HIGHWAYS IN HIDING
GEORGE O. SMITH
A LANCER BOOK 1967
Copyright 1956 by George O. Smith Highways in Hiding is based upon material originally copyrighted by Greenleaf Publishing Co., 1955.
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Catalog Card No.: 56-10457 Printed in the U.S.A. Cover painting by Roy G. Krenkel
LANCER BOOKS, INC., 185 MADISON AVENUE, NEW YORK, N.Y. 10016
[Transcriber's note: This is a rule 6 clearance. PG has not been able to find a U.S. copyright renewal.]
For my drinking uncle DON and, of course MARIAN
In the founding days of Rhine Institute the need arose for a new punctuation mark which would indicate on the printed page that the passage was of mental origin, just as the familiar quotation marks indicate that the words between them were of verbal origin. Accordingly, the symbol # was chosen, primarily because it appears on every typewriter.
Up to the present time, the use of the symbol # to indicate directed mental communication has been restricted to technical papers, term theses, and scholarly treatises by professors, scholars, and students of telepathy.
Here, for the first time in any popular work, the symbol # is used to signify that the passage between the marks was mental communication.
Steve Cornell, M. Ing.
Macklin said, "Please put that weapon down, Mr. Cornell. Let's not add attempted murder to your other crimes."
"Don't force me to it, then," I told him.
But I knew I couldn't do it. I hated them all. I wanted the whole Highways in Hiding rolled up like an old discarded carpet, with every Mekstrom on Earth rolled up in it. But I couldn't pull the trigger. The survivors would have enough savvy to clean up the mess before our bodies got cold, and the Highways crowd would be doing business at the same old stand. Without, I might add, the minor nuisance that people call Steve Cornell.
What I really wanted was to find Catherine.
And then it came to me that what I really wanted second of all was to possess a body of Mekstrom Flesh, to be a physical superman....
I came up out of the blackness just enough to know that I was no longer pinned down by a couple of tons of wrecked automobile. I floated on soft sheets with only a light blanket over me.
I hurt all over like a hundred and sixty pounds of boil. My right arm was numb and my left thigh was aching. Breathing felt like being stabbed with rapiers and the skin of my face felt stretched tight. There was a bandage over my eyes and the place was as quiet as the grave. But I knew that I was not in any grave because my nose was working just barely well enough to register the unmistakable pungent odor that only goes with hospitals.
I tried my sense of perception, but like any delicate and critical sense, perception was one of the first to go. I could not dig out beyond a few inches. I could sense the bed and the white sheets and that was all.
Some brave soul had hauled me out of that crack-up before the fuel tank went up in the fire. I hope that whoever he was, he'd had enough sense to haul Catherine out of the mess first. The thought of living without Catherine was too dark to bear, and so I just let the blackness close down over me again because it cut out all pain, both physical and mental.
The next time I awoke there was light and a pleasant male voice saying, "Steve Cornell. Steve, can you hear me?"
I tried to answer but no sound came out. Not even a hoarse croak.
The voice went on, "Don't try to talk, Steve. Just think it."
Catherine? I thought sharply, because most medicos are telepath, not perceptive.
"Catherine is all right," he replied.
Can I see her?
"Lord no!" he said quickly. "You'd scare her half to death the way you look right now."
How bad off am I?
"You're a mess, Steve. Broken ribs, compound fracture of the left tibia, broken humerus. Scars, mars, abrasions, some flashburn and post-accident shock. And if you're interested, not a trace of Mekstrom's Disease."
Mekstrom's Disease—? was my thought of horror.
"Forget it, Steve. I always check for it because it's been my specialty. Don't worry."
Okay. So how long have I been here?
Eight days? Couldn't you do the usual job?
"You were pretty badly ground up, Steve. That's what took the time. Now, suppose you tell me what happened?"
Catherine and I were eloping. Just like most other couples do since Rhine Institute made it difficult to find personal privacy. Then we cracked up.
"What did it?" asked the doctor. "Perceptives like you usually sense danger before you can see it."
Catherine called my attention to a peculiar road sign, and I sent my perception back to take another dig. We hit the fallen limb of a tree and went over and over. You know the rest.
"Bad," said the doctor. "But what kind of a sign would call your interest so deep that you didn't at least see the limb, even if you were perceiving the sign?"
#Peculiar sign,# I thought. Ornamental wrought iron gizmo with curlicues and a little decorative circle that sort of looks like the Boy Scout tenderfoot badge suspended on three spokes. One of the spokes were broken away; I got involved because I was trying to guess whether it had been shot away by some vandal who missed the central design. Then—blooie!#
"It's really too bad, Steve. But you'll be all right in a while."
Thanks, doctor. Doctor? Doctor—?
"Sorry, Steve. I forget that everybody is not telepath like I am. I'm James Thorndyke."
Much later I began to wake up again, and with better clarity of mind, I found that I could extend my esper as far as the wall and through the door by a few inches. It was strictly hospital all right; sere white and stainless steel as far as my esper could reach.
In my room was a nurse, rustling in starched white. I tried to speak, croaked once, and then paused to form my voice.
"Can—I see—How is—? Where is?" I stopped again, because the nurse was probably as esper as I was and required a full sentence to get the thought behind it. Only a telepath like the doctor could have followed my jumbled ideas. But the nurse was good. She tried:
"Mr. Cornell? You're awake!"
"Take it easy. I'm Miss Farrow. I'll get the doctor."
"No—wait. I've been here eight days—?"
"But you were badly hurt, you know."
"But the doctor. He said that she was here, too."
"Don't worry about it, Mr. Cornell."
"But he said that she was not badly hurt."
"Then why was—is—she here so long?"
Miss Farrow laughed cheerfully. "Your Christine is in fine shape. She is still here because she wouldn't leave until you were well out of danger. Now stop fretting. You'll see her soon enough."
Her laugh was light but strained. It sounded off-key because it was as off-key as a ten-yard-strip of baldfaced perjury. She left in a hurry and I was able to esper as far as outside the door, where she leaned back against the wood and began to cry. She was hating herself because she had blown her lines and she knew that I knew it.
And Catherine had never been in this hospital, because if she had been brought in with me, the nurse would have known the right name.
Not that it mattered to me now, but Miss Farrow was no esper or she'd have dug my belongings and found Catherine's name on the license. Miss Farrow was a telepath; I'd not called my girl by name, only by an affectionate mental image.
I was fighting my body upright when Doctor Thorndyke came running. "Easy, Steve," he said with a quiet gesture. He pushed me gently back down in the bed with hands that were as soft as a mother's, but as firm as the kind that tie bow knots in half-inch bars. "Easy," he repeated soothingly.
"Catherine?" I croaked pleadingly.
Thorndyke fingered the call button in some code or other before he answered me. "Steve," he said honestly, "you can't be kept in ignorance forever. We hoped it would be a little longer, when you were stronger—"
"Stop beating around!" I yelled. At least it felt like I was yelling, but maybe it was only my mind welling.
"Easy, Steve. You've had a rough time. Shock—" The door opened and a nurse came in with a hypo all loaded, its needle buried in a fluff of cotton. Thorndyke eyed it professionally and took it; the nurse faded quietly from the room. "Take it easy, Steve. This will—"
"No! Not until I know—"
"Easy," he repeated. He held the needle up before my eyes. "Steve," he said, "I don't know whether you have enough esper training to dig the contents of this needle, but if you haven't, will you please trust me? This contains a neurohypnotic. It won't put you under. It will leave you as wide awake as you are now, but it will disconnect your running gear and keep you from blowing a fuse." Then with swift deftness that amazed me, the doctor slid the needle into my arm and let me have the full load.
I was feeling the excitement rise in me because something was wrong, but I could also feel the stuff going to work. Within half a minute I was in a chilled-off frame of mind that was capable of recognizing the facts but not caring much one way or the other.
When he saw the stuff taking hold, Thorndyke asked, "Steve, just who is Catherine?"
The shock almost cut through the drug. My mind whirled with all the things that Catherine was to me, and the doctor followed it every bit of the way.
"Steve, you've been under an accident shock. There was no Catherine with you. There was no one with you at all. Understand that and accept it. No one. You were alone. Do you understand?"
I shook my head. I sounded to myself like an actor reading the script of a play for the first time. I wanted to pound on the table and add the vigor of physical violence to my hoarse voice, but all I could do was to reply in a calm voice:
"Catherine was with me. We were—" I let it trail off because Thorndyke knew very well what we were doing. We were eloping in the new definition of the word. Rhine Institute and its associated studies had changed a lot of customs; a couple intending to commit matrimony today were inclined to take off quietly and disappear from their usual haunts until they'd managed to get intimately acquainted with one another. Elopement was a means of finding some personal privacy.
We should have stayed at home and faced the crude jokes that haven't changed since Pithecanthropus first discovered that sex was funny. But our mutual desire to find some privacy in this modern fish-bowl had put me in the hospital and Catherine—where—?
"Steve, listen to me!"
"I know you espers. You're sensitive, maybe more so than telepaths. More imagination—"
This was for the birds in my estimation. Among the customs that Rhine has changed was the old argument as to whether women or men were smarter. Now the big argument was whether espers or telepaths could get along better with the rest of the world.
Thorndyke laughed at my objections and went on: "You're in accident shock. You piled up your car. You begin to imagine how terrible it would have been if your Catherine had been with you. Next you carefully build up in your subconscious mind a whole and complete story, so well put together that to you it seems to be fact."
But, —how could anyone have taken a look at the scene of the accident and not seen traces of woman? My woman.
"We looked," he said in answer to my unspoken question. "There was not a trace, Steve."
"You'd been dating her."
