The building itself was unprepossessive enough. It was an old-fashioned, six-floor, brick structure that had, over the years, served first as a private home, then as an apartment building, and finally as the headquarters for the organization it presently housed.
It stood among others of its kind in a lower-middle-class district of Arlington, Virginia, within howitzer range of the capitol of the United States, and even closer to the Pentagon. The main door was five steps up from the sidewalk, and the steps were flanked by curving balustrades of ornamental ironwork. The entrance itself was closed by a double door with glass panes, beyond which could be seen a small foyer. On both doors, an identical message was blocked out in neat gold letters: The Society For Mystical and Metaphysical Research, Inc.
It is possible that no more nearly perfect cover, no more misleading front for a secret organization ever existed in the history of man. It possessed two qualities which most other cover-up titles do not have. One, it was so obviously crackpot that no one paid any attention to it except crackpots, and, two, it was perfectly, literally true.
Spencer Candron had seen the building so often that the functional beauty of the whole setup no longer impressed him as it had several years before. Just as a professional actor is not impressed by being allowed backstage, or as a multimillionaire considers expensive luxuries as commonplace, so Spencer Candron thought of nothing more than his own personal work as he climbed the five steps and pushed open the glass-paned doors.
Perhaps, too, his matter-of-fact attitude was caused partially by the analogical resemblance between himself and the organization. Physically, Candron, too, was unprepossessing. He was a shade less than five eight, and his weight fluctuated between a hundred and forty and a hundred and forty-five, depending on the season and his state of mind. His face consisted of a well-formed snub nose, a pair of introspective gray eyes, a rather wide, thin-lipped mouth that tended to smile even when relaxed, a high, smooth forehead, and a firm cleft chin, plus the rest of the normal equipment that normally goes to make up a face. The skin was slightly tanned, but it was the tan of a man who goes to the beach on summer weekends, not that of an outdoorsman. His hands were strong and wide and rather large; the palms were uncalloused and the fingernails were clean and neatly trimmed. His hair was straight and light brown, with a pronounced widow’s peak, and he wore it combed back and rather long to conceal the fact that a thin spot had appeared on the top rear of his scalp. His clothing was conservative and a little out of style, having been bought in 1981, and thus three years past being up-to-date.
Physically, then, Spencer Candron, was a fine analog of the Society. He looked unimportant. On the outside, he was just another average man whom no one would bother to look twice at.
The analogy between himself and the S.M.M.R. was completed by the fact that his interior resources were vastly greater than anything that showed on the outside.
The doors swung shut behind him, and he walked into the foyer, then turned left into the receptionist’s office. The woman behind the desk smiled her eager smile and said, “Good morning, Mr. Candron!”
Candron smiled back. He liked the woman, in spite of her semifanatic overeagerness, which made her every declarative sentence seem to end with an exclamation point.
“Morning, Mrs. Jesser,” he said, pausing at the desk for a moment. “How have things been?”
Mrs. Jesser was a stout matron in her early forties who would have been perfectly happy to work for the Society for nothing, as a hobby. That she was paid a reasonable salary made her job almost heaven for her.
“Oh, just fine, Mr. Candron!” she said. “Just fine!” Then her voice lowered, and her face took on a serious, half conspiratorial expression. “Do you know what?”
“No,” said Candron, imitating her manner. “What?”
“We have a gentleman ... he came in yesterday ... a very nice man ... and very intelligent, too. And, you know what?”
Candron shook his head. “No,” he repeated. “What?”
Mrs. Jesser’s face took on the self-pleased look of one who has important inside knowledge to impart. “He has actual photographs ... three-D, full-color photographs ... of the control room of a flying saucer! And one of the Saucerites, too!”
“Really?” Candron’s expression was that of a man who was both impressed and interested. “What did Mr. Balfour say?”
“Well--” Mrs. Jesser looked rather miffed. “I don’t really know! But the gentleman is supposed to be back tomorrow! With some more pictures!”
