ALL AT ONCE he was in motion. Around him smooth jets hummed. He was on a small private rocket cruiser, moving leisurely across the afternoon sky, between cities.
"Ugh!" he said, sitting up in his seat and rubbing his head. Beside him Earl Rethrick was staring keenly at him, his eyes bright.
"Where are we?" Jennings shook his head, trying to clear the dull ache. "Or maybe I should ask that a different way." Already, he could see that it was not late fall. It was spring. Below the cruiser the fields were green. The last thing he remembered was stepping into an elevator with Rethrick. And it was late fall. And in New York.
"Yes," Rethrick said. "It's almost two years later. You'll find a lot of things have changed. The Government fell a few months ago. The new Government is even stronger. The SP, Security Police, have almost unlimited power. They're teaching the schoolchildren to inform, now. But we all saw that coming. Let's see, what else? New York is larger. I understand they've finished filling in San Francisco Bay."
"What I want to know is what the hell I've been doing the last two years!" Jennings lit a cigarette nervously, pressing the strike end. "Will you tell me that?"
"No. Of course I won't tell you that."
"Where are we going?"
"Back to the New York Office. Where you first met me. Remember? You probably remember it better than I. After all, it was just a day or so ago for you."
Jennings nodded. Two years! Two years out of his life, gone forever. It didn't seem possible. He had still been considering, debating, when he stepped into the elevator. Should he change his mind? Even if he were getting that much money -- and it was a lot, even for him -- it didn't really seem worth it. He would always wonder what work he had been doing. Was it legal? Was it -- But that was past speculation, now. Even while he was trying to make up his mind the curtain had fallen. He looked ruefully out the window at the afternoon sky. Below, the earth was moist and alive. Spring, spring two years later. And what did he have to show for the two years?
"Have I been paid?" he asked. He slipped his wallet out and glanced into it. "Apparently not."
"No. You'll be paid at the Office. Kelly will pay you."
"The whole works at once?"
"Fifty thousand credits."
Jennings smiled. He felt a little better, now that the sum had been spoken aloud. Maybe it wasn't so bad, after all. Almost like being paid to sleep. But he was two years older; he had just that much less to live. It was like selling part of himself, part of his life. And life was worth plenty, these days. He shrugged. Anyhow, it was in the past.
"We're almost there," the older man said. The robot pilot dropped the cruiser down, sinking toward the ground. The edge of New York City became visible below them. "Well, Jennings, I may never see you again." He held out his hand. "It's been a pleasure working with you. We did work together, you know. Side by side. You're one of the best mechanics I've ever seen. We were right in hiring you, even at that salary. You paid us back many times -- although you don't realize it."
"I'm glad you got your money's worth."
"You sound angry."
"No. I'm just trying to get used to the idea of being two years older."
Rethrick laughed. "You're still a very young man. And you'll feel better when she gives you your pay."
They stepped out onto the tiny rooftop field of the New York office building. Rethrick led him over to an elevator. As the doors slid shut Jennings got a mental shock. This was the last thing he remembered, this elevator. After that he had blacked out.
"Kelly will be glad to see you," Rethrick said, as they came out into a lighted hall. "She asks about you, once in a while."
"She says you're good-looking." Rethrick pushed a code key against a door. The door responded, swinging wide. They entered the luxurious office of Rethrick Construction. Behind a long mahogany desk a young woman was sitting, studying a report.
"Kelly," Rethrick said, "look whose time finally expired."
The girl looked up, smiling. "Hello, Mr. Jennings. How does it feel to be back in the world?"
"Fine." Jennings walked over to her. "Rethrick says you're the paymaster."
Rethrick clapped Jennings on the back. "So long, my friend. I'll go back to the plant. If you ever need a lot of money in a hurry come around and we'll work out another contract with you."
Jennings nodded. As Rethrick went back out he sat down beside the desk, crossing his legs. Kelly slid a drawer open, moving her chair back. "All right. Your time is up, so Rethrick Construction is ready to pay. Do you have your copy of the contract?"
Jennings took an envelope from his pocket and tossed it on the desk. "There it is."
Kelly removed a small cloth sack and some sheets of handwritten paper from the desk drawer. For a time she read over the sheets, her small face intent.
"What is it?"
"I think you're going to be surprised." Kelly handed him his contract back. "Read that over again."
"Why?" Jennings unfastened the envelope.
"There's an alternate clause. 'If the party of the second part so desires, at any time during his time of contract to the aforesaid Rethrick Construction Company --' "
" 'If he so desires, instead of the monetary sum specified, he may choose instead, according to his own wish, articles or products which, in his own opinion, are of sufficient value to stand in lieu of the sum --' "
Jennings snatched up the cloth sack, pulling it open. He poured the contents into his palm. Kelly watched.
"Where's Rethrick?" Jennings stood up. "If he has an idea that this --"
"Rethrick has nothing to do with it. It was your own request. Here, look at this." Kelly passed him the sheets of paper. "In your own hand. Read them. It was your idea, not ours. Honest." She smiled up at him. "This happens every once in a while with people we take on contract. During their time they decide to take something else instead of money. Why, I don't know. But they come out with their minds clean, having agreed --"
Jennings scanned the pages. It was his own writing. There was no doubt of it. His hands shook. "I can't believe it. Even if it is my own writing." He folded up the paper, his jaw set. "Something was done to me while I was back there. I never would have agreed to this."
"You must have had a reason. I admit it doesn't make sense. But you don't know what factors might have persuaded you, before your mind was cleaned. You aren't the first. There have been several others before you."
Jennings stared down at what he held in his palm. From the cloth sack he had spilled a little assortment of items. A code key. A ticket stub. A parcel receipt. A length of fine wire. Haifa poker chip, broken across. A green strip of cloth. A bus token.
"This, instead of fifty thousand credits," he murmured. "Two years..."
He went out of the building, onto the busy afternoon street. He was still dazed, dazed and confused. Had he been swindled? He felt in his pocket for the little trinkets, the wire, the ticket stub, all the rest. That, for two years of work! But he had seen his own handwriting, the statement of waiver, the request for the substitution. Like Jack and the Beanstalk. Why? What for? What had made him do it?
He turned, starting down the sidewalk. At the corner he stopped for a surface cruiser that was turning.
"All right, Jennings. Get in."
His head jerked up. The door of the cruiser was open. A man was kneeling, pointing a heat-rifle straight at his face. A man in blue-green. The Security Police.
Jennings got in. The door closed, magnetic locks slipping into place behind him. Like a vault. The cruiser glided off down the street. Jennings sank back against the seat. Beside him the SP man lowered his gun. On the other side a second officer ran his hands expertly over him, searching for weapons. He brought out Jenning's wallet and the handful of trinkets. The envelope and contract.
"What does he have?" the driver said.
"Wallet, money. Contract with Rethrick Construction. No weapons." He gave Jennings back his things.
"What's this all about?" Jennings said.
"We want to ask you a few questions. That's all. You've been working for Rethrick?"
"Almost two years."
"At the Plant?"
Jennings nodded. "I suppose so."
The officer leaned toward him. "Where is that Plant, Mr. Jennings. Where is it located?"
"I don't know."
The two officers looked at each other. The first one moistened his lips, his face sharp and alert. "You don't know? The next question. The last. In those two years, what kind of work did you do? What was your job?"
"Mechanic. I repaired electronic machinery."
"What kind of electronic machinery?"
"I don't know." Jennings looked up at him. He could not help smiling, his lips twisting ironically. "I'm sorry, but I don't know. It's the truth."
There was silence.
"What do you mean, you don't know? You mean you worked on machinery for two years without knowing what it was? Without even knowing where you were?"
Jennings roused himself. "What is all this? What did you pick me up for? I haven't done anything. I've been --"
"We know. We're not arresting you. We only want to get information for our records. About Rethrick Construction. You've been working for them, in their Plant. In an important capacity. You're an electronic mechanic?"
