James shuffled out of the room.
"I suppose that means I'll manage," said Leah, with a self-pitying sigh. "I've noticed that whenever people decide to rough it and do without a Menial, they take it for granted the women will do the work, never the men--unless the women are still young and pretty. Well, at any rate, I'll have Tanya to help me. I still don't see why you wouldn't let me go to the Port to meet her, Dr. Wong."
"I just thought it would be more of a celebration if we had a surprise party all waiting for her to walk into. Dr. Haslam will bring her here directly from the Port, and here we all are, her old friends from the Institute, waiting to welcome her home."
"I'd hardly say all," said Leah. "I'm the only person from Office that's here. And why have a party in your Library, Dr. Wong? Nothing here but books, books, books."
"Because I keep my liquor here, in the only room I have a right to lock up. My Menial is a good man, but he can't resist an opened bottle."
"Well, it's still a gloomy party."
David turned appealingly to his other guests, Hudson and Faure, but they only looked uncomfortable.
"Perhaps we need a drink." David unlocked the cupboard and picked up a bottle which he set down hastily when he heard voices in the hall. He hurried to the outer door and opened it a few inches to reveal the sturdy shoulders of the watchguard of the floor and, beyond him, Karl Haslam.
"Everything in order, Officer?" asked Karl.
"Your permit is in order, Dr. Haslam. A private party. Let me just check--yes, three guests have arrived, and you two make five. That all? You have until midnight. But it beats me why you people in Research prefer a party without a watchguard, or why Leader Marley ever gives permission. Why, in all my years in Military, I've never been to an unwatched party, and I must say it never held us down any."
Karl laughed a little too forcedly. "I'll bet it didn't! But all Research people are a little peculiar. You must have noticed that yourself."
"And you know how generous Leader Marley is, and how kind he is to loyal citizens. He wants us to be happy, so he pampers us now and then."
"I guess he knows what he's doing, all right. Well, I'll check you out at twelve, then."
"Go on in, Tanya," said Karl.
They stepped into the apartment and David quietly closed the door.
"Hi, Sis," drawled Leah. "You made us wait long enough!" She walked toward the girl, hand outstretched, then stopped with a gasp of disbelief.
Tanya's red hair was still brilliant and gleaming, her creamy skin unlined, and her full red lips curved up into a friendly smile as she leaned forward for a sisterly kiss. But Leah jerked away and glared with anger.
A puzzled frown creased Tanya's lovely white forehead.
"What's the matter, Leah? Aren't you glad to see me? You look so strange, as though you'd been terribly ill!"
Leah shook her head, tears of rage gathering in her pale eyes. "I'm okay," she whispered. "It's you. You haven't changed. I have. You're still young, you're pretty, you're just the way I used to be!" She whirled to face David, her voice choking.
"What have you done to her, Dr. Wong?"
The four men in the room were all staring at the sisters, scarcely believing what they saw, although they had all been prepared for the contrast. The twin sisters were no longer twins. One had retained her youth; the other was faded, aging.
"This is awful," Haslam muttered. "Absolutely ghastly." He put a comforting hand on Leah's shoulder, and with a deep sob she hid her face against him and cried.
Hudson and Faure could not take their eyes from Tanya, and David leaned against the wall to stop his trembling.
"Sit down, all of you," he said. "First we'll have a drink. I'm sure we all need it. Then we'll face--what has to be faced."
An hour later, they had achieved a calmness, of sorts. They had given up some of their normal sobriety to achieve the calm, but they were grateful to the drug for cushioning the shock.
David paced the floor, glass in hand, talking rapidly as he finished his long explanation.
"So you see what happened," he said. "When I began the experiment, I had no idea how staggering the results might be. That is, I knew in my mind, but I never imagined the realness of what would happen. I thought of it as just an experiment."
Leah sniffed, her resentment somewhat dulled by drink. "So I was just an experiment! Don't you ever think about people's feelings? I know I'm not as good as you are; I'm only Office, but I'm human."
Karl patted her hand. "Of course you are, Leah. But that is one of the defects of people in Research--they forget about human emotions." He looked up sternly at David. "They go ahead with their experiments, and hang the consequences. If Dr. Wong had had any sense, he would never have kept this a secret for ten years, and we might have had ten years to prepare ourselves for such a responsibility. Instead, we have only a few days or, at most, weeks. Hudson! Faure! How do you feel about this thing now? Are you still game?"
Both men seemed a little dazed, but Faure pulled himself together, speaking slowly, like a man in a dream.
"We're with you. It's still hard to believe: we've got immortality!"
