"And you are the man without a face. But why is it that you overshadow and control people? And to what purpose?"
"It will be long before you know those answers."
"When the choice comes to me, it will bear very careful weighing."
After that a chill descended on the life of Charles Vincent, for all that he still possessed his exceptional powers. And he seldom now indulged in pranks.
Except for Jennifer Parkey.
It was unusual that he should be drawn to her. He knew her only slightly in the common world and she was at least fifteen years his senior. But now she appealed to him for her youthful qualities, and all his pranks with her were gentle ones.
For one thing this spinster did not frighten, nor did she begin locking her doors, never having bothered about such things before. He would come behind her and stroke her hair, and she would speak out calmly with that sort of quickening in her voice: "Who are you? Why won't you let me see you? You are a friend, aren't you? Are you a man, or are you something else? If you can caress me, why can't you talk to me? Please let me see you. I promise that I won't hurt you."
It was as though she could not imagine that anything strange would hurt her. Or again when he hugged her or kissed her on the nape, she would call: "You must be a little boy, or very like a little boy, whoever you are. You are good not to break my things when you move about. Come here and let me hold you."
It is only very good people who have no fear at all of the unknown.
When Vincent met Jennifer in the regular world, as he more often now found occasion to do, she looked at him appraisingly, as though she guessed some sort of connection.
She said one day: "I know it is an impolite thing to say, but you do not look well at all. Have you been to a doctor?"
"Several times. But I think it is my doctor who should go to a doctor. He was always given to peculiar remarks, but now he is becoming a little unsettled."
"If I were your doctor, I believe I would also become a little unsettled. But you should find out what is wrong. You look terrible."
He did not look terrible. He had lost his hair, it is true, but many men lose their hair by thirty, though not perhaps as suddenly as he had. He thought of attributing it to the air resistance. After all, when he was in the state he did stride at some three hundred miles an hour. And enough of that is likely to blow the hair right off your head. And might that not also be the reason for his worsened complexion and the tireder look that appeared in his eyes? But he knew that this was nonsense. He felt no more air pressure when in his accelerated state than when in the normal one.
He had received his summons. He chose not to answer it. He did not want to be presented with the choice; he had no wish to be one with those of the pit. But he had no intention of giving up the great advantage which he now held over nature.
"I will have it both ways," he said. "I am already a contradiction and an impossibility. The proverb was only the early statement of the law of moral compensation: 'You can't take more out of a basket than it holds.' But for a long time I have been in violation of the laws and balances. 'There is no road without a turning,' 'Those who dance will have to pay the fiddler,' 'Everything that goes up comes down,' But are proverbs really universal laws? Certainly. A sound proverb has the force of universal law; it is but another statement of it. But I have contradicted the universal laws. It remains to be seen whether I have contradicted them with impunity. 'Every action has its reaction.' If I refuse to deal with them, I will provoke a strong reaction. The man without a face said that it was always a race between full knowing and destruction. Very well, I will race them for it."
They began to persecute him then. He knew that they were in a state as accelerated from his as his was from the normal. To them he was the almost motionless statue, hardly to be told from a dead man. To him they were by their speed both invisible and inaudible. They hurt him and haunted him. But still he would not answer the summons.
When the meeting took place, it was they who had to come to him, and they materialized there in his room, men without faces.
"The choice," said one. "You force us to be so clumsy as to have to voice it."
"I will have no part of you. You all smell of the pit, of that old mud of the cuneiforms of the land between the rivers, of the people who were before the people."
"It has endured a long time, and we consider it as enduring forever. But the Garden which was in the neighborhood--do you know how long the Garden lasted?"
"I don't know."
"That all happened in a single day, and before nightfall they were outside. You want to throw in with something more permanent, don't you."
"No. I don't believe I do."
"What have you to lose?"
"Only my hope of eternity."
"But you don't believe in that. No man has ever really believed in eternity."
"No man has ever either entirely believed or disbelieved in it," said Charles Vincent.
"At least it cannot be proved," said one of the faceless men. "Nothing is proved until it is over with. And in this case, if it is ever over with, then it is disproved. And all that time would one not be tempted to wonder, 'What if, after all, it ends in the next minute?'"
"I imagine that if we survive the flesh we will receive some sort of surety," said Vincent.
"But you are not sure either of such surviving or receiving. Now we have a very close approximation of eternity. When time is multiplied by itself, and that repeated again and again, does that not approximate eternity?"
"I don't believe it does. But I will not be of you. One of you has said that I am too fastidious. So now will you say that you'll destroy me?"
"No. We will only let you be destroyed. By yourself, you cannot win the race with destruction."
After that Charles Vincent somehow felt more mature. He knew he was not really meant to be a six-fingered thing of the pit. He knew that in some way he would have to pay for every minute and hour that he had gained. But what he had gained he would use to the fullest. And whatever could be accomplished by sheer acquisition of human knowledge, he would try to accomplish.
