ANYTHING YOU CAN DO ...
DARREL T. LANGART
anything you can do ...
1963 Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York
A shorter version of this work appeared in ANALOG Science Fact—Science Fiction.
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER 62-7710 COPYRIGHT (C) 1963 BY DOUBLEDAY & COMPANY, INC. COPYRIGHT (C) 1962 BY THE CONDE NAST PUBLICATIONS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA FIRST EDITION
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.
mon cher ami
a man whom I may truly call ... ... my brother
Like some great silver-pink fish, the ship sang on through the eternal night. There was no impression of swimming; the fish shape had neither fins nor a tail. It was as though it were hovering in wait for a member of some smaller species to swoop suddenly down from nowhere, so that it, in turn, could pounce and kill.
But still it moved and sang.
Only a being who was thoroughly familiar with the type could have told that this particular fish was dying.
In shape, the ship was rather like a narrow flounder—long, tapered, and oval in cross-section—but it showed none of the exterior markings one might expect of either a living thing or a spaceship. With one exception, the smooth silver-pink exterior was featureless.
That one exception was a long, purplish-black, roughened discoloration that ran along one side for almost half of the ship's seventeen meters of length. It was the only external sign that the ship was dying.
Inside the ship, the Nipe neither knew nor cared about the discoloration. Had he thought about it, he would have deduced the presence of the burn, but it was by far the least of his worries.
The ship sang, and the song was a song of death.
The internal damage that had been done to the ship was far more serious than the burn on the surface of the hull. It was that internal damage which occupied the thoughts of the Nipe, for it could, quite possibly, kill him.
He had, of course, no intention of dying. Not out here. Not so far, so very far, from his own people. Not out here, where his death would be so very improper.
He looked at the ball of the yellow-white sun ahead and wondered that such a relatively stable, inactive star could have produced such a tremendously energetic plasmoid, one that could still do such damage so far out. It had been a freak, of course. Such suns as this did not normally produce such energetic swirls of magnetohydrodynamic force.
But the thing had been there, nonetheless, and the ship had hit it at high velocity. Fortunately the ship had only touched the edge of the swirling cloud—otherwise the ship would have vanished in a puff of incandescence. But it had done enough. The power plants that drove the ship at ultralight velocities through the depths of interstellar space had been so badly damaged that they could only be used in short bursts, and each burst brought them closer to the fusion point. Even when they were not being used they sang away their energies in ululations of wavering vibration that would have been nerve-racking to a human being.
The Nipe had heard the singing of the engines, recognized it for what it was, realized that he could do nothing about it, and dismissed it from his mind.
Most of the instruments were powerless; the Nipe was not even sure he could land the vessel. Any attempt to use the communicator to call home would have blown his ship to atoms.
The Nipe did not want to die, but, if die he must, he did not want to die foolishly.
It had taken a long time to drift in from the outer reaches of this sun's planetary system, but using the power plants any more than was absolutely necessary would have been foolhardy.
The Nipe missed the companionship his brother had given him for so long; his help would be invaluable now. But there had been no choice. There had not been enough supplies for two to survive the long inward fall toward the distant sun. The Nipe, having discovered the fact first, had, out of his mercy and compassion, killed his brother while the other was not looking. Then, having disposed of his brother with all due ceremony, he had settled down to the long, lonely wait.
Beings of another race might have cursed the accident that had disabled the ship, or regretted the necessity that one of them should die, but the Nipe did neither, for, to him, the first notion would have been foolish and the second incomprehensible.
But now, as the ship fell ever closer toward the yellow-white sun, he began to worry about his own fate. For a while, it had seemed almost certain that he would survive long enough to build a communicator, for the instruments had already told him and his brother that the system ahead was inhabited by creatures of reasoning power, if not true intelligence, and it would almost certainly be possible to get the equipment he needed from them. Now, though, it looked as if the ship would not survive a landing. He had had to steer it away from a great gas giant, which had seriously endangered the power plants.
He did not want to die in space—wasted, forever undevoured. At least, he must die on a planet, where there might be creatures with the compassion and wisdom to give his body the proper death rites. The thought of succumbing to inferior creatures was repugnant, but it was better than rotting to feed monocells or ectogenes, and far superior to wasting away in space.
Even thoughts such as these did not occupy his mind often or for very long. Far, far better than any of those thoughts were thoughts connected with the desire and planning for survival.
The outer orbits of the gas giants had been passed at last, and the Nipe fell on through the Asteroid Belt without approaching any of the larger pieces of rock-and-metal. That he and his brother had originally elected to come into this system along its orbital plane had been a mixed blessing. To have come in at a different angle would have avoided all the debris—from planetary size on down—that is thickest in a star's equatorial plane, but it would also have meant a greater chance of missing a suitable planet unless too much reliance were placed on the already weakened power generators. As it was, the Nipe had been fortunate in being able to use the gravitational field of the gas giant to swing his ship toward the precise spot where the third planet would be when the ship arrived in the third orbit. Moreover, the planet would be retreating from the Nipe's line of flight, which would make the velocity difference that much the less.
For a while the Nipe had toyed with the idea of using the mining bases that the local life-form had set up in the Asteroid Belt as bases for his own operations, but he had decided against it. Movement would be much freer and more productive on a planet than it would be in the Belt.
He would have preferred using the fourth planet for his base. Although much smaller, it had the same reddish, arid look as his own home planet, while the third planet was three quarters drowned in water. But there were two factors that weighed so heavily against that choice that they rendered it impossible. In the first place, by far the greater proportion of the local inhabitants' commerce was between the asteroids and the third planet. Second, and even more important, the fourth world was at such a point in its orbit that the energy required to land would destroy the ship beyond any doubt.
It would have to be the third world.
As the ship fell inward, the Nipe watched his pitifully inadequate instruments, doing his best to keep tabs on every one of the ships that the local life-form used to move through space. He did not want to be spotted now, and even though the odds were against these beings having any instrument highly developed enough to spot his own craft, there was always the possibility that he might be observed optically.
So he squatted there in his ship, a centipede-like thing about five feet in length and a little less than eighteen inches in diameter, with eight articulated limbs spaced in pairs along his body, each limb ending in a five-fingered manipulatory organ that could be used equally well as hand or foot. His head, which was long and snouted, displayed two pairs of violet eyes that kept a constant watch on the indicators and screens of the few instruments that were still functioning aboard the ship.
And he waited as the ship fell toward its rendezvous with the third planet.
Wang Kulichenko pulled the collar of his uniform coat up closer around his ears and pulled the helmet and face-mask down a bit. It was only early October, but here in the tundra country the wind had a tendency to be chill and biting in the morning, even at this time of year. Within a week or so, he'd have to start using the power pack on his horse to electrically warm his protective clothing and the horse's wrappings, but there was no necessity for that yet. He smiled a little, as he always did when he thought of his grandfather's remarks about such "new-fangled nonsense."
"Your ancestors, son of my son," he would say, "conquered the tundra and lived upon it for thousands of years without the need of such womanish things. Are there no men any more? Are there none who can face nature alone and unafraid without the aid of artifices that bring softness?"
But Wang Kulichenko noticed—though out of politeness he never pointed it out that the old man never failed to take advantage of the electric warmth of the house when the short days came and the snow blew across the country like fine white sand. And Grandfather never complained about the lights or the television or the hot water, except to grumble occasionally that they were old and out of date and that the mail-order catalog showed that much better models were available in Vladivostok.
And Wang would remind the old man, very gently, that a paper-forest ranger only made so much money, and that there would have to be more saving before such things could be bought. He did not—ever—remind the old man that he, Wang, was stretching a point to keep his grandfather on the payroll as an assistant.
Wang Kulichenko patted his horse's rump and urged her softly to step up her pace just a bit. He had a certain amount of territory to cover, and although he wanted to be careful in his checking he also wanted to get home early.
Around him, the neatly-planted forest of paper-trees spread knotty, alien branches, trying to catch the rays of the winter-waning sun. Whenever Wang thought of his grandfather's remarks about his ancestors, he always wondered, as a corollary, what those same ancestors would have thought about a forest growing up here, where no forest like this one had ever grown before.
They were called paper-trees because the bulk of their pulp was used to make paper—they were of no use whatever as lumber—but they weren't really trees, and the organic chemicals that were leached from them during the pulping process were of far more value than the paper pulp.
They were mutations of a smaller plant that had been found in the temperate regions of Mars and purposely changed genetically to grow in the Siberian tundra country, where the conditions were similar to, but superior to, their natural habitat. They looked as though someone had managed to crossbreed the Joshua tree with the cypress and then persuaded the result to grow grass instead of leaves. And the photosynthesis of those grasslike blades depended on an iron-bearing compound that was more closely related to hemoglobin than to chlorophyll, giving them a rusty red color instead of the normal green of Earthly plants.
In the distance, Wang heard the whining of the wind increase, and he automatically pulled his coat a little tighter, even though he noticed no increase in the wind velocity around him.
Then, as the whine became louder, he realized that it was not the wind.
He turned his head toward the sound and looked up. For a long minute he watched the sky as the sound increased in volume, but he could see nothing at first. Then he caught a glimpse of motion, a dot that was hard to distinguish against the cloud-mottled gray sky.
What was it? An air transport in trouble? There were two transpolar routes that passed within a few hundred miles of here, but no air transport he had ever seen made a noise like that. Normally they were so high up as to be both invisible and inaudible. Must be trouble of some sort.
He reached down to the saddle pack without taking his eyes from the moving speck and took out the radiophone. He held it to his ear and thumbed the call button insistently.
Grandfather! he thought with growing irritation as the seconds passed. Wake up! Come on, old dozer, rouse yourself from your dreams!
