He glanced at the woman. She was past the first bloom of youth and her face, under her makeup, was heavily lined, her eyes shrewd and observing. Had he known that she had been shadowing him almost from the instant of his arrival in Los Angeles, and had been awaiting his return to Earth in obedience to carefully formulated instructions he would not have regarded her so complacently.
The monorail shot up toward the Palms-Pine pass of the San Jacinto Mountains. From the crest of the grade Hunter could look back at the flat, cemented field of the spaceport and the ragged teeth of the launching tubes rearing high on the Mojave. Ahead of him, misted by the blue haze of industrial smog, was Los Angeles, the capital city of Sector West--and indirectly the capital of the entire planet.
Almost indistinct against the horizon were the soaring, Babel towers, the tangled network of walk-levels, jet-ways and private landing flats, which was the center-city. The lower, bulky factory buildings squatted under the towers and spreading outward from them, like concentric rings made by a stone hurled into a quiet pool, was the monotonous clutter of the minimum-housing.
The city sprawled from San Diego to Santa Barbara, and it lapped against the arid Mojave to the east. Beyond were the suburban homes of laborers and low-echelon executives who had carved brass-knuckled niches for themselves in the medium-income bracket.
Hunter saw the panoramic view of Sector West for only a split-second before the monorail car screamed down through the layer of gray haze. For thirty minutes the car shot across the minimum-housing area, stopping from time to time at high-platformed stations.
In the industrial district the car emptied rapidly. Only Hunter and his faded seat companion got out at the turnaround terminal and took the slideway to center-city. In the metro-entry at the top of the stairs they went through a security check station manned by six blaster-armed police guards.
Half of the guards wore the insignia of Consolidated Solar Industries and half of United Research, the two titan cartels which were locked in deadly battle for the empire beyond the stars.
The government played it safe, Hunter thought with bitterness, using an equal number of police from each organization. On Earth the pacific balance of commercial power was never disturbed--not, at least, on the surface. The two imperial giants lived side by side in a tactful display of peace.
On the frontier the real conflict raged, fought with all the weapons of treachery and an arsenal of highly refined atomic weapons--the blaster which could tear a man into component elements, and the L-bombs that were capable of turning a young sun into a nova.
The woman passed through the security check with no trouble. The men knew her and made only a perfunctory examination of her cards. But Hunter again had difficulty because of the blaster in his bag. His registered permit carried no weight with the guards. It was not their duty to execute existing law, but to protect their private employers.
However, the Consolidated insignia on Hunter's jacket made the three Consolidated guards ready to honor his permit. Eventually they persuaded the opposition to pass Hunter into the city, on the ground that the captain's zero-zero adjustment index indicated that it was safe for him to carry arms.
When Hunter went through the probe, he found the woman waiting for him. During the half-hour ride from the spaceport, he had tried twice to start a conversation with her, and failed. Now, abruptly, her face was animated with interest. She put her arm through his and walked with him to the lift shaft.
"So you got away with it, Captain." Since it was long-standing fashion, she had trained her voice to sound low-pitched and husky. "I mean, bringing a blaster into center-city."
"Why all this fuss about a gun?" Hunter asked.
"It's a new government regulation," she told him.
"The government doesn't make the law," he reminded her. "The cartels do."
"The last fiscal mental health report showed the percentage of maladjusted--" She laughed throatily. "I wish we'd use words honestly! The survey showed the lunatic percentage is still increasing. The cartels are using that report as an excuse to keep the people unarmed."
Hunter was regarding her steadily. "Why?" he asked.
"We're not as content with our world as we're supposed to be," she said. "Eric Young can't keep all of us in line forever. Captain, we could use your blaster. It's next to impossible to get one these days. I could make it worth your while--"
"It's registered to me," Hunter pointed out.
"I'll change the serial," was her instant reply. "Your name wouldn't be involved."
"No, I want to keep it."
"To use yourself?"
"Don't talk nonsense," he said. "This isn't the frontier."
He made the denial vehemently, but deep in his mind he had an uncertain feeling that her guess was right. Earth was not the battle-ground, but it had spawned the conflict. The appearance of peace was a sham. Here the battle was fought with more subtlety, but the objective remained the same.
If Ann Saymer had somehow been caught in the no-man's-land between the two cartels--It was the first time that thought had occurred to Hunter, and it filled him with a dread foreboding.
The woman sensed his feeling. He saw a smile on her curving lips. She said softly, "So even a spaceman sometimes has his doubts."
"I left the service this morning," he said. Suddenly he was telling her all about himself and Ann. It was unwise, perhaps even dangerous. But he had to unburden himself to someone or run the risk of losing his emotional control.
