"The Weapon Shop" by A. E. van Vogt (1942)
Wednesday 17 May 2017, by
One of van Vogt’s iconic stories, this theme of a mysterious "Weapon Shop" organization, subtly fighting to oppose by advanced technological, ideological and organisational means the overreaching tyranny of a populist-style family dictatorship, provided the central theme to a number of works by van Vogt during the forties and early fifties.
This series of stories and novels, all placed 7,000 years in the future and all featuring a vast network of technologically-advanced semi-underground Weapon Shops, the young and very dynamic but ultra-autocratic Empress Innelda Isher, and an average-citizen hero initially devoted to the powers that be, includes:
This quite elaborate and well-developed version of the saga (15,000 words) was first published as the cover story in the December 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with the fine illustrations by Kolliker and the remarkable cover artwork by William Timmins that can be admired here.
An ebook is available for downloading below.
THE WEAPON SHOP
THE VILLAGE at night made a curiously timeless picture. Fara walked contentedly beside his wife along the street. The air was like wine; and he was thinking dimly of the artist who had come up from Imperial City, and made what the telestats called—he remembered the phrase vividly—" a symbolic painting reminiscent of a scene in the electrical age of seven thousand years ago."
Fara believed that utterly. The street before him with its weedless, automatically tended gardens, its shops set well back among the flowers, its perpetual hard, grassy sidewalks, and its street lamps that glowed from every pore of their structure—this was a restful paradise where time had stood still.
And it was like being a part of life that the great artist’s picture of this quiet, peaceful scene before him was now in the collection of the empress herself. She had praised it, and naturally the thrice-blest artist had immediately and humbly begged her to accept it.
What a joy it must be to be able to offer personal homage to the glorious, the divine, the serenely gracious and lovely Innelda Isher, one thousand one hundred eightieth of her line.
As they walked, Fara half turned to his wife. In the dim light of the nearest street lamp, her kindly, still youthful face was almost lost in shadow. He murmured softly, instinctively muting his voice to harmonize with the pastel shades of night:
"She said—our empress said—that our little village of Glay seemed to her to have in it all the wholesomeness, the gentleness, that constitutes the finest qualities of her people. Wasn’t that a wonderful thought, Creel? She must be a marvelously understanding woman.
He stopped. They had come to a side street, and there was something about a hundred and fifty feet along it that—
"Look!" Fara said hoarsely.
He pointed with rigid arm and finger at a sign that glowed in the night, a sign that read:
THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE
Fara had a strange, empty feeling as he stared at the blazing sign. He saw that other villagers were gathering. He said finally, huskily:
"I’ve heard of these shops. They’re places of infamy, against which the government of the empress will act one of these days. They’re built in hidden factories, and then transported whole to towns like ours and set up in gross defiance of property rights. That one wasn’t there an hour ago."
Fara’s face hardened. His voice had a harsh edge in it, as he said: "Creel, go home."
Fara was surprised when Creel did not move off at once. All their married life, she had had a pleasing habit of obedience that had made cohabitation a wonderful thing. He saw that she was looking at him wide-eyed, and that it was a timid alarm that held her there. She said:
"Fara, what do you intend to do? You’re not thinking of—"
"Go home!" Her fear brought out all the grim determination in his nature. "We’re not going to let such a monstrous thing desecrate our village. Think of it"—his voice shivered before the appalling thought—"this fine, old-fashioned community, which we had resolved always to keep exactly as the empress has it in her picture gallery, debauched now, ruined by this . . . this thing— But we won’t have it; that’s all there is to it."
Creel’s voice came softly out of the half-darkness of the street corner, the timidity gone from it: "Don’t do anything rash, Fara. Remember it is not the first new building to come into Glay—since the picture was painted."
Fara was silent. This was a quality of his wife of which he did not approve, this reminding him unnecessarily of unpleasant facts. He knew exactly what she meant. The gigantic, multi-tentacled corporation, Automatic Atomic Motor Repair Shops, Inc., had come in under the laws of the State with their flashy building, against the wishes of the village council—and had already taken half of Fara’s repair business.
"That’s different!" Fara growled finally. "In the first place people will discover in good time that these new automatic repairers do a poor job. In the second place it’s fair competition. But this weapon shop is a defiance of all the decencies that make life under the House of Isher such a joy. Look at the hypocritical sign: ’The right to buy weapons—’ Aaaaahh!"
He broke off with: "Go home, Creel. We’ll see to it that they sell no weapons in this town."
He watched the slender woman-shape move off into the shadows. She was halfway across the street when a thought occurred to Fara. He called:
"And if you see that son of ours hanging around some street corner, take him home. He’s got to learn to stop staying out so late at night."
The shadowed figure of his wife did not turn; and after watching her for a moment moving along against the dim background of softly glowing street lights, Fara twisted on his heel, and walked swiftly toward the shop. The crowd was growing larger every minute, and the
night pulsed with excited voices.
Beyond doubt, here was the biggest thing that had ever happened to the village of Glay.
The sign of the weapon shop was, he saw, a normal-illusion affair. No matter what his angle of view, he was always looking straight at it. When he paused finally in front of the great display window, the words had pressed back against the store front, and were staring unwinkingly down at him.
Fara sniffed once more at the meaning of the slogan, then forgot the simple thing. There was another sign in the window, which read:
THE FINEST ENERGY WEAPONS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE
A spark of interest struck fire inside Fara. He gazed at that brilliant display of guns, fascinated in spite of himself. The weapons were of every size, ranging from tiny little finger pistols to express rifles. They were made of every one of the light, hard, ornamental substances: glittering glassein, the colorful but opaque Ordine plastic, viridescent magnesitic beryllium. And others.
It was the very deadly extent of the destructive display that brought a chill to Fara. So many weapons for the little village of Glay, where not more than two people to his knowledge had guns, and those only for hunting. Why, the thing was absurd, fantastically mischievous, utterly threatening.
Somewhere behind Fara, a man said: "It’s right on Lan Harris’s lot. Good joke on that old scoundrel. Will he raise a row!"
There was a faint titter from several men, that made an odd patch of sound on the warm, fresh air. And Fara saw that the man had spoken the truth. The weapon shop had a forty-foot frontage. And it occupied the very center of the green, garden-like lot of tight-fisted old Harris.
Fara frowned. The clever devils, the weapon-shop people, selecting the property of the most disliked man in town, coolly taking it over and giving everybody an agreeable titillation. But the very cunning of it made it vital that the trick shouldn’t succeed.
He was still scowling anxiously when he saw the plump figure of Mel Dale, the mayor. Fara edged toward him hurriedly, touched his hat respectfully, and said:
"Here." The village constable elbowed his way through a little bundle of men. "Any plans?" he said.
"There’s only one plan," said Fara boldly. "Go in and arrest them."
To Fara’s amazement, the two men looked at each other, then at the ground. It was the big constable who answered shortly:
"Door’s locked. And nobody answers our pounding. I was just going to suggest we let the matter ride until morning."
"Nonsense!" His very astonishment made Fara impatient. "Get an ax and we’ll break the door down. Delay will only encourage such riffraff to resist. We don’t want their kind in our village for so much as a single night. Isn’t that so?"
There was a hasty nod of agreement from everybody in his immediate vicinity. Too hasty. Fara looked around puzzled at eyes that lowered before his level gaze. He thought: "They are all scared. And unwilling." Before he could speak, Constable Jor said:
"I guess you haven’t heard about those doors or these shops. From all accounts, you can’t break into them."
It struck Fara with a sudden pang that it was he who would have to act here. He said, "I’ll get my atomic cutting machine from my shop. That’ll fix them. Have I your permission to do that, Mr. Mayor?"
In the glow of the weapon-shop window, the plump man was sweating visibly. He pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped his forehead. He said:
"Maybe I’d better call the commander of the Imperial garrison at Ferd, and ask them."
"No!" Fara recognized evasion when he saw it. He felt himself steel; the conviction came that all the strength in this village was in him. "We must act ourselves. Other communities have let these people get in because they took no decisive action. We’ve got to resist to the limit. Beginning now. This minute. Well?"
The mayor’s "All right!" was scarcely more than a sigh of sound. But it was all Fara needed.
He called out his intention to the crowd; and then, as he pushed his way out of the mob, he saw his son standing with some other young men staring at the window display.
Fara called: "Cayle, come and help me with the machine."
Cayle did not even turn; and Fara hurried on, seething. That wretched boy! One of these days he, Fara, would have to take firm action there. Or he’d have a no-good on his hands.
The energy was soundless—and smooth. There was no sputter, no fireworks. It glowed with a soft, pure white light, almost caressing the metal panels of the door—but not even beginning to sear them.
Minute after minute, the dogged Fara refused to believe the incredible failure, and played the boundlessly potent energy on that resisting wall. When he finally shut off his machine, he was perspiring freely.
