He closed it behind him and blinked at the huge instrument panel which filled almost the entire room.
One of the instruments was a color vision screen, tuned in to a room in which there was a mahogany desk, at which was seated a man in uniform. Behind him was a map of the United States.
The man in uniform was a major general in the Air Force. An aide, a lieutenant colonel, was leaning over the desk. He had a sheaf of papers in his hand. The men's conversation was audible.
"Messages have been coming in from all over Europe," the colonel was saying. "Here's the way it reconstructs: "Our agent was en route to the rendezvous when he was intercepted by Naomi. That's the only name we have for her. She's a spy. She's worked for half a dozen countries and her present employer could be any one of them. They were spotted as they crossed the frontier between Italy and France. Their car went into a barn and we thought we had them. But the barn turned out to be a spaceship in disguise. It took off."
So I'm their agent, Paul Asher thought. So that's what it's all about. I'm a secret agent for the United States, but they didn't tell me anything about it. This is real George, this is ... He expected to hear a faint click and leaned forward experimentally, but nothing happened. He leaned backward. Still nothing.
The colonel was answering a question from the general. "We don't know who they are, Sir. They're not from Earth, obviously. And the best scientific minds go still further--they're not even from our solar system. Whoever they are, it's clear that they don't want us to build a way-station in space."
"Those spaceships started buzzing around right after our first Moon trip," the general said. "This is the first time they've become really troublesome--now that we've got the Moon under control and are ready to build the way-station so we can get to Mars."
"That's right, Sir," said the colonel.
"Progress is a wonderful thing," said the general. "Things certainly have changed since those early days of strategic atomic bombing and guided missile experiments."
"Yes, Sir," said the colonel.
The young man in the communications room of the spaceship let his attention wander away from the scene back on Earth and experimented with some of the switches and controls. Trial and error led him to one which lit up a signal on the desk of the general.
The general flicked it on.
"Yes?" he said. He looked puzzled when he got no picture, just a voice saying, "Hello, hello."
"Yes?" he said. "Hello. Speak up, man."
"This is your agent aboard the enemy spaceship," said the young man. "Do you read me?"
"Yes," said the general. "We read you. Go ahead."
"I may not have much time. Get a fix on me if you can. And send help."
"What's your position?" the general was reacting well. He was alert and all business.
"I don't know. I've been taken prisoner, but I'm temporarily free. There isn't much time. Hafitz is bound to be back soon. He seems to be the brains of this outfit--this part of the outfit, anyway. Naomi is here, too, but I don't know whether she's with them or against them."
"Where are the plans, son?" asked the general.
"They're safe, for the moment. I can't guarantee for how long."
"I'm getting the fix," the colonel said. He was beyond the range of the young man's vision screen. "I've got him. He's still within range, but accelerating fast. We can intercept if we get up a rocket soon enough."
"Get it up," ordered the general. "Get up a squadron. Scramble the Moon patrol and send out reserves from Earth at once."
"Right!" said the colonel.
The young man was so engrossed in the makings of his rescue party that he didn't see the wall open up behind him.
There was a squeak of rubber tires and he whirled to see Hafitz, in his wheelchair, slamming toward him. The fat man's hand held a weird-looking gun.
The young man recoiled. His back pushed against a row of control buttons.
Then everything went white.
Paul Asher blinked his eyes, like a man awakening from a vivid dream.
The house lights went on and the manager of the theater came on the stage. He stood in front of the blank master screen with its checkerboard pattern of smaller screens, on which the several lines of action had taken place simultaneously. Paul took off his selectorscope spectacles with the earphone attachments.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the manager said. "I regret very much having to announce that this vicarion of the production Spies from Space was defective. The multifilm has broken and, because of the complexity of the vikie process, it will be impossible to splice it without returning it to the laboratory.
"Ushers are at the exits with passes good for any future performance. Those of you who prefer can exchange them at the box office for a full refund of your admission price."
