THE machine was a foot wide and two feet long; it looked like an oversized box of crackers. Silently, with great caution, it climbed the side of a concrete building; it had lowered two rubberized rollers and was now beginning the first phase of its job.
From its rear, a flake of blue enamel was exuded. The machine pressed the flake firmly against the rough concrete and then continued on. Its upward path carried it from vertical concrete to vertical steel: it had reached a window. The machine paused and produced a microscopic fragment of cloth fabric. The cloth, with great care, was embedded in the fitting of the steel window frame.
In the chill darkness, the machine was virtually invisible. The glow of a distant tangle of traffic briefly touched it, illuminated its polished hull, and departed. The machine resumed its work.
It projected a plastic pseudopodium and incinerated the pane of window glass. There was no response from within the gloomy apartment: nobody was home. The machine, now dulled with particles of glass-dust, crept over the steel frame and raised an inquisitive receptor.
While it received, it exerted precisely two hundred pounds pressure on the steel window frame; the frame obediently bent. Satisfied, the machine descended the inside of the wall to the moderately thick carpet. There it began the second phase of its job.
One single human hair -- follicle and speck of scalp included -- was deposited on the hardwood floor by the lamp. Not far from the piano, two dried grains of tobacco were ceremoniously laid out. The machine waited an interval of ten seconds and then, as an internal section of magnetic tape clicked into place, it suddenly said, "Ugh! Damn it. . ."
Curiously, its voice was husky and masculine.
The machine made its way to the closet door, which was locked. Climbing the wood surface, the machine reached the lock mechanism, and, inserting a thin section of itself, caressed the tumblers back. Behind the row of coats was a small mound of batteries and wires: a self-powered video recorder. The machine destroyed the reservoir of film -- which was vital -- and then, as it left the closet, expelled a drop of blood on the jagged tangle that had been the lens-scanner. The drop of blood was even more vital.
While the machine was pressing the artificial outline of a heel mark into the greasy film that covered the flooring of the closet, a sharp sound came from the hallway. The machine ceased its work and became rigid. A moment later a small, middle-aged man entered the apartment, coat over one arm, briefcase in the other.
"Good God," he said, stopping instantly as he saw the machine. "What are you?"
The machine lifted the nozzle of its front section and shot an explosive pellet at the man's half-bald head. The pellet traveled into the skull and detonated. Still clutching his coat and briefcase, bewildered expression on his face, the man collapsed to the rug. His glasses, broken, lay twisted beside his ear. His body stirred a little, twitched, and then was satisfactorily quiet.
Only two steps remained to the job, now that the main part was done. The machine deposited a bit of burnt match in one of the spotless ashtrays resting on the mantel, and entered the kitchen to search for a water glass. It was starting up the side of the sink when the noise of human voices startled it.
"This is the apartment," a voice said, clear and close.
"Get ready -- he ought to still be here." Another voice, a man's voice, like the first. The hall door was pushed open and two individuals in heavy overcoats sprinted purposefully into the apartment. At their approach, the machine dropped to the kitchen floor, the water glass forgotten. Something had gone wrong. Its rectangular outline flowed and wavered; pulling itself into an upright package it fused its shape into that of a conventional TV unit.
It was holding that emergency form when one of the men -- tall, red-haired -- peered briefly into the kitchen.
"Nobody in here," the man declared, and hurried on.
"The window," his companion said, panting. Two more figures entered the apartment, an entire crew. "The glass is gone -- missing. He got in that way."
"But he's gone." The red-haired man reappeared at the kitchen door; he snapped on the light and entered, a gun visible in his hand. "Strange ... we got here right away, as soon as we picked up the rattle." Suspiciously, he examined his wristwatch. "Rosenburg's been dead only a few seconds . . . how could he have got out again so fast?"
Standing in the street entrance, Edward Ackers listened to the voice. During the last half hour the voice had taken on a carping, nagging whine; sinking almost to inaudibility, it plodded along, mechanically turning out its message of complaint.
"You're tired," Ackers said. "Go home. Take a hot bath."
"No," the voice said, interrupting its tirade. The locus of the voice was a large illuminated blob on the dark sidewalk, a few yards to Acker's right. The revolving neon sign read:
Thirty times -- he had counted -- within the last few minutes the sign had captured a passerby and the man in the booth had begun his harangue. Beyond the booth were several theaters and restaurants: the booth was well-situated.
But it wasn't for the crowd that the booth had been erected. It was for Ackers and the offices behind him; the tirade was aimed directly at the Interior Department. The nagging racket had gone on so many months that Ackers was scarcely aware of it. Rain on the roof. Traffic noises. He yawned, folded his arms, and waited.
"Banish it," the voice complained peevishly. "Come on, Ackers. Say something; do something."
"I'm waiting," Ackers said complacently.
A group of middle-class citizens passed the booth and were handed leaflets. The citizens scattered the leaflets after them, and Ackers laughed.
"Don't laugh," the voice muttered. "It's not funny; it costs us money to print those."
"Your personal money?" Ackers inquired.
"Partly." Garth was lonely, tonight. "What are you waiting for? What's happened? I saw a police team leave your roof a few minutes ago . . . ?
"We may take in somebody," Ackers said, "there's been a killing."
Down the dark sidewalk the man stirred in his dreary propaganda booth. "Oh?" Harvey Garth's voice came. He leaned forward and the two looked directly at each other: Ackers, carefully-groomed, well-fed, wearing a respectable overcoat. . . Garth, a thin man, much younger, with a lean, hungry face composed mostly of nose and forehead.
"So you see," Ackers told him, "we do need the system. Don't be Utopian."
"A man is murdered; and you rectify the moral imbalance by killing the killer." Garth's protesting voice rose in a bleak spasm. "Banish it! Banish the system that condemns men to certain extinction!"
"Get your leaflets here," Ackers parodied dryly. "And your slogans. Either or both. What would you suggest in place of the system?"
Garth's voice was proud with conviction. "Education."
Amused, Ackers asked: "Is that all? You think that would stop anti-social activity? Criminals just don't -- know better?"
"And psychotherapy, of course." His projected face bony and intense, Garth peered out of his booth like an aroused turtle. "They're sick . . . that's why they commit crimes, healthy men don't commit crimes. And you compound it; you create a sick society of punitive cruelty." He waggled an accusing finger. "You're the real culprit, you and the whole Interior Department. You and the whole Banishment System."
Again and again the neon sign blinked BANISH IT! Meaning, of course, the system of compulsory ostracism for felons, the machinery that projected a condemned human being into some random backwater region of the sidereal universe, into some remote and out-of-the-way corner where he would be of no harm.
"No harm to us, anyhow," Ackers mused aloud.
Garth spoke the familiar argument. "Yes, but what about the local inhabitants?"
Too bad about the local inhabitants. Anyhow, the banished victim spent his energy and time trying to find a way back to the Sol System. If he got back before old age caught up with him he was readmitted by society. Quite a challenge . . . especially to some cosmopolite who had never set foot outside Greater New York. There were -- probably -- many involuntary expatriates cutting grain in odd fields with primitive sickles. The remote sections of the universe seemed composed mostly of dank rural cultures, isolated agrarian enclaves typified by small-time bartering of fruit and vegetables and handmade artifacts.
"Did you know," Ackers said, "that in the Age of Monarchs, a pickpocket was usually hanged?"
"Banish it," Garth continued monotonously, sinking back into his booth. The sign revolved; leaflets were passed out. And Ackers impatiently watched the late-evening street for sign of the hospital truck.
He knew Heimie Rosenburg. A sweeter little guy there never was. . . although Heimie had been mixed up in one of the sprawling slave combines that illegally transported settlers to outsystem fertile planets. Between them, the two largest slavers had settled virtually the entire Sirius System. Four out of six emigrants were hustled out in carriers registered as "freighters." It was hard to picture gentle little Heimie Rosenburg as a business agent for Tirol Enterprises, but there it was.
As he waited, Ackers conjectured on Heimie's murder. Probably one element of the incessant subterranean war going on between Paul Tirol and his major rival, David Lantano, was a brilliant and energetic newcomer . . . but murder was anybody's game. It all depended on how it was done; it could be commercial hack or the purest art.
