The telephone rang.
"Four thirty, Mr. Carter," said the voice of the night clerk in the receiver.
It was time to catch the five thirty Moon ship. He splashed cold water on his face and the back of his neck until he was awake, took a hot shower, dressed rapidly, and gave up his key at the desk at 4:45.
"A letter for you, Mister Carter," she smiled, handing it to him. From the wall speakers a mild but penetrating voice began repeating, "Bus line for spaceport leaving in twelve minutes. All passengers for Luna City, Moon Base, Asteroid Belt and points out, please go to the landing deck. Bus line for spaceport leaving in twelve minutes--"
He opened the letter when he had settled down in a comfortable morris chair in the airbus. The letterhead said MANOBA Group Psychotherapeutic Research and Conference Management.
One sheet of it was a half page contract in fine print, apparently a standard form with the name of Union Transport Corporation typed in the appropriate blanks. Above it was printed in clear English and large type for the benefit of those readers unaccustomed to contracts. "WARNING. After you have signed this release you have no legal recourse or claim as an individual against any physical or mental injury or inconvenience you may claim to have sustained as a result of the activities of the contracted psychotherapist(s) in the course of group therapy. Your group is the responsible agent. It must make all claims and complaints as a unit, and may withdraw from the contract as a unit. Those who withdraw from the group withdraw from participation in the contract."
Bryce smiled. Or in other words, if you didn't like it, you could quit your job and get out!
The other sheet he glanced at casually. It seemed to be an explanatory page to the effect that the Manoba's work was strictly confidential and they were under no obligation to explain what they had done or were doing or give their identities to any member of the corporation who had hired them. There was nothing resembling a sales talk about results, and the only thing approaching it was a stiff last sentence referring anyone who was curious about the results of such treatment to the National Certified Analytical Statistics of Professional Standing in such and such bulletins of such and such years.
He signed the contract, smiling, and mailed it at a handy postal and telegraph window at the spaceport before boarding the spaceship.
The phone was ringing.
Bryce rolled over sleepily and picked it up. "Eight A.M. L.S. S.S. Sir," said the soft voice of the desk clerk.
"Okay," he grunted, glancing at his watch and hanging up. It was two minutes after eight, but he didn't check her up on it. If he placed the voice rightly, it belonged to an exceptionally pretty brunette. He had not tried to date her yet, but she looked accessible, and Mona was becoming tiresome.
He turned the dial in the headboard that reversed the polarization of the window and rose reluctantly, stretching as sunlight flooded the room. It was daylight on Moonbase City. It had been daylight for a week, and it would be daylight still for another week.
Through the softening filter of the airtight glass the view of distant crater walls and the airsealed towers of Moonbase City shone in etched magnificence, but he gave it only a glance. It was always the same. There was no weather on the Moon and no variety of view.
"Good morning," he smiled, passing a bellboy in the luxurious, deep colored halls.
"Good morning, Mister Carter," the boy answered rapidly with an eager nervous smile.
Bryce had caught the management up sharply on several small lapses, and they all knew him now. He strode on, pleased. Efficiency.... No one gave him a second glance or noticed him in the tube trains, but he was not irritated by it. Someday they would. Someday the whole world would know his face as well as they knew their own. He promised that to them silently and then settled down to concentrate on some constructive planning before reaching the office. He was not going to waste his time gawking at ads or listening to the music like the others.
"Mister Carter?" said a hesitant voice behind him as he was reaching for the handle of the office doors.
"What is it?" he asked crisply, turning, but as he saw who had spoken he knew exactly what it would be.
"Pardon me Mister Carter, but--" It was a spaceman, a skinny wreck of a man in clothes that hung on him. A junky, a drug addict. Bryce knew the signs. He had spent all his money and gone without food for his drug, and now he had remembered from Belt talk that Bryce Carter was a soft touch for a loan. "Never mind," Bryce snarled, reaching for the door again.