"I don’t understand it," he gasped. "Why—no metal is supposed to stand up against a steady flood of atomic force. Even the hard metal plates used inside the blast chamber of a motor take the explosions in what is called infinite series, so that each one has unlimited rest. That’s the theory, but actually steady running crystallizes the whole plate after a few months."
"It’s as Jor told you," said the mayor. "These weapon shops are—big. They spread right through the empire, and they don’t recognize the empress."
Fara shifted his feet on the hard grass, disturbed. He didn’t like this kind of talk. It sounded—sacrilegious. And besides it was nonsense. It must be. Before he could speak, a man said somewhere behind him:
"I’ve heard it said that that door will open only to those who cannot harm the people inside."
The words shocked Fara out of his daze. With a start, and for the first time, he saw that his failure had had a bad psychological effect. He said sharply:
"That’s ridiculous! If there were doors like that, we’d all have them. We—"
The thought that stopped his words was the sudden realization that he had not seen anybody try to open the door; and with all this reluctance around him it was quite possible that—
He stepped forward, grasped at the doorknob, and pulled. The door opened with an unnatural weightlessness that gave him the fleeting impression that the knob had come loose into his hand. With a gasp, Fara jerked the door wide open.
"Jor!" he yelled. "Get in!"
The constable made a distorted movement—distorted by what must have been a will to caution, followed by the instant realization that he could not hold back before so many. He leaped awkwardly toward the open door—and it closed in his face.
Fara stared stupidly at his hand, which was still clenched. And then, slowly, a hideous thrill coursed along his nerves. The knob had —withdrawn. It had twisted, become viscous, and slipped amorphously from his straining fingers. Even the memory of that brief sensation gave him a feeling of unnormal things.
He grew aware that the crowd was watching with a silent intentness. Fara reached again for the knob, not quite so eagerly this time; and it was only a sudden realization of his reluctance that made him angry when the handle neither turned nor yielded in any way.
Determination returned in full force, and with it came a thought. He motioned to the constable. "Go back, Jor, while I pull."
The man retreated, but it did no good. And tugging did not help. The door would not open. Somewhere in the crowd, a man said darkly:
"It decided to let you in, then it changed its mind."
"What foolishness are you talking!" Fara spoke violently. "It changed its mind. Are you crazy? A door has no sense."
But a surge of fear put a half-quaver into his voice. It was the sudden alarm that made him bold beyond all his normal caution. With a jerk of his body, Fara faced the shop.
The building loomed there under the night sky, in itself bright as day, huge in width and length, and alien, menacing, no longer easily conquerable. The dim queasy wonder came as to what the soldiers of the empress would do if they were invited to act. And suddenly—a bare, flashing glimpse of a grim possibility—the feeling grew that even they would be able to do nothing.
Abruptly, Fara was conscious of horror that such an idea could enter his mind. He shut his brain tight, said wildly:
"The door opened for me once. It will open again."
It did. Quite simply it did. Gently, without resistance, with that same sensation of weightlessness, the strange, sensitive door followed the tug of his fingers. Beyond the threshold was dimness, a wide, darkened alcove. He heard the voice of Mel Dale, the
mayor, behind him saying:
"Fara, don’t be a fool. What will you do inside?"
Fara was vaguely amazed to realize that he had stepped across the threshold. He turned, startled, and stared at the blur of faces. "Why—" he began blankly; then he brightened; he said, "Why, I’ll buy a gun, of course."
The brilliance of his reply, the cunning implicit in it, dazzled Fara for half a minute longer. The mood yielded slowly, as he found himself in the dimly lighted interior of the weapon shop.
It was preternaturally quiet inside. Not a sound penetrated from the night from which he had come; and the startled thought came that the people of the shop might actually be unaware that there was a crowd outside.
Fara walked forward gingerly on a rugged floor that muffled his footsteps utterly. After a moment, his eyes accustomed themselves to the soft lighting, which came like a reflection from the walls and ceilings. In a vague way, he had expected ultranormalness; and the ordinariness of the atomic lighting acted like a tonic to his tensed nerves.
He shook himself angrily. Why should there be anything really superior? He was getting as bad as those credulous idiots out in the street.
He glanced around with gathering confidence. The place looked quite common. It was a shop, almost scantily furnished. There were showcases on the walls and on the floor, glitteringly lovely things, but nothing unusual, and not many of them—a few dozens. There was in addition a double, ornate door leading to a back room—
Fara tried to keep one eye on that door, as he examined several showcases, each with three or four weapons either mounted or arranged in boxes or holsters.
Abruptly, the weapons began to excite him. He forgot to watch the door, as the wild thought struck that he ought to grab one of those guns from a case, and then the moment someone came, force him outside where Jor would perform the arrest and—
Behind him, a man said quietly: "You wish to buy a gun?"
Fara turned with a jump. Brief rage flooded him at the way his plan had been wrecked by the arrival of the clerk.
The anger died as he saw that the intruder was a fine-looking, silver-haired man, older than himself. That was immeasurably disconcerting. Fara had an immense and almost automatic respect for age, and for a long second he could only stand there gaping. He said at last, lamely:
"Yes, yes, a gun."
"For what purpose?" said the man in his quiet voice.
Fara could only look at him blankly. It was too fast. He wanted to get mad. He wanted to tell these people what he thought of them. But the age of this representative locked his tongue, tangled his emotions. He managed speech only by an effort of will:
"For hunting." The plausible word stiffened his mind. "Yes, definitely for hunting. There is a lake to the north of here," he went on more fulsomely, glibly, "and—"
He stopped, scowling, startled at the extent of his dishonesty. He was not prepared to go so deeply into prevarication. He said curtly: "For hunting."
Fara was himself again. Abruptly, he hated the man for having put him so completely at a disadvantage. With smoldering eyes he watched the old fellow click open a showcase, and take out a green-shining rifle.
As the man faced him, weapon in hand, Fara was thinking grimly, "Pretty clever, having an old man as a front." It was the same kind of cunning that had made them choose the property of Miser Harris. Icily furious, taut with his purpose, Fara reached for the gun; but the man held it out of his reach, saying:
"Before I can even let you test this, I am compelled by the by-laws of the weapon shops to inform you under what circumstances you may purchase a gun."
So they had private regulations. What a system of psychology tricks to impress gullible fools! Well, let the old scoundrel talk. As soon as he, Fara, got hold of the rifle, he’d put an end to hypocrisy.
"We weapons makers," the clerk was saying mildly, "have evolved guns that can, in their particular ranges, destroy any machine or object made of what is called matter. Thus whoever possesses one of our weapons is the equal and more of any soldier of the empress. I say more because each gun is the center of a field of force which acts as a perfect screen against immaterial destructive forces. That screen offers no resistance to clubs or spears or bullets, or other material substances, but it would require a small atomic cannon to penetrate the superb barrier it creates around its owner.
"You will readily comprehend," the man went on, "that such a potent weapon could not be allowed to fall, unmodified, into irresponsible hands. Accordingly, no gun purchased from us may be used for aggression or murder. In the case of the hunting rifle, only such specified game birds and animals as we may from time to time list in our display windows may be shot. Finally, no weapon can be resold without our approval. Is that clear?"
Fara nodded dumbly. For the moment, speech was impossible to him. The incredible, fantastically stupid words were still going round and around in his head. He wondered if he ought to laugh out loud, or curse the man for daring to insult his intelligence so
So the gun mustn’t be used for murder or robbery. So only certain birds and animals could be shot. And as for reselling it, suppose—suppose he bought this thing, took a trip of a thousand miles, and offered it to some wealthy stranger for two credits—who would ever know?
Or suppose he held up the stranger. Or shot him. How would the weapon shop ever find out? The thing was so ridiculous that—
He grew aware that the gun was being held out to him stock first. He took it eagerly, and had to fight the impulse to turn the muzzle directly on the old man. Mustn’t rush this, he thought tautly. He said:
"How does it work?"
"You simply aim it, and pull the trigger. Perhaps you would like to try it on a target we have."
Fara swung the gun up. "Yes," he said triumphantly, "and you’re it. Now, just get over there to the front door, and then outside."
He raised his voice: "And if anybody’s thinking of coming through the back door, I’ve got that covered, too."
He motioned jerkily at the clerk. "Quick now, move! I’ll shoot! I swear I will."
The man was cool, unflustered. "I have no doubt you would. When we decided to attune the door so that you could enter despite your hostility, we assumed the capacity for homicide. However, this is our party. You had better adjust yourself accordingly, and look behind you—"
There was silence. Finger on trigger, Fara stood moveless. Dim thoughts came of all the half-things he had heard in his days about the weapon shops: that they had secret supporters in every district, that they had a private and ruthless hidden government, and that once you got into their clutches, the only way out was death and—
But what finally came clear was a mind picture of himself, Fara Clark, family man, faithful subject of the empress, standing here in this dimly lighted store, deliberately fighting an organization so vast and menacing that— He must have been mad.
