Things were not quite so easy in the Class B games parlors. Competition was rough. Some of the players were, like Alan, sharp newcomers just up from the bottom of the heap; others were former Class A men who were sliding down again, but still did well enough to hang on in Class B. Every day, some of the familiar faces were gone, as one man after another failed to meet the continuing qualifications for the intermediary class.
Alan won fairly steadily--and Hawkes, of course, was a consistent winner on the Class A level. Alan turned his winnings over to the older man, who then allowed him to draw any cash he might need without question.
The summer rolled on through August--hot and sticky, despite the best efforts of the local weather-adjustment bureau. The cloud-seeders provided a cooling rain-shower at about 0100 every night to wash away the day's grime. Alan was usually coming home at that time, and he would stand in the empty streets letting the rain pelt down on him, and enjoying it. Rain was a novelty for him; he had spent so much of his life aboard the starship that he had had little experience with it. He was looking forward to the coming of winter, and with it snow.
He hardly ever thought of the Valhalla. He disciplined himself to keep thoughts of the starship out of his mind, for he knew that once he began regretting his decision there would be no stopping. Life on Earth was endlessly fascinating; and he was confident that someday soon he would get a chance to begin tracking down the Cavour hyperdrive.
Hawkes taught him many things--how to wrestle, how to cheat at cards, how to throw knives. None of the things Alan learned from Hawkes were proper parts of the education of a virtuous young man--but on Earth, virtue was a negative accomplishment. You were either quick or dead. And until he had an opportunity to start work on the hyperdrive, Alan knew he had better learn how to survive on Earth. Hawkes was a master of survival techniques; Alan was a good student.
He had his first test on a muggy night early in September. He had spent his evening at the Lido, a flossy games parlor in the suburb of Ridgewood, and had come away with better than seven hundred credits--the second best single night he had ever had. He felt good about things. Hawkes was working at a parlor far across the city, and so they did not arrange to meet when the evening was over; instead, they planned to come home separately. Usually they talked for an hour or two each night before turning in, Alan reviewing his evening's work and having Hawkes pick out the weak points in his technique and show him the mistakes he had made.
Alan reached Hasbrouck about 0030 that evening. There was no moon; and in Hasbrouck the street-lighting was not as efficient as it was in more respectable areas of York City. The streets were dark. Alan was perspiring heavily from the humidity. But the faint hum of the cloud-seeders' helicopters could be heard; the evening rain was on the way. He decided to wait outside a while.
The first drops splashed down at 0045. Alan grinned gleefully as the cool rain washed away the sweat that clung to him; while pedestrians scurried for cover, he gloried in the downpour.
Darkness lay all around. Alan heard sudden footsteps; a moment later he felt sharp pressure in the small of his back and a hand gripping his shoulder.
A quiet voice said, "Hand over your cash and you won't get hurt."
Alan froze just an instant. Then the months of Hawkes' training came into play. He wiggled his back tentatively to see whether the knife was penetrating his clothing. Good; it wasn't.
In one quick motion he whirled and spun away, dancing off to the left and clubbing down sharply on his opponent's knife-hand. A grunted exclamation of pain rewarded him. He stepped back two steps; as his attacker advanced, Alan drove a fist into his stomach and leaped lithely away again. This time his hand emerged holding the neutrino gun.
"Stand where you are or I'll burn you," he said quietly. The shadow-shrouded attacker made no move. Cautiously Alan kicked the fallen knife out of his reach without lowering his gun.
"Okay," Alan said. "Come on over here in the light where I can see who you are. I want to remember you."
But to his astonishment he felt strong arms slipping around his and pinioning him; a quick twist and his neutrino gun dropped from his numbed hands. The arms locked behind his back in an unbreakable full nelson.
Alan writhed, but it was no use. The hidden accomplice held him tightly. And now the other man came forward and efficiently went through his pockets. Alan felt more angry than afraid, but he wished Hawkes or someone else would come along before this thing went too far.
Suddenly Alan felt the pressure behind his neck easing up. His captor was releasing him. He poised, debating whether or not to whirl and attack, when a familiar voice said, "Rule Number One: never leave your back unguarded for more than half a second when you're being held up. You see what happens."
Alan was too stunned to reply for several moments. In a whisper he said finally, "Max?"
"Of course. And lucky for you I'm who I am, too. John, step out here in the light where he can see you. Alan, meet John Byng. Free Status, Class B."
