how formidable he did not know."Tace, eh?" he said musingly. "But it's out of the question, of course. I fear I have no entrée into that exalted circle.""Plandot," someone said. "He's a member at Fornax!""Get Plandot!" the shout went up.The crowd surged away laughing and babbling like excited schoolboys."Well done, sir," Bailey bowed sardonically to the older man."Just what are you after, sir?" Swithin demanded."Oh, say ten thousand M's, eh?" Bailey said in a bantering tone. "You'll honor me by accepting ten percent," he added."Tace is no amateur," Swithin snapped."Neither am I," Bailey said. The two eyed each other, Swithin with a trapped look, Bailey-Jannock relaxed and at ease.A shout went up from across the room."Plandot will meet us at the Blue Tower in half an hour! Tace is there, and in a nasty mood!""What if you lose?" Swithin persisted. "Can you cover?""Don't concern yourself," Bailey soothed. "That's my part of the game." 22 From the distance of half a mile, the Blue Tower reared up almost to zenith, its slim length aglow with the soft azure radiance that served as a beacon across five hundred miles of empty air. At half that distance, it had become a shining wall, intricately fluted, a radiant backdrop spreading like a stage curtain across the avenue. Stepping from the car on the broad parking apron, Bailey felt its incredible mass hanging above him like a second moon. Even his jolly companions had lost some of their airy self-assurance. In near silence the party mounted the polished chrome-slab steps, passed through the impalpable resistance of the ion-screen into the vaulted entry foyer. The talk, as they rode the spiral escalator up past tiers of jewel-like murals, railed galleries, glassed-in terraces, was over-loud, forced, only gradually regaining its accustomed boisterousness as they stepped off in the pink and silver-frosted lounge to be met by a lean, sharp-featured man whom they greeted as Lord Plandot. The latter looked Bailey over as the introductions were made, his face twitching into a foxy smile."So you think you can spring a little surprise on Tace, eh? Be careful he doesn't surprise you instead, sir. I fancied myself as a gamesman until he took my measure."While Bailey's escort went into a huddle over strategy and tactics, he scanned the room, noting a number of featureless doors opening from a wide alcove, mirror-bright panels of polished metal."Where do those lead?" he asked Swithin."Why, to the upper levels. The Club Fornax occupies only this floor—""What's up there?" Bailey cut in."Various offices, living quarters; certain governmental functions are housed on the highest levels. The Lord Magistrate occupies the penthouse.""How do you know which door leads where?""If you had business there, I assume you'd know. Otherwise, it hardly matters.""True enough," Bailey said blandly as Dovo caught his eye. While the others went off toward the sound of restless music issuing from a red-lit archway, Plandot led the two along a deep-pile passage into a somber room dim-lit by luminous-patterned walls which threw the angular shadows of ugly but costly pseudo-Aztec furnishings across the dark-waxed parquet floor. As Plandot went on ahead, Dovo nudged Bailey, pointing out an imposing, white-maned figure seated alone before a shielded arc-fire."We'll rely on Plandot to draw him out. Tace is an irascible old devil, but not one to let pass an opportunity to put an upstart in his place." He gave Bailey a sly glance.Bailey passed five minutes in admiring the inlay-work of the table tops, the mosaic wall decorations, and the silky tapestries before Plandot beckoned. He and Dovo crossed the room. A pair of eagle-sharp eyes stabbed into him from under shaggy brows growing like tufts of winter grass on a rocky cliff of forehead."Plandot tells me you fancy yourself a Reprisist," Lord Tace growled."In a small way," Bailey said in confident tones. He smiled an irritating smile. Tace rose to the bait. "Small way," he rumbled. "As well speak of dying in a small way. Reprise is a lifetime undertaking, young man.""Oh, I don't know that I've found it so very difficult, sir," Bailey smirked.Tace snorted. "Plandot, are you people making sport of me?" He glared at the tall man."By no means, m'lord," Plandot said imperturbably. "My friends at the Apollo appear to have great faith in their protégé. Of course, I accepted the wager on your behalf. If you wish to decline, no matter, I shall settle the account, and quite rightly, in view of my presumption—""Apollo Club? What's all this?" Tace heaved himself around in his chair to survey Dovo. "Oh, you're in this too, are you, Dovo? Then I assume it's not merely Plandot's idea of baiting an old man."Dovo executed a graceful head bob. "I see now that we were over-enthusiastic, m'lord," he