"The Weapon Shops of Isher" (1949) - a major golden-age novella by A. E. van Vogt never before republished!
Sunday 28 May 2017, by
This long, well-developed novella, revisiting the saga of the mysterious "Weapon Shops" organization that acts as a check-and balance on the powers of the world-dominant Isher dynasty some 7000 years in the future , was first published as the cover story of the February 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
It has never before been republished! .
That state of affairs is perhaps due in part to its considerable length (33,000 words), and perhaps more for commercial reasons, as van Vogt put together a "fix-up" novel of the same name two years later in 1951, with a mix of this and of two other stories in the series, The Seesaw and The Weapon Shop, when readers were buying paperbacks and novels in droves and quite abandoning the vast number of pulp-fiction short-story-format periodicals that had sprung up in the previous two decades.
With the many really excellent original illustrations  by Virgil Finlay, and the truly spectacular artwork for the magazine cover by the celebrated forties-period artist Earle Bergey, showing the final confrontation between the brilliant and all-powerful Empress Innelda and the brains behind the scenes in this version of the saga, the Weapons Shop mastermind Robert Hedrock.
An e-book is available for downloading below.
THE WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER
ON a day in June, 4784 Isher, a reporter from the twentieth century, Chris McAllister, found himself inside a weapon shop located in Imperial City, capital of the Isher empire.
In all time, no man whose destiny it was to be sacrificed so that others might live ever had so great an influence upon the history of life in the Solar System. Because of the way he arrived, it was possible to make him one of the "weights" of a time pendulum. At the other end was the gigantic imperial building that housed the time machine itself.
To save themselves, the weapon makers precipitated McAllister into the time stream to become one end of a seesaw in time. The personal story of McAllister is a tale that is told, but what happened on Earth in that crucial year of 4784 Isher is not so well known.
The weapon makers averted immediate destruction of their organization and yet the dangerous war did not stop immediately. The problem was to convince a determined young empress, somehow, that she must abandon her fatal ambition.
And so, a strange event took place, and among the individuals affected was a young man named Cayle Clark.
CHAPTER I - Country Boy
HE HAD been caught in a trap. Now he was escaping.
Cayle did not think of his departure from the village of Glay as the result of a decision. He had wanted to leave for so long that the purpose seemed part of his body hunger, like the need to eat or drink. Dim that impulse had grown. Baffled by his father, he turned an unfriendly eye on every thing that was of the village. But his defiance was matched at every turn by the stubborn qualities of his prison—until now.
Just why the cage had opened was obscure. There was the weapon shop girl, of course. Good looking, carrying about her an indefinable aura of a person who had made many successful decisions, she had said—he remembered the words as if she was still speaking them—"Why, yes, I’m from Imperial City. I’m going back there Thursday afternoon."
This Thursday afternoon she was going to the city of the ages, while he— He couldn’t stand it. He felt ill, savage as an animal in his desire to go too. It was that, more than his quarrel with his father, which galvanized him into putting pressure on his mother for money. Now, he sat on the local carplane to Ferd, stunned to find that the girl was not aboard.
At the Ferd Air Center he stood at various vantage points and looked for Lucy Rall. But the crowds jamming towards the constant stream of interstate planes defeated even his alert eyes. All too soon his own vast machine glided in for a landing. That was, it seemed too soon until he saw the plane, marvelous beyond description, coming toward him. A hundred feet high at the nose, absolutely transparent, it shimmered like a jewel as it drew up in the roadstead.
To Cayle there came a bang of excitement. Thought of the girl faded into a blur. He clambered aboard feverishly. He did not think of her again until the plane was hurtling along over the evergreen land far below. Wonder about her came then.
What kind of a person was she? Where did she live? What was her life as a weapon shop member? . . . There was a man in a chair about ten feet along the aisle. Cayle suppressed an impulse to ask him all the questions that bubbled inside him. Other people might not realize as clearly as he did that, though he had lived all his life in Glay, he wasn’t really village.
But he’d better not risk a rebuff.
A man laughed. A woman said, "But, darling, are you sure we can afford a tour of the planets?" They passed along the aisle, Cayle assessing the casualness with which they were taking the trip.
He felt a little self-conscious, but he too grew casual. He read the news on his chair ’stat. With idle glances, he watched the scenery speeding by below, adjusting his chair scope for enlarged vision. He felt quite at home by the time the three men seated themselves opposite him, and began to play cards.
It was a small game for tiny stakes. And, throughout, two of the men were never addressed by name. The third one was called "Seal." Unusual name, it seemed to Cayle. And the man was as special as his name.
He looked about thirty. He had eyes as yellow as a cat’s. His hair was wavy, boyish in its unruliness. His face was sallow though not unhealthy. Jeweled ornaments glittered from each lapel of his coat. Multiple rings flashed colored fire from his fingers. When he spoke it was with a slow assurance. And it was he who turned finally to Cayle and said:
"Noticed you watching. Care to join us?"
CAYLE had been intent, automatically accepting Seal as a professional gambler
but not quite decided about the others.
The question was, which one was the sucker?
"Make the game more interesting," Seal suggested.
Cayle was pale. He realized now that these three were a team. And he was their selected victim. He glared around him to see how many people were observing his shame. Nobody was looking at him.
The man who had been sitting ten feet away was nowhere in sight. A woman paused at the entrance of the section but turned away. Slowly the color trickled back into his face. So they thought they had a pushover, did they? He stood up, smiling.
"Don’t mind if I do," he said.
He sat down in the vacant chair across from the yellow-eyed man. The deal fell to him. In quick succession and honestly he dealt himself a king down and two kings up. He played the hand to the limit and, even with the low stakes, eventually raked in about four credits in coins.
He won three out of the next eight games, which was below average for him. He was a callidetic, with temporary emphasis on automatic skill at cards, though he had never heard the word.
Once, five years before when he was seventeen, while playing with four other chaps for credit twentieths, he won nineteen out of twenty games of showdown. And that ended that. His gambling luck, which might have rescued him from the village, was so great that no one in Glay would play with him.
In spite of his winning streak now he felt no sense of superiority. Seal dominated the game. There was a commanding air about him, an impression of abnormal strength, not physical. Cayle began to be fascinated.
"I hope you won’t be offended," he said finally, "but you’re a type of person who interests me."
The yellow eyes studied him thoughtfully but Seal said nothing.
"Been around a lot, I suppose?" said Cayle.
He was dissatisfied with the question. It was not what he wanted. It sounded less than mature. Seal, mere gambler though he was, towered above such a naive approach. But he replied this time.
"A bit," he said non-committally.
His companions seemed to find that amusing. They both guffawed. Cayle flushed but there was a will in him to know things.
"To the planets?" he asked.
No answer. Seal carefully studied the cards that were down, then raised a credit-fortieth. Cayle struggled against the feeling that he was making a fool of himself. Then, "We all hear things," he said apologetically, "and it’s sometimes hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. Are any of the planets worth going to?"
The yellow eyes studied him now with amusement. "Listen, fella," said Seal impressively, "don’t go near them. Earth is the heaven of this system and if anybody tells you that wonderful Venus is beckoning, tell ’em to go to hell—that’s Venus. Hell, I mean. Endless sandstorms. And one day, when I was in Venusburg, the temperature rose to eighty-four Centigrade."
He finished. "They don’t tell you things like that in the ads, do they?"
Cayle agreed hastily that they didn’t. He was taken aback by the volubility of the reply. It sounded boastful like—he couldn’t decide. But the man was abruptly less interesting. He had one more question.
"Are you married?" he asked.
SEAL laughed. "Married! Listen, my friend, I get married every place I go, not legally mind you." He laughed again, significantly. "I see I’m giving you ideas."
Cayle said, "You don’t have to get ideas like that from other people. They squeeze right up out of your own juices."
He spoke automatically. He hadn’t expected such a revelation of character. No doubt Seal was a man of courage. But the glamour was gone from him. Cayle recognized that it was his village morality, his mother’s ethics, that were assessing the other. But he couldn’t help it. For years that conflict had been going on in his mind. Seal was speaking again, heartily.
"This guy is really going to go places in ever-glorious Isher, eh, boys? And I’m not kidding, either." He broke off. "Where do you get all those good cards?"
Cayle had won again. He raked in the pot, and hesitated. He had won forty-five credits and knew he had better quit before he caused irritation.
"I’m afraid I’ll have to stop," he said. "I’ve some things to do. It’s been a pleas—"
He faltered, breathless. A tiny, glittering gun peered at him over the edge of the table. The yellow-eyed man said in a monotone, "So you think it’s time to quit, eh?" His head did not turn but his voice reached out directly at his companions. "He thinks it’s time to quit, boys. Shall we let him?" It must have been a rhetorical question, for his henchmen merely grimaced.
"Personally," the leader went on, "I’m all in favor of quitting. Now, let me see," he purred. "According to the transparency his wallet is in his upper right hand breast pocket and there are some fifty-credit notes in an envelope pinned into his shirt pocket. And then, of course, there’s the money he won from us in his trouser pocket."
He leaned forward and his strange eyes were wide open and ironic. "So you thought we were gamblers, who were going to take you, somehow. No, my friend, we don’t work that way. Our system is much simpler. If you refused to hand over or tried to attract somebody’s attention, I’d fire this energy gun straight into your heart.
"It works on such a narrow beam that no one would even notice the tiny hole in your clothing. You’d continue to sit right there, looking a little sleepy perhaps, but who would wonder about that on this big ship, with all its busy self-centered people?"
His voice tightened. "Hand it over." Harshly, "Quick! I’m not fooling. I’ll give you ten seconds."
It took longer than that to hand over the money but apparently the continuity of acquiescence was all that was required. He was allowed to put his empty pocketbook back into his pocket and several coins were ignored. "You’ll need a bite before we land," Seal said generously.
The gun disappeared under the table and he leaned back with an easy relaxation in his chair. "Just in case," he said, "you decide to complain to the captain, let me tell you that we would kill you instantly without worrying about the consequences. Our story is simple. You’ve been foolish and lost all your money at cards."
He laughed and climbed to his feet, once more imperturbable and mysterious. "Be seeing ya, fellow. Better luck next time."
The other men were climbing to their feet. The three sauntered off and, as Cayle watched, they disappeared into the forward cocktail bar. Cayle remained in his chair, hunched and devastated.
He hadn’t thought of his departure from Glay as being the result of a decision—a decision, moreover, which was not complete. And it did not occur to him now that no decision was ever final unless it included understanding of all the potentialities of the particular situation. Not that he would ever go back to Glay.
His gaze sought the distant clock—July 15, 4784 Isher—two hours and fifteen minutes out of Ferd and an hour, still, to Imperial City.
With closed eyes Cayle pictured himself, arriving in the old city as darkness fell. His first night, that was to have been so thrilling, spent on the streets.
CHAPTER II - Weapon-Shop Girl
HE couldn’t sit still. And three times, as he paced through the ship, he paused before full-length energy mirrors. His bloodshot eyes glared back at him from the lifelike image of himself. And over and above the desperate wonder of what to do now, he thought—How had they picked him for victim? What was there about him that had made the gang of three head unerringly toward him?
As he turned from the third mirror he saw the weapon shop girl. Her gaze flicked over him without recognition. She looked so smart and at ease that he didn’t have the heart to follow her. Like a whipped dog he moved out of her line of vision and sank into his seat.
A movement caught his distracted gaze. A man was collapsing into a chair at the table across the aisle. He wore a colonel’s uniform of Her Imperial Majesty’s Army. He was so drunk he could hardly sit, and how he had walked to the seat was a mystery rooted deep in the laws of balance. His head came around, and his eyes peered blearily at Cayle.
"Shpying on me, eh? His voice went down in pitch, and up in volume. "Waiter!"
A steward hurried forward. "Yes, sir?"
"The finesht wine for my shadow n’me."
As the waiter rushed off, the officer beckoned Cayle. "Might aszh well sit over here. Might aszh well travel together, eh?" His tone grew confidential.
"I’m a wino, y’know. Been tryin’ to keep it from the Empressh for a long time. She doeshn’t like it." He shook his head sadly. "Doeshn’t like it at all. Well, what’re you waiting for? C’mon over here."
Cayle came hastily, cursing the drunken fool. But hope surged too. He had almost forgotten, but the weapon shop girl had suggested he join the Imperial forces; if he could obtain information from this alcoholic and join up fast, then the loss of the money wouldn’t matter.
"I’ve got to decide," he told himself. He distinctly thought of himself as making a decision.
He sipped his wine presently, tenser than he cared to be, eyeing the older man with quick, surreptitious glances. The man’s background emerged slowly out of a multitude of incoherent confidences. His name was Laurel Medlon. Colonel Laurel Medlon, he would have Cayle understand, confidant of the Empress, intimate of the palace, head of a tax collecting district.
"Damned, hic, good one, too," he said with a satisfaction that gave more weight to his words than the words themselves.
He looked sardonically at Cayle. "Like to get on it, eh?" He hiccoughed. "Okay, come to my offish—tomorrow."
His voice trailed. He sat mumbling to himself. And, when Cayle asked a question, he muttered that he had come to Imperial City ". . . when I waszh your age. Boy, waszh I green!" He quivered in a spasm of vinous indignation. "Y’know, those damned clothing monopoliesh have different kindsh of cloth they shend out to the shticks. You can spot anybody from a village. Boy, I was sure shpotted fast . . ."
His voice trailed off into a series of curses. His reminiscent rage communicated itself to Cayle.
So that was it—his clothes!
The unfairness of it wracked his body. His father had always refused to let him buy his suits even in nearby Ferd. Always Fara had protested, "How can I expect the local merchants to bring their repair work to me if my family doesn’t deal with them?" And having asked the unanswerable question, the older man refused to listen to further appeals.
"And here I am," Cayle thought, "stripped because that stuffy old fool—" The futile anger faded. Because large towns like Ferd probably had their own special brand of cloth, as easily identifiable as anything in Glay. The unfairness of it, he saw with reaching clarity, went far beyond the stubborn stupidity of one man.
But it was good to know, even at this eleventh hour.
The colonel was stirring. And, once more, Cayle pressed his question. "But how did you get into the Army. How did you become an officer in the first place?"
The drunken man said something about the Empress having a damned nerve complaining about tax money. And then there was something about the attack on the weapon shops being a damned nuisance, but that wasn’t clear. Another remark about some two-timing dames who had better watch out made Cayle visualize an officer who maintained several mistresses. And, then, finally, came the answer.
"I paid five thoushand creditsh for my commission—damn crime . . ." He gabbled again for a minute, then. "Empressh insisting upon giving them out for nothing right now. Won’t do it. A man’sh got to have his graft." Indignantly, "Boy, I sure paid plenty."
"You mean," Cayle urged, "commissions are available now without money? Is that what you mean?" In his intensity he grabbed at the man’s sleeve.
The officer’s eyes, which had been half closed, jerked open. They glared at Cayle suspiciously.
"Who are you?" he snapped. "Get away from me." His voice was harsh, briefly almost sober. "By God," he said, "you can’t travel these days without picking up some leech. I’ve a good mind to have you arrested."
CAYLE stood up, flushing. He staggered as he walked. He felt shaken and on the verge of panic. "And I believed I was tough," he thought.
The blur began to fade from his mind. He saw that he had paused to peer into the forward cocktail bar. Seal and his companions were still there. The sight of them stiffened him and he knew why he had come back to look at them. There was a will to action growing in him, a determination not to let them get away with what they had done. But first he’d need some information.
He spun on his heel and headed straight for the weapon shop girl, who sat in one corner reading a book. She put it down when he came up, a slim handsome young woman of twenty summers or so. Her eyes studied his face as he described what had happened.
Cayle finished: "Here’s what I want to know. Would you advise me to go to the captain?"
She shook her head. "No," she said, wouldn’t do that. The captain and the crew receive a forty percent cut on most of these ships. They’d help dispose of your body."
Cayle leaned back in the seat. He felt drained of vitality. The trip, his first beyond Ferd, was taking toll of his strength.
"How is it," he asked finally, straightening, "that they didn’t pick you? Oh, I know you probably aren’t wearing village-type clothes, but how do they select?"
The girl shook her head. "These men," she said, "go around surreptitiously using transparencies. The first thing they discover is, if you are wearing a weapon shop gun. Then they leave you strictly alone."
Cayle’s face hardened. "Could I borrow yours?" he asked tautly. "I’ll show those skunks."
The girl shrugged. "Weapon shop guns are tuned to individuals," she said. "Mine wouldn’t work for you. And, besides, you can only use it for defense. It’s too late for you to defend yourself."
Cayle stared gloomily down through the myradel floor. The beauty below mocked him. The splendor of the towns that appeared every few minutes merely deepened his depression. Slowly the desperation came back. It seemed to him suddenly that Lucy Rall was his last hope and that he had to persuade her to help him.
He said, "Isn’t there anything that the weapon shops do besides sell guns?"
The girl hesitated. "We have an information center," she said finally.
"What do you mean—information? What kind of information?"
"Oh, everything. Where people were born. How much money they have. What crimes they’ve committed or are committing. Of course, we don’t interfere."
Cayle frowned at her, simultaneously dissatisfied and fascinated. He had not intended to be distracted but for years there had been questions in his mind about the weapon shops.
AND here was somebody who knew.
"But what do they do?" he said insistently. "If they’ve got such wonderful guns why don’t they just take over the government?"
Lucy Rall smiled and shook her head. "You don’t understand," she said. "The weapon shops were founded more than two thousand years ago by a man who decided that the incessant struggle for power of different groups was insane and that civil and other wars must stop forever.
"It was a time when the world had just emerged from a war in which more than a billion people had died and he found thousands of people who agreed to follow him."
"His idea was nothing less than that whatever government was in power should not be overthrown. But that an organization should be set up which would have one principal purpose—to ensure that no government ever again obtained complete power over its people.
"A man who felt himself wronged should be able to go somewhere to buy a defensive gun. You cannot imagine what a great forward step that was. Under the old tyrannical governments it was frequently a capital offense to be found in possession of a blaster or a gun."
Her voice was taking on emotional intensity now. It was clear that she believed what she was saying. She went on earnestly.
"What gave the founder the idea was the invention of an electronic and atomic system of control which made it possible to build indestructible weapon shops and to manufacture weapons that could only be used for defense.
"That last ended all possibility of weapon shop guns being used by gangsters and other criminals and morally justified the entire enterprise.
"For defensive purposes a weapon shop gun is absolutely superior to an ordinary or government weapon. It works on mind control and leaps to the hand when wanted. It provides a defensive screen against other blasters, though not against bullets—though, being so much faster, that isn’t important."
She looked at Cayle and the emotion began to fade from her face. "Is that what you wanted to know?"
"Suppose you’re shot from ambush?" Cayle asked.
She shrugged. "No defense." She shook her head, smiling faintly. "You really don’t understand. We don’t worry about individuals. What counts is that many millions of people have the knowledge that they can go to a weapon shop if they want to protect themselves and their families. And, even more important, the forces that would normally try to enslave them are restrained by the conviction that it is dangerous to press people too far.
"And so a great balance has been struck between those who govern and those who are governed."
Cayle stared at her in bitter disappointment. "You mean that a person has to save himself? Even when you get a gun you have to nerve yourself to resist? Nobody is there to help you?"
