The old man sat on the park bench in the bright hot sunlight and watched the people moving back and forth.
The park was neat and clean; the lawns glittered wetly in the spray piped from a hundred shiny copper tubes. A polished robot gardener crawled here and there, weeding and plucking and gathering waste debris in its disposal slot. Children scampered and shouted. Young couples sat basking sleepily and holding hands. Groups of handsome soldiers strolled lazily along, hands in their pockets, admiring the tanned, naked girls sunbathing around the pool. Beyond the park the roaring cars and towering needle-spires of New York sparkled and gleamed.
The old man cleared his throat and spat sullenly into the bushes. The bright hot sun annoyed him; it was too yellow and it made perspiration stream through his seedy, ragged coat. It made him conscious of his grizzled chin and missing left eye. And the deep ugly burn-scar that had seared away the flesh of one cheek. He pawed fretfully at the h-loop around his scrawny neck. He unbuttoned his coat and pulled himself upright against the glowing metal slats of the bench. Bored, lonely, bitter, he twisted around and tried to interest himself in the pastoral scene of trees and grass and happily playing children.
Three blond-faced young soldiers sat down on the bench opposite him and began unrolling picnic lunch-cartons.
The old man's thin rancid breath caught in his throat. Painfully, his ancient heart thudded, and for the first time in hours he came fully alive. He struggled up from his lethargy and focused his dim sight on the soldiers. The old man got out his handkerchief, mopped his sweat-oozing face, and then spoke to them.
The soldiers glanced up briefly. "Yeah," one said.
"They done a good job." The old man indicated the yellow sun and the spires of the city. "Looks perfect."
The soldiers said nothing. They concentrated on their cups of boiling black coffee and apple pie.
"Almost fools you," the old man went on plaintively. "You boys with the seed teams?" he hazarded.
"No," one of them said. "We're rocketeers."
The old man gripped his aluminum cane and said, "I was in demolition. Back in the old Ba-3 Squad."
None of the soldiers responded. They were whispering among themselves. The girls on a bench farther down had noticed them.
The old man reached into his coat pocket and brought out something wrapped in gray torn tissue-paper. He unfolded it with shaking fingers and then got to his feet. Unsteadily, he crossed the gravel path to the soldiers. "See this?" He held out the object, a small square of glittering metal. "I won that back in '87. That was before your time, I guess."
A flicker of interest momentarily roused the young soldiers. "Hey," one whistled appreciatively. "That's a Crystal Disc -- first class." He raised his eyes questioningly. "You won that?"
The old man cackled proudly, as he wrapped up the medal and restored it to his coat pocket. "I served under Nathan West, in the Wind Giant. It wasn't until the final jump they took against us I got mine. But I was out there with my d-squad. You probably remember the day we set off our network, rigged all the way from --"
"Sorry," one of the soldiers said vaguely. "We don't go back that far. That must have been before our time."
"Sure," the old man agreed eagerly. "That was more than sixty years ago. You heard of Major Perati, haven't you? How he rammed their covering fleet into a meteor cloud as they were converging for their final attack? And how the Ba-3 was able to hold them back months before they finally slammed us?" He swore bitterly. "We held them off. Until there wasn't more'n a couple of us left. And then they came in like vultures. And what they found they --"
"Sorry, Pop." The soldiers had got lithely up, collected their lunches, and were moving toward the bench of girls. The girls glanced at them shyly and giggled in anticipation. "We'll see you some other time."
The old man turned and hobbled furiously back to his own bench. Disappointed, muttering under his breath and spitting into the wet bushes, he tried to make himself comfortable. But the sun irritated him; and the noises of people and cars made him sick.
He sat on the park bench, eye half shut, wasted lips twisted in a snarl of bitterness and defeat. Nobody was interested in a decrepit half-blind old man. Nobody wanted to hear his garbled, rambling tales of the battles he had fought and strategies he had witnessed. Nobody seemed to remember the war that still burned like a twisting, corroding fire in the decaying old man's brain. A war he longed to speak of, if he could only find listeners.
Vachel Patterson jerked his car to a halt and slammed on the emergency brake. "That's that," he said over his shoulder. "Make yourselves comfortable. We're going to have a short wait."
The scene was familiar. A thousand Earthmen in gray caps and armbands streamed along the street, chanting slogans, waving immense crude banners that were visible for blocks.
NO NEGOTIATION! TALK IS FOR TRAITORS!
ACTION IS FOR MEN!
DON'T TELL THEM SHOW THEM!
A STRONG EARTH IS THE BEST GUARANTEE OF PEACE!
In the back seat of the car Edwin LeMarr put aside his report tapes with a grunt of near-sighted surprise. "Why have we stopped? What is it?"
"Another demonstration," Evelyn Cutter said distantly. She leaned back and disgustedly lit a cigarette. "Same as all of them."
The demonstration was in full swing. Men, women, youths out of school for the afternoon, marched wild-faced, excited and intense, some with signs, some with crude weapons and in partial uniform. Along the sidewalks more and more watching spectators were being tugged along. Blue-clad policemen had halted surface traffic; they stood watching indifferently, waiting for somebody to try to interfere. Nobody did, of course. Nobody was that foolish.
"Why doesn't the Directorate put a stop to this?" LeMarr demanded. "A couple of armored columns would finish this once and for all."
Beside him, John V-Stephens laughed coldly. "The Directorate finances it, organizes it, gives it free time on the vidnet, even beats up people who complain. Look at those cops standing over there. Waiting for somebody to beat up."
LeMarr blinked. "Patterson, is that true?"
Rage-distorted faces loomed up beyond the hood of the sleek '64 Buick. The tramp of feet made the chrome dashboard rattle; Doctor LeMarr tugged his tapes nervously into their metal case and peered around like a frightened turtle.
"What are you worried about?" V-Stephens said harshly. "They wouldn't touch you -- you're an Earthman. I'm the one who should be sweating."
"They're crazy," LeMarr muttered. "All those morons chanting and marching --"
"They're not morons," Patterson answered mildly. "They're just too trusting. They believe what they're told, like the rest of us. The only trouble is, what they're told isn't true."
He indicated one of the gigantic banners, a vast 3-D photograph that twisted and turned as it was carried forward. "Blame him. He's the one who thinks up the lies. He's the one who puts the pressure on the Directorate, fabricates the hate and violence -- and has the funds to sell it."
The banner showed a stern-browed white-haired gentleman, cleanshaven and dignified. A scholarly man, heavy-set, in his late fifties. Kindly blue eyes, firm jawline, an impressive and respected dignitary. Under his handsome portrait was his personal slogan, coined in a moment of inspiration.
ONLY TRAITORS COMPROMISE!
"That's Francis Gannet," V-Stephens said to LeMarr. "Fine figure of a man, isn't he?" He corrected himself. "Of an Earthman."
"He looks so genteel," Evelyn Cutter protested. "How could an intelligent-looking man like that have anything to do with this?"
V-Stephens bellowed with taut laughter. "His nice clean white hands are a lot filthier than any of those plumbers and carpenters marching out there."
"But why --"
"Gannet and his group own Transplan Industries, a holding company that controls most of the export-import business of the inner worlds. If my people and the Martian people are given their independence they'll start cutting into his trade. They'll be competition. But as it stands, they're bottled up in a cold-decked mercantile system."
The demonstrators had reached an intersection. A group of them dropped their banners and sprouted clubs and rocks. They shouted orders, waved the others on, and then headed grimly for a small modern building that blinked the word COLOR-AD in neon lights.
"Oh, God," Patterson said. "They're after the Color-Ad office." He grabbed at the door handle, but V-Stephens stopped him.
"You can't do anything," V-Stephens said. "Anyhow, nobody's in there. They usually get advance warning."
The rioters smashed the plate-plastic windows and poured into the swank little store. The police sauntered over, arms folded, enjoying the spectacle. From the ruined front office, smashed furniture was tossed out onto the sidewalks. Files, desks, chairs, vidscreens, ashtrays, even gay posters of happy life on the inner worlds. Acrid black fingers of smoke curled up as the store room was ignited by a hot-beam. Presently the rioters came streaming back out, satiated and happy.
Along the sidewalk, people watched with a variety of emotions. Some showed delight. Some a vague curiosity. But most showed fear and dismay. They backed hurriedly away as the wild-faced rioters pushed brutally past them, loaded down with stolen goods.
"See?" Patterson said. "This stuff is done by a few thousand, a Committee Gannet's financing. Those in front are employees of Gannet's factories, goon squads on extracurricular duty. They try to sound like Mankind, but they aren't. They're a noisy minority, a small bunch of hard-working fanatics."
The demonstration was breaking up. The Color-Ad office was a dismal fire-gutted ruin; traffic had been stopped; most of downtown New York had seen the lurid slogans and heard the tramp of feet and shouted hate. People began drifting back into offices and shops, back to their daily routine.
And then the rioters saw the Venusian girl, crouched in the locked and bolted doorway.
Patterson gunned the car forward. Bucking and grinding savagely, it hurtled across the street and up on the sidewalk, toward the running knot of dark-faced hoods. The nose of the car caught the first wave of them and tossed them like leaves. The rest collided with the metal hull and tumbled down in a shapeless mass of struggling arms and legs.
The Venusian girl saw the car sliding toward her -- and the Earth-people in the front seat. For a moment she crouched in paralyzed terror. Then she turned and scurried off in panic, down the sidewalk and into the milling throng that filled up the street. The rioters regrouped themselves and in an instant were after her in full cry.
"Get the webfoot!"
"Webfoots back to their own planet!"
"Earth for Earthmen!"
And beneath the chanted slogans, the ugly undercurrent of unverbalized lust and hate.
Patterson backed the car up and onto the street. His fist clamped savagely over the horn, he gunned the car after the girl, abreast with the loping rioters and then past them. A rock crashed off the rear-view window and for an instant a hail of rubbish banged and clattered. Ahead, the crowd separated aimlessly, leaving an open path for the car and the rioters. No hand was lifted against the desperately running girl as she raced sobbing and panting between parked cars and groups of people. And nobody made a move to help her. Everybody watched dull-eyed and detached. Remote spectators viewing an event in which they had no part.
"I'll get her," V-Stephens said. "Pull up in front of her and I'll head her off."
