A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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7 Three months later, Bailey told Aroon he was leaving."The operation's all yours, Gus. I've got what I need. It's time to move on.""I can't figure you, kid," the older man said, shaking his heavy head. "You take chances that no other guy would touch with a chip-rake—and when they pay off, you bow out. Why not stay on? On your split you could live like a king—"Sure I could, here. But there are things that need doing that take more than a fat credit balance. I need a tag, to start with. Can you fix it?"Gus grunted. "It'll cost you a slice of that pile you've been sitting on.""That's what it's for.""Class Three Yellow about right?"Bailey shook his head. "Class One Blue.""Are you outa your mind, Bailey?" Aroon yelled. "You can't bluff your way Topside!""Why not? I bluffed my way into Preke territory.""Your roll won't carry you a week up there.""All I need is the price of admission.""Face it, Bailey. There's more to it than the loot. You don't look like a Cruster, you don't act like one. How could you? Those babies have all the best from the day they're born, the best food, the best education, the best training! They have their own way of walking and talking, sniffing flowers, making up to a frill! They've got class where it shows, and they can back it up! You can't fake it!""Who said anything about faking it, Gus? You must know the name of a reliable tapelegger.""A print man?" Aroon's voice had automatically dropped to a whisper. "Bailey, that ain't demi-chit stuff. Touch a wrong strip and it's a wiping rap!""If I'm caught.""And anyway—a good tech line is worth a fortune! You couldn't touch even a Class Two tape job for under a quarter million.""I don't want a tech education," Bailey said. "I want a background cultural fill-in—the kind they give a Cruster after a brain injury or wipe therapy.""I guess there's no need my asking why you want to load your skull with fancy stuff you'll never use, that'll never buy you a night's flop?" Gus said hoarsely."Nope. Can you put me on to a right man?""If that's the way you want it.""It's the way it's got to be for where I've got to go."Aroon nodded heavily. "I owe you that much—and a lot more. You shook this whole lousy setup to bedrock, something that needed doing for a long time." He rose. "Come on. I'll take you there.""I'll go alone, Gus. Just give me the name and address, and I'm on my way.""You don't waste much time, do you, kid?""I don't have much time to waste.""What is it you got to do that's eating at you?"Bailey frowned. "I don't know. I just know the time is short for me to do it."   8 It was a narrow, high-ceilinged room, walled with faded rose and gold paper, furnished with glossy dark antiques perched around the edge of a carpet from which the floral pattern was almost worn away. An elaborate chandelier fitted with ancient flame-shaped incandescent bulbs hung from a black iron chain. Tarnished gilt lettering winked from the cracked leather spines of books in a glass-fronted case. The man who surveyed Bailey from the depths of a curve-legged wing chair was lean, withered, with a face like a fallen soufflé. Only his eyes moved, assessing his customer."Do you have any idea what it is you're asking?" he inquired in a voice like dry leaves stirred by the wind. "Do you imagine that by absorbing from an illegally transcribed cephalotape the background appropriate to a gentleman of birth and breeding, that you will be magically transformed from your present lowly state?""Can you supply what I want, or can't you?" Bailey said patiently."I can supply a full Class One socio-cultural matrix, yes," the old man snapped. "As to providing a magical entrée into high places—""If what you've got to offer won't fill the bill, I'll be on my way." Bailey got to his feet. The old man rose quickly, stood stoop-backed, eyeing him."Why aren't you content to absorb a useful skill, a practical knowledge of a saleable trade? Why these grandiose aspirations to a place you can never fill?""That's my business," Bailey said. "Yes or no?"The old man's puckered face tightened. "You're a fool," he said. "Come with me."   9 In a back room, Bailey took a seat in a worn leather-covered reclining chair; the tapelegger clucked and muttered to himself as he attached the electrodes to Bailey's skull, referring frequently to the dials on the wheeled cart beside him. As he pressed buttons, Bailey felt the stirrings and tinglings of the neuro-electric currents induced within his brain by the teaching machine."Make no mistake," the old man told him. "The material you'll receive here will be in no way inferior to that offered in the most exclusive universities. My prints were coded direct from the masters filed at HEW Central. Once assimilated, a bootleg education is objectively indistinguishable from any other.""I'm counting on it," Bailey said. "That's why I'm paying you fifty M.""A tiny fraction of the value of what is encoded here." The 'legger weighed the reel on his palm. "The essence of a lifetime of cultured ease. This particular Trace was made by Aldig Parn, Blue One, the critic and collector. You'll have a fabulous grounding in the arts. Parn was also a Distinguished Master at the game called Reprise. You'll get it all—and much, much more. It's not been edited, you see. It's all as it came from his brain, even to personal tastes and mannerisms, all those subtleties and nuances of culture which we cut from authorized tapes.""If it's as good as that, why sell at all? Why not use it yourself?""Why?" the print man snapped. "So that I could become even more acutely aware of the horrors of life in a petrified society? I've too much education already. One day I'll present myself at Unicen for voluntary wipe and begin again as a pink tag crude-labor gangman. The solace of nepenthe.""That's not much of a sales talk," Bailey said."I'm not urging you to buy. I'd recommend a limited tech indoc, sufficient to guarantee you a yellow tag.""Never mind; I won't hold you responsible. Just be sure you watch those meters. I don't want a burned cortex for my trouble."   