"Here comes something," Garth's voice sounded, carried to his inner ear by the delicate output transformers of the booth's equipment. "Looks like a freezer."
It was; the hospital truck had arrived. Ackers stepped forward as the truck halted and the back was let down.
"How soon did you get there?" he asked the cop who jumped heavily to the pavement.
"Right away," the cop answered, "but no sign of the killer. I don't think we're going to get Heimie back . . . they got him dead-center, right in the cerebellum. Expert work, no amateur stuff."
Disappointed, Ackers clambered into the hospital truck to inspect for himself.
Very tiny and still, Heimie Rosenburg lay on his back, arms at his sides, gazing sightlessly up at the roof of the truck. On his face remained the expression of bewildered wonder. Somebody -- one of the cops -- had placed his bent glasses in his clenched hand. In falling he had cut his cheek. The destroyed portion of his skull was covered by a moist plastic web.
"Who's back at the apartment?" Ackers asked presently.
"The rest of my crew," the cop answered. "And an independent researcher. Leroy Beam."
"Him," Ackers said, with aversion. "How is it he showed up?"
"Caught the rattle, too, happened to be passing with his rig. Poor Heimie had an awful big booster on that rattle . . . I'm surprised it wasn't picked up here at the main offices."
"They say Heimie had a high anxiety level," Ackers said. "Bugs all over his apartment. You're starting to collect evidence?"
"The teams are moving in," the cop said. "We should begin getting specifications in half an hour. The killer knocked out the vid bug set up in the closet. But --" He grinned. "He cut himself breaking the circuit. A drop of blood, right on the wiring; it looks promising."
At the apartment, Leroy Beam watched the Interior police begin their analysis. They worked smoothly and thoroughly, but Beam was dissatisfied.
His original impression remained: he was suspicious. Nobody could have gotten away so quickly. Heimie had died, and his death -- the cessation of his neural pattern -- had triggered off an automatic squawk. A rattle didn't particularly protect its owner, but its existence ensured (or usually ensured) detection of the murderer. Why had it failed Heimie?
Prowling moodily, Leroy Beam entered the kitchen for the second time. There, on the floor by the sink, was a small portable TV unit, the kind popular with the sporting set: a gaudy little packet of plastic and knobs and multi-tinted lenses.
"Why this?" Beam asked, as one of the cops plodded past him. "This TV unit sitting here on the kitchen floor. It's out of place."
The cop ignored him. In the living room, elaborate police detection equipment was scraping the various surfaces inch by inch. In the half hour since Heimie's death, a number of specifications had been logged. First, the drop of blood on the damaged vid wiring. Second, a hazy heel mark where the murderer had stepped. Third, a bit of burnt match in the ashtray. More were expected; the analysis had only begun.
It usually took nine specifications to delineate the single individual. Leroy Beam glanced cautiously around him. None of the cops was watching, so he bent down and picked up the TV unit; it felt ordinary. He clicked the on switch and waited. Nothing happened; no image formed. Strange.
He was holding it upside down, trying to see the inner chassis, when Edward Ackers from Interior entered the apartment. Quickly, Beam stuffed the TV unit into the pocket of his heavy overcoat.
"What are you doing here?" Ackers said.
"Seeking," Beam answered, wondering if Ackers noticed his tubby bulge. "I'm in business, too."
"Did you know Heimie?"
"By reputation," Beam answered vaguely. "Tied in with Tirol's combine, I hear; some sort of front man. Had an office on Fifth Avenue."
"Swank place, like the rest of those Fifth Avenue feather merchants." Ackers went on into the living room to watch detectors gather up evidence.
There was a vast nearsightedness to the wedge grinding ponderously across the carpet. It was scrutinizing at a microscopic level, and its field was sharply curtailed. As fast as material was obtained, it was relayed to the Interior offices, to the aggregate file banks where the civil population was represented by a series of punch cards, cross-indexed infinitely.
Lifting the telephone, Ackers called his wife. "I won't be home," he told her. "Business."
A lag and then Ellen responded. "Oh?" she said distantly. "Well, thanks for letting me know."
Over in the corner, two members of the police crew were delightedly examining a new discovery, valid enough to be a specification. "I'll call you again," he said hurriedly to Ellen, "before I leave. Goodbye."
"Goodbye," Ellen said curtly, and managed to hang up before he did. The new discovery was the undamaged aud bug, which was mounted under the floor lamp. A continuous magnetic tape -- still in motion -- gleamed amiably; the murder episode had been recorded sound-wise in its entirety.
"Everything," a cop said gleefully to Ackers. "It was going before Heimie got home."
"You played it back?"
"A portion. There's a couple words spoken by the murderer, should be enough."
Ackers got in touch with Interior. "Have the specifications on the Rosenburg case been fed, yet?"
"Just the first," the attendant answered. "The file discriminates the usual massive category -- about six billion names."
Ten minutes later the second specification was fed to the files. Persons with type O blood, with size 11 1/2 shoes, numbered slightly over a billion. The third specification brought in the element of smoker-nonsmoker. That dropped the number to less than a billion, but not much less. Most adults smoked.
"The aud tape will drop it fast," Leroy Beam commented, standing beside Ackers, his arms folded to conceal his bulging coat. "Ought to be able to get age, at least."
The aud tape, analyzed, gave thirty to forty years as the conjectured age. And -- timbre analysis -- a man of perhaps two hundred pounds. A little later the bent steel window frame was examined, and the warp noted. It jibed with the specification of the aud tape. There were now six specifications, including that of sex (male). The number of persons in the in-group was falling rapidly.
"It won't be long," Ackers said genially. "And if he tacked one of those little buckets to the building side, we'll have a paint scrape."
Beam said: "I'm leaving. Good luck."
"Sorry." Beam moved toward the hall door. "This is yours, not mine. I've got my own business to attend to. . . I'm doing research for a hot-shot nonferrous mining concern."
Ackers eyed his coat. "Are you pregnant?"
"Not that I know of," Beam said, coloring. "I've led a good clean life." Awkwardly, he patted his coat. "You mean this?"
By the window, one of the police gave a triumphant yap. The two bits of pipe tobacco had been discovered: a refinement for the third specification. "Excellent," Ackers said, turning away from Beam and momentarily forgetting him.
Very shortly he was driving across town toward his own labs, the small and independent research outfit that he headed, unsupported by a government grant. Resting on the seat beside him was the portable TV unit; it was still silent.
"First of all," Beam's gowned technician declared, "it has a power supply approximately seventy times that of a portable TV pack. We picked up the Gamma radiation." He displayed the usual detector. "So you're right, it's not a TV set"
Gingerly, Beam lifted the small unit from the lab bench. Five hours had passed, and still he knew nothing about it. Taking firm hold of the back he pulled with all his strength. The back refused to come off. It wasn't stuck: there were no seams. The back was not a back; it only looked like a back.
"Then what is it?" he asked.
"Could be lots of things," the technician said noncommittally; he had been roused from the privacy of his home, and it was now two-thirty in the morning. "Could be some sort of scanning equipment. A bomb. A weapon. Any kind of gadget." Laboriously, Beam felt the unit all over, searching for a flaw in the surface. "It's uniform," he murmured. "A single surface."
"You bet. The breaks are false -- it's a poured substance. And," the technician added, "it's hard. I tried to chip off a representative sample but --" He gestured. "No results."
"Guaranteed not to shatter when dropped," Beam said absently. "New extra-tough plastic." He shook the unit energetically; the muted noise of metal parts in motion reached his ear. "It's full of guts."
"We'll get it open," the technician promised, "but not tonight."
Beam replaced the unit on the bench. He could, with bad luck, work days on this one item -- to discover, after all, that it had nothing to do with the murder of Heimie Rosenburg. On the other hand . . .
"Drill me a hole in it," he instructed. "So we can see it."
His technician protested: "I drilled; the drill broke. I've sent out for an improved density. This substance is imported; somebody hooked it from a white dwarf system. It was conceived under stupendous pressure."