Patterson passed the girl and jammed on the brakes. The girl doubled off the street like a terrified hare. V-Stephens was out of the car in a single bound. He sprinted after her as she darted mindlessly back toward the rioters. He swept her up and then plunged back to the car. LeMarr and Evelyn Cutter dragged the two of them in; and Patterson sent the car bucking ahead.
A moment later he turned a corner, snapped a police rope, and passed beyond the danger zone. The roar of people, the flap-flap of feet against the pavement, died down behind them.
"It's all right," V-Stephens was saying gently and repeatedly to the girl. "We're friends. Look, I'm a webfoot, too."
The girl was huddled against the door of the car, green eyes wide with terror, thin face convulsed, knees pulled up against her stomach. She was perhaps seventeen years old. Her webbed fingers scrabbled aimlessly with the torn collar of her blouse. One shoe was missing. Her face was scratched, dark hair disheveled. From her trembling mouth only vague sounds came.
LeMarr took her pulse. "Her heart's about to pop out of her," he muttered. From his coat he took an emergency capsule and shot a narcotic into the girl's trembling forearm. "That'll relax her. She's not harmed -- they didn't get to her."
"It's all right," V-Stephens murmured. "We're doctors from the City Hospital, all but Miss Cutter, who manages the files and records. Dr. LeMarr is a neurologist, Dr. Patterson is a cancer specialist, I'm a surgeon -- see my hand?" He traced the girl's forehead with his surgeon's hand. "And I'm a Venusian, like you. We'll take you to the hospital and keep you there for a while."
"Did you see them?" LeMarr sputtered. "Nobody lifted a finger to help her. They just stood there."
"They were afraid," Patterson said. "They want to avoid trouble."
"They can't," Evelyn Cutter said flatly. "Nobody can avoid this kind of trouble. They can't keep standing on the sidelines watching. This isn't a football game."
"What's going to happen?" the girl quavered.
"You better get off Earth," V-Stephens said gently. "No Venusian is safe here. Get back to your own planet and stay there until this thing dies down."
"Will it?" the girl gasped.
"Eventually." V-Stephens reached down and passed her Evelyn's cigarettes. "It can't go on like this. We have to be free."
"Take it easy," Evelyn said in a dangerous voice. Her eyes faded to hostile coals. "I thought you were above all this."
V-Stephens' dark green face flushed. "You think I can stand idly by while my people are killed and insulted, and our interests passed over, ignored so paste-faces like Gannet can get rich on blood squeezed from --"
"Paste-face," LeMarr echoed wonderingly. "What's that mean, Vachel?"
"That's their word for Earthmen," Patterson answered. "Can it, V-Stephens. As far as we're concerned it's not your people and our people. We're all the same race. Your ancestors were Earthmen who settled Venus back in the late twentieth century."
"The changes are only minor adaptive alterations," LeMarr assured V-Stephens. "We can still interbreed -- that proves we're the same race."
"We can," Evelyn Cutter said thinly. "But who wants to marry a webfoot or a crow?"
Nobody said anything for a while. The air in the car was tense with hostility as Patterson sped toward the hospital. The Venusian girl sat crouched, smoking silently, her terrified eyes on the vibrating floor.
Patterson slowed down at the check-point and showed his i.d. tab. The hospital guard signaled the car ahead and he picked up speed. As he put his tab away his fingers touched something clipped to the inside of his pocket. Sudden memory returned.
"Here's something to take your mind off your troubles," he said to V-Stephens. He tossed the sealed tube back to the webfoot. "Military fired it back this morning. Clerical error. When you're through with it hand it over to Evelyn. It's supposed to go to her, but I got interested."
V-Stephens slit open the tube and spilled out the contents. It was a routine application for admission to a Government hospital, stamped with the number of a war-veteran. Old sweat-grimed tapes, papers torn and mutilated throughout the years. Greasy bits of metal foil that had been folded and refolded, stuffed in a shirt pocket, carried next to some filthy, hair-matted chest. "Is this important?" V-Stephens asked impatiently. "Do we have to worry over clerical trifles?"
Patterson halted the car in the hospital parking lot and turned off the motor. "Look at the number of the application," he said, as he pushed open the car door. "When you have time to examine it you'll find something unusual. The applicant is carrying around an old veteran's i.d. card -- with a number that hasn't been issued yet."
LeMarr, hopelessly baffled, looked from Evelyn Cutter to V-Stephens, but got no explanation.
The old man's h-loop awoke him from a fitful slumber. "David Unger," the tinny female voice repeated. "You are wanted back at the hospital. It is requested that you return to the hospital immediately."
The old man grunted and pulled himself up with an effort. Grabbing his aluminum cane he hobbled away from his sweat-shiny bench, toward the escape ramp of the park. Just when he was getting to sleep, shutting out the too-bright sun and the shrill laughter of children and girls and young soldiers...
At the edge of the park two shapes crept furtively into the bushes. David Unger halted and stood in disbelief, as the shapes glided past him along the path.
His voice surprised him. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, shrieks of rage and revulsion that echoed through the park, among the quiet trees and lawns. "Webfoots!" he wailed. He began to run clumsily after them. "Webfoots and crows! Help! Somebody help!"
Waving his aluminum cane, he hobbled after the Martian and Venusian panting wildly. People appeared, blank-faced with astonishment. A crowd formed, as the old man hurried after the terrified pair. Exhausted, he stumbled against a drinking fountain and half-fell, his cane sliding from his fingers. His shrunken face was livid; the burn-scar stood out sick and ugly against the mottled skin. His good eye was red with hate and fury. From his wasted lips saliva drooled. He waved his skinny claw-like hands futilely, as the two altereds crept into the grove of cedars toward the far end of the park.
"Stop them!" David Unger slobbered. "Don't let them get away! What's the matter with you? You bunch of lily-white cowards. What kind of men are you?"
"Take it easy, Pop," a young soldier said good-naturedly. "They're not hurting anybody."
Unger retrieved his cane and whooshed it past the soldier's head. "You -- talker" he snapped. "What kind of a soldier are you?" A fit of coughing choked off his words; he bent double, struggling to breathe. "In my day," he managed to gasp, "we poured rocket fuel on them and strung them up. We mutilated them. We cut up the dirty webfoots and crows. We showed them."
A looming cop had stopped the pair of altereds. "Get going," he ordered ominously. "You things got no right here."
The two altereds scuttled past him. The cop leisurely raised his stick and cracked the Martian across the eyes. The brittle, thin-shelled head splintered, and the Martian careened on, blinded and in agony.
"That's more like it," David Unger gasped, in weak satisfaction.
"You evil dirty old man," a woman muttered at him, face white with horror. "It's people like you that make all this trouble."
"What are you?" Unger snapped. "A crow-lover?"
The crowd melted and broke. Unger, grasping his cane, stumbled toward the exit ramp, muttering curses and abuse, spitting violently into the bushes and shaking his head.
He arrived at the hospital grounds still trembling with rage and resentment. "What do you want?" he demanded, as he came up to the big receiving desk in the center of the main lobby. "I don't know what's going on around here. First you wake me out of the first real sleep I've had since I got here, and then what do I see but two webfoots walking around in broad daylight, sassy as --"
"Doctor Patterson wants you," the nurse said patiently. "Room 301." She nodded to a robot. "Take Mr. Unger down to 301."
The old man hobbled sullenly after the smoothly-gliding robot. "I thought all you tinmen were used up in the Europa battle of '88," he complained. "It don't make sense, all these lily-white boys in uniforms. Everybody wandering around having a good time, laughing and diddling girls with nothing better to do than lie around on the grass naked. Something's the matter. Something must be --"
"In here, sir," the robot said, and the door of 301 slid away.
Vachel Patterson rose slightly as the old man entered and stood fuming and gripping his aluminum cane in front of the work-desk. It was the first time he had seen David Unger face to face. Each of them sized the other up intently; the thin hawk-faced old soldier and the well-dressed young doctor, black thinning hair, horn-rimmed glasses and good-natured face. Beside his desk Evelyn Cutter stood watching and listening impassively, a cigarette between her red lips, blonde hair swept back.
"I'm Doctor Patterson, and this is Miss Cutter." Patterson toyed with the dog-eared, eroded tape strewn across his desk. "Sit down, Mr. Unger. I want to ask you a couple of questions. Some uncertainty has come up regarding one of your papers. A routine error, probably, but they've come back to me."
Unger seated himself warily. "Questions and red tape. I've been here a week and every day it's something. Maybe I should have just laid there in the street and died."
"You've been here eight days, according to this."
"I suppose so. If it says so there, must be true." The old man's thin sarcasm boiled out viciously. "Couldn't put it down if it wasn't true."
"You were admitted as a war veteran. All costs of care and maintenance are covered by the Directorate."
Unger bristled. "What's wrong with that? I earned a little care." He leaned toward Patterson and jabbed a crabbed finger at him. "I was in the Service when I was sixteen. Fought and worked for Earth all my life. Would be there yet, if I hadn't been half killed by that dirty mop-up attack of theirs. Lucky to be alive at all." He self-consciously rubbed the livid ruin of his face. "Looks like you weren't even in it. Didn't know there was any place got by."
Patterson and Evelyn Cutter looked at each other. "How old are you?" Evelyn asked suddenly.
"Don't it say?" Unger muttered furiously. "Eighty-nine."
"And the year of your birth?"
"2154. Can't you figure that?"
Patterson made a faint notation on the metal foil reports. "And your unit?"
At that, Unger broke loose. "The Ba-3, if maybe you've heard of it. Although the way things are around here, I wonder if you know there was ever a war."
"The Ba-3," Patterson repeated. "And you served with them how long?"
"Fifty years. Then I retired. The first time, I mean. I was sixty-six years old. Usual age. Got my pension and bit of land."
"And they called you back?"
"Of course they called me back! Don't you remember how the Ba-3 went back into the line, all us old guys, and damn near stopped them, the last time? You must have been just a kid, but everybody knows what we did." Unger fumbled out his Crystal Disc first class and slammed it on the desk. "I got that. All us survivors did. All ten of us, out of thirty thousand." He gathered the medal up with shaking fingers. "I was hurt bad. You see my face. Burned, when Nathan West's battleship blew up. I was in the military hospital for a couple years. That was when they cracked Earth wide open." The ancient hands clenched into futile fists. "We had to sit there, watching them turn Earth into a smoking ruin. Nothing but slag and ash, miles of death. No towns, no cities. We sat there, while their C-missiles whizzed by. Finally they got finished -- and got us on Luna, too."