10 Bailey had had headaches before, but nothing like this."You'll live," the 'legger said briskly. "It was you who insisted on haste. You took it surprisingly well. Your metabolic index never dropped below .8. Rest for a few days, avoid any creative mental activity, problem solving. I don't want any blankages to mar the imprint."Bailey muttered and lay back in the chair. Through the thudding pain, a kaleidoscopic whirl of images danced; phantom voices rang in his ears against the complex shapes of abstract patterns."I don't feel any smarter," he said. "Are you sure it took?"The old man snorted. "Of course you're no more intelligent than when I began. But you'll find your mind is imprinted with a very great mass of new data. Of course, the current-status portion will be out of date by some years: the fads, catch phrases, in-group gossip of the moment. After all, I don't have access to the daily addenda. But that will hardly be of importance, I imagine."Bailey ignored the implied question. He paid off, made his way to the loft he had rented as temporary quarters. On the third day, the headache was gone. Gingerly then, he probed at his memory. Slowly at first, then more swiftly, a mass of data-concepts flowed into his awareness as the taped information swam into focus: The proper mode of address to a magistrate in a situation of formality degree five; the correct instruction to a groom when requiring disengagement from an awkward social context; the control layout of the Monojag Sport Twin, model 900; the precise gait appropriate to an unescorted entrance to a public dining salon, early evening, formality three; the names of the leading erotistes of the moment; the entry codes to clubs, the proper wardrobe combinations for this situation and that, the forty-one positions and three hundred and four strokes of the katcha-gat, the membership ritual for the Fornax Club . . . "Good enough," he murmured. He dressed and left the loft, headed for the address he had purchased for an extra M from the tapelegger.   11 It was an unprepossessing front of ancient, natural stone, a hideous dull purple in color, with steep steps and a corroded iron railing. He rapped, waited. The door was opened by a small, bandy-legged, jug-eared man with a shiny scalp and the face of an intelligent Rhesus."Yes?" the man demanded, wiping at his face with a towel draped around his stringy neck.Bailey showed a cred-card, almost fully charged."I want to see Goldblatt.""Looking at him." The small man glanced up and down Bailey's slight frame."Rehab case?" he asked doubtfully."No. I want a Maxpo course."The man jumped as if he had been jabbed in the kidneys. "You a kidder, Mister? What you think this is, Doose Center? I run a quiet house of physical fitness here, strictly on the flat—""I've got ten M's that say differently," Bailey cut in softly.Goldblatt stared. "Out," he said firmly. He put a surprisingly sinewy hand against Bailey's chest. "You got the wrong Goldblatt."Bailey took his other hand from his pocket, showed the glossy blue of the One Category tag. "Don't worry, it's faked," he said, as the gym operator jerked his hand back. "I'm showing it to you to convince you I'm in no position to call in the Bugs. I can pay for what I want."Goldblatt took a fold of Bailey's tunic in his fingers and pulled him inside, closed the door quickly, hustled him through a frowsty room where a pair of sweating men pulled listlessly at spring-loaded apparatus. In a small office he said, "What's this all about, mister?"Bailey eased half a dozen full-charge cash cards from his pocket, fanned them out. "These tell it all," he said. Goldblatt's frown lingered on the green- and blue-edged plastics."You said . . . Maxpo? What makes you think I can help you?" He shot a sharp look over Bailey's spare frame. "Or that you could handle the gaff if I could, which I'm not saying I can?""How I handle it is up to me." Bailey placed the blue tag on top of the cred-cards, offered the stack. "You hold them until the job's done."Goldblatt put up a hand, made a pushing motion. "Nix. Don't show me a fixed tag, mister." His hand reversed, became an open palm. "But maybe I could take a retainer while we talk about it."Bailey handed over the cards. "I want to start today," he said. "How long will it take?"   12 "How long it takes," Goldblatt said half an hour later, "depends on a couple of things. First, how good the equipment is." He slapped the curving metal case, like a streamlined coffin, that rested on a stand in the surprisingly clean and well-lit basement room. "And I've got the best. Private custom job, less than five years old, best circuitry a man could ask for—except no blanking circuit. You take it cold. That's how I got it cheap.""How long?" Bailey repeated the question."Second, what we got to work with," Goldblatt continued, unruffled. He rubbed his hands together. "Frankly, my friend, you offer a man a challenge." He frowned happily at Bailey's bare ribs, reached out to squeeze his thin arm above the elbow. "You look like about what we call a three: minimum normal range, about point 4 musculature, probably no better'n a five vascular rating, same for osteo—""I understand it's a fast process," Bailey said. "Can you do it in a week?"The trainer's mouth snapped open. He wagged his head in