Philip K. Dick / A Game of Unchance
Philip K. Dick
A Game of Unchance
While rolling a fifty-gallon drum of water from the canal to his potato garden, Bob Turk heard the roar, glanced up into the haze of the midafternoon Martian sky and saw the great blue interplan ship.
In the excitement he waved. And then he read the words painted on the side of the ship and his joy became alloyed with care. Because this great pitted hull, now lowering itself to a rear-end landing, was a carny ship, come to this region of the fourth planet to transact business.
The painting spelled out:
FALLING STAR ENTERTAINMENT ENTERPRISES
FREAKS, MAGIC, TERRIFYING STUNTS, AND WOMEN!
The final word had been painted largest of all.
I better go tell the settlement council, Turk realized. He left his water drum and trotted toward the shop-area, panting as his lungs struggled to take in the thin, weak air of this unnatural, colonized world. Last time a carnival had come to their area they had been robbed of most of their crops -- accepted by the pitchmen in barter -- and had wound up with nothing more than an armload of useless plaster figurines. It would not happen again. And yet --
He felt the craving within him, the need to be entertained. And they all felt this way; the settlement yearned for the bizarre. Of course the pitchmen knew this, preyed off this. Turk thought, If only we could keep our heads. Barter excess food and cloth-fibers, not what we need. . . not become like a lot of kids. But life in the colony world was monotonous. Carting water, fighting bugs, repairing fences, ceaselessly tinkering with the semi-autonomous robot farm machinery which sustained them. . . it wasn't enough; it had no -- culture. No solemnity.
"Hey," Turk called as he reached Vince Guest's land; Vince sat aboard his one-cylinder plow, wrench in hand. "Hear the noise? Company! More sideshows, like last year -- remember?"
"I remember," Vince said, not looking up. "They got all my squash. The hell with traveling shows." His face became dark.
"This is a different outfit," Turk explained, halting. "I never saw them before; they've got a blue ship and it looks like it's been everywhere. You know what we're going to do? Remember our plan?"
"Some plan," Vince said, closing the jaw of the wrench.
"Talent is talent," Turk babbled, trying to convince -- not merely Vince -- but himself as well; he talked against his own alarm. "All right, so Fred's sort of half-witted; his talent's genuine, I mean, we've tried it out a million times, and why we didn't use it against that carny last year I'll never know. But now we're organized. Prepared."
Raising his head Vince said, "You know what that dumb kid will do? He'll join the carny; he'll leave with it and he'll use his talent on their side -- we can't trust him."
"I trust him," Turk said, and hurried on toward the buildings of the settlement, the dusty, eroded gray structures directly ahead. Already he could see their council chairman, Hoagland Rae, busy at his store; Hoagland rented tired pieces of equipment to settlement members and they all depended on him. Without Hoagland's contraptions no sheep would get sheared, no lambs would be distailed. It was no wonder that Hoagland had become their political -- as well as economic -- leader.
Stepping out onto the hard-packed sand, Hoagland shaded his eyes, wiped his wet forehead with a folded handkerchief and greeted Bob Turk. "Different outfit this time?" His voice was low.
"Right," Turk said, his heart pounding. "And we can take them, Hoag! If we play it right; I mean, once Fred --"
"They'll be suspicious," Hoagland said thoughtfully. "No doubt other settlements have tried to use Psi to win. They may have one of those -- what do you call them? -- those anti-Psi folks with them. Fred's a p-k and if they have an anti-p-k --" He gestured, showing his resignation.
"I'll go tell Fred's parents to get him from school," Bob Turk panted. "It'd be natural for kids to show up right away; let's close the school for this afternoon so Fred's lost in the crowd, you know what I mean? He doesn't look funny, not to me, anyhow." He sniggered.
"True," Hoagland agreed, with dignity. "The Costner boy appears quite normal. Yes, we'll try; that's what we voted to do anyhow, we're committed. Go sound the surplus-gathering bell so these carny boys can see we've got good produce to offer -- I want to see all those apples and walnuts and cabbages and squash and pumpkins piled up --" He pointed to the spot. "And an accurate inventory sheet, with three carbons, in my hands, within one hour." Hoagland got out a cigar, lit up with his lighter. "Get going." Bob Turk went.
As they walked through their south pasture, among the black-face sheep who chewed the hard, dry grass, Tony Costner said to his son, "You think you can manage it, Fred? If not, say so. You don't have to."