At the same time, he checked his wrist compass and estimated the direction of flight of the dot and its direction from him. He'd at least be able to give the airline authorities some information if the ship fell. He wished there were some way to triangulate its height, velocity, and so on, but he had no need for that kind of thing, so he hadn't the equipment.
"Yes? Yes?" came a testy, dry voice through the earphone.
Quickly Wang gave his grandfather all the information he had on the flying thing. By now the whine had become a shrill roar and the thing in the air had become a silver-pink fish shape.
"I think it's coming down very close to here," Wang concluded. "You call the authorities and let them know that one of the aircraft is in trouble. I'll see if I can be of any help here. I'll call you back later."
"As you say," the old man said hurriedly. He cut off.
Wang was beginning to realize that the thing was a spaceship, not an airship. By this time, he could see the thing more clearly. He had never actually seen a spacecraft, but he'd seen enough of them on television to know what they looked like. This one didn't look like a standard type at all, and it didn't behave like one, but it looked and behaved even less like an airship, and Wang knew enough to be aware that he did not necessarily know every type of spaceship ever built.
In shape, it resembled the old rocket-propelled jobs that had been used for the first probings into space more than a century before, rather than the fat ovoids he was used to. But there were no signs of rocket exhausts, and yet the ship was very obviously slowing, so it must have an inertia drive.
It was coming in much lower now, on a line north of him, headed almost due east. He urged the mare forward in order to try to keep up with the craft, although it was obviously traveling at several hundred miles an hour—hardly a horse's pace.
Still, it was slowing rapidly very rapidly. Maybe ...
He kept the mare moving.
The strange ship skimmed along the treetops in the distance and disappeared from sight. Then there was a thunderous crash, a tearing of wood and foliage, and a grinding, plowing sound.
For a few seconds afterward, there was silence. Then there came a soft rumble, as of water beginning to boil in some huge but distant samovar. It seemed to go on and on and on.
And there was a bluish, fluctuating glow on the horizon.
Radioactivity? Wang wondered. Surely not an atomic-powered ship without safety cutoffs in this day and age. Still, there was always the possibility that the cutoffs had failed.
He pulled out his radiophone and thumbed the call button again.
This time there was no delay. "Yes?"
"How are the radiation detectors behaving there, Grandfather?"
"One moment. I shall see." There was a silence. Then: "No unusual activity, young Wang. Why?"
Wang told him. Then he asked: "Did you get hold of the air transport authorities?"
"Yes. They have no missing aircraft, but they're checking with the space fields. The way you describe it, the thing must be a spaceship of some kind."
"I think so too. I wish I had a radiation detector here, though. I'd like to know whether that thing is hot or not. It's only a couple of miles away—maybe a little more—and if that blue glow is ionization caused by radiation, it's much too close for comfort."
"I think any source that strong would register on our detectors here, young Wang," said the old man in his dry voice. "However, I agree that it might not be the pinnacle of wisdom to approach the source too closely."
"Clear your mind of worry, Grandfather," Wang said. "I accept your words of wisdom and will go no nearer. Meanwhile, you had best put in a call to Central Headquarters Fire Control. There's going to be a blaze if I'm any judge unless they get here fast with plenty of fire equipment."
"I'll see to it," said his grandfather, cutting off.
The bluish glow in the sky had quite died away by now, and the distant rumbling was fading, too. And, oddly enough, there was not much smoke in the distance. There was a small cloud of gray vapor that rose, streamer-like, from where the glow had been, but even that was dissipated fairly rapidly in the chill breeze. Quite obviously there would be no fire. After several more minutes of watching, he was sure of it. There couldn't have been much heat produced in the explosion—if it could really be called an explosion.
Then Wang saw something moving in the trees between himself and the spot where the ship had come down. He couldn't see quite what it was, there in the dimness under the hanging, grasslike red strands from the trees, but it looked like someone crawling.
"Halloo, there!" he called out. "Are you hurt?"
There was no answer. Perhaps whoever it was did not understand Russian. Wang's command of English wasn't too good, but he called out in that language.
Still there was no answer. Whoever it was had crawled out of sight.
Then he realized it couldn't be anyone crawling. No one could even have run the distance between himself and the ship in the time since it had hit, much less crawled.
He frowned. A wolf, then? Possibly. They weren't too common, but there were still some of them around.
He unholstered the heavy pistol at his side.
And as he slid the barrel free, he became the first human being ever to see the Nipe.
For an instant, as the Nipe came out from behind a tree fifteen feet away, Wang Kulichenko froze as he saw those four baleful violet eyes glaring at him from the snouted head. Then he jerked up his pistol to fire.
He was much too late. His reflexes were too slow by far. The Nipe launched himself across the intervening space in a blur of speed that would have made a leopard seem slow. Two of the alien's hands slapped aside the weapon with a violence that broke the man's wrist, while other hands slammed at the human's skull.
Wang Kulichenko hardly had time to be surprised before he died.
The Nipe stood quietly for a moment, looking down at the thing he had killed. His stomachs churned with disgust. He ignored the fading hoofbeats of the slave-animal from which he had knocked the thing that lay on the ground with a crushed skull. The slave-animal was unintelligent and unimportant.
This was—had been—the intelligent one.
But so slow! So incredibly slow! And so weak and soft!
It seemed impossible that such a poorly equipped beast could have survived long enough on any world to become the dominant life-form.
Then again, perhaps it was not the dominant form. Perhaps it was merely a higher form of slave-animal. He would have to do more investigating.
He picked up the weapon the thing had been carrying and examined it carefully. The mechanism was unfamiliar, but a glance at the muzzle told him it was a projectile weapon of some sort. The spiraling grooves in the barrel were obviously intended to impart a spin to the projectile, to give it gyroscopic stability while in flight.
He tossed the weapon aside. Now there was a certain compassion in his thoughts as he looked again at the dead thing. It must surely have thought it was faced with a wild animal, the Nipe decided. Surely no being would carry a weapon for use against members of its own or another intelligent species.
He examined the rest of the equipment on the thing. There was very little further information. The fabric in which it wrapped itself was crude, but ingeniously put together, and its presence indicated that the being needed some sort of protection against the temperature. It appeared to have a thermal insulating quality. Evidently the creature was used to a warmer climate. That served as additional information to help substantiate his observation from space that the areas farther south were the ones containing the major centers of population. The tilt of this planet on its axis would tend to give the weather a cyclic variation, but it appeared that the areas around the poles remained fairly cold even when the incidence of radiation from the primary was at maximum.
It would have been good, he decided, if he had stopped the slave-animal. There had been more equipment on the thing's back which would have given him more information upon which to base a judgment as to the level of civilization of the dead being. That, however, was no longer practicable, so he dismissed the thought from his mind.
The next question was, what should he do with the body?
Should he dispose of it properly, as one should with a validly slain foe?
It didn't seem that he could do anything else, and yet his stomachs wanted to rebel at the thought. After all, it wasn't as if the thing were really a proper being. It was astonishing to find another intelligent race; none had ever been found before, although the existence of such had been postulated. There were certain criteria that must be met by any such beings, however.
It must have manipulatory organs, such as this being very obviously did have—organs very much like his own. But there were only two, which argued that the being lacked dexterity. The organs for walking were encased in protective clothing too stiff to allow them to be used as manipulators.
He ripped off one of the boots and looked at the exposed foot. The thumb was not opposed. Obviously such an organ was not much good for manipulation.
He pried open the eating orifice and inspected it carefully. Ah! The creature was omnivorous, judging by its teeth. There were both rending and grinding teeth. That certainly argued for intelligence, since it showed that the being could behave in a gentlemanly fashion. Still, it was not conclusive.
If they were intelligent, it was most certainly necessary for him to show that he was also civilized and a gentleman. On the other hand, the slowness and lack of strength of this particular specimen argued that the species was of a lower order than the Nipe, which made the question even more puzzling.
In the end, the question was rendered unnecessary for the time being, since the problem was taken out of his hands.
A sound came from the ground a few yards away. It was an insistent buzzing. Cautiously, the Nipe approached the thing.
It was an instrument of some kind. He recognized it as the device that he had seen the dead being speak into while he, himself, had been watching from the concealment of the undergrowth, trying to decide whether or not to approach. The device was obviously a communicator of some kind, and someone at the other end was trying to make contact.
If it were not answered, whoever was calling would certainly deduce that something had gone wrong at this end. And, of course, there was no way for it to be answered.
It would be necessary, then, to leave the body here for others of its kind to find. Doubtless they would dispose of it properly.
He would have to leave quickly. It was necessary that he find one of their centers of production or supply, and he would have to do it alone, with only the equipment he had on him. The utter destruction of his ship had left him seriously hampered.
He began moving, staying in the protection of the trees. He had no way of knowing whether investigators would come by air or on the slave-animals, and there was no point in taking chances.
His sense of ethics still bothered him. It was not at all civilized to leave a body at the mercy of lesser animals or monocells in that fashion. What kind of monster would they think he was?
Still, there was no help for it. If they caught him, they might think him a lower animal and shoot him. He would not have put an onus like that upon them.
He moved on.
Government City was something of a paradox. It was the largest capital city, in terms of population, that had ever been built on Earth, and yet, again in terms of population, it was nowhere near as large as Tokyo or London. The solution to the paradox lies in discovering that the term "population" is used in two different senses, thus exposing the logical fallacy of the undistributed middle. If, in referring to London or Tokyo, the term "population" is restricted to those and only those who are actively engaged in the various phases of actual government—as it is when referring to Government City—the apparent paradox resolves itself.
