And then the board lit up again, and for the first time he was playing.
He set up a tentative pattern; golden streaks flitted across the board, mingling with red and blue blinkers. Then the first number came. Alan integrated it hastily and realized he had constructed a totally worthless pattern; he wiped his board clean and set up new figures, based on the one number he had. Already, he knew, he was hopelessly far behind the others.
But he kept with it as the minutes crawled past. Sweat dribbled down his face and neck. He had none of Hawkes' easy confidence with the board's controls; this game was hard work for a beginner. Later, perhaps, some of the steps would become automatic, but now---- "Seventy-eight sub twelve over thirteen," came the droning instructions, and Alan pulled levers and twisted ratchets to keep his pattern true. He saw the attraction the game held for the people of Earth: it required such deep concentration, such careful attention, that one had no time to ponder other problems. It was impossible to think and compete at the same time. The game offered perfect escape from the harsh realities of Earther existence.
"Six hundred twelve sigma five."
Again Alan recompensated. His nerves tingled; he felt he must be close to victory. All thought of what he had come here for slipped away; Steve was forgotten. Only the flashing board counted, only the game.
Five more numbers went by. Suddenly the gong rang, indicating that someone had achieved a winning pattern, and it was like the fall of a headsman's axe to Alan. He had lost. That was all he could think of. He had lost.
The winner was the dreamy-eyed youth at Table 166, who accepted his winnings without a word and took his seat. As Alan drew out another five-credit piece for the next round, he realized what he was doing.
He was being caught up in the nerve-stretching excitement of the game. He was forgetting Steve, forgetting the waiting Hawkes outside.
He stretched back in his seat and peered as far down the row as he could see. No sign of Steve there; he had to be on the other side of the croupier. Alan decided to do his best to win; that way he could advance to the rostrum and scan the other half of the hall.
But the game fled by too quickly; he made a false computation on the eleventh number and watched in dismay as his pattern drew further and further away from the numbers being called off. He drove himself furiously, trying to make amends, but it was impossible. The winner was the man at Table 217, on the other side. He was a lantern-jawed giant with the powerful frame of a longshoreman, and he laughed in pleasure as he collected his money.
Three more rounds went by; Alan picked up increasing skill at the game, but failed to win. He saw his shortcoming, but could not do anything to help it: he was unable to extrapolate ahead. Hawkes was gifted with the knack of being able to extend probable patterns two or three moves into the future; Alan could only work with the given, and so he never made the swift series of guesses which led to victory. He had spent nearly an hour in the parlor now, fruitlessly.
The next round came and went. "Table 111 takes us for a hundred fifty credits," came the croupier's cry. Alan relaxed, waiting for the lucky winner to collect and for the next round to begin.
The winner reached the centrally located rostrum. Alan looked at him. He was tall, fairly young--in his thirties, perhaps--with stooped shoulders and a dull glazedness about his eyes. He looked familiar.
Feeling no excitement now that the quest had reached success, Alan slipped from his seat and made his way around the croupier's rostrum and down the far aisle. Steve had already taken his seat at Table 111. Alan came up behind him, just as the gong sounded to signal the new round.
Steve was hunched over the board, calculating with almost desperate fury. Alan touched his shoulder.
Without looking up Steve snapped, "Get out of here, whoever you are! Can't you see I'm busy?"
A robot sidled up to Alan and grasped him firmly by the arm. "It is forbidden to disturb the players while they are engaged in the game. We will have to eject you from this parlor."
Angrily Alan broke loose from the robot's grasp and leaned over Steve. He shook him by the shoulder, roughly, trying to shake loose his mind from the flickering games board.
"Steve, look up! It's me--Alan--your brother!"
Steve slapped at Alan's hand as he would at a fly. Alan saw other robots converging on him from various points in the room. In a minute they'd hurl him out into the street.
Recklessly he grabbed Steve by the shoulders and spun him around in his seat. A curse tumbled from Steve's lips; then he fell strangely silent.