Evelyn Cutter tried to speak, but no words came. At his work-desk Patterson's face had turned chalk-white. "Continue," he managed to mutter. "Go on talking."
"We hung on there, subsurface, down under the Copernicus crater, while they slammed their C-missiles into us. We held out maybe five years. Then they started landing. Me and those still left took off in high-speed attack torpedoes, set up pirate bases among the outer planets." Unger twitched restlessly. "I hate to talk about that part. Defeat, the end of everything. Why do you ask me? I helped build 3-4-9-5, the best artibase of the lot. Between Uranus and Neptune. Then I retired again. Until the dirty rats slid in and leisurely blew it to bits. Fifty thousand men, women, kids. The whole colony."
"You escaped?" Evelyn Cutter whispered.
"Of course I escaped! I was on patrol. I got one of those webfoot ships. Shot it down and watched them die. It made me feel a little better. I moved over to 3-6-7-7 for a few years. Until it was attacked. That was early this month. I was fighting with my back to the wall." The dirty yellow teeth glinted in agony. "No place to escape to, that time. None that I knew of." The red-rimmed eye surveyed the luxurious office. "Didn't know about this. You people sure done a good job fixing up your artibase. Looks almost like I remember the real Earth. A little too fast and bright; not so peaceful as Earth really was. But you even got the smell of the air the same."
There was silence.
"Then you came here after -- that colony was destroyed?" Patterson asked hoarsely.
"I guess so." Unger shrugged wearily. "Last I remember was the bubble shattering and the air and heat and grav leaking out. Crow and webfoot ships landing everywhere. Men dying around me. I was knocked out by the concussion. The next thing I knew I was lying out in the street here, and some people were getting me to my feet. A tinman and one of your doctors took me here."
Patterson let out a deep shuddering breath. "I see." His fingers plucked aimlessly at the eroded, sweat-grimed i.d. papers. "Well, that explains this irregularity."
"Ain't it all there? Is something missing?"
"All your papers are here. Your tube was hanging around your wrist when they brought you in."
"Naturally." Unger's bird-like chest swelled with pride. "I learned that when I was sixteen. Even when you're dead you have to have that tube with you. Important to keep the records straight."
"The records are straight," Patterson admitted thickly. "You can go back to your room. Or the park. Anywhere." He waved and the robot calmly escorted the withered old man from the office and out into the hall.
As the door slid shut Evelyn Cutter began swearing slowly and monotonously. She crushed out her cigarette with her sharp heel and paced wildly back and forth. "Good God what have we got ourselves into?"
Patterson snatched up the intervid, dialed outside, and said to the supra-plan monitor, "Get me military headquarters. Right away."
"At Luna, sir?"
"That's right," Patterson said. "At the main base on Luna."
On the wall of the office, past the taut, pacing figure of Evelyn Cutter, the calendar read August 4, 2169. If David Unger was born in 2154 he would be a boy of fifteen. And he had been born in 2154. It said so on his battered, yellowed, sweat-stained cards. On the i.d. papers carried through a war that hadn't yet happened.
"He's a veteran, all right," Patterson said to V-Stephens. "Of a war that won't begin for another month. No wonder his application was turned back by the IBM machines."
V-Stephens licked his dark green lips. "This war will be between Earth and the two colony planets. And Earth will lose?"
"Unger fought through the whole war. He saw it from the start to finish -- to the total destruction of Earth." Patterson paced over to the window and gazed out. "Earth lost the war and the race of Earthmen was wiped out."
From the window of V-Stephens' office, Patterson could see the city spread out. Miles of buildings, white and gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Eleven million people. A gigantic center of commerce and industry, the economic hub of the system. And beyond it, a world of cities and farms and highways, three billion men and women. A thriving, healthy planet, the mother world from which the altereds had originally sprung, the ambitious settlers of Venus and Mars. Endless cargo carriers lumbered between Earth and the colonies, weighed down with minerals and ores and produce. And already, survey teams were poking around the outer planets, laying claim in the Directorate's name to new sources of raw-materials.
"He saw all this go up in radioactive dust," Patterson said. "He saw the final attack on Earth that broke our defenses. And then they wiped out the Lunar base."
"You say some brass hats are on their way here from Luna?"
"I gave them enough of the story to start them moving. It usually takes weeks to stir up those fellows."
"I'd like to see this Unger," V-Stephens said thoughtfully. "Is there some way I can --"
"You've seen him. You revived him, remember? When he was originally found and brought in."
"Oh," V-Stephens said softly. "That filthy old man?" His dark eyes flickered. "So that's Unger... the veteran of the war we're going to fight."
"The war you're going to win. The war Earth is going to lose." Patterson abruptly left the window. "Unger thinks this is an artificial satellite someplace between Uranus and Neptune. A reconstruction of a small part of New York -- a few thousand people and machines under a plastic dome. He has no conception of what's actually happened to him. Somehow, he must have been hurled back along his time-track."
"I suppose the release of energy... and maybe his frantic desire to escape. But even so, the whole thing is fantastic. It has a sort of --" V-Stephens groped for the word. "-- a sort of mystic ring to it. What the hell is this, a visitation? A prophet from heaven?"
The door opened and V-Rafia slid in. "Oh," she said, as she saw Patterson. "I didn't know --"
"That's all right." V-Stephens nodded her inside his office. "You remember Patterson. He was with us in the car when we picked you up."
V-Rafia looked much better than she had a few hours before. Her face was no longer scratched, her hair was back in place, and she had changed to a crisp gray sweater and skirt. Her green skin sparkled as she moved over beside V-Stephens, still nervous and apprehensive. "I'm staying here," she said defensively to Patterson. "I can't go back out there, not for a while." She darted a quick glance of appeal at V-Stephens.
"She has no family on Earth," V-Stephens explained. "She came here as a Class-2 biochemist. She's been working over at a Westinghouse lab outside Chicago. She came to New York on a shopping trip, which was a mistake."
"Can't she join the V-colony at Denver?" Patterson asked.
V-Stephens flushed. "You don't want another webfoot around here?"
"What can she do? We're not an embattled fortress. There's no reason why we can't shoot her to Denver in a fast freight rocket. Nobody'll interfere with that."
"We can discuss it later," V-Stephens said irritably. "We've got more important things to talk about. You've made a check of Unger's papers? You're certain they're not forgeries? I suppose it's possible this is on the level, but we have to be certain."
"This has to be kept quiet," Patterson said urgently, with a glance at V-Rafia. "Nobody on the outside should be brought in."
"You mean me?" V-Rafia asked hesitantly. "I guess I better leave."
"Don't leave," V-Stephens said, grabbing hold of her arm roughly. "Patterson, you can't keep this quiet. Unger's probably told it to fifty people; he sits out there on his park bench all day, buttonholing everybody who passes."
"What is this?" V-Rafia asked curiously.
"Nothing important," Patterson said warningly.
"Nothing important?" V-Stephens echoed. "Just a little war. Programs for sale in advance." Across his face a spasm of emotion passed, excitement and yearning hunger pouring up from inside him. "Place your bets now. Don't take chances. Bet on a sure thing, sweetheart. After all, it's history. Isn't that right?" He turned toward Patterson, his expression demanding confirmation. "What do you say? I can't stop it -- you can't stop it. Right?"
Patterson nodded slowly. "I guess you're right," he said unhappily. And swung with all his strength.
He caught V-Stephens slightly to one side, as the Venusian scrambled away. V-Stephens' cold-beam came out; he aimed with shaky fingers. Patterson kicked it from his hands and dragged him to his feet. "It was a mistake, John," he panted. "I shouldn't have showed you Unger's i.d. tube. I shouldn't have let you know."
"That's right," V-Stephens managed to whisper. His eyes were blank with sorrow as he focused on Patterson. "Now I know. Now we both know. You're going to lose the rear. Even if you lock Unger up in a box and sink him to the center of the Earth, it's too late. Color-Ad will know as soon as I'm out of here."
"They burned down the Color-Ad office in New York."
"Then I'll find the one in Chicago. Or Baltimore. I'll fly back to Venus, if I have to. I'm going to spread the good news. It'll be hard and long, but we'll win. And you can't do anything about it."
"I can kill you," Patterson said. His mind was racing frantically. It wasn't too late. If V-Stephens were contained, and David Unger turned over to the Military --
"I know what you're thinking," V-Stephens gasped. "If Earth doesn't fight, if you avoid war, you may still have a chance." His green lips twisted savagely. "You think we'd let you avoid war? Not now! Only traitors compromise, according to you. Now it's too late!"
"Only too late," Patterson said, "if you get out of here." His hand groped on the desk and found a steel paper weight. He drew it to him -- and felt the smooth tip of the cold-beam in his ribs.
"I'm not sure how this thing words," V-Rafia said slowly, "but I guess there's only this one button to press."
"That's right," V-Stephens said, with relief. "But don't press it yet. I want to talk to him a few minutes more. Maybe he can be brought around to rationality." He pulled himself gratefully out of Patterson's grip and moved back a few paces, exploring his cut lip and broken front teeth. "You brought this on yourself, Vachel."
"This is insane," Patterson snapped, his eyes on the snout of the cold-beam as it wavered in V-Rafia's uncertain fingers. "You expect us to fight a war we know we're going to lose?"
"You won't have a choice." V-Stephens' eyes gleamed. "We'll make you fight. When we attack your cities you'll come back at us. It's -- human nature."
The first blast of the cold-beam missed Patterson. He floundered to one side and grabbed for the girl's slim wrist. His fingers caught air, and then he was down, as the beam hissed again. V-Rafia retreated, eyes wide with fright and dismay, aiming blindly for his rising body. He leaped up, hands extended for the terrified girl. He saw her fingers twist, saw the snout of the tube darken as the field clicked on. And that was all.
From the kicked-open door, the blue-clad soldiers caught V-Rafia in a crossfire of death. A chill breath mushroomed in Patterson's face. He collapsed back, arms up frantically, as the frigid whisper glided past him.
V-Rafia's trembling body danced briefly, as the cloud of absolute cold glowed around her. Then abruptly she halted as rigid as if the tape-track of her life had stopped in the projector. All color drained from her body. The bizarre imitation of a still-standing human figure stood silently, one arm raised, caught in the act of futile defense.
Then the frozen pillar burst. The expanded cells ruptured in a shower of crystalline particles that were hurled sickeningly into every part of the office.
