When the door closed, the room throbbed to Leah's sobs.
"I couldn't help it, Dr. Wong," she cried. "I got so bored, sitting and looking at those books, day after day, with nothing to do! I thought I'd just slip down here for an hour and say hello to people, and--"
"Quiet, Hachovnik!" roared Marley. He quieted his voice. "I understand now, Wong. I remember. There were two girls. Twins. The one in Psycho-detention, according to Officer Magnun, is still beautiful and young. It's no use, Wong. You do know the secret of immortality. And you told me the Phoenix was only a fairy tale!"
David felt entirely calm. Whatever might happen now, at least the suspense was over. He had done all he could, and it was a relief to have things in the open. He thought fleetingly of his colleagues, alerted by his message, frantically putting their plans into operation, but he leaned back against the sink with every appearance of ease.
"You're not quite right, Leader Marley. I cannot confer immortality. All I am able to do is stave off the aging process."
"That will do me nicely. And it's connected somehow with the Blue Martian virus?"
"Yes. The disease serves as the vehicle."
With a brisk motion, Marley drew his needler from his breast pocket and aimed it steadily at David. "Give it to me!"
"You're rather ambiguous," said David. How were his friends getting along? Were they ready yet? Had Karl visited the basement lab? "Do you mean you want me to give you the injection to prolong your life, or the secret of how to do it, or what?"
"Don't quibble! First you'll give me the injection to make me immortal. Then you'll turn over to me all your notes on procedure. Then my friend here will needle you with a shaft of electrons and end your interest in the problem."
"Surely you won't keep such a good thing all for yourself," said David. "What about Dr. Lanza? He's your right-hand man. Don't you want him to live forever, too? What about Officer Magnun? He's a faithful servant."
"You're stalling, Wong. Do you want me to kill you now?"
"It won't be wise to needle me yet, Leader Marley. The secret would be lost forever."
"I'll have your notes!"
"Yes? Try to read them. They're written in Coptic, a dead language that you consider it a waste of time to learn, because such knowledge is impractical. There aren't half a dozen men on Earth who could make head or tail of my notebook."
"Then I'll find that half-dozen! I want the injection." He gestured with the gleaming weapon.
"This is once when I have no Free Choice," said David. "Very well." He started toward the door, but halted at the roar of command.
"Stop! Do you think I'm fool enough to let you out of my sight?"
"But I have to get the inoculant."
"Use the intercom. Send for it."
David slumped into the chair and opened the intercom. He could almost feel the electronic shaft of the needler ripping into his body. His heart beat wildly, and the tension of adrenalin ran through his body. His lips felt cold, but he held them steady as he spoke into the dial.
"Get me Dr. Haslam.... Karl? David Wong speaking. Will you send someone up with a vial of phoenix special? The precipitates? I should say the antibody titer has reached the danger point. Don't delay treatment any longer."
Silently they waited. Marley's grim face did not relax; his eyes were alight. Leah lay back in her chair with closed eyes, and Lanza stared intently at the floor.
A soft knock came at the door, and a female technician hurried in, carrying a tray.
"I'm sorry to be so slow, Dr. Wong. Dr. Haslam had a little trouble locating the right vial. Oh, and he said to tell you not to worry about those precipitates. They're taken care of."
"Just a minute," said David. "Leader Marley, Miss Hachovnik here is very ill. Won't you let this girl help her to the rest room? She'll be safe there until you're ready for her."
Marley looked at the half-fainting woman. "All right. You take her there, Lanza, and this girl too. Lock them in. And she's not to talk. Do you understand? She's not to talk!"
"As you say, Leader Marley," the technician whispered. She helped Leah to her feet, and Lanza followed them from the room.
Marley closed the door and locked it. "Now, then, Wong, give me that shot, and heaven help you if you try any tricks!"
"Will you bare your arm while I prepare the syringe?"
Awkwardly hanging onto the needler, Marley tugged at his sleeve while David calmly picked up a bottle of colorless liquid and filled his syringe. He turned to the Leader, swabbed his arm, then picked up the syringe.
"There you are," said David.
