Brant's brows lifted in amazement. "A hundred thousand! What's the catch, Phil?"
Philon's voice dropped to a confidential tone. "You always were a clever man with electronics, Al, and I've got something here that's just your meat. I've been studying the design of the Election Tabulator, and I've discovered a wonderful opportunity for you and me.
"Now listen--it's possible to replace two transmitters on the main teletype trunk so that a winning percentage of the incoming votes will be totaled up for my party. Simple little job, isn't it? Worth a hundred thousand!"
For a long moment Al Brant sat and stared at Philon in cold silence. Finally, he said, "Do you know what the penalty is for jimmying the Tabulator to influence voting?"
"It's life imprisonment!" Brant got up slowly and started across the room to Philon. "I fell for your line once and got burned--and here you come again. You must think I'm a born sucker. This time I'm doing the talking. Give me the hundred grand or I'll kill you with my bare hands!"
Philon watched him coming as if he were witness to a nightmare. He was trapped. And in this moment of snowballing fear he ceased to think. The gun in his pocket went off without conscious effort. Brant stopped, then collapsed to the floor. Panic took over Philon's mind and he fled the apartment building as rapidly as was safe.
He was almost back in the city when he tuned in a news broadcast As he listened, he sat in stunned silence. Brant had roused himself enough before he died to talk to the man who found him in his apartment. Brant had named his killer as Philon Miller. Miller felt as if he had turned to ice.
Then his mind thawed out with a rush of reassuring words. After all, why should he be worrying? He had John's word in court as a perfect alibi. Yes, everything would be all right. Everything had to be all right.
In the late evening Philon arrived at his house with a consuming sense of great relief, as if the very act of entering his home would protect him from anything. There was a sense of safety in the mere familiarity of the environment.
On the mail table he found a note from Ursula saying she had gone for the weekend. Philon shrugged indifferently. He was glad to have her out of the way anyhow. But John--there was the best ten thousand dollars he had ever spent. A sound investment, about to pay its first real dividend.
"John!" His voice echoed in the house with a disturbing hollow sound. He wet his dry lips and shouted again, "John--where are you?"
Only his echoing voice answered him. In growing fright he pounded up the escalator and rushed into John's room. It was empty. On a desk he found a message in John's neat hand-- Phil and Ursula, For a long time I have been very unhappy living with you. I'm grateful for the food and shelter and education you've provided. But you have never given me the love and warmth that I seem to crave. The funny part of it is that I never understood my craving and what it meant until I saw how love and affection bound the MacDonald kids and their folks.
This afternoon Jimmie and Jean came over to say good-by because they said their father told them they didn't belong here--that he was taking his family back where they belonged, atomic bomb threat and all--whatever he meant by that. After they left I got to thinking how much I'd like to go with them. So I'm leaving. Somehow I'm going to talk them into taking me with them wherever they are going. So this will have to be good-by.
Philon lifted his eyes from the note and his glance strayed to the window. Dreading to look he took two slow steps and peered down the street. The sight of the empty lot on the corner paralyzed him in his tracks.
John gone! The MacDonald house gone! Gone was his perfect alibi! In Washington a dying man's words had spelled out his own death sentence.
A step at the door roused him from his horror-stricken trance. He looked up to see a detective and a policeman regarding him with cold calculation.
"What's the matter, Miller?" asked the detective. "We've punched your announcer button half a dozen times. You deaf? You better come along to Headquarters to answer some questions about your movements today."
INSIDE JOHN BARTH.
By William W. Stuart Every man wants to see a Garden of Eden. John Barth agreed with his whole heart--he knew that he'd rather see than be one!
Take a fellow, reasonably young, personable enough, health perfect. Suppose he has all the money he can reasonably, or even unreasonably, use. He is successful in a number of different fields of work in which he is interested. Certainly he has security. Women? Well, maybe not any woman in the world he might want. But still, a very nice, choice selection of a number of the very finest physical specimens. The finest--and no acute case of puritanism to inhibit his enjoyment.
Take all that. Then add to it the positive assurance of continuing youth and vigor, with a solid life expectancy of from 175 to 200 more years. Impossible? Well--just suppose it were all true of someone. A man like that, a man with all those things going for him, you'd figure he would be the happiest man in the world.
Sure. A man with all that would have to be the happiest--unless he was crazy. Right? But me, Johnny Barth, I had it.
I had all of it, just like that. I sure wasn't the happiest man in the world though. And I know I wasn't crazy either. The thing about me was, I wasn't a man. Not exactly.
I was a colony.
Really. A colony. A settlement. A new but flourishing culture, you might say. Oh, I had the look of a man, and the mind and the nerves and the feel of a man too. All the normal parts and equipment. But all of it existed--and was beautifully kept up, I'll say that--primarily as a locale, not a man.
I was, as I said before, a colony.
Sometimes I used to wonder how New England really felt about the Pilgrims. If you think that sounds silly--perhaps one of these days you won't.
The beginning was some ten years back, on a hunting trip the autumn after I got out of college. That was just before I started working, as far off the bottom as I could talk myself, which was the personnel office in my Uncle John's dry cleaning chain in the city.
