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Ballroom Of The Skies Part 1

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Ballroom of the Skies.

John D MacDonald.

CHAPTER ONE.

The world, Branson thought, is like that circus act of long ago, back in the sweet-colored days of childhood, when the big top was as high as the sky, and gigantic horses marched the earth. He remembered the act. The ragged clown teetering on the high wire, clutching his misshapen hat, reeling toward destruction, catching himself in that last throat-thickening instant to flounder some more. You believed in him then. That poor dazed clown, petrified by height, yet trying with pathetic and humble courage to please the crowd, taking from the baggy clothes the white dinner plates and, fighting his fear and his constant losses of balance, managing somehow to juggle the plates. Oh, how white they had shined in the spotlights! You could see how the awkward body would plummet to the hard earth, and you wanted to stop looking, yet could not stop. And then suddenly his balance became sure and certain. He stripped off the baggy clothes to reveal himself, taut and muscular in the spangled tights, bowing to applause. You laughed aloud into Daddy's eyes, knowing how close you had been to tears. Now all the men of the world watched the humble clown on the high wire. He juggled atomics, and napalm and all the hundred ways to separate the soul from the body, either quickly or very slowly. He wavered up there in the spotlights and all the eyes watched, knowing that when at last he fell, it would all be gone-the tent and the music and the elephant girls, forever and ever. He had remained up there too long. The nerves of men were ground thin and fine. You waited for him to strip off the baggy clown clothes and bow to the applause of the world. But he never did. He was caught up there, impaled for eternity on the bright shafts of the spotlights. Once he had seen a revival of a Harold Lloyd picture. He had seen it when he was a child, at the Museum of Modern Art, and the picture, even then, had been fifty years old. The bespectacled man had been blindfolded and he was walking about in the steel beams of a building under construction, a skysc.r.a.per, back in the days when buildings stretched upward toward the sun, rather than downward into the warm safe earth. The comedian had not known he was a dizzy height in the air. He wandered about aimlessly, arms outstretched. When he stepped off into s.p.a.ce a girder, being hoisted up from below, would always present itself just in time to take his weight. It had been one of those Sat.u.r.day showings. He remembered how all the children had screamed at the tension of that old silent film. Maybe it was a truer a.n.a.logy, because the clown was aware of his danger, and the comedian walked in an absurd innocence. Now the Museum of Modern Art was gone, and the dwindling radiation of the area was so slight that the lead sheaths on the buses were more to impress the tourists than from any real necessity. That had been the time, in the early seventies, when you had been certain that the clown would fall, that the beam would not arrive in time. But they had pocked one another's cities with the new ugliness, hurled the dwindling wealth of the planet at each other for a time. Ostensibly the democracies had won. The armies had hammered their way back and forth across Europe for the third and last time. Now, as had been predicted so many times before, Europe was wasteland, physically and spiritually incapable of rising again from her knees. Va.s.sal states, with marginal resources, struggling for meager existence. Somehow, insanely, the world had caught itself once more-saved itself on the very brink of destruction. Of all the industrial economies left, only Pak-India, reunited, was capable of trying again. And India wasn't interested. The astonishing effect on her standard of living as a result of the ruthless years of compulsory sterilization had given her the vigor to absorb Burma, Thailand, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula and a rich slice of south China. Reclamation of jungle and desert gave her the most solid basis of raw materials in the world, with the exception, perhaps, of Brazil, which had but recently moved her seat of government to Buenos Aires. It wasn't, Branson thought, the line-up that anyone could have guessed back in the days before the war. Communism, both as a religion and as a political theory, had failed when its pie in the sky hadn't materialized. It had failed when it had run up against man's peculiarly basic desire to do as he d.a.m.n pleased. Each time the world tottered on the high wire, it recovered its balance in a weird and wonderful way. Now Pak-India was the king-pin democracy, with the United States trying to a.s.sure itself that it was a full partner, rather than, as was obvious to any objective person, a junior partner. Huddled together under India's skirts were all of the nations of Europe except Spain-all the nations, including those new nations which were the result of a part.i.tioned Russia. Also, under the same skirt, was Australia, Canada. But the clock had turned backward and the new enemy was the old enemy all over again. Fascism-a strong triple coalition of Brazil, which had taken over three quarters of the South American continent, marching and singing under the silver banners of Garva, and North China, singing the same songs, though with oriental dissonance, under a man called Stephen Chu, and Irania, which included Arabia, Egypt, most of North Africa marching with bur-noose and iron heels under the guidance of that renegade Anglo-Egyptian, George Fahdi. The crazy years since the war had pa.s.sed, and now all the strong new lines were drawn. Don't step over my line. Look at my armies, my bomber fleets, my missile stations. Don't step over my line. Malthus would have called the war a failure. It killed only seven millions. And each day, Branson knew, eighty thousand new souls and mouths were added to the world. Eighty thousand net. Nearly thirty millions a year. The old ant-heap pressure, leaning on us again. The eighty thousand increment each day was a jackstraw to be placed carefully on a precarious structure. Use steady hands, there. You aren't building it right. Build it my way. Build it my way, or else. . . . The Fourth World War coming in from the deeps, rolling up in an oily way, ready to crest and smash on what was left of the world. And now, each time, it had to be the last one. Yet, somehow, it never was. The clown world fought for balance. The comedian stepped off into s.p.a.ce. Branson left his desk and walked over to the window. Rent cheaply and in fear, and you get a window to look out of. An expensive office would have a clever diorama where the window would be. The psychologists had become important to underground architecture. If a man must live and work underground, it must be made to look like above-ground, because man is not a mole. In the bright noisy dusk of New Times Square, ten stories below, the crowds moved slowly. American cars wheezed and clattered through the streets, their turbines laboring under the low-grade fuels. Here and there he could see a long glittering Taj or a Brahma, cars whose cost and upkeep were far beyond the purse of anyone who worked for wages. The Indians made the best automobiles in the world. Tata Automotive designed cars for