Only—here he was. He forced courage into his sagging muscles. He said:
"You can’t fool me with pretending there’s someone behind me. Now, get to that door. And fast!"
The firm eyes of the old man were looking past him. The man said quietly: "Well, Rad, have you all the data?"
"Enough for a primary," said a young man’s baritone voice behind Fara. "Type A-7 conservative. Good average intelligence, but a Monaric development peculiar to small towns. One-sided outlook fostered by the Imperial schools present in exaggerated form. Extremely honest. Reason would be useless. Emotional approach would require extended treatment. I see no reason why we should bother. Let him live his life as it suits him."
"If you think," Fara said shakily, "that that trick voice is going to make me turn, you’re crazy. That’s the left wall of the building. I know there’s no one there."
"I’m all in favor, Rad," said the old man, "of letting him live his life. But he was the prime mover of the crowd outside. I think he should be discouraged."
"We’ll advertise his presence," said Rad. "He’ll spend the rest of his life denying the charge."
Fara’s confidence in the gun had faded so far that, as he listened in puzzled uneasiness to the incomprehensible conversation, he forgot it completely. He parted his lips, but before he could speak, the old man cut in, persistently:
"I think a little emotion might have a long-run effect. Show him the palace."
Palace! The startling word tore Fara out of his brief paralysis. "See here," he began, "I can see now that you lied to me. This gun isn’t loaded at all. It’s—"
His voice failed him. Every muscle in his body went rigid. He stared like a madman. There was no gun in his hands.
"Why, you—" he began wildly. And stopped again. His mind heaved with imbalance. With a terrible effort he fought off the spinning sensation, thought finally, tremblingly: Somebody must have sneaked the gun from him. That meant—there was someone behind him. The voice was no mechanical thing. Somehow, they had—
He started to turn—and couldn’t. What in the name of— He struggled, pushing with his muscles. And couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, couldn’t even—
The room was growing curiously dark. He had difficulty seeing the old man and— He would have shrieked then if he could. Because the weapon shop was gone. He was—
He was standing in the sky above an immense city.
In the sky, and nothing beneath him, nothing around him but air, and blue summer heaven, and the city a mile, two miles below.
Nothing, nothing— He would have shrieked, but his breath seemed solidly embedded in his lungs. Sanity came back as the remote awareness impinged upon his terrified mind that he was actually standing on a hard floor, and that the city must be a picture somehow focused directly into his eyes.
For the first time, with a start, Fara recognized the metropolis below. It was the city of dreams, Imperial City, capital of the glorious Empress Isher— From his great height, he could see the gardens, the gorgeous grounds of the silver palace, the official Imperial residence itself—
The last tendrils of his fear were fading now before a gathering fascination and wonder; they vanished utterly as he recognized with a ghastly thrill of uncertain expectancy that the palace was drawing nearer at great speed.
"Show him the palace," they had said. Did that mean, could it mean—
That spray of tense thoughts splattered into nonexistence, as the glittering roof flashed straight at his face. He gulped, as the solid metal of it passed through him, and then other walls and ceilings.
His first sense of imminent and mind-shaking desecration came as the picture paused in a great room where a score of men sat around a table at the head of which sat—a young woman.
The inexorable, sacrilegious, limitlessly powered cameras that were taking the picture swung across the table, and caught the woman full face.
It was a handsome face, but there was passion and fury twisting it now, and a very blaze of fire in her eyes, as she leaned forward, and said in a voice at once familiar—how often Fara had heard its calm, measured tones on the telestats—and distorted. Utterly distorted by anger and an insolent certainty of command. That caricature of a beloved voice slashed across the silence as clearly as if he, Fara, was there in that room:
"I want that skunk killed, do you understand? I don’t care how you do it, but I want to hear by tomorrow night that he’s dead."
The picture snapped off and instantly—it was as swift as that—Fara was back in the weapon shop. He stood for a moment, swaying, fighting to accustom his eyes to the dimness; and then—
His first emotion was contempt at the simpleness of the trickery—a motion picture. What kind of a fool did they think he was, to swallow something as transparently unreal as that? He’d—
Abruptly, the appalling lechery of the scheme, the indescribable wickedness of what was being attempted here brought red rage.
"Why, you scum!" he flared. "So you’ve got somebody to act the part of the empress, trying to pretend that— Why, you—"
"That will do," said the voice of Rad; and Fara shook as a big young man walked into his line of vision. The alarmed thought came that people who would besmirch so vilely the character of her imperial majesty would not hesitate to do physical damage to Fara Clark. The young man went on in a steely tone:
"We do not pretend that what you saw was taking place this instant in the palace. That would be too much of a coincidence. But it was taken two weeks ago; the woman is the empress. The man whose death she ordered is one of her many former lovers. He was found murdered two weeks ago; his name, if you care to look it up in the news files, is Banton McCreddie. However, let that pass. We’re finished with you now and—"
"But I’m not finished," Fara said in a thick voice. "I’ve never heard or seen so much infamy in all my life. If you think this town is through with you, you’re crazy. We’ll have a guard on this place day and night, and nobody will get in or out. We’ll—"
"That will do." It was the silver-haired man;. and Fara stopped out of respect for age, before he thought. The old man went on: "The examination has been most interesting. As an honest man, you may call on us if you are ever in trouble. That is all. Leave through
the side door."
It was all. Impalpable forces grabbed him, and he was shoved at a door that appeared miraculously in the wall, where seconds before the palace had been.
He found himself standing dazedly in a flower bed, and there was a swarm of men to his left. He recognized his fellow townsmen and that he was—outside.
The incredible nightmare was over.
"Where’s the gun?" said Creel, as he entered the house half an hour later.
"The gun?" Fara stared at his wife.
"It said over the radio a few minutes ago that you were the first customer of the new weapon shop. I thought it was queer, but—"
He was eerily conscious of her voice going on for several words longer, but it was the purest jumble. The shock was so great that he had the horrible sensation of being on the edge of an abyss.
So that was what the young man had meant: "Advertise! We’ll advertise his presence and—"
Fara thought: His reputation! Not that his was a great name, but he had long believed with a quiet pride that Fara Clark’s motor repair shop was widely known in the community and countryside.
First, his private humiliation inside the shop. And now this—lying —to people who didn’t know why he had gone into the store. Diabolical.
His paralysis ended, as a frantic determination to rectify the base charge drove him to the telestat. After a moment, the plump, sleepy face of Mayor Mel Dale appeared on the plate. Fara’s voice made a barrage of sound, but his hopes dashed, as the man said:
"I’m sorry, Fara. I don’t see how you can have free time on the telestat. You’ll have to pay for it. They did."
"They did!" Fara wondered vaguely if he sounded as empty as he felt.
"And they’ve just paid Lan Harris for his lot. The old man asked top price, and got it. He just phoned me to transfer the title."
"Oh!" The world was shattering. "You mean nobody’s going to do anything. What about the Imperial garrison at Ferd?"
Dimly, Fara was aware of the mayor mumbling something about the empress’s soldiers refusing to interfere in civilian matters.
"Civilian matters!" Fara exploded. "You mean these people are just going to be allowed to come here whether we want them or not, illegally forcing the sale of lots by first taking possession of them?"
A sudden thought struck him breathless. "Look, you haven’t changed your mind about having Jor keep guard in front of the shop?"
With a start, he saw that the plump face in the telestat plate had grown impatient. "Now, see here, Fara," came the pompous words, "let the constituted authorities handle this matter."
"But you’re going to keep Jor there," Fara said doggedly.
The mayor looked annoyed, said finally peevishly: "I promised, didn’t I? So he’ll be there. And now—do you want to buy time on the telestat? It’s fifteen credits for one minute. Mind you, as a friend, I think you’re wasting your money. No one has ever caught up with a false statement."
Fara said grimly: "Put two on, one in the morning, one in the evening."
"All right. We’ll deny it completely. Good night."
The telestat went blank; and Fara sat there. A new thought hardened his face. "That boy of ours—there’s going to be a showdown. He either works in my shop, or he gets no more allowance."
Creel said: "You’ve handled him wrong. He’s twenty-three, and you treat him like a child. Remember, at twenty-three, you were a married man."
"That was different," said Fara. "I had a sense of responsibility. Do you know what he did tonight?"
He didn’t quite catch her answer. For the moment, he thought she said: "No; in what way did you humiliate him first?"
Fara felt too impatient to verify the impossible words. He rushed on: "He refused in front of the whole village to give me help. He’s a bad one, all bad."
"Yes," said Creel in a bitter tone, "he is all bad. I’m sure you don’t realize how bad. He’s as cold as steel, but without steel’s strength or integrity. He took a long time, but he hates even me now, because I stood up for your side so long, knowing you were wrong."