"You repair high-quality computers and allied equipment?" The officer consulted his notebook. "You're considered one of the best in the country, according to this."
Jennings said nothing.
"Tell us the two things we want to know, and you'll be released at once. Where is Rethrick's Plant? What kind of work are they doing? You serviced their machines for them, didn't you? Isn't that right? For two years."
"I don't know. I suppose so. I don't have any idea what I did during the two years. You can believe me or not." Jennings stared wearily down at the floor.
"What'll we do?" the driver said finally. "We have no instructions past this."
"Take him to the station. We can't do any more questioning here." Beyond the cruiser, men and women hurried along the sidewalk. The streets were choked with cruisers, workers going to their homes in the country.
"Jennings, why don't you answer us? What's the matter with you? There's no reason why you can't tell us a couple of simple things like that. Don't you want to cooperate with your Government? Why should you conceal information from us?"
"I'd tell you if I knew."
The officer grunted. No one spoke. Presently the cruiser drew up before a great stone building. The driver turned the motor off, removing the control cap and putting it in his pocket. He touched the door with a code key, releasing the magnetic lock.
"What shall we do, take him in? Actually, we don't --"
"Wait." The driver stepped out. The other two went with him, closing and locking the doors behind them. They stood on the pavement before the Security Station, talking.
Jennings sat silently, staring down at the floor. The SP wanted to know about Rethrick Construction. Well, there was nothing he could tell them. They had come to the wrong person, but how could he prove that? The whole thing was impossible. Two years wiped clean from his mind. Who would believe him? It seemed unbelievable to him, too.
His mind wandered, back to when he had first read the ad. It had hit home, hit him direct. Mechanic wanted, and a general outline of the work, vague, indirect, but enough to tell him that it was right up his line. And the pay! Interviews at the Office. Tests, forms. And then the gradual realization that Rethrick Construction was finding all about him while he knew nothing about them. What kind of work did they do? Construction, but what kind? What sort of machines did they have? Fifty thousand credits for two years...
And he had come out with his mind washed clean. Two years, and he remembered nothing. It took him a long time to agree to that part of the contract. But he had agreed.
Jennings looked out the window. The three officers were still talking on the sidewalk, trying to decide what to do with him. He was in a tough spot. They wanted information he couldn't give, information he didn't know. But how could he prove it? How could he prove that he had worked two years and come out knowing no more than when he had gone in! The SP would work him over. It would be a long time before they'd believe him, and by that time --
He glanced quickly around. Was there any escape? In a second they would be back. He touched the door. Locked, the triple-ring magnetic locks. He had worked on magnetic locks many times. He had even designed part of a trigger core. There was no way to open the doors without the right code key. No way, unless by some chance he could short out the lock. But with what?
He felt in his pockets. What could he use? If he could short the locks, blow them out, there was a faint chance. Outside, men and women were swarming by, on their way home from work. It was past five; the great office buildings were shutting down, the streets were alive with traffic. If he once got out they wouldn't dare fire. If he could get out.
The three officers separated. One went up the steps into the Station building. In a second the others would reenter the cruiser. Jennings dug into his pocket, bringing out the code key, the ticket stub, the wire. The wire! Thin wire, thin as human hair. Was it insulated? He unwound it quickly. No.
He knelt down, running his fingers expertly across the surface of the door. At the edge of the lock was a thin line, a groove between the lock and the door. He brought the end of the wire up to it, delicately maneuvering the wire into the almost invisible space. The wire disappeared an inch or so. Sweat rolled down Jennings' forehead. He moved the wire a fraction of an inch, twisting it. He held his breath. The relay should be --
Half blinded, he threw his weight against the door. The door fell open, the lock fused and smoking. Jennings tumbled into the street and leaped to his feet. Cruisers were all around him, honking and sweeping past. He ducked behind a lumbering truck, entering the middle lane of traffic. On the sidewalk he caught a momentary glimpse of the SP men starting after him.
A bus came along, swaying from side to side, loaded with shoppers and workers. Jennings caught hold of the back rail, pulling himself up onto the platform. Astonished faces loomed up, pale moons thrust suddenly at him. The robot conductor was coming toward him, whirring angrily.
"Sir --" the conductor began. The bus was slowing down. "Sir, it is not allowed --"
"It's all right," Jennings said. He was filled, all at once, with a strange elation. A moment ago he had been trapped, with no way to escape. Two years of his life had been lost for nothing. The Security Police had arrested him, demanding information he couldn't give. A hopeless situation! But now things were beginning to click in his mind.
He reached into his pocket and brought out the bus token. He put it calmly into the conductor's coin slot.
"Okay?" he said. Under his feet the bus wavered, the driver hesitating. Then the bus resumed pace, going on. The conductor turned away, its whirrs subsiding. Everything was all right. Jennings smiled. He eased past the standing people, looking for a seat, some place to sit down. Where he could think.
He had plenty to think about. His mind was racing.
The bus moved on, flowing with the restless stream of urban traffic. Jennings only half saw the people sitting around him. There was no doubt of it: he had not been swindled. It was on the level. The decision had actually been his. Amazingly, after two years of work he had preferred a handful of trinkets instead of fifty thousand credits. But more amazingly, the handful of trinkets were turning out to be worth more than the money.
With a piece of wire and a bus token he had escaped from the Security Police. That was worth plenty. Money would have been useless to him once he disappeared inside the great stone Station. Even fifty thousand credits wouldn't have helped him. And there were five trinkets left. He felt around in his pocket. Five more things. He had used two. The others -- what were they for? Something as important?
But the big puzzle: how had he -- his earlier self -- known that a piece of wire and a bus token would save his life?" He had known, all right. Known in advance. But how? And the other five. Probably they were just as precious, or would be.
The he of those two years had known things that he did not know now, things that had been washed away when the company cleaned his mind. Like an adding machine which had been cleared. Everything was slate-clean. What he had known was gone, now. Gone, except for seven trinkets, five of which were still in his pocket.
But the real problem right now was not a problem of speculation. It was very concrete. The Security Police were looking for him. They had his name and description. There was no use thinking of going to his apartment -- if he even still had an apartment. But where, then? Hotels? The SP combed them daily. Friends? That would mean putting them in jeopardy, along with him. It was only a question of time before the SP found him, walking along the street, eating in a restaurant, in a show, sleeping in some rooming house. The SP were everywhere.
Everywhere? Not quite. When an individual person was defenseless, a business was not. The big economic forces had managed to remain free, although virtually everything else had been absorbed by the Government. Laws that had been eased away from the private person still protected property and industry. The SP could pick up any given person, but they could not enter and seize a company, a business. That had been clearly established in the middle of the twentieth century.
Business, industry, corporations, were safe from the Security Police. Due process was required. Rethrick Construction was a target of SP interest, but they could do nothing until some statute was violated. If he could get back to the Company, get inside its doors, he would be safe. Jennings smiled grimly. The modern church, sanctuary. It was the Government against the corporation, rather than the State against the Church. The new Notre Dame of the world. Where the law could not follow.
Would Rethrick take him back? Yes, on the old basis. He had already said so. Another two years sliced from him, and then back onto the streets. Would that help him? He felt suddenly in his pocket. And there were the remaining trinkets. Surely he had intended them to be used! No, he could not go back to Rethrick and work another contract time. Something else was indicated. Something more permanent. Jennings pondered. Rethrick Construction. What did it construct? What had he known, found out, during those two years? And why were the SP so interested?
He brought out the five objects and studied them. The green strip of cloth. The code key. The ticket stub. The parcel receipt. The half poker chip. Strange, that little things like that could be important.
And Rethrick Construction was involved.
