Old Leithgow trusted his friend a little more. "Get your suit on, Friday," he said gently, and slipped into his own. The negro, ashamed, followed his example; then both were flat on the ground, back to back, sniping--Leithgow also--as best they could under such conditions at the groups of men who now were bellying ever nearer from three directions.
The Hawk's plan might well have appeared hair-brained to one who did not know the man, and what he was capable of accomplishing under pressure. The very first step in this plan required the destroying of the three outflanking guards between him and the space-ship.
As so often in the great adventurer's career, he was lucky. The unthinking have always admitted his luck, but never seen that he forced it--forced it by doing the unexpected--attacking when he was attacked. He was doing that now. The three coolie-guards in his way must have known who he was, so their alarm at finding themselves, the attackers, attacked, will account for their making a move of poor strategy. Instead of scattering and defending the open entrance-port of the space-ship from a short distance, they in their alarm made haste to get inside to defend it from there. The interior was the best place to defend the ship--if they had already been inside--for they could lie in the inner darkness and sweep the open port when the Hawk entered.
But to try to pass through the port--that was bad judgment. It was only necessary for Carse to hold bead on it and fire when they passed in line.
This was the present "luck" of the adventurer. He might have sniped the guards anyway, but he had it easier. From fifty yards away, prone and carefully sighting, he took the three lives that had been so viciously, so subversively altered by Ku Sui.
A moment later, the way cleared, he was inside the ship--and his space-suit lay on the ground outside.
Rapidly the three groups of guards closed in on Leithgow and Friday. The two men made their advance as uncomfortable as possible, but they could do no accurate shooting at such difficult targets as crawling men, from within the cramped interiors of their cumbrous suits. Not even Friday, who was a crack shot. They could not hold out long--nor did they expect to.
They had been too occupied to notice what had become of Carse. Within their suits all was silence; they heard neither their friend's shots as he struck down the three coolies nor their own. Quick glances at the ship's open port revealed no one; nothing. Probably, they thought, the Hawk was dead. Even if he were not, they would soon be. A matter of a minute. Maybe two. Their suits were still intact, but they could not remain so much longer. Ku Sui had this time ordered them destroyed.
And now half a dozen coolies were leaving the ring tightening around them and creeping to the Scorpion as additional guards....
It was then, in those last few seconds, with death staring them in the face, that Friday did a magnificent thing. It happened that Carse saw him do it as the adventurer jumped out of the Scorpion again and with frantic speed slipped into the space-suit he had left waiting. Friday stood straight up, a hundred feet from the enemy--a great bloated monster in his padded suit--and charged. Leithgow and the Hawk heard, by their suit helmet-radios, his battle yell of defiance, but the coolies did not. All silent, apparently, he rushed them--slowly, because of his hampering suit--his ray-gun spitting orange contempt--and other pencils of fiery death passing him narrowly by.
And then, while he still charged, the rays stopped stabbing past him, and he saw the faces of the coolie-guards turn upward. So surprised was the expression on their faces, that he turned and looked too--and saw the Scorpion, her entrance ports still open, forty feet off the ground and rising with swift acceleration.
Faster and faster she rose; all ray-guns were silenced before her astounding ascent. Higher and higher--faster and faster--till with a stunning, ear-deafening crash she struck the great dome and was through.
Then came chaos.
A huge, jagged gash marked the ship's passage, and through this the air inside the dome poured with cyclonic force, snatching into in maelstrom everything unfastened within the dome and hurling it crazily into space. For seconds the flood rushed out, a visible thing, gray from the soil which it scooped up; and while its fury lasted every building on the asteroid quivered and groaned from the terrific strain.
And where, a moment before, men had stood--two white men and a black, and a score of coolie-guards--there was now nothing save the flat rock under the gaping hole. The upper soil had been ripped out and flung forth like a concealing veil around the bodies that had gone with it....
For an interval Hawk Carse knew nothing. He had ceased to live, it seemed, and was soaring through Eternity. He never knew how much time passed before his numbed senses began to return and he became aware of weight and of a furious roaring in his head.
He was moving forward at blinding speed. Something kept flashing before him--a wide stream of ruddy orange light: his dazed brain could connect it with nothing he had ever known. Soon the orange stream settled into spasmodic bursts, pitch blackness filling the intervals; and when it came more slowly he saw that it was in reality the vast flaming ball of Jupiter, streaking across the line of vision as he tumbled over and over, head over heels--free in space!
The realization helped his return to alertness. As the wild tumbling motion gradually ceased, and Jupiter tended to stay more and more under his feet, he peered around through his face-plate. To one side he glimpsed two grotesque, bulky figures, one half of them limned glaringly against the blackness of space by the near-by planet's light. He saw other figures, too, spread out in a scattered fringe--figures of men in smocks, dead and bloated and white.