He assisted the smuggling of the stuff but that did not mean that he had to admire the fools who took it. The man was muttering something about a loan when the door shut and cut off his words. The loan would be spent on more junk. If he had wanted food he could have signed into a state hospital to take the Cure, and be imprisoned and fed until the hunger for his drug had passed and released him. The Cure was a brief hell, but it was fair payment for having had his fun, and if the addict had any guts he would face it. Any time he was ready to pay the price of exit he could go back to being a man.
Bryce strode through the offices irritably. It did not matter if Earthlings chose to waste their time in artificial ecstasy, but it was different to see a good Belt spaceman let himself go.
The receptionist looked up with fright in her eyes as he passed and gave him a special good-morning, with a smile that was tremulous and very eager to please. He still had her in the stage of new employment where she was kept afraid of losing her new job with a bad reference. It was best to put them all over the hurdles at first.
He gave her a condescending smile as he went through into the inner offices. "Good morning." She was shaky enough. A few well faked cold rages against minor errors had done well. From now on she would need only smiles to give the utmost in loyalty and hard work. What had Machiavelli said? "Make them fear your wrath, and they will be grateful for your forebearance."
He did not bother to speak to Kesby when he passed his open office door. Kesby didn't need smiles or praise, he worked loyally just for the rare curt acknowledgement that he had done well. Three years of managing had made him a good lieutenant, completely faithful. When Bryce quit Union Transport Kesby would follow him.
He went into his luxurious inner office with its deep rugs and eye-relaxing colors and its comfortable wide desk with its speaker box and telephones that were like the nerve wires of power, and sat down comfortably like a king on a throne or a mule skinner in the driver's seat with ten pairs of reins in each hand. He never felt completely awake and up to his full size in the morning until he was here.
There was a good stack of letters and memos on the desk waiting for him. On top of the mail stack was a letter labeled PRIVATE in a beamed spacegram envelope. He did not recognize the name at the head of it but the return address was General Delivery, Reef Three, The Belt. It read: Something urgent has come up. Must see you. Arrange when. Bob. Roberto Orillo, who had been his manager in the small line that UT had taken from him, now the owner of a tiny line of his own which carefully avoided competition with UT in the Belt.
"Arrange when." They could only meet in secret. What would Orillo want to discuss?
The theory he had held in the back of his mind for three days gave answer--Murder! It was Orillo who was behind the attempted attack on Earth. This meeting was another trap. Orillo wanted him dead.
Roberto Orillo had been his first helper with the shipping and delivery service Bryce had built up from the days when he had been merely an asteroid prospector with a ship overstocked with supplies and an obliging willingness to sell his surplus.
After he put his traveling stores on schedule he noticed that an increasing number of people began moving into the Belt to settle along his route without investing in the proper ship or supplies, depending on him, using his ship for a store and bus service, swelling his profits. He found that wherever he chose to extend a route and offer credit for a stake settlers would appear and a community begin to grow.
He absorbed that lesson and laid plans.
UT blocked them. Running his store ships on their regular rounds, making loans, mediating deals, taking half interests in ideas that looked profitable, selling fuel and power, subtly binding his customers to him with bonds of dependency deeper than peonage, Bryce found suddenly that UT, whose trade mark had never been seen in the Belt before, had slipped in five ships patterned precisely after his, but larger, more magnificent and expensive, and set them running on the same course as his but one day ahead. His customers told him. They were apologetic but they had bought at the ship which came earliest, enticed by the glitter and the bargain prices.
It was a killing blow, and was obviously meant to be so. The UT managers were wise in the ways of power, and with limitless money could bankrupt him.
That day Bryce saw that he could not fight UT from outside, and he saw a dream of empire greater than Alexander ever dreamed of being ripped from his hands. When a tactful and conciliating offer came from UT for a merger and an exchange of stock at double its value, he saw it was an indirect bribe for his silent submission without complaints to Spaceways or to the Anti-Cartel Commission of the FN, and he saw that the only way to compete with the gigantic corporation was to destroy it from within.
He held out for a seat on the Board of Directors. They gave it to him.
And in three years had done an efficient job of corrupting and undermining UT to the point where it was ready to fall. UT had a week more to live in respected public service before an outraged public tore it apart.
