May’s man Reuben, of the eighty-third level, Atomist, knew there was something wrong when the binoculars flashed and then went opaque. Inwardly he cursed, hoping that he had not committed himself to anything. Outwardly he was unperturbed. He handed the binoculars back to Rudolph’s man Almon, of the eighty-ninth level, Maintainer, with a smile.
“They aren’t very good,” he said.
Almon put them to his own eyes, glanced over the parapet and swore mildly. “Blacker than the heart of a crazy Angel, eh? Never mind; here’s another pair.”
This pair was unremarkable. Through it, Reuben studied the thousand setbacks and penthouses, of Denv that ranged themselves below. He was too worried to enjoy his first sight of the vista from the eighty-ninth level, but he let out a murmur of appreciation. Now to get away from this suddenly sinister fellow and try to puzzle it out.
“Could we--?” he asked cryptically, with a little upward jerk of his chin.
“It’s better not to,” Almon said hastily, taking the glasses from his hands. “What if somebody with stars happened to see, you know? How’d you like it if you saw some impudent fellow peering up at you?”
“He wouldn’t dare!” said Reuben, pretending to be stupid and indignant, and joined a moment later in Almon’s sympathetic laughter.
“Never mind,” said Almon. “We are young. Some day, who knows? Perhaps we shall look from the ninety-fifth level, or the hundredth.”
Though Reuben knew that the Maintainer was no friend of his, the generous words sent blood hammering through his veins; ambition for a moment.
He pulled a long face and told Almon: “Let us hope so. Thank you for being my host. Now I must return to my quarters.”
He left the windy parapet for the serene luxury of an eighty-ninth-level corridor and descended slow moving stairs through gradually less luxurious levels to his own Spartan floor. Selene was waiting, smiling, as he stepped off the stairs.
She was decked out nicely--too nicely. She wore a steely hued corselet and a touch of scent; her hair was dressed long. The combination appealed to him, and instantly he was on his guard. Why had she gone to the trouble of learning his tastes? What was she up to? After all, she was Griffin’s woman.
“Coming down?” she asked, awed. “Where have you been?”
“The eighty-ninth, as a guest of that fellow Almon. The vista is immense.”
“I’ve never been...” she murmured, and then said decisively: “You belong up there. And higher. Griffin laughs at me, but he’s a fool. Last night in chamber we got to talking about you, I don’t know how, and he finally became quite angry and said he didn’t want to hear another word.” She smiled wickedly. “I was revenged, though.”
Blank-faced, he said: “You must be a good hand at revenge, Selene, and at stirring up the need for it.”
The slight hardening of her smile meant that he had scored and he hurried by with a rather formal salutation.
Burn him for an Angelo, but she was easy enough to take! The contrast of the metallic garment with her soft, white skin was disturbing, and her long hair suggested things. It was hard to think of her as scheming something or other; scheming Selene was displaced in his mind by Selene in chamber.
But what was she up to? Had she perhaps heard that he was to be elevated? Was Griffin going to be swooped on by the Maintainers? Was he to kill off Griffin so she could leech onto some rising third party? Was she perhaps merely giving her man a touch of the lash?
He wished gloomily that the binoculars-problem and the Selene-problem had not come together. That trickster Almon had spoken of youth as though it were something for congratulation; he hated being young and stupid and unable to puzzle out the faulty binoculars and the warmth of Griffin’s woman.
The attack alarm roared through the Spartan corridor. He ducked through the nearest door into a vacant bedroom and under the heavy steel table. Somebody else floundered under the table a moment later, and a third person tried to join them.
The firstcomer roared: “Get out and find your own shelter! I don’t propose to be crowded out by you or to crowd you out either and see your ugly blood and brains if there’s a hit. Go, now!”
“Forgive me, sir! At once, sir!” the latecomer wailed; and scrambled away as the alarm continued to roar.
Reuben gasped at the “sirs” and looked at his neighbor. It was May! Trapped, no doubt, on an inspection tour of the level.
“Sir,” he said respectfully, “if you wish to be alone, I can find another room.”
“You may stay with me for company. Are you one of mine?” There was power in the general’s voice and on his craggy face.
“Yes, sir. May’s man Reuben, of the eighty-third level, Atomist.”
May surveyed him, and Reuben noted that there were pouches of skin depending from cheekbones and the jaw line--dead-looking, coarse-pored skin.
“You’re a well-made boy, Reuben. Do you have women?”