The man who had originally attacked him came forward now, into the light of the street-glow. He was shorter than Alan, with a lean, almost fleshless face and a scraggly reddish-brown beard. He looked cadaverous. His eyeballs were stained a peculiar yellowish tinge.
Alan recognized him--a Class B man he had seen several times at various parlors. It was not a face one forgot easily.
Byng handed over the thick stack of bills he had taken from Alan. As he pocketed them, Alan said in some annoyance, "A very funny prank, Max. But suppose I had burned your friend's belly, or he had stabbed me?"
Hawkes chuckled. "One of the risks of the game, I guess. But I know you too well to think that you'd burn down an unarmed man, and John didn't intend to stab you. Besides, I was right here."
"And what was the point of this little demonstration?"
"Part of your education, m'boy. I was hoping you'd be held up by one of the local gangs, but they didn't oblige, so I had to do it myself. With John's help, of course. Next time remember that there may be an accomplice hiding in the shadows, and that you're not safe just because you've caught one man."
Alan grinned. "Good point. And I guess this is the best way to learn it."
The three of them went upstairs. Byng excused himself and vanished into the extra room almost immediately; Hawkes whispered to Alan, "Johnny's a dreamduster--a narcosephrine addict. In the early stages; you can spot it by the yellowing of the eyeballs. Later on it'll cripple him, but he doesn't worry about later on."
Alan studied the small, lean man when he returned. Byng was smiling--a strange unworldly smile. He held a small plastic capsule in his right hand.
"Here's another facet of your education," he said. He looked at Hawkes. "Is it okay?"
Byng said, "Take a squint at this capsule, boy. It's dreamdust--narcosephrine. That's my kick."
He tossed the capsule nonchalantly to Alan, who caught it and held it at arm's distance as if it were a live viper. It contained a yellow powder.
"You twist the cap and sniff a little," Hawkes said. "But don't try it unless you hate yourself real bad. Johnny can testify to that."
Alan frowned. "What does the stuff do?"
"It's a stimulant--a nerve-stimulant. Enhances perception. It's made from a weed that grows only in dry, arid places--comes from Epsilon Eridani IV originally, but the galaxy's biggest plantation is in the Sahara. It's habit-forming--and expensive."
"How much of it do you have to take to--to get the habit?"
Byng's thin lips curled in a cynical scowl. "One sniff. And the drug takes all your worries away. You're nine feet tall and the world's your plaything, when you're up on dream dust. Everything you look at has six different colors." Bitterly Byng said, "Just one catch--after about a year you stop feeling the effect. But not the craving. That stays with you forever. Every night, one good sniff--at a hundred credits a sniff. And there's no cure."
Alan shuddered. He had seen dreamdust addicts in the advanced state--withered palsied old men of forty, unable to eat, crippled, drying up and nearing death. All that for a year's pleasure!
"Johnny used to be a starman," Hawkes said suddenly. "That's why I picked him for our little stunt tonight. I thought it was about time I introduced you two."
Alan's eyes widened. "What ship?"
"Galactic Queen. A dreamdust peddler came wandering through the Enclave one night and let me have a free sniff. Generous of him."
"And you--became an addict?"
"Five minutes later. So my ship left without me. That was eleven years ago, Earthtime. Figure it out--a hundred credits a night for eleven years."
Alan felt cold inside. It could have happened to him, he thought--that free sniff. Byng's thin shoulders were quivering. The advanced stage of addiction was starting to set in.
Byng was only the first of Hawkes' many friends that Alan met in the next two weeks. Hawkes was the center of a large group of men in Free Status, not all of whom knew each other but who all knew Hawkes. Alan felt a sort of pride in being the protege of such an important and widely-known man as Max Hawkes, until he started discovering what sort of people Hawkes' friends were.
There was Lorne Hollis, the loansman--one of the men Steve had borrowed from. Hollis was a chubby, almost greasy individual with flat milky gray eyes and a cold, chilling smile. Alan shook hands with him, and then felt like wiping off his hand. Hollis came to see them often.
Another frequent visitor was Mike Kovak of the Bryson Syndicate--a sharp-looking businessman type in ultra-modern suits, who spoke clearly and well and whose specialty was forgery. There was Al Webber, an amiable, soft-spoken little man who owned a fleet of small ion-drive cargo ships that plied the spacelines between Earth and Mars, and who also exported dreamdust to the colony on Pluto, where the weed could not be grown.
Seven or eight others showed up occasionally at Hawkes' apartment. Alan was introduced to them all, and then generally dropped out of the conversation, which usually consisted of reminiscences and gossip about people he did not know.