wonderment. "The ideas some people got," he said. "Forget it, mister. A week? In a week maybe you can see the first results. What you think a Maxpo is, some kind of magic trick? It's pain! Pain that will burn your heart out. Not every man can take it; not even most men. And frankly, you don't look to me like one of the tough ones. Maybe better we talk a standard toning course, two weeks and you feel like a new man—""Maxpo or nothing," Bailey said. "And in minimum time.""You know how it works, mister?" Goldblatt turned to the tank, poked a button. The top slid back, exposing a padded interior of complex shape, fitted with numerous wide web straps with polished buckles."The principle," Bailey responded instantly, "is that of selective electronically triggered isometric and isotonic contraction, coupled with appropriately neuro-synaptic stimulation and coordinated internal physiochemical environmental control. The basal somatic rhythms are encoded, brought into a phased relationship, and—""You know plenty fancy words, bub, I'll give you that," Goldblatt said wonderingly. "But what it works out to is I put a micro-filament tap into your spinal cord, right where it leaves the skull. We use the trial-and-error method for coding the motor nerves. It hurts. When I finish, all I have to do is push a button and the muscle it's wired to contracts—max contraction, more than you could trigger with the voluntary nervous system. Once I've got you wired, I slap you in the frame and strap you up rigid. The frame is articulated, so you get isotonic work along with the 'metrics. Then I work you over like one of them guys in a torture chamber, know what I mean? You'll come out of it screaming for mercy, every muscle in your body yelling for help. You'll turn black and blue all over. This goes on for a week. Then it gets worse." He shook his head. "Like I said, not many fellows can take it.""How long?""Give yourself a break, mister. A few times a year I sell a tank job, not a max but just whatever somebody needs, like a demo player is slowing down, he needs toning up fast; or some of these specialty show people, after a long layoff. And even at that—""How many hours a day do I spend inside?""A day?" Goldblatt barked. "You work day and night—that's if you're talking minimum time. But that's for lab cases, theory stuff—""We'll test the theory.""You must be in some kind of hurry, mister.""That's right. And we're wasting time."Goldblatt nodded heavily. "It's your bones that'll get bent, my friend, not mine. All right, strip down and I'll run you across the 'tab monitor and see what we got to work with."   13 The insertion of the hair-fine electrodes took three hours—three uncomfortable hours of probing in sensitive flesh with sharp-pointed metal, alternated with tingling shocks that made obscure muscles jump and quiver. At the end of it, Bailey touched the coin-sized plastic disk nestled against the base of his skull and winced."That's the easy part," Goldblatt said cheerfully. "Now we start the hard work. You know, it's funny," he rambled on as he strapped his victim in position. "They invented this device to take the will power out of physical training. What they forgot was it still takes will power to climb in under the straps, knowing what's coming.""If you scare me to death, you don't collect," Bailey said. "Those cards are no good without my prints."Goldblatt grinned. "Ready?" he asked. "Here we go."Bailey felt his right thigh twitch. He yelled as a full-fledged cramp locked to the rectus femoris—the name popped into his mind—like a red-hot clamp. The limb strained against the straps, quivering." . . . four seconds, five seconds, six seconds," Goldblatt counted off. Abruptly the pressure was gone. The pain receded."Hey," Bailey started—and yelled as his left leg jerked against the restraint. Six more endless seconds passed. Bailey lay gasping as a lever moved, flexing his knee to a new position."Cry all you want to," Goldblatt said cheerfully. "This baby works over three hundred separate muscles, max contraction, three positions. How you like it, hah? Ready to get some sense now and settle for a toner like I said to begin with?"Bailey gritted his teeth against the rubber bite protector and endured another spasm."Whatever you say, my friend," Goldblatt sighed. "Here we go again . . ." 14 "Only two and a half hours?" Bailey inquired weakly. "It seemed like two years.""You build muscle by tearing down muscle," the trainer said. "You just tore down a couple billion cells—and that hurts. But the body's a fast worker. She rebuilds—and then we tear down again. So she works faster. But she hurts. She hurts all the time. For a week. For a month. Max job? Make that three months.""That's cutting it fine," Bailey said. "Can't you rush it any?""Sure—if you want to sleep in the tank," Goldblatt said sardonically."If that's what it takes.""Are you serious? But I don't need to ask, do I? You're a man that's driven, if I ever saw one. What is it that's eating at you, young fellow? You've got a lot of life ahead of you. Slow down—""I can't," Bailey said. "Let's get started on what comes next."In the third week Bailey, out of the tank for his alter-hourly session in the treadcage, paused to look at himself in the mirror. His face was gaunt, knobbed below the jawline with unfamiliar lumps of muscle; his neck was awkwardly corded; his shoulders swelled in sinewy striations above a chest which seemed to belong to someone else."I look wrong," he said. "Misshapen. No symmetry. Out of balance.""Sure, sure. What do you expect, to start with? Some sectors respond quicker, some were in better shape. Don't worry. First we go for tone, then bulk, then definition, then balance. You're doing swell. We start