said smoothly. "My apologies. Of course you're much too fully engaged to indulge our fancy—""Just how enthusiastically did you intend to back your man?" Tace cut in sharply."I believe the sum mentioned was five hundred M's," Dovo murmured."Fifteen hundred," Bailey corrected. "Sir Swithin seems to have some confidence in my small abilities," he explained at Dovo's startled look."That's a considerable degree of enthusiasm," Tace said. He studied Bailey's face, looked at his clothes. "Just who are you?" he demanded abruptly."Jannock," Bailey said. The name was an appropriate one, common enough to arouse no particular attention among a world-wide Cruster population of two hundred million, while suggesting adequate connections. Still Tace eyed him intently."I say, m'lord," Dovo murmured. "Sir Jannock is here by my request, under the aegis of the Apollo Club—""How long have you known him?" Tace demanded."Only briefly—but he enjoys the sponsorship of Lord Encino—""Is Encino here?""No—but . . .""Did Encino introduce him to you personally?"Dovo looked startled. "No," he said. "His man, Wilf—"Tace barked what may have been a laugh. "Sponsored by a body servant, eh?""Sirs," Bailey said firmly as all eyes swung to him. "I see I have occasioned embarrassment. My apologies." He hesitated, gauging the temper of his listeners. Their looks were stony. It was time to take a risk."Perhaps I should have mentioned the name of my Caste Adviser, Lord Monboddo. I'm sure that he can satisfy any curiosity you may have as to my bona fides."The silence told him that he had blundered."Lord Monboddo," Sir Dovo said in a brittle tone, "died seven months ago." 23 Not a flicker of expression reflected Bailey's racing thoughts. Instead, he smiled a rueful smile, turned and inclined his head to Dovo. "Of course," he said smoothly. "How hard the habits of thought die. I meant, naturally, milord's successor as Lord Chancellor of the Heraldic Institute.""And what might—" Dovo started. At that moment there was a stir across the room. The voice of a steward became audible, a strained stage whisper: " . . . My lord, a moment, by your leave—""There he is! Stand aside, you fool!" a ragged, high-pitched voice snarled the words. Another steward hurried past, headed for the entry. A tall, gray-haired man stood there, his path blocked by a pair of husky servitors. His eyes were fixed on Bailey—feverish, wild eyes."They've done it for pure spite," he choked. "He was my guest, mine! They had no right—" He switched his look to Dovo. "You, Dovo, it's your doing!" he called. "Give him back at once! He came for me, not—" the rest of the intruder's cry was muffled by a cloud of pink gas which puffed suddenly in his face. As the agitated nobleman tottered, the stewards closed about him, helped him away."Your friend Lord Encino seems somewhat agitated, Sir Jannock," Tace broke the silence. "His jealousy of your company suggests we are doubly fortunate to have you with us."Bailey smiled coolly as Dovo and Plandot began babbling at once, the tension relieved. Lord Tace rose stiffly, using a cane. "So you're curious as to whether the old man is as thorny an antagonist as reputed, eh?" He showed a stiff smile, "Very well, sir—I accept your wager. But traditionally the challenged party has the choice of weapons, eh?"Dovo's face fell. "Why, as to that—""To perdition with your childish game of Reprise," the old man snarled; through the mask of cosmeticized age, Bailey caught a glimpse of a savage competitiveness. "Instead, we'll try our wits at a sport that's a favorite among the rats that swarm our cellars, eh? A true gamble, on life and death and the rise and fall of fortunes!""Just—just what is it you're proposing, m'lord?" Dovo blurted."Have you ever heard of an illegal lottery called Booking the Vistat Run?" Lord Tace stared from one of his listeners to the other, ended fixing his eyes challengingly on Bailey."I've heard of it," Bailey said neutrally."Ha! Then you're sharper than these noddies!" Tace jerked his leonine head at Dovo and Plandot. "Doubtless they scorn to interest themselves in such low matters. But at my age I seek sensation wherever it's to be found! And I've found it in the pulse of the census!" He stared at Dovo. "Well, how say you? Will you back your man in a gutter game of raw nerve and naked chance? Eh?""Now, really, m'lord—" Dovo began."We'll be happy to try our hand," Bailey said carelessly. He glanced at the ornate clock occupying the center of a complex relief filling the end wall of the gloomy chamber. "We'd best declare our lines at once if we're to book the twenty hour stat run."24 The private game room to which Lord Tace conducted Bailey and the Apollo members contrasted sharply with the blighted cold-water flat from which Gus Aroon had rolled his book three