looks and power, while what was left of Detroit had to concentrate on subst.i.tute materials, on fuel economy, on standardization of design from year to year. Some of the foreign cars, he knew, would be driven by tourists from Pak-India. It was sometimes difficult to stomach their arrogance, their conscious certainty that everything in India was better than here in the States. Far better. They had, somehow, become the brash new nation, the young giant born in ashes, rising to strength. But, Branson knew, they had to be dealt with delicately. Their tourist rupees were sadly needed. And their emba.s.sies were powerful. Odd how, if you didn't speak either Hindi or Tamil, they thought they could make you understand by yelling at you. Their President, Gondohl Lahl, had that same arrogance. The only product of America which India seemed to approve of wholeheartedly was the beauty of its longlegged girls. Some of the weariness of the past year left Darwin Branson as he thought that it was barely conceivable that now, through his own efforts, the war-tide might be halted, the drums and bugles stilled. His mission had been a secret one, entrusted to him by that wise, farsighted President of the United States, Robert Enfield. From the practical point of view, it had merely been a piece of horsetrading. Enfield, and the other leaders, had known that the economy could not stand another war. India could get nowhere by demanding, and she refused to plead. The triple coalition would not deal with India directly on these matters. The United States became the sub rosa contact between them. What Darwin Branson had seen in Buenos Aires, in Alexandria, in Shanghai, in Bombay, had convinced him, all over again, that the nature of man is good, rather than evil. There was fear all over the world. Now, at last, the era of the man of good will could be initiated. It had been a hole and corner affair. Meetings in furtive places, in cheap offices such as this one. Two more meetings and the deal could be made. A new mutual a.s.sistance pact for the world at large. Something, at last, with meaning. Something that would unwind the hard strands of fear and give 'mankind breathing s.p.a.ce again, give him time to look around. He looked at his watch. Another twenty minutes of thought, of solitude, and they would join him. Young Dake Lorin who had been his a.s.sistant, his husky right arm during the long year of cautious d.i.c.kering. And that strange Englishman, Smith, who was empowered by his Leader, George Fahdi, to make a deal. Once all the offers were in, President Gondohl Lahl could be contacted. See the concessions the others will make? And this is all they want from you. The net result will be a bettering of the standard of living in every nation involved. And that will mean an easing of the tension. He had it on good authority that Gondohl Lahl would go along with it, and he knew that Smith would be cooperative. He stood at the window, a small tired man with white hair and a furrowed face, eyes with a look of kindness. Midwife to peace. That was what Robert had called him. Fifteen more minutes. He heard footsteps in the empty corridor. Thinking they had arrived earlier than planned, he went to the door and opened it. The young couple seemed unremarkable. They had better than average looks, and a disconcertingly a.s.sured way. "I'm afraid you have the wrong office," Darwin Branson said politely. "I'm afraid we have the right one, sir," the young man said, almost regretfully. There was always the danger of a.s.sa.s.sination by fanatics. Yet this couple did not have that special look, unmistakable once seen. Darwin Branson was still pondering that point when the young man killed him, so quickly, with such an astounding speed that there was no interval between life and death, no period wherein Darwin Branson was permitted to be aware that life had gone and the great darkness had begun. The girl caught the body, carried it lightly and easily into the alcove. She stood, holding the body, her face expressionless, while her companion made quick preparations. The hand tool made a faint electronic whirr. She placed the body on the screen he had unfolded. She walked out of the alcove and stood waiting. She heard the water running in the alcove sink. After a time the whirring stopped, and then the sound of water. Her companion came out, refolding the screen. He nodded and she went to the office door, opened it. Darwin Branson stood outside, his face as empty as death. She motioned to him. He walked in woodenly and took his seat behind the desk. The man leaned over and whispered one word into Darwin Branson's ear. He nodded to the girl and they went out of the office, closed the door. "Thirty seconds," the girl said. The man knocked on the office door. Darwin Branson came to the door. "I'm afraid you have the wrong office," Darwin Branson said politely. The young man smiled. "Sorry, sir. I guess I have. Pardon me for bothering you." "Perfectly all right," Branson said. The couple walked to the stairs. They went down five stairs and waited. They heard the elevator come up, stop. The door clanged open. Two men walked toward Branson's office. The man nodded at the girl. She responded with a quick, almost shy smile. It was full night. He opened the stairwell window and they stepped easily out onto the narrow sill above the street. He closed the window behind them. They reappeared in the same instant on the high cornice of a building across the square. They looked down into the lighted office below, where three men were talking earnestly. Then the couple played a wild game, flickering like black flames from one high stone shoulder to the next, until at last he seemed to guess her intent and appeared at the same instant she did on the splintered stub of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor, touched her shoulder before she could escape. They laughed silently. It had been like the crazy game of children who had finished a hard lesson. They clasped hands and were gone. Back in the office Darwin Branson talked to Smith. He instinctively did not like the man, did not trust him. Smith had ... an oily look, a slippery look. Perhaps it would not be wise to trust him with the whole picture. He looked as though he could twist it this way and that, turn it inside out and find there some advantage for himself. Dake Lorin sat, apparently taken in by Smith. Darwin Branson felt a bit contemptuous toward Dake Lorin. That young man was so ... excessively n.o.ble. So naive and gullible. Dake would have you believe that the world could become a Garden of Eden once again. Sitting there, the whole preposterous six feet six inches of him, with that harsh black hair, and the dumb shelf of brow over the shadowed eyes, giving his face a simian look, as though Dake were some great sad ape trying mournfully to rectify the errors of mankind. Dake was just the type to be taken in by this oily Smith person. As Darwin Branson talked he wondered why he had wasted the past year on this chase of the wild goose. A few compromises would make no difference. The world was war bound, and Robert Enfield should stop kidding himself, stop thinking that the United States could step in with sub rosa mediation and stave off disaster. The crucial point, rather, was to select the winning side while there was still time to make a selection. He saw that Smith was aware of his contempt, and he was amused.

CHAPTER TWO.



