He was just emerging for the hundredth time during the week from the frightening hallucination that had come to plague him, when Kitty Murchinsom came into his office.
“It’s almost 15:00, Philip,” she said.
When she had entered, her face had taken on the placid look that everyone wore--unwittingly, but inevitably--the instant they came near Alcorn.
Finding Kitty’s cool blonde loveliness projected so abruptly against the bleak polar plain of his waking dream, he knew how much more she was than either fiancee or secretary alone. She was a beacon of reassurance in a sea of uncertainty.
“Thanks, darling,” he said, and looked at his watch. “I’d have woolgathered past my appointment and it’s an important one.”
He stood up. Kitty came closer and put both hands on his shoulders.
“You’ve had another of those dreams, haven’t you? I wish you’d see a--a doctor about them.”
He laughed, and if the sound rang hollow, she seemed not to notice.
“That’s why I asked you to call me. I’ve made an appointment with one.”
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “I’m glad you’re decided. You haven’t been yourself at all for a week, Philip, and I couldn’t bear a honeymoon with a preoccupied husband!”
He managed the appropriate leer, though he had never felt less like it. The apprehension that followed his daytime chimera was on him again, so strongly that what he wanted most to do was to take Kitty’s hand tightly, like a frightened child, and run headlong until he was beyond reach of whatever it was that threatened him.
“Small chance,” he said, instead. “Any man who’d dream away a honeymoon with you is dead already.”
She sighed placidly and turned back to the business at hand. “You won’t be late for your 16:00 conference with our Mr. O’Donnell and Director Mulhall of Irradiated Foods, will you? Poor Sean would be lost without you.”
He felt the usual nagging dissatisfaction with the peculiar talent that had put him where he was in Consolidated Advertising. “He’d probably lose this case without my soothing presence and CA would pay its first ungrounded refund claim in--” he counted back over the time he had been with Consolidated--”four years and eight months.”
Kitty said wistfully, “Shall I see you tonight, Philip?”
He frowned, searching for a way to ease the hurt she would feel later, and finding none. “That depends on the psychiatrist. If he can’t help me, I may fly up to my cabin in the Catskills and wrestle this thing out for myself.”
Kitty moved to go, and then turned back. “I almost forgot. There was a call for you at noon from a secretary of Victor Jaffers’ at Carter International. She seemed to know you’d be out and said that Mr. Jaffers would call again at 15:00.”
“Victor Jaffers?” Alcorn repeated. The name added a further premonitory depression. “I think I know what he wants. It’s happened before.”
When Kitty had gone, Alcorn took a restless turn about the room and was interrupted at once by the gentle buzzing of the radophone unit on his desk. He pressed the receiving stud and found himself facing Victor Jaffers’ image.
“Don’t bother to record this,” Jaffers said without preamble. “Complete arrangements have already been made to prove that I’ve never spoken to you in my life.”
Jaffers was a small, still-faced man who might have been mistaken for a senior accountant’s clerk--until the chill force of his eyes made itself felt. Alcorn had seen the Carter International head before only in teleprint pictures, had heard and discounted the stories about the man’s studied ruthlessness. But those eyes and the blunt approach made him wonder.
“I’ve got a place in the contact branch of my organization for your particular talent, Alcorn,” Jaffers said flatly. “It will pay you five times what you earn with Consolidated. You understand why I’m taking you on.”
“I know.” The arrogance wearied rather than angered Alcorn. “I have a gift for arranging fair settlements when both principals are present. Mr. Jaffers, I’ve never exploited my gift for personal profit. That’s a matter of self-protection as well as ethics--I don’t like trouble.” He reached for the canceling stud to end the interview. “Others have made the same offer before you and there’ll be others again. But I won’t use my ability unfairly.”
Jaffers smiled, unamused. “You do go straight to the point, which saves argument. But you’ll work for me, Alcorn. Those others made the mistake of talking to you personally. I know that you can be reached as easily as any other man if my agents keep more than fifty feet away from you.” His eyes moved past Alcorn to the window. “Look at the window across the street.”
Alcorn, turning, felt his neck prickle. Across the narrow canyon of street, without pretense at concealing himself, a man in gray clothing watched him from an open office window.
“I’ve had you under surveillance for days,” Jeffers’ voice said behind him. “I’ve located two others of your sort since my statisticians brought their existence to my attention, but somehow they slipped through my fingers this week. I’m taking no chances on you.”
