This etext was produced from Planet Stories July 1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
THE MAN WHO STAKED THE STARS
By CHARLES DYE
Bryce Carter could afford a smug smile. For hadn't he risen gloriously from Thieves Row to director of famed U.T.? Was not Earth, Moon, and all the Belt, at this very moment awaiting his command for the grand coup? And wasn't his cousin-from-Montehedo a star-sent help?
* * * * *
"What do I do for a living?" repeated the slim dark-skinned young man in the next seat of the Earth-Moon liner. "I'm a witch doctor," he answered with complete sincerity.
"What do you do? I mean, what do they hire you for?" asked Donahue with understandable confusion and a touch of nervousness.
"I'm registered as a psychotherapist," said the dark-skinned young man. He looked too young to be practicing a profession, barely nineteen, but that could be merely a sign of talent, Donahue reflected. The new teaching and testing methods graduated them young.
"I know I am a witch doctor because my grandfather and his father and his father's father were witch doctors and I learned a special technique from my uncles who are registered therapists with medical degrees like mine. But the technique is not the one you find in the books, it is ... unusual. They don't say where they learned it but it's not hard to guess." The dark youth shrugged cheerfully. "So—I'm a witch doctor."
"That's an interesting thought," said Donahue. It would be a long three day trip to the Moon and he had expected to be bored, but this conversation was not boring. "What do you do?" he again asked. "Specifically." Donahue had rugged features, a dark tan and attractively sun-bleached hair worn a little too long. He exuded a sort of rough charm which branded him one of the class of politicians, and he knew how to draw people out, so now he settled himself more comfortably for an extended spell of listening. "Tell me more and join me in a drink." He signalled the hostess and continued with the right mixture of admiring interest and condescending scepticism. "You don't chant spells and hire ghosts, do you?"
"Not exactly." The dark innocent looking young face smiled with a cheerful flash of white teeth. "I'll tell you what I did to a man, a man named Bryce Carter."
* * * * *
A group of men sat in a skyscraper at Cape Hatteras, with their table running parallel to a huge floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the clouded sky and gray waves of the Atlantic. They were the respected directors of Union Transport, and, like most men of high position, they had a keen sense of self-preservation and a knowledge of ways and means that included little in the way of scruples.
The chairman rapped lightly. "Gentlemen, your attention please. I have an announcement to make."
The buzz of talk at the long table stopped and the fourteen men turned their faces. The meeting had been called a full week early, and they expected some emergency as an explanation. "A disturbing announcement, I am afraid. Someone is using this corporation for illegal purposes." The chairman's voice was mild and apologetic.
Bryce Carter, second from the opposite end, was brought to a shock of tense balanced alertness. How much did he know? He gave no sign of emotion, but reached for a cigarette to cover any change in his breathing, fumbling perhaps more than usual.
The men at the long table waited, showing a variety of bored expressions that never had any connection with their true reactions. The chairman was a small, inconspicuous, sandy-haired man whose ability they respected so deeply that they had elected him the chairman to have him where they could watch him. They knew he was not one to mention trifles, and there was a moment of silence. "All right, John," said one, letting out his held breath and leaning back, "I'll bite. What kind of illegal purposes?"
"I don't know much," the small man apologized, "Only that the crime rate has risen forty percent in the average of the cities served by UT, and in Callastro City, Callastro, and Panama City, where we just put in a spaceport, it more than doubled."
"Funny coincidence," someone grunted.
"Very funny," said another. "If the police notice it, and the public hears of it—"
There was no man there who would willingly have parted with his place at that table, no one who was unaware that in fighting his way to a place at that table he had seized some part of control of the destiny of the solar system.
UT—Union Transport, spread the meshes of its transportation service through almost every city of Earth and the hamlets and roads and bus and railroad and airlines between—and even to the few far ports where mankind had found a toehold in space. But its existence was precariously balanced on public trust.
UT's unity from city to city and country to country, its spreading growth had saved the public much discomfort and expense of overlapping costs and transfers and confusion, and so the public, on the advice of economists, grudgingly allowed UT to grow ever bigger. There was a conservative movement to put all such outsize businesses under government ownership as had been the trend in the last generation but the economy was mushrooming too fast for the necessary neatness, and the public rightly would not trust politicos in any operation too confusing for them to be watched, and preferred to leave such businesses to private operation, accepting the danger for the profit of efficient and penurious operation, dividends and falling costs.
But all these advantages were barely enough to buy UT's life from year to year. It had grown too big.
Its directors held power to make or break any city and the prosperity of its inhabitants by mere small shifts in shipping fees, a decision to put in a line, or a terminal, or a crossroad. The power was indirectly recognized in the honors and higher offices, the free entertainment and lavish privileges available to them from any chamber of commerce and any political representative, lobbying discreetly for a slight bias of choice that would place an airport or spaceport in their district rather than another.
Perhaps some of the directors used their position for personal pleasure and advantage, but power used for the sake of controlling the direction of growth of races and nations, power for its own sake was the game which was played at that table, its members playing the game of control against each other and the world for high stakes of greater control, nursing behind their untelling faces who knows what megalomaniac dreams of dominion.
Yet they used their control discreetly, serving the public welfare and keeping the public good-will. When it was possible.
As always Bryce Carter sat relaxed, lazily smiling, his expression not changing to his thoughts.
"Who knows of this besides us?" someone asked.
The chairman answered mildly. "It was a company statistician in the publicity department who noticed it. He was looking for favorable correlations, I believe." His pale blue eyes ranged across their faces, touching Bryce Carter's face expressionlessly in passing. "I requested that he tell no one else until I had investigated." He added apologetically, "Commitments for drug addiction correlate too."
That was worse news. "Narcotics investigators are no fools," someone said thoughtfully.
* * * * *
Neiswanger, a thin orderly man near the head of the table, pressed his fingertips together, frowning slightly. "I take it then that our corporation is being used as a criminal means of large scale smuggling of drugs, transport of criminals on false identification and transport for resale of the goods resulting from their thefts. Is that correct?" Neiswanger always liked to have things neatly listed.
"I think so," said the chairman.
"And you would say that the organization responsible is centered in this corporation?"
"It would seem likely, yes."
The members of the board stirred uneasily, seeing a blast of sensational headlines, investigations which would spread to their private lives, themselves giving repetitive testimony to inquisitive politicians in a glare of television lights while the Federated Nations anti-cartel commission vivisected the UT giant into puny, separate squabbling midgets.
It was not an appealing prospect.
"We'll have to stop it, of course," said a lean, blond man whose name was Stout. He could be relied on to say the obvious and keep a discussion driving to the point. "I understand we have a good detective agency. If we put them on this with payment for speed and silence—"
"And when we know who is responsible," asked Neiswanger, "Then what do we do?"
There was silence as they came to another full stop in thinking. Turning culprits over to the police was out of the question, an admission that such crimes had happened, and could happen again. Firing the few detected could not impress the undetected and unfired ones enough to discourage them from their profitable criminality.
"Hire some killings," said the round faced Mr. Beldman, with simplicity.
The chairman laughed. "You are joking of course, Mr. Beldman."
"Of course," said Mr. Beldman, and laughed barkingly, being well aware of the permanent film record taken of all meetings. But he was not joking. Nobody there was joking.
The detective agency and the hired killers would be arranged for.
Bryce Carter leaned back with the slight cynical smile on his lean face that was his habitual expression. "Suppose the top man is high in the company?" he suggested softly. "What then?" He did not need to point out that the disappearance of such a man would be enough to start a police and stock-holders investigation of the company in itself. The implication was clear. Such a man could not be touched.
"A hypnotist," suggested Raal. "Someone to make our top man back track and clean up his own mess."
"Illegal, dangerous and difficult, Mr. Raal," Irving said sourly. "There are extremely severe penalties against any complicity in the unsupervised use of hypnotism or hypnotic drugs, and their use against the will of the subject is a major crime."
"A circulating company psychologist would be legal," suggested the lean blond man whose name was Stout.
"We have over seventy-five of those on the company payrolls already and I fail to see what use—"
"One of the special high priced boys who iron out kinks in groups by joining them and working with them for a while, like that Conference Manager we had with us last year. Every member of the group that hires one has to sign an application for treatment, and a legal release. They are very quiet and don't broadcast what they do or who they talked with, but they have a good record of results. The groups who hire them report better work and easier work. We could use one as a trouble shooter."
"Are they a special organization?" someone asked. "I think I've heard of them."
"Yes, some sort of a union. I can't remember the name."
"What would you expect them to do for us?" asked Irving.
"I hear—" Stout said vaguely, his eyes wandering from face to face, "that they have a special tough technique for hard case trouble makers." For those who knew him, the vague look was a veil over some thought which pleased him. Presumably he was thinking the thing which had occurred to them all.
* * * * *
The culprit might be a member of the Board. There was a sudden cheerful interest visible among them as they wondered who was quarry for the "tough treatment."
"I've heard of that," said Wan Lun, remembering. "It has been said that they not only do not inform others of the fact of treatment but frequently do not inform the man under treatment but seem to be only a new friend until—poof." He smiled. "I think the guild name is Manoba. The Manoba Group."
Stout said, "They'll probably charge enough for the skill."
