"It's going to have an all-male cast," Erika said hastily. "And we're discussing contract releases, not options."
"He would give me an option if I had him here," St. Cyr growled, torturing his cigar horribly. "Why does everything conspire against an artist?" He waved a vast, hairy fist in the air. "Now I must break in a new writer, which is a great waste. Within a fortnight Martin would have been a St. Cyr writer. In fact, it is still possible."
"I'm afraid not, Raoul," Watt said resignedly. "You really shouldn't have hit Martin at the studio today."
"But--but he would not dare charge me with assault. In Mixo-Lydia--"
"Why, hello, Nick," DeeDee said, with a bright smile. "What are you hiding behind those curtains for?"
Every eye was turned toward the window draperies, just in time to see the white, terrified face of Nicholas Martin flip out of sight like a scared chipmunk's. Erika, her heart dropping, said hastily, "Oh, that isn't Nick. It doesn't look a bit like him. You made a mistake, DeeDee."
"Did I?" DeeDee asked, perfectly willing to agree.
"Certainly," Erika said, reaching for the contract release in Watt's hand. "Now if you'll just let me have this, I'll--"
"Stop!" cried St. Cyr in a bull's bellow. Head sunk between his heavy shoulders, he lumbered to the window and jerked the curtains aside.
"Ha!" the director said in a sinister voice. "Martin."
"It's a lie," Martin said feebly, making a desperate attempt to conceal his stress-triggered panic. "I've abdicated."
St. Cyr, who had stepped back a pace, was studying Martin carefully. Slowly the cigar in his mouth began to tilt upwards. An unpleasant grin widened the director's mouth.
He shook a finger under Martin's quivering nostrils.
"You!" he said. "Tonight it is a different tune, eh? Today you were drunk. Now I see it all. Valorous with pots, like they say."
"Nonsense," Martin said, rallying his courage by a glance at Erika. "Who say? Nobody but you would say a thing like that. Now what's this all about?"
"What were you doing behind that curtain?" Watt asked.
"I wasn't behind the curtain," Martin said, with great bravado. "You were. All of you. I was in front of the curtain. Can I help it if the whole lot of you conceal yourselves behind curtains in a library, like--like conspirators?" The word was unfortunately chosen. A panicky light flashed into Martin's eyes. "Yes, conspirators," he went on nervously. "You think I don't know, eh? Well, I do. You're all assassins, plotting and planning. So this is your headquarters, is it? All night your hired dogs have been at my heels, driving me like a wounded caribou to--"
"We've got to be going," Erika said desperately. "There's just time to catch the next carib--the next plane east." She reached for the contract release, but Watt suddenly put it in his pocket. He turned his chair toward Martin.
"Will you give us an option on your next play?" he demanded.
"Of course he will give us an option!" St. Cyr said, studying Martin's air of bravado with an experienced eye. "Also, there is to be no question of a charge of assault, for, if there is I will beat you. So it is in Mixo-Lydia. In fact, you do not even want a release from your contract, Martin. It is all a mistake. I will turn you into a St. Cyr writer, and all will be well. So. Now you will ask Tolliver to tear up that release, will you not--ha?"
"Of course you won't, Nick," Erika cried. "Say so!"
There was a pregnant silence. Watt watched with sharp interest. So did the unhappy Erika, torn between her responsibility as Martin's agent and her disgust at the man's abject cowardice. DeeDee watched too, her eyes very wide and a cheerful smile upon her handsome face. But the battle was obviously between Martin and Raoul St. Cyr.
Martin drew himself up desperately. Now or never he must force himself to be truly Terrible. Already he had a troubled expression, just like Ivan. He strove to look sinister too. An enigmatic smile played around his lips. For an instant he resembled the Mad Tsar of Russia, except, of course, that he was clean-shaven. With contemptuous, regal power Martin stared down the Mixo-Lydian.
"You will tear up that release and sign an agreement giving us option on your next play too, ha?" St. Cyr said--but a trifle uncertainly.
"I'll do as I please," Martin told him. "How would you like to be eaten alive by dogs?"
"I don't know, Raoul," Watt said. "Let's try to get this settled even if--"
"Do you want me to go over to Metro and take DeeDee with me?" St. Cyr cried, turning toward Watt. "He will sign!" And, reaching into an inner pocket for a pen, the burly director swung back toward Martin.
"Assassin!" cried Martin, misinterpreting the gesture.
A gloating smile appeared on St. Cyr's revolting features.