Alcorn whirled back incredulously. “You’ve found others? Where and--”
“I’ll tell you that when you’re on my payroll.”
“It’s a trick,” Alcorn said angrily. “I searched for years before I settled down with Consolidated and I didn’t find a trace of anybody like myself. I don’t believe there are any.”
“Most of them covered themselves better.” Jaffers added, with cold finality, “I don’t haggle, Alcorn. You’ll work for me or for no one.”
“The trouble is,” Alcorn said, “that I’m different from other people and I have to know why. I know how I’m different, but if I knew why, I’d never have come to a psychiatrist.”
Dr. Hagen rattled the data sheet in his hands and blinked behind his pince-nez like a friendly beagle. He was a very puzzled man, being accustomed to analyzing his own reactions as well as those of his patients. Alcorn could see him struggling to account for the sudden serenity that had come over him the instant Alcorn entered the office--certainly it was not the doctor’s usual frame of mind, from the first sour look of him--and failing.
“Different in what way, Mr. Alcorn?”
“I soothe people,” Alcorn said. “There’s something about me that inspires trust and an eagerness to please. Everyone roughly within a radius of fifty feet--I’ve checked the limit a thousand times--immediately feels a sort of euphoria. They’re as happy as so many children at a picnic and they can’t do enough for me or for each other.”
Dr. Hagen blinked, but not with disbelief.
“It affects psychiatrists, too,” Alcorn went on. “You’d cheerfully waive the fee for this consultation if I asked it, or lend me fifty credits if I were strapped. The point is that people are never difficult when I’m around, because I was born with the unlikely gift of making them happy. That gift is the most valuable asset I own, but I’ve never understood it--and as long as I don’t understand it, there’s the chance that it may be a mixed blessing. I think it’s backfired on me already in one fashion and possibly in another.”
He shook out a cigarette and the psychiatrist obligingly held a lighter to it. Dr. Hagen, Alcorn thought, must normally have been an exceptionally strong-willed man, for he hesitated noticeably before he spun the wheel.
“Actually,” Alcorn said, “I’ve begun to worry about my sanity and I’m afraid my gift is responsible. For the past week, I’ve had a recurrent hallucination, a sort of waking nightmare that comes just when I least expect it and leaves me completely unstrung. It’s worse than recurrent--it’s progressive, and each new seizure leaves me a little closer to something that I’m desperately afraid to face.”
The psychiatrist made a judicious tent of his fingers. “Obviously you are an intelligent and conscientious man, Mr. Alcorn, else you would not have contented yourself with your comparatively minor job. But your profession as claims adjustor must impose a considerable strain upon your nervous organization. Add to this that you are a bachelor at the age of thirty-three and the natural conclusion--”
In spite of his mood, Alcorn laughed. “Wrong tack--remember my gift! Besides, I’m engaged to be married next month and I’m quite happy with the prospect. This trouble of mine is something entirely different. It’s tied in somehow with my talent for soothing and it scares me.”
He could have added that Jaffers’ hardly veiled threat on his life disturbed him as well, but saw no point in wasting time on the one danger he understood perfectly.
“This vision,” Alcorn said, “and the sensory sharpness and conviction of disaster that come with it--it’s no ordinary hallucination. It’s as real as my peculiar talent and represents a very real danger. It’s working some sort of change in me that I don’t like and I’ve got to find out what that change is or I’m done for. I feel that.”
Obligingly, the psychiatrist said, “Describe your experience.”
Talking about it made perspiration stand out on Alcorn’s forehead. “First I’m seized with a sudden sense of abnormally sharpened perception, as if I were on the point of becoming aware of a great many things beyond my immediate awareness. I can feel the emotions of people about me and I have the conviction that, in another moment, I shall be able to feel their thoughts as well.
“Then I seem to be standing alone on a frozen arctic plain, a polar wasteland that should be utterly deserted, but isn’t. I’ve no actual sensations of touch or hearing, yet the scene is visually sharp in every detail.
“There’s a small village of corrugated sheet-metal houses just ahead, the sort that engineers on location might raise, and the streets between are packed with snow. Machines loaded with metal boxes crawl up and down those streets, but I’ve never seen their drivers. Until this morning, I never saw any people at all on the plain.”