"You remember me, Steve? Your brother Alan. Your twin brother, once."
Steve had changed, certainly. His hair was no longer thick and curly; it seemed to have straightened out, and darkened a little. Wrinkles seamed his forehead; his eyes were deep-set and surrounded by lines. He was slightly overweight, and it showed. He looked terribly tired. Looking at him was like looking at a comic mirror that distorted and altered your features. But there was nothing comic about Steve's appearance.
In a hoarse whisper he said, "Alan?"
Alan felt robot arms grasping him firmly. He struggled to break loose, and saw Steve trying to say something, only no words were coming. Steve was very pale.
"Let go of him!" Steve said finally, "He--he wasn't disturbing me."
"He must be ejected. It is the rule."
Conflict traced deep lines on Steve's face. "All right, then. We'll both leave."
The robots released Alan, who rubbed his arms ruefully. Together they walked up the aisle and out into the street.
Hawkes stood waiting there.
"I see you've found him. It took long enough."
"M-Max, this is my brother, Steven Donnell." Alan's voice was shaky with tension. "Steve, this is a friend of mine. Max Hawkes."
"You don't need to tell me who he is," Steve said. His voice was deeper and harsher than Alan remembered it. "Every gamesman knows Hawkes. He's the best there is." In the warm daylight, Steve looked even older than the twenty-six years that was his chronological age. To Alan's eyes he seemed to be a man who had been kicked around by life, a man who had not yet given up but who knew he didn't stand much of a chance for the future.
And he looked ashamed. The old sparkle was gone from his brother's eyes. Quietly Steve said, "Okay, Alan. You tracked me down. Call me whatever names you want to call me and let me get about my business. I don't do quite as well as your friend Hawkes, and I happen to be in need of a lot of cash in a hurry."
"I didn't come to call you names. Let's go someplace where we can talk," Alan said. "There's a lot for us to talk about."
They adjourned to a small tavern three doors down 68th Avenue from the games parlor, an old-fashioned tavern with manually operated doors and stuffed moose heads over the bar. Alan and Hawkes took seats next to each other in a booth in back; Steve sat facing them.
The barkeep came scuttling out--no robot in here, just a tired-faced old man--and took their orders. Hawkes called for beer, Steve for whiskey; Alan did not order.
He sat staring at his brother's oddly changed face. Steve was twenty-six. From Alan's seventeen-year-old vantage-point, that seemed tremendously old, well past the prime of life.
He said, "The Valhalla landed on Earth a few days ago. We're bound out for Procyon in a few days."
"The Captain would like to see you again, Steve."
Steve stared moodily at his drink without speaking, for a long moment. Alan studied him. Less than two months had passed for Alan since Steve had jumped ship; he still remembered how his twin had looked. There had been something smouldering in Steve's eyes then, a kind of rebellious fire, a smoky passion. That was gone now. It had burned out long ago. In its place Alan saw only tiny red veins--the bloodshot eyes of a man who had been through a lot, little of it very pleasant.
"Is that the truth?" Steve asked. "Would he like to see me? Or wouldn't he just prefer to think I never was born at all?"
"I know the Captain--Dad--pretty well. Even though I haven't seen him in nine years. He'd never forgive me for jumping ship. I don't want to pay any visits to the Valhalla, Alan."
"Who said anything about visiting?"
"Then what were you talking about?"
"I was talking about going back into the Crew," Alan said quietly.
The words seemed to strike Steve like physical blows. He shuddered a little and gulped down the drink he held clutched in tobacco-stained fingers. He looked up at Alan, finally.
"I can't. It's impossible. Flatly impossible."
Alan felt Hawkes' foot kick him sharply under the table. He caught the hint, and changed the subject. There was time to return to it later.
"Okay, let's skip it for now. Why don't you tell me about your life on Earth these last nine years?"