Wan said, smiling, "I also heard some idle rumor that in a few such cases discord within a group was alleviated by sudden suicide. Presumably a psychologist can grow impatient and push a certain button in the mind—"
"Sounds like a good idea," Beldman said. "Do you think if we offered this Manoba the right kind of money—"
"You don't mean that, Mister Beldman," cut in the chairman reprovingly. "You're joking again."
"We're all great jokers," said Beldman, and laughed.
"I move we vote a sum for the hiring of a Manoba psychologist."
"Seconded, how about five hundred thousand?"
"I don't know their fees," the chairman objected cautiously.
"You can turn back any surplus. We stand to lose more than that by several orders of magnitude. Spend it at your discretion."
"Make it seven hundred thousand. Give him a little more room."
"I so move."
"Carry it to a vote."
They slipped their hands under the table edge before their respective seats, and each man ran his fingers over two buttons concealed there, before him, chose between the yes and the no button and pushed one, the choice of his fingers unseen by the others.
Two numbers lit up on the small divided panel before the chairman. He looked at them with his mild face expressionless. "Rejected by one vote."
Unanimity was the law on Board decisions, which by a natural law was probably the reason why no love was lost among them, but this time irritation was curbed by interest. They sat watching each other's expressions with glances which seemed casual. Whose was the one vote?
"I move that the vote be repeated and made open," someone said.
"All in favor of the appropriation for the psychologist raise your left hand," the chairman requested.
They complied and looked at each other. All hands were up.
"Carried on the second vote," the chairman said without apparent interest. "For my own curiosity will the gentleman who voted nay on the secret vote the first time speak up and explain his objections, and why he changed his mind on the open vote?"
There was silence a moment—Neiswanger looking at his neat fingernails, Bryce Carter smoking, and smiling slightly as he always smiled, Stout leaning back casually scanning his eyes from face to face. Beldman lit a cigar and released a cloud of blue smoke with a contented sigh. No one spoke.
"Gentlemen," said the chairman. "It is entirely likely that the culprit is among us."
"Never mind the melodrama, John." Irving tapped the table impatiently. "We've dealt with that. Let's get on to the next business."
In the exit lounge at floor five Bryce Carter stopped a moment and glanced at himself in the mirror. Thick neck, thick body—a physique so evenly and heavily muscled that it looked fat until he moved. Atop the thick body a lean face that he didn't like stared back at him. It was darkly tanned, with underlying freckles that were almost black. Years had passed since he had worked in space, but the space-tan remained indelible. It was not a bland or pretty face.
At the dinner, deep in discussion with Mr. Wan, he had been surprised to find himself smiling at intervals, irrepressibly. He hoped it had looked cordial, and not too much like a cat enjoying the company of mice.
They had no defense against him. The drugs organization could never be traced to him. The connection was too well concealed. Even the organization knew nothing about him.
The only evidence which could make the connection was in his own mind. The only witness against him was himself. He cast his mind back over the meeting and dinner but there had been no slips past the first shock of the chairman's announcement, and that had been unobserved by anyone. The psychologist they had hired might perhaps get a betraying flicker of expression from him in an interview, many well-trained observers of human reactions could read expressions that keenly, but the interviewing of all the Board by the psychologist was not likely. The Directors of the Board were even now climbing into trains and strato planes to scatter back to the far points of the earth. It would take many days for an investigating psychologist to follow to interview each one. He and Irving would be last on the list, for he went to Moonbase City, and Irving to Luna City.
He had weeks.
He smiled, fastening bands in his cuffs that folded them tightly on his wrists, zipping up his suitcoat and slipping on gloves. He looked at himself again. Where he had been wearing a conservative dark silk business suit with a short cape, he now seemed to be wearing a tailored ski-suit with an odd cowl, or a pressure suit without boots or helmet, which was what it was. Carrying the zipper up further would have turned the cape to an airtight helmet bubble.
Employes and executives passing in and out of the UT building gave the clothes an approving and interested glance as they passed. The justification by utility was obvious. It had cost money to have a pressure suit designed light and flexible enough for comfortable wear, but long ago he had grown irked by the repetitious business of climbing in and out of clothes every time one stepped through a space lock, while overcapes and hoods were needed stepping outside of any temperate zone Earth building in winter.
A pressure suit was completely independent of weather and regulated its own internal heat. Since the suit had been designed the manufacturer had begun to receive an increasing number of orders for duplicates, and was now being put into mass production. Probably in these five minutes he had just made many more sales for the manufacturer.
He was setting a style, he thought in pleased surprise, stepping out of the building. The salt wind hit him with a blast of cold, and the automatic thermostatic wiring in the suit countered with a wave of warmth as he leaned into the wind and started to walk. The connection between the Union Hotel and the building he had just left was an arched sidewalk that curved between them, five stories above the sand and surf.
The hotel was an impressively towering building against the ragged sky, and as he walked a gleam broke through from the hidden sunset and spotlighted it and the low scudding clouds in a sudden glowing red. He stopped and leaned against the balustrade to watch the red gleams reflecting from the bay. Red and purple clouds fled by low overhead, their colors changing as they moved. This was something a man couldn't see in space or on the moon.
But after a moment he couldn't fully enjoy it, because he was being watched. The feeling was disturbing.
Damn rubbernecks, he thought, and turned irritably, half hoping that at least it would be an acquaintance or some pretty girls.
But there was no one watching him.
A few pedestrians walked by hurriedly because it was growing dark and the view that they had come to enjoy was fading. The wind wrapped their enveloping capes around them and made them all look abnormally tall and columnar.
It was darker. The sidewalk lights abruptly flicked on in a flood of amber light that thickened the twilight beyond their circle to an opaque purple curtain of darkness.
He noticed a pedestrian walking slowly towards him from the direction he had come. The figure approached more slowly than seemed natural, with his head bowed and his hands in his pockets as though lost in thought.
* * * * *
A trailer from the detective agency? It was too soon for that. If it were arranged that every member of the Board be trailed, still it could not have been arranged and begun so soon.
Besides, there was something more deadly than that in the walking man's indifference.
A killer arranged by Beldman? It would be natural for Beldman or Stout to take a chance and fight back the direct way. But there was no evidence. How could either of them have decided who to blame or who to fight?
The few huge buildings that stood dark against the night sky were being brightened now by lights going on in hundreds of windows. In long slender spans between them stretched the aerial walks and the necklaces of amber lights that outlined them. The wind blew colder across the walks and the view of sea and sky that had been visible from them now was blotted out by night. The walkers were going in. There was small chance of sheltering himself in a crowd, or even of keeping only one or two walkers between himself and the one who followed him.
At the first sight of the approaching figure he had instinctively leaned back against the concrete railing and taken his gun from its pocket holster, holding it lightly in his gloved hand.
An aged couple and a vigorous middle-aged woman hurrying in the opposite direction glanced at him without interest or alarm. His pose was not menacing, and anyway most men with money enough to travel carried hand arms.
This was an indirect effect of a Federated Nations ruling that only hand arms of a regulated deadliness be manufactured as the armament of nations. The ruling had been carefully considered for other secondary effects, for any nation growing over-centralized and militaristic was likely to arm its citizens universally for greater military power by numbers, and then suffer the natural consequences of having armed their public opinion.
An armed man need not vote to be counted, and once having learned that lesson, the feeling that an armed man carried his bill of rights in his pocket made this the first clause of the written and unwritten constitutions of many suddenly democratic nations. "The right of the yoemanry to carry arms shall not be abridged." They kept their guns.
And with weapons instantly available to hot tempers, dueling came back into custom in most places.
All this had little effect on the large calm manufacturing countries who had run the UN and now ran the FN, but it made easy their decision that since, in space, policing is almost impossible, the citizens who venture there must be armed to protect themselves. Thus, in spite of the continued outcry of a minority of Christian moralists, a holster pocket was now built into all space suits.
Bryce had grown up in a famine country, an almost unpoliced area, and weapons had been as familiar to his hands as fingers since he had passed twelve. And when, as a steel-worker, he had been one of the first settlers in the foundry towns of the Asteroid Belt, he had found life no gentler there. But it was all right as far as he was concerned. He had heard of safer and duller ways to live but had never wanted them. Life as a moonbased transport manager had been a short interval of nonviolence, five years of startling calm which he had not yet grown accustomed to.
The gun fitted into his hand as comfortably as his thumb, or as the handshake of an old and trusted friend, but it was useless here. Reluctantly he slipped it back into his pocket and began walking again. A director of UT couldn't shoot people on intuition.
He had barely stopped for a count of ten, and there was still distance between them when he had turned, but the follower could be walking faster now, narrowing the distance between them.
If he had waited and fired, an inspection of the man's pockets could have confirmed his judgment by the finding of an assassin's illegal needle gun. That alone might be enough to satisfy the police if he were still merely a spaceworker, but a Director of UT couldn't live that casually. It would be difficult to explain his certainty to the police, and still more difficult to explain to the newspapers. He could not afford that sort of publicity.
Bryce let out a soft curse and lengthened his stride.
He had to wait for proof of the follower's intentions. And the only proof would be to be attacked, and the first proof of that, since needle guns are soundless and inconspicuous, would probably be a curare-loaded needle in his back.