"Now we have him, Tolliver," he said, with heavy triumph, and these ominous words added the final stress to Martin's overwhelming burden. With a mad cry he rushed past St. Cyr, wrenched open a door, and fled.
From behind him came Erika's Valkyrie voice.
"Leave him alone! Haven't you done enough already? Now I'm going to get that contract release from you before I leave this room, Tolliver Watt, and I warn you, St. Cyr, if you--"
But by then Martin was five rooms away, and the voice faded. He darted on, hopelessly trying to make himself slow down and return to the scene of battle. The pressure was too strong. Terror hurled him down a corridor, into another room, and against a metallic object from which he rebounded, to find himself sitting on the floor looking up at ENIAC Gamma the Ninety-Third.
"Ah, there you are," the robot said. "I've been searching all over space-time for you. You forgot to give me a waiver of responsibility when you talked me into varying the experiment. The Authorities would be in my gears if I didn't bring back an eyeprinted waiver when a subject's scratched by variance."
With a frightened glance behind him, Martin rose to his feet.
"What?" he asked confusedly. "Listen, you've got to change me back to myself. Everyone's trying to kill me. You're just in time. I can't wait twelve hours. Change me back to myself, quick!"
"Oh, I'm through with you," the robot said callously. "You're no longer a suitably unconditioned subject, after that last treatment you insisted on. I should have got the waiver from you then, but you got me all confused with Disraeli's oratory. Now here. Just hold this up to your left eye for twenty seconds." He extended a flat, glittering little metal disk. "It's already sensitized and filled out. It only needs your eyeprint. Affix it, and you'll never see me again."
Martin shrank away.
"But what's going to happen to me?" he quavered, swallowing.
"How should I know? After twelve hours, the treatment will wear off, and you'll be yourself again. Hold this up to your eye, now."
"I will if you'll change me back to myself," Martin haggled.
"I can't. It's against the rules. One variance is bad enough, even with a filed waiver, but two? Oh, no. Hold this up to your left eye--"
"No," Martin said with feeble firmness. "I won't."
ENIAC studied him.
"Yes, you will," the robot said finally, "or I'll go boo at you."
Martin paled slightly, but he shook his head in desperate determination.
"No," he said doggedly. "Unless I get rid of Ivan's matrix right now, Erika will never marry me and I'll never get my contract release from Watt. All you have to do is put that helmet on my head and change me back to myself. Is that too much to ask?"
"Certainly, of a robot," ENIAC said stiffly. "No more shilly-shallying. It's lucky you are wearing the Ivan-matrix, so I can impose my will on you. Put your eyeprint on this. Instantly!"
Martin rushed behind the couch and hid. The robot advanced menacingly. And at that moment, pushed to the last ditch, Martin suddenly remembered something.
He faced the robot.
"Wait," he said. "You don't understand. I can't eyeprint that thing. It won't work on me. Don't you realize that? It's supposed to take the eyeprint--"
"--of the rod-and-cone pattern of the retina," the robot said. "So--"
"So how can it do that unless I can keep my eye open for twenty seconds? My perceptive reaction-thresholds are Ivan's aren't they? I can't control the reflex of blinking. I've got a coward's synapses. And they'd force me to shut my eyes tight the second that gimmick got too close to them."
"Hold them open," the robot suggested. "With your fingers."
"My fingers have reflexes too," Martin argued, moving toward a sideboard. "There's only one answer. I've got to get drunk. If I'm half stupefied with liquor, my reflexes will be so slow I won't be able to shut my eyes. And don't try to use force, either. If I dropped dead with fear, how could you get my eyeprint then?"
"Very easily," the robot said. "I'd pry open your lids--"
Martin hastily reached for a bottle on the sideboard, and a glass. But his hand swerved aside and gripped, instead, a siphon of soda water.
"--only," ENIAC went on, "the forgery might be detected."
Martin fizzled the glass full of soda and took a long drink.
"I won't be long getting drunk," he said, his voice thickening. "In fact, it's beginning to work already. See? I'm cooperating."
The robot hesitated.
"Well, hurry up about it," he said, and sat down.
Martin, about to take another drink, suddenly paused, staring at ENIAC. Then, with a sharply indrawn breath, he lowered the glass.
"What's the matter now?" the robot asked. "Drink your--what is it?"
"It's whiskey," Martin told the inexperienced automaton, "but now I see it all. You've put poison in it. So that's your plan, is it? Well, I won't touch another drop, and now you'll never get my eyeprint. I'm no fool."