There was no doubt. The answer, all the answers, lay at Rethrick. But where was Rethrick? He had no idea where the plant was, no idea at all. He knew where the Office was, the big, luxurious room with the young woman and her desk. But that was not Rethrick Construction. Did anyone know, beside Rethrick? Kelly didn't know. Did the SP know?
It was out of town. That was certain. He had gone there by rocket. It was probably in the United States, maybe in the farmlands, the country, between cities. What a hell of a situation! Any moment the SP might pick him up. The next time he might not get away. His only chance, his own real chance for safety, lay in reaching Rethrick. And his only chance to find out the things he had to know. The plant -- a place where he had been, but which he could not recall. He looked down at the five trinkets. Would any of them help?
A burst of despair swept through him. Maybe it was just coincidence, the wire and the token. Maybe --
He examined the parcel receipt, turning it over and holding it up to the light. Suddenly his stomach muscles knotted. His pulse changed. He had been right. No, it was not a coincidence, the wire and the token. The parcel receipt was dated two days hence. The parcel, whatever it might be, had not even been deposited yet. Not for forty-eight more hours.
He looked at the other things. The ticket stub. What good was a ticket stub? It was creased and bent, folded over, again and again. He couldn't go anyplace with that. A stub didn't take you anywhere. It only told you where you had been.
Where you had been!
He bent down, peering at it, smoothing the creases. The printing had been torn through the middle. Only part of each word could be made out.
He smiled. That was it. Where he had been. He could fill in the missing letters. It was enough. There was no doubt: he had foreseen this, too. Three of the seven trinkets used. Four left. Stuartsville, Iowa. Was there such a place? He looked out the window of the bus. The Intercity rocket station was only a block or so away. He could be there in a second. A quick sprint from the bus, hoping the Police wouldn't be there to stop him --
But somehow he knew they wouldn't. Not with the other four things in his pocket. And once he was on the rocket he would be safe. Intercity was big, big enough to keep free of the SP. Jennings put the remaining trinkets back into his pocket and stood up, pulling the bellcord.
A moment later he stepped gingerly out onto the sidewalk.
The rocket let him off at the edge of town, at a tiny brown field. A few disinterested porters moved about, stacking luggage, resting from the heat of the sun.
Jennings crossed the field to the waiting room, studying the people around him. Ordinary people, workmen, businessmen, housewives. Stuartsville was a small middle Western town. Truck drivers. High school kids.
He went through the waiting room, out onto the street. So this was where Rethrick's Plant was located -- perhaps. If he had used the stub correctly. Anyhow, something was here, or he wouldn't have included the stub with the other trinkets.
Stuartsville, Iowa. A faint plan was beginning to form in the back of his mind, still vague and nebulous. He began to walk, his hands in his pockets, looking around him. A newspaper office, lunch counters, hotels, poolrooms, a barber shop, a television repair shop. A rocket sales store with huge showrooms of gleaming rockets. Family size. And at the end of the block the Portola Theater.
The town thinned out. Farms, fields. Miles of green country. In the sky above a few transport rockets lumbered, carrying farm supplies and equipment back and forth. A small, unimportant town. Just right for Rethrick Construction. The Plant would be lost here, away from the city, away from the SP.
Jennings walked back. He entered a lunchroom, BOB'S PLACE. A young man with glasses came over as he sat down at the counter, wiping his hands on his white apron.
"Coffee," Jennings said.
"Coffee." The man brought the cup. There were only a few people in the lunchroom. A couple of flies buzzed, against the window.
Outside in the street shoppers and farmers moved leisurely by.
"Say," Jennings said, stirring his coffee. "Where can a man get work around here? Do you know?"
"What kind of work?" The young man came back, leaning against the counter.
"Electrical wiring. I'm an electrician. Television, rockets, computers. That sort of stuff."
"Why don't you try the big industrial areas? Detroit. Chicago. New York."
Jennings shook his head. "Can't stand the big cities. I never liked cities."
The young man laughed. "A lot of people here would be glad to work in Detroit. You're an electrician?"
"Are there any plants around here? Any repair shops or plants?"
"None that I know of." The young man went off to wait on some men that had come in. Jennings sipped his coffee. Had he made a mistake? Maybe he should go back and forget about Stuartsville, Iowa. Maybe he had made the wrong inference from the ticket stub. But the ticket meant something, unless he was completely wrong about everything. It was a little late to decide that, though.
The young man came back. "Is there any kind of work I can get here?" Jennings said. "Just to tide me over."
"There's always farm work."
"How about the retail repair shops? Garages. TV."
"There's a TV repair shop down the street. Maybe you might get something there. You could try. Farm work pays good. They can't get many men, anymore. Most men in the military. You want to pitch hay?"
Jennings laughed. He paid for his coffee. "Not very much. Thanks."
"Once in a while some of the men go up the road and work. There's some sort of Government station."
Jennings nodded. He pushed the screen door open, stepping outside onto the hot sidewalk. He walked aimlessly for a time, deep in thought, turning his nebulous plan over and over. It was a good plan; it would solve everything, all his problems at once. But right now it hinged on one thing: finding Rethrick Construction. And he had only one clue, if it really was a clue. The ticket stub, folded and creased, in his pocket. And a faith that he had known what he was doing.
A Government station. Jennings paused, looking around him. Across the street was a taxi stand, a couple of cabbies sitting in their cabs, smoking and reading the newspaper. It was worth a try, at least. There wasn't much else to do. Rethrick would be something else, on the surface. If it posed as a Government project no one would ask any questions. They were all too accustomed to Government projects working without explanation, in secrecy.
He went over to the first cab. "Mister," he said, "can you tell me something?"
The cabbie looked up. "What do you want?"
"They tell me there's work to be had, out at the Government station. Is that right?"
The cabbie studied him. He nodded.
"What kind of work is it?"
"I don't know."
"Where do they do the hiring?"
"I don't know." The cabbie lifted his paper.
"Thanks." Jennings turned away.
"They don't do any hiring. Maybe once in a long while. They don't take many on. You better go someplace else if you're looking for work."
The other cabbie leaned out of his cab. "They use only a few day laborers, buddy. That's all. And they're very choosy. They don't hardly let anybody in. Some kind of war work."
Jennings pricked up his ears. "Secret?"
"They come into town and pick up a load of construction workers. Maybe a truck full. That's all. They're real careful who they pick."
Jennings walked back toward the cabbie. "That right?"
"It's a big place. Steel wall. Charged. Guards. Work going on day and night. But nobody gets in. Set up on top of a hill, out the old Henderson Road. About two miles and a half." The cabbie poked at his shoulder. "You can't get in unless you're identified. They identify their laborers, after they pick them out. You know."
Jennings stared at him. The cabbie was tracing a line on his shoulder. Suddenly Jennings understood. A flood of relief rushed over him.
"Sure," he said. "I understand what you mean. At least, I think so." He reached into his pocket, bringing out the four trinkets. Carefully, he unfolded the strip of green cloth, holding it up. "Like this?"
The cabbies stared at the cloth. "That's right," one of them said slowly, staring at the cloth. "Where did you get it?"
Jennings laughed. "A friend." He put the cloth back in his pocket. "A friend gave it to me."
He went off, toward the Intercity field. He had plenty to do, now that the first step was over. Rethrick was here, all right. And apparently the trinkets were going to see him through. One for every crisis. A pocketful of miracles, from someone who knew the future!
But the next step couldn't be done alone. He needed help. Somebody else was needed for this part. But who? He pondered, entering the Intercity waiting room. There was only one person he could possibly go to. It was a long chance, but he had to take it. He couldn't work alone, here on out. If the Rethrick plant was here then Kelly would be too...
The street was dark. At the corner a lamppost cast a fitful beam. A few cruisers moved by.
From the apartment building entrance a slim shape came, a young woman in a coat, a purse in her hand. Jennings watched as she passed under the streetlamp. Kelly McVane was going someplace, probably to a party. Smartly dressed, high heels tap-tapping on the pavement, a little coat and hat.
