eVersion 1.0 I The first thought Anderton had when he saw the young man was: I'm getting bald. Bald and fat and old. But he didn't say it aloud. Instead, he pushed back his chair, got to his feet, and came resolutely around the side of his desk, his right hand rigidly extended. Smiling with forced amiability, he shook hands with the young man.
"Witwer?" he asked, managing to make this query sound gracious. "That's right," the young man said. "But the name's Ed to you, of course. That is, if you share my dislike for needless formality." The look on his blond, overly-confident face showed that he considered the matter settled. It would be Ed and John: Everything would be agreeably cooperative right from the start.
"Did you have much trouble finding the building?" Anderton asked guardedly, ignoring the too-friendly overture. Good God, he had to hold on to something. Fear touched him and he began to sweat. Witwer was moving around the office as if he already owned it - as if he were measuring it for size. Couldn't he wait a couple of days - a decent interval?
"No trouble," Witwer answered blithely, his hands in his pockets. Eagerly, he examined the voluminous files that lined the wall. "I'm not coming into your agency blind, you understand. I have quite a few ideas of my own about the way Precrime is run."
Shakily, Anderton lit his pipe. "How is it run? I should like to know." "Not badly," Witwer said. "In fact, quite well."
Anderton regarded him steadily. "Is that your private opinion? Or is it just cant?"
Witwer met his gaze guilelessly. "Private and public. The Senate's pleased with your work. In fact, they're enthusiastic." He added, "As enthusiastic as very old men can be."
Anderton winced, but outwardly he remained impassive. It cost him an effort, though. He wondered what Witwer really thought. What was actually going on in that closecropped skull? The young man's eyes were blue, bright - and disturbingly clever. Witwer was nobody's fool. And obviously he had a great deal of ambition.
"As I understand it," Anderton said cautiously, "you're going to be my assistant until I retire."
"That's my understanding, too," the other replied, without an instant's hesitation.
"Which may be this year, or next year - or ten years from now." The pipe in Anderton's hand trembled. "I'm under no compulsion to retire. I founded Precrime and I can stay on here as long as I want. It's purely my decision."
Witwer nodded, his expression still guileless. "Of course."
With an effort, Anderton cooled down a trifle. "I merely wanted to get things straight."
"From the start," Witwer agreed. "You're the boss. What you say goes." With every evidence of sincerity, he asked: "Would you care to show me the organization? I'd like to familiarize myself with the general routine as soon as possible."
As they walked along the busy, yellow-lit tiers of offices, Anderton said: "You're acquainted with the theory of precrime, of course. I presume we can take that for granted."
"I have the information publicly available," Witwer replied. "With the aid of your precog mutants, you've boldly and successfully abolished the post-crime punitive system of jails and fines. As we all realize, punishment was never much of a deterrent, and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead."
They had come to the descent lift. As it carried them swiftly downward, Anderton said: "You've probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We're taking in individuals who have broken no law."
"But they surely will," Witwer affirmed with conviction.
"Happily they don't - because we get them first, before they can commit an act of violence. So the commission of the crime itself is absolute metaphysics. We claim they're culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they're innocent. And, in a sense, they are innocent."
The lift let them out, and they again paced down a yellow corridor. "In our society we have no major crimes," Anderton went on, "but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals."
Doors opened and closed, and they were in the analytical wing. Ahead of them rose impressive banks of equipment - the data-receptors, and the computing mechanisms that studied and restructured the incoming material. And beyond the machinery sat the three precogs, almost lost to view in the maze of wiring.
"There they are," Anderton said dryly. "What do you think of them?" In the gloomy half-darkness the three idiots sat babbling. Every incoherent utterance, every random syllable, was analyzed, compared, reassembled in the form of visual symbols, transcribed on conventional punchcards, and ejected into various coded slots. All day long the idiots babbled, imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps. Their physical needs were taken care of automatically. They had no spiritual needs. Vegetable-like, they muttered and dozed and existed. Their minds were dull, confused, lost in shadows.
But not the shadows of today. The three gibbering, fumbling creatures, with their enlarged heads and wasted bodies, were contemplating the future. The analytical machinery was recording prophecies, and as the three precog idiots talked, the machinery carefully listened.