"You're stalling," Beam said, irritated. "That's how they talk in the advertising media."
The technician shrugged. "Anyhow, it's extra hard. A naturally-evolved element, or an artificially-processed product from somebody's labs. Who has funds to develop a metal like this?"
"One of the big slavers," Beam said. "That's where the wealth winds up. And they hop around to various systems . . . they'd have access to raw materials. Special ores."
"Can't I go home?" the technician asked. "What's so important about this?"
"This device either killed or helped kill Heimie Rosenburg. We'll sit here, you and I, until we get it open." Beam seated himself and began examining the check sheet showing which tests had been applied. "Sooner or later it'll fly open like a clam -- if you can remember that far back."
Behind them, a warning bell sounded.
"Somebody in the anteroom," Beam said, surprised and wary. "At two-thirty?" He got up and made his way down the dark hall to the front of the building. Probably it was Ackers. His conscience stirred guiltily: somebody had logged the absence of the TV unit.
But it was not Ackers.
Waiting humbly in the cold, deserted anteroom was Paul Tirol; with him was an attractive young woman unknown to Beam. Tirol's wrinkled face broke into smiles, and he extended a hearty hand. "Beam," he said. They shook. "Your front door said you were down here. Still working?"
Guardedly, wondering who the woman was and what Tirol wanted, Beam said: "Catching up on some slipshod errors. Whole firm's going broke."
Tirol laughed indulgently. "Always a japer." His deep-set eyes darted; Tirol was a powerfully-built person, older than most, with a somber, intensely-creased face. "Have room for a few contracts? I thought I might slip a few jobs your way. . . if you're open."
"I'm always open," Beam countered, blocking Tirol's view of the lab proper. The door, anyhow, had slid itself shut. Tirol had been Heimie's boss . . . he no doubt felt entitled to all extant information on the murder. Who did it? When? How? Why? But that didn't explain why he was here.
"Terrible thing," Tirol said crudely. He made no move to introduce the woman; she had retired to the couch to light a cigarette. She was slender, with mahogany-colored hair; she wore a blue coat, and a kerchief tied around her head.
"Yes," Beam agreed. "Terrible."
"You were there, I understand."
That explained some of it. "Well," Beam conceded, "I showed up."
"But you didn't actually see it?"
"No," Beam admitted, "nobody saw it. Interior is collecting specification material. They should have it down to one card before morning."
Visibly, Tirol relaxed. "I'm glad of that. I'd hate to see the vicious criminal escape. Banishment's too good for him. He ought to be gassed."
"Barbarism," Beam murmured dryly. "The days of the gas chamber. Medieval."
Tirol peered past him. "You're working on --" Now he was overtly beginning to pry. "Come now, Leroy. Heimie Rosenburg -- God bless his soul -- was killed tonight and tonight I find you burning the midnight oil. You can talk openly with me; you've got something relevant to his death, haven't you?"
"That's Ackers you're thinking of."
Tirol chuckled. "Can I take a look?"
"Not until you start paying me; I'm not on your books yet."
In a strained, unnatural voice, Tirol bleated: "I want it."
Puzzled, Beam said: "You want what?"
With a grotesque shudder, Tirol blundered forward, shoved Beam aside, and groped for the door. The door flew open and Tirol started noisily down the dark corridor, feeling his way by instinct toward the research labs.
"Hey!" Beam shouted, outraged. He sprinted after the older man, reached the inner door, and prepared to fight it out. He was shaking, partly with amazement, partly with anger. "What the hell?" he demanded breathlessly. "You don't own me!"
Behind him the door mysteriously gave way. Foolishly, he sprawled backward, half-falling into the lab. There, stricken with helpless paralysis, was his technician. And, coming across the floor of the lab was something small and metallic. It looked like an oversized box of crackers, and it was going lickety-split toward Tirol. The object -- metal and gleaming -- hopped up into Tirol's arms, and the old man turned and lumbered back up the hall to the anteroom.
"What was it?" the technician said, coming to life.
Ignoring him, Beam hurried after Tirol. "He's got it!" he yelled futilely.
"It --" the technician mumbled. "It was the TV set. And it ran."
The file banks at Interior were in agitated flux.
The process of creating a more and more restricted category was tedious, and it took time. Most of the Interior staff had gone home to bed; it was almost three in the morning, and the corridors and offices were deserted. A few mechanical cleaning devices crept here and there in the darkness. The sole source of life was the study chamber of the file banks. Edward Ackers sat patiently waiting for the results, waiting for specifications to come in, and for the file machinery to process them.
To his right a few Interior police played a benign lottery and waited stoically to be sent out for the pick-up. The lines of communication to Heimie Rosenburg's apartment buzzed ceaselessly. Down the street, along the bleak sidewalk, Harvey Garth was still at his propaganda booth, still flashing his BANISH IT! sign and muttering in people's ears. There were virtually no passersby, now, but Garth went on. He was tireless; he never gave up.
"Psychopath," Ackers said resentfully. Even where he sat, six floors up, the tinny, carping voice reached his middle ear.
"Take him in," one of the game-playing cops suggested. The game, intricate and devious, was a version of a Centaurian III practice. "We can revoke his vendor's license."
Ackers had, when there was nothing else to do, concocted and refined an indictment of Garth, a sort of lay analysis of the man's mental aberrations. He enjoyed playing the psychoanalytic game; it gave him a sense of power.
Ackers let the sentence go, since he didn't really know what the structure of the manic type was. Anyhow, the analysis was excellent, and someday it would be resting in an official slot instead of merely drifting through his mind. And, when that happened, the annoying voice would conclude.
"Big turmoil," Garth droned. "Banishment system in vast upheaval. . . crisis moment has arrived."
"Why crisis?" Ackers asked aloud.
Down below on the pavement Garth responded. "All your machines are humming. Grand excitement reigns. Somebody's head will be in the basket before sun-up." His voice trailed off in a weary blur. "Intrigue and murder. Corpses . . . the police scurry and a beautiful woman lurks." To his analysis Ackers added an amplifying clause.
That pleased him. Ackers got up and wandered over to the attendant operating the file. "How's it coming?" he asked.
"Here's the situation," the attendant said. There was a line of gray stubble smeared over his chin, and he was bleary-eyed. "We're gradually paring it down."
Ackers, as he resumed his seat, wished he were back in the days of the almighty fingerprint. But a print hadn't shown up in months; a thousand techniques existed for print-removal and print alteration. There was no single specification capable, in itself, of delineating the individual. A composite was needed, a gestalt of the assembled data.
1) blood sample (type O) 6,139,481,601
2) shoe size (11 1/2) 1,268,303,431
3) smoker 791,992,386
3a) smoker (pipe) 52,774,853
4) sex (male) 26,449,094
5) age (30-40 years) 9,221,397
6) weight (200 lbs) 488,290
7) fabric of clothing 17,459
8) hair variety 866
9) ownership of utilized weapon 40
A vivid picture was emerging from the data. Ackers could see him clearly. The man was practically standing there, in front of his desk. A fairly young man, somewhat heavy, a man who smoked a pipe and wore an extremely expensive tweed suit. An individual created by nine specifications; no tenth had been listed because no more data of specification level had been found.
Now, according to the report, the apartment had been thoroughly searched. The detection equipment was going outdoors.
"One more should do it," Ackers said, returning the report to the attendant. He wondered if it would come in and how long it would take.
To waste time he telephoned his wife, but instead of getting Ellen he got the automatic response circuit. "Yes, sir," it told him. "Mrs. Ackers has retired for the night. You may state a thirty-second message which will be transcribed for her attention tomorrow morning. Thank you."
Ackers raged at the mechanism futilely and then hung up. He wondered if Ellen were really in bed; maybe she had, as often before, slipped out. But, after all, it was almost three o'clock in the morning. Any sane person would be asleep: only he and Garth were still at their little stations, performing their vital duties.
What had Garth meant by a "beautiful woman"?
"Mr. Ackers," the attendant said, "there's a tenth specification coming in over the wires."