Built on the slagged-down remains of New York's Manhattan Island, which had been destroyed by a sun bomb during the Holocaust nearly a century before, Government City occupied all but the upper three miles of the island, and the population consisted almost entirely of men and women engaged, either directly or indirectly, in the business of governing a planet. There were no shopping centers and no entertainment areas. The small personal flyer, almost the same size as the old gasoline-driven automobile, could, because of its inertia drive, move with the three-dimensional ability of a hummingbird, so the rivers that cut the island off from the mainland were no barrier. The shopping and entertainment centers of Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey were only five minutes away, even through the thickest, slowest-moving traffic. It was the personal flyer, not the clumsy airplane, that had really eliminated distance along with national boundaries.
The majority of the government officers' homes were off the island, too, but this commuting did not cause any great fluctuation of the island's population. A city that governs a planet must operate at full capacity twenty-four hours a day, and there was a "rush hour" every three hours as the staggered six-hour shifts changed.
Physically the planet still revolved about the sun; politically, Earth revolved around Government City.
In one of the towering buildings a group of men sat comfortably in a medium-sized room, watching a screen that, because of the three-dimensional quality and the color fidelity of the scene it showed, might have been a window, except that the angle was wrong. They were looking down from an apparent height of forty feet on a clearing in a paper-tree forest in Siberia.
The clearing was not a natural one. The trees had been splintered, uprooted, and pushed away from the center of the long, elliptical area. The center of the area was apparently empty.
One of the men, whose fingers were touching a control panel in the arm of his chair, said: "That is where the ship made its crash landing. As you can see from the relatively light damage, it was moving at no great speed when it hit. From the little information we have—mostly from a momentary radar recording made when the incoming vessel was picked up for a few seconds by the instruments of Transpolar Airways, when it crossed the path of one of their freight orbits—it is estimated that the craft was decelerating at between fifteen and seventeen gravities. The rate of change of acceleration in centimeters per second cubed is unknown, but obviously so small as to be negligible.
"This picture was taken by the fire prevention flyers that came in response to an urgent call by the assistant of the forest ranger who was in charge of this section."
"There was no fire?" asked one of the other men, looking closely at the image.
"None," said the speaker. "We can't yet say what actually happened to the ship. We have only a couple of hints. One of our weather observers, orbiting at four hundred miles, picked up a tremendous flash of hard ultraviolet radiation in the area around the three thousand Angstrom band. There must have been quite a bit of shorter wavelength radiation, but the Earth's atmosphere would filter most of it out.
"A recording of the radiophone discussion between the ranger and his assistant is the only other description we have. The ranger described a bluish glow over the site. Part of that may have been due to actual blue light given off by the—well, call it 'burning'; that word will do for now. But some of the blue glow was almost certainly due to ionization of the air by the hard ultraviolet. Look at this next picture."
The scene remained the same, and yet there was a definite change.
"This was taken three days later. If you'll notice, the normal rust-red of the foliage has darkened to a purplish brown in the area around the crash site. Now a Martian paper-tree, even in the mutated form, is quite resistant to U-V, since it evolved under the thin atmosphere of Mars, which gives much less protection from ultraviolet radiation than Earth's does. Nevertheless, those trees have a bad case of sunburn."
"And no heat," said a third man. "Wow."
"Oh, there was some heat, but not anywhere near what you'd expect. The nearer trees were rather dry, as though they'd been baked, but only at the surface, and the temperature probably didn't rise much above one-fifty centigrade."
"How about X rays?" asked still another man. "Anything shorter than a hundred Angstroms detected?"
"No. If there was any radiation that hard, there was no detector close enough to measure it. We doubt, frankly, whether there was any."
"The 'fire', if you want to call it that, must have stunk up the place pretty badly," said one of the men dryly.
"It did. There were still traces of ozone and various oxides of nitrogen in the air when the fire prevention flyers arrived. The wind carried them away from the ranger, so he didn't get a whiff of them."
"And this—this 'fire'—it destroyed the ship completely?"
"Almost completely. There are some lumps of metal around, but we can't make anything of them yet. Some of them are badly fused, but that damage was probably done before the ship landed. Certainly there was not enough heat generated after the crash to have done that damage." His hand moved over the control panel in the armrest of his chair, and the scene changed.
"This was taken from the ground. Those lumps you see are the pieces of metal I was talking about. Notice the fine white powdery ash, which caused the white spot that you could see from the air. That is evidently all that is left of the hull and the rest of the ship. None of it is radioactive.
"Random samplings from various parts of the area show that the ash consists of magnesium, lithium, and beryllium carbonates."
"You don't mean oxides?" said one of the others.
"No. I mean carbonates. And some silicate. We estimate that the remaining ash could not have constituted more than ten percent of the total mass of the hull of the ship. The rest of it vaporized, apparently into carbon dioxide and water."
"Some kind of plastic?" hazarded one of the men.
"Undoubtedly, if you want to use a catchall term like 'plastic'. But what kind of plastic goes to pieces like that?"
That rhetorical question was answered by a silence.
"There's no doubt," said one of them after a moment, "that circumstantial evidence alone would link the alien with the ship. But have you any more conclusive evidence?"
The hand moved, and the scene changed again. It was not a pretty scene.
"That, as you can see, is a closeup of the late Wang Kulichenko, the forest ranger who was the only man ever to see the alien ship before it was destroyed. Notice the peculiar bruises on the cheek and ear—the whole side of the head. The pattern is quite similar on the other side of the head."
"It looks—umm—rather like a handprint."
"It is. Kulichenko was slapped—hard!—on both sides of his head. It crushed his skull." There was an intake of breath.
"This next picture—" The scene changed. "—shows the whole body. If you'll look closely you'll see the same sort of prints on the ground around it. All very much like handprints. And that ties in very well with the photographs of the alien itself."
"There's no doubt about it," said one of the others. "The connection is definitely there."
The lecturer's hand moved over the control panel again, and suddenly the screen was filled with the image of an eight-limbed horror with four glaring violet eyes. In spite of themselves, a couple of the men gasped. They had seen photographs before, but a full-sized three-dimensional color projection is something else again.
"Until three weeks ago, we knew of no explanation for the peculiar happenings in northern Asia. After eight months of investigation, we found ourselves up against a blank wall. Nothing could account for that peculiar fire nor for the queer circumstances surrounding the death of the forest ranger. The investigators suspected an intelligent alien life-form, but—well, the notion simply seemed too fantastic. Attempts to trail the being by means of those peculiar 'footprints' failed. They ended at a riverbank and apparently never came out again. We know now that it swam downstream for over a hundred miles. Little wonder it got away.
"Even those investigators who suspected something non-human pictured the being as humanoid, or, rather, anthropoid in form. The prints certainly suggest those of an ape. There appeared to be four of them, judging by the prints—although frequently there were only three and sometimes only two. It all depended on how many of his 'feet' he felt like walking on."
"And then the whole herd of them dived into a river and never came up again, eh?" remarked one of the listeners.
"Exactly. You can see why the investigators kept the whole thing quiet. Nothing more was seen, heard, or reported for eight months.
"Then, three weeks ago, a non-vision phone call was received by the secretary of the Board of Regents of the Khrushchev Memorial Psychiatric Hospital in Leningrad. An odd, breathy voice, speaking very bad Russian, offered a meeting. It was the alien. He managed to explain, in spite of the language handicap, that he did not want to be mistaken for a wild animal, as had happened with the forest ranger.
"The secretary, Mr. Rogov, felt that the speaker was probably deranged, but, as he said later, there was something about that voice that didn't sound human. He said he would make arrangements, and asked the caller to contact him again the next day. The alien agreed. Rogov then—"
"Excuse me," one of the men interrupted apologetically, "but did he learn Russian all by himself, or has it been established that someone taught him the language?"
"The evidence is that he learned it all by himself, from scratch, in those eight months."
"I see. Excuse my interruption. Go on."
"Mr. Rogov was intrigued by the story he had heard. He decided to check on it. He made a few phone calls, asking questions about a mysterious crash in the paper forests, and the death of a forest ranger. Naturally those who did know were curious about how Mr. Rogov had learned so much about the incident. He told them.
"By the time the alien made his second call, a meeting had been arranged. When he showed up, those of the Board who were still of the opinion that the call had been made by a crank or a psychosis case changed their minds very rapidly."
"I can see why," murmured someone.
"The alien's ability to use Russian is limited," the speaker continued. "He picked up vocabulary and grammatical rules very rapidly, but he seemed completely unable to use the language beyond discussion of concrete objects and actions. His mind is evidently too alien to enable him to do more than touch the edges of human communication.
"For instance, he called himself 'Nipe' or 'Neep', but we don't know whether that refers to him as an individual or as a member of his race. Since Russian lacks both definite and indefinite articles, it is possible that he was calling himself 'a Nipe' or 'the Nipe'. Certainly that's the impression he gave.
"In the discussions that followed, several peculiarities were noticed, as you can read in detail in the reports that the Board and the Government staff prepared. For instance, in discussing mathematics the Nipe seemed to be completely at a loss. He apparently thought of mathematics as a spoken language rather than a written one and could not progress beyond simple diagrams. That's just one small example. I'm just trying to give you a brief outline now; you can read the reports for full information.
"He refused to allow any physical tests on his body, and, short of threatening him at gunpoint, there was no practicable way to force him to accede to our wishes. Naturally, threats were out of the question."
"Couldn't X rays have been taken surreptitiously?" asked one of the men.
"It was discussed and rejected. We have no way of knowing what his tolerance to radiation is, and we didn't want to harm him. The same applies to using any anesthetic gas or drug to render him unconscious. There was no way to study his metabolism without his co-operation unless we were willing to risk killing him."
"I see. Naturally we couldn't harm him."
"Exactly. The Nipe had to be treated as an emissary from his home world—wherever that may be. He has killed a man, yes. But that has to be allowed as justifiable homicide in self-defense, since the forester had drawn a gun and was ready to fire. Nobody can blame the late Wang Kulichenko for that, but nobody can blame the Nipe, either."