For the first time Witwer's face lost its breezy confidence. A sick, dismayed expression crept into his eyes, a mixture of shame and moral shock. "It's not - pleasant," he murmured. "I didn't realize they were so - " He groped in his mind for the right word, gesticulating. "So - deformed."
"Deformed and retarded," Anderton instantly agreed. "Especially the girl, there. Donna is forty-five years old. But she looks about ten. The talent absorbs everything; the esp-lobe shrivels the balance of the frontal area. But what do we care? We get their prophecies. They pass on what we need. They don't understand any of it, but we do."
Subdued, Witwer crossed the room to the machinery. From a slot he collected a stack of cards. "Are these names that have come up?" he asked.
"Obviously." Frowning, Anderton took the stack from him. "I haven't had a chance to examine them," he explained, impatiently concealing his annoyance.
Fascinated, Witwer watched the machinery pop a fresh card into the now empty slot. It was followed by a second - and a third. From the whirring disks came one card after another. "The precogs must see quite far into the future," Witwer exclaimed.
"They see a quite limited span," Anderton informed him. "One week or two ahead at the very most. Much of their data is worthless to us - simply not relevant to our line. We pass it on to the appropriate agencies. And they in turn trade data with us. Every important bureau has its cellar of treasured monkeys."
"Monkeys?" Witwer stared at him uneasily. "Oh, yes, I understand. See no evil, speak no evil, et cetera. Very amusing."
"Very apt." Automatically, Anderton collected the fresh cards which had been turned up by the spinning machinery. "Some of these names will be totally discarded. And most of the remainder record petty crimes: thefts, income tax evasion, assault, extortion. As I'm sure you know, Precrime has cut down felonies by ninety-nine and decimal point eight percent. We seldom get actual murder or treason. After all, the culprit knows we'll confine him in the detention camp a week before he gets a chance to commit the crime."
"When was the last time an actual murder was committed?" Witwer asked.
"Five years ago," Anderton said, pride in his voice.
"How did it happen?"
"The criminal escaped our teams. We had his name - in fact, we had all the details of the crime, including the victim's name. We knew the exact moment, the location of the planned act of violence. But in spite of us he was able to carry it out." Anderton shrugged. "After all, we can't get all of them." He riffled the cards. "But we do get most."
"One murder in five years." Witwer's confidence was returning. "Quite an impressive record. . . something to be proud of."
Quietly Anderton said: "I am proud. Thirty years ago I worked out the theory - back in the days when the self-seekers were thinking in terms of quick raids on the stock market. I saw something legitimate ahead - something of tremendous social value."
He tossed the packet of cards to Wally Page, his subordinate in charge of the monkey block. "See which ones we want," he told him. "Use your own judgment."
As Page disappeared with the cards, Witwer said thoughtfully: "It's a big responsibility."
"Yes, it is," agreed Anderton. "If we let one criminal escape - as we did five years ago - we've got a human life on our conscience. We're solely responsible. If we slip up, somebody dies." Bitterly, he jerked three new cards from the slot. "It's a public trust."
"Are you ever tempted to - " Witwer hesitated. "I mean, some of the men you pick up must offer you plenty."
"It wouldn't do any good. A duplicate file of cards pops out at Army GHQ. It's check and balance. They can keep their eye on us as continuously as they wish." Anderton glanced briefly at the top card. "So even if we wanted to accept a - "
He broke off, his lips tightening.
"What's the matter?" Witwer asked curiously.
Carefully, Anderton folded up the top card and put it away in his pocket. "Nothing," he muttered. "Nothing at all."
The harshness in his voice brought a flush to Witwer's face. "You really don't like me," he observed.
"True," Anderton admitted. "I don't. But - "
He couldn't believe he disliked the young man that much. It didn't seem possible: it wasn't possible. Something was wrong. Dazed, he tried to steady his tumbling mind.
On the card was his name. Line one - an already accused future murderer! According to the coded punches, Precrime Commissioner John A. Anderton was going to kill a man - and within the next week.
With absolute, overwhelming conviction, he didn't believe it.
II In the outer office, talking to Page, stood Anderton's slim and attractive young wife, Lisa. She was engaged in a sharp, animated discussion of policy, and barely glanced up as Witwer and her husband entered.
"Hello, darling," Anderton said.