months before; but the mathematics of the game were unchanged. Bailey glanced over the record charts, began setting up his lines. After the dazzling action of the Reprise cage, the programming seemed a dry and academic affair; but the expressions of the aristocrats clustered about the stat screen showed that their view of the matter was far different."Well, sirs," Tace rumbled, watching them as the first figures began to flicker across the read-out panels, "the gamble stirs your blood, eh? The statistical fluctuations of the society that seethes like poisoned yeast below us provide a hardier sport than glowing baubles!""Those numbers," Dovo said. "Difficult to realize that each one represents the birth and death of a man—""Or of his fortunes," Tace barked. "Production and consumption, taxes and theft, executions, suicides, the rise and fall of human destinies. One thousand billion people, each the center of his Universe. And we sit here, like gods squatting on Olympus, and tally the score."Half an hour later, Tace's exuberance declined as he assessed the initial hour's results. After the twenty-two run, he lapsed into a rumbling silence. An hour later, he snarled openly as another five hundred M changed hands, to the profit of the Apollo book. Bailey played steadily, silently, taking no unnecessary risks, outpointing the old man on run after run. At 0200, with Tace's original capitalization reduced to a few score M, Bailey suggested closing the book. Tace raged. An hour later he had lost another hundred and fifty M."I really cannot continue," Bailey said, leaning back in his chair before the programmer console. "I'm quite exhausted.""But such a sportsman as Lord Tace would hardly agree to stop now," Dovo said eagerly, naked greed shining on his normally bland face. He looked with sly insolence at the embattled oldster. "M'lord deserves his chance to recoup . . .""I am not so young as I once was," Tace began in a voice which had acquired a distinct whining note. He broke off at a sharp buzz from the communicator plate, snarled, slapped a hand over the sensitive grid."I said no interruptions," he grated, then paused to listen. His expression changed, became one of thoughtful concern. With a show of reluctance, he blanked the grid."It seems we must continue another time, sirs," he said in a tone unctuous with regret. "The Sub-Commandant of Peace is waiting in the foyer. It appears that a criminal enemy of the Order is suspected of having somehow penetrated the Fornax.""So? How does that affect us?" Dovo demanded."The Commandant wishes to make a physical inspection of all portions of the premises," Tace went on. "Including the private gaming areas.""Unreasonable," Dovo snapped."Still, one must cooperate," Tace said, throwing the switch which unlocked the doors. "Shall we go along and observe the Bugs at work?" He smiled at his daring use of the vernacular."Best we close the bank first," Dovo murmured."Of course!" Tace poked angrily at the keys on the gaming board; a cascade of platinum-edged ten M cred-cards showered from the dispenser. Plandot counted them out, handed fifty to Dovo, the rest of the stack to Bailey/Jannock, who accepted them absently, turned to Sir Swithin. "Would you oblige me, sir? I feel the need of a moment to refresh myself." He dumped the double-handful of cash into the startled man's hands and turned toward the discretely marked door. A burst of chatter rose behind him, but no one raised objection. 25 Inside the chrome and black toilet, Bailey walked quickly past the attendant to the rear of the room, tried the narrow service door in the corner. Locked. He whirled on the soft-footed attendant who had followed him."Get this open!" he snapped."Sir?" the man prepared to lapse into dumb insolence. Bailey caught him by the tunic front, shook him once, threw him against the wall."Do as you're told!" he snarled. "Haven't you heard there's an enemy of the Order at large in the club?""S-s-sir," the man mumbled, pressing an electrokey against the slot. The door slid back. Bailey stepped through and was in a dark passage. Dim lights went up at his first step. He tried doors; the third opened on a white-walled room where half a dozen stewards lounged around a long table."As you were," Bailey barked as the startled servants scrambled to their feet. "Remain in this room until told to leave. You—" He stabbed with his finger at a thick-shouldered, frowning fellow with red pips on his collar who appeared to be about to speak. "Lead the way to the prefect's office!""Me?" the man gaped, taken aback."You!" Bailey strode across to the door, flicked it open. The big man lumbered past him. Bailey stepped out behind him, looked both ways; the corridor was empty. He struck once with the edge of his hand, caught the man as he