That wasn't too bad. But I was number four man in the office, so it could have been better, too. Uncle John was a bachelor, which meant he had no daughter I could marry. Anyway, she would have been my cousin. But next best, I figured, was to be on good personal terms with the old bull.
This wasn't too hard. Apart from expecting rising young executives to rise and start work no later than 8:30 a.m., Uncle John was more or less all right. Humor him? Well, every fall he liked to go hunting. So when he asked me to go hunting with him up in the Great Sentries, I knew I was getting along pretty well. I went hunting.
The trip was nothing very much. We camped up in the hills. We drank a reasonably good bourbon. We hunted--if that's the word for it. Me, I'd done my hitch in the Army. I know what a gun is--and respect it. Uncle John provided our hunting excitement by turning out to be one of the trigger-happy types. His score was two cows, a goat, a couple of other hunters, one possible deer--and unnumbered shrubs and bushes shot at. Luckily he was such a lousy shot that the safest things in the mountains were his targets.
Well, no matter. I tried to stay in the second safest place, which was directly behind him. So it was a nice enough trip with no casualties, right up to the last night.
We were all set to pack out in the morning when it happened. Maybe you read about the thing at the time. It got a light-hearted play in the papers, the way those things do. "A one in a billion accident," they called it.
We were lounging by the campfire after supper and a few good snorts. Uncle John was entertaining himself with a review of some of his nearer, more thrilling misses. I, to tell the truth, was sort of dozing off.
Then, all of a sudden, there was a bright flash of blue-green light and a loud sort of a "zoop-zing" sound. And a sharp, stinging sensation in my thighs.
I hollered. I jumped to my feet. I looked down, and my pants were peppered with about a dozen little holes like buckshot. I didn't have to drop my pants to know my legs were too. I could feel it. And blood started to ooze.
I figured, of course, that Uncle John had finally shot me and I at once looked on the bright side. I would be a cinch for a fast promotion to vice president. But Uncle John swore he hadn't been near a gun. So we guessed some other hunter must have done it, seen what he had done and then prudently ducked. At least no one stepped forward.
It was a moonlight night. With Uncle John helping me we made it the two and a half miles back down the trail to Poxville, where we'd left our car and stuff. We routed out the only doctor in the area, old Doc Grandy.
He grumbled, "Hell, boy, a few little hunks o' buckshot like that and you make such a holler. I see a dozen twice's bad as this ever' season. Ought to make you wait till office hours. Well--hike yourself up on the table there. I'll flip 'em out for you."
Which he proceeded to do. If it was a joke to him, it sure wasn't to me, even if they weren't in very deep. Finally he was done. He stood there clucking like an old hen with no family but a brass doorknob. Something didn't seem quite right to him.
Uncle John gave me a good belt of the bourbon he'd been thoughtful enough to pack along.
"What was it you say hit you, boy?" Doc Grandy wanted to know, reaching absently for the bottle.
"Buckshot, I suppose. What was it you just hacked out of me?"
"Hah!" He passed the bottle back to Uncle John. "Not like any buckshot I ever saw. Little balls, or shells of metallic stuff all right. But not lead. Peculiar. M-mph. You know what, boy?"
"You're mighty liberal with the iodine, I know that. What else?"
"You say you saw a big flash of light. Come to think on it, I saw a streak of light up the mountainside about that same time. I was out on the porch. You know, boy, I believe you got something to feel right set up about. I believe you been hit by a meteor. If it weren't--ha-ha--pieces of one of them flying saucers you read about."
Well, I didn't feel so set up about it, then or ever. But it did turn out he was right.
Doc Grandy got a science professor from Eastern State Teachers College there in Poxville to come look. He agreed that they were meteor fragments. The two of them phoned it in to the city papers during a slow week and, all in all, it was a big thing. To them. To me it was nothing much but a pain in the rear.
The meteor, interviewed scientists were quoted as saying, must have almost burned up coming through the atmosphere, and disintegrated just before it hit me. Otherwise I'd have been killed. The Poxville professor got very long-winded about the peculiar shape and composition of the pieces, and finally carried off all but one for the college museum. Most likely they're still there. One I kept as a souvenir, which was silly. It wasn't a thing I wanted to remember--or, as I found later, would ever be able to forget. Anyway, I lost it.
All right. That was that and, except for a lingering need to sit on very soft cushions, the end of it. I thought. We went back to town.
Uncle John felt almost as guilty about the whole thing as if he had shot me himself and, in November, when he found about old Bert Winginheimer interviewing girl applicants for checker jobs at home in his apartment, I got a nice promotion.
Working my way up, I was a happy, successful businessman.
And then, not all at once but gradually, a lot of little things developed into problems. They weren't really problems either, exactly. They were puzzles. Nothing big but--well, it was like I was sort of being made to do, or not do, certain things. Like being pushed in one direction or another. And not necessarily the direction I personally would have picked. Like---- Well, one thing was shaving.
I always had used an ordinary safety razor--nicked myself not more than average. It seemed OK to me. Never cared too much for electric razors; it didn't seem to me they shaved as close. But--I took to using an electric razor now, because I had to.