“Well,” said Candron. “Well. That’s really fine. I hope he has something. Is Mr. Taggert in?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Candron! He said you should go on up!” She waved a plump hand toward the stairway. It made Mrs. Jesser happy to think that she was the sole controller of the only way, except for the fire escape, that anyone could get to the upper floors of the building. And as long as she thought that, among other things, she was useful to the Society. Someone had to handle the crackpots and lunatic-fringe fanatics that came to the Society, and one of their own kind could do the job better than anyone else. As long as Mrs. Jesser and Mr. Balfour were on duty, the Society’s camouflage would remain intact.
Spencer Candron gave Mrs. Jesser a friendly gesture with one hand and then headed up the stairs. He would rather not have bothered to take the stairway all the way up to the fifth floor, but Mrs. Jesser had sharp ears, and she might wonder why his foot-steps were not heard all the way up. Nothing--but nothing--must ever be done to make Mrs. Jesser wonder about anything that went on here.
The door to Brian Taggert’s office was open when Candron finally reached the fifth floor. Taggert, of course, was not only expecting him, but had long been aware of his approach.
Candron went in, closed the door, and said, “Hi, Brian,” to the dark-haired, dark-eyed, hawk-nosed man who was sprawled on the couch that stood against one corner of the room. There was a desk at the other rear corner, but Brian Taggert wasn’t a desk man. He looked like a heavy-weight boxer, but he preferred relaxation to exercise.
But he did take his feet from the couch and lift himself to a sitting position as Candron entered. And, at the same time, the one resemblance between Taggert and Candron manifested itself--a warm, truly human smile.
“Spence,” he said warmly, “you look as though you were bored. Want a job?”
“No,” said Candron, “but I’ll take it. Who do I kill?”
“Nobody, unless you absolutely have to,” said Taggert.
Spencer Candron understood. The one thing that characterized the real members of The Society for Mystical and Metaphysical Research--not the “front” members, like Balfour and Mrs. Jesser, not the hundreds of “honorable” members who constituted the crackpot portion of the membership, but the real core of the group--the thing that characterized them could be summed up in one word: understanding. Without that one essential property, no human mind can be completely free. Unless a human mind is capable of understanding the only forces that can be pitted against it--the forces of other human minds--that mind cannot avail itself of the power that lies within it.
Of course, it is elementary that such understanding must also apply to oneself. Understanding of self must come before understanding of others. Total understanding is not necessary--indeed, utter totality is very likely impossible to any human mind. But the greater the understanding, the freer the mind, and, at a point which might be called the “critical point,” certain abilities inherent in the individual human mind become controllable. A change, not only in quantity, but in quality, occurs.
A cube of ice in a glass of water at zero degrees Celsius exhibits certain properties and performs certain actions at its surface. Some of the molecules drift away, to become one with the liquid. Other molecules from the liquid become attached to the crystalline ice. But, the ice cube remains essentially an entity. Over a period of time, it may change slowly, since dissolution takes place faster than crystallization at the corners of the cube. Eventually, the cube will become a sphere, or something very closely approximating it. But the change is slow, and, once it reaches that state, the situation becomes static.
But, if you add heat, more and more and more, the ice cube will change, not only its shape, but its state. What it was previously capable of doing only slightly and impermanently, it can now do completely. The critical point has been passed.
Roughly--for the analog itself is rough--the same things occurs in the human mind. The psionic abilities of the human mind are, to a greater or lesser degree, there to begin with, just as an ice cube has the ability to melt if the proper conditions are met with.
The analogy hardly extends beyond that. Unlike an ice cube, the human mind is capable of changing the forces outside it--as if the ice could seek out its own heat in order to melt. And, too, human minds vary in their inherent ability to absorb understanding. Some do so easily, others do so only in spotty areas, still others cannot reach the critical point before they break. And still others can never really understand at all.
No one who had not reached his own critical point could become a “core” member of the S.M.M.R. It was not snobbery on their part; they understood other human beings too well to be snobbish. It was more as though a Society for Expert Mountain Climbers met each year on the peak of Mount Everest--anyone who can get up there to attend the meeting is automatically a member.