He stepped out behind her. "Kelly."
She turned quickly, her mouth open. "Oh!"
Jennings took her arm. "Don't worry. It's just me. Where are you going, all dressed up?"
"No place." She blinked. "My golly, you scared me. What is it? What's going on?"
"Nothing. Can you spare a few minutes? I want to talk to you."
Kelly nodded. "I guess so." She looked around. "Where'll we go?"
"Where's a place we can talk? I don't want anyone to overhear us."
"Can't we just walk along?"
"No. The Police."
"They're looking for me."
"For you? But why?"
"Let's not stand here," Jennings said grimly. "Where can we go?"
Kelly hesitated. "We can go up to my apartment. No one's there."
They went up to the elevator. Kelly unlocked the door, pressing the code key against it. The door swung open and they went inside, the heater and lights coming on automatically at her step. She closed the door and took off her coat.
"I won't stay long." Jennings said.
"That's all right. I'll fix you a drink." She went into the kitchen. Jennings sat down on the couch, looking around at the neat little apartment. Presently the girl came back. She sat down beside him and Jennings took his drink. Scotch and water, cold.
Kelly smiled. "Not at all." The two of them sat silently for a time. "Well?" she said at last. "What's this all about? Why are the Police looking for you?"
"They want to find out about Rethrick Construction. I'm only a pawn in this. They think I know something because I worked two years at Rethrick's Plant."
"But you don't!"
"I can't prove that."
Kelly reached out, touching Jennings' head, just above the ear. "Feel there. That spot."
Jennings reached up. Above his ear, under the hair, was a tiny hard spot. "What is it?"
"They burned through the skull there. Cut a tiny wedge from the brain. All your memories of the two years. They located them and burned them out. The SP couldn't possibly make you remember. It's gone. You don't have it."
"By the time they realize that there won't be much left of me."
Kelly said nothing.
"You can see the spot I'm in. It would be better for me if I did remember. Then I could tell them and they'd --"
"And destroy Rethrick!"
Jennings shrugged. "Why not? Rethrick means nothing to me. I don't even know what they're doing. And why are the Police so interested? From the very start, all the secrecy, cleaning my mind --"
"There's reason. Good reason."
"Do you know why?"
"No." Kelly shook her head. "But I'm sure there's a reason. If the SP are interested, there's reason." She set down her drink, turning toward him. "I hate the Police. We all do, every one of us. They're after us all the time. I don't know anything about Rethrick. If I did my life wouldn't be safe. There's not much standing between Rethrick and them. A few laws, a handful of laws. Nothing more."
"I have the feeling Rethrick is a great deal more than just another construction company the SP wants to control."
"I suppose it is. I really don't know. I'm just a receptionist. I've never been to the Plant. I don't even know where it is."
"But you wouldn't want anything to happen to it."
"Of course not! They're fighting the Police. Anyone that's fighting the Police is on our side."
"Really? I've heard that kind of logic before. Anyone fighting communism was automatically good, a few decades ago. Well, time will tell. As far as I'm concerned I'm an individual caught between two ruthless forces. Government and business. The Government has men and wealth. Rethrick Construction has its technocracy. What they've done with it, I don't know. I did, a few weeks ago. All I have now is a faint glimmer, a few references. A theory."
Kelly glanced at him. "A theory?"
"And my pocketful of trinkets. Seven. Three or four now. I've used some. They're the basis of my theory. If Rethrick is doing what I think it's doing, I can understand the SP's interest. As a matter of fact, I'm beginning to share their interest."
"What is Rethrick doing?"
"It's developed a time scoop."
"A time scoop. It's been theoretically possible for several years. But it's illegal to experiment with time scoops and mirrors. It's a felony, and if you're caught, all your equipment and data becomes the property of the Government." Jennings smiled crookedly. "No wonder the Government's interested. If they can catch Rethrick with the goods --"
"A time scoop. It's hard to believe."
"Don't you think I'm right?"
"I don't know. Perhaps. Your trinkets. You're not the first to come out with a little cloth sack of odds and ends. You've used some? How?"
"First, the wire and the bus token. Getting away from the Police. It seems funny, but if I hadn't had them, I'd be there yet. A piece of wire and a ten-cent token. But I don't usually carry such things. That's the point."
"No. Not time travel. Berkowsky demonstrated that time travel is impossible. This is a time scoop, a mirror to see and a scoop to pick up things. These trinkets. At least one of them is from the future. Scooped up. Brought back."
"How do you know?"
"It's dated. The others, perhaps not. Things like tokens and wire belong to classes of things. Any one token is as good as another. There, he must have used a mirror."
"When I was working with Rethrick. I must have used the mirror. I looked into my own future. If I was repairing their equipment I could hardly keep from it! I must have looked ahead, seen what was coming. The SP picking me up. I must have seen that, and seen what a piece of thin wire and a bus token would do -- if I had them with me at the exact moment."
Kelly considered. "Well? What do you want me for?"
"I'm not sure, now. Do you really look on Rethrick as a benevolent institution, waging war against the Police? A sort of Roland at Roncesvalles --"
"What does it matter how I feel about the Company?"
"It matters a lot." Jennings finished his drink, pushing the glass aside. "It matters a lot, because I want you to help me. I'm going to blackmail Rethrick Construction."
Kelly stared at him.
"It's my one chance to stay alive, I've got to get a hold over Rethrick, a big hold. Enough of a hold so they'll let me in, on my own terms. There's no other place I can go. Sooner or later the Police are going to pick me up. If I'm not inside the Plant, and soon --"
"Help you blackmail the Company? Destroy Rethrick?"
"No. Not destroy. I don't want to destroy it -- my life depends on the Company. My life depends on Rethrick being strong enough to defy the SP. But if I'm on the outside it doesn't much matter how strong Rethrick is. Do you see? I want to get in. I want to get inside before it's too late. And I want in on my own terms, not as a two-year worker who gets pushed out again afterward."
"For the Police to pick up."
Jennings nodded. "Exactly."
"How are you going to blackmail the Company?"
"I'm going to enter the Plant and carry out enough material to prove Rethrick is operating a time scoop."
Kelly laughed. "Enter the Plant? Let's see you find the Plant. The SP have been looking for it for years."
"I've already found it." Jennings leaned back, lighting a cigarette. "I've located it with my trinkets. And I have four left, enough to get me inside, I think. And to get me what I want. I'll be able to carry out enough papers and photographs to hang Rethrick. But I don't want to hang Rethrick. I only want to bargain. That's where you come in."
"You can be trusted not to go to the Police. I need someone I can turn the material over to. I don't dare keep it myself. As soon as I have it I must turn it over to someone else, someone who'll hide it where I won't be able to find it."
"Because," Jennings said calmly, "any minute the SP may pick me up. I have no love for Rethrick, but I don't want to scuttle it. That's why you've got to help me. I'm going to turn the information over to you, to hold, while I bargain with Rethrick. Otherwise I'll have to hold it myself. And if I have it on me --"
He glanced at her. Kelly was staring at the floor, her face tense. Set.
"Well? What do you say? Will you help me, or shall I take the chance the SP won't pick me up with the material? Data enough to destroy Rethrick. Well? Which will it be? Do you want to see Rethrick destroyed? What's your answer?"
The two of them crouched, looking across the fields at the hill beyond. The hill rose up, naked and brown, burned clean of vegetation. Nothing grew on its sides. Halfway up a long steel fence twisted, topped with charged barbed wire. On the other side a guard walked slowly, a tiny figure patrolling with a rifle and helmet.
At the top of the hill lay an enormous concrete block, a towering structure without windows or doors. Mounted guns caught the early morning sunlight, glinting in a row along the roof of the building.
"So that's the Plant," Kelly said softly.