Thorndyke nodded quietly. "There were a lot of her prints on the remains of your car. But no one could begin to put a date on them, or tell how recent was the latest, due to the fire. Then we made a door to door canvas of the neighborhood to be sure she hadn't wandered off in a daze and shock. Not even a footprint. Nary a trace." He shook his head unhappily. "I suppose you're going to ask about that travelling bag you claim to have put in the trunk beside your own. There was no trace of any travelling bag."
"Doctor," I asked pointedly, "if we weren't together, suppose you tell me first why I had a marriage license in my pocket; second, how come I made a date with the Reverend Towle in Midtown; and third, why did I bother to reserve the bridal suite in the Reignoir Hotel in Westlake? Or was I nuts a long time before this accident. Maybe," I added, "after making reservations, I had to go out and pile myself up as an excuse for not turning up with a bride."
"I—all I can say is that there was not a trace of woman in that accident."
"You've been digging in my mind. Did you dig her telephone number?"
He looked at me blankly.
"And you found what, when you tried to call her?"
"Her landlady told you that Miss Lewis was not in her apartment because Miss Lewis was on her honeymoon, operating under the name of Mrs. Steve Cornell. That about it?"
"All right. So now you know."
"Then where the hell is she, Doc?" The drug was not as all-powerful as it had been and I was beginning to feel excitement again.
"We don't know, Steve."
"How about the guy that hauled me out of that wreck? What does he say?"
"He was there when we arrived. The car had been hauled off you by block and tackle. By the time we got there the tackle had been burned and the car was back down again in a crumpled mass. He is a farmer by the name of Harrison. He had one of his older sons with him, a man about twenty-four, named Phillip. They both swore later that there was no woman in that car nor a trace of one."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
Dr. Thorndyke shook his head slowly and then said very gently. "Steve, there's no predicting what a man's mind will do in a case of shock. I've seen 'em come up with a completely false identity, all the way back to childhood. Now, let's take your case once more. Among the other incredible items—"
"Incredible?" I roared.
"Easy. Hear me out. After all, am I to believe your unsubstantiated story or the evidence of a whole raft of witnesses, the police detail, the accident squad, and the guys who hauled you out of a burning car before it blew up? As I was saying, how can we credit much of your tale when you raved about one man lifting the car and the other hauling you out from underneath?"
I shrugged. "That's obviously a mistaken impression. No one could—"
"So when you admit that one hunk of your story is mistaken—"
"That doesn't prove the rest is false!"
"The police have been tracking this affair hard," said the doctor slowly. "They've gotten nowhere. Tell me, did anyone see you leave that apartment with Miss Lewis?"
"No," I said slowly. "No one that knew us."
Thorndyke shook his head unhappily. "That's why we have to assume that you are in post-accident shock."
I snorted angrily. "Then explain the license, the date with the reverend, the hotel reservation?"
Thorndyke said quietly, "Hear me out, Steve. This is not my own idea alone, but the combined ideas of a number of people who have studied the human mind—"
"In other words, I'm nuts?"
He nodded very slowly. "Let's put it this way. Let's assume that you wanted this marriage with Miss Lewis. You made preparations, furnished an apartment, got a license, made a date with a preacher, reserved a honeymoon suite, and bought flowers for the bride. You take off from work, arrive at her door, only to find that Miss Lewis has taken off for parts unknown. Maybe she left you a letter—"
"Hear me out, Steve. You arrive at her apartment and find her gone. You read a letter from her saying that she cannot marry you. This is a rather deep shock to you and you can't face it. Know what happens?"
"I blow my brains out along a country road at ninety miles per hour."
"Please, this is serious."
"It sounds incredibly stupid to me."
"You're rejecting it in the same way you rejected the fact that Miss Lewis ran away rather than marry you."
"Do go on, Doctor."
"You drive along the same road you'd planned to take, but the frustration and shock pile up to put you in an accident-prone frame of mind. You then pile up, not consciously, but as soon as you come upon something like that tree limb which can be used to make an accident authentic."
Thorndyke eyed me soberly. "Steve," he asked me in a brittle voice, "you won't try to convince me that any esper will let physical danger of that sort get close enough to—"
"I've told you how it happened. My attention was on that busted sign!"
"Fine. More evidence to the fact that Miss Lewis was with you? Now listen to me. In accident-shock you'd not remember anything that your mind didn't want you to recall. Failure is a hard thing to take. So now you can blame your misfortune on that accident."
"So now you tell me how you justify the fact that Catherine told landladies, friends, bosses, and all the rest that she was going to marry me a good long time before I was ready to be verbal about my plans?"
"Suppose I've succeeded in bribing everybody to perjure themselves. Maybe we all had it in for Catherine, and did her in?"
Thorndyke shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I really don't know, Steve. I wish I did."
"That makes two of us," I grunted. "Hasn't anybody thought of arresting me for kidnapping, suspicion of murder, reckless driving and cluttering up the highway with junk?"
"Yes," he said quietly. "The police were most thorough. They had two of their top men look into you."
"What did they find?" I asked angrily. No man likes to have his mind turned inside out and laid out flat so that all the little wheels, cables and levers are open to the public gaze. On the other hand, since I was not only innocent of any crime but as baffled as the rest of them, I'd have gone to them willingly to let them dig, to see if they could dig past my conscious mind into the real truth.
"They found that your story was substantially an honest one."
"Then why all this balderdash about shock, rejection, and so on?"
He shook his head. "None of us are supermen," he said simply. "Your story was honest, you weren't lying. You believe every word of it. You saw it, you went through it. That doesn't prove your story true."
"Now see here—"
"It does prove one thing; that you, Steve Cornell, did not have any malicious, premeditated plans against Catherine Lewis. They've checked everything from hell to breakfast, and so far all we can do is make long-distance guesses as to what happened."
I snorted in my disgust. "That's a telepath for you. Everything so neatly laid out in rows of slats like a snow fence. Me—I'm going to consult a scholar and have him really dig me deep."
Thorndyke shook his head. "They had their top men, Steve. Scholar Redfern and Scholar Berks. Both of them Rhine Scholars, magna cum laude."
I blinked as I always do when I am flabbergasted. I've known a lot of doctors of this and that, from medicine to languages. I've even known a scholar or two, but none of them intimately. But when a doctor of psi is invited to take his scholarte at Rhine, that's it, brother; I pass.
Thorndyke smiled. "You weren't too bad yourself, Steve. Ran twelfth in your class at Illinois, didn't you?"
I nodded glumly. "I forgot to cover the facts. They'd called all the bright boys out and collected them under one special-study roof. I majored in mechanical ingenuity not psi. Hoped to get a D. Ing. out of it, at least, but had to stop. Partly because I'm not ingenious enough and partly because I ran out of cash."
Doctor Thorndyke nodded. "I know how it is," he said. I realized that he was leading me away from the main subject gently, but I couldn't see how to lead him back without starting another verbal hassle. He had me cold. He could dig my mind and get the best way to lead me away, while I couldn't read his. I gave up. It felt better, too, getting my mind off this completely baffling puzzle even for a moment. He caught my thoughts but his face didn't twitch a bit as he picked up his narrative smoothly:
"I didn't make it either," he said unhappily. "I'm psi and good. But I'm telepath and not esper. I weasled my way through pre-med and medical by main force and awkwardness, so to speak." He grinned at me sheepishly. "I'm not much different than you or any other psi. The espers all think that perception is superior to the ability to read minds, and vice versa. I was going to show 'em that a telepath can make Scholar of Medicine. So I 'pathed my way through med by reading the minds of my fellows, who were all good espers. I got so good that I could read the mind of an esper watching me do a delicate dissecting job, and move my hands according to his perception. I could diagnose the deep ills with the best of them—so long as there was an esper in the place."
"So what tripped you up?"
"Telepaths make out best dealing with people. Espers do better with things."
"Isn't medicine a field that deals with people?"
He shook his head. "Not when a headache means spinal tumor, or indigestion, or a bad cold. 'Doctor,' says the patient, 'I've a bad ache along my left side just below the ribs,' and after you diagnose, it turns out to be acute appendicitis. You see, Steve, the patient doesn't know what's wrong with him. Only the symptoms. A telepath can follow the patient's symptoms perfectly, but it takes an esper to dig in his guts and perceive the tumor that's pressing on the spine or the striae on his liver."
"So I flopped on a couple of tests that the rest of the class sailed through, just because I was not fast enough to read their minds and put my own ability to work. It made 'em suspicious and so here I am, a mere doctor instead of a scholar."
"There are fields for you, I'm sure."
He nodded. "Two. Psychiatry and psychology, neither of which I have any love for. And medical research, where the ability to grasp another doctor or scholar's plan, ideas and theories is slightly more important than the ability to dig esper into the experiments."
"Don't see that," I said with a shake of my head.
"Well, Steve, let's take Mekstrom's Disease, for instance."
"Let's take something simple. What I know about Mekstrom's Disease could be carved on the head of a pin with a blunt butter knife."
"Let's take Mekstrom's. That's my chance to make Scholar of Medicine, Steve, if I can come up with an answer to one of the minor questions. I'll be in the clinical laboratory where the only cases present are those rare cases of Mekstrom's. The other doctors, espers every one of them, and the scholars over them, will dig the man's body right down to the last cell, looking and combing—you know some of the better espers can actually dig into the constituency of a cell?—but I'll be the doctor who can collect all their information, correlate it, and maybe come up with an answer."
"You picked a dilly," I told him.
It was a real one, all right. Otto Mekstrom had been a mechanic-tech at White Sands Space Station during the first flight to Venus, Mars and Moon round-trip with landings. About two weeks after the ship came home, Otto Mekstrom's left fingertips began to grow hard. The hardening crawled up slowly until his hand was like a rock. They studied him and worked over him and took all sorts of samples and made all sorts of tests until Otto's forearm was as hard as his hand. Then they amputated at the shoulder.
