might remain of human achievement,
unless it bowed to our supremacy."

When he looked at me I thought of the expression, "Blazing eyes."

"Now my hope springs up renewed," he said. "With a brother at my side,
we will prevail."

I thought about it. The Imperium had given me full powers. I might as
well use them.

"I think I can assure you," I said, "that the worst is over. My
government has resources; you may ask for whatever you need--men,
supplies, equipment. We ask only one thing of you--friendship and
justice between us."

He leaned back, closed his eyes. "The long night is over," he said.

There were still major points to be covered, but I felt sure that
Bayard had been grossly misrepresented to me, and to the Imperial
government. I wondered how Imperial Intelligence had been so completely
taken in and why. Bale had spoken of having a team of his best men
here, sending a stream of data back to him.

There was also the problem of my transportation back to the Zero Zero
world of the Imperium. Bayard hadn't mentioned the MC shuttles. In
fact, thinking over what he had said, he talked as though they didn't
exist. Perhaps he was holding out on me, in spite of his apparent
candor.

Bayard opened his eyes. "There has been enough of gravity for now," he
said. "I think that a little rejoicing between us would be appropriate.
I wonder if you share my liking for an impromptu feast on such an
occasion?"

"I love to eat in the middle of the night," I said, "especially when
I've missed my dinner."

"You are a true Bayard," he said. He reached to the table beside me and
pressed a button. He leaned back and placed his finger tips together.

"And so now we must think about the menu." He pursed his lips, looking
thoughtful. "Tonight, permit me to select the menu," he said. "We will
see if our tastes are as similar as ourselves."

"Fine," I said.

There was a tap at the door. At Brion's call, it opened and a
sour-faced fiftyish little man came in. He saw me, started; then his
face blanked. He crossed to the dictator's chair, drew himself up, and
said, "I came as quick as I could, Major."

"Fine, fine, Luc," he said. "At ease. My brother and I are hungry. We
have a very special hunger, and I want you, Luc, to see to it that our
dinner does the kitchen credit."

Luc glanced at me from the corner of his eye. "I see the gentleman
resembles the Major somewhat," he said.

"An amazing likeness. Now--" he stared at the ceiling. "We will begin
with a very dry Madeira, I think; Sercial, the 1875. Then we will whet
our appetites with _Les Huitres de Whitstable_, with a white Burgundy;
Chablis Vaudesir. I think there is still a bit of the '29."

I leaned forward. This sounded like something special indeed. I had
eaten oysters Whitstable before, but the wines were vintages of which I
had only heard.

"The soup, _Consomme Double aux Cepes_; then _Le Supreme de Brochet au
Beurre Blanc_, and for our first red Burgundy, Romanee-Conti, 1904."

Brion ran through the remainder of a sumptuous menu. Luc went away
quietly. If he could carry that in his head, he was the kind of waiter
I'd always wanted to find.

"Luc has been with me for many years," Brion said. "A faithful friend.
You noticed that he called me 'Major.' That was the last official rank
I held in the Army of France-in-Exile, before the collapse. I was
later elected as Colonel over a regiment of survivors of the Battle of
Gibraltar when we had realized that we were on our own. Later still,
when I saw what had to be done, and took into my hands the task of
rebuilding, other titles were given me by my followers, and I confess I
conferred one or two myself; it was a necessary psychological measure,
I felt. But to Luc I have always remained 'Major.' He himself was a
sous-officer, my regimental Sergeant-Major."

"I know little about events of the last few years in Europe," I said.
"Can you tell me something about them?"

He sat thoughtfully for a moment. "The course was steadily downhill,"
he said, "from the day of the unhappy Peace of Munich in 1919. America
faced the Central Powers alone, and the end was inevitable. When
America fell under the massive onslaught in '32, it seemed that the
Kaiser's dream of a German-dominated world was at hand. Then came
the uprisings. I held a Second Lieutenant's commission in the Army
of France-in-Exile. We spearheaded the organized resistance, and the
movement spread like wild-fire. Men, it seemed, would not live as
slaves. We had high hopes in those days.

"But the years passed, and stalemate wore away at us. At last the
Kaiser was overthrown by a palace coup, and we chose that chance to
make our last assault. I led my battalion on Gibraltar, and took a
steel-jacketed bullet through both knees almost before we were ashore.