After that the follower could inconspicuously drop his weapon over the balustrade, its self-destroying mechanism set to melt it before it reached the sands far below.
However since the follower certainly would not openly run after him, the most logical thing to do, Bryce decided, was to run to the hotel as if he were in a hurry. The idea irritated him.
He walked on, slowing perversely. It was irrational to walk, and he knew it, but he walked, and the knowledge that it was irrational irritated him further. The skin between his shoulder blades itched meditatively in its own imaginative anticipation of an entering needle. What good did it do him to be proud of his brains when he put himself in a spot where he walked around like a target?
He controlled a rising rage but he walked.
The sky was totally dark now and there were only two or three couples ahead on the slender concrete span and one old couple he had just passed, so that they were between himself and the follower. But that was no adequate screen.
Far above soared the sky taxis. And now he wanted a taxi. He was approaching a place where there was a hack stand. Just ahead, at the midway point, where the upward curve of the sidewalk leveled off and began to curve down, a narrow catwalk jutted into space with a small landing platform at its end. "TAXI" a luminescent arrow glowed at him directingly as he came abreast of it.
* * * * *
He walked rapidly out along the railed catwalk, making a perfect target he knew, silhouetted against the glow. He cursed under his breath, reaching the end of it. Here he made an even more perfect target, with the single bright light that poured down brilliance on the bench and landing platform spotlighting him against the darkness of the night. The bench was thin iron grillwork. It offered no cover.
He needed cover. He considered the white concrete pillar of the lamp, put his hand on the railing and jumped up to sit on the railing casually, a one hundred fifty foot fall behind him and the width of the lamp post between him and the follower, who now was an unmoving figure leaning against the railing of the sidewalk near where the catwalk began.
The sight of the insolently lounging figure did nothing to sooth his irritation. This escape was not the way he wanted to deal with a threat. There was an oddity in the man's waiting. The range was poor, and he probably was not firing, although he would look as if he were not in any case, but if he were not going to take this chance for his murder attempt, why did he openly exhibit himself, arousing suspicion and cutting off future chances? An innocent stroller or even a mere trailer from the detective agency would have strolled on.
Above came the nearing drone of a taxi which had spotted him in the bright pool of light at the hack stand.
There was something in the careless confidence of the follower's open interest in him that raised his neck hair as no direct threat could have, and filled the rumble of the night-hidden surf with obscure menace. The man acted as if his job was over, clinched.
Bryce reached the answer as the taxi floated down on hissing roter blades and settled to the platform. Sliding down from the railing he walked toward it, stiff-legged. The light was out inside it, and the cabby did not climb out or attempt to open the door for him. Bryce turned his head and looked back as if for a last glance at the watching figure, grasping the door handle with his right hand as if fumbling blindly. He was left handed. When the door was open a crack, it stopped opening, and those inside saw the muzzle of a magnamatic in his left hand looking through the crack at them.
It's easier to catch wolves if you're disguised as a rabbit, Pop Yak had told him once. He must have looked a complete sucker, starting to climb into a dark cab with his head turned backward!
"Don't move," Bryce said, some of his anger reaching his voice in a biting rasp. Inside, the driver was frozen with his head turned enough to see the glint of a muzzle behind his neck, and in the darkened far corner of the back seat where there should have been no one there was the pale blur of a face, and a hand holding something. Bryce knew that there was no way a shot could reach him except through the shielding steel door or the shatterproof window, and a man would hesitate before shooting through glass when he was looking down the throat of Bryce's gun. Bryce waited for him to think it over.
The hand of the man in the back seat came into focus as his eyes adjusted to the dark inside, and he could see that it was holding a gun. The gun was not pointing at anything in particular. It was frozen in mid-motion. The man had a half-smile frozen on his face, probably in the way he had been smiling just before Bryce spoke.
"Open your hand. Drop it." The glint of the gun disappeared, and there was a faint thud from the floor. Bryce opened the door and slid into the rear seat, watchful for motion, ready to shoot. "Face front!" They faced front like two puppets, perhaps the uncontrollable rasp in his voice was convincing. He still did not know whose men they were, or why they had been hired. It would be no use questioning them for they would not know either. He could guess who it was, a name came to mind, but there was no way of checking up. This kind of business did not fit well with the crucial balance of his plans for the next two weeks. "Be careful," he said perhaps unnecessarily, "I'm nervous. Union Hotel please."
The short ride to the hotel was made in dead silence, with the man in the opposite corner barely moving enough to blink his eyes. He was middle-aged, with the resigned sagging lines to his face of ambition disappointed, but he sat with a waiting stillness that Bryce recognized as something to watch. There was probably another gun within quick reach of that passive right hand.
The roter drifted down to a landing space on the floodlighted landing roof of the hotel and settled with a slight bump. "Don't move." The clumsy careful business of opening the door backward with his right hand and sliding out without taking his eyes from either of them was tediously slow.
Once out, he slammed the door briskly. "Take off." Not until the red and green lights had faded into the distance did he turn away, pocket his gun and walk into the wide doorway to the elevators. As he brushed past the hotel detective standing in the doorway the detective was reholstering a large size police pacifier. Apparently he had been ready to impartially stun everyone concerned at the first sign of trouble, which probably explained why those in the aircab had not attempted any retaliation. The detective gave Bryce a cold stare as he went by, probably in disapproval of guests waving weapons on hotel premises.
In his luxurious hotel room Bryce checked his watch. Eight o'clock. A telephone call was scheduled for some time in the half hour. He filed the question of who was behind the night's attack and picked up the phone. The dial system was in automatic contact with any city in the world. He dialed.
Somewhere in a city, a phone rang. It rang unheard, for it was locked into a safe in a tiny rented office with some unusual mechanisms attached. The ringing was stopped abruptly and a recorded voice answered, "Yeah?"
Bryce took a dial phone from the night table where it had been sitting innocently like a toy he had bought for some child. "Hi Al," he said cheerfully to the automatic mechanism at the other end. "Listen, I think I've got a new phrase for that transition theme. How's this?" He put the receiver against the back of the toy and dialed the toy dial. It responded to each letter and number with a ringing note of different pitch that played a short unmelodious tune.
The pitch notes went over the line and entered the mechanism, making the contacts within it that dialed the number he had dialed on the toy phone.
"How's that?" Bryce said cheerfully.
The recorded voice said, "Sounds good. I'll see what I can do with it." Somewhere far away and unheard another phone had begun to ring. "Want to speak to George?"
A phone rang in a pay booth somewhere in a great city railroad station, and someone browsing at a magazine stand or sitting on a suitcase apparently waiting for a train strolled casually to answer it.
"Hello?" said a noncommittal voice, prepared to claim that he was merely a stranger answering the phone because it was ringing in public.
"Hello George, how's everything going?" Bryce asked. Those words were his trade mark, the passwords that identified him to everyone as the Voice who gave Tips. Among the monster organization which had grown from the proven reliability of those tips, the voice was known as "Hello George." Hello George's tips were always good, so they had come to be followed as blindly as tips from God, even when they were not understood. Certainty was one thing men in the fencing and drug smuggling business most sorely lacked.
They communicated only by phone. They transmitted their wares by leaving them in public lockers and mailing the key. They never saw each other's faces or heard each other's names, but even the use of a key could be a trap that would bring a circle of narcotics agents of INC around the unfortunate who attempted to open the locker.
Far away over the bulge of the Earth between, a man sat in a phone booth waiting for his tip. "Pretty well. No complaints. How's with you, any news?"
"I think you'd better cut connections with Union Transport. They're getting pretty sloppy. I think they might spill something."
"Wadja say?" asked the man at the other end cautiously, "I didn't get you."
"Better stop using UT for shipping," Bryce repeated, wording his sentence carefully. "They aren't careful enough anymore. You don't want them to break an inc case wide open, do you?" INC was the International Narcotics Control agency of the F. N. But the conversation would have sounded like an innocent discussion of shipping difficulties to any chance listener on the telephone lines.
The flat tones were plaintive and aggrieved. "But we're expecting a load of stuff Friday. Our buyers are expecting it." Stuff was drug, and expecting was a mild word for the need of drug addicts! "And we've got a lotta loads of miscellaneous items to go out." The contact was a small man in the organization but he evidently knew just how "hot" fenced goods could be. "That can't wait!"
He had planned this. "Maybe they are all right for shipments this week. I'll chew them out to be careful, check up and call back Friday. Meanwhile break with them."
"Tell them a few things from me, the—" the distant voice added a surprising string of derogatory adjectives. "Friday when?"
"Friday about—about six." The double "about" confirmed the signal for a telephone appointment that was general for all contact numbers.
"Friday about six, Okay." There was a faint click that meant he had hung up and the phone in the safe was open for more dialings on his toy dial.
Bryce hung up, leaned back on his bed and pushed a button that turned on the radio to a semiclassical program. Soothing music came into the room and slow waves of colored light moved across the ceiling. He tuned to a book player, and chose a heavy economics study from the current seller list of titles which appeared on the ceiling. The daily moon ship was scheduled to blast off at five thirty, its optimum at this week's position of the Moon. By this time tomorrow night, he and all the other members of the Board would be out of reach of any easy observation or analysis by their hired psychological mind-hunter.