But by that time, Otto Mekstrom's toes on both feet were getting solid and his other hand was beginning to show signs of the same. On one side of the creepline the flesh was soft and normal, but on the other it was all you could do to poke a sharp needle into the skin. Poor Otto ended up a basket case, just in time to have the damned stuff start all over again at the stumps of his arms and legs. He died when hardening reached his vitals.
Since that day, some twenty-odd years ago, there had been about thirty cases a year turn up. All fatal, despite amputations and everything else known to modern medical science. God alone knew how many unfortunate human beings took to suicide without contacting the big Medical Research Center at Marion, Indiana.
Well, if Thorndyke could uncover something, no one could claim that a telepath had no place in medicine. I wished him luck.
I did not see Thorndyke again in that hospital. They released me the next day and then I had nothing to do but to chew my fingernails and wonder what had happened to Catherine.
I'd rather not go into the next week and a half in detail. I became known as the bridegroom who lost his bride, and between the veiled accusations and the half-covered snickers, life was pretty miserable. I talked to the police a couple-three times, first as a citizen asking for information and ending up as a complainant against party or parties unknown. The latter got me nowhere. Apparently the police had more lines out than the Grand Bank fishing fleet and were getting no more nibbles than they'd get in the Dead Sea. They admitted it; the day had gone when the police gave out news reports that an arrest was expected hourly, meaning that they were baffled. The police, with their fine collection of psi boys, were willing to admit when they were really baffled. I talked to telepaths who could tell me what I'd had for breakfast on the day I'd entered pre-school classes, and espers who could sense the color of the clothing I wore yesterday. I've a poor color-esper, primitive so to speak. These guys were good, but no matter how good they were, Catherine Lewis had vanished as neatly as Ambrose Bierce.
I even read Charles Fort, although I have no belief in the supernatural, and rather faint faith in the Hereafter. And people who enter the Hereafter leave their remains behind for evidence.
Having to face Catherine's mother and father, who came East to see me, made me a complete mental wreck.
It is harder than you think to face the parents of a woman you loved, and find that all you can tell them is that somehow you fouled your drive, cracked up, and lost their daughter. Not even dead-for-sure. Death, I think, we all could have faced. But this uncertainty was something that gnawed at the soul's roots and left it rotting.
To stand there and watch the tears in the eyes of a woman as she asks you, "But can't you remember, son?" is a little too much, and I don't care to go into details.
The upshot of it was, after about ten days of lying awake nights and wondering where she was and why. Watching her eyes peer out of a metal casting at me from a position sidewise of my head. Nightmares, either the one about us turning over and over and over, or Mrs. Lewis pleading with me only to tell her the truth. Then having the police inform me that they were marking this case down as "unexplained." I gave up. I finally swore that I was going to find her and return with her, or I was going to join her in whatever strange, unknown world she had entered.
* * * * *
The first thing I did was to go back to the hospital in the hope that Dr. Thorndyke might be able to add something. In my unconscious ramblings there might be something that fell into a pattern if it could be pieced together.
But this was a failure, too. The hospital super was sorry, but Dr. Thorndyke had left for the Medical Research Center a couple of days before. Nor could I get in touch with him because he had a six-week interim vacation and planned a long, slow jaunt through Yellowstone, with neither schedule nor forwarding addresses.
I was standing there on the steps hoping to wave down a cruising coptercab when the door opened and a woman came out. I turned to look and she recognized me. It was Miss Farrow, my former nurse.
"Why, Mr. Cornell, what are you doing back here?"
"Mostly looking for Thorndyke. He's not here."
"I know. Isn't it wonderful, though? He'll get his chance to study for his scholarte now."
I nodded glumly. "Yeah," I said. It probably sounded resentful, but it is hard to show cheer over the good fortune of someone else when your own world has come unglued.
"Still hoping," she said. It was a statement and not a question.
I nodded slowly. "I'm hoping," I said. "Someone has the answer to this puzzle. I'll have to find it myself. Everyone else has given up."
"I wish you luck," said Miss Farrow with a smile. "You certainly have the determination."
I grunted. "It's about all I have. What I need is training. Here I am, a mechanical engineer, about to tackle the job of a professional detective and tracer of missing persons. About all I know about the job is what I have read. One gets the idea that these writers must know something of the job, the way they write about it. But once you're faced with it yourself, you realize that the writer has planted his own clues."
Miss Farrow nodded. "One thing," she suggested, "have you talked to the people who got you out from under your car yet?"
"No, I haven't. The police talked to them and claimed they knew nothing. I doubt that I can ask them anything that the police have not satisfied themselves about."
Miss Farrow looked up at me sidewise. "You won't find anything by asking people who have never heard of you."
"I suppose not."
A coptercab came along at that moment, and probably sensing my intention, he gave his horn a tap. I'd have liked to talk longer with Miss Farrow, but a cab was what I wanted, so with a wave I took it and she went on down the steps to her own business.
I had to pause long enough to buy a new car, but a few hours afterward I was rolling along that same highway with my esper extended as far as I could in all directions. I was driving slowly, this time both alert and ready.
I went past the scene of the accident slowly and shut my mind off as I saw the black-burned patch. The block was still hanging from an overhead branch, and the rope that had burned off was still dangling, about two feet of it, looped through the pulleys and ending in a tapered, burned end.
I turned left into a driveway toward the home of the Harrisons and went along a winding dirt road, growing more and more conscious of a dead area ahead of me.
It was not a real dead zone, because I could still penetrate some of the region. But as far as really digging any of the details of the rambling Harrison house, I could get more from my eyesight than from any sense of perception. But even if they couldn't find a really dead area, the Harrisons had done very well in finding one that made my sense of perception ineffective. It was sort of like looking through a light fog, and the closer I got to the house the thicker it became.
Just about the point where the dead area was first beginning to make its effect tell, I came upon a tall, browned man of about twenty-four who had been probing into the interior of a tractor up to the time he heard my car. He waved, and I stopped.
"I'm Phillip. And you are Mr. Cornell."
"Call me Steve like everybody else," I said. "How'd you guess?"
"Recognized you," he said with a grin. "I'm the guy that pulled you out."
"Thanks," I said, offering a hand.
He chuckled. "Steve, consider the hand taken and shook, because I've enough grime to muss up a regiment."
"It won't bother me," I said.
"Thanks, but it's still a gesture, and I appreciate it, but let's be sensible. I know you can wash, but let's shake later. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like a first-hand account, Phil."
"Not much to tell. Dad and I were pulling stumps over about a thousand feet from the wreck. We heard the racket. I am esper enough to dig that distance with clarity, so we knew we'd better bring along the block and tackle. The tractor wouldn't go through. So we came on the double, Dad rigged the tackle and hoisted and I took a running dive, grabbed and hauled you out before the whole thing went Whoosh! We were both lucky, Steve."
I grunted a bit but managed to nod with a smile.
"I suppose you know that I'm still trying to find my fiancee?"
"I'd heard tell," he said. He looked at me sharply. I'm a total blank as a telepath, like all espers, but I could tell what he was thinking.
"Everybody is convinced that Catherine was not with me," I admitted. "But I'm not. I know she was."
He shook his head slowly. "As soon as we heard the screech of brakes and rubber we esped the place," he said quietly. "We dug you, of course. But no one else. Even if she'd jumped as soon as that tree limb came into view, she could not have run far enough to be out of range. As for removing a bag, she'd have had to wait until the slam-bang was over to get it out, and by the time your car was finished rolling, Dad and I were on the way with help. She was not there, Steve."
You're a goddam liar!
Phillip Harrison did not move a muscle. He was blank telepathically. I was esping the muscles in his stomach, under his loose clothing, for that first tensing sign of anger, but nothing showed. He had not been reading my mind.
I smiled thinly at Phil Harrison and shrugged.
He smiled back sympathetically, but behind it I could see that he was wishing that I'd stop harping on a dead subject. "I sincerely wish I could be of help," he said. In that he was sincere. But somewhere, someone was not, and I wanted to find out who it was.
The impasse looked as though it might go on forever unless I turned away and left. I had no desire to leave. Not that Phil could help me, but even though this was a dead end, I was loath to leave the place because it was the last place where I had been close to Catherine.
The silence between us must have been a bit strained at this point, but luckily we had an interruption. I perceived motion, turned and caught sight of a woman coming along the road toward us.
"My sister," said Phil. "Marian."
Marian Harrison was quite a girl; if I'd not been emotionally tied to Catherine Lewis, I'd have been happy to invite myself in. Marian was almost as tall as I am, a dark, brown-haired woman with eyes of a startling, electricity colored blue. She was about twenty-two, young and healthy. Her skin was tanned toast brown so that the bright blue eyes fairly sparked out at you. Her red mouth made a pleasing blend with the tan of her skin and her teeth gleamed white against the dark when she smiled.
Insultingly, I made some complimentary but impolite mental observations about her figure, but Marion did not appear to notice. She was no telepath.
"You're Mr. Cornell," she said, "I remembered you," she said quietly. "Please believe us, Mr. Cornell, when we extend our sympathy."
"Thanks," I said glumly. "Please understand me, Miss Harrison. I appreciate your sympathy, but what I need is action and information and answers. Once I get those, the sympathy won't be needed."
"Of course I understand," she replied instantly. "We are all aware that sympathy is a poor substitute. All the world grieving with you doesn't turn a stitch to help you out of your trouble. All we can do is to wish, with you, that it hadn't happened."
"That's the point," I said helplessly. "I don't even know what happened."