It struck him with a pang that she must have told him this in order to show him why she couldn’t help him.
Lucy spoke again.
"I can see what I’ve told you is a great disappointment to you. But that’s the way it is. When a people lose the courage to resist encroachment on their rights, then they can’t be saved by an outside force. Our belief is that people always have the kind of government they want and that the individual must bear the risks of freedom, even to the extent of giving his life."
There must have been an expression on his face, a reflection of the strain that was in him. For she broke off.
"Look," she urged, "let me alone for a while to think over what you’ve told me. I won’t promise anything. But I’ll let you know my decision before we reach our destination. All right?"
HE thought it was a nice way of getting rid of him. He stood up, smiling wryly, and took an empty seat in an adjoining salon. Later, when he glanced in the doorway, the corner where she had been was unoccupied.
It was that that decided him. He had been tensing again and now he climbed to his feet and headed for the forward bar.
He came upon Seal from behind and struck him a cruel blow on the side of the face. The smaller man was plummeted out of his stool and knocked to the floor. His two companions jumped to their feet. Cayle kicked the nearer man in the groin, mercilessly.
The fellow moaned, and staggered, clutching his stomach.
Ignoring him, Cayle dived at the third man who was trying to get his gun from a shoulder holster. He struck the gambler with the full weight of his body and from that moment the advantage was his. It was he who secured the gun, struck savagely with it at the man’s groping hand and drew blood and a cry of pain, followed by a mad scramble to break free.
Cayle whirled, in time to see Seal climb to his feet. The man rubbed his jaw and they stood staring at each other.
"Give me back my money," said Cayle. "You picked the wrong man."
Seal raised his voice, "Folks, I’m being robbed. This is the most barefaced—"
He stopped. He must have realized that this was not a matter of being clever or reasonable. He must have realized it for he suddenly held up his hands and said quickly, "Don’t shoot, you fool! After all, we didn’t shoot you."
Cayle, finger on trigger, restrained himself.
"My money?" he snapped.
There was an interruption. A loud voice said, "What’s going on here? Put up your hands, you with the gun!"
Cayle turned and backed towards the near wall. Three ship’s officers with portable blasters stood just inside the door, covering him. Not once during the argument that followed did Cayle lower his own gun.
He told his story succinctly and refused to surrender.
"I have reason to believe," he said, "that the officers of a ship on which such incidents can occur are not above suspicion. Now, quick, Seal, my money."
There was no answer. He sent a swift look to where Seal had been—and felt a sense of emptiness.
The gambler was gone. There was no sign of the two henchmen.
"Look," said the officer who seemed to be in command, "put up your gun and we’ll forget the whole matter."
Cayle said, "I’ll go out of that door." He motioned to his right. "When I’m through there I’ll put up my gun."
That was agreeable and Cayle wasted no time. He searched the ship then, from stem to stern, but found no sign of Seal or his companions. In a fury, he sought out the captain.
"You scum, you," he said coldly, "you let them get away in an airboat."
The officer stared at him coldly. "I don’t know what you’re talking about," he said.
Quivering, Cayle walked back to the salon where the weapon shop girl had been but she was still not in sight. He began to tense himself for the landing, now less than half an hour away. Below he could see that the shadows of approaching darkness were lengthening over the world of Isher. The whole eastern sky looked dark and misty as if out there, beyond the far horizon, night was already come.
A FEW minutes after Cayle walked away from her the girl closed her book and strolled in a leisurely fashion into a private telestat booth. She locked the door, then pulled the switch that disconnected the instrument from the main board in the captain’s cabin.
She took one of the rings from her finger, manipulated it into a careful integration with the government ’Stat. A woman’s face took shape on the screen, said matter-of-factly, "Information Center."
"Connect me with Robert Hedrock."
"One moment, please."
The man’s face that came almost immediately onto the screen was rugged rather than handsome but it looked sensitive as well as strong and there were a pride and vitality in every muscular quirk, in every movement, which was startling to see. The personality of the man poured forth from the image of him in a ceaseless, magnetic stream. His voice, when he spoke, was quiet though resonant:
"This is Lucy Rall, guardian of Imperial Potential, Cayle Clark." She went on to describe briefly what had happened to Cayle. "We measured him as a callidetic giant and are watching him in the hope that his rise will be so rapid that we can use him in our fight to prevent the empress from destroying the weapon shops by her new time-weapon. This is in accord with the directive that no possibility be neglected provided there is someone available to do something about it. I think he should be given some money."
"I see." The virile face was thoughtful. "What is his village index?"
"Middling. But he may have a hard time in the city—for a while."
There was decision on Hedrock’s face. "In such cases as this the smaller the amount of money the greater the subsequent gratitude—" he smiled— "we hope. Give him fifteen credits and let him regard it as a personal loan from you. Provide no other protection of any kind. He’s on his own completely. Anything else?"
It required less than a minute for Lucy Rall to restore the ’Stat to its full government status.
CHAPTER III - Low-Stake Game
CAYLE watched the face of the woman with careful eyes as she looked him over.
This decision was out of his hands.
He actually thought of it as that—a decision. The question was, would she spot him as village? He couldn’t be sure. Her expression, when she nodded, was enigmatic. The room she rented him was small but it cost only a credit-fourth a day.
Cayle lay down on the bed and relaxed by means of the rhythm system. He felt amazingly well. The theft of his money still stung but it was no longer a disaster. The fifteen credits the weapon shop girl had given him would tide him over for a few weeks.
He was safe. He was in Imperial City. And the very fact that the girl had loaned him the money, and given him her name and address, must prove something. Cayle sighed with pleasure—and went out of get some supper.
He had noticed an automat at the corner. It was empty but the instantaneous cooking machines served him a deliciously broiled steak with all the trimmings. He would have liked somebody to talk to but then he remembered that city people did not necessarily speak to strangers. And decided to make the best of the situation.
The meal cost more than he had expected. But even that he decided not to regret. After his experiences on the plane he needed sustenance. He went out onto the street contentedly. The neighborhood swarmed with children, and though it was already dark the play went on relentlessly.
Cayle paused for a moment to watch them. Their ages seemed to vary from about six to twelve. Their play was of the group-rhythm type taught in all the schools, only this was heavily overlaid with a sex-motif that he had never seen before. He was startled, then rueful.
"Good heavens!" he thought. "I had the reputation for being a devil of a fellow because a few girls let me make love to them. To these kids I’d be just plain naive."
He went up to his room, conscious that the young man over whom the elders of Glay had many times shaken their heads was really a simple honest soul. He might come to a bad end but it would be because he was too innocent, not the other way around.
It disturbed him. In Glay there had been a certain pleasure in defying the conventions. In Glay he had thought of himself as being "city." Lying on the bed he knew that was true up to a point only. He lacked experience and knowledge, automatic response and awareness of dangers. His immediate plans must include remedies for these weaknesses.
The vagueness of the purpose disturbed him. He had an uneasy feeling that he was making stopgap decisions, that somehow he was not comprehending the main decision he must make one of these days.
He drifted into sleep, worrying about it. Twice, when he stirred on the edge of waking, the thought was still there, unpleasant, urgent, a jarring background to his first night in the city of dreams. He awoke tired and unhappy. Only gradually did the uneasiness wear off.
He avoided the expensive automat, eating breakfast for a credit-eighth in a restaurant that offered personal service and featured home cooking. He regretted his miserliness. The weight of the indigestible meal on his stomach did not lighten until he was in the Penny Palace, an ornate gambling establishment on the world-famous Avenue of Luck.
ACCORDING to a guidebook which dealt exclusively with the avenue and its games, the Penny Palace owners "have put up glitter signs which modestly claim that it is possible for anyone to come in with a penny and walk out with a million, meaning of course a million credits." The guide page added, "Whether or not this good fortune has ever been achieved the signs do not indicate."
The write-up concluded generously, "The Penny Palace has the distinction of having more fifty-fifty games for the number of machines it has in operation than any other establishment on the Avenue of Luck."
It was that plus the low stakes that interested Cayle. His immediate plans did not include walking out "with a million." He wanted five hundred credits to begin with. After that—well, then he could afford to enlarge his horizon.
He laid his first bet on a machine that pumped the words odd and even into a swirling pool of light. When ten of each had been pumped into the pool the liquid-looking stuff suffered a chemical change, after which it would support only one of the words on its surface. All the others sank through a screen and vanished.
The winning words floated easily face up and somehow set in motion the paying mechanism or the collecting mechanism. The bettors either saw their bets vanish with a click or else their winnings would slide automatically to the square before which they stood. Cayle heard the click of defeat.
He doubled his bet and this time won. He withdrew his original stake, and played with the coin he had won. The intricate lights fused, the pump squished, then up floated the light-word even . The pleasant sound of money sliding softly towards him assailed Cayle’s ears. It was a sound that he was to hear often during the next hour and a half for, despite the fact that he played cautiously and only with pennies, he won just over five credits.
Tired at last he retreated to a connecting restaurant. When he came back into the "treasure room," as it was called, he noticed a game that was played in an even more intimate fashion by the player himself.
The money went into a slot, releasing a lever, and when this was pulled a light sequence was set up. The movement was very rapid but it resolved swiftly into red or black. The game was thus but another variation of the odd and even sequence, since the player had the same fifty-fifty chance of winning.
Cayle slipped a half credit coin into the proper slot, pulled the activating lever—and lost. His second guess was equally wrong and his third. The fourth time his color shimmered into place and he had his first win. He won the next ten straight, lost four, then won seven out of another ten series. In two hours, by playing cautiously, limiting his luck rather than forcing it, he won seventy-eight credits.
He withdrew to one of the bars for a drink, and pondered his next move. So many things to do—buy a new suit, protect his winnings, prepare for another night and pay back the money Lucy Rall had loaned him.
His mind poised, titillated. He felt comfortable and very sure of himself. A moment later he was putting through a ’stat call to the weapon shop girl.
Making more money could wait.
CHAPTER IV - Closed Shop
SHE came on almost immediately. "I’m out on the street now," she answered his request.
Cayle could see what she meant. Her face almost filled the screen. Extens-stats magnified from a tiny image. People used them on the street, keeping them connected with their home ’stats. One of the fellows in Glay had one.
Before Cayle could speak, the girl said, "I’m on my way to my apartment. Would you like to meet me there?"
Her apartment turned out to be a four-room affair, unique only in the abundance of automatic devices. After a quick look around it was clear to Cayle that Lucy Rall never did a stroke of housework. What puzzled him, however, was that the place seemed unprotected. The girl came out of her bedroom dressed for the street and shrugged at his comment.
"We weapon shop people," she said, "live just like anyone else, usually in the nicer residential districts. Only our shops and—" she hesitated—"a few factories and, of course, the Information Center are protected from interference."
She broke off. "But you said something about buying a suit. If you wish I’ll help you select it. I’ve only two hours, though."
Cayle held the door open for her, exhilarated. The invitation to her apartment could only have a personal meaning. Whatever her duties for the weapon shops, they couldn’t possibly include inviting obscure Cayle Clark to her apartment, even if only for a few moments.
They took a carplane, Lucy pressing the button that brought the machine down. In answer to his question the girl smiled.
"You’ll see," she said.
But when they were in the plane she pointed up. "Look," she said.
An artificial cloud was breaking out in the sky above. It changed colors several times, then vividly through it shone the letters, "HABERDASHERY PARADISE."
Cayle said, "Why, I saw their ad last night."
He had forgotten but now he remembered. The streamers of lights had soared aloft the night before as he walked from the automat to his rooming house. Advertising Paradise. Informing males of every age that here was the place to buy, here the retail establishment that could furnish anything in men’s clothing any hour of the day or night, anywhere on earth, Mars or Venus, and, for a trifling extra cost, anywhere in the inhabited Solar System.
The ad had been one of hundreds—and so, in spite of his need for clothes, the name didn’t stick.
"It’s worth seeing," said Lucy.
It seemed to Cayle that she was enjoying his enjoyment. It made him feel a little naive—but not too much. What was important was that she was going with him.
"It’s really nice," said Lucy.
Cayle ventured, "It’s so kind of you to help me."
Haberdashery Paradise turned out to be more impressive than its ads. The building was three blocks long and eighty stories high.
So Lucy told him and added, "We’ll go to the main sections quickly, then buy your suit."
The entrance to Paradise was a hundred yards wide, and thirty stories high. An energy screen kept the weather out but its doorless vastness was otherwise without barriers. It was easy to press through the harmless screen, and so inside the domed anteroom. The Paradise not only supplied beach clothing—it supplied the beach with a quarter of a mile of surging water tumbling from a misty horizon onto acres of genuine sand, complete with seashells, complete with the rich, tangy odor of the sea itself. Paradise not only supplied ski outfits, it supplied startlingly lifelike mountains with a twisting half-mile of snow-covered slope.
"Paradise is a COMPLETE STORE," said one flashing sign to which Lucy called his attention. "If there is anything you do not see that fits in with our slogan, ’Everything for the Man’, ask for it. We have it at a price."
"That includes women," said Lucy matter-of-factly. "They charge the same for women as they do for their suits, anywhere from five credits to fifty thousand. You’d be surprised how many women of good family register when they need money. It’s all very discreet, of course."
CAYLE saw that she was looking at him thoughtfully. And that he was expected to make a comment. It was so direct that he was startled.
He said hastily, "I shall never pay money for a woman."
It seemed to satisfy her, for they went from there to the suits. There were thirty floors of suits but each floor had its own price range. Lucy took him to the twenty to thirty credit suits, and pointed out to him the difference in weave between "city" cloth and the cloth of his own suit. For thirty-two credits, he bought a suit, shirt, tie, socks and shoes.
"I don’t think," said Lucy practically, "you should go any higher than that yet."
She refused his offer of the credits he owed her. "You can pay me that later on. I’d rather you put it in the bank now, as a reserve fund."
It meant he would see her again. It meant she wanted to see him again.
"Better hurry and change," said Lucy. "I’ll wait."
It was that that decided him to try to kiss her before they separated. But when he came out her first words dashed his determination. "I didn’t realize how late it was," she said. "It’s three o’clock."
She paused to look at him, smiled.
"You’re a big, strong’, handsome man," she said. "Did you know? But, now, let’s hurry."
They separated at the gargantuan entrance, Lucy hurrying to a carplane stop, leaving him empty behind her. The feeling departed, only slowly.
He began to walk, his pace quickening gradually.
By the time he came to where the Fifth Interplanetary Bank sat heavily on the base from which its ethereal spires soared to a height of sixty-four stories, ambition was surging in him again. It was a big bank in which to deposit the tiny sum of fifteen credits but the money was accepted without comment, though he was required to register his fingerprints.
Cayle left the bank, more relaxed than he had been at any time since the robbery. He had a savings account. He was suitably dressed.
There remained one more thing before he proceeded to the third phase of his gambling career.
From one of the public carplanes he had located the all-directional sign of a weapon shop, nestling in its private park near the bank. He walked briskly up the beflowered pathway, and he was almost at the door when he noticed the small sign, which he had never seen before in a weapon shop. The sign read:
ALL METROPOLITAN WEAPON SHOPS TEMPORARILY CLOSED
NEW AND OLD RURAL SHOPS OPEN AS USUAL
Cayle retreated reluctantly. It was one possibility he had not counted on, the fabulous weapon shops being closed. He turned as a thought came. But there was no indication as to when the shops would reopen, no date, nothing at all but the one simple announcement. He stood there, frowning, experiencing a sense of loss, shocked by the silence—not, he realized, that that last should be bothering him.
In Glay it was always silent around the weapon shop.
But the feeling of personal loss, the what-ought-he-to-do-now bewilderment grew. On impulse he tried the door. It was solid and immovable.
His second retreat began and this time he carried through to the street.
He stood on a safety aisle undecided as to what button to push. He thought back over the two and a half hours with Lucy and it seemed a curious event in space-time. He felt appalled, remembering how drab his conversation had been.
And yet, except for a certain directness, a greater decisiveness, her conversation left no dazzling memories.
"It’s the stuff," he thought. "When a girl puts up with a dull fellow for an afternoon she’s felt something."
The pressures inside him grew stronger, the will to action telescoping his plans, impelling him to swift activity. He had thought —weapon shop, more gambling, then Army District Headquarters, commanded by Colonel Medlon—over a period of a week. The weapon shop had to be first because weapon shops did not open for Imperial agents, whether soldiers or merely government employees.
But he couldn’t wait for that now. He pressed the button that would bring down the first carplane going towards District Number 19.
A minute later he was on his way.
CHAPTER V - Empress of Isher
DISTRICT 19 headquarters was an old-style building of the waterfall design.
The pattern was overdone, the design renewing itself at frequent intervals. Stream after marble stream poured forth from hidden crevices and gradually merged one with the other.
It was not a big building, but it was big enough to give Cayle pause. Its fifty stories and its general offices, filled with clucking file-machines and clerks, were impressive. He hadn’t pictured such a field of authority behind the sot on the plane.
The building directory listed civil functions and military functions. Cayle presumed that he would find Colonel Medlon somewhere behind the heading, STAFF OFFICES, PENTHOUSE.
A note in brackets under the listing said, Secure pass to penthouse elevator at reception desk on 15th floor.
The reception department took his name but there was a subdued consultation before a man attached it to a relayer and submitted it for the examination of an inner-office authority. A middle-aged man in captain’s uniform emerged from a door. He scowled at Cayle.
"The colonel," he said, "doesn’t like young men." He added impatiently, "Who are you?"
It didn’t sound promising. But Cayle felt his own stubbornness thickening in his throat. His long experience at defying his father made it possible for him to say in a level voice, "I met Colonel Medlon on a plane to Imperial City yesterday and he insisted I come to see him. If you will please inform him that I am here—"
The captain looked at him for a full half minute. Then, without a word, he went back into that inner sanctum. He emerged, shaking his head but more friendly.
"The colonel says that he does not remember you but that he will give you a minute." His voice lowered to a whisper. "Was he—uh—under the influence?"
Cayle nodded. He did not trust himself to speak. The captain said in a low, urgent voice, "Go inside and push him for all he’s worth. A very important personage has called him twice today and he wasn’t in. And you’ve got him nervous. He’s frightened of what he says when he’s under. Doesn’t dare touch a drop around town, you know."
Cayle followed the backstabbing captain, with one more picture of the Isher world taking form in his mind. Here was a junior officer who was mercilessly playing for his superior’s job.
He forgot that as he stepped out of the penthouse elevator. He wondered tensely if he were capable of handling this situation? The gloomy feeling came that he wasn’t. He took one look at the man who sat behind a great desk in the corner of a large room and the fear that he would be thrown bodily out of the 19th District Headquarters evaporated.
It was the same man as on the ship, but somehow shrunken. His face, which had seemed bloated when he was drunk, looked smaller. His eyes were thoughtful and he drummed nervously on his desk.
"You may leave us alone, captain." His voice was quiet but authoritative.
THE captain departed with a set look on his face. Cayle sat down.
"I seem to recall your face now," said Medlon. "Sorry. I guess I had been drinking a little." He laughed hollowly.
Cayle was thinking—That stuff he spoke about the empress—that must be deadly dangerous for a man in his position.
