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Ten From Infinity
by Paul W. Fairman
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Taber took a forward step. "What's his room number?"

"Six—on the second floor. But he isn't in now. He just went out."

"Okay. Maybe I'll be back. As I said, we don't suspect anybody. We're just checking for sources."

Taber turned toward the door. The woman vanished back into her own quarters as Taber snapped the lock. He stood in the vestibule for a minute or two, studying some cards he took from his pocket, and when she did not reappear, he opened the door, went back in, and climbed the stairs.

The door to number six was not locked. Taber went inside. The window was small and gave on an areaway. He could see nothing until he turned on the light. Even then, he could see nothing of interest—the room was ordinary in every sense.

But as Brent Taber checked it out, some unusual aspects became apparent. There were two pieces of luggage in the closet. One, an oversized suitcase, stood on end.

And jammed neatly down behind it was the body of Les King. His throat had been cut.

Brent Taber stared down into the closet for what seemed like an interminable time. His eyes were bleak and his mouth was grim and stiff as he passed a slow hand along his jaw.

He took a long, backward step and closed his eyes for a moment as though hoping the whole improbable mess would go away. But it was still there when he opened them again.

He turned, went downstairs, and took the receiver off the phone on the wall by the front door.

The shapeless landlady came out again. She scowled at Taber. "What are you doing here?"

He regarded her with a kind of affectionate weariness. "Have you got a dime, lady?"

Gaping, she pawed into her apron pocket and handed him a coin.

"Thanks much." He dialed. "Is Captain Abrams there?"

There was a wait, during which Brent Taber asked the oddly bemused landlady: "Are you afraid of the dead?"

But before she could decide whether she was or not, Taber turned to the phone. "Captain?.... That's right, Brent Taber ... No, right, here in Manhattan. There's been a little trouble. You'd better come over personally."

He turned to the landlady. "What's the address here, sister?"

And later, with the landlady back in her lair, Brent Taber sat down on the stairs to wait; sat there with surprise at the feeling of relief that filled his mind. He had no feeling of triumph about it; no sense of a job well done. But there was no great guilt at having failed, either.

Mostly, he thought, it was the simplification that had come about. There had been so many confusing and bewildering complications in the affair; improbability piled on the impossible; the ridiculous coupled with the incredible.

But now, with one stroke of a knife, it had been simplified and brought into terms everyone could understand; into terms Captain Abrams of the New York Police Department would grasp in an instant.

A killer was on the loose.

* * * * *

One of Senator Crane's priceless gifts was a sense of timing. Much of his success had sprung from the instinctive knowledge of when to act. He had a sense of the dramatic which never deserted him. As a result, he had been known to turn in an instant from one subject to another—to dodge defeats and score triumphs with bewildering agility.

His preoccupation on this particular day was with a home-state issue—the location of a government plant. After he obtained the floor, he counted the house and noted that only a bare quorum was present. Gradually, the members of the Senate of the United States would drift to their seats. So Crane began reading letters which tended to support his state's claim to the new plant and the benefits that would accrue therefrom.

Crane droned on. The Vice-President of the United States looked down on the top of Senator Crane's massive head and became fruitfully preoccupied with thoughts of his own.

Then, quite suddenly, the line of Crane's exposition changed. The Vice-President wasn't quite sure at what precise point this had come about. He wasn't aware of the change until some very strange words penetrated:

" ... so, therefore, it has become starkly apparent that the American people have been denied the information which would have made them aware of their own deadly danger. Invasion from space is now imminent."

The Vice-President tensed. Had the stupid idiot gone mad? Or had he, the Vice-President, been in a fog when vital, top-secret information had been made public?

He banged the gavel down hard, for want of a better gesture, and was grateful when a tall, dignified man with a look of deepest concern on his face rose from behind his desk out on the floor.

"Will the Senator yield to his distinguished colleague from Pennsylvania?"

Crane turned, scowling. "I will yield to no man on matters of grave import." With that he turned and continued with his revelations. "The people of this nation have been deprived of the knowledge that the invasion from space has already begun. A vanguard of hideous, half-human creatures have even now achieved a beach-head on our planet. Even now, the evil hordes from beyond the stars ..."