Witwer remained silent. But his pale eyes flickered slightly as they rested on the brown-haired woman in her trim police uniform. Lisa was now an executive official of Precrime but once, Witwer knew, she had been Anderton's secretary.
Noticing the interest on Witwer's face Anderton paused and reflected. To plant the card in the machines would require an accomplice on the inside - someone who was closely connected with Precrime and had access to the analytical equipment. Lisa was an improbable element. But the possibility did exist.
Of course, the conspiracy could be large-scale and elaborate, involving far more than a "rigged" card inserted somewhere along the line. The original data itself might have been tampered with. Actually, there was no telling how far back the alteration went. A cold fear touched him as he began to see the possibilities. His original impulse - to tear open the machines and remove all the data - was uselessly primitive. Probably the tapes agreed with the card: He would only incriminate himself further.
He had approximately twenty-four hours. Then, the Army people would check over their cards and discover the discrepancy. They would find in their files a duplicate of the card he had appropriated. He had only one of two copies, which meant that the folded card in his pocket might just as well be lying on Page's desk in plain view of everyone.
From outside the building came the drone of police cars starting out on their routine round-ups. How many hours would elapse before one of them pulled up in front of his house?
"What's the matter, darling?" Lisa asked him uneasily. "You look as if you've just seen a ghost. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he assured her.
Lisa suddenly seemed to become aware of Ed Witwer's admiring scrutiny. "Is this gentleman your new co-worker, darling?" she asked.
Warily, Anderton introduced his new associate. Lisa smiled in friendly greeting. Did a covert awareness pass between them? He couldn't tell. God, he was beginning to suspect everybody - not only his wife and Witwer, but a dozen members of his staff.
"Are you from New York?" Lisa asked.
"No," Witwer replied. "I've lived most of my life in Chicago. I'm staying at a hotel - one of the big downtown hotels. Wait - I have the name written on a card somewhere."
While he self-consciously searched his pockets, Lisa suggested: "Perhaps you'd like to have dinner with us. We'll be working in close cooperation, and I really think we ought to get better acquainted."
Startled, Anderton backed off. What were the chances of his wife's friendliness being benign, accidental? Witwer would be present the balance of the evening, and would now have an excuse to trail along to Anderton's private residence. Profoundly disturbed, he turned impulsively, and moved toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Lisa asked, astonished.
"Back to the monkey block," he told her. "I want to check over some rather puzzling data tapes before the Army sees them." He was out in the corridor before she could think of a plausible reason for detaining him.
Rapidly, he made his way to the ramp at its far end. He was striding down the outside stairs toward the public sidewalk, when Lisa appeared breathlessly behind him.
"What on earth has come over you?" Catching hold of his arm, she moved quickly in front of him. "I knew you were leaving," she exclaimed, blocking his way. "What's wrong with you? Everybody thinks you're - " She checked herself. "I mean, you're acting so erratically."
People surged by them - the usual afternoon crowd. Ignoring them, Anderton pried his wife's fingers from his arm. "I'm getting out," he told her. "While there's still time."
Lisa gazed up at him, bewildered. "But he seems like such a nice young man."
"Nice as a water moccasin."
Lisa's dismay turned to disbelief. "I don't believe it. Darling, all this strain you've been under - " Smiling uncertainly, she faltered: "It's not really credible that Ed Witwer is trying to frame you. How could he, even if he wanted to? Surely Ed wouldn't - "
"That's his name, isn't it?"
Her brown eyes flashed in startled, wildly incredulous protest. "Good heavens, you're suspicious of everybody. You actually believe I'm mixed up with it in some way, don't you?"
He considered. "I'm not sure."
She drew closer to him, her eyes accusing. "That's not true. You really believe it. Maybe you ought to go away for a few weeks. You desperately need a rest. All this tension and trauma, a younger man coming in. You're acting paranoiac. Can't you see that? People plotting against you. Tell me, do you have any actual proof?"
Anderton removed his wallet and took out the folded card. "Examine this carefully," he said, handing it to her.
The color drained out of her face, and she gave a little harsh, dry gasp.
"The set-up is fairly obvious," Anderton told her, as levelly as he could. "This will give Witwer a legal pretext to remove me right now. He won't have to wait until I resign." Grimly, he added: "They know I'm good for a few years yet."