But as the days passed, one thing became evident: Hawkes might not be a criminal himself, but certainly most of his friends operated on the far side of the law. Hawkes had seen to it that they stayed away from the apartment during the first few months of Alan's Earther education; but now that the ex-starman was an accomplished gambler and fairly well skilled in self-defense, all of Hawkes' old friends were returning once again.
Day by day Alan increasingly realized how innocent and childlike a starman's life was. The Valhalla was a placid little world of 176 people, bound together by so many ties that there was rarely any conflict. Here on Earth, though, life was tough and hard.
He was lucky. He had stumbled into Hawkes early in his wanderings. With a little less luck he might have had the same sort of life Steve had had ... or John Byng. It was not fun to think about that.
Usually when Hawkes had friends visiting him late at night, Alan would sit up for a while listening, and then excuse himself and get some sleep. As he lay in bed he could hear low whispering, and once he woke toward morning and heard the conversation still going on. He strained his ears, but did not pick up anything.
One night early in October he had come home from the games parlor and, finding nobody home, had gone immediately to sleep. Some time later he heard Hawkes and his friends come in, but he was too tired to get out of bed and greet them. He rolled over and went back to sleep.
But later that night he felt hands touching him, and he opened an eye to see Hawkes bending over him.
"It's me--Max. Are you awake?"
"No," Alan muttered indistinctly.
Hawkes shook him several times. "Come on--get up and put some clothes on. Some people here who want to talk to you."
Only half comprehending, Alan clambered unwillingly from bed, dressed, and splashed cold water in his face. He followed Hawkes back inside.
The living room was crowded. Seven or eight men were there--the ones Alan thought of as the inner circle of Hawkes' cronies. Johnny Byng, Mike Kovak, Al Webber, Lorne Hollis, and some others. Sleepily Alan nodded at them and took a seat, wondering why Hawkes had dragged him out of bed for this.
Hawkes looked at him sharply. "Alan, you know all these people, don't you?"
Alan nodded. He was still irritated at Hawkes; he had been sound asleep.
"You're now facing ninety per cent of what we've come to call the Hawkes Syndicate," Hawkes went on. "These eight gentlemen and myself have formed the organization recently for a certain specific purpose. More of that in a few minutes. What I got you out here to tell you was that there's room in our organization for one more man, and that you fit the necessary qualifications."
Hawkes smiled. "You. We've all been watching you since you came to live with me, testing you, studying you. You're adaptable, strong, intelligent. You learn fast. We had a little vote tonight, and decided to invite you in."
Alan wondered if he were still asleep or not. What was all this talk of syndicates? He looked round the circle, and realized that this bunch could be up to no good.
Hawkes said, "Tell him about it, Johnny."
Byng leaned forward and blinked his drug-stained eyes. In a quiet voice, almost a purr, he said, "It's really very simple. We're going to stage a good old-fashioned hold-up. It's a proposition that'll net us each about a million credits, even with the ten-way split. It ought to go off pretty easy but we need you in on it. As a matter of fact, I'd say you were indispensable to the project, Alan."
Hawkes took over, explaining the proposition to a now very much awake Alan.
"There's going to be a currency transfer at the World Reserve Bank downtown next Friday. At least ten million credits are going to be picked up by an armored truck and taken to branch banks for distribution.
"Hollis, here, happens to have found out the wave-patterns of the roboguards who'll be protecting the currency shipment. And Al Webber has some equipment that can paralyze roboguards if we know their operational wavelength. So it's a simple matter to leave the car unprotected; we wait till it's loaded, then blank out the robots, seize the human guards, and drive away with the truck."
Alan frowned thoughtfully. "Why am I so indispensable to this business?" He had no desire to rob banks or anything else.
"Because you're the only one of us who isn't registered on the central directory. You don't have any televector number. You can't be traced."
Suddenly Alan understood. "So that's why you didn't let me register! You've been grooming me for this all along!"
Hawkes nodded. "As far as Earth is concerned, you don't exist. If any of us drove off with that truck, all they need to do is plot the truck's coordinates and follow the televector patterns of the man who's driving it. Capture is inevitable that way. But if you're aboard the truck, there's no possible way of tracing your route. Get it?"
"I get it," Alan said slowly. But I don't like it, he added silently. "I want to think about the deal a little longer, though. Let me sleep on it. I'll tell you tomorrow whether I'll go through with it."
