Arthur Pitt was conscious of the mob as soon as he left the Unity office and started across the street. He stopped at the corner by his car and lit a cigarette. Unlocking the car, he studied the mob, holding his briefcase tightly.
There were fifty or sixty of them: people of the town, workers and small businessmen, petty clerks with steel-rimmed glasses. Mechanics and truckdrivers, farmers, housewives, a white-aproned grocer. The usual-lower middle-class, always the same.
Pitt slid into his car, and snapping on the dashboard mike, called his highest ranking superior, the South American Director. They were moving fast, now, filling up the street and surging silently toward him. They had, no doubt, identified him by his T-class clothes -- white shirt and tie, gray suit, felt hat. Briefcase. The shine of his black shoes. The pencil beam gleaming in the breast pocket of his coat. He unclipped the gold tube and held it ready. "Emergency," he said.
"Director Taubmann here," the dashboard speaker said. "Where are you?" The remote, official voice, so far up above him.
"Still in Cedar Groves, Alabama. There's a mob forming around me. I suppose they have the roads blocked. Looks like the whole town."
Off to one side, on the curb, stood an old man with a massive head and short-cropped hair. Standing quietly in his drab brown robe, a knotted rope around his waist, sandals on his feet. "One," Pitt said.
"Try to get a scan for Vulcan 3."
"I'll try." The mob was all around the car now. Pitt could hear their hands, plucking and feeling at the car, exploring it carefully and with calm efficiency. He leaned back and double-locked the doors. The windows were rolled up; the hood was down tight. He snapped on the motor which activated the defense assembly built into the car. Beneath and around him the system hummed as its feedback elements searched for any weak links in the car's armor.
On the curb, the man in brown had not moved. He stood with a few others, people in ordinary street clothing. Pitt pulled the scanner out and lifted it up.
A rock at once hit the side of the car, below the window. The car shuddered; in his hands the scanner danced. A second rock hit directly against the window, sending a web of cracks rippling across it.
Pitt dropped the scanner. "I'm going to need help. They mean business."
"There's a crew already on the way. Try to get a better scan of him. We didn't get it well."
"Of course you didn't," Pitt said in anger. "They saw the thing in my hand and they deliberately let those rocks fly." One of the rear windows had cracked; hands groped blindly into the car. "I've got to get out of here, Taubmann." Pitt grinned bleakly as he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the car's assembly attempting to repair the broken window -- attempting and failing. As new plastiglass foamed up, the alien hands grasped and wadded it aside.
"Don't get panicky," the tinny dashboard voice told him.
"Keep the old-brain down?" Pitt released the brake. The car moved forward a few feet and stopped dead. The motor died into silence, and with it, the car's defense system; the hum ceased.
Cold fear slid through Pitt's stomach. He gave up trying to find the scanner; with shaking fingers he lifted out his pencil beam. Four or five men were astride the hood, cutting off his view; others were on the cab above his head. A sudden shuddering roar: they were cutting through the roof with a heat drill.
"How long?" Pitt muttered thickly. "I'm stalled. They must have got some sort of interference plasma going -- it conked everything out."
"They'll be along any minute," the placid, metallic voice said, lacking fear, so remote from him and his situation. The organization voice. Profound and mature, away from the scene of danger.
"They better hurry." The car shuddered as a whole barrage of rocks hit. The car tipped ominously; they were lifting it up on one side, trying to overturn it. Both back windows were out. A man's hand reached for the door release.
Pitt burned the hand to ash with his pencil beam. The stump frantically withdrew. "I got one."
"If you could scan some of them for us ..."
More hands appeared. The interior of the car was sweltering; the heat drill was almost through. "I hate to do this." Pitt turned his pencil beam on his briefcase until there was nothing left. Hastily, he dissolved the contents of his pockets, everything in the glove compartment, his identification papers, and finally he burned his wallet. As the plastic bubbled away to black ooze, he saw, for an instant, a photograph of his wife ... and then the picture was gone.
"Here they come," he said softly, as the whole side of the car crumpled with a hoarse groan and slid aside under the pressure of the drill.