Hopefully, Ackers gazed up at the file bank. He could see nothing, of course; the actual mechanism occupied the underground levels of the building, and all that existed here was the input receptors and throw-out slots. But just looking at the machinery was in itself comforting. At this moment the bank was accepting the tenth piece of material. In a moment he would know how many citizens fell into the ten categories . . . he would know if already he had a group small enough to be sorted one by one.
"Here it is," the attendant said, pushing the report to him.
Type of utilized vehicle (color) 7
"My God," Ackers said mildly. "That's low enough. Seven persons -- we can go to work."
"You want the seven cards popped?"
"Pop them," Ackers said.
A moment later, the throw-out slot deposited seven neat white cards in the tray. The attendant passed them to Ackers and he quickly riffled them. The next step was personal motive and proximity: items that had to be gotten from the suspects themselves.
Of the seven names six meant nothing to him. Two lived on Venus, one in the Centaurus System, one was somewhere in Sirius, one was in the hospital, and one lived in the Soviet Union. The seventh, however, lived within a few miles, on the outskirts of New York.
That clinched it. The gestalt, in Ackers' mind, locked clearly in place; the image hardened to reality. He had half expected, even prayed to see Lantano's card brought up.
"Here's your pick-up," he said shakily to the game-playing cops. "Better get as large a team together as possible, this one won't be easy." Momentously, he added: "Maybe I'd better come along."
Beam reached the anteroom of his lab as the ancient figure of Paul Tirol disappeared out the street door and onto the dark sidewalk. The young woman, trotting ahead of him, had climbed into a parked car and started it forward; as Tirol emerged, she swept him up and at once departed.
Panting, Beam stood impotently collecting himself on the deserted pavement. The ersatz TV unit was gone; now he had nothing. Aimlessly, he began to run down the street. His heels echoed loudly in the cold silence. No sign of them; no sign of anything.
"I'll be damned," he said, with almost religious awe. The unit -- a robot device of obvious complexity -- clearly belonged to Paul Tirol; as soon as it had identified his presence it had sprinted gladly to him. For. . . protection?
It had killed Heimie; and it belonged to Tirol. So, by a novel and indirect method, Tirol had murdered his employee, his Fifth Avenue front man. At a rough guess, such a highly-organized robot would cost in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars.
A lot of money, considering that murder was the easiest of criminal acts. Why not hire an itinerant goon with a crowbar?
Beam started slowly back toward his lab. Then, abruptly, he changed his mind and turned in the direction of the business area. When a free-wheeling cab came by, he hailed it and clambered in.
"Where to, sport?" the starter at cab relay asked. City cabs were guided by remote control from one central source.
He gave the name of a specific bar. Settling back against the seat he pondered. Anybody could commit a murder; an expensive, complicated machine wasn't necessary.
The machine had been built to do something else. The murder of Heimie Rosenburg was incidental.
Against the nocturnal skyline, a huge stone residence loomed. Ackers inspected it from a distance. There were no lights burning; everything was locked up tight. Spread out before the house was an acre of grass. David Lantano was probably the last person on Earth to own an acre of grass outright; it was less expensive to buy an entire planet in some other system.
"Let's go," Ackers commanded; disgusted by such opulence, he deliberately trampled through a bed of roses on his way up the wide porch steps. Behind him flowed the team of shock-police.
"Gosh," Lantano rumbled, when he had been roused from his bed. He was a kindly-looking, rather youthful fat man, wearing now an abundant silk dressing robe. He would have seemed more in place as director of a boys' summer camp; there was an expression of perpetual good humor on his soft, sagging face. "What's wrong, officer?"
Ackers loathed being called officer. "You're under arrest," he stated.
"Me?" Lantano echoed feebly. "Hey, officer, I've got lawyers to take care of these things." He yawned voluminously. "Care for some coffee?" Stupidly, he began puttering around his front room, fixing a pot.
It had been years since Ackers had splurged and bought himself a cup of coffee. With Terran land covered by dense industrial and residential installations there was no room for crops, and coffee had refused to "take" in any other system. Lantano probably grew his somewhere on an illicit plantation in South America -- the pickers probably believed they had been transported to some remote colony.
"No thanks," Ackers said. "Let's get going."
Still dazed, Lantano plopped himself down in an easy chair and regarded Ackers with alarm. "You're serious." Gradually his expression faded; he seemed to be drifting back to sleep. "Who?" he murmured distantly.
"No kidding." Lantano shook his head listlessly. "I always wanted him in my company. Heimie's got real charm. Had, I mean."
It made Ackers nervous to remain here in the vast lush mansion. The coffee was heating, and the smell of it tickled his nose. And, heaven forbid -- there on the table was a basket of apricots.
"Peaches," Lantano corrected, noticing his fixed stare. "Help yourself."
"Where -- did you get them?"
Lantano shrugged. "Synthetic dome. Hydroponics. I forget where . . . I don't have a technical mind."
"You know what the fine is for possessing natural fruit?"
"Look," Lantano said earnestly, clasping his mushy hands together. "Give me the details on this affair, and I'll prove to you I had nothing to do with it. Come on, officer."
"Ackers," Ackers said.
"Okay, Ackers. I thought I recognized you, but I wasn't sure; didn't want to make a fool of myself. When was Heimie killed?"
Grudgingly, Ackers gave him the pertinent information.
For a time Lantano was silent. Then, slowly, gravely, he said: "You better look at those seven cards again. One of those fellows isn't in the Sirius System . . . he's back here."
Ackers calculated the chances of successfully banishing a man of David Lantano's importance. His organization -- Interplay Export -- had fingers all over the galaxy; there'd be search crews going out like bees. But nobody went out banishment distance. The condemned, temporarily ionized, rendered in terms of charged particles of energy, radiated outward at the velocity of light. This was an experimental technique that had failed; it worked only one way.
"Consider," Lantano said thoughtfully. "If I was going to kill Heimie -- would I do it myself? You're not being logical, Ackers. I'd send somebody." He pointed a fleshy finger at Ackers. "You imagine I'd risk my own life? I know you pick up everybody . . . you usually turn up enough specifications."
"We have ten on you," Ackers said briskly.
"So you're going to banish me?"
"If you're guilty, you'll have to face banishment like anyone else. Your particular prestige has no bearing."
Nettled, Ackers added, "Obviously, you'll be released. You'll have plenty of opportunity to prove your innocence; you can question each of the ten specifications in turn."
He started to go on and describe the general process of court procedure employed in the twenty-first century, but something made him pause. David Lantano and his chair seemed to be gradually sinking into the floor. Was it an illusion? Blinking, Ackers rubbed his eyes and peered. At the same time, one of the policemen yelped a warning of dismay; Lantano was quietly leaving them.
"Come back!" Ackers demanded; he leaped forward and grabbed hold of the chair. Hurriedly, one of his men shorted out the power supply of the building; the chair ceased descending and groaned to a halt. Only Lantano's head was visible above the floor level. He was almost entirely submerged in a concealed escape shaft.
"What seedy, useless -- " Ackers began.
"I know," Lantano admitted, making no move to drag himself up. He seemed resigned; his mind was again off in clouds of contemplation. "I hope we can clear all this up. Evidently I'm being framed. Tirol got somebody who looks like me, somebody to go in and murder Heimie."
Ackers and the police crew helped him up from his depressed chair. He gave no resistance; he was too deep in his brooding.
The cab let Leroy Beam off in front of the bar. To his right, in the next block, was the Interior Building. . . and, on the sidewalk, the opaque blob that was Harvey Garth's propaganda booth.
Entering the bar, Beam found a table in the back and seated himself. Already he could pick up the faint, distorted murmur of Garth's reflections. Garth, speaking to himself in a directionless blur, was not yet aware of him.
"Banish it," Garth was saying. "Banish all of them. Bunch of crooks and thieves." Garth, in the miasma of his booth, was rambling vitriolically.
"What's going on?" Beam asked. "What's the latest?"
Garth's monologue broke off as he focussed his attention on Beam. "You in there? In the bar?"
"I want to find out about Heimie's death."
"Yes," Garth said. "He's dead; the files are moving, kicking out cards."
"When I left Heimie's apartment," Beam said, "they had turned up six specifications." He punched a button on the drink selector and dropped in a token.
