It was not an ordinary gambling casino. And this, for the police of S.L.A., posed a special problem. The outspacers who had set up the casino had placed their massive ship directly above the tables, so that in the event of a raid the jets would destroy the tables. Efficient, officer Joseph Tinbane thought to himself morosely. With one blast the outspacers left Terra and simultaneously destroyed all evidence of their illegal activity.
And, what was more, killed each and every human gameplayer who might otherwise have lived to give testimony.
He sat now in his parked aircar, taking pinch after pinch of fine imported Dean Swift Inch-kenneth snuff, then switched to the yellow tin which contained Wren's Relish. The snuff cheered him, but not very much. To his left, in the evening darkness, he could make out the shape of the outspacers' upended ship, black and silent, with the enlarged walled space beneath it, equally dark and silent -- but deceptively so.
"We can go in there," he said to his less experienced companion, "but it'll just mean getting killed." We'll have to trust the robots, he realized. Even if they are clumsy, prone to error. Anyhow they're not alive. And not being alive, in a project as this, constituted an advantage.
"The third has gone in," officer Falkes beside him said quietly.
The slim shape, in human clothing, stopped before the door of the casino, rapped, waited. Presently the door opened. The robot gave the proper codeword and was admitted.
"You think they'll survive the take-off blast?" Tinbane asked. Falkes was an expert in robotics.
"Possibly one might. Not all, though. But one will be enough." Hot for the kill, officer Falkes leaned to peer past Tinbane; his youthful face was fixed in concentration. "Use the bull-horn now. Tell them they're under arrest. I see no point in waiting."
"The point I see," Tinbane said, "is that it's more comforting to see the ship inert and the action going on underneath. We'll wait."
"But no more robots are coming."
"Wait for them to send back their vid transmissions," Tinbane said. After all, that comprised evidence -- of a sort. And at police HQ.it was now being recorded in permanent form. Still, his companion officer assigned to this project did have a point. Since the last of the three humanoid plants had gone in, nothing more would take place, now. Until the outspacers realized they had been infiltrated and put their typical planned pattern of withdrawal into action. "All right," he said, and pushed down on the button which activated the bull-horn.
Leaning, Falkes spoke into the bull-horn. At once the bull-horn said, "AS ORDER-REPRESENTATIVES OF SUPERIOR LOS ANGELES I AND THE MEN WITH ME INSTRUCT EVERYONE INSIDE TO COME OUT ONTO THE STREET COLLECTIVELY; I FURTHER INSTRUCT --"
His voice, from the bull-horn, disappeared as the initial takeoff surge roared through the primary jets of the outspacers' ship. Falkes shrugged, grinned starkly at Tinbane. It didn't take them long, his mouth formed silently.
As expected no one came out. No one in the casino escaped. Even when the structure which composed the building melted. The ship detached itself, leaving a soggy, puddled mass of wax-like matter behind it. And still no one emerged.
All dead, Tinbane realized with mute shock.
"Time to go in," Falkes said stoically. He began to crawl into his neo-asbestos suit, and, after a pause, so did Tinbane.
Together, the two officers entered the hot, dripping puddle which had been the casino. In the center, forming a mound, lay two of the three humanoid robots; they had managed at the last moment to cover something with their bodies. Of the third Tinbane saw no sign; evidently it had been demolished along with everything else. Everything organic.
I wonder what they thought -- in their own dim way -- to be worth preserving, Tinbane thought as he surveyed the distorted remnants of the two robots. Something alive? One of the snail-like outspacers? Probably not. A gaming table, then.
"They acted fast," Falkes said, impressed. "For robots."
"But we got something," Tinbane pointed out. Gingerly, he poked at the hot fused metal which had been the two robots. A section, mostly likely a torso, slid aside, revealed what the robots had preserved.
A pinball machine.
Tinbane wondered why. What was this worth? Anything? Personally, he doubted it.
In the police lab on Sunset Avenue in downtown Old Los Angeles, a technician presented a long written analysis to Tinbane.
"Tell me orally," Tinbane said, annoyed; he had been too many years on the force to suffer through such stuff. He returned the clipboard and report to the tall, lean police technician.