Aloud, he said, "I did not receive the impression of anything unusual, sir." He hesitated. "Though, when I think of it, you were perhaps too free with your confidences." Once more he paused. "I thought it was your position that made it possible for you to speak so strongly and so freely."
There was silence. Cayle had time for cautious self-congratulation but he did not fool himself. This man had not risen to his present position by being afraid or simple-minded.
"Uh—" said Colonel Medlon finally, "what did we—uh—agree on?"
"Among other things, sir," said Cayle, "you told me that the government was in need of officers and you offered me a commission."
"I do not," said Colonel Medlon, "recall the offer." He seemed to be bracing himself. "However, if I did so far forget myself as to make such an offer I have very regretfully to inform you that I have no authority to make you an officer. There is a regular procedure with regard to commissions, completely out of my hands.
"And since the positions are held in great esteem, the government has long regarded them as a source of financial return. For instance, a lieutenancy would cost you five thousand credits even with my influence behind you. A captaincy would disturb you to the extent of fifteen thousand credits, which is quite a sum for a young fellow to raise and—"
Cayle had been listening with a developing wryness. Looking back over his words it seemed to him he had done his best with the material. He just wasn’t in a position to make use of Medlon’s indiscretions.
He said with a twisted smile, "How much is a colonelcy?"
The officer guffawed. "Young fella," he said jovially, "it is not paid for in money. The price comes out of your soul, one black spot at a time."
He broke off, earnestly: "Now, look," he said, "I’m sorry if I was a little free with Her Majesty’s commissions yesterday, but you understand how these things are. And just to show you I’m not a welsher; even when I’m not responsible, tell you what I’ll do. You bring five thousand credits here at your convenience in, say—well, two weeks, and I’ll practically guarantee you a commission. How’s that?"
For a man who owned less than forty credits, it was the runaround. If the Empress had actually ordered that commissions not be sold in future, the command was being ignored by corrupt henchmen. Cayle had a flashing insight into the Imperial Innelda’s situation.
She was not all-powerful. He had always thought that only the weapon shops restrained her vaunting will. But the net she was caught in was more subtle than that. The egoism of her own people. The vast mass of individuals who served her will had their own schemes, their own desires, which they pursued with more ardor than they served the woman to whom they had sworn allegiance.
The colonel was rustling papers on his desk. The interview was over. Cayle parted his lips to say some final word—when the telestat on the wall behind Medlon lighted up. The face of a young woman came onto the screen.
"Colonel," she said curtly, "Where the hell have you been?"
The officer stiffened. Then turned slowly. But Cayle did not need that uneasy reaction of the other man to realize who the woman was.
He was looking at the Empress of Isher.
CHAPTER VI - The Colonel Is Corrupt
CAYLE, who had been sitting down, climbed to his feet. It was an automatic movement. He had no clear thought, simply an awareness that he was an intruder. He was halfway to the door when he saw that the woman’s eyes were watching him.
"Colonel," he mumbled, "thank you for the privilege—"
His voice was a sick sound in his ears and he stopped in shame. And then he felt a surge of doubt, a disbelief that such an event could be happening to him. He looked at the woman with eyes that momentarily questioned her identity. At that moment Medlon spoke.
"That will be all, Mr. Clark," he said, too loudly.
It was the loudness that brought Cayle out of his blur of emotional reaction. He was still ashamed of himself but it was a shame of something that had happened, not of what was happening.
He had a sudden picture of himself, tall and well dressed, and not too bad-looking, standing here before a drink-wrecked caricature of a man, and before the woman of Isher. His gaze touched her face in the ’stat without flinching. He bowed slightly, an instinctive gesture that made him feel even better.
He had no doubt now of her identity. At twenty-five the Empress Innelda was not the world’s most beautiful woman. But there was no mistaking her long, distinctive face and green eyes. It was the face of the Isher family of emperors and empresses.
Her voice, when she spoke again, was her ’stat voice, familiar to anyone who had ever listened to her anniversary greetings—so different, though, to have her speaking directly at him.
"What is your name, young man?"
It was Medlon who answered, quickly, his voice tense but calm. "An acquaintance of mine, Your Majesty." He turned to Cayle. "Goodbye, Mr. Clark. I enjoyed our conversation."
"I said, what is your name?" The woman ignored the interruption.
It was so straight at him that Cayle shrank. But he gave his name.
"And why are you in Medlon’s office?"
Cayle caught Medlon’s eye. A tense eye it was, striving to attract his attention. A remote part of his brain had admired Medlon’s skillful earlier words. His admiration faded. The man was in a panic. Deep inside Cayle a hope started.
He said, "I was inquiring about the possibility of obtaining a commission in Your Majesty’s armed forces."
"I thought so," said the empress in a level voice.
SHE paused. She looked thoughtfully from Cayle to Medlon, then back to Cayle. Her skin was a smooth light tan in color. Her head was proudly held. She looked young and alive and gloriously confident. And something of her experience in handling men showed then. Instead of asking Cayle the next question, she gave Medlon a way out.
"And may I ask, Colonel, what your answer was?"
The officer was rigid, perspiring. But it spite of that his voice was calm and there wale even an edge of joviality in it as he said, "1 informed him, Your Majesty, that his commission would require about two weeks to put through." He laughed deprecatingly. "As you know there is a certain amount of red tape."
Cayle felt himself riding a tide that was lifting him higher and higher—because the benefits of this were for him. He felt an unnatural admiration for the Empress—so different she was from what he had expected. Restraining herself so as not to embarrass one of her officers virtually caught in a misdemeanor.
The restraint did not keep sarcasm out of her voice, however, as she said, "Yes Colonel, I know but too well. This whole rigmarole is only too familiar to me." Passion replaced the sarcasm.
"Somehow or other, the young men who normally buy their way into the Army have heard that something is up and so they remain away in droves. I am beginning to suspect there is a pro-weapon shop conspiracy to put off the few likely prospects who do turn up."
Her eyes flashed with green fires. It was apparent that a basic emotion was stirring, that the restraints were off. She turned to Cayle.
"Gayle Clark," she said in a ringing voice, "how much were you asked to pay for your commission?"
Cayle hesitated. Medlon’s eye was a terrible thing to see, so dark it was. His half-turned head seemed unnatural in the way it was twisted. The message in that abnormal eye needed no words. The colonel was regretting everything he had said to the prospective lieutenant of Her Majesty’s Imperial Army.
The appeal in this manner was so great that Cayle felt repelled. He had never before experienced the sensation of having a man completely at his mercy. It made him cringe. Abruptly he didn’t want to look.
He said, "Your Majesty, I met Colonel Medlon on the Inter-State yesterday and he offered me a commission without any strings attached.
He felt better for the words. He saw that the officer was relaxing and that the woman was smiling with pleasure.
"Well, Colonel," she said, "I’m glad to hear that. And, since it answers in a satisfactory fashion what I was going to talk to you about, you have my felicitations. That is all."
THE screen clicked into blankness. Colonel Medlon sank slowly back into his chair. Cayle walked forward, smiling. The colonel said in a level voice, "It has been a pleasure to meet you, young man. But now, I am very busy. I certainly hope I shall be hearing from you in the next two weeks with the five thousand. Goodbye."
Cayle did not move immediately, but the bitterness of the defeat was already upon him. Out of the darkness of his thoughts came the consciousness that to him had come one opportunity out of multibillions. And he had muffed it by being weak. He had believed that an amoral wretch would be grateful for being saved from exposure. He saw that the colonel, looking quite jaunty, was eyeing him with amusement.
"The Empress doesn’t understand the problem involved in ending a system of paid commissions." Medlon shrugged. "I have nothing to do with it myself. I can no more alter it than I can cut my throat. One man would destroy himself bucking it."
He hesitated. A sneer came into his face. "My friend," he said, "I hope this has been a lesson to you in the economics of personal advancement." He finished curtly, "Well, good day."
Cayle decided against a physical attack. This was a military building, and he had no intention of being arrested for assault where he could not properly defend himself. In his mind he marked the colonel down for further attention at a later date.
Darkness was settling over the city of the Ishers when he finally emerged from District 19 Headquarters. He looked up at the cold fixed stars through a mist of ads, and felt much more at home than he had the night before. He was beginning to see his way through the maze of existence on this world. And it seemed to him that he had come through very well, considering his ignorance.
All around him, the sidewalks began to give off the sunlight they had absorbed during the day. The night waxed brighter as the heavens above grew darker. He grew more confident as he walked.
He had been right to attack Seal regardless of risks, and he had been right to hold back on Medlon. Seal was an individual out in the open as he was and basically no one cared what happened to him. But the colonel could call on the power of Isher law.
He had intended to return to the Avenue of Luck until morning. But now having, it seemed to him, resolved his inner doubts, he changed his mind. If he could win five thousand credits and buy a commission, the treasures of Isher would start pouring in his direction. And Lucy Rall—he mustn’t forget Lucy.
Even one day was too long to wait.
CHAPTER VII - Army Game
CAYLE had to push his way through swarms of human beings in order to get into the Penny Palace. The size of the crowds encouraged him. In this mass of money-hungry humanity he would be like a piece of driftwood in a vast ocean.
He did not hesitate. He had looked over the games earlier and he headed unerringly towards the one he wanted for his final bid for fortune. It would be important, he thought, to gain a playing position and stick to it.
The new game paid odds as high as a hundred to one and as low as five to one. It worked in a comparatively simple fashion, though Cayle, who knew something of the energies, having worked in his father’s shop before he was fifteen, realized there was electronic intricacy behind the deceptive appearance of artlessness.
A ball of force—that was the core. It was about an inch in diameter and it rolled erratically inside a larger plastic ball. Faster, faster, faster it darted over the inner surface, until its speed transcended the resistance of matter. Then, like the molecules of force that it was, it burst the limitations of its prison. Through the plastic it plunged, as if there were nothing there, as if it were a beam of light that had been imprisoned by an unnatural physical law in an almost invisible cage.
And yet, the moment it was free, it grew afraid. It changed color, subtly, swiftly, and it slowed. Its speed of escape must have been miles a second but so great was its fear that it stopped completely after traveling less than three feet.
It began to fall. And until that moment of fall, until it almost touched the table, it gave an illusion of being everywhere. It was an illusion entirely inside the minds of the players, a product of enormous velocity and mental hallucination.
Each player had the conviction that the ball was flying straight toward him, that when it fell it would fall into the channel he had activated with a number. It was inevitable that the majority of the gamblers were due for disappointment when the ball, its mission accomplished, dropped into a channel and activated the odds mechanism.
The very first game in which Cayle participated paid him thirty-seven credits for his one. He raked in his winnings with an attempt at casualness but the shock of victory overflowed along his nerves in spasms of excitement. He placed a credit each in four channels, lost, then bet the same numbers again, and won ninety credits.
During the next hour he won on average once in five times. He recognized that this luck was phenomenal even for him—and long before the hour was up he was risking ten credits in each channel that he played.
At no time did he have an opportunity to count his money. At intervals he would thrust a handful of credits into the automatic changer and receive large bills, which would press into an inner pocket. Not once did he draw on his reserves.
After awhile, he thought in a curious panic, "I must have three or four thousand credits. Time to quit. Not necessary to w the whole five thousand in one night. Come back tomorrow and the day after and the day after that."
It was the speed of the game that confused him. Each time the impulse came, that it was time to think of stopping his play, the ball would start to whirl and he would hastily drop money into several channels. If he lost irritation would come and a greedy determination not to leave behind even a penny of his winnings.
IF he won, it seemed ridiculous to stop in the middle of the most amazing streak of luck that he could ever hope to have. Wait, he told himself, till he’d lost ten in a row . . . ten in a row . . . ten . . . ten . . . Somewhere along there he had a glimpse of a wad of forty or fifty one-thousand credit notes which he had put into his side pocket.
There was more money in other pockets —and again and again, without being more than blurrily aware of the fact, he would strew large bills at random in various channels. How much he couldn’t remember. Nor did it matter. The machine always counted it accurately and paid him the right odds.
He was swaying now like a drunken man. His body seemed to be floating above the floor. He played on in an emotional blur almost oblivious of others. He did become conscious that more and more players were riding his luck, calling up his numbers their own channels. But that was unimportant and personally meaningless.
He did not come out of his daze until the ball plunked down like a dead thing in its cage. He stood stolid, waiting for the game to begin again, unaware that he had anything to do with its stopping until a plump, dark man came forward.
The stranger said with an oily smile, "Congratulations, young man, we welcome your patronage. We are happy for you—but for these other ladies and gentlemen we have bad news. The rules of this house, which are conspicuously posted in our fine establishment, do not permit luck riders, as we call them. This fortunate young man’s trend of luck has been definitely established.
"Henceforth, all other bets must be placed before the ’winner’ makes his choice. The machine has been set to react accordingly, so do not cause yourself disappointment by making a last-second wager. It will not work.
"And now, good luck to all of you and especially to you, young man."
He waddled off, still smiling. A moment later, the ball was whirling again.
About the third game thereafter Cayle thought out of nothingness, "Why, I’m the center of attention!" It startled him. He had come out of that oblivion on which he had counted to maintain his security. "I’d better slip out of here as quietly as possible," he decided intently.
He turned instinctively from the table—and a pretty girl threw her arms around him, pressed tightly against him and kissed him.
"Oh, please, let me have some of your luck. Please, please !"
He disentangled himself blankly, the original impulse forgotten. "I was going to do something," he remembered and laid several bets while he frowned over the elusive memory.
He was aware that newcomers were jostling up to the table, sometimes forcibly crowding out the less resourceful and determined of those who had been there first. Once, when he noticed a particularly violent ejection of a vociferously protesting player, the warning thought ticked again in his head that he and this table were now plainly marked by a thousand avid eyes.
He couldn’t recall just what it was he wanted to do about that. There seemed to be a lot of women around, plucking at him with their fingers, kissing him if he turned his head, and he had a sense of an over-abundance of their artificial-lure perfumes.
HE COULD not move his hands without a woman’s bare skin being available for his touch—naked arms, naked backs and dresses cut so low in front that he was constantly having his head drawn down into soft, daintily perfumed bosoms. When he bent an inch for a natural reason the ever-present hands pulled him the rest of the way.
And still the night and his luck did not end. He had a sense of too much pleasure, too much applause at every spin, at every win. And whether he won or not women flung themselves into embraces with him and either kissed him commiseratingly or in a frenzy of delight. Wild music played in the background.
He was twenty-three years old and the attack on every sense of his body overwhelmed his caution. When he had won uncountable thousands of credits the doors of the Penny Palace closed and the roly-poly man came over, and spoke curtly.
"All right," he said, "that’s enough. The place is cleared of strangers and we can stop this nonsense."
Cayle stared at him stolidly and the clock of danger was ticking so loudly that his whole brain hummed with the sound.
"I think," he mumbled, "I’ll go home."
Somebody slapped his face—hard. "Again," said the plump man. "He’s still riding an emotional jag." The second blow was harder. That did it. He came out of his haze with a sharp comprehension that he was in deadly peril.
"What’s going on here?" he stammered. His eyes appealed to the people who had been cheering him only minutes before. The people whose presence had lulled him . . . impossible that anything would be done against him while they were around.
He whirled on the plump man—and then stood stock still as rough hands grabbed him and rougher hands probed in the pockets of his clothes relieving him of his winnings. As from a great distance he heard the plump man speak again.
"Don’t be so naive. There is nothing unusual about what has happened. All the regular players have been squeezed out, not only out of the game but out of the building. The thousand people in here now are hired for such occasions and cost us ten credits each. That’s only ten thousand altogether and you have won from fifty to a hundred times that much."
He shrugged. "People don’t realize the economics of such things. Next time, don’t be so greedy." He smiled an oily smile. "That is, if there is a next time."
Cayle found his voice. "What are you going to do?"
"You’ll see." His voice went up. "All right, men, take him to the truckplane and we’ll open up again."
Cayle felt himself irresistibly hustled across the room and into a dark corridor. He was thinking in despair that, once more, he had put himself into a position where other men decided his fate.
CHAPTER VIII - High Potential
AT TEN minutes of midnight, July 16, 4784 Isher, the door of the coordination department of the weapon makers, in the Hotel Royal Ganeel, opened. Robert Hedrock came out and strode along a wide bright corridor that stretched off into the distance ahead of him. He moved with an almost catlike alertness but actually his attention was not on his surroundings.
Little more than a year ago he had applied for weapon shop membership, his given reason being that he expected a crisis between government and weapon shop forces and that he desired to be on the weapon shop side. His papers were in order; the Pp machine gave him so high a rating in every mental, physical and moral category that his file was immediately brought to the attention of the weapon shop executive council.
From the beginning he was on special duty and his assignment to the coordination department during an emergency was merely a normal step in his meteoric rise to weapon shop power.
Hedrock was aware that a few members of the council and a number of the top executive considered his ascent too rapid and not in the best interests of the weapon shops—that he was even regarded by some as a mysterious figure, though no sinister connotations were intended by the critics.
No one actually questioned the verdict of the Pp machine in his favor, which puzzled him at times. At some later date, he decided, he would investigate the machine much more carefully and discover just why normally skeptical men accepted its judgments without question.
It had proved inordinately simple for him to fool it, lie to it, tell it his carefully doctored story.
True, he had special control of his mind and abnormal technical knowledge of machine reaction to biological processes. There was also the overruling fact of his friendliness to the weapon shops—which undoubtedly helped. The Pp machine, he been told, had the weapon shop door’s unique sensitivity for recognizing hidden hostility. And its basic structure included the ability, also built into every gun, to recognize and react within limitations.
Like the weapons that would not kill except in self-defense, or under other restrictions, its intricately acute electronic senses perceived minute differences in the reactions of every part of the examined body. It was an invention that had been developed since the last time he had been a member of weapon shops a hundred-odd years before.
It was new to him. And their dependence on it made it necessary for Robert Hedrock, Earth’s one immortal man, friend of weapon shops, to make sure it was as effective a safeguard as they thought.
But that was for later. It was the least of the problems confronting him. He a man who had to make up his mind, how soon was not yet clear—but all too soon it seemed to him. The first great attack of the youthful Empress had already closed weapon shops in every large city on Earth.
But even that was secondary compared the problem of the endless seesaw. He could not escape the conviction that only he, of the human beings on earth, was qualified make the decision about that. And he still had not an idea of what to do.
His thought reached that point, as he to the door marked Private—Executives Only, his destination. He knocked, waited the necessary seconds, then entered without further preliminary.
IT WAS a curiously arranged room in which he found himself. Not a large room, by Isher standards, but large enough. It was so close to being a 200-foot cube that Hedrock’s eyes could not detect the difference. Its most curious feature was that the door, through which he entered, was about a hundred feet above the floor with the ceiling an equal distance higher.
There was a platform just inside the door. From it projected an energy plane. Hedrock stepped into one of the pairs of insulators on the platform. The moment he felt them grip his shoes he walked out onto the vaguely glowing latticework of force.
In the center of the room (center on a height-depth as well as a length-width level) seven weapon shop councilors were standing around a machine that floated in a transparent plastic case. They greeted Hedrock briefly, then returned their attention to the machine.
Hedrock watched with them silently, conscious of their intense, unnormal depression. Beside him Peter Cadron whispered, "It’s almost time for another swing."