Steve smiled sardonically. "There's not much to tell, and what there is is a pretty dull story. I came across the bridge from the Enclave last time the Valhalla was in town, and came over into York City all set to conquer the world, become rich and famous, and live happily ever after. Five minutes after I set foot on the Earther side of the river I was beaten up and robbed by a gang of roving kids. It was a real fine start."
He signalled the waiter for another drink. "I guess I must have drifted around the city for two weeks or more before the police found me and picked me up for vagrancy. By that time the Valhalla had long since hoisted for Alpha C--and didn't I wish I was on it! Every night I used to dream I had gone back on the ship. But when I woke up I always found out I hadn't.
"The police gave me an education in the ways of Earther life, complete with rubber hoses and stingrays, and when they were through with me I knew all about the system of work cards and free status. I didn't have a credit to my name. So I drifted some more. Then I got sick of drifting and tried to find a job, but of course I couldn't buy my way in to any of the hereditary guilds. Earth has enough people of her own; she's not interested in finding jobs for kid spacemen who jump ship.
"So I starved a little. Then I got tired of starving. So about a year after I first jumped ship I borrowed a thousand credits from somebody foolish enough to lend them, and set myself up as a professional gambler on Free Status. It was the only trade I could find that didn't have any entrance requirements."
"Did you do well?"
"Yeah. Very well. At the end of my first six months I was fifteen hundred credits in debt. Then my luck changed; I won three thousand credits in a single month and got shifted up to Class B." Steve laughed bitterly. "That was beautiful, up there. Inside of two more months I'd not only lost my three thousand, I was two thousand more in hock. And that's the way it's been going ever since. I borrow here, win a little to pay him back, or lose a little and borrow from someone else, win a little, lose a little--round and round and round. A swell life, Alan. And I still dream about the Valhalla once or twice a week."
Steve's voice was leaden, dreary. Alan felt a surge of pity. The swashbuckling, energetic Steve he had known might still be there, inside this man somewhere, but surrounding him were the scars of nine bitter years on Earth.
Nine years. It was a tremendous gulf.
Alan caught his breath a moment. "If you had the chance to go back into the Crew, no strings attached, no recriminations--would you take it?"
For an instant the old brightness returned to Steve's eyes. "Of course I would! But----"
"I owe seven thousand credits," Steve said. "And it keeps getting worse. That pot I won today, just before you came over to me, that was the first take I'd had in three days. Nine years and I'm still a Class C gambler. We can't all be as good as Hawkes here. I'm lousy--but what other profession could I go into, on an overcrowded and hostile world like this one?"
Seven thousand credits, Alan thought. It was a week's earnings for Hawkes--but Steve would probably be in debt the rest of his life.
"Who do you owe this money to?" Hawkes asked suddenly.
Steve looked at him. "The Bryson syndicate, mostly. And Lorne Hollis. The Bryson people keep a good eye on me, too. There's a Bryson man three booths up who follows me around. If they ever saw me going near the spacefield they'd be pretty sure to cut me off and ask for their money. You can't welsh on Bryson."
"Suppose it was arranged that your debts be cancelled," Hawkes said speculatively.
Steve shook his head. "No. I don't want charity. I know you're a Class A and seven thousand credits comes easy to you, but I couldn't take it. Skip it. I'm stuck here on Earth for keeps, and I'm resigned to it. I made my choice, and this is what I got."
"Listen to reason," Alan urged. "Hawkes will take care of the money you owe. And Dad will be so happy to see you come back to the ship again----"
"Like Mars he'll be happy! See me come back, beaten up and ragged, a washed-out old man at twenty-six? No, sir. The Captain blotted me out of his mind a long time ago, and he and I don't have any further business together."
"You're wrong, Steve. He sent me into the Earther city deliberately to find you. He said to me, 'Find Steve and urge him to come back to the ship.' He's forgiven you completely," Alan lied. "Everyone's anxious to have you come back on board."