They all looked for a moment in silence at the violet eyes that gazed at them from the screen.
"For nearly three weeks," the speaker went on, "humans and Nipe tried to arrive at a meeting of minds, and, just when it would seem that such a meeting was within grasp, it would fade away into mist. It was only three days ago that the Russian psychologists and psychiatrists realized that the reason the Nipe had come to them was because he had thought that the Board of Regents of the hospital was the ruling body of that territory."
Someone chuckled, but there was no humor in it.
"Now we come to yesterday morning," said the speaker. "This is the important part at this very moment, because it explains why I feel we must immediately take steps to tell the public what has happened, why I feel that it is necessary to put a man like Colonel Walther Mannheim in charge of the Nipe affair and keep him in charge until the matter is cleared up. Because the public is going to be scared witless if we don't do something to reassure them."
"What happened yesterday morning, Mr. President?" one of the men asked.
"The Nipe got angry, lost his temper, went mad—whatever you want to call it. At the morning meeting he simply became more and more incomprehensible. The psychologists were trying to see if the Nipe had any religious beliefs, and, if so, what they were. One of them, a Dr. Valichek, was explaining the various religious sects and rites here on Earth. Suddenly, with no warning whatever, the Nipe chopped at Valichek's throat with an open-hand judo cut, killing him. He killed two more men before he leaped out of the window and vanished.
"No trace of him was found until late last night. He killed another man in Leningrad—we have since discovered that it was for the purpose of stealing his personal flyer. The Nipe could be anywhere on Earth by now."
"How was the man killed, Mr. President? With bare hands, as the others were?"
"We have no way of knowing. Identification of the body was made difficult by the fact that every shred of flesh had been stripped away. It had been gnawed—literally eaten—to the bone!"
The big man with the tiny child on his shoulder pushed through the air curtain that kept the warm humid air out of the shop.
"There," he said to the little boy softly, turning his head to look up into the round, chubby, smiling face. "There. Isn't that nicer, huh? Isn't that better than that hot old air outside?"
"Gleefle-ah," said the child with a grin.
"Oh, come on, boy. I've heard you manage bigger words than that. Or is it your brother?" He chuckled and headed toward the drug counter.
The big man brought himself up short and turned—carefully, so as not to jiggle the baby on his shoulder. When he saw the shorter, thinner man, he grinned hugely. "Jinks! By God! Jinks! Watch it! Don't shake the hand too hard or I'll drop this infant. God damn, man, I thought you were in Siberia!"
"I was, Jim, but a man can't stay in Siberia forever. Is that minuscule lump of humanity your own?"
"Yup, yup. So I've been led to believe. Say hello to your Uncle Jinks, young 'un. C'mon, say hello."
The child jammed the three fingers of his left hand into his mouth and refused to say a word. His eyes widened with an unfathomable baby-emotion.
"Well, he's got your eyes," said the thinner man. "Fortunately, he's going to look like his mother instead of being ugly. He is a he, isn't he?"
"That's right. Mother's looks, father's plumbing. I got another just like him, but his mother's taking the other one to the doctor to get rid of the sniffles. Don't want this one to catch it."
"Naw," said the big man sarcastically, "Octuplets. The Government took seventy-five percent for taxes."
"Ask a silly question, get a silly answer," the smaller man said philosophically.
"Yup. So how's the Great Northern Wasteland, Jinks?"
"Cold," said Jinks, "but it's not going to be a wasteland much longer, Jim. Those Martian trees are going to be a big business in fifteen years. There'll be forests all over the tundra. They'll make a hell of a fine income crop for those people. We've put in over five thousand square miles in seedlings during the past five years. The first ones will be ready to harvest in ten years, and from then on, it will be as regular as clockwork."
"That's great. Great. How long'll you be in town, Jinks?"
"About a week. Then I've got to head back to Siberia."
"Well, look, could you drop around some evening? We could kill off a few bottles of beer after we eat one of Ellen's dinners. How about it?"
"I'd love to. Sure Ellen won't mind?"
"She'll be tickled pink to see you. How about Wednesday?"
"Sure. I'm free Wednesday evening. But you ask Ellen first. I'll give you a call tomorrow evening to make sure I won't get a chair thrown at me when I come in the door."
"Great! I'll let her do the inviting, then."
"Look," Jinks said, "I've got half an hour or so right now. Let me buy you a beer. Or don't you want to take the baby in?"
"No, it's not that, but I've got to run. I just dropped in to get a couple of things, then I have to get on out to the plant. Some piddling little thing came up, and they want to talk to me about it." He patted the baby's leg. "Nothing personal, pal," he said in a soft aside.
"You taking the baby into an atomic synthesis plant?" Jinks asked.
"Why not? It's safe as houses. You've still got the Holocaust Jitters, my friend. He'll be safer there than at home. Besides, I can't just leave him in a locker, can I?"
"I guess not. Just don't let him get his genes irradiated," Jinks said, grinning. "So long. I'll call tomorrow at twenty hundred."
"Fine. See you then. So long."
The big man adjusted the load on his shoulder and went on toward the counter.
Two-fifths of a second. That was all the time Bart Stanton had from the first moment his supersensitive ears heard the first faint whisper of metal against leather.
He made good use of the time.
The noise had come from behind and slightly to the left of him, so he drew his left-hand weapon and spun to the left as he dropped to a crouch. He had turned almost completely around, drawn his gun, and fired three shots before the other man had even leveled his own weapon.
The bullets from Stanton's gun made three round spots on the man's jacket, almost touching each other, and directly over the heart. The man blinked stupidly for a moment, looking down at the spots.
"My God," he said softly.
Then he returned his own weapon slowly to its holster.
The big room was noisy. The three shots had merely added to the noise of the gunfire that rattled intermittently around the two men. And even that gunfire was only a part of the cacophony. The tortured molecules of the air in the room were so besieged by the beat of drums, the blare of trumpets, the crackle of lightning, the rumble of heavy machinery, the squawks and shrieks of horns and whistles, the rustle of autumn leaves, the machine-gun snap of popping popcorn, the clink and jingle of falling coins, and the yelps, bellows, howls, roars, snarls, grunts, bleats, moos, purrs, cackles, quacks, chirps, buzzes, and hisses of a myriad of animals, that each molecule would have thought that it was being shoved in a hundred thousand different directions at once if it had had a mind to think with.
The noise wasn't deafening, but it was certainly all-pervasive.
Bart Stanton had reholstered his own weapon and half opened his lips to speak when he heard another sound behind him.
Again he whirled, his guns in his hands—both of them this time—and his forefingers only fractions of a millimeter from the point that would fire the hair triggers.
But he did not fire.
The second man had merely shifted the weapons in his holsters and then dropped his hands away.
The noise, which had been flooding the room over the speaker system, died instantly.
Stanton shoved his guns back into place and rose from his crouch. "Real cute," he said, grinning. "I wasn't expecting that one."
The man he was facing smiled back. "Well, Bart, perhaps we have proved our point. What do you think, Colonel?" The last was addressed to the third man, who was still standing quietly, looking worried and surprised about the three spots on his jacket that had come from the special harmless projectiles in Stanton's gun.
Colonel Mannheim was four inches shorter than Stanton's five-ten, and was fifteen years older. But in spite of the differences, he would have laughed if anyone had told him five minutes before that he couldn't outdraw a man who was standing with his back turned.
His bright blue eyes, set deep beneath craggy brows in a tanned face, looked speculatively at the younger man.
"Incredible," he said gently. "Absolutely incredible." Then he looked at the other man, a lean civilian with mild blue eyes a shade lighter than his own. "All right, Farnsworth; I'm convinced. You and your staff have quite literally created a superman. Anyone who can stand in a noise-filled room and hear a man draw a gun twenty feet behind him is incredible enough. The fact that he could and did outdraw and outshoot me after I had started—well, that's almost beyond comprehension."
He looked back at Bart Stanton. "What's your opinion? Do you think you can handle the Nipe, Stanton?"
Stanton paused imperceptibly before answering, while his ultrafast mind considered the problem before arriving at a decision. Just how much confidence should he show the colonel? Mannheim was a man with tremendous confidence in his own abilities, but who was nevertheless capable of recognizing that there were men who were his superiors in one field or another.
"If I can't dispose of the Nipe," Stanton said, "no one can."
Colonel Mannheim nodded slowly. "I believe you're right," he said at last. His voice was firm with inner conviction. He shot a glance at Farnsworth. "How about the second man?"
Farnsworth shook his head. "He'll never make it. In another two years we can put him into reasonable shape again, but his nervous system just couldn't stand the gaff."
"Can we get another man ready in time?"
"Hardly. We can't just pick a man up off the street and turn him into a superman. Even if we could find another subject with Bart's genetic possibilities, it would take more time than we have to spare."
"No way at all of cutting the time down?"
"This isn't magic, Colonel," Farnsworth said. "You don't change a nobody into a physical and mental giant by saying abracadabra or by teaching him how to pronounce shazam properly."
"I'm aware of that," said the colonel without rancor. "It's just that I keep feeling that five years of work on Mr. Stanton should have taught you enough to be able to repeat the process in less time."
Farnsworth repeated the head-shaking. "Human beings aren't machines, Colonel. They require time to heal, time to learn, time to integrate themselves. Remember that, in spite of our increased knowledge of anesthesia, antibiotics, viricides, and obstetrics, it still takes nine months to produce a baby. We're in the same position, if not more so. After all, we can't even allow for a premature delivery."
"I know," said Mannheim.