"Cog Almighty," the robot said, rising. "You poured that drink yourself. How could I have poisoned it? Drink!"
"I won't," Martin said, with a coward's stubbornness, fighting back the growing suspicion that the drink might really be toxic.
"You swallow that drink," ENIAC commanded, his voice beginning to quiver slightly. "It's perfectly harmless."
"Then prove it!" Martin said cunningly. "Would you be willing to switch glasses? Would you drink this poisoned brew yourself?"
"How do you expect me to drink?" the robot demanded. "I--" He paused. "All right, hand me the glass," he said. "I'll take a sip. Then you've got to drink the rest of it."
"Aha!" Martin said. "You betrayed yourself that time. You're a robot. You can't drink, remember? Not the same way that I can, anyhow. Now I've got you trapped, you assassin. There's your brew." He pointed to a floor-lamp. "Do you dare to drink with me now, in your electrical fashion, or do you admit you are trying to poison me? Wait a minute, what am I saying? That wouldn't prove a--"
"Of course it would," the robot said hastily. "You're perfectly right, and it's very cunning of you. We'll drink together, and that will prove your whiskey's harmless--so you'll keep on drinking till your reflexes slow down, see?"
"Well," Martin began uncertainly, but the unscrupulous robot unscrewed a bulb from the floor lamp, pulled the switch, and inserted his finger into the empty socket, which caused a crackling flash. "There," the robot said. "It isn't poisoned, see?"
"You're not swallowing it," Martin said suspiciously. "You're holding it in your mouth--I mean your finger."
ENIAC again probed the socket.
"Well, all right, perhaps," Martin said, in a doubtful fashion. "But I'm not going to risk your slipping a powder in my liquor, you traitor. You're going to keep up with me, drink for drink, until I can eyeprint that gimmick of yours--or else I stop drinking. But does sticking your finger in that lamp really prove my liquor isn't poisoned? I can't quite--"
"Of course it does," the robot said quickly. "I'll prove it. I'll do it again ... f(t). Powerful DC, isn't it? Certainly it proves it. Keep drinking, now."
His gaze watchfully on the robot, Martin lifted his glass of club soda.
"F ff ff f(t)!" cried the robot, some time later, sketching a singularly loose smile on its metallic face.
"Best fermented mammoth's milk I ever tasted," Martin agreed, lifting his tenth glass of soda-water. He felt slightly queasy and wondered if he might be drowning.
"Mammoth's milk?" asked ENIAC thickly. "What year is this?"
Martin drew a long breath. Ivan's capacious memory had served him very well so far. Voltage, he recalled, increased the frequency of the robot's thought-patterns and disorganized ENIAC's memory--which was being proved before his eyes. But the crux of his plan was yet to come....
"The year of the great Hairy One, of course," Martin said briskly. "Don't you remember?"
"Then you--" ENIAC strove to focus upon his drinking-companion. "You must be Mammoth-Slayer."
"That's it!" Martin cried. "Have another jolt. What about giving me the treatment now?"
Martin looked impatient. "You said you were going to impose the character-matrix of Mammoth-Slayer on my mind. You said that would insure my optimum ecological adjustment in this temporal phase, and nothing else would."
"Did I? But you're not Mammoth-Slayer," ENIAC said confusedly. "Mammoth-Slayer was the son of the Great Hairy One. What's your mother's name?"
"The Great Hairy One," Martin replied, at which the robot grated its hand across its gleaming forehead.
"Have one more jolt," Martin suggested. "Now take out the ecologizer and put it on my head."
"Like this?" ENIAC asked, obeying. "I keep feeling I've forgotten something important. F (t)."
Martin adjusted the crystal helmet on his skull. "Now," he commanded. "Give me the character-matrix of Mammoth-Slayer, son of the Great Hairy One."
"Well--all right," ENIAC said dizzily. The red ribbons swirled. There was a flash from the helmet. "There," the robot said. "It's done. It may take a few minutes to begin functioning, but then for twelve hours you'll--wait! Where are you going?"
But Martin had already departed.
The robot stuffed the helmet and the quarter-mile of red ribbon back for the last time. He lurched to the floor-lamp, muttering something about one for the road. Afterward, the room lay empty. A fading murmur said, "F(t)."
"Nick!" Erika gasped, staring at the figure in the doorway. "Don't stand like that! You frighten me!"