The Vice-President looked around in a daze. Had someone forgotten to brief him? Had that project come to a head overnight? The last he'd heard there had been much doubt as to—

" ... The injustice perpetrated on the American people in this matter has been monstrous. And this is not because of any lack of knowledge on the part of the government. It has been because of the petty natures of the men to whom this secret has been entrusted. Jealousies have dictated policy where selfless public service was of the most vital importance ..."

The floor was filling up. The visitor's gallery was wrapped in hushed silence. Newsmen, informed of sensational developments, were rushing down corridors.

And the Vice-President was wondering why he hadn't had the good sense to refuse the nomination.

" ... These invaders from another planet are not strangers to the men in power. It is on record that they are inhuman monsters capable of killing without mercy—yet they are quite ordinary in appearance. They walk the streets, unsuspected, among us. It is on record right here in Washington that these creatures are not human but, rather, soulless androids, manufactured to destroy us, by a race so far ahead of us in scientific knowledge that we are like children by comparison ..."

"Will the Senator yield to the Senator from Alabama?"

"I will not. I refuse to be gagged in the process of acquainting the American people with facts upon which their very survival depends."

The floor was crowded now. The press and the visitors' galleries were packed as Senator Crane's words continued to boom forth.

And in the press gallery a reporter from the Sioux City Clarion looked at a representative of the London Times, and said, "Good God! He's gone off his rocker!"

The Englishman, aloof but definitely enthralled, touched his mustache delicately and answered, "Quite."

* * * * *

Frank Corson rang the bell and waited at the door of Rhoda Kane's apartment. The door opened. She wore a pale blue brunch coat. Her hair glowed in the light of midmorning, but her face was pale and a little drawn.

Her eyes were slightly red, as though she might have been crying.

"Hello, Rhoda."

"Hello, Frank."

"I really didn't expect to find you. I was going to write a note and slip it under the door."

"I didn't feel well today so I didn't go to work."

"May I come in?"

"Of course."

Inside, a shadow of concern moved like a quick cloud across her beautiful face. "You don't look well, Frank."

"I'm quite all right, really. Haven't been sleeping too well, but there's been a lot on my mind."

"I've been hoping you'd phone."

"I wanted to but there didn't seem to be anything to say. Nothing except that I'm sorry I let you down so miserably."

"Frank! You didn't. You really didn't. It was just that—oh, it's not important any more."

"No. It's not important now."

"Would you like a drink?"

"Thanks, no. I've come to say good-bye."

"Good-bye?"

"Yes. I'm leaving Park Hill—leaving New York. I'm going into a small Minnesota hospital to finish my internship. Then I'll probably practice out there somewhere."

Behind the new glitter of her eyes there was stark misery. "Frank—Frank—what went wrong with us?"

The appeal was a labored whisper.

"I don't know, Rhoda. I should know but I don't. I should have known what was wrong so I could have done something about it. It just went sour, I guess."

She turned and walked to the window. He wondered if there were tears in her eyes.

"Good-bye, Rhoda."

"Good-bye, Frank. I'm sorry."

The door hadn't quite closed. Now, as Frank Corson turned, he found it open. A man stood there—a man in a blue suit with empty eyes.

Frank stared at the man for long seconds. His eyes went toward the window. Rhoda had turned. She was watching the man in the doorway, looking past Frank at the creature from somewhere in space who was neither man nor machine. But how—? Frank Corson asked himself the question. Good God! How had this thing come about?

"Not—not him," he finally exploded.

Rhoda was walking forward. The look of fevered excitement was in her eyes. "Please leave, Frank." She did not look at him as she spoke. She kept her eyes on the man in the blue suit.

"Not him!"

"Please leave, Frank."

But it was too late. The door had closed. The man was looking at Frank. "Sit down," he said.

Frank Corson sat down. He saw the man and he saw Rhoda, but they seemed unimportant. Something had happened to his mind and he was busy struggling with it. That was all that was important.

The strange lethargy that came like a cloud over his mind was beyond understanding.

* * * * *

Captain Abrams looked into the closet and back at Brent Taber. His lips were back a little off his teeth. With Abrams, this indicated anger.

"All right. What does Washington do about this one? Does Washington tell us to be good little boys and go hand out parking tickets?"

"It wasn't like that," Taber said.

"It doesn't much matter how it was. The thing is—how is it going to be now?"