Smith had been awkwardly skeptical. He was a moon-laced man with nail-head eyes, fat babyish hands. Dake Lorin had exerted himself to be charming, to make a friend of this Smith. It had been most difficult. He kept thinking that Smith was a complicated mechanical dolL And if you tripped the wrong reflex, you would be inundated by the standard line. Irania is strong. Irania is quick. Irania is brave. Our leader, George Fahdi, is farsighted. Smith was in the country on a forged pa.s.sport, arranged with the oblique a.s.sistance of one of the Under Secretaries of State. Dake had picked him up in Boston to drive him down to the conference with Darwin Branson. The trick was to get under the automatic pseudo-patriotic reflex, and get down to the man himself. Dake drove the small nondescript car at a sedate sixty-five, slowing for the stretches of neglected shattered slabs. The car, like most of the works of man, was a shade too small for Dake Lorin. His knees and elbows seemed always to be in the way. "I understand your Leader was impressed with Mr. Branson." Smith shrugged. "He told me later that he felt Mr. Branson was a great rarity. A good man. There are not many good men." "I've worked with Mr. Branson for a year." Smith turned in the seat. "So? You are ... by trade, a government employee?" "Not by trade. By trade I guess I'm a newspaperman. I was filling in in the Washington Bureau a couple of years ago. I interviewed Branson. He ... stuck with me. The guy has quite an effect." "You intrigue me," Smith said in his toneless voice. Dake made a small decision. In order to disarm this Smith he would have to do a bit of a striptease, let his soul show a bit. "I've always been a lone wolf type, Mr. Smith. Maybe a bit of a visionary. That state of mind always had a cause, I suppose. When I was twelve, a wide-eyed kid, the police picked up my Dad. He was a smalltime politician. And a thief. He would have been safe all his life, but there was a change of administration and they threw him to the wolves. It was a deal. He was supposed to get eighteen months. But the judge crossed them up and Dad got ten years. When he found out that his old pal, the governor, wasn't going to pardon him, he hung himself in his cell. My mother pulled herself together and we got along, somehow. I had a lot of schoolyard sc.r.a.ps. It made a mark on me, I guess. I grew up with a chip on my shoulder, and a fat urge to change the world so that things like that couldn't happen." "Quite a dream to have." "I suppose so. Anyway, it gave me a drive. I learned the hard way that I couldn't change the world by punching it in the mouth. So I decided to instruct the world. I became a two-bit messiah in the newspaper game. But that's like knocking down stone walls with your head. What you tell them on Tuesday they can't remember on Wednesday. Then I interviewed Darwin Branson and later it seemed as if he'd been interviewing me. For the first time I'd found a man I could talk to. A man who believed-just as I believe-in the innate decency of mankind. I talked my fool head off. And went back, unofficially, to talk some more. Then, when I heard he was going to retire, I felt lost. As though the one sane man left in the world had given up. He got in touch with me and put his new a.s.signment on the line. I got out of newspaper work right then. And we've been working on it for a year." "And it's still a dream, Mr. Lorin?" "I'll have to let Mr. Branson tell you about that." "It has been my experience, Mr. Lorin, that visionary tactics do not fit the world of practical international politics." "Look at it this way, Mr. Smith. We've been carrying a double load of fear ever since Hiroshima. Every one of us. It has an effect on every joint human action, from marriage to treaties. Fear makes each nation, each combination of nations, aggressive. And that aggressive outlook adds to the increment of fear. Each power group has established 'talking points.' Thus, everyone has demands to make, demands that will apparently not be met." "We demand that Pak-India cease acts of aggression on their northwest frontier." "Precisely. And it seems that all the demands balance out. In other words, if, through one vast treaty agreement, all the 'talking points' could be eliminated, it would give us the breathing s.p.a.ce we need and ... it might lead to the habit of similar world treaties in the future, once a new set of demands and 'talking points' have been set up. The result may be visionary. The method is practical, Mr. Smith." "We will not make concessions," Smith said firmly. "Stop talking like your Leader, Mr. Smith. Forgive my bluntness. Talk as a man. A living, thinking organism. You have ambition. Otherwise you would not have reached such a high place under George Fahdi. Being in a high place, you sense the precariousness of your position. What would you give to be able to look ten years into the future and see yourself still important, still trusted, still . . . safe?" "Life is not that certain." "Yet we all want it to be that certain. We want to know that we will be free to live, and love, and be happy. Yet, as nations, we act in such a way that it increases rather than reduces our uncertainty. As though we were under some compulsion. Like lemmings, racing to the sea .to drown themselves. Mr. Branson does not believe that it is necessary that, through our acts as nations, we must live in fear. He believes that, acting as nations, acting in good will, we can make this world as good a place to live as it was during the first fourteen years of this century. Your Leader is a man, just as you are. As I am. He does not need aggression to consolidate his position. He needs a constantly increasing standard of living to make his place secure. Proper treaties, proper utilization of world resources, can make that possible." "You sound like a free trader from the history books." "Perhaps. I am not as convincing as Mr. Branson." "War, Mr. Lorin, is a cyclical phenomenon." "That's been our traditional excuse. It's a cycle. Who can stop cycles? It's sunspots. Who can change the sun? Mr. Branson calls that statistical rationalization." "Your Mr. Branson sounds like an impressive man." "He is. Believe me, he is." Dake parked the car in a garage near New Times Square and they walked through the last faint grayness of dusk toward the rented office. Dake was dismally aware that if Smith wished to apply the trite fascist tag of decadent democracy, New Times Square gave him overpowering opportunity. There was no use telling a man like Smith that what he was seeing was a fringe world, a place of fetid lunacies, not at all typical of the heartland of the country where stubborn, dogged men were working in lab and field and mine to re-create, through subst.i.tution, the lost wealth of a great nation. The problem of the world, as Branson had said so many times, was in the field of bionomics. Man has made his environment precarious for himself, by denuding it of what he needs. This problem of mankind, the great and pressing problem, is to readjust that environment to make it once more a place where man can exist. Human nature, Branson maintained stoutly, does not have to be changed. It is basically good. Evil acts are the products of fear, uncertainty, insecurity. The war of the seventies had caused a further moral deterioration. Man sought escape in orgy, in soul-deadening drugs, in curious sadisms. Along 165th Street the fleng joints were in full cry. In the mouth of an alley three women, loaded to the gills with p.r.o.no, were mercilessly beating a j.a.panese sailor. Giggling couples pushed their way into a dingy triditorium to rent the shoddy private rooms where the three gleaming curved walls were three-dimensional screens for a life-size, third-rate showing of one of the obscene feature shows turned out in the listless Hollywood mill. Censorship restricted such public showings to heteros.e.xual motifs, but further uptown, private triditoriums showed imported specialties