Straining, Fred Costner thought he could dimly see the carnival, far off, arranged before the upended interplan ship. Booths, shimmering big banners and metal streamers that danced in the wind ... and the recorded music, or was it an authentic calliope? "Sure," he muttered. "I can handle them; I've been practicing every day since Mr. Rae told me." To prove it he caused a rock lying ahead of them to skim up, pass in an arc, start toward them at high speed and then drop abruptly back to the brown, dry grass. A sheep regarded it dully and Fred laughed.
A small crowd from the settlement, including children, had already manifested itself among the booths now being set up; he saw the cotton candy machine hard at work, smelled the frying popcorn, saw with delight a vast cluster of helium-filled balloons carried by a gaudily-painted dwarf wearing a hobo costume.
His father said quietly, "What you must look for, Fred, is the game which offers the really valuable prizes."
"I know," he said, and began to scan the booths. We don't have a need for hula-hula dolls, he said to himself. Or boxes of salt water taffy.
Somewhere in the carnival lay the real spoils. It might be in the money-pitching board or the spinning wheel or the bingo table; anyhow it was there. He scented it, sniffed it. And hurried.
In a weak, strained voice his father said, "Um, maybe I'll leave you, Freddy." Tony had seen one of the girl platforms and had turned toward it, unable to take his eyes from the scene. One of the girls was already -- but then the rumble of a truck made Fred Costner turn, and he forgot about the high-breasted, unclad girl on the platform. The truck was bringing the produce of the settlement, to be bartered in exchange for tickets.
The boy started toward the truck, wondering how much Hoagland Rae had decided to put up this time after the awful licking they had taken before. It looked like a great deal and Fred felt pride; the settlement obviously had full confidence in his abilities.
He caught then the unmistakable stench of Psi.
It emanated from a booth to his right and he turned at once in that direction. This was what the carny people were protecting, this one game which they did not feel they could afford to lose. It was, he saw, a booth in which one of the freaks acted as the target; the freak was a no-head, the first Fred had ever seen, and he stopped, transfixed.
The no-head had no head at all and his sense organs, his eyes and nose and ears, had migrated to other parts of his body beginning in the period before birth. For instance, his mouth gaped from the center of his chest, and from each shoulder an eye gleamed; the no-head was deformed but not deprived, and Fred felt respect for him. The no-head could see, smell and hear as good as anyone. But what exactly did he do in the game?
In the booth the no-head sat within a basket suspended above a tub of water. Behind the no-head Fred Costner saw a target and then he saw the heap of baseballs near at hand and he realized how the games worked; if the target were hit by a ball the no-head would plunge into the tub of water. And it was to prevent this that the carny had directed its Psi powers; the stench here was overpowering. He could not, however, tell from whom the stench came, the no-head or the operator of the booth or from a third person as yet unseen. The operator, a thin young woman wearing slacks and a sweater and tennis shoes, held a baseball toward Fred. "Ready to play, captain?" she demanded and smiled at him insinuatingly, as if it was utterly in the realm of the impossible that he might play and win.
"I'm thinking," Fred said. He was scrutinizing the prizes. The no-head giggled and the mouth located in the chest said, "He's thinking -- I doubt that!" It giggled again and Fred flushed.
His father came up beside him. "Is this what you want to play?" he said. Now Hoagland Rae appeared; the two men flanked the boy, all three of them studying the prizes. What were they? Dolls, Fred thought. At least that was their appearance; the vaguely male, small shapes lay in rows on the shelves to the left of the booth's operator. He could not for the life of him fathom the carny's reasons for protecting these; surely they were worthless. He moved closer, straining to see. . .
Leading him off to one side Hoagland Rae said worriedly, "But even if we win, Fred, what do we get? Nothing we can use, just those plastic figurines. We can't barter those with other settlements, even." He looked disappointed; the corners of his mouth turned down dismally.
"I don't think they're what they seem," Fred said. "But I don't actually know what they are. Anyhow let me try, Mr. Rae; I know this is the one." And the carny people certainly believed so.
"I'll leave it up to you," Hoagland Rae said, with pessimism; he exchanged glances with Fred's father, than slapped the boy encouragingly on the back. "Let's go," he announced. "Do your best, kid." The group of them -- joined now by Bob Turk -- made their way back to the booth in which the no-head sat with shoulder eyes gleaming.
"Made up your mind, people?" the thin stony-faced girl who operated the booth asked, tossing a baseball and recatching it.
