Jery Delvin had a most unusual talent. He could detect the flaws in any scheme almost on sight-even where they had eluded the best brains in the ad agency where he worked. So when the Chief of World Security told him that he had been selected as the answer to the Solar System's greatest mystery, Jery assumed that it was because of his mental agility. But when he got to Mars to find out why fifteen boys had vanished from a spaceship in mid-space, he found out that even his quick mind needed time to pierce the maze of out-of-this-world double-dealing. For Jery had become a walking bomb, and when he set himself off, it would be the end of the whole puzzle of The Secret Martians-with Jery as the first to go!
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Copyright © 2016 by Jack Sharkey
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I WAS SITTING AT my desk, trying to decide how to tell the women of America that they were certain to be lovely in a Plasti-Flex brassiere without absolutely guaranteeing them anything, when the two security men came to get me. I didn’t quite believe it at first, when I looked up and saw them, six-feet-plus of steel nerves and gimlet eyes, staring down at me, amidst my litter of sketches, crumpled copy sheets and deadline memos.
It was only a fraction of an instant between the time I saw them and the time they spoke to me, but in that miniscule interval I managed to retrace quite a bit of my lifetime up till that moment, seeking vainly for some reason why they’d be standing there, so terribly and inflexibly efficient looking. Mostly, I ran back over all the ads I’d created and/or okayed for Solar Sales, Inc. during my five years with the firm, trying to see just where I’d gone and shaken the security of the government. I couldn’t find anything really incriminating, unless maybe it was that hair dye that unexpectedly turned bright green after six weeks in the hair, but that was the lab’s fault, not mine. So I managed a weak smile toward the duo, and tried not to sweat too profusely.
“Jery Delvin?” said the one on my left, a note of no-funny-business in his brusque baritone.
“... Yes,” I said, some terrified portion of my mind waiting masochistically for them to draw their collapsers and reduce me to a heap of hot protons.
“Come with us,” said his companion. I stared at him, then glanced hopelessly at the jumble of things on my desk. “Never mind that stuff,” he added.
I rose from my place, slipped my jacket from its hook, and started across the office toward the door, each of them falling into rigid step beside me. Marge, my secretary, stood wide-eyed as we passed through her office, heading for the hall exit.
“Mr. Delvin,” she said, her voice a wispy croak. “When will you be back? The Plasti-Flex man is waiting for your—”
I opened my mouth, but one of the security men cut in.
“You will be informed,” he said to Marge.
She was staring after me, open-mouthed, as the door slid neatly shut behind us.
“W-Will I be back?” I asked desperately, as we waited for the elevator. “At all? Am I under arrest? What’s up, anyhow?”
“You will be informed,” said the man again. I had to let it go at that. Security men were not hired for their loquaciousness. They had a car waiting at the curb downstairs, in the No Parking zone. The cop on the beat very politely opened the door for them when we got there. Those red-and-bronze uniforms carry an awful lot of weight. Not to mention the golden bulk of their holstered collapsers.
There was nothing for me to do but sweat it out and to try and enjoy the ride, wherever we were going.
“You are Jery Delvin?”
The man who spoke seemed more than surprised; he seemed stunned. His voice held an incredulous squeak, a squeak which would have amazed his subordinates. It certainly amazed me. Because the speaker was Philip Baxter, Chief of Interplanetary Security, second only to the World President in power, and not even that in matters of security. I managed to nod.
He shook his white-maned head, slowly. “I don’t believe it.”
“But I am, sir,” I insisted doggedly.
Baxter pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes for a moment, then sighed, grinned wryly, and waggled an index finger at an empty plastic contour chair.
“I guess maybe you are at that, son. Sit down, sit down.”
I folded gingerly at knees and hips and slid back into the chair, pressing my perspiring palms against the sides of my pants to get rid of their uncomfortably slippery feel. “Thank you, sir.”
There was a silence, during which I breathed uneasily, and a bit too loudly. Baxter seemed to be trying to say something.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called—” he started, then stopped short and flushed with embarrassment. I felt a sympathetic hot wave flooding my own features. A copy chief in an advertising company almost always reacts to an obvious cliche.
Then, with something like a look of relief on his blunt face, he snatched up a brochure from his kidney-shaped desktop and his eyes raced over the lettering on its face.
“Jery Delvin,” he read, musingly and dispassionately. “Five foot eleven inches tall, brown hair, slate-gray eyes. Citizen. Honest, sober, civic-minded, slightly antisocial....”
He looked at me, questioningly.
“I’d rather not discuss that, sir, if you don’t mind.”