They were the coolies, these last, and the other two were of course Leithgow and Friday. But had they survived the outrush of air? Carse felt in his left glove for the suit's gravity control lever; found it and tentatively moved it. His acceleration slowly increased. He brought the lever part-way back. Then, into the microphone encased inside the helmet, he called: "Leithgow! Leithgow! Can you hear me? Friday!"
The radio broadcast his words. Soon welcome answers came in Eliot Leithgow's tired voice and the negro's emphatic bass.
"Maneuver together," Carse instructed them. "We must lock arms and stay close."
Slowly, clumsily, the three monstrous figures made toward each other, and presently they were reunited in a close group. Carse pointed an arm into the face of Jupiter where there hung poised a gleaming globe of white, dappled with dark splotches.
"Satellite III," he said, "--our goal. And we'll get there without interruption now that Ku Sui, his laboratory, his coordinated brains, are destroyed.... You are very quiet, Eliot. Aren't you happy at our success?"
"I am very tired," the old scientist said. "Oh, but we'll sleep and feast and game when we get back to my hidden lab on Three--won't we!"
"Chicken for me!" exclaimed Friday. "Even at twenty dollars a can!"
"Your shoulder, Carse--how is it?" asked the Master Scientist solicitously. "And how did you ever get out of that space-ship in time, after you had given it such an acceleration?"
There was a tired smile in the adventurer's voice when he replied: "My shoulder--a trifle. I have a dozen such burns. But my feet still hurt from the twenty-foot drop I took out of the Scorpion. I had to get out: the shock of the crash would have killed me.
"But I've been looking for the asteroid," he went on--and interrupted himself. "By the horn of the phanti!" he exclaimed in amazement. "Look, Eliot! That explains it all!"
His whole body was tilted back to allow him to look upward. Friday and the Master Scientist followed his startled gaze, and they too gaped in wonder.
For there was nothing above or around them--no dwindling fragment of rock--no sign of any asteroid: only the eternal stars.
"Yes," said Eliot Leithgow slowly, "that explains it all...."
"It explains what?" asked Friday, staring. "And where is the asteroid?"
"It's up there," the Hawk replied. "Don't you see now, Eclipse, why no one's ever found it; why we could hunt forever for it and hunt in vain? Ku Sui made his whole asteroid invisible!"
WE'RE FRIENDS, NOW.
By HENRY HASSE
The little man stood in front of the monstrous machine as the synaptic drone heightened to a scream. No ... no, he whispered. Don't you understand....
Today more than other days Raoul Beardsley felt the burden, the dragging sense of inevitability. He frowned; he glanced at his watch; he leaned forward to speak to the copter pilot and then changed his mind. He settled back, and from idle habit adjusted his chair-scope to the familiar broad-spoked area of Washington just below.
"I'll not have it happening again today!" he told himself grimly ... and at once his thoughts quavered off into many tangles of self-reproach. "Blasted nonsense the way I've been acting. A machine, a damned gutless machine like that! Why do I persist in letting it get to me?"
He pondered that and found no solace. "Delusion," he snorted. "Hyper synapse-disorder ... that's how Jeff Arnold would explain me. I wish he'd confine his diagnostics to the Mechanical Division where it belongs! He's amused, they're all amused at me--but damn it they just don't know!"
Beardsley's rotund body sagged at the thought. Adjusting the chair-scope, he fixed his gaze on the broad facade of Crime-Central Building far across the city; again he felt the burgeoning embarrassment and foreboding, but he put it down with an effort before it reached the edge of fear. Not today, he thought fiercely. No, by God, I just won't permit it to happen.
There. So! He felt much better already. And he had really made good time this morning. Today of all days he mustn't keep ECAIAC waiting.
Mustn't.... Something triggered in Beardsley, and he was assailed with a perverse rebellion at the thought.
Must not? But why not? Why shouldn't he just once keep ECAIAC and Jeff Arnold and his clique stewing in their own tangle of tubes and electronic juice? And wouldn't this, he gloated, be the perfect day for it! Arnold especially--just once to shatter that young man's complacent routine....
No. Beardsley savored the thought tastily, and let it trickle away, and the look of glee on his cherubic face was gone. For too many years his job as serological "coordinator" (Crime-Central) had kept him pinned to the concomitant routine. Pinned or crucified, it was all the same; in crime analysis as in everything these days, personal sense of achievement had been too unsubtly annihilated. Recalling his just completed task--the Citizen Files and persona-tapes and the endless annotating--Beardsley felt himself sinking still further into that mire of futility that encompassed neither excitement nor particular pride.