"Here." Hoagland handed Fred an envelope; it was the proceeds from the settlement's produce, in the form of carny tickets -- this was what they had obtained in exchange. This was all there was, now.
"I'll try," Fred said to the thin girl, and handed her a ticket.
The thin girl smiled, showing sharp, small teeth.
"Put me in the drink!" the no-head babbled. "Dunk me and win a valuable prize!" It giggled again, in delight.
That night, in the workshop behind his store, Hoagland Rae sat with a jeweler's loupe in his right eye, examining one of the figurines which Tony Costner's boy had won at the Falling Star Entertainment Enterprises carnival earlier in the day.
Fifteen of the figurines lay in a row against the far wall of Hoagland's workshop.
With a tiny pair of pliers Hoagland pried open the back of the doll-like structure and saw, within, intricate wiring. "The boy was right," he said to Bob Turk, who stood behind him smoking a synthetic tobacco cigarette in jerky agitation. "It's not a doll; it's fully rigged. Might be UN property they stole; might even be a microrob. You know, one of those special automatic mechanisms the government uses for a million tasks from spying to reconstruct surgery for war vets." Now, gingerly, he opened the front of the figurine.
More wiring, and the miniature parts which even under the loupe were exceedingly difficult to make out. He gave up; after all, his ability was limited to repairing power harvesting equipment and the like. This was just too much. Again he wondered exactly how the settlement could make use of these microrobs. Sell them back to the UN? And meanwhile, the carnival had packed up and gone. No way to find out from them what these were. "Maybe it walks and talks," Turk suggested.
Hoagland searched for a switch on the figurine, found none. Verbal order? he wondered. "Walk," he ordered it. The figurine remained inert. "I think we've got something here," he said to Turk. "But --" He gestured. "It'll take time; we've got to be patient." Maybe if they took one of the figurines to M City, where the truly professional engineers, electronics experts and repairmen of all kinds could be found. . . but he wanted to do this himself; he distrusted the inhabitants of the one great urban area on the colony planet.
"Those carny people sure were upset when we won again and again," Bob Turk chuckled. "Fred, he said that they were exerting their own Psi all the time and it completely surprised them that --"
"Be quiet," Hoagland said. He had found the figurine's power supply; now he needed only to trace the circuit until he came to a break. By closing the break he could start the mechanism into activity; it was -- or rather it seemed -- as simple as that.
Shortly, he found the interruption in the circuit. A microscopic switch, disguised as the belt buckle, of the figurine. . . exulting, Hoagland closed the switch with his needle-nose pliers, set the figurine down on his workbench and waited.
The figurine stirred. It reached into a pouch-like construct hanging at it side, a sort of purse; from the pouch it brought a tiny tube, which it pointed at Hoagland.
"Wait," Hoagland said feebly. Behind him Turk bleated and scuttled for cover. Something boomed in his face, a light that thrust him back; he shut his eyes and cried out in fright. We're being attacked! he shouted, but his voice did not sound; he heard nothing. He was crying uselessly in a darkness which had no end. Groping, he reached out imploringly...
The settlement's registered nurse was bending over him, holding a bottle of ammonia at his nostrils. Grunting, he managed to lift his head, open his eyes. He lay in his workshop; around him stood a ring of settlement adults, Bob Turk foremost, all with expressions of gray alarm.
"These dolls or whatever," Hoagland managed to whisper. "Attacked us; be careful." He twisted, trying to see the line of dolls which he had so carefully placed against the far wall. "I set one off prematurely," he mumbled. "By completing the circuit; I tripped it so now we know." And then he blinked.
The dolls were gone.
"I went for Miss Beason," Bob Turk explained, "and when I got back they had disappeared. Sorry." He looked apologetic, as if it were his personal fault. "But you were hurt; I was worried you were maybe dead."
"Okay," Hoagland said, pulling himself up; his head ached and he felt nauseated. "You did right. Better get that Costner kid in here, get his opinion." He added, "Well, we've been taken. For the second year in a row. Only this time is worse." This time, he thought, we won. We were better off last year when we merely lost.
He had an intimation of true foreboding.
Four days later, as Tony Costner hoed weeds in his squash garden, a stirring of the ground made him pause; he reached silently for the pitchfork, thinking, It's an m-gopher, down under, eating the roots. I'll get it. He lifted the pitchfork, and, as the ground stirred once more, brought the tines of the fork savagely down to penetrate the loose, sandy soil.