"Try to hang on, Pitt. The crew should be there almost any --"
Abruptly the speaker went dead. Hands caught him, throwing him back against the seat. His coat ripped, his tie was pulled off. He screamed. A rock crashed into his face; the pencil beam fell to the floor. A broken bottle cut across his eyes and mouth. His scream bubbled into choked silence. The bodies scrambled over him. He sank down, lost in the clutching mass of warm-smelling humanity.
On the car's dashboard, a covert scanner, disguised as a cigar lighter, recorded the immediate scene; it continued to function. Pitt had not known about it; the device had come with the car supplied to him by his superiors. Now, from the mass of struggling people, a hand reached, expertly groped at the dashboard -- tugged once, with great precision, at a cable. The covert scanner ceased functioning. Like Pitt, it had come to the end of its span.
Far off down the highway the sirens of the police crew shrieked mournfully.
The same expert hand withdrew. And was gone, back into the mass ... once more mingled.
William Barris examined the photo carefully, once more comparing it with the second of scanning tape. On his desk his coffee cooled into muddy scum, forgotten among his papers. The Unity Building rang and vibrated with the sounds of endless calculators, statistics machines, vidphones, teletypes, and the innumerable electric typewriters of the minor clerks. Officials moved expertly back and forth in the labyrinth of offices, the countless cells in which T-class personnel worked. Three young secretaries, their high heels striking sharply, hurried past his desk, on their way back from their coffee break. Normally he would have taken notice of them, especially the slim blonde in the pink wool sweater, but today he did not; he was not even aware that they had passed.
"This face is unusual," Barris murmured. "Look at his eyes and the heavy ridge over the brows."
"Phrenology," Taubmann said indifferently. His plump, well-scrubbed features showed his boredom; he noticed the secretaries, even if Barris did not.
Barris threw down the photo. "No wonder they get so many followers. With organizers like that --" Again he peered at the tiny fragment of scanning tape; this was the only part that had been clear at all. Was it the same man? He could not be sure. Only a blur, a shape without features. At last he handed the photo back to Taubmann. "What's his name?"
"Father Fields." In a leisurely fashion, Taubmann thumbed through his file. "Fifty-nine years old. Trade: electrician. Top-grade turret- wiring expert. One of the best during the war. Born in Macon, Georgia, 1970. Joined the Healers two years ago, at the beginning. One of the founders, if you can believe the informants involved here. Spent two months in the Atlanta Psychological Correction Labs."
Barris said, "That long?" He was amazed; for most men it took perhaps a week. Sanity came quickly at such an advanced lab -- they had all the equipment he knew of, and some he had only glimpsed in passing. Every time he visited the place he had a deep sense of dread, in spite of his absolute immunity, the sworn sanctity that his position brought him.
"He escaped," Taubmann said. "Disappeared." He raised his head to meet Barris' gaze. "Without treatment."
"Two months there, and no treatments? "
"He was ill," Taubmann said with a faint, mocking smile. "An injury, and then a chronic blood condition. Then something from wartime radiation. He stalled -- and then one day he was gone. Took one of these self-contained air-conditioning units off the wall and reworked it. With a spoon and a toothpick. Of course, no one knows what he made out of it; he took his results through the wall and yard and fence with him. All we had for our inspection were the leftover parts, the ones he didn't use." Taubmann returned the photo to the file. Pointing at the second of scanning tape he said, "If that's the same man, it's the first time we've heard anything about him since then."
"Did you know Pitt?"
"A little. Nice, rather naive young fellow. Devoted to his job. Family man. Applied for field duty because he wanted the extra monthly bonus. Made it possible for his wife to furnish her living room with Early New England oak furniture." Taubmann got to his feet. "The call is out for Father Fields. But of course it's been out for months."
"Too bad the police showed up late," Barris said. "Always a few minutes late." He studied Taubmann. Both of them, technically, were equals, and it was policy for equals in the organization to respect one another. But he had never been too fond of Taubmann; it seemed to him that the man was too concerned with his own status. Not interested in Unity for theoretical reasons.