Puzzled expressions appeared on the faces of Hawkes' eight guests, and Webber started to say something, but Hawkes hastily cut him off. "The boy's a little sleepy, that's all. He needs time to get used to the idea of being a millionaire. I'll call each of you in the morning, okay?"
The eight were shepherded out of the apartment rapidly, and when they were gone Hawkes turned to face Alan. Gone now was the bland friendliness, gone the warm-hearted brotherliness of the older man. His lean face was cold and businesslike now, and his voice was harsh as he said, "What's this talk of thinking it over? Who said you had any choice about this thing?"
"Don't I have any say in my own life?" Alan asked hotly. "Suppose I don't want to be a bank robber? You didn't tell me----"
"I didn't need to. Listen, boy--I didn't bring you in here for my health. I brought you in because I saw you had the potential for this job. I've coddled you along for more than three months, now. Given you a valuable education in how to get along on this planet. Now I'm asking you to pay me back, a little. Byng told the truth: you're indispensable to this project. Your personal feelings are irrelevant just now."
Alan stared coldly at Hawkes' transformed face. "Max, I didn't bargain for a share in your bank-robbing syndicate. I don't want any part of it. Let's call it quits right now. I've turned over quite a few thousand credits of my winnings to you. Give me five hundred and keep the rest. It's your pay for my room and board and instruction the last three months. You go your way, I'll go mine."
Hawkes laughed sharply. "Just as simple as that? I pocket your winnings and you walk out of here? How dumb do you think I am? You know the names of the syndicate, you know the plans, you know everything. A lot of people would pay big money for an advance tip on this bit." He shook his head. "I'll go my way and you'll go it too, Alan. Or else. You know what that or else means."
Angrily Alan said, "You'd kill me, too, if I backed down now. Friendship doesn't mean a thing to you. 'Help us rob this bank, or else.'"
Hawkes' expression changed again; he smiled warmly, and when he spoke his voice was almost wheedling. "Listen, Alan, we've been planning this thing for months. I put down seven thousand to clear your brother, just so I'd be sure of getting your cooperation. I tell you there's no danger. I didn't mean to threaten you--but try to see my side of it. You have to help out!"
Alan looked at him curiously. "How come you're so hot to rob the bank, Max? You earn a fortune every night. You don't need a million more credits."
"No. I don't. But some of them do. Johnny Byng does; and Kovak, too--he owes Bryson thirty thousand. But I organized the scheme." Hawkes was pleading now. "Alan, I'm bored. Deadly bored. Gambling isn't gambling for me; I'm too good. I never lose except when I want to. So I need to get my kicks someplace else. This is it. But it won't come off without you."
They were silent for a moment. Alan realized that Hawkes and his group were desperate men; they would never let him live if he refused to cooperate. He had no choice at all. It was disillusioning to discover that Hawkes had taken him in mostly because he would be useful in a robbery.
He tried to tell himself that this was a jungle world where morality didn't matter, and that the million credits he'd gain would help finance hyperdrive research. But those were thin arguments that held no conviction. There was no justification for what he was going to do. None whatsoever.
But Hawkes held him in a cleft stick. There was no way out. He had fallen among thieves--and, willy-nilly, he would be forced to become one himself.
"All right," he said bitterly. "I'll drive the getaway truck for you. But after it's over, I'll take my share and get out. I won't want to see you again."
Hawkes seemed to look hurt, but he masked the emotion quickly enough. "That's up to you, Alan. But I'm glad you gave in. It would have been rough on both of us otherwise. Suppose we get some sleep."
Alan slept poorly during what was left of the night. He kept mulling the same thoughts round and round endlessly in his head, until he wished he could unhinge the front of his skull and let the thoughts somehow escape.
It irritated him to know that Hawkes had taken him in primarily because he fit the qualifications for a plan concocted long before, and not for his own sake. All the intensive training the gambler had given him had been directed not merely toward toughening Alan but toward preparing him for the role he would play in the projected robbery.
He felt unhappy about the robbery too. The fact that he was being coerced into taking part made him no less a criminal, and that went against all his long-ingrained codes of ethics. He would be just as guilty as Hawkes or Webber, and there was no way out.
There was no sense brooding over it, he decided finally. When it was all over he would have enough money to begin aiming for his real goal, development of a workable hyperspace drive. He would break completely with Hawkes, move to some other city perhaps. If his quest were successful, it would in some measure be an atonement for the crime he was going to commit. Only in some measure, though.