Something beneath the surface squeaked in pain and fright. Tony Costner grabbed a shovel, dug the dirt away. A tunnel lay exposed and in it, dying in a heap of quivering, pulsating fur, lay -- as he had from long experience anticipated -- a Martian gopher, its eyes glazed in agony, elongated fangs exposed.
He killed it, mercifully. And then bent down to examine it. Because something had caught his eye: a flash of metal.
The m-gopher wore a harness.
It was artificial, of course; the harness fitted snugly around the animal's thick neck. Almost invisible, hair-like wires passed from the harness and disappeared into the scalp of the gopher near the front of the skull.
"Lord," Tony Costner said, picking the gopher and its harness up and standing in futile anxiety, wondering what to do. Right away he connected this with the carnival dolls; they had gone off and done this, made this -- the settlement, as Hoagland had said, was under attack.
He wondered what the gopher would have done had he not killed it.
The gopher had been up to something. Tunneling toward -- his house!
Later, he sat beside Hoagland Rae in the workshop; Rae, with care, had opened the harness, inspected its interior.
"A transmitter," Hoagland said, and breathed out noisily, as if his childhood asthma had returned. "Short range, maybe half a mile. The gopher was directed by it, maybe gave back a signal that told where it was and what it was doing. The electrodes to the brain probably connect with pleasure and pain areas. . . that way the gopher could be controlled." He glanced at Tony Costner. "How'd you like to have a harness like that on you?"
"I wouldn't," Tony said, shivering. He wished, all at once, that he was back on Terra, overcrowded as it was; he longed for the press of the crowd, the smells and sounds of great throngs of men and women, moving along the hard sidewalks, among the lights. It occurred to him then, in a flash, that he had never really enjoyed it here on Mars. Far too lonely, he realized. I made a mistake. My wife; she made me come here.
It was a trifle late, however, to think that now.
"I guess," Hoagland said stonily, "that we'd better notify the UN military police." He went with dragging steps to the wallphone, cranked it, then dialed the emergency number. To Tony he said, half in apology, half in anger, "I can't take responsibility for handling this, Costner; it's too difficult."
"It's my fault too," Tony said. "When I saw that girl, she had taken off the upper part of her garment and --"
"UN regional security office," the phone declared, loudly enough for Tony Costner to hear it.
"We're in trouble," Hoagland said. And explained, then, about the Falling Star Entertainment Enterprises ship and what had happened. As he talked he wiped his streaming forehead with his handkerchief; he looked old and tired, and very much in need of a rest.
An hour later the military police landed in the middle of the settlement's sole street. A uniformed UN officer, middle-aged, with a briefcase, stepped out, glanced around in the yellow late-afternoon light, made out the sight of the crowd with Hoagland Rae placed officially in front. "You are General Mozart?" Hoagland said tentatively, holding his hand out.
"That's correct," the heavy-set UN officer said, as they shook briefly. "May I see the construct, please?" He seemed a trifle disdainful of the somewhat grimy settlement people; Hoagland felt that acutely, and his sense of failure and depression burgeoned.
"Sure, General." Hoagland led the way to his store and the workshop in the rear.
After he had examined the dead m-gopher with its electrodes and harness, General Mozart said, "You may have won artifacts they didnot want to give up, Mr. Rae. Their final -- in other words actual -- destination was probably not this settlement." Again his distaste showed, ill-disguised; who would want to bother this area? "But, and this is a guess, eventually Earth and the more populated regions. However, by your employment of a parapsychological bias on the ball-throwing game --" He broke off, glanced at his wristwatch. "We'll treat the fields in this vicinity with arsine gas, I think; you and your people will have to evacuate this whole region, as a matter of fact tonight; we'll provide a transport. May I use your phone? I'll order the transport -- you assemble all your people." He smiled reflexively at Hoagland and then went to the telephone to place his call back to his office in M City.
"Livestock, too?" Rae said. "We can't sacrifice them." He wondered just how he was supposed to get their sheep, dogs and cattle into the UN transport in the middle of the night. What a mess, he thought dully.
"Of course livestock," General Mozart said unsympathetically, as if Rae were some sort of idiot.
The third steer driven aboard the UN transport carried a harness at its neck; the UN military policeman at the entrance hatch spotted it, shot the steer at once, summoned Hoagland to dispose of the carcass.