One workday morning I dragged myself to the bathroom of my bachelor apartment to wash and shave. Getting started in the morning was never a pleasure to me. But this time seemed somehow tougher than usual. I lathered my face and put a fresh blade in my old razor.
For some reason, I could barely force myself to start. "Come on, Johnny boy!" I told myself. "Let's go!" I made myself take a first stroke with the razor. Man! It burned like fire. I started another stroke and the burning came before the razor even touched my face. I had to give up. I went down to the office without a shave.
That was no good, of course, so at the coffee break I forced myself around the corner to the barber shop. Same thing! I got all lathered up all right, holding myself by force in the chair. But, before the barber could touch the razor to my face, the burning started again.
I stopped him. I couldn't take it.
And then suddenly the idea came to me that an electric razor would be the solution. It wasn't, actually, just an idea; it was positive knowledge. Somehow I knew an electric razor would do it. I picked one up at the drug store around the corner and took it to the office. Plugged the thing in and went to work. It was fine, as I had known it would be. As close a shave? Well, no. But at least it was a shave.
Another thing was my approach to--or retreat from--drinking. Not that I ever was a real rummy, but I hadn't been one to drag my feet at a party. Now I got so moderate it hardly seemed worth bothering with at all. I could only take three or four drinks, and that only about once a week. The first time I had that feeling I should quit after four, I tried just one--or two--more. At the first sip of number five, I thought the top of my head would blast off. Four was the limit. Rigidly enforced.
All that winter, things like that kept coming up. I couldn't drink more than so much coffee. Had to take it easy on smoking. Gave up ice skating--all of a sudden the cold bothered me. Stay up late nights and chase around? No more; I could hardly hold my eyes open after ten.
That's the way it went.
I had these feelings, compulsions actually. I couldn't control them. I couldn't go against them. If I did, I would suffer for it.
True, I had to admit that probably all these things were really good for me. But it got to where everything I did was something that was good for me--and that was bad. Hell, it isn't natural for a young fellow just out of college to live like a fussy old man of seventy with a grudge against the undertaker. Life became very dull!
About the only thing I could say for it was, I was sure healthy.
It was the first winter since I could remember that I never caught a cold. A cold? I never once sniffled. My health was perfect; never even so much as a pimple. My dandruff and athlete's foot disappeared. I had a wonderful appetite--which was lucky, since I didn't have much other recreation left. And I didn't even gain weight!
Well, those things were nice enough, true. But were they compensation for the life I was being forced to live? Answer: Uh-uh. I couldn't imagine what was wrong with me.
Of course, as it turned out the following spring, I didn't have to imagine it. I was told.
It was a Friday. After work I stopped by Perry's Place with Fred Schingle and Burk Walters from the main accounting office. I was hoping it would turn out to be one of my nights to have a couple--but no. I got the message and sat there, more or less sulking, in my half of the booth.
Fred and Burk got to arguing about flying saucers. Fred said yes; Burk, no. I stirred my coffee and sat in a neutral corner.
"Now look here," said Burk, "you say people have seen things. All right. Maybe some of them have seen things--weather balloons, shadows, meteors maybe. But space ships? Nonsense."
"No nonsense at all. I've seen pictures. And some of the reports are from airline pilots and people like that, who are not fooled by balloons or meteors. They have seen ships, I tell you, ships from outer space. And they are observing us."
"It is not!"
"It's drivel. Now look, Fred. You too, Johnny, if you're awake over there. How long have they been reporting these things? For years. Ever since World War II.
"All right. Ever since the war, at least. So. Suppose they were space ships? Whoever was in them must be way ahead of us technically. So why don't they land? Why don't they approach us?"
Fred shrugged. "How would I know? They probably have their reasons. Maybe they figure we aren't worth any closer contact."
"Hah! Nonsense. The reason we don't see these space people, Fred my boy, admit it, is because there aren't any. And you know it!"
"I don't know anything of the damned sort. For all any of us know, they might even be all around us right now."
Burk laughed. I smiled, a little sourly, and drained my coffee.
I felt a little warning twinge.
Too much coffee; should have taken milk. I excused myself as the other two ordered up another round.
I left. The conversation was too stupid to listen to. Space creatures all around me, of all things. How wrong can a man get? There weren't any invaders from space all around me.
I was all around them.
All at once, standing there on the sidewalk outside Perry's Bar, I knew that it was true. Space invaders. The Earth was invaded--the Earth, hell! I was invaded. I didn't know how I knew, but I knew all right. I should have. I was in possession of all the information.
I took a cab home to my apartment.
I was upset. I had a right to be upset and I wanted to be alone. Alone? That was a joke!
Well, my cab pulled up in front of my very modest place. I paid the driver, overtipped him--I was really upset--and ran up the stairs. In the apartment, I hustled to the two by four kitchen and, with unshakable determination, I poured myself a four-finger snort of scotch.
Then I groaned and poured it down the sink. Unshakable determination is all very well--but when the top of your head seems to rip loose like a piece of stubborn adhesive coming off a hairy chest and bounces, hard, against the ceiling, then all you can do is give up. I stumbled out to the front room and slumped down in my easy chair to think.
I'd left the door open and I was sitting in a draft.