The Man Who Staked the Stars
by Charles Dye
Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse


"In armor plated tanks with heavy artillery?"


"No light and heavy cruisers. No marines?"

"Just you." Bryce was smiling at Pierce's mock astonishment. He knew that the kid didn't care in the slightest where Bryce led him as long as there was a fight at the end of it, and he left it to Bryce to choose the odds.

The odds might be even enough. Orillo himself, if he came with murder as his intention, would bring no helpers for witnesses, and he would expect Bryce to bring none. Or if he had hired assassins, he would not come himself, and they would not know who had hired them, but they would have been told to expect one man only.

* * * * *

The secrecy of any meeting in space is practically absolute. If there is one thing which space has plenty of, it's distance—distance enough to lose things in, distance enough to hide in, distance enough so that even if you know where something is by all the figures of its coordinates, if it's smaller than a planet you can't find it even when you are there. To put it crudely, what space has is space. And finding something that doesn't want to be found in space is like looking for a missing germ in the Atlantic.

He had the coordinates of the beacon he had chosen for his appointment point and the robot pilot took him to that area with automatic precision. But once there he had to cruise manually back and forth three times through the perpendicular plane of Earth's equator before picking up the radar pip of the buoy, which was set to broadcast its presence by a circular sweep of radar pulses on a flat plane corresponding to the Earth equatorial average.

He found it no later than expected, which was over an hour early, on the principle that he who arrives first finds no ambush.

He left Pierce with certain instructions and floated from the ship to the familiar globe that spun so placidly on the anchoring rod that attached it to the controlling buoy. The buoy was powered strongly enough to have controlled the orbits of fifty such globes without strain. Buoys of that type were just beginning to be popular in the Belt.

Once inside he opened his faceplate, looking around with the same pleasure he always felt on his visits here. It was like being back at the Belt for a time. After the raw harshness of the moon and the artificial luxuries of its cities, after the agoraphobic vastness of Earth's giant surface, to be within this little close-knit familiar world was soothing and relaxing. It was a green glade of leaves and branches, greenness underfoot and overhead, a brown metal cliff with vines and a door to his left, a larger brown metal cliff like the round head of a barrel with doors in it to his right, and a circular silver door in the center. Behind the small right hand cliff was the small amount of regulating machinery required, behind the doors of the larger cliff was a small kitchen, and convertible study-bedrooms. Behind the silver door was a corridor leading to the airlock and space. It was forty feet from cliff to cliff, and from the growing greenery underfoot to the growing greenery overhead, as spacious as a wide glade in the woods of Earth.

He picked his way among the vines and shrubs to a carpetlike patch of green moss and sat down comfortably to wait. Pierce had drawn the ship off beyond detector range by now, and it would seem to any ship approaching that he had not yet arrived.

It was peaceful there, no breeze stirred the leaves. Twenty feet above, fixed in the air on clear spokes of lucite, the crystal globe that was the sun for this small world gave forth its warming flood of light, sunlight borrowed from the sunlight outside and led in on the lucite spokes.

He had an interest in its manufacture, and had anchored his globe here as a commercial sample of a spaceglobe for the viewing of likely settlers. It was slightly better and more compact, since it was a newer model, contained in an ovoid hull that was only forty-six by sixty-six feet, but in essence it was like any of the farms and homes of the asteroid belt, and there was nothing like it on any planet in the universe.


Behind the silver door a bell rang suddenly. A spaceship was approaching.

It was still early. They would see the globe alone and assume that Bryce had not yet arrived. The spaceship itself might be armed illegally, but those within would not blast the globe without checking its interior. Bryce glanced up at the silver door in the cliff and arranged his position so as to be lounging on one elbow, with his gun hand lying relaxed under a thin curtain of leaves. The magnomatic was pointing up towards the corridor door.

There were a few tall bushes between the base of the cliff and himself, but the silver central door was five feet up a flight of steps and in clear view.

Four flights of steps radiated away from the circular door to the hull, like spokes from an axle, all of them leading "down" to the inside surface of the globe. As he waited he heard the faint clang of magnetic soles hitting the metal of the airlock, and then the door chimes that announced that the airlock was being used. Someone was coming in.

He could follow their actions in his mind, timing them. Now they would be floating in the vestibule, facing a circular wall with a door, the wall spinning silently and rapidly, and the door in its center turning slowly end over end. The door marked the axis of rotation. There was a turning bar with handles running through the center of the airlock. They would float up to that and grip it to pick up spin, until the vestibule seemed to be rotating around them and only the circular wall and the central door seemed to be steady. Beyond it would be the corridor, and then the silver door.

The door in the cliff dilated silently. Two spacesuited men stood in it.

It was incredible that he had let them come in without seeing the door open. In the first split second he saw that neither of them was Orillo. In the second instant he saw that no weapons were visible, but that one stood slightly behind the other and his right arm was hidden.

They had happened to come to the entrance at an angle to his orientation, almost at right angles, and they would be confused for a moment, before they identified his shape, for to their orientation if they used Earth-thought for it, he would seem to be leaning head downward on an almost vertical slope. He took advantage of the lag to move his gun under its curtain of leaves and get the sights lined on them.

They swung their eyes around the circle and saw him. "Mister Carter?" asked the foremost one. Their faceplates were still closed, and their voices slightly distorted by transmission through the helmet speaker, but he could hear a note of surprise. As the first one spoke the second one moved his hidden arm slightly, as if he were holding something.