Taubmann shrugged. "When a whole town's organized against you, it isn't so odd. They blocked the roads, cut wires and cables, jammed the vidphone channels."
"If you get Father Fields, send him in to me. I want to examine him personally."
Taubmann smiled thinly. "Certainly. But I doubt if we'll get him." He yawned and moved toward the door. "It's unlikely; he's a slick one."
"What do you know about this?" Barris demanded. "You seem familiar with him -- almost on a personal basis."
Without the slightest loss of composure, Taubmann said, "I saw him at the Atlanta Labs. A couple of times. After all, Atlanta is part of my region." He met Barris' gaze steadily.
"Do you think it's the same man that Pitt saw slightly before his death?" Barris said. "The man who was organizing that mob?"
"Don't ask me," Taubmann said. "Send the photo and that bit of tape on to Vulcan 3. Ask it; that's what it's for."
"You know that Vulcan 3 has given no statement in over fifteen months, " Barris said.
"Maybe it doesn't know what to say." Taubmann opened the door to the hall; his police bodyguard swarmed alertly around him. "I can tell you one thing, though. The Healers are after one thing and one thing only; everything else is talk -- all this stuff about their wanting to destroy society and wreck civilization. That's good enough for the commercial news analysts, but we know that actually --"
"What are they really after?" Barris interrupted.
"They want to smash Vulcan 3. They want to strew its parts over the countryside. All this today, Pitt's death, the rest -- they're trying to reach Vulcan 3."
"Pitt managed to burn his papers?"
"I suppose. We found nothing, no remains of him or any of his equipment." The door closed.
After he had waited a careful few minutes, Barris walked to the door, opened it and peered out to be sure that Taubmann had gone. Then he returned to his desk. Clicking on the closed-circuit vidsender he got the local Unity monitor. "Give me the Atlanta Psychological Correction Labs," he said, and then instantly he struck out with his hand and cut the circuit.
He thought, it's this sort of reasoning that's made us into the thing we are. The paranoid suspicions of one another. Unity, he thought with irony. Some unity, with each of us eyeing the other, watching for any mistake, any sign. Naturally Taubmann had contact with a major Healer; it's his job to interview any of them that fall into our hands. He's in charge of the Atlanta staff. That's why I consulted him in the first place.
And yet -- the man's motives. He's in this for himself, Barris thought grimly. But what about mine? What are my motives, that lead me to suspect him?
After all, Jason Dill is getting along in years, and it will be one of us who will replace him. And if I could pin something on Taubmann, even the suspicion of treason, with no real facts ...
So maybe my own shirts aren't so clean, Barris thought. I can't trust myself because I'm not disinterested -- none of us are, in the whole Unity structure. Better not yield to my suspicions then, since I can't be sure of my motives.
Once more he contacted the local monitor. "Yes, sir, " she said." Your call to Atlanta--"
"I want that canceled," he said curtly. "Instead--" He took a deep breath. "Give me Unity Control at Geneva."
While the call was put through -- it had to be cleared through an assortment of desks along the thousands of miles of channel -- he sat absently stirring his coffee. A man who avoided psychotherapy for two months, in the face of our finest medical men. I wonder if I could do that. What skill that must have taken. What tenacity.
The vidphone clicked. "Unity Control, sir."
"This is North American Director Barris." In a steady voice he said, "I wish to put through an emergency request to Vulcan 3."
A pause and then, "Any first-order data to offer?" The screen was blank; he got only the voice, and it was so bland, so impersonal, that he could not recognize the person. Some functionary, no doubt. A nameless cog.
"Nothing not already filed." His answer came with heavy reluctance. The functionary, nameless or not, knew the right questions; he was skilled at his job.
"Then," the voice said, "you'll have to put through your request in the usual fashion." The rustling of sheets of paper. "The delay period," the voice continued, "is now three days."
In a light, bantering voice, Barris said, "What's Vulcan 3 doing these days? Working out chess openings?" Such a quip had to be made in a bantering manner; his scalp depended on it.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Barris. The time lag can't be cut even for Director-level personnel."
Barris started to ring off. And then, plunging all the way into it, he said in a brisk, authoritative tone, "Let me talk to Jason Dill, then."