"That makes it even worse," she said softly. Marian had a pleasant voice, throaty and low, that sounded intimate even when talking about something pragmatic. "I wish we could help you, Steve."
"I wish someone could."
She nodded. "They asked me about it, too, even though I was not present until afterward. They asked me," she said thoughtfully, "about the mental attitude of a woman running off to get married. I told them that I couldn't speak for your woman, but that I might be able to speak for me, putting myself in the same circumstances."
She paused a moment, and her brother turned idly back to his tractor and fitted a small end wrench to a bolt-head and gave it a twist. He seemed to think that as long as Marian and I were talking, he could well afford to get along with his work. I agreed with him. I wanted information, but I did not expect the entire world to stop progress to help me. He spun the bolt and started on another, lost in his job while Marian went on:
"I told them that your story was authentic—the one about the bridal nightgown." A very slight color came under the deep tan. "I told them that I have one, too, still in its wrapper, and that someday I'd be planning marriage and packing a go-away bag with the gown shaken out and then packed neatly. I told them that I'd be doing the same thing no matter whether we were having a formal church wedding with a four-alarm reception and all the trimmings or a quiet elopement such as you were. I told them that it was the essentials that count, not the trimmings and the tinsel. My questioner's remark was to the effect that either you were telling the truth, or that you had esped a woman about to marry and identified her actions with your own wishes."
"I know which," I said with a sour smile. "It was both."
Marian nodded. "Then they asked me if it were probable that a woman would take this step completely unprepared and I laughed at them. I told them that long before Rhine, women were putting their nuptial affairs in order about the time the gentleman was beginning to view marriage with an attitude slightly less than loathing, and that by the time he popped the question, she'd been practicing writing her name as 'Mrs.' and picking out the china-ware and prospective names for the children, and that if any woman had ever been so stunned by a proposal of marriage that she'd take off without so much as a toothbrush, no one in history had ever heard of her."
"Then you begin to agree with me?"
She shrugged. "Please," she said in that low voice, "don't ask me my opinion of your veracity. You believe it, but all the evidence lies against you. There was not a shred of woman-trace anywhere along your course, from the point along the road where you first caught sight of the limb that threw you to the place where you piled up. Nor was there a trace anywhere in a vast circle—almost a half mile they searched—from the crack-up. They had doctors of psi digging for footprints, shreds of clothing, everything. Not a trace."
"But where did she go?" I cried, and when I say 'cried' I mean just that.
Marian shook her head very slowly. "Steve," she said in a voice so low that I could hardly hear her over the faint shrill of bolts being unscrewed by her brother, "so far as we know, she was never here. Why don't you forget her—"
I looked at her. She stood there, poised and a bit tensed as though she were trying to force some feeling of affectionate kinhood across the gap that separated us, as though she wanted to give me both physical and mental comfort despite the fact that we were strangers on a ten-minute first-meeting. There was distress in her face.
"Forget her—?" I ground out. "I'd rather die!"
"Oh Steve—no!" One hand went to her throat and the other came out to fasten around my forearm. Her grip was hard.
I stood there wondering what to do next. Marian's grip on my arm relaxed and she stepped back.
I pulled myself together. "I'm sorry," I told her honestly. "I'm putting you through a set of emotional hurdles by bringing my problems here. I'd better take them away."
She nodded very slowly. "Please go. But please come back once you get yourself squared away, no matter how. We'd all like to see you when you aren't all tied up inside."
Phil looked up from the guts of the tractor. "Take it easy, Steve," he said. "And remember that you do have friends here."
Blindly I turned from them and stumbled back to my car. They were a pair of very fine people, firm, upright. Marian's grip on my arm had been no weaker than her sympathy, and Phil's less-emotional approach to my trouble was no less deep, actually. It was as strong as his good right arm, loosening the head bolts of a tractor engine with a small adjustable wrench.
I'd be back. I wanted to see them again. I wanted to go back there with Catherine and introduce them to her. But I was definitely going to go back.
I was quite a way toward home before I realized that I had not met the old man. I bet myself that Father Harrison was quite the firm, active patriarch.
The days dragged slowly. I faced each morning hopefully at first, but as the days dragged on and on, I began to feel that each morning was opening another day of futility, to be barely borne until it was time to flop down in weariness. I faced the night in loneliness and in anger at my own inability to do something productive.
I pestered the police until they escorted me to the door and told me that if I came again, they'd take me to another kind of door and loose thereafter the key. I shrugged and left disconsolately, because by that time I had been able to esp, page by page, the entire file that dealt with the case of "Missing Person: Lewis, Catherine," stamped "Inactive, but not Closed."
I hated the words.
But as the days dragged out, one after another, with no respite and no hope, my raw nervous system began to heal. It was probably a case of numbness; you maul your thumb with a hammer and it will hurt just so long before it stops.
I was numb for a long time. I remember night after night, lying awake and staring into the darkness at the wall I knew was beside me, and I hated my esper because I wanted to project my mind out across some unknown space to reach for Catherine's mind. If we'd both been telepaths we could cross the universe to touch each other with that affectionate tenderness that mated telepaths always claim they have.
Instead I found myself more aware of a clouded-veil perception of Marian Harrison as she took my arm and looked into my face on that day when I admitted that I found little worth living for.
I knew what that meant—nothing. It was a case of my subconscious mind pointing out that the available present was more desirable than the unavailable not-present. At first I resented my apparent inconstancy in forming an esper projection of Marian Harrison when I was trying to project my blank telepathic inadequacy to Catherine. But as the weeks faded into the past, the shock and the frustration began to pale and I found Marian's projective image less and less an unwanted intrusion and more and more pleasant.
I had two deeply depressed spells in those six weeks. At the end of the fourth week I received a small carton containing some of my personal junk that had been in Catherine's apartment. A man can't date his girl for weeks without dropping a few things like a cigarette lighter, a tie clip, one odd cuff-link, some papers, a few letters, some books, and stuff both valuable and worthless that had turned up as gifts for one reason or another. It was a shock to get this box and its arrival bounced me deep into a doldrum-period of three or four days.
Then at the end of the sixth week I received a card from Dr. Thorndyke. It contained a lithograph in stereo of some scene in Yellowstone other than Old Faithful blowing its stack.
On the message side was a cryptic note:
_Steve: I just drove along that road in the right side of the picture. It reminded me of yours, so I'm writing because I want to know how you are making out. I'll be at the Med-Center in a couple of weeks, you can write me there.
I turned the postcard over and eyed it critically. Then I got it. Along the roadside was a tall ornamental standard of wrought iron. The same design as the road signs along that fatal highway of mine.
I sat there with a magnifying glass on the roadsign; its stereo image standing up alongside the road in full color and solidity. It took me back to that moment when Catherine had wriggled against my side, thrilling me with her warmth and eagerness.
That put me down a few days, too.
* * * * *
Another month passed. I'd come out of my shell quite a bit in the meantime. I now felt that I could walk in a bar and have a drink without wondering whether all the other people in the place were pointing at me. I'd cut myself off from all my previous friends, and I'd made no new friends in the weeks gone by. But I was getting more and more lonely and consequently more and more inclined to speak to people and want friends.
The accident had paled from its original horror; the vital scene returned only infrequently. Catherine was assuming the position of a lost love rather than a sweetheart expected to return soon. I remembered the warmth of her arms and the eagerness of her kiss in a nostalgic way and my mind, especially when in a doze, would play me tricks. I would recall Catherine, but when she came into my arms, I'd be holding Marian, brown and tawny, with her electric blue eyes and her vibrant nature.
But I did nothing about it. I knew that once I had asked Marian Harrison for a date I would be emotionally involved. And then if—no, when—Catherine turned up I would be torn between desires.
I would wake up and call myself all sorts of a fool. I had seen Marian for a total of perhaps fifteen minutes—in the company of her brother.
But eventually dreaming loses its sting just as futile waiting and searching does, and I awoke one morning in a long and involved debate between my id and my conscience. I decided at that moment that I would take that highway out and pay a visit to the Harrison farm. I was salving my slightly rusty conscience by telling myself that it was because I had never paid my respects to Father Harrison, but not too deep inside I knew that if Father were missing and Daughter were present I'd enjoy my visit to the farm with more relish.
But my id took a licking because the doorbell rang about nine o'clock that morning and when I dug the doorstep I came up with two gentlemen wearing gold badges in leather folders in their jacket pockets.
I opened the door because I couldn't have played absent to a team consisting of one esper and one telepath. They both knew I was home.
"Mr. Cornell, we'll waste no time. We want to know how well you know Doctor James Thorndyke."
I didn't blink at the bluntness of it. It is standard technique when an esper-telepath team go investigating. The telepath knew all about me, including the fact that I'd dug their wallets and identification cards, badges and the serial numbers of the nasty little automatics they carried. The idea was to drive the important question hard and first; it being impossible to not-think the several quick answers that pop through your mind. What I knew about Thorndyke was sketchy enough but they got it all because I didn't have any reason for covering up. I let them know that, too.
Finally, That's about all, I thought. Now—why?
The telepath half of the team answered. "Normally we wouldn't answer, Mr. Cornell, unless you said it aloud. But we don't mind letting you know which of us is the telepath this time. To answer, you are the last person to have received any message from Thorndyke."
"That postcard. It was the last contact Thorndyke made with anyone. He has disappeared."
"Thorndyke was due to arrive at The Medical Research Center in Marion, Indiana, three weeks ago. We've been tracking him ever since he failed to turn up. We've been able to retrace his meanderings very well up to a certain point in Yellowstone. There the trail stops. He had a telephoned reservation to a small hotel; there he dropped out of sight. Now, Mr. Cornell, may I see that postcard?"