“Do you mind if I do mind?”
“Oh ... Oh, well if you put it like that. It’s girls, sir. They block my mind. Ruin my work.”
“I don’t get you.”
“Well, in my job—See, I’ve got this gift. I’m a spotter.”
“A spotter. I can’t be fooled. By advertising. Or mostly anything else. Except girls.”
“I’m still not sure that I—”
“It’s like this. I designate ratios, by the minute. They hand me a new ad, and I read it by a stopwatch. Then, as soon as I spot the clinker, they stop the watch. If I get it in five seconds, it passes. But if I spot it in less, they throw it out and start over again. Or is that clear? No, I guess you’re still confused, sir.”
“Just a bit,” Baxter said.
I took a deep breath and tried again.
“Maybe an example would be better. Uh, you know the one about ‘Three out of five New York lawyers use Hamilton Bond Paper for note-taking’?”
“I’ve heard that, yes.”
“Well, the clinker—that’s the sneaky part of the ad, sir, or what we call weasel-wording—the clinker in that one is that while it seems to imply sixty percent of New York lawyers, it actually means precisely what it says: Three out of five. For that particular product, we had to question seventy-nine lawyers before we could come up with three who liked Hamilton Bond, see? Then we took the names of the three, and the names of two of the seventy-six men remaining, and kept them on file.”
“On file?” Baxter frowned. “What for?”
“In case the Federal Trade Council got on our necks. We could prove that three out of five lawyers used the product. Three out of those five. See?”
“Ah,” said Baxter, grinning. “I begin to. And your job is to test these ads, before they reach the public. What fools you for five seconds will fool the average consumer indefinitely.”
I sat back, feeling much better. “That’s right, sir.”
Then Baxter frowned again. “But what’s this about girls?”
“They—they block my thinking, sir, that’s all. Why, take that example I just mentioned. In plain writing, I caught the clinker in one-tenth of a second. Then they handed me a layout with a picture of a lawyer dictating notes to his secretary on it. Her legs were crossed. Nice legs. Gorgeous legs....”
“How long that time, Delvin?”
“Indefinite. Till they took the girl away, sir.”
Baxter cleared his throat loudly. “I understand, at last. Hence your slight antisocial rating. You avoid women in order to keep your job.”
“Yes, sir. Even my secretary, Marge, whom I’d never in a million years think of looking at twice, except for business reasons, of course, has to stay out of my office when I’m working, or I can’t function.”
“You have my sympathy, son,” Baxter said, not unkindly.
“Thank you, sir. It hasn’t been easy.”
“No, I don’t imagine it has....” Baxter was staring into some far-off distance. Then he remembered himself and blinked back to the present. “Delvin,” he said sharply. “I’ll come right to the point. This thing is.... You have been chosen for an extremely important mission.”
I couldn’t have been more surprised had he announced my incipient maternity, but I was able to ask, “Me? For Pete’s sake, why, sir?”
Baxter looked me square in the eye. “Damned if I know!”
I STARED AT HIM, nonplussed. He’d spoken with evidence of utmost candor, and the Chief of Interplanetary Security was not one to be accused of a friendly josh, but—"You’re kidding!” I said. “You must be. Otherwise, why was I sent for?”
“Believe me, I wish I knew,” he sighed. “You were chosen, from all the inhabitants of this planet, and all the inhabitants of the Earth Colonies, by the Brain.”
“You mean that International Cybernetics picked me for a mission? That’s crazy, if you’ll pardon me, sir.”
Baxter shrugged, and his genial smile was a bit tightly stretched. “When the current emergency arose and all our usual methods failed, we had to submit the problem to the Brain.”
“And,” I said, beginning to be fascinated by his bewildered manner, “what came out?”
He looked at me for a long moment, then picked up that brochure again, and said, without referring to it, “Jery Delvin, five foot eleven inches tall—”
“Yes, but read me the part where it says why I was picked,” I said, a little exasperated.
Baxter eyed me balefully, then skimmed the brochure through the air in my direction. I caught it just short of the carpet.
“If you can find it, I’ll read it!” he said, almost snarling.
I looked over the sheet, then turned it over and scanned the black opposite side. “All it gives is my description, governmental status, and address!”
“Uh-huh,” Baxter grunted laconically. “It amuses you, does it?” The smile was still on his lips, but there was a grimness in the glitter of his narrowing eyes.
“Not really,” I said hastily. “It baffles me, to be frank.”