collapsed. Swiftly, he checked the man's pockets, turned up a flat card to which half a dozen keys were attached. He covered the distance to the next intersection at a run, slowed to a walk rounding the corner. Two men came toward him, one an indignant-looking chap with the waxed-and-polished look Bailey had come to expect of Crusters past their first youth. The other was a small, quick-eyed man, in plain dark clothes, as out of place here in Blue Level territory as a cockroach on a silver tray. As he started past, the latter turned and put out a restraining hand. Bailey spoke first:"What the hell are you doing standing here gossiping?" he snapped. "We're here on business, remember? What are you doing about the dead man in the cross-corridor?" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction from which he had come, turned his attention to the other man, who gaped; his mouth open."Sir, I'll have to insist that you go along now to the lift foyer," Bailey said briskly. "If you please, sir." He made an impatient motion. The man made a gobbling noise and set off at a rapid walk. Bailey followed without looking back.They passed half a dozen grim-faced plainclothes Peacemen; none gave them more than a glance. As they came into the circular silver-and-rose chamber where Bailey had first arrived, he halted his companion with a word. Clusters of uniformed Peacemen were grouped here and there throughout the room. Bailey pointed to a shoulder-tabbed officer."Tell the adjutant the snarfitar is bonfrect," he ordered. As the Cruster stiffened and opened his mouth to protest, Bailey forestalled him: "We're counting on you, sir. You and I between us will make this pinch. And whatever you do, don't look at me.""The . . . snarfitar is bonfrect?" the man queried."Exactly; and the doolfroon have taken over the ignort.""Doolfroon's taken over the ignort." The man hurried away, mumbling. Bailey watched the officer turn as the messenger came up; he waited until the sound of raised voices told him the message had been delivered. Then he strolled behind a group of Peacemen as they stared toward the disturbance, tried keys until one opened the lift doors, stepped into a silver-filigree decorated, white leather upholstered car, and punched the top key. 26 Bailey changed cars three times at intermediate levels, each time under the eyes of guards alert for a man descending, before he reached the tower suite. He stepped out into a mirror-walled ante-room rugged in soft gray. A wide white and silver door stood at one side. It opened at a touch. Across the room a square-faced man with carelessly combed black hair looked up with a faintly puzzled expression."Are you Micael Drans?" Bailey heard himself ask."Yes . . ."Bailey made a smooth motion and the gun he had bought in another lifetime, six hours earlier, was in his hand. He raised it to point squarely at the forehead of the man behind the desk. His finger moved to the firing stud—A side door burst open. A girl stood there, wide-eyed, white-gowned, elegant. In a single step she was between them, shielding the victim with her slim body. A gun in her jeweled hand was aimed at Bailey's chest."No, William Bailey!" she cried. "Drans mustn't die!" 27 "I remember you," Bailey said. His voice sounded blurred in his ears; the room, the girl, the man sitting rigid behind the desk had taken on a dream-like quality. "You're the girl who helped me. I never learned your name.""Throw the gun away, William," she said urgently.Bailey trembled, sick with the hunger of his need to shoot, restrained by the impossibility of killing the girl. "I can't," he groaned. "I have to kill him!""Why?" the girl demanded."The voice," he said, remembering. "In the Euthanasia Center, it told me how to control my circulation to keep the drug from paralyzing my heart, how to make my legs work enough to carry me out through the service door. It told me to come here, shoot Micael Drans! I have to kill him! Stand aside! I'll kill you if I have to!""William," the girl's voice was low, urgent. "Micael Drans is more important than you can dream—than even he dreams." She spoke over her shoulder to the waiting and watching man. "Micael—something very important has happened within the last few hours." It was a statement, not a question. Drans nodded slowly. "Yes." He seemed calm, merely puzzled."A message," the girl said. "A message from very far away."A look of incredulity came over Drans' face. "How could you know of that, Aliea?""The message is genuine," the girl said in an intense voice. "Believe it, Micael!" Bailey listened, feeling the sweat trickling down the side of his face. His heart thudded dully."I think I understand part of it, William," the girl went on. "You received a part—but I received the rest! You knew what—and I knew why. I made my way