Hedrock nodded. And slowly, as he gazed at the wizard mechanism floating in its vacuumized case, their absorption communicated itself to him. It was a map of time—a map of inter-crossed lines so finely drawn that they seemed to waver like heat waves on a torrid day.
Theoretically the lines extended from a central point into the infinite past and the infinite future (with the limitation that in the mathematics employed infinity was always zero). But after several trillion years the limitation operated to create a blurred effect, which was enhanced by the unwillingness of the eyes to accept the image.
On that immense ocean of time, the shadowy shapes, one large and very near the center, one a mere speck on the curving vastness of the map, lay moveless. Hedrock knew that the speck was a magnified version of the reality, which was too small to make out with the naked eye—and which had been so organized that its every movement was followed by a series of magnifiers. These instruments were attuned to separate sensitive energies and adjusted automatically to the presence of additional onlookers.
As Hedrock watched with pitying eyes both shadows moved. It was a movement that had no parallel in macrocosmic space—a movement so alien that the vision could not make an acceptable image. It was not a particularly swift process but in spite of that, both shadows—withdrew. Where? Even the weapon shop scientists had never quite decided that. They withdrew and then slowly reappeared, but now their positions were reversed, with variations.
They were farther out. The large shadow, which had been wavering one month and three days from the center in the past, was suddenly a month and three days and a few hours in the future. The tiny speck, which had been 97 billion years in the future, reversed to about 106 billion years in the past.
The time distance was so colossal that Hedrock shrank in spite of himself and half turned to Cadron. "Have they figured out his energy potential?"
Cadron nodded wearily. "Enough to destroy the planet." He groaned. "Where in the name of space are we going to release it?"
Hedrock tried to picture that. He had not been among those who talked to McAllister, the reporter from the twentieth century. His understanding of what had happened had been pieced together from fragmentary accounts. And one of his purposes in coming to this room now was to learn the details.
HE DREW Cadron aside, and frankly asked for information. Cadron gazed at him with a wry smile. "All right," he said, "I’ll tell you. The truth is, all of us are ashamed of the way we acted."
Hedrock said, "Then you feel that McAllister should not have been sacrificed?"
Cadron shook his head. "No, that isn’t exactly what I mean." His frown deepened. "I guess the best method is to tell you the whole story—briefly, of course."
He began. "The girl attendant of the Greenway shop heard someone come in and went out to attend to him. The customer was a queer-looking chap in outlandish clothes. It turned out that he was a newspaper reporter from the twentieth century A.D.
"He was so obviously disconcerted, so fascinated by the showcases with their energy guns. And he gave an account of a weapon shop having appeared in a street in the little city in which he lived. I can imagine the sensation it caused but the truth is that everybody thought it was an illusion of some kind.
"It seemed solid, of course. But when the police tried to open the door, naturally it wouldn’t open. McAllister, with a reporter’s curiosity, finally tried the door himself. For him, of course—he not being a police or government official—it opened immediately. He went inside.
"He admitted to the attendant experiencing a sense of tension as he crossed the threshold and, though he didn’t know it, it was at that moment that he picked up the first measure of time-energy, the equivalent of approximately seven thousand years—his weight being the other factor.
"When the attendant told her father—who was in charge of the shop—what had occurred, he realized immediately that something was wrong. In a few minutes he had verified that the shop was being subjected to titanic energy pressure. He discovered that the source of the energy was the huge government building on an adjoining street. He immediately called the weapon makers into council.
"By the time we arrived on the scene a swift decision was necessary. McAllister had enough time energy locked up in his body to destroy the entire city—that is if he ever stepped outside of our insulated shop without himself being insulated.
"Meanwhile, the pressure from the government building against our shop continued unabated. At any moment it might succeed in precipitating the shop itself into the time stream, and there was reason to believe that other attacks would be made at any moment on our shops everywhere. No one could guess what the result would be.
"To cut a long story short we saw a way to gain time by focusing the energy of the building upon McAllister and tossing him back into his own time. We could do this by putting him into an insulated space suit that would prevent him from exploding until we could develop a mechanism for purpose.
"We knew that he would seesaw back and forth in time, shifting the government building and its energies out of this space-time area."
CADRON shook his head gloomily. "I still don’t see what else we could have done. We were compelled to act swiftly in a field where no great knowledge is available, and the fact that we merely got out of frying pan and into the fire was just our hard luck. But personally I feel very badly about the whole thing."
"Do you think McAllister is still alive?" Hedrock asked.
"Oh, yes. The suit into which we put him was one of our supers, complete with an eight-ring food-making device, and there’s a cup in it that’s always full of water. The other facilities are equally automatic."
He smiled a twisted smile. "We had an idea, completely false as it turned out, that we could save him at some later date."
"I see," said Hedrock. He felt depressed. It was unfortunate but all the decisions had been made before he had even heard of the danger. Here was the post-continuity.
The newsman was now the juggernaut of juggernauts. In all the universe there had never been anything like the power that was accumulating, swing by swing, in his body. Released, the explosion would rock the fabric of space. All time would sigh to its echoes and the energy tensions that created the illusion of matter might collapse before the strain.
"What’s the latest about the building?" Hedrock asked.
Cadron was more cheerful. "It’s still well within its critical limits. We’ve got to make our decision before it reaches the danger stage."
Hedrock was silent. The matter of what the decision should be was a sore point with him, who was obviously not going to be asked. He said finally, "What about the men who are working on the problem of slowing the swings and bringing the seesaw back this way?"
Another man answered that. "The research is abandoned. Science Four thousand seven hundred and eighty-four has no answer. We’re lucky enough to have made one of our shops the fulcrum. We can set off the explosion anywhere in the past or future. But which? and when? Particularly when?"
The shadows on that cartograph made no movement, gave no sign. Their time of action was not yet.
CHAPTER IX - In Camera
THE strain attendant on watching another swing faded. The men were turning away from the map, and there was a murmur of conversation. Somebody said something about using the opportunity to acquire all the possible data on time travel. Councilor Kendlon remarked that the body’s accumulation of energy was fairly convincing proof that time travel would never be popular.
It was Dresley, the precise, the orderly who finally remarked, "Gentlemen, we are here as delegates of the Council to listen to Mr. Hedrock’s report of the counterattack against the Empress.
"In his report some weeks ago he was able to give us administrative details. And you will recall that we found his organization set-up to be efficient in the extreme. Mr. Hedrock, will you now bring us up to date?"
Hedrock was thinking intently. The problem—to make up his own mind about the seesaw, then enforce his will upon his nominal superiors, all without giving himself away. Difficult? The potentialities were nightmarish. Uneasily he turned his attention to the men.
He began succinctly: "Since the first directive was given me we have established one thousand two hundred and forty-two new shops, primarily in small villages, and three thousand eight hundred and nine contracts have been established, however tenuous in some cases, with imperial government personnel, both military and civil."
He explained briefly his system of classifying the various individuals into groups on the basis of vocation, degree of importance and, what was more important, pitch of enthusiasm for the venture into which the press had precipitated her adherents.
"From three scientists," said Hedrock, "who regard the weapon shops as an integral part of Isher civilization, we gained in the first ten days the secret of the science behind the time-energy machine insofar as that science is known to the government.
"We discovered that, of the four generals in charge of the enterprise, two were opposed to it from the beginning, a third was won over when the building disappeared—but the fourth, General Doocar, the man in charge, unfortunately will not abandon the attack until she does. He is an Empress man in the sense of personal loyalty transcending his own feelings and opinions.
He paused, expecting them to comment. But no one said anything. Which was actually the most favorable response of all.
Hedrock continued, "Some thousands of officers have deserted the Imperial forces, but only one member of the Imperial Council, Prince del Curtin, openly opposed the attack after the execution of Banton Vickers, who, as you know, criticized the whole plan. And the prince’s method of disapproval has been to withdraw from the palace while the attack is in progress.
"Which brings us," said Hedrock, "to the Empress herself."
He summarized her character for them. The glorious Innelda, an orphan since her eleventh birthday, had been crowned when she was eighteen and was now twenty-five.
"An age," said Hedrock grimly, "which is an in-between stage in the development of the animal man to human man levels."
He saw that they were puzzled by his reiteration of facts they all knew. But he had no intention of curtailing his remarks. He had his own formula for defeating the Empress and he wanted to state it at least once in as skillful a fashion as possible.
"At twenty-five," he shrugged, "our Innelda is emotional, unstable, brilliant, implacable, impatient of restrictions on her desires and just a bit unwilling to grow up. As the thousands of reports came in, it seemed to me finally that our best method of dealing with such a person was to leave openings, so that she could withdraw gracefully when the crisis came."
HE LOOKED around, questioningly. He was keenly aware that, with these men, he dared not try to put his ideas over in a disguised form.
He said frankly, "I hope that Council members will not take it amiss if I recommend for their consideration the following basic tactic. I am counting on some opportunity occurring, of which we can take advantage and so bring her whole war machine to a stop. My assumption is that, once it has stopped, the Empress will busy herself with other matters and conveniently forget all about the war she started."
Hedrock paused to give weight to his next words. "My staff and I will watch anxiously for the opportunity and will call your attention to anything that seems to have possibilities. And now, are there any questions?"
The first few were minor. Then a man said, "Have you any notion as to what form this so-called opportunity will take?"
Hedrock shook his head. "None."
"This is merely a formula?"
"It is a formula," said Hedrock, "based on my study of the Empress’s character."
"Don’t you think you had better leave such studies to the Pp machine experts and to the No-men ?"
"I examined all the weapon shop data on the lady before offering my suggestion."
"Still," said the man, "it is up to the elected Council to make decisions in such matters."
Hedrock did not back down. "I have made a suggestion," he said, "not a decision."
The man said nothing more. But Hedrock had his picture of a Council of very human members, jealous of their prerogatives. These people would not easily accept his decision, when he finally made it, on the problem of the seesaw drama that was being played to its still undetermined conclusion in ever-remoter bends of time.
He saw that his audience was becoming restless. Eyes turned involuntarily toward the time map and several men glanced anxiously at their watches. Hastily Hedrock withdrew from the room with its almost invisible energy floors. Watching that pendulum could become a drug. The brain itself would be weakened by the strain of attending a mechanism that recorded the spasms of real bodies in their movements through time itself.
It was bad enough to know that the building and the man were swinging steadily back and forth.
He arrived back in his office just in time to catch a ’stat call-up from Lucy Rall.
" . . . in spite of my efforts," she said, "I was forced out of the Penny Palace. And when the doors shut I knew what was going to happen. I’m afraid he was taken to one of the houses of illusion, and you know what that means."
Hedrock nodded thoughtfully. He noted sharply that the girl seemed disturbed by her experience.
"Among other things," he said slowly, "the illusion energies have some qualifying effect on callidity. The nature of the modification cannot be determined without subsequent measurement but it can be stated with reasonable certainty that his luck will never again take the direction of success at gambling."
He had delayed his reaction while he examined her face. Now he said with decision, "It is unfortunate that Clark has fallen prey to all these pitfalls of the city so easily. But since he was never more than a long-run possibility we can let him go without regret, particularly—and this cannot be stressed too often—as even the slightest interference in the natural progression of his life would cause later suspicion that would nullify any good he might do us.
"You may accordingly consider yourself detached from him. Further instructions will be given you in due course." He paused. "What’s the matter, Lucy? Got an emotional fixation on him?"
Her expression left no doubt of it. Hedrock pressed on quietly, "When did you discover it?"
WHATEVER resistance had been in her, whatever fear of discovery, was gone. "It was when those other women were kissing him. You mustn’t think," she added hastily, "that disturbed me. He’ll go through quite a lot of it before he settles down."
"Not necessarily," said Hedrock earnestly. "You’ll have to resign yourself to the house of illusion but it has been my observation that a fair percentage of men emerge from such an experience hard as steel in some respects, but rather weary of worldliness."
He realized from her face that he had said enough. The groundwork for her future action was established. Results would follow in the natural course of events. H smiled a friendly smile. "That’s all for now Lucy. Don’t let it get you down."
Her image and his faded from the screen in a flash.
Robert Hedrock glanced out of the door of his office several times during the next hour. At first the corridors seemed very busy. Gradually, the activity died down and shortly after midnight, the corridor was clear.
He acted now with decision but without haste. From a wall safe he took the microfilm plans of the time control machine—the one in the room where he had talked to the weapon shop councilors a little more than an hour earlier.
He had requested Information Center to send them to him and they had done so without comment. There was nothing unusual in their compliance. As head of the coordination department he had access to all the scientific knowledge of the weapon shops.
He even had an explanation as to why he wanted the plans—in the event that he were asked. He wanted to study them—so his story would go—in the hope that some solution would suggest itself. But his reasons were private and his purpose personal.
With the films in his pocket he headed along the corridor toward the nearest stairway. Five flights he went down and came to a section of the Hotel Royal Ganeel that was not occupied by the weapon shops. He unlocked an apartment door, went inside and closed the door behind him.
As befitted an executive of the weapon shops, it was an imposing suite—five rooms and a tremendous library. It was to the library that he went. He closed and locked the door, then carefully examined the place for spying devices. There were none, which was what he expected. As far as he knew he was not under suspicion. But he never took unnecessary chances.
Swiftly he held one of the rings on his finger against an ordinary locking electric socket. A loop of metal slid out. He inserted his finger into the loop and pulled.
What happened in that moment was an ordinary-enough weapon shop phenomenon. He was transmitted by a weapon shop matter transmitter a distance of about eleven hundred miles into one of his numerous laboratories. What was out of ordinary about the action was that the presence of the transmitter was not known to the weapon shop council. The laboratory had for centuries been one of his many closely guarded secret retreats.
He decided that he could safely remain an hour. But that all he could hope to do in one night was to make another print of the microfilm. Building a duplicate machine would require many visits such as this.
As it turned out he had time to make an extra print of the plans. Very carefully he put the additional copy into a vault filing case, there to join the tens of thousands of other diagrams and plans to which, over a period of several thousand years, he had given an AA priority.
At the end of the hour Earth’s one immortal man, founder of the weapon shops, possessor of secrets known to no other living human being, returned to the library of his apartment in the Hotel Royal Ganeel.
Presently he was back in his office, five flights farther up.
CHAPTER X - Lucy on the Prowl
LUCY RALL emerged from the government state booth, and she was hurrying through an alcove when she caught a glimpse of herself in an energy mirror. She stopped. The outside lights beckoned. The sidewalks were aglow with a brightness that defied the night. But she stood there in front of the reverse image of herself and stared at her pale face and tensed eyes.
She had always thought herself good-looking, but the face that confronted her was too drawn to be pretty. She thought, "Is that what Mr. Hedrock saw?"
Out on the street, finally, she walked uncertainly along. She had made her call from a booth in one of the gambling palaces and the flashing brilliance of the famous Avenue of Luck was unabated. Magic Street still, alive with swarms of human moths fluttering from one source of light to another. The lights themselves blazed day and night, but the crowds would gradually fade away as the darkness of the upper skies waned.
It was time for her also to go home. But she lingered in an unnatural indecision, knowing she could do nothing, wondering what she could do. The inner conflict drained her strength and twice within an hour she paused for energy drinks.
There was something else too, a sense of personal disaster. She had always taken it for granted that she would eventually marry a weapon shop man. All through school and college, when her own application for membership was already approved, she had thought of all others—the ordinary people as outsiders.
She thought with a piercing comprehension, "It was that moment on the ship when he was in trouble. I felt sorry for him."
He was in deeper trouble now. If she could possibly locate his house she would—
Her mind paused. She felt astounded at the forcefulness of the idea that came. Why, it was ridiculous. If she went to one of those places she would have to go through with an illusion, mentally and physically.
It seemed to her, shakily, that the weapon shops would throw her out for even considering such a thing. But when her mind automatically dashed back over the fine print of the documents she had signed she couldn’t recall any prohibition. In fact some of the sentences, as she remembered them, seemed positively sensational when examined in her present situation:
" . . . Weapon Shop people may marry according to their desire . . . participate, in or partake of any vice or pleasure of Isher for personal reasons . . . There are absolutely no restrictions on the use made of a member’s spare time by the member . . .
"It is, of course, taken for granted that no member will wish to do anything that might harm his or her standing with the Pp machine . . . as everyone has been clearly told . . . periodic examinations by the Pp will determine the status of a member’s continuance with the shops . . .
"In the event that a member is discovered to have fallen below the requirements in any vital degree, the weapon shops will relieve the individual of all weapon shop memories and information, the possession of which by unauthorized persons might be dangerous to the shops . . .
"The following vices and pleasures, when pursued with too much ardor, have proven in the past to be initial steps in the severance of relations . . ."
Among those she remembered as being mildly dangerous for women was—"Houses of illusion." She couldn’t recall clearly but it seemed to her there had been a footnote in connection with that listing. Something about the danger not being in the pleasure itself but in the knowledge that the men in such places were nearly always unwilling slaves. Repeated experiences caused penetrations of the ego, with the result that what began as a search for a comparatively normal sensual adventure ended with the ever-bolder participation of the ego.
SHE came out of her intent memory reverie to realize that she was walking rapidly toward the special flash signal of a ’stat station.
Within a minute she had her connection with the weapon shop Information Center. A few seconds later, a ’stat duplicate of the 2108 addresses of houses of Illusion in her purse, she was heading for the Penny Palace.
Her decision was made and from that moment she had not a thought of drawing back.
Inside the Penny Palace she saw things that Cayle could not possibly have observed without having the knowledge that she had. The play, she saw, was back to normal—almost. A few of the hired people were still ostentatiously playing at games that would otherwise have been unnaturally bare of players.
The moment enough legitimate members were risking money on a machine the hirelings withdrew casually. Lucy headed toward the rear of the great room, pausing frequently and pretending to watch the play at various games. She carried a weapon shop nullifier in her purse. So she opened and shut the doors leading to the manager’s office without setting off the Imperial-type alarms.
Inside she depended entirely on her ring alarm to warn her of anybody’s approach. Coolly but swiftly she searched the office. First she pressed the machine-file activator, pecking out the key word illusion. The file screen remained blank. She clicked off the word house. No response.
Surely he had the address of the house or houses with which he dealt. In a fury she snatched up the ’stat book and operated its activators. But there, too, house and illusion produced no response. Was it possible this man Martin—she had found his name on various documents—had connections with only a few houses and had their numbers in his head? Grimly she realized it was very possible indeed.
She had no intention of withdrawing from all the possibilities of her position. She made a quick examination of the contents of the desk. Finding nothing she settled into the comfortable chair and waited. Not for long—her finger tingled as the ring-alarm went off. She turned it, first towards one of the two doors, then the other.
The active response came from the same door through which she had entered nearly fifteen minutes earlier. Whoever it was would now be in the corridor, his hand reaching for the office door.
The door opened, and the roly-poly man came in. He was humming softly to himself. The big desk and the chair in which she was sitting were so placed that he was inside before he saw that he had a visitor.
He blinked at her with his sea-blue eyes, a little fatty of a man who had somehow, long ago, conquered all fear. The piglike eyes switched to the gun in her fingers, then back to her face, greedily.
"Pretty girl," he said at last.
It was obviously not a complete reaction. Lucy waited. And finally it came, a purring question with an overtone of snarl.