"Actually it's not an ordinary construct," the technician said, glancing over his own report, as if he had already forgotten it; his tone, like the report itself, was dry, dull. This for him was obviously routine. He, too, agreed that the pinball machine salvaged by the humanoid robots was worthless -- or so Tinbane guessed. "By that I mean it's not like any they've brought to Terra in the past. You can probably get more of an idea directly from the thing; I suggest you put a quarter in it and play through a game." He added, "The lab budget will provide you with a quarter which we'll retrieve from the machine later."
"I've got my own quarter," Tinbane said irritably. He followed the technician through the large, overworked lab, past the elaborate -- and in many cases obsolete -- assortment of analytical devices and partly broken-apart constructs to the work area in the rear.
There, cleaned up, the damage done to it now repaired, stood the pinball machine which the robots had protected. Tinbane inserted a coin; five metal balls at once spilled into the reservoir, and the board at the far end of the machine lit up in a variety of shifting colors.
"Before you shoot the first ball," the technician said to him, standing beside him so that he, too, could watch, "I advise you to take a careful look at the terrain of the machine, the components among which the ball will pass. The horizontal area beneath the protective glass is somewhat interesting. A miniature village, complete with houses, lighted streets, major public buildings, overhead sprintship runnels. . . not a Terran village, of course. An Ionian village, of the sort they're used to. The detail work is superb."
Bending, Tinbane peered. The technician was right; the detail work on the scale-model structures astounded him.
"Tests that measure wear on the moving parts of this machine," the technician informed him, "indicate that it saw a great deal of use. There is considerable tolerance. We estimate that before another thousand games could be completed, the machine would have to go the shop. Their shop, back on Io. Which is where we understand they build and maintain equipment of this variety." He explained, "By that I mean gambling layouts in general."
"What's the object of the game?" Tinbane asked.
"We have here," the technician explained, "what we call a full-shift set variable. In other words, the terrain through which the steel ball moves is never the same. The number of possible combinations is --" he leafed through his report but was unable to find the exact figure -- "anyhow, quite great. In the millions. It's excessively intricate, in our opinion. Anyhow, if you'll release the first ball you'll see."
Depressing the plunger, Tinbane allowed the first ball to roll from the reservoir and against the impulse-shaft. He then drew back the springloaded shaft and snapped it into release. The ball shot up the channel and bounced free, against a pressure-cushion which imparted swift additional velocity to it.
The ball now dribbled in descent, toward the upper perimeter of the village.
"The initial defense line," the technician said from behind him, "which protects the village proper, is a series of mounds colored, shaped and surfaced to resemble the Ionian landscape. The fidelity is quite obviously painstaking. Probably made from satellites in orbit around Io. You can easily imagine you're seeing an actual piece of that moon from a distance of ten or more miles up."
The steel ball encountered the perimeter of rough terrain. Its trajectory altered, and the ball wobbled uncertainly, no longer going in any particular direction.
"Deflected," Tinbane said, noting how satisfactorily the contours of the terrain acted to deprive the ball of its descending forward motion. "It's going to bypass the village entirely."
The ball, with severely decreased momentum, wandered into a side crease, followed the crease listlessly, and then, just as it appeared to be drifting into the lower take-up slot, abruptly hurtled from a pressure-cushion and back into play.
On the illuminated background a score registered. Victory, of a momentary sort, for the player. The ball once again menaced the village. Once again it dribbled through the rough terrain, following virtually the same path as before.
"Now you'll notice something moderately important," the technician said. "As it heads toward that same pressure-cushion which it just now hit. Don't watch the ball; watch the cushion."
Tinbane watched. And saw, from the cushion, a tiny wisp of gray smoke. He turned inquiringly toward the technician.
"Now watch the ball!" the technician said sharply.
Again the ball struck the pressure-cushion mounted slightly before the lower take-up slot. This time, however, the cushion failed to react to the ball's impact.
Tinbane blinked as the ball rolled harmlessly on, into the take-up slot and out of play.
"Nothing happened," he said presently.