Jerking the syringe upward, he forced a thin jet of pure alcohol into the man's eyes. Marley screamed. Agonizing pain blinded him, and as he clutched at his eyes, David snatched the needler from the writhing fingers, and flashed the electronic dagger straight to the heart.
He stared at the twitching body for only an instant. People were pounding on the door, shouting. He tugged at the desk drawer to get his notebook, then remembered sickly that he had left his keys in the lab. He would have to leave his notes.
The shouts were growing louder, people were battering the door. Swiftly he moved to the bookcase, swung it away from the wall, and dropped into darkness.
He brought the bookcase back, then turned and ran along the black passageway.
Leader Lanza sat in his suite at State House, conferring with his subordinates.
"It hardly seems possible, Magnun, that so many people could have slipped through your fingers without help from the Military. You say both the Hachovnik twins have disappeared?"
"And how many people from the Institute?"
"Six, Leader. But it didn't do them any good. We got them, all right."
"But you found no bodies!"
"They wouldn't have bodies after we got through with them, Leader."
"You're quite certain, Officer Magnun, that all the fugitives were destroyed?"
Lanza looked tired, and his officers noticed in him a lack of firmness, an indecision, to which they were not accustomed in a Leader.
"Say, those babies never had a chance, Leader. We picked up their roboplanes somewhere over Kansas, and we shot them out of the air like ducks. They didn't even fire back. They just crashed, burned, disintegrated. They won't give you any more trouble. Why, we even picked up the remains of Doc Wong's wristwatch and that old beat-up pencil case of his." He flung them on the desk.
Lanza fingered the charred and molten relics.
"That will do, Magnun. I'll call you when I need you."
"Say, ain't you feeling well, Leader? You look kind of green."
"That will be all, Magnun!"
"As you say, Leader."
Lanza shoved aside the charred remnants and spread out the papers waiting for him, the unimportant, miscellaneous notes accumulated over the years by Hudson, Faure, and Haslam. And the unreadable notebook of David Wong. He sighed and looked up as his secretary entered.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Leader. You look tired."
"The funeral this morning was quite an ordeal, and so much has happened the last three days!"
"Well, I thought you ought to know that strange reports are coming in. Some of our most prominent citizens have disappeared. We're trying to trace them, of course, but--"
"Those rumors about Blue Martian are cropping up again."
"That old man you asked me to bring from the Vermont quarries, the one who was detained for illegal study of the Coptic language? Well, I guess the excitement of his release was too much for him. He died of a heart attack when he was being taken to the plane."
Lanza sighed. "Very well, that will be all."
Alone at last, he looked sadly through the pages of David's notebook, at the tantalizing curls and angles of the Coptic letters, cryptic symbols of a discovery which prevented a man from growing old. Well, no one could read them now. That secret was dead, along with its discoverer, because, in this world, no study was permitted without a practical end in view. And perhaps it was just as well. Could any man be trusted, he wondered, to deal wisely with a power so great?
After closing the notebook, he dropped his head into his hands.
How his head ached! He felt cold, suddenly, and his whole body began to shake with a hard chill. He lifted his head, his vision blurred, and suddenly he knew.
He had Blue Martian fever!
Teeth chattering, he paced wildly about the room, puzzling things out, trying to remember. That booster shot! And then he realized the amazing truth: David Wong had given him a chance! He had inoculated him with the seeds of immortality, giving him a chance to help right the wrongs of this Categorized world. And now he was left alone in a world of mortals. David and the others had been annihilated, and he was left to live on and on, alone.
He staggered toward his private apartments, then sank into his chair as his secretary once again ran into the room. With a supreme effort he controlled his trembling.
"Leader Lanza. Another report."
"Just a minute," said Lanza, trying to bring his eyes into focus on the excited girl. "I am in need of a rest. As soon as you have gone, I shall retire into seclusion for a few days. There are to be no interruptions. Is that clear? Now, proceed."
"There's a new epidemic of Martian Fever reported where one never was before."
He stirred tiredly. "Where now?"
"South America. Somewhere in the Andes."