"What’s that?" said Fara, startled; then gruffly: "Come, come, my dear, we’re both upset. Let’s go to bed."
He slept poorly.
There were days then when the conviction that this was a personal fight between himself and the weapon shop lay heavily on Fara. Grimly, though it was out of his way, he made a point of walking past the weapon shop, always pausing to speak to Constable Jor and—
On the fourth day, the policeman wasn’t there.
Fara waited patiently at first, then angrily; then he walked hastily to his shop, and called Jor’s house. No, Jor wasn’t home. He was guarding the weapon store.
Fara hesitated. His own shop was piled with work, and he had a guilty sense of having neglected his customers for the first time in his life. It would be simple to call up the mayor and report Jor’s dereliction. And yet—
He didn’t want to get the man into trouble—
Out in the street, he saw that a large crowd was gathering in front of the weapon shop. Fara hurried. A man he knew greeted him excitedly:
"Jor’s been murdered, Fara!"
"Murdered!" Fara stood stock-still, and at first he was not clearly conscious of the grisly thought that was in his mind: Satisfaction! A flaming satisfaction. Now, he thought, even the soldiers would have to act. They—
With a gasp, he realized the ghastly tenor of his thoughts. He shivered, but finally pushed the sense of shame out of his mind. He said slowly:
"Where’s the body?"
"You mean, those . . . scum—" In spite of himself, he hesitated over the epithet; even now, it was difficult to think of the fine-faced, silver-haired old man in such terms. Abruptly, his mind hardened; he flared: "You mean those scum actually killed him, then pulled his body inside?"
"Nobody saw the killing," said a second man beside Fara, "but he’s gone, hasn’t been seen for three hours. The mayor got the weapon shop on the telestat, but they claim they don’t know anything. They’ve done away with him, that’s what, and now they’re pretending innocence. Well, they won’t get out of it as easily as that. Mayor’s gone to phone the soldiers at Ferd to bring up some big guns and—"
Something of the intense excitement that was in the crowd surged through Fara, the feeling of big things brewing. It was the most delicious sensation that had ever tingled along his nerves, and it was all mixed with a strange pride that he had been so right about this, that he at least had never doubted that here was evil.
He did not recognize the emotion as the full-flowering joy that comes to a member of a mob. But his voice shook, as he said:
"Guns? Yes, that will be the answer, and the soldiers will have to come, of course."
Fara nodded to himself in the immensity of his certainty that the Imperial soldiers would now have no excuse for not acting. He started to say something dark about what the empress would do if she found out that a man had lost his life because the soldiers had shirked their duty, but the words were drowned in a shout:
"Here comes the mayor! Hey, Mr. Mayor, when are the atomic cannons due?"
There was more of the same general meaning, as the mayor’s sleek, all-purpose car landed lightly. Some of the questions must have reached his honor, for he stood up in the open two-seater, and held up his hand for silence.
To Fara’s astonishment, the plump-faced man looked at him with accusing eyes. The thing seemed so impossible that, quite instinctively, Fara looked behind him. But he was almost alone; everybody else had crowded forward.
Fara shook his head, puzzled by that glare; and then, astoundingly, Mayor Dale pointed a finger at him, and said in a voice that trembled:
"There’s the man who’s responsible for the trouble that’s come upon us. Stand forward, Fara Clark, and show yourself. You’ve cost this town seven hundred credits that we could ill afford to spend."
Fara couldn’t have moved or spoken to save his life. He just stood there in a maze of dumb bewilderment. Before he could even think, the mayor went on, and there was quivering self-pity in his tone:
"We’ve all known that it wasn’t wise to interfere with these weapon shops. So long as the Imperial government leaves them alone, what right have we to set up guards, or act against them? That’s what I’ve thought from the beginning, but this man . . . this . . . this Fara Clark kept after all of us, forcing us to move against our wills, and so now we’ve got a seven-hundred-credit bill to meet and—"
He broke off with: "I might as well make it brief. When I called the garrison, the commander just laughed and said that Jor would turn up. And I had barely disconnected when there was a money call from Jor. He’s on Mars."
He waited for the shouts of amazement to die down. "It’ll take three weeks for him to come back by ship, and we’ve got to pay for it, and Fara Clark is responsible. He—"
The shock was over. Fara stood cold, his mind hard. He said finally, scathingly: "So you’re giving up, and trying to blame me all in one breath. I say you’re all fools."
As he turned away, he heard Mayor Dale saying something about the situation not being completely lost, as he had learned that the weapon shop had been set up in Glay because the village was equidistant from four cities, and that it was the city business the shop was after. This would mean tourists, and accessory trade for the village stores and—
Fara heard no more. Head high, he walked back toward his shop There were one or two catcalls from the mob, but he ignored them.
He had no sense of approaching disaster, simply a gathering fury against the weapon shop, which had brought him to this miserable status among his neighbors.
The worst of it, as the days passed, was the realization that the people of the weapon shop had no personal interest in him. They were remote, superior, undefeatable. That unconquerableness was a dim, suppressed awareness inside Fara.
When he thought of it, he felt a vague fear at the way they had transferred Jor to Mars in a period of less than three hours, when all the world knew that the trip by fastest spaceship required nearly three weeks.
Fara did not go to the express station to see Jor arrive home. He had heard that the council had decided to charge Jor with half of the expense of the trip, on the threat of losing his job if he made a fuss.
On the second night after Jor’s return, Fara slipped down to the constable’s house, and handed the officer one hundred seventy-five credits. It wasn’t that he was responsible, he told Jor, but—
The man was only too eager to grant the disclaimer, provided the money went with it. Fara returned home with a clearer conscience.
It was on the third day after that that the door of his shop banged open and a man came in. Fara frowned as he saw who it was: Castler, a village hanger-on. The man was grinning:
"Thought you might be interested, Fara. Somebody came out of the weapon shop today."
Fara strained deliberately at the connecting bolt of a hard plate of the atomic motor he was fixing. He waited with a gathering annoyance that the man did not volunteer further information. Asking questions would be a form of recognition of the worthless fellow. A developing curiosity made him say finally, grudgingly:
"I suppose the constable promptly picked him up."
He supposed nothing of the kind, but it was an opening. "It wasn’t a man. It was a girl."
Fara knitted his brows. He didn’t like the idea of making trouble for women. But—the cunning devils! Using a girl, just as they had used an old man as a clerk. It was a trick that deserved to fail, the girl probably a tough one who needed rough treatment. Fara said harshly:
"Well, what’s happened?"
"She’s still out, bold as you please. Pretty thing, too."
The bolt off, Fara took the hard plate over to the polisher, and began patiently the long, careful task of smoothing away the crystals that heat had seared on the once shining metal. The soft throb of the polisher made the background to his next words: "Has anything been done?"
"Nope. The constable’s been told, but he says he doesn’t fancy being away from his family for another three weeks, and paying the cost into the bargain."
Fara contemplated that darkly for a minute, as the polisher throbbed on. His voice shook with suppressed fury, when he said finally:
"So they’re letting them get away with it. It’s all been as clever as hell. Can’t they see that they mustn’t give an inch before these . . . these transgressors. It’s like giving countenance to sin."
From the corner of his eye, he noticed that there was a curious grin on the face of the other. It struck Fara suddenly that the man was enjoying his anger. And there was something else in that grin; something—a secret knowledge.
Fara pulled the engine plate away from the polisher. He faced the ne’er-do-well, scathed at him:
"Naturally, that sin part wouldn’t worry you much."
"Oh," said the man nonchalantly, "the hard knocks of life make people tolerant. For instance, after you know the girl better, you yourself will probably come to realize that there’s good in all of us."
It was not so much the words, as the curious I’ve-got-secret-information tone that made Fara snap:
"What do you mean—if I get to know the girl better! I won’t even speak to the brazen creature."
"One can’t always choose," the other said with enormous casualness. "Suppose he brings her home."
"Suppose who brings who home?" Fara spoke irritably. "Castler, you—"
He stopped; a dead weight of dismay plumped into his stomach; his whole being sagged. "You mean—" he said.
"I mean," replied Castler with a triumphant leer, "that the boys aren’t letting a beauty like her be lonesome. And, naturally, your son was the first to speak to her."
He finished: "They’re walkin’ together now on Second Avenue, comin’ this way, so—"
"Get out of here!" Fara roared. "And stay away from me with your gloating. Get out!"
The man hadn’t expected such an ignominious ending. He flushed scarlet, then went out, slamming the door.
Fara stood for a moment, every muscle stiff; then, with an abrupt, jerky movement, he shut off his power, and went out into the street. The time to put a stop to that kind of thing was—now!
He had no clear plan, just that violent determination to put an immediate end to an impossible situation. And it was all mixed up with his anger against Cayle. How could he have had such a worthless son, he who paid his debts and worked hard, and tried to be decent and to live up to the highest standards of the empress?