"That must have been earlier," Garth said; "they've got more."
"Ten in all."
Ten. That was usually enough. And all ten of them laid out by a robot device . . . a little procession of hints strewn along its path: between the concrete side of the building and the dead body of Heimie Rosenburg.
"That's lucky," he said speculatively. "Helps out Ackers."
"Since you're paying me," Garth said, "I'll tell you the rest. They've already gone out on their pick-up: Ackers went along."
Then the device had been successful. Up to a point, at least. He was sure of one thing: the device should have been out of the apartment. Tirol hadn't known about Heimie's death rattle; Heimie had been wise enough to do the installation privately.
Had the rattle not brought persons into the apartment, the device would have scuttled out and returned to Tirol. Then, no doubt, Tirol would have detonated it. Nothing would remain to indicate that a machine could lay down a trail of synthetic clues: blood type, fabric, pipe tobacco, hair... all the rest, and all spurious.
"Who's the pick-up on?" Beam asked.
Beam winced. "Naturally. That's what the whole thing's about; he's being framed!"
Garth was indifferent; he was a hired employee, stationed by the pool of independent researchers to siphon information from the Interior Department. He had no actual interest in politics; his Banish It! was sheer window-dressing.
"I know it's a frame," Beam said, "and so does Lantano. But neither of us can prove it. . . unless Lantano has an absolutely airtight alibi."
"Banish it," Garth murmured, reverting to his routine. A small group of late-retiring citizens had strolled past his booth, and he was masking his conversation with Beam. The conversation, directed to the one listener, was inaudible to everyone else; but it was better not to take risks. Sometimes, very close to the booth, there was an audible feedback of the signal.
Hunched over his drink, Leroy Beam contemplated the various items he could try. He could inform Lantano's organization, which existed relatively intact. . . but the result would be epic civil war. And, in addition, he didn't really care if Lantano was framed; it was all the same to him. Sooner or later one of the big slavers had to absorb the other: cartel is the natural conclusion of big business. With Lantano gone, Tirol would painlessly swallow his organization; everybody would be working at his desk as always.
On the other hand, there might someday be a device -- now half-completed in Tirol's basement -- that left a trail of Leroy Beam clues. Once the idea caught on, there was no particular end.
"And I had the damn thing," he said fruitlessly. "I hammered on it for five hours. It was a TV unit, then, but it was still the device that killed Heimie."
"You're positive it's gone?"
"It's not only gone -- it's out of existence. Unless she wrecked the car driving Tirol home."
"She?" Garth asked.
"The woman." Beam pondered. "She saw it. Or she knew about it; she was with him." But, unfortunately, he had no idea who the woman might be.
"What'd she look like?" Garth asked.
"Tall, mahogany hair. Very nervous mouth."
"I didn't realize she was working with him openly. They must have really needed the device." Garth added: "You didn't identify her? I guess there's no reason why you should; she's kept out of sight."
"Who is she?"
"That's Ellen Ackers."
Beam laughed sharply. "And she's driving Paul Tirol around?"
"She's -- well, she's driving Tirol around, yes. You can put it that way."
"I thought you were in on it. She and Ackers split up; that was last year. But he wouldn't let her leave; he wouldn't give her a divorce. Afraid of the publicity. Very important to keep up respectability. . . keep the shirt fully stuffed."
"He knows about Paul Tirol and her?"
"Of course not. He knows she's -- spiritually hooked up. But he doesn't care . . . as long as she keeps it quiet. It's his position he's thinking about."
"If Ackers found out," Beam murmured. "If he saw the link between his wife and Tirol. . . he'd ignore his ten interoffice memos. He'd want to haul in Tirol. The hell with the evidence; he could always collect that later." Beam pushed away his drink; the glass was empty anyhow. "Where is Ackers?"
"I told you. Out at Lantano's place, picking him up."
"He'd come back here? He wouldn't go home?"
"Naturally he'd come back here." Garth was silent a moment. "I see a couple of Interior vans turning into the garage ramp. That's probably the pick-up crew returning."
Beam waited tensely. "Is Ackers along?"
"Yes, he's there. Banish It!" Garth's voice rose in stentorian frenzy. "Banish the system of Banishment! Root out the crooks and pirates!"
Sliding to his feet, Beam left the bar.
A dull light showed in the rear of Edward Ackers' apartment: probably the kitchen light. The front door was locked. Standing in the carpeted hallway, Beam skillfully tilted with the door mechanism. It was geared to respond to specific neural patterns: those of its owners and a limited circle of friends. For him there was no activity.
Kneeling down, Beam switched on a pocket oscillator and started sine wave emission. Gradually, he increased the frequency. At perhaps 150,000 cps the lock guiltily clicked; that was all he needed. Switching the oscillator off, he rummaged through his supply of skeleton patterns until he located the closet cylinder. Slipped into the turret of the oscillator, the cylinder emitted a synthetic neural pattern close enough to the real thing to affect the lock.
The door swung open. Beam entered.
In half-darkness the living room seemed modest and tasteful. Ellen Ackers was an adequate housekeeper. Beam listened. Was she home at all? And if so, where? Awake? Asleep?
He peeped into the bedroom. There was the bed, but nobody was in it.
If she wasn't here she was at Tirol's. But he didn't intend to follow her; this was as far as he cared to risk.
He inspected the dining room. Empty. The kitchen was empty, too. Next came an upholstered general-purpose rumpus room; on one side was a gaudy bar and on the other a wall-to-wall couch. Tossed on the couch was a woman's coat, purse, gloves. Familiar clothes: Ellen Ackers had worn them. So she had come here after leaving his research lab.
The only room left was the bathroom. He fumbled with the knob; it was locked from the inside. There was no sound, but somebody was on the other side of the door. He could sense her in there.
"Ellen," he said, against the panelling. "Mrs. Ellen Ackers; is that you?"
No answer. He could sense her not making any sound at all: a stifled, frantic silence.
While he was kneeling down, fooling with his pocketful of magnetic lock-pullers, an explosive pellet burst through the door at head level and splattered into the plaster of the wall beyond.
Instantly the door flew open; there stood Ellen Ackers, her face distorted with fright. One of her husband's government pistols was clenched in her small, bony hand. She was less than a foot from him. Without getting up, Beam grabbed her wrist; she fired over his head, and then the two of them deteriorated into harsh, labored breathing.
"Come on," Beam managed finally. The nozzle of the gun was literally brushing the top of his head. To kill him, she would have to pull the pistol back against her. But he didn't let her; he kept hold of her wrist until finally, reluctantly, she dropped the gun. It clattered to the floor and he got stiffly up.
"You were sitting down," she whispered, in a stricken, accusing voice.
"Kneeling down: picking the lock. I'm glad you aimed for my brain." He picked up the gun and succeeded in getting it into his overcoat pocket; his hands were shaking.
Ellen Ackers gazed at him starkly; her eyes were huge and dark, and her face was an ugly white. Her skin had a dead cast, as if it were artificial, totally dry, thoroughly sifted with talc. She seemed on the verge of hysteria; a harsh, muffled shudder struggled up inside her, lodging finally in her throat. She tried to speak but only a rasping noise came out.
"Gee, lady," Beam said, embarrassed. "Come in the kitchen and sit down."
She stared at him as if he had said something incredible or obscene or miraculous; he wasn't sure which.
"Come on." He tried to take hold of her arm but she jerked frantically away. She had on a simple green suit, and in it she looked very nice; a little too thin and terribly tense, but still attractive. She had on expensive earrings, an imported stone that seemed always in motion . . . but otherwise her outfit was austere.
"You -- were the man at the lab," she managed, in a brittle, choked voice.
"I'm Leroy Beam. An independent." Awkwardly guiding her, he led her into the kitchen and seated her at the table. She folded her hands in front of her and studied them fixedly; the bleak boniness of her face seemed to be increasing rather than receding. He felt uneasy.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Cup of coffee?" He began searching the cupboards for a bottle of Venusian-grown coffee substitute. While he was looking, Ellen Ackers said tautiy: "You better go in there. In the bathroom. I don't think he's dead, but he might be."