"I will never forget the hours of agony while I lay conscious in the
surgeons' tent. There was no more morphine, and the medical officers
worked over the minor cases, trying to get men back into the fight; I
was out of it and therefore took last priority. It was reasonable, but
at the time I did not understand."

I listened, rapt. "When," I asked, "were you hit?"

"That day I will not soon forget," he said. "April 15, 1945."

I stared. I had been hit by a German machine gun slug at Jena and had
waited in the aid station for the doctors to get to me--on April 15,
1945. There was a strange affinity that linked this other Bayard's life
with mine, even across the unimaginable void of the Net.

We finished the 1855 brandy, and still we sat, talking through
the African night. We laid ambitious plans for the rebuilding of
civilization. We enjoyed each other's company, and all stiffness had
long since gone. I closed my eyes, and I think I must have dozed off.
Something awakened me.

Dawn was lightening the sky. Brion sat silent, frowning. He tilted his
head.

"Listen."

I listened. I thought I caught a faint shout and something banged in
the distance. I looked inquiringly at my host. His face was grim.

"All is not well," he said. He gripped the chair arms, rose, got his
canes, started around the table.

I got up and stepped forward through the glass doors into the room. I
was dizzy from the wine and brandy. There was a louder shout outside
in the hall and a muffled thump. Then the door shook, splintered and
crashed inward.

Thin in a tight black uniform, Chief Inspector Bale stood in the
opening, his face white with excitement. He carried a long-barrelled
Mauser automatic pistol in his right hand. He stared at me, stepped
back, then with a sudden grimace raised the gun and fired.

In the instant before the gun slammed, I caught a blur of motion from
my right, and then Brion was there, half in front of me, falling as the
shot echoed. I grabbed for him, caught him by the shoulders as he went
down, limp. Blood welled from under his collar, spreading; too much
blood, a life's blood. He was looking into my face as the light died
from his eyes.



                              Chapter 13


"Get back, Bayard," Bale snarled. "Rotten luck, that; I needed the
swine alive for hanging." I stood up slowly. He stared at me, gnawing
his lip. "It was you I wanted dead; and this fool traded lives with
you."

He seemed to be talking to himself. I recognized the voice now, a
little late. Bale was the Big Boss. It was the fact that he spoke in
French here that had fooled me.

"All right," he said in abrupt decision. "He can trade deaths with you
too. You'll do to hang in his place. I'll give the mob their circus.
You wanted to take his place, here's your chance."

He stepped farther into the room, motioned others in. Evil-looking
thugs came through the door, peering about, glancing at Bale for orders.

"Put him in a cell," Bale said. "And I'm warning you, Cassu, keep your
bloody hands off him. I want him strong for the surgeon."

Cassu grunted, twisted my arm until the joint creaked, and pushed me
past the dead body of the man I had come in one night to think of as a
brother.

They marched me off down the corridor, pushed me into an elevator, led
me out again through a mob of noisy toughs armed to the teeth, down
stone stairs, along a damp tunnel in the rock, and at the end of the
line, sent me spinning with a kick into the pitch black of a cell.

My stunned mind worked, trying to assimilate what had happened. Bale!
And not a double; he had known who I was. It was Bale of the Imperium,
a traitor. That answered a lot of questions. It explained the perfect
timing and placement of the attack at the palace, and why Bale had been
too busy to attend the gala affair that night. I realized now why he
had sought me out afterward; he was hoping that I'd been killed, of
course. That would have simplified matters for him. And the duel--I
had never quite been able to understand why the Intelligence chief had
been willing to risk killing me, when I was essential to the scheme
for controlling the dictator. And all the lies about the viciousness
of the Bayard of B-I Two were Bale's fabrications designed to prevent
establishment of friendly relations between the Imperium and this
unhappy world.

Why? I asked myself. Did Bale plan to rule this hell-world himself,
making it his private domain? It seemed so.

And I saw that Bale did not intend to content himself with this world
alone; this would be merely a base of operations, a source of fighting
men and weapons--including atomic bombs. Bale himself was the author
of the raids on the Imperium. He had stolen shuttles, or components
thereof, and had manned them here in B-I Two, and set out on a career
of piracy. The next step would be the assault on the Imperium itself, a
full-scale attack, strewing atomic death. The men of the Imperium would
wear gay uniforms and dress sabres into battle against atomic cannon.