And he now startled Dr. Mason by the medical knowledge he had picked up, the while the doctor amused him by the concern he showed for Vincent. For he felt fine. He was perhaps not as active as he had been, but that was only because he had become dubious of aimless activity. He was still the ghost of the libraries and museums, but was puzzled that the published reports intimated that an old ghost had replaced a young one.
He now paid his mystic visits to Jennifer Parkey less often. For he was always dismayed to hear her exclaim to him in his ghostly form: "Your touch is so changed. You poor thing! Is there anything at all I can do to help you?"
He decided that somehow she was too immature to understand him, though he was still fond of her. He transferred his affections to Mrs. Milly Maltby, a widow at least thirty years his senior. Yet here it was a sort of girlishness in her that appealed to him. She was a woman of sharp wit and real affection, and she also accepted his visitations without fear, following a little initial panic.
They played games, writing games, for they communicated by writing. She would scribble a line, then hold the paper up in the air whence he would cause it to vanish into his sphere. He would return it in half a minute, or half a second by her time, with his retort. He had the advantage of her in time with greatly more opportunity to think up responses, but she had the advantage over him in natural wit and was hard to top.
They also played checkers, and he often had to retire apart and read a chapter of a book on the art between moves, and even so she often beat him; for native talent is likely to be a match for accumulated lore and codified procedure.
But to Milly also he was unfaithful in his fashion, being now interested (he no longer became enamored or entranced) in a Mrs. Roberts, a great-grandmother who was his elder by at least fifty years. He had read all the data extant on the attraction of the old for the young, but he still could not explain his successive attachments. He decided that these three examples were enough to establish a universal law: that a woman is simply not afraid of a ghost, though he touches her and is invisible, and writes her notes without hands. It is possible that amorous spirits have known this for a long time, but Charles Vincent had made the discovery himself independently.
When enough knowledge is accumulated on any subject, the pattern will sometimes emerge suddenly, like a form in a picture revealed where before it was not seen. And when enough knowledge is accumulated on all subjects, is there not a chance that a pattern governing all subjects will emerge?
Charles Vincent was caught up in one last enthusiasm. On a long vigil, as he consulted source after source and sorted them in his mind, it seemed that the pattern was coming out clearly and simply, for all its amazing complexity of detail.
"I know everything that they know in the pit, and I know a secret that they do not know. I have not lost the race--I have won it. I can defeat them at the point where they believe themselves invulnerable. If controlled hereafter, we need at least not be controlled by them. It is all falling together now. I have found the final truth, and it is they who have lost the race. I hold the key. I will now be able to enjoy the advantage without paying the ultimate price of defeat and destruction, or of collaboration with them.
"Now I have only to implement my knowledge, to publish the fact, and one shadow at least will be lifted from mankind. I will do it at once. Well, nearly at once. It is almost dawn in the normal world. I will sit here a very little while and rest. Then I will go out and begin to make contact with the proper persons for the disposition of this thing. But first I will sit here a little while and rest."
And he died quietly in his chair as he sat there.
Dr. Mason made an entry in his private journal: "Charles Vincent, a completely authenticated case of premature aging, one of the most clear-cut in all gerontology. This man was known to me for years, and I here aver that as of one year ago he was of normal appearance and physical state, and that his chronology is also correct, I having also known his father. I examined the subject during the period of his illness, and there is no question at all of his identity, which has also been established for the record by fingerprinting and other means. I aver that Charles Vincent at the age of thirty is dead of old age, having the appearance and organic condition of a man of ninety."
Then the doctor began to make another note: "As in two other cases of my own observation, the illness was accompanied by a certain delusion and series of dreams, so nearly identical in the three men as to be almost unbelievable. And for the record, and no doubt to the prejudice of my own reputation, I will set down the report of them here."
But when Dr. Mason had written that, he thought about it for a while.
"No, I will do no such thing," he said, and he struck out the last lines he had written. "It is best to let sleeping dragons lie."
And somewhere the faceless men with the smell of the pit on them smiled to themselves in quiet irony.
By Jack Lait & Lee Mortimer
HERE WE GO AGAIN--Confidential.
We turned New York inside out. We turned Chicago upside down. In Washington we turned the insiders out and the outsiders in. The howls can still be heard since we dissected the U.S.A.
But Mars was our toughest task of spectroscoping. The cab drivers spoke a different language and the bell-hops couldn't read our currency. Yet, we think we have X-rayed the dizziest--and this may amaze you--the dirtiest planet in the solar system. Beside it, the Earth is as white as the Moon, and Chicago is as peaceful as the Milky Way.
By the time we went through Mars--its canals, its caves, its satellites and its catacombs--we knew more about it than anyone who lives there.
We make no attempt to be comprehensive. We have no hope or aim to make Mars a better place in which to live; in fact, we don't give a damn what kind of a place it is to live in.