"What do you want?"
From all angles that seemed to Lucy the best identification to make of herself. It was natural that there might be a Mrs. Cayle Clark in the background. That was she.
"Husband?" echoed the man blankly. He looked genuinely puzzled.
Lucy said in a monotone: "He was winning. I waited in the background, keeping an eye on him. Then I was forced out by a pushing crowd. When I tried to get back the doors were locked. When they opened he wasn’t there. I went home but he wasn’t there. I put two and two together and here I am."
It was a long speech but it covered the subject. It gave a picture of a worried, determined wife. And that was very important. It would be unwise if he suspected that the weapon shops were interested in Cayle Clark. She saw that understanding had come to the other.
"Oh, you mean him." He laughed curtly, his eyes watchful. "Sorry, young lady, I merely called a truckplane service that has contacts. What they do with the people I don’t know."
Lucy said precisely, "What you mean is you don’t know the address to which they took him but you know the kind of place. Isn’t that correct?"
HE STARED at her thoughtfully, as if trying to make up his mind about something. Finally, he shrugged.
"House of illusion," he said.
The fact that she had guessed that did not make the confirmation less valuable. Just as his apparent frankness did not mean that he was telling the truth.
Lucy said, "I notice there’s a Lambeth in the corner over there. Bring it here."
He brought it instantly. "You’ll notice," he said, "I’m not resisting."
Lucy made no reply. She picked up the Lambeth cone and pointed it at the fat man. "What is your name?"
The Lambeth needles remained stationery. Martin it was.
The man said before she could speak, "I’m prepared to give you all the information you want." He shrugged. "Doesn’t mean a thing to me. We’re protected. If you can locate the house your husband was taken to, go ahead. But you should know the houses have their own methods of getting rid of men when the police are called in."
There was a nervousness in his manner that interested Lucy. She looked at him with bright eyes.
"You must be making plans," she said. "You would like to reverse our positions." She shook her head deprecatingly. "Don’t try it. I would shoot."
"It’s a weapon shop gun," Martin said, pointedly.
"Exactly," said Lucy. "It won’t shoot unless you attack me."
That wasn’t strictly true. Weapon shop members had special guns, which would shoot under fewer restrictions than the guns sold to consumers.
Martin sighed. "Very well," he said. "The name of the firm is Lowery Truckplanes."
Anton Lowery was a blond giant, who lifted himself sleepily from his pillow and stared stupidly at Lucy. He made no attempt to get up.
He said finally, "I don’t know where they would have taken him. It’s just transportation business with us, you understand. The driver calls up houses at random, until he finds one that can use a man. We don’t keep records."
He sounded vaguely indignant. Like an honest trucker whose business ethics were being questioned for the first time. Lucy wasted no time arguing the matter.
"Where can I locate the driver?" she asked.
It seemed the driver had gone off duty at 2 A.M. and was not due back for another 66 hours. "It’s these unions," said Mr. Lowery. "Short hours, big pay and plenty of time off." Giving the information seemed to bring him a satisfaction, a sense of victory over her, which detracted considerably from the indignation in his tone.
"Where does he live?" Lucy asked.
He hadn’t the faintest idea. "Might get that from the union," he suggested. "They don’t give us addresses."
It turned out that he couldn’t remember the name of the union. The Lambeth, which she had brought along from the Penny Palace, verified his statements one by one. Lucy sagged. Three days! In three days Cayle would be initiated into the illusions behind the houses of illusion. The dark thought roused her to abrupt anger.
"Damn you!" she said savagely. "When the driver reports back to work, you get the address of the house from him. I’ll call you ten minutes after he’s due back to work and you’d better have the information."
Her tone and manner must have been convincing. For Anton Lowery assured her hastily that he had no objection to her gaining the information and would personally see to it that she got it. He was still protesting as she left his bedroom.
Outside Lucy had another energy drink at a corner automat—and realized it wasn’t enough. Her watch showed a few minutes to 5 A.M. And her tense body told her that it was time to go home to bed.
She reached her apartment without incident. Wearily, she undressed, and heavily climbed between the sheets. Her last conscious thought was—
"Three days—would the time pass more slowly for the man who was enduring continuous pleasure? Or for herself who knew that pleasure prolonged was the greatest pain of all?"
She slept on that thought like an overtired child.
CHAPTER XI - Short Circuit
AS SOON as she had the address of the house she called up Hedrock. He listened thoughtfully to her account, then nodded.
"Good work," he said. "We’ll back you up. I’ll send a warship over, very high up. And if we don’t hear from you in a reasonable time we’ll raid."
He hesitated. "I hope you realize that the only way we can justify such action is if you leave no doubt in Clark’s mind that your reasons are purely personal. Are you prepared to go that far?"
He didn’t need the question. The haggard face that stared at him from the ’stat screen left no question of the extent of her fixation. This girl was in a bad way. He had a qualm of pity. But actually he was not responsible for her feelings.
He had merely recognized them, and used his knowledge of psychology to intensify her pursuit. A callidetic of the measurement of Cayle Clark would yet make himself felt in Isher. The chance that the impact would affect the war itself was not impossible.
Once started on the right path, the pace of activity, the pattern of callidity, would be a direct moving cube, piling up so fast that no human brain would grasp the extent of what was happening until afterwards.
If only there were some way of discovering what form it would take—Hedrock shook himself inwardly: He was not given to wishful thinking. They would simply have to watch his movements and hope that they would recognize the moment when it arrived.
He saw that the girl was waiting for him to speak again. His thoughts grew instantly sharp. He said, "What time is your appointment? Tonight or tomorrow?"
"Tonight at ten-thirty." She managed a grim smile. "The receptionist insisted I be on time. Apparently, they can scarcely handle the business they get."
"Suppose he isn’t among those available at that time—what will you say?"
"I gather that there is a complete illusion break at that time. The men and women are then allowed to select partners. However, if he shouldn’t be available I shall not be either. I shall be very finicky."
"Do you think Clark will recognize you?" He saw that she didn’t understand what he meant. He explained. "The illusions leave after-image hallucinations which interfere with visual perception."
Lucy said, "I’ll make him recognize me."
She described several methods she would use. Hedrock considered them, then shook his head.
"It’s obvious," he said, "that you’ve never been in a house. These people are perpetually, endlessly, suspicious. Until you are actually in a state of illusion your chances of saying anything that is not overheard are dim. Once the automatic machines begin radiating stimuli they don’t worry about you any more. Bear that in mind and adjust yourself to any situation that may come up."
Lucy was recovered from her shock. After the afternoon she and Cayle had spent together she had felt sure of him.
"He’ll recognize me," she said firmly.
HEDROCK said nothing to that. He had merely wanted to point out the problem. Three days and nights of illusions was a long time. Even if there were no afterimages the brain was dulled, the body’s capacity for life temporarily at low ebb, no energy for memory.
Lucy was speaking again. "I’d better get ready. Goodbye, Mr. Hedrock."
"All the luck in the world, Lucy," said Hedrock. "But don’t call for help unless it’s absolutely necessary."
Hedrock did not leave the ’stat the moment the connection was broken. During this period of emergency he lived in an apartment adjoining the coordination office. His work was his life. Virtually all his waking hours were spent at his desk. Now he called the weapon shop naval headquarters and ordered them to dispatch a protective warship.
And still he was not satisfied. Frowning, he considered the potentialities of Lucy’s position and finally called for her secret file. In two minutes, by weapon shop interspatial transportation, the remote Information Center precipitated the plate onto the table in front of him. First, he checked the facts—comprehension 110, horizon 118, plethora 105, dominance 151, ego 120, emotion index 150—
Hedrock paused there. Compared to the norm of 100, not forgetting the average of 85, Lucy was a fine, intelligent girl with a somewhat high-category emotional capacity. It was that that had brought her into the affair. After Cayle Clark was identified (by a routine check-up on the crowds that gathered before a new weapon shop) as a callidetic giant it was decided to contact him through the medium of an unmarried girl with a high emotion index.
Deliberately the weapon makers’ Council anticipated that the callidetic would excite fixation in Lucy. There were other factors involved in her selection, mostly sanity safeguards for a young woman who was going to be subjected to unnatural stresses. For one thing it was desirable, from the point of view of the girl’s happiness, that the attraction be mutual for the time being. Permanency, of course, could not be guaranteed in a changing world.
One by one Hedrock examined the factors applicable to the present situation. At last he sighed. He felt sorry for Lucy. The weapon shops did not normally interfere with the private lives of their members or of anyone. Only the unparalleled emergency justified using an individual human being as a pawn.
Thought of the emergency drew his mind. He returned the file to Information Center, then switched on the ’stat again. He manipulated it intently, rejected several images that resulted from the "draw" of energy in the room he was aiming at and finally had what he wanted—the map of time.
He had no difficulty locating the large shadow. It was lying six weeks and a day in the future. The tiny shadow was harder to find. He saw it finally, a minute black point on the curving vastness of the map. It seemed to be approximately a million million years in the past.
Hedrock closed his eyes, and strove to visualize the span of time. He couldn’t. The energy locked up in McAllister was too great now for planetary comparisons, the problem of exploding it a logic nightmare.
When at last he shut off the ’stat he experienced a cosmic weariness, and a stunned incredulous wonder that, after all this time, he still didn’t have a single solution to the deadliest danger that had ever confronted the entire Solar System.
He spent the next hour studying précis of reports that had been filed by other agents throughout the day. Lucy didn’t know that she was among the few dozen agents who obtained immediate and direct access to him at any time of the day or night. Those not so favored talked to machines or to any one of a dozen executives who alternated on a three-shift basis.
AGAIN and again the condensed accounts required more thorough investigation. Not once did he begrudge the time. Not once did he let himself feel rushed. Each report was examined in the detail that he considered necessary.
Ten-thirty came and, though he was aware that Lucy must now have arrived at the house, he paused only briefly and called the weapon shop warship, which was hovering high above the place. For a moment he examined the house itself as it showed through a telescope, a toylike structure in a suburban estate that seemed all garden. Then, the picture of it clear in his mind, he returned to his work.
At five minutes after eleven there was a call. The ’stat buzzed, and Lucy’s face came on the screen. She looked blank.
"I don’t know what happened," she said. "Everything went absolutely okay. He recognized me without giving the show away. We were led away to one of the apartments. The illusion machines went on. I was just about to nullify their effect when everything went black. The next thing I knew I was here in my apartment."
"Just a moment," Hedrock said.
He broke the connection and called the warship. The commander shrugged.
"I was sitting down to call you. There was a police raid and the warning must have been awfully short, because they loaded dozens of women into single carplanes and carted them off to their homes."
"What about the men?" Hedrock was tense. In emergencies the houses sometimes had nasty habits.
"That’s why I didn’t call you immediately. I saw them pile the men into a truckplane and shoot them off. I followed but they used the usual method."
"I see," said Hedrock. He covered his eyes with one shielding hand, and groaned inwardly. The problem of Cayle Clark was becoming complex again, and there was nothing to do but let him go. "Okay, captain," he said gloomily, "good work."
He clicked off, called Lucy again and gave her the news. "I’m sorry," he said, "but that eliminates him from the picture. We don’t dare interfere."
"What’ll I do?" she asked.
"Just wait," he said. "Wait."
That was all there was to say.
CHAPTER XII – Mars
MOST of the houses were known to the police. But there was an unwritten law in connection with them. When a raid was due to take place the owner was warned. But the names of the men who had been imprisoned on the premises must be discoverable in some easily accessible desk drawer. During the next few days a check-up would be made of passenger lists recording the names of indigents and criminals being sent to Mars, Venus and the various moons.
Government contractors were insatiably in need of men for work on other planets. And the houses, frequented as they were by wealthy women who could not afford scandals, supplied a constant trickle of labor with no questions asked.
In their dealings with the houses the police objected only to the idea that dead men told no tales. Proprietors found themselves mercilessly haled to court when they broke that one unalterable rule. After thousands of years, it had proved an effective method for keeping vice operating within the important limit, that the victim survived his grim experience.
* * * * *
Cayle stepped off the gangplank onto the soil of Mars. And stopped. It was an unconscious reaction. The ground was as hard as rock. The chill of it penetrated the soles of his shoes and somehow pierced the marrow of his being.
With ice-cold eyes he surveyed the bleak town of Shardl. And this time a thought came, a hatred so violent that he shuddered, a determination so strong that he could feel the ice in him turning into steel.
"Get a move on, you—" A stick prodded his shoulders. One of the soldiers directing the disembarkment of the long line of sullen men bawled the words, his voice sounding strangely hollow in that rarefied air.
Cayle did not even turn around. He moved—that was his reaction to the insult and indignity. He walked along, keeping his place in the line, and with every step he took the chill of the ground clamped more tightly on his feet.
He could feel the coldness of the air now in his lungs. Ahead of him other men felt the constriction. They began to run. Still others broke past him, breathing hoarsely, the whites of their eyes showing, their bodies clumsily responding to the lesser gravity. The ground was rough and uneven and those who fell cried out as the jagged edges tore at them. Human blood stained the iron-hard soil of ever-frozen Mars.
Cayle walked on, unheeding, contemptuous of those who had lost their heads. They had been warned against the gravity. And the great enclosed plastic compound was only a quarter of a mile away, the intervening cold shocking but bearable.
He reached the compound, his flesh tingling, his feet numbed. It was warm inside and he made his way slowly to the side of the building from which the main section of the town was visible.
Shardl was a mining town. It stood on a flat plain that was just beginning to blossom here and there with the green of warm atomic gardens. The shrubbery, spotty and incongruous, only emphasized the near desolation of every visible horizon.
He saw that men were studying bulletin boards over against one wall. He moved closer, and read what he could see of one sign. It read:
Cayle pressed up to it, then smiled, and turned away. So they wanted people to sign up for Martian farms. Agree to remain fifteen years and Her Gracious Majesty, Innelda of Isher, will supply you—yes, YOU—with a completely equipped atomic-heated farm. No down payment, forty years to pay."
The offer concluded insinuatingly, "Go immediately to the Lands office, sign your application—and you will not have to do one minute’s work in the mines."
CAYLE was immune. He had heard of this system of colonizing the cold planet of Mars and the hot planet of Venus. Eventually every acre of soil would be occupied, and the planet subjected to the beneficent influence of atomic power.
And so, over the millennia, men would at last thaw all the icy habitable worlds of the Solar System and chill the burning deserts of Venus and Mercury. Men working out their lives on the drabber spawnings of their sun would create reasonable facsimiles of the far green Earth from which they had come.
That was the theory. In all those lazy days at public school, when he had read and listened to the accounts of the colonization, he had not dreamed that he would one day be standing here, looking out at the half-light world of Mars, standing here caught by a process too ruthless for any man, raised as he had been raised, to resist.
He had no hatred now of his father. That was gone out of him into the hazy mists of the past, into that world of nothingness where his illusions had gone. The poor dumb fool—that was his thought now. Perhaps, it was just as well that some people never did comprehend the realities of life in the empire of Isher.
His own personal problem was solved in a simple, effective fashion. He had been afraid. Now he wasn’t. He had, astonishingly enough, been honest. Now, he wasn’t. Well, in a way he wasn’t. It all depended on an individual’s outlook on life as to how far he’d accept the theory that a human being must be strong enough to face the necessities of his era.
Cayle Clark intended to face them all the way. Not for long would such a man as he had become remain on Mars. Meanwhile, sign nothing that would restrict his movements. Be cautious but seize opportunities instantly on an all-out basis.
Behind him a voice said slyly, "Am I addressing Cayle Clark, formerly of the village of Glay?"
Cayle turned slowly. He hadn’t expected opportunity to come so quickly.
The man who stood before him was small. He wore an overcoat of a fancy expensive design and he was very obviously not a person who had come on the boat. It was a healthy-looking coat but the man inside looked shriveled and insignificant. He spoke again.
"I am the local—uh—representative of the Fifth Bank. It may be that we can help you out of this unusual situation."
He looked like a toad, his gaunt face enframed in a high collar. His eyes, like black seeds, peered forth with a dull but avaricious light.
Cayle shrank involuntarily, not from fear but from loathing. There had been a woman who came to the house, a woman bedecked with jewels and furs—with a face like that and eyes like that. And all the whips they had used on his bare back while she looked on with greedy eyes had not broken his will to have nothing to do with her. It cost Cayle an effort of mind to realize that he must not necessarily compare the two people or that they had anything in common.
"Interested?" asked the creature.
Cayle started to nod. And then a word that hadn’t really penetrated before came through to his consciousness.
"What bank did you say?"
The human caricature smiled with the look of a man who realized he was bearing precious gifts.
"The Fifth bank," he said. "You made a deposit in our central at Imperial City about a month ago. In the course of a normal investigation of the background of any new depositor we discovered that you were on your way to Mars under unpleasant circumstances. We therefore wish to place our loan department at your service."
"I see," said Cayle carefully.
HIS eyes, sharp and alert, made another more detailed examination of this agent of the great hank. It found nothing new, nothing to inspire confidence. And yet he did not think of ending the conversation.
"Just what would the bank do for me?" he asked quietly.
The man cleared his throat. "You are the son of Fara and Creel Clark?" he asked pompously.
Cayle admitted the relationship after a moment’s hesitation.
"You desire to return to Earth?"
There was no hesitation about that. The answer was yes.
"The base fare," said the creature, "is six hundred credits for the trip when the distance between Mars and Earth permits a twenty-four day journey. When the distance is greater the cost is ten credits a day extra. You probably knew that."
Cayle hadn’t known. But he had guessed that the mine head wage, of 25 credits a week would not provide a quick means of returning to Earth. He felt tensed, conscious of how completely a man without resources could be confined to a planet. He had an idea of what was coming.
"The Fifth bank," said the man in a grand tone, "will loan you the sum of one thousand credits if your father will guarantee the debt and if you will sign a note agreeing to pay back ten thousand credits."
Cayle sat down heavily. The end of hope had come more swiftly than he expected.
"My father," he said wearily, "would never guarantee a note for ten thousand credits."
"Your father," said the agent, "will only be asked to guarantee the one thousand. You will be expected to pay ten thousand out of your future earnings."
Cayle studied him with narrowed eyes. "By what method will this money be paid over to me?"
The gaunt face smiled. "You sign, then we give it to you. And just leave your father to us. The bank has a psychology department for handling co-signers and signers of notes. On some we use the dominating technique—on others—"
Cayle interrupted. "So far as I’m concerned the money has to be paid before I sign."
The other shrugged, and laughed. "As you will. I see you’re a sharp fellow. Come over to the mine manager’s office."
He walked off, Cayle following thoughtfully. It was too easy and he didn’t like it. Everything was happening too swiftly, as if—well, as if this were part of the routine of the end of a voyage. He slowed and looked around alertly. There was a long line of offices, he saw, where other men were being taken by well-dressed individuals.
It seemed to him that he could visualize the picture then. The first offer on the bulletin board. Volunteer to go on a farm. If they didn’t get you that way, then along came a smooth individual to offer a loan on the basis of your family credit. The loan money would either not be advanced at all or it would be stolen from you without mercy immediately afterwards.
Thereupon, having exhausted all your available resources, present and future, you were on Mars to stay.