I wondered why I hadn't realized it sooner. The fantastic unlikeliness
of the development of the MC drive independently by the war-ruined
world of B-I Two seemed obvious now.

While we had sat in solemn conference, planning moves against the
raiders, their prime mover had sat with us. No wonder an enemy scout
had lain in wait for me as I came in on my mission.

When he found me at the hideout, Bale must have immediately set to work
planning how best to make use of the unexpected stroke of luck. And
when I had escaped, he had had to move fast.

I could only assume that the State was now in his hands; that a show
execution of Bayard in the morning had been scheduled to impress the
populace with the reality of the change in regimes.

Now I would hang in the dictator's place. And I remembered what Bale
had said: he wanted me strong for the surgeon. The wash tub would be
useful after all. There were enough who knew the dictator's secret to
make a corpse with legs embarrassing.

They would shoot me full of dope, perform the operation, bind up the
stumps, dress my unconscious body in a uniform and hang me. A dead body
wouldn't fool the public. They would be able to see the color of life
in my face, even if I were still out, as the noose tightened.

I heard someone coming, and saw a bobbing light in the passage through
the barred opening in the door. I braced myself. Maybe this was the man
with the saws and the heavy snippers already.

Two men stopped at the cell door, opened it, came in. I squinted at the
glare of the flashlight. One of the two dropped something on the floor.

"Put it on," he said. "The boss said he wanted you should wear this
here for the hanging."

I saw my old costume, the one I had washed. At least it was clean, I
thought. It was strange, I considered, how inconsequentials still had
importance.

A foot nudged me. "Put it on, like I said."

"Yeah," I said. I took off the robe and pulled on the light wool jacket
and trousers, buckled the belt. There were no shoes; I guessed Bale
figured I wouldn't be needing them.

"OK," the man said. "Let's go, Hiem."

I sat and listened as the door clanked again; the light receded. It was
very dark.

I fingered the torn lapels of my jacket. The communicator hadn't helped
me much. I could feel the broken wires, tiny filaments projecting from
the cut edge of the cloth. Beau Joe had cursed as he slashed at them!

I looked down. Tiny blue sparks jumped against the utter black as the
wires touched.

I sat perfectly still. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I didn't dare
move; the pain of hope awakening against all hope was worse than the
blank acceptance of certain death.

My hands shook. I fumbled for the wires, tapped them together. A spark;
another.

I tried to think. The communicator was clipped to my belt still; the
speaker and mike were gone but the power source was there. Was there a
possibility that touching the wires together would transmit a signal? I
didn't know. I could only try.

I didn't know Morse Code, or any other code; but I knew S.O.S. Three
dots, three dashes, three dots. Over and over, while I suffered the
agony of hope.

A long time passed. I tapped the wires, and waited. I almost fell off
the bunk as I dozed for an instant. I couldn't stop; I had to try until
time ran out for me.

I heard them coming from far off, the first faint grate of leather on
dusty stone, a clink of metal. My mouth was dry, and my legs began to
tingle. I thought of the hollow tooth and ran my tongue over it. The
time for it had come. I wondered how it would taste, if it would be
painful. I wondered if Bale had forgotten it, or if he hadn't known.

There were more sounds in the passage now, sounds of men and loud
voices; a clank of something heavy, a ponderous grinding. They must be
planning on setting the table up here in the cell, I thought. I went to
the tiny opening in the door and looked through. I could see nothing
but almost total darkness. Suddenly light flared brilliantly, and I
jumped, blinded.

There was more noise, then someone yelled. They must be having a hell
of a time getting the stuff through the narrow hall, I thought. My
eyeballs ached, my legs were trembling, my stomach suddenly felt bad.
I gagged. I hoped I wouldn't go to pieces. Time for the tooth now. I
thought of how disappointed Bale would be when he found me dead in my
cell. It helped a little; but still I hesitated. I didn't want to die.
I had a lot of living I wanted to do first.

Then someone called out, nearby.

"Wolfhound!"

My head came up. My code name. I tried to shout, choked. "Yes," I
croaked. I jumped to the bars, yelled.

"Wolfhound, where in hell...."

"Here!" I yelled. "Here!"

"Get back, Colonel," someone said. "Get in the corner and cover up."