"That smoke that you saw. Emerging from the wiring of the cushion. An electrical short. Because a rebound from that spot placed the ball in a menacing position -- menacing to the village."
"In other words," Tinbane said, "something took note of the effect the cushion was having on the ball. The assembly operates so as to protect itself from the ball's activity." He had seen this before, in other outspacer gambling gear: sophisticated circuitry which kept the gameboard constantly shifting in such a way as to seem alive -- in such a way as to reduce the chances of the player winning. On this particular construct the player obtained a winning score by inducing the five steel balls to pass into the central layout: the replica of the Ionian hamlet. Hence the hamlet had to be protected. Hence this particular strategically located pressure-cushion required elimination. At least for the time being. Until the overall configurations of topography altered decidedly.
"Nothing new there," the technician said. "You've seen it a dozen times before; I've seen it a hundred times before. Let's say that this pinball machine has seen ten thousand separate games, and each time there's been a careful readjustment of the circuitry directed toward rendering the steel balls neutralized. Let's say that the alterations are cumulative. So by now any given player's score is probably no more than a fraction of early scores, before the circuits had a chance to react. The direction of alteration -- as in all out-spacer gambling mechanisms -- has a zero win factor as the limit toward which it's moving. Just try to hit the village, Tinbane. We set up a constantly repeating mechanical ball-release and played one hundred and forty games. At no time did a ball ever get near enough to do the village any harm. We kept a record of the scores obtained. A slight but significant drop was registered each time." He grinned.
"So?" Tinbane said,.
"So nothing. As I told you and as my report says." The technician paused, then. "Except for one thing. Look at this."
Bending, he traced his thin finger across the protective glass of the layout, toward a construct near the center of the replica village. "A photographic record shows that with each game that particular component becomes more articulated. It's being erected by circuitry underneath -- obviously. As is every other change. But this configuration -- doesn't it remind you of something?"
"Looks like a Roman catapult," Tinbane said. "But with a vertical rather than a horizontal axis."
"That's our reaction, too. And look at the sling. In terms of the scale of the village it's inordinately large. Immense, in fact; specifically, it's not to scale."
"It looks as if it would almost hold --"
"Not almost," the technician said. "We measured it. The size of the sling is exact; one of those steel balls would fit perfectly into it."
"And then?" Tinbane said, feeling chill.
"And then it would hurl the ball back at the player," the lab technician said calmly. "It's aimed directly toward the front of the machine, front and upward." He added, "And it's been virtually completed."
The best defense, Tinbane thought to himself as he studied the out-spacers' illegal pinball machine, is offense. But whoever heard of it in this context?
Zero, he realized, isn't a low enough score to suit the defensive circuitry of the thing. Zero won't do. It's got to strive for less than zero. Why? Because, he decided, it's not really moving toward zero as a limit; it's moving, instead, toward the best defensive pattern. It's too well designed. Or is it?
"You think," he asked the lean, tall lab technician, "that the outspacers intended this?"
"That doesn't matter. At least not from the immediate stand-point. What matters is two factors: the machine was exported -- in violation of Terran law -- to Terra, and it's been played by Terrans. Intentionally or not, this could be, in fact will soon be, a lethal weapon." He added, "We calculate within the next twenty games. Every time a coin is inserted, the building resumes. Whether a ball gets near the village or not. All it requires is a flow of power from the device's central helium battery. And that's automatic, once play begins." He added, "It's at work building the catapult right now, as we stand here. You better release the remaining four balls, so it'll shut itself off. Or give us permission to dismantle it -- to at least take the power supply out of the circuit."
"The outspacers don't have a very high regard for human life," Tinbane reflected. He was thinking of the carnage created by the ship taking off. And that, for them, was routine. But in view of that wholesale destruction of human life, this seemed unnecessary. What more did this accomplish?
Pondering, he said, "This is selective. This would eliminate only the gameplayer."
The technician said, "This would eliminate every gameplayer. One after another."
"But who would play the thing," Tinbane said, "after the first fatality?"
"People go there knowing that if there's a raid the outspacers will burn up everyone and everything," the technician pointed out. "The urge to gamble is an addictive compulsion; a certain type of person gambles no matter what the risk is. You ever hear of Russian Roulette?"