"Besides," Dr. Farnsworth continued, "Stanton's body and nervous system are now close to the theoretical limit for human tissue. I'm afraid you don't realize what kind of mental stability and organization are required to handle the equipment he has now."
"I'm sure I don't," Colonel Mannheim agreed. "I doubt if anyone besides Stanton himself really knows." He looked at Bart Stanton. "That's it then, son. You're it. You're the only answer we've found so far. And the only answer visible in the foreseeable future to the problem posed by the Nipe."
The colonel's face seemed to darken. "Ten years," he said in a low voice. "Ten years that inhuman monster has been loose on Earth. He's become a legend. He's replaced Satan, the Bogeyman, Frankenstein's monster, and Mumbo Jumbo, Lord of the Congo, in the public mind. Read the newsfacs, watch the newscasts. Take a look at popular fiction. He's everywhere at once. He can do anything. He's taken on the attributes of the djinn, the vampire, the ghoul, the werewolf, and every other horror and hobgoblin that the mind of man has conjured up in the past half million years."
"That's hardly surprising, Colonel," Bart Stanton said with a wry smile. "If a human being had gone on a ten-year rampage of robbery and murder, showing himself as callously indifferent to human life and property as you and I would be to the life and property of a cockroach, and if, in addition, he proved impossible to catch, such a person would be looked upon as a demon too. And if you add to that the fact that the Nipe is not human, that he is as frightening in appearance as he is in actions, what can you expect?"
"I agree," said Dr. Farnsworth. "Look at Jack the Ripper and consider how he terrorized London a couple of centuries ago."
"I know," said Colonel Mannheim. "There have been human criminals whose actions could be described as 'inhuman', but the Nipe has some touches that few human criminals have thought of and almost none would have the capacity to execute. If he has time to spare, his victims become an annoying problem in identification when they're found. He leaves nothing but well-gnawed bones. And by 'time to spare', I mean twenty or thirty minutes. The damned monster has a very efficient digestive tract, if nothing else. He eats like a shrew."
"And if he doesn't have time, he beats them to death," Bart Stanton said thoughtfully.
Colonel Mannheim frowned. "Not exactly. According to the evidence—"
Dr. Farnsworth interrupted him. "Colonel, let's go into the lounge, shall we? Aside from the fact that standing around in an empty chamber like this isn't the most comfortable way to discuss the fate of mankind, this room is scheduled for other work."
Colonel Mannheim grinned, caught up by the touch of lightness that the biophysicist had injected into the conversation. "Very well. I could do with some coffee, if you have some."
"All you want," said Dr. Farnsworth, leading the way toward the door of the chamber and opening it. "Or, if you'd prefer something with a little more power to it...."
"Thanks, no," said Mannheim. "Coffee will do fine. How about you, Stanton?"
Bart Stanton shook his head. "I'd love to have some coffee, but I'll leave the alcohol alone. I'd just have the luck to be finishing a drink when our friend, the Nipe, popped in on us. And when I do meet him, I'm going to need every microsecond of reflex speed I can scrape up."
They walked down a soft-floored, warmly lit corridor to an elevator which whisked them up to the main level of the Neurophysical Institute Building.
Another corridor led them to a room that might have been the common room of one of the more exclusive men's clubs. There were soft chairs and shelves of books and reading tables and smoking stands, all quietly luxurious. There was no one in the room when the three men entered.
"We can have some privacy here," Dr. Farnsworth said. "None of the rest of the staff will come in until we're through."
He walked over to a table, where an urn of coffee radiated soft warmth. "Cream and sugar over there on the tray," he said as he began to fill cups.
The cups were filled and the three men sat down in a triangle of chairs before any of them spoke again. Then Bart Stanton said:
"I made the remark that if the Nipe doesn't have time to eat his victims he just beats them to death, and you started to say something, Colonel."
Colonel Mannheim took a sip from his cup before he spoke. "Yes. I was going to say that, according to the evidence we have, he always beats his victims to death, whether he manages to eat them or not."
"Oh?" Stanton looked thoughtful.
"Oh, he's not cruel about it," the colonel said. "He kills quickly and neatly. The thing is that he never, under any circumstances, uses any weapons except the weapons that nature gave him—hands or feet or claws or teeth. He never uses a gun or a knife or even a club. Dr. Yoritomo has some theories about that which I won't go into now. He'll tell you about them pretty soon."
Stanton thought about the Japanese scientist and smiled. "I know. Dr. Yoritomo has threatened to tell me all kinds of theories."
"And believe me he will," said Mannheim with a soft chuckle. He took another sip of his coffee and then looked up at Stanton. "You've been through five years of hell, Mr. Stanton. In addition, you've been pretty much isolated here. Dr. Farnsworth, here, has tried to keep you informed, but, as I understand it, it has only been during the last few months that you've actually been able to absorb and retain information reliably. At least, that's the report I get. How do you feel about it?"
Bart Stanton thought for a moment. It was true that he'd been out of touch with what had been going on outside the walls of the Neurophysical Institute for the past five years. In spite of the reading he'd done and the newscasts he'd watched and the TV tapes he'd seen, he still had no real feeling for the situation.
There had been long hazy periods during that five years. He had undergone extensive glandular and neural operations of great delicacy, many of which had resulted in what could have been agonizing pain without the use of suppressors. As a result of those operations, he possessed a biological engine that, for sheer driving power and nicety of control, surpassed any other known to exist or to have ever existed on Earth—with the possible exception of the Nipe. But those five years of rebuilding and retraining had left a gap in his life.
Several of the steps required to make the conversion from man to superman had resulted in temporary insanity; the wild, swinging imbalances of glandular secretions seeking a new balance, the erratic misfirings of neurons as they attempted to adjust to higher nerve-impulse velocities, and the sheer fatigue engendered by cells that were acting too rapidly for a lagging excretory system, all had contributed to periods of greater or lesser abnormality.
That he was sane now, there was no question. But there were holes in his memory that still had to be filled.
He admitted as much to Colonel Mannheim.
"I see." The colonel rubbed one hand along the angle of his jaw, considering his next words. "Can you give me, in your own words, a general summary of the type of thing the Nipe has been doing?"
"I think so," Stanton said.
His verbal summary was succinct and accurate. The loot that the Nipe had been stealing had, at first, seemed to be a hodgepodge of everything. It was unpredictable. Money, as such, he apparently had no use for. He had taken gold, silver, and platinum, but one raid for each of these elements had evidently been enough, with the exception of silver, which had required three raids over a period of four years. Since then, he hadn't touched silver again.
He hadn't yet tried for any of the radioactives except radium. He'd taken a full ounce of that in five raids, but hadn't attempted to get his hands on uranium, thorium, plutonium, or any of the other elements normally associated with atomic energy. Nor had he tried to steal any of the fusion materials—the heavy isotopes of hydrogen or any of the lithium isotopes. Beryllium had been taken, but whether there was any significance in the thefts or not, no one knew.
There was a pattern in the thefts and robberies, nonetheless. They had begun small and had increased. Scientific and technical instruments—oscilloscopes, X-ray generators, radar equipment, maser sets, dynostatic crystals, thermolight resonators, and so on—were stolen complete or gutted for various parts. After a while, he had gone on to bigger things—whole aircraft, with their crews, had vanished.
That he had not committed anywhere near all the crimes that had been attributed to him was certain; that he had committed a great many of them was equally certain.
There was no doubt at all that his loot was being used to make instruments and devices of unknown kinds. He had used several of them on his raids. The one that could apparently phase out any electromagnetic frequency up to about a hundred thousand megacycles—including sixty-cycle power frequencies—was considered a particularly cute item. So was the gadget that reduced the tensile strength of concrete to about that of a good grade of marshmallow.
After he had been operating for a few years, there was no installation on Earth that could be considered Nipe-proof for more than a few minutes. He struck when and where he wanted and took whatever he needed.
It was manifestly impossible to guard against the Nipe, since no one knew what sort of loot might strike his fancy next, and there was therefore no way of knowing where or how he would hit next.
Nor could he ever be found after one of his raids. They were plotted and followed through with diabolical accuracy and thoroughness. He struck, looted, and vanished. And he wasn't seen again until his next strike.
Colonel Mannheim, who had carefully puffed a cigar alight and smoked it thoughtfully during Stanton's recitation, dropped the remains of the cigar into an ash receptacle. "Accurate but incomplete," he said quietly. "You must have made some guesses. I'd like to hear them."
Stanton finished the last of his coffee and glanced at Dr. Farnsworth. The biophysicist was thoughtfully looking down at his own cup, his expression unreadable.
All right, Stanton thought, he's looking for something. I'll let him have both barrels and see if I hit the target.
"I've thought about it," he admitted. He got up, went over to the coffee urn, and refilled his cup. "I've got a pet theory of my own. It's just a notion, really. I wouldn't dare reduce it to syllogistic form, because it might not hold much water, logically speaking. But the evidence seems conclusive enough to me."
He walked back to his seat. Colonel Mannheim was watching him, a look of interest on his face, but he said nothing.
"To me," Stanton said, "it seems incredible that the combined intelligence and organizational ability of the UN Government is incapable of finding anything out about one single alien, no matter how competent he may be. Somehow, somewhere, someone must have gotten a line on the Nipe. He must have a base for his operations, and someone should have found it by this time.
"I may be faster and stronger and more sensitive than any other living human being, but that doesn't mean I have superhuman powers, or that I'm a magician. And I'm quite certain that you, Colonel, don't credit me with such abilities. You don't believe that I can do in a short time what the combined forces of the Government couldn't do in ten. Certainly you wouldn't rely too heavily on it.
"And yet, apparently, you are.
"To me, that can only mean that you have another ace up your sleeve. You know we're going to get the Nipe fairly quickly. You either have a sure way of tracing him, or you already know where he is.