I moved back and crouched, arms over my head. There was a sharp
hissing sound, and a mighty blast that jarred the floor under me. Tiny
particles bit and stung, and grit was in my mouth. With a drawn-out
clang, the door fell into the room.

Arms grabbed me, pulled me through the boiling dust, out into the
glare. I stumbled, felt broken things underfoot.

Men milled around a mass blocking the passage. Canted against the
wall a great box sat with a door hanging wide, light streaming out.
Arms helped me through the door, and I saw wires, coils, junction
boxes, stapled to bare new wood, with angle-irons here and there.
White-uniformed men crowded into the tiny space; a limp figure was
hauled through the door.

"Full count," someone yelled. "Button up!" Wood splintered as a bullet
came through.

The door banged shut, and the box trembled while a rumble built up into
a whine, then passed on up out of audibility.

Someone grabbed my arm. "My God, Brion, you must have had a terrible
time of it."

It was Richthofen, in a grey uniform, a cut on his face, staring at me.

"No hard feelings," I said. "Your timing ... was good."

"We've had a monitor on your band day and night, hoping for something,"
he said. "We'd given you up, but couldn't bring ourselves to abandon
hope; then four hours ago the tapping started coming through. They went
after it with locators, and fixed it here in the wine cellars.

"The patrol scouts couldn't get in here; no room. We pitched this box
together and came in."

"Fast work," I said. I thought of the trip through the dreaded Blight,
in a jury-rig made of pine boards. I felt a certain pride in the men of
the Imperium.

"Make a place for Colonel Bayard, men," someone said. A space was
cleared on the floor, jackets laid out on it. Richthofen was holding
me up and I made a mighty effort, got to the pallet and collapsed.
Richthofen said something but I didn't hear it. I wondered what had
held the meat cutters up so long, and then let it go. I had to say
something, warn them. I couldn't remember....



                              Chapter 14


I was lying in a clean bed in a sunny room, propped up on pillows. It
was a little like another room I had awakened in not so long before,
but there was one important difference. Barbro sat beside my bed,
knitting a ski stocking from red wool. Her hair was piled high on her
head, and the sun shone through it, coppery red. Her eyes were hazel,
and her features were perfect, and I liked lying there looking at her.
She had come every day since my return to the Imperium, and read to me,
talked to me, fed me soup and fluffed my pillows. I was enjoying my
convalescence.

"If you are good, Brion," Barbro said, "and eat all of your soup today,
perhaps by tomorrow evening you will be strong enough to accept the
king's invitation."

"OK," I said. "It's a deal."

"The Emperor Ball," Barbro said, "is the most brilliant affair of the
year and all the three kings and the Emperor with their ladies will be
there together."

I didn't answer; I was thinking. There seemed to be something I wasn't
figuring out. I had been leaving all the problems to the Intelligence
men, but I knew more than they did about Bale.

I thought of the last big affair, and the brutal attack. I suspected
that this time every man would wear a slug-gun under his braided cuff.
But the fight on the floor had been merely a diversion, designed to
allow the crew to set up an atomic bomb.

I sat bolt upright. That bomb had been turned over to Bale. There would
be no chance of surprise attack from a shuttle this time, with alert
crews watching around the clock for traces of unscheduled MC activity;
but there was no need to bring a bomb in. Bale had one here.

"What is it, Brion?" Barbro asked, leaning forward.

"What did Bale do with that bomb?" I said. "The one they tried to set
off at the dance. Where is it now?"

"I don't know. It was turned over to Inspector Bale...."

"When do the royal parties arrive for the Emperor Ball?" I asked.

"They are already in the city," Barbro said, "at Drottningholm."

I felt my heart start to beat a little faster. Bale wouldn't let this
opportunity pass. With the three kings here in the city, and an atomic
bomb hidden somewhere, he had to act. At one stroke he could wipe
out the leadership of the Imperium, and follow-up with a full-scale
assault; and against his atomic weapons, the fight would be hopeless.

"Call Manfred, Barbro," I said. "Tell him that bomb's got to be found
fast. The kings will have to be evacuated from the city; the ball will
have to be cancelled...."

Barbro spoke into the phone, looked back at me. "He has left the
building, Brion," she said. "Shall I try to reach Herr Goering?"

"Yes," I said. I started to tell her to hurry, but she was already
speaking rapidly to someone at Goering's office. Barbro was quick to
catch on.