A brief, dark thought came to Fara that maybe there was some bad blood on Creel’s side. Not from her mother, of course—Fara added the mental thought hastily. There was a fine, hard-working woman, who hung on to her money, and who would leave Creel a tidy sum one of these days.
But Creel’s father had disappeared when Creel was only a child, and there had been some vague scandal about his having taken up with a telestat actress.
And now Cayle with this weapon-shop girl. A girl who had let herself be picked up—
He saw them, as he turned the corner onto Second Avenue. They were walking a hundred feet distant, and heading away from Fara. The girl was tall and slender, almost as big as Cayle, and, as Fara came up, she was saying:
"You have the wrong idea about us. A person like you can’t get a job in our organization. You belong in the Imperial Service, where they can use young men of good education, good appearance and no scruples. I—"
Fara grasped only dimly that Cayle must have been trying to get a job with these people. It was not clear; and his own mind was too intent on his purpose for it to mean anything at the moment. He said harshly:
The couple turned, Cayle with the measured unhurriedness of a young man who has gone a long way on the road to steel-like nerves; the girl was quicker, but withal dignified.
Fara had a vague, terrified feeling that his anger was too great, self-destroying, but the very violence of his emotions ended that thought even as it came. He said thickly:
"Cayle, get home—at once."
Fara was aware of the girl looking at him curiously from strange, gray-green eyes. No shame, he thought, and his rage mounted several degrees, driving away the alarm that came at the sight of the flush that crept into Cayle’s cheeks.
The flush faded into a pale, tight-lipped anger; Cayle half-turned to the girl, said:
"This is the childish old fool I’ve got to put up with. Fortunately, we seldom see each other; we don’t even eat together. What do you think of him?"
The girl smiled impersonally: "Oh, we know Fara Clark; he’s the backbone of the empress in Glay."
"Yes," the boy sneered. "You ought to hear him. He thinks we’re living in heaven; and the empress is the divine power. The worst part of it is that there’s no chance of his ever getting that stuffy look wiped off his face."
They walked off; and Fara stood there. The very extent of what had happened had drained anger from him as if it had never been. There was the realization that he had made a mistake so great that—
He couldn’t grasp it. For long, long now, since Cayle had refused to work in his shop, he had felt this building up to a climax. Suddenly, his own uncontrollable ferocity stood revealed as a partial product of that—deeper—problem.
Only, now that the smash was here, he didn’t want to face it—
All through the day in his shop, he kept pushing it out of his mind, kept thinking:
Would this go on now, as before, Cayle and he living in the same house, not even looking at each other when they met, going to bed at different times, getting up, Fara at 6:30, Cayle at noon? Would that go on through all the days and years to come?
When he arrived home, Creel was waiting for him. She said: "Fara, he wants you to loan him five hundred credits, so that he can go to Imperial City."
Fara nodded wordlessly. He brought the money back to the house the next morning, and gave it to Creel, who took it into the bedroom. She came out a minute later. "He says to tell you good-by." When Fara came home that evening, Cayle was gone. He wondered whether he ought to feel relieved or—what?
The days passed. Fara worked. He had nothing else to do, and the gray thought was often in his mind that now he would be doing it till the day he died. Except—
Fool that he was—he told himself a thousand times how big a fool—he kept hoping that Cayle would walk into the shop and say:
"Father, I’ve learned my lesson. If you can ever forgive me, teach me the business, and then you retire to a well-earned rest."
It was exactly a month to a day after Cayle’s departure that the telestat clicked on just after Fara had finished lunch. "Money call," it sighed, "money call."
Fara and Creel looked at each other. "Eh," said Fara finally, "money call for us."
He could see from the gray look in Creel’s face the thought that was in her mind. He said under his breath: "Damn that boy!"
But he felt relieved. Amazingly, relieved! Cayle was beginning to appreciate the value of parents and—
He switched on the viewer. "Come and collect," he said.
The face that came on the screen was heavy-jowled, beetle-browed—and strange. The man said:
"This is Clerk Pearton of the Fifth Bank of Ferd. We have received a sight draft on you for ten thousand credits. With carrying charges and government tax, the sum required will be twelve thousand one hundred credits. Will you pay it now or will you come in this afternoon and pay it?"
"B-but . . . b-but—" said Fara. "W-who—"
He stopped, conscious of the stupidity of the question, dimly conscious of the heavy-faced man saying something about the money having been paid out to one Cayle Clark, that morning, in Imperial City. At last, Fara found his voice:
"But the bank had no right," he expostulated, "to pay out the money without my authority. I—"
The voice cut him off coldly: "Are we then to inform our central that the money was obtained under false pretenses? Naturally, an order will be issued immediately for the arrest of your son."
"Wait . . . wait—" Fara spoke blindly. He was aware of Creel beside him, shaking her head at him. She was as white as a sheet, and her voice was a sick, stricken thing, as she said:
"Fara, let him go. He’s through with us. We must be as hard—let him go."
The words rang senselessly in Fara’s ears. They didn’t fit into any normal pattern. He was saying:
"I . . . I haven’t got— How about my paying . . . installments? I—"
"If you wish a loan," said Clerk Pearton, "naturally we will be happy to go into the matter. I might say that when the draft arrived, we checked up on your status, and we are prepared to loan you eleven thousand credits on indefinite call with your shop as security.
I have the form here, and if you are agreeable, we will switch this call through the registered circuit, and you can sign at once."
The clerk went on: "The other eleven hundred credits will have to be paid in cash. Is that agreeable?"
"Yes, yes, of course, I’ve got twenty-five hund—" He stopped his chattering tongue with a gulp; then: "Yes, that’s satisfactory."
The deal completed, Fara whirled on his wife. Out of the depths of his hurt and bewilderment, he raged:
"What do you mean, standing there and talking about not paying it? You said several times that I was responsible for his being what he is. Besides, we don’t know why he needed the money. He—" Creel said in a low, dead tone: "In one hour, he’s stripped us of our life work. He did it deliberately, thinking of us as two old fools, who wouldn’t know any better than to pay it."
Before he could speak, she went on: "Oh, I know I blamed you, but in the final issue, I knew it was he. He was always cold and calculating, but I was weak, and I was sure that if you handled him in a different . . . and besides I didn’t want to see his faults for a long
"All I see," Fara interrupted doggedly, "is that I have saved our name from disgrace."
His high sense of duty rightly done lasted until mid-afternoon, when the bailiff from Ferd came to take over the shop.
"But what—" Fara began.
The bailiff said: "The Automatic Atomic Repair Shops, Limited, took over your loan from the bank, and are foreclosing. Have you anything to say?"
"It’s unfair," said Fara. "I’ll take it to court. I’ll—"
He was thinking dazedly: "If the empress ever learned of this, she’d . . . she’d—"
The courthouse was a big, gray building; and Fara felt emptier and colder every second, as he walked along the gray corridors. In Glay, his decision not to give himself into the hands of a bloodsucker of a lawyer had seemed a wise act. Here, in these enormous halls and palatial rooms, it seemed the sheerest folly.
He managed, nevertheless, to give an articulate account of the criminal act of the bank in first giving Cayle the money, then turning over the note to his chief competitor, apparently within minutes of his signing it. He finished with:
"I’m sure, sir, the empress would not approve of such goings-on against honest citizens. I—"
"How dare you," said the cold-voiced creature on the bench, "use the name of her holy majesty in support of your own gross self-interest?"
Fara shivered. The sense of being intimately a member of the empress’s great human family yielded to a sudden chill and a vast mind-picture of the ten million icy courts like this, and the myriad malevolent and heartless men—like this—who stood between the empress and her loyal subject, Fara.
He thought passionately: If the empress knew what was happening here, how unjustly he was being treated, she would—
Or would she?
He pushed the crowding, terrible doubt out of his mind—came out of his hard reverie with a start, to hear the Cadi saying:
"Plaintiff’s appeal dismissed, with costs assessed at seven hundred credits, to be divided between the court and the defense solicitor in the ratio of five to two. See to it that the appellant does not leave till the costs are paid. Next case—"
Fara went alone the next day to see Creel’s mother. He called first at "Farmer’s Restaurant" at the outskirts of the village. The place was, he noted with satisfaction in the thought of the steady stream of money flowing in, half full, though it was only mid-morning. But madame wasn’t there. Try the feed store.
He found her in the back of the feed store, overseeing the weighing-out of grain into cloth measures. The hard-faced old woman heard his story without a word. She said finally, curtly:
"Nothing doing, Fara. I’m one who has to make loans often from the bank to swing deals. If I tried to set you up in business, I’d find the Automatic Atomic Repair people getting after me. Besides, I’d be a fool to turn money over to a man who lets a bad son squeeze a fortune out of him. Such a man has no sense about worldly things.
"And I won’t give you a job because I don’t hire relatives in my business." She finished: "Tell Creel to come and live at my house. I won’t support a man, though. That’s all."