Bryce did not tighten his finger on the trigger. These could be mere innocent sight-seers. The position of his head, almost upside down relative to theirs, was probably confusing them, though almost certainly they had studied trimensional photographs of him. At any rate they probably were aware that they were standing like targets in the corridor doorway and would be in no mood to postpone action.

"Take off your helmets, gentlemen, make yourselves at home." It was a partial admission that he was the man they wanted, but not certain enough for a decision. He saw the shoulder-twitch that meant that the second one's hidden hand jerked in a moment of uncertainty, and he thought he saw something glitter under the first one's arm—the old trick of shooting from under a friend's screening arm....

"Mr. Bryce Carter?" the foremost one was asking again.

Bryce smiled. "No, Pierce," he said. He had turned on the two-way speaker and tuned it to the ship as he came in.

Immediately the voice came in the corridor behind them. "Stand still. You're covered."

There was no chance that anyone could genuinely be behind them, but the rear one whirled and snapped a startled shot into the darkened corridor, and the other leaped sidewise down from the doorway, drawing his gun with blurred speed, and leveling on Bryce as his feet left contact with the sill. He was falling slowly, almost floating, and it should have been an easy shot, except for something he had obviously forgotten, or he never would have leaped.

Bryce disregarded him as a danger, and threw three shots at the other, who still stood startled and off balance in the corridor, firing three with his inexperienced right hand to make sure of placing even one. The figure dropped out of sight in the corridor.

* * * * *

In the flick of time that Bryce's eyes had been away from the falling one, the path of the man's leap had begun to curve strangely, until now he seemed to be floating in a curve, flying sidewise and upward, faster and faster as he approached the hull. The rule of conservation of momentum was having its way. To the man's dizzied eyes, as he tried to keep Bryce within his sights long enough to fire, it must have seemed that the ground began inexplicably to turn and slide by, that suddenly the whole shell was turning around him like a big wheel, carrying his target up the wall and over his head.

He was almost to the sliding ground when a bush caught at his feet and yanked them from under him with a crackling of branches, and the bottom tread of a flight of stairs swung at his head like a gigantic club. Among the sudden splintering of branches and snapping of vines was a crunching thud which sounded final.

To anyone within a globe, it did not ordinarily appear to be spinning, the only sign it was, was the comfortable pseudo-gravity for anyone standing on hull level. But to those who approached the ground from the lighter G corridor, the stairs were necessary—stairs whose treads were oddly dipped in the middle in a shallow U. By bracing against one side of the U coming down, and on the other going up, one invisibly picked up enough speed to match the speed of the ground level. Jumping was the equivalent of jumping out of a moving car at forty feet a second, the sixteen feet a second, half of the corridor plus an extra thirty feet a second spin, the side slip speed of an eighteen foot drop where it had looked like five.

It was probably these added extra distances in the air, Bryce decided, that sometimes made the bird flights look so bewilderingly variable in speed and direction. He had not thought before how difficult it would be to plot a straight course from one side of the globe to the other.

He waited for a sign of motion, his magnomatic ready, looking up at the gunman lying overhead, forty feet away on the other side of the globe. The limp figure was unmoving, it looked badly tangled in vines, and its gun was gone. There was no need to shoot, but he wondered suddenly, if he had, what kind of a curve would the bullet have followed?

There was no sound from the other, but Bryce hesitated to climb the stairs and put his head above floor level of the corridor. A voice might give the other direction for a snap shot if that was what he was waiting for. Bryce chanced speaking.

"I've got this one, Pierce. How's the other?"

The televiewer in the entrance hall replied, "Lying on his back with his gun five feet away. You all right?"

"Yes." Bryce walked around the circumference of the globe and searched in the vines for the missing weapon of number one. The body in the spacesuit nearby was quite definitely a corpse. He saw the gun glittering a little further on and picked it up, wiping off leaf pulp on a clean patch of moss. It was a heavy duty police pacifier, a distance stunner, adjusted to a narrow beam.

He climbed to the corridor and collected the other weapon. It was a police pacifier too. They had not meant direct murder then, but only to stun him and deliver him to Orillo, C. O. D.

"How are you doing with their ship?" Bryce asked, "Is it armed?" Armament for spaceships was illegal, and careful official inspection made it rare.

"I didn't wait to see," Pierce's voice came apologetically after a pause in which some background noise sounding like a crash came over the televiewer speaker. "It started swinging around when I came in sight, so I just rammed it with that pretty ornamental nose spike. I'm backing off now with the forward braking jets."

"Then whoever's inside is probably either spacefrozen or cooked. Jockey that ship around on the spike and give her a four minute shove toward Earth, then push that button that collapses the ornamental vanes on the spike and let it pull loose when you start braking. I don't want any ship hulks floating around here."

"Aye-aye, Cap."

"Go slow on those braking jets when you pull loose. The back wash could touch your hull."

Pierce returned and came in to help Bryce drag the corpses through the airlock and into space.

They braced against the silver curve of the floating spaceship and gave the body a combined strong shove towards Earth. Spinning slowly end over end it dwindled into a dark speck against the glowing orb of Earth, destined to be a meteorite and make a small bright streak in the Earth sky several days later.

When the tubes conk out, the fuel runs down, The cold creeps in to where I lie.

Pierce was reciting as they went back into the globe for the second corpse.

I'll take the meteor's trail—go home to Earth And make a Viking's funeral in the sky.

"This is too easy," Bryce complained as they watched the second corpse fade from sight. "The trouble is, in space all corpses are delicti. It's an incentive. Launch your enemies."

