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"Stake your mom's Charleston cup on that," I said.

She nodded. Her one-sided grin seemed to fade slightly but she hooked it up again fast. A doll--like I said. This was the original model, they've never gone into production on girls like her full-time.

She said, "Therefore, I've got no right to go stalking with a salt shaker in one hand and a pair of shears for your tailfeathers in the other."

"You're cute, Doll," I said, still going along with her one hundred percent.

"Nice--we get along nice."

"Somebody oughta set 'em up on that."

"So far."

"Huh?" I blinked. I hate sour notes. That's why I'm not a musician. You never get a sour note in a jet job--or if you do you don't get annoyed. That's the sour note to end all sour notes.

"Brace yourself, Baby," she said.

I took a hitch on the highball glass I was holding and let one eye get a serious look in it. "Shoot," I told her.

"This new job--this new saucer the TV newscasts are blatting about. You boys in the Air Force heard about it yet?"

"There's been a rumor," I said. I frowned. Top secret--in a pig's eyelash!

"Uh-huh. Is it true this particular ship is supposed to carry a pilot this time?"

"Where do they dig up all this old stuff?" I growled. "Hell, I knew all about that way way back this afternoon already."

"Uh-huh, Is it also true they've asked a flyboy named Eddie Anders to take it up the first time? This flyboy named Eddie Anders being my Baby?"

I got bored with the highball. I tossed it down the hole in my head and put the glass on a table. "You're psychic," I said.

She shrugged. "Good looking, maybe. Nice shape, maybe. Peachy disposition, maybe. Psychic, unh-unhh. But who else would they ask to do it?"

"A point," I conceded.

"Fork in the road coming up," the Doll said.


"Fork--look. It'll be voluntary, won't it? You don't have to do it? They won't think the worse of you if you refuse?"

"Huh?" I gawked at her.

"I'm scared, Baby."

Her eyes weren't blue anymore. They'd been blue before but not now. Now they were violet balls that were laying me like somebody taking a last long look at the thing down inside the nice white satin before they close the cover on it for the final time.

"Have a drink, Doll," I said. I got up, went to the liquor wagon. "Seltzer? There isn't any mixer left."

"Asked you something, Baby."

I took her glass over. I handed it to her. My own drink I poured down that same hole in my head. I said finally, "Nice smooth bourbon but I like scotch better."

"They've already crashed four of this new type on tests, haven't they?"

I nearly choked. That was supposed to be the very pinnacle of the top secret stuff. But she was right of course. Four of the earlier models had cracked up. No pilots in them at the time--radio controlled. But jobs designed to carry pilots nevertheless.

"Some pitchers have great big ugly-looking ears," I said.

She didn't seem to mind. She said, "Or maybe I'm really psychic as you said. Or maybe my Dad's being Chief at Airtech has something to do with it."

"Somebody oughta stitch a zipper across his big fat yap," I said. "And weld the damn thing shut."

"He told only me," she said softly. "And then only because of you. You see, Baby, he isn't like us. He's got old fashioned notions you and I've got strings tied around each other already just because you gave me a ring."

I stared at her.

"Crazy, isn't it? He isn't sensible like us."

"Can the gag lines, Doll," I said sourly. "The old bird's okay."

And that fetched a few moments of silence in the room--thick pervading silence. A silence to be broken at any fractional second and heavy--supercharged--because of it.

I said finally, "Somebody has to take it up. It might as well be me. And they've already asked me."

"You could refuse, Baby."

"Sure I could. It's voluntary. They don't horsewhip a guy into it."

"Uh-huh--voluntary. And you can refuse." She stopped, waited, then, "Making me get right down there on the hard bare floor on both knees, Baby? All right. None of us should be proud. None of us has a right to be proud, have we?

"All right, Baby. I'm down there--way, way down there. I'm asking you not to take that ship up. I'm begging you--begging, Baby. Look, on me you've never seen anything like this before. Begging!"

I looked at my empty glass. The taste in my mouth was suddenly bitter. "No strings, we said," I said harshly. "A flyboy, we said. Guy who can take off and land anywhere, anytime he likes. Stuff like that we just got through saying."