This will be the story of a planet that could have been another proud and majestic sun with a solar system of its own; it ended up, instead, in the comic books and the pulp magazines.
We give you MARS CONFIDENTIAL!
THE LOWDOWN CONFIDENTIAL.
Before the space ship which brings the arriving traveler lands at the Martian National Airport, it swoops gracefully over the nearby city in a salute. The narrow ribbons, laid out in geometric order, gradually grow wider until the water in these man-made rivers becomes crystal clear and sparkles in the reflection of the sun.
As Mars comes closer, the visitor from Earth quickly realizes it has a manner and a glamor of its own; it is unworldy, it is out of this world. It is not the air of distinction one finds in New York or London or Paris. The Martian feeling is dreamlike; it comes from being close to the stuff dreams are made of.
However, after the sojourner lands, he discovers that Mars is not much different than the planet he left; indeed, men are pretty much the same all over the universe, whether they carry their plumbing inside or outside their bodies.
As we unfold the rates of crime, vice, sex irregularities, graft, cheap gambling, drunkenness, rowdyism and rackets, you will get, thrown on a large screen, a peep show you never saw on your TV during the science-fiction hour.
Each day the Earth man spends on Mars makes him feel more at home; thus, it comes as no surprise to the initiated that even here, at least 35,000,000 miles away from Times Square, there are hoodlums who talk out of the sides of their mouths and drive expensive convertibles with white-walled tires and yellow-haired frails. For the Mafia, the dread Black Hand, is in business here--tied up with the subversives--and neither the Martian Committee for the Investigation of Crime and Vice, nor the Un-Martian Activities Committee, can dent it more than the Kefauver Committee did on Earth, which is practically less than nothing.
This is the first time this story has been printed. We were offered four trillion dollars in bribes to hold it up; our lives were threatened and we were shot at with death ray guns.
We got this one night on the fourth bench in Central Park, where we met by appointment a man who phoned us earlier but refused to tell his name. When we took one look at him we did not ask for his credentials, we just knew he came from Mars.
This is what he told us: Shortly after the end of World War II, a syndicate composed of underworld big-shots from Chicago, Detroit and Greenpoint planned to build a new Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. This was to be a plush project for big spenders, with Vegas and Reno reserved for the hoi-polloi.
There was to be service by a private airline. It would be so ultra-ultra that suckers with only a million would be thumbed away and guys with two million would have to come in through the back door.
The Mafia sent a couple of front men to explore the desert. Somewhere out beyond the atom project they stumbled on what seemed to be the answer to their prayer.
It was a huge, mausoleum-like structure, standing alone in the desert hundreds of miles from nowhere, unique, exclusive and mysterious. The prospectors assumed it was the last remnant of some fabulous and long-dead ghost-mining town.
The entire population consisted of one, a little duffer with a white goatee and thick lensed spectacles, wearing boots, chaps and a silk hat.
"This your place, bud?" one of the hoods asked.
When he signified it was, the boys bought it. The price was agreeable--after they pulled a wicked-looking rod.
Then the money guys came to look over their purchase. They couldn't make head or tail of it, and you can hardly blame them, because inside the great structure they found a huge contraption that looked like a cigar (Havana Perfecto) standing on end.
"What the hell is this," they asked the character in the opera hat, in what is known as a menacing attitude.
The old pappy guy offered to show them. He escorted them into the cigar, pressed a button here and there, and before you could say "Al Capone" the roof of the shed slid back and they began to move upward at a terrific rate of speed.
Three or four of the Mafia chieftains were old hop-heads and felt at home. In fact, one of them remarked, "Boy, are we gone." And he was right.
The soberer Mafistas, after recovering from their first shock, laid ungentle fists on their conductor. "What goes on?" he was asked.
"This is a space ship and we are headed for Mars."
"A planet up in space, loaded with gold and diamonds."
"Any bims there?"
"I beg your pardon, sir. What are bims?"
"Get a load of this dope. He never heard of bims. Babes, broads, frails, pigeons, ribs--catch on?"
"Oh, I assume you mean girls. There must be, otherwise what are the diamonds for?"
The outward trip took a week, but it was spent pleasantly. During that time, the Miami delegation cleaned out Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh in a klabiash game.
The hop back, for various reasons, took a little longer. One reason may have been the condition of the crew. On the return the boys from Brooklyn were primed to the ears with zorkle.
Zorkle is a Martian medicinal distillation, made from the milk of the schznoogle--a six-legged cow, seldom milked because few Martians can run fast enough to catch one. Zorkle is strong enough to rip steel plates out of battleships, but to stomachs accustomed to the stuff sold in Flatbush, it acted like a gentle stimulant.
Upon their safe landing in Nevada, the Columbuses of this first flight to Mars put in long-distance calls to all the other important hoods in the country.