Tinbane released the second steel ball, watched it bounce and wander toward the replica village. This one managed to pass through the rough terrain; it approached the first house comprising the village proper. Maybe I'll get it, he thought savagely. Before it gets me. A strange, novel excitement filled him as he watched the ball thud against the tiny house, flatten the structure and roll on. The ball, although small to him, towered over every building, every structure, that made up the village.
-- Every structure except the central catapult. He watched avidly as the ball moved dangerously close to the catapult, then, deflected by a major public building, rolled on and disappeared into the take-up slot. Immediately he sent the third ball hurtling up its channel.
"The stakes," the technician said softly, "are high, aren't they? Your life against its. Must be exceptionally appealing to someone with the right kind of temperament."
"I think," Tinbane said, "I can get the catapult before it's in action."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"I'm getting the ball closer to it each time."
The technician said, "For the catapult to work, it requires one of the steel balls; that's its load. You're making it increasingly likely that it'll acquire use of one of the balls. You're actually helping it." He added somberly, "In fact it can't function without you; the gameplayer is not only the enemy, he's also essential. Better quit, Tinbane. The thing is using you."
"I'll quit," Tinbane said, "when I've gotten the catapult."
"You're damn right you will. You'll be dead." He eyed Tinbane narrowly. "Possibly this is why the outspacers built it. To get back at us for our raids. This very likely is what it's for."
"Got another quarter?" Tinbane said.
In the middle of his tenth game a surprising, unexpected alteration in the machine's strategy manifested itself. All at once it ceased routing the steel balls entirely to one side, away from the replica village.
Watching, Tinbane saw the steel ball roll directly -- for the first time -- through the center. Straight toward the proportionally massive catapult.
Obviously the catapult had been completed.
"I outrank you, Tinbane," the lab technician said tautly. "And I'm ordering you to quit playing."
"Any order from you to me," Tinbane said, "has to be in writing and has to be approved by someone in the department at inspector level." But, reluctantly, he halted play. "I can get it," he said reflectively, "but not standing here. I have to be away, far enough back so that it can't pick me off." So it can't distinguish me and aim, he realized.
Already he had noted it swivel slightly. Through some lens-system it had detected him. Or possibly it was thermotropic, had sensed him by his body heat.
If the latter, then defensive action for him would be relatively simple: a resistance coil suspended at another locus. On the other hand it might be utilizing a cephalic index of some sort, recording all nearby brain-emanations. But the police lab would know that already.
"What's its tropism?" he asked.
The technician said, "That assembly hadn't been built up, at the time we inspected it. It's undoubtedly coming into existence now, in concert with the completion of the weapon."
Tinbane said thougtfully, "I hope it doesn't possess equipment to record a cephalic index." Because, he thought, if it did, storing the pattern would be no trouble at all. It could retain a memory of its adversary for use in the event of future encounters.
Something about that notion frightened him -- over and above the immediate menace of the situation.
"I'll make a deal," the technician said. "You continue to operate it until it fires its initial shot at you. Then step aside and let us tear it down. We need to know its tropism; this may turn up again in a more complex fashion. You agree? You'll be taking a calculated risk, but I believe its initial shot will be aimed with the idea of use as feedback; it'll correct for a second shot. . . which will never take place."
Should he tell the technician his fear?
"What bothers me," he said, "is the possibility that it'll retain a specific memory of me. For future purposes."
"What future purposes? It'll be completely torn down. As soon as it fires."
Reluctantly, Tinbane said, "I think I'd better make the deal." I may already have gone too far, he thought. You may have been right.
The next steel ball missed the catapult by only a matter of a fraction of an inch. But what unnerved him was not the closeness; it was the quick, subtle attempt on the part of the catapult to snare the ball as it passed. A motion so rapid that he might easily have overlooked it.
"It wants the ball," the technician observed. "It wants you." He, too, had seen.
With hesitation, Tinbane touched the plunger which would release the next -- and for him possibly the last -- steel ball.