"I think we'll have just one Category after this," said Lanza dreamily. "Category Phoenix."
"What did you say, Leader?"
His thoughts wandered. No wonder Magnun's men found no bodies. The planes they shot down were roboplanes, after all, and it was easy to plant in an empty seat a man's wristwatch and his bulky leather pencil case. David and the others were safe now. They were free and had enough time to plan for the new free world.
"What did you say, Leader?" the girl repeated, bewildered.
"Nothing. It doesn't matter." He frowned painfully, and then shrugged. "On second thought, I may be away longer than a week. If anyone asks for me, say I'm on an Aimless Tramp. I've always hoped that some day I might earn the right to a Free Choice."
"But you're the Leader," the girl said in astonishment. "You're entitled to all the Free Choices you want!"
He lifted his twitching head, smiling wanly. "It would seem that way, wouldn't it? Well, whether I am or not, I think I've really earned a Free Choice. I wonder," he said in a wistful voice, "whether the climate in the Andes is hospitable."
By Charles E. Fritch
"People are basically alike," Harding said democratically. He sat idly against the strawlike matting of the hut wall and reached for a native fruit in a nearby bowl. "They're all suckers, even the smartest of them; in fact, the ones who think they're the smartest generally wind up to be the dumbest." Carefully, he bit into the fruit which resembled an orange and, mouth full, nodded approvingly. "Say, these aren't bad. Try one."
Sheckly shook his head, determined to avoid as many aspects of this culture as he could. "But these aren't people," he reminded, not happy with the thought. "They're lizards."
Harding shrugged and settled back, his grinning features ruddy in the flaring torchlight. "Humanoids have no monopoly on suckerhood. When it comes to that, we're all brothers under the skin, no matter what color or how hard the skin may be." He sighed, contemplating the harvest-to-be. "No, Sheckly, it'll be like taking candy from a baby. We'll be out of here with our pockets bulging before the Space Patrol can bat an eyelash in this direction."
Unconvinced, Sheckly stared glumly through the open doorway of the hut into the warm humid night, where a fire flared in the darkness and long shadows danced and slithered around it.
"It's not the Space Patrol I'm worried about," he said, after a while. "I don't mind fleecing humanoids--" he shivered, grimacing--"but lizards!"
Harding laughed. "Their riches are as good as anybody else's. The trouble with you, Sheckly, you're too chicken-hearted. If it weren't for me, you'd still be small-timing back on Earth. It takes imagination to get along these days."
Sheckly grunted, for he had no ready answer to deny this truth. While he didn't like the reference to his inability to get along in the world without Harding's help, the man was right about other things. It did take imagination, all right, mixed with a generous supply of plain ordinary guts; that, plus an eye focused unfalteringly on the good old credit sign.
He certainly could not get along without Harding's timing. The man knew just when Patrol Ships would be at certain spots, knew their schedules for visiting these small otherworlds, and always he was several steps ahead of them. They went into a planet, their rocket ship loaded with gambling devices--cards, dice, roulette wheels, and other cultural refinements--and set up shop which could be folded at a moment's notice if necessary. Natives seemed almost eager to be skinned of their riches, and he and Harding happily obliged them.
"Listen to them out there," Harding marveled, leaning forward to hear the sharp scrapings that represented music. "They must be having some kind of ceremony."
Sheckly nodded, shivering slightly, though the air was hot and humid. He wished again, as he often had in the past, he could have some of Harding's assurance, some of that unrelenting optimism that insisted everything would turn out favorably. But he didn't like these strange primitive worlds, he didn't trust them or their inhabitants. The lizard-people had seemed friendly enough, but by looking at a strange reptile you couldn't tell how far it would jump. When the Earth ship landed, the creatures had come slithering to them with all but a brass band, welcoming the Earthlings with the hissings that composed their language. One of them--the official interpreter, he proclaimed himself--knew a peculiarly good brand of English, and welcomed them in a more satisfactory manner, but still Sheckly didn't like it. Harding had called him chicken-hearted, and he felt a certain amount of justified indignance at the description. Cautious would be a better word, he decided.