"Which is it?"
Colonel Mannheim sighed. "We know where he is," he said. "We have known for six years."
The Nipe prowled around the huge underground room, carefully checking his alarms. If anyone entered the network of tunnels at any point, the instruments would register that fact. They had to be adjusted, of course, for the presence of the small, omnivorous quadrupeds that ran through the tunnels in such numbers, but anything larger than they would be noted immediately.
He did not like to leave this place. Here, over a period of ten revolutions of this planet about its primary, he had built himself a nest that was almost comfortable. Here, too, were his workshops and his storehouses. He had reason to believe that he was safe here, screened and protected as he was, but each time he left or entered he ran the chance of being observed.
Still, there was no help for it. Thus far, he had been hampered by technical problems. There were things he needed that he could not make for himself. Even his own vast memory, with its every bit of information instantly available, could only contain what had been acquired over a lifetime, and even his long life had not been long enough to acquire every bit of knowledge he needed.
His work had been long and tedious. There were many things that could neither be made in his workshops nor obtained from the natives, things he did not know how to make and which the local species had not yet evolved in their own technology. Or, more likely, which had not been allowed them. In such cases, he had had to make do with other, lesser techniques, which added to the complexity of his job.
But now another problem had intruded itself into his schedule.
He had a name. Colonel Walther Mannheim. The meaning of the verbal symbolism was unknown to him. The patterns of the symbolism were even more evasive than the patterns of the language itself. "Colonel" seemed simple enough. It indicated a certain sociomilitary class that was rigidly defined in one way and very hazy in another. But the meanings and relationships of both "Walther" and "Mannheim" were beyond him. What difference, for instance, was there between a "Walther" and a "William"? Did a "Mannheim" outrank a "Mandeville", or the other way around? What functions differentiated a "John Smith" from a "Peter Taylor"? He knew what a "john" was and what a "smith" was, but "John Smith" was not, apparently, necessarily associated with sanitary plumbing. The meaning of some other names eluded him entirely.
But that made little difference at the moment. The meaning of Colonel Walther Mannheim's symbolic nomenclature was secondary in comparison with his known function.
That required that the Nipe must eventually find and confront Colonel Walther Mannheim.
It meant time lost, of course. It meant that precious time, which should be given to building his communicator, must be given over to what was merely a protective action.
But there was nothing to do but go on. It would never have occurred to the Nipe to give up, for to quit meant to die. And to die—here, now—was unthinkable.
His alarms were all functioning, his defenses all set. He could now leave his hideaway knowing that if it were broken into while he was away he would be warned in time. But he had no real fear of that. He had done everything he could do. And no intelligent creature, to the Nipe's way of thinking, would waste time worrying about a situation he could not improve upon.
Taking with him the equipment he needed for the job he had to do, he entered the tunnel that ran southward from his base of operations. Once, as he moved along, one of the little quadrupeds approached him, its teeth bared. With an almost negligent flip of one powerful, superfast hand, he slammed it against a nearby wall. It dropped and lay still. Another of its kind approached it cautiously. The Nipe noticed the approach with approval. The quadrupeds had no real intelligence, but they had the proper instincts.
At last the Nipe came to another of the many places where the tunnels met with others of the network. He crossed through several rooms, all very large and cluttered with the dusty, long-dead bones of hundreds of the local intelligent life-form—if (and he was not sure in his own mind of this) they could actually be called intelligent. But he moved carefully, stepping over the human bones and the empty, staring skulls. They had apparently been properly devoured, although he could not be sure whether it had been done by their own kind or by the little quadrupeds. Nonetheless, he would not willingly disturb their repose.
He went on into the tunnel that led westward and followed it as it began to angle down. Finally he came to the water's edge.
To a human being, the cold expanse of water that gleamed like ink in the light of the Nipe's illuminator would have been a barricade as impenetrable as steel. But to the Nipe the tidal pool was simply another of his defenses, for it concealed the only entrance he ever used. He went in after adjusting his scuba mask and began swimming toward the opening that led to the estuary of the sea, his eight strong limbs working in unison in a way that would have been the envy of a rowing team.
At the jagged hole in the tunnel wall, the gap that led into open water, he paused to check his instruments. Only after he was certain that there were no sonar or other detector radiations did he propel himself onward, out into the estuary itself.
An hour later, he was warily circling the spot where his little submarine was hidden. He pressed a button on a small device in his hand, and a signal was sent to the submarine. The various devices within it all responded properly. Nothing had been disturbed since the Nipe had set those devices weeks before.
This was the touchiest part of any of his expeditions. There was always the chance, unlikely as it might be, that some one of the bipedal natives had found his machine. He dared not use it too close to his base because of the possibility of its drive vibrations being detected in the narrow estuary. Out here in the open sea there was far less likelihood of that, but leaving his submarine concealed out here increased the danger he exposed himself to every time he left his hidden nest.
Satisfied that the machine was just as he had left it, he entered it and started its engines. He moved slowly and cautiously until he was well out to sea, well away from the continental shelf and over the ocean deeps. Then and only then did he accelerate to full cruising speed.
* * * * *
The full moon was in the west, hiding behind an array of low, scudding clouds, revealing its radiance in fitful bursts of silvery splendor that died again as another clotted cloud moved before the face of the white disk. The shifting light, shining through the breeze-tossed leaves of the palm trees on the beach below, made strange shadows on the sand, ever-changing patterns of gray and black on a background of white, moonlit sand.
But the strangest shadow of all was one that did not change as the others did—a great centipede-like shape that seemed to wash slowly ashore on the receding tide. For a short while, it remained at the water's edge, apparently unmoving in the wash of the waves.
Then, keeping low and balancing himself on his third pair of limbs, the Nipe moved in across the beach. The specially constructed sandals he wore left behind them a set of very human-looking footprints—prints that would remain unnoticed among the myriad of others that were already on the beach, left there by daytime bathers.
It required more time yet to reach the city, and still more time to find the place he was looking for. It was almost dawn before he managed to find a storm sewer in which to hide for the day.
It was partly his difficulty in finding a given spot in a city—almost any city—that had convinced the Nipe that the pseudo-intelligence of the bipeds of this planet could not really be called true intelligence. There was no standardized method of orienting oneself in a city. Not only were no two cities alike in their orientation systems, but the same city would often vary from section to section. Their co-ordinate systems meant almost nothing. Part of a given co-ordinate might be a number, and the rest of it a name, but the meanings of the numbers and names were never the same. It was as though some really intelligent outside agency had given them the basic idea of a co-ordinate system, and they, not having the intelligence to use it properly, had simply jumbled the whole thing up.
That the natives themselves had no real understanding of any such system had long been apparent to him. The dwellers in any one area would naturally be familiar with it; they would know where each place was, regardless of what meaningless names and numbers might be attached to it. But strangers to that area would not know, and could not know. The only thing they could possibly do would be to ask directions of a local citizen—which, the Nipe had learned, was exactly what they did.
Unfortunately, it was not that simple for the Nipe. There was no way for him to walk up to a native and inquire for an address. He had to prowl unseen through the alleys and sewers of a city, picking up a name here, a number there, by eavesdropping on street conversations. He had found that every city contained certain uniformed individuals whose duty it was to direct strangers, and by focusing a directional microphone on such men and listening, it was possible to glean little bits of knowledge that could eventually be co-ordinated into a whole understanding of the city's layout. It was a time-consuming process, but it was the only way the job could be done. Reconnaissance took a tremendous amount of time away from his serious work, but that work could not proceed without materials to work with, and to get those materials required reconnaissance. The dilemma was unavoidable.
And, being what he was, the Nipe accepted the unavoidable and pursued his course with phlegmatic equanimity.
Overhead, the city was beginning to waken. The volume of sound began to increase.
* * * * *
Police Patrolman John Flanders relieved his fellow officer, Patrolman Fred Pilsudski, at a few minutes of eight in the morning.
It was a beautiful day, even for Miami. In the east, the morning sun shone brightly through the hard, transparent pressure glass that covered the street, making the smooth, resilient surface of the street itself glow with warm light. Overhead, Patrolman Flanders could see the aircars in their incessant motion—apparently random, unless one knew what the traffic pattern was and how to look for it. It was Patrolman Flanders' immediate ambition to be promoted to traffic patrol, so that he could be in an aircar above the city instead of watching pedestrians down here on the streets.
"Morning, Fred," he said to his brother officer. "How'd the night go?"
"Hi, Johnny. Pretty good. Not much excitement." He looked at his wristwatch. "You're a couple minutes early yet."
"Yeah. The baby started singing for his breakfast at a God-awful hour. Harriet woke up to feed him, which woke me up, so here I am. If you want to give me the call button, I'll take over. You can go get yourself a cup of coffee."
"I'm up to here with coffee," Pilsudski said, indicating a point just below his left ear. "I'll have a beer instead."
He touched a switch at his belt and said: "Area 37 HQ, this is 13392 Pilsudski."
A voice in his helmet phones said: "37 HQ, go ahead, Pilsudski."
"Time: 0758 hours. I am being relieved by 14278 Flanders."
"Right. Go ahead."
Pilsudski took off the light, strong helmet, reached inside it, opened a small sliding panel, and took out an object the size and shape of an aspirin tablet—the sealed unit that permitted him to understand the conversation over the police wave band. Without it, the police calls would have been gibberish.
Flanders accepted the little gadget from the other officer and inserted it in his own helmet. Then he replaced the helmet on his head. "Area 37 HQ, this is 14278 Flanders. I am relieving 13392 Pilsudski."
"37 HQ," said the voice in his ears. "Okay, Flanders. Transfer recorded."
Police Patrolman John Flanders, Badge Number 14278, was now officially on duty.