Bryce had left Orillo in the Belt to form a small delivery company servicing thinly settled outlying points where the profits were too small to disturb UT. It would be this company that would take over and buy out the UT equipment when Spaceways chopped up the monster corporation, and it was planned that Orillo offer Bryce full partnership when this event took place.
But perhaps Orillo objected to sharing his reign with a partner. And perhaps Orillo had always objected to the fact that Bryce was the only one who knew Orillo was a fugitive from justice. Bryce had never quite been able to tell what went on behind the handsome blond face and impassive blue eyes of his assistant.
Bryce had taken him in hand and given him a job after Orillo fled from a murder charge in South Africa. And Bryce had arranged the operations that gave Orillo a new face, new fingerprints and an unworried future. Only Bryce could now give the word to the police which could bring the examination that would show Orillo's retina tallied with that of a wanted man.
But if murder had always lain behind those impassive pale blue eyes, why had there been no attempts before? The answer to that was easy. Up to this time Bryce's activities had been profitable to Orillo. He had seen where Bryce's plans were leading and wanted them to succeed, so that he might step into Bryce's shoes and reap the results.
In three more months Bryce's death would be the death of a partner, and bring the unwanted spotlight of police investigation on Orillo himself, but now, at this point, the disappearance of Bryce Carter would bring police inquiry and suspicion only to the already shaky and undermined fabric of UT.
Bryce counted the profit and loss of his death to the man he had helped, and smiled ruefully. Yet the request for the meeting might be genuine and important. He had to take a chance on it and meet his ex-assistant and future partner somewhere far away from witnesses, recognition--or protection.
Taking a memo pad he printed, I'll meet you Friday; 3:PM LM, and wrote in the coordinates of a position in space not very far out from Earth, indicated the radar blink signals for its buoy and clipped the memo sheet to the envelope with its false name and return address. Ringing for his secretary, he handed it to her.
"See that that gets beamed back immediately. Friend of mine seems to be in some sort of a jam."
That was that. He turned to his work. After an hour or so the intercom box clicked and Kesby said unexpectedly, "Visitor to see you, boss. Can I send him in?"
"Yes." The receptionist had strict orders to keep out everyone except those scheduled for appointment, and to announce the names and businesses of dubious cases for his deciding, but Kesby must have overridden her decision. He sounded confident. Probably someone important.
Kesby opened the door with an expression half nervous, half mischievous, "Your visitor," and closed it hastily as the person stepped in.
He didn't belong in there. It was obvious to Bryce that whoever he was, he had gotten in through a lie.
The young man who stood inside his office watching him was no one connected with the business. He was too young for any position of importance. The slender frailty of childhood was still with him. Yet that impression soon faded under the impressiveness of his stance. It was more than just arrogance or poise, it was an unshakable confidence. As if no failure could be conceived.
He stood balanced to move either forward or back. His voice was again a surprise. Absolute total clarity, almost without inflection as if the words reached the mind without needing a voice. "If you're going to throw me out, this is the best time to do it." Dark brown skin of one of the dark races, jet black straight hair, a dark pair of eyes that were merry and watchful and had the impact of something dangerous. Colossal gall, Bryce characterized it to himself. He might be as good as he thinks he is. He was probably selling the Brooklyn Bridge, and he should never have gotten in, but the fact that he had somehow gotten past Kesby made him worth a few questions before being thrown out.
"What do you want?"
He came forward to the desk to answer. "I want to be your right arm." He took out a pack of cigarettes, shaking one free and offering it with courtesy. "Have one?" Bryce shook his head and the boy put one between his own lips and put the pack away. "My name is Pierce," he said, lighting the cigarette with the flame cupped in his hands as if he were used to smoking in the wind. He looked up with his eyes squinting against the smoke, shook the match out and dropped it in the desk ash tray. "Roy Pierce."
He was as much at home as an invading army. Bryce felt an impulse to laugh.
He knew this kid very well, but he couldn't place where, when, or how. "Am I supposed to know the name?"
"Do you remember Pop Yak?"
Bryce remembered Pop Yak. He gave in with a sigh, and ordered in the singsong vernacular of his childhood. "Okay. Sitselfdel, speeltalk cutchop!"