Francis Gannet moved cautiously in behind the troops, red-faced and perspiring. "You're Patterson?" he demanded. He held out his heavy hand, but Patterson didn't take it. "The Military people notified me as a matter of course. Where's this old man?"
"Somewhere around," Patterson muttered. "Under guard." He turned toward V-Stephens and briefly their eyes met. "You see?" he said huskily. "This is what happens. Is this what you really want?"
"Come on, Mr. Patterson," Francis Gannet boomed impatiently. "I don't have much time to waste. From your description this sounds like something important."
"It is," V-Stephens answered calmly. He wiped at the trickle of mouth-blood with his pocket handkerchief. "It's worth the trip from Luna. Take my word for it -- I know."
The man who sat on Gannet's right was a lieutenant. He gazed in mute awe at the vidscreen. His young, handsome blond face was alive with amazement as from the bank of gray haze a huge battleship lumbered, one reactor smashed, its forward turrets crumpled, hull twisted open.
"Good God," Lieutenant Nathan West said faintly. "That's the Wind Giant. The biggest battleship we have. Look at it -- it's out of commission. Totally disabled."
"That will be your ship," Patterson said. "You'll be commander of it in '87 when it's destroyed by the combined Venusian and Martian fleets. David Unger will be serving under you. You'll be killed, but Unger will escape. The few survivors of your ship will watch from Luna as Earth is systematically demolished by C-missiles from Venus and Mars."
On the screen, the figures leaped and swirled like fish in the bottom of a dirt-saturated tank. A violent maelstrom surged in the center, a vortex of energy that lashed the ships on vast spasms of motion. The silver Earth ships hesitated, then broke. Flashing black Mars battleships swept through the wide breach -- and the Earth flank was turned simultaneously by the waiting Venusians. Together, they caught the remnants of the Earth ships in steel pincers and crunched them out of existence. Brief puffs of light, as the ships winked out of being. In the distance, the solemn blue and green orb that was Earth slowly and majestically revolved.
Already, it showed ugly pocks. Bomb craters from the C-missiles that had penetrated the defense network.
LeMarr snapped off the projector and the screen died. "That ends that brain-sequence. All we can get are visual fragments like this, brief instants that left strong impressions on him. We can't get continuity. The next one takes up years later, on one of the artificial satellites."
The lights came on, and the group of spectators moved stiffly to their feet. Gannet's face was a sickly putty-gray. "Doctor LeMarr, I want to see that shot again. The one of Earth." He gestured helplessly. "You know which one I mean."
The lights dimmed and again the screen came to life. This time it showed only Earth, a receding orb that fell behind as the high-velocity torpedo on which David Unger rode hurtled toward outer space. Unger had placed himself so his dead world would be visible to the last.
Earth was a ruin. Involuntarily, a gasp rose from the group of watching officers. Nothing lived. Nothing moved. Only dead clouds of radioactive ash billowed aimlessly over the crater-pocked surface. What had been a living planet of three billion people was a charred cinder of ash. Nothing remained but heaps of debris, dispersed and blown dismally across vacant seas by the howling, ceaseless wind.
"I suppose some kind of vegetable life will take over," Evelyn Cutter said harshly, as the screen faded and the overhead lights returned. She shuddered violently and turned away.
"Weeds, maybe," LeMarr said. "Dark dry weeds poking up through the slag. Maybe some insects, later on. Bacteria, of course. I suppose in time bacterial action will transform the ash into usable soil. And it'll rain for a billion years."
"Let's face it," Gannet said. "The webfoots and crows will resettle it. They'll be living here on Earth after we're all dead."
"Sleeping in our beds?" LeMarr inquired mildly. "Using our bathrooms and sitting rooms and transports?"
"I don't understand you," Gannet answered impatiently. He waved Patterson over. "You're sure nobody knows but we here in this room?"
"V-Stephens knows," Patterson said. "But he's locked up in the psychotic ward. V-Rafia knew. She's dead."
Lieutenant West came over to Patterson. "Could we interview him?"
"Yes, where's Unger?" Gannet demanded. "My staff is eager to meet him face to face."
"You have all the essential facts," Patterson answered. "You know how the war is going to come out. You know what's going to happen to Earth."
"What do you suggest?" Gannet asked warily.
"Avoid the war."
Gannet shrugged his plump well-fed body. "After all, you can't change history. And this is future history. We have no choice but to go ahead and fight."
"At least we'll get our share of them," Evelyn Cutter said icily.
"What are you talking about?" LeMarr stuttered excitedly. "You work in a hospital and you talk like that?"
The woman's eyes blazed. "You saw what they did to Earth. You saw them cut us to ribbons."
"We have to stand above this," LeMarr protested. "If we allow ourselves to get dragged into this hate and violence -- " He appealed to Patterson. "Why is V-Stephens locked up? He's no crazier than she is."
"True," Patterson agreed. "But she's crazy on our side. We don't lock up that kind of lunatic."
LeMarr moved away from him. "Are you going out and fight, too? Alongside Gannet and his soldiers?"
"I want to avoid the war," Patterson said dully.
"Can it be done?" Gannet demanded. An avid glow winked briefly behind his pale, blue eyes and then faded out.
"Maybe it can be done. Why not? Unger coming back here adds a new element."
"If the future can be changed," Gannet said slowly, "then maybe we have a choice of various possibilities. If there's two possible futures there may be an infinite number. Each branching off at a different point." A granite mask slid over his face. "We can use Unger's knowledge of the battles."
"Let me talk to him," Lieutenant West interrupted excitedly. "Maybe we can get a clear idea of the webfoot battle-strategy. He's probably gone over the battles in his mind a thousand times."
"He'd recognize you," Gannet said. "After all, he served under your command."
Patterson was deep in thought. "I don't think so," he said to West. "You're a lot older than David Unger."
West blinked. "What do you mean? He's a broken-down old man and I'm still in my twenties."
"David Unger is fifteen," Patterson answered. "At this point you're almost twice his age. You're already a commissioned officer on the Lunar policy-level staff. Unger isn't even in the Military Service. He'll volunteer when war breaks out, as a buck private without experience or training. When you're an old man, commanding the Wind Giant, David Unger will be a middle-aged nonentity working one of the gun turrets, a name you won't even know."
"Then Unger is already alive?" Gannet said, puzzled.
"Unger is someplace around, waiting to step onto the stage." Patterson filed the thought away for future study; it might have valuable possibilities. "I don't think he'll recognize you, West. He may never even have seen you. The Wind Giant is a big ship."
West quickly agreed. "Put a bug-system on me, Gannet. So the command staff can have the aud and vid images of what Unger says."
In the bright mid-morning sunlight, David Unger sat moodily on his park bench, gnarled fingers gripping his aluminum cane, gazing dully at the passers-by.
To his right a robot gardener worked over the same patch of grass again and again, its metallic eye-lenses intently fastened on the wizened, hunched-over figure of the old man. Down the gravel path a group of loitering men sent random comments to the various monitors scattered through the park, keeping the relay system open. A bare-bosomed young woman sunbathing by the pool nodded faintly to a pair of soldiers pacing around the park, within constant sight of David Unger.
That morning there were a hundred people in the park. All were integrated elements of the screen surrounding the half-dozing, resentful old man.
"All right," Patterson said. His car was parked at the edge of the plot of green trees and lawns. "Remember not to overexcite him. V-Stephens revived him originally. If something goes wrong with his heart we can't get V-Stephens to pump him back."
The blond young lieutenant nodded, straightened his immaculate blue tunic and slid onto the sidewalk. He pushed his helmet back and briskly strode down the gravel path, toward the center of the park. As he approached, the lounging figures moved imperceptibly. One by one they took up positions on the lawns, on the benches, in groups here and there around the pool.
Lieutenant West stopped at a drinking-fountain and allowed the robot water-brain to find his mouth with a jet of ice-cold spray. He wandered slowly away and stood for a moment, arms loose at his sides, vacantly watching a young woman as she removed her clothes and stretched out languidly on a multi-colored blanket. Her eyes shut, red lips parted, the woman relaxed with a grateful sigh.
"Let him speak to you first," she said faintly, to the lieutenant standing a few feet from her, one black boot on the edge of a bench. "Don't start the conversation."
Lieutenant West watched her a moment longer and then continued along the path. A passing heavy-set man said swiftly in his ear. "Not so fast. Take your time and don't appear to hurry."
"You want to give the impression you have all day," a hatchet-faced nurse greeted, as she passed him wheeling a baby carriage.
Lieutenant West slowed almost to a halt. He aimlessly kicked a bit of gravel from the path into the wet bushes. Hands deep in his pockets he wandered over to the central pool and stood gazing absently into its depths. He lit a cigarette, then bought an ice cream bar from a passing robot salesman.
"Spill some on your tunic, sir," the robot's speaker instructed faintly. "Swear and start dabbing at it."
Lieutenant West let the ice cream melt in the warm summer sun. When some had dripped down his wrist onto his starched blue tunic he scowled, dug out his handkerchief, dipped it in the pool, and began clumsily to wipe the ice cream away.
On his bench, the scar-faced old man watched with his one good eye, gripping his aluminum cane and cackling happily. "Watch out," he wheezed. "Look out there!"
Lieutenant West glanced up in annoyance.
"You're dripping more," the old man cackled, and lay back in weak amusement, toothless mouth slack with pleasure.
Lieutenant West grinned good-naturedly. "I guess so," he admitted. He dropped the melting half-eaten ice cream bar into a disposal slot and finished cleaning his tunic. "Sure is warm," he observed, wandering vaguely over.
"They do a good job," Unger agreed, nodding his bird-like head. He peered and craned his neck, trying to make out the insignia markings on the young soldier's shoulder. "You with the rocketeers?"
"Demolition," Lieutenant West said. As of that morning his insignia had been changed. "Ba-3."
The old man shuddered. He hawked and spat feverishly into the nearby bushes. "That so?" He half-rose, excited and fearful, as the lieutenant started to move away. "Say, you know, I was in the Ba-3 years ago." He tried to make his voice sound calm and casual. "Long before your time."
Amazement and disbelief slid over Lieutenant West's handsome blond face. "Don't kid me. Only a couple guys from the old group are still alive. You're pulling my leg."
"I was, I was," Unger wheezed, fumbling with trembling haste at his coat pocket. "Say, look at this. Stop a minute and I'll show you something." Reverent and awed, he held out his Crystal Disc. "See? You know what this is?"