"There’ll be a couple of witnesses," Clark thought. "Big fellows with guns on them to make sure that you don’t get your money."
IT WAS a good way to colonize an unfriendly planet, possibly the only way, considering that human beings were not too interested any more in pioneering.
He walked into the room. And there were the two men, well dressed, smiling, friendly. They were introduced as, respectively, the mine manager and a clerk from the bank.
Clark wondered cynically how many other individuals, shanghaied as he had been, were being introduced at this moment to the "mine manager." It sounded very impressive and it must be thrilling to have a chance to talk in a heart-to-heart fashion with so important a man, to realize that he was human after all.
Clark shook hands with him and then turned to look the situation over. The important thing was to get the money legally.
That meant actually signing the document and getting a copy. Even that might not mean anything but, after all, there was a certain amount of law on the planets. The dangerous thing was to be without money and to arrive in court where other men could blandly deny one’s story.
The room was not large but it was luxuriously furnished. It could have been a mine manager’s office. There were two doors, the one through which he had come, and one directly opposite it, where presumably the robbed individual made his exit without getting any chance to talk to people in the big room from which he had come.
Clark walked over to the second door, opened it and saw that it led outside. There were scores of huts within sight and, standing in groups all around, were soldiers. The sight of them gave him pause, for obviously they would make it impossible for him to make a run for it if he succeeded in obtaining the money.
He used his body to block off the knob. With swift fingers he tested it to see if it were locked from the outside. It was. Quietly, be closed the door and, with a smile, turned back into the room.
He shivered convincingly. "Sure chilly out there. I’ll be glad to get back to Earth."
The three men smiled sympathetically and the reptilian bank agent held out a document with ten one-hundred credit bills clipped to it. Clark counted the money and put it into his pocket. Then he read the contract. It was quite simple, apparently designed to ease the minds of people who were suspicious of involved forms.
There were three copies, one to be sent to Earth, one for the Martian branch and one for him. They were properly signed and sealed and awaited only his signature. Clark tore off the bottom one and put it into his pocket. The others were inserted into the registered circuit. He signed the first one with a flourish—which made the transaction legal—and then he stepped back, and threw the pen, point first, into the face of the "manager."
The man screamed, and put his hand up to his torn cheek.
That was all Clark saw. With a jump he reached the side of the toad-like man, grabbed at his neck just above the heavy coat collar and squeezed with all his strength. The creature yelped and struggled weakly.
For a moment then Clark had the sharp fear that his plan of attack had been falsely based. He had absolutely assumed that the other had a gun also and would reach for it in panic.
Long skinny fingers were clawing inside the voluminous coat. They came out clutching a little glittering blaster that Clark snatched, hand and all, and crushed into his own palm. Simultaneously he squeezed the weapon away from the other’s grasp.
He saw that the big "clerk" had his gun out, and was edging around, trying to get a chance to use it without harming the reptile. Clark took a snap shot at the man’s foot. The radiant flame made a thin, bright beam. There were an odor of burning leather and a streamer of blue smoke. With a cry the fellow dropped his weapon, and sat down heavily on the floor. He writhed there, clutching his foot.
At Clark’s urging, the "manager" held up his hands reluctantly. Swiftly, Clarke relieved him of his blaster, picked up the one on the floor and backed toward the door.
He explained his plan briefly. The toad would accompany him as a hostage. They would go to the nearest airline base and fly to the city of Mare Cimmerium, at which point he would catch a regular liner for Earth.
"And if anything should go wrong," Cayle Clark concluded, "at least one person will die before I do."
Nothing went wrong.
And that day was August 26th, 4784 Isher, two months and twenty-three days after Imperial Innelda launched her attack on the weapon makers.
CHAPTER XIII - Face to Face
CAYLE CLARK planned and schemed. The days of the journey from Mars to
Earth wound their clockwise course. The ship time switched gradually from Cimmerium Daylight Time to Imperial City Time. But the night outside, with its flashingly bright sun off to one side and everywhere else starry darkness, was an unchanging environment.
Meals were eaten. Clark slept and dreamed and moved and had his being. His thoughts grew more direct, more determined. He had no doubts. A man who had put away fear of death could not fail. It was as simple as that.
The sun grew brighter. It splashed spiral-like across the darkness. Mars receded to a point of smallness, a reddish dot in a sea of night—hard to find among the starry brilliants of the jewel-case sky. Gradually Earth became a large, shining ball of light, then a monstrous, misty, unbelievable thing that filled half the sky.
The continents showed through. And on Earth’s night side, partly visible as the ship swung past the moon, the cities shone with intermittent glitter that rivaled the heavens themselves.
Clark saw that vision of Earth in snatches only. Five days from destination he had discovered a stud poker game in one of the holds. From the beginning he lost. Not every game—an occasional win helped him recuperate a few credits. But by the third day of the endless game, the second last of the trip, the direction of his fortune was so marked that he took alarm and quit.
In his cabin he counted the money that remained to him—eighty-one credits. He had paid eight percent commission on the thousand credits to the representative of the bank. The rest had gone on fare, poker losses and one Imperial-style gun.
"At least," Clark thought, "I’ll soon be back in Imperial City. And with more money than when I arrived last time."
He lay back, amazingly at ease. The poker losses did not disturb him. He hadn’t, when he came right down to it, planned to try gambling again. He had a different picture of his life. He would take risks, of course, but on a higher level.
He had won five hundred thousand credits—at least—in the Penny Palace. It would be difficult to collect it but he would succeed. He felt himself patient and capable, ready for all eventualities.
As soon as he had the money he would secure a commission from Colonel Medlon. He might pay for it and he might not. It depended upon the moment.
There was no vengefulness in his plan. He didn’t care what happened to two venal creatures like Fatty and the colonel. They were stepping-stones, it seemed to Clark, in the most ambitious scheme that had ever been planned in the Empire of Isher. A scheme rooted in a fact that seemed to have escaped all the creature-men who had risen to positions of rank in the Imperial service.
INNELDA of Isher meant well by the country. In his one contact with her he had sensed a personality frustrated by the corruption of others. In spite of the talk against her the Empress was honest—on a Machiavellian level, of course.
Clarke did not doubt that she could issue an order of execution. But that was part of her function as ruler. Like himself she must rise to the necessities of her situation.
The Empress was honest. She would welcome a man who would use her limitless authority to clean house for her. For two and a half months now he had been thinking over what she had said that day in Medlon’s office and he had some pretty shrewd answers.
There was her reference to officer-prospects staying away in droves because they had heard that something was up. And her accusation of a pro-weapon shop conspiracy tied in with the inexplicable closing of the shops. Something was up and, for a man who had made a personal contact, it spelled massive opportunity.
To all his planned actions Clark made but one qualification. First he must seek out Lucy Rall and ask her to marry him.
That hunger could not wait.
The ship came down into its cradle a few minutes before noon on a cloudless day. There were formalities and it was two o’clock before Clark’s papers were stamped and he emerged into the open. A breeze touched his cheeks and, from the peak of metal that was the landing field, he could see the dazzling city to the west.
It was a view to make a man catch his breath. But Clark did not waste any time. From a ’stat booth, he called Lucy’s number. A pause, then a young man’s face came onto the screen.
"I’m Lucy’s husband," he said. "She went out for a minute but you don’t want to talk to her." Persuasively. "Take a good look at me and you’ll agree."
Clark stared blankly. But the familiarity of the other’s face would not penetrate through the shock of the words he had spoken.
"Look hard," the image in the ’stat urged.
"I don’t think," Clark began, "that—"
And then he got it. Then he got it. He drew back like a man who had been pushed. He put out his hand as if he would defend his eyes from a vision that was too bright for them. He could feel the blood draining from his cheeks, and he swayed. The now familiar voice drew him back to normalcy.
"Pull yourself together!" it said. "And listen. I want you to meet me tomorrow night on the beach of the Haberdashery Paradise. Take one more look at me, convince yourself and be there."
Clark didn’t need the look but his eyes sought the image-face. And there was no question. The face that was staring at him from the ’stat was his own.
Cayle Clark was looking at Cayle Clark—at 2:10 P.M., October 4, 4784 Isher.
CHAPTER XIV - The Empress Orders
OCTOBER 6th—the Empress stirred, and turned over in bed. She had a memory. The night before she had told herself that by morning her mind would be made up. As she came out of sleep she realized the uncertainty was still there. She opened her eyes, already embittered against the day.
She sat up, composing the tension in her face. And as she did so half a dozen maids, who had been hovering behind a soundproofed screen, dashed forward. An energy drink was tendered. Sunlight adjustments were made, the great bedroom brightened for another morning.
Massage, shower, facial, hair—and, again and again, as the routine proceeded, she thought, "I have got to get action or the attack will end in a personal humiliation. Surely, after four months, they cannot keep on delaying."
As soon as she had her dress on she began to receive palace officials. First, Gerritt, the Chief of Palace Administration. He had a problem, many of them, and as usual, annoying ones. That was her own fault, partially.
Long ago, she had insisted that all punishments of the help be referred to her. Today the predominant motif was insolence. Servants defying their superiors and shirking their work. The offense was becoming common.
"For heaven’s sake," Innelda said irritably, "if they don’t like the limitations of the position, why don’t they quit? Palace-trained servants can always obtain positions, if only for what they are believed to know about my private life."
"Why does not your majesty let me handle these personal matters?" said Gerritt. It was his stock remark, stolidly made. She knew that eventually he would wear her down but not to his own benefit. No stubborn old conservative was going to have full control of the palace help. A heritage from the regency period, he and all his kind were going to be emptied out of the palace one of these days.
She sighed, dismissed him—and was back with her problem. What to do? Should she order attacks wherever possible? Or wait in the hope that new information would turn up? The trouble was that she had been waiting now for so many weeks.
General Doocar came in, a tall, thin man with slate-gray eyes. He saluted with an angular motion and said, "The building reappeared for two hours forty minutes last night, only one minute from the estimated time."
Innelda nodded. That was routine now. The pattern of reappearance had been established within a week of the first disappearance. She still insisted on being kept informed of the building’s movements, just why she couldn’t decide.
"I’m like a child," she thought self-critically. "I can’t let anything get out of my control."
The analysis darkened her mood. She made a few sharp remarks about the efficiency of the military scientists under his command, then asked the question. The general shook his head.
"Madam," he said, "an attack is out of the question at the moment. We have a power machine dominating the weapon shops in every large city on this planet—but during the past two and a half months, eleven thousand officers have deserted. The power machines are manned by guards who do not know how to operate them."
The woman flashed, "The hypnotic machine could teach them en masse in one hour."
"Yes." The hard voice did not change. The thin lips became a little thinner. That was all. "Your Majesty, if you are prepared to hand such information over to common soldiers that is your privilege. You have but to command and I will obey."
Innelda bit her lip, vexed. This grim old man had her there.
It was annoying to have come out at last with a thought that she had restrained so often in the past.
She said defensively, "It seems that the so-called common soldiers are more loyal than my commissioned officers and braver."
He shrugged. "You allow these tax creatures of yours the privilege of selling commissions," he said. "You do, generally, get educated people that way, but you surely don’t expect a man who has paid ten thousand credits for a captaincy to take the chance of getting himself killed."
THE argument began to weary her. She had heard it all before in different words.
The same old meanings, dressed up in recuperated emotions, though it was some weeks now since the problem of commissions in the armed forces had been mentioned. The subject was not a pleasant one.
It reminded her now of something she had almost forgotten.
"The last time we talked of this," she said slowly, "I requested you to contact Colonel Medlon and ask him whatever became of that officer he was about to commission when I called him one day? It isn’t often that I make personal contacts with lower ranks."
Savagely—"I’m hedged in here by a brigade of old men who don’t know how to mobilize an army." She fought down her anger. "But never mind that. What about him?"
GENERAL DOOCAR said stonily, "Colonel Medlon informs me that the young officer-prospect did not return at the appointed hour. The colonel assumes that he must have got wind of what was up and hastily changed his mind."
There was silence. She found herself thinking—that sounded wrong. He wasn’t like that.
And besides, the Empress personally had talked to him.
She did not underestimate the power of such direct contact. People who met the Empress of Isher felt not only her personal charm but experienced the abnormal aura of her position. The combination was absolutely overpowering, not to be lightly dismissed on the word of a suspected wino. She spoke at last with a quiet determination:
"General, inform the colonel today that he will either produce this young officer or face a Lambeth in the morning."
The gaunt man bowed but there was a cynical smile on his face. "Madam," he said, "if it gives you pleasure to destroy corruption, one individual at a time, you have a lifelong task ahead of you."
She didn’t like that. There was a brutality in the remark that reached deep into her. She drew back.
Then, "I’ve got to start somewhere." She made a gesture, half-threat, half frustration. She said querulously, "I don’t understand you any more, General. When I was younger you used to agree that something ought to be done."
"Not by you." He shook his head. "The Imperial family must sanction, not personally direct, a moral house-cleaning." He shrugged. "As a matter of fact, I have more or less come around to the weapon shop idea that this is an age where people take to corruption whenever their adventurous instincts are denied normal expression."
The green, imperial eyes flashed.
"I am not interested in weapon shop philosophy."
She was abruptly astounded that he should have mentioned the weapon shops in such fashion.
She flung the accusation at him. The grand old man was immune.
"Madam," he said, "when I stop examining the ideas and philosophies of a power that has now existed for three thousand seven hundred years you may have my head examined."
The woman rejected the argument. Everywhere she turned was this semi-worship of the weapon shops. More, it was an acceptance of the shops as a legitimate facet of Isher civilization.
"I must get rid of these old men," she thought, not for the first time. "They knew me as a child and will always treat me as if I am."
Aloud, she said icily, "General, I am not interested in hearing the moral teachings of an organization that at base is responsible for all the immorality in the Solar System.
"We live in an age where productive capacity is so great that no good need ever starve. Crime because of economic need does not exist. The problem of psychiatric crime can be solved whenever we get hold of the afflicted person. But what is the situation?"
She was hot now with remembered rage. "We discover that our psychopath has been sold a weapon shop gun. The owner of a house of illusion is similarly protected. True, in that case, there is an understanding between the police and the houses whereby raids are allowed. But if any individual owner should decide to resist, we would have to bring a thirty-thousand-cycle cannon to defeat him."
SHE paused to survey the job done by her hairdresser, felt satisfied, waved the woman away.
"Ridiculous and criminal!" she snapped. "On every side, we are frustrated in our desire to end this eternal wickedness of millions of individuals, who sneer at the law because they have weapon shop guns. It would he different, if these—gunmakers would limit the sale of their products to respectable people. But when any sort of scoundrel can buy one—"
"A defensive gun!" interjected the general softly. "Defensive only."
"Exactly," snarled Innelda. "A man can commit any crime, then defend himself against justice. Oh—" furiously— "why do I even talk to you? General, I’m telling you. We have the weapon that can destroy these weapon shops once and for all. You don’t have to kill the members, but get the army organized to destroy the shops. Get it organized, I say, for an attack within." She looked at him. "How long, General?"
He pleaded, "Give me till the new year, Madam. I swear that the confusion which was caused by the desertions has temporarily ruined us."
She had forgotten the deserters for the moment. "You have captured some of these officers?"
"I want one available for questioning this morning."
General Doocar bowed.
"As for the rest," said Innelda, "keep the military police after them. As soon as this mess is over, I’ll set up special courts-martial and we’ll teach these traitors the meaning of their oaths of allegiance."
"Suppose," said Doocar and his voice was soft again, "they have weapon shop guns?"
HER reaction to that was so violent that she grew calm in her anger.
"My friend," she said gravely, "when Army discipline can be set to naught by an underground organization, then even the generals must realize it is time to destroy the subversion."
She made a motion with the right arm, a gesture of decisiveness.
"This afternoon, general, I shall visit the laboratories of Olympian Field. I want to see what progress has been made in finding out just what the weapon makers did to that building.
"Tomorrow morning, at least, Colonel Medlon must procure for me the young man he was supposed to have commissioned. If he cannot do it one corrupt head will roll. You may think I am being childish, concerning myself with one individual. But I must start somewhere. And that young man I know about. Him I can check on.
"But now," she said, "you weapon shop admirer, get out of here before I do something drastic."
"Madam," protested Doocar mildly, "I am loyal to the House of Isher."
"I am glad to hear it," said Innelda scathingly.
She brushed past him and went out into the hallway without looking back.
CHAPTER XV - Deserter
AS SHE entered the salon, she heard the faint sighing relief of those already there. She smiled darkly. People who wanted to eat in the Imperial salon had to wait till she broke bread or sent word she wasn’t coming. No compulsion existed for anyone to be present. But usually those who had access did not deny themselves the privilege.
Innelda said, "Good morning!" Then sat down at the head of her table. She sipped a glass of water, which was the signal for the waiters to come in. After she had given her order, she looked around the room. Everywhere were graying heads, men and women over fifty, relics of the regency.
A half-dozen young men and two of her younger secretaries sat at her own table. But they were a remnant, the residue of the emigration of young people that had followed the departure of Prince del Curtin.
"And did everybody have a nice sleep last night?" Innelda broke the silence sweetly.
Everybody hastened to assure her that they had. She murmured, "How nice!" And settled into a moody silence. She wasn’t sure just what she wanted of her companions. Lightness, perhaps. But how much? A year before, a newly introduced young man had asked her if she were still a virgin. And since she was the remark still annoyed her.
Crudeness was definitely out of order. She had an instinctive feeling that immorality on her part would reflect on the reputation of the Isher family. But then what? She pecked at a piece of toast.
What did she want? A positive approach—a belief in principles, with an ability to see the humorous side of life. Her own upbringing, severe and simple, had stressed the positive mind-trainings. Very important, but seriousness could be overdone.
She stiffened with an old determination. "I’ve got to get rid of these humorless, do-nothing, let’s-be-careful-and-not-rock-the-boat, think-twice-and-stop—" She paused, self-pityingly, and prayed to her private gods, "Give me one good joke a day to make me laugh and one man who can handle affairs of state and, in addition, know how to amuse me. If only Del were here."
She scowled in annoyance at the direction her thoughts were taking. Her cousin, Prince del Curtin, disapproved of the attack on the weapon shops. What a shock, when she had first discovered that. And what mortification when all the young men of his clique left the palace with him, refusing to participate in the adventure.
Having killed Banton Vickers for threatening to inform the weapon shops of her plans, a treasonous utterance that would have destroyed her prestige if she had let it pass, she could not overlook the opposition. Tight-lipped, she recalled their final conversation, the prince cold and formal, marvelously good-looking in his anger, herself uncertain but determined.
"When you get over this madness, Innelda, you may call me back."
He must have known that it was an opportunity for her to say, "That will be never."
But she hadn’t dared to say it. Like a wife she had been, she thought now bitterly, wronged but unwilling to say too much, for fear that her husband might take her at her word. Not that she could ever marry the prince after such an action on his part. Still it would be nice to have him back—later—after the weapon shops were destroyed.
She finished breakfast and glanced at her watch. Nine-thirty. She cringed, involuntarily. The long day was barely begun.
At half past ten, free of urgent correspondence, she had the officer-deserter brought in. He was a young man of thirty-three according to his file, country-born and holding the rank of major. He came in, a faint, cynical smile on his lips, but his eyes looked depressed. His name was Gile Sanders.