For a moment Steve sat silent, indecisive, frowning deeply. Then he made up his mind. He shook his head. "No--both of you. Thanks, but I don't want any. Keep your seven thousand, Hawkes. And you, Alan--go back to the ship and forget all about me. I don't even deserve a second chance."
"You're wrong!" Alan started to protest, but a second time Hawkes kicked him hard, and he shut up. He stared curiously at the gambler.
"I guess that about settles it," Hawkes observed. "If the man wants to stay, we can't force him."
Steve nodded. "I have to stay on Earth. And now I'd better get back to the games parlor--I can't waste any time, you know. Not with a seven thousand credit backlog to make up."
"Naturally. But there's time for one more drink, isn't there? On me. Maybe you don't want my money, but let me buy you a drink."
Steve grinned. "Fair enough."
He started to wave to the bartender, but Hawkes shot out an arm quickly and blocked off the gesture. "He's an old man and he's tired. I'll go to the bar and order." And before Steve could protest, Hawkes had slipped smoothly out of the booth and was on his way forward to the bar.
Alan sat facing his brother. He felt pity. Steve had been through a lot; the freedom he had longed for aboard ship had had a heavy price. And was it freedom, to sit in a crowded games parlor on a dirty little planet and struggle to get out of debt?
There was nothing further he could say to Steve. He had tried, and he had failed, and Steve would remain on Earth. But it seemed wrong. Steve did deserve a second chance. He had jumped ship and it had been a mistake, but there was no reason why he could not return to his old life, wiser for the experience. Still, if he refused---- Hawkes came back bearing two drinks--another beer for himself and a whiskey for Steve. He set them out on the table and said, "Well, drink up. Here's hoping you make Class A and stay there."
"Thanks," Steve said, and drained his drink in a single loud gulp. His eyes widened; he started to say something, but never got the words out. He slumped down in his seat and his chin thumped ringingly against the table.
Alan looked at Hawkes in alarm. "What happened to him? Why'd he pass out?"
Hawkes smiled knowingly. "An ancient Earth beverage known as the Mickey Finn. Two drops of a synthetic enzyme in his drink; tasteless, but extremely effective. He'll be asleep for ten hours or more."
"How'd you arrange it?"
"I told the bartender it was in a good cause, and he believed me. You wait here, now. I want to talk to that Bryson man about your brother's debts, and then we'll spirit him out to the spaceport and dump him aboard the Valhalla before he wakes up."
Alan grinned. He was going to have to do some explaining to Steve later, but by that time it would be too late; the starship would be well on its way to Procyon. It was a dirty trick to play, he thought, but it was justifiable. In Hawkes' words, it was in a good cause.
Alan put his arms around his brother's shoulders and gently lifted him out of the chair; Steve was surprisingly light, for all his lack of condition. Evidently muscle weighed more than fat, and Steve had gone to fat. Supporting his brother's bulk without much trouble, Alan made his way toward the entrance to the bar. As he went past the bartender, the old man smiled at him. Alan wondered what Hawkes had said to him.
Right now Hawkes was three booths up, leaning over and taking part in an urgent whispered conference with a thin dark-faced man in a sharply tailored suit. They reached some sort of agreement; there was a handshake. Then Hawkes left the booth and slung one of Steve's dangling arms around his own shoulder, easing the weight.
"There's an Undertube that takes us as far as Carhill Boulevard and the bridge," Hawkes said. "We can get a ground vehicle there that'll go on through the Enclave and out to the spacefield."
The trip took nearly an hour. Steve sat propped up between Alan and Hawkes, and every now and then his head would loll to one side or another, and he would seem to be stirring; but he never woke. The sight of two men dragging a third along between them attracted not the slightest attention as they left the Undertube and climbed aboard the spacefield bus. Apparently in York City no one cared much about what went on; it made no difference to the busy Earthers whether Steve were unconscious or dead.