coordination and dynamics next. Another sixty days and you'll look like you were born under that blue tag." He rubbed a hand over his head, eyeing Bailey. "If it wasn't so crazy, I'd think maybe that's the way you were thinking," he said."Don't think about it, Hy," Bailey said. "Just keep the pressure on."   15 On the eighty-fifth day, Hy Goldblatt looked at William Bailey and wagged his head in exaggerated wonder."If I didn't see it myself, I would never of believed it was the same man."Bailey turned this way and that, studying himself in the wall mirror. He walked a few steps, noting the automatic grace of his movements, the poise of his stance, the unconscious arrogance of his posture, the way he held his head."It'll do, Hy," he said. "Thanks for everything.""Where you going now? Why not stay on, help out in the gym? Look, I need an assistant—""Pressing business," Bailey said. "What do you know about the Apollo Club?"Goldblatt frowned. "I was in the place once, mat man for a cross-class match. Lousy. Fancy place, fancy people. You wouldn't like working there.""I might like being a member."Goldblatt stared at him. "You really think you got a chance—Dutch tag and all?"Bailey turned, gave the trainer an imperious glare. "Are you questioning me?" he asked in a steely tone. Goldblatt stiffened; then he grinned wryly at Bailey's mocking smile."Maybe you do at that," he said.   16 Bailey devoted the next few hours to ablutions: a vacuum-and-pressure steam bath, mani- and pedicure, depilation, tonsure, skin toning and UV, bacterial purge. Then he turned his attention to costume.The clothes he picked were far from new; but they had been handcut from woven fabric, rich and elegant. Bailey bought them from a doddering ancient whose hand shook with paralysis agitans until the moment when the scissors touched the cloth."You don't see goods like this anymore," the old tailor stated in his frail whisper. "Heat-seal plastics, throwaways, trash. Nothing like this." He wagged his hairless skull, holding the tunic against Bailey's chest."Where'd you get them?""They were found on a corpse," the tailor said. "They brought them to me. Dead men's clothes. Bad business. Man should be decently buried. But they don't even get that nowadays, eh? Into the converter. Save the chemicals. As if a man was no more than a heap of fertilizer. No respect. That's what's gone wrong. No respect.""How far out of the current style is this outfit?""Cutting like this doesn't go out of style," the dodderer said sharply. "People don't understand that. Trash, yes; flash today, junk tomorrow. But quality—real quality—it endures. In this clothing you could be at home anyplace. Nobody could fault you. Of the finest."   17 It was almost dark when Bailey left the shop swinging his swagger stick, his newly altered garments snugged to his new body with a feel he had never known before. People on the sidewalk eyed him aslant and slid aside. In a dark shop with a smell of conspiracy he made a purchase.Once out of sight on the utility stair, he clipped his bogus blue tag in place, checked his credit code: a charge of eight and a half M remained on the plastic: enough to live for a couple of years below-decks, he reflected—or to buy an adequate evening up above.Attached to the steel gate barring access to Threevee Mall was a yard-high sign reading DEATH PENALTY FOR TRESPASS. Bailey pounded on it. In less than a minute the panel slid back to reveal a pair of Greenbacks, slammers leveled at belt-buckle height. Their jaws sagged as Bailey strolled through the forbidden gate."It's all right, Leftenant," he said to the corporal, and pushed the still-aimed gun barrel aside with a well-groomed finger. "Clear a path for me, there's a good fellow."The Peaceman made a gobbling sound. "B—how . . . why . . ." He recovered a portion of his wits with an effort. "M'lord, that gate is interdicted—""And a good thing, too." Bailey's eye flicked to the man's tag number. "I'll mention your prompt action to Father—" He smiled with just the proper degree of guilt. "In another connection, of course. Wouldn't do for his Lordship to guess where I've been amusing myself. Shall we go now? I reek of the Quarters." Without waiting for assent, he started toward the wall of gaping passers-by. At a yell from the Greenbacks, they faded aside. Smiling a negligent smile, Bailey preceded his escort toward the lighted entry to the high-speed lift marked BLUE ONE.   18 The Peacemen cleared half a dozen passengers from the car to make room for Bailey. As the lift rocketed upward, he felt their eyes on him, hostile but cautious. At each intermediate level people crowded off against the flow of others crowding on, but the space around Bailey remained clear; no one jostled him. A pair of Peacemen made a swift tag check at the final stop before the car entered Doose territory; they evicted a protesting burgher with an overdate visa, gave Bailey and one other man respectful finger touches to their helmet visors. Nearly empty now, the car continued upward. By the fourth stop only Bailey and the man the police had saluted remained. The latter was tall, erect, silver-haired, with ruddy skin, dressed in austere gray with silver piping. He glanced not quite at Bailey's eyes, murmured words which at first Bailey failed to understand: a formalized greeting, proper for strangers of approximately equal rank, indicating a degree of tolerant impatience with a shared inconvenience. Bailey made the appropriate response. The tall man's eyes flickered over him more boldly now. He touched the silvered panel on the wall. The car sighed to a stop. Bailey tensed."Special party. Tonight, twenty-four-thirty, Danzil's terrace. Kindred spirits. Do come." The words emerged