Squatting by the dead steer, Hoagland Rae examined the harness and its wiring. As with the m-gopher, the harness connected, by delicate leads, the brain of the animal to the sentient organism -- whatever it was -- which had installed the apparatus, located, he assumed, no farther than a mile from the settlement. What was this animal supposed to do? he wondered as he disconnected the harness. Gore one of us? Or -- eavesdrop. More likely that; the transmitter within the harness hummed audibly; it was perpetually on, picking up all sounds in the vicinity. So they know we've brought in the military, Hoagland realized. And that we've detected two of these constructs, now.
He had a deep intuition that this meant the abolition of the settlement. This area would soon be a battleground between the UN military and the -- whatever they were. Falling Star Entertainment Enterprises. He wondered where they were from. Outside the Sol System, evidently.
Kneeling momentarily beside him a blackjack -- a black-clad UN secret police officer -- said, "Cheer up. This tipped their hand; we could never prove those carnivals were hostile, before. Because of you they never made it to Terra. You'll be reinforced; don't give up." He grinned at Hoagland, then hurried off, disappearing into the darkness, where a UN tank sat parked.
Yes, Hoagland thought. We did the authorities a favor. And they'll reward us by moving massively into this area.
He had a feeling that the settlement would never be quite the same again, no matter what the authorities did. Because, if nothing else, the settlement had failed to solve its own problems; it had been forced to call for outside help. For the big boys.
Tony Costner gave him a hand with the dead steer; together they dragged it to one side, gasping for breath as they grappled with the still warm body. "I feel responsible," Tony said, when they had set it down.
"Don't." Hoagland shook his head. "And tell your boy not to feel bad."
"I haven't seen Fred since this first came out," Tony said miserably. "He took off, terribly disturbed. I guess the UN MPs will find him; they're on the outskirts rounding everybody up." He sounded numb, as if he could not quite take in what was happening. "An MP told me that by morning we could come back. The arsine gas would have taken care of everything. You think they've run into this before? They're not saying but they seem so efficient. They seem so sure of what they're doing."
"Lord knows," Hoagland said. He lit a genuine Earth-made Optimo cigar and smoked in glum silence, watching a flock of black-face sheep being driven into the transport. Who would have thought the legendary, classic invasion of Earth would take this form? he asked himself. Starting here at our meager settlement, in terms of small wired figurines, a little over a dozen in all, which we labored to win from Falling Star Entertainment Enterprises; as General Mozart said, the invaders didn't even want to give them up. Ironic.
Bob Turk, coming up beside him, said quietly, "You realize we're going to be sacrificed. That's obvious. Arsine will kill all the gophers and rats but it won't kill the microrobs because they don't breathe. The UN will have to keep blackjack squads operating in this region for weeks, maybe months. This gas attack is just the beginning." He turned accusingly to Tony Costner. "If your kid --"
"All right," Hoagland said in a sharp voice. "That's enough. If I hadn't taken that one apart, closed the circuit -- you can blame me, Turk; in fact I'll be glad to resign. You can run the settlement without me."
Through a battery-driven loudspeaker a vast UN voice boomed, "All persons within sound of my voice prepare to board! This area will be flooded with poisonous gas at 14:00. I repeat --" It repeated, as the loudspeakers turned in first one direction and then another; the noise echoed in the night darkness.
Stumbling, Fred Costner made his way over the unfamiliar, rough terrain, wheezing in sorrow and weariness; he paid no attention to his location, made no effort to see where he was going. All he wanted to do was get away. He had destroyed the settlement and everyone from Hoagland Rae on down knew it. Because of him --
Far away, behind him, an amplified voice boomed, "All persons within sound of my voice prepare to board! This area will be flooded with poisonous gas at 14:00. I repeat, all persons within sound of my voice --" It dinned on and on. Fred continued to stumble along, trying to shut out the racket of the voice, hurrying away from it.
The night smelled of spiders and dry weeds; he sensed the desolation of the landscape around him. Already he was beyond the final perimeter of cultivation; he had left the settlement's fields and now he stumbled over unplowed ground where no fences or even surveyor's stakes existed. But they would probably flood this area, too, however; the UN ships would coast back and forth, spraying the arsine gas, and then after that special forces troops would come in, wearing gas-masks, carrying flame throwers, with metal-sensitive detectors on their backs, to roust out the fifteen microrobs which had taken refuge underground in the burrows of rats and vermin. Where they belong, Fred Costner said to himself. And to think I wanted them for the settlement; I thought, because the carnival wanted to keep them, that they must be valuable.
