His first sensation when the paralysis began to wear off was the dull ache of visceral nausea. He opened his eyes, and saw, bleakly shadowed, the living room of the Ames house. It was after dark, which could only mean that he had lain there nearly four hours. To knock him out for that period of time, they must have given him a nearly lethal charge from the blaster calculated just under the limit of physical endurance.
His motor control and his sense of touch returned more slowly. For a quarter of an hour he lay helpless in the chintz-covered rocker, feeling nothing but a tingling, like pin-pricks of fire, in his arms and legs.
He looked down and saw that he held a blaster in his hand--his own blaster, which he had left in his room in the Roost. He did not yet have the neural control to release his fingers from the firing dial.
As his sense of hearing was restored, he became aware that the Tri D had been left on. The screen pictured the swirling confusion of a mob. An announcer was describing the sudden outburst of labor violence which had occurred in the industrial district that afternoon. Eric Young's U.F.W. had gone on strike against a dozen separate plants.
Essential plants, naturally. Everything was always essential, and government spokesmen always made pretty speeches deploring the situation. It was a pattern familiar to Hunter for years. One of the cartels would pay Young to strike factories belonging to the other. Then a second bribe, paid by the struck cartel, bought off the strike. Occasionally a sop of bonus credits had to be dished out to the faithful.
It was not a maneuver either Consolidated or United used frequently, because the advantage was transitory, and the only long-term winner was Eric Young.
This time there was a slight variation in the formula. Young had struck plants of both cartels. That puzzled Hunter, but any curiosity he felt was subordinate to his disgust. How much longer would this farce go on before it dawned on the rank and file of the U.F.W. that Eric Young was playing them all for suckers? Hunter tried to get up to snap off the telecast. He managed only to throw himself awkwardly over the arm of the chair.
And then he saw the body on the floor--the body of the genuine Mrs. Ames, charred by a ragged blaster wound seared through her breast. They had murdered her--naturally with his blaster--and left him at the scene, neatly framed for the crime.
Hunter heard--right on cue--the whine of a police siren outside. Everything timed to trap him just as the motor paralysis wore off! With an effort that brought beads of sweat to his forehead, he dropped his blaster and pushed himself out of the chair. His feet were numb. He moved a few steps and banged into the piano. Clawing for support, his hands crashed in jangling discord on the keys.
The siren swelled loud in front of the house. Hunter heard the drum-beat of boots on the porch. He stumbled toward the kitchen--and fell into the arms of two police officers who had entered from the rear of the house.
He swung his fist; the fingers felt like clods of wet clay. One of the mercenaries caught his wrist and held it easily. In the gloom Hunter saw the Consolidated insignia on the man's jacket, and the guard whispered quickly, "This deal was a set-up, Hunter--packaged evidence, dropped at headquarters ten minutes ago."
Hunter stared. "Accusing me by name? Get this straight! Four hours ago they put me under with a blaster and--"
"It's a United frame," the guard said. "They want you out for good. The top brass of Consolidated is giving you the green right down the line. The fastest out Jake and I could figure--" He jerked his head toward his companion. "--was to give the United boys on our team the front of the house, and let you make a break for it from the back. We'll fake enough here to protect ourselves."
They pushed a blaster into Hunter's hands. He stumbled through the kitchen as the front door gave and two United mercenaries burst into the house. Hunter ran awkwardly, without full control of his legs.
He saw, looming black against the night shadows, the oval silhouette of the autojet on the Ames flat, still held under his twenty-four hour charter. It offered a tempting means of escape, but a public car was too easily traced and brought down by police tracers. However, it could perform a miracle as a diversion.
Hunter slid into the car, punched out a destination blindly, and engaged the flight gear. With the customary roar of power, the car shot up from the flat. Hunter leaped free. His feet struck the cement. The lingering trace of paralysis, destroying his normal co-ordination, made the fall very painful.
Hunter flung himself flat in the shadow of the ornamental shrubs along the edge of the parking flat. The four police mercenaries sprinted out of the house and leaped into the police jet. With sirens screaming, it soared up in pursuit of the empty autojet.
Hunter estimated that he had perhaps thirty minutes before they sent out a general alarm. A painfully small margin of safety. Where could he hide that the machines of detection--the skilled, emotionless, one-track, electronic brains--would not eventually find him? And what of Ann Saymer? What could he do as a fugitive to save her?
United had planned it all down to the smallest detail. But that was the way the cartels operated. It was the system Hunter was accustomed to. He felt neither anger not resentment, simply a determination to out-plan and out-play the enemy.
If he accepted defeat he would admit frustration, and for Captain Max Hunter that was impossible. Hadn't he survived a decade of frontier conflict with an adjustment index of zero-zero? Instead of hopelessly weighing the odds stacked against him, he counted the advantage which a single man held in maneuverability and rapid change of pace.