Paul Asher unstrapped the wired canvas band from across his chest. He put the selectorscope spectacles into the pouch on the arm of the seat and walked out of the R.K.O. Vicarion into High Street and around the corner to where his car was parked.
His roommate at the communapt, MacCloy, was still up when he got there, going over some projectos. Mac snapped off the screen and quickly swept the slides together and into a case.
"You're back early," MacCloy said.
"The multifilm broke," Paul told him.
"Oh." Mac seemed abstracted, as he often did, and again Paul wondered about this man he knew so casually and who had never confided in him about anything--especially about his government job.
"So I missed the ending," Paul said. "I guess it was near the end, anyhow. The space patrol was on the way, but the villain, that Hafitz, was just about to blast me with his gun and I don't know how I would have got out of that."
"I remember that," Mac said. He laughed. "You must have been Positive all the way through. Like I was when I saw it. If you'd had any negative reactions--if you'd leaned back against the strap instead of forward--you'd have been at some other point in the multiplot and I wouldn't have recognized that part. Want me to tell you how it ends?"
"Go ahead. Then if I do see it again I'll change the ending somewhere along the line with a lean-back."
"Okay. There really wasn't much more. It takes so much film to provide all the plot choices that they can't make them very long.
"Well, Hafitz blasts me and misses," Mac went on, "--or blasts you and misses, to keep it in your viewpoint. When you jump back, you set off a bunch of controls. That was the control room, too, not just the communications room. Well, those controls you lean back against take the ship out of automatic pilot and send it into some wild acrobatics and that's why Hafitz misses. Also it knocks him out of the wheelchair so he's helpless and you get his gun. Also you see that the plans are still there--right where you put them, stuck to the bottom of his wheelchair."
"So that was it," said Paul.
"Yes," said Mac. "And then you cover Hafitz while he straightens out the ship and you rendezvous with the space control and they take you all into custody. You get a citation from the government. That's about it. Corny, huh?"
"But what about the girl?" Paul asked. "Is she really a spy?"
"Girl? What girl?"
"Naomi, her name was," Paul said. "You couldn't miss her. She was in the vikie right at the beginning--that brunette in the fast car."
"But there wasn't any girl, Paul," Mac insisted. "Not when I saw it."
"Of course there was. There had to be--the vikies all start out the same way, no matter who sees them."
"It beats me, pal. I know I didn't see her. Maybe you dreamed up the dame."
"I don't think so," Paul said. "But of course it's possible." He yawned. "I wouldn't mind dreaming of her tonight, at that. Think I'll turn in now, Mac. I've got that long trip tomorrow, you know. Up to Canada to look over a new line of Marswool sport jackets at the All-Planets Showroom."
"Driving or flying?"
"The weather prognosis is zero-zero. I'll drive."
"Good," said Mac.
Paul Asher woke up late. He had a confused recollection of a dream. Something about a beautiful brunette giving him a backrub.
A look at the chrono sent the dream out of his head and he hurried through shaving and dressing.
His car was waiting for him, engine idling, at the curb. He got in, tossing his briefcase and topcoat ahead of him to the far side of the front seat. His back began to itch, insistently, and he rubbed it against the leather upholstery.
Paul adjusted the safety belt around him, and fastened it. Might as well do it now, instead of having to fool around with it later. Damn that itch, anyway! It was as if something were stuck to his skin--like a sticking plaster....
The high-powered vehicle purred smoothly as it took a long, rising curve. The road climbed steadily toward the mountaintop city ahead.
The scene was familiar.
The itching of his back spread and became a prickly feeling in the small hairs at the nape of his neck.
He knew now that he was not alone in the car. He looked in the rear-view mirror.
She was looking at him insolently, her wide red mouth in a half smile.
She said: "Just keep going, Sweetheart, as fast as you can."
WITH A VENGEANCE.
By J. B. WOODLEY
Keep this in mind in teaching apprentices: They are future journeymen--and even masters!