"He also is out," Barbro said. "Is there anyone else?"

I thought furiously. Manfred or Hermann would listen to anything I
might say, but with their staffs it would be a different matter. To
call off the day of celebration, disturb the royal parties, alarm the
city, were serious measures. No one would act on my vague suspicions
alone. I had to find my friends in a hurry--or find Bale.

Imperial Intelligence had made a search, found nothing. His apartment
was deserted, as well as his small house at the edge of the city. And
the monitors had detected no shuttle not known to be an Imperium vessel
moving in the Net recently.

There were several possibilities; one was that Bale had returned almost
at the same time as I had, slipping in before the situation was known,
while some of his own men still manned the alert stations. A second
was that he planned to come in prepared to hold off attackers until he
could detonate the bomb. Or possibly an accomplice would act for him.

Somehow I liked the first thought best. It seemed more in keeping with
what I knew of Bale; shrewder, less dangerous. If I were right, Bale
was here now, somewhere in Stockholm, waiting for the hour to blow the
city sky-high.

As for the hour, he would wait for the arrival of the Emperor, not
longer.

"Barbro," I said, "when does the Emperor arrive?"

"I'm not sure, Brion," she said. "Possibly tonight, but perhaps this
afternoon."

That didn't give me much time. I jumped out of bed, and staggered.

"Here I come, ready or not," I said. "I can't just lie here, Barbro. Do
you have a car?"

"Yes, my car is downstairs, Brion. Sit down and let me help you." She
went to the closet and I sank down. I seemed always to be recuperating
lately. I had been through this shaky-legs business just a few days
ago, and here I was starting in again. Barbro turned, holding a brown
suit in her hands.

"This is all there is, Brion," she said. "It is the uniform of the
dictator, that you wore when you came here to the hospital."

"It will have to do," I said. Barbro helped me dress, and we left the
room as fast as I could walk. A passing nurse stared, but went on. I
was dizzy and panting already.

The elevator helped. I sank down on the stool, head spinning.

I felt something stiff in my chest pocket, and suddenly I had a vivid
recollection of Gaston giving me a card as we crouched in the dusk
behind the hideout near Algiers, telling me that he thought it was the
address of the Big Boss's out-of-town headquarters. I grabbed for the
card, squinted at it in the dim light of the ceiling lamp as the car
jolted to a stop.

"Östermalmsgatan 71" was scrawled across the card in blurred pencil. I
remembered how I had dismissed it from my mind as of no interest when
Gaston had handed it to me; I had hoped for something more useful. Now
this might be the little key that could save an empire.

"What is it, Brion?" Barbro asked. "Have you found something?"

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe just a dead end, but maybe not." I
handed her the card. "Do you know where this is?"

She read the address. "I think I know the street," she said. "It is not
far from the docks, in the warehouse district."

"Let's go," I said, with a fervent hope that we were right, and not too
late.

       *       *       *       *       *

We squealed around a corner, slowed in a street of gloomy warehouses,
blind glass windows in looming brick-red facades, with yard-high
letters identifying the shipping lines which owned them.

"This is the street," Barbro said. "And the number was seventy-one?"

"That's right," I said. "This is seventy-three; stop here."

We stepped out onto a gritty sidewalk, shaded by the bulk of the
buildings, silent. There was a smell of tar and hemp in the air and a
hint of sea water.

I stared at the building before me. There was a small door set in the
front beside a loading platform. I went up to it, tried it. Locked. I
leaned against it and rested.

"Barbro," I said. "Get me a jack handle or tire tool from your car." I
hated to drag Barbro into this, but I had no choice. I couldn't do it
alone.

She came back with a flat piece of steel eighteen inches long. I
jammed it into the wide crack at the edge of the door and pulled.
Something snapped, and with a jerk the door popped open. A stair ran up
into gloom above. Barbro gave me an arm, and we started up. The hard
work helped to keep my mind off the second sun that might light the
Stockholm sky at any moment.

Five flights up, we reached a landing. The door we faced was of
red-stained wood, solid and with a new lock. I looked at the hinge
pins. They didn't look as good as the lock.

It took fifteen minutes, every one of which took a year off my life,
but after a final wrench with the steel bar, the last pin clattered to
the floor. The door pivoted out and fell against the wall.