"That's it. It would take an army to get up there, up that hill and over the fence. Unless they were allowed in." Jennings got to his feet, helping Kelly up. They walked back along the path, through the trees, to where Kelly had parked the cruiser.
"Do you really think your green cloth band will get you in?" Kelly said, sliding behind the wheel.
"According to the people in the town, a truckload of laborers will be brought in to the Plant sometime this morning. The truck is unloaded at the entrance and the men examined. If everything's in order they're let inside the grounds, past the fence. For construction work, manual labor. At the end of the day they're let out again and driven back to town."
"Will that get you close enough?"
"I'll be on the other side of the fence, at least."
"How will you get to the time scoop? That must be inside the building, some place."
Jennings brought out a small code key. "This will get me in. I hope. I assume it will."
Kelly took the key, examining it. "So that's one of your trinkets. We should have taken a better look inside your little cloth bag."
"The Company. I saw several little bags of trinkets pass out, through my hands. Rethrick never said anything."
"Probably the Company assumed no one would ever want to get back inside again." Jennings took the code key from her. "Now, do you know what you're supposed to do?"
"I'm supposed to stay here with the cruiser until you get back. You're to give me the material. Then I'm to carry it back to New York and wait for you to contact me."
"That's right." Jennings studied the distant road, leading through the trees to the Plant gate. "I better get down there. The truck may be along any time."
"What if they decide to count the number of workers?"
"I'll have to take the chance. But I'm not worried. I'm sure he foresaw everything."
Kelly smiled. "You and your friend, your helpful friend. I hope he left you enough things to get you out again, after you have the photographs."
"Why not?" Kelly said easily. "I always liked you. You know that. You knew when you came to me."
Jennings stepped out of the cruiser. He had on overalls and workshoes, and a gray sweatshirt. "I'll see you later. If everything goes all right. I think it will." He patted his pocket. "With my charms here, my good-luck charms."
He went off through the trees, walking swiftly.
The trees led to the very edge of the road. He stayed with them, not coming out into the open. The Plant guards were certainly scanning the hillside. They had burned it clean, so that anyone trying to creep up to the fence would be spotted at once. And he had seen infrared searchlights.
Jennings crouched low, resting against his heels, watching the road. A few yards up the road was a roadblock, just ahead of the gate. He examined his watch. Ten thirty. He might have a wait, a long wait. He tried to relax.
It was after eleven when the great truck came down the road, rumbling and wheezing.
Jennings came to life. He took out the strip of green cloth and fastened it around his arm. The truck came closer. He could see its load now. The back was full of workmen, men in jeans and workshirts, bounced and jolted as the truck moved along. Sure enough, each had an arm band like his own, a swathe of green around his upper arm. So far so good.
The truck came slowly to a halt, stopping at the roadblock. The men got down slowly onto the road, sending up a cloud of dust into the hot midday sun. They slapped the dust from their jeans, some of them lighting cigarettes. Two guards came leisurely from behind the roadblock. Jennings tensed. In a moment it would be time. The guards moved among the men, examining them, their arm bands, their faces, looking at the identification tabs of a few.
The roadblock slid back. The gate opened. The guards returned to their positions.
Jennings slid forward, slithering through the brush, toward the road. The men were stamping out their cigarettes, climbing back up into the truck. The truck was gunning its motor, the driver releasing the brakes. Jennings dropped onto the road, behind the truck. A rattle of leaves and dirt showered after him. Where he had landed, the view of the guards was cut off by the truck. Jennings held his breath. He ran toward the back of the truck.
The men stared at him curiously as he pulled himself up among them, his chest rising and falling. Their faces were weathered, gray and lined. Men of the soil. Jennings took his place between two burly farmers as the truck started up. They did not seem to notice him. He had rubbed dirt into his skin, and let his beard grow for a day. A quick glance he didn't look much different from the others. But if anyone made a count --
The truck passed through the gate, into the grounds. The gate slid shut behind. Now they were going up, up the steep side of the hill, the truck rattling and swaying from side to side. The vast concrete structure loomed nearer. Were they going to enter it? Jennings watched, fascinated. A thin high door was sliding back, revealing a dark interior. A row of artificial lights gleamed.
The truck stopped. The workmen began to get down again. Some mechanics came around them.
"What's this crew for?" one of them asked.
"Digging. Inside." Another jerked a thumb. "They're digging again. Send them inside."
Jennings's heart thudded. He was going inside! He felt at his neck. There, inside the gray sweater, a flatplate camera hung like a bib around his neck. He could scarcely feel it, even knowing it was there. Maybe this would be less difficult than he had thought.
The workmen pushed through the door on foot, Jennings with them. They were in an immense workroom, long benches with half-completed machinery, booms and cranes, and the constant roar of work. The door closed after them, cutting them off from outside. He was in the Plant. But where was the time scoop, and the mirror?
"This way," a foreman said. The workmen plodded over to the right. A freight lift rose to meet them from the bowels of the building. "You're going down below. How many of you have experience with drills?"
A few hands went up.
"You can show the others. We are moving earth with drills and eaters. Any of you work eaters?"
No hands. Jennings glanced at the worktables. Had he worked here, not so long ago? A sudden chill went through him. Suppose he were recognized? Maybe he had worked with these very mechanics.
"Come on," the foreman said impatiently. "Hurry up."
Jennings got into the freight lift with the others. A moment later they began to descend, down the black tube. Down, down, into the lower levels of the Plant. Rethrick Construction was big, a lot bigger than it looked above ground. A lot bigger than he had imagined. Floors, underground levels, flashing past one after the other.
The elevator stopped. The doors opened. He was looking down a long corridor. The floor was thick with stone dust. The air was moist. Around him, the workmen began to crowd out. Suddenly Jennings stiffened, pulling back.
At the end of the corridor before a steel door, was Earl Rethrick. Talking to a group of technicians.
"All out," the foreman said. "Let's go."
Jennings left the elevator, keeping behind the others. Rethrick! His heart beat dully. If Rethrick saw him he was finished. He felt in his pockets. He had a miniature Boris gun, but it wouldn't be much use if he was discovered. Once Rethrick saw him it would be all over.
"Down this way." The foreman led them toward what seemed to be an underground railway, to one side of the corridor. The men were getting into metal cars along a track. Jennings watched Rethrick. He saw him gesture angrily, his voice coming faintly down the hall. Suddenly Rethrick turned. He held up his hand and the great steel door behind him opened.
Jennings's heart almost stopped beating.
There, beyond the steel door, was the time scoop. He recognized it at once. The mirror. The long metal rods, ending in claws. Like Berkowsky's theoretical model -- only this was real.
Rethrick went into the room, the technicians following behind him. Men were working at the scoop, standing all around it. Part of the shield was off. They were digging into the works. Jennings stared, hanging back.
"Say you --" the foreman said, coming toward him. The steel door shut. The view was cut off. Rethrick, the scoop, the technicians, were gone.
"Sorry," Jennings murmured.
"You know you're not supposed to be curious around here." The foreman was studying him intently. "I don't remember you. Let me see your tab."
"Your identification tab." The foreman turned away. "Bill, bring me the board." He looked Jennings up and down. "I'm going to check you from the board, mister. I've never seen you in the crew before. Stay here." A man was coming from a side door with a check board in his hands.
It was now or never.
Jennings sprinted, down the corridor, toward the great steel door. Behind there was a startled shout, the foreman and his helper. Jennings whipped out the code key, praying fervently as he ran. He came up to the door, holding out the key. With the other hand he brought out the Boris gun. Beyond the door was the time scoop. A few photographs, some schematics snatched up, and then, if he could get out --
The door did not move. Sweat leaped out on his face. He knocked the key against the door. Why didn't it open? Surely -- He began to shake, panic rising up in him. Down the corridor people were coming, racing after him. Open --
But the door did not open. The key he held in his hand was the wrong key.