With a slight chilling of the skin he remembered the cop-psychos the gangs had warned him about in his scrambling and desperate childhood, and what they were supposed to do to you when they caught you in a third offense.
He had been born into an ex-European quarter in a Chinese city, a descendant of something prideful and forgotten called an Empire Builder, and grew with the mixed gangs of children of all colors who roamed the back streets at night, looting and stealing and breaking. Population control was almost impossible in a land where the only social security against starvation in old age was sons, and social security was impossible in a land so corrupted by the desperation of famines, so little able to spare the necessary taxes. The nation was too huge to be fed from outside, and so had been left by the FN to stew in its own misery until its people solved their basic problem.
So, in an enlightened clean and wealthy world, Bryce Carter had grown up in a slum whose swarming viciousness was a matter of take, steal, kill, climb or die. Perhaps under those special circumstances police penal compulsion had to be brutally strong, stronger than the drive for life itself, as brutal as the lurid tales he had heard. Perhaps in other countries the methods were different, a hypno-converted man not a horror to his friends, but he had had no time to study and investigate if it were so, and the horror and hatred remained.
But there was no need to think about the psycho-hunter the Board had put on him for by the time the hunter could reach him UT would have fallen as a legal entity, its corruption would be completely public, and the psychologist would be called off before discovering anything. Bryce thought of the slight nervousness he had let show at the first words of the chairman's announcement. The only witness against him was himself. His control wasn't perfect. No one's was. But he was safe.
He concentrated on the opening pages of the Basic Principles of Economies.
* * * * *
In the darkened UT building which could be seen from his window a few lights still burned where the night shift dealt with emergencies.
In a small projection room on the fifty-fifth floor a man sat and looked at a film of the UT Board meeting of that day. He played only a certain small twenty minute interval, listening closely to the voices—"Gentlemen, your attention please—" Watching the faces—"Do the police know of this?" ... "Do you think if we offered this Manoba the right kind of money...." "Will the gentleman who voted nay on the secret vote the first time speak up and explain...." "It is entirely likely that the conspirator is among us." On the screen showed the apparently bored faces and relaxed poses of men accustomed to the power game, habitually masking their feelings from each other, shifting their positions slightly sometimes, some smoking. "We've dealt with that, let's get on to the next business."
The watcher stopped the film and silently reset it. It began again with the chairman on the screen rapping the table lightly. "Gentlemen, your attention...."
In the darkened projection room the chairman sat to one side smoking and thinking while the psychologist played the film through for the fourth time.
The chairman was wondering just how seriously the watcher was taking Mr. Beldman's proposals about what he should do to the culprit, and whether he would raise his fee.
The telephone rang.
* * * * *
"Four thirty, Mr. Carter," said the voice of the night clerk in the receiver.
It was time to catch the five thirty Moon ship. He splashed cold water on his face and the back of his neck until he was awake, took a hot shower, dressed rapidly, and gave up his key at the desk at 4:45.
"A letter for you, Mister Carter," she smiled, handing it to him. From the wall speakers a mild but penetrating voice began repeating, "Bus line for spaceport leaving in twelve minutes. All passengers for Luna City, Moon Base, Asteroid Belt and points out, please go to the landing deck. Bus line for spaceport leaving in twelve minutes—"
He opened the letter when he had settled down in a comfortable morris chair in the airbus. The letterhead said MANOBA Group Psychotherapeutic Research and Conference Management.
One sheet of it was a half page contract in fine print, apparently a standard form with the name of Union Transport Corporation typed in the appropriate blanks. Above it was printed in clear English and large type for the benefit of those readers unaccustomed to contracts. "WARNING. After you have signed this release you have no legal recourse or claim as an individual against any physical or mental injury or inconvenience you may claim to have sustained as a result of the activities of the contracted psychotherapist(s) in the course of group therapy. Your group is the responsible agent. It must make all claims and complaints as a unit, and may withdraw from the contract as a unit. Those who withdraw from the group withdraw from participation in the contract."
Bryce smiled. Or in other words, if you didn't like it, you could quit your job and get out!
The other sheet he glanced at casually. It seemed to be an explanatory page to the effect that the Manoba's work was strictly confidential and they were under no obligation to explain what they had done or were doing or give their identities to any member of the corporation who had hired them. There was nothing resembling a sales talk about results, and the only thing approaching it was a stiff last sentence referring anyone who was curious about the results of such treatment to the National Certified Analytical Statistics of Professional Standing in such and such bulletins of such and such years.
He signed the contract, smiling, and mailed it at a handy postal and telegraph window at the spaceport before boarding the spaceship.
* * * * *
The phone was ringing.
Bryce rolled over sleepily and picked it up. "Eight A.M. L.S. S.S. Sir," said the soft voice of the desk clerk.
"Okay," he grunted, glancing at his watch and hanging up. It was two minutes after eight, but he didn't check her up on it. If he placed the voice rightly, it belonged to an exceptionally pretty brunette. He had not tried to date her yet, but she looked accessible, and Mona was becoming tiresome.
He turned the dial in the headboard that reversed the polarization of the window and rose reluctantly, stretching as sunlight flooded the room. It was daylight on Moonbase City. It had been daylight for a week, and it would be daylight still for another week.
Through the softening filter of the airtight glass the view of distant crater walls and the airsealed towers of Moonbase City shone in etched magnificence, but he gave it only a glance. It was always the same. There was no weather on the Moon and no variety of view.
"Good morning," he smiled, passing a bellboy in the luxurious, deep colored halls.
"Good morning, Mister Carter," the boy answered rapidly with an eager nervous smile.
Bryce had caught the management up sharply on several small lapses, and they all knew him now. He strode on, pleased. Efficiency.... No one gave him a second glance or noticed him in the tube trains, but he was not irritated by it. Someday they would. Someday the whole world would know his face as well as they knew their own. He promised that to them silently and then settled down to concentrate on some constructive planning before reaching the office. He was not going to waste his time gawking at ads or listening to the music like the others.
"Mister Carter?" said a hesitant voice behind him as he was reaching for the handle of the office doors.
"What is it?" he asked crisply, turning, but as he saw who had spoken he knew exactly what it would be.
"Pardon me Mister Carter, but—" It was a spaceman, a skinny wreck of a man in clothes that hung on him. A junky, a drug addict. Bryce knew the signs. He had spent all his money and gone without food for his drug, and now he had remembered from Belt talk that Bryce Carter was a soft touch for a loan. "Never mind," Bryce snarled, reaching for the door again.
He assisted the smuggling of the stuff but that did not mean that he had to admire the fools who took it. The man was muttering something about a loan when the door shut and cut off his words. The loan would be spent on more junk. If he had wanted food he could have signed into a state hospital to take the Cure, and be imprisoned and fed until the hunger for his drug had passed and released him. The Cure was a brief hell, but it was fair payment for having had his fun, and if the addict had any guts he would face it. Any time he was ready to pay the price of exit he could go back to being a man.
Bryce strode through the offices irritably. It did not matter if Earthlings chose to waste their time in artificial ecstasy, but it was different to see a good Belt spaceman let himself go.
The receptionist looked up with fright in her eyes as he passed and gave him a special good-morning, with a smile that was tremulous and very eager to please. He still had her in the stage of new employment where she was kept afraid of losing her new job with a bad reference. It was best to put them all over the hurdles at first.
He gave her a condescending smile as he went through into the inner offices. "Good morning." She was shaky enough. A few well faked cold rages against minor errors had done well. From now on she would need only smiles to give the utmost in loyalty and hard work. What had Machiavelli said? "Make them fear your wrath, and they will be grateful for your forebearance."
He did not bother to speak to Kesby when he passed his open office door. Kesby didn't need smiles or praise, he worked loyally just for the rare curt acknowledgement that he had done well. Three years of managing had made him a good lieutenant, completely faithful. When Bryce quit Union Transport Kesby would follow him.
He went into his luxurious inner office with its deep rugs and eye-relaxing colors and its comfortable wide desk with its speaker box and telephones that were like the nerve wires of power, and sat down comfortably like a king on a throne or a mule skinner in the driver's seat with ten pairs of reins in each hand. He never felt completely awake and up to his full size in the morning until he was here.
There was a good stack of letters and memos on the desk waiting for him. On top of the mail stack was a letter labeled PRIVATE in a beamed spacegram envelope. He did not recognize the name at the head of it but the return address was General Delivery, Reef Three, The Belt. It read:
Something urgent has come up. Must see you. Arrange when. Bob. Roberto Orillo, who had been his manager in the small line that UT had taken from him, now the owner of a tiny line of his own which carefully avoided competition with UT in the Belt.
"Arrange when." They could only meet in secret. What would Orillo want to discuss?
The theory he had held in the back of his mind for three days gave answer—Murder! It was Orillo who was behind the attempted attack on Earth. This meeting was another trap. Orillo wanted him dead.
Roberto Orillo had been his first helper with the shipping and delivery service Bryce had built up from the days when he had been merely an asteroid prospector with a ship overstocked with supplies and an obliging willingness to sell his surplus.