It Lieutenant West gazed down at the metal a long time. Real emotion welled up inside him; he didn't have to counterfeit it. "Can I examine it?" he asked finally.
Unger hesitated. "Sure," he said. "Take it."
"That's right," Unger said. "You remember?" He returned it to his pocket. "No, you weren't even alive, then. But you heard about it, haven't you?"
"Yes," West said. "I've heard about it many times."
"And you haven't forgotten? A lot of people forgot that, what we did there."
"I guess we took a beating that day," West said. He sat down slowly on the bench beside the old man. "That was a bad day for Earth."
"We lost," Unger agreed. "Only a few of us got out of there. I got to Luna. I saw Earth go, piece by piece, until there was nothing left. It broke my heart. I cried until I lay like a dead thing. We were all weeping, soldiers, workmen, standing there helpless. And then they turned their missiles on us."
The lieutenant licked his dry lips. "Your Commander didn't get out, did he?"
"Nathan West died on his ship," Unger said. "He was the finest commander in the line. They didn't give him the Wind Giant for nothing." His ancient, withered features dimmed in recollection. "There'll never be another man like West. I saw him, once. Big stern-faced man, wide-shouldered. A giant himself. He was a great old man. Nobody could have done better."
West hesitated. "You think if somebody else had been in command --"
"No!" Unger shrieked. "Nobody could have done better! I've heard it said -- I know what some of those fat-bottomed armchair strategists say. But they're wrong! Nobody could have won that battle. We didn't have a chance. We were outnumbered five to one -- two huge fleets, one straight at our middle and the other waiting to chew us up and swallow us."
"I see," West said thickly. Reluctantly he continued, in an agony of turmoil, "These armchair men, what the hell is it they say? I never listen to the brass." He tried to grin but his face refused to respond. "I know they're always saying we could have won the battle and maybe even saved the Wind Giant, but --"
"Look here," Unger said fervently, his sunken eye wild and glittering. With the point of his aluminum cane he began gouging harsh, violent ditches in the gravel by his feet. "This line is our fleet. Remember how West had it drawn up? It was a mastermind arranged our fleet, that day. A genius. We held them off for twelve hours before they busted through. Nobody thought we'd have a chance of even doing that." Savagely, Unger gouged another line. "That's the crow fleet."
"I see," West muttered. He leaned over so his chest-lens would vid the rough lines in the gravel back to the scanning center in the mobile unit circling lazily overhead. And from there to main headquarters on Luna. "And the webfoot fleet?"
Unger glanced cagily at him, suddenly shy. "I'm not boring you, am I? I guess an old man likes to talk. Sometimes I bother people, trying to take up their time."
"Go on," West answered. He meant what he said. "Keep drawing -- I'm watching."
Evelyn Cutter paced restlessly around her softly-lit apartment, arms folded, red lips tight with anger. "I don't understand you!" She paused to lower the heavy drapes. "You were willing to kill V-Stephens a little while ago. Now you won't even help block LeMarr. You know LeMarr doesn't grasp what's happening. He dislikes Gannet and he prattles about the interplan community of scientists, our duty to all mankind and that sort of stuff. Can't you see if V-Stephens gets hold of him --"
"Maybe LeMarr is right," Patterson said. "I don't like Gannet either."
Evelyn exploded. "They'll destroy us! We can't fight a war with them -- we don't have a chance." She halted in front of him, eyes blazing. "But they don't know that yet. We've got to neutralize LeMarr, at least for a while. Every minute he's walking around free puts our world in jeopardy. Three billion lives depend on keeping this suppressed."
Patterson was brooding. "I suppose Gannet briefed you on the initial exploration West conducted today."
"No results so far. The old man knows every battle by heart, and we lost them all." She rubbed her forehead wearily. "I mean, we will lose them all." With numb fingers she gathered up the empty coffee cups. "Want some more coffee?"
Patterson didn't hear her; he was intent on his own thoughts. He crossed over to the window and stood gazing out until she returned with fresh coffee, hot and black and steaming.
"You didn't see Gannet kill that girl," Patterson said.
"What girl? That webfoot?" Evelyn stirred sugar and cream into her coffee. "She was going to kill you. V-Stephens would have lit out for Color-Ad and the war would begin." Impatiently, she pushed his coffee cup to him -- "Anyhow, that was the girl we saved."
"I know," Patterson said. "That's why it bothers me." He took the coffee automatically and sipped without tasting. "What was the point of dragging her from the mob? Gannet's work. We're employees of Gannet."
"You know what kind of game he's playing!"
Evelyn shrugged. "I'm just being practical. I don't want Earth destroyed. Neither does Gannet -- he wants to avoid the war."
"He wanted war a few days ago. When he expected to win."
Evelyn laughed sharply. "Of course! Who'd fight a war they knew they'd lose? That's irrational."
"Now Gannet will hold off the war," Patterson admitted slowly. "He'll let the colony planets have their independence. He'll recognize Color-Ad. He'll destroy David Unger and everybody who knows. He'll pose as a benevolent peacemaker."
"Of course. He's already making plans for a dramatic trip to Venus. A last minute conference with Color-Ad officials, to prevent war. He'll put pressure on the Directorate to back down and let Mars and Venus sever. He'll be the idol of the system. But isn't that better than Earth destroyed and our race wiped out?"
"Now the big machine turns around and roars against war." Patterson's lips twisted ironically. "Peace and compromise instead of hate and destructive violence."
Evelyn perched on the arm of a chair and made rapid calculations. "How old was David Unger when he joined the Military?"
"Fifteen or sixteen."
"When a man joins the Service he gets his i.d. number, doesn't he?"
"That's right. So?"
"Maybe I'm wrong, but according to my figures --" She glanced up. "Unger should appear and claim his number, soon. That number will be coming up any day, according to how fast the enlistments pour in."
A strange expression crossed Patterson's face. "Unger is already alive... a fifteen year old kid. Unger the youth and Unger the senile old war veteran. Both alive at once."
Evelyn shuddered. "It's weird. Suppose they ran into each other? There'd be a lot of difference between them."
In Patterson's mind a picture of a bright-eyed youth of fifteen formed. Eager to get into the fight. Ready to leap in and kill webfoots and crows with idealistic enthusiasm. At this moment, Unger was moving inexorably toward the recruiting office... and the half-blind, crippled old relic of eighty-nine wretched years was creeping hesitantly from his hospital room to his park bench, hugging his aluminum cane, whispering in his raspy, pathetic voice to anyone who would listen.
"We'll have to keep our eyes open," Patterson said. "You better have somebody at Military notify you when that number comes up. When Unger appears to claim it."
Evelyn nodded. "It might be a good idea. Maybe we should request the Census Department to make a check for us. Maybe we can locate --"
She broke off. The door of the apartment had swung silently open. Edwin LeMarr stood gripping the knob, blinking red-eyed in the half-light. Breathing harshly, he came into the room. "Vachel, I have to talk to you."
"What is it?" Patterson demanded. "What's going on?"
LeMarr shot Evelyn a look of pure hate. "He found it. I knew he would. As soon as he can get it analyzed and the whole thing down on tape --"
"Gannet?" Cold fear knifed down Patterson's spine. "Gannet found what?"
"The moment of crisis. The old man's babbling about a five-ship convoy. Fuel for the crow warfleet. Unescorted and moving toward the battle line. Unger says our scouts will miss it." LeMarr's breathing was hoarse and frenzied. "He says if we knew in advance --" He pulled himself together with a violent effort. "Then we could destroy it."
"I see," Patterson said. "And throw the balance in Earth's favor."
"If West can plot the convoy route," LeMarr finished, "Earth will win the war. That means Gannet will fight -- as soon as he gets the exact information."
V-Stephens sat crouched on the single-piece bench that served as chair and table and bed for the psychotic ward. A cigarette dangled between his dark green lips. The cube-like room was ascetic, barren. The walls glittered dully. From time to time V-Stephens examined his wristwatch and then turned his attention back to the object crawling up and down the sealed edges of the entrance-lock.
The object moved slowly and cautiously. It had been exploring the lock for twenty-nine hours straight; it had traced down the power leads that kept the heavy plate fused in place. It had located the terminals at which the leads joined the magnetic rind of the door. During the last hour it had cut its way through the rexeroid surface to within an inch of the terminals. The crawling, exploring object was V-Stephens' surgeon-hand, a self-contained robot of precision quality usually joined to his right wrist.
It wasn't joined there now. He had detached it and sent it up the face of the cube to find a way out. The metal fingers clung precariously to the smooth dull surface, as the cutting-thumb laboriously dug its way in. It was a big job for the surgeon-hand; after this it wouldn't be of much use at the operating table. But V-Stephens could easily get another -- they were for sale at any medical supply house on Venus.
The forefinger of the surgeon-hand reached the anode terminal and paused questioningly. All four fingers rose erect and waved like insect antennae. One by one they fitted themselves into the cut slot and probed for the nearby cathode lead.
Abruptly there was a blinding flash. A white acrid cloud billowed out, and then came a sharp pop. The entrance-lock remained motionless as the hand dropped to the floor, its work done. V-Stephens put out his cigarette, got leisurely to his feet, and crossed the cube to collect it.
With the hand in place and acting as part of his own neuromuscular system again, V-Stephens gingerly grasped the lock by its perimeter and after a moment pulled inward. The lock came without resistance and he found himself facing a deserted corridor. There was no sound or motion. No guards. No check-system on the psych patients. V-Stephens loped quickly ahead, around a turn, and through a series of connecting passages.
In a moment he was at a wide view-window, overlooking the street, the surrounding buildings, and the hospital grounds.
He assembled his wristwatch, cigarette lighter, fountain pen, keys and coins. From them his agile flesh and metal fingers rapidly formed an intricate gestalt of wiring and plates. He snapped off the cutting-thumb and screwed a heat-element in its place. In a brief flurry he had fused the mechanism to the underside of the window ledge, invisible from the hall, too far from ground level to be noticed.
He was starting back down the corridor when a sound stopped him rigid. Voices, a routine hospital guard and somebody else. A familiar somebody else.
He raced back to the psych ward and into his sealed cube. The magnetic lock fitted reluctantly in place; the heat generated by the short had sprung its clamps. He got it shut as footsteps halted outside. The magnetic field of the lock was dead, but of course the visitors didn't know that. V-Stephens listened with amusement as the visitor carefully negated the supposed magnetic field and then pushed the lock open.