"Back out," the technician advised nervously. "Forget the deal; stop playing. We'll tear it down as it is."
"We need the tropism," Tinbane said. And depressed the plunger.
The steel ball, suddenly seeming to him huge and hard and heavy, rolled unhesitatingly into the waiting catapult; every contour of the machine's topography collaborated. The acquisition of the load took place before he even understood what had happened. He stood staring.
"Run!" The technician leaped back, bolted; crashing against Tinbane, he threw him bodily away from the machine.
With a clatter of broken glass the steel ball shot by Tinbane's right temple, bounced against the far wall of the lab, came to rest under a work table.
After a time the technician said shakily, "It had plenty of velocity. Plenty of mass. Plenty of what it needed."
Haltingly, Tinbane stood up, took a step toward the machine.
"Don't release another ball," the technician said warningly.
Tinbane said, "I don't have to." He turned, then, sprinted away.
The machine had released the ball itself.
In the outer office, Tinbane sat smoking, seated across from Ted Donovan, the lab chief. The door to the lab had been shut, and every one of the several lab technicians had been bull-horned to safety. Beyond the closed door the lab was silent. Inert, Tinbane thought, and waiting.
He wondered if it was waiting for anyone, any human, any Terran, to come within reach. Or -- just him.
The latter thought amused him even less than it had originally; even seated out here he felt himself cringe. A machine built on another world, sent to Terra empty of direction, merely capable of sorting among all its defensive possibilities until at last it stumbled onto the key. Randomness at work, through hundreds, even thousands of games. . . through person after person, player after player. Until at last it reached critical direction, and the last person to play it, also selected by the process of randomness, became welded to it in a contract of death. In this case, himself. Unfortunately.
Ted Donovan said, "We'll spear its power source from a distance; that shouldn't be hard. You go on home, forget about it. When we have its tropic circuit laid out we'll notify you. Unless of course it's late at night, in which case --"
"Notify me," Tinbane said, "whatever time it is. If you will." He did not have to explain; the lab chief understood.
"Obviously," Donovan said, "this construct is aimed at the police teams raiding the casinos. How they steered our robots onto it we don't of course know -- yet. We may find that circuit, too." He picked up the already extant lab report, eyed it with hostility. "This was far too cursory, it would now appear. 'Just another outspacer gambling device.' The hell it is." He tossed the report away, disgusted.
"If that's what they had in mind," Tinbane said, "they got what they wanted; they got me completely." At least in terms of hooking him. Of snaring his attention. And his cooperation.
"You're a gambler; you've got the streak. But you didn't know it. Possibly it wouldn't have worked otherwise." Donovan added, "But it is interesting. A pinball machine that fights back. That gets fed up with steel balls rolling over it. I hope they don't build a skeet-shoot. This is bad enough."
"Dreamlike," Tinbane murmured.
"Not really real." But, he thought, it is real. He rose, then, to his feet. "I'll do what you say; I'll go on home to my conapt. You have the vidphone number." He felt tired and afraid.
"You look terrible," Donovan said, scrutinizing him. "It shouldn't get you to this extent; this is a relatively benign construct, isn't it? You have to attack it, to set it in motion. If left alone --"
"I'm leaving it alone," Tinbane said. "But I feel it's waiting. It wants me to come back." He felt it expecting him, anticipating his return. The machine was capable of learning and he had taught it -- taught it about himself.
Taught it that he existed. That there was such a person on Terra as Joseph Tinbane.
And that was too much.
When he unlocked the door of his conapt the phone was already ringing. Leadenly, he picked up the receiver. "Hello," he said.
"Tinbane?" It was Donovan's voice. "It's encephalotropic, all right. We found a pattern-print of your brain configuration, and of course we destroyed it. But --" Donovan hesitated. "We also found something else it had constructed since the initial analysis."
"A transmitter," Tinbane said hoarsely.