"Gaucho country did all right under that system," Pierce said somberly, "and so did the American frontier." He floated motionless, a spacesuited figure turned toward the gray-green misted globe of Earth that shone against the black star-sprinkled sky as if he could have reached out and touched it. The sun caught the planet on its day hemisphere and reflected brilliantly from a shadowy blue glaze of water that was the Mediterranean, turning half of it to white fire.

Bryce's earphones picked up Pierce's voice again. "Frontier-born nations always look back and say that the first years were the best."

The words caught at something Bryce had felt before. He looked at Earth hanging splendidly in space. It was beautiful and he was fond of it, but—He said, "I don't think we'll ever go back." Nor would mankind itself. Never again—through all conquests from this point in time—would mankind go back down into the mesh of gravity to be a thin film over the surface of a planet.

"Give old Earth a smile, Bryce, we've hatched."

For a moment longer Bryce hung, watching Earth turning below. The management of UT was down there. He'd be damned if he'd let them get away with thinking they could tell him what to do, or tell the Belt where a line should be extended and a colony planted. The belt was his country, not theirs. Space belonged to the people who lived in it.

"No taxation without representation," Pierce said irrelevantly, as if he had been reading Bryce's thoughts. They jetted back to the ship and into the spacelock.

"Frontier country—" Bryce said as he stepped into the cubical of the revolving door. Gently tightening elastic bands drew him into position within the man-shaped mold. "What's a frontier on your terms, Roy?" When he was in place the other half of the rubbery, air-excluding mold closed on him and the airtight cylinder rotated, delivering him into the interior of the ship. He pushed the button impatiently to have it revolve back for Pierce, but it remained obstinately open, its servo refusing to close on a mold full of air and rotate air back for release into space.

Bryce remembered then. This was something he didn't have to bother with when he flew alone, for when going in or out he was always in the door when it rotated; it never turned empty. Beside the door on a hook hung an inflated pressure suit, complete with gloves, boots, and helmet. Except for the absence of any sign of a head or face inside the dark translucence of the helmet it looked like a full-sized man. Bryce reached it down and placed it in the mold, and watched grinning as the mold closed and the door rotated, delivering the man-form to an equivalent hook in the spacelock. The doll was known by all spacemen as Hector Dimwitty, and every ship had one or two. There were a thousand yarns and jokes circulating about the adventures of the Hectors, most of them lewd, and a few of them true.

Pierce's answer was in his earphones, "A frontier is where people go when they are young, broke, or have the cops after them."

"Right. Suppose I stake the broke, and loan them transport, and offer the fugitives unregistered safety to receive mail and to buy supplies?"

"You do that?" Pierce stepped out of the door and they took off their helmets.

"Yes, when I am my own man, not working for UT."

"If you do that, you bring in ten times as many of the broke who wanted to settle there, and—" Pierce took a long jump in understanding, saying softly, "They're dependent on you. Handcuffed to you and praying for your health and prosperity as long as you hold their loans and secrets, for with your death or bankruptcy, another man might come to your books to read the records of your loans, and demand payment, and give the secrets to the police or keep them for his blackmail. But to do it is to take a risk of murder or arrest, and a high cost in hard work and money. Why do you want to do this? What payment do you take?"

"They pay by being my men, grateful and ready to back me up when I want help later. They don't have to be grateful, for they know I can call any loan if the owner crosses me, and I've built a reputation for an occasional fit of irrational temper that is threat enough for anyone to avoid crossing me, without feeling that I have wanted to threaten or force them. As for the fugitives they pay enough by wanting the Belt to be organized as a nation independent of Earth, so that the hand of the law can't stretch out and drag them back, and they can become wealthy in open business, in the million chances for wealth that lie around them in the Belt. They don't know that they want this yet, but they will see it when it is told to them. I can't do any of this now—it's suspended for as long as I am part of UT and have to drag the dead weight of ten Earth-tied conservatives with me in every decision."


He stopped to set in the coordinates of the Moon for the robot pilot, but he found himself still wanting to talk. "Man has reached space—do you think he'll ever go back to the ground? In space he has gravity only when he wants it, and any weight of gravity he likes, depending on how fast he spins his house. And no gravity when he wants that. You see what that means to engineers in the advantage of building things? No weight in transportation, no weight in travel, limitless speed and almost no cost as long as he stays away from planet pulls. His house is in the sky, and when he steps out of it he can fly like a bird. And food. To grow food there is sunlight Earth never dreamed of. For heat and power there is sunlight to focus. Space is flooded with heat, irradiated with power—

"It's not child's play taming it, and those on the ground don't see it yet. But the next step of mankind is out into space, and it's never coming back."

Pierce, sitting in one of the shock tank armchairs, asked, "What part do you have in this?"

Bryce looked at him with a feeling almost of surprise, as if he had been called back from a long distance. "Me?" he laughed, a little awed by the immensity of the goal, and the ease of it.... "First President of the Belt and political boss for life. That's enough."

Enough to hold the solar system in the palm of his hand, if he chose. He who rules space, rules the planets. It was the first time he had ever mentioned his goal to anyone.

Roy Pierce asked, "What do I do about this 'friend' of yours who lays traps?"

The last attack had settled the question of who was behind the other attacks, and who had told Beldman, but Orillo would still be a useful pawn. All that was necessary was to evade his attempts at murder for a month or so until partnership tied them too close for murder.

Bryce explained some of that to Pierce, setting up a chess board to pass away the time until they arrived back at Moonbase City.