He watched her disconsolately for a while, as she went on calmly superintending the clerks who were manipulating the old, no longer accurate measuring machines. Twice her voice echoed through the dust-filled interior, each time with a sharp: "That’s overweight, a gram at least. Watch your machine."
Though her back was turned, Fara knew by her posture that she was still aware of his presence. She turned at last with an abrupt movement, and said:
"Why don’t you go to the weapon shop? You haven’t anything to lose, and you can’t go on like this."
Fara went out, then, a little blindly. At first the suggestion that he buy a gun and commit suicide had no real personal application. But he felt immeasurably hurt that his mother-in-law should have made it.
Kill himself? Why, it was ridiculous. He was still only a young man, going on fifty. Given the proper chance, with his skilled hands, he could wrest a good living even in a world where automatic machines were encroaching everywhere. There was always room for a man who did a good job. His whole life had been based on that credo.
He went home to find Creel packing. "It’s the common-sense thing to do," she said. "We’ll rent the house and move into rooms."
He told her about her mother’s offer to take her in, watching her face as be spoke. Creel shrugged.
"I told her ’No’ yesterday," she said thoughtfully. "I wonder why she mentioned it to you."
Fara walked swiftly over to the great front window overlooking the garden, with its flowers, its pool, its rockery. He tried to think of Creel away from this garden of hers, this home of two thirds a lifetime, Creel living in rooms—and knew what her mother had meant. There was one more hope—
He waited till Creel went upstairs, then called Mel Dale on the telestat. The mayor’s plump face took on an uneasy expression as he saw who it was.
But he listened pontifically, said finally: "Sorry, the council does not loan money; and I might as well tell you, Fara—I have nothing to do with this, mind you—but you can’t get a license for a shop any more."
"I’m sorry!" The mayor lowered his voice. "Listen, Fara, take my advice and go to the weapon shop. These places have their uses."
There was a click, and Fara sat staring at the blank face of the viewing screen.
So it was to be—death!
He waited until the street was empty of human beings, then slipped across the boulevard, past a design of flower gardens, and so to the door of the shop. The brief fear came that the door wouldn’t open, but it did, effortlessly.
As he emerged from the dimness of the alcove into the shop proper, he saw the silver-haired old man sitting in a corner chair, reading under a softly bright light. The old man looked up, put aside his book, then rose to his feet.
"It’s Mr. Clark," he said quietly. "What can we do for you?"
A faint flush crept into Fara’s cheeks. In a dim fashion, he had hoped that he would not suffer the humiliation of being recognized; but now that his fear was realized, he stood his ground stubbornly. The important thing about killing himself was that there be no body for Creel to bury at great expense. Neither knife nor poison would satisfy that basic requirement.
"I want a gun," said Fara, "that can be adjusted to disintegrate a body six feet in diameter in a single shot. Have you that kind?"
Without a word, the old man turned to a showcase, and brought forth a sturdy gem of a revolver that glinted with all the soft colors of the inimitable Ordine plastic. The man said in a precise voice:
"Notice the flanges on this barrel are little more than bulges. This makes the model ideal for carrying in a shoulder holster under the coat; it can be drawn very swiftly because, when properly attuned, it will leap toward the reaching hand of its owner. At the moment it is attuned to me. Watch while I replace it in its holster and—"
The speed of the draw was absolutely amazing. The old man’s fingers moved; and the gun, four feet away, was in them. There was no blur of movement. It was like the door the night that it had slipped from Fara’s grasp, and slammed noiselessly in Constable Jor’s face. Instantaneous!
Fara, who had parted his lips as the old man was explaining, to protest the utter needlessness of illustrating any quality of the weapon except what he had asked for, closed them again. He stared in a brief, dazed fascination; and something of the wonder that was here held his mind and his body.
He had seen and handled the guns of soldiers, and they were simply ordinary metal or plastic things that one used clumsily like any other material substance, not like this at all, not possessed of a dazzling life of their own, leaping with an intimate eagerness to assist with all their superb power the will of their master. They—
With a start, Fara remembered his purpose. He smiled wryly, and said:
"All this is very interesting. But what about the beam that can fan out?"
The old man said calmly: "At pencil thickness, this beam will pierce any body except certain alloys of lead up to four hundred yards. With proper adjustment of the firing nozzle, you can disintegrate a six-foot object at fifty yards or less. This screw is the adjustor."
He indicated a tiny device in the muzzle itself. "Turn it to the left to spread the beam, to the right to close it."
Fara said: "I’ll take the gun. How much is it?"
He saw that the old man was looking at him thoughtfully; the oldster said finally, slowly: "I have previously explained our regulations to you, Mr. Clark. You recall them, of course?"
"Eh!" said Fara, and stopped, wide-eyed. It wasn’t that he didn’t remember them. It was simply—
"You mean," he gasped, "those things actually apply. They’re not—"
With a terrible effort, he caught his spinning brain and blurring voice. Tense and cold, he said:
"All I want is a gun that will shoot in self-defense, but which I can turn on myself if I have to or—want to."
"Oh, suicide!" said the old man. He looked as if a great understanding had suddenly dawned on him. "My dear sir, we have no objection to your killing yourself at any time. That is your personal privilege in a world where privileges grow scanter every year. As for the price of this revolver, it’s four credits."
"Four cre . . . only four credits!" said Fara.
He stood, absolutely astounded, his whole mind snatched from its dark purpose. Why, the plastic alone was—and the whole gun with its fine, intricate workmanship—twenty-five credits would have been dirt cheap.
He felt a brief thrill of utter interest; the mystery of the weapon shops suddenly loomed as vast and important as his own black destiny. But the old man was speaking again:
"And now, if you will remove your coat, we can put on the holster—"
Quite automatically, Fara complied. It was vaguely startling to realize that, in a few seconds, he would be walking out of here, equipped for self-murder, and that there was now not a single obstacle to his death.
Curiously, he was disappointed. He couldn’t explain it, but somehow there had been in the back of his mind a hope that these shops might, just might—what?
What indeed? Fara sighed wearily—and grew aware again of the old man’s voice, saying:
"Perhaps you would prefer to step out of our side door. It is less conspicuous than the front."
There was no resistance in Fara. He was dimly conscious of the man’s fingers on his arm, half guiding him; and then the old man pressed one of several buttons on the wall—so that’s how it was done— and there was the door.
He could see flowers beyond the opening; without a word he walked toward them. He was outside almost before he realized it.
Fara stood for a moment in the neat little pathway, striving to grasp the finality of his situation. But nothing would come except a curious awareness of many men around him; for a long second, his brain was like a log drifting along a stream at night.
Through that darkness grew a consciousness of something wrong; the wrongness was there in the back of his mind, as he turned leftward to go to the front of the weapon store.
Vagueness transformed to a shocked, startled sound. For—he was not in Glay, and the weapon shop wasn’t where it had been. In its place—
A dozen men brushed past Fara to join a long line of men farther along. But Fara was immune to their presence, their strangeness. His whole mind, his whole vision, his very being was concentrating on the section of machine that stood where the weapon shop had been. A machine, oh, a machine—
His brain lifted up, up in his effort to grasp the tremendousness of the dull-metaled immensity of what was spread here under a summer sun beneath a sky as blue as a remote southern sea.
The machine towered into the heavens, five great tiers of metal, each a hundred feet high; and the superbly streamlined five hundred feet ended in a peak of light, a gorgeous spire that tilted straight up a sheer two hundred feet farther, and matched the very sun for brightness.
And it was a machine, not a building, because the whole lower tier was alive with shimmering lights, mostly green, but sprinkled colorfully with red and occasionally a blue and yellow. Twice, as Fara watched, green lights directly in front of him flashed unscintillatingly into red.
The second tier was alive with white and red lights, although there were only a fraction as many lights as on the lowest tier. The third section had on its dull-metal surface only blue and yellow lights; they twinkled softly here and there over the vast area.
The fourth tier was a series of signs, That brought the beginning. of comprehension. The whole sign was:
WHITE — BIRTHS
RED — DEATHS
GREEN — LIVING
BLUE — IMMIGRATION TO EARTH
YELLOW — EMIGRATION
The fifth tier was also all sign, finally explaining:
SOLAR SYSTEM 19,174,463,747
The numbers changed, even as he looked at them, leaping up and down, shifting below and above what they had first been. People were dying, being born, moving to Mars, to Venus, to the moons of Jupiter, to Earth’s moon, and others coming back again, landing minute by minute in the thousands of spaceports. Life went on in its gigantic fashion—and here was the stupendous record. Here was—
"Better get in line," said a friendly voice beside Fara. "It takes quite a while to put through an individual case, I understand."
Fara stared at the man. He had the distinct impression of having had senseless words flung at him. "In line?" he started—and stopped himself with a jerk that hurt his throat.