"You got a murder, friend. Plain and simple. What do the New York police do when they get a murder?"

Abrams spoke bitterly. "Sometimes they let a panel truck drive in and haul the body away and that's that."

"Let's save the sarcasm until later. I called you in. It's your case. What do you want me to do?"

"Talk a little, maybe. The other one—now this one. The same killer?"

"I think so."

"What does he look like?"

"Medium height. One-eighty. Around forty. And dangerous."

"Dangerous, he says," Abrams muttered. "Any idea where we might go to have a little talk with him?"

"No, can't say that I have."

"Try the streets of Manhattan—is that it?"

"I guess that's about it." Taber paused. "Wait a minute. If he's looking for a spot to hide in he wouldn't come back here and he certainly wouldn't try King's room. There's just a wide-open chance he might have another location. Wait a minute while I look up an address."

* * * * *

An hour after he'd finished delivering his speech on the floor of the Senate, Crane held a press conference in one of Washington's most important hotels. The place was crowded. He stood on a platform, looked out over a sea of heads, and pointed at an upraised hand for the first question.

"Senator, have you gotten any reaction from the people of your state on the revelations contained in your speech?"

"There has been very little time, but telegrams have been pouring in."

"What is the reaction?"

"Frankly, I haven't had time to read them. However, I think there is little doubt as to the mood of my people. They will be indignant and angry at Washington bungling."

He pointed to another hand.

"Senator, granting the details you outlined are accurate, have you any knowledge as to—"

"Young man. Every detail I outlined was completely accurate." Senator Crane withered the reporter with a hostile look and pointed elsewhere.

"Senator, did you consult with the people responsible for handling the situation before making your speech?"

"I tried. I was willing to co-operate in every way, but my patience ran out. Also, I was alarmed at the bungling and inefficiency I saw. For that reason I went straight to the people with my story."

"Senator, I have a wire from the governor of your state. It just arrived in response to my query as to his attitude on this affair. The governor says, quote, No comment, unquote. Would you care to comment on his statement?"

Senator Crane thought he heard a faint ripple of mirth drift across the room. But, of course, he had to be mistaken. "I think the governor replied wisely. I expect to return home and confer with him as soon as possible."

"Senator, can you explain why, out of all the able, sincere officials in Washington, D.C., elected or otherwise, you were the only one with enough wisdom and courage to put this matter before the people?"

"Young man, I am not going to pass judgment on anyone in Washington or elsewhere. Each of us, I'm sure, does his duty as he sees it."

Again it seemed to Senator Crane that he heard a ripple of mirth—louder this time. It had to be something to do with the acoustics. Except that he was suddenly aware of smiles, too. The next question had to do with possible consultation with Russia on the matter of the coming space invasion.

Senator Crane agreed that such consultation should be made and then retired hastily into seclusion. A touch of panic hit him. He felt like a man who was far out in the water without a boat, with the closest land a few hundred feet straight down. Good God! Had he miscalculated? Of course not. He had only to await the verdict of the nation's top newspapers before proceeding with the publicity program that might well make him presidential timber.

* * * * *

John Dennis, for the first time since Rhoda had known him, seemed nervous. He kept licking his lips and shifting his eyes from Rhoda to Frank Corson.

Frank Corson sat quietly, keeping his thoughts to himself. Rhoda crossed to the liquor cabinet and poured a double Scotch. She went to the sofa and sat down a little uncertainly.

"I guess you two haven't met. John, this is Frank Corson."

John Dennis paid no attention. He walked to the sofa, sat down, and took a sheaf of notes from his jacket pocket.

"I've known Mr. Dennis for quite some time," Frank commented wryly.

"Be quiet."

John Dennis' tone was neither hostile nor friendly. They were the words of a person whose mind was on other things. They watched him as his eyes scanned the notes.

He appeared to be memorizing them.

The air became somewhat electric, the silence so deep it seemed to scream. Rhoda looked across at Frank Corson. Frank's expression was empty, as though he'd suffered some traumatic emotional blow and was struggling to recover.

John Dennis stirred. He also appeared to be struggling. He turned his eyes on the drink Rhoda was holding. He took it out of her hand and downed it in a single gulp.

They watched as he went back to work, leafing through the notes, one at a time. As he came close to the end, he lifted his head and shook it violently, as though from sudden pain. He scowled at the empty glass he'd handed back to Rhoda.