in a breathless rush. Suddenly Bailey felt himself blushing as he understood the implications of the invitation. Muscles jumped in his arms as his fists tensed. He caught himself as his mouth opened."What a pity," he said easily. "I'm committed to some sort of rummage at Balali's. Tedious, but . . ." As he spoke, another idea formed. "Of course, earlier on . . ." he said suggestively."My club," the gray man said quickly."What club would that be?""Trident," the tall man said eagerly. "Willowinter. And of course, Apollo.""I've never seen the Apollo," Bailey said roguishly."It's not the Fornax," his new acquaintance said, rolling his eyes. "But it has its charms.""Suppose we say—at twenty-two hours . . . ?""Splendid!"The tall man pressed the plate; the car slid upward. His eyes held on Bailey, glistening. At the next intermediate, he stepped off, turned to face him. He shivered."The excitement," he hissed. "Don't be late—and if you should be early, call for my man Wilf . . ." The door closed on his eager expression. Bailey grimaced."Just so you're not early," he said as the car shot upward, to halt half a minute later at Level Blue One.   19 Two impeccably groomed attendants—Special Detail Peacemen, Bailey knew—glanced pleasantly at him as he stepped from the car into the soft gleam of a twilit evening on a quiet, curving, tree-lined avenue. With an effort he restrained himself from staring like a yokel at the green, leafy boughs through which the lamps shone on the smooth lawn edging the white pavement—and at the shining pinnacle of the Blue Tower looming five thousand feet sheer above the spotlessly clear dome, against the wide sky of purple and gold."Pleasant evening, sir," one of the two watchdogs said. He appeared to be doing nothing but smiling respectfully, but Bailey was aware that his fingers, diplomatically out of sight behind his back, were touching a key which would cause Bailey's counterfeit tag to be electronically scanned and its coded ident symbol transmitted to a local control station and checked for authenticity. He also knew that the false tag would easily pass this test but that on the ten-hours recap—in six more hours—against the master curve, the deception would be caught. A dummy tag, proof against visual examination, would have cost no more than a hundred Q's as against the ten M price tag of the model he wore, but the investment had bought him three hundred and sixty minutes of freedom on Level Blue One. It was worth it. With a casual nod, Bailey brushed past the guards, lifted a finger to summon the heli whose operator had been dozing at the curb. Sinking back in the contoured seat, he directed the man to take him to the Apollo."Surface," he added. "Briskly, but not breakneck, you understand."In spite of himself, his heart was beginning to thump now with a gathering sense of anticipation. It was not too late, still, to turn back. But once he set foot inside the Apollo Club, the lightest penalty he could hope for if apprehended was a clean cortical wipe and retraining to gangman. The thought flickered and was forgotten. The business at hand outweighed all else. Already, Bailey's mind had leaped ahead to the next stage of the adventure. It was a long way from street level to the penthouse of the Blue Tower; but when the moment came, he would know what to do.   20 The doorman at the Apollo Club stepped smoothly forward as Bailey came up the wide steps between the white columns. With an easy gesture, Bailey flipped up his swagger stick in a seemingly casual swing which would have jabbed the attendant in the navel if he had continued his glide into Bailey's path. As the man checked, Bailey was past him."Send Wilf along, smartly now," Bailey ordered as the doorman, recovering his aplomb with an effort, fell in at his left and half a pace to the rear."Wilf? Why, I believe Wilf is off the premises at the moment, sir. Ah, sir, if I might inquire—""Then get him on the premises at once!" Bailey said sharply, and cut abruptly to his right, causing the fellow to scramble again to overtake him. He gave the man a critical glance. "Have you been popping on duty, my man?""Wha—no, no indeed, sir, indeed not, m'lord!""Good. Then be off with you." Bailey made shooing motions. The man gulped and hurried away. Bailey went down shallow steps into a long unoccupied room where soft lights sprang up at his entry. At the autobar, he punched a Mist Devil, sipped the deceptively smooth, purple liquor, simultaneously wondering at its subtle flavor and savoring it with familiar delight.There were pictures on the wall, gaudy patterned space work for the most part, with here and there an acceptable early perforationist piece incongruous among the shallow daubs that flanked it. Bailey found himself clucking in disapproval. He turned as soft footfalls sounded behind him. A small, dapper man was hurrying toward him across the wide rug, a small, crooked smile on his narrow face. He bobbed his head almost perfunctorily."Wilf to serve you, sir," he piped in an elfin voice."I'm Jannock," Bailey said pleasantly. "I have some minutes to dispose of. I was told you'd show me about.""A privilege, sir." Wilf glanced at the painting before which Bailey was standing. "I see you admire the work of Plinisse," he said. "The club has been fortunate enough to acquire a number—""Frightful stuff," Bailey said flatly. "You've a few decent Zanskis, badly hung and lighted."Wilf gave him an alert glance. "Candidly, I agree, sir—if you'll forgive the presumption.""Suppose we take a look at your famous gaming rooms," Bailey said patronizingly."Of course." The little man led the way through a wide court with an illuminated fountain of dyed water, along a gallery with a vertiginous view of