“If you’re sitting there in that hopeful stance awaiting some sort of explanation, you may as well relax,” Baxter said shortly. “I have none to make. IC had none to make. Damn it all to hell!” He brought a meaty fist down on the desktop. “No one has an explanation! All we know is that the Brain always picks the right man.”
I let this sink in, then asked, “What made you ask for a man in the first place, sir? I’ve always understood that your own staff represented some of the finest minds—”
“Hold it, son. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. We asked for no man. We asked for a solution to an important problem. And your name was what we got. You, son, are the solution.”
Chief of Security or not, I was getting a little burned up at his highhanded treatment of my emotions. “How nice!” I said icily. “Now if I only knew the problem!”
Baxter blinked, then lost some of his scowl. “Yes, of course;” Baxter murmured, lighting up a cigar. He blew a plume of blue smoke toward the ceiling, then continued. “You’ve heard, of course, of the Space Scouts?”
I nodded. “Like the old-time Boy Scouts, only with rocket-names for their various troops in place of the old animal names.”
“And you recall the recent government-sponsored trip they had? To Mars and back, with the broadly-smiling government picking up the enormous tab?”
I detected a tinge of cynicism in his tone, but said nothing.
“What a gesture!” Baxter went on, hardly speaking directly to me at all. “Inter-nation harmony! Good will! If these mere boys can get together and travel the voids of space, then so can everyone else! Why should there be tensions between the various nations comprising the World Government, when there’s none between these fine lads, one from every civilized nation on Earth?”
“You sound disillusioned, sir,” I interjected.
He stared at me as though I’d just fallen in from the ceiling or somewhere. “Huh? Oh, yes, Delvin, isn’t it? Sorry, I got carried away. Where was I?”
“You were telling about how this gesture, the WG sending these kids off for an extraterrestrial romp, will cement relations between those nations who have remained hostile despite the unification of all governments on Earth. Personally, I think it was a pretty good idea, myself. Everybody likes kids. Take this jam we were trying to push. Pomegranate Nectar, it was called. Well, sir, it just wouldn’t sell, and then we got this red-headed kid with freckles like confetti all over his slightly bucktoothed face, and we—Sir?”
I’d paused, because he was staring at me like a man on the brink of apoplexy. I swallowed, and tried to look relaxed.
After a moment, he found his voice. “To go on, Delvin. Do you recall what happened to the Space Scouts last week?”
I thought a second, then nodded. “They’ve been having such a good time that the government extended their trip by—Why are you shaking your head that way, sir?”
“Because it’s not true, Delvin,” he said. His voice was suddenly old and tired, and very much in keeping with his snowy hair. “You see, the Space Scouts have vanished.”
I came up in the chair, ramrod-straight. “Their mothers—they’ve been getting letters and—”
“Forgeries, Fakes. Counterfeits.”
“You mean whoever took the Scouts is falsifying—”
“No. My men are doing the work. Handpicked crews, day and night, have been sending those letters to the trusting mothers. It’s been ghastly, Delvin. Hard on the men, terribly hard. Undotted i‘s, misuse of tenses, deliberate misspellings. They take it out of an adult, especially an adult with a mind keen enough to get him into Interplanetary Security. We’ve limited the shifts to four hours per man per day. Otherwise, they’d all be gibbering by now!”
“And your men haven’t found out anything?” I marvelled.
Baxter shook his head.
“And you finally had to resort to the Brain, and it gave you my name, but no reason for it?”
Baxter cupped his slightly jowled cheeks in his hands and propped his elbows on the desktop, suddenly slipping out of his high position to talk to me man-to-man. “Look, son, an adding machine—which is a minor form of an electronic brain, and even works on the same principle—can tell you that two and two make four. But can it tell you why?
“Well, no, but—”
“That, in a nutshell is our problem. We coded and fed to the Brain every shred of information at our disposal; the ages of the children, for instance, and all their physical attributes, and where they were last seen, and what they were wearing. Hell, everything! The machine took the factors, weighed them, popped them through its billions of relays and tubes, and out of the end of the answer slot popped a single sheet. The one you just saw. Your dossier.”
“Then I’m to be sent to Mars?” I said, nervously.
“That’s just it,” Baxter sighed. “We don’t even know that! We’re like a savage who finds a pistol: used correctly, it’s a mean little weapon; pointed the wrong way, it’s a quick suicide. So, you are our weapon. Now, the question is: Which way do we point you?”
“You got me!” I shrugged hopelessly.
“However, since we have nothing else to go on but the locale from which the children vanished, my suggestion would be to send you there.”
“Mars, you mean,” I said.