INNELDA studied him with a gloom of her own. According to his file he had three mistresses and had made a fortune out of a peculiar graft involving Army purchases. It was a fairly typical case history. And the part that was difficult to understand was why he, who had so much, had given it all up. She asked the question earnestly.
"And please," she said, "do not insult me by suggesting that you were concerned with the moral issue of war. Tell me simply and plainly why you gave up all your possessions for dishonor and disgrace. In one act you disinherited yourself. The very least that can happen to you is that you will be sent to Mars or Venus permanently. Were you a fool or a coward or both?"
He shrugged. "I suppose I was a fool." His feet fumbled nervously over the floor. His eyes did not evade her direct stare, but his answer left her dissatisfied.
After ten minutes she had got no real explanation out of him. It was possible that the profit and loss motivation had not influenced his decision. She tried a new approach.
"According to your file," she said, "you were notified to report to building eight hundred A and, because of your rank, it was explained to you that at last a method had been found to destroy the weapon shops.
"An hour later, after having burned your private papers, you left your office and took up residence in a seaside cottage which you had purchased secretly—you thought—five years ago.
"A week later, when it was clear that you did not intend to do your duty, you were arrested. You have been in close confinement ever since. Is that picture fairly correct?"
The man nodded but he said nothing. The Empress studied him, biting her lips.
"My friend," she said softly at last, "I have it in my power to make your punishment anything I desire. Anything. Death, banishment, commutation"—she hesitated—"reinstatement."
Major Sanders sighed wearily. "I know," he said. "That was the picture I suddenly saw."
"I don’t understand." She was puzzled. "If you realized the potentialities of your act, then you were very foolish."
"The picture," he said in a monotone, as if he had not heard her interruption, "of a time when someone, not necessarily you, would have that power without qualification, without there being anywhere to turn, without hope of alleviation, without—hope."
She had her answer. "Well, of all the stupidity!" said Innelda explosively. She leaned back in her chair, momentarily overcome, drew a deep breath, then shook her head in irritation.
"Major," she said gently, "I feel sorry for you. Surely your knowledge of the history of my family must have told you that the danger of misuse of power does not exist. The world is too big. As an individual I can interfere in the affairs of such a tiny proportion of the human race that it is ridiculous.
"Every decree that I issue vanishes into a positive blur of conflicting interpretations as it recedes from me. That decree could be ultimately cruel or ultimately mild—it would make no difference in the final administration of it. Anything, when applied to eleven billion people, takes on a meaningless quality that is impossible to imagine unless you have studied, as I have, actual results."
SHE saw with astonishment that her words had not touched him. She drew back, offended. It was all so crystal clear and here was one more obstinate fool. She restrained her anger with an effort.
"Major," she said, "with the weapon shops out of the way we could introduce steadying laws that could not be flouted. There would be more uniform administration of justice because people would have to accept the judgments of the courts, their only recourse being appeals to the higher benches."
"Exactly," said Sanders.
That was all. His tone rejected her logic. She studied him with stony gaze, all the sympathy gone out of her. She said from between clenched teeth, "If you are such a believer in the weapon shops, why did you not protect yourself by going to them for a defensive gun?"
She hesitated, then her lips curled. "What was the matter?" she asked. "Did your courage fail you when it came to the point of using it to defend yourself from arrest?"
Even as she spoke she knew she shouldn’t have said that. It left her open to a retort that, she realized, might be devastating. Her fear was justified.
Sanders said, "No, Your Majesty. I did exactly what some of the other—uh—deserters did. I took off my uniform and went to a weapon shop, intending to buy a gun. But the door wouldn’t open. It appears that I am one of the few officers who believe that the Isher family is the more important of the two facets of Isher civilization."
His eyes had been bright as he spoke. Now, they grew depressed again.
"I am," he said, "in exactly the position you want to put everybody into. I have no way to turn. I must accept your law, must accept secret declarations of war on an institution that is as much a part of Isher civilization as the House of Isher itself, must accept death if you decree it without a chance to defend myself in open battle.
"Your Majesty," he finished quietly, "I respect and admire you. The officers who deserted are not scoundrels. They were merely confronted with a choice and they chose not to participate in an attack on things as they are. I doubt if I could put it more honestly than that."
She doubted it too. Here was a man who would never understand the realistic necessity of what she was doing.
After she had dismissed him she noted his name down in her check-file, commenting that she wanted to hear the verdict of his court martial. The action of writing the words reminded her of her inability to remember the name of the man whom Colonel Medlon was to produce by morning.
She leafed the pages, and found it immediately. "Cayle Clark," she said aloud. "That’s he."
She saw by her watch that it was time to go to the Treasury Department and hear all the reasons why it was impossible to spend more money.
She stood up with a wry smile, went out of her study and took a private elevator up to the fiftieth floor.
CHAPTER XVI - Report
WE WERE married (said Lucy in her disjointed report to the coordination department of the weapon shops) shortly before noon, Friday, the day he landed from Mars. I do not know how to account for the fact that a later check-up revealed he had not landed until 2 o’clock, nor have I confronted him with this information. I will ask him about it only if I am specifically requested to do so.
I do not desire to guess how he was able to marry me before the hour of the ship’s arrival. There is no question in my mind, however. The man I married is Cayle Clark. It is impossible that I have been fooled by somebody representing himself to be Cayle.
He has just made his daily ’stat call to me, but he does not know I am making this report. I am beginning to feel that it is wrong for me to make any reports whatever about him. But, the general circumstances being what they are, I am, as requested, trying to recall every detail of what happened. I will begin with the moment that I received a ’stat call from him on the morning of his arrival from Mars.
The time, as I remember it, was about half past ten. That conversation was extremely brief. We exchanged greetings, and then he asked me to marry him. My feelings about Cayle Clark are well known to the head of the coordination department. And I am sure Mr. Hedrock will not be surprised that I agreed instantly to the proposal, and that we signed our marriage declarations on the registered circuit a few minutes before noon that same morning.
We then went to my apartment, where, with one interruption, we remained the rest of that day and that night. The interruption came at a quarter to two when he asked me if I would take a walk around the block while he used my ’stat for a call. He did not say whether the call would be incoming or outgoing but, on returning, I noticed on the ’stat meter that it had been an incoming call.
I do not apologize for leaving the apartment at his request. My acquiescence seems to me absolutely normal.
During the course of the day and evening, he made no further reference to the call but instead described to me everything that had happened to him since I last saw him in the house of illusion. I do confess that his account at times was not so clear as it might have been and he more than once gave me the impression that he was relating events which had happened to him a considerable time ago.
The morning after our marriage, he was up early, and said that he had many things to do. Since I was anxious to call up Mr. Hedrock I let him go without objection. The subsequent report of another weapon shop agent that a very expensive private carplane picked him up a block from the apartment and took off before the agent could summon transportation—well, frankly, I cannot understand it.
Since then, Cayle has not been to the apartment but he has called me up every morning and told me that he cannot give me the details as yet about what he is doing, but that he loves me as much as ever.
I shall accept that until he himself tells me otherwise.
I have no knowledge at all of the report that he has for more than a month been a captain in Her Majesty’s army. I do not know how he managed to obtain a commission, nor by what means he is pushing his interests. If it is true, as reported, that he has already been attached to the personal staff of the Empress, then I can only express amazement and speculate privately as to how he has managed it.
In conclusion, let me affirm my faith in Cayle. I cannot account for his actions but I believe that the end-result will be honorable.
(Signed) Lucy Rall Clark
November 14, 4784 I.
CHAPTER XVII - High Callidity
THIS was it. For a month Hedrock had delayed his reaction, waiting for new evidence. But now, reading Lucy’s document, the conviction came. The unexpected turn of events that he had been waiting for was happening. What it was he had no idea. He felt a tensed alarm, the fear that he was missing vital clues. But doubt he had none—this was it.
Perspiring a little he reread the girl’s statement. And it seemed to him then that Lucy was developing a negative attitude toward the weapon shops. It was not in what she had done but that she felt her actions might be misinterpreted. That was defensive, and therefore bad. The hold of the shops on its members was psychological.
Usually, when anyone wanted to break away, he was divested of vital memories, given a bonus depending on length of service and shooed off with the blessings of the organization. But Lucy was a key contact during a great crisis. The conflict between her duties to the shops and her personal situation must not be allowed to become too disturbing.
Hedrock frowned over the problem, then dialed the ’stat. Lucy’s face came onto the screen, Hedrock said earnestly, "I have just read your statement, Lucy, and I want to thank you for your cooperation. We appreciate your position thoroughly and I have been asked" —he worded it deliberately as if an executive group were behind what he was saying— "I have been asked to request that you hold yourself ready for a call from us night and day until the critical period is over.
"In return, the weapon shops will do everything in their power to protect your husband from any dangerous reactions that may result from what he is doing."
It was no light promise. He had already handed the assignment over to the protective branch. Insofar as it was possible to protect a man in the Imperial sphere the job was being done. He watched Lucy’s face casually but intently.
Intelligent though she was, she would never fully comprehend the weapon shop-Isher war. It didn’t show. No guns were firing. Nobody was being killed. And even if the weapon shops were destroyed, Lucy would not immediately notice the difference. Her life might never be affected and not even the immortal man could say what the pattern of existence would be when one of the two power facets of the culture was eliminated. He saw that Lucy was not satisfied with what he had said.
He hesitated, then, "Mrs. Clark, on the day you were married you took your husband’s callidity measurements and gave them to us. We have never told you the integrated result because we did not want to alarm you. I think, however, that you will be interested rather than anxious."
"They’re special?" Lucy asked.
"Special!" Hedrock searched for adjectives. "Your husband’s callidity at the time you measured him was the highest that has ever been recorded in the history of the Information Center. The index has nothing to do with gambling and we cannot guess what form it will take but that it will affect the whole world of Isher we have no doubt."
WITH troubled eyes he gazed at her. The devastating aspect of the affair was that Cayle Clark was not doing anything. There he was, attached to the personal staff of the Empress, his movements accounted for by a host of spies—well, almost all his movements. Several ’stat calls he had made from the palace had proved too private for interference. And twice he had slipped away from the palace, and eluded his shadows.
Minor incidents—they could scarcely account for the fact that, according to his callidetic measurement, what was happening was happening now. The great event, whatever it was, was taking place—and not even the No-men of the shops were able to guess what it was.
Hedrock explained the situation, then, "Lucy," he said earnestly, "are you sure you have held nothing back? I swear to you it is a matter of life and death, particularly his life."
The girl shook her head. And though he watched closely her eyes did not change, showed not a trace of myopia. They widened but that was another phenomenon. Her mouth remained firm, which was a good sign.
It was impossible to tell, of course, just by looking at her physical reactions—except that Lucy Rall was not known ever to have taken evasive training. Where Robert Hedrock could lie, without giving one of the known lie-reactions, Lucy simply didn’t have the experience or nerve-control training to stifle the unconscious signals of her muscles.
"Mr. Hedrock," she said, "you know that you can count on me to the limit."
That was a victory for his immediate purpose. But he broke the connection, dissatisfied, not with Lucy or with the other agents, but with himself. He was missing something. His mind was not seeing deep enough into reality.
Just as the solution to the seesaw problem was eluding him, so now he was baffled by what must already be very apparent. Sitting here in his office, mulling over facts and figures, he was too far from the scene.
It was clearly time for an on-the-spot investigation by Robert Hedrock in person.
CHAPTER XVIII - The Twins
HEDROCK walked slowly along the Avenue of Luck savoring the difference in its appearance. He couldn’t recall just when he had last been on the street, but it seemed a long, long time ago.
There were more establishments than he remembered, but not many changes otherwise. A hundred years did not affect the structural metals and materials of a building constructed under the rigid Isher regulations. The general architectural designs remained the same. The decorations were different. New lighting façades, planned to attract the eye, confronted him in every direction. The science of refurbishing had not been neglected.
He entered the Penny Palace, undecided as to what level of action he should pursue.
He favored the irresistible approach but—he thought—better leave the decision about that for the moment. As he walked into the "treasure room" a ring on his little finger tingled. A transparency was probing him—from his right.
He walked on, then turned casually to examine the two men from whose direction the impulse had come. Were they employees or independents? Since he always carried about fifty-thousand credits on him, independent sharpers would be a nuisance. He smiled gently as he came up to them.
"I’m afraid not," he said. "Forget any plans you had, eh?"
The heavier of the two men reached into a coat pocket, then shrugged. "You’re not carrying a weapon shop gun," he said pointedly. "You’re not armed at all."
Hedrock said, "Would you like to test that?" And looked straight at the man’s eyes.
The gambler was the first to glance away. "C’mon, Jay," he said. "This job isn’t the way I figured it."
Hedrock stopped him as he turned away. "Work here?"
The man shook his head. "Not," he said frankly, "if you’re against it."
Hedrock laughed. "I want to see the boss."
"That’s what I thought," the man said. "Well, it was a good job while it lasted."
This time Hedrock let them go. He felt no surprise at their reaction. The secret of human power was confidence. And the confidence they had seen in his eyes was rooted in certainties of which most men had never heard. In all the world there had never been a man armed as he was with mental, physical, emotional, neural and molecular defenses.
Lucy’s description of Martin’s office made it unnecessary for him to explore. He entered the corridor at the back of the gambling section. As he closed the door behind him, a net fell over him, neatly enveloping his whole body. It drew instantly tight and pulled him several feet above the floor.
Hedrock made no effort to free himself. There was enough light for him to see the floor five feet below, and the indignity of his position did not disturb him. He had time for several thoughts. So Harj Martin had become wary of uninvited visitors. It proved something; just what, he would leave to the moment of meeting.
He had not long to wait. Footsteps sounded. The door opened, and the fat man came in. He turned on a bright light and stood with a jolly look on his face, staring up at his prisoner.
"Well," he said, "what have we got here?"
He stopped. His eye had caught Hedrock’s. Some of the jolliness faded from his expression.
"Who are you?" he snapped.
Hedrock said, "On or about the night of October fifth, you were visited here by a young man named Cayle Clark. What happened?"
"I’ll do the questioning," said Martin. Once again his eyes met Hedrock’s. "Say," he said querulously, "who are you?"
Hedrock made a gesture. It was very carefully timed and estimated. One of the rings on his fingers dissolved the hard materials of the net. It parted beneath him like a door opening. He landed on his feet.
He said, "Start talking, my friend. I’m in a hurry."
IGNORING the gun that Martin snatched, he brushed past him into the large office. When he spoke again the confidence was in his voice. It required only a few moments after that for the resigned gambling-palace operator to decide on cooperation.
"If all you want is information, okay." He added, "Your date is right. It was October fifth about midnight when this guy Clark came in here. He had his twin brother with him."
Hedrock nodded, but said nothing. He was not here for discussion.
"Boy," said Martin, "they were the most cold-blooded twins I ever saw and they worked together like a team. One of them must have had some Army experience, because he stood—well, you know the hypnotaxic posture they get. He was the one who knew everything and was he ever tough!
"I started to say something about not being a sucker and I got a blast across my leg. I made a bit too fast a move when I turned to pump the money out of the safe and another blast took off some of my hair."
He pointed at a bald spot on one side of his head. Hedrock examined it briefly. It had been close but obviously trained shooting. Weapon shop or Army. By elimination, Army.
"You’re all right," he commented. Martin shuddered.
"That guy wasn’t worrying whether I was all right or not." He finished, complainingly, "Life is getting too tough. I never knew the normal defense devices of Isher could be so easily nullified."
Outside Hedrock headed for a carplane stop in a meditative mood. The existence of the two Cayles was now established. And one of them had been in the Army long enough to receive more than the preliminary officer training.
He had that training on October fifth, a mere one day after Cayle Clark’s arrival from Mars. By the morning of the sixth, the day Clark joined the Army, according to the record, he had 500,000 credits.
It was a nice stake for a young man trying to get ahead. But it scarcely accounted for certain things that were happening. And, large though it was, it was a tiny sum when considered in its relation to Cayle Clark’s callidetic index—if the callidity were due to follow a money pattern.
His carplane arrived and the thought ended. He had one more call to make this morning—Colonel Medlon.
CHAPTER XIX - Seesaw
ROBERT HEDROCK returned to his office in the Hotel Royal Ganeel shortly after midday. He examined the reports that had come in during his absence, then spent two hours on a private telestat with an economic expert at the weapon shop Information Center. Then he called the members of the weapon makers’ Council, and requested an immediate plenary session.
It required about ten minutes for the full Council to assemble in the council chamber of the hotel. Dresley opened the meeting.
"Looks to me, gentlemen," he said, "as if our coordinator has struck a warm trail. Right, Mr. Hedrock."
Hedrock came forward, smiling. Last time, in speaking to a delegation of this council, he had had the pressure of the time map and the Empress on his spirit. The map was still in the building, its problem unsolved, becoming more urgent every hour. But now he had one solution. He began without preliminary.
"Gentlemen, on the morning of November twenty-seventh, twelve days hence, we will send a message to the Isher Empress, and request her to end her war. We will accompany our request with facts and figures that will convince her she has no alternative."
He expected a sensation, and he got it. These men knew that, when it came to his job, he was not one to raise false hopes (they had yet to discover that his efficiency was equally great in other fields). Feet stirred and there was excitement.
Peter Cadron said explosively, "Man! don’t keep us in suspense. What have you discovered?"
"Permit me," said Hedrock, "to recapitulate."
He went on, "As you are aware, on the morning of June third, four thousand seven hundred and eighty-four Isher, a man from the year nineteen hundred and forty-seven A.D. appeared in our Greenway weapon shop. The discovery was then made that the Empress was directing a new energy against all Imperial City weapon shops.
"This energy was a form of atomic power, old in nature but new to science. Its discovery heralds another step forward in our understanding of the complex structure of the space-time tensions that make for the existence of matter.
"The source of the energy in Imperial City was a building completed a year ago and located on Capital Avenue. Its effect on the Greenway shop differed from its effect on shops farther away.
"Theoretically it should have destroyed any material structure instantly but, though the Isher rulers have never known it, weapon shops are not made of matter in the accepted sense. And so there was an intricate interplay of gigantic forces that took place predominantly in time itself. And so a man came seven thousand years out of the past."
HE described briefly, using pure mathematical terms, the seesaw action of the man and the building, once they were launched into the abyss of time. He went on.
"There are still people who cannot understand how there can be a time swing, when it is a macrocosmic fact that the sun and its planets move steadily through space-time at twelve-plus miles a second, in addition to which the planets follow an orbital course around the sun at varying speeds.
"By this logic it should follow that, if you go into the past or future, you will find yourself at some remote point in space, far from Earth. It is hard for people who think thus to realize that space is a fiction, a by-product of the basic time-energy, and that a matter-tension like a planet does not influence phenomena in the time stream, but is itself subject to the time-energy laws.
"The reason for the balancing for two hours and forty minutes after every swing is obscure, but it has been suggested that nature unrelentingly seeks stability. The building, when it swings into the past, occupies the same ’space’ as it did in normal time but there are no repercussions—for the reason that similarity is a function of time itself, not of its tension-product. McAllister started at seven thousand years, the building at two seconds. That is approximate.