"What's my next assignment?" Pierce asked, when they were several moves into the game.

Bryce recalled a danger he had made no move to guard against. "The Board hired a psychologist, a mind hunter, to find out who's doing the undermining. He's one of the Manoba group. Remember the name, look it up and find out what their methods are, how to recognize them, and report back what to do about it."

"I'll take care of him," Roy Pierce said absently, moving his knight to threaten Bryce's bishop.

"No unnecessary trouble. Remember I have to keep my name clean." Bryce moved a pawn one step to cover the bishop and leave room for his other bishop to menace the knight.

"I'll be careful. There'll be no publicity. He won't get hurt," Pierce said, moving the knight into Bryce's second line where it threatened the king and a cornered castle. "Check." And he added, as if apologizing for having delayed his move, "I don't like to move until I'm sure what's going on."

The remark didn't seem to be suited to the game, as if he had referred to something else.

* * * * *

It was during dinner on the Moon that he and Pierce loosened up for the first time since the ambush. Pierce had been comparatively silent since the chess game on the trip back and Bryce too, whether in sympathy with him or in a naturally parallel mood, had little to say. But now the tension had diffused and, with the stimulus of aromatic food, they climbed out of their depression of emotional solemnity.

The decorations of the dining room were lush. While they ate, the materialism of their lives was reinforced. From silvered-and-tapestried wall to wall there was life here, low-keyed with excitement in the blend of subdued talk and the shifting artistry of lights and music. Their table was almost in the center of the islands of tables and potted trees, and around them were the diners, their voices washing up at them both, inviting them with gentle tugs to surrender their resistance, beckoning them into the sea of simple pleasures.

"We owe ourselves some fun, Bryce."

At Pierce's words, Bryce sharpened his eyes on the face across the table. There was a touch of seriousness in those words; more like a statement than a suggestion.

Pierce smiled wryly and took a vial out of his pocket and poured it into his drink. He spun the empty bottle between thumb and fingers.

"We owe ourselves some fun," Pierce repeated. "We've nothing on the fire tonight, nothing to do that's crucial. It's a good night to experiment."

The warm voice waves lapping at Bryce's mind suddenly receded and left a chill. With instinctive wariness he thought of hypnotics and single-shot addictors.

Pierce couldn't have missed the emotionless freeze on the other's face. Still twirling the vial casually, he began to explain. It was a new drug, he said, found being used by a tribe in Central Africa. "I've heard of it for some time and what you mentioned a little while back reminded me of it."

Bryce caught the hidden reference. Central Africa—and the Manoba group. So Pierce had not dismissed the mind hunter from his thoughts as a problem to be easily dealt with.

"It's still in the testing stage," Pierce added. "But some of it is circulating among medical students. The tests have interesting effects. And, as I say, tonight's a good night to experiment, it's called B'nyab i'io."

The chill in Bryce's head and spine was thawing out. "You're not conning me?" He said it with a grin, but there was an edge to the question which demanded an answer.

Pierce gave it to him, for a brief moment deadly serious. "You couldn't get addicted if you swam in it."

Bryce believed him. He stared at the glass. "What does it do to the I.Q.? We've got to collect some information here and there this evening. I want to be able to read and talk." He smiled crookedly. "No worse than usual, that is."

"Either raises the I.Q. or leaves it alone."

"What's the effect?"

"It affects different people different ways. After hearing the reports I'd like to see how it hits us." Pierce pushed it towards him, grinning. "Leave half for me."

Bryce's wary thoughts touched poison and immunity and murder, but inwardly he began to scoff at his own habits of suspicion. However, before he could reach for the glass, Pierce had given a short snort as though in recognition of his presumptuousness and drank his own share first.

Then Bryce raised the cold glass to his lips.

As he put it down he could feel the change beginning to spread through his blood, warming and relaxing, bringing closer the memories of pleasure and good times. The restaurant was now completely seductive, with the surf of voices pleasant in his ears, calling to him to join the world and its offers of uncomplicated pleasures. He felt himself blending with the ethereal background mixture of light and sound.

"I like this," he decided.

"We should take notes." Pierce was smiling as he stuffed the empty vial back in his pocket.

* * * * *

The next day Bryce looked back on that evening with pleasure. Everyone had been remarkably pleasant, friendly and considerate, and Pierce had always had the right friendly word and gesture to reward them, speaking for Bryce, knowing his way around the cities of the Moon to the right places for the information they sought, always speaking for Bryce Carter, his employer, getting him the things he wanted, giving the orders he wanted to give before Bryce had even fully realized that he wanted them. Bryce had needed to say nothing the whole time except "Right. That's it," and everything went as he wanted it.

"A perfect left hand man," he smiled, stretching, and turned the polarization dial to let in the sunlight.

The telephone rang. He picked it up and the desk clerk said in a deferentially hushed voice, "Eight o'clock, Mister Carter."

For some reason the hushed voice struck him as funny. "Thanks, I'm up." He hung up and stretched again. It was soothing to have someone solicitous that he arose on time, if only a hotel. The hotel had given him a lot of good service. He felt suddenly grateful for all the pleasures and luxuries and small services they surrounded him with. It was a good place. He was feeling good that morning. Maybe because the sun was so bright....

He liked the look of the people passing in the lobby as Pierce joined him, and he liked the look of the passengers in the tube trains on the way to the office. They all looked more friendly. And as he pushed through the second glass door into his offices he liked the clean shine of the glass and the rich blended colors and soft rugs and gray textured desks and the soft efficient hum of work in progress.