After he put his traveling stores on schedule he noticed that an increasing number of people began moving into the Belt to settle along his route without investing in the proper ship or supplies, depending on him, using his ship for a store and bus service, swelling his profits. He found that wherever he chose to extend a route and offer credit for a stake settlers would appear and a community begin to grow.
He absorbed that lesson and laid plans.
UT blocked them. Running his store ships on their regular rounds, making loans, mediating deals, taking half interests in ideas that looked profitable, selling fuel and power, subtly binding his customers to him with bonds of dependency deeper than peonage, Bryce found suddenly that UT, whose trade mark had never been seen in the Belt before, had slipped in five ships patterned precisely after his, but larger, more magnificent and expensive, and set them running on the same course as his but one day ahead. His customers told him. They were apologetic but they had bought at the ship which came earliest, enticed by the glitter and the bargain prices.
It was a killing blow, and was obviously meant to be so. The UT managers were wise in the ways of power, and with limitless money could bankrupt him.
That day Bryce saw that he could not fight UT from outside, and he saw a dream of empire greater than Alexander ever dreamed of being ripped from his hands. When a tactful and conciliating offer came from UT for a merger and an exchange of stock at double its value, he saw it was an indirect bribe for his silent submission without complaints to Spaceways or to the Anti-Cartel Commission of the FN, and he saw that the only way to compete with the gigantic corporation was to destroy it from within.
He held out for a seat on the Board of Directors. They gave it to him.
And in three years had done an efficient job of corrupting and undermining UT to the point where it was ready to fall. UT had a week more to live in respected public service before an outraged public tore it apart.
Bryce had left Orillo in the Belt to form a small delivery company servicing thinly settled outlying points where the profits were too small to disturb UT. It would be this company that would take over and buy out the UT equipment when Spaceways chopped up the monster corporation, and it was planned that Orillo offer Bryce full partnership when this event took place.
But perhaps Orillo objected to sharing his reign with a partner. And perhaps Orillo had always objected to the fact that Bryce was the only one who knew Orillo was a fugitive from justice. Bryce had never quite been able to tell what went on behind the handsome blond face and impassive blue eyes of his assistant.
Bryce had taken him in hand and given him a job after Orillo fled from a murder charge in South Africa. And Bryce had arranged the operations that gave Orillo a new face, new fingerprints and an unworried future. Only Bryce could now give the word to the police which could bring the examination that would show Orillo's retina tallied with that of a wanted man.
But if murder had always lain behind those impassive pale blue eyes, why had there been no attempts before? The answer to that was easy. Up to this time Bryce's activities had been profitable to Orillo. He had seen where Bryce's plans were leading and wanted them to succeed, so that he might step into Bryce's shoes and reap the results.
In three more months Bryce's death would be the death of a partner, and bring the unwanted spotlight of police investigation on Orillo himself, but now, at this point, the disappearance of Bryce Carter would bring police inquiry and suspicion only to the already shaky and undermined fabric of UT.
Bryce counted the profit and loss of his death to the man he had helped, and smiled ruefully. Yet the request for the meeting might be genuine and important. He had to take a chance on it and meet his ex-assistant and future partner somewhere far away from witnesses, recognition—or protection.
Taking a memo pad he printed, I'll meet you Friday; 3:PM LM, and wrote in the coordinates of a position in space not very far out from Earth, indicated the radar blink signals for its buoy and clipped the memo sheet to the envelope with its false name and return address. Ringing for his secretary, he handed it to her.
"See that that gets beamed back immediately. Friend of mine seems to be in some sort of a jam."
That was that. He turned to his work. After an hour or so the intercom box clicked and Kesby said unexpectedly, "Visitor to see you, boss. Can I send him in?"
"Yes." The receptionist had strict orders to keep out everyone except those scheduled for appointment, and to announce the names and businesses of dubious cases for his deciding, but Kesby must have overridden her decision. He sounded confident. Probably someone important.
* * * * *
Kesby opened the door with an expression half nervous, half mischievous, "Your visitor," and closed it hastily as the person stepped in.
He didn't belong in there. It was obvious to Bryce that whoever he was, he had gotten in through a lie.
The young man who stood inside his office watching him was no one connected with the business. He was too young for any position of importance. The slender frailty of childhood was still with him. Yet that impression soon faded under the impressiveness of his stance. It was more than just arrogance or poise, it was an unshakable confidence. As if no failure could be conceived.
He stood balanced to move either forward or back. His voice was again a surprise. Absolute total clarity, almost without inflection as if the words reached the mind without needing a voice. "If you're going to throw me out, this is the best time to do it." Dark brown skin of one of the dark races, jet black straight hair, a dark pair of eyes that were merry and watchful and had the impact of something dangerous. Colossal gall, Bryce characterized it to himself. He might be as good as he thinks he is. He was probably selling the Brooklyn Bridge, and he should never have gotten in, but the fact that he had somehow gotten past Kesby made him worth a few questions before being thrown out.
"What do you want?"
He came forward to the desk to answer. "I want to be your right arm." He took out a pack of cigarettes, shaking one free and offering it with courtesy. "Have one?" Bryce shook his head and the boy put one between his own lips and put the pack away. "My name is Pierce," he said, lighting the cigarette with the flame cupped in his hands as if he were used to smoking in the wind. He looked up with his eyes squinting against the smoke, shook the match out and dropped it in the desk ash tray. "Roy Pierce."
He was as much at home as an invading army. Bryce felt an impulse to laugh.
He knew this kid very well, but he couldn't place where, when, or how. "Am I supposed to know the name?"
"Do you remember Pop Yak?"
Bryce remembered Pop Yak. He gave in with a sigh, and ordered in the singsong vernacular of his childhood. "Okay. Sitselfdel, speeltalk cutchop!"
Pop Yak was a grizzled man who had watched Bryce fighting with another kid. Afterward he had taken Bryce into his store and given him ice cream and some pointers on dirty fighting. Not much had penetrated the first time but Bryce went back for advice again, learning that that was the place to be told how to do things and get what he wanted. Pop was always patient with his teaching, and always right.
He had chosen Bryce as his agent to sell minor drugs to the other kids and acted as a fence for the things he stole, and he encouraged him to study in the compulsory school and loaned him books. And Pop was the first to give him the tip on legitimate business and how to pull money on the right side of the law and make a profit they couldn't kick about. Good old Pop. "Will-pay." The boy sat down and leaned forward with a slight intent motion of a hand that was Pop's favorite gesture, one Bryce had picked up from him himself.
"He told me you're on the way up." Roy Pierce held him with a steady dark gaze. "I want a slice of that, and I want it the easy way, hitching my wagon to your rocket. You can use me. A big man is too public. You need a new hand and a new voice, one that does what you want done, and can do it in the dark or the light, without your name—a stand-in for alibis, and a contriver of accidents so they break for you without your motion. A left arm that your enemies don't recognize as yours."
He was asking to be Bryce's substitute in the things that had to be done without connection to himself, and yet had to be done by Bryce himself, because no one could be trusted with the knowledge of them.
Could he be trusted? His coming could be another trap by the unidentified enemy. It was almost too providential, almost too well timed. "References and abilities?"
Roy Pierce reached into his wallet and handed out an aptitude profile card backed by the universal test score listings in training and skills on the other side. Bryce played with the card and studied the youth. The boy was well dressed in a dark tailored suit of the kind Bryce favored. He looked able, clean, cool and ruthless. "Armed?" Bryce asked.
A thing like a very thick cigar suddenly appeared in Pierce's hand. The end of it pointing at him was solid except for a very small hole. A needle gun, obviously, loaded with two and a half inch grooved drug carrying needles.
"Sleep or death?" Bryce asked.
"Sleep," Pierce said, putting it away. "It's licensed." Bryce wondered what made him so sure he could trust this kid. He analyzed while he questioned. He did not bother to look at the card.
"Basic coast pidgin, symbolic and glot." Basic English and Poliglot, the two universals.
"Detector proofed?" Lie detectors could be a nuisance, for they were used casually and universally without needing the legal warrants and deference to constitutional immunities and medical supervision of hypno-questioning.
Pierce smiled with a flash of white teeth. "First thing I ever saved my money for."
Though they spoke standard English, Bryce had placed his intonations almost to the block he grew up in. Almost to the half block! He was as familiar as Pop Yak, as familiar as his own face in the mirror, and as understandable. Bryce knew the inside of his mind as well as if it were a suddenly attached lobe of his own. It was like looking back through time at himself younger and less complex.
Pop Yak had turned out another on the same model, a younger simpler duplicate of himself. Pierce was doing exactly what he said, offering service to Bryce as he would offer him a sword, simply for the risk and delight of being an instrument in a power game with stakes as high as he had guessed Bryce's game to be. There was no danger of him being a plant, and no danger of him squealing under pressure: the risk of death or arrest was part of his pay.
* * * * *
"Okay," Bryce said. He gestured with his head to a corner of the room behind him. "Sit over there. You're my cousin from Montehedo, and I'm showing you the town." He turned to his appointment pad again and read. After Pierce had placed a chair in the indicated position, Bryce said without turning. "This week I can use a bodyguard. Someone's hiring killers for me."
There was no sound of motion for a moment. Bryce got the idea that Pierce was more surprised than the fact warranted. But his question was gentle and deadly. "Any idea who?"
