Advance Agent
Chapter 4

Public Domain

Carefully avoiding brass plates, Dan made his way along an avenue of shops devoted to exercise and physical fitness. He came to Runfast Blvd. and located 6140, which looked like the apartment houses he had seen earlier.

He tried the outer door; it was locked. When someone came out, Dan caught the door and stepped in. As the door shut, he tried it and found it was locked again. He stood for a moment trying to understand it, but his sleeplessness of the night before was catching up with him. He gave up and went inside.

There were no elevators on the ground floor. Dan had his choice of six ropes, two ladders and a circular staircase. He went up the staircase to the third floor, where he saw a single elevator. He rode it up to the sixth, got off and found that there was a bank of four elevators on this floor.

He looked at the elevators a minute, felt himself getting dizzy, and walked off to locate apartment 6B.

A powerfully built gray-haired man of middle height answered his knock. Dan introduced himself and explained why he had come.

Mr. Milbun beamed and his right hand shot forward. Dan felt like a man with his hand caught in an airlock.

“Lerna!” called Milbun. “Lerna! Mavis! We have a guest for vacation!”

Dan became aware of a rhythmical clinking somewhere in the back of the apartment. Then a big, strong-looking woman, obviously fresh from the kitchen, hurried in, smiling. If she had been ill, she was clearly recovered now.

“Ah, how are you?” she cried. “We’re so happy to have you!” She gripped his hand and called, “Mavis!

The clinking stopped. A beautifully proportioned girl came in, wearing a sweatshirt and shorts. “Mother, I simply have to get off another pound or so--Oh!” She stared at Dan.

“Mavis,” said Mr. Milbun, “this is Mr. Dan Redman. Devisement, my daughter Mavis.”

“You’re going with us!” she said happily. “How wonderful!”

“Now,” said Mr. Milbun, “I imagine his Devisement wants to get a little rest before he goes down to the gym.” He glanced at Dan. “We have a splendid gym here.”

“Oh,” said Mavis eagerly, “and you can use my weights.”

“Thanks,” said Dan.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Milbun told him. “The birth rate’s still rising here, and last night the charge correction went up again. A little more and it’ll take two of us to get a door open. It won’t inconvenience you to leave tomorrow?”

“Not at all,” said Dan.

“Splendid.” Milbun turned to his wife. “Lerna, perhaps our guest would like a little something to eat.”

The food was plain, good and plentiful. Afterward, Mavis showed Dan to his room. He sank down gratefully on a firm, comfortable bed. He closed his eyes...

Someone was shaking him gently.

“Don’t you want to go down to the gym?” asked Mr. Milbun. “Remember, we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Of course,” said Dan.

Feeling that his brain was functioning in a vacuum, Dan followed the Milbuns into the hall, climbed down six stories on a ladder, then into the basement on a rope. He found himself in a room with a stony dirt track around the wall, ropes festooning the ceiling, an irregularly shaped pool, and artificial shrubs and foliage from behind which sprang mechanical monsters. The Milbuns promptly vanished behind imitation vine-covered doors and came out again in gym clothes.

Dan went through the doorway Mr. Milbun had come out of and discovered that the Save-Your-Life Co. had a machine inside which dispensed washed, pressed and sterilized gym clothes for a small fee. The machine worked by turning a selector dial to the proper size, pressing a lever, and then depositing the correct fee in an open box on the wall nearby. Dan studied this a moment in puzzlement, guessed his proper size and put the correct payment in the box.

He put on the gym clothes and went outside.

For forty-five minutes, mechanical creatures of odd and various shapes sprang at him from behind shrubbery, gripped him when he passed holes in the floor and wound themselves around his legs as he tried to swim in the pool.

His temper worsened. He stopped to look at Mavis as she swayed, laughing, on a rope above two things like mobile giant clamshells.

Mr. Milbun shook his head. “Mavis, remember, we’re leaving tomorrow.”

Just then, something snarled and lunged at Dan from the side. There was a flash of teeth.

Dan whirled. His fist shot out. There was a scream of machinery, then a crash and a clatter. An imitation monster with a huge jaw and giant teeth lay on its back on the floor.

Milbun let out a slow whistle. “Dismounted it. Boy!”

“A one-bite, too,” breathed Mavis.

Mrs. Milbun came over and looked at Dan approvingly.

Dan had been about to apologize, but checked himself when the others smiled cheerfully and went back to what they were doing. This consisted of dodging, tricking or outrunning the various contraptions that lunged at them, chased them, tripped them, trailed, stalked and sprang out at them from nearly every place in the room.

Finally the gym began to fill up with other people. The Milbuns got ready to leave and Dan followed.

Dan lay in his bed that night and tried to summarize the points he didn’t understand. First was the question of vacation. But he supposed he would learn about that tomorrow. Next was “charge.” Apparently one went on vacation when his “charge” was low, because the vacation advisor had said, “The family put their vacation off for her, and as a result their charge has run very low.” But just what was “charge”?

Dan remembered the flickering bulb in the store window, ringed by the words “Your Corrected Charge--Courtesy of Save-Your-Life Co.” Apparently he had some charge, because the bulb had flickered. But where did he get it?

Then he thought of the waterfront and of the little boy caught at the hole. What was the point of that? And why did that produce such an uproar when, a little later, a grown man could get dragged out of sight on a well-traveled street and never cause a single notice?

Dan felt himself sinking into a maze of confusion. He dismissed the problems and went to sleep clinging to one fact. The Porcyns must be honest people who would keep an agreement, once made. On what other planet could anyone find a slot machine with no slot, but just an open box for the money?

Dan fell asleep, content that he had the answer to that part of the problem, at least.

Before it was light, he awoke to an odd familiar buzz inside his head.

“Dan,” said Kielgaard’s voice, small and remote.

Dan rolled over, lay on his back and spoke sub-vocally. “Right here.”

“Can you talk?”

“Yes,” said Dan, “if I can stay awake.”

“Can you give us a summary?”

“Sure.” Dan told him briefly what had happened.

Kielgaard was silent a moment. Then he said, “What do you think ‘charge’ is?”

“I haven’t been in any condition to think. Maybe it’s a surgically implanted battery, set to run down after so long.”

“Too clumsy. What about radioactivity?”

“H’m. Yes, you mentioned a mine on the inner planet. Maybe they mine radioactive ore. That would explain why I have some charge. There’s residual radioactivity even in the atmosphere of Earth.”

“That’s so,” said Kielgaard. “But not every planet has it. I’m wondering about this other agent you mentioned seeing. He sounds to me like someone from Trans-Space. And that’s bad.”

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