He walked along the museum street, the blaster in his hand. A block away rose the bulk of a factory building and behind it towered the monster of center-city, transformed into a fairyland by the glow of lights on the many levels. Hunter's eye followed the pattern up toward the top, hidden above the blanket of haze.
The top! Luxury casinos and the castles of the cartels. Werner von Rausch and his empire of United Researchers. Werner von Rausch, who gave orders and Ann Saymer disappeared. Werner von Rausch, who gave new orders and Mrs. Ames lay murdered in her living room.
But behind the facade of his spacefleet and his private army, behind his police mercenaries, Werner von Rausch was one man--an old man, Hunter had been told--and a vulnerable target. Hunter weighed his changes, and the margin of success seemed to be balanced in his favor.
It was not what they would expect him to do. They had framed him for murder and he should now be running for his life. The hunted turned hunter. Hunter grinned savagely, enjoying his pun.
He slipped the blaster under his belt, leaving the scarlet jacket open to his navel so that the loose folds would conceal the outline of the weapon. He would have no trouble reaching the top level.
The resort casinos, like the mid-city amusement area, were open to any citizen. Special autojets, with destinations pre-set for the casino flat, were available in every monorail terminal. Hunter could by-pass a probe inspection at a regular metro-entry. The nearest terminal, from the north-coast line, was less than a quarter of a mile away.
As Hunter entered the industrial district he heard the turmoil of an angry crowd. He came upon them suddenly, swarming at the gates of a factory close to the terminal.
Eric Young's trouble-makers, he thought with a worried frown, jumping obediently when the big boss spoke the word. In less than five years Eric Young had turned the union into a third cartel, more powerful than Consolidated or United because the commodity Young controlled--human labor--was essential to the other two.
A third cartel! Suddenly Max Hunter understood why the cartels had to have Ann's patent at any cost. The absolute control of the human mind! It was the only weapon which Consolidated or United could use to break Young's power.
Hunter shouldered his way through the strikers toward the terminal. Though he wore no U.F.W. disc, he felt no alarm. Eric Young's strike riots were always well-managed. None of the violence was real and no one was ever seriously hurt.
But these trouble-makers seemed absurdly well-disciplined. They stood in drill-team ranks, moving and shouting abuse in perfect unison. Then Hunter saw their faces, as blank as death masks--and in all their skulls the still unhealed scalpel wound, as well as an occasional projecting platinum strand which sometimes caught the reflected light.
Max Hunter felt a chill of terror. He was walking in a human graveyard of living automatons, responding to the transmission from Ann's machine. United had lost no time in putting the thing to work. This was no ordinary strike, but the opening skirmish in the conflict that would wreck both Consolidated and the Union of Free Workers.
Hunter entered the monorail terminal. It was deserted except for a woman who stood by the window looking out at the crowd. She was wearing a demure, pink dress. Her face was plain, and she had used no cosmetic plasti-skin to make it more striking. Her brown hair, streaked with a gray which she took no trouble to hide, was pulled into a bun at the back of her neck.
Surprisingly, Hunter thought she was pretty, perhaps because she was so different from the eternal, baby-faced adolescent who thronged the city in a million identical duplications.
Hunter knew he had seen her before. He couldn't remember where. She shifted her position slightly and the light cast a sharp, angular shadow on her face. Then he knew.
"Dawn!" he cried.
Startled, she turned to face him with a strange look in her eyes.
"I was hoping you wouldn't recognize me, Captain Hunter," she said.
"What are you doing here--dressed like some dowdy just in from a farm sector?" he asked, his gaze incredulous.
"We're all of us a mixture of different personalities," she replied. "I work for an entertainment house, yes. But I also have some of the qualities of your Ann Saymer. Don't take offense, please. Ann and I are both interested in the maladjusted. She wants a quick cure. I'm looking for the cause."
"Wherever there are people who face an emotional crisis--the men who come to Number thirty-four, or a mob of strikers. I want to know why we react in the way we do, and what makes up the frustration pattern that crowds us across the borderline into insanity."
"You sound like a psychiatrist," he said.
"I hold a First, Captain Hunter."
"And you work in an entertainment house?"
"Tell me about yourself, Captain. Have you found Ann yet?"
He looked away quickly.
"No," he said, his face hardening.
"And you still haven't had a chance to use your blaster?"
He directed an appraising glance at her. The question might imply a great deal. Did she somehow know what had happened at Mrs. Ames'? Did she know he was a fugitive?
A dozen police mercenaries appeared abruptly at the end of the street. Since the police had never been used to break a strike, Hunter guessed that this was Consolidated's answer to Werner von Rausch's new weapon.
The mercenaries drew their blasters and ordered the mob to disperse. The automatons turned to face them. And as they turned they fell silent--the cloying, choking silence of the tomb. Like marching puppets, the mob moved toward the police. Clearly Hunter could hear a shrill voice ordering them to halt.
Hunter felt a sickening inner horror. How could the mob obey when they heard nothing but the enslaving grid, and responded to neither fear nor reason? Still they moved forward, in a robot death march. Whatever happened, it was a situation Young could turn to his advantage. If the mercenaries killed unarmed workers, it could be turned into superb propaganda. And ultimately, by sheer weight of numbers, the defenseless mob could overwhelm the mercenaries.
White fire leaped from the blasters. The first rank fell, but the mob marched blindly across the smoking corpses. The mercenaries fired again. It was slaughter--brutal and pointless--of slaves unaware of their danger, unable to save themselves.
Without understanding his own motivation--and without caring--Max Hunter leaped into the sill of the terminal window. There he was in a position to fire over the heads of the mob. The blast from his weapon arrowed into the line of police mercenaries.
Three fell in the agony of the flames. The rest, glad for an excuse to stop the slaughter, turned and fled. Like clockwork things, the mob turned back and resumed its precision demonstration in front of the factory.
Hunter slipped white-faced into a terminal bench. His hand trembled as he jammed the blaster back beneath his belt.
"Why did you do it, Captain?" Dawn asked.
How could he answer her, without saying he had seen the grids in their skulls? And he wasn't ready to trust Dawn to that extent.
"The people couldn't help themselves," he said ambiguously.
"Because they're in the U.F.W. and Eric Young cracks the whip. Is that what you mean?"
"They weren't aware of their own danger."
"Miscalculating the risks then? But that's part of the system, Captain. If you can't fight your way up to the top--"
"Then the system is utterly vicious."
"You don't mean that," she said.
"Why not? We're living in a jungle society. It's nothing but conflict--conflict on the frontier and conflict here from the time they put you in the general school."
"Only the children who have the intelligence--"
"But why?" he interrupted fiercely. "Where does it get us?"
"We have a stable society," she told him. "Peace of a sort. Law enforcement, too, and a chance to build something better when we learn how."
"Something better?" He laughed as he stood up. "We'll get that when we pull this hell apart, and not before."
She put her hand on his arm. "No, Captain. It's not realistic to say that. Over and over again in the past we wrecked civilization because good-hearted and conscientious people thought there was no other way to create a finer world. It didn't work, because violence is madness. This time we have to begin where we are and build rationally. We can, you know, when we understand what we have to build with."
"What else do we need to know, Dawn? You're falling back on the typical double-talk of the psychiatrists. With all the application of physical science that we have--"
"I wasn't thinking of technology, Captain. Civilization isn't machines. It's people. Our accumulation of knowledge is tremendous, but essentially it means nothing because we know so little about ourselves. It's absurd to talk of making something better until we really know the individual we're making it for."
"Go ahead," he countered angrily. "Pussy-foot around with your cautious experiments, make sure nobody gets hurt--and you'll all end up slaves. As for me, I'm going to find Ann and get out while there's still time."
"Always the same two alternatives," Dawn said wearily. "Pull down the world, or run away from it. We need the courage to try something different. We need men who will act like men. I thought, Captain, by this time--" She looked up into his eyes. "Where are you going?"
"To the top--the casinos." Her abrupt question took him off balance and almost surprised him into telling the whole truth.
"Top level." She paused, studying his face. "That's logical, of course. You'll rescue your woman and run away--perhaps to the frontier, or to a forgotten world too insignificant to be claimed by either cartel. It all sounds so easy, doesn't it? You have friends in the service. They'll smuggle you away from Sector West." She hesitated again. "Running away is insanity, too, Captain. But that is one thing you still have to learn."
Max Hunter rode the autojet to the casino. As the machine rose past the city levels, he found himself thinking less about Ann and a good deal more about Dawn--a Recreational companion woman who was simultaneously a psychiatrist. Where did she really fit in the subtle battle between the titan cartels? Which of them was her ally--or did Dawn represent another element as yet unidentified?
Knowing Ann Saymer had taught Hunter a wholesome respect for the thinking of a First in Psychiatry. They operated with a deviousness that made cartel treacheries seem like child's play. He knew that Dawn had manipulated their conversation in the terminal to her own ends. Behind that deftly-phrased patter of words, what else had she tried to tell him? And what had she tried to find out? "Top level," she had said. "That's logical." Why logical? Logical to whom? Did she know where he was going and why?
The autojet thudded on the casino flat. A female attendant, robed in a skin-colored sheath bright with amber jewels, held open the cab door for him. Hunter entered the nearest casino. At the door he showed his saving record in the Solar First National Fund, and a casino teller issued him a ten thousand credit limit, the smallest denomination available. The resorts weren't wasting effort on pikers.