"I'd hardly call it immortality," said Hudson drily, "since, as I understand it, SDE does not kill disease entities, nor ward off bullets or the disintegrating nuclear shaft of the needler--as we will very likely find out before very long. But what do we do now? When people see these two girls together, it won't be an hour before Marley hears about it."
David spoke up with a new authority. "He must not hear about it. I know how poorly equipped I am to handle this situation, but since I created it, I must assume responsibility, and I have made my plans.
"First, you, Tanya. Try to realize that if the Leader finds out that I have this secret of keeping youth, he will want it for himself. Nobody in Menial, nobody in Office, nobody in Research--almost nobody at all--will be allowed to benefit from it. Marley will use it as a special reward for certain Rulers, and he will try to keep its very existence a secret so that people in general will not be envious or rebellious. That means that he will have to get rid of you."
"Get rid of me? But I haven't done any harm!"
"Just by existing and letting people look at your unchanging youth, you will be a threat to him, for you will give away his secret. How he'll deal with you, I don't know. Concentration camp, exile, or more probably, simple execution on grounds of treason, such as unauthorized choices of activity or study. It doesn't matter, he'll find a way. The only safety for you is in keeping hidden. You must stay quietly in Leah's apartment until we can find a refuge for you. Do you see that?"
She looked around in bewilderment. "Is that right, Dr. Haslam? And what will they think at the Institute? I'm supposed to go back to my job in Intercom."
"Dr. Wong is right," he said kindly. "Please believe us. It's hard for you to understand that we are asking you to do something secret, but just try to remember that you are, after all, an Office Category and are not equipped by training or constitution to think out problems like this. We'll tell you what is the right thing to do. You just do as we tell you, and you'll be perfectly safe."
Leah snickered. "Oh, she'll be safe enough, being as pretty as she is! What are you going to do about me? Don't I count?"
"We'll come to that in a few minutes. Right now, we need food. Leah, you and Tanya be good girls and go out to the kitchen and heat up some supper for us. After we've eaten, we'll talk about you."
As soon as the girls were out of the room, the four men drew together at the table.
"No use burdening them with too much knowledge," Karl remarked. "Even as it is, they are a great danger to us, and the less they know the better. David, will you proceed?"
"I have little to add to the plans we made last night at the lab. The thing we need most is time; and next to that, a hiding place. We may very soon be classed as traitors, with every watchguard on the continent hunting for us. We will take care that they don't find us. Now, you said last night that each one of you has accumulated a Free Choice during the past year, which hasn't yet been used."
"That's right," said Faure. "I intended to use mine next winter to live among the Australian aborigines for a week. I've been wanting that for years, but the planners always refused me; it was a project without practical purpose."
"And I intended to use mine to attempt a water-color painting," added Hudson. "In my boyhood I hoped to be put in Arts Category, but the Planners laughed at me. I suppose it's wrong, yet I still have the yen."
"You have my sympathy," said Karl. "I was going to take an Aimless Tramp. Just shed my identity and wander on foot through the great north area of woods and lakes."
David sighed. "Well, if we are successful in hiding and in changing the world as we'd like, you can all three be free to do as you like without asking permission. But at present that's only the wildest of dreams. And, first, we must find our refuge. Today is Saturday. Tomorrow morning, each of you will go to BureauMed and claim your Free Choice. And each of you will choose an Aimless Tramp."
"But I don't like hiking," objected Hudson.
"You won't be hiking. You'll take off in your roboplanes and then disappear. You will be without supervision. You will then proceed, disguised as you think suitable, to find a place for our new colony--somewhere in South America?--and make preliminary arrangements to receive us. You must be back by Tuesday afternoon at the latest. On Tuesday, as soon as you have reported back to BureauMed, get to the Institute as fast as you can."
"Why the deadline?"
"Because by Tuesday afternoon, sometime before evening, probably, I expect all three of you to be suffering from an attack of Blue Martian Fever, and I want you to get expert hospital care. You will be the nucleus of the new regime."
Karl laughed. "I wish you could have picked a base for your SDE that was less unpleasant than Blue Martian."
"Who's got Blue Martian?" asked Tanya, as the girls came in from the kitchen with their trays of food. "I'll never forget how sick it made me."
"You should worry," said Leah. "It kept you young and beautiful, didn't it?"
"You won't have to envy her, Leah," said David going to the liquor cabinet. "I'm going to give you and the others a shot of the SDE-Martian Blue. Sometime Tuesday afternoon you should feel the first symptoms. But after forty-eight hours in the hospital, you'll be good as new. And you will all stop growing older."