"So now you've lost this--this ambitious woman of yours," she said when he had finished.
"No," he protested. "I won't let myself believe that. Once I did--"
"As well as her interesting invention--the Exorciser," she went on relentlessly. "Have you ever wondered, Captain Hunter, what might happen if the platinum grid was not removed from a patient's brain?"
"No, but I suppose--I suppose he'd remain in control of the operator of the transmitter."
She nodded. "He'd become a perfectly adjusted specimen with a zero-zero index, but--he'd also become a human robot with no will of his own."
"But Ann wouldn't--"
"Not Ann, Captain. Not the girl you've waited so long to marry. All she wants is a clinic of her own so that she can help the maladjusted. But don't forget--she holds a priceless patent. Keep your blaster, my friend. I've an idea you may need it."
He gripped her wrist. "You know something about this?"
"I know the world we live in--nothing more."
"But you're guessing--"
"Later, Captain, after you start putting some facts together on your own." She pulled away from him. "If you want to find me again--and I think you will--look for me in Number thirty-four on the amusement level. Ask for Dawn."
Suddenly, for no reason that he could explain, he had for her a great sympathy. She was no ordinary woman. Her discernment was extraordinary, and she possessed, in addition, a strangely elusive charm.
They rode the lift as it moved up through the city level in its transparent, fairy-world shaft. Dawn got out first, at the mid-city walk-way where the cheapest shops and the gaudiest entertainment houses were crammed together. Dazzling in the glare of colored lights, the mid-city never slept. It was always thronged. It was the only area of the heartland--except for the top level casinos--open to every citizen without restriction.
On the levels immediately above it were the specialty shops, dealing in luxuries for the suburbanites who had fought, schemed and bribed their way out of the minimum housing. Higher still was the sector given over to the less expensive commercial hotels.
The upper levels were occupied by cartel executive offices and at the top, high enough to escape the smog and feel the warmth of the sun, were the fabulous casino resorts, the mansions built by the family dynasts who controlled the cartels, and the modest, limestone building housing the mockery which passed as government.
Captain Hunter left the lift at Level Nineteen. An automatic entry probe accepted his blue-tinted executive card, and he walked the short distance to the hotel which specialized in catering to spacemen. It was traditionally neutral ground, where the mercenaries of Consolidated or United Research met as friends, although a week before they might have been firing radiation fire at each other in the outer reaches of space. The frontier conflict was a business to the spaceman. Hunter was too well-adjusted to become emotionally involved in it himself.
The spacemen called their hotel the Roost, a contraction lifted from the public micropic code. The full name was the Roosevelt, lettered on the entry. The hotel was popularly supposed to have been built close to the site of a twentieth century Los Angeles hotel of the same name, destroyed in the last convulsive war that had shattered the earth.
By micropic Hunter had made his customary reservation. His room was high in an upper floor overlooking Level Twenty-three. Through the visipanel he could see the walk-ways thronged by the various classifications of executives who worked in the central offices of the cartels--lawyers, engineers, administrators, directors, astrogeographers, designers, statisticians, researchers.
Somewhere in the crowd, perhaps, were the two men who ruled the cartels and directed the struggle for the Galactic empire. Glenn Farren of Consolidated Solar and Werner von Rausch of United Researchers. Max Hunter had never seen either of the men or any of their dynastic families. He knew little about them. Their pictures were never published.
Yet Farren and Von Rausch held in their hands more despotic power, more real wealth and military might, than any ancient Khan or Caesar had ever dreamed of.
Did they now want Ann Saymer's patent? The answer, Hunter realized, was obvious. With Ann's Exorciser, they could enslave the centers of civilization as they had enslaved the frontier. In itself that was a minor factor, already accomplished by man's acceptance of the jungle ethics of the cartels. Far more important, if one of the cartels controlled the patent, it had a weapon that would ultimately destroy the other.
With trembling fingers, Hunter took Ann's last micropic from his bag and rolled the tiny film into a wall-scanner. He could have recited it by heart; yet, by reading it again, he somehow expected to extract a new meaning. The code he and Ann used, contrived for economy rather than secrecy, was merely a telescoping of common phrases into single word symbols.
IHTKN, at the beginning, was easily interpreted as "I have taken," and COMJB became "commission-job." The micropic transmission monopoly arbitrarily limited all code words to five letters or less, counting additional letters as whole words. But because of the simplicity of the technique, some of Ann's symbols were open to a number of interpretations.