Dr. Hagen rattled his paper and nodded agreeably. “Go on. What are these people like?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Alcorn said, “because their images were not complete. There seems to be a sort of relationship between them and myself--a threatening one--but I can’t guess what it may be. I can’t even tell you what racial type they belong to, because they have no faces.”
He crushed out his cigarette and took a deep breath, getting to the worst of it. “I have a distinct conviction during each of these seizures that the people I see are not ordinary human beings, that they’re as different from me as I am from everyone else, though not in the same way. It’s the difference that makes me uneasy. I can feel the urgency and the resolution in them, as if they were determined to do--or had resigned themselves to doing--something desperately important. And then I know somehow that each of them has made some kind of decision recently, a decision that is responsible for his being what he is and where he is, and that I’ll have to make a similar one when the time comes. And the worst of it is that I know no matter which way my choice falls, I’m going to be hideously unhappy.”
The psychiatrist asked tranquilly, “You can’t guess what choice it is that you must make, or its alternative?”
“I can’t. And that’s the hell of it--not knowing.”
The icy chill of the polar plain touched him and with it came a deeper cold that had not been a part of the dream. At that instant, he might have identified its source, but was afraid to.
“My fear has some relation to whatever it is these people are about to do,” he said. “I just realized that. But that doesn’t help, because I’ve no idea what it is.”
He glanced at his strap watch, and the time made him stand up before the little psychiatrist could speak again. The hour was 15:57, and he saw in dismay that his 16:00 appointment with Sean O’Donnell and the Irradiated Foods tycoon would be late.
“I don’t expect an immediate opinion,” he said. “You couldn’t reach one as long as I’m here. Add up what I’ve told you, and if it makes any sort of sense you can radophone me tonight at 19:00. If my apartment doesn’t answer, relay the call to my cabin in the Catskills--I’ve kept the location a secret, for privacy’s sake, but the number is on alternate listing.”
He paused briefly at the door, touched with an uncharacteristic flash of sour humor. “And telestat your bill to me. If I asked for it now, you’d probably charge nothing.”
The mood vanished as soon as he was outside and saw the gray-suited Jaffers operative waiting with stolid patience on the ramp of a department store across the street.
The shock of reminder brought on a giddy recurrence of his hallucination.
The polar plain yawned before him. The silent machines crept over their snow-packed ways, the faceless people stood in frozen groups.
He emerged from the seizure, shaken and sweating, to find that the Jaffers man had crossed the street and was waiting a safe distance behind. Alcorn fought down a panic desire to run away blindly only because Kitty would be waiting for him at Consolidated--Kitty, his bulwark of reassurance.
The gray-suited man was a deliberate hundred feet behind him when he boarded a tube-car.
Kitty was not in his office and there was no time to ring for her.
Instead, he went through the long accounting room beyond, answering automatically the smiles of a suddenly genial staff and headed for O’Donnell’s office.
He saw at once that he was too late.
The CA manager’s door was open and O’Donnell and Mulhall of Irradiated Foods were emerging. Both wore street jackets and both men had the unmistakable air of euphoric calm that came within seconds of Alcorn’s approach.
O’Donnell gave Alcorn his familiar long-lipped grin, looking, with his thin gentle face and neat brush of ermine-white hair, like an aristocratic Irish saint.
“You missed a pleasant meeting,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve just signed a refund release to Charlie here, and a pleasure it was.”
The awareness that they had been calmed before he’d arrived left Alcorn speechless.
“Really shouldn’t have accepted,” Mulhall said sheepishly. Mulhall was a big, solid man, bald and paunchy and, when his normal instincts were controlled, an argumentative tyrant. “Niggling technicality, I say. Shouldn’t have taken a refund, but Sean here insisted.”
They laughed together, like children sharing a joke.
“The claim was justified,” O’Donnell said firmly. “Once Charlie’s secretary explained the case, there was no doubt.”
Mulhall grinned at Alcorn. “Remarkable girl, Janice Wynn. She’s waiting in Sean’s office. Wants to meet you, Philip.”
They went toward the lift with their arms about each other, sharing an all-too-brief moment of companionship.
Alcorn hesitated in front of the closed door of O’Donnell’s office.
When he entered, Janice Wynn was standing at the window, watching the soundless rush of traffic in the street below. She was dark, not pretty in any conventional sense, but charged with a controlled vitality that made physical beauty unimportant.