here—just as you did. I didn't understand, then—but now I do! And you must, too!""I have to kill him—""I can shoot first, William," she said steadily. "You're confused, under terrible stress. I'm not. You must try to understand. Perhaps . . ." She broke off. "William, close your eyes. Concentrate. Let me try to reach you . . . !"Like an automaton, he followed instructions. Blackness. Swirling light. Out of the darkness, a shape that hovered, a complex structure of light that was not light, a structure incomplete, needing him to complete it. He moved toward it, sensing how the ragged surfaces of his own being reached out to meet and merge with its opposite—Light blossomed like a sudden dawn. All barriers fell. Her mind lay open to him.Now come, William, her voice spoke in his brain. I'll lead you . . . He followed along a dark path that plunged down, down, through terrible emptiness . . . And emerged into—somewhere. He was aware of the compound ego-matrix that was himself, Bailey/Aliea; saw all the foreshortened perspective of his narrow life, her pinched, love-starved existence. And saw the presence that had reached out, touched him/her. And abruptly, he/she was that other presence. 28 He lay in darkness, suffering. Not the mere physical pain of the wasted, ancient body; that was nothing. But the ceaseless, relentless pain of the knowledge of failure, the bitterness of vain regret for the irretrievable blunder of long ago.Then, out of despair, a concept born of anguish; the long struggle, probing back down along the closed corridor along which he had come, searching, searching; and at last the first hint of success, the renewed striving, the moment of contact with the feeble, flickering life-mote that glowed so faint and far away: WILLIAM BAILEY! LISTEN TO ME! YOU MUST NOT DIE! THERE IS THAT WHICH MUST BE DONE, AND ONLY YOU CAN DO IT! LISTEN: THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST DO . . ." 29 The girl still stood, aiming the weapon at his heart. Tears ran down her face, but the gun did not waver."It was the voice," Bailey said. "You and I were . . . linked. We . . . touched him, were him. He's the one who made me live, sent me here. Who was he? What was he?""He's a man, William. A dying man, a hundred years in the future. In some way that perhaps not even he understands, he projected his mind back along his own life line—to us.""A mind—reaching back through time?" Bailey asked."I think he meant only to reach one man, to explain the terrible thing that had happened, to enlist your help to do what he believed had to be done to right the wrong. But his brain was too powerful, too complex. An ordinary mind couldn't encompass it. I was near—on the Intermix, ready to jump. A part of his message spilled over—into my mind. I saw what had happened, what would happen—saw who and where you were, knew that I had to help you—but I didn't know—didn't understand what it was you were to do.""A message," Bailey said, remembering the flood of impressions. "A transmission from a point in space beyond Pluto. A ship—heading for Earth. Aliens—from a distant star. They asked for peace and friendship. And we gave them—death."Drans spoke up, his voice strained. "When did we attack?""Sarday, Sember twenty," Bailey said. "Black Sarday.""Tomorrow's date," Drans said in a voice like cracked metal."And Micael Drans was the man who gave the order!" Bailey blurted. "Don't you see, Aliea? That's why he sent me here, why Drans has to die!""For three days and three nights I've wrestled with it," Drans said dully. "Pro and con, trust or mistrust, kill—or welcome. There are so many factors to consider, so terrible a risk . . .""And you decided: it had to be death, because how could man, who had betrayed his own species, trust another race?" Bailey accused."Is it possible?" Drans stared from Aliea to Bailey. "Can you know the future? In some miraculous way, were you sent here to save me from this terrible decision? Can we trust them? Are they what they say?""They come as friends," Aliea said softly.Drans stood. "I believe you," he said. "Because the alternative is too bitter to contemplate." He stepped forward, gently thrust the girl aside. "Do your duty," he said flatly to Bailey."William—no!" Aliea said swiftly. "You know now, don't you? You see?"Bailey looked at the defenseless man before him. He lowered the gun, nodded."The voice—the dying man, a hundred years from now. It was—is—will be you: Micael Drans. You sent me back to kill yourself before you gave the death order.""Only a very good man would have done that, William," Aliea said. "Micael Drans is one of the few good men alive in these vicious times. He has to live—to meet the ship, welcome the aliens to our world!""Will you do it?" Bailey asked."Why—yes. Yes, of course!" Life came back