He brought himself back with a grimace, aware that he was clutching the briefcase of tapes possessively from long habit. The pilot had touched the news-stat, and abruptly one of the new "commerciappeals" grated on Beardsley's senses: "... we repeat, yes, PROT-O-SUDS is now available in flake or cake or the new attachable luxury-spray. Remember, PROT-O-SUDS has never been laboratory-tested, it contains no miracle ingredients, no improved scientific formula, and NO LANOLIN. Then what is the new PROT-O-SUDS? I tell you frankly, friends, it is nothing but a lot of pure soft soap! Remember ... we make no fabulous claims for PROT-O-SUDS ... we assume that you are reasonably clean to start with! And now for your late breakfast news, PROT-O-SUDS takes you direct to the Central News Bureau for a final survey on the Carmack murder case...."
Beardsley groaned. New voice in the background, while the screen presented a slow montage. Cine-runs of the great Carmack himself, including those at the International Cybernetics Congress a year ago ... survey of the murder scene, the Carmack mansion ... close-up of ECAIAC ... diagrammatic detail of ECAIAC ... then dramatically, the grim and imposing figure of George Mandleco, Minister of Justice.
And then the news-caster's voice: "... certain that final processing will go forward today. It would be a gross understatement to say that the Carmack Case has captured the attention of the nation, both officialdom and public alike! Never in the history of Crime-Central has there been such an undercurrent of speculation and excitement...."
"Excitement?" murmured Beardsley.
"And now it is heightened, by no less an authority than the Minister of Justice himself, who brought both plaudits and censure upon himself today with the outright statement that deep-rooted political issues may well be involved. As you must know by now, it was the murdered man himself--Amos Carmack--who some years ago carried on the incessant lobbying that resulted in ECAIAC being accepted pro bono publico by Crime-Central. What devastating irony! For now it is ECAIAC itself that must weigh each detail, correlate all factors, probe every motive and machination leading to the murder of its creator...."
"That's not entirely true, you know," muttered Beardsley.
Quick flicker, again a close-up of ECAIAC, and the drama-laden voice: "ECAIAC! Electronic Analysis Integrator and Computor. And now--an exclusive! From a very reliable source this reporter has learned that three Primes are involved...."
"Ha!" grated Beardsley.
"... and they will be broken down in quotient. Two must ultimately be eliminated--barring, of course, the possible emergence of any minor factor to status of Prime, which at this stage seems unlikely. It is estimated that by today or tomorrow at the latest Carmack's murderer will be brought to justice...."
Beardsley had taken as much as he could of this pseudo-factual mush. He jerked forward violently, rapped the pilot on the shoulder. "DAMN IT! WILL YOU SHUT THE DAMN THING OFF!"
He was immediately appalled at his outburst, and by the pilot's startled glance, but the stat went off immediately.
Beardsley leaned back muttering to himself. Carmack, Carmack! For seven weeks now he had lived with it intricately and intimately, as the case shoved everything else right off the news-stat. People took the latest echoes to bed with them, commuters gobbled it with their breakfast cereal. Thank God today would see the end, and they could once more have the hot South Polar crisis with their cereal.
Seven weeks! He clutched the bulging briefcase with a wearisome horror. Twenty-two persona-tapes from Central File, all neatly processed and ready for ECAIAC. End result of the endless chart sifts, emphasis (as always!) on parietosomatic recession, the slow emergence of minor constants, the inexorable trend toward Price Factor and then verification, verification, to each his own, with all the subtle and shaded values of the Augment Index brought finally to focus on the relevance-graph Carmack.
Sure, thought Beardsley. A thing of augment-indexing and psych-tapes, quite without possibility of error. Now in the old days of crime detection--it might have taken them seven months instead of weeks, not to mention frustration and leg-work and false-leads and sweat, but-- His mouth pulled down bitterly. Serological Coordinator. Glorified file-clerk is more like it. High-salaried errand-boy.
"Here we are, sir!" The pilot's voice jarred him to reality as the copter berthed.
Beardsley hurried toward the roof entrance. His faded blue suit, a size too large, flapped about him, and the outmoded felt hat seemed to sink to the level of his thick-lensed glasses. The guard greeted him, but suppressed a smile as the cherubic little man flashed his official pass.
For there was something about Raoul Beardsley that eternally evoked amusement--an air of vacuous innocence and a remote forlornness. He gave the appearance of a person who sold shoes during the day, washed his wife's dishes at night and then solved two or three galacti-gram puzzles before turning off the light precisely at ten. Few, if any, remembered that this nervous little man had once been top Inspector of New York City's Homicide Bureau ... but that was a dozen long years ago. Since then he had seen the antiquated detective methods of 1960 disappear, and he had died a little, too, seeing his Homicide Bureau relegated to a mere subsidiary with the growth of the Coordinate and Mechanical Divisions. His appointment to Chief of Co-ordinants, Federal, was automatic and unquestioned; and Beardsley would have been the last to know, or to care, that he had correlated some eight million miles of serological data for the entrains of ECAIAC, a perfect record of not a single unsolved case.