Hunter was sure of one thing. Ann had not specifically named the clinic where she was working. She said she had gone to work for the biggest--or possibly the symbol meant best--of the private clinics. Either term could apply to the clinics run by the two cartels; or, for that matter, to the largest of them all, operated by Eric Young's union.
But Ann, having invented the Exorciser, would know all its possible misuses--a factor which had not occurred to Hunter until Dawn spelled it out for him. Would Ann, then, have been fool enough to let herself fall into the hands of the cartels?
That line of reasoning gave Hunter new hope. If one of the cartels tried to trap her, Ann would simply go into hiding. It would complicate the problem of finding her, but at least he could assure himself she was safe. Ann had brains to match her ambition. She couldn't otherwise have earned a First in Psychiatry. No, Hunter was certain the cartels didn't have her.
The telescreen buzzer gave a plaintive bleep. Hunter jerked down the response toggle. Surprisingly, the screen remained dark, but Hunter heard a man's voice say clearly, "You are anxious to find Ann Saymer, Captain Hunter?"
Apparently the transmission from Hunter's screen was unimpaired, for the speaker seemed to recognize him.
"Who is this?" Hunter asked, his mouth suddenly dry.
"A friend. We have your interest at heart, Captain. We suggest that you investigate United Researchers' clinic when you start looking for Miss Saymer."
The contact snapped off. Hunter sat down slowly, his mind reeling. Since only his screen had been neutralized, the machine was not at fault. Only a top-ranking cartel executive could arrange for a deliberate interruption of service. The rest followed logically. No one in United would have given him the information.
So Ann had fallen into their hands after all! Someone in Consolidated--perhaps Glenn Farren himself--was setting him on Ann's trail, on the chance that Hunter could find her when Consolidated's operatives had failed.
Hunter was used to the risk of long odds. He had a ten-year apprenticeship in the treachery and in-fighting of the frontier. There was a good chance that he could play one cartel against the other, and in the process get Ann away from both of them.
One more thing he wanted before he planned his opening attack against United Researchers--the note Ann had sent to Mrs. Ames. It might give him a clue as to where United had taken her. Hunter wasn't naive enough to suppose they had kept her in center-city. But perhaps she was not even in Sector West.
Each of the eleven sectors into which the Earth was divided was controlled by one of the two cartels, as an agricultural or industrial appendage of the western metropolis. It was a paternal relationship, although no comparable city had been permitted to develop and company mercenaries policed the sectors.
Children who exhibited any spark of initiative or ability were skimmed off from the hinterland to Sector West and thrown into the competitive struggle of the general school. If they fought to the top there, they were integrated as adults into the hierarchy of the cartels.
The rest became the labor force of Sector West, enrolled in Eric Young's union and crowded into the minimum housing. The teeming millions left in the hinterland were a plodding, uninspired mass content with trivialities. They felt neither ambition nor frustration. While the number of the mentally ill continued to multiply in Sector West, only a fraction of the hinterland population suffered the mental decay.
Hunter fervently hoped United had taken Ann to one of the other sectors. Rescue would be easy. An experienced spaceman could out-talk, out-maneuver, and out-fight an entire hinterland battalion.
Max Hunter took an autojet from the Roost to Mrs. Ames' residential apartment. Conservation of his capital no longer counted, but time did. If United had Ann's patent, Ann herself was expendable. Hunter had to make his move to save her before they knew what he was up to. It would be a difficult deal to pull off in the capital city, where operatives of both cartels swarmed everywhere.
He left his blaster in his hotel room, to avoid an interrogation at any other metro-entry. Mrs. Ames' apartment residence was one place in the city where he had no need to go armed.
Just outside center-city a single street of twentieth century houses, sheltered by the Palos Verdes Hills, had survived the devastation of the last war. In the beginning the street had been preserved as a museum piece while the cartel city had grown up around it. But with each passing generation, popular interest had waned. Eventually the houses had been sold.
One was now operated by a religious cult. Two were enormously profitable party houses, where clients masqueraded in the amusing twentieth century costumes and passed a few short hours living with the quaint inconveniences of the past. The game had become so attractive that reservations were booked months in advance. The fourth relic remained unsold, slowly falling into ruin. The fifth belonged to Mrs. Ames.
To satisfy a whim--originally it was no more than that, Mrs. Ames had assured Hunter many times--she had asked her husband to buy it for her some fifty years ago. After a space-liner accident left her a widow at thirty-five, she had moved into the house as a means of psychologically withdrawing from her grief.
She never left it again. She found the old house an island in time, a magic escape from the chaos of her world.