Bryce usually passed Kesby's office with a businesslike nod, but Pierce smiled in, stopping for an instant with Bryce. "Good morning, Kesby. We're glad to see you." It was true enough and expressed what he felt.

Bryce exchanged a grin with Kesby at the boy's insolence and then went on into his office.

It was a good day.

It was a good day for what he had to do.

In the luxury of his inner office he sank into the deepest, softest chair, letting his cousin-from-Montehedo sort the mail, agreeing with the boy's suggestions for action or sometimes issuing his own instructions, keeping only half his mind on the routine day's business, relying on Pierce, and concentrating the other half on the deed to be done. The plan was set in his mind but he had changes to make.

He was barely conscious of the time slipping by as he lay, rarely moving, in his chair, while Pierce worked at top speed.

By one o'clock the deck was cleared for action.

Bryce stood up, stretched, and checked his watch again. It was 1304 hours. A telephone call was scheduled in about another hour, and five more successively about a half hour apart.

"Order us some lunch, Pierce, before I lift the drawbridge."

The food came in as he was instructing his staff to leave them undisturbed for the rest of the afternoon.

By the time they had finished eating, their isolation was complete. The office was a command post now, with only the slender, unattended telephone wires connecting them with the outside worlds.

Bryce moved over behind his desk. He drew the telephone toward him and dialed a number. Somewhere, in the locked safe, the phone rang.

From the case he took a toy dial phone. Pierce's eyes were on it, his eyebrows lifted quizzically, but Bryce offered no explanation. The boy was due for a series of surprises. And when it was over, he would know everything without any explanations, and too late to interfere.

"Hi Al," Bryce said to the recorded "Yeah?" at the other end. He dialed a number on the toy dial, the one receiver against the other's back. After the usual ritual, Bryce said, "Hello George, how's everything going?"

This is it, Bryce thought. This was the first part of the final blow to UT. And the only instrument he needed in his delightfully simple method was a telephone. Originally he had planned six brief warning calls to the six key numbers of the ground organization. He would tell them to refuse to take anything from the hands of the UT branch, and break contact with them immediately after accepting cash for miscellaneous items. That would set the stage.

The police trap would close on all members of the UT branch of the organization while they were encumbered with a maximum of incriminating objects to dispose of in too little time. Then would come his anonymous tip to the police. He'd inform them that certain employees of UT in a few listed cities would be found to be smuggling in large quantities of drugs. The thing would be so simple. And the whole works would blow up with the efficiency of the calculated explosion of nuclear reaction.

That had been his original plan.

But things would be different now. The morning in the easy chair had changed his approach. The newer, more elaborate program, still remarkably simple, would bring down the whole structure within UT without the help of the police, but by himself alone, planning it, initiating it, executing it with no one's help. Not even Pierce's.

He heard himself saying:

"This is 'Hello George.' Listen to me and don't interrupt.

"Somebody has talked. I've been betrayed myself. Get that? Hello George is washed up. Right now the cops are tapping this line. It doesn't make any difference to me, now. But it does to you. This is an open warning from Hello George to you. Spread the word. I'll keep making calls until they break in on me and cut this line.

"Meanwhile, spread the word. Break connections with me and the whole organization. Get out of range before the trap closes. But pass on this warning first.

"I'll hold out against questioning a short time. The police will get me eventually, of course. And when they do they'll pump me dry. They'll get names and addresses. The whole works will get grabbed, unless you move fast. Spread the word."

Bryce paused and winked at Pierce who was standing at his elbow, "Any questions? Yes, I'm sure. Of course I'm sure. Any other questions? Good luck, Okay."

He hung up.

As Caesar once said, the dice were rolling.

Pierce, beside him through it all, simply stood there, his eyes wide and his face sharp with curiosity and incredulity, his body twitching now and then from the infection of the excitement which rippled over the room. That excitement had been there, though Bryce had not permitted himself to indulge in it in any visible way. He had showed Pierce a new facet to his operations, one which Pierce could not anticipate immediately, one in which only he, Bryce, could make the snap decisions and evaluate the immediate responses demanded of him.

That was with the first call.

* * * * *

With the second one Pierce began to contribute, rising to the occasion as he had so often and quickly done in the past. He began pacing up and down between calls, smoking furiously and laughing under his breath.

"Tell 'em the police are breaking down the door," he suggested during the third call. "Say you're hypnoed to hold out against questioning five days at the most, two hours more likely."

His suggestions were a howl. Bryce repeated them into the phone with counterfeit desperation and was rewarded by the sounds of panic at the other end. He and Pierce chortled over the frantic queries and exclamations from the victim. The whole thing, succinct and pointed and with the dramatic power of simplicity, was one super practical joke which would set the entire solar system scurrying around for the next few weeks.

The ramifications would be endless. Persons would vanish abruptly and take up new names and identities in the obscure countries, others would draw out their heavy savings and take the first rocket out from Earth. There would be a new influx of refugees to the Belt, new settlers to be honest farmers and factory workers and repair men.

Yes, the situation was dramatic.

The day was a good day.

But as Bryce hung up on the last call, a depressing sense of calamity, unsettlingly anti-climatic, began to press down on him. Pierce was talking about plans for the next week with an enthusiasm which should have been completely contagious.

But there was something wrong. There was something wrong.

What was it?