Spencer Candron sat down in a nearby chair. “All right, so I refrain from doing any more damage than I have to. What’s the objective?”
Taggert put his palms on his muscular thighs and leaned forward. “James Ch’ien is still alive.”
Candron had not been expecting the statement, but he felt no surprise. His mind merely adjusted to the new data. “He’s still in China, then,” he said. It was not a question, but a statement of a deduction. “The whole thing was a phony. The death, the body, the funeral. What about the executions?”
“They were real,” Taggert said. “Here’s what happened as closely as we can tell:
“Dr. Ch’ien was kidnaped on July 10th, the second day of the conference in Peiping, at some time between two and three in the morning. He was replaced by a double, whose name we don’t know. It’s unimportant, anyway. The double was as perfect as the Chinese surgeons could make him. He was probably not aware that he was slated to die; it is more likely that he was hypnotized and misled. At any rate, he took Ch’ien’s place on the rostrum to speak that afternoon.
“The man who shot him, and the man who threw the flame bomb, were probably as equally deluded as to what they were doing as the double was. They did a perfect job, though. The impersonator was dead, and his skin was charred and blistered clear up to the chest--no fingerprints.
“The men were tried, convicted, and executed. The Chinese government sent us abject apologies. The double’s body was shipped back to the United States with full honors, but by the time it reached here, the eye-cone patterns had deteriorated to the point where they couldn’t be identified any more than the fingerprints could. And there were half a hundred reputable scientists of a dozen friendly nations who were eye-witnesses to the killing and who are all absolutely certain that it was James Ch’ien who died.”
Candron nodded. “So, while the whole world was mourning the fact that one of Earth’s greatest physicists has died, he was being held captive in the most secret and secure prison that the Red Chinese government could put him in.”
Taggert nodded. “And your job will be to get him out,” he said softly.
Candron said nothing for a moment, as he thought the problem out. Taggert said nothing to interrupt him.
Neither of them worried about being overheard or spied upon. Besides being equipped with hush devices and blanketing equipment, the building was guarded by Reeves and Donahue, whose combined senses of perception could pick up any activity for miles around which might be inimical to the Society.
“How much backing do we get from the Federal Government?” Candron asked at last.
“We can swing the cover-up afterwards all the way,” Taggert told him firmly. “We can arrange transportation back. That is, the Federal Government can. But getting over there and getting Ch’ien out of durance vile is strictly up to the Society. Senator Kerotski and Secretary Gonzales are giving us every opportunity they can, but there’s no use approaching the President until after we’ve proven our case.”
Candron gestured his understanding. The President of the United States was a shrewd, able, just, and ethical human being--but he was not yet a member of the Society, and perhaps would never be. As a consequence it was still impossible to convince him that the S.M.M.R. knew what it was talking about--and that applied to nearly ninety per cent of the Federal and State officials of the nation.
Only a very few knew that the Society was an ex officio branch of the government itself. Not until the rescue of James Ch’ien was an accomplished fact, not until there was physical, logical proof that the man was still alive would the government take official action.
“What’s the outline?” Candron wanted to know.
Taggert outlined the proposed course of action rapidly. When he was finished, Spencer Candron simply said, “All right. I can take care of my end of it.” He stood up. “I’ll see you, Brian.”
Brian Taggert lay back down on the couch, propped up his feet, and winked at Candron. “Watch and check, Spence.”
Candron went back down the stairs. Mrs. Jesser smiled up at him as he entered the reception room. “Well! That didn’t take long! Are you leaving, Mr. Candron?”
“Yes,” he said, glancing at the wall clock. “Grab and run, you know. I’ll see you soon, Mrs. Jesser. Be an angel.”