Beam raced into the bathroom. Behind the plastic shower curtain was an opaque shape. It was Paul Tirol, lying wadded up in the tub, fully clothed. He was not dead but he had been struck behind the left ear and his scalp was leaking a slow, steady trickle of blood. Beam took his pulse, listened to his breathing, and then straightened up.
At the doorway Ellen Ackers materialized, still pale with fright. "Is he? Did I kill him?"
Visibly, she relaxed. "Thank God. It happened so fast -- he stepped ahead of me to take the M inside his place, and then I did it. I hit him as lightly as I could. He was so interested in it. . . he forgot about me." Words spilled from her, quick, jerky sentences, punctuated by rigid tremors of her hands. "I lugged him back in the car and drove here; it was all I could think of."
"What are you in this for?"
Her hysteria rose in a spasm of convulsive muscle-twitching. "It was all planned -- I had everything worked out. As soon as I got hold of it I was going to --" She broke off.
"Blackmail Tirol?" he asked, fascinated.
She smiled weakly. "No, not Paul. It was Paul who gave me the idea . . . it was his first idea, when his researchers showed him the thing. The M, he calls it. M stands for machine. He means it can't be educated, morally corrected."
Incredulous, Beam said: "You were going to blackmail your husband."
Ellen Ackers nodded. "So he'd let me leave."
Suddenly Beam felt sincere respect for her. "My God -- the rattle. Heimie didn't arrange that; you did. So the device would be trapped in the apartment."
"Yes," she agreed. "I was going to pick it up. But Paul showed up with other ideas; he wanted it, too."
"What went haywire? You have it, don't you?"
Silently she indicated the linen closet. "I stuffed it away when I heard you."
Beam opened the linen closet. Resting primly on the neatly-folded towels was a small, familiar, portable TV unit.
"It's reverted," Ellen said, from behind him, in an utterly defeated monotone. "As soon as I hit Paul it changed. For half an hour I've been trying to get it to shift. It won't. It'll stay that way forever."
Beam went to the telephone and called a doctor. In the bathroom, Tirol groaned and feebly thrashed his arms. He was beginning to return to consciousness.
"Was that necessary?" Ellen Ackers demanded. "The doctor -- did you have to call?"
Beam ignored her. Bending, he lifted the portable TV unit and held it in his hands; he felt its weight move up his arms like a slow, leaden fatigue. The ultimate adversary, he thought; too stupid to be defeated. It was worse than an animal. It was a rock, solid and dense, lacking all qualities. Except, he thought, the quality of determination. It was determined to persist, to survive; a rock with will. He felt as if he were holding up the universe, and he put the unreconstructed M down.
From behind him Ellen said: "It drives you crazy." Her voice had regained tone. She lit a cigarette with a silver cigarette lighter and then shoved her hands in the pockets of her suit.
"Yes," he said.
"There's nothing you can do, is there? You tried to get it open before. They'll patch Paul up, and he'll go back to his place, and Lantano will be banished --" She took a deep shuddering breath. "And the Interior Department will go on as always."
"Yes," he said. Still kneeling, he surveyed the M. Now, with what he knew, he did not waste time struggling with it. He considered it impassively; he did not even bother to touch it.
In the bathroom, Paul Tirol was trying to crawl from the tub. He slipped back, cursed and moaned, and started his laborious ascent once again.
"Ellen?" his voice quavered, a dim and distorted sound, like dry wires rubbing.
"Take it easy," she said between her teeth; not moving she stood smoking rapidly on her cigarette.
"Help me, Ellen," Tirol muttered. "Something happened to me . . . I don't remember what. Something hit me."
"He'll remember," Ellen said.
Beam said: "I can take this thing to Ackers as it is. You can tell him what it's for -- what it did. That ought to be enough; he won't go through with Lantano."
But he didn't believe it, either. Ackers would have to admit a mistake, a basic mistake, and if he had been wrong to pick up Lantano, he was ruined. And so, in a sense, was the whole system of delineation. It could be fooled; it had been fooled. Ackers was rigid, and he would go right on in a straight line: the hell with Lantano. The hell with abstract justice. Better to preserve cultural continuity and keep society running on an even keel.
"Tirol's equipment," Beam said. "Do you know where it is?"
She shrugged wildly. "What equipment?"
"This thing -- " he jabbed at the M -- "was made somewhere."
"Not here, Tirol didn't make it."
"All right," he said reasonably. They had perhaps six minutes more before the doctor and the emergency medical carrier arrived on rooftop. "Who did make it?"
"The alloy was developed on Bellatrix." She spoke jerkily, word by word. "The rind . . . forms a skin on the outside, a bubble that gets sucked in and out of a reservoir. That's its rind, the TV shape. It sucks it back and becomes the M; it's ready to act."
"What made it?" he repeated.
"A Bellatrix machine tool syndicate . . . a subsidiary of Tirol's organization. They're made to be watchdogs. The big plantations on outplanets use them; they patrol. They get poachers."
Beam said: "Then originally they're not set for one person."
"Then who set this for Heimie? Not a machine tool syndicate."
"That was done here."
He straightened up and lifted the portable TV unit. "Let's go. Take me there, where Tirol had it altered."
For a moment the woman did not respond. Grabbing her arm he hustled her to the door. She gasped and stared at him mutely.
"Come on," he said, pushing her out into the hall. The portable TV unit bumped against the door as he shut it; he held the unit tight and followed after Ellen Ackers.
The town was slatternly and run-down, a few retail stores, fuel station, bars and dance halls. It was two hours' flight from Greater New York and it was called Olum.
"Turn right," Ellen said listlessly. She gazed out at the neon signs and rested her arm on the window sill of the ship.
They flew above warehouses and deserted streets. Lights were few. At an intersection Ellen nodded and he set the ship down on a roof.
Below them was a sagging, fly-specked wooden frame store. A peeling sign was propped up in the window: FULTON BROTHERS LOCKSMITHS. With the sign were doorknobs, locks, keys, saws, and spring-wound alarm clocks. Somewhere in the interior of the store a yellow night light burned fitfully.
"This way," Ellen said. She stepped from the ship and made her way down a flight of rickety wooden stairs. Beam laid the portable TV unit on the floor of the ship, locked the doors, and then followed after the woman. Holding onto the railing, he descended to a back porch on which were trash cans and a pile of sodden newspapers tied with string. Ellen was unlocking a door and feeling her way inside.
First he found himself in a musty, cramped storeroom. Pipe and rolls of wire and sheets of metal were heaped everywhere; it was like a junkyard. Next came a narrow corridor and then he was standing in the entrance of a workshop. Ellen reached overhead and groped to find the hanging string of a light. The light clicked on. To the right was a long and littered workbench with a hand grinder at one end, a vise, a keyhole saw; two wooden stools were before the bench and half-assembled machinery was stacked on the floor in no apparent order. The workshop was chaotic, dusty, and archaic. On the wall was a threadbare blue coat hung from a nail: the workcoat of a machinist.
"Here," Ellen said, with bitterness. "This is where Paul had it brought. This outfit is owned by the Tirol organization; this whole slum is part of their holdings."
Beam walked to the bench. "To have altered it," he said, "Tirol must have had a plate of Heimie's neural pattern." He overturned a heap of glass jars; screws and washers poured onto the pitted surface of the bench.
"He got it from Heimie's door," Ellen said. "He had Heimie's lock analyzed and Heimie's pattern inferred from the setting of the tumblers."
"And he had the M opened?"
"There's an old mechanic," Ellen said. "A little dried-up old man; he runs this shop. Patrick Fulton. He installed the bias on the M."
"A bias," Beam said, nodding.
"A bias against killing people. Heimie was the exception, for everybody else it took its protective form. Out in the wilds they would have set it for something else, not a TV unit." She laughed, a sudden ripple close to hysteria. "Yes, that would have looked odd, it sitting out in a forest somewhere, a TV unit. They would have made it into a rock or a stick."