"Certainly." I got it for them. The esper took it over to the window and eyed it in the light, and as he did that I went over to stand beside him and together we espered that postcard until I thought the edges would start to curl. But if there were any codes, concealed writings or any other form of hidden meaning or message in or on that card, I didn't dig any.
I gave up. I'm no trained investigator. But I knew that Thorndyke was fairly well acquainted with the depth of my perceptive sense, and he would not have concealed anything too deep for me.
Then the esper shook his head. He handed me the card. "Not a trace."
The telepath nodded. He looked at me and smiled sort of thin and strained. "We're naturally interested in you, Mr. Cornell. This seems to be the second disappearance. And you know nothing about either."
"I know," I said slowly. The puzzle began to go around and around in my head again, all the way back to that gleaming road and the crack-up.
"We'll probably be back, Mr. Cornell. You don't mind?"
"Look," I told them rather firmly, "if this puzzle can be unwound, I'll be one of the happiest men on the planet. If I can do anything to help, just say the word."
They left after that and so did I. I was still going to pay my visit to the Harrison farm. Another wild goose chase, but somewhere along this cockeyed row there was an angle. Honest people who are healthy and fairly happy with good prospects ahead of them do not just drop out of sight without a trace.
* * * * *
A couple of hours later I was making a good pace along the highway again. It was getting familiar to me.
I could not avoid letting my perceptive sense rest on the sign as I drove past. Not long enough to put me in danger, but long enough to discover to my surprise that someone had taken the trouble to repair the broken spoke. Someone must have been a perfectionist. The break was so slight that it seemed like calling in a mechanic because the ashtray in the car is full.
Then I noticed other changes that time had caused.
The burned scar was fading in a growth of tall weeds. The limb of the tree that hung out over the scene, from which block and tackle had hung, was beginning to lose its smoke-blackened appearance. The block was gone from the limb.
Give us a year, I thought, and the only remaining scar will be the one on my mind, and even that will be fading.
I turned into the drive, wound around the homestead road, and pulled up in front of the big, rambling house.
It looked bleak. The front lawn was a bit shaggy and there were some wisps of paper on the front porch. The venetian blinds were down and slatted shut behind closed windows. Since it was summer by now, the closed windows and the tight door, neither of which had flyscreens installed, quickly gave the fact away. The Harrisons were gone.
I turned quickly and drove to the nearest town and went to the post office.
"I'm looking for the Harrison family," I told the man behind the wicket.
"Why, they moved several weeks ago."
"Moved?" I asked with a blank-sounding voice.
The clerk nodded. Then he leaned forward and said in a confidential whisper, "Heard a rumor that the girl got a touch of that spacemen's disease."
"Mekstrom's?" I blurted.
The clerk looked at me as if I'd shouted a dirty word. "She was a fine girl," he said softly. "It's a shame."
I nodded and he went into the back files. I tried to dig alone behind him, but the files were in a small dead area in the rear of the building. I swore under my breath although I'd expected to find files in dead areas. Just as Rhine Institute was opened, the Government combed the countryside for dead or cloudy areas for their secret and confidential files. There had been one mad claim-staking rush with the Government about six feet ahead of the rest of the general public, business and the underworld.
He came back with a sorrowful look. "They left a concealed address," he said.
I felt like flashing a twenty at him like a private eye did in the old tough-books, but I knew it wouldn't work. Rhine also made it impossible for a public official to take a bribe. So instead, I tried to look distressed.
"This is extremely important. I'd say it was a matter of life and death."
"I'm sorry. A concealed forwarding address is still concealed. If you must get in touch with them, you might drop them a letter to be forwarded. Then if they care to answer, they'll reply to your home."
"Later," I told him. "I'll probably be back to mail it direct from here."
He waved at the writing desk. I nodded and left.
I drove back to the ex-Harrison Farm slowly, thinking it over. Wondering. People did not just go around catching Mekstrom's Disease, from what little I knew of it. And somehow the idea of Marian Harrison withering away or becoming a basket case, or maybe taking the painless way out was a thought that my mind kept avoiding except for occasional flashes of horror.
I drove in toward the farmhouse again and parked in front of the verandah. I was not sure of why I was there except that I wanted to wander through it to see what I could find before I went back to the post-office to write that card or letter.
The back of the house was locked with an old-fashioned slide bolt that was turned with what they used to call an "E" key. I shrugged, oiled my conscience and found a bit of bent wire. Probing a lock like that would have been easy for a total blank; with esper I lifted the simple keepers and slid back the bolt almost as swiftly as if I had used a proper key.
This was no case of disappearance. In every one of the fourteen rooms were the unmistakable signs of a deliberate removal. Discarded stuff was mixed with the odds and ends of packing case materials, a scattered collection of temporary nails, a half-finished but never used box filled with old clothing.
I pawed through this but found nothing, even though I separated it from the rest to help my esper dig it without interference.
I roamed the house slowly letting my perception wander from point to point. I tried to time-dig the place but that was futile. I didn't have enough perception.
I caught only one response. It was in one of the upper bedrooms. But then as I stopped in the room where Marian had slept, I began again to doubt my senses. It could have been esper, but it was more likely that I'd caught the dying traces of perfume.
Then I suddenly realized that the entire premises were clear to me!
An esper map of the world looked sort of like a mottled sky, with bright places and cloudy patches strewn in disorder across it. A mottled sky, except that the psi-pattern usually does not change. But this house had been in a murky area, if not dead. Now it was clear.
I left the house and went to the big combination barn and garage. It was as unsatisfying as the house had been. Phillip Harrison, or someone, had had a workshop out there. I found the bench and a small table where bolt-holes, oil marks, and other traces said that there had been one of those big combination woodworking machines there, the kind that combines circular saw, drill, lathe, planer, router, dado, and does everything. There had been some metal-working stuff there, too, but nothing as elaborate as the woodshop. Mostly things like hacksaws and an electric drill, and a circular scar where a blowtorch had been sitting.
I don't know why I kept on standing there esping the abandoned set-up. Maybe it was because my esper dug the fact that there was something there that I should know about, but which was so minute or remote that the impression did not come through. I stood there puzzled at my own reluctance to leave until something satisfied that almost imperceptible impression.
Idly I leaned down and picked up a bit of metal from the floor and fumbled it in my hand nervously. I looked around the place with my eyes and saw nothing. I gave the whole garage a thorough scanning with my esper and got zero for my trouble.
Finally I snarled at myself for being an imbecile, and left.
Everyone has done what I did, time and time again. I do not recall anything of my walk back to the car, lost in a whirl of thoughts, ideas, plans and questions. I would probably have driven all the way back to my apartment with my mind in that whirligig, driving by habit and training, but I was shaken out of it because I could not start my car by poking that bit of metal in the lock. It did not fit.
I laughed, a bit ashamed of my preoccupation, and flung the bit of metal into the grass, poked my key in the lock—
And then I was out pawing the grass for that piece of metal.
For the small piece of metal I had found on the floor of the abandoned workshop was the spoke of that road sign that had been missing when Catherine and I cracked up!
I drove out along the highway and stopped near one of the standards. I esped the sign, compared my impression against my eyesight. I made sure.
That bit of metal, a half inch long and a bit under a quarter inch in diameter, with both ends faintly broken-ragged, was identical in size and shape to the unbroken spokes in the sign!
Then I noticed something else. The trefoil ornament in the middle did not look the same as I recalled them. I took Thorndyke's card out of my pocket and looked at the stereo. I compared the picture against the real thing before me and I knew that I was right.
The trefoil gizmo was a take-off on the fleur-de-lis or the Boy Scout Tenderfoot badge, or the design they use to signify North on a compass. But the lower flare of the leaves was wider than any of the more familiar emblems; almost as wide as the top. It took a comparison to tell the difference between one of them right-side-up and another one upside-down. One assumes for this design that the larger foils are supposed to be up. If that were so, then the ones along that road out there in or near Yellowstone were right-side-up, while the ones along my familiar highway were upside-down.
I goaded myself. Memory, have these things been turned or were they always upside-down?
The last thing I did as I turned off the highway was to stop and let my esper dig that design once more. I covered the design itself, let my perception roam along the spokes, and then around the circlet that supported the spokes that held the trefoil emblem.
Oh, it was not obvious. It was designed in, so to speak. If I were asked even today for my professional opinion I would have to admit that the way the circlet snapped into the rest of the ornamental scrollwork was a matter of good assembly design, and not a design deliberately created so that the emblem could be turned upside down.
In fact, if it had not been for that tiny, broken spoke I found on the floor of the Harrison garage, never in a million years would I have considered these road signs significant.
* * * * *
At the post office I wrote a letter to Phillip Harrison:
I was by your old place today and was sorry to find that you had moved. I'd like to get in touch with you again. If I may ask, please send me your forwarding address. I'll keep it concealed if you like, or I'll reply through the post office, concealed forward.
As an item of interest, did you know that your house has lost its deadness? A medium-equipped esper can dig it with ease. Have you ever heard of the psi-pattern changing before?
Ah, and another item, that road sign with the busted spoke has been replaced. You must be a bum shot, not to hit that curlicue in the middle. I found the spoke you hit on the floor of your garage, if you'd like it for a souvenir of one close miss.
Please write and let me know how things are going. Rumor has it that Marian contracted Mekstrom's and if you will pardon my mentioning a delicate subject, I am doing so because I really want to help if I am able. After all, no matter how lightly you hold it, I still owe you my life. This is a debt I do not intend to forget.
I did not go to the police.
They were sick of my face and already considering me a candidate for the paranoid ward. All I would have to do is go roaring into the station to tell them that I had uncovered some deep plot where the underground was using ornamental road signs to conceal their own network of roads and directions, and that the disappearance of Catherine Lewis, Dr. Thorndyke and the removal of the Harrisons were all tied together.