He wondered, dimly, if there was any way he could undo what he had done. Find the fifteen microrobs, plus the activated one which had almost killed Hoagland Rae? And -- he had to laugh; it was absurd. Even if he found their hideout -- assuming that all of them had taken refuge together in one spot -- how could he destroy them? And they were armed. Hoagland Rae had barely escaped, and that had been from one acting alone.
A light glowed ahead.
In the darkness he could not make out the shapes which moved at the edge of the light; he halted, waited, trying to orient himself. Persons came and went and he heard the voices, muted, both men's and women's. And the sound of machinery in motion. The UN would not be sending out women, he realized. This was not the authorities.
A portion of the sky, the stars and faint nocturnal swath of haze, had been blotted out, and he realized all at once that he was seeing the outline of a large stationary object.
It could be a ship, parked on its tail, awaiting take-off; the shape seemed roughly that.
He seated himself, shivering in the cold of the Martian night, scowling in an attempt to trace the passage of the indistinct forms busy with their activity. Had the carnival returned? Was this once more the Falling Star Entertainment Enterprises vehicle? Eerily, the thought came to him: the booths and banners and tents and platforms, the magic shows and girl platforms and freaks and games of chance were being erected here in the middle of the night, in this barren area lost in the emptiness between settlements. A hollow enactment of the festivity of the carny life, for no one to see or experience. Except -- by chance -- himself. And to him it was revolting; he had seen all he wanted of the carnival, its people and -- things.
Something ran across his foot.
With his psycho-kinetic faculty he snared it, drew it back; reaching, he grabbed with both hands until all at once he had snatched out of the darkness a thrashing, hard shape. He held it, and saw with fright one of the microrobs; it struggled to escape and yet, reflexively, he held onto it. The microrob had been scurrying toward the parked ship, and he thought, the ship's picking them up. So they won't be found by the UN. They're getting away; then the carnival can go on with its plans.
A calm voice, a woman's, said from close by, "Put it down, please. It wants to go."
Jumping with shock he released the microrob and it scuttled off, rustling in the weeds, gone at once. Standing before Fred the thin girl, still wearing slacks and a sweater, faced him placidly, a flashlight in her hand; by its circle of illumination he made out her sharply-traced features, her colorless jaw and intense, clear eyes. "Hi," Fred said stammeringly; he stood up, defensively, facing the girl. She was slightly taller than he and he felt afraid of her. But he did not catch the stench of Psi about her and he realized that it had definitely not been she there in the booth who had struggled against his own faculty during the game. So he had an advantage over her, and perhaps one she did not know about.
"You better get away from here," he said. "Did you hear the loudspeaker? They're going to gas this area."
"I heard." The girl surveyed him. "You're the big winner, aren't you, sonny? The master game-player; you dunked our anti-ceph sixteen times in a row." She laughed merrily. "Simon was furious; he caught cold from that and blames you. So I hope you don't run into him."
"Don't call me sonny," he said. His fear began to leave him.
"Douglas, our p-k, says you're strong. You wrestled him down every time; congratulations. Well, how pleased are you with your take?" Silently, she once more laughed; her small sharp teeth shone in the meager light. "You feel you got your produce's worth?"
"Your p-k isn't much good," Fred said. "I didn't have any trouble and I'm really not experienced. You could do a lot better."
"With you, possibly? Are you asking to join us? Is this a proposition from you to me, little boy?"
"No!" he said, startled and repelled.
"There was a rat," the girl said, "in the wall of your Mr. Rae's workshop; it had a transmitter on it and so we knew about your call to the UN as soon as you made it. So we've had plenty of time to regain our --" She paused a moment. "Our merchandise. If we cared to. Nobody meant to hurt you; it isn't our fault that busybody Rae stuck the tip of his screwdriver into the control-circuit of that one microrob. Is it?"
"He started the cycle prematurely. It would have done that eventually anyhow." He refused to believe otherwise; he knew the settlement was in the right. "And it's not going to do you any good to collect all those microrobs because the UN knows and --"
" 'Collect'?" The girl rocked with amusement. "We're not collecting the sixteen microrobs you poor little people won. We're going ahead -- you forced us to. The ship is unloading the rest of them." She pointed with the flashlight and he saw in that brief instant the horde of microrobs disgorged, spreading out, seeking shelter like so many photophobic insects.
He shut his eyes and moaned.
"Are you still sure," the girl said purringly, "that you don't want to come with us? It'll ensure your future, sonny. And otherwise --" She gestured. "Who knows? Who really can guess what'll become of your tiny settlement and you poor tiny people?"