that would gag a gnu. The land was full of sects which, in revulsion at the metropolitan moralities, had founded new religions that insisted on complete celibacy among the fanatic congregations, each member pledged never to reproduce his kind. A chanting line wearing purple neon halos picketed the triditorium. A child lay dead in the gutter and a haughty Indian stood beside his glistening Taj answering the questions of a servile traffic policeman in a bored and impatient voice. "In here, Mr. Smith," Dake said, glad to get the man off the street. They rode up in the groaning elevator, and walked down the hall to the office. Darwin Branson got up quickly from behind his desk. Dake felt a warm a.s.surance at seeing the man, felt an end to his own doubts. The conference began. Dake was so accustomed to hearing the gentle a.s.surance with which Branson wheedled that he listened with half an ear. He suddenly focused his full, shocked attention on Darwin Branson when he heard him say, a bit coldly, "Naturally, if all the arrangements please your Leader, President Enfield wishes your Leader to ... ah ... remember us with friendliness." Dake said, "Darwin! Good Lord, that implies that we're. . . ." "Please!" Branson said with soft authority. Dake became reluctantly silent, telling himself that Branson had some good motive for handling this interview on a different tone and level than all the others. Smith smiled. "I was afraid, after listening to your young friend, Mr. Branson, that I would find myself dealing with a saint. I am glad to detect a ... shall we say . . . practical approach." "This country, Mr. Smith, can't afford not to make friends, particularly with a coalition as powerful as yours." "Could I safely say then, that those concessions we make shall be more ... ah ... spectacular than effective?" Dake had never seen quite that smile on Darwin Branson's face before. "Please, Mr. Smith. You must remember that we are gentlemen of sincerity and integrity. Think how President Gondohl Lahl would be annoyed should he begin to think that whereas his concessions were made honestly, yours were made with a view to appearances." Smith nodded. "I see what you mean. We must, above all else, be sincere. Now I am wondering if ... your other dealings, with Garva and with Chu, have been made with this same degree of sincerity. I think that is a fair question." "Of course, Mr. Smith. I will say this. They are all hoping that it is not. . . too good to be true." "I believe," said Smith, "that I shall offer an alternate concession to the one you ask for. I believe we shall surrender Gibraltar to Spain." "Eyewash," Dake said hotly. "That means nothing. You can have missile stations zeroed in on it to immunize it any instant you feel like it." Smith looked at Branson and raised one eyebrow. Branson said, "Don't underestimate his offer, Dake." "But it's so obv^jus. You've said a hundred times, Darwin, that each concession has to be real and honest, or the whole thing will fall down. When everyone else sees that Irania is just making a ... pointless gesture instead of a real concession, they'll withdraw their promises and we'll be back where we were." "Your young man seems to be filled with childish faith, Mr. Branson." "An attribute of most young men, I'm afraid. I'll relay your offer to the others, Mr. Smith." "And spoil a year's work, Darwin," Dake said dully. "I . . . just don't understand." Branson stood up. "Can we a.s.sist you further, Mr. Smith?" "No thank you. Arrangements have been made for me. I'll be in Alexandria in the morning. And, I a.s.sure you, the Leader will not forget your . . . cooperation." Smith bowed first to Branson and then, a bit mockingly, to Dake Lorin. He left quietly. The moment the door shut, Dake said, "You've blown it, Darwin. You've blown it sky-high." Branson leaned back. He looked weary, but satisfied. "I think I've handled it in the only possible way, Dake. It has become increasingly obvious to me that we couldn't ever bring them all together." "But yesterday you said . . ." "Things have happened between yesterday and now. Tilings I can't explain to you. We've had to lower our sights, Dake. That Smith is an oily specimen, isn't he? But he's the representative of Irania. Oil reserves, Dake. A tremendous backlog of manpower. And influence gradually extending down into Africa, down into vast resources. They'll be good friends, Dake. Good friends to have." "Now slow up just a minute. That is the kind of thinking, Darwin, we have both openly said we detest. Opportunistic, blind thinking. Lining up with the outfit which seems to have the biggest muscles. d.a.m.n it all, this is an about-face which I can't comprehend." "When one plan looks as if it will fail, you pick the next best. That's mature thinking, Dake." "Nuts, my friend. It's an evidence of a desire to commit suicide. You, of all the people in the world, to suddenly turn out to be . . ." "Watch it, Dake!" "I won't watch it. I gave a year of my life to this, and now I find that all along you've been giving me the big one-world yak, and the brotherhood of man yak, while without letting me know you've been setting us up for a power deal." "A power deal, my young friend, is the best that an indigent nation can hope for. We have to line up with the people who can hit the quickest and the hardest. I ... think we've managed it." "You've managed it. Leave me out of it. I'm through, Darwin. You've tried your best to drag me into it, to a.s.sume that somehow-merely through being here with you -I become some kind of ... partner. It was more than a dream, for G.o.d's sake!" "Remember how the British survived for so long, Dake, after they'd lost their muscles? Always creating that delicate balance of power and . . ." "Ending in h.e.l.l, Darwin, when the Indians threw them out of Fiji, when all the throats in the Solomons were cut. I can't seem to get through to you. We weren't doing this for us. We were doing it for the world at large, Darwin." "Sometimes it is wise to accept half a loaf." Dake Lorin felt the tingling tension in all his muscles, felt the uprush of the black crazy anger that was his greatest curse. The blindness came, and he was unaware of his movements, unaware of time-aware only that he had somehow reached across the desk to grab the front of Branson's neat dark suit in one huge fist, had lifted the smaller man up out of the chair. He shook him until the face was blurred in his vision. "Dake!" the man yelled. "Dake!" The anger slowly receded. He dropped Branson back into the chair. He felt weak and he was sweating. "Sorry," he said. "You're a madman, Lorin!" "You're a cheap little man, Branson. I have a hunch. I have the feeling there are people who'll understand exactly how you sold out the human race on this deal. And I'm going to put the case before them. All of it. Every part of it. Then let the world judge you, Branson." "Now just a moment. This involves a question of security, Lorin. I can have you cla.s.sified as potentially subversive, have you sent to labor camp until you cool off. You know that." "I don't think you can stop me." "You've been engaged in secret negotiations. Any violation of security will be evidence of your disloyalty." Dake said softly, "And you're the man who called those regulations, called the labor camps, the new barbarism, government by aboriginal decree. You changed overnight, Darwin. You're not the same man. I'll do what I can, and you can kindly go to h.e.l.l." "While you're doing it, examine your own motives again, Dake. Maybe you've spent your life looking for martyrdom, and this is your best opportunity." "That's a low blow." "You're upset, Dake. In a way I don't blame you. Disappointment is hard to take. But you are my friend. I don't want to see you hurt." Dake stared at him for long seconds. There was nothing else to say. He turned on his heel and left the office, slamming the door violently behind him, taking wry pleasure in the childishness of the gesture.

CHAPTER THREE.