"Do you want another?" she inquired.

"Give me another."

She poured a second Scotch and handed it to him. He drank it like so much water.

The last sheet of notations was covered. Then John Dennis sat motionless for a minute, his frown and uncertainty returning. "It's hard to project the details," he said. "All this detail. Difficult."

He dropped the last sheet and got up and poured himself another Scotch. "They will make an army now," he said. The Scotch went down smoothly. He went to the window and looked out. "This planet is different. The sun there is blue and the air is very thin. Their bodies are nothing, but their heads are very big. Now they will create an army and take this planet."

Frank Corson was shaking his head slowly like a groggy fighter. Rhoda sat huddled on the sofa, her mind such a mixture of tumbling emotions that it seemed to be trying to tear itself out of her head. John Dennis came back and stood in the middle of the room. He swayed drunkenly. "So many things I don't understand. I see people I know—or I should know. I—" He turned his eyes—eyes no longer empty—on Rhoda.

"I want to make love!"

Frank Corson got up from his chair and hurled himself on Dennis.

Rhoda screamed.

* * * * *

Senator Crane sat at his desk. There were a pile of newspapers in front of him. The first one carried a front page story with the headline:

SENATOR CRANE WARNS OF SPACE INVASION

SHADES OF ORSON WELLS' MARTIAN SCARE STALKS CAPITOL CORRIDORS.

Crane tossed the paper aside listlessly and picked up the second one:

SENATORS VOICE CONCERN FOR SANITY OF COLLEAGUE

CRANE IN STUNNING TIRADE WARNS OF SCIENCE-FICTION DISASTER.

The third paper featured an internationally syndicated columnist, famous for his biting wit:

* * * * *

Senator Crane today launched a one-man campaign to make America space-conscious. If there was any Madison Avenue thinking behind the launching it was certainly lower Madison Avenue.

In order to make his point—exactly what this was confused a vast roomful of newspapermen—the Senator invented a race of creatures called androids. These androids, it seems, look exactly like Tom Smith down the block except that they'd just as soon cut your throat as not.

We fear the Senator must have been watching the wrong television shows—knives yet, ugh!—possibly Jim Bowie, because there wasn't a ray gun nor a disintegrator in his whole bag of exhibits.

All in all, it would appear that the project was pointed toward making the people Senator Crane-conscious rather than aiming their attention at the deadly heavens.

* * * * *

Senator Crane put that paper aside and looked at the next. This one, more so than all the rest, was completely factual:

SENATOR CRANE DELUGED WITH WIRES FROM HOME

CONSTITUENTS CLAIM WASHINGTON RIDICULE HEAPED ON SENATOR REFLECTS AGAINST STATE.

Crane dropped the paper and got up from the desk. That son-of-a-bitch Taber was to blame for this. Shaping up a goddamn hoax and feeding it out piecemeal. By God—!

He went to the desk and dialed, and when the answer came he said, "Halliday? Senator Crane here. I want to have a little talk with you about that damned tape. It's pretty obvious now that Taber planted it in a deliberate attempt to ... What's that? An appointment! Why, goddamn it, who the hell do you think you are?.... Fifteen minutes next Wednesday? You're talking to a United States Senator—"

But Crane was no longer talking to Halliday. He had hung up.

Crane dialed another number. A pleasant female voice said, "Matthew Porter's office."

"This is Senator Crane. Put Porter on."

"Just a moment."

Crane waited. He waited for what seemed like ages, but a glance at his watch told him it had been less than five minutes. He disconnected and dialed again.

"This is Crane. We got cut off. I want to talk to Porter."

"I'm sorry but Mr. Porter has gone for the day."

"Well, where can I reach him? It's important."

"I'm sorry. Mr. Porter left no number."

"When will he be back?"

"He didn't say."

Crane slammed the phone down. "The bastards!" he snarled. "The lousy, crummy bastards. Running like a pack of scared rats. Bureaucrats! Damned, cowardly, self-appointed opportunists!"

He stopped cursing and sat for a while.

When he got up and left the office he looked and felt old but he had faced a truth. It would not be necessary to campaign next year.

It wouldn't be of any use.



13

John Dennis showed human surprise as Frank Corson lunged at him. He had either been lax in using the controlling power he'd been given, or else Frank Corson had an exceptional resistance.