Bryce felt Pierce's enthusiasm catch at him and start to sweep him away. He savored the pleased glow produced by the shattering changes he had managed to cram into one day. With six telephone calls he had broken the drug ring completely and forever, broken it so completely that no member of it would ever have dealings with any member of it again. All of them were out of business, fleeing with the imaginary hounds of the law baying at their heels.

He smiled at the thought.

And then his smile faded for some strange reason and he ceased listening to Pierce for a moment, looked away and ceased listening, for hearing Pierce just then distracted oddly from the clarity of his thinking. He wanted to review what he had just done.

What was wrong?


He struggled with a mounting confusion, the desk top and telephones blurring as he tried to concentrate with desperate effort.

Unexpectedly the question sprang into focus. It was as if the room turned inside out, the day turned upside down.

He had smashed himself—not UT!


Why had he made those calls—changed his plans—and made those calls?

With the most perfect and terrible clarity he saw the results of what he had done. The organization destroyed. The contacts he had made fifteen years ago as an anonymous young dock hand, contacts that as Bryce Carter he could never make again—vanishing—merging with the great mass of the public—becoming gray unknown figures. The building of years melting like a sugar castle melts into the tide—the invisible army that had obeyed his sourceless voice without being able to blackmail or rebel, the perfectly balanced tool in his hands that could be used for the bribing of venal politicians, with a limitless fund for the bribery, the growing secret control of the most venal of the political machines of Earth, that by the time he needed it it would have been an irresistible weapon in his hand for the single swift political blow that would rip the Belt from Earth control, and give it a seat on the Assembly of the Federated Nations, and mastery of the solar system—

But as he sat there the organization dissolved.

He grasped the phone, but there was nobody to call now, no one would answer. He could never reach them again.

This was sanity now, but what had it been before when he was cheerfully destroying his future? It seemed to him that there were two halves to his brain, each wanting different things. For a moment the one that had controlled the day was gone, and he was sane again, but how long would that moment last? What sign had there been when it took control? Would he know it when it came again?

He remembered that in the tube train that morning he and Pierce had had a half joking argument about the best short-and-merry life. One of the happy ones on the list had been the INC agent, because they spent so much of their lives working into smuggling gangs that they had all the pleasures and profits of being a crook and an honest man too. Was that where he had slipped his cog?

Looking back on the things he had done that day he saw that much of it had fitted an abstract pattern of justice, as if he had been thinking of himself as an INC man. Or as if—

He thought of the things he had seen in his childhood that they had called zombies, and jeered at and tormented without fear of any retaliation or vengeance from their gray-faced victims. Imprisoned men—they looked normal—but they had been mentally imprisoned. Law-zombies, memorizing and following laws and being honest with a simple and terrifying literalness.

He had not known that he had any capacity for terror.

Bryce Carter. He had his name, his identity and his memory, and they were his own. Sometimes he had had nothing else, only the pride and strength of knowing his identity, that it was his and stronger than others, just as his hands were stronger, a thing they couldn't take from him.

Could they? There was a nightmare he had had more than once, that he remembered suddenly for the first time, with all its atmosphere of childish strangeness. The cop psychos were after him. He was trapped in a big room with lights and they had his head open and were chasing him around inside his head somehow, trying to catch him, and kill him, the him that lived in his mind.

Would he know if it was gone?

The black sharp-edged shadows of the crater walls were drawing across the landing plain outside, bringing to a close the two weeks of daylight, and the reflected sunlight was dimming in the room. He could hear the rumble of a heavy ship of a cargo fleet lowering in to a landing.

His assistant was sitting quietly on the edge of the desk as he had been for some time, motionlessly watching the thin plume of smoke that rose from a cigarette in his hand. He was as still as if he were listening for some subtle sound far away. Rocket jets flashed an orange glow through the venetian blinds and fell in stripes of orange light across the dark young face. The brief rumble of a rocket take-off came, transmitted through the ground and the building. Smoke curling up from the cigarette was the only motion.

"Roy, is Pierce your real name?"

The light flashed and faded in bars of orange across the young face he had thought was like his own, the boy he had thought had come from Pop Yak. The quick deep rumble of sound came and faded in the walls around them. A fleeting smile touched the face, and the dark eyes rested on his for a moment as Roy Pierce gave the information casually as if it were any other information, answering the question that had been meant. "It is my mother's name. We always take our mother's names. I am a Manoba—a Manoba of Jaracho."


Looking into Bryce's face he slid to his feet slowly, ground out the stub of his cigarette and stood before the desk.

Bryce took out his gun and held it where Pierce could see it. "Are Manobas ever shot?" It was a heavy little gun, his maggy, its barrel sleek and rounded, the heavy metal warm from being worn close to the skin.

"Sometimes. It's a natural enough reaction."

It was a spaceworthy gun with adjustable velocity for driving through padded suits and pressure suits. The velocity was set high, but it would be inartistic to blow a large hole through a psychotherapist. Bryce turned the dial down slowly, watching him.

"Do the professional ethics of privacy and non-publicity cover this kind of situation?"

Pierce was smiling slightly with a touch of bitter humor. "It's undiplomatic to tell you that, but yes, the contingency is covered. There is nothing to connect myself with you as a case in any records, nor anything to identify me as a member of the Manoba group contracted by your company. The ethic of privacy is allowed to have no exceptions for the family's record."

A cool curiosity held him. "Tell me—when you saw that I was beginning to think, why didn't you just needle me down for a short nap and leave?"