He went out the door again and headed down the street. Mrs. Jesser had been right; it hadn’t taken him long. He’d been in Taggert’s office a little over one minute, and less than half a dozen actual words had been spoken. The rest of the conversation had been on a subtler level, one which was almost completely nonverbal. Not that Spencer Candron was a telepath; if he had been, it wouldn’t have been necessary for him to come to the headquarters building. Candron’s talents simply didn’t lie along that line. His ability to probe the minds of normal human beings was spotty and unreliable at best. But when two human beings understand each other at the level that existed between members of the Society, there is no need for longwinded discourses.
The big stratoliner slowed rapidly as it approached the Peiping People’s Airfield. The pilot, a big-boned Britisher who had two jobs to do at once, watched the airspeed indicator. As the needle dropped, he came in on a conventional landing lane, aiming for the huge field below. Then, as the needle reached a certain point, just above the landing minimum, he closed his eyes for a fraction of a second and thought, with all the mental power at his command: NOW!
For a large part of a second, nothing happened, but the pilot knew his message had been received.
Then a red gleam came into being on the control board.
“What the hell?” said the co-pilot.
The pilot swore. “I told ‘em that door was weak! We’ve ripped the luggage door off her hinges. Feel her shake?”
The co-pilot looked grim. “Good thing it happened now instead of in mid-flight. At that speed, we’d been torn apart.”
“Blown to bits, you mean,” said the pilot. “Let’s bring her in.”
By that time, Spencer Candron was a long way below the ship, falling like a stone, a big suitcase clutched tightly in his arms. He knew that the Chinese radar was watching the jetliner, and that it had undoubtedly picked up two objects dropping from the craft--the door and one other. Candron had caught the pilot’s mental signal--anything that powerful could hardly be missed--and had opened the door and leaped.
But those things didn’t matter now. Without a parachute, he had flung himself from the plane toward the earth below, and his only thought was his loathing, his repugnance, for that too, too solid ground beneath.
He didn’t hate it. That would be deadly, for hate implies as much attraction as love--the attraction of destruction. Fear, too, was out of the question; there must be no such relationship as that between the threatened and the threatener. Only loathing could save him. The earth beneath was utterly repulsive to him.
And he slowed.
His mind would not accept contact with the ground, and his body was forced to follow suit. He slowed.
Minutes later, he was drifting fifty feet above the surface, his altitude held steady by the emotional force of his mind. Not until then did he release the big suitcase he had been holding. He heard it thump as it hit, breaking open and scattering clothing around it.
In the distance, he could hear the faint moan of a siren. The Chinese radar had picked up two falling objects. And they would find two: one door and one suitcase, both of which could be accounted for by the “accident.” They would know that no parachute had opened; hence, if they found no body, they would be certain that no human being could have dropped from the plane.
The only thing remaining now was to get into the city itself. In the darkness, it was a little difficult to tell exactly where he was, but the lights of Peiping weren’t far away, and a breeze was carrying him toward it. He wanted to be in just the right place before he set foot on the ground.
By morning, he would be just another one of the city’s millions.
Morning came three hours later. The sun came up quietly, as if its sole purpose in life were to make a liar out of Kipling. The venerable old Chinese gentleman who strolled quietly down Dragon Street looked as though he were merely out for a placid walk for his morning constitutional. His clothing was that of a middle-class office worker, but his dignified manner, his wrinkled brown face, his calm brown eyes, and his white hair brought respectful looks from the other passers-by on the Street of the Dragon. Not even the thirty-five years of Communism, which had transformed agrarian China into an industrial and technological nation that ranked with the best, had destroyed the ancient Chinese respect for age.
That respect was what Spencer Candron relied on to help him get his job done. Obvious wealth would have given him respect, too, as would the trappings of power; he could have posed as an Honorable Director or a People’s Advocate. But that would have brought unwelcome attention as well as respect. His disguise would never stand up under careful examination, and trying to pass himself off as an important citizen might bring on just such an examination. But an old man had both respect and anonymity.
Candron had no difficulty in playing the part. He had known many elderly Chinese, and he understood them well. Even the emotional control of the Oriental was simple to simulate; Candron knew what “emotional control” really meant.