dark forest land far below—whether genuine or a projection, Bailey didn't know."There are few members about so early, sir," Wilf said as they entered the garishly decorated hall for which the Apollo was famous. Chromatic light dazzled and glittered from scores of elaborate gambling machines, perched tall and intricate on the deep-rugged floor. A few men in modishly-cut garb lounged at the bar. Couples were seated at a handful of the tables on the raised dais at the far end of the room. Soft, plaintive music issued from an invisible source.Genuinely fascinated, Bailey circled the nearest apparatus, studying the polished convolutions of the spiral track along which a glass ball rolled at a speed determined by the player. The object, he knew, was to cause the missile to leap the groove at the correct moment to place it in the pay-off slot of the disk rotating below it—the disk also being controlled by the player. The knowledge flashed into Bailey's mind that hundreds of M's changed hands every minute the device was in play."Looks simple enough," he said."Do you think so?" a bland voice spoke almost at his elbow. A man of middle age—perhaps over a hundred, being a Cruster, Bailey guessed—smiled gently at him."Sir Dovo," Wilf introduced the newcomer. "Sir Jannock, guest of Lord Encino."Bailey inclined his head to precisely the correct angle. "Enchanted, indeed, Sir Dovo. And indeed I do think so.""You've played Flan before, Sir Jannock?"Bailey/Jannock smiled indulgently. "Never. My taste has been for games of a more challenging character.""So? Perhaps Flan would prove more diverting than you suspect?""I could hardly refuse so intriguing an invitation," Bailey said with apparent casualness and waited tensely for the response."Excellent," Dovo said with hardly perceptible hesitation. "May I explain the play?" He turned to the machine, quickly outlined the method of controlling the strength of the electrostatic field, the scoring of the hits on the coded areas of the slowly spinning disk. He called for a croupier, keyed the machine into action, made a few demonstration runs, then watched with a slight smile as Bailey took his practice shots, with obvious lack of skill."Suppose we set the stakes at a token amount," Dovo suggested in a tone which might have been either patronizing or cynical. Bailey nodded."An M per point?""Oh, let's say ten M, shall we?" Dovo smiled indulgently. Bailey, remembering his credit balance, managed to keep his expression bland."Under the circumstances, this being my first visit, I should prefer that the stakes be purely symbolic," he said. Dovo inclined his head in a way that almost—but not quite—suggested a touch of contempt."Perhaps your confidence has lost its initial fervor," he said with an apparently frank smile."As a stranger to you, Sir Dovo, I should dislike to take any considerable sum from you," Bailey replied tartly."As you wish; shall we begin?"Bailey played first, managed to lodge the ball in a chartreuse pocket marked zan. Dovo, with apparent ease, dislodged the marker, sending it to a white cup marked nolo, while his own came to rest in the gold-lined rey. Bailey missed the disk completely, occasioning some good-humored banter, and necessitating the opening of the locked case by a steward, and manual return of the ball to the play area. The double penalty thus incurred left him with four and a half M.Playing first again, he managed to score a yellow nex, only to see Dovo casually drop his marker into the adjacent slot, thus scoring a triple bonus. Bailey made a disgusted sound."This is no exercise for a man of wit," he complained in a manner which fell just short of boorishness."I fail in my duty as host," Dovo said in a smooth tone. "Perhaps some other game to while away the time until the arrival of your, ah"—he smiled thinly—"of Lord Encino.""No need to bother," Bailey said shortly."The Zoop tower? A set or two of Whirl? Or perhaps you'd find Slam more suited to your mood . . .""Candidly, Sir Dovo, I find these toys tedious." Bailey dismissed the entire roomful of gambling machines with an airy wave of his hand, turning away as if to leave the room. At once, Dovo's voice reached after him."Surely, Sir Jannock, you'll allow me the opportunity to reinstate the club in your good graces by offering you play suitable to a gentleman of your undoubted talents?" There was an unmistakable trace of sarcasm in his tone.Bailey turned. "My esteem for your delightful club remains as high as ever," he said acidly. "I'm grateful for your concern, but—""If it's intellectual exercise you crave, possibly a quarter or two of shan-shan with Sir Drace, our club master, might serve." Dovo's tone was plainly badgering now. There were knowing smiles on the smooth, handsomely chiseled faces around him. Wilf hovered at Bailey's elbow, making small, distressed sounds."I dislike shan-shan intensely," Bailey said disdainfully, starting on. "Superficial.""A round of Tri-chess, then. Our membership includes a former grand champion who might offer some slight challenge. Or perhaps a set of Parallel. Or a flutter of Ten-deck." Other voices chimed in with suggestions. "What about a heptet of Reprise?" someone called. Bailey halted, turned slowly, as if brought to bay. Maliciously smiling faces gazed comfortably at him, enjoying the moment's diversion, waiting to savor whatever parting shot he might muster."Reprise?" he said."Why, yes," Dovo bobbed his head. "Have I succeeded in intriguing you? Or is it, too, numbered among these disciplines not favored with your approval?"Bailey let the silence lengthen. Reprise, the knowledge came into his mind, was a game for the select few who had devoted a lifetime to its mastery. Even to learn the basic moves