Dennis released Rhoda, swayed drunkenly under Frank Corson's clumsy football-type tackle, and swung his arm like a pivoting beam. The blow was a lucky one. His fist smashed low on Corson's jaw, numbing the nerves of his neck on the left side.

Corson went down and, as he lay helpless, Dennis kicked him twice—once in the side and once, viciously effectively, in the head. Corson rolled over and lay still.

Dennis looked down at him in a drunken daze. "They will make an army and bring it here."

Rhoda, standing in the center of an emotional maelstrom, watched the struggle from the prison of her own horror. At that moment she was physically, mentally and spiritually ill; a human being caught in the midst of forces beyond her knowledge and control.

Dennis laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. "I want to make love."

"No—no. Please—"

The drunkenness ebbed slightly and his eyes emptied. They looked into Rhoda's. She shivered. He took the neck of her brunch coat in his fist and jerked downward. She had just come from the shower when she'd first opened the door for Frank Corson, and the vicious denuding gesture left her completely naked.

Dennis went clumsily to his knees, his arms around her, and he pulled her to the floor. She sobbed, but the tears were gone now and they were dry, wracking sobs.

"Undress me."

She fumbled with his jacket and pulled it off while he knelt there in anticipation of he knew not what; wondering, wanting, knowing only an urge he could not understand but which had become a compulsion.

She took off his necktie and unbuttoned his shirt. Frank Corson stirred but did not regain consciousness. "Please," Rhoda said, "let me help him."

In answer, Dennis put his arms around her and drew her to him. "We will make love."

"Yes—yes, we will make love—"

The ring of the doorbell was like thunder in the room. Dennis tensed, his eyes widened, and he got to his feet and stood swaying. Looking up at him, Rhoda saw a trapped animal, but the excitement was still there and she wanted to take him in her arms and hold him and protect him from the world.

But he had forgotten her. A cunning sneer took the place of the slavering animal look and he ran to the kitchen to reappear moments later with a butcher knife in his hand.

The bell rang again. Dennis snarled at the door and, in some kind of sheer ecstatic bravado, emitted a Tarzan roar.

Instantly a weight hit the door from the outside. It shuddered but did not give. Dennis crouched, gripping his knife. Frank Corson staggered to his feet and hurled himself groggily at the android. Dennis roared again, pushed away and arced the knife at his throat.

Rhoda screamed and lunged at Dennis' legs. "No! No! Stop it! Please!"

Dennis teetered under her weight and the knife slanted downward across Frank's chest. It ripped a red gash as the door shuddered a third time.

Dennis turned in that direction and crouched. The door splintered and flew open. Dennis lunged, like a line-bucking football player. He hit both Brent Taber and Captain Abrams simultaneously, sprawling them both and sending Abrams' gun spinning out of his hand.

He leaped over them and dashed down the hall where the elevator man waited uncertainly, not sure whether to dispute the right of way or not. His indecision was fatal. Dennis wrapped an arm around his neck, pulled his head back and cut his throat with one slash of the knife.

Captain Abrams' head had hit a doorjamb opposite the entrance to Rhoda's apartment. He stirred and tried to come erect but he was unable to make it.

Brent Taber clawed the gun off the floor and came to one knee. He got off one shot as the elevator door was closing and saw the android spin away from the controls as the impact of the slug smashed the bone of his shoulder.

Taber lunged to his feet and went for the stairs.

There was no one in the lobby when he arrived there—no dead bodies, either. But on the sidewalk, in front of the building, a woman lay dead in a pool of blood.

In a sick rage, Taber looked in both directions and saw the android dive through a group of people half a block away. He tipped them over like tenpins and ran on. Taber gripped the gun tight and started in pursuit.

He could not fire because there was enough sidewalk traffic to make it dangerous. On ahead, the android's path was blocked by a man. He sought to get clear but the android passed him close enough to jam the knife into his neck and send him screaming to the sidewalk.

A uniformed patrolman appeared on the other side of the street, further down. He took the situation in and understood Taber's frantic gesture. A car screamed to a halt as the patrolman raced across the street, drawing his gun.

The android, seeing his escape cut off, veered into an areaway. The patrolman got there first and plunged in after him.