"The line forms to the left." Bryce said dryly, "Put away that needle gun and buy something legal that kills." He handed back a sheaf of letters, memos and graphs. "Read these and learn." For some reason he felt exhilarated.
He turned back to work, routing shipments, shifting rates to balance shifting costs, lowering rates for preliminary incentive on lines that could run at lower cost with a heavier load, occasionally using the Bell communication load analyzer and Kesby's formula analysis for a choice of ways of averting bottlenecks and overload slow-down points, sometimes consulting the solar system maps on the walls.
Good service built up customer demand and dependency on good service. Producers manufacturing now on Earth with the new materials shipped in from space could not be cut off from access to the new materials without ruin to the manufacturers. Earth was becoming dependent on space transport.
Once the customers were given it, they grew to need it. He smiled at the thought. It was another kind of drug traffic, and wielded the same kind of potentially infinite power over the customers.
One thing he had learned from the Economics tome he had struggled with four nights ago, a simple inexorable principle he had recognized dimly before—that since it was difficult and more expensive to ship out goods from Earth to space than it was to drop goods into Earth from space, eventually spacepeople might be independent of Earth, and Earth totally dependent on space products.
The potentialities of the business game were amazing past anything Pop Yak had ever hinted, but the funny thing was he had to find it out step by step for himself. That kind of excitement wasn't in stories. The adventures of explorers, research men, and detectives were written into stories, but not money men. The life and growth and death and blackmail of individuals were in the stories he had read, but not the murder of planets and cities, the control and blackmail of whole populations, in this odd legal game with the simple rules. Funny there hadn't been lurid stories about this in the magazines he read as a kid.
He grinned—Well, the kids would read about him. In fifteen years he'd have everyone under his thumb and they'd smile and bow and be frightened just speaking to him.
The work vanished rapidly, the pile of accumulated letters and reports dwindling, and the phone ringing at intervals.
Complaints he dealt with carefully, wording each letter in reply so as to give the impression that he, Bryce Carter, was personally breaking the corporation policy to satisfy the complainer, and adding a word of praise on the intelligence and lucidity of the complaining letter. So far he had made a total of some six hundred letter-writing allies that way. Complainants were usually loquacious, interfering types who expressed more than their share of public opinion, and many would glorify him to everyone whose ear they could hold, if only to have it known that they were on pally terms with a Director of the great UT.
Many of the letters were merely friendly and chatty, telling of money troubles, successes and family affairs. To these he recorded a few friendly remarks on wire spool, telling the same joke to each, and slipped each loop of wire into an envelope to be mailed.
Pierce, studying a transport routing map, looked over and grinned at the sixth repetition of the joke, and Bryce grinned back and continued on recording a letter to an address in the Ozarks. "Got a young cousin of mine in from Montehedo, Miss Furnald, he's sitting here watching to see how a big business office operates and he's grinning at me because it looks like I want to just sit and talk at my friends all day long. I have fifty-nine business letters here to answer—honest to God—fifty-nine, I just counted them, so I guess I'll cut off and show the young squirt how I can work. Send me that photo of your sister's new baby."
He hung up the record mouthpiece. One more voter and loyal friend to pull for him when he was a public figure and the going got rough.
He grinned. It was a strange life and a strange game.
When he left the office with Pierce, someone stepped out of a corner of the corridor and clutched at his sleeve, speaking rapidly. Bryce brushed off the hand carelessly and walked on.
"A junky," he remarked to Pierce. There was a quick flash of motion behind them that sent them whirling to one side. Pierce stood aside with the small needle gun in his palm waiting to see if it would be needed, while Bryce finished the downstroke of his hand that sent the knife and the junky reeling to the rubbery corridor flooring.
"Shall I report him?" Pierce asked, making his needle gun vanish in the same smooth motion it had appeared, and indicating a phone sign.
"No. It doesn't matter," Bryce walked on thoughtfully. "Everyone wants to kill me at once."
Pierce said, "It's easy to sway a miserable man to the point of pinning all his troubles and hate on to one name, like Bryce Carter."
"I know," said Bryce. He saw that the smiling dark young man was alert, walking a little ahead of him and glancing quickly left and right as they approached corners and intersections and recessed doorways where a man could wait unseen, doing his job as a bodyguard efficiently and inconspicuously. "If it's the man I think it is," Bryce told him, falling into step again after they passed the turn into the tube trains, "he's working against a deadline. It's now or never. There won't be any more of this after next month."
Pierce answered after a glance at a passing mirror to see if they were followed, and a quick scan of the train platform. "Your usual haunts will be booby trapped. Better stay out of routine."
That night, in the spacehands end of the city, they ate the dinner that he usually had with Mona at a nightclub, or alone looking for a good pickup in an expensive cocktail lounge. It was in the shipping area around the docks, at the opposite end of the city from his usual haunts. The ceiling was low and the glasses shivered and danced with the constant muted thunder of jets that shuddered through the floor from the nearby landing fields.
His new assistant and bodyguard was pleasantly deferential, lighting cigarettes for him, listening respectfully to his opinions, drawing him out with questions that showed he understood what he was listening to.
Bryce could not remember having had such a good time talking since he left the company of the meteorite miners at the Belt. Everything he said seemed right and even brilliant. As he talked and told anecdotes of his life and sketched some of his plans he saw his past life with peculiar vividness as if he were a stranger seeing it for the first time. In the reflected light of the interest and enthusiasm of his audience, events took on a new glow of entertainment and adventure and success where they had seemed to be just work and risk and routine at the time.
They had an evening to pass. Somehow Pierce got into conversation with a little Egyptian who could have stood for Cyrano and had the same merry impetuous way about him. Raz Anna was his name. He claimed to be the Caliph of Baghdad, still incognito, or perhaps a professional explorer disguised as a native. After a few drinks he enlisted them, somewhat confusedly, as the two missing musketeers and they found themselves wandering arm in arm from bar to bar and up and down dark alleys interviewing the heathen natives.
Bryce realized that he was laughing steadily and enjoying himself in a way that had nothing to do with the small number of drinks he had had.
He couldn't get any deference out of Raz. Raz wouldn't have deferred to God himself, and it was no use trying to impress him, for nothing impressed him. Apparently the hook-nosed, merry little man had no ambition and no envy of anyone, and wanted no better of life than he had at the moment.
It was a strange new world they led Bryce through—Not the ragged, starving, crowded viciousness of his childhood—not the fighting equality of spacemen and rock miners, many of them wanted by the law—not the simple barren hospitality of the settlers in the Belt who owed him money, and who invited him to their sparse dinners in gratitude—Those he had always managed to keep in their places and exact a certain measure of respect.
Even the smooth powerful men of wealth around him now accorded him a certain measure of deference that was an acknowledgement of strength. But the two musketeers he was with and the world they opened for him seemed to respect neither distance nor politeness, nor hold any fear for strength. Friendly insults, and uncritical friendliness mingled oddly with the mock-solemn pretense of the fairy tale, and that part was genuine and spontaneous. It didn't seem to be a different kind of people he was meeting exactly: it was the same kind of people approached differently. He didn't know exactly how it was done, and he let the other two take the lead.
Perhaps he had drunk too much, he thought as he rode the hotel elevator. For in retrospect, the evening was a haze of pleasure that was hard to pin his attention to. Everything he had said, everything that had happened seemed profoundly right, an atmosphere which he had encountered rarely before and only then in the last stage of drunkenness. But he was sober. He had had only a few drinks, and his perceptions seemed sharpened rather than blurred. Yet, where there should have been critical thoughts and regrets for errors and restless plans in his mind, there was only a pleasant empty buzz.
"Too much talk," he thought, yawning as he walked down the luxurious hotel corridor to his room.
* * * * *
It was that night that he first noticed something wrong with the mirror.
He glanced into it casually while undressing, then not so casually, walking up to it and inspecting his face. A slight, unpleasant tingle coursed along his nerves.
A stranger—When he tried to focus on what was wrong he could find nothing that looked any different, yet the total effect was completely wrong. He decided that it must be the mirror, some subtle distortion of the reflection. The old one must have been broken in cleaning and a new one put in.
The chill passed and still the good blank feeling lasted. He went to bed reviewing the evening and smiling, and went to sleep without resorting to the mental arithmetic that he generally used to clear his mind of dissatisfactions.
The next morning the mirror still looked peculiar. There seemed to be nothing wrong with the reflected image of the room, but when he gave himself the usual inspection before stepping out into the corridor the feeling of strangeness returned and his eyes felt as if they were blurring.
He put his hand up to his eyes instinctively and felt a distinct shock when the mirrored image did the same.
A slender smiling young man joined him in the lobby, rising and falling into step with him as he passed, going through doors before him with the inconspicuous alertness and precaution. He did his duties as a bodyguard well, Bryce noted, but that was only to be expected. Efficiency is, and should be, unnoticeable.
One thing he discovered during the working morning at the office. There had been nothing wrong with the mirror in his hotel room. The washroom mirror was worse!
He stood for a while, frozen in midstep, while he looked at a lean tanned and freckled face which looked like a color movie of his, every feature in its proper place as he remembered it, but yet not his. It didn't belong to him. He made faces at it, and it made faces back as if it were his, while he tried to believe that he was looking out of the gray eyes which looked back at him, then he heard someone coming in and left suddenly and sheepishly.