"Wait here," I said. I started forward, into the papered hall.

"I'm going with you, Brion," Barbro said. I didn't argue.

We were in a handsome apartment, a little too lavishly furnished.
Persian rugs graced the floor, and in the bars of dusty sunlight that
slanted through shuttered windows, mellow old teak furniture gleamed,
and polished ivory figurines stood on dark shelves under silk scrolls
from Japan. An ornate screen stood in the center of the room. I walked
around a brocaded ottoman over to the screen and looked behind it. On a
light tripod of aluminium rods rested the bomb.

Two heavy castings, bolted together around a central flange, with a few
wires running along to a small metal box on the underside. Midway up
the curve of the side, four small holes, arranged in a square. That was
all there was; but it could make a mighty crater where a city had been.

I had no way of knowing whether it was armed or not. I leaned toward
the thing, listening. I could hear no sound of a timing device. I
thought of cutting the exposed wires, which looked like some sort of
jury-rig, but I couldn't risk it; that might set it off.

"Here it is," I said, "but when does it go up?" I had an odd sensation
of intangibility, as though I were already a puff of incandescent gas.
I tried to think.

"Start searching the place, Barbro," I said. "You might come across
something that will give us a hint. I'll phone Manfred's office and get
a squad up here to see if we can move the thing without blowing it."

       *       *       *       *       *

I dialed Imperial Intelligence. Manfred wasn't in, and the fellow on
the phone was uncertain what he should do.

"Get a crew here on the double," I yelled. "Somebody who can at least
make a guess as to whether this thing can be disturbed."

He said he would confer with General Somebody.

"When does the Emperor arrive?" I asked him. He was sorry, but he
was not at liberty to discuss the Emperor's movements. I slammed the
receiver down.

"Brion," Barbro called. "Look what's here."

I went to the door which opened onto the next room. A two-man shuttle
filled the space. Its door stood open. I looked inside. It was fitted
out in luxury; Bale provided well for himself even for short trips.
This was what he used to travel from the home line to B-I Two. And the
fact that it was here should indicate that Bale was here also; and that
he would return to it before the bomb went off.

But then again, perhaps the bomb was even now ticking away its last
seconds, and Bale might be far away, safe from the blast. If the latter
were true, there was nothing I could do about it; but if he did plan to
return here, arm the bomb, set a timer and leave via the shuttle in the
bedroom--then maybe I could stop him.

"Barbro," I said, "you've got to find Manfred or Hermann. I'm going to
stay here and wait for Bale to come back. If you find them, tell them
to get men here fast who can make a try at disarming this thing. I
don't dare move it, and it will take at least two to handle it. If we
can move it, we can shove it in the shuttle and send it off; I'll keep
phoning. I don't know where you should look but do your best."

Barbro looked at me. "I would rather stay here with you, Brion," she
said. "But I understand that I must not."

"You're quite a girl, Barbro," I said.



                              Chapter 15


I was alone now, except for the ominous sphere behind the screen. I
hoped for a caller, though. I went to the door which leaned aslant
against the rough brick wall outside and unlatched it, maneuvered it
into place and dropped the pins back in the hinges, then closed and
relatched it.

I went back to the over-stuffed room, started looking through drawers,
riffling through papers on the desk. I hoped for something--something
that might give me a hint of what Bale planned. I didn't find any
hints, but I did find a long-barrelled twenty-two revolver, loaded.
That helped. I hadn't given much thought to what I would do when Bale
got here. I was in no condition to grapple with him; now I had a
reasonable chance.

I picked out a hiding place to duck into when and if I heard him
coming, a storeroom in the hall, between the bomb and the door. I found
a small liquor cabinet and poured myself two fingers of sherry.

I sat in one of the fancy chairs, and tried to let myself go limp. I
was using up too much energy in tension. My stomach was a hard knot.
I could see the edge of the bomb behind its screen from where I sat.
I wondered if there would be any warning before it detonated. My ears
were cocked for a click or a rumble from the silent grey city-killer.

The sound I heard was not a click; it was the scrape of shoes on wood,
beyond the door. I sat paralyzed for a moment, then got to my feet,
stepped to the storeroom and eased behind the door. I loosened the
revolver in my pocket and waited.