"Managing Director Dill is in conference." The functionary was not impressed, nor disturbed. "He can't be bothered in matters of routine."
With a savage swipe of his hand, Barris cut the circuit. The screen died. Three days! The eternal bureaucracy of the monster organization. They had him; they really knew how to delay.
He reflectively picked up his coffee cup and sipped it, The cold, bitter stuff choked him and he poured it out; the pot refilled the cup at once with fresh coffee.
Didn't Vulcan 3 give a damn? Maybe it wasn't concerned with the world-wide Movement that was out -- as Taubmann had said-to smash its metal hide and strew its relays and memory tubes and wiring for the crows to pick over.
But it wasn't Vulcan 3, of course; it was the organization. From the vacant-eyed little secretaries off on their coffee breaks, all the way up through the managers to the Directors, the repairmen who kept Vulcan 3 going, the statisticians who collected data, And Jason Dill.
Was Dill deliberately isolating the other Directors, cutting them off from Vulcan 3? Perhaps Vulcan 3 had responded and the information had been withheld.
I'm suspecting even him, Barris thought. My own superior. The highest official in Unity. I must be breaking down under the strain; that's really insane.
I need a rest, he thought wildly. Pitt's death has done it; I feel somehow responsible, because after all I'm safe here, safe at this desk, while eager youngsters like that go out in the country, out where it's dangerous. They get it, if something goes wrong. Taubmann and I, all of us Directors -- we have nothing to fear from those brown-robed crackpots.
At least, nothing to fear yet.
Taking out a request form, Barris began carefully to write. He wrote slowly, studying each word. The form gave him space for ten questions; he asked only two:
a) ARE THE HEALERS OF REAL SIGNIFICANCE?
Then he pushed the form into the relay slot and sat listening as the scanner whisked over its surface. Thousands of miles away, his questions joined the vast tide flowing in from allover the world, from the Unity offices in every country. Eleven Directorates -- divisions of the planet. Each with its Director and staff and sub-directorate Unity offices. Each with its police organs under oath to the local Director.
In three days, Barris' turn would come and answers would flow back. His questions, processed by the elaborate mechanism, would be answered -- eventually. As with everyone else in -class, he submitted all problems of importance to the huge mechanical computer buried somewhere in the subsurface fortress near the Geneva offices.
He had no other choice. All policy-level matters were deter mined by Vulcan 3; that was the law.
Standing up, he motioned to one of the nearby secretaries who stood waiting, She immediately came toward his desk with her pad and writing stick. "Yes, sir," she said, smiling.
"I want to dictate a letter to Mrs. Arthur Pitt," Barris said. From his papers he gave her the address. But then, on second thought, he said, "No, I think I'll write it myself."
"In handwriting, sir?" the secretary said, blinking in surprise. "You mean the way children do in school?"
"Yes," he said.
"May I ask why, sir?"
Barris did not know; he had no rational reason. Sentimentality, he thought to himself as he dismissed the secretary. Throwback to the old days, to infantile patterns.
Your husband is dead in the line of duty, he said to himself as he sat at his desk meditating. Unity is deeply sorry. As Director, I wish to extend my personal sympathy to you in this tragic hour.
Damn it, he thought. I can't do it; I never can. I'll have to go and see her; I can't write a thing like this. There have been too many, lately. Too many deaths for me to stand. I'm not like Vulcan 3. I can't ignore it. I can't be silent.
And it didn't even occur in my region. The man wasn't even my employee.
Clicking open the line to his sub-Director, Barris said, "I want you to take over for the rest of today. I'm knocking off. I don't feel too well."
"Too bad, sir," Peter Allison said. But the pleasure was obvious, the satisfaction of being able to step from the wings and assume a more important spot, if only for a moment.
You'll have my job, Barris thought as he closed and locked his desk. You're gunning for it, just as I'm gunning for Dill's job. On and on, up the ladder to the top.
He wrote Mrs. Pitt's address down, put it in his shirt pocket, and left the office as quickly as he could, glad to get away. Glad to have an excuse to escape from the oppressive atmosphere.