He was defeated. The door and the key did not match. Either he had been wrong, or the key was to be used someplace else. But where? Jennings looked frantically around. Where? Where could he go?
To one side a door was half open, a regular bolt-lock door. He crossed the corridor, pushing it open. He was in a storeroom of some sort. He slammed the door, throwing the bolt. He could hear them outside, confused, calling for guards. Soon armed guards would be along. Jennings held the Boris gun tightly, gazing around. Was he trapped? Was there a second way out?
He ran through the room, pushing among bales and boxes, towering stacks of silent cartons, end on end. At the rear was an emergency hatch. He opened it immediately. An impulse came to throw the code key away. What good had it been? But surely he had known what he was doing. He had already seen all this. Like God, it had already happened for him. Predetermined. He could not err. Or could he?
A chill went through him. Maybe the future was variable. Maybe this had been the right key, once. But not any more!
There were sounds behind him. They were melting the storeroom door. Jennings scrambled through the emergency hatch, into a low concrete passage, damp and ill lit. He ran quickly along it, turning corners. It was like a sewer. Other passages ran into it, from all sides.
He stopped. Which way? Where could he hide? The mouth of a major vent pipe gaped above his head. He caught hold and pulled himself up. Grimly, he eased his body onto it. They'd ignore a pipe, go on past. He crawled cautiously down the pipe. Warm air blew into his face. Why such a big vent? It implied an unusual chamber at the other end. He came to a metal grill and stopped.
He was looking into the great room, the room he had glimpsed beyond the steel door. Only now he was at the other end. There was the time scoop. And far down, beyond the scoop, was Rethrick, conferring at an active vidscreen. An alarm was sounding, whining shrilly, echoing everywhere. Technicians were running in all directions. Guards in uniform poured in and out of doors.
The scoop. Jennings examined the grill. It was slotted in place. He moved it laterally and it fell into his hands. No one was watching. He slid cautiously out, into the room, the Boris gun ready. He was fairly hidden behind the scoop, and the technicians and guards were all the way down at the other end of the room, where he had first seen them.
And there it was, all around him, the schematics, the mirror, papers, data, blueprints. He flicked his camera on. Against his chest the camera vibrated, film moving through it. He snatched up a handful of schematics. Perhaps he had used these very diagrams, a few weeks before!
He stuffed his pockets with papers. The film came to an end. But he was finished. He squeezed back into the vent, pushing through the mouth and down the tube. The sewerlike corridor was still empty, but there was an insistent drumming sound, the noise of voices and footsteps. So many passages -- They were looking for him in a maze of escape corridors.
Jennings ran swiftly. He ran on and on, without regard to direction, trying to keep along the main corridor. On all sides passages flocked off, one after another, countless passages. He was dropping down, lower and lower. Running downhill.
Suddenly he stopped, gasping. The sound behind him had died away for a moment. But there was a new sound, ahead. He went along slowly. The corridor twisted, turning to the right. He advanced slowly, the Boris gun ready.
Two guards were standing a little way ahead, lounging and talking together. Beyond them was a heavy code door. And behind him the sound of voices were coming again, growing louder. They had found the same passage he had taken. They were on the way.
Jennings stepped out, the Boris gun raised. "Put up your hands. Let go of your guns."
The guards gawked at him. Kids, boys with cropped blond hair and shiny uniforms. They moved back, pale and scared.
"The guns. Let them fall."
The two rifles clattered down. Jennings smiled. Boys. Probably this was their first encounter with trouble. Their leather boots shone, brightly polished.
"Open the door," Jennings said. "I want through."
They stared at him. Behind, the noise grew.
"Open it." He became impatient. "Come on." He waved the pistol. "Open it, damn it! Do you want me to --"
"We -- we can't."
"We can't. It's a code door. We don't have the key. Honest, mister. They don't let us have the key." They were frightened. Jennings felt fear himself now. Behind him the drumming was louder. He was trapped, caught.
Or was he?
Suddenly he laughed. He walked quickly up to the door. "Faith," he murmured, raising his hand. "That's something you should never lose."
"What -- what's that?"
"Faith in yourself. Self-confidence."
The door slid back as he held the code key against it. Blinding sunlight streamed in, making him blink. He held the gun steady. He was outside, at the gate. Three guards gaped in amazement at the gun. He was at the gate -- and beyond lay the woods.
"Get out of the way." Jennings fired at the metal bars of the gate. The metal burst into flame, melting, a cloud of fire rising.
"Stop him!" From behind, men came pouring, guards, out of the corridor.
Jennings leaped through the smoking gate. The metal tore at him, searing him. He ran through the smoke, rolling and falling. He got to his feet and scurried on, into the trees.
He was outside. He had not let him down. The key had worked, all right. He had tried it first on the wrong door.
On and on he ran, sobbing for breath, pushing through the trees. Behind him the Plant and the voices fell away. He had the papers. And he was free.
He found Kelly and gave her the film and everything he had managed to stuff into his pockets. Then he changed back to his regular clothes. Kelly drove him to the edge of Stuartsville and left him off. Jennings watched the cruiser rise up into the air, heading toward New York. Then he went into town and boarded the Intercity rocket.
On the flight he slept, surrounded by dozing businessmen. When he awoke the rocket was settling down, landing at the huge New York spaceport.
Jennings got off, mixing with the flow of people. Now that he was back there was the danger of being picked up by the SP again. Two security officers in their green uniforms watched him impassively as he took a taxi at the field station. The taxi swept him into downtown traffic. Jennings wiped his brow. That was close. Now, to find Kelly.
He ate dinner at a small restaurant, sitting in the back away from the windows. When he emerged the sun was beginning to set. He walked slowly along the sidewalk, deep in thought.
So far so good. He had got the papers and film, and he had got away. The trinkets had worked every step along the way. Without them he would have been helpless. He felt in his pocket. Two left. The serrated half poker chip, and the parcel receipt. He took the receipt out, examining it in the fading evening light.
Suddenly he noticed something. The date on it was today's date. He had caught up with the slip.
He put it away, going on. What did it mean? What was it for? He shrugged. He would know, in time. And the half poker chip. What the hell was it for? No way to tell. In any case, he was certain to get through. He had got him by, up to now. Surely there wasn't much left.
He came to Kelly's apartment house and stopped, looking up. Her light was on. She was back; her fast little cruiser had beaten the Intercity rocket. He entered the elevator and rose to her floor.
"Hello," he said, when she opened the door.
"You're all right?"
"Sure. Can I come in?"
He went inside. Kelly closed the door behind him. "I'm glad to see you. The city's swarming with SP men. Almost every block. And the patrols --"
"I know. I saw a couple at the spaceport." Jennings sat down on the couch. "It's good to be back, though."
"I was afraid they might stop all the Intercity flights and check through the passengers."
"They have no reason to assume I'd be coming into the city."
"I didn't think of that." Kelly sat down across from him. "Now, what comes next? Now that you have got away with the material, what are you going to do?"
"Next I meet Rethrick and spring the news on him. The news that the person who escaped from the Plant was myself. He knows that someone got away, but he doesn't know who it was. Undoubtedly, he assumes it was an SP man."
"Couldn't he use the time mirror to find out?"
A shadow crossed Jennings' face. "That's so. I didn't think of that." He rubbed his jaw, frowning. "In any case, I have the material. Or, you have the material."
"All right. We'll go ahead with our plans. Tomorrow we'll see Rethrick. We'll see him here, in New York. Can you get him down to the Office? Will he come if you send for him?"
"Yes. We have a code. If I ask him to come, he'll come."
"Fine. I'll meet him there. When he realizes that we have the picture and schematics he'll have to agree to my demands. He'll have to let me into Rethrick Construction, on my own terms. It's either that, or face the possibility of having the material turned over to the Security Police."