She took in four residents because she needed their credits to augment the income from her husband's estate, and the house was then officially listed as an apartment. Chance worked her a miracle--or perhaps the house did possess a magic of its own--for the residents were as charmed by its inconveniences as Mrs. Ames had been. Ann wouldn't consider living anywhere else, although the house was more than a mile from her university. Even Hunter felt the indefinable spell, when he was in from a flight and went to see Ann.
It was a house that invited relaxation. It was a house where time seemed to be stated in a value that could not be measured with credits. It was a house that whispered, "I saw one world fall into dust; yours is no more eternal"--and, for a moment, that whisper made the cartel-jungle meaningless.
Hunter left his autojet on the parking flat behind the house. He fed enough coins in the meter to hold the car for twenty-four hours. He didn't know how fast he'd want an autojet after he talked to Mrs. Ames, but he didn't want a chance passer-by to pick up his car if the charter expired.
It was necessary for him to ring a bell manually, by means of a metal button fixed to the wooden frame of the front door. No scanner announced his arrival, nor did any soundless auto-door respond to a beam transmitted from within the house. After a time Hunter heard footsteps. A strange woman--probably a new resident who had taken Ann's place--opened the door.
"I'm Captain Hunter," he said. "I came to see Mrs. Ames."
"Won't you come in, Captain?" the woman replied.
She led him into a front room which, Ann had once told him, had been called a living room. A peculiar name, surely, for the room appeared to have been designed solely as a place to sit while watching Tri-D--or flat-screen television, as it had been called in its early developmental stage when the house was new--or to hear someone play the bulky instrument known as a piano.
The room was an example of the appalling waste of space so common to the twentieth century. It was extremely spacious, but neither food tubes nor bed drawers were concealed in the walls.
Hunter had always been curious about the piano. It amazed him that it had been operated entirely by hand. There was no electric scanner to read the mood of the player and interpret it in melody. Driven to contrive his own harmonics, how could the twentieth century man have derived any satisfaction at all from music? His sensibilities had been immature, of course. But even so, an instrument which demanded so much individual creativeness must have been an enormous frustration.
Since so many surviving twentieth century machines made the same demand on the individual--their automobiles, for example, had been individually directed, without any sort of electronic safety control--it had puzzled both Hunter and Ann that the incidence of maladjustment in the past had been so low.
The captain dropped into a comfortable, chintz-covered rocking chair--one relic in this island of time that he really enjoyed. "Will you tell Mrs. Ames I'm here?" he asked the stranger.
"I'm Mrs. Ames."
"I mean Mrs. Janice Ames--the owner of the house."
The woman smiled woodenly. "You're speaking to her, Captain, though I must say I don't remember ever having met you before."
"You don't remember--"
Fear clutched at his heart. He sprang up, moving toward her with clenched fists. "An hour ago I called Mrs. Ames from the spaceport. I saw her. Here--in this room."
"I've owned this house all my life, Captain." Her expression was more than good acting. She spoke with utter conviction, and seemed completely sure of herself. "You must be--" She hesitated and looked at him sharply. "Have you checked your adjustment index recently?"
"I haven't lost my mind, if that's what you're getting at," he said. "Where's Ann Saymer?"
"Believe me, please. The name is totally unfamiliar to me." The woman was painfully sympathetic--and frankly scared. She backed away from him. "You need help from the clinic, Captain. Will you let me call them for you?"
Suddenly the light fell full on her face, and Hunter saw the tiny, still-unhealed scalpel wounds on both sides of her skull. The light glowed on the microscopic filament of platinum wire clumsily left projecting through the incision.
He understood, then. This woman was wearing one of Ann's patented grids, sealed into her cerebral cortex. It made her into a robot, responding with unquestioning obedience to the direction of Ann's transmitter. And Hunter had no doubt that United manipulated the transmission.
Simultaneously he realized something else. If the cartel went to this extreme to forestall his search for Ann, she must still be alive. For some reason they still needed her. Possibly her patent drawings had been submitted for government registry in such a way that only Ann understood them.
Ann had been through the general school, and knew what the score was. She would have protected her invention--and incidentally insured her own survival--if she could have possibly done so, even at a fearful risk to herself.
Hunter swung toward the door. It did not occur to him to call the police, since they were all cartel mercenaries. Whatever he did to help Ann, he would have to do on his own. Until he found her, he could count on help from Consolidated. After that--nothing.
He jerked open the front door--and froze. Three men were waiting on the porch with drawn blasters. Hunter had no time to recognize facial features which it might have been to his advantage to remember later, no time to find any identifying insignia on their tunics. With a barely visible flickering fire arced from one of the weapons, and pain exploded in his body, unconsciousness washed into his brain.