That afternoon, after Pierce got into the swing of the work, he began to be useful, fitting himself into the work routine as though he had always been part of it, making the right calls and contacts and appointments on the barest hints, handing him the phone intuitively as he needed it, always at the right time with almost telepathic instinct. While checking over the decisions and plans of Kesby and the staff that needed his okay, and signing typed letters Bryce talked the thoughts and plans which came half formed to mind, almost thinking aloud. And when his remarks struck something that sounded like it would be good to do soon, he saw Pierce jotting them down, later detailing the preliminary steps for Bryce's use.
And too, all the small tasks were being taken from him with easy naturalness, saving him much time. His assistant was being what he had claimed he would be, a genuinely useful left hand. Bryce found himself proud of the kid's manifest efficiency, for he was a product of the same school that Bryce himself had climbed from.
On the way back to the hotel, after work, he caught Pierce glancing at him with a thoughtful expression, and realized that he had been faltering and giving a second glance to every public mirror that he had passed. He was momentarily embarrassed, wondering if any strain had showed on his expression.
There was a party he had to go to that night so he changed to formal clothes and stepped off again for the home of the FN Administrative Governor of the Moon.
He did not want to attend. It would be another of those stiff, lonesome dinners he had suffered through before, but he had to learn to make friends on his own social level, and be easy and convivial with the kind of people he would be associating with the rest of his life.
After the first hour had given him a good test, Bryce decided that the evening was as bad as he had anticipated. He stood on the outskirts of a small group, holding a drink and watching resentfully as a startlingly beautiful woman laughed and talked with the others of the group and not with him. She had been introduced to him as Sheila Wesley. The jokes she had with the others were quick and subtle flashes of wit and insight, and seemed to be based on a mutual understanding that he could not share, even though some of the others had just been introduced and had been strangers to each other a few minutes back; it was something he grasped vaguely as a common background and approach to life that they shared, perhaps through education.
There were quick references to political situations they all seemed familiar with, or a name that could have been some character in a book they might all have read, or could have been somebody in history, each reference followed by a subdued laugh and an added witty statement from some other quarter. No one of them gave a word to him or noticed that he was there.
Why should they? He was dressed well and expensively, but so were they all. He was a person of prominence and power, but so were they all, and bored by it. He could not talk like the others. Then what could he do to make Sheila Wesley smile at him the way she smiled down at the ridiculous little fat man beside her as he excitably stuttered out his opinions.
* * * * *
Sheila Wesley was not like Mona, to be captured by money and clothes and influence. Would she be impressed even by the power he would have later? He tried to picture her as tremulous and awed, hanging on his words and flattering him, but he couldn't believe it. She probably wouldn't notice him any more than now. There was nothing he could do to impress her. He had thought Mona had poise, but now he saw that her manner was just an inadequate carbon copy of a completely spontaneous original. The woman, Sheila, managed to be poised, aloof, and yet friendly to everyone, simultaneously warm and unattainable.
He desired to be bitingly rude. That, at least, would make her admit that he existed. She was smiling at that ridiculous little fat man again.
He drained his glass and, completely unnoticed, left the party. Nobody would miss him, he was sure.
Outside in the corridor, Roy Pierce, his assistant, was engaged in conversation with two young men and two girls.
"There he is now," he heard Pierce say.
And one of the young men came toward him laughing.
"Is it true that this lunatic cannot go and make up with the lady of his heart because she has had him banned? If we all try to smuggle him in—"
And one of the girls, a really gorgeous blonde, called, "He was just telling us about that time you were in space with the pirates after you and they had stolen the big focusing mirror from the first Belt foundry furnace. I'm sure you can tell it better—you tell it."
He was surrounded by the five then. "Go ahead," they were urging, laughing, "Go ahead!" "It didn't really happen did it?"
This accusation was made by the pretty blonde. He looked at her half indignantly. "I don't know how he tells it but it happened." And he began to tell what had happened.
The two girls and the two young men listened, adding occasional startled interjections and admiring laughter.
Pierce inserted an occasional question and Bryce became aware that in answering them he was guided to stress and amplify points that made clearer the danger and comedy. Later he became aware that he was half consciously following the clues of Pierce's expression for the right stress and mood of the telling, now off-hand and smiling in telling what he had done, now heavily dramatic mimicking and burlesquing the tones and threats of the outlaws, now ironic and bitterly indifferent in passing over damage and deaths—as a wryly lifted eyebrow in the dark young face listening, and a faint imperceptible shrug made him see what had happened from a different angle than he had seen it then. Pierce apparently had something he needed, a good story sense. Following him must be something he had learned unconsciously last night, but it worked. He could see how well it worked in the expressions of his audience.
Someone leaving the party had stopped to listen, standing behind his right shoulder. When he finished, amid the exclamations and sighs of his listeners a cool, familiar voice drawled.
"That's quite a story. I picked up something about that at the new foundry on reef five, but it was already an old yarn then." She stood before him, still smooth and poised and lovely, offering her hand. "I'm glad to hear it from the horse's mouth. Aren't you Bryce Carter? We were introduced in there, I think, but the name didn't click."
It was Sheila Wesley.
That evening was something to remember.
First they were a private party at a nightclub, then at a small restaurant. Tom, Betty, who was the pretty blonde, Ralph and the pretty brunette whose name was Marsha, Pierce, himself and Sheila. The talk ranged wildly over a multitude of subjects, breaking sometimes into collective fantasies of nonsense like a hat full of fireworks that left them laughing helplessly, sometimes shifting to philosophy and mutual confidences. Every so often Pierce brought the subject around to something that struck home to Bryce and he found himself holding forth with unexpected passion and eloquence, and he was surprised to see that the others were keenly interested.
Pierce rarely said more than an occasional cheerful remark, but in the more subtle plays of conversation Bryce found himself still half consciously consulting the cues of his expression to find what his own reaction should be, to find the right word and the right attitude that pleased the table and urged them all on to greater and more fantastic heights of talk. It was obvious that Pierce never had any difficulty understanding anyone. He had an instinct that Bryce lacked, and Bryce willingly surrendered to superior skill and followed his silent lead.
Sheila he discovered, besides being a member of one of the top diplomatic families, had worked for a short while as a consultant at the Belt plastic manufactory when it was being set up, and had taken to space life. She shared his enthusiasm about the future of the Asteroid Belts.
It was an unprecedented evening. At the close of it he had four new friends, and had discovered that "Tom" was Thomas Mayernick, one of the attorneys of the Spaceways Commission, and one of the men whom he had gone to the dinner to meet.
And Sheila, tall and slender and beautiful, pressed his hand as the group parted, and said in her wonderful voice, "I want to see you again Bryce," she smiled. "I eat at the technicians' end of town, you know. I'll be with a Group at Geiger's Counter, tomorrow lunch. If you bear the company of slide rule artists we'd be glad to see you any time."
He stood for a moment, oddly surprised.
"Say thank you to the lady." Pierce smiled. And to Sheila, "You shouldn't startle people like that, Ma'm. His heart's weak."
"I just dropped dead," Bryce said, finding words. "You aren't leading me on? You'll be there?"
"On my honor," she smiled. "Good night, Bryce." She was used to such tributes. Half mocking as they were, she knew how much they were basically sincere, and accepted their tribute to her beauty as a matter of course. What a wife to have and introduce as his wife to other men, and see the look in their eyes.
He remembered suddenly that he had not once mentioned that he was a Director of UT. Somehow the conversation had never been led to a subject where he could have said it. He made a mental note to tell her next time. It seemed strange that he had been with five people so many hours without informing them that he was a Director of UT. He had done the same thing last night, now he remembered. But they had seemed to like him without it.
He let himself into his hotel room and turned on the light, but the first sidewise glimpse of himself in the mirror was disturbing. He solved that problem by the remarkably simple expedient of turning the light out again, and undressed in the dark, grinning foolishly.
Approaching the scientists' and technicians' row along the subsurface arcades, the expensive restaurants grew fewer and were replaced by German-type beer halls, schools with courses advertised in their posted schedules whose titles were completely unintelligible to him, and second hand bookstalls selling battered technical books and journals whose titles were undecipherable in any tongue Bryce could think of. The lunch hour crowds were beginning to pour out into the arcades from elevators and tube trains in a rush to get first place in their favorite eating places.
Pierce half turned as if his eyes caught on the expression of a face behind them.
"Carter! There you are, you bastard!" The voice came from behind him, thick with rage, but more than that was the insult. It meant challenge. This was nothing in which Pierce could defend him!
Bryce wheeled, left hand automatically plucking out his magnomatic, wondering if the attacker would be the honorable kind of duelist who would hold fire long enough for him to get his gun out.
Miraculously it seemed to be happening. He already had his sights halfway on to the speaker when he recognized him, a gross heavy figure he had seen a hundred times. Mr. Beldman of the Board of Directors. What was he doing on the Moon?
Beldman stood with his fists on his hips and his legs spraddled, sneering at Bryce. "That's right," he said, heavily sarcastic, "start shootin' when you're surrounded by innocent spectators; when you know I can't draw on you. That's the way of a crook." The husky base voice echoed from the walls. Behind him to the bend of the corridor people were scattering hastily out of the firing line.