In the stately cathedral hush of the austere Times-News offices the following morning, Dake Lorin was slowly and uneasily pa.s.sed up the ladder from managing editor to a.s.sistant publisher, to publisher. He sat in paneled waiting rooms, eyed by myriad horse-teethed young ladies, by deftly innocuous young men. This was not the newspaper world with which Dake was familiar. The war, with its wood pulp starvation, had brought about the combine of the last two competing dailies, and during the darkest hours the paper had been down to four half-size sheets, with the ubiquitous "shurdlu" appearing in almost every story. Now the paper was back to a respectable bulk, photo-printed on the tan grainy paper made of weeds and gra.s.ses. Here was no muted thud and rumble of presses, no bellows for "Boy!" Here was an air of sanctimonious hush. "He will see you now, Mr. Lorin," a slat-thin female announced. Dake went into the inner office. The window dioramas were of wooded hills, blue mountain lakes. The publisher was a small round man with matronly shoulders and a dimpled chin. "Sit down, Mr. Lorin," he said. He held a card between thumb and forefinger, as though it were something nasty. "I refreshed my mind, Mr. Lorin. The morgue typed me a summary. Your name, of course, was familiar to me the moment I heard it. Let me see now. Combat correspondent. Wounded. Married while on leave in '73. Wife killed by bombing of Buffalo when the suicide task force was repulsed. Returned to job as reporter on Philadelphia Bulletin. Did a good job of covering convention in '75 and became a political columnist. Syndicated in sixty-two papers at peak. Quite a bit of influence. Frequently under fire as a 'visionary,' a dreamer. Columns collected into two books, reasonably successful. Advocated Second U.N., until India withdrew and it collapsed. Took a sudden leave of absence a year ago. Activities during the past year unknown. Suspected to hold some ex-officio position in current administration, State Department side." "Age thirty-two, twenty-nine teeth, scimitar-shaped scar on left b.u.t.tock. Very undignified wound, you know," Lorin said. "Eh?" "Never mind. Has anyone told you my reason for seeing you?" "Mr. Lorin, I am terribly afraid that the ... ah ... philosophy behind your political theorizing of the past would not be in accord with our . . ." "I don't want a job. I have one exclusive I want to give to you. I want to write it and I want the best and biggest splash you can give it. I came here because you have world readership." "An exclusive? Our people dig, Mr. Lorin. We insist on that. I seriously doubt whether there could be any new development in ... ah ... your field which has not already been------" Dake interrupted bluntly, hitching his chair closer, lowering his voice. "How about this sort of an exclusive, Mr. Haggins? Darwin Branson did not retire. He was given a very delicate mission by President Enfield. I worked on it with him for a year. The idea was to act as a middleman, to ease off world tension by getting all sides to do a little horse-trading. It was to be done in secrecy, and in the strictest honesty. All sides but Irania have agreed to make honest concessions. Irania was the last one. If Branson had dealt with Irania firmly and honestly, we could have had a chance to see at least five years of peace ahead of us. But I was present when Branson blew the whole scheme sky high by trying to make a second-level deal with the Iranian representative. Irania will make a token concession, of no value. Then the others will water down their concessions, and the net result will be more world tension instead of less. I doubt whether your . . . diggers have uncovered that, Mr. Haggins. I want you to make a big splash so that the world can know how close it came to temporary nirvana. It might do some good. It might be like a nice clean wind blowing through some very dusty parliamentary sessions. Your sheet is influential. I feel that your cooperation is in the public service." Haggins looked fl.u.s.tered. He got up and walked to the nearest diorama as though he were staring out a window. He had a curious habit of walking on his toes. He clasped his hands behind him, wriggling his thumbs. "You ... ah ... hand us a very hot potato, Mr. Lorin." "Any good story is likely to be, isn't it?" "As you know, in exposing corruption, venality, we are absolutely fearless." "So I've heard," Dake said dryly. "However, there is one consideration here which we must examine ... ah ... rather closely." "And that is?" "The possibility that our motives might be misinterpreted, Mr. Lorin. You have stated that this was all ... secret negotiation. I refer now, of course, to the Public Disservice Act of '75. It would not give us recourse to any court of law, or any chance to state our own case. The Board might arbitrarily consider our publication of your story a Disservice to the State. You know the answer to that. Confiscatory fines." "I feel that it is worth the risk." Haggins turned toward him. "Risk is in direct ratio to what you have to lose, is it not?" "That Act itself is the result of fear. If there were less fear in the world, Mr. Haggins, that Act might be repealed." Haggins came back to the desk. Dake could see that he had reached a decision. He was more at ease. He said, "A bit visionary, Mr. Lorin?" He smiled. "We do our best, Mr. Lorin. We feel that we improve the world, improve our environment, in many modest, but effective ways. Now you would have us take something that I can only consider as a vast gamble. If we should win, the gain is rather questionable. Should we lose, the loss is definite. By losing we would forfeit our chance to continue to do good in our own way." "In other words, it's a lack of courage, Mr. Haggins?" Haggins flushed, stood up, his hand outstretched. "Good luck to you, sir. I trust you will find a publisher who will be a bit more . . . rash, shall we say." He coughed. "And naturally, I will not mention this to anyone. I would not care to be accused of a personal Disservice. I am a bit too old to work on the oil shale." Dake looked at the pink, neatly manicured hand. After a few moments Haggins withdrew it, rubbed it nervously on the side of his trousers. Dake nodded abruptly and left the office, took the elevator up the reinforced concrete shaft to ground level. Fear was a tangible thing in the world. Fear, on the government level, the business level, the personal level. Live out your neat little life and hope for the best. Fools took chances. Men carried weapons when they walked the night streets. Dake did not. His very size protected him adequately, his size and his look of dark, compressed fury. He ate soybean steak in a small dismal restaurant and continued his search. At Life-Look and at Time-Week the brushoff was less delicate, but just as effective. At dusk he managed an interview in a rattletrap building in Jersey City, an interview with a vast brick-red Irishman with a whisky rasp and a smell of barbershop. The Irishman interrupted him. "Fleng the theories, Lorin. All that p.r.o.no soup is over my head. You want to reach people. I've got a circulation. So let's get down to it. How about the stash, the dinero, the rupees, the happy old dollars?" "How do you mean?" "I'm used to fighting. h.e.l.l, I've got the most p.o.r.nographic set of comic strips this side of Capetown. They're always trying to shut me down. I got a half million press run. So I do this. I put a banner head. Paid Advertising, it says. Not the opinion of the publisher, it says. I give you inside page one, and you write it and sign it. Thirty thousand rupees it costs you. Sixty thousand bucks. Lay it on the line and you can use that page for any d.a.m.n thing you want. You can use it to challenge Gondohl Lahl to a personal fistfight if you want to. You'll do a labor camp stretch if that Enfield crowd doesn't like it, and Kelly will still be here, operating at the old stand. That's the deal, and take it or leave it." "How much down?" "The whole thing down. They'll confiscate anything you got before they ship you out. I can't take chances." "It's a lot of money, Kelly." "You look like a guy with a lot of money." "I'll have to ... check with some friends. I'll make a decision and come in tomorrow and tell you." "If the answer is no, don't bother to come in. I won't d.i.c.ker. That's the price. It stands. What are you doing tonight? I got a couple cute little Singhalese tourists lined up, and four freebees to a new private tridi way uptown." "No thanks. See you tomorrow." "Not too early. I expect to have a hangover." Dake went back to the city and bought pa.s.sage to Philadelphia on one of the feeder lines maintained by Calcutta International Jetways. CIJ used all Indian personnel for their major schedules, but hired U.S. personnel for the feeder lines, entrusting to them the creaking, outmoded aircraft. Once U.S.