Pop Yak was a grizzled man who had watched Bryce fighting with another kid. Afterward he had taken Bryce into his store and given him ice cream and some pointers on dirty fighting. Not much had penetrated the first time but Bryce went back for advice again, learning that that was the place to be told how to do things and get what he wanted. Pop was always patient with his teaching, and always right.
He had chosen Bryce as his agent to sell minor drugs to the other kids and acted as a fence for the things he stole, and he encouraged him to study in the compulsory school and loaned him books. And Pop was the first to give him the tip on legitimate business and how to pull money on the right side of the law and make a profit they couldn't kick about. Good old Pop. "Will-pay." The boy sat down and leaned forward with a slight intent motion of a hand that was Pop's favorite gesture, one Bryce had picked up from him himself.
"He told me you're on the way up." Roy Pierce held him with a steady dark gaze. "I want a slice of that, and I want it the easy way, hitching my wagon to your rocket. You can use me. A big man is too public. You need a new hand and a new voice, one that does what you want done, and can do it in the dark or the light, without your name--a stand-in for alibis, and a contriver of accidents so they break for you without your motion. A left arm that your enemies don't recognize as yours."
He was asking to be Bryce's substitute in the things that had to be done without connection to himself, and yet had to be done by Bryce himself, because no one could be trusted with the knowledge of them.
Could he be trusted? His coming could be another trap by the unidentified enemy. It was almost too providential, almost too well timed. "References and abilities?"
Roy Pierce reached into his wallet and handed out an aptitude profile card backed by the universal test score listings in training and skills on the other side. Bryce played with the card and studied the youth. The boy was well dressed in a dark tailored suit of the kind Bryce favored. He looked able, clean, cool and ruthless. "Armed?" Bryce asked.
A thing like a very thick cigar suddenly appeared in Pierce's hand. The end of it pointing at him was solid except for a very small hole. A needle gun, obviously, loaded with two and a half inch grooved drug carrying needles.
"Sleep or death?" Bryce asked.
"Sleep," Pierce said, putting it away. "It's licensed." Bryce wondered what made him so sure he could trust this kid. He analyzed while he questioned. He did not bother to look at the card.
"Basic coast pidgin, symbolic and glot." Basic English and Poliglot, the two universals.
"Detector proofed?" Lie detectors could be a nuisance, for they were used casually and universally without needing the legal warrants and deference to constitutional immunities and medical supervision of hypno-questioning.
Pierce smiled with a flash of white teeth. "First thing I ever saved my money for."
Though they spoke standard English, Bryce had placed his intonations almost to the block he grew up in. Almost to the half block! He was as familiar as Pop Yak, as familiar as his own face in the mirror, and as understandable. Bryce knew the inside of his mind as well as if it were a suddenly attached lobe of his own. It was like looking back through time at himself younger and less complex.
Pop Yak had turned out another on the same model, a younger simpler duplicate of himself. Pierce was doing exactly what he said, offering service to Bryce as he would offer him a sword, simply for the risk and delight of being an instrument in a power game with stakes as high as he had guessed Bryce's game to be. There was no danger of him being a plant, and no danger of him squealing under pressure: the risk of death or arrest was part of his pay.
"Okay," Bryce said. He gestured with his head to a corner of the room behind him. "Sit over there. You're my cousin from Montehedo, and I'm showing you the town." He turned to his appointment pad again and read. After Pierce had placed a chair in the indicated position, Bryce said without turning. "This week I can use a bodyguard. Someone's hiring killers for me."
There was no sound of motion for a moment. Bryce got the idea that Pierce was more surprised than the fact warranted. But his question was gentle and deadly. "Any idea who?"
"The line forms to the left." Bryce said dryly, "Put away that needle gun and buy something legal that kills." He handed back a sheaf of letters, memos and graphs. "Read these and learn." For some reason he felt exhilarated.
He turned back to work, routing shipments, shifting rates to balance shifting costs, lowering rates for preliminary incentive on lines that could run at lower cost with a heavier load, occasionally using the Bell communication load analyzer and Kesby's formula analysis for a choice of ways of averting bottlenecks and overload slow-down points, sometimes consulting the solar system maps on the walls.