"Come in," V-Stephens said.
Doctor LeMarr entered, briefcase in one hand, cold-beam in the other. "Come along with me. I have everything arranged. Money, fake identification, passport, tickets and clearance. You'll go as a webfoot commercial agent. By the time Gannet finds out you'll be past the Military monitor and out of Earth jurisdiction."
V-Stephens was astounded. "But --"
"Hurry up!" LeMarr waved him into the corridor with his cold-beam. "As a staff member of the hospital I have authority over psych prisoners. Technically, you're listed as a mental patient. As far as I'm concerned you're no more crazy than the rest of them. If not less. That's why I'm here."
V-Stephens eyed him doubtfully. "You sure you know what you're doing?" He followed LeMarr down the corridor, past the blank-faced guard and into the elevator. "They'll destroy you as a traitor, if they catch you. That guard saw you -- how are you going to keep this quiet?"
"I don't expect to keep this quiet. Gannet is here, you know. He and his staff have been working over the old man."
"Why are you telling me this?" The two of them strode down the descent ramp to the subsurface garage. An attendant rolled out LeMarr's car and they climbed into it, LeMarr behind the wheel. "You know why I was thrown in the psych-cube in the first place."
"Take this." LeMarr tossed V-Stephens the cold-beam and steered up the tunnel to the surface, into the bright mid-day New York traffic. "You were going to contact Color-Ad and inform them Earth will absolutely lose the war." He spun the car from the mainstream of traffic and onto a side lane, toward the interplan spacefield. "Tell them to stop working for compromise and strike hard -- immediately. Full scale war. Right?"
"Right," V-Stephens said. "After all, if we're certain to win --"
"You're not certain."
V-Stephens raised a green eyebrow. "Oh? I thought Unger was a veteran of total defeat."
"Gannet is going to change the course of the war. He's found a critical point. As soon as he gets the exact information he'll pressure the Directorate into an all-out attack on Venus and Mars. War can't be avoided, not now." LeMarr slammed his car to a halt at the edge of the interplan field. "If there has to be war at least nobody's going to be taken by a sneak attack. You can tell your Colonial Organization and Administration our warfleet is on its way. Tell them to get ready. Tell them --"
LeMarr's voice trailed off. Like an unwound toy he sagged against the seat, slid silently down, and lay quietly with his head against the steering wheel. His glasses dropped from his nose onto the floor and after a moment V-Stephens replaced them. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "You meant well, but you sure fouled everything up."
He briefly examined the surface of LeMarr's skull. The impulse from the cold-beam had not penetrated into brain tissue; LeMarr would regain consciousness in a few hours with nothing worse than a severe headache. V-Stephens pocketed the cold-beam, grabbed up the briefcase, and pushed the limp body of LeMarr away from the wheel. A moment later he was turning on the motor and backing the car around.
As he sped back to the hospital he examined his watch. It wasn't too late. He leaned forward and dropped a quarter in the pay vidphone mounted on the dashboard. After a mechanical dialing process the Color-Ad receptionist flickered into view.
"This is V-Stephens," he said. "Something went wrong. I was taken out of the hospital building. I'm heading back there now. I can make it in time, I think."
"Is the vibrator-pack assembled?"
"Assembled, yes. But not with me. I had already fused it into polarization with the magnetic flux. It's ready to go -- if I can get back there and at it."
"There's a hitch at this end," the green-skinned girl said. "Is this a closed circuit?"
"It's open," V-Stephens admitted. "But it's public and probably random. They couldn't very well have a bug on it." He checked the power meter on the guarantee seal fastened to the unit. "It shows no drain. Go ahead."
"The ship won't be able to pick you up in the city."
"Hell," V-Stephens said.
"You'll have to get out of New York on your own power; we can't help you there. Mobs destroyed our New York port facilities. You'll have to go by surface car to Denver. That's the nearest place the ship can land. That's our last protected spot on Earth."
V-Stephens groaned. "Just my luck. You know what'll happen if they catch me?"
The girl smiled faintly. "All webfoots look alike to Earthmen. They'll be stringing us up indiscriminately. We're in this together. Good luck; we'll be waiting for you."
V-Stephens angrily broke the circuit and slowed the car. He parked in a public parking lot on a dingy side street and got quickly out. He was at the edge of the green expanse of park. Beyond it, the hospital buildings rose. Gripping the briefcase tightly he ran toward the main entrance.
David Unger wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then lay back weakly against his chair. "I don't know," he repeated, his voice faint and dry. "I told you I don't remember any more. It was so long ago."
Gannet signaled, and the officers moved away from the old man. "It's coming," he said wearily. He mopped his perspiring forehead. "Slowly and surely. We should have what we want inside another half hour."
One side of the therapy house had been turned into a Military table-map. Counters had been laid out across the surface to represent units of the web-foot and crow fleets. White luminous chips represented Earth ships lined up against them in a tight ring around the third planet.
"It's someplace near here," Lieutenant West said to Patterson. Red-eyed, stubble-chinned, hands shaking with fatigue and tension, he indicated a section of the map. "Unger remembers hearing officers talking about this convoy. The convoy took off from a supply base on Ganymede. It disappeared on some kind of deliberate random course." His hands swept the area. "At the time, nobody on Earth paid any attention to it. Later, they realized what they'd lost. Some military expert charted the thing in retrospect and it was taped and passed around. Officers got together and analyzed the incident. Unger thinks the convoy route took it close to Europa. But maybe it was Callisto."
"That's not good enough," Gannet snapped. "So far we don't have any more route data than Earth tacticians had at that time. We need to add exact knowledge, material released after the event."
David Unger fumbled with a glass of water. "Thanks," he muttered gratefully, as one of the young officers handed it to him. "I sure wish I could help you fellows out better," he said plaintively. "I'm trying to remember. But I don't seem able to think clear, like I used to." His wizened face twisted with futile concentration. "You know, it seems to me that convoy was stopped near Mars by some kind of meteor swarm."
Gannet moved forward. "Go on."
Unger appealed to him pathetically. "I want to help you all I can, mister. Most people go to write a book about a war, they just scan stuff from other books." There was a pitiful gratitude on the eroded face. "I guess you'll mention my name in your book, someplace."
"Sure," Gannet said expansively. "Your name'll be on the first page. Maybe we could even get in a picture of you."
"I know all about the war," Unger muttered. "Give me time and I'll have it straight. Just give me time. I'm trying as best I can."
The old man was deteriorating rapidly. His wrinkled face was an unhealthy gray. Like drying putty, his flesh clung to his brittle, yellowed bones. His breath rattled in his throat. It was obvious to everyone present that David Unger was going to die -- and soon.
"If he croaks before he remembers," Gannet said softly to Lieutenant West, "I'll --"
"What's that?" Unger asked sharply. His one good eye was suddenly keen and wary. "I can't hear so good."
"Just fill in the missing elements,"Gannet said wearily. He jerked his head. "Get him over to the map where he can see the setup. Maybe that'll help."
The old man was yanked to his feet and propelled to the table. Technicians and brass hats closed in around him and the dim-eyed stumbling figure was lost from sight.
"He won't last long," Patterson said savagely. "If you don't let him rest his heart's going to give out."
"We must have the information," Gannet retorted. He eyed Patterson. "Where's the other doctor? LeMarr, I think he's called."
Patterson glanced briefly around. "I don't see him. He probably couldn't stand it."
"LeMarr never came," Gannet said, without emotion. "I wonder if we should have somebody round him up." He indicated Evelyn Cutter, who had just arrived, white-faced, her black eyes wide, breathing quickly. "She suggests --"
"It doesn't matter now," Evelyn said frigidly. She shot a quick, urgent glance at Patterson. "I want nothing to do with you and your war."
Gannet shrugged. "I'll send out a routine net, in any case. Just to be on the safe side." He moved off, leaving Evelyn and Patterson standing alone together.
"Listen to me," Evelyn said harshly, her lips hot and close to his ear. "Unger's number has come up."
"When did they notify you?" Patterson demanded.
"I was on my way here. I did what you said -- I fixed it up with a clerk at Military."
"How long ago?"
"Just now." Evelyn's face trembled. "Vachel, he's here"
It was a moment before Patterson understood. "You mean they sent him over here? To the hospital?"
"I told them to. I told them when he came to volunteer, when his number came to the top --"
Patterson grabbed her and hurried her from the therapy house, outside into the bright sunlight. He pushed her onto an ascent ramp and crowded in after her. "Where are they holding him?"
"In the public reception room. They told him it was a routine physical check. A minor test of some kind." Evelyn was terrified. "What are we going to do? Can we do something?"
"Gannet thinks so."
"Suppose we -- stopped him? Maybe we could turn him aside?" She shook her head, dazed. "What would happen? What would the future be like if we stopped him here? You could keep him out of the Service -- you're a doctor. A little red check on his health card." She began to laugh wildly. "I see them all the time. A little red check, and no more David Unger. Gannet never sees him, Gannet never knows Earth can't win and then Earth will win, and V-Stephens doesn't get locked up as a psychotic and that webfoot girl --"
Patterson's open hand smashed across the woman's face. "Shut up and snap out of it! We don't have time for that!"
Evelyn shuddered; he caught hold of her and held on tight to her until finally she raised her face. A red welt was rising slowly on her cheek. "I'm sorry," she managed to murmur. "Thanks. I'll be all right."
The lift had reached the main floor. The door slid back and Patterson led her out into the hall. "You haven't seen him?"
"No. When they told me the number had come up and he was on his way" -- Evelyn hurried breathlessly after Patterson -- "I came as quickly as I could. Maybe it's too late. Maybe he got tired of waiting and left. He's a fifteen year old boy. He wants to get into the fight. Maybe he's gone!"
Patterson halted a robot attendant. "Are you busy?"
"No sir," the robot answered.
Patterson gave the robot David Unger's i.d. number. "Get this man from the main reception room. Send him out here and then close off this hall. Seal it at both ends so nobody can enter or leave."
The robot clicked uncertainly. "Will there be further orders? This syndrome doesn't complete a --"
"I'll instruct you later. Make sure nobody comes out with him. I want to meet him here alone."
The robot scanned the number and then disappeared into the reception room.
Patterson gripped Evelyn's arm. "Scared?"
"I'll handle it. You just stand there." He passed her his cigarettes. "Light one for both of us."
"Three, maybe. One for Unger."
Patterson grinned. "He's too young, remember? He's not old enough to smoke."