"A rock," Beam said. He could imagine it. The M waiting, covered with moss, waiting for months, years, and then weathered and corroded, finally picking up the presence of a human being. Then the M ceasing to be a rock, becoming, in a quick blur of motion, a box one foot wide and two feet long. An oversized cracker box that started forward --
But there was something missing. "The fakery," he said. "Emitting flakes of paint and hair and tobacco. How did that come in?"
In a brittle voice Ellen said: "The landowner murdered the poacher, and he was culpable in the eyes of the law. So the M left clues. Claw marks. Animal blood. Animal hair."
"God," he said, revolted. "Killed by an animal."
"A bear, a wildcat -- whatever was indigenous, it varied. The predator of the region, a natural death." With her toe she touched a cardboard carton under the workbench. "It's in there, it used to be, anyhow. The neural plate, the transmitter, the discarded parts of the M, the schematics."
The carton had been a shipping container for power packs. Now the packs were gone, and in their place was a carefully-wrapped inner box, sealed against moisture and insect infestation. Beam tore away the metal foil and saw that he had found what he wanted. He gingerly carried the contents out and spread them on the workbench among the soldering irons and drills.
"It's all there," Ellen said, without emotion.
"Maybe," he said, "I can leave you out of this. I can take this and the TV unit to Ackers and try it without your testimony."
"Sure," she said wearily.
"What are you going to do?"
"Well," she said, "I can't go back to Paul, so I guess there's not much I can do."
"The blackmail bit was a mistake," he said.
Her eyes glowed. "Okay."
"If he releases Lantano," Beam said, "he'll be asked to resign. Then he'll probably give you your divorce, it won't be important to him one way or another."
"I --" she began. And then she stopped. Her face seemed to fade, as if the color and texture of her flesh was vanishing from within. She lifted one hand and half-turned, her mouth open and the sentence still unfinished.
Beam, reaching, slapped the overhead light out; the workroom winked into darkness. He had heard it too, had heard it at the same time as Ellen Ackers. The rickety outside porch had creaked and now the slow, ponderous motion was past the storeroom and into the hall.
A heavy man, he thought. A slow-moving man, sleepy, making his way step by step, his eyes almost shut, his great body sagging beneath his suit. Beneath, he thought, his expensive tweed suit. In the darkness the man's shape was looming; Beam could not see it but he could sense it there, filling up the doorway as it halted. Boards creaked under its weight. In a daze he wondered if Ackers already knew, if his order had already been rescinded. Or had the man got out on his own, worked through his own organization?
The man, starting forward again, spoke in a deep, husky voice. "Ugh," Lantano said. "Damn it."
Ellen began to shriek. Beam still did not realize what it was; he was still fumbling for the light and wondering stupidly why it did not come on. He had smashed the bulb, he realized. He lit a match; the match went out and he grabbed for Ellen Ackers' cigarette lighter. It was in her purse, and it took him an agonized second to get it out.
The unreconstructed M was approaching them slowly, one receptor stalk extended. Again it halted, swiveled to the left until it was facing the workbench. It was not now in the shape of a portable TV unit; it had retaken its cracker-box shape.
"The plate," Ellen Ackers whispered. "It responded to the plate."
The M had been roused by Heimie Rosenburg's looking for it. But Beam still felt the presence of David Lantano. The big man was still here in the room; the sense of heaviness, the proximity of weight and ponderousness had arrived with the machine, as it moved, sketching Lantano's existence. As he fixedly watched, the machine produced a fragment of cloth fabric and pressed it into a nearby heap of grid-mesh. Other elements, blood and tobacco and hair, were being produced, but they were too small for him to see. The machine pressed a heel mark into the dust of the floor and then projected a nozzle from its anterior section.
Her arm over her eyes, Ellen Ackers ran away. But the machine was not interested in her; revolving in the direction of the workbench it raised itself and fired. An explosive pellet, released by the nozzle, traveled across the workbench and entered the debris heaped across the bench. The pellet detonated; bits of wire and nails showered in particles.
Heimie's dead, Beam thought, and went on watching. The machine was searching for the plate, trying to locate and destroy the synthetic neural emission. It swiveled, lowered its nozzle hesitantly, and then fired again. Behind the workbench, the wall burst and settled into itself.
Beam, holding the cigarette lighter, walked toward the M. A receptor stalk waved toward him and the machine retreated. Its lines wavered, flowed, and then painfully reformed. For an interval, the device struggled with itself; then, reluctantly, the portable TV unit again became visible. From the machine a high-pitched whine emerged, an anguished squeal. Conflicting stimuli were present; the machine was unable to make a decision.
The machine was developing a situation neurosis and the ambivalence of its response was destroying it. In a way its anguish had a human quality, but he could not feel sorry for it. It was a mechanical contraption trying to assume a posture of disguise and attack at the same time; the breakdown was one of relays and tubes, not of a living brain. And it had been a living brain into which it had fired its original pellet. Heimie Rosenburg was dead, and there were no more like him and no possibility that more could be assembled. He went over to the machine and nudged it onto its back with his foot.
The machine whirred snake-like and spun away. "Ugh, damn it!" it said. It showered bits of tobacco as it rolled off; drops of blood and flakes of blue enamel fell from it as it disappeared into the corridor. Beam could hear it moving about, bumping into the walls like a blind, damaged organism. After a moment he followed after it.
In the corridor, the machine was traveling in a slow circle. It was erecting around itself a wall of particles: cloth and hairs and burnt matches and bits of tobacco, the mass cemented together with blood.
"Ugh, damn it," the machine said in its heavy masculine voice. It went on working, and Beam returned to the other room.
"Where's a phone?" he said to Ellen Ackers.
She stared at him vacantly.
"It won't hurt you," he said. He felt dull and worn-out. "It's in a closed cycle. It'll go on until it runs down."
"It went crazy," she said. She shuddered.
"No," he said. "Regression. It's trying to hide."
From the corridor the machine said, "Ugh. Damn it." Beam found the phone and called Edward Ackers.
Banishment for Paul Tirol meant first a procession of bands of darkness and then a protracted, infuriating interval in which empty matter drifted randomly around him, arranging itself into first one pattern and then another.
The period between the time Ellen Ackers attacked him and the time banishment sentence had been pronounced was vague and dim in his mind. Like the present shadows, it was hard to pin down.
He had -- he thought -- awakened in Ackers' apartment. Yes, that was it; and Leroy Beam was there, too. A sort of transcendental Leroy Beam who hovered robustly around, arranging everybody in configurations of his choice. A doctor had come. And finally Edward Ackers had shown up to face his wife and the situation.
Bandaged, and on his way into Interior, he had caught a glimpse of a man going out. The ponderous, bulbous shape of David Lantano, on his way home to his luxurious stone mansion and acre of grass.
At sight of him Tirol had felt a goad of fear. Lantano hadn't even noticed him; an acutely thoughtful expression on his face, Lantano padded into a waiting car and departed.
"You have one thousand dollars," Edward Ackers was saying wearily, during the final phase. Distorted, Ackers' face bloomed again in the drifting shadows around Tirol, an image of the man's last appearance. Ackers, too, was ruined, but in a different way. "The law supplies you with one thousand dollars to meet your immediate needs, also you'll find a pocket dictionary of representative out-system dialects."
Ionization itself was painless. He had no memory of it; only a blank space darker than the blurred images on either side.
"You hate me," he had declared accusingly, his last words to Ackers. "I destroyed you. But. . . it wasn't you." He had been confused. "Lantano. Maneuvered but not. How? You did . . ."
But Lantano had had nothing to do with it. Lantano had shambled off home, a withdrawn spectator throughout. The hell with Lantano. The hell with Ackers and Leroy Beam and -- reluctantly -- the hell with Mrs. Ellen Ackers.
"Wow," Tirol babbled, as his drifting body finally collected physical shape. "We had a lot of good times . . . didn't we, Ellen?"
And then a roaring hot field of sunlight was radiating down on him. Stupefied, he sat slumped over, limp and passive. Yellow, scalding sunlight. . . everywhere. Nothing but the dancing heat of it, blinding him, cowing him into submission.