They watched, fascinated, as he opened the cooling compartment of the liquor cupboard.
"I always like plenty of ice in my drinks," he remarked, drawing out a tray of cubes and opening a small door behind the tray. He removed several small bottles filled with a milky liquid, and a copper box of sterile needles and syringes.
"Who'll be first?"
There was a knock at the door, and David stopped.
"What is it?" he called.
"Me," came the watchguard's voice. "Just thought I'd do you a favor and tell you it's only ten minutes till checkout time. Time to get yourselves decent!"
They could hear the rumble of his laugh as he moved on down the hall. Trembling, David picked up a bottle, poured alcohol onto the rubber cap, and deftly filled the sterile syringe. He reached for a piece of cotton, dipped it in iodine, and looked up, waiting. Karl Haslam had already bared his left arm. David swabbed the spot on the upper deltoid.
Karl laughed. "Here I come, Methuselah!"
"All set?" asked David.
He plunged the needle home.
David ran up the steps of the Institute, two at a time, and hurried toward his office through the echoing corridors, where the usual watchguard sauntered on patrol.
"Good morning, Doctor. Pretty early, aren't you?"
"Wednesday's my busy day." He settled at his desk, miserably conscious of the open door and curious eyes behind him, opened his briefcase, then glanced at his wristwatch. More than an hour before his interview with Leader Marley.
Spreading some data sheets before him, he looked at them blankly as he tried to order his thoughts. His eyes were ringed with dark depressions, for he had had no sleep. There had been so many things to plan for, so many arrangements to make.
It was possible, of course, that this morning's talk would turn out to be mere routine. There might remain several weeks of freedom--but there might be only a few hours. He shrank from the complexity of the problem before him; he was a Research man, devoted to his test tubes and his culture growths, and would have been happy never to face any problem beyond them.
He had a moment's revulsion at the unfairness of the fact that a simple experiment in the lab, an addition to man's knowledge of the Universe, should have plunged him against his will into a situation far beyond his ability to handle. There had been, as Karl pointed out, the alternative of turning the SDE over to the Leader. That would have absolved him of all responsibility. But that was the trouble, he thought. Responsibility could not be confined to squiggles in his notebook, when those squiggles might affect the whole of society.
He jumped and turned around hastily.
"Leah! What in the world?"
She stood in the doorway, glaring at him, breathing heavily as though she were trying to hold back sobs. Slowly she tottered to the desk and sank down into her chair by the stenograph.
"You doublecrosser!" she whispered.
He looked quickly at the doorway, but the guard had not come back. Leaning forward, he questioned her fiercely.
"What are you doing here? They told me yesterday that several people had come down with attacks of Blue Martian. Why aren't you in the hospital with the others?"
"Because I wasn't sick!"
"But I gave you--"
"Imagine how I felt," she raced on, "watching Dr. Haslam start having a chill, hearing Dr. Faure complain about his awful headache, and listening to Dr. Hudson dial Intercom and call for a doctor. And all that time I was waiting, waiting for something to happen to me. And nothing did! What have you got against me, Dr. Wong, that you infect all the others and only pretend to do it to me? I don't want to grow old any more than they do!"
"But I wasn't pretending. Quiet, now, and let me think."
He waited until the watchguard had passed by the door, then raised his head.
"Look here, Leah. Evidently the infection didn't take. This is what must have happened. That treatment I gave you ten years ago must have made you permanently immune to Blue Martian, and the antibodies it formed in your cells simply protected you against this new invasion of the virus. It never occurred to me that the immunity would last so long. But don't worry, I'll find a way."
She looked suspicious. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that there's no reason why Blue Martian should be the only vehicle for giving you the SDE. There must be other viruses that will work equally well. It's only a question of finding one."
"And how long will that take you?"
"How long does anything take in Research? Maybe a week, maybe a year."
"And maybe ten! I can't wait, Dr. Wong. I'm thirty-five now; I'm growing older. What good will a long life do me, if it only preserves me as the middle-aged woman I'll be by then? And all those years that I'll be getting older and older, there'll be Tanya, lively and pretty, to remind me that I was once like that, too. I can't face it!"
"The watchguard will hear you!" Haggard-faced, he watched her shaking shoulders, hearing her muffled sobs.
"You're a criminal, Dr. Wong! It was a crime, what you did to Tanya and me."
"I didn't realize in the beginning or I'd never have touched the thing. I know it now, even better than you do, but what can I do?"
She looked up and wiped her eyes, her mouth set hard. "I know what I can do. I can report you to the Leader."