into Drans' face. He turned to his desk, spoke rapidly into an intercom.Bailey opened his fingers, let the gun fall to the floor. He felt suddenly empty, exhausted. It was all meaningless now, a vista of blown dust, crumbling ashes."William—what is it?" Aliea's face wavered before him. "It's all right now. It's over. You did it. We did it.""A puppet," Bailey said. "That's all I was. I served my purpose. There's nothing left. I'm back where I was.""Oh no!" Aliea cried. "William, you're wrong, so wrong!""For the first time in my life, I had pride, self-respect. I thought it was me who invaded Preke territory and stayed alive, absorbed an education, sweated out the Maxpo treatment. I believed it was me, William Bailey, who faced down the Crusters on their own turf, bluffed them all, took what I wanted, made my way here. But it wasn't. It was him, guiding me every step of the way. And now it's over, and there's nothing left."Aliea smiled, shaking her head. "No, William. Think, remember! He gave you a mission, true. And one other thing he did: he took away fear. The rest you did yourself."Bailey frowned at her. "I was like a man in a dream, all those weeks. That complex plan, the twisting and turning, the bluffs and the chances I took—""Don't you see? He couldn't have planned it all. He had no way of knowing what would happen, how you should meet what came. It was you, William. Once fear is gone, all things are possible.""Aliea's right," Micael Drans said. He came around the desk to stand beside them. "There's no way for me to thank you. But in eighteen hours, the Evala ship will take up its orbit beyond Luna—peacefully. There will be much to be done. I'll need help. Will you stay, accept positions on my personal staff?""Of course," Aliea said."If you really think—if I can be of any use . . ." Bailey said.He felt Aliea's hand touch his—felt the touch of her mind, delicate as a blown feather. Together, we'll do it, William."Yes," he said. "I'll stay."We must tell him, Aliea's thought spoke in his mind. Bailey closed his eyes; together they reached out across the void, found him, waiting there in darkness.Together, they waited for the sound of a new thunder in the skies of Earth. Afterwordby Eric Flint It's a bit odd, I suppose, to include "Of Death What Dreams" in a volume consisting of stories dealing with alien contacts with human—which is the "theme" of A Plague of Demons & Other Stories. But, since that is technically the point of the story, I decided it was appropriate enough. And, by putting it at the very end, it allowed me in this afterword to segue nicely into the next, upcoming volume in Baen Books' reissue of the writings of Keith Laumer. (The fancy term "segue" being used here, of course, as a slick alternative to "shamelessly promote.")Yes, technically "Of Death What Dreams" is a story about alien contact. Beneath that superficial crust, however, it's really a type of story—and one of the best—in which Keith Laumer truly excelled: what are usually called "dystopias." The impending arrival of the aliens, after all, only appears in "Of Death What Dreams" in the last of 29 sections. The heart of the story is the hero's adventures through the callous and stratified world dominated by the Crusters.I am not, as a rule, particularly fond of dystopias. Some of that is simply my own temperament. But, mainly, it's because most authors who write dystopias tend to lose themselves in the setting. The story itself, as a rule, is just a device upon which to hang a distorted universe; it's not so much a story as a contrivance. All of which is another slick and fancy way to avoid saying what I really think, which is this:Most dystopias, goddamit, are just plain boring. * * *Keith Laumer is one of the few exceptions. He could spin off dystopias with the best of them—but, with Laumer, the setting rarely if ever takes over the story itself. At the heart of his dystopian tales is the usual full-speed-ahead narrative of which Laumer was the master. What results are stories which, however creepy or disturbing the setting may be, are enjoyable to read—instead of being the literary equivalent of root canal work. I invite you to test my hypothesis for yourselves. The fifth volume of this reissue of the writings of Keith Laumer will be coming out soon, under the title of Future Imperfect. The book will begin with one of Laumer's classic adventure stories, a novel called Catastrophe Planet (also published under the title The Breaking Earth), in which the hero races across a world fractured by tectonics gone mad in order to save the day. Included also will be a half dozen of Laumer's best shorter works: the long novella "The Day Before Forever" as well as "Cocoon," "Worldmaster," "The Walls," "Founder's Day" and "Placement Test."You'll have fun. Honest.