-owned airlines had linked the entire world. But, in the exhaustion following the war, with the regimentation and labor allocations that had cut travel so severely, the airlines, starved for freight and pa.s.sengers, had slid inevitably toward bankruptcy, in spite of the subsidies of an impoverished federal government. Thus, when CIJ had made a reasonable offer for all lines and franchises, the airlines had taken it gladly, the investors receiving CIJ stock in return for their holdings. CIJ service was quick, impersonal, efficient. There were only two other pa.s.sengers on the sixty-seat aircraft. Dake knew that CIJ took a continual loss on the New York-Philadelphia run, but maintained the frequent schedule for the convenience of the Indian nationals who supervised their investments in both cities. He leaned back in the seat for the short run. The spattered lights of the city wheeled under one wing. The other two pa.s.sengers were a pair of Madra.s.si businessmen. They conversed in Hindi and Dake could catch words now and then, enough to know that they were talking about the Philadelphia branch of the Bank of India. He could never quite become accustomed to being considered by the Pak-Indians a second-cla.s.s citizen. Toynbee had coldly outlined the ecology of civilizations. The great wheel had turned slowly, and the East was once again the new fountainhead of vitality. Their discrimination was subtle, but implacable. In major cities Indian clubs had been established. Americans could be taken there as guests, but were forbidden membership. There had been a fad when American women had begun to wear saris, to make imitation caste marks on their foreheads. The Pak-Indian Amba.s.sador had called on the President. Saris disappeared from the shops. Fashion magazines hinted that caste marks were crude, even rude. Everyone was happy again. For a time it had been possible to emigrate to India, that new land of opportunity. But so many had taken advantage of it that restrictions became very tight, and it was still possible, but very very difficult to manage, involving a large cash bond. Though the war of the seventies had done much to alleviate racial tension in the States, there had still been small though influential Negro groups who had joyously welcomed the dominance of a dark-skinned race in world affairs. They had soon found, to their dismay, that the Pak-Indians were supremely conscious of being, in truth, an Aryan race, and brought to any dealings with the Negro that vast legacy of hatred from the years of tension in Fiji, culminating in the interracial wars. Of Pak-India proper, only Ceylon had any percentage mixture of Negro blood, due to the African invasions of ancient years, but Ceylon was to Pak-India much as Puerto Rico had been to the United States prior to Brazilian annexation. Indians would treat you with courtesy, even with affability, but in any conversation with them you could detect, running like a symphonic theme through the orchestration of words, their conviction that you were a citizen of a decadent nation, one that had gone beyond its peak of influence in world affairs, one that was doomed to the inevitable status of a supplicant nation, free in name only. We had it, he thought, and we threw it away. We ripped our iron and coal and oil out of the warm earth, used our copper and our forests and the rich topsoil, and hurled it all at our enemies, and conquered them, and were left at last with the empty ravaged land. How could it have been avoided? What could we have done that we did not do? Should we have used that great moment of momentum in 1945, well over thirty years ago, and gone on to take over the planet? Should we have dropped the sword, misered our resources, and succ.u.mbed meekly during the increasing pressures of the middle sixties? How did it come about that any step we could take was wrong, that every course open to us was but a different road to a different cla.s.sification of disaster? England had been dying too-just a few scant years ahead of us in the inexorable schedule, yet we had been unable to learn from her defeats, unable to cut a new channel. It was almost, he thought, as though there was some unanswerable paradox against which every world power must inevitably run and collapse. Some cold and alien influence in the world, breaking the hearts of men. Or perhaps it is all merely our own stupidity. Our blindnesses. Our inability to see and comprehend the obvious. Perhaps we are all like Darwin Branson. Able for a time-even for a sustained length of time-to influence our environment for good, yet always failing somehow in that last crucial moment. As Branson had failed when the blindness came over him. He wondered what Patrice would say. He dreaded seeing her. Her love was a contradiction. She seemed capable of loving every aspect of him as a human being except his final, innermost motivation. Unscathed Philadelphia had its standard joke about itself. When, during the war, many of the executive branches of government had to be evacuated to Philadelphia, and when the city itself was not bombed, the Philadelphians proclaimed that the enemy had been smart enough to realize that by obliterating all the red tape, they would be helping the U. S. instead of hurting it. The air of immunity had carried over into the present time of fear. There was less underground construction here than elsewhere. It was a prim, old-lady city, walking through the mud with its skirts carefully held up, not too daringly, and with a wise and knowing air as though that old lady, in her almost forgotten youth, had raised a bit of forbidden h.e.l.l. Deceleration thrust him forward against the straps, and ten minutes later he was in a wheezing, clattering taxi headed toward Patrice's unexpectedly modest home near Upper Darby. Patrice's father had died in '71 just one week and two days before the pa.s.sage of the hundred percent inheritance tax bill. His fortune had its beginnings back when the original Gundar Togelson had been pirating oil land from Mellon. Each Togelson since then had increased it until the late sixties when the capital gains tax was revised to take seventy percent of all capital gains. After inheritance taxes, Patrice, in addition to maximum gifts each year her father was alive, inherited about five and a half millions. At the present time it was nearly the last fortune left relatively intact, inside the country. Under the impact of the coi fiscatory taxes many people had managed to emigrate with their funds to economically sunnier lands, just as the socialist government in England had driven many private fortunes to Bermuda and elsewhere. Patrice Togelson, a tall, warmly built Viking girl, had brought to Dake a deep, earthy, physical need. Yet he knew that in the management of her money she was like flint, and like quicksilver. Like flint in her calculating hardness. Like quicksilver in her ability to detect the tiniest loopholes, slide through them. They had met after he had taken a casual swipe at her in his column, criticizing her for buying into an Indian land deal to take advantage of the tax concessions Washington had given the investment of Indian capital. Patrice had appeared in his office at the Bulletin the next morning, blue eyes like ice, jaw set, hair a bright flow of autumn barley. She had leaned both fists on his desk, b.r.e.a.s.t.s lifting with the deep breathing of her controlled anger. "You, my friend, are out of your depth this time," she said. "And you, lady, are an anachronism. You are a female pirate. You are a con artist." "You cost me more money yesterday than you'll make in your whole life." "Then the least I can do is buy your lunch." They glared at each other, grinned suddenly, laughed aloud and went out together. It had been at first a good friendship, even though their personal philosophies were poles apart. For two basically aloof people, it had been a warmth of friendship that had quite astonished them. They found they laughed more often when they were together. One night, in front of the November fireplace in her small home, he had kissed her, expecting it to be casual, finding it to be shockingly hungry. They