Taber, gasps tearing at his lungs, arrived thirty seconds later. During that time, he'd expected the sound of shots from the patrolman's gun. But there was silence.

He braked on his heels, skidded into the areaway, and saw the android advancing on the patrolman. The latter stood motionless, the gun hanging useless at his side.

"Drop! Drop!" Taber yelled. He cursed as he tried to angle in the narrow areaway in order to get a clear shot.

The android advanced with his knife raised. In desperation, Taber fired at the lethal fist that held the weapon. And he was lucky. The hand snapped open under the ripping impact of the bullet and the knife rang sharply against the wall as it ricocheted to the ground.

Only then, did the patrolman obey the order to drop. He went to one knee and Brent Taber fired three shots into the chest of the android.

He hesitated. There was only one slug left in the revolver. If the three didn't spot the android, he planned to wait for closer contact and put the sixth slug into the forehead.

The android shuddered. The fire and frenzy went out of him. He tried to lift a leg and was surprised when it didn't move. He looked down at it. Completely bemused, he peered down at his crimson chest. He looked up at Taber without anger, only with surprise. A distinct expression of wistful regret crossed his face as he sank to the ground.

The tenth android was dead.

The patrolman came shakily to his feet. His face was as pale as death. "I—I don't know what happened. Buck fever. Pure buck fever, and I've been on the force for ten years."

"Don't worry about it," Taber said.

"Don't worry. All of a sudden I freeze under pressure and he says, 'Don't worry.'"

"I meant it. This is no ordinary man. It wasn't buck fever at all. I couldn't have faced him myself if I hadn't rattled him with that lucky shot."

The patrolman wanted to believe. He most pathetically wanted to believe. "Honest?"

"It's the God's honest truth. No man could have stood in front of that killer and pulled a trigger. He's a master hypnotist. You're all right. We won't say a word about what happened in here. And you'll have no trouble in the future."

The patrolman shook his head. "Still, I gotta do something about it."

"Talk to your psychiatrist," Taber said. "In the meantime, keep that crowd out there from spilling in here."

Taber pushed out through the choked entrance to the areaway and went back up the street. It was alive with activity now and he passed unnoticed. No one recognized him as the man who had given chase in the bloody business that would make headlines that evening in every New York newspaper.

And yet the radio and TV news commentators gave it no special attention. It went in along with other items of the day's news as a more or less routine big-city happening.

One national-hookup headliner stated: "In New York City today, a man identified as John Dennis, address unknown, went berserk in a fashionable Upper East Side apartment. Dennis, wielding a knife, killed a man and a woman, and seriously wounded another man before he was cut down by police bullets.

"A jet airliner, down in the North Atlantic today, imperiled the lives of seventy-six ..."

* * * * *

Frank Corson lay propped on two pillows in a private room of the Park Hill Hospital. Rhoda Kane sat in a chair beside the bed. She was pale and very beautiful. The fire was now gone from her body and the fever from her eyes.

"They say he wasn't human. They say he was an android." She shuddered, looked down quickly, then slowly raised her head.

"Yes."

"I'll—I'll never understand. I get sick thinking about it. I'll just never understand."

"He was human and yet not human. He had extraordinary powers that we don't begin to understand, so that what happened to you is no disgrace."

"It's a terrible disgrace."

"It happened to me, too. When he told me to sit down I had to do it. I was helpless."

"But you fought! You overcame it."

Frank Corson smiled wryly. "No, I didn't. It was just that he'd had little time to work on me. It was a single mental blow, so to speak, that laid me out. Like one punch in the ring. Gradually, I came out of it."

"I think I tried to fight."

"Of course, you did. The disgrace was mine. I acted like a child. I should have realized that something extraordinary had happened. But I nursed my miserable little ego like a three-year-old."

"How could you know? My cruelty to you—"

"Don't talk like that! I knew about the ninth android, and I met the tenth one in front of your apartment that second morning. I should have associated. Brent Taber did, otherwise we might both be dead."

"It's all over now. It doesn't make any difference."

"No, it doesn't make any difference."

She looked at him in silence for several moments. "You've changed, Frank."

"Yes, I guess I have. I guess we all grow up eventually. We all face reality and live with it."

"Frank—I think I'm going to cry."

He could not turn his eyes in her direction. He looked straight ahead but his voice was soft. "Go ahead, Rhoda. I understand."