The sounds were closer now, gratingly loud in the dead silence. Then
a key scraped in the lock, and a moment later the tall thin figure of
Chief Inspector Bale, traitor, shuffled into view. His small bald head
was drawn down between his shoulders, and he looked around the room
almost furtively. He pulled off his coat, and for one startled instant
I thought he would come to my storeroom to hang it up; but he threw it
over the back of a chair.

He went to the screen, peered at the bomb. I could easily have shot
him, but that wouldn't have helped me. I wanted Bale to let me know
whether the bomb was armed, if it could be moved. He was the only man
in the Imperium who knew how to handle this device.

He leaned over the bomb, took a small box from his pocket and stared at
it. He looked at his watch, went to the phone. I could barely hear his
mutter as he exchanged a few words with someone. He went into the next
room, and as I was about to follow to prevent his using the shuttle, he
came back. He looked at his watch again, sat in a chair, and opened a
small tool kit which lay on the table. He started to work on the metal
box with a slender screwdriver. This, then, was the arming device. I
tried not to breathe too loud, or to think about how my legs ached.

Shocking in the stillness, the phone rang. Bale looked up, startled,
laid the screwdriver and the box on the table, and went over to the
phone. He looked down at it, chewing his lip. After five rings it
stopped. I wondered who it was.

Bale went back to his work. Now he was replacing the cover on the box,
frowning over the job. He got up, went to the bomb, licked his lips and
leaned over it. He was ready now to arm the bomb. I couldn't wait any
longer.

I pushed the door open, and Bale leaped upright, grabbing for his
chest, then jumped for the coat on the chair.

"Stand where you are, Bale," I said. "I'd get a real kick out of
shooting you."

Bale's eyes were almost popping from his head, his head was tilted
back, his mouth opened and closed. I got the impression that I had
startled him.

"Sit down," I said. "There." I motioned with the pistol as I came out
into the room.

"Bayard," Bale said hoarsely. I didn't say anything. I felt sure
now that the bomb was safe. All I had to do was wait until the crew
arrived, and turn Bale over to them. Then we could carry the bomb to
the shuttle, and send it off into the Blight. But I was feeling very
bad now.

I went to a chair, and sank down. I tried not to let Bale see how weak
I was. I leaned back, and tried breathing deep through my nose again.
If I started to pass out I would have to shoot Bale; he couldn't be
left free to threaten the Imperium again.

It was little better now. Bale stood rigid, staring at me.

"Look, Bayard," he said. "I'll bring you in on this with me. I swear
I'll give you a full half share. I'll let you keep B-I Two as your
own, and I shall take the home line; there's plenty for all. Just put
that gun aside...." He licked his lips, started towards me.

I started to motion with the gun, squeezed the trigger instead. A
bullet slapped Bale's shirt sleeve, smacked the wall. He dropped down
into the chair behind him. That was close, I thought. That could have
killed him. I've got to hold on.

I might as well impress him a little, I thought. "I know how to use
this pop gun, you see," I said. "Just a quarter of an inch from the
arm, firing from the hip; not bad, don't you agree? Don't try anything
else."

"You've got to listen to me, Bayard," Bale said. "Why should you care
what happens to these popinjays? We can rule as absolute monarchs."

Bale went on, but I wasn't listening. I was concentrating on staying
conscious, waiting for the sounds of help arriving.

"... take one moment, and we're off. What about it?"

Bale was looking at me, with a look of naked greed. I didn't know what
he had been saying. He must have interpreted my silence as weakness;
he got up again, moved toward me. It was darker in the room; I rubbed
my eyes. I was feeling very bad now, very weak. My heart thumped in my
throat, my stomach quivered. I was in no shape to be trying to hold
this situation in check alone.

Bale stopped, and I saw that he suddenly realized that I was blacking
out. He crouched, and with a snarl jumped at me. I would have to kill
him. I fired the pistol twice, and Bale reeled away, startled, but
still standing.

"Hold on, Bayard, for the love of God," he squealed. I was still alive
enough to kill him. I raised the pistol, aimed and fired. I saw a
picture jump on the wall. Bale leaped aside. I didn't know if I had hit
him yet or not. I was losing my hold, but I wouldn't let him get away.
I fired twice more, peering from my chair, and I knew it was the light
in my mind fading, not in the room. Bale yelled; I saw that he didn't
dare to try for the door to the hall or the room where the shuttle
waited. He would have to pass me. He screamed as I aimed the pistol
with wavering hands, and dived for the other door. I fired and heard
the sound echo through a dream of blackness.