Good service built up customer demand and dependency on good service. Producers manufacturing now on Earth with the new materials shipped in from space could not be cut off from access to the new materials without ruin to the manufacturers. Earth was becoming dependent on space transport.
Once the customers were given it, they grew to need it. He smiled at the thought. It was another kind of drug traffic, and wielded the same kind of potentially infinite power over the customers.
One thing he had learned from the Economics tome he had struggled with four nights ago, a simple inexorable principle he had recognized dimly before--that since it was difficult and more expensive to ship out goods from Earth to space than it was to drop goods into Earth from space, eventually spacepeople might be independent of Earth, and Earth totally dependent on space products.
The potentialities of the business game were amazing past anything Pop Yak had ever hinted, but the funny thing was he had to find it out step by step for himself. That kind of excitement wasn't in stories. The adventures of explorers, research men, and detectives were written into stories, but not money men. The life and growth and death and blackmail of individuals were in the stories he had read, but not the murder of planets and cities, the control and blackmail of whole populations, in this odd legal game with the simple rules. Funny there hadn't been lurid stories about this in the magazines he read as a kid.
He grinned--Well, the kids would read about him. In fifteen years he'd have everyone under his thumb and they'd smile and bow and be frightened just speaking to him.
The work vanished rapidly, the pile of accumulated letters and reports dwindling, and the phone ringing at intervals.
Complaints he dealt with carefully, wording each letter in reply so as to give the impression that he, Bryce Carter, was personally breaking the corporation policy to satisfy the complainer, and adding a word of praise on the intelligence and lucidity of the complaining letter. So far he had made a total of some six hundred letter-writing allies that way. Complainants were usually loquacious, interfering types who expressed more than their share of public opinion, and many would glorify him to everyone whose ear they could hold, if only to have it known that they were on pally terms with a Director of the great UT.
Many of the letters were merely friendly and chatty, telling of money troubles, successes and family affairs. To these he recorded a few friendly remarks on wire spool, telling the same joke to each, and slipped each loop of wire into an envelope to be mailed.
Pierce, studying a transport routing map, looked over and grinned at the sixth repetition of the joke, and Bryce grinned back and continued on recording a letter to an address in the Ozarks. "Got a young cousin of mine in from Montehedo, Miss Furnald, he's sitting here watching to see how a big business office operates and he's grinning at me because it looks like I want to just sit and talk at my friends all day long. I have fifty-nine business letters here to answer--honest to God--fifty-nine, I just counted them, so I guess I'll cut off and show the young squirt how I can work. Send me that photo of your sister's new baby."
He hung up the record mouthpiece. One more voter and loyal friend to pull for him when he was a public figure and the going got rough.
He grinned. It was a strange life and a strange game.
When he left the office with Pierce, someone stepped out of a corner of the corridor and clutched at his sleeve, speaking rapidly. Bryce brushed off the hand carelessly and walked on.
"A junky," he remarked to Pierce. There was a quick flash of motion behind them that sent them whirling to one side. Pierce stood aside with the small needle gun in his palm waiting to see if it would be needed, while Bryce finished the downstroke of his hand that sent the knife and the junky reeling to the rubbery corridor flooring.
"Shall I report him?" Pierce asked, making his needle gun vanish in the same smooth motion it had appeared, and indicating a phone sign.
"No. It doesn't matter," Bryce walked on thoughtfully. "Everyone wants to kill me at once."
Pierce said, "It's easy to sway a miserable man to the point of pinning all his troubles and hate on to one name, like Bryce Carter."
"I know," said Bryce. He saw that the smiling dark young man was alert, walking a little ahead of him and glancing quickly left and right as they approached corners and intersections and recessed doorways where a man could wait unseen, doing his job as a bodyguard efficiently and inconspicuously. "If it's the man I think it is," Bryce told him, falling into step again after they passed the turn into the tube trains, "he's working against a deadline. It's now or never. There won't be any more of this after next month."
Pierce answered after a glance at a passing mirror to see if they were followed, and a quick scan of the train platform. "Your usual haunts will be booby trapped. Better stay out of routine."