He was moving forward, blindly, ahead of the younger man, thinking a curious jumble about that this must have been how Constable Jor was transported to Mars—when another of the man’s words penetrated.
"Case?" said Fara violently. "Individual case!"
The man, a heavy-faced, blue-eyed young chap of around thirty-five, looked at him curiously: "You must know why you’re here," he said. "Surely, you wouldn’t have been sent through here unless you had a problem of some kind that the weapon shop courts will solve for you; there’s no other reason for coming to Information Center."
Fara walked on because he was in the line now, a fast-moving line that curved him inexorably around the machine; and seemed to be heading him toward a door that led into the interior of the great metal structure.
So it was a building as well as a machine.
A problem, he was thinking, why, of course, he had a problem, a hopeless, insoluble, completely tangled problem so deeply rooted in the basic structure of Imperial civilization that the whole world would have to be overturned to make it right.
With a start, he saw that he was at the entrance. And the awed thought came: In seconds he would be committed irrevocably to—what?
Inside was a long, shining corridor, with scores of completely transparent hallways leading off the main corridor. Behind Fara, the young man’s voice said:
"There’s one, practically empty. Let’s go."
Fara walked ahead; and suddenly he was trembling. He had already noticed that at the end of each side hallway were some dozen young women sitting at desks, interviewing men and . . . and, good heavens, was it possible that all this meant—
He grew aware that he had stopped in front of one of the girls.
She was older than she had looked from a distance, over thirty, but good-looking, alert. She smiled pleasantly, but impersonally, and said: "Your name, please?"
He gave it before he thought and added a mumble about being from the village of Glay. The woman said:
"Thank you. It will take a few minutes to get your file. Won’t you sit down?"
He hadn’t noticed the chair. He sank into it; and his heart was beating so wildly that he felt choked. The strange thing was that there was scarcely a thought in his head, nor a real hope; only an intense, almost mind-wrecking excitement.
With a jerk, he realized that the girl was speaking again, but only snatches of her voice came through that screen of tension in his mind:
"—Information Center is . . . in effect . . . a bureau of statistics. Every person born . . . registered here . . . their education, change of address . . . occupation . . . and the highlights of their life. The whole is maintained by . . . combination of . . . unauthorized and unsuspected liaison with . . . Imperial Chamber of Statistics and . . . through medium of agents . . . in every community—"
It seemed to Fara that he was missing vital information, and that if he could only force his attention and hear more— He strained, but it was no use; his nerves were jumping madly and—
Before he could speak, there was a click, and a thin, dark plate slid onto the woman’s desk. She took it up, and examined it. After a moment, she said something into a mouthpiece, and in a short time two more plates precipitated out of the empty air onto her desk. She studied them impassively, looked up finally.
"You will be interested to know," she said, "that your son, Cayle, bribed himself into a commission in the Imperial army with five thousand credits."
"Eh?" said Fara. He half rose from his chair, but before he could say anything, the young woman was speaking again, firmly:
"I must inform you that the weapon shops take no action against individuals. Your son can have his job, the money he stole; we are not concerned with moral correction. That must come naturally from the individual, and from the people as a whole—and now if you will give me a brief account of your problem for the record and the court."
Sweating, Fara sank back into his seat; his mind was heaving; most desperately, he wanted more information about Cayle. He began: "But . . . but what . . . how—" He caught himself; and in a low voice described what had happened. When he finished, the girl said:
"You will proceed now to the Name Room; watch for your name, and when it appears go straight to Room 474. Remember, 474—and now, the line is waiting, if you please—"
She smiled politely, and Fara was moving off almost before he realized it. He half turned to ask another question, but an old man was sinking into his chair. Fara hurried on, along a great corridor, conscious of curious blasts of sound coming from ahead.
Eagerly, he opened the door; and the sound crashed at him with all the impact of a sledge-hammer blow.
It was such a colossal, incredible sound that he stopped short, just inside the door, shrinking back. He stood then trying to blink sense into a visual confusion that rivaled in magnitude that incredible tornado of noise.
Men, men, men everywhere; men by the thousands in a long, broad auditorium, packed into rows of seats, pacing with an abandon of restlessness up and down aisles, and all of them staring with a frantic interest at a long board marked off into squares, each square lettered from the alphabet, from A, B, C and so on to Z. The tremendous board with its lists of names ran the full length of the immense room.
The Name Room, Fara was thinking shakily, as he sank into a seat—and his name would come up in the C’s, and then—
It was like sitting in at a no-limit poker game, watching the jewel-precious cards turn up. It was like playing the exchange with all the world at stake during a stock crash. It was nerve-racking, dazzling, exhausting, fascinating, terrible, mind-destroying, stupendous. It was—
It was like nothing else on the face of the earth.
New names kept flashing on to the twenty-six squares; and men would shout like insane beings and some fainted, and the uproar was absolutely shattering; the pandemonium raged on, one continuous, unbelievable sound.
And every few minutes a great sign would flash along the board, telling everyone:
"WATCH YOUR OWN INITIALS."
Fara watched, trembling in every limb. Each second it seemed to him that he couldn’t stand it an instant longer. He wanted to scream at the room to be silent; he wanted to jump up to pace the floor, but others who did that were yelled at hysterically, threatened wildly, hated with a mad, murderous ferocity.
Abruptly, the blind savagery of it scared Fara. He thought unsteadily: "I’m not going to make a fool of myself. I—"
"Clark, Fara—" winked the board. "Clark, Fara—"
With a shout that nearly tore off the top of his head, Fara leaped to his feet. "That’s me!" he shrieked. "Me!"
No one turned; no one paid the slightest attention. Shamed, he slunk across the room where an endless line of men kept crowding into a corridor beyond.
The silence in the long corridor was almost as shattering as the mind-destroying noise it replaced. It was hard to concentrate on the idea of a number—474.
It was completely impossible to imagine what could lie beyond—474.
The room was small. It was furnished with a small, business-type table and two chairs. On the table were seven neat piles of folders, each pile a different color. The piles were arranged in a row in front of a large, milky-white globe, that began to glow with a soft light. Out of its depths, a man’s baritone voice said:
"Yes," said Fara.
"Before the verdict is rendered in your case," the voice went on quietly, "I want you to take a folder from the blue pile. The list will show the Fifth Interplanetary Bank in its proper relation to yourself and the world, and it will be explained to you in due course."
The list, Fara saw, was simply that, a list of the names of companies. The names ran from A to Z, and there were about five hundred of them. The folder carried no explanation; and Fara slipped it automatically into his side pocket, as the voice came again from the shining
"It has been established," the words came precisely, "that the Fifth Interplanetary Bank perpetrated upon you a gross swindle, and that it is further guilty of practicing scavengery, deception, blackmail and was accessory in a criminal conspiracy.
"The bank made contact with your son, Cayle, through what is quite properly known as a scavenger, that is, an employee who exists by finding young men and women who are normally capable of drawing drafts on their parents or other victims. The scavenger obtains for this service a commission of eight percent, which is always paid by the person making the loan, in this case your son.
"The bank practiced deception in that its authorized agents deceived you in the most culpable fashion by pretending that it had already paid out the ten thousand credits to your son, whereas the money was not paid over until your signature had been obtained.
"The blackmail guilt arises out of a threat to have your son arrested for falsely obtaining a loan, a threat made at a time when no money had exchanged hands. The conspiracy consists of the action whereby your note was promptly turned over to your competitor.
"The bank is accordingly triple-fined, thirty-six thousand three hundred credits. It is not in our interest, Fara Clark, for you to know how this money is obtained. Suffice to know that the bank pays it, and that of the fine the weapon shops allocate to their own treasury a total of one half. The other half—"
There was a plop; a neatly packaged pile of bills fell onto the table. "For you," said the voice; and Fara, with trembling fingers, slipped the package into his coat pocket. It required the purest mental and physical effort for him to concentrate on the next words that came:
"You must not assume that your troubles are over. The re-establishment of your motor repair shop in Glay will require force and courage. Be discreet, brave and determined, and you cannot fail. Do not hesitate to use the gun you have purchased in defense of your rights. The plan will be explained to you. And now, proceed through the door facing you—"
Fara braced himself with an effort, opened the door and walked through.
It was a dim, familiar room that he stepped into, and there was a silver-haired, fine-faced man who rose from a reading chair, and came forward in the dimness, smiling gravely.
The stupendous, fantastic, exhilarating adventure was over; and he was back in the weapon shop of Glay.
He couldn’t get over the wonder of it—this great and fascinating organization established here in the very heart of a ruthless civilization, a civilization that had in a few brief weeks stripped him of everything he possessed.
With a deliberate will, he stopped that glowing flow of thought. A dark frown wrinkled his solidly built face; he said:
"The . . . judge—" Fara hesitated over the name, frowned again, annoyed at himself, then went on: "The judge said that, to re-establish myself I would have to—"
"Before we go into that," said the old man quietly, "I want you to examine the blue folder you brought with you."