The smile remained. "I am supposed to control the shock of realization, and make sure that it is assimilated without damage to the subject." His dark expressionless eyes met Bryce's, and Bryce felt the impact of them, and realized for the first time that there was the same slight bitter off-hand smile on his own lips, and inwardly the quiet ironical mood with the still clarity of a deep pool. His own mood? He hefted the gun in his hand, feeling its weight and balance. "You could have done that over the televiewer," he pointed out dispassionately. "What is the average mortality, do you know?"

"Not high. It is only inexperience that is dangerous. If one can get through one's first three or four cases, it's safe enough."

Looking back over the past days it was quite clear that Pierce had control over his emotions. Any emotion Pierce chose him to feel he would feel. It remained to be seen how much that could influence what he was going to do. The dark-skinned young man stood before the desk casually and answered questions with a slight restrained smile that set the wry irony of both their minds.

A man does what he wants. That is freedom, but what he wanted could be controlled apparently. A man is what he wants. But what he wanted could be changed. How easy had it been to change him. Bryce tried himself with a thought of the power and glory of rule, the reign and mastery of space—a goal that had warmed his thoughts for many years.

He didn't want it.

There was a numbness where there should have been emotion, and all he could feel for his loss was the resignation and the faint bitter humor permitted him by Pierce's smile. Watching that smile he shifted the heavy little gun in his hand, turning it over casually, feeling its familiar weight and the texture of its surfaces.

He spoke gently. "If you don't mind my asking, have you passed through your first three cases yet?"

"You are my first," said Roy Pierce, whom he had trusted. "I'm afraid I was clumsy."

"Oh—you did all right." Bryce shot him then, placing the bullet carefully in the pit of his stomach where it would hurt. That was for doing well. For justice. No man has the right to meddle in another man's mind.

Pierce had been starting to speak. He swayed back a half step with a flicker of change crossing his face then stood steady and smiling again. That brief grimace touched Bryce's nerves with a sensation that was like the jangle of something heavy dropped inside a piano, a sound he had heard once. But the numbness did not lift from his feelings. He was still smiling. The third bullet would be between the eyes.

The words were low and rapid but clear.

Bryce did not listen. "This is for doing a good job," he said, overriding the other voice with his own, and pulled the trigger again, placing the slug slightly lower this time, in the belly, where if it entangled in one of the spinal plexus it could hurt past belief. Pierce swayed slightly. His face went to the clay-blue color that comes to dark-skinned races when they pale. Bleeding inside somewhere, and already dead unless he were given help, Bryce figured.

For a moment Bryce saw something like effort in the dark unreadable eyes. Then suddenly Pierce smiled, his young face disarmingly innocent and merry. "Oh, come on, Bryce, it's not that serious. Be a good sport. You don't want to—"

Suddenly Bryce saw the situation as the sheerest humor, a sort of lunatic farce for the laughter of some cosmic joker. He swung the gunsights up towards the smiling face. Amusement bubbled in his blood and he heard himself laugh—heard it with a grim secondary amusement.

"The joke's on you," he said, and pulled the trigger, then laughed again. The joke was on him.

He had missed. He had missed at a distance of three feet. Yet his hand was rock-steady. Pierce's control had him. His laughter stopped as the humor in Pierce's attitude faded down again to the small wry smile that had been there from the beginning.

Bryce had not lost. He had only to wait a little and he had won. Unless Pierce could use his control to force him to call help. He set himself to resist and not to listen. There was not long to go. The expressionless dark eyes that held his were beginning to widen slightly in an effort of sight that meant that a private darkness was closing in on the psychotherapist. The rumble of distant rockets seemed louder, covering his fading voice. "It's your choice, Bryce. I give it to you. You won't want this later—Bryce—but don't—hunger to undo. It is payment enough for all—times like this—that you change—and do not—want—them any—again—" Pierce pulled in a strangling breath, swaying more visibly. "Gun," he whispered, reaching out in Bryce's direction, his eyes going sightless.

Bryce handed him the magnomatic, and watched as Pierce fumbled his hands over it, putting his prints on it blindly, his knees bending.

When he fell, Bryce picked up the phone and called Emergency. The emergency squad would be cruising around in the halls somewhere nearby, looking for the source of the three radio notes that had told them that a gun was fired.

* * * * *

"That was the last I saw of him," the young man stopped talking and looked pleased with himself.

Donahue drained his drink irritably and put it on the bar that had been set up on the ceiling when the Gs went off. It clung magnetically. "Make it the same, please." He turned to Roy Pierce, floating beside him. "Stop needling me, man, finish the story. The way you tell it, I don't know what you did, how you did it, or even whether you died or not."

"Oh, I died," said Roy Pierce. "But they revived me," he added.

"Good! I'm glad to hear that!" said Donahue more cheerfully, wondering suddenly just how extensively he was being kidded. "For a moment there you had me worried. Now explain about this treatment."

"It's called soul eating," explained the dark-skinned, straight-haired boy, "I don't think you could do it."

Donahue thought that information over carefully. "Maybe not. How's it done?"

"In the tribes of my people the soul is supposed to be an invisible double who walks at your side, protecting you and speaking silently to your mind. Its face is the face that looks out of mirrors and up from pools at you, and the shadow that walks on the ground beside you. Evildoers, after they had spoken to a Manoba, would say that their reflections were gone. Our family was called The Eaters of Souls, and all the tribes were afraid of us for nine hundred miles around."

"So am I," said Donahue compactly. "As my Yiddish grandmother on my mother's side would say, it sounds from werewolves."

"I can explain it."

"No magic?"