October 10, 2119 New San Francisco Today, at precisely 9:50 a.m., Kyle became First Imperator of Terra. His coup was so fantastically direct and facile that I am almost tempted to believe that old cliche "the time was right."
Well, however badly it can be expressed, I suppose the world was ripe for this sort of thing. I can remember when much the same used to happen in elections. One man would win over another by a tremendous majority, and historians would then set about to show how "the time was right."
Why do I persist in tormenting myself with that phrase! Analytically, I might say I resent this new aristocracy of politics. Specifically, I might say I resent Kyle.
And both are true, both are true.
This swing, though, to absolute monarchy, complete with the installation of the Kyle Dynasty--damn him! This is something which psychologists, not historians, must explain. Has the age of the Common Man, so bravely flaunted for over one hundred years, truly come to nothing? Would people really prefer a figurehead and a symbol of undisputed authority?
In this instance, one may again conclude that "the time was right." Contact with planets like Mars and Venus undoubtedly had its influence. I must confess that the televised audiences with the Mrit of Venus and the Znam of Mars did make Terra's President--I should say, late President--look a bit seedy. I daresay there is such a thing as a too common Common Man.
Kyle was such, twenty years ago. His name wasn't Kyle then, although it was something very like that. I must see if any of the old ledgers are about! I'd like to see what the Imperator's name was when His Most Imperial Majesty was an apprenticed nobody!
October 12, 2119 New San Francisco I found it! Buried in stacks of dust behind the old printing press that was once the heart of my Beacon-Sentinel. There were others there too. Spent a delightful morning with them, reading back through those old account books.
I wonder whatever happened to Hastings? And Drew? Best linotype men I ever had. They became pilots, or something, as I recall. Too bad, too bad. They could have had such brilliant futures, both of them. Why they felt they must ally themselves with the non-thinking, muscle-flexing variety of mankind--of which our Ruler is an excellent example--I'll never know.
Ah, yes, Kyle! In those days he was Kilmer Jones. I don't remember him too well, actually, except for the day I fired him.
I suppose he was right in changing his name. We couldn't very well have an Imperator named Kilmer the First, or Jones the First. Much too common, not at all in keeping.
Gawky fellow--that Kilmer. When Bard brought me a sample of his work--I guess I'll have to call it that--we both had a good laugh over it! Atrocious spelling! Couldn't follow the proofreader's marks. Indeed, I wonder if the fellow could even read! The punctuation! And the grammar!
I called the boy to the office that morning--or was it the next day? No matter. I called him in and told him, as kindly as possible, that I thought there were other vocations to which he might be better suited. The irony of it! Kilmer Jones--Kyle I!
And he stood there, I remember, with those seventeen-year-old hands that were all knuckles and bone and chapped skin, twisting those hands and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"Please, Mr. Booth," he said, his voice cracking. "I ain't got no other job in mind. I wanna be a noospaper man. I ain't got no--"
If not for that "ain't got no," I think I might have relented. But no one is going to ruin the English language as he did! Not in my offices!
I took him to task severely for his offensive usage, outlined a correct example of what he had attempted to say, gave him a brief lesson in the history of the tongue, and explained why it had been chosen as the official Terran speech. I think my conclusion was, "You'll be much better off in a position which requires you to quote neither Milton nor Shakespeare nor any author save possibly those who write the comic strips."
"Got no training," he said softly. (I supposed it was to keep his voice from exhibiting its usual adolescent gymnastics.) I shuddered slightly, I remember. "You mean, 'I have no training.'"
"Yeah ..." softly again. "Yeah, Mr. Booth."
"Yes!" I cried impatiently. "Not 'yeah,' but yes!"
I searched for his severance pay on my desk, wondering who the devil had hired him in the first place. Gave him three weeks pay, as I recall it, one more than necessary.
Unmannerly pup! He just stood there for a minute and then finally left without even a "Thank you," or "Good-by."