He was sprawled in the middle of a yellow clay road. To his right was a baking, drying field of corn wilted in the midday heat. A pair of large, disreputable-looking birds wheeled silently overhead. A long way off was a line of blunted hills: ragged troughs and peaks that seemed nothing more than heaps of dust. At their base was a meager lump of man-made buildings.
At least he hoped they were man-made.
As he climbed shakily to his feet, a feeble noise drifted to his ears. Coming down the hot, dirty road was a car of some sort. Apprehensive and cautious, Tirol walked to meet it.
The driver was human, a thin, almost emaciated youth with pebbled black skin and a heavy mass of weed-colored hair. He wore a stained canvas shirt and overalls. A bent, unlit cigarette hung from his lower lip. The car was a combustion-driven model and had rolled out of the twentieth century; battered and twisted, it rattled to a halt as the driver critically inspected Tirol. From the car's radio yammered a torrent of tinny dance music.
"You a tax collector?" the driver asked.
"Certainly not," Tirol said, knowing the bucolic hostility toward tax collectors. But -- he floundered. He couldn't confess that he was a banished criminal from Earth; that was an invitation to be massacred, usually in some picturesque way. "I'm an inspector," he announced, "Department of Health."
Satisfied, the driver nodded. "Lots of scuttly cutbeede, these days. You fellows got a spray, yet? Losing one crop after another."
Tirol gratefully climbed into the car. "I didn't realize the sun was so hot," he murmured.
"You've got an accent," the youth observed, starting up the engine. "Where you from?"
"Speech impediment," Tirol said cagily. "How long before we reach town?"
"Oh, maybe an hour," the youth answered, as the car wandered lazily forward.
Tirol was afraid to ask the name of the planet. It would give him away. But he was consumed with the need to know. He might be two star-systems away or two million; he might be a month out of Earth or seventy years. Naturally, he had to get back; he had no intention of becoming a sharecropper on some backwater colony planet.
"Pretty swip," the youth said, indicating the torrent of noxious jazz pouring from the car radio. "That's Calamine Freddy and his Woolybear Creole Original Band. Know that tune?"
"No," Tirol muttered. The sun and dryness and heat made his head ache, and he wished to God he knew where he was.
The town was miserably tiny. The houses were dilapidated; the streets were dirt. A kind of domestic chicken roamed here and there, pecking in the rubbish. Under a porch a bluish quasi-dog lay sleeping. Perspiring and unhappy, Paul Tirol entered the bus station and located a schedule. A series of meaningless entries flashed by: names of towns. The name of the planet, of course, was not listed.
"What's the fare to the nearest port?" he asked the indolent official behind the ticket window.
The official considered. "Depends on what sort of port you want. Where you planning to go?"
"Toward Center," Tirol said. "Center" was the term used in out-systems for the Sol Group.
Dispassionately, the official shook his head. "No inter-system port around here."
Tirol was baffled. Evidently, he wasn't on the hub planet of this particular system. "Well," he said, "then the nearest interplan port."
The official consulted a vast reference book. "You want to go to which system-member?"
"Whichever one has the inter-system port," Tirol said patiently. He would leave from there.
"That would be Venus."
Astonished, Tirol said: "Then this system -- " He broke off, chagrined, as he remembered. It was the parochial custom in many out-systems, especially those a long way out, to name their member planets after the original nine. This one was probably called "Mars" or "Jupiter" or "Earth," depending on its position in the group. "Fine," Tirol finished. "One-way ticket to -- Venus."
Venus, or what passed for Venus, was a dismal orb no larger than an asteroid. A bleak cloud of metallic haze hung over it, obscuring the sun. Except for mining and smelting operations the planet was deserted. A few dreary shacks dotted the barren countryside. A perpetual wind blew, scattering debris and trash.
But the inter-system port was here, the field which linked the planet to its nearest star-neighbor and, ultimately, with the balance of the universe. At the moment a giant freighter was taking ore.
Tirol entered the ticket office. Spreading out most of his remaining money he said: "I want a one-way ticket taking me toward Center. As far as I can go."
The clerk calculated. "You care what class?"
"No," he said, mopping his forehead.
The clerk said: "That'll carry you as far as the Betelgeuse System."
"Good enough," Tirol said, wondering what he did then. But at least he could contact his organization from there; he was already back in the charted universe. But now he was almost broke. He felt a prickle of icy fear, despite the heat.
The hub planet of the Betelgeuse System was called Plantagenet III. It was a thriving junction for passenger carriers transporting settlers to undeveloped colony planets. As soon as Tirol's ship landed he hurried across the field to the taxi stand.
"Take me to Tirol Enterprises," he instructed, praying there was an outlet here. There had to be, but it might be operating under a front name. Years ago he lost track of the particulars of his sprawling empire.
"Tirol Enterprises," the cab driver repeated thoughtfully. "Nope, no such outfit, mister."
Stunned, Tirol said: "Who does the slaving around here?"
The driver eyed him. He was a wizened, dried-up little man with glasses; he peered turtle-wise, without compassion. "Well," he said, "I've been told you can get carried out-system without papers. There's a shipping contractor. . . called --" He reflected. Tirol, trembling, handed him a last bill.
"The Reliable Export-Import," the driver said.
That was one of Lantano's fronts. In horror Tirol said: "And that's it?"
The driver nodded.
Dazed, Tirol moved away from the cab. The buildings of the field danced around him; he settled down on a bench to catch his breath. Under his coat his heart pounded unevenly. He tried to breathe, but his breath caught painfully in his throat. The bruise on his head where Ellen Ackers had hit him began to throb. It was true, and he was gradually beginning to understand and believe it. He was not going to get to Earth; he was going to spend the rest of his life here on this rural world, cut off from his organization and everything he had built up over the years.
And, he realized, as he sat struggling to breathe, the rest of his life was not going to be very long.
He thought about Heimie Rosenburg.
"Betrayed," he said, and coughed wrackingly. "You betrayed me. You hear that? Because of you I'm here. It's your fault; I never should have hired you."
He thought about Ellen Ackers. "You too," he gasped, coughing. Sitting on the bench he alternately coughed and gasped and thought about the people who had betrayed him. There were hundreds of them.
The living room of David Lantano's house was furnished in exquisite taste. Priceless late nineteenth century Blue Willow dishes lined the walls in a rack of wrought iron. At his antique yellow plastic and chrome table, David Lantano was eating dinner, and the spread of food amazed Beam even more than the house.
Lantano was in good humor and he ate with enthusiasm. His linen napkin was tucked under his chin and once, as he sipped coffee, he dribbled and belched. His brief period of confinement was over; he ate to make up for the ordeal.
He had been informed, first by his own apparatus and now by Beam, that banishment had successfully carried Tirol past the point of return. Tirol would not be coming back and for that Lantano was thankful. He felt expansive toward Beam; he wished Beam would have something to eat.
Moodily, Beam said: "It's nice here."
"You could have something like this," Lantano said.
On the wall hung a framed folio of ancient paper protected by helium-filled glass. It was the first printing of a poem of Ogden Nash, a collector's item that should have been in a museum. It aroused in Beam a mixed feeling of longing and aversion.
"Yes," Beam said. "I could have this." This, he thought, or Ellen Ackers or the job at Interior or perhaps all three at once. Edward Ackers had been retired on pension and he had given his wife a divorce. Lantano was out of jeopardy. Tirol had been banished. He wondered what he did want.
"You could go a long way," Lantano said sleepily.
"As far as Paul Tirol?"
Lantano chuckled and yawned.
"I wonder if he left any family," Beam said. "Any children." He was thinking about Heimie.
Lantano reached across the table toward the bowl of fruit. He selected a peach and carefully brushed it against the sleeve of his robe. "Try a peach," he said.
"No thanks," Beam said irritably.
Lantano examined the peach but he did not eat it. The peach was made of wax; the fruit in the bowl was imitation. He was not really as rich as he pretended, and many of the artifacts about the living room were fakes. Each time he offered fruit to a visitor he took a calculated risk. Returning the peach to the bowl he leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee.
If Beam did not have plans, at least he had, and with Tirol gone the plans had a better than even chance of working out. He felt peaceful. Someday, he thought, and not too far off, the fruit in the bowl would be real.