She didn't answer that. I waited. She didn't answer. I got up finally, got my lousy new officer's cap off the TV set and went over to the door. I opened the door. I went on through.

But before I closed it I heard her whisper. That's the trouble with whispers, they go incredible distances to get places. The whisper said, "That's right, Baby. Right as rain. No strings--ever!"

When you don't have any scotch in the house you'd be surprised how well rum will do--even Jamaica rum. I was on my own davenport in my own apartment and there were two shot glasses in front of me. I was taking turns on them so they wouldn't wear out. And what was keeping these glasses busy was me and a fifth of the Jamaica rum in my right hand. And that's when it all began.

Across the room a rather stout woman was needling a classic through the television screen and at the same time needing a shave rather badly. I wasn't paying any attention to her. I was thinking about the Doll. Wondering, worrying a little. And that's when it began.

That's when the voice said, "Mr. Anders, would you do me the goodness to forget that bottle for a moment?"

The voice seemed to be coming from the TV screen although the stout lady hadn't finished her song. The voice was like the disappointed sigh of a poor old bloke down to his last beer dime and having to look up into the bartender's grinning puss as the bartender downs a nice bubbly glass of champagne somebody bought for him. Poor guy, I thought. I downed glass number one. And then glass number two. And then I looked over at the TV screen.

That sent a little shiver up my spine. I dropped my eyes to the glasses, filled them once more. Strong stuff, Jamaica rum. At the first the taste is medicine. A little later the taste is pleasant syrup. And a little later still the taste is delightful. But strong--the whole way strong. I downed glass number one.

I figured I wouldn't touch glass number two yet. I brought up my eyes, let them go over to the TV screen again.

He didn't have any eyes. That was the first thing that struck me. There were other things of course, such as the fact he didn't have any arms or legs. He didn't have any head either, in case he had eyes in the first place. He was a black swirling bioplastic mass of something or other and he was doing a graceful tango directly in front of the TV screen, thereby blocking off from view the stout woman who needed a shave.

He said, "Do you have any idea what I am, Mr. Anders?"

"Sure," I said. "Somebody's blennorrheal nightmare."

"Incorrect, Mr. Anders. This substance is not mucous. Mucous is very seldom black."

"Mucous is very seldom black," I mimicked.

"Correct, Mr. Anders."

So all right. So they were making Jamaica rum a little stronger these days. So all right! Next time I wouldn't get rum, I'd get scotch. Hell with rum. I dismissed the thought from my mind. I picked up glass number two, downed it. I wondered if the Doll was feeling sorry for herself.

"Incorrect, Mr. Anders," he said. "The rum is no stronger than usual."

I jerked. I stared at the black sticky-looking thing he was. I shut my eyes tightly, snapped them open again. Then I worked the glasses again with the bottle.

"Don't be shocked, Mr. Anders. I'm not a mind reader. It's just that you discarded the thought of a moment ago. I picked it up, see?"

"Sure," I said. "You picked it out of the junk pile of my mind, where all my little gems go."

"Correct, Mr. Anders."

It was about time to empty the glasses again. I varied the routine this time by picking up number-two glass first.

"Light a cigarette, Mr. Anders."

I'm a guy to go along with a gag. I fished a cigarette out, lit it "Lit," I said. And just at that instant the stout dame without the shave hit a sour one way up around A above high C. My ears cringed. I forgot the cigarette and glared across the room, trying to see through the black swirling mass that stood in front of the TV screen.

"Puff, Mr. Anders."

I puffed. The puff sounded like somebody getting his lips on a very full glass of beer and quickly sucking so that foaming clouds don't go down the sides of the glass and all over the bar. I didn't have any cigarette.


I blinked. The black swirling mass was going gently to and fro. At about head height on a man my cigarette was sticking out from it and a little curl of smoke was coming from the end. Even as I looked the curl ceased and then a big blue cloud of smoke barreled across the room toward my face.

"Your cigarette, Mr. Anders."

"Nice trick," I said. "Took it out from between my lips and I never felt it. Nice trick."