"Afraid so. Half-mile of broadcast, two miles if beamed. And it was cupped to beams, so we have to assume the two-mile transmission. We have absolutely no idea what the receiver consists of, naturally, whether it's even on the surface or not. Probably is. In an office somewhere. Or a hover-car such as they use. Anyhow, now you know. So it's decidedly a vengeance weapon; your emotional response was unfortunately correct. When our double-dome experts looked this over they drew the conclusion that you were waited-for, so to speak. It saw you coming. The instrument may never have functioned as an authentic gambling device in the first place; the tolerances which we noted may have been built in, rather than the result of wear. So that's about it."
Tinbane said, "What do you suggest I do?"
" 'Do'?" A pause. "Not much. Stay in your conapt; don't report for work, not for a while."
So if they nail me, Tinbane thought, no one else in the department will get hit at the same time. More advantageous for the rest of you; hardly for me, though. "I think I'll get out of the area," he said aloud. "The structure may be limited in space, confined to S.L.A. or just one part of the city. If you don't veto it." He had a girl friend, Nancy Hackett, in La Jolla; he could go there.
He said, "You can't do anything to help me, though."
"I tell you what," Donovan said. "We'll allocate some funds, a moderate sum, best we can, on which you can function. Until we track down the damn receiver and find out what it's tied to. For us, the main headache is that word of this matter has begun to filter through the department. It's going to be hard getting crack-down teams to tackle future outspacer gambling operations. . . which of course is specifically what they had in mind. One more thing we can do. We can have the lab build you a brain-shield so you no longer emanate a recognizable template. But you'd have to pay for it out of your own pocket. Possibly it could be debited against your salary, payments divided over several months. If you're interested. Frankly, if you want my personal opinion, I'd advise it."
"All right," Tinbane said. He felt dull, dead, tired and resigned; all of those at once. And he had the deep and acute intuition that his reaction was rational. "Anything else you suggest?" he asked.
"Stay armed. Even when you're asleep."
"What sleep?" he said. "You think I'm going to get any sleep? Maybe I will after that machine is totally destroyed." But that won't make any difference, he realized. Not now. Not after it's dispatched my brainwave pattern to something else, something we know nothing about. God knows what equipment it might turn out to be; outspacers show up with all kinds of convoluted things.
He hung up the phone, walked into his kitchen, and getting down a half-empty fifth of Antique bourbon, fixed himself a whisky sour.
What a mess, he said to himself. Pursued by a pinball machine from another world. He almost -- but not quite -- had to laugh.
What do you use, he asked himself, to catch an angry pinball machine? One that has your number and is out to get you? Or more specifically, a pinball machine's nebulous friend. . .
Something went tap tap against the kitchen window.
Reaching into his pocket he brought out his regulation-issue laser pistol; walking along the kitchen wall he approached the window from an unseen side, peered out into the night. Darkness. He could make nothing out. Flashlight? He had one in the glove compartment of his aircar, parked on the roof of the conapt building. Time to get it.
A moment later, flashlight in hand, he raced downstairs, back to his kitchen.
The beam of the flashlight showed, pressed against the outer surface of the window, a buglike entity with projecting elongated pseudopodia. The two feelers had tapped against the glass of the window, evidently exploring in their blind, mechanical way.
The bug-thing had ascended the side of the building; he could perceive the suction-tread by which it clung.
His curiosity, at this point, became greater than his fear. With care he opened the window -- no need of having to pay the building repair committee for it -- and cautiously took aim with his laser pistol. The bug-thing did not stir; evidently it had stalled in midcycle. Probably its responses, he guessed, were relatively slow, much more so than a comparable organic equivalent. Unless, of course, it was set to detonate; in which case he had no time to ponder.
He fired a narrow-beam into the underside of the bug-thing. Maimed, the bug-thing settled backward, its many little cups releasing their hold. As it fell away, Tinbane caught hold of it, lifted it swiftly into the room, dropped it onto the floor, meantime keeping his pistol pointed at it. But it was finished functionally; it did not stir.
Laying it on the small kitchen table he got a screwdriver from the tool-drawer beside the sink, seated himself, examined the object. He felt, now, that he could take his time; the pressure, momentarily at least, had abated.
It took him forty minutes to get the thing open; none of the holding screws fitted an ordinary screwdriver, and he found himself at last using a common kitchen knife. But finally he had it open before him on the table, its shell divided into two parts: one hollow and empty, the other crammed with components. A bomb? He tinkered with exceeding care, inspecting each assembly bit by bit.