You don’t control an automobile by throwing the transmission out of gear and letting the engine run wild. Suppressing an emotion is not controlling it, in the fullest sense. “Control” implies guidance and use.
Peiping contained nearly three million people in the city itself, and another three million in the suburbs; there was little chance that the People’s Police would single out one venerable oldster to question, but Candron wanted an escape route just in case they did. He kept walking until he found the neighborhood he wanted, then he kept his eyes open for a small hotel. He didn’t want one that was too expensive, but, on the other hand, he didn’t want one so cheap that the help would be untrustworthy.
He found one that suited his purpose, but he didn’t want to go in immediately. There was one more thing to do. He waited until the shops were open, and then went in search of second-hand luggage. He had enough money in his pockets to buy more brand-new expensive luggage than a man could carry, but he didn’t want luggage that looked either expensive or new. When he finally found what he wanted, he went in search of clothing, buying a piece at a time, here and there, in widely scattered shops. Some of it was new, some of it was secondhand, all of it fit both the body and the personality of the old man he was supposed to be. Finally, he went to the hotel.
The clerk was a chubby, blandly happy, youngish man who bowed his head as Candron approached. There was still the flavor of the old politeness in his speech, although the flowery beauty of half a century before had disappeared.
“Good morning, venerable sir; may I be of some assistance?”
Candron kept the old usages. “This old one would be greatly honored if your excellent hostelry could find a small corner for the rest of his unworthy body,” he said in excellent Cantonese.
“It is possible, aged one, that this miserable hovel may provide some space, unsuited though it may be to your honored presence,” said the clerk, reverting as best he could to the language of a generation before. “For how many people would you require accommodations?”
“For my humble self only,” Candron said.
“It can, I think, be done,” said the clerk, giving him a pleasant smile. Then his face took on an expression of contrition. “I hope, venerable one, that you will not think this miserable creature too bold if he asks for your papers?”
“Not at all,” said Candron, taking a billfold from his inside coat pocket. “Such is the law, and the law of the People of China is to be always respected.”
He opened the billfold and spread the papers for the clerk’s inspection. They were all there--identification, travel papers, everything. The clerk looked them over and jotted down the numbers in the register book on the desk, then turned the book around. “Your chop, venerable one.”
The “chop” was a small stamp bearing the ideograph which indicated the name Candron was using. Illiteracy still ran high in China because of the difficulty in memorizing the tens of thousands of ideographs which made up the written language, so each man carried a chop to imprint his name. Officially, China used the alphabet, spelling out the Chinese words phonetically--and, significantly, they had chosen the Latin alphabet of the Western nations rather than the Cyrillic of the Soviets. But old usages die hard.
Candron imprinted the ideograph on the page, then, beside it, he wrote “Ying Lee” in Latin characters.
The clerk’s respect for this old man went up a degree. He had expected to have to put down the Latin characters himself. “Our humble establishment is honored by your esteemed presence, Mr. Ying,” he said. “For how long will it be your pleasure to bestow this honor upon us?”
“My poor business, unimportant though it is, will require it least one week; at the most, ten days.” Candron said, knowing full well that twenty-four hours would be his maximum, if everything went well.
“It pains me to ask for money in advance from so honorable a gentleman as yourself,” said the clerk, “but such are the rules. It will be seven and a half yuan per day, or fifty yuan per week.”
Candron put five ten-yuan notes on the counter. Since the readjustment of the Chinese monetary system, the yuan had regained a great deal of its value.
A young man who doubled as bellhop and elevator operator took Candron up to the third floor. Candron tipped him generously, but not extravagantly, and then proceeded to unpack his suitcase. He hung the suits in the closet and put the shirts in the clothes chest. By the time he was through, it looked as though Ying Lee was prepared to stay for a considerable length of time.
Then he checked his escape routes, and found two that were satisfactory. Neither led downward to the ground floor, but upward, to the roof. The hotel was eight stories high, higher than any of the nearby buildings. No one would expect him to go up.