"It will end the check and balance system. Precrime will no longer be an independent agency. The Senate will control the police, and after that - " His lips tightened. "They'll absorb the Army too. Well, it's outwardly logical enough. Of course I feel hostility and resentment toward Witwer - of course I have a motive.
"Nobody likes to be replaced by a younger man, and find himself turned out to pasture. It's all really quite plausible - except that I haven't the remotest intention of killing Witwer. But I can't prove that. So what can I do?"
Mutely, her face very white, Lisa shook her head. "I - I don't know. Darling, if only- "
"Right now," Anderton said abruptly, "I'm going home to pack my things. That's about as far ahead as I can plan."
"You're really going to - to try to hide out?"
"I am. As far as the Centaurian-colony planets, if necessary. It's been done successfully before, and I have a twenty-four-hour start." He turned resolutely. "Go back inside. There's no point in your coming with me."
"Did you imagine I would?" Lisa asked huskily.
Startled, Anderton stared at her. "Wouldn't you?" Then with amazement, he murmured: "No, I can see you don't believe me. You still think I'm imagining all this." He jabbed savagely at the card. "Even with that evidence you still aren't convinced."
"Nobody says you're going to kill Ed Witwer," Lisa continued rapidly, in a thin, brittle voice. "The card must be genuine, understand? And it has nothing to do with Ed. He's not plotting against you and neither is anybody else."
Too confused to reply, Anderton stood studying the card. She was right. Ed Witwer was not listed as his victim. On line five, the machine had neatly stamped another name.
Numbly, he pocketed the card. He had never heard of the man in his life.
III The house was cool and deserted, and almost immediately Anderton began making preparations for his journey. While he packed, frantic thoughts passed through his mind.
Possibly he was wrong about Witwer - but how could he be sure? In any event, the conspiracy against him was far more complex than he had realized. Witwer, in the over-all picture, might be merely an insignificant puppet animated by someone else - by some distant, indistinct figure only vaguely visible in the background.
It had been a mistake to show the card to Lisa. Undoubtedly, she would describe it in detail to Witwer. He'd never get off Earth, never have an opportunity to find out what life on a frontier planet might be like.
While he was thus preoccupied, a board creaked behind him. He turned from the bed, clutching a weather-stained winter sports jacket, to face the muzzle of a gray-blue A-pistol.
"It didn't take you long," he said, staring with bitterness at the tight-lipped, heavyset man in a brown overcoat who stood holding the gun in his gloved hand. "Didn't she even hesitate?"
The intruder's face registered no response. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said. "Come along with me."
Startled, Anderton laid down the sports jacket. "You're not from my agency? You're not a police officer?"
Protesting and astonished, he was hustled outside the house to a waiting limousine. Instantly three heavily armed men closed in behind him. The door slammed and the car shot off down the highway, away from the city. Impassive and remote, the faces around him jogged with the motion of the speeding vehicle as open fields, dark and somber, swept past.
Anderton was till trying futilely to grasp the implications of what had happened, when the car came to a rutted side road, turned off, and descended into a gloomy sub-surface garage. Someone shouted an order. The heavy metal lock grated shut and overhead lights blinked on. The driver turned off the car motor.
"You'll have reason to regret this," Anderton warned hoarsely, as they dragged him from the car. "Do you realize who I am?"
"We realize," the man in the brown overcoat said.
At gun-point, Anderton was marched upstairs, from the clammy silence of the garage into a deep-carpeted hallway. He was, apparently, in a luxurious private residence, set out in the war-devoured rural area. At the far end of the hallway he could make out a room - a book-lined study simply but tastefully furnished. In a circle of lamplight, his face partly in shadows, a man he had never met sat waiting for him.
As Anderton approached, the man nervously slipped a pair of rimless glasses in place, snapped the case shut, and moistened his dry lips. He was elderly, perhaps seventy or older, and under his arm was a slim silver cane. His body was thin, wiry, his attitude curiously rigid. What little hair he had was dusty brown - a carefully-smoothed sheen of neutral color above his pale, bony skull. Only his eyes seemed really alert.
"Is this Anderton?" he inquired querulously, turning to the man in the brown overcoat. "Where did you pick him up?"
"At his home," the other replied. "He was packing - as we expected."
The man at the desk shivered visibly. "Packing." He took off his glasses and jerkily returned them to their case. "Look here," he said bluntly to Anderton, "what's the matter with you? Are you hopelessly insane? How could you kill a man you've never met?"