“No, to the spaceship Phobos II. The one they were returning to Earth in when they disappeared.”
“They disappeared from a spaceship? While in space?”
“But that’s impossible,” I said, shaking my head against this disconcerting thought.
“Yes,” said Baxter. “That’s what bothers me.”
PHOBOS II, FOR OBVIOUS reasons, was berthed in a Top Security spaceport. Even so, they’d shuttled it into a hangar, safe from the eyes of even their own men, and as a final touch had hidden the ship’s nameplate beneath magnetic repair-plates.
I had a metal disk—bronze and red, the Security colors—insigniaed by Baxter and counterembossed with the President’s special device, a small globe surmounted by clasping hands. It gave me authority to do anything. With such an identification disc, I could go to Times Square and start machine gunning the passers-by, and not one of New York’s finest would raise a hand to stop me.
And, snugly enholstered, I carried a collapser, the restricted weapon given only to Security Agents, so deadly was its molecule-disrupting beam. Baxter had spent a tremulous hour showing me how to use the weapon, and especially how to turn the beam off. I’d finally gotten the hang of it, though not before half his kidney-shaped desk had flashed into nothingness, along with a good-sized swath of carpeting and six inches of concrete floor.
His parting injunction had been. “Be careful, Delvin, huh?”
Yes, parting. I was on my own. After all, with a Security disc—the Amnesty, they called it—such as I possessed, and a collapser, I could go anywhere, do anything, commandeer anything I might need. All with no questions asked. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty chipper as I entered the hangar housing Phobos II. At the moment, I was the most influential human being in the known universe.
The pilot, as per my videophoned request, was waiting there for me. I saw him as I stepped into the cool shadows of the building from the hot yellow sunlight outside. He was tall, much taller than I, but he seemed nervous as hell. At least he was pacing back and forth amid a litter of half-smoked cigarette butts beside the gleaming tailfins of the spaceship, and a fuming butt was puckered into place in his mouth.
“Anders?” I said, approaching to within five feet of him before halting, to get the best psychological effect from my appearance.
He turned, saw me, and hurriedly spat the butt out onto the cement floor. “Yes, sir!” he said loudly, throwing me a quivering salute. His eyes were a bit wild as they took me in.
And well they might be. An Amnesty-bearer can suddenly decide a subject is not answering questions to his satisfaction and simply blast the annoying party to atoms. It makes for straight responses. Of course, I was dressing the part, in a way. I wore the Amnesty suspended by a thin golden chain from my neck, and for costume I wore a raven-black blouse and matching uniform trousers and boots. I must have looked quite sinister. I’m under six feet, but I’m angular and wiry. Thus, in ominous black, with an Amnesty on my breast and a collapser in my holster, I was a sight to strike even honest citizens into quick examinations of conscience. I felt a little silly, but the outfit was Baxter’s idea.
“I understand you were aboard the Phobos II when the incident occurred?” I said sternly, which was unusual for my wonted demeanor.
“Yes, sir!” he replied swiftly, at stiff attention.
“I don’t really have any details,” I said, and waited for him to take his cue. As an afterthought, to help him talk, I added, “At ease, by the way, Anders.”
“Thank you, sir,” he said, not actually loosening much in his rigid position, but his face looking happier. “See, I was supposed to pilot the kids back here from Mars when their trip was done, and—” He gave a helpless shrug. “I dunno, sir. I got ‘em all aboard, made sure they were secure in the takeoff racks, and then I set my coordinates for Earth and took off. Just a run-of-the-mill takeoff, sir.”
“And when did you notice they were missing?” I asked, looking at the metallic bulk of the ship and wondering what alien force could snatch fifteen fair-sized young boys through its impervious hull without leaving a trace.
“Chow time, sir. That’s when you expect to have the little—to have the kids in your hair, sir. Everyone wants his rations first—You know how kids are, sir. So I went to the galley and was about to open up the ration packs, when I noticed how damned quiet it was aboard. And especially funny that no one was in the galley waiting for me to start passing the stuff out.”
“So you searched,” I said.
Anders nodded sorrowfully. “Not a trace of ‘em, sir. Just some of their junk left in their storage lockers.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Really? I’d be interested in seeing this junk, Anders.”
“Oh, yes, sir. Right this way, sir. Watch out for these rungs, they’re slippery.”
I ascended the retractable metal rungs that jutted from a point between the tailfins to the open airlock, twenty feet over ground level, and followed Anders inside the ship.