"Folder?" Fara echoed blankly. It took a long moment to remember that he had picked up a folder from the table in Room 474.
He studied the list of company names with a gathering puzzlement, noting that the name of Automatic Atomic Motor Repair Shops was well down among the A’s, and the Fifth Interplanetary Bank only one of several great banks included. Fara looked up finally:
"I don’t understand," he said; "are these the companies you have had to act against?"
The silver-haired man smiled grimly, shook his head. "That is not what I mean. These firms constitute only a fraction of the eight hundred thousand companies that are constantly in our books."
He smiled again, humorlessly: "These companies all know that, because of us, their profits on paper bear no relation to their assets. What they don’t know is how great the difference really is; and, as we want a general improvement in business morals, not merely more skillful scheming to outwit us, we prefer them to remain in ignorance."
He paused, and this time he gave Fara a searching glance, said at last: "The unique feature of the companies on this particular list is that they are every one wholly owned by Empress Isher."
He finished swiftly: "In view of your past opinions on that subject, I do not expect you to believe me."
Fara stood as still as death, for—he did believe with unquestioning conviction, completely, finally. The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.
Fara groaned. "I’ve been like a madman," he said. "Everything the empress and her officials did was right. No friendship, no personal relationship could survive with me that did not include belief in things as they were. I suppose if I started to talk against the empress I would receive equally short shrift."
"Under no circumstances," said the old man grimly, "must you say anything against her majesty. The weapon shops will not countenance any such words, and will give no further aid to anyone who is so indiscreet. The reason is that, for the moment, we have reached an uneasy state of peace with the Imperial government. We wish to keep it that way; beyond that I will not enlarge on our policy.
"I am permitted to say that the last great attempt to destroy the weapon shops was made seven years ago, when the glorious Innelda Isher was twenty-five years old. That was a secret attempt, based on a new invention; and failed by purest accident because of our sacrifice of a man from seven thousand years in the past. That may sound mysterious to you, but I will not explain.
"The worst period was reached some forty years ago when every person who was discovered receiving aid from us was murdered in some fashion. You may be surprised to know that your father-in-law was among those assassinated at that time."
"Creel’s father!" Fara gasped. "But—"
He stopped. His brain was reeling; there was such a rush of blood to his head that for an instant he could hardly see.
"But," he managed at last, "it was reported that he ran away with another woman."
"They always spread a vicious story of some kind," the old man said; and Fara was silent, stunned.
The other went on: We finally put a stop to their murders by killing the three men from the top down, excluding the royal family, who gave the order for the particular execution involved. But we do not again want that kind of bloody murder.
"Nor are we interested in any criticism of our toleration of so much that is evil. It is important to understand that we do not interfere in the main stream of human existence. We right wrongs; we act as a barrier between the people and their more ruthless exploiters. Generally speaking, we help only honest men; that is not to say that we do not give assistance to the less scrupulous, but only to the extent of selling them guns—which is a very great aid indeed, and which is one of the reasons why the government is relying almost exclusively for its power on an economic chicanery.
"In the four thousand years since the brilliant genius Walter S. DeLany invented the vibration process that made the weapon shops possible, and laid down the first principles of weapon shop political philosophy, we have watched the tide of government swing backward and forward between democracy under a limited monarchy to complete tyranny. And we have discovered one thing:
"People always have the kind of government they want. When they want change, they must change it. As always we shall remain an incorruptible core—and I mean that literally; we have a psychological machine that never lies about a man’s character—I repeat, an incorruptible core of human idealism, devoted to relieving the ills that arise inevitably under any form of government.
"But now—your problem. It is very simple, really. You must fight, as all men have fought since the beginning of time for what they valued, for their just rights. As you know, the Automatic Repair people removed all your machinery and tools within an hour of foreclosing on your shop. This material was taken to Ferd, and then shipped to a great warehouse on the coast.
"We recovered it, and with our special means of transportation have now replaced the machines in your shop. You will accordingly go there and—"
Fara listened with a gathering grimness to the instructions, nodded finally, his jaw clamped tight.
"You can count on me," he said curtly. "I’ve been a stubborn man in my time; and though I’ve changed sides, I haven’t changed that."
Going outside was like returning from life to—death; from hope to—reality.
Fara walked along the quiet streets of Glay at darkest night. For the first time it struck him that the weapon shop Information Center must be halfway around the world, for it had been day, brilliant day.
The picture vanished as if it had never existed, and he grew aware again, preternaturally aware of the village of Glay asleep all around him. Silent, peaceful—yet ugly, he thought, ugly with the ugliness of evil enthroned.
He thought: The right to buy weapons—and his heart swelled into his throat; the tears came to his eyes.
He wiped his vision clear with the back of his hand, thought of Creel’s long dead father, and strode on, without shame. Tears were good for an angry man.
The shop was the same, but the hard metal padlock yielded before the tiny, blazing, supernal power of the revolver. One flick of fire; the metal dissolved—and he was inside.
It was dark, too dark to see, but Fara did not turn on the lights immediately. He fumbled across to the window control, turned the windows to darkness vibration, and then clicked on the lights.
He gulped with awful relief. For the machines, his precious tools that he had seen carted away within hours after the bailiff’s arrival, were here again, ready for use.
Shaky from the pressure of his emotion, Fara called Creel on the telestat. It took a little while for her to appear; and she was in her dressing robe. When she saw who it was she turned a dead white.
"Fara, oh, Fara, I thought—"
He cut her off grimly: "Creel, I’ve been to the weapon shop. I want you to do this: go straight to your mother. I’m here at my shop. I’m going to stay here day and night until it’s settled that I stay. . . . I shall go home later for some food and clothing, but I want you to be gone by then. Is that clear?"
Color was coming back into her lean, handsome face. She said: "Don’t you bother coming home, Fara. I’ll do everything necessary. I’ll pack all that’s needed into the carplane, including a folding bed. We’ll sleep in the back room of the shop."
Morning came palely, but it was ten o’clock before a shadow darkened the open door; and Constable Jor came in. He looked shamefaced:
"I’ve got an order here for your arrest," he said.
"Tell those who sent you," Fara replied deliberately, "that I resisted arrest—with a gun."
The deed followed the words with such rapidity that Jor blinked. He stood like that for a moment, a big, sleepy-looking man, staring at that gleaming, magical revolver; then:
"I have a summons here ordering you to appear at the great court of Ferd this afternoon. Will you accept it?"
"Then you will be there?"
"I’ll send my lawyer," said Fara. "Just drop the summons on the floor there. Tell them I took it."
The weapon shop man had said: "Do not ridicule by word any legal measure of the Imperial authorities. Simply disobey them."
Jor went out and seemed relieved. It took an hour before Mayor Mel Dale came pompously through the door.
"See here, Fara Clark," he bellowed from the doorway. "You can’t get away with this. This is defiance of the law."
Faro was silent as His Honor waddled farther into the building. It was puzzling, almost amazing, that Mayor Dale would risk his plump, treasured body. Puzzlement ended as the mayor mid in a low voice: "Good work, Fara; I knew you had it in you. There’s dozens of us in Glay behind you, so stick it out. I had to yell at you just now, because there’s a crowd outside. Yell back at me, will you? Let’s have a real name-calling. But first, a word of warning: the manager of the Automatic Repair Shop is on his way here with his bodyguards, two of them—"
Shakily, Fara watched the mayor go out. The crisis was at hand. He braced himself. thought: "Let them come, let them—"
It was easier than he had thought—for the men who entered the shop turned pale when they saw the holstered revolver. There was a violence of blustering, nevertheless, that narrowed finally down to:
"Look here," the man said. "we’ve got your note for twelve thousand one hundred credits. You’re not going to deny you owe that money."
"I’ll buy it back,’ said Fara in a stony voice, "for exactly half, not a cent more."
The strong-jawed young man looked at him for a long time. "Well take it" he said finally, curtly.
Fara said: "I’ve got the agreement here—"
His first customer was old man Miser Lan Harris. Fara stared at the long-faced oldster with a vast surmise, and his first, amazed comprehension came of how the weapon shop must have settled on Harris’s lot—by arrangement.
It was an hour after Harris had gone that Creel’s mother stamped into the shop. She closed the door.
"Well" she said, "you did it, eh? Good work. I’m sorry if I seemed rough with you when you came to my place. but we weapon-shop supporters can’t afford to take risks for those who are not on our side.
"But never mind that. I’ve come to take Creel home. The important thing is to return everything to normal as quickly as possible."
It was over; incredibly it was over. Twice, as he walked home that night, Fara stopped in mid-stride, and wondered if it had not all been a dream. The air was like wine. The little world of Glay spread before him, green and gracious, a peaceful paradise where time had stood still.