were friends, and they became lovers without losing all of friendship. She was almost six feet tall, yet built in perfect feminine scale. They laughed about being in a world too small for them. They did not use the word "love" or the word "marriage." They were faithful to each other without perceptible effort. They were discreet in an age that jeered at discretion. For a time their physical preoccupation with each other became obsessive, but when they recognized the danger of that, recognized the weakness of it, they fought free of it into a relationship which was rather like that of two semi-alcoholics who would excuse themselves for an infrequent three-day bender. Together they acquired a sixth sense about what subjects to avoid. They knew that they were two proud, strong, dominant people, who happened to believe in different things. There was too much artillery they could bring to bear on each other. It was enough for him to see the morning sun in the warmth of her hair, hear fond laughter in her throat, hold her through her quickened times of completion. The inevitable blowup came when he told her why he was taking a "leave of absence." It had been an unpleasant scene. Even as they fought, neither of them retreating a step, he guessed that she too was aware of the loneliness to come, the empty aching nights. The taxi driver examined the tip, grunting something that could have been thanks, and clattered off. Dake went up the walk, knowing that no fortress was ever as well protected as this house, this small tidy house, knowing that by breaking the infra-red beams he had become target. He stood on the porch, waiting. The door was suddenly opened by the pretty j.a.panese maid, who gave him a gold-toothed smile and said, as though he had visited there yesterday, "Good evening, Mr. Lorin." "Evening. Does . . ." "She knows you are here, sir. She will be right down. A brandy, sir? I'll bring it to you in the study." He was amused. The study was for business transactions. The lounge-living room was for friends. He wondered if Patrice were prescient. Simpler than that, perhaps. She knew him well. She knew his inflexibility. And so she would know that this was not a personal call. He sat in one of the deep leather chairs. The maid brought the brandy, an ancient bottle, and two bell gla.s.ses on a black tray. She put them on the small table beside his chair, and left without a sound. When he heard Patrice's distinctive step he stood up quickly and smiled at her as she came into the study. Her smile was warmer than he expected. As always, she had that remembered look of being larger than life size, more vital. She wore dark red tailored slacks, a matching halter. "Quite a tan, Patrice," he said. "I got back from Acapulco yesterday." "Pleasure trip?" he asked wryly, her hands warm and firm in his. She made a face. "A good buy. Hotel property." "With your Indian pals?" "Uh uh. Some Brazilian pals this time." "Both ends against the middle, Patrice?" "Of course. How else does a girl get along?" She inspected him, her head tilted to one side. "You look gaunter, darling. Hollow-eyed. I bet your ribs show." "The strain of being a do-gooder." "Aren't we being just a little bit too nasty nice to each other?" She held her hand up, thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "Just that much brandy, please. Would I look too severe if I sat at the desk?" "Not if it's where your checkbook is." She bit her lip. "This could be interesting, couldn't it?" She seated herself behind the desk. He took her the brandy, went back to the deep chair. She sipped, watching him over the rim. She set the gla.s.s down and said, "I have a feeling we're going to spar, and it might be nasty, and before we spoil each other's dispositions, I want to say something. I've had a year to plan just exactly how I should say it just this, Dake. I've missed you. Quite horribly. I wanted, and tried, to buy you and put you in stock. It didn't work. I've been going around rationalizing it, telling myself that if you could be purchased, I wouldn't want you. But I'm not that way. I wish you could be. I wish you had sense enough to be. Life has plenty of meaning without you. It had more when you were around. I miss that increment. I'm a selfish, hard-fisted, dominating woman, and if there's any way I can acquire you permanently, I'm going to do it." "Okay, Patrice. Equal candor. I've missed you. I've wished that either you or I could bend a little without breaking. But I know that's like wishing for the moon. We were fine until we got into a sc.r.a.p about pretty basic things. Things like selfishness, like human dignity." "My world, Dake, is a pig pen. The smartest greediest pig gets the most corn." "My world is a place where there's hope." "But we both seem to be living in my world, don't we? Now tell me why you look haunted, and miserable, and . . . sick at heart, Dake." He told her. She had the knack of listening with an absolute stillness, of applying her intense awareness to the problem at hand. He told her all of it, up to and including Kelly. "And so you came to me." "Asking for sixty thousand dollars. Maybe you can write it off as a charity." "I don't believe in what you're trying to do." "I don't expect you to. I'm begging." "For old time's sake. Isn't that the tritest phrase in the world?" She opened a drawer, selected a checkbook, scrawled a check, tore it out. She sat, her chin balanced on her fist, waving the check slowly back and forth. "I don't make gifts, Dake. I make deals." "I had a hunch it wasn't going to be that simple." "You can have this check. Once that stuff hits the streets, you're going to think a building fell on you. It is going to cost me half as much again to argue the Board into letting you run around loose. Then I'll give you thirty days' wait for the impact of what you write. If nothing happens, and I am certain nothing will, you will be the one to bend a little. You will try to accept the world on its own terms. And accept me along with it, Dake." "Then it is a purchase, after all?" "How much pride do you leave a lady?" "How much pride do you leave me?" he asked harshly. "Okay. Accept the fact that I'm a monomaniac. If what I want to do fails, I'll try something else." "Little boy with a tin bugle, waking up all the forces of decency in the world. Look, people! The cow's in the meadow, the sheep's in the corn!" "I don't know how to say this. A man does . . . what he has to do." "And it it's an obsession? If it's something with its roots imbedded in a childhood catastrophe? Should he continue to destroy himself? Or try to effect a cure?" "That's almost what Branson said to me." "You told me very emphatically that he was a G.o.d walking the earth. It looks as if he remained a G.o.d to you until he questioned your . . . sanity. And then he became a monster. Personally I like his angle of snuggling up to Irania. India has been moving too fast. It balances things off a bit." "And gives us more tension, a bigger load of fear." "Gives mankind as a whole more fear. I'm an individual. I take my own pride in being able to take care of myself." "Anarchy?" "Why not? That is, if you are faster and have bigger teeth than your neighbor?" "We can't talk at all. We never could. We never will." Her face softened. "Oh, Dake. We did talk. Lots." He sighed. "I know. Sometimes it seems as if we're . . . such a d.a.m.n miserable waste of each other." She put the check on the corner of the desk within his reach. "It's on a rupee account in a branch of the Bank of India. Need it certified?" . "No. I can cash it. No deal then? No bargain?" She looked down at her folded hands. A strand of the soft hair swung forward, shining gold in the lamplight "No deal, Dake. I guess it's for ... old time's sake." He put the check in his wallet. "Thanks, Patrice. I thought you'd be ... a lot tougher." She lifted her head. "I was going to be." "Anyway, I appreciate it." She stood up quickly, came to him, sat on the arm of the deep leather chair, leaned against him, her arm around his shoulders. Her smile was crooked, and looked as though it hurt a bit. "I'm like your Darwin Branson," she whispered. He looked up at her. "What do you mean?" She turned away, oddly shy. "I'm practical. I, too, am willing to settle for ... half a loaf." He took her shoulders, turned her, pulled her back into his lap. Her hair had a clean spicy scent. Her lips were on holiday, from the long year apart. She kissed him with her eyes wide, blue, and terribly near in the lamplight

CHAPTER FOUR.