He looked up into the sky. "Now there's the place to be on a day like this, Fred. Traffic patrol."
"Not me," said Pilsudski. "Too damn dull. I was on it for six months. Damn near drove me nuts. Nobody to talk to but another cop—same cop, day after day. He was a nice guy, don't get me wrong, but Christ! Nothin' to do but watch for people breakin' traffic pattern. Can't even pull over to the side and watch the traffic go by. It's dull, I'm tellin' you, Johnny. I asked for a transfer back to a beat so's I could see some people again."
"Maybe," said Flanders. "I'd still like to try it."
"Ever'body to their own taste, I guess. Mitchell and Warber were in luck last night, though. Excitement." He sounded as though he meant the word to be sarcastic.
"What happened?" Flanders asked.
"Some boob was having a fight with his wife and his air intake was goofing off at the same time. So, while she's yelling at him, he puts his aircar on hover." He pointed upward. "Right up there, in Level Two. He opens the window of his aircar, mind you. His air intake ain't workin', like I said. Mitchell, in Car 87, spots him and heads for him, figuring there's trouble."
"But no trouble?" asked Flanders.
"Trouble enough. The driver's old lady throws a wrench at him, an' it goes out the window." He chuckled. "First I heard about it was when that damn wrench comes down and bounces off the pressure glass, then up to the side of the building there, and back to the pressure glass. Then it slides off into the rain gutter."
Flanders looked up at the curve of hard, tough, almost invisible pressure glass that covered the street. "With all the cars overhead that we got in this city," Flanders said philosophically, "something like that's bound to happen every so often. That's why that glass is up there, besides for keepin' the rain off your head."
"Yeah," Pilsudski said. "Anyway, Mitchell and Warber got there just as she tossed the wrench. Arrested both of 'em. Now, wasn't that exciting?"
Flanders grinned. "Fred, if the rest of their tour of duty was as dull as you say it was, then I reckon that must have been real exciting."
"Hah." Pilsudski shrugged. "Well, I'm for that beer. See you tomorrow, Johnny."
"Right. Take care o' yourself."
As Pilsudski walked away, Flanders put his hands behind his back, grasping the left in the right. He spread his feet slightly apart. In that time-honored position of the foot patrolman, he surveyed his beat, up and down both sides of the street. Everything looked perfectly normal. Another working day had begun.
He had no idea that he was standing only a few yards from the most hated and feared killer on the face of the Earth.
The only clue that he could possibly have had to that killer's presence was a small ovoid the size and shape of a match head, a dark, dull gray in color, which protruded slightly from a sewer grating six feet away, supported on a hair-thin stalk. In one end was a tiny dark opening, and that opening was pointed directly at Officer Flanders' head. When he began walking slowly down the street, the little ovoid moved, turning slowly on its stalk to keep that dark hole pointed steadily. It was so small, that ovoid, and so inconspicuous, that no one, even looking directly at it, would have noticed it.
The Nipe could see and hear without being either seen or heard himself.
All morning long the tiny ovoid remained in place, watching, listening.
At 11:24 a woman in a cherry-pink dress walked up to Officer Flanders and said: "Pardon me, Officer. Could you tell me where I could find the Donahue Building?"
And while the policeman told her, the Nipe listened carefully. Now he knew what street he was on and its location in respect to two other streets. He also had a number. He remembered them all, accurately and completely. It was a good beginning, he decided. It would not be too long before he would have enough to enable him to locate the address he was looking for. After that, there would only remain the job of observing and making plans to get what he wanted at that address.
He settled himself to wait for more information. He knew that it would be a long wait.
But he was prepared for that.
The woman's eyes were filled with tears, for which the doctor was privately thankful. At least, he thought to himself, the original shock has worn off.
"And there's nothing we can do?" she asked. "Nothing?" There was anguish in her voice.
"I'm afraid not," the doctor told her gently. "Not yet. There are research men working on the problem, and one day ... perhaps ..." Then he shook his head. "But not yet." He paused. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Stanton."
The woman sat there in the comfortable chair and looked at the specialist's diploma on the doctor's wall—and yet, she really didn't see the diploma at all. She was seeing something else—a kind of dream that had been shattered.
After a moment, she began to speak, her voice low and gentle, as though the dream were still going on and she were half afraid she might waken herself if she spoke too loudly.
"Jim and I were so glad they were twins. Identical twin boys. He said ... I remember, he said, 'We ought to call them Ike and Mike.' And he laughed a little when he said it, to show he didn't mean it."
The doctor said nothing, waiting for her to go on.
"I remember, I was propped up in the bed, the afternoon after they were born, and Jim brought me a new bed jacket, and I said I didn't need a new one because I'd be going right home the very next day, and he said, 'Hell, kid, you don't think I'd buy a bed jacket just for hospital use, now do you? This is for breakfasts in bed, too.'
"And that's when he said he'd seen the boys and said we ought to name them Ike and Mike."
The tears were coming down Mrs. Stanton's cheeks heavily now, and the grief made her look older than her twenty-four years, but the doctor said nothing, letting her spill out her emotions in words.
"We'd talked about it before, you know—soon as the obstetrician found out that I was going to have twins. And Jim ... Jim said that we shouldn't name them alike unless they were identical twins or mirror twins. If they were fraternal twins, we'd just name them as if they'd been ordinary brothers or sisters or whatever. You know?" She looked at the doctor, her eyes pleading for understanding.
"I know," he said.
"And Jim was always kidding. If they were girls, he said, we ought to call them Flora and Dora, or Annie and Fanny, or maybe Susie and Floozie. He was always kidding about it. You know?"
"I know," said the doctor.
"And then ... and then when they were identical boys, he was very sensible about it. He was always so sensible. 'We'll call them Martin and Bartholomew,' he said. 'Then if they want to call themselves Mart and Bart, they can, but they won't be stuck with any rhyming names if they don't want them.' Jim was always very thoughtful that way, Doctor. Very thoughtful."
She seemed suddenly to realize that she was crying and took a handkerchief out of her sleeve to dab at her eyes and face.
"I'll have to quit crying," she said, trying to sound very brave and very strong. "After all, it could have been worse, couldn't it? I mean, the radiation could have killed my boy, too. Jim's dead, yes, and I've got to get used to that. But I still have two boys to take care of, and they'll need me."
"Yes, Mrs. Stanton, they will," said the doctor. "They'll both need you very much. And you'll have to be very gentle and very careful with both of them."
"How ... how do you mean that?" she asked.
The doctor settled back in his chair and chose his words carefully. "Identical twins tend to identify with each other, Mrs. Stanton. There is a great deal of empathy between people who are not only of the same age, but genetically identical. If they were both completely healthy, there would normally be very little trouble in their education at home or in school. Any of the standard texts on psychodynamics in education will show you the pitfalls to avoid when dealing with identical siblings.
"But your sons are no longer identical, Mrs. Stanton. One is normal, healthy, and lively. The other is ... well, as you know, he is slow, sluggish, and badly co-ordinated. The condition may improve with time, but, until we know more about such damage than we do now, he will remain an invalid."
He had been watching her for further signs of emotional upset. But she seemed to be listening calmly enough. He went on.
"That's the trouble with radiation damage, Mrs. Stanton. Even when we can save the victim's life, we cannot always save his health.
"You can see, I think, what sort of psychic disturbances this might bring about in such a pair. The ill boy tends to identify with the well one, and, oddly enough, the reverse is also true. If they are not properly handled during their formative years, Mrs. Stanton, both can be badly damaged emotionally."
"I ... I think I understand, Doctor," the young woman said. "But what sort of thing should I look out for? What sort of things should I avoid?"
"First off, I suggest you get a good man in psychic development," the doctor said. "I, myself, would hesitate to prescribe. It's out of my field. But I can say that, in general, most of your trouble will be caused by a tendency for the pair to swing into one of two extremes.
"At one extreme, you will have mutual antagonism. This arises when the ill child becomes jealous of the other's health, while, on the other hand, the healthy one becomes jealous of the extra consideration that is shown to his crippled brother.
"At the other extreme, the healthy boy may identify so closely with his brother that he feels every slight or hurt, real or imagined, which the ill boy is subjected to. He becomes extremely over-solicitous, over-protective. At the same time, the invalid brother may come to depend completely on his healthy twin.
"In both these situations there is a positive feedback that constantly worsens the condition. It requires a great deal of careful observation and careful application of the proper educational stimuli to keep the situation from developing toward either extreme. You'll need expert help if you want both boys to display the full abilities of which they are potentially capable."
"I see," the woman said. "Could you give me the name of a good man, Doctor?"
The doctor nodded and picked up a book on his desk. "I'll give you the names of several. You can pick the one you like best, the one with whom you seem to be most comfortable. Try several or all of them before you decide. They're all good men. There are many good women in the field, too, but in this case I think a man would be best. Of course, if one of them thinks a woman is indicated, that's up to him. As I said, that isn't my field."
He opened the small book and riffled through it to find the names he wanted.
The image of the Nipe on the glowing screen was clear and finely detailed. It was, Stanton thought, as though one were looking through a window into the Nipe's nest itself. Only the tremendous depth of focus of the lens that had caught the picture gave the illusion a feeling of unreality. Everything—background and foreground alike—was sharply in focus.
Like some horrendous dream monster, the Nipe moved in slow motion, giving Stanton the eerie feeling that the alien was moving through a thicker, heavier medium than air, in a place where the gravity was much less than that of Earth. With ponderous deliberation, the fingers of one of his hands closed upon the handle of an oddly shaped tool and lifted it slowly from the surface upon which he worked.