They were silent for a time, then Rhoda began to cry quietly into her handkerchief. After a while even that sound was stilled.

He turned to look at her. She was standing beside the bed. He almost reached out and took her hand, but drew his own back at the last minute.

"How soon will you be leaving?" she asked.

"The wound was superficial. I really didn't need to be hospitalized. I'm being released tomorrow morning. I'll probably leave immediately."

"You'll make a fine doctor, Frank."

"Thank you, I'll try."

"Good-bye, Frank."

"Good-bye—darling."

She turned and fled.

And judging by the deep sadness in his soul, he knew he had hit bottom.

There was no place to go but up.

* * * * *

Brent Taber's phone rang.

"Hello, Taber. Halliday here."

"How are you, Halliday."

"Tops, old man. Ragged by the stress of it all, of course, but tops."

Taber waited. Halliday waited. Seeing that he would get no help, he said, "By the way, that little ... misunderstanding we had, the Senator Crane thing, I'm sure you realized that our talk was ... well, the words were put into my mouth. I felt the same way about the oaf as you did. But sometimes, in the line of duty, old man ... well, I know you were reading between my lines all the time."

"I'm pretty good at that."

"I knew we understood each other."

"Is that what you called about?"

"Yes, but I've got a little tip for you. They want to see you upstairs. I happen to know they liked the way things turned out. Just between you and me, the humiliation of Crane made certain high officials pretty happy. I was queried and I gave you all the credit."

"Before or after the good Senator fell on his face?"

Halliday laughed. "Okay, pal. You're entitled to your little dig. But you know this—I'm with you and I always will be."

"And I'm with you, too, pal," Brent said wearily and hung up.

The phone rang again. Automatically, Brent picked up the receiver.

"Brent? Porter on this end. How is it with you, old man?"

"Ducky. Just ducky."

Porter laughed. "Just called to say, 'Good job well done.'"

"Thanks."

"Want to give you a little tip, too. They want you upstairs. A commendation. Not generally known, though. And you deserve it. You'll be called up tomorrow."

"You never know the day or the hour."

The laugh came again. "You're humor is priceless, old man."

"Isn't it?"

"Another thing—I got pretty hot when I got wind of how the ground was being cut out from under you. I made it my business to do something about it. I hate to see a good man pushed around. Of course I okayed the orders cutting you down—a matter of routine—I had to follow through. But then I got busy. A thing like that won't happen again."

"Thanks, Porter. It warms a man to know he's got a friend—a friend like you."

"Just between us, old man, I'm one of your admirers." Porter laughed and sprayed charm through the phone like perfume from an atomizer. "But if you quote me, I'll deny it."

"Oh, I wouldn't think of quoting you, old man," Taber replied in a kindly voice and put down the phone.

He sat back and closed his eyes. Three people dead. One person maimed. Blood in the streets.

Good job well done.

He opened a drawer of his desk and reached for the Scotch bottle.

* * * * *

At the Newark Airport he would not trust his suitcase to a porter because the leather loop holding one side of the handle was very thin and he was afraid it would break.

Once he had been ashamed of the shabbiness of the bag and had planned to buy a new one, but now there was an affinity between them, a kind of warmth.

Were they companions in misery?

He asked the question with a quick smile and then realized he was not miserable. A little bleak of mind, perhaps, with Minnesota and what lay ahead affording no glow of anticipation in his mind. But that would pass. No, he had relegated the hurt to a mental pigeonhole; maybe he would bring it out and look at it once in a while, after enough time had passed.

But he was not miserable.

He went to the counter, checked in, and they told him his plane would take off on time. He glanced at his watch. Thirty-two minutes.

He went back to the bench and found Rhoda Kane sitting beside his suitcase.

She wore a plain, black suit with a ridiculous little black hat and she was so beautiful he was angry with her. He hated her. This good-bye wasn't necessary. Why had she come?

Her face was pale and drawn; her smile was as abstract as the mystery on the lips of the Mona Lisa. She laid a hand on the suitcase.

"We had our first quarrel over it, remember? We went to Puerto Rico for that week and I wanted to use mine but you said, 'Goddamn it, if you're ashamed of my suitcase you're ashamed of me, so the hell with it.'"

"I remember."