Her face was anything but serene, the complex of emotions in her tilted green eyes far removed from the ready placidity he had learned to expect. There was an unmistakable impression of driving urgency--the same urgency, Alcorn thought, that he had felt in the people of his waking dream.
“You’re one,” he said. His face felt stiff. “After all these years, I’ve found another one like--”
“Like yourself,” she said. “But it’s I who have found you. Did you really think you were unique, Philip Alcorn?”
He tried to answer and couldn’t. The meeting he had dreamed of all his life had come about with precisely the electric suddenness he had imagined, but he felt none of the elation he had anticipated. He felt, instead, a sudden panic.
For behind Mulhall’s secretary, he had a shutter-swift glimpse of the frozen plain, starkly clear with its huddle of metal buildings and its faceless people clustered on the snow-packed street.
Janice Wynn gave him no time to flounder for control. “You’re the last,” she said. “And the most stubborn of the lot. You’re lucky that we could find you in the little time we have left.”
Alcorn said hoarsely, “I don’t know what you mean.”
She looked more disappointed than surprised. “You’ve no inkling yet? I’ve known most of the truth for days, though I still haven’t made the change. Your conditioning must have been too thorough or--”
She caught the shift of Alcorn’s glance toward the window and turned quickly. The man in gray was watching them intently from the office across the street.
“You’re under surveillance!” she said sharply. “By whom and for how long?”
He told her of Jaffers’ call, and winced at the sudden dismay in her face.
“At best you’ve killed an inoffensive psychiatrist with your problem,” she said. “At worst--” She came around O’Donnell’s desk toward him, her manner abruptly decisive. “We’ve less time than I hoped. Come out of here, quickly.”
In the corridor, she opened her handbag and took out a thick white envelope. “There’s no time now for explanations. The clippings will give you an idea of what you’re up against. Lose your spy if you can and don’t go near your apartment. I’ll be at your cabin tonight at 21:00. You’ll learn the rest then.”
She pressed a stud at the elevator bank and chose an ascending lift. Alcorn realized that there would be a turbo-copter waiting for her on the roof.
She faced Philip before entering the cage. “You have no chance at all except with us. Remember that, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your very short life.”
Alcorn made no attempt to follow.
“ ... except with us,” Janice Wynn had said.
She was like himself, gifted with his own talent. She was connected somehow with the faceless people of his hallucinations.
Who were they, and where were they, and what did they want of him?
He was still groping for the answers when Kitty came toward him. She gave a little cry of dismay when she saw his face.
“You look simply awful, Philip! Is it another of your--”
With Kitty’s arrival, Alcorn’s premonition of disaster returned. Something was going to happen to him, was happening to him, and unless he moved carefully, it could involve Kitty as well. He had to keep Kitty out of this, which meant that he must stay clear of her until he was safe.
“It’s nothing,” he said hastily. “I’ll call you later, Kitty. I’ve another appointment now that can’t wait.”
She put out a hesitant hand. “Philip...”
He wanted desperately to tell her the whole improbable story, to reveal his fears and get the reassurance she was able to give him.
But he couldn’t risk involving Kitty in any danger.
“It’s nothing,” he repeated. He went down the lift quickly because he knew that if he delayed to comfort her, he would never have the courage to go at all.
His only clear thought, as he shouldered his way into the late-afternoon throng outside CA, had been to escape from Kitty and from the too-vivid memory of Janice Wynn. Now that he must choose a course, he was brought up short by the fact that, so long as he was tailed by Jaffers’ men, there was literally no place for him to go.
He could not go to his apartment because of Jaffers’ surveillance. He had no intention of meeting Janice Wynn at his Catskill cabin at 21:00. Her obvious knowledge--and, therefore, theirs--of the location ruled that out as a refuge.
He looked about for the inevitable man in gray and found him following at his careful hundred feet. The crowd caught and bore them both along like chips in a millrace, keeping the interval constant.
Alcorn let himself be carried along, feeling the slow release of tension that spread outward from him through the throng. The physical pressure was also eased. People slowed their dogged pace and smiled at utter strangers.
He had wondered often how the people affected by his circle of calm accounted for their sudden change of mood. He had dreamed that one day he might walk in such a crowd and enter another island of serenity like his own and thus find another human being gifted like himself. Someone with his own needs and longings, who would not melt into ready complaisance when he drew near, but who would speak honestly and clearly, who would understand how he felt and why.