"Today the man is several quadrillions of years away and the building swings at a distance of somewhat less than three months. The fulcrum, of course, moves forward in our time, so that we have the following situation—the building no longer swings back in time as far as June third, where the seesaw originally started.
"Please bear these facts in mind while I turn briefly to another division of this seemingly complicated but basically simple business."
Hedrock paused. There were quick minds in this room. It interested him to see that every face was still expectant. Now that he himself knew the truth it seemed queer that they had not yet grasped the reality. He continued.
"Gentlemen, the Coordination Department discovered some months ago that there existed in the village of Glay a callidetic giant. With so much internal pressure pushing him we had no difficulty maneuvering him into coming to Imperial City.
"At first, our belief that he would influence events markedly was nullified by his ignorance of Isher realities. I won’t go into the details but he was shipped to Mars as a common laborer. He was able to return almost immediately."
He went on to explain how Lucy Rall had been married to one Cayle Clark a few hours before the arrival of the ship that brought Cayle Clark back to earth, how the two Clarks secured 500,000 credits, then visited Colonel Medlon, one of them disguised.
The visit was a fortunate one for Medlon. He had just been asked by the Empress to produce Clark, or else. A captaincy was conferred on Clark, with the usual hypnotic-machine training for officers. The following day he reported to the Empress.
"For a reason which she considers to have been impulse, but which is traceable to his callidity, she attached him to her personal staff and he is there now. Wherever his power extends he has followed a curious system of eliminating corruption, which has aroused the interest of the ambitious Innelda. Even if nothing else worked in his favor he would appear to be a young man destined to go far in the Imperial service."
THEN Hedrock smiled. "Actually, the Cayle Clark to watch is not the one in the open but the one who remained elusively in the city. It is that Clark who has been making history since last August seventh. In that time he has achieved the following successes—and gentlemen, I warn you, you’ve never heard anything like this before.
"On August eighth, a man operating under the name of C. Cayle entered the stock market and, by an unparalleled understanding of the movements of prices, using some five hundred thousand credits as a basis of operations, won in the month of August ninety billion credits. In this series of deals he took over one of the chain banks, four billion-credit industrial establishments and obtained partial control of thirty-four other companies.
"During the month of September he made three hundred and thirty billion credits and absorbed the colossal First Imperial Bank, three interplanetary mining corporations and part ownership of two hundred and ninety companies.
"By the end of September, he was established in a hundred-story skyscraper in the heart of the financial district, having given Employment Incorporated the job of setting him up in business overnight. On September thirtieth he had seven thousand employees working in the building.
"In October every spare cent he made was invested in available hotel and residential properties, a total of three and one-eighth trillion credits worth. During the past two weeks he has done very little, partly explainable, I think, by the sheer inability of one mind to grasp and understand the complex involvements of the deals that Clark engaged in.
"He has three floors of lawyers in his building. But they are just beginning to understand what they have to do. From November first until now he has acquired a hundred billion in assets and money by simple investments.
"So much for the financial end of his activities. On October fourth Clark called our Miss Lucy Rall, and married her the same day."
There was an interruption. "But good heavens!" said a man. "How did he do all this?" The speaker parted his lips to say more, then closed them. A startled look came into his face. He sagged in his chair. But the sudden comprehension that came to him was shared explosively with the other Councilors. For a minute, the table buzzed with excited discussion.
Then a man said, "Why did he feel it necessary to obtain the initial money from Martin, of the Penny Palace?"
"Sir," said Hedrock, "he dared not fool with the phenomenon that had happened to him."
"But why marry Lucy Rail?"
"Partly love, partly—" Hedrock hesitated. He had asked Lucy a pointed question and her answer made his reply possible now. "I would say he grew immensely cautious, and began to think of the future. Basic urges came to the fore.
"Suppose something happened to a man who had in a few weeks created a financial and industrial empire? Gentlemen, he wanted an heir and Lucy was the only honest girl he knew. It may be a permanent arrangement—I cannot say.
"Clark, in spite of his rebellion against his parents is essentially a well-brought-up young man. In any event Lucy will not suffer. She will have the interesting experience of having a child. And, as a wife, she has community property rights."
Peter Cadron climbed to his feet. "Gentlemen," he said, "I move a vote of thanks to Robert Hedrock for the service he has rendered the weapon shops."
The applause was prolonged.
"I move, furthermore," said Peter Cadron. "that he be given the rank of unrestricted member."
Once more there were no dissenters. Hedrock bowed his appreciation. The reward was more than an honor. As an unrestricted member he would be subject only to the Pp machine examinations.
His movements and actions would never be scrutinized and he could use every facility of the shops as if they were his own property. He had been doing it anyway but in future there would be no suspicion. It was a mighty gift.
"Thank you, gentlemen," he said, when the clapping ended.
"And now," said Peter Cadron, "I respectfully request Mr. Hedrock to leave the council room while we discuss our remaining problem, the seesaw."
Hedrock went out gloomily. He had momentarily forgotten that the greatest danger remained.
CHAPTER XX - Paradox in Time
IT was November twenty-sixth, one day before the shops intended to inform the Empress that her war was lost. She had no premonition. She had come down to the building to see and, perhaps—perhaps to do as Captain Clark had suggested. She still felt repelled, though without fear. The feeling she had was that the Empress of Isher must not involve her own person in hare-brained adventures.
Yet the thought had grown and here she was. At the very least she would watch and wait while Captain Clark and the scientists made the trip. She climbed briskly out of her carplane and looked around her.
In the near distance a concealing haze rose up lazily into the sky, an artificial fog that, for months now, had cut off this city district from the view of the curious. She walked slowly forward, her distinctive Isher face turning this way and that as she examined the scene. She beckoned Captain Clark. "When is the building due?"
The smiling young man saluted briskly. "In seven minutes, Your Majesty."
"Have you all the necessary equipment?"
She listened carefully to his recapitulation. Seven groups of scientists would enter the building, each with his own instrument. It was a pleasure to realize that Captain Clark had personally checked over the lists of machines with each group.
"Captain," she glowed, "you’re a treasure."
Cayle said nothing. Her praise meant nothing. This girl, who almost literally owned the world, surely did not expect intelligent people to be absolutely faithful to her in exchange for a few compliments and Army pay.
He had no sense of anticipatory guilt and in fact did not regard what he intended to do as being in any way damaging to her. In Isher you did what was necessary and for him there was no turning back. The pattern of his action was already set.
The woman was looking over the scene again. The hole in the ground, where the building had been, was to her right. To her left was the Greenway weapon shop with its park. It was the first time she had seen one in which the glitter signs were not working. That made her feel better. The shop seemed strangely isolated there in the shadows of its trees. She clenched her hands and thought.
If all the weapon shops in the Solar System were suddenly eliminated the few thousand park-like lots where they had been could be so easily converted into almost anything that—in one generation, she told herself with a dark certainty—they’d be forgotten. The new children would grow up wondering what mythological nonsense their elders were talking.
"By all the gods of space," she said aloud, passionately, "it’s going to happen."
Her words were like a cue. The air shimmered strangely. And where there had been an enormous symmetrical hole abruptly towered a building.
"Right on the minute," said Captain Cayle Clark beside her, with satisfaction.
Innelda stared at the structure, chilled. She had watched this process once on a telestat screen. It was different being on the scene. For one thing the size showed up better. For a quarter of a mile it reared up into the heavens, solid in its alloyed steel-and-plastic construction, as wide and long as it was high.
It had to be large, of course. The engineers had stipulated oversized vacuums between the various energy rooms. The actual living space inside was tiny. It took about an hour to inspect all the levels.
"Well," said Innelda, relieved, "the place doesn’t seem to have been damaged in any way by its experiences. What about the rats?"
The rats had been placed in the building during an earlier appearance. So far, they had showed no sign of being affected. It was wise, though, to verify that they were still unharmed. She waited now in an upper room, glancing intermittently at her watch, as the minutes fled by.
IT was annoying to realize that she was nervous. But, standing here in the virtual silence of an almost empty building, she felt that perhaps she was being foolish in even considering going along. She glanced at the men who had volunteered to accompany her if she went. Their silence was not normal and they did not look at her—but stood moodily gazing through the transparent wall.
There was a sound—footsteps. Captain Cayle Clark came striding into view. He was smiling and in his cupped hands he held a white rat. "Your Majesty," he said, "just look at him. Bright as a button."
He was so cheerful that, when he held the little animal out to her, she took it and stared down at it thoughtfully. On abrupt impulse, she drew it up and pressed its warm body against her cheek.
"What would we do," she murmured, "without lovely little rats like you?" She glanced at Captain Clark. "Well, sir," she said, "what’s the scientific opinion?"
"Every rat," Clark said, "is organically, emotionally and psychologically sound. All the tests that show rats for what they are were favorable."
Innelda nodded. It fitted. At the beginning, on the day the first attack was launched, before the men inside the building knew what was happening, the structure had disappeared once, causing an immense confusion inside and of which she had never received a coherent account.
The moment, on that occasion, the building reappeared, all personnel were withdrawn and no one had been permitted to take the "trip" since then. But physical examinations of the men proved them unharmed.
Still Innelda hesitated. It would look bad now, if she failed to go along, but there were so many factors to be considered. If any thing happened to her the Isher government might fall. She had no direct heir, which was not good.
The succession would fall to Prince del Curtin, who was popular but known by many people to be out of her favor. The whole situation was ridiculous. She felt hedged in but there was no use denying the reality.
"Captain," she said firmly, "you have volunteered to take this—journey—whether I go or not. I have definitely decided not to go. I wish you luck and wish, too, that I could go with you. But I’m afraid that I mustn’t. As Empress I do not feel free for light-hearted adventures."
She held out her hand. "Go with my blessing."
Less than an hour later, she watched as the building flicked into nothingness. She waited. Food was brought. She ate it in her carplane, read several state papers she had brought along and then, as darkness fell over the capital city of her empire, saw by her watch that once more the building was due back.
It flashed into view and presently men began to troop out. One of the scientists came over.
"Your majesty," he said, "the journey was accomplished without incident, except for one thing. Captain Clark, as you know, intended to leave the building for exploration purposes. He did leave it. We received one message from him, spoken into his wrist ’stat, to the effect that the date was August seventh, four thousand hundred and eighty-four Isher.
"That was the last we heard. Something must have happened to him. He failed to come back in time to make the return journey with us."
"But—" said Innelda. She stopped blankly. Then, "But that means, from August seventh to November twenty-sixth there were two Cayle Clarks in existence, the normal and the one who went back in time."
She paused uncertain. "The old time paradox," she frowned to herself. "Can man go back in time and shake hands with himself?"
Aloud she said, wonderingly, "But whatever became of the second one?"
She learned the answer to that the following morning. For two days she endured the agony of accepting utter defeat. And then . . .
CHAPTER XXI - Resolution of Time-Space
THE Empress said, "Mr. de Lany." Hedrock bowed. He had disguised himself slightly, and taken one of his long discarded names so that she would not recognize him at some future date.
"You have sought an interview?" said the Empress of Isher.
"As you see."
She toyed with his card. She had on a snow-white gown, which accentuated the tan of her face and neck. The room in which she received him had been made up to resemble a small South Sea island. Palms and green growth surrounded them. And on every side was water, lapping on a beach as real as nature. A cool wind blew from that restless sea onto Hedrock’s back and into her face.
The woman gazed bitterly at Hedrock. She saw a man of earnest mien and commanding appearance. But it was his eyes that startled her. They were strong and kind and infinitely brave. She hadn’t expected such special qualities. The visitor took on sudden importance. She looked down at the card again.
"Walter de Lany," she said thoughtfully.
She seemed to listen to the name, as she spoke it, as if she expected it to acquire meaning. Finally she shook her head, wonderingly.
"How did you get in here? I found this appointment on my list and took it for granted that the chamberlain must have arranged it because it involved necessary business."
Hedrock said nothing. Like so many Imperials the chamberlain lacked the defensive mind-trainings. And, though the Empress herself had them, she did not know that the weapon shops had developed energy methods for forcing instantaneous favorable response from the unprotected. The woman spoke again.
"Very strange," she said.
Hedrock said, "Reassure yourself, Madam. I have come to solicit your mercy on behalf of an unfortunate guiltless man."
That caught her. Once more her eyes met his, flinched from the strength that was there, then steadied.
Hedrock said quietly, "Your majesty, you are in a position to do an act of unparalleled kindness to a man who is nearly five million million years from here, swinging from past to future as your building forces him ever further away."
The words had to be spoken. He expected her to realize instantly that only her intimates and her enemies would know about the vanishing building. The way the color drained from her cheeks showed that she was realizing.
"You’re a weapon shop man?" she whispered. She was on her feet. "Get out of here," she breathed. "Out!"
Hedrock stood up. "Your Majesty," he said, "control yourself. You are in no danger."
He intended his words to be like a dash of cold water. The suggestion that she was afraid brought splotches of color into her cheeks. She stood like that for a moment and then, with a quick movement, reached into the bosom of her dress and drew out a gleaming white energy weapon.
"If you do not leave instantly," she said, "I shall fire."
Hedrock held his arms away from his body like a man being searched. "An ordinary gun," he said in amazement, "against a man who carries a weapon shop defensive? Madam," he said, "if you will listen to me for a moment—"
"I do not," said the Empress, "deal with weapon shop people."
That was merely irritating. "Your Majesty," said Hedrock in a level voice, "I am surprised that you make such immature statements. You have not only been dealing with the shops the last few days you have yielded to them. You have been compelled to end the war and to destroy your time-energy machines. You have agreed not to prosecute the officer-deserters but only to discharge them. And you have granted immunity to Cayle Clark"
HE saw in her face that he had not touched her. She was staring at him, frowning. "There must be a reason," she said, "that you dare to talk to me like this."
Her own words seemed to galvanize her. She turned back to her chair and stood with finger poised over the ornamented arm of the seat.
"If I should press this alarm," she said, "it would bring guards."
Hedrock sighed. He had hoped she would not force him to reveal his power. "Why not; then," he suggested, "press it?"
It was time she found out her true situation.
The woman said, "You think I won’t?"
Firmly, her extended finger pressed downward.
There was silence except for the lapping of the waves and the soft sound of the lifelike breeze. After at least two minutes Innelda, ignoring Hedrock as if he did not exist, walked twenty feet to a tree, and touched one of the branches.
It must have been another alarm, because she waited—not so long this time—and then walked hurriedly over to the thick brush that concealed the elevator shaft. She activated its mechanism and when there was no response, came slowly back to where Hedrock waited, and sat down in her chair.
She was pale but composed. Her eyes did not look at him but her voice, when she spoke, was calm and without fear. "Do you intend to murder me?"
Hedrock shook his head but said nothing. More strongly now, he regretted that he had had to reveal to her how helpless she could be, particularly regretted it because she would undoubtedly start modernizing the defenses of the palace in the mistaken belief that she was protecting herself against superior weapon shop science.
He had come here this afternoon prepared for any emergency, physical or mental. He could not force her to do what he wanted but his fingers blazed with offensive and defensive rings. He had on his "business" suit and even weapon shop scientists would have been amazed at the variety of his armor. In his vicinity no alarm-energies would come to life and no guns would operate. It was the day of the greatest decision in the history of the Solar System, and he had come mightily girded.
The woman’s eyes were staring at him with somber intensity. "What do you want?" she said. "What about this man you mentioned?"
Hedrock told her about McAllister.
"Are you mad?" she whispered when he had finished. "But why so far? The building is only—three months?"
"The ruling factor seems to be mass."
"Oh!" Silence, then, "But what do you want me to do?"
Hedrock said, "Your Majesty, this man commands our pity and our mercy. He is floating in a void whose like no human eyes will ever see again. He has looked upon our Earth and our sun in their infancy and in their old age. Nothing can help him now. We must give him the surcease of death."
In her mind Innelda saw the night he pictured. But she was more intent now, seeing this event in its larger environment.
"What," she said, "about this machine you have?"
"It is a duplicate of the map machine of the weapon shops." He didn’t explain that he had built it in one of his secret laboratories. "It lacks only the map itself, which was too intricate to fashion swiftly."
"I see." Her words were automatic, not a real response. She studied his face. She said slowly, "Where do you fit into all this?"
IT WAS a question that Hedrock was not prepared to answer. He had come to the Empress of Isher because she had suffered a defeat and, her position being what it was, it was important that she should not remain too resentful. An immortal man, who was once more interfering in the affairs of mortals, had to think of things like that.
"Madam," he said, "there is no time to waste. The building is due here again in one hour."
The woman said, "But why cannot we leave this decision up to the weapon shop council?"
"Because they might make the wrong decision."
"What," persisted Innelda, "is the right decision?"
Sitting there, Hedrock told her.
* * * * *
Cayle Clark set the controls so that the carplane would make a wide circle around the house.
"Oh my goodness!" said Lucy Rail Clark. "Why, it’s one of these up-in-the-air places—"
She stopped and stared with wide, wondering eyes at the grounds below, at the hanging gardens, at the house floating in the air.
"Oh, Cayle," she said, "are you sure we can afford it?"
Cayle Clark smiled. "Darling, I’ve explained to you a dozen times. I’m not going to do it again."
She protested, "That isn’t what I mean. Are you sure the Empress will let you get away with it?"
Cayle Clark gazed at his wife with a faint, grim smile. "Mr. Hedrock," he said slowly, "gave me a weapon shop gun. And besides, I did a great deal for Her Majesty that—at least, so she told me on the telestat today—she appreciates. She doesn’t dissemble very much, so I have agreed to continue to work for her in much the same way."
"Oh!" said Lucy.
"Now, don’t get yourself upset," said Cayle. "Remember, you yourself told me that the weapon shops believed in one government. The more that government is purified the better the world will be off. And believe me"—his face hardened—"I’ve had just enough experience to make me want to purify it."
He landed the carplane on the roof of the five-story residence. He led Lucy into the interior, down into the world of bright gracious rooms where she and he would live forever.
At least, at twenty-two, it seemed as if it would be forever.
McAllister opened his tired eyes, and saw that he was poised in black space. There was no Earth under him. He was in a time where Earth did not exist. The darkness seemed to be waiting for some colossal event.
Waiting for him.
He had a sudden flash of understanding of what was going to happen. Wonder came then—and resignation to death.
It was a strangely relaxing resignation. He was so weary. And there was a real stimulation in the thought that he would die so that others might live.
How it would be worked he had no idea. But somehow the tremendous time-energy that had been accumulating in him with each giant swing of the seesaw—somehow that would be released in the remote past.
Space itself would be torn by the tensions of that explosion.
The planets would be created.
Earth would start its swing around the sun. Life would begin its slow struggle toward intelligence.
Millions of millions of years hence he would be born.
And so in order that human kind could have life he must die.
 in English – it was included, as die Waffenläden von Isher, in a German-language anthology of the Isher stories and novels, Isher, published in 1989.
 such an important part of the appeal of these golden-age pulp-fiction sci-fi magazines, which contained in general a good 150 (!) well-printed and profusely-illustrated pages of stories by mostly-outstanding authors - this issue had stories by Theodore Sturgeon, Benj. Miller, Ray Bradbury, Margaret St Clair and others in addition to the one by van Vogt – for 25 cents, price unchanged throughout the forties!