“Yes, sir,” said Reuben hastily. “One after another--I always have women. I’m making up at this time to a charming thing called Selene. Well-rounded, yet firm, soft but supple, with long red hair and long white legs--”
“Spare me the details,” muttered the general. “It takes all kinds. An Atomist, you said. That has a future, to be sure. I myself was a Controller long ago. The calling seems to have gone out of fashion--”
Abruptly the alarm stopped. The silence was hard to bear.
May swallowed and went on: “--for some reason or other. Why don’t youngsters elect for Controller any more? Why didn’t you, for instance?”
Reuben wished he could be saved by a direct hit. The binoculars, Selene, the raid, and now he was supposed to make intelligent conversation with a general.
“I really don’t know, sir,” he said miserably. “At the time there seemed to be very little difference--Controller, Atomist, Missiler, Maintainer. We have a saying, ‘The buttons are different,’ which usually ends any conversation on the subject.”
“Indeed?” asked May distractedly. His face was thinly filmed with sweat. “Do you suppose Ellay intends to clobber us this time?” he asked almost hoarsely. “It’s been some weeks since they made a maximum effort, hasn’t it?”
“Four,” said Reuben. “I remember because one of my best Servers was killed by a falling corridor roof--the only fatality and it had to happen to my team!”
He laughed nervously and realized that he was talking like a fool, but May seemed not to notice.
Far below them, there was a series of screaming whistles as the interceptors were loosed to begin their intricate, double basketwork wall of defense in a towering cylinder about Denv.
“Go on, Reuben,” said May. “That was most interesting.” His eyes were searching the underside of the steel table.
Reuben averted his own eyes from the frightened face, feeling some awe drain out of him. Under a table with a general! It didn’t seem so strange now.
“Perhaps, sir, you can tell me what a puzzling thing, that happened this afternoon, means. A fellow--Rudolph’s man Almon, of the eighty-ninth level--gave me a pair of binoculars that flashed in my eyes and then went opaque. Has your wide experience--”
May laughed hoarsely and said in a shaky voice: “That old trick! He was photographing your retinas for the blood-vessel pattern. One of Rudolph’s men, eh? I’m glad you spoke to me; I’m old enough to spot a revival like that. Perhaps my good friend Rudolph plans--”
There was a thudding volley in the air and then a faint jar. One had got through, exploding, from the feel of it, far down at the foot of Denv.
The alarm roared again, in bursts that meant all clear; only one flight of missiles and that disposed of.
The Atomist and the general climbed out from under the table; May’s secretary popped through the door. The general waved him out again and leaned heavily on the table, his arms quivering. Reuben hastily brought a chair.
“A glass of water,” said May.
The Atomist brought it. He saw the general wash down what looked like a triple dose of XXX--green capsules which it was better to leave alone.
May said after a moment: “That’s better. And don’t look so shocked, youngster; you don’t know the strain we’re under. It’s only a temporary measure which I shall discontinue as soon as things ease up a bit. I was saying that perhaps my good friend Rudolph plans to substitute one of his men for one of mine. Tell me, how long has this fellow Almon been a friend of yours?”
“He struck up an acquaintance with me only last week. I should have realized--”
“You certainly should have. One week. Time enough and more. By now you’ve been photographed, your fingerprints taken, your voice recorded and your gait studied without your knowledge. Only the retinascope is difficult, but one must risk it for a real double. Have you killed your man, Reuben?”
He nodded; It had been a silly brawl two years ago over precedence at the refectory; he disliked being reminded of it.
“Good,” said May grimly. “The way these things are done, your double kills you in a secluded spot, disposes of your body and takes over your role. We shall reverse it. You will kill the double and take over his role.”
The powerful, methodical voice ticked off possibilities and contingencies, measures, and countermeasures. Reuben absorbed them and felt his awe return. Perhaps May had not really been frightened under the table; perhaps it had been he reading his own terror in the general’s face. May was actually talking to him of backgrounds and policies. “Up from the eighty-third level!” he swore to himself as the great names were uttered.
“My good friend Rudolph, of course, wants the five stars. You would not know this, but the man who wears the stars is now eighty years old and failing fast. I consider myself a likely candidate to replace him. So, evidently, must Rudolph. No doubt he plans to have your double perpetrate some horrible blunder on the eve of the election, and the discredit would reflect on me. Now what you and I must do--”
You and I--May’s man Reuben and May--up from the eighty-third! Up from the bare corridors and cheerless bedrooms to marble halls and vaulted chambers! From the clatter of the crowded refectory to small and glowing restaurants where you had your own table and servant and where music came softly from the walls! Up from the scramble to win this woman or that, by wit or charm or the poor bribes you could afford, to the eminence from which you could calmly command your pick of the beauty of Denv! From the moiling intrigue of tripping your fellow Atomist and guarding against him tripping you to the heroic thrust and parry of generals!