"Look," said the youth tersely, "Do I want to get kicked out of the FNMA? What if I had sat in a jungle circle loaded to the ears with herbs and spells, with the drums of my cousins throbbing around me, and learned the best and subtlest ways of my technique back in time looking through the eyes of my great grandfather, or conversing with his ghost. Do you think I would say so?"

"No," Donahue admitted. He edged away a little.

The youth spoke gloomily. "Rapport and intensified empathy is something you learn by exposing yourself to mirrors. The technique is published, known and accepted among psychologists, but most of them just don't try. It backfires too easily, and it takes too high a level of skill. It originated with my family." The youth spoke even more gloomily. "What I do is obvious enough if I make it so. It's simply prior mimicry. I watch the trend of what goes on in his thoughts, and express approximately what he is feeling and thinking a little before he does. So that presently, subconsciously he is depending on me to tell him what he thinks and how he feels.

"I was his mirror, his prior mirror. I am a clear, expressive underplaying actor as an actor, and each shade of reaction is separate and unmistakable. The subconscious is not rational, but it generalizes from regularities that the conscious mind never has the subtlety to notice. It saw me consistently representing its own internal reactions, hour after hour in every situation more clearly than Bryce ever saw himself express anything in a mirror, and more steadily than he ever saw any mirror. The subconscious then associated the inside emotion with the corresponding outside image for each one. I became Bryce's subconscious self image. When he thinks of doing anything, the image in the imagination that does it is not himself, it is me. This can cause considerable mental confusion."

"It should!" Donahue agreed fervently.

"I put him in new places and situations where he was unsure and I was sure, so that when I diverged from mirroring him, he gave me the lead and mirrored me. One of us had to be the originator and the other the reflection, but now it was reversed. He did not fight it subconsciously because the results were pleasant. I kept the lead and led him a mental dance through thoughts and reactions he had never had before, in a personality pattern completely foreign to his own, one that I wanted him to have. I hadn't been hired for that, but I had time to pass before I could untangle that UT problem, and I wanted to do it for him. The mirror link was complete the first day, but I'm afraid the extra days made it indelible. He'll always be me in his mind, and mirrors will never look right to him."

* * * * *

"It's so simple, it's obvious," said Donahue with disappointment. "It doesn't sound like magic to me."

The youth was thoughtful, frowning. "Sometimes it doesn't to me either. I wonder if the ghost of my grandfather was telling me the right—"

"Forget the ghost of your grandfather," Donahue interrupted hastily. On his few space trips he could never get used to this business of floating eerily around in the air, and it seemed a poor time to talk about ghosts. "What about Bryce Carter. What became of him? You know," he said defiantly, "I like his plans for organizing the Belt and breaking UT. And, come to think of it, if I had been there when you were interfering with that, I think I would have shot you myself."

"UT had only hired me to find the organizer of the smuggling ring and persuade him to disband his organization in UT. I had done that. So the third day, when I could walk, I left the hospital and went back to Earth, and collected my fee for a job done. Many people had vanished suddenly from their payrolls, and the crime statistics in some cities had shown a startling lull. They knew I had done it, and so they paid and were grateful." The dark youth shrugged. "I didn't feel I had to tell them about Orillo. He tipped the police and started a rumor, and there was evidence enough in the crime statistics of the months before, when they were correlated with the distribution of branches of Union Transport, though there was nothing to point at anyone in particular except the ones who had disappeared."

Donahue remembered. "Sure that's that investigation of transportation monopolies that raised such a stink last year. I saw part of it in Congress."

Pierce handed him a travel folder. Gaudily illustrated, it advertised the advantages of the C&O lines for space tourists. "Carter and Orillo."

Donahue looked up, puzzled, "But this is the next step in what he planned. I thought you changed him."

"Mahatma Gandhi would have followed out those plans," Pierce said with a touch of grimness. "As you pointed out, they are attractive. But I changed him. I won't give you personality dynamics, but if you want a list of changes—He's married to Sheila Wesley, that's one change. And instead of going home nights he roisters around in bars and restaurants, talking to everybody, listening to everybody, liking them all and enthusiastically making friends in carload lots. That's another change. He doesn't look into mirrors because they make him feel cross-eyed. That's because he unconsciously expects to see me in the mirror. And he will organize the Belt and be president as he planned. I won't stop him in that. The difference will be that he won't want the power he'll get." Pierce said grimly, "A power-lusting man can never be trusted with power: he goes megalomaniacal. Carter was already halfway there. But he's safe from that now. He's going to be given plenty of power, and see it only as responsibility, and not want it. That's the only safe kind of man to have in a powerful position."

"That—" said Donahue with great earnestness, "—is like sending a poor damned soul to Kismetic paradise as a eunuch. You psychologists are all complete sadists," he said lifting his drink. "I suppose you've put something in my drink?"

"Absolutely nothing," Roy Pierce assured him, grinning. "Funny thing was, when I got back to Earth that time, I kept feeling cross-eyed when I looked into a mirror. And my friends said I was not myself. If I was not myself, I knew I must still be Bryce Carter. Things had seemed different, and they had warned me that the technique sometimes backfired when I was learning. So I called my uncle Mordand on the televiewer—he's the head of the family, and he lives in an estate in the jungle—and he—"

Donahue was fascinated again.

There was a different approach for each case, Pierce had found. It was not ordinarily ethical to discuss any case history, but he knew with great surety that Donahue could be trusted not to repeat what he was being told. The only reason there wasn't something extra in his current drink was because there had been something in the last drink.

This was case five.

* * * * *


Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse