The Von Rausch castle--and the word was scarcely a metaphor--was something lifted bodily out of a Tri-D historical romance, complete with porticos, battlements, stone-walled towers and an imitation moat where mechanical swans floated on the dark water.
He crossed the moat on a rustic footbridge of plastic cleverly fabricated to seem like crudely hewn wood. Through a high, narrow window he saw a pale flicker of light. The pane was thick with grime.
Hunter could distinguish nothing in the room except a thin, elderly woman who seemed to be moving around a table where six candles burned in a silver candelabrum.
He kicked open the window. The woman looked at him, neither frightened nor alarmed. She was wearing an odd black dress, long-sleeved, high-necked, with a hemline that touched the floor. Her face was pale and wrinkled, unrelieved by any sort of cosmetic.
She held out her fragile hands. "You did come, Karl! I knew you wouldn't disappoint Auntie."
Hunter cried through clenched teeth, "I want Werner von Rausch. Where is he?"
"Goodness, dear, how should I know? Werner never comes to my parties."
Hunter noticed the table, then, set for eight, its gleaming silver and gold-rimmed china glowing in the soft candle light.
"Your Cousin Charlotte's already here, Karl." The woman gestured gracefully toward the table. "And little Helmig. They know how important it is to come on time."
He felt horror--and unconscious pity--as he realized the truth. Yet he tried once more to get from her the information he wanted.
"Oh, bother with Werner," she answered, pouting. "If you must know, I didn't even invite him. He's such a bore among young people."
She saw the blaster in Hunter's hand and pushed it aside gently, with a grimace of disapproval. "I don't like you to have these toys, Karl. Next thing, you'll be wanting to join the army."
Hunter flung himself out of that room, into a dark and musty hall. Behind him he heard the woman still talking, as if he had never left her. He blundered from one bleak room to another, rooms that were like tombs smelling of dust and decay.
On the second floor he came upon a small, balding man who sat reading at a desk in a room crammed with tottering stacks of old books. The light came from an antiquated electric lamp. Obviously the house had its own generating plant, independent of the power center Hunter had destroyed.
Hunter jerked up his blaster again. "Werner von Rausch?"
"One moment," the man said. Ignoring Hunter, the man quietly finished what he was reading, slipped a leather placemark into the book, and put it on top of a stack beside the desk. The pile promptly collapsed in a cloud of dust at Hunter's feet.
Max saw some of the title pages. The books were extraordinarily old, some of them with a printing date a thousand years in the past. The man pinched a pair of eye-glasses on his nose and studied Hunter carefully.
"You're from the police, I presume?" he asked.
"If you are Werner von Rausch--"
"I'm Heinrich. I sent in the report. Though, I must say, you couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time. I'm collating the spells tonight. I have them all, right here at my fingertips. And when I'm finished--" He seized the captain's jacket and his voice was suddenly shrill. "--I'll have the power to summon up any demon from hell. Think what that means! I'll be greater than Faust. I'll have more power than--"
"Where can I find Werner von Rausch?"
"Yes, Werner. Poor boy." Heinrich was calm again. "You'll have to do your duty, officer. He's been annoying me all afternoon. So much noise--a man can't think. He's in his shop at the end of the hall. But don't be too severe with him. Perhaps this time just a warning will make him see reason."
Hunter went back to the corridor, feeling again the shadow of horror at this sick distortion of reality. In the distance, beyond the metal fence, he heard the scream of sirens, and realized he had at best another three minutes before the police would be there. Three minutes to make a deal with Werner and save Ann.
Hunter pushed back the nightmare that welled up from the depths of his mind. It wasn't true; it couldn't be true. If it were, nothing in the jungle made sense.
As he felt his way along the hall, he passed the cage of a lift, a private transit between the house and the cartel offices on the city levels below. He noted it subconsciously, as a possible means of escape. But he was through running. He could make a deal with Von Rausch. After that the police wouldn't matter.
At the end of the corridor he came upon a paneled door. Behind it he could hear the hum of a motor, and knew that he had found Werner's shop, and the source of the noise that had disturbed Heinrich's research.
Hunter flung open the door. The light was bright and gay. On the floor, a fat old man sat hunched over the remote control console of a toy monorail system. Toy space liners and fighting ships buzzed in the air.
"Werner von Rausch?" Hunter whispered.
"You've come to play with me!" The fat, old man flashed the cherubic smile of a child. "And you brought me a blaster. Oh, let me see it! Let me see it!"
He clapped his hands eagerly.
Hunter turned and fled. The scream of the sirens still seemed no closer, but without assessing his chances Hunter sprang into the private lift. It dropped downward toward its unknown destination. What that was, Hunter didn't care. Anything to escape from so hideous a madhouse.
The Von Rausch clan: an old lady who lived with ghosts; a scholar of demonology; a patriarch lost in an eternal childhood. All of them running away into their own private fantasies.
But this Was the family which ruled a cartel and directed the conquest of half the galaxy; these were the most powerful human beings who had ever lived. And they were escaping into insanity. Escaping what? Responsibility? The jungle of the cartels?
"Two alternatives," Dawn had said. "Pull down the world or run away from it." The Von Rausches had made this mess and then fled in horror from their own brutal and destructive creation.
The lift cage jerked to a stop. The door opened on a warmly lighted executive office where a white-haired man sat at a desk which had been cut from a single slab of Venusian crystal. A much enlarged projection of the United Researchers' emblem glowed from the Wall. Hunter raised his weapon.
The old man gestured imperiously. "Don't be a fool, Captain. I wouldn't be here unless I had adequate protection. There are blasters in the wall, which I can trigger with a single spoken word."
"You want to finish the job your men bungled this afternoon?"
"Not our men, Captain. We got in on this deal a little late. We knew nothing about this psychiatric patent until the strikes started today."
"But Ann Saymer--"
"Unfortunately, we do not have her. It's Consolidated. We sent our men out to bring you in, Captain. We wanted your help. When you got away, it didn't occur to me that you would go to the top level. Not until we heard the report of the destruction of the power distributor. It was easy enough to anticipate your moves after that.
"If you hadn't used the private Von Rausch lift, you would have gone out again through the gate, where my men were waiting. Naturally we couldn't send them inside. You can understand why, of course."
Hunter heard only vaguely what the man was saying, for abruptly the pattern fell into place. Neither Consolidated nor United had Ann or the Exorciser. Each cartel suspected the other because they hadn't yet adjusted to the idea that a third cartel existed: Eric Young's union.
Ann's micropic had told the literal truth. She had taken her commission-job with the biggest private clinic, operated by the U.F.W. It was a dead giveaway when Young struck both cartels simultaneously, if Hunter had read the data correctly.
Hunter moved toward the crystal desk. "I know where Ann is, sir," he said. "I can--"
"You can stay where you are," the old man interrupted. "One hour ago, my friend, I was ready to offer you a deal. Since then you've seen--" He raised his eyes toward the ceiling. "You've seen what's up there. Only four of us know that secret. We don't relish sharing it with a fifth."
"Unless you destroy Ann's patent, you're finished anyway."
"Destroy, Captain?" The senile voice turned silky. "No, we want that machine intact."
"If you'll guarantee Ann's safety and mine--"
"You have an exaggerated idea of your own importance. You would have been useful to us, particularly since you have been a Consolidated employee. But this thing you blundered into up there destroys your value entirely. It makes you potentially as dangerous as the Saymer patent. That's my opinion.
"The other three who share the Von Rausch secret have an equal vote in deciding the issue. They may reverse my decision. I've asked them to come here, and I'm waiting for them now."
The old man was so intent upon making a logical explanation of the death sentence he pronounced--without putting it into words--that he didn't notice Hunter edging closer to the desk. Captain Hunter saw no chance for a reprieve when the other three arrived. Why wait? Having fought on the frontier, Hunter was aware of a property of the Venusian crystal which possibly the old man did not know. It was impervious to blaster fire.
Hunter acted with the split-second timing of an experienced spaceman. He swung his body in a flying tackle against the old man's chair and in the same swift motion pushed himself into the leg cubicle carved in the crystal.
As the chair toppled and before he realized his own danger, the old man cried the code word that triggered the wall blasters. He was instantly caught in the deadly cross-fire.
As the weapons slid back into the wall slots, Hunter leaped for the door, and passed quickly through it. The outer hall was empty. He sprinted for the walk-way, the echoes of the blast still ringing in his ears.
A destination marker glowed above a nearby metro-entry. It told him he was on the Twenty-eighth level of center-city. On a large, public Tri-D screen Hunter saw a picture of the strike mob in the industrial area. That was all the data he needed. If the mob was still in the streets, Eric Young was still manipulating the transmitter.
Hunter took an unchartered autojet and dialed as his destination the U.F.W. clinic. It was the largest structure in the industrial area, made from luminous, pink, Martian stone, which had been imported at great cost--and with a blaze of publicity.
Completed only three years before, the U.F.W. clinic had been given a continuous flood of publicity. Numerous Tri-D public service programs had explored its wards, its laboratories, and its service centers, and even in a distant spaceship Hunter had not remained in ignorance of the build-up. The knowledge served to his advantage now, for he knew just where Young's personal penthouse was located and exactly how to reach it.
There were no armed guards or automatic probes in the clinic. Such an outward display of force wouldn't have jibed with Young's public personality. He was the much-loved official head of a union whose membership totaled millions.
Any protective device would have distorted the illusion and destroyed the legend completely.
Young's penthouse, thirty floors above street level, was the modest garden cottage which had been so widely publicized and that, too, was a part of his illusion. When Hunter saw the tiny house he was able to appreciate Young's showmanship, his insight into the mental processes of the credulous.
Hunter moved toward the door. Light glowed inside the cottage, but through the broad, front window he could see no one. He felt a momentary doubt. Had he guessed wrong? Was Young holding Ann somewhere else?
But Hunter was sure Young had not taken that precaution. It would have involved risks he would not have to contend with at the clinic, unless he had been reasonably certain he would be found out. And Young had expected to prevent that by keeping Consolidated and United at each other's throats.
Hunter kicked open the door. The three small rooms in the cottage were empty--until a man wearing a union smock emerged from the narrow galley. He hadn't been there a moment before when Hunter examined the cubicle, and there was no rear entry to the cottage.
"Mr. Young isn't here, sir." The man said, gliding swiftly toward him. "If you wish to leave a message--"
Hunter saw the telltale grid wire in the stranger's forehead. He ducked aside instinctively as the knife gleamed in the man's hand. With an odd, sighing sound, the blade arched through the air, smashing the picture window. Hunter's fist shot out, and the man dropped unconscious.
Hunter went into the galley and found what he had missed before--the false bank of food slots which masked a narrow stairway. He ran quickly down the steps, and found the opulent living quarters Eric Young had concealed on the clinic floor beneath the innocent garden cottage. Here in gaudy splendor, in the tasteless clutter of objects assembled from every quarter of the cartel empire, was the true index to the infinite ambition of the U.F.W. boss.
A dozen men and women lurched at Hunter from an open hall. They wore white hospital robes and their foreheads were still bandaged. Obviously they were patients with recently grafted slave grids. Obedient to the transmission, they fought with a desperate, savage fury--and a clumsy lack of co-ordination which caricatured normal human behavior.
Hunter repulsed their attack without difficulty. Yet he felt an inner disgust and loathing as if he were using his strength to defeat helpless children. In two minutes it was over. One of the men was dead, his head bandage torn loose, and the grid ripped out of his skull. Three more lay sprawled out on the floor, bleeding badly from freshly opened incisions.
Hunter drew his blaster and entered the thickly-carpeted hall, glowing with the soft, pink light of the luminous, Martian stone. He cried Ann's name. His voice fell hollowly in the silence, but there was no response. He moved to the end of the hall and pushed open a narrow door.
He saw the white-tiled laboratory, Ann's transmitter standing on a long table with new platinum grids piled by the dozen beside it, and the barrack rows of hospital beds. From the angle of the room which was hidden by the half-open door, Ann Saymer ran toward him with outstretched hands, crying his name. He took a step toward her. And something struck the back of his head.
Hunter's mind rocked. He felt himself falling down the long spiral into unconsciousness. The blaster slipped from his hand and his knees buckled. But he clawed blindly, with animal instinct, at the hands closing on his throat.
His head cleared. He saw Eric Young's dark face close to his. Hunter swung his fist into Young's stomach, and the hands slid away from his throat. Captain Hunter sprang to his feet, crouching low to meet Young's next attack. Young's swing went wild. Hunter's fist struck at the flabby jaw. Eric Young backed away, reeling under the hammer blows, until he came up against the laboratory table.
Suddenly he slashed at Hunter with a scalpel. The blade nicked Max's shoulder and cut across his jacket. The cloth parted, sliding down his arms and pinning his hands together. In the split-second it took Hunter to free himself from the torn jacket, Young swung the scalpel again. Hunter dodged. Miscalculating his aim, Eric Young tripped over Hunter's outstretched leg and fell, screaming, upon the point of his own weapon.
Hunter stood for an instant with his legs spread wide, looking down at Young. Then he dropped to his knees and rolled the grievously wounded man over on his back. The hand grasping the scalpel slowly pulled the blade from the abdominal wound. Blood pulsed out upon the white tile. Young was still barely alive.
Hunter walked toward the transmitter, where Ann stood, saying nothing, her eyes wide and staring. A tremendous conflict was raging within him. Running away was no solution, but what if he could destroy the system itself? Break the mold and start anew.
He had the instrument that would do it, the hundreds of obedient slaves Young had already turned loose on the streets. With Ann's transmitter he could transform the disciplined strike of human automatons into a civic disaster. Terror and violence uprooting the foundations of the city.
But a moment's madness could not overthrow the enduring rationality of Hunter's adjustment index. To loose that horror was to set himself in judgment upon the dreams and hopes, the perversion and the sublimity, of his fellow men. To play at God--a delusion no different from Eric Young's.
Savagely Hunter lifted a chair and started to swing it at the transmitter. Instantly, Ann Saymer turned to face him, the blaster clasped tightly in her hand.
"But, Ann, those people outside are in desperate danger--"
"I've gone this far. I won't turn back." In her voice was the familiar drive, the ambition he knew so well. But now it seemed different, a twisted distortion of something he had once admired.
"We don't need Eric Young," she said. "He's bungled everything. You and I, Max--" She caressed the transmitter affectionately. "With this, we'll possess unlimited power."
"You mean, Ann--" He choked on the words. "You came here of your own free will? You deliberately planned Mrs. Ames' murder?"
"She was dangerous, Max. She guessed too much. We knew that when we monitored the call you made from the spaceport. But in the beginning we weren't going to make you responsible. We thought the strangers in the house--your attempt to expose the other woman who called herself Mrs. Ames--would be enough to get you committed to a clinic. I didn't want you to be hurt, Max."
"Why, Ann?" His voice was dead, emotionless. "Because you loved me? Or because you wanted me to be your ace in the hole, if you failed to manage Eric Young the way you thought you could?"
"That doesn't matter now, Max, dear. I thought Eric had what I needed. But I was misjudging you all along."
"You're still misjudging me, Ann. I'm going to smash this machine and afterward--"
"No you aren't, Max," she said coldly. "I'll kill you first."
Calmly she turned the dial on the blaster. He lifted the chair again, watching her face, still unable to accept what he knew was true. This was Ann Saymer, the woman he had loved. It was the same Ann whose ambition had driven her from the general school to a First in Psychiatry.
With a fighting man's instinct, Hunter calculated his chances as he held the chair high above his head. It was Ann who had to die. He would accomplish nothing if he smashed her transmitter. She knew how to build another. If he threw the chair at her rather than the Exorciser and if he threw it hard enough-- From the door a fan of flame blazed out, gently touching Ann. She stood rigid in the first muscular tension of paralysis. Hunter dropped the chair, shattering the transmitter. He turned and saw Dawn in the doorway. Somewhere deep in his subconscious mind he had expected her. He was glad she was there.
"We've known for a long time we would have to break up their little partnership," Dawn explained. "After I talked to you this morning, Captain, I persuaded the others to hold off for another day or so. A clinical experiment of my own.
"It was unkind of me, I suppose, to make you the guinea pig. But I wanted to watch your reactions while you fought your way to the truth. Now you know it all--more than you bargained for. And you know what we're trying to do. Are you willing to join us?"
He looked at her.
"In your third alternative--the cautious, rational rebuilding?"
"After men understand themselves. When we're able to answer one question: why did you and Ann Saymer, with identical backgrounds, and intelligence, and an identical socio-economic incentive, become such different personalities? What gives you a zero-zero adjustment index that nothing can shake? Not the psychiatric shock of war, Captain. Not physical pain alone or the treachery of the girl you love. We need you, Captain. We need to know what makes you tick."
"That 'we' of yours. Just what does that embrace?"
"A cross-section of us all," she told him. "Psychiatrists, executives in both cartels, union officials. We've been working at this for a good many years. We want to make our world over, yes. But this time with reason and without violence--without sacrificing the good we already have."
"And you yourself, Dawn. Who are you?"