Ironically, when that moment had come in O’Donnell’s office, it hadn’t brought him the fulfillment he had expected. It had left, instead, a panic beyond belief.
Why? What was he afraid of?
There was nothing evil or dangerous in his own gift--why should he fear another possessing the same wild talent? Damn it, he thought, what sort of fate could be so terrible that its foreshadowing alone could throw him into such an anxious state?
How could he be sure that the faceless people were hostile? If they were like Janice Wynn, and if Janice were like himself, it might follow naturally that--
The rustle of the envelope in his pocket was like an answer, proving that his problem, if nothing else, was real.
“ ... for the rest of your very short life,” she had said.
The sudden sharpening of awareness that preceded a new seizure rasped him again. He felt the tranquillity about him, and then the arctic montage swallowed it all, and once again he stood bodiless on the snow-packed streets of the metal village.
The faceless people moved purposefully now, and beyond them loomed the towering bulk of scaffolding erected about the pit where the great bronze cylinder of a ship lay...
He stopped so abruptly that a man behind him stumbled and regained balance only by clutching Alcorn’s shoulder.
“Sorry,” the man murmured, and moved on.
The mirage vanished; the crowd behind pushed on, parting politely about Alcorn. The mass farther back surged restlessly, hurrying, grumbling like an impatient corporate organism. The Jaffers agent, caught in the press, was borne helplessly nearer.
Alcorn realized his opportunity and stood fast, waiting while the tide of bodies flowed past. The man in gray saw his intention and struggled frantically to break free of the pinioning crowd.
A sort of grim satisfaction fell upon Alcorn when the man’s face lost its urgency and settled into smiling unconcern. The gift was a weapon of sorts. The way to escape--at least from Jaffers’ surveillance--was open.
He fell in beside the spy, paying less attention now to the man himself than to the matter of disposing of him. The garish facade of a nearby joy-bar solved his problem.
“Come with me,” Alcorn ordered.
The joy-bar was less than half full at this early hour, but noisy enough for midnight. A concealed battery of robotics ground out a brassy blare of music, integrating random pitches--selected by electronic servo-computers--into the jarring minor cacophony that had become the latest rage.
The early patrons were intently watching the long telescreen above the bar when Alcorn came in. A quarterstaff bout--a frantic, bloody sport revived from God only knew how many centuries before--was in progress there, matching a heavily muscled Nordic with a sandy bristle of hair against a swarthy, hairless Eurasian. The Nordic, from his twisted stance, had a couple of broken ribs already; the Eurasian’s right ear dangled redly.
Alcorn seated himself opposite Jaffers’ operative in an isolated booth and fed the coin-slot for drinks.
“Drink,” he said grimly. “You’re going to be drunker, my friend, than you’ve ever been in your inquisitive life.”
The uproar died out before the drinks arrived. Only the blaring music machines and the blood-roar of the telescreen remained, and a suddenly placid bartender turned both down to a murmur.
The rest was routine to Philip Alcorn’s experience. Men at the bar turned to each other like old friends, forgetting submerged frustrations as readily as they forgot the vicious slash-and-parry on the screen. The place drowsed in a slow and comfortable silence.
The Jaffers man tossed off his drink and dialed another. Alcorn, raising his own, remembered Janice Wynn’s letter in his pocket and set the glass down, untasted.
The clippings, she had said, would give him an idea of what he was up against.
His hands shook so violently when he ripped open the envelope that he almost dropped it.
Eight clippings were inside, small teleprinted scissorings from digest newssheets that were available at any street-corner dispenser. He read them quickly, and was more puzzled than before until he realized that they fell into two general groups of interlocking similarities.
Four were accounts of unexplained disappearances. A moderately successful research chemist named Ellis had vanished from the offices of his New York chemical firm; a neighborhood pharmacist in Minneapolis, a spinster tea-shop proprietress in Atlanta and a female social worker in Los Angeles had disappeared with equal thoroughness, completely baffling the efforts of police to find them.
None of these people had been of more than minor importance, even in his own immediate circle. Alcorn felt that these events had been reported only because the efficiency of missing-persons bureaus made permanent disappearance next to impossible. Even so, only one clipping--that on Ellis, the New York chemist--bothered to run a photograph.