No bomb -- at least none which he could identify. Then a murder tool? No blade, no toxins or micro-organisms, no tube capable of expelling a lethal charge, explosive or otherwise. So then what in God's name did it do? He recognized the motor which had driven it up the side of the building, then the photo-electric steering turret by which it oriented itself. But that was all. Absolutely all.
From the standpoint of use, it was a fraud.
Or was it? He examined his watch. Now he had spent an entire hour on it; his attention had been diverted from everything else -- and who knew what that else might be?
Nervously, he slid stiffly to his feet, collected his laser pistol, and prowled throughout the apartment, listening, wondering, trying to sense something, however small, that was out of its usual order.
It's giving them time, he realized. One entire hour! For whatever it is they're really up to.
Time, he thought, for me to leave the apartment. To get to La Jolla and the hell out of here, until this is all over with. His vidphone rang.
When he answered it, Ted Donovan's face clicked grayly into view. "We've got a department aircar monitoring your conapt building," Donovan said. "And it picked up some activity; I thought you'd want to know."
"Okay," he said tensely.
"A vehicle, airborne, landed briefly on your roof parking lot. Not a standard aircar but something larger. Nothing we could recognize. It took right off again at great speed, but I think this is it."
"Did it deposit anything?" he asked.
"Yes. Afraid so."
Tight lipped, he said, "Can you do anything for me at this late point? It would be appreciated very much."
"What do you suggest? We don't know what it is; you certainly don't know either. We're open to ideas, but I think we'll have to wait until you know the nature of the -- hostile artifact."
Something bumped against his door, something in the hall.
"I'll leave the line open," Tinbane said. "Don't leave; I think it's happening now." He felt panic, at this stage; overt, childish panic. Carrying his laser pistol in a numb, loose grip he made his way step by step to the locked front door of his conapt, halted, then unlocked the door and opened it. Slightly. As little as he could manage.
An enormous, unchecked force pushed the door farther; the knob left his hand. And, soundlessly, the vast steel ball resting against the half-open door rolled forward. He stepped aside -- he had to -- knowing that this was the adversary; the dummy wall-climbing gadget had deflected his attention from this.
He could not get out. He would not be going to La Jolla now. The great massed sphere totally blocked the way.
Returning to the vidphone he said to Donovan, "I'm encapsulated. Here in my own conapt." At the outer perimeter, he realized. Equal to the rough terrain of the pinball machine's shifting landscape. The first ball has been blocked there, has lodged in the doorway. But what about the second? The third?
Each would be closer.
"Can you build something for me?" he asked huskily. "Can the lab start working this late at night?"
"We can try," Donovan said, "It depends entirely on what you want. What do you have in mind? What do you think would help?"
He hated to ask for it. But he had to. The next one might burst in through a window, or crash onto him from the roof. "I want," he said, "some form of catapult. Big enough, tough enough, to handle a spherical load with a diameter of between four and a half and five feet. You think you can manage it?" He prayed to God they could.
"Is that what you're facing?" Donovan said harshly.
"Unless it's an hallucination," Tinbane said. "A deliberate, artificially induced terror-projection, designed specifically to demoralize me."
"The department aircar saw something," Donovan said. "And it wasn't an hallucination; it had measurable mass. And --" He hesitated. "It did leave off something big. Its departing mass was considerably diminished. So it's real, Tinbane."
"That's what I thought," Tinbane said.
"We'll get the catapult to you as soon as we possibly can," Donovan said. "Let's hope there's an adequate interval between each -- attack. And you better figure on five at least."
Tinbane, nodding, lit a cigarette, or at least tried to. But his hands were shaking too badly to get the lighter into place. He then got out a yellow-lacquered tin of Dean's Own Snuff, but found himself unable to force open the tight tin; the tin hopped from his fingers and fell to the floor. "Five," he said, "per game."
"Yes," Donovan said reluctantly, "there's that."
The wall of the living room shuddered.
The next one was coming at him from the adjoining apartment.