Up from the eighty-third!
Then May dismissed him with a speech whose implications were deliriously exciting. “I need an able man and a young one, Reuben. Perhaps I’ve waited too long looking for him. If you do well in this touchy business, I’ll consider you very seriously for an important task I have in mind.”
Late that night, Selene came to his bedroom.
“I know you don’t like me,” she said pettishly, “but Griffin’s such a fool and I wanted somebody to talk to. Do you mind? What was it like up there today? Did you see carpets? I wish I had a carpet.”
He tried to think about carpets and not the exciting contrast of metallic cloth and flesh.
“I saw one through an open door,” he remembered. “It looked odd, but I suppose a person gets used to them. Perhaps I didn’t see a very good one. Aren’t the good ones very thick?”
“Yes,” she said. “Your feet sink into them. I wish I had a good carpet and four chairs and a small table as high as my knees to put things on and as many pillows as I wanted. Griffin’s such a fool. Do you think I’ll ever get those things? I’ve never caught the eye of a general. Am I pretty enough to get one, do you think?”
He said uneasily: “Of course you’re a pretty thing, Selene. But carpets and chairs and pillows--” It made him uncomfortable, like the thought of peering up through binoculars from a parapet.
“I want them,” she said unhappily. “I like you very much, but I want so many things and soon I’ll be too old even for the eighty-third level, before I’ve been up higher, and I’ll spend the rest of my life tending babies or cooking in the creche or the refectory.”
She stopped abruptly, pulled herself together and gave him a smile that was somehow ghastly in the half-light.
“You bungler,” he said, and she instantly looked at the door with the smile frozen on her face. Reuben took a pistol from under his pillow and demanded, “When do you expect him?”
“What do you mean?” she asked shrilly. “Who are you talking about?”
“My double. Don’t be a fool, Selene. May and I--” he savored it--”May and I know all about it. He warned me to beware of a diversion by a woman while the double slipped in and killed me. When do you expect him?”
“I really do like you,” Selene sobbed. “But Almon promised to take me up there and I knew when I was where they’d see me that I’d meet somebody really important. I really do like you, but soon I’ll be too old--”
“Selene, listen to me. Listen to me! You’ll get your chance. Nobody but you and me will know that the substitution didn’t succeed!”
“Then I’ll be spying for you on Almon, won’t I?” she asked in a choked voice. “All I wanted was a few nice things before I got too old. All right, I was supposed to be in your arms at 2350 hours.”
It was 2349. Reuben sprang from bed and stood by the door, his pistol silenced and ready. At 2350 a naked man slipped swiftly into the room, heading for the bed as he raised a ten-centimeter poignard. He stopped in dismay when he realized that the bed was empty.
Reuben killed him with a bullet through the throat.
“But he doesn’t look a bit like me,” he said in bewilderment, closely examining the face. “Just in a general way.”
Selene said dully: “Almon told me people always say that when they see their doubles. It’s funny, isn’t it? He looks just like you, really.”
“How was my body to be disposed of?”
She produced a small flat box. “A shadow suit. You were to be left here and somebody would come tomorrow.”
“We won’t disappoint him.” Reuben pulled the web of the shadow suit over his double and turned on the power. In the half-lit room, it was a perfect disappearance; by daylight it would be less perfect. “They’ll ask why the body was shot instead of knifed. Tell them you shot me with the gun from under the pillow. Just say I heard the double come in and you were afraid there might have been a struggle.”
She listlessly asked: “How do you know I won’t betray you?”
“You won’t, Selene.” His voice bit. “You’re broken.”
She nodded vaguely, started to say something and then went out without saying it.
Reuben luxuriously stretched in his narrow bed. Later, his beds would be wider and softer, he thought. He drifted into sleep on a half-formed thought that some day he might vote with other generals on the man to wear the five stars--or even wear them himself, Master of Denv.
He slept healthily through the morning alarm and arrived late at his regular twentieth-level station. He saw his superior, May’s man Oscar of the eighty-fifth level, Atomist, ostentatiously take his name. Let him!