Crook was the central word. Somehow Beldman had found out that Bryce was responsible for the corruption of UT, and he was dealing with the matter in the most direct way that it could be dealt with, for a death in a private duel would be laid to a quarrel and not investigated.
How had he found out? Bryce forced down the question as he stiffly reholstered his magnomatic. There was no use thinking of that until the question of surviving the next five minutes was settled. He stood with his hands empty, feeling curiously empty inside, oddly missing the white rage and love of murder that usually carried him through such things.
It seemed too good a day to spoil. He would rather have continued his way to lunch with Sheila, and let the man live—or let himself live. This would be no duel for a little bloodletting. Beldman's purpose was to kill. And Beldman himself, knowing what he knew, had to die. "Do you understand what you have said, sir?" Bryce used the formal words of the dueling countries.
"You're damn well right I do!"
"Are you prepared to take the consequences, sir?"
"More ready than you are," Beldman said, his hands still on his hips. He amplified his remark with a few well chosen words that harked back to his truck driving days.
"How many shots?" Bryce asked more softly, beginning to want to kill.
"Until one of us is down with his gun out of his hand."
Bryce repeated the provision to the crowd that had drawn up discreetly along the side-lines. "We fire until one of us is both down and disarmed."
There was a murmur of surprise among the crowd for that was an unusual and deadly provision for a formal duel. As Bryce paced backward the required number of paces, counting aloud, two men volunteered as seconds. They came forward to compare the guns rapidly and show them to the duelists. It had to be done and finished rapidly, for lunch hour had begun with its flood of people into the corridors, and they were holding up traffic.
Bryce's gun was a .42 magnomatic, working on an electrical acceleration of the slug by electromagnetic rings in the thick barrel. It was soundless except for a legal built-in radio yeep that announced its firing and number to the police emergency receivers. Beldman's gun was another maggy of the same make but heavier with a wide-mouthed barrel apparently throwing a much heavier caliber slug.
"Ready?" The second stepped back to the edge of the crowd and began counting off half a minute by seconds.
The faces of the crowd faded from his consciousness. Bryce stood with his hands empty at his sides as the seconds were counted. "Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven," came the voice, counting evenly and loudly. The world narrowed to a corridor of space with the blocky figure of Beldman at one end and himself at the other. Funny, Bryce thought, that he had never considered that bull-headed impatience and strength as dangerous. He was a massive block of a man; where Bryce was thick with muscle, J. H. Beldman was so wide in shoulder and barrel and so thick in arm that he looked almost round. Like Bryce he had worked up from the bottom, Bryce remembered, starting as a truck driver and labor organizer, and then owning his own line and giving UT a stiff battle before being bought out. Crude, but that didn't mean that there wasn't a lightning brain behind that round face.
"Twenty-six, twenty-five, twenty-four, twenty-three—"
He had underestimated the deadliness of the man. Beldman was obviously subject to rages, and in the grip of one now, and if he had survived all the duels and battles that his rages had brought long enough to grow as old as he was then his age was an indication not of weakness, but of the degree of his deadliness. The irritable thought came that he might well be killed by this ox.
"Twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty, nineteen—"
He flexed his fingers restlessly, and felt in his mind the speed and sureness of his draw and firing. That big blocky figure was just another obstacle standing in his way, to be blasted aside. A loud mouth to be shut.
"Ten, nine—" He concentrated on the counting, "—six, five, four—" sureness growing like a coiled spring in every muscle. "—three—" He crouched slightly. That blocky figure that was all the rest of the world was no more than a target. A big target.
Something confusing happened. As the word came it seemed that a gigantic blow hit him somewhere on his left shoulder, twisting him around so he couldn't see his target. He spun back, willing himself to shoot again quickly, but his legs buckled oddly as he turned. He reeled, finding his balance with great effort.
Heavy slug, he thought, seeing as delayed memory the coiled spring speed with which Beldman had moved. Bryce's left arm did not seem to have any connection with his mind. Glancing down briefly he saw that it dangled.
* * * * *
But the maggy was still there, held in the numb, unfeeling hand, pointed limply at the ground.
He wondered if he had fired it yet.
"Drop it and fall down," advised Pierce's clear voice from somewhere.
There was a stirring and whisper from the blur of the crowd who stood watching to see that the rules were observed. Beldman was walking towards him.
"Do you end the duel?" asked someone, probably the second.
"No," the blur of Beldman answered and suddenly he came into focus, walking up, his wide mouthed gun unwavering in his hand. Bryce remembered the provisions of the duel. Fire until one is down and weaponless. There was nothing said about remaining at a fixed distance. Beldman intended to walk up close enough to shoot him between the eyes. It was too late to let himself fall and end the duel. Beldman would fire if he saw Bryce begin to fall now. He was already close enough for a sure head shot.
Feeling was returning to his left arm. It dangled abnormally far and probably looked broken and useless, but there was nothing actually wrong with it, only something in his shoulder was broken. After the first cold numbness of impact, sensation returned tingling in his fingers, and pain was beginning to burn in his shoulder. Bryce waited a few more seconds, feeling the control returning to his fingers, not changing the glazed off focus of his eyes. How many duels had Beldman won like this? The impact of one of those heavy slugs hitting bone was a dazing blow, enough to stun some men, and he probably counted on that effect.
The square figure lumbered closer, a lumpish clumsy caricature of the self-made man, brutally strong, unashamedly misfit to the society of the smooth-wise, smiling, easy mannered people that he and Bryce had joined; a model of everything that Bryce was trying to destroy in himself.
With a quick twist of the wrist Bryce swung his palm flat up flipping the magnomatic muzzle into line with it and put a bullet into the round face.
In that position of his hand the back kick of the shot twisted his arm back in its broken shoulder and pulled the maggy from his hand, but it didn't matter. The duel was over.
The motionless crowd dissolved again into talking individuals going to lunch.
Pierce picked up the maggy and made the usual query of those who chose to remain.
"Which of you has any complaint of unfairness or advantage taken by either party of this duel?"
Most of them were leaving, anticipating the arrival of the police with their time-consuming questions, but twenty or so crowded close around Bryce and the corpse. "Press a thumb on your shoulder sub-clavian, man," someone advised Bryce. "You're bleeding like a faucet."
Pierce's clear voice said the standard words over the murmur and shuffle of feet. "No unfairness having been observed, when called to give testimony you can then say that he shot in self-defense and under duress."
A low wail of sirens was heard.
* * * * *
"Who was that character?" Pierce asked later, sitting beside the table while a surgeon patiently pieced together the three or four shattered pieces of Bryce's collarbone and fastened them with ingenious plastic bolts.
Bryce absently watched the process in a large tilted mirror slung overhead. Medicine bored him. "J. H. Beldman, member of the Board of Directors," he explained, and for the benefit of the policeman standing beside the door he added, "Bad tempered as they come." He looked into the mirror uneasily, trying to focus on his face.
His clothes were being cleaned of blood and dried somewhere. When the doctor had finished sewing and patching Bryce showered and dressed in a small dressing room beside the emergency ward, where he found his clothes hanging neatly in a drying closet.
As he finished a man in plain clothes entered and dismissed the cop with a word, and handed Bryce a printed notice and his magnomatic; "You're clear," he said, leaving again with a friendly half salute. "No charges." The police had already recorded the testimony of the witnesses and inspected the weapons used. It had been a fair duel and the survivor was clear with a standard case for self-defense. The printed notice called him to testify at the coroner's inquest into the death of J. H. Beldman during the next Saturday, but there would be no charges and no investigation.
There would be no trouble from Beldman, but who else knew what he had known, that Bryce Carter was responsible for the corruption of UT? How had he learned it? If someone else knew, there was going to be trouble.
Coming out of the emergency ward, he checked his watch.
One-fifteen. Too late to find Sheila Wesley still at Geiger's Counter. But he knew he could see her another day—and with a good story to explain why he had not turned up the first time.
They ate at the nearest stand and went back to work. Trying to write was almost impossible, and even using his left hand for minor tasks was difficult. In spite of quick healing of muscle and flesh from the amino and nucleic acid powders the doctor had packed in, the shoulder ached with a tightness that spoiled his coordination. He shifted to writing clumsily with his right hand.
After twenty minutes he abandoned the pretense of working and began thoughtfully doing practice draws with his right hand. It was stiff and clumsy, and there was no holster in his right pocket to make grasping easy. The second time the maggy caught on his pocket edge and slipped from his hand he left it on the rug where it had fallen, sitting looking at it thoughtfully for a moment. Today was the day he would meet Orillo.
"How well can you handle a four tube cabin cruiser?"
"Line of sight only. I'm no navigator," Pierce responded.
Bryce said soberly, realizing what he had decided, "This is a good day to have a bodyguard who's a good shot. I have an appointment to meet a friend—and I'm not sure he's a friend."
"I shoot," Pierce said, writing at one of the letters he had been set to. "Happy to oblige. Shall I wear my bulletproof clothes?"
"You could do with something like that," Bryce said soberly.
Pierce looked up from the letters. "Would this be the man behind all these bullets, and you're meeting him in space?"