Although the casinos everywhere in the system were popular with spacemen, Hunter had never been to the top level before because Ann had seen to it that his surplus credits went into their savings.
It was Hunter's opinion that he hadn't missed much. The Los Angeles resorts duplicated, on an elaborate scale, the most unsavory establishments of the frontier. Anything which by any stretch of a perverted imagination could be defined as entertainment was available--at a price.
It was early and the crowd was still small. It consisted of spacemen on the usual furlough binge, a handful of suburbanites who had hoarded a half-year's savings for this one-night fling in the big resorts, and a dozen bright-faced executives from the lower levels of the cartel hierarchy. The big brass would turn up later on, at a more fashionable hour.
At all costs, Hunter had to keep himself inconspicuous. His uniform was not entirely out of place, although Consolidated did issue its commanders a formal outfit--more gold braid, a jeweled insignia, and a jacket cut to emphasize the broad shoulders.
Hunter stopped at the snack bar and wolfed a plate of cold cuts, the first food he had eaten since morning. Then he moved indirectly across the pillared gambling pavilion, pausing at two tables to place bets. His objective was to find a vantage point in the upper floor of the casino where he could observe the geographic layout of the top level.
He slipped quickly into the dark well of an emergency stairway, feeling reasonably sure that no one had seen him leave the game room. More than half an hour had passed since he had fled Mrs. Ames' rooming house and he was convinced that very shortly--if they had not done so already--the police would put out a general alarm.
As a matter of course, there would be inquiries at the top level, but at first they would be made by police mercenaries. No one in the casino had any reason to identify Hunter as the fugitive. Later on, of course, when the police used electronic trackers, he wouldn't stand a chance. But before that happened he intended to make a deal with Werner von Rausch.
At the top of the stairs he found a tower window which afforded a crow's nest view of the top level. The twelve casinos, bright with lights, occupied more than half the area. Beyond the resort parkland was the small, white government building, dignified by its simplicity among so much ostentation. Beside it was the transparent semi-sphere housing the top landing of the center-city lifts. A third structure--a grotesque mechanical monster trapped in the heart of a spider-web of converging wires--was the power distribution center for the top level.
In back of the government building a high, metal-faced fence knifed across the level. That fence guarded the forbidden home-ground of the titans. Hunter could see the silhouette of the cartel castles rising against the sky, two gigantic masses of stone. The one on the west was Farren's; the eastern one, Von Rausch's. That much and no more was common knowledge.
Were the two families, who had fought for so long to control the empire beyond the stars, on speaking terms here? Did they observe the social amenities in the same spirit that their companies enforced the sham peace on earth? In their lonely, lofty isolation, what amusements did they enjoy? What contributed to the enrichment of the lives of those fragile beings who possessed the wealth of the galaxy?
Hunter was sure no armed guards patrolled the forbidden paradise. There was no need for them, for scanners formed a protective grid over the area. An autojet, attempting a landing from any direction, would break a beam and instantly become the target for the autoblasters erected at intervals along the fence. A man attempting to scale the wall would meet the same lethal charge.
Hunter saw one small gate with an identification screen mounted in front of it. Obviously the gate would open to the handprint of a Von Rausch or a Farren. But a stranger would find himself standing in the line of fire of two blasters, conspicuous over the gate.
The scanners, the blasters, the identification screen--all the complex, electronic watchdogs--depended solely upon power. Countless other people, Hunter knew, had realized that. Only mechanically produced power made the area invulnerable. Anyone could break through the fence. It hadn't been done before, perhaps, because no other man had ever had Hunter's motivation. None had been a fugitive on the run.
Hunter made his way out of the casino and crossed the park in the direction of the government building. Sheltered by the trees from the blaze of light, he was able to see the stars, bright in the velvet sky. The endless universe! Somewhere he could find a haven for himself and Ann, a pinprick of light in the high-arching firmament which the cartels had overlooked.
Dawn had said that running away was madness. But what alternative did he have? To stay, and attempt to make the cartel rat-race over, sweetly and rationally so that no one would be hurt? Hunter laughed bitterly. Von Rausch had the Exorciser, and he could keep it. It would be part of the bargain the captain thought he could make to save Ann. With that weapon, Von Rausch would sooner or later tear his own world to shreds. No man in his right mind would want to stay around to pick up the pieces--if any. He drew his blaster and took careful aim at the power distribution center.
The machine exploded. Burning wires sang in the air. In the casinos the lights winked out, and the entertainment machines went dark. Hunter heard the shrill screaming of the trapped crowd. He knew that it would bring the police running, but he also knew they would have arrived shortly in any case. The important thing was that the electronic watchdogs on the wall were now lifeless.
Hunter blasted open the gate, and took the path that led east.