       *       *       *       *       *

I wasn't out for more than a few minutes; I came to myself, sitting in
the chair, the pistol lying on my lap. The screen had fallen over, and
lay across the bomb. I sat up, panicky; maybe Bale had armed it. And
where was Bale? I remembered only that he had dashed for the next room.
I got up, grabbed for the chair again, then got my balance, made my way
to the door. There was a strange sound, a keening, like a cat in the
distant alley. I looked into the room, half expecting to see Bale lying
on the floor. There was nothing. The light streamed through an open
window, and a curtain flapped. Bale must have panicked and jumped, I
thought. I went to the window, and the keening started up again.

Bale hung by his hands from the eave of the building across the alley,
fifteen feet away. The sound came from him. The left leg of his
trousers had a long stain of blackish red on it, and drops fell from
the toe of his shoe, five stories to the brick pavement below.

"Good God, Bale," I said. "What have you done?" I was horrified. I
had been ready to shoot him down, but to see him hanging there was
something else again.

"Bayard," he croaked, "I can't hold on much longer. For the love of
God...."

What could I do? I was far too weak for any heroics. I looked around
the room frantically for an inspiration; I needed a plank or a piece of
rope. There was nothing. I pulled a sheet off the bed; it was far too
short. Even two or three would never make it. And I couldn't hold it
even if I could throw it and Bale caught it. I ran to the phone.

"Operator," I called. "There's a man about to fall from a roof. Get the
fire department here with ladders, fast; seventy-one Östermalmsgatan,
fifth floor."

I dropped the phone, ran back to the window. "Hold on, Bale," I said.
"Help's on the way." He must have tried to leap to the next roof,
thinking that I was at his heels; and with that hole in his leg he
hadn't quite made it.

I thought of Bale, sending me off on a suicide mission, knowing that my
imposture was hopeless as long as I stood on my own legs; I thought of
the killer shuttle that had lain in wait to smash us as we went in; of
the operating room at the hideout, where Bale had planned to carve me
into a shape more suitable for his purpose. I remembered Bale shooting
down my new-found brother, and the night I had lain in the cold cell,
waiting for the butcher; and still I didn't want to see him die this
way.

He started to scream suddenly, kicking desperately. He got one foot
up on the eave beside his white straining hands; it slipped off. Then
he was quiet again. I had been standing here now for five minutes. I
wondered how long I had been unconscious. Bale had been there longer
now than I would have thought possible. He couldn't last much longer.

"Hold on, Bale," I called. "Only a little while. Don't struggle."

He hung, silent. Blood dripped from his shoe. I looked down at the
alley below and shuddered.

I heard a distant sound, a siren, howling. I dashed to the door, opened
it, listened. Heavy footsteps sounded below.

"Here," I shouted, "all the way up."

I turned and ran back to the window. Bale was as I had left him. Then
one hand slipped off, and he hung by one arm, swinging slightly.

"They're here, Bale," I said. "A few seconds...."

He didn't try to get a new hold. He made no sound. Feet pounded on the
stairs outside and I yelled again.

I turned back to the window as Bale slipped down, silent. I didn't
watch. I heard him hit--twice.

I staggered back, and the burly men called, looked out the window,
milled about. I made my way back to the chair, slumped down. I was
empty of emotion. There was a noise all around me, people coming and
going. I was hardly conscious of it. After a long time I saw Hermann,
and then Barbro was leaning over me. I reached for her hand, hungrily.

"Take me home, Barbro," I said.

I saw Manfred.

"The bomb," I said. "It's safe. Put it in the shuttle and get rid of
it."

"My crew is moving it now, Brion," he said.

"You spoke of home, just now," Goering put in. "Speaking for
myself, and I am sure also for Manfred, I will make the strongest
recommendation that in view of your extraordinary services to the
Imperium you be dispatched back to your home as soon as you are well
enough to go, if that is your wish. I hope that you will stay with us.
But it must be for you to make that decision."

"I don't have to decide," I said. "My choice is made. I like it here,
for many reasons. For one thing, I can use all the old cliches from
B-I Three, and they sound brand new; and as for home...." I looked at
Barbro:

"Home is where the heart is."



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