Instead, I closed my apartment and told everyone that I was going to take a long, rambling tourist jaunt to settle my nerves; that I thought getting away from the scene might finish the job that time and rest had started.
Then I started to drive. I drove for several days, not attempting to pace off miles, but covering a lot of aimless-direction territory. I was just as likely to spend four hours going North on one highway, and then take the next four coming back South on a parallel highway, and sometimes I even came back to the original starting place. After a week I had come no farther West than across that sliver of West Virginia into Eastern Ohio. And in Eastern Ohio I saw some more of the now familiar and suspicious road signs.
The emblem was right side up, and the signs looked as though they had not been up long.
I followed that road for seventy-five miles, and as I went the signs kept getting newer and newer until I finally came to a truck loaded with pipe, hardware, and ornamental ironwork. Leading the truck was one of those iron mole things.
I watched the automatic gear hoist one of the old pipe and white and black enamel roadsigns up by its roots, and place it on a truck full of discards. I watched the mole drive a corkscrew blade into the ground with a roaring of engine and bucking of the truck. It paused, pulled upward to bring out the screw and its load of dirt, stones and gravel. The crew placed one of the new signs in the cradle and I watched the machine set the sign upright, pour the concrete, tamp down the earth, and then move along down the road.
There was little point in asking questions of the crew, so I just took off and drove to Columbus as hard as I could make it.
* * * * *
Shined, cleaned, polished, and very conservatively dressed, I presented myself to the State Commissioner of Roads and Highways. I toyed briefly with the idea of representing myself as a minor official from some distant state like Alaska or the Virgin Islands, inquiring about these signs for official reasons. But then I knew that if I bumped into a hot telepath I'd be in the soup. On the other hand, mere curiosity on the part of a citizen, well oiled with compliments, would get me at the very least a polite answer.
The Commissioner's fifth-under-secretary bucked me down the hall; another office bucked me upstairs. A third buck-around brought me to the Department of Highways Marking and Road Maps.
A sub-secretary finally admitted that he might be able to help me. His name was Houghton. But whether he was telepath or esper did not matter because the Commission building was constructed right in the middle of a dead area.
I still played it straight. I told him I was a citizen of New York, interested in the new road signs, Ohio was to be commended, et cetera.
"I'm glad you feel that way," he said beaming.
"I presume these signs cost quite a bit more than the stark, black and white enamel jobs?"
"On the contrary," he said with pride. "They might, but mass-production methods brought the cost down. You see, the enamel jobs, while we buy several thousand of the plates for any highway, must be set up, stamped out, enamelled, and so on. The new signs are all made in one plant as they are needed; I don't suppose you know, but the highway number and any other information is put on the plate from loose, snap-in letters. That means we can buy so many thousand of this or that letter or number, and the necessary base plates and put them together as needed. They admitted that they were still running at a loss, but if they could get enough states interested, they'd eventually come out even, and maybe they could reduce the cost. Why, they even have a contingent-clause in the contract stating that if the cost were lowered, they would make a rebate to cover it. That's so the first users will not bide their time instead of buying now."
He went on and on and on like any bureaucrat. I was glad we were in a dead area because he'd have thrown me out of his office for what I was thinking.
Eventually Mr. Houghton ran down and I left.
I toyed around with the idea of barging in on the main office of the company but I figured that might be too much like poking my head into a hornet's nest.
I pocketed the card he gave me from the company, and I studied the ink-fresh road map, which he had proudly supplied. It pointed out in a replica panel of the fancy signs, that the State of Ohio was beautifying their highways with these new signs at no increased cost to the taxpayer, and that the dates in green on the various highways here and there gave the dates when the new signs would be installed. The bottom of the panel gave the Road Commissioner's name in boldface with Houghton's name below in slightly smaller print.
I smiled. Usually I get mad at signs that proclaim that such and such a tunnel is being created by Mayor So-and-so, as if the good mayor were out there with a shovel and hoe digging the tunnel. But this sort of thing would have been a worthy cause if it hadn't been for the sinister side.
I selected a highway that had been completed toward Cincinnati and made my way there with no waste of time.
* * * * *
The road was new and it was another beaut. The signs led me on, mile after mile and sign after sign.
I did not know what I was following, and I was not sure I knew what I was looking for. But I was on the trail of something and a bit of activity, both mental and physical, after weeks of blank-wall frustration made my spirits rise and my mental equipment sharper. The radio in the car was yangling with hillbilly songs, the only thing you can pick up in Ohio, but I didn't care. I was looking for something significant.
I found it late in the afternoon about half-way between Dayton and Cincinnati. One of the spokes was missing.
Fifty yards ahead was a crossroad.
I hauled in with a whine of rubber and brakes, and sat there trying to reason out my next move by logic. Do I turn with the missing spoke, or do I turn with the one that is not missing?
Memory came to my aid. The "ten o'clock" spoke had been missing back there near the Harrison farm. The Harrisons had lived on the left side of the highway. One follows the missing spoke. Here the "two o'clock" spoke was missing, so I turned to the right along the crossroad until I came to another sign that was complete.
Then, wondering, I U-turned and drove back across the main highway and drove for about five miles watching the signs as I went. The ones on my right had that trefoil emblem upside down. The ones on my left were right side up. The difference was so small that only someone who knew the significance would distinguish one from the other. So far as I could reason out, it meant that what I sought was in the other direction. When the emblem was upside down I was going away from, and when right side up, I was going toward.
Away from or toward what?
I U-turned again and started following the signs.
Twenty miles beyond the main highway where I'd seen the sign that announced the turn, I came upon another missing spoke. This indicated a turn to the left, and so I slowed down until I came upon a homestead road leading off toward a farmhouse.
I turned, determined to make like a man lost and hoping that I'd not bump into a telepath.
A few hundred yards in from the main road I came upon a girl who was walking briskly toward me. I stopped. She looked at me with a quizzical smile and asked me if she could be of any help.
Brashly, I nodded. "I'm looking for some old friends of mine," I said. "Haven't seen them for years. Named Harrison."
She smiled up at me. "I don't know of any Harrison around here." Her voice had the Ohio twang.
"Just where do they live?"
I eyed her carefully, hoping my glance did not look like a wolf eyeing a lamb. "Well, they gave me some crude directions. Said I was to turn at the main highway onto this road and come about twenty miles and stop on the left side when I came upon one of those new road signs where someone had shot one of the spokes out."
"Spokes? Left side—" She mumbled the words and was apparently mulling the idea around in her mind. She was not more than about seventeen, sun-tanned and animal-alive from living in the open. I wondered about her. As far as I was concerned, she was part and parcel of this whole mysterious affair. No matter what she said or did, it was an obvious fact that the hidden road sign directions pointed to this farm. And since no one at seventeen can be kept in complete ignorance of the business of the parents, she must be aware of some of the ramifications.
After some thought she said, "No, I don't know of any Harrisons."
I grunted. I was really making the least of this, now that I'd arrived.
"Your folks at home?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied.
"I think I'll drop in and ask them, too."
She shrugged. "Go ahead," she said with the noncommittal attitude of youth. "You didn't happen to notice whether the mailbox flag was up, did you?"
I hadn't, but I espied back quickly and said, "No, it isn't."
"Then the mailman hasn't been to deliver," she said. "Mind if I ride back to the house with you, mister?"
She smiled brightly and got in quickly. I took off down the road toward the house at an easy pace. She seemed interested in the car, and finally said, "I've never been in a car like this before. New?"
"Few weeks," I responded.
"If you want to make it go fast. She'll take this rocky road at fifty, if anyone wants to be so foolish."
I laughed. "Nobody but an idiot would tackle a road like this at fifty."
"I like to go fast. My brother takes it at sixty."
That, so far as I was concerned, was youthful exaggeration. I was busy telling her all the perils of fast driving when a rabbit came barrelling out of the bushes along one side and streaked across in front of me.
I twitched the wheel. The car went out of the narrow road and up on the shoulder, tilting quite a bit. Beyond the rabbit I swung back into the road, but not before the youngster had grabbed my arm to keep from being tossed all over the front seat.
Her grip was like a hydraulic vise. My arm went numb and my fingers went limp on the wheel. I struggled with my left hand to spin the wheel to keep on the narrow, winding road and my foot hit the brake to bring the car down, but fast.
Taking a deep breath as we stopped, I shook my right hand by holding it in my left at the wrist. I was a mass of tingling pins and needles because she had grabbed me just above the elbow. It felt as though it would have taken only a trifle more to pinch my arm off and leave me with a bloody stump.
"Sorry, mister," she said breathlessly, her eyes wide open. Her face was white around the corners of the mouth and at the edges of her nose. The whiteness of the flesh under the deep tan gave her a completely frightened look, far more than the shake-up could have produced.
I reached over and took her hand. "That's a mighty powerful grip you—"
The flesh of her hand was hard and solid. Not the meaty solidity of good tone, fine training and excellent health. It was the solidity of a—all I could think of at the time was a green cucumber. I squeezed a bit and the flesh gave way only a trifle. I rubbed my thumb over her palm and found it solid-hard instead of soft and yielding.
I had never seen a case of Mekstrom's Disease—before.
I looked down at the hand and said, "Young lady, do you realize that you have an advanced case of Mekstrom's Disease?"
She eyed me coldly. "Now," she said in a hard voice. "I know you'll come in."
Something in my make-up objects violently to being ordered around by a slip of a girl. I balance off at about one-sixty. I guessed her at about two-thirds of that, say one-ten or thereabouts—
"One-eight," she said levelly.
"Yes," she replied calmly. "And I don't mind letting you know it, so you'll not try anything stupid."