Kelly licked his thumb again, winked at Dake, and continued to count. "Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. Thirty thousand happy rupees. The page is yours. Got it with you?" "I want to borrow an office and a typewriter, Kelly. Ill work the rest of the day and have it for you sometime tomorrow afternoon." "It will be in Thursday's edition, then." "I want a proof drawn on it, and a chance to check it before you lock it up." "At the moment you are my favorite man in all the world. Anything you say." "And I want a receipt, Kelly." The man scrubbed his red chin with a big knuckle. "My boy, you bring up a fascinating point. Indeed you do. Now we're both men of the world. How would it be if I give you a receipt for fifteen thousand? It would ease my tax picture considerable." "Thirty thousand." "Let's split the difference. I'll give you back . . . say, two thousand, and a receipt for twenty. We both gain that way." "Suit yourself," Dake said wearily. "Just show me where I can work." "I knew you were a sensible man when I laid eyes on you. Let me see. I can't give you Carter's place. The murals would keep your mind off your work. Come on. I know where I can put you." The office was small, and it hadn't been dusted in a long time. The typewriter looked adequate. Dake tried it, using his gunfire four-finger technique. Kelly walked out, whistling. Dake shucked his coat, tossed it on the couch. He poked his hat back onto the back of his head, laid his cigarettes beside the machine, and pondered a lead. He tried a few and tore them up. Finally he found one he was satisfied with: "This week humanity booted the ball again. It was an infield error. The shadows stretch long across the diamond. The long game is drawing to a close. Death is on the mount. He threw one that President Enfield got a piece of. Enfield's. .h.i.t put Darwin Branson on third. He had a chance to come home. He ran nicely most of the way to the plate, and then faltered. They put the tag on him. 'Yer-rout!' yelled the celestial umpire. "Now we're waiting for another decision. We're waiting to find out whether that was the third and last out, retiring the side. We stand in the long shadows, in the hopelessness of an emptying park, waiting to find out if our long game is over. To find out if, maybe, it is being called on account of darkness." He looked at the lines. He had a sense of destiny in him. Once in every age, man and moment meet. And the man brings to that moment some ability that sets the world afire, that brings it lurching back from that last brink of destruction. The typewriter clattered in the dusty office. He worked on at white heat, working with the sure and certain knowledge that what he was writing would lift up the hearts and hopes of men everywhere. The year of leave seemed to have heightened his facility. There was no rustiness, no groping for words, or for effect. He had it, and he was using it with the pride and a.s.surance of a man at the peak of his abilities. He ripped a sheet out, rolled a fresh one into the machine. He hit the tab set and . . . came to a shocked standstill on the shoulder of a dusty country road. He could see the countryside clearly, hear the faraway bawling of cattle. And shimmering through it, directly in front of him, he could see the keyboard of the typewriter. It was as though he co-existed in two realities, one superimposed over the other. Standing in one, sitting in the other, visions overlapping. He managed to stand up blindly and move away from the typewriter. The countryside faded and was gone. He stood at the window of the small office for a time. The experience had made him feel faint and dizzy. He grunted with disgust. This would be a h.e.l.l of a time to have the strain of the past year pile up on him and destroy his ability to work. This was, perhaps, the ultimate gamble. Lay it on the line for them. Get it all down. Dates, names, people, the delicate machinery of deals and counterdeals. Show all the men of good will how close they had come to the political and economic equivalent of the Kingdom of Heaven. Raise the old war cry of "throw the b.a.s.t.a.r.ds out!"-but this time on a global scale. Pray that copies of the article would be pirated, smuggled through the fine mesh nets of censorship. Patrice, with her "me for me" philosophy could never understand how a man could stake his life on one turn of the card, if he believed in the card. A man could have a sense of destiny -believe in his heart that he could manufacture a pivot-point for the world to turn on. Let us have no more double vision. No time to go mad. He went back and sat down at the typewriter again, reread his lead, and found it good. He raised his hands a bit above the keys and stopped, shut his eyes hard. Each key had turned into a tiny reproduction of Patrice's face. With his eyes still shut he put his fingers on the keys, felt the softness of tiny faces under the pads of his fingers. He opened his eyes and looked at the paper in the machine. He began to type and stopped, as horror welled up to the point of nausea. His fingers were bloodied and the little faces were smashed, and he had heard the tiny cries, the rending of tissue. Sweating, he wiped his hands on his thighs as he stood up, knocking the chair over. He stood with his back to the machine and tightened his muscles until his shoulders ached. He looked cautiously at his fingertips. The blood was gone. Hallucination, then. A minor madness. He thought it out objectively. Self-preservation, probably. Trying to save the organism from disaster. A glandular revolt against dissolution. He looked cautiously over his shoulder. The typewriter was sane, normal, familiar. He sat down and began to type. His thoughts were fluent. His fingers could hardly keep up. He tore the second sheet out of the machine and read it. "And so it is a baseball game and game and never the over of the now and the then and given. Tender and mathew and meatloaf the underside twisteth of the die and the perish now. All ye who enter can frenzied the window savior . . ." The whole page was like that. Gibberish. Insanity. The stream of consciousness of an idiot who remembers words but has lost their meaning. He tried again, writing more slowly. It was no good. He found a pencil in the table drawer. He took one of the copy sheets and tried to write. The pencil became too hot to hold. He examined blisters on his hand which faded even as he looked at them. The paper curled into flame, and he slapped it out. A moment later it was un-scorched. He could no longer repress a primitive panic. He ran from the office and down the corridor, heart pumping, hands sweaty. He did not quiet down until he was on the street. And suddenly he felt like an utter d.a.m.n fool. Take a break and then go back and get it written. He walked to a small restaurant and sat at the counter and ordered coffee. The waitress was gray and surly with a p.r.o.no hangover. A tiny radio yipped like a terrier. He listened with half his mind. ". . . and late last night Darwin Branson, retired statesman and political philosopher was committed to Bronx. Psychiatric Hos------" The waitress had flipped the dial as she walked by. "Would you mind getting that station back, miss?" "Yes, I'd mind. He already gave all the news." She stood braced, ready to blow up completely if he insisted. You couldn't argue with a p.r.o.no hangover. He paid for his coffee, left the cup untouched and spent ten minutes on the corner before he could find a cab willing to take the long trip. He reached the hospital at noon. He was suspected of being a reporter and the desk tried to bar him. He produced the confidential credentials Darwin had given him. The desk reluctantly put him in contact with the resident doctor a.s.signed to the case. The doctor was young, unimaginative, and delighted with the case. "Lorin you said? Worked for him, eh? Well, I suppose you can take a look. We've been checking him most of the morning. Come on." They had Branson in a private room. A nurse was in attendance. She stood up as they came in. "Respiration is ten now, Doctor. Heart forty-four. Temperature eight-six point six." "d.a.m.ndest thing I ever saw," the doctor said in a pleased tone. "Cops brought him in last night. Found bun sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. Thought it was a p.r.o.nie first. We checked him. He was apparently conscious. But no reaction to anything. Couldn't make the pupil contract. Couldn't find a single d.a.m.n reflex." Dake stared at the silent waxy face on the pillow. The doctor said, holding out a clipboard, "Just take a look at this chart. This is one that's going to be written up. Pulse, respiration, temperature-every one heading down in a line so straight it could have been drawn by a ruler. This man is just like a machine running down." "Heart forty-two, Doctor," the nurse said softly, releasing the slack wrist. "Tried every stimulant in the books, Mr. Lorin. No dice." "What's your prognosis?" "He just doesn't react to anything. Thought of enc

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You're reading Ballroom Of The Skies. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): John MacDonald. Already has 154 views.

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