of the seventy-seven pieces required a year of intensive study. The recording and encephalotape transmission of such a skill was a serious crime. But he, thanks to the deft fingers of a tapelegger, had it all . . . "I find Reprise a most delightful pastime," he said loftily. "I should very much enjoy a set."Dovo looked blank. With an effort, he hitched a smile of sorts back in place. "Excellent," he said in a strained voice, turning to the man beside him. "Barlin, perhaps you'd be so good as to oblige Sir Jannock—""I had assumed, Sir Dovo, that you yourself would honor me," Bailey said. "Or perhaps you have a previous engagement at the Zoop tower." It was his turn to smile knowingly."Very well," Dovo said shortly. "I'll oblige you."   21 There was a surf murmur of chatter as Bailey took the seat offered him before a yard-cube wire construction scattered through with colored glass beads which glowed to sudden brilliance as Dovo activated the board. Each of the nexi, as the beads were called, could be moved according to a complex code of interrelating rules. The object of the game was to achieve a configuration which outranked the opposing one, again in consonance with an elaborate structure of interlocking taboos, prohibitions, and compulsions. With a part of his mind, Bailey stared dazedly at the incomprehensible flash and glitter as Dovo took up his initial grouping; but another part of his brain observed with mild amusement the naïveté of the other's elementary classroom opening."For an M per point, as before?" he inquired innocently."Come now, Sir Jannock," Dovo snapped. "For an aficionado of your attainments, one hundred M should not be excessive.""Very well," Bailey said casually. "Will you open?" He smiled, conceding the prized advantage to his opponent. Dovo nodded shortly and after a moment's hesitation, made a clumsy approche à droit, technically legal enough, in that each of the forty-one nexi he put into play moved within their statutory limits; but pathetically inept in the aimlessness of the positioning. Bailey felt his hands move almost without volition, moving over the charged plate, shifting the beads en gestalt into a graceful spiral which twined among and around Dovo's hapless line-up. The latter stared for a long moment at the cage; his hands twitched toward the plate, twitched back. He looked up to meet Bailey's eyes."Why, I . . . I'm englobed," he choked. "In one!"A surprised murmur rose, became a patter of applause. Cries of congratulation rang. Dovo smiled ruefully across at Bailey."Neatly done," he said. "Masterfully played." He smiled now with genuine warmth. He referred, Bailey/Jannock knew, not only to the smashing victory at the cage, but to the entire finesse, from the moment of Bailey's entry into the room. Boredom had, for the moment, been dispelled—the greatest service one could perform for the members of the Apollo Club.Bailey relaxed, grinning in a way appropriate to a successful practical joker. "No more masterfully than you abolished me at Flan, Sir Dovo."The latter handed over a gold-edged cred-card, glowing with the full charge of one hundred thousand Q's. Bailey waved it away. "Add it to the sweepfund," he said carelessly, a gesture calculated to lay at rest any lingering suspicion of shady motivations on his part.Smiling in a relaxed way, he listened to the chatter around him, gauging the correct moment for the proposal to which the elaborate farce had been the preliminary . . . There was a stir at the outer fringe of the crowd. A square-chinned, clean-cut man appeared, followed by a sleek, round-faced member in baroque robes, his figure as near to corpulent as Crust social pressure would allow."Sir Dovo, Sir Jannock—a bit of luck! I found Sir Swithin just passing through the atrium; I mentioned our guest's clever ploy . . .""Swithin!" Dovo ducked his head. "A stroke of fortune indeed! Perhaps you're acquainted with our young friend, Sir Jannock . . . ?"The new arrival looked Bailey over coolly. Bailey wondered what version of the incident he had heard. "No, I've not met this young man. Which surprises me." Swithin had a buttery, self-indulgent voice. He glanced at the cage where the nexi still glowed in the end-game positions. "I was under the impression I knew the entire cadre of the gaming fraternity," he said somewhat doubtfully."I'm not a ranked Reprisist," Bailey said. "I play only for my own amusement."Swithin nodded, giving the cage a final glance. "Interesting," he said. "Perhaps you'll honor me . . . ?" Without waiting for assent, he plopped himself in the chair Dovo had vacated. With a flick of his hand he returned the nexi to starting line-up and looked at Bailey expectantly.Bailey hesitated, then sat down. "The honor is mine," he said. "But one condition . . . token stakes only."Swithin shot him a startled look, his lower lip thrust out. "What's that? Token stakes? Am I to understand—""Having just taken a hundred M from me at one move, Sir Jannock is naturally desirous of not appearing greedy," Dovo spoke up quickly.Swithin grunted, brushed the plate with his plump, jeweled fingers, sending the glowing beads darting to positions scattered apparently at random throughout the playing frame. But it was only to the uninitiated, Bailey/Jannock saw at a glance, that the move seemed capricious. Swithin had taken up a well-nigh impregnable stance, each one of the seventy-seven nexi perfectly placed in an optimum relationship to all the others—a complex move of which only a master player would be capable. But a move which carried within it a concomitant weakness. Once broached in the smallest particular, Swithin's complex structure would collapse into meaningless sub-groupings. It was a win-or-lose gambit; an