Then he gave his attention to the room itself. He went over it carefully, running his fingers gently over the walls and the furniture, noticing every detail with his eyes. He examined the chairs, the low bed, the floor--everything.
He was not searching for spy devices. He didn’t care whether there were any there or not. He wanted to know that room. To know it, become familiar with it, make it a part of him.
Had there been any spy devices, they would have noticed nothing unusual. There was only an old man there, walking slowly around the room, muttering to himself as though he were thinking over something important or, perhaps, merely reminiscing on the past, mentally chewing over his memories.
He did not peer, or poke, or prod. He did not appear to be looking for anything. He picked up a small, cheap vase and looked at it as though it were an old friend; he rubbed his hand over the small writing desk, as though he had written many things in that familiar place; he sat down in a chair and leaned back in it and caressed the armrests with his palms as though it were an honored seat in his own home. And, finally, he undressed, put on his nightclothes, and lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling with a soft smile on his face. After ten minutes or so, his eyes closed and remained that way for three-quarters of an hour.
Unusual? No. An old man must have his rest. There is nothing unusual about an old man taking a short nap.
When he got up again, Spencer Candron was thoroughly familiar with the room. It was home, and he loved it.
Nightfall found the honorable Mr. Ying a long way from his hotel. He had, as his papers had said, gone to do business with a certain Mr. Yee, had haggled over the price of certain goods, and had been unsuccessful in establishing a mutual price. Mr. Yee was later to be able to prove to the People’s Police that he had done no business whatever with Mr. Ying, and had had no notion whatever that Mr. Ying’s business connections in Nanking were totally nonexistent.
But, on that afternoon, Mr. Ying had left Mr. Yee with the impression that he would return the next day with, perhaps, a more amenable attitude toward Mr. Yee’s prices. Then Mr. Ying Lee had gone to a restaurant for his evening meal.
He had eaten quietly by himself, reading the evening edition of the Peiping Truth as he ate his leisurely meal. Although many of the younger people had taken up the use of the knife and fork, the venerable Mr. Ying clung to the chopsticks of an earlier day, plied expertly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He was not the only elderly man in the place who did so.
Having finished his meal and his newspaper in peace, Mr. Ying Lee strolled out into the gathering dusk. By the time utter darkness had come, and the widely-spaced street lamps of the city had come alive, the elderly Mr. Ying Lee was within half a mile of the most important group of buildings in China.
The Peiping Explosion, back in the sixties, had almost started World War Three. An atomic blast had leveled a hundred square miles of the city and started fires that had taken weeks to extinguish. Soviet Russia had roared in its great bear voice that the Western Powers had attacked, and was apparently on the verge of coming to the defense of its Asian comrade when the Chinese government had said irritatedly that there had been no attack, that traitorous and counterrevolutionary Chinese agents of Formosa had sabotaged an atomic plant, nothing more, and that the honorable comrades of Russia would be wise not to set off anything that would destroy civilization. The Russian Bear grumbled and sheathed its claws.
The vast intelligence system of the United States had reported that (A) the explosion had been caused by carelessness, not sabotage, but the Chinese had had to save face, and (B) the Soviet Union had no intention of actually starting an atomic war at that time. If she had, she would have shot first and made excuses afterwards. But she had hoped to make good propaganda usage of the blast.
The Peiping Explosion had caused widespread death and destruction, yes; but it had also ended up being the fastest slum-clearance project on record. The rebuilding had taken somewhat more time than the clearing had taken, but the results had been a new Peiping--a modern city in every respect. And nowhere else on Earth was there one hundred square miles of completely modern city. Alteration takes longer than starting from scratch if the techniques are available; there isn’t so much dead wood to clear away.
In the middle of the city, the Chinese government had built its equivalent of the Kremlin--nearly a third of a square mile of ultra-modern buildings designed to house every function of the Communist Government of China. It had taken slave labor to do the job, but the job had been done.