I'm getting the heck out of here!
"No, you're not. You are coming in with me."
"Like heck!" I exploded.
"Don't be silly. You'll come in. Or shall I lay one along your jaw and carry you?"
I had to try something, anything, to get free. Yet—
"Now you're being un-bright," she told me insolently. "You should know that you can't plan any surprise move with a telepath. And if you try a frontal attack I'll belt you so cold they'll have to put you in the oven for a week."
I just let her ramble for a few seconds because when she was rattling this way she couldn't put her entire mental attention on my thoughts. So while she was yaking it off, I had an idea that felt as though it might work.
She shut up like a clam when she realized that her mouthing had given me a chance to think, and I went into high gear with my perception:
Not bad—for a kid. Growing up fast. Been playing hookey from momma, leaving off your panties like the big girls do. I can tell by the elastic cord marks you had 'em on not long ago.
Seventeeners have a lot more modesty than they like to admit. She was stunned by my cold-blooded catalog of her body just long enough for me to make a quick lunge across her lap to the door handle on her side.
I flipped it over and gave her a shove at the same time. She went bottom over appetite in a sprawl that would have jarred the teeth loose in a normal body and might have cracked a few bones. But she landed on the back of her neck, rolled and came to her feet like a cat.
I didn't wait to close the door. I just tromped on the go-pedal and the car leaped forward with a jerk that slammed the door for me. I roared forward and left her just as she was making another grab.
How I hoped to get out of there I did not know. All I wanted was momentary freedom to think. I turned this way and that to follow the road until I came to the house. I left the road, circled the house with the turbine screaming like a banshee and the car taking the corners on the outside wheels. I skidded into a turn like a racing driver and ironed my wheels out flat on the takeaway, rounded another corner and turned back into the road again going the other way.
She was standing there waiting for me as I pelted past at a good sixty, and she reached out one girder-strong arm, latched onto the frame of the open window on my side, and swung onto the half-inch trim along the bottom of the car-body like a switchman hooking a freight car.
She reached for the steering wheel with her free hand.
I knew what was to happen next. She'd casually haul and I'd go off the road into a tree or pile up in a ditch, and while the smoke was clearing out of my mind, she'd be untangling me from the wreck and carting me over her shoulder, without a scratch to show for her adventure.
I yanked the wheel—whip! whap!—cutting an arc. I slammed past a tree, missing it by half an inch. I wiped her off the side of the car like a mailbag is clipped from the fast express by the catch-hook.
I heard a cry of "Whoof!" as her body hit the trunk of the tree. But as I regained the road and went racing on to safety, I saw in the rear view mirror that she had bounced off the tree, sprawled a bit, caught her balance, and was standing in the middle of the road, shaking her small but very dangerous fist at my tail license plate.
I didn't stop driving at one-ten until I was above Dayton again. Then I paused along the road to take stock.
Stock? What the hell did I know, really?
I'd uncovered and confirmed the fact that there was some secret organization that had a program that included their own highway system, concealed within the confines of the United States. I was almost certain by this time that they had been the prime movers in the disappearance of Catherine and Dr. Thorndyke. They—
I suddenly re-lived the big crack-up.
Willingly now, no longer rejecting the memory, I followed my recollection as Catherine and I went along that highway at a happy pace. With care I recalled every detail of Catherine, watching the road through my mind and eyes, how she'd mentioned the case of the missing spoke, and how I'd projected back to perceive that which I had not been conscious of.
Reminding myself that it was past, I went through it again, deliberately. The fallen limb that blocked the road, my own horror as the wheels hit it. The struggle to regain control of the careening car.
As a man watching a motion picture, I watched the sky and the earth turn over and over, and I heard my voice mouthing wordless shouts of fear. Catherine's cry of pain and fright came, and I listened as my mind reconstructed it this time without wincing. Then the final crash, the horrid wave of pain and the sear of the flash-fire. I went through my own horror and self condemnation, and my concern over Catherine. I didn't shut if off. I waded through it.
Now I remembered something else.
Something that any normal, sensible mind would reject as an hallucination. Beyond any shadow of a doubt there had been no time for a man to rig a block and tackle on a tree above a burning automobile in time to get the trapped victims out alive. And even more certain it was that no normal man of fifty would have had enough strength to lift a car by its front bumper while his son made a rush into the flames.
That tackle had been rigged and burned afterward. But who would reject a block and tackle in favor of an impossibly strong man? No, with the tackle in sight, the recollection of a man lifting that overturned automobile like a weight lifter pressing up a bar bell would be buried in any mind as a rank hallucination. Then one more item came driving home hard. So hard that I almost jumped when the idea crossed my mind.
Both Catherine and Dr. Thorndyke had been telepaths.
A telepath close to any member of his underground outfit would divine their purpose, come to know their organization, and begin to grasp the fundamentals of their program. Such a person would be dangerous.
On the other hand, an esper such as myself could be turned aside with bland remarks and a convincing attitude. I knew that I had no way of telling lie from truth and that made my problem a lot more difficult.
From the facts that I did have, something smelled of overripe seafood. Government and charities were pouring scads of dough into a joint called the Medical Research Center. To hear the scholars of medicine tell it, Mekstrom's Disease was about the last human frailty that hadn't been licked to a standstill. They boasted that if a victim of practically anything had enough life left in him to crawl to a telephone and use it, his life could be saved. They grafted well. I'd heard tales of things like fingers, and I know they were experimenting on hands, arms and legs with some success. But when it came to Mekstrom's they were stopped cold. Therefore the Medical Research Center received a walloping batch of money for that alone; all the money that used to go to the various heart, lung, spine and cancer funds. It added up well.
But the Medical Research Center seemed unaware that some group had solved their basic problem.
From the books I've read I am well aware of one of the fundamental principles of running an underground: Keep it underground! The Commie menace in these United States might have won out in the middle of the century if they'd been able to stay a secret organization. So the Highways in Hiding could stay underground and be an efficient organization only until someone smoked them out.
That one was going to be me.
But I needed an aide-de-camp. Especially and specifically I needed a trained telepath, one who would listen to my tale and not instantly howl for the nut-hatch attendants. The F.B.I. were all trained investigators and they used esper-telepath teams all the time. One dug the joint while the other dug the inhabitant, which covered the situation to a faretheewell.
It would take time to come up with a possible helper. So I spent the next hour driving toward Chicago, and by the time I'd crossed the Ohio-Indiana line and hit Richmond, I had a plan laid out. I placed a call to New York and within a few minutes I was talking to Nurse Farrow.
I'll not go into detail because there was a lot of mish-mash that is not particularly interesting and a lot more that covered my tracks since I'd parted company with her on the steps of the hospital. I did not, of course, mention my real purpose over the telephone and Miss Farrow could not read my mind from New York.
The upshot of the deal was that I felt that I needed a nurse for a while, not that I was ill, but that I felt a bit woozy now and then because I hadn't learned to slow down. I worked too fast and too long and my condition was not up to it yet. This Miss Farrow allowed as being quite possible. I repeated my offer to pay her at the going prices for registered nurses with a one-month guarantee, paid in advance. That softened her quite a bit. Then I added that I'd videograph her a check large enough to cover the works plus a round trip ticket. She should come out and have a look, and if she weren't satisfied, she could return without digging into her own pocket. All she'd lose was one day, and it might be a bit of a vacation if she enjoyed flying in a jetliner at sixty thousand feet.
The accumulation of offers finally sold her and she agreed to arrange a leave of absence. She'd meet me in the morning of the day-after-tomorrow, at Central Airport in Chicago.
I videographed the check and then took off again, confident that I'd be able to sell her on the idea of being the telepath half of my amateur investigation team.
Then because I needed some direct information, I turned West and crossed the line into Indiana, heading toward Marion. So far I had a lot of well-placed suspicions, but until I was certain, I could do no more than postulate ideas. I had to know definitely how to identify Mekstrom's Disease, or at least the infected flesh. I have a fairly good recall; all I needed now was to have someone point to a Case and say flatly that this was a case of Mekstrom's Disease. Then I'd know whether what I'd seen in Ohio was actually one hundred percent Mekstrom.
I walked into the front office with a lot of self-assurance. The Medical Center was a big, rambling place with a lot of spread-out one- and two-story buildings that looked so much like "Hospital" that no one in the world would have mistaken them for anything else. The main building was by the road, the rest spread out behind as far as I could see; beyond my esper range even though the whole business was set in one of the clearest psi areas that I'd even been in.
I was only mildly worried about telepaths. In the first place, the only thing I had to hide was my conviction about a secret organization and how part of it functioned. In the second place, the chances were good that few, if any, telepaths were working there, if the case of Dr. Thorndyke carried any weight. That there were some telepaths, I did not doubt, but these would not be among the high-powered help.
So I sailed in and faced the receptionist, who was a good-looking chemical-type blonde with a pale skin, lovely complexion and figure to match. She greeted me with a glacial calm and asked my business.
Brazenly I lied. "I'm a freelance writer and I'm looking for material."
"Have you an assignment?" she asked without a trace of interest in the answer.
"Not this time. I'm strictly freelance. I like it better this way because I can write whatever I like."
Her glacial air melted a bit at the inference that my writing had not been in vain. "Where have you been published?" she asked.
I made a fast stab in the dark, aiming in a direction that looked safe. "Last article was one on the latest archeological findings in Assyria. Got my source material direct from the Oriental Institute in Chicago."
"Too bad I missed it," she said, looking regretful. I had to grin, I'd carefully avoided giving the name of the publication and the supposed date. She went on, "I suppose you would not be happy with the usual press release?"
"Handouts contain material, all right, but they're so confounded trite and impersonal. People prefer to read anecdotes about the people rather than a listing of facts and figures."