"That's our best-placed camera," said Colonel Mannheim, "but some of the others can always get details that this one doesn't. The trouble is that we'll never really have enough cameras in there—not unless we stud the walls, ceilings, and floors with them, and even then I'm not so sure we'd get everything. It isn't the same as having a trained expert on camera who is trying to demonstrate what he's doing. An expert plays to the camera and never obstructs any of his own movements. But the Nipe ..." He left the sentence unfinished and shook his head sadly.
Stanton narrowed his eyes at the image. To his own speeded-up perceptive processes, the motion seemed intolerably slow. "Would you mind speeding it up a little?" he asked the colonel. "I want to get an idea of the way he moves, and I can't really get the feeling of it at this speed."
"Certainly." The colonel turned to the technician at the controls. "Speed the tape up to normal. If there's anything Mr. Stanton wants to look at more closely, we can run it through again."
As if in obedience to the colonel's command, the Nipe seemed to shake himself a little and go about his business more briskly, and the air and gravity seemed to revert to those of Earth.
"What's he doing?" Stanton asked. The Nipe was performing some sort of operation on an odd-looking box that sat on the floor in front of him.
The colonel pointed. "He's got a screwdriver that he's modified to give it a head with an L-shaped cross section, and he's wiggling it around inside that hole in the box. But what he's doing is a secret between God and the Nipe at this point," Colonel Mannheim said glumly.
Stanton glanced away from the screen for a moment to look at the other men who were there. Some of them were watching the screen, but most of them seemed to be watching Stanton, although they looked away as soon as they saw his eyes on them. All, that is, except Dr. George Yoritomo, who simply gave him a smile of confidence.
Trying to see what kind of a bloke this touted superman is, Stanton thought. Well, I can't say I blame 'em.
He brought his attention back to the screen.
So this was the Nipe's hideaway. He wondered if it were furnished in the fashion that a Nipe's living quarters would be furnished on whatever planet the multilegged horror had come from. Probably it had the same similarity as Robinson Crusoe's island home had to a middle-class nineteenth-century English home.
There was no furniture in it at all, as such. Low-slung as he was, the Nipe needed no tables or workbenches; all his work was spread out on the floor, with a neatness and tidiness that would have surprised many human technicians. For the same reason, he needed no chairs, and, since true sleep was a form of metabolic rest he evidently found unnecessary, he needed no bed. The closest thing he did that might be called sleep was his habit of stopping whatever he was doing and remaining quiet for periods of time that ranged from a few minutes to a couple of hours. Sometimes his eyes remained opened during these periods, sometimes they were closed. It was difficult to tell whether he was sleeping or just thinking.
"The difficulty was in getting cameras in there in the first place," Colonel Mannheim was saying. "That's why we missed so much of his early work. There! Look at that!" His finger jabbed at the image.
"The attachment he's making?"
"That's right. Now, it looks as though it's a meter of some kind, but we don't know whether it's a test instrument or an integral and necessary part of the machine he's making. The whole machine might even be only a test instrument for something else he's building. Or perhaps a machine to make parts for some other machine. After all, he had to start out from the very beginning—making the tools to make the tools to make the tools, you know."
Dr. Yoritomo spoke for the first time. "It's not quite as bad as all that, eh, Colonel? We must remember that he had our technology to draw upon. If he'd been wrecked on Earth two or three centuries ago, he wouldn't have been able to do a thing."
Colonel Mannheim smiled at the tall, lean man. "Granted," he said agreeably, "but it's quite obvious that there are parts of our technology that are just as alien to him as parts of his are to us. Remember how he went to all the trouble of building a pentode vacuum tube for a job that could have been done by transistors he already had had a chance to get and didn't. His knowledge of solid-state physics seems to be about a century and a half behind ours."
Stanton listened. Dr. Yoritomo was, in effect, one of his training instructors. Advanced Alien Psychology, Stanton thought; Seminar Course. The Mental Whys & Wherefores of the Nipe, or How to Outthink the Enemy in Twelve Dozen Easy Lessons. Instructor: Dr. George Yoritomo.
The smile on Yoritomo's face was beatific, but he held up a warning finger. "Ah, ah, Colonel! We mustn't fall into a trap like that so easily. Remember that gimmick he built last year? The one that blinded those people in Baghdad? It had five perfect emeralds in it, connected in series with silver wire. Eh?"
"That's true," the colonel admitted. "But they weren't used the way we'd use semiconducting materials."
"Indeed not. But the thing worked, didn't it? He has a knowledge of solid-state physics that we don't have, and vice versa."
"Which one would you say was ahead of the other?" Stanton asked. "I don't mean just in solid-state physics, but in science as a whole."
"That's a difficult question to answer," Dr. Yoritomo said thoughtfully. "Frankly, I'd put my money on his technology as encompassing more than ours—at least, insofar as the physical sciences are concerned."
"I agree," said Colonel Mannheim. "He's got things in that little nest of his that—" He stopped and shook his head slowly, as though he couldn't find words.
"I will say this," Yoritomo continued. "Whatever his great technological abilities, our friend the Nipe has plenty of good, solid guts. And patience." He smiled a little, and then amended his statement. "From our own point of view."
Stanton looked at him quizzically. "How do you mean? I was just about to agree with you until you tacked that last phrase on. What does point of view have to do with it?"
"Everything, I should say," said Yoritomo. "It all depends on the equipment an individual has. A man, for instance, who rushes into a building to save a life, wearing nothing but street clothes, has courage. A man who does the same thing when he's wearing a nullotherm suit is an unknown quantity. There is no way of knowing, from that action alone, whether he has courage or not."
Stanton thought he saw what the scientist was driving at. "But you're not talking about technological equipment now," he said.
"Not at all. I'm talking about personal equipment." He turned his head slightly to look at the colonel. "Colonel Mannheim, do you think it would require any personal courage on Mr. Stanton's part to stand up against you in a face-to-face gunfight?"
The colonel grinned tightly. "I see what you mean."
Stanton grinned back rather wryly. "So do I. No, it wouldn't."
"On the other hand," Yoritomo continued, "if you were to challenge Mr. Stanton, would that show courage on your part, Colonel?"
"Not really. Foolhardiness, stupidity or insanity—but not courage."
"Ah, then," said Yoritomo with a beaming smile, "neither of you can prove you have guts enough to fight the other. Can you?"
Mannheim smiled grimly and said nothing. But Stanton was thinking the whole thing out very carefully. "Just a second," he said. "That depends on the circumstances. If Colonel Mannheim, say, knew that forcing me to shoot him would save the life of someone more important than himself—or, perhaps, the lives of a great many people—what then?"
Yoritomo bowed his head in a quick nod. "Exactly. That is what I meant by viewpoint. Whether the Nipe has courage or patience or any other human feeling depends on two things: his own abilities and exactly how much information he has. A man can perform any action without fear if he knows that it will not hurt him—or if he does not know that it will."
Stanton thought that over in silence.
The image of the Nipe was no longer moving. He had settled down into his "sleeping position"—unmoving, although the baleful violet eyes were still open. "Cut that off," Colonel Mannheim said to the operator. "There's not much to learn from the rest of that tape."
As the image blanked out, Stanton said, "Have you actually managed to build any of the devices he's constructed, Colonel?"
"Some," said Colonel Mannheim. "We have specialists all over the world studying those tapes. We have the advantage of being able to watch every step the Nipe makes, and we know the materials he's been using to work with. But, even so, the scientists are baffled by many of them. Can you imagine the time James Clerk Maxwell would have had trying to build a modern television set from tapes like this?"
"I can imagine," Stanton said.
"You can see, then, why we're depending on you," Mannheim said.
Stanton merely nodded. The knowledge that he was actually a focal point in human history, that the whole future of the human race depended to a tremendous extent on him, was a realization that weighed heavily and, at the same time, was immensely bracing.
"And now," the colonel said, "I'll turn you over to Dr. Yoritomo. He'll be able to give you a great deal more information than I can."
The girl moved with the peculiar gliding walk so characteristic of a person walking under low-gravity conditions, and the ease and grace with which she did it showed that she was no stranger to low-gee. To the three men from Earth who followed her a few paces behind, the gee-pull seemed so low as to be almost nonexistent, although it was actually a shade over one quarter of that of Earth, the highest gravitational pull of any planetoid in the Belt. Their faint feeling of nausea was due simply to their lack of experience with really low gravity—the largest planetoid in the Belt had a surface gravity that was only one eighth of the pull they were now experiencing, and only one thirty-second of the Earth gravity they were used to.
The planetoid they were on—or rather, in—was known throughout the Belt simply as Threadneedle Street, and was nowhere near as large as Ceres. What accounted for the relatively high gravity pull of this tiny body was its spin. Moving in its orbit, out beyond the orbit of Mars, it turned fairly rapidly on its axis—rapidly enough to overcome the feeble gravitational field of its mass. It was a solid, roughly spherical mass of nickel-iron, nearly two thirds of a mile in diameter and, like the other inhabited planetoids of the Belt, honeycombed with corridors and rooms cut out of the living metal itself. But the corridors and rooms were oriented differently from those of the other planetoids; Threadneedle Street made one complete rotation about its axis in something less than a minute and a half, and the resulting centrifugal force reversed the normal "up" and "down", so that the center of the planetoid was overhead to anyone walking inside it. It was that fact which added to the queasiness of the three men from Earth who were following the girl down the corridor. They knew that only a few floors beneath them yawned the mighty nothingness of infinite space.
The girl, totally unconcerned with thoughts of that vast emptiness, stopped before a door that led off the corridor and opened it. "Mr. Martin," she said, "these are the gentlemen who have an appointment with you. Mr. Gerrol. Mr. Vandenbosch. Mr. Nguma." She called off each name as the man bearing it walked awkwardly through the door. "Gentlemen," she finished, "this is Mr. Stanley Martin." Then she left, discreetly closing the door.