The old man, Anderton suddenly realized, was Leopold Kaplan.
"First, I'll ask you a question," Anderton countered rapidly. "Do you realize what you've done? I'm Commissioner of Police. I can have you sent up for twenty years."
He was going to say more, but a sudden wonder cut him short.
"How did you find out?" he demanded. Involuntarily, his hand went to his pocket, where the folded card was hidden. "It won't be for another - "
"I wasn't notified through your agency," Kaplan broke in, with angry impatience. "The fact that you've never heard of me doesn't surprise me too much. Leopold Kaplan, General of the Army of the Federated Westbloc Alliance." Begrudgingly, he added. "Retired, since the end of the Anglo-Chinese War, and the abolishment of AFWA."
It made sense. Anderton had suspected that the Army processed its duplicate cards immediately, for its own protection. Relaxing somewhat, he demanded: "Well? You've got me here. What next?"
"Evidently," Kaplan said, "I'm not going to have you destroyed, or it would have shown up on one of those miserable little cards. I'm curious about you. It seemed incredible to me that a man of your stature could contemplate the cold-blooded murder of a total stranger. There must be something more here. Frankly, I'm puzzled. If it represented some kind of Police strategy-" He shrugged his thin shoulders. "Surely you wouldn't have permitted the duplicate card to reach us."
"Unless," one of his men suggested, "it's a deliberate plant."
Kaplan raised his bright, bird-like eyes and scrutinized Anderton. "What do you have to say?"
"That's exactly what it is," Anderton said, quick to see the advantage of stating frankly what he believed to be the simple truth. "The prediction on the card was deliberately fabricated by a clique inside the police agency. The card is prepared and I'm netted. I'm relieved of my authority automatically. My assistant steps in and claims he prevented the murder in the usual efficient Precrime manner. Needless to say, there is no murder or intent to murder."
"I agree with you that there will be no murder," Kaplan affirmed grimly. "You'll be in police custody. I intend to make certain of that."
Horrified, Anderton protested: "You're taking me back there? If I'm in custody I'll never be able to prove - "
"I don't care what you prove or don't prove," Kaplan interrupted. "All I'm interested in is having you out of the way." Frigidly, he added: "For my own protection."
"He was getting ready to leave," one of the men asserted.
"That's right," Anderton said, sweating. "As soon as they get hold of me I'll be confined in the detention camp. Witwer will take over - lock, stock and barrel." His face darkened. "And my wife. They're acting in concert, apparently."
For a moment Kaplan seemed to waver. "It's possible," he conceded, regarding Anderton steadily. Then he shook his head. "I can't take the chance. If this is a frame against you, I'm sorry. But it's simply not my affair." He smiled slightly. "However, I wish you luck." To the men he said: "Take him to the police building and turn him over to the highest authority." He mentioned the name of the acting commissioner, and waited for Anderton's reaction.
"Witwer!" Anderton echoed, incredulous.
Still smiling slightly, Kaplan turned and clicked on the console radio in the study. "Witwer has already assumed authority. Obviously, he's going to create quite an affair out of this."
There was a brief static hum, and then, abruptly, the radio blared out into the room - a noisy professional voice, reading a prepared announcement.
"... all citizens are warned not to shelter or in any fashion aid or assist this dangerous marginal individual. The extraordinary circumstance of an escaped criminal at liberty and in a position to commit an act of violence is unique in modern times. All citizens are hereby notified that legal statutes still in force implicate any and all persons failing to cooperate fully with the police in their task of apprehending John Allison Anderton. To repeat: The Precrime Agency of the Federal Westbloc Government is in the process of locating and neutralizing its former Commissioner, John Allison Anderton, who, through the methodology of the precrime-system, is hereby declared a potential murderer and as such forfeits his rights to freedom and all its privileges."
"It didn't take him long," Anderton muttered, appalled. Kaplan snapped off the radio and the voice vanished.
"Lisa must have gone directly to him," Anderton speculated bitterly.
"Why should he wait?" Kaplan asked. "You made your intentions clear."
He nodded to his men. "Take him back to town. I feel uneasy having him so close. In that respect I concur with Commissioner Witwer. I want him neutralized as soon as possible."