"No," he said. "I'm still not coming."
When he opened his eyes again the girl had gone off. She stood with the no-head, Simon, examining a clipboard which the no-head held.
Turning, Fred Costner ran back the way he had come, toward the UN military police.
The lean, tall, black-uniformed UN secret police general said, "I have replaced General Mozart who is unfortunately ill-equipped to deal with domestic subversion; he is a military man exclusively." He did not extend his hand to Hoagland Rae. Instead he began to pace about the workshop, frowning. "I wish I had been called in last night. For example I could have told you one thing immediately. . . which General Mozart did not understand." He halted, glanced searchingly at Hoagland. "You realize, of course, that you did not beat the carnival people. They wanted to lose those sixteen microrobs."
Hoagland Rae nodded silently; there was nothing to say. It now did appear obvious, as the blackjack general had pointed out.
"Prior appearances of the carnival," General Wolff said, "in former years, was to set you up, to set each settlement up in turn. They knew you'd have to plan to win this time. So this time they brought their microrobs. And had their weak Psi ready to engage in an ersatz 'battle' for supremacy."
"All I want to know," Hoagland said, "is whether we're going to get protection." The hills and plains surrounding the settlement, as Fred had told them, were now swarming with the microrobs; it was unsafe to leave the downtown buildings.
"We'll do what we can." General Wolff resumed pacing. "But obviously we're not primarily concerned with you, or with any other particular settlement or locale that's been infested. It's the overall situation that we have to deal with. That ship has been forty places in the last twenty-four hours; how they've moved so swiftly --" He broke off. "They had every step prepared. And you thought you conned them." He glowered at Hoagland Rae. "Every settlement along the line thought that as they won their boxload of microrobs."
"I guess," Hoagland said presently, "that's what we get for cheating." He did not meet the blackjack general's gaze.
"That's what you get for pitting your wits against an adversary from another system," General Wolff said bitingly. "Better look at it that way. And the next time a vehicle not from Terra shows up -- don't try to mastermind a strategy to defeat them: call us."
Hoagland Rae nodded. "Okay. I understand." He felt only dull pain, not indignation; he deserved -- they all deserved -- this chewing out. If they were lucky their reprimand would end at this. It was hardly the settlement's greatest problem. "What do they want?" he asked General Wolff. "Are they after this area for colonization? Or is this an economic --"
"Don't try," General Wolff said.
"It's not something you can understand, now or at any other time. We know what they're after -- and they know what they're after. Is it important that you know, too? Your job is to try to resume your farming as before. Or if you can't do that, pull back and return to Earth."
"I see," Hoagland said, feeling trivial.
"Your kids can read about it in the history books," General Wolff said. "That ought to be good enough for you."
"It's just fine," Hoagland Rae said, miserably. He seated himself halfheartedly at his workbench, picked up a screwdriver and began to tinker with a malfunctioning autonomic tractor guidance-turret.
"Look," General Wolff said, and pointed.
In a corner of the workshop, almost invisible against the dusty wall, a microrob crouched watching them.
"Jeez!" Hoagland wailed, groping around on his workbench for the old .32 revolver which he had gotten out and loaded.
Long before his fingers found the revolver the microrob had vanished. General Wolff had not even moved; he seemed, in fact, somewhat amused: he stood with his arms folded, watching Hoagland fumbling with the antiquated side arm.
"We're working on a central device," General Wolff said, "which would cripple all of them simultaneously. By interrupting the flow of current from their portable power-packs. Obviously to destroy them one by one is absurd; we never even considered it. However --" He paused thoughtfully, his forehead wrinkling. "There's reason to believe they -- the outspacers -- have anticipated us and have diversified the power-sources in such a way that --" He shrugged philosophically. "Well, perhaps something else will come to mind. In time."
"I hope so," Hoagland said. And tried to resume his repair of the defective tractor turret.
"We've pretty much given up the hope of holding Mars," General Wolff said, half to himself.
Hoagland slowly set down his screwdriver, stared at the secret policeman.
"What we're going to concentrate on is Terra," General Wolff said, and scratched his nose reflectively.
"Then," Hoagland said after a pause, "there's really no hope for us here; that's what you're saying."
The blackjack general did not answer. He did not need to.
As he bent over the faintly greenish, scummy surface of the canal where botflies and shiny black beetles buzzed, Bob Turk saw, from the corner of his vision, a small shape scuttle. Swiftly he spun, reached for his laser cane; he brought it up, fired it and destroyed -- oh happy day! -- a heap of rusted, discarded fuel drums, nothing more. The microrob had already departed.