And the penalty was in his eyes, if one cared to look beyond the thick-lensed glasses. No one ever did. They were remote eyes, a little bewildered, a little hurt ... a mirror gone dull from times remembered but irretrievably lost.
Beardsley stepped onto the corridor slidewalk, coasted to the escalator and rode it down. Still immersed in his thoughts, he pushed into ECAIAC's room ... and again it happened.
So shockingly sudden, there was not even time for remonstrance at himself. The feeling hit him as always before, straight and unerring, a surging impact that smashed forward and stopped him in his tracks, literally paralyzed.
He caught his breath convulsively. How often had he come here? And how often had this happened, even when he'd sworn he wouldn't let it? There was something about the sight and sound and feel of ECAIAC that got to him, that seeped beneath flesh and bone and into his brain and sent his senses singing. Beardsley managed to gulp, as he observed the shiny black colossus that filled the entire length of the ninety-foot room; a dozen techs scurried around it, taking notes, attentive to the flashing lights in red-and-green and the faint clicking of thousands of relays that rose in susurration.
But more than that arose. It was something that pervaded the room, not a pulsing but a presence, a sort of snapping intangible intelligence that reached beyond the audible and sheared at Beardsley's nerve-ends.
And it hadn't been there a moment before. That was the shocking thing. Beardsley knew that it knew! It was sentient, it was alive and aware and waiting, and it was listening.
As always, it knew that he had entered.
Beardsley gulped again, stood frozen for half a minute. None of the techs seemed to notice; they had often chided him about it, but he was used to that now. At last he broke the spell and made his legs move, feeling cold sweat as he hurried along the length of ECAIAC toward Arnold's office.
There ... just about there ... by the rheostats, where the four red lights and the two green made a baleful pattern against the black metal skin. He felt it stronger than ever this time, something reaching and sinister aimed solely at him. He skirted the place with a quick goosey hop, stumbled a little and felt panic, but made it all right to the office.
Beardsley hated these moments. He was still trembling as he made a hurried entrance. Sure enough, as if on cue Jeff Arnold glanced up from his charts and grinned.
"Ah, good morning, Beardsley! Now don't tell me our pet goo--uh--snapped at you again?"
It was the routine remark, but today Arnold was immediately contrite for a change. "Sorry," he said, and a certain weariness replaced the grin. He gestured to the alco-mech. "Can I dial you a drink? Feel in need of one myself!"
"Eleven-C," said Beardsley, and slumped into the pneumo-chair. Arnold rose and dialled 11-C, handed him the drink and dialled 9-R for himself. Sipping it, he moved around the desk.
There was something very strange and preoccupied in his movements, Beardsley thought, more than a mere tiredness. He had never seen Arnold this way.
"Yes sir, this is the day!" A muscle twitched in his corded neck; Arnold eased his long frame into a chair, rubbed thumb and forefinger at his eyes. "Been up half the night running off clearance tests. Can't afford to foul up on this one!"
Beardsley tossed off his drink and blinked at the fiery strength of it. Now why should Arnold say that? When had ECAIAC ever fouled up? He watched the man across the desk. Jeff Arnold was a vigorous, striking specimen, handsome in an athletic way, with long stubborn jaw and unhappy gray eyes beneath his unruly hair; the sort of face that intrigues women, Beardsley catalogued from past experience. And, he added, altogether too young a man to be operating a monster like ECAIAC.
Arnold indicated the empty glass. "Another?"
"No, I think not," Beardsley replied carefully.
Arnold hesitated, eyeing the briefcase in Beardsley's clutch. "It's been rough on you, too, I imagine. Hope there aren't more than thirty variants! We're set up for more, of course, but it'll necessitate--"
"Twenty-two," Beardsley assured him. Carefully, he spread the coded and sealed persona-tapes across the desk. "Fresh from Citizen-File Augment, everything annotated and cross-checked. Blood-count, emotional stasis, plethora, psycho-geneological index, neuro-thalamic imbalance--every type factor is here. We really went to the Files on this case."
"Looks as if you did! How does it narrow down?"
"Fifteen possibles, four Logicals and three Primes--" Beardsley stopped abruptly. (That news-caster: how had he known there were three Primes? This stuff was not supposed to leak!) "Twenty-two who knew Carmack," he went on. "That includes associational as well as motive-opportunity factors, with a probability sphere of .004...."
Arnold nodded thoughtfully; his fingers moved unconscious and caressing across the edge of the desk. "Yes, I see. That's close! Good job," he said uncertainly.
"Should be! Seven weeks for annotation and code." Beardsley was watching Arnold's fingers; there was something aimless and fretful as they pushed among the code-sealed tapes. Beardsley made his voice casual. "If it interests you," he said, "yes--you are there."
He wanted a reaction and he got it.