attempt to smash him at one blow, as he himself had smashed Dovo's pathetic opening.Bailey pretended to study the layout gravely, while a murmur passed through the spectators. Swithin sat back, his features as expressionless as a paw-licking cat. Hesitantly, Bailey-Jannock touched his plate. There was a seemingly trivial readjustment of nexi in east dexter chief. Swithin glanced up in surprise, as if about to question whether the minor shift were indeed Bailey's only reply. Then he checked, looked again at the cage. Slowly, the color drained from his face. He ducked his head stiffly."Well played, sir," he said in a strained tone."What is it?" "I don't understand?" "What are they waiting for?" The remarks died away as Swithin cleared the cage.Only then did noise burst out as the watchers realized what they had seen. Dovo beamed proudly on his new discovery as Swithin glowered. Reports that the club champion had been beaten in one lightning move were being relayed quite audibly across the room."Once again, sir?" the plump man said harshly. "For an adequate stake this time.""If you will," Bailey/Jannock said pleasantly. It was his opening now, a distinct advantage. Swithin drew a sharp breath as it dawned on him how neatly he had been ployed into throwing away his own opening on a flashy but unsound attack. "Would one thousand M seem about right?" Bailey inquired in the same easy tone.The talk died as if guillotined. A thousand M was high stakes even here."Sir, you—" Swithin began, but Bailey cut in smoothly; "But actually, I'd prefer to keep our play on a purely friendly basis. After all, as an unranked dabbler, I'm being most presumptuous in taking a seat against you."The challenge was unmistakable—and unrefusable. Swithin, still pale, but calm, nodded jerkily. "Done. Proceed, sir."Bailey stroked the plate; the glowing beads leaped through half a dozen graceful configurations to end in starting position. Another apparently careless brush of his fingers, and they snapped into a branched formation of deceptive simplicity. Swithin frowned, drew out his nexi into a demi-rebut, a congruent array, paralleling Bailey's, a move of caution: Swithin would not be taken again on the same hook. Bailey extended pseudopodia in fess, dexter, and sinister, with a balancing tendril curling away in south nombril, thus forcing his opponent to abandon his echoic stance. Swithin, required to make his move in the same time required by the opener, fell back on an awkward deployment, totally defensive in nature. Bailey made a neutral rearrangement, a feint taking only a fraction of a second, forcing the pace. Swithin returned with a convulsive expansion, recoiling from the center of play. Swift as flickering lightning, Bailey cycled his array through a set of inversions, forcing his opponent to retire into a self-paralyzing fortress stance—And barely in time, saw the trap the plump champion had set for him. In mid-play, he caught himself, diverted the abortive encirclement he had begun into a flanking pincers. Caught in his own trap, unable to change direction as swiftly as had Bailey, Swithin bluffed with a piercing stab flawed by an almost unnoticeable discontinuity. The watchers sighed as the lightning interchange ceased abruptly. Taking his time now, Bailey shifted a rank of nexi to complete a perfect check position. On the next move, regardless of Swithin's return, the game was his. The plump man's face was the color of pipe clay now. With stiff hands, he prodded the plate, shifting his stance in a meaningless shuffle. He looked up, his expression sick. For a long moment Bailey held the other's gaze. Then, with a touch of his fingers, he made a subtle rearrangement which converted his checkmate into a neutral deadlock. For a moment, Swithin sagged; then his quick eye realized what Bailey had done. Color flooded back into his face."A draw," someone blurted. "By gad, Swithin's drawn him!" The watchers crowded around, laughing and bantering. As Bailey rose, Swithin came around the table to him."Why did you do it?" he whispered hoarsely."I need a favor," Bailey murmured.Swithin studied him sharply, assessing him. "You're an adventurer," he accused.Bailey smiled crookedly. "I want a crack at the Fornax," he said softly.Swithin narrowed his eyes. "You aim high. I have no way of getting you into the Blue Tower.""Think of a way."Swithin clamped his jaw. "You ask too much.""What about another game—to break the tie," Bailey suggested gently. "For the same stakes, of course."Swithin's head jerked; his peril had not ended yet. At that moment, Dovo spoke up: "Well, sirs, we can't leave it at that, eh?" He shot a look of idle malice at Swithin. "Another set—unofficial, of course—will show us where the power lies, eh?"Swithin gave Bailey a look of naked appeal. Bailey smiled genially."I'd prefer to rest on my laurels," he said easily. "I fear Sir Swithin will not be so gentle with me another time.""Sir Jannock is too modest," Swithin said quickly. "He is a player of rare virtuosity. It was all I could do to hold him." He held up his hands as a chorus of protest started up. "But," he went on, "I have another proposal—one calculated to afford us better sport than the mere humbling of an old comrade." He shot a venomous look at Dovo. "I am thinking, gentlemen, of a certain gamester of swollen reputation and not inconsiderable arrogance, to wit: his Excellency, Lord Tace, champion of Club Fornax!"A yell went up. When it had faded sufficiently for a single voice to be heard, Dovo called: "Are you sure, Swithin? Tace? Can he do it?"All eyes were on Bailey/Jannock. His purchased memories told him that Tace was a formidable opponent; precisel
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