She nodded at that. "Just a moment," she said. Then she addressed her telephone in a voice that I couldn't hear. When she finished, she smiled in a warmish-type manner as if to indicate that she'd gone all out in my behalf and that I'd be a heel to forget it. I nodded back and tried to match the tooth-paste-ad smile. Then the door opened and a man came in briskly.
He was a tall man, as straight as a ramrod, with a firm jaw and a close-clipped moustache. He had an air like a thin-man's Captain Bligh. When he spoke, his voice was as clipped and precise as his moustache; in fact it was so precise that it seemed almost mechanical.
"I am Dr. Lyon Sprague," he clipped. "What may I do for you?"
"I'm Steve Cornell," I said. "I'm here after source material for a magazine article about Mekstrom's Disease. I'd prefer not to take my material from a handout."
"Do you hope to get more?" he demanded.
"I usually do. I've seen your handouts; I could get as much by taking last year's medical encyclopedia. Far too dry, too uninteresting, too impersonal."
"Just exactly what do you have in mind?"
I eyed him with speculation. Here was not a man who would take kindly to imaginative conjecture. So Dr. Lyon Sprague was not the man I'd like to talk to. With an inward smile, I said, "I have a rather new idea about Mekstrom's that I'd like to discuss with the right party."
He looked down at me, although our eyes were on the same level. "I doubt that any layman could possibly come up with an idea that has not been most thoroughly discussed here among the research staff."
"In cold words you feel that no untrained lunk has a right to have an idea."
He froze. "I did not say that."
"You implied, at least, that suggestions from outsiders were not welcome. I begin to understand why the Medical Center has failed to get anywhere with Mekstrom's in the past twenty years."
"What do you mean?" he snapped.
"Merely that it is the duty of all scientists to listen to every suggestion and to discard it only after it has been shown wrong."
"Such as—?" he said coldly, with a curl of his eyebrows.
"Well, just for instance, suppose some way were found to keep a victim alive during the vital period, so that he would end up a complete Mekstrom Human."
"The idea is utterly fantastic. We have no time for such idle speculation. There is too much foggy thinking in the world already. Why, only last week we had a Velikovsky Adherent tell us that Mekstrom's had been predicted in the Bible. There are still people reporting flying saucers, you know. We have no time for foolish notions or utter nonsense."
"May I quote you?"
"Of course not," he snapped stiffly. "I'm merely pointing out that non-medical persons cannot have the grasp—"
The door opened again and a second man entered. The new arrival had pleasant blue eyes, a van dyke beard, and a good-natured air of self-confidence and competence. "May I cut in?" he said to Dr. Sprague.
"Certainly. Mr. Cornell, this is Scholar Phelps, Director of the Center. Scholar Phelps, this is Mr. Steve Cornell, a gentleman of the press," he added in a tone of voice that made the identification a sort of nasty name. "Mr. Cornell has an odd theory about Mekstrom's Disease that he intends to publish unless we can convince him that it is not possible."
"Odd theory?" asked Scholar Phelps with some interest. "Well, if Mr. Cornell can come up with something new, I'll be most happy to hear him out."
Dr. Lyon Sprague decamped with alacrity. Scholar Phelps smiled after him, then turned to me and said, "Dr. Sprague is a diligent worker, businesslike and well-informed, but he lacks the imagination and the sense of humor that makes a man brilliant in research. Unfortunately, Dr. Sprague cannot abide anything that is not laid out as neat as an interlocking tile floor. Now, Mr. Cornell, how about this theory of yours?"
"First," I replied, "I'd like to know how come you turn up in the nick of time."
He laughed good-naturedly. "We always send Dr. Sprague out to interview visitors. If the visitor can be turned away easily, all is well and quiet. Dr. Sprague can do the job with ease. But if the visitor, like yourself, Mr. Cornell, proposes something that distresses the good Dr. Sprague and will not be loftily dismissed, Dr. Sprague's blood pressure goes up. We all keep a bit of esper on his nervous system and when the fuse begins to blow, we come out and effect a double rescue."
I laughed with him. Apparently the Medical Center staff enjoyed needling Dr. Sprague. "Scholar Phelps, before I get into my theory, I'd like to know more about Mekstrom's Disease. I may not be able to use it in my article, but any background material works well with writers of fact articles."
"You're quite right. What would you like to know?"
"I've heard, too many times, that no one knows anything at all about Mekstrom's. This is unbelievable, considering that you folks have been working on it for some twenty years."
He nodded. "We have some, but it's precious little."
"It seems to me that you could analyze the flesh—"
He smiled. "We have. The state of analytical chemistry is well advanced. We could, I think, take a dry scraping out of the cauldron used by MacBeth's witches, and determine whether Shakespeare had reported the formula correctly. Now, young man, if you think that something is added to the human flesh to make it Mekstrom's Flesh, you are wrong. Standard analysis shows that the flesh is composed of exactly the same chemicals that normal flesh contains, in the same proportion. Nothing is added, as, for instance, in the case of calcification."
"Then what is the difference?"
"The difference lies in the structure. By X-ray crystallographic method, we have determined that Mekstrom's Flesh is a micro-crystalline formation, interlocked tightly." Scholar Phelps looked at me thoughtfully. "Do you know much about crystallography?"
As a mechanical engineer I did, but as a writer of magazine articles I felt I should profess some ignorance, so I merely said that I knew a little about the subject.
"Well, Mr. Cornell, you may know that in the field of solid geometry there are only five possible regular polyhedrons. Like the laws of topology that state that no more than four colors need be used to print a map on a flat surface, or that no more than seven colors are required to print separate patches on a toroid, the laws of solid geometry prove that no more than five regular polyhedrons are possible. Now in crystallography there are only thirty-two possible classes of crystal lattice construction. Of these only thirty have ever been discovered in nature. Yet we know how the other two would appear if they did emerge in natural formation."
I knew it all right but I made scribblings in my notebooks as if the idea were of interest. Scholar Phelps waited patiently until I'd made the notation.
"Now, Mr. Cornell, here comes the shock. Mekstrom's Flesh is one of the other two classes."
This was news to me and I blinked.
Then his face faded into a solemn expression. "Unfortunately," he said in a low voice, "knowing how a crystal should form does not help us much in forming one to that class. We have no real control over the arrangement of atoms in a crystal lattice. We can prevent the crystal formation, we can control the size of the crystal as it forms. But we cannot change the crystal into some other class."
"I suppose it's sort of like baking a cake. Once the ingredients are mixed, the cake can be big or small or shaped to fit the pan, or you can spoil it complete. But if you mix devil's food, it either comes out devil's food or nothing."
"An amusing analogy and rather correct. However I prefer the one used years ago by Dr. Willy Ley, who observed that analysis is fine, but you can't learn how a locomotive is built by melting it down and analyzing the mess."
Then he went on again. "To get back to Mekstrom's Disease and what we know about it. We know that the crawl goes at about a sixty-fourth of an inch per hour. If, for instance, you turned up here with a trace on your right middle finger, the entire first joint would be Mekstrom's Flesh in approximately three days. Within two weeks your entire middle finger would be solid. Without anesthesia we could take a saw and cut off a bit for our research."
"None whatever. The joints knit together, the arteries become as hard as steel tubing and the heart cannot function properly—not that the heart cares about minor conditions such as the arteries in the extremities, but as the Mekstrom infection crawls up the arm toward the shoulder the larger arteries become solid and then the heart cannot drive the blood through them in its accustomed fashion. It gets like an advanced case of arteriosclerosis. Eventually the infection reaches and immobilizes the shoulder; this takes about ninety days. By this time, the other extremities have also become infected and the crawl is coming up all four limbs."
He looked at me very solemnly at that. "The rest is not pretty. Death comes shortly after that. I can almost say that he is blessed who catches Mekstrom's in the left hand for them the infection reaches the heart before it reaches other parts. Those whose initial infection is in the toes are particularly cursed, because the infection reaches the lower parts of the body. I believe you can imagine the result, elimination is prevented because of the stoppage of peristalsis. Death comes of autointoxication, which is slow and painful."
I shuddered at the idea. The thought of death has always bothered me. The idea of looking at a hand and knowing that I was going to die by the calendar seemed particularly horrible.
Taking the bit between my teeth, I said, "Scholar Phelps, I've been wondering whether you and your Center have ever considered treating Mekstrom's by helping it?"
"Helping it?" he asked.
"Sure. Consider what a man might be if he were Mekstrom's all the way through."
He nodded. "You would have a physical superman," he said. "Steel-strong muscles driving steel-hard flesh covered by a near impenetrable skin. Perhaps such a man would be free of all minor pains and ills. Imagine a normal bacterium trying to bore into flesh as hard as concrete. Mekstrom Flesh tends to be acid-resistant as well as tough physically. It is not beyond the imagination to believe that your Mekstrom Superman might live three times our frail four-score and ten. But—"
Here he paused.
"Not to pull down your house of cards, this idea is not a new one. Some years ago we invited a brilliant young doctor here to study for his scholarate. The unfortunate fellow arrived with the first traces of Mekstrom's in his right middle toe. We placed about a hundred of our most brilliant researchers under his guidance, and he decided to take this particular angle of study. He failed; for all his efforts, he did not stay his death by a single hour. From that time to the present we have maintained one group on this part of the problem."
It occurred to me at that moment that if I turned up with a trace of Mekstrom's I'd be seeking out the Highways in Hiding rather than the Medical Center. That fast thought brought a second: Suppose that Dr. Thorndyke learned that he had a trace, or rather, the Highways found it out. What better way to augment their medical staff than to approach the victim with a proposition: You help us, work with us, and we will save your life.