The robot returned. With it was a blond boy, plump and blue-eyed, his face wrinkled with perplexity. "You wanted me, Doc?" He came uncertainly up to Patterson. "Is there something wrong with me? They told me to come here, but they didn't say what for." His anxiety increased with a tidal rush. "There's nothing to keep me out of the Service is there?"
Patterson grabbed the boy's newly stamped i.d. card, glanced at it, and then passed it to Evelyn. She accepted it with paralyzed fingers, her eyes on the blond youth.
He was not David Unger.
"What's your name?" Patterson demanded.
The boy stammered out his name shyly. "Bert Robinson. Doesn't it say there on my card?"
Patterson turned to Evelyn. "It's the right number. But this isn't Unger. Something's happened."
"Say, Doc," Robinson asked plaintively, "is there something going to keep me out of the Service or not? Give me the word."
Patterson signaled the robot. "Open up the hall. It's all over with. You can go back to what you were doing."
"I don't understand," Evelyn murmured. "It doesn't make sense."
"You're all right," Patterson said to the youth. "You can report for induction."
The boy's face sagged with relief. "Thanks a lot, Doc." He edged toward the descent ramp. "I sure appreciate it. I'm dying to get a crack at those webfoots."
"Now what?" Evelyn said tightly, when the youth's broad back had disappeared. "Where do we go from here?"
Patterson shook himself alive. "We'll get the Census Department to make their check. We've got to locate Unger."
The transmission room was a humming blur of vid and aud reports. Patterson elbowed his way to an open circuit and placed the call.
"That information will take a short time, sir," the girl at Census told him. "Will you wait, or shall we return your call?"
Patterson grabbed up an h-loop and clipped it around his neck. "As soon as you have any information on Unger let me know. Break into this loop immediately."
"Yes, sir," the girl said dutifully, and broke the circuit.
Patterson headed out of the room and down the corridor. Evelyn hurried after him. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"To the therapy house. I want to talk to the old man. I want to ask him some things."
"Gannet's doing that," Evelyn gasped, as they descended to the ground level. "Why do you --"
"I want to ask him about the present, not the future." They emerged in the blinding afternoon sunlight. "I want to ask him about things going on right now."
Evelyn stopped him. "Can't you explain it to me?"
"I have a theory," Patterson pushed urgently past her. "Come on, before it's too late."
They entered the therapy house. Technicians and officers were standing around the huge map table, examining the counters and indicator lines. "Where's Unger?" Patterson demanded.
"He's gone," one of the officers answered. "Gannet gave up for today."
"Gone where?" Patterson began to swear savagely. "What happened?"
"Gannet and West took him back to the main building. He was too worn out to continue. We almost had it. Gannet's ready to burst a blood vessel, but we'll have to wait."
Patterson grabbed Evelyn Cutter. "I want you to set off a general emergency alarm. Have the building surrounded. And hurry!"
Evelyn gaped at him. "But --"
Patterson ignored her and raced out of the therapy house, toward the main hospital building. Ahead of him were three slowly moving figures. Lieutenant West and Gannet walked on each side of the old man, supporting him as he crept forward.
"Get away!" Patterson shouted at them.
Gannet turned. "What's going on?"
"Get him away!" Patterson dived for the old man -- but it was too late.
The burst of energy seared past him; an ignited circle of blinding white flame lapped everywhere. The hunched-over figure of the old man wavered, then charred. The aluminum cane fused and ran down in a molten mass.
What had been the old man began to smoke. The body cracked open and shriveled. Then very slowly, the dried, dehydrated fragment of ash crumpled in a weightless heap. Gradually the circle of energy faded out.
Gannet kicked aimlessly at it, his heavy face numb with shock and disbelief. "He's dead. And we didn't get it."
Lieutenant West stared at the still-smoking ash. His lips twisted into words. "We'll never find out. We can't change it. We can't win." Suddenly his fingers grabbed at his coat. He tore the insignia from it and hurled the square of cloth savagely away. "I'll be damned if I'm going to give up my life so you can corner the system. I'm not getting into that death trap. Count me out!"
The wail of the general emergency alarm dinned from the hospital building. Scampering figures raced toward Gannet, soldiers and hospital guards scurrying in confusion. Patterson paid no attention to them; his eyes were on the window directly above.
Someone was standing there. A man, his hands deftly at work removing an object that flashed in the afternoon sun. The man was V-Stephens. He got the object of metal and plastic loose and disappeared with it, away from the window.
Evelyn hurried up beside Patterson. "What --" She saw the remains and screamed. "Oh, God. Who did it? Who?"
"LeMarr must have let him out. I knew it would happen." Tears filled her eyes and her voice rose in shrill hysteria. "I told you he'd do it! I warned you!"
Gannet appealed childishly to Patterson. "What are we going to do? He's been murdered." Rage suddenly swept away the big man's fear. "I'll kill every webfoot on the planet. I'll burn down their homes and string them up. I'll --" He broke off raggedly. "But it's too late, isn't it? There's nothing we can do. We've lost. We're beaten, and the war hasn't even begun."
"That's right," Patterson said. "It's too late. Your chance is gone."
"If we could have got him to talk --" Gannet snarled helplessly.
"You couldn't. It wasn't possible."
Gannet blinked. "Why not?" Some of his innate animal cunning filtered back. "Why do you say that?"
Around Patterson's neck his h-loop buzzed loudly. "Doctor Patterson," the monitor's voice came, "there is a rush call for you from Census."
"Put it through," Patterson said.
The voice of the Census clerk came tinnily in his ears. "Doctor Patterson, I have the information you requested."
"What is it?" Patterson demanded. But he already knew the answer.
"We have cross-checked our results to be certain. There is no person such as you described. There is no individual at this time or in our past records named David L. Unger with the identifying characteristics you outlined. The brain, teeth, and fingerprints do not refer to anything extant in our files. Do you wish us to --"
"No," Patterson said. "That answers my question. Let it go." He cut off the h-loop switch.
Gannet was listening dully. "This is completely over my head, Patterson. Explain it to me."
Patterson ignored him. He squatted down and poked at the ash that had been David Unger. After a moment he snapped the h-loop on again. "I want this taken upstairs to the analytical labs," he ordered quietly. "Get a team out here at once." He got slowly to his feet and added even more softly, "Then I'm going to find V-Stephens -- if I can."
"He's undoubtedly on his way to Venus by now," Evelyn Cutter said bitterly. "Well, that's that. There's nothing we can do about it."
"We're going to have war," Gannet admitted. He came slowly back to reality. With a violent effort he focused on the people around him. He smoothed down his mane of white hair and adjusted his coat. A semblance of dignity was restored to his once-impressive frame. "We might as well meet it like men. There's no use trying to escape it."
Patterson moved aside as a group of hospital robots approached the charred remains and began gingerly to collect them in a single heap. "Make a complete analysis," he said to the technician in charge of the work-detail. "Break down the basic cell-units, especially the neurological apparatus. Report what you find to me as soon as you possibly can."
It took just about an hour.
"Look for yourself," the lab technician said. "Here, take hold of some of the material. It doesn't even feel right."
Patterson accepted a sample of dry, brittle organic matter. It might have been the smoked skin of some sea creature. It broke apart easily in his hands; as he put it down among the test equipment it crumbled into powdery fragments. "I see," he said slowly.
"It's good, considering. But it's weak. Probably it wouldn't have stood up another couple of days. It was deteriorating rapidly; sun, air, everything was breaking it down. There was no innate repair-system involved. Our cells are constantly reprocessed, cleaned and maintained. This thing was set up and then pushed into motion. Obviously, somebody's a long way ahead of us in biosynthetics. This is a masterpiece."
"Yes, it's a good job," Patterson admitted. He took another sample of what had been the body of David Unger and thoughtfully broke it into small dry pieces. "It fooled us completely."
"You knew, didn't you?"
"Not at first."
"As you can see we're reconstructing the whole system, getting the ash back into one piece. Parts are missing, of course, but we can get the general outlines. I'd like to meet the manufacturers of this thing. This really worked. This was no machine."
Patterson located the charred ash that had been reconstructed into the android's face. Withered, blackened paper-thin flesh. The dead eye gazed out lusterless and blind. Census had been right. There was never a David Unger. Such a person had never lived on Earth or anywhere else. What they had called "David Unger" was a man-made synthetic.
"We were really taken in," Patterson admitted. "How many people know, besides the two of us?"
"Nobody else." The lab technician indicated his squad of work-robots. "I'm the only human on this detail."
"Can you keep it quiet?"
"Sure. You're my boss, you know."
"Thanks," Patterson said. "But if you want, this information would get you another boss any time."
"Gannet?" The lab technician laughed. "I don't think I'd like to work for him."
"He'd pay you pretty well."
"True," said the lab technician. "But one of these days I'd be in the front lines. I like it better here in the hospital."
Patterson started toward the door. "If anybody asks, tell them there wasn't enough left to analyze. Can you dispose of these remains?"
"I'd hate to, but I guess I can." The technician eyed him curiously. "You have any idea who put this thing together? I'd like to shake hands with them."
"I'm interested in only one thing right now," Patterson said obliquely. "V-Stephens has to be found."
LeMarr blinked, as dull late-afternoon sunlight filtered into his brain. He pulled himself upright -- and banged his head sharply on the dashboard of the car. Pain swirled around him and for a time he sank back down into agonized darkness. Then slowly, gradually, he emerged. And peered around him.
His car was parked in the rear of a small, dilapidated public lot. It was about five-thirty. Traffic swarmed noisily along the narrow street onto which the lot fed. LeMarr reached up and gingerly explored the side of his skull. There was a numb spot the size of a silver dollar, an area totally without sensation. The spot radiated a chill breath, the utter absence of heat, as if somehow he had bumped against a nexus of outer space.
He was still trying to collect himself and recollect the events that had preceded his period of unconsciousness, when the swift-moving form of Doctor V-Stephens appeared.
V-Stephens ran lithely between the parked surface cars, one hand in his coat pocket, eyes alert and wary. There was something strange about him, a difference that LeMarr in his befuddled state couldn't pin down. V-Stephens had almost reached the car before he realized what it was -- and at the same time was lashed by the full surge of memory. He sank down and lay against the door, as limp and inert as possible. In spite of himself he started slightly, as V-Stephens yanked the door open and slid behind the wheel.
V-Stephens was no longer green.