He sat down beside her, lit a cigarette, and then dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. They both looked straight ahead.

"Take me with you, Frank."

"That's impossible."

"I know, but take me with you."

"There will be no money. I'll live in a stuffy room somewhere."

"What difference does that make? Take me."

"You have your job. You're on the way up. It would be unthinkable."

"I don't have any job. I quit. I was halfway through a piece of copy—very important copy—and I got up and walked into Mr. Frankel's office. I said, 'Mr. Frankel, it's been very nice working for you. I appreciate all you've done but I'm leaving now. The pencils are all sharpened on my desk and the next girl can have the new leather-bound address book in the lower right hand drawer that I bought but never used! That was a silly thing to say, wasn't it?"

"I suppose so."

"And the way I phrased it. I actually said I'd bought the lower right hand drawer and hadn't used it—take me with you, Frank."

"Rhoda, I was so wrong in—"

"I was wrong, Frank. I was trying to mold you into my way of life. I wanted you, but only as a part of my own eager little world. I had money so I furnished my apartment. I put this here and that there, and hung a toothbrush over the sink as necessarily functional, and then I decided I needed a man in the same way and so I picked you.

"But I found out that the man in the bed was the most important part of it and without him there wasn't anything. Without him I didn't want any of the other. Now ... I want to be a wife. A wife is a person who goes where her husband goes and lives where he lives and shares what he has. You don't barter and trade—this for that—give up this part to get that. You give up everything and yet it isn't like that at all because you're really getting everything."

He took out another cigarette.

"Oh, Frank, it's all mixed up and I'm going to cry, I think."

"It's not mixed up at all," he said quietly. He turned to look at her, half frowning, half smiling. "Now why in the hell couldn't you have given me a little notice? Twenty minutes to plane time and I've got to get another reservation."

"I'm sorry, Frank."

"Maybe there isn't a seat."

"Wouldn't that be terrible?"

"Then we'll have to wait over."

"Why don't you go and see?"

Five minutes later they were walking down the west tunnel to gate twenty-six.

Frank Corson grinned. "Come on, woman, I'm going to take you across state lines for immoral purposes."

"How wonderful," she breathed.

* * * * *

Brent Taber was human and his triumph had been a thing of satisfaction to him—but only momentarily. Now it had a slightly sour taste.

Not that he was unhappy. He was content and almost relaxed as he sat in Doctor Entman's patio and worked on a Scotch and soda.

"A nice night," Entman said.

"Beautiful. Those stars are about ready to fall into our laps."

"Menace out there? It seems unthinkable."

"Doesn't it?"

"The human animal is a strange creature. He's so capable of refusing to believe what he doesn't want to believe."

"Maybe he's smarter than we think. Maybe there's no point in looking at a pending disaster from every angle. The what-will-be-will-be attitude isn't necessarily like that of the ostrich which sticks its head in the sand."

"Do the people inside really believe?" Entman asked.

"It's pretty difficult to tell. Sometimes I wonder what my own real feelings are."

"I wasn't completely briefed on how it ended," Entman said delicately.

"I think the phony specifications got through."

"If they did—if things are really as they appear—"

Taber smiled in the darkness. "Are you beginning to doubt, Doctor?"

"Oh, be quiet," Entman said with friendly petulance. "I was going to say that I was rather proud of those details. If our hostiles out there follow my specifications, they'll create androids with much smaller lungs and non-porous skin that will give them no end of trouble when they start chasing frightened householders down the streets of the world."

Taber chuckled. "I remember a story about the Japanese Navy. They were supposed to have built some ships to specifications stolen in England. When launched, they slid out into the bay and tipped over."

Entman sighed. "I wish I could get some of the data those creatures used in the construction of the androids."

"You'd like to make one of your own?"

"It would solve the servant problem. Terrible here in Washington."

"Labor unions would holler bloody murder."

"You can't stop progress."

Suddenly Entman got to his feet. He walked to the edge of the patio and looked upward. Taber saw his face in the light streaming from the living room—he seemed frightened.

"Brent! It's such a helpless feeling. What do we do?"

Brent Taber got up and went over and stood beside Entman. He, too, looked up into the velvet night; the beautiful, quiet, impersonal night.

The sinister night.

"We watch the stars," Brent said. "And we wait."

THE END

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ENCOUNTER

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THE END

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