"And once you're in? Once Rethrick agrees to your demands?"
"I saw enough at the Plant to convince me that Rethrick is far bigger than I had realized. How big, I don't know. No wonder he was so interested!"
"You're going to demand equal control of the Company?"
"You would never be satisfied to go back as a mechanic, would you? The way you were before."
"No. To get booted out again?" Jennings smiled. "Anyhow, I know he intended better things than that. He laid careful plans. The trinkets. He must have planned everything long in advance. No, I'm not going back as a mechanic. I saw a lot there, level after level of machines and men. They're doing something. And I want to be in on it."
Kelly was silent.
"See?" Jennings said.
He left the apartment, hurrying along the dark street. He had stayed there too long. If the SP found the two of them together it would be all up with Rethrick Construction. He could take no chances, with the end almost in sight.
He looked at his watch. It was past midnight. He would meet Rethrick this morning, and present him with the proposition. His spirits rose as he walked. He would be safe. More than safe. Rethrick Construction was aiming at something far larger than mere industrial power. What he had seen had convinced him that a revolution was brewing. Down in the many levels below the ground, down under the fortress of concrete, guarded by guns and armed men, Rethrick was planning a war. Machines were being turned out. The time scoop and the mirror were hard at work, watching, dipping, extracting.
No wonder he had worked out such careful plans. He had seen all this and understood, begun to ponder. The problem of the mind cleaning. His memory would be gone when he was released. Destruction of all the plans.
Destruction? There was the alternate clause in the contract. Others had seen it, used it. But not the way he intended!
He was after much more than anyone who had come before. He was the first to understand, to plan. The seven trinkets were a bridge to something beyond anything that --
At the end of the block an SP cruiser pulled up to the curb. Its doors slid open.
Jennings stopped, his heart constricting. The night patrol, roaming through the city. It was after eleven, after curfew. He looked quickly around. Everything was dark. The stores and houses were shut up tight, locked for the night. Silent apartment houses, buildings. Even the bars were dark.
He looked back the way he had come. Behind him, a second SP cruiser had stopped. Two SP officers had stepped out onto the curb. They had seen him. They were coming toward him. He stood frozen, looking up and down the street.
Across from him was the entrance of a swank hotel, its neon sign glimmering. He began to walk toward it, his heels echoing against the pavement.
"Stop!" one of the SP men called. "Come back here. What are you doing out? What's your --"
Jennings went up the stairs, into the hotel. He crossed the lobby. The clerk was staring at him. No one else was around. The lobby was deserted. His heart sank. He didn't have a chance. He began to run aimlessly, past the desk, along a carpeted hall. Maybe it led out some back way. Behind him, the SP men had already entered the lobby.
Jennings turned a corner. Two men stepped out, blocking his way.
"Where are you going?"
He stopped, wary. "Let me by." He reached into his coat for the Boris gun. At once the men moved.
His arms were pinned to his sides. Professional hoods. Past them he could see light. Light and sound. Some kind of activity. People.
"All right," one of the hoods said. They dragged him back along the corridor, toward the lobby. Jennings struggled futilely. He had entered a blind alley. Hoods, a joint. The city was dotted with them, hidden in the darkness. The swank hotel a front. They would toss him out, into the hands of the SP.
Some people came along the halls, a man and a woman. Older people. Well dressed. They gazed curiously at Jennings, suspended between the two men.
Suddenly Jennings understood. A wave of relief hit him, blinding him. "Wait," he said thickly. "My pocket."
"Wait. Look. My right pocket. Look for yourselves."
He relaxed, waiting. The hood on his right reached, dipping cautiously into the pocket. Jennings smiled. It was over. He had seen even this. There was no possibility of failure. This solved one problem: where to stay until it was time to meet Rethrick. He could stay here.
The hood brought out the half poker chip, examining the serrated edges. "Just a second." From his own coat he took a matching chip, fitting on a gold chain. He touched the edges together.
"All right?" Jennings said.
"Sure." They let him go. He brushed off his coat automatically. "Sure, mister. Sorry. Say, you should have --"
"Take me in the back," Jennings said, wiping his face. "Some people are looking for me. I don't particularly want them to find me."
"Sure." They led him back, into the gambling rooms. The half chip had turned what might have been a disaster into an asset. A gambling and girl joint. One of the few institutions the Police left alone. He was safe. No question of that. Only one thing remained. The struggle with Rethrick!
Rethrick's face was hard. He gazed at Jennings, swallowing rapidly.
"No," he said. "I didn't know it was you. We thought it was the SP."
There was silence. Kelly sat at the chair by her desk, her legs crossed, a cigarette between her fingers. Jennings leaned against the door, his arms folded.
"Why didn't you use the mirror?" he said.
Rethrick's face flickered. "The mirror? You did a good job, my friend. We tried to use the mirror."
"Before you finished your term with us you changed a few leads inside the mirror. When we tried to operate it nothing happened. I left the plant half an hour ago. They were still working on it."
"I did that before I finished my two years?"
"Apparently you had worked out your plans in detail. You know that with the mirror we would have no trouble tracking you down. You're a good mechanic, Jennings. The best we ever had. We'd like to have you back, sometime. Working for us again. There's not one of us that can operate the mirror the way you could. And right now, we can't use it at all."
Jennings smiled. "I had no idea he did anything like that. I underestimated him. His protection was even --"
"Who are you talking about?"
"Myself. During the two years. I use the objective. It's easier."
"Well, Jennings. So the two of you worked out an elaborate plan to steal our schematics. Why? What's the purpose? You haven't turned them over to the Police."
"Then I can assume it's blackmail."
"What for? What do you want?" Rethrick seemed to have aged. He slumped, his eyes small and glassy, rubbing his chin nervously. "You went to a lot of trouble to get us into this position. I'm curious why. While you were working for us you laid the groundwork. Now you've completed it, in spite of our precautions."
"Erasing your mind. Concealing the Plant."
"Tell him," Kelly said. "Tell him why you did it."
Jennings took a deep breath. "Rethrick, I did it to get back in. Back to the Company. That's the only reason. No other."
Rethrick stared at him. "To get back into the Company? You can come back in. I told you that." His voice was thin and sharp, edged with strain. "What's the matter with you? You can come back in. For as long as you want to stay."
"As a mechanic."
"Yes. As a mechanic. We employ many --"
"I don't want to come back as a mechanic. I'm not interested in working for you. Listen, Rethrick. The SP picked me up as soon as I left this Office. If it hadn't been for him I'd be dead."
"They picked you up?"
"They wanted to know what Rethrick Construction does. They wanted me to tell them."
Rethrick nodded. "That's bad. We didn't know that."
"No, Rethrick. I'm not coming in as an employee you can toss out any time it pleases you. I'm coming in with you, not for you."
"With me?" Rethrick stared at him. Slowly a film settled over his face, an ugly hard film. "I don't understand what you mean."
"You and I are going to run Rethrick Construction together. That'll be the way, from now on. And no one will be burning my memory out, for their own safety."
"That's what you want?"
"And if we don't cut you in?"
"Then the schematics and films go to the SP. It's as simple as that. But I don't want to. I don't want to destroy the Company. I want to get into the Company! I want to be safe. You don't know what it's like, being out there, with no place to go. An individual has no place to turn to, anymore. No one to help him. He's caught between two ruthless forces, a pawn between political and economic powers. And I'm tired of being a pawn."
For a long time Rethrick said nothing. He stared down at the floor, his face dull and blank. At last he looked up. "I know it's that way. That's something I've known for a long time. Longer than you have. I'm a lot older than you. I've seen it come, grow that way, year after year. That's why Rethrick Construction exists. Someday, it'll be all different. Someday, when we have the scoop and the mirror finished. When the weapons are finished."
Jennings said nothing.