"Incorrect, Mr. Anders. When the singer flatted that particular note your attention was diverted momentarily. Your senses are exceptional, you see. Your ears register pain at false sounds. Therefore, you discarded the thoughts of your cigarette during the moment you suffered with the singer. Following this reasoning, your cigarette went into abandonment. And I salvaged it. No trick at all, really."

I thought, to hell with the shot glasses. I put the rum bottle to my lips and tilted it up and held it there until it wasn't good for anything anymore. Then I took it down by the neck and heaved it straight at the black mass.

The television screen didn't shatter, which proved something or other. The bottle didn't even reach the screen. It hit the black swirling mass about navel high. It went in, sank in like slamming your fist into a fat man's stomach. And then it rebounded and clattered on the floor.

"Scream!" I said thickly. "You dirty black delusion--scream!"

"I am screaming, Mr. Anders. That hurt terribly."

He sort of unfolded then, like unfolding a limp wool sweater in the air. And from this unfolding, something came forth that could have been somebody's old fashioned idea of what a rifle looked like. He held it up in firing position, pointed at my head.

"Don't be alarmed, Mr. Anders. This is to convince you. A gun, yes, a very old gun--a Brown Bess, they used to call it. I just took it from the City Museum, where it was on display."

He had a nice point-blank sight on my forehead. Now he moved the gun, aimed it off me, pointed, it across the room toward the open windows.

"Note the workmanship, Mr. Anders. Note the stock. Someone put a little effort on the carving. Note the sentiment carved here."

The rum was working hard now. I could feel it climbing hand over hand up from my knees.

"Let me read what it says, Mr. Anders--'Deathe to ye Colonies'. Note the odd wording, the spelling. And now watch, Mr. Anders."

The gun came up a trifle, stiffened. There was a loud snapping sound, a click of metal on metal--Flintlock. As all the ancient guns were.

And then came the roar. Wood across the room--the window casing--splintered and flew wildly. Smoke and smell filled my senses.

He said, chuckling, "Let's call it the Abandonment Theory for lack of a better name. This old Brown Bess hasn't been thought of acquisitively for some years. It's been in the museum--abandoned. T h e r e f o r e subject to the discarded junk pile as you yourself so cleverly put it before. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Anders?"

Perfectly--oh, perfectly, Mr. Bioplast. The rum was going around my eyes now. Going up and around and headed like an arrow for the hunk of my brain that can't seem to hide fast enough.

I guess I made it to the bedroom but I wouldn't put any hard cash on it. And I guess I passed out.

The morning was a bad one as all bad ones usually are. But no matter how bad they get there's always the consoling thought that in a few hours things will ease up. I hugged this thought through a needle shower, through three cups of coffee in the kitchen. What I was neglecting in this reasoning was the splintered wood in the living room.

I saw it on my way out. It hit me starkly, like the blasted section of a eucalyptus trunk writhing up from the ground. I stopped dead in the doorway and stared at it. Then I got out my knife and got at it.

I probed but it was going to take more than a pocket knife. The ball--and it was just that--was buried a half inch in the soft pine of the casing.

I closed the knife and went to the phone and got Information to ring the museum.

"You people aren't missing a Brown Bess musket," I said. It was a question, of course, but not now--not the way I had said it. "Nobody stole anything out of the museum last night, did they?"

Sweat was oozing over my upper lip. I could feel it. I could feel sweat wetting the phone in my hand. The woman on the other end told me to wait. I said, "Yeah"--not realizing. I waited, not realizing, until a man's voice came on.

"You were saying something about a Brown Bess musket, mister?" A cold sharp voice--a gutter voice but with the masking tag of official behind it. Like the voice of someone behind a desk writing something on a blotter--a real police voice.

I put the phone down. I pulled all the shades in the living room, went out the door, locked it behind me and drove as fast as you can make a Buick go, out to the field. But fast!

The XXE-1 was ready. She'd been ready for weeks. There wasn't a mechanical or electronic flaw in her. We hoped, I hoped, the man who designed her hoped. The Doll's father--he hoped most of all. Even lying quiescent in her hangar, she looked as sleek as a Napoleon hat done in poured monel. When your eyes went over her you knew instinctively they'd thrown the mach numbers out the window when she was done.

I went through a door that had the simple word Plotting on it.

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