I trailed Anders through the ship, from the pilot’s compartment—a bewildering mass of dials, switches, signal lights and wire—through the galley into the troop section. It was a cramped cubicle housing a number of nylon-webbed foam rubber bunks. The bunks were empty, but I looked them over anyhow. I carefully tugged back the canvas covering that fitted envelope-fashion over a foam rubber pad, and ran my finger over the surface of the pad. It came away just slightly gritty.
“Uh-huh!” I said, smiling. Anders just stared at me.
I turned to the storage lockers. “Let’s see this junk they were suddenly deprived of.”
Anders, after a puzzled frown, obediently threw open the doors of the riveted tiers of metal boxes along the rear wall; the wall next to the firing chambers, which I had no particular desire to visit. I glanced inside at the articles therein, and noted with interest their similarity.
“Now, then,” I resumed, “the thrust of this rocket to get from Mars to Earth is calculated with regard to the mass on board, is that correct?” He nodded. “Good, that clears up an important point. I’d also like to know if this rocket has a dehumidifying system to keep the cast-off moisture from the passengers out of the air?”
“Well, sure, sir!” said Anders. “Otherwise, we’d all be swimming in our own sweat after a ten-hour trip across space!”
“Have you checked the storage tanks?” I asked. “Or is the cast-off perspiration simply jetted into space?”
“No. It’s saved, sir. It gets distilled and stored for washing and drinking. Otherwise, we’d all dehydrate, with no water to replace the water we lost.”
“Check the tanks,” I said.
Anders, shaking his head, moved into the pilot’s section and looked at a dial there. “Full, sir. But that’s because I didn’t drink very much, and any sweating I did—which was a hell of a lot, in this case—was a source of new water for the tanks.”
“Uh-huh.” I paused and considered. “I suppose the tubing for these tanks is all over the ship? In all the hollow bulkhead space, to take up the moisture fast?”
Anders, hopelessly lost, could only nod wearily.
“Would it hold—” I did some quick mental arithmetic—"let’s say, about twenty-four extra cubic feet?”
He stared, then frowned, and thought hard. “Yes, sir,” he said, after a minute. “Even twice that, with no trouble, but—” He caught himself short. It didn’t pay to be too curious about the aims of an Amnesty-bearer.
“It’s all right, Anders. You’ve been a tremendous help. Just one thing. When you left Mars, you took off from the night side, didn’t you?”
“Why, yes, I did, sir. But how did you—?”
“No matter, Anders. That’ll be all.”
“Yes, sir!” He saluted sharply and started off.
I started back for Interplanetary Security, and my second—and I hoped, last—interview with Chief Baxter. I had a slight inkling why the Brain had chosen me; because, in the affair of the missing Space Scouts, my infallible talent for spotting the True within the Apparent had come through nicely. I had found a very interesting clinker.
“STRANGE,” I REMARKED TO Chief Baxter when I was seated once again in his office, opposite his newly replaced desk. “I hardly acted like myself out at that airfield. I was brusque, highhanded, austere, almost malevolent with the pilot. And I’m ordinarily on the shy side, as a matter of fact.”
“It’s the Amnesty that does it,” he said, gesturing toward the disc. It lay on his desk, now, along with the collapser. I felt, with the new information I’d garnered, that my work was done, and that the new data fed into the Brain would produce some other results, not involving me.
I looked at the Amnesty, then nodded. “Kind of gets you, after awhile. To know that you are the most influential person in creation is to automatically act the part. A shame, in a way.”
“The hell it is!” Baxter snapped. “Good grief, man, why’d you think the Amnesty was created in the first place?”
I sat up straight and scratched the back of my head. “Now you mention it, I really don’t know. It seems a pretty dangerous thing to have about, the way people jump when they see it.”
“It is dangerous, of course, but it’s vitally necessary. You’re young, Jery Delvin, and even the finest history course available these days is slanted in favor of World Government. So you have no idea how tough things were before the Amnesty came along. Ever hear of red tape?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t believe so. Unless it had something to do with the former communist menace? They called themselves the Reds, I believe....”
He waved me silent. “No connection at all, son. No, red tape was, well, involvement. Forms to be signed, certain factors to be considered, protocol to be dealt with, government agencies to be checked with, classifications, bureaus, sub-bureaus, congressional committees. It was impossible, Jery, my boy, to get anything done whatsoever without consulting someone else. And the time lag and paperwork involved made accurate and swift action impossible, sometimes. What we needed, of course, was a person who could simply have all authority, in order to save the sometimes disastrous delays. So we came up with the Amnesty.”
“But the danger. If you should pick the wrong man—”
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