"I know very well how it is! I'm an old man. I've been working a long time. When they told me someone had got out of the Plant with schematics, I thought the end had come. We already knew you had damaged the mirror. We knew there was a connection, but we had parts figured wrong.
"We thought, of course, that Security had planted you with us, to find out what we were doing. Then, when you realized you couldn't carry out your information, you damaged the mirror. With the mirror damaged, SP could go ahead and --"
He stopped, rubbing his cheek.
"Go on," Jennings said.
"So you did this alone... Blackmail. To get into the Company. You don't know what the Company is for, Jennings! How dare you try to come in! We've been working and building for a long time. You'd wreck us, to save your hide. You'd destroy us, just to save yourself."
"I'm not wrecking you. I can be a lot of help."
"I run the Company alone. It's my Company. I made it, put it together. It's mine."
Jennings laughed. "And what happens when you die? Or is the revolution going to come in your own lifetime?"
Rethrick's head jerked up.
"You'll die, and there won't be anyone to go on. You know I'm a good mechanic. You said so yourself. You're a fool, Rethrick. You want to manage it all yourself. Do everything, decide everything. But you'll die, someday. And then what will happen?"
There was silence.
"You better let me in -- for the Company's good, as well as my own. I can do a lot for you. When you're gone the Company will survive in my hands. And maybe the revolution will work."
"You should be glad you're alive at all! If we hadn't allowed you to take your trinkets out with you --"
"What else could you do? How could you let men service your mirror, see their own futures, and not let them lift a finger to help themselves. It's easy to see why you were forced to insert the alternate-payment clause. You had no choice."
"You don't even know what we are doing. Why we exist."
"I have a good idea. After all, I worked for you two years."
Time passed. Rethrick moistened his lips again and again, rubbing his cheek. Perspiration stood out on his forehead. At last he looked up.
"No," he said. "It's no deal. No one will ever run the Company but me. If I die, it dies with me. It's my property."
Jennings became instantly alert. "Then the papers go to the Police."
Rethrick said nothing, but a peculiar expression moved across his face, an expression that gave Jennings a sudden chill.
"Kelly," Jennings said. "Do you have the papers with you?"
Kelly stirred, standing up. She put out her cigarette, her face pale. "No."
"Where are they? Where did you put them?"
"Sorry," Kelly said softly. "I'm not going to tell you."
He stared at her. "What?"
"I'm sorry," Kelly said again. Her voice was small and faint. "They're safe. The SP won't ever get them. But neither will you. When it's convenient, I'll turn them back to my father."
"Kelly is my daughter," Rethrick said. "That was one thing you didn't count on, Jennings. He didn't count on it, either. No one knew that but the two of us. I wanted to keep all positions of trust in the family. I see now that it was a good idea. But it had to be kept secret. If the SP had guessed they would have picked her up at once. Her life wouldn't have been safe."
Jennings let his breath out slowly. "I see."
"It seemed like a good idea to go along with you," Kelly said. "Otherwise you'd have done it alone, anyhow. And you would have had the papers on you. As you said, if the SP caught you with the papers it would be the end of us. So I went along with you. As soon as you gave me the papers I put them in a good safe place." She smiled a little. "No one will find them but me. I'm sorry."
"Jennings, you can come in with us," Rethrick said. "You can work for us forever, if you want. You can have anything you want. Anything except --"
"Except that no one runs the Company but you."
"That's right. Jennings, the Company is old. Older than I am. I didn't bring it into existence. It was -- you might say, willed to me. I took the burden on. The job of managing it, making it grow, moving it toward the day. The day of revolution, as you put it.
"My grandfather founded the Company, back in the twentieth century. The Company has always been in the family. And it will always be. Someday, when Kelly marries, there'll be an heir to carry it on after me. So that's taken care of. The Company was founded up in Maine, in a small New England town. My grandfather was a little old New Englander, frugal, honest, passionately independent. He had a little repair business of some sort, a little tool and fix-it place. And plenty of knack.
"When he saw government and big business closing in on everyone, he went underground. Rethrick Construction disappeared from the map. It took government quite a while to organize Maine, longer than most places. When the rest of the world had been divided up between international cartels and world-states, there was New England, still alive. Still free. And my grandfather and Rethrick Construction.
"He brought in a few men, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, little once-a-week newspapermen from the Middle West. The Company grew. Weapons appeared, weapons and knowledge. The time scoop and mirror! The Plant was built, secretly, at great cost, over a long period of time. The Plant is big. Big and deep. It goes down many more levels than you saw. He saw them, your alter ego. There's a lot of power there. Power, and men who've disappeared, purged all over the world, in fact. We got them first, the best of them.
"Someday, Jennings, we're going to break out. You see, conditions like this can't go on. People can't live this way, tossed back and forth by political and economic powers. Masses of people shoved this way and that according to the needs of this government or that cartel. There's going to be resistance, someday. A strong, desperate resistance. Not by big people, powerful people, but by little people. Bus drivers. Grocers. Vidscreen operators. Waiters. And that's where the Company comes in.
"We're going to provide them with the help they'll need, the tools, weapons, the knowledge. We're going to 'sell' them our services. They'll be able to hire us. And they'll need someone they can hire. They'll have a lot lined up against them. A lot of wealth and power."
There was silence.
"Do you see?" Kelly said. "That's why you mustn't interfere. It's Dad's Company. It's always been that way. That's the way Maine people are. It's part of the family. The Company belongs to the family. It's ours."
"Come in with us," Rethrick said. "As a mechanic. I'm sorry, but that's our limited outlook showing through. Maybe it's narrow, but we've always done things this way."
Jennings said nothing. He walked slowly across the office, his hands in his pockets. After a time he raised the blind and stared out at the street, far below.
Down below, like a tiny black bug, a Security cruiser moved along, drifting silently with the traffic that flowed up and down the street. It joined a second cruiser, already parked. Four SP men were standing by it in their green uniforms, and even as he watched some more could be seen coming from across the street. He let the blind down.
"It's a hard decision to make," he said.
"If you go out there they'll get you," Rethrick said. "They're out there all the time. You haven't got a chance."
"Please --" Kelly said, looking up at him.
Suddenly Jennings smiled. "So you won't tell me where the papers are. Where you put them."
Kelly shook her head.
"Wait." Jennings reached into his pocket. He brought out a small piece of paper. He unfolded it slowly, scanning it. "By any chance did you deposit it with the Dunne National Bank, about three o'clock yesterday afternoon? For safekeeping in their storage vaults?"
Kelly gasped. She grabbed her handbag, unsnapping it. Jennings put the slip of paper, the parcel receipt, back in his pocket. "So he saw even that," he murmured. "The last of the trinkets. I wondered what it was for."
Kelly groped frantically in her purse, her face wild. She brought out a slip of paper, waving it.
"You're wrong! Here it is! It's still here." She relaxed a little. "I don't know what you have, but this is --"
In the air above them something moved. A dark space formed, a circle. The space stirred. Kelly and Rethrick stared up, frozen.
From the dark circle a claw appeared, a metal claw, joined to a shimmering rod. The claw dropped, swinging in a wide arc. The claw swept the paper from Kelly's fingers. It hesitated for a second. Then it drew itself up again, disappearing with the paper, into the circle of black. Then, silently, the claw and the rod and the circle blinked out. There was nothing. Nothing at all.
"Where -- where did it go?" Kelly whispered. "The paper. What was that?"
Jennings patted his pocket. "It's safe. It's safe, right here. I wondered when he would show up. I was beginning to worry."
Rethrick and his daughter stood, shocked into silence.
"Don't look so unhappy," Jennings said. He folded his arms. "The paper's safe -- and the Company's safe. When the time comes it'll be there, strong and very glad to help out the revolution. We'll see to that, all of us, you, me and your daughter."
He glanced at Kelly, his eyes twinkling. "All three of us. And maybe by that time there'll be even more members to the family!"