The Venusian slammed the door, jabbed the car key in the lock, and started up the motor. He lit a cigarette, examined his pair of heavy gloves, glanced briefly at LeMarr, and pulled out of the lot into the early-evening traffic. For a moment he drove with one gloved hand on the wheel, the other still inside his coat. Then, as he gained full speed, he slid his cold-beam out, gripped it briefly, and dropped it on the seat beside him.
LeMarr pounced on it. From the corner of his eye, V-Stephens saw the limp body swing into life. He slammed on the emergency brake and forgot the wheel; the two of them struggled silently, furiously. The car shrieked to a halt and immediately became the center of an angry mass of honking car-horns. The two men fought with desperate intensity, neither of them breathing, locked almost immobile as momentarily all forces balanced. Then LeMarr yanked away, the cold-beam aimed at V-Stephens' colorless face.
"What happened?" he croaked hoarsely. "I'm missing five hours. What did you do?"
V-Stephens said nothing. He released the brake and began driving slowly with the swirl of traffic. Gray cigarette smoke dribbled from between his lips; his eyes were half-closed, filmed over and opaque.
"You're an Earthman," LeMarr said, wonderingly. "You're not a webfoot after all."
"I'm a Venusian," V-Stephens answered indifferently. He showed his webbed fingers, then replaced his heavy driving gloves.
"But how --"
"You think we can't pass over the color line when we want to?" V-Stephens shrugged. "Dyes, chemical hormones, a few minor surgical operations. A half hour in the men's room with a hypodermic and salve... This is no planet for a man with green skin."
Across the street a hasty barricade had been erected. A group of sullen-faced men stood around with guns and crude hand-clubs, some of them Wearing gray Home Guard caps. They were flagging down cars one by one and searching them. A beefy-faced man waved V-Stephens to a halt. He strolled over and gestured for the window to be rolled down.
"What's going on?" LeMarr demanded nervously.
"Looking for webfoots," the man growled, a thick odor of garlic and perspiration steaming from his heavy canvas shirt. He darted quick, suspicious glances into the car. "Seen any around?"
"No," V-Stephens said.
The man ripped open the luggage compartment and peered in. "We caught one a couple minutes ago." He jerked his thick thumb. "See him up there?"
The Venusian had been strung up to a street lamp. His green body dangled and swayed with the early-evening wind. His face was a mottled, ugly mass of pain. A crowd of people stood around the pole, grim, mean-looking. Waiting
"There'll be more," the man said, as he slammed the luggage compartment. "Plenty more."
"What happened?" LeMarr managed to ask. He was nauseated and horrified; his voice came out almost inaudible. "Why all this?"
"A webfoot killed a man. An Earthman." The man pulled back and slapped the car. "Okay -- you can go."
V-Stephens moved the car forward. Some of the loitering people had whole uniforms, combinations of the Home Guard gray and Terran blue. Boots, heavy belt-buckles, caps, pistols, and armbands. The armbands read D.C. in bold black letters against a red background.
"What's that?" LeMarr asked faintly.
"Defense Committee," V-Stephens answered. "Gannet's front outfit. To defend Earth against the webfoots and crows."
"But --" LeMarr gestured helplessly. "Is Earth being attacked?"
"Not that I know of."
"Turn the car around. Head back to the hospital."
V-Stephens hesitated, then did as he was told. In a moment the car was speeding back toward the center of New York. "What's this for?" V-Stephens asked. "Why do you want to go back?"
LeMarr didn't hear him; he was gazing with fixed horror at the people along the street. Men and women prowling like animals, looking for something to kill. "They've gone crazy," LeMarr muttered. "They're beasts."
"No," V-Stephens said. "This'll die down, soon. When the Committee gets its financial support jerked out from under it. It's still going full blast, but pretty soon the gears will change around and the big engine will start grinding in reverse."
"Because Gannet doesn't want war, now. It takes a while for the new line to trickle down. Gannet will probably finance a movement called P.C. Peace Committee."
The hospital was surrounded by a wall of tanks and trucks and heavy mobile guns. V-Stephens slowed the car to a halt and stubbed out his cigarette. No cars were being passed. Soldiers moved among the tanks with gleaming heavy-duty weapons that were still shiny with packing grease.
"Well?" V-Stephens said. "What now? You have the gun. It's your hot potato."
LeMarr dropped a coin in the vidphone mounted on the dashboard. He gave the hospital number, and when the monitor appeared, asked hoarsely for Vachel Patterson.
"Where are you?" Patterson demanded. He saw the cold-beam in LeMarr's hand, and then his eyes fastened on V-Stephens. "I see you got him."
"Yes," LeMarr agreed, "but I don't understand what's happening." He appealed helplessly to Patterson's miniature vidimage. "What'll I do? What is all this?"
"Give me your location," Patterson said tensely.
LeMarr did so. "You want me to bring him to the hospital? Maybe I should --"
"Just hold onto that cold-beam. I'll be right there." Patterson broke the connection and the screen died.
LeMarr shook his head in bewilderment. "I was trying to get you away," he said to V-Stephens. "Then you cold-beamed me. Why?" Suddenly LeMarr shuddered violently. Full understanding came to him. "You killed David Unger!"
"That's right," V-Stephens answered.
The cold beam trembled in LeMarr's hand. "Maybe I ought to kill you right now. Maybe I ought to roll down the window and yell to those madmen to come and get you. I don't know."
"Do whatever you think best," V-Stephens said.
LeMarr was still trying to decide, when Patterson appeared beside the car. He rapped on the window and LeMarr unlocked the door. Patterson climbed quickly in, and slammed the door after him.
"Start up the car," he said to V-Stephens. "Keep moving, away from downtown."
V-Stephens glanced briefly at him, and then slowly started up the motor. "You might as well do it here," he said to Patterson. "Nobody'll interfere."
"I want to get out of the city," Patterson answered. He added in explanation, "My lab staff analyzed the remains of David Unger. They were able to reconstruct most of the synthetic."
V-Stephens' face registered a surge of frantic emotion. "Oh?"
Patterson reached out his hand. "Shake," he said grimly.
"Why?" V-Stephens asked, puzzled.
"Somebody told me to do this. Somebody who agrees you Venusians did one hell of a good job when you made that android."
The car purred along the highway, through the evening gloom. "Denver is the last place left," V-Stephens explained to the two Earthmen. "There're too many of us, there. Color-Ad says a few Committee men started shelling our offices, but the Directorate put a sudden stop to it. Gannet's pressure, probably."
"I want to hear more," Patterson said. "Not about Gannet; I know where he stands. I want to know what you people are up to."
"Color-Ad engineered the synthetic," V-Stephens admitted. "We don't know any more about the future than you do -- which is absolutely nothing. There never was a David Unger. We forged the i.d. papers, built up a whole false personality, history of a non-existent war -- everything."
"Why?" LeMarr demanded.
"To scare Gannet into calling off the dogs. To terrify him into letting Venus and Mars become independent. To keep him from fanning up a war to preserve his economic strangle-hold. The fake history we constructed in Unger's mind has Gannet's nine-world empire broken and destroyed. Gannet's a realist. He'd take a risk when he had odds -- but our history put the odds one hundred percent against him."
"So Gannet pulls out," Patterson said slowly. "And you?"
"We were always out," V-Stephens said quietly. "We were never in this war game. All we want is our freedom and independence. I don't know what the war would really be like, but I can guess. Not very pleasant. Not worth it for either of us. And as things were going, war was in the cards."
"I want to get a few things straight," Patterson said. "You're a Color-Ad agent?"
"She was also Color-Ad. Actually, all Venusians and Martians are Color-Ad agents as soon as they hit Earth. We wanted to get V-Rafia into the hospital to help me out. There was a chance I'd be prevented from destroying the synthetic at the proper time. If I hadn't been able to do it, V-Rafia would have. But Gannet killed her."
"Why didn't you simply cold-beam Unger?"
"For one thing we wanted the synthetic body completely destroyed. That isn't possible, of course. Reduced to ash was the next best thing. Broken down small enough so a cursory examination wouldn't show anything." He glanced up at Patterson. "Why'd you order such a radical examination?"
"Unger's i.d. number had come up. And Unger didn't appear to claim it."
"Oh," V-Stephens said uneasily. "That's bad. We had no way to tell when it would appear. We tried to pick a number due in a few months -- but enlistment rose sharply the last couple of weeks."
"Suppose you hadn't been able to destroy Unger?"
"We had the demolition machinery phased in such a way that the synthetic didn't have a chance. It was tuned to his body; all I had to do was activate it with Unger in the general area. If I had been killed, or I hadn't been able to set off the mechanism, the synthetic would have died naturally before Gannet got the information he wanted. Preferably, I was to destroy it in plain view of Gannet and his staff. It was important they think we knew about the war. The psychological shock-value of seeing Unger murdered outweighs the risk of my capture."
"What happens next?" Patterson asked presently.
"I'm supposed to join with Color-Ad. Originally, I was to grab a ship at the New York office, but Gannet's mobs took care of that. Of course, this is assuming you won't stop me."
LeMarr had begun to sweat. "Suppose Gannet finds out he was tricked? If he discovers there never was a David Unger --"
"We're patching that up," V-Stephens said. "By the time Gannet checks, there will be a David Unger. Meanwhile --" He shrugged. "It's up to you two. You've got the gun."
"Let him go," LeMarr said fervently.
"That's not very patriotic," Patterson pointed out. "We're helping the webfoots put over something. Maybe we ought to call in one of those Committee men."
"The devil with them," LeMarr grated. "I wouldn't turn anybody over to those lynch-happy lunatics. Even a --"
"Even a webfoot?" V-Stephens asked.
Patterson was gazing up at the black, star-pocked sky. "What's finally going to happen?" he asked V-Stephens. "You think this stuff will end?"
"Sure," V-Stephens said promptly. "One of these days we'll be moving out into the stars. Into other systems. We'll bump into other races -- and I mean real other races. Non-human in the true sense of the word. Then people will see we're all of the same stem. It'll be obvious, when we've got something to compare ourselves to."
"Okay," Patterson said. He took the cold-beam and handed it to V-Stephens. "That was all that worried me. I'd hate to think this stuff might keep on going."
"It won't," V-Stephens answered quietly. "Some of those non-human races ought to be pretty hideous. After a look at them, Earthmen will be glad to have their daughters marry men with green skin." He grinned briefly. "Some of the non-human races may not have any skin at all..."