Shakily he returned the laser cane to his belt and again bent over the bug-infested water. As usual the 'robs had been active here during the night; his wife had seen them, heard their rat-like scratchings. What the hell had they done? Bob Turk wondered dismally, and sniffed long and hard at the water.
It seemed to him that the customary odor of the stagnant water was somehow subtly changed.
"Damn," he said, and stood up, feeling futile. The 'robs had put some contaminator in the water; that was obvious. Now it would have to be given a thorough chemical analysis and that would take days. Meanwhile, what would keep his potato crop alive? Good question.
Raging in baffled helplessness, he pawed the laser cane, wishing for a target -- and knowing he could never, not in a million years, have one. As always the 'robs did their work at night; steadily, surely, they pushed the settlement back.
Already ten families had packed up and taken passage for Terra. To resume -- if they could -- the old lives which they had abandoned.
And, soon, it would be his turn.
If only there was something they could do. Some way they could fight back. He thought, I'd do anything, give anything, for a chance to get those 'robs. I swear it. I'd go into debt or bondage or servitude or anything, just for a chance of freeing the area of them.
He was shuffling morosely away from the canal, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his jacket, when he heard the booming roar of the intersystem ship overhead.
Calcified, he stood peering up, his heart collapsing inside him. Them back? he asked himself. The Falling Star Entertainment Enterprises ship. . . are they going to hit us all over again, finish us off finally? Shielding his eyes he peered frantically, not able even to run, his body not knowing its way even to instinctive, animal panic.
The ship, like a gigantic orange, lowered. Shaped like an orange, colored like an orange. . . it was not the blue tubular ship of the Falling Star people; he could see that. But also it was not from Terra; it was not UN. He had never seen a ship exactly like it before and he knew that he was definitely seeing another vehicle from beyond the Sol System, much more blatantly so than the blue ship of the Falling Star creatures. Not even a cursory attempt had been made to make it appear Terran.
And yet, on its sides, it had huge letters, which spelled out words in English.
His lips moving he read the words as the ship settled to a landing northeast of the spot at which he stood.
SIX SYSTEM EDUCATIONAL PLAYTIME ASSOCIATES
IN A RIOT OF FUN AND FROLIC FOR ALL!
It was -- God in heaven -- another itinerant carnival company.
He wanted to look away, to turn and hurry off. And yet he could not; the old familiar drive within him, the craving, the fixated curiosity, was too strong. So he continued to watch; he could see several hatches open and autonomic mechanisms beginning to nose, like flattened doughnuts, out onto the sand.
They were pitching camp.
Coming up beside him his neighbor Vince Guest said hoarsely, "Now what?"
"You can see." Turk gestured frantically. "Use your eyes." Already the auto-mechs were erecting a central tent; colored streamers hurled themselves upward into the air and then rained down on the still two-dimensional booths. And the first humans -- or humanoids -- were emerging. Vince and Bob saw men wearing bright clothing and then women in tights. Or rather something considerably less than tights.
"Wow," Vince managed to say, swallowing. "You see those ladies? You ever seen women with such --"
"I see them," Turk said. "But I'm never going back to one of these non-Terran carnivals from beyond the system and neither is Hoagland; I know that as well as I know my own name."
How rapidly they were going to work. No time wasted; already faint, tinny music, of a carousel nature, filtered to Bob Turk. And the smells. Cotton candy, roasting peanuts, and with those the subtle smell of adventure and exciting sights, of the illicit. One woman with long braided red hair had hopped lithely up onto a platform; she wore a meager bra and wisp of silk at her waist and as he watched fixedly she began to practice her dance. Faster and faster she spun until at last, carried away by the rhythm, she discarded entirely what little she wore. And the funny thing about it all was that it seemed to him real art; it was not the usual carny shimmying at the midsection. There was something beautiful and alive about her movements; he found himself spellbound.
"I -- better go get Hoagland," Vince managed to say, finally. Already a few settlers, including a number of children, were moving as if hypnotized toward the lines of booths and the gaudy streamers that fluttered and shone in the otherwise drab Martian air.
"I'll go over and get a closer look," Bob Turk said, "while you're locating him." He started toward the carnival on a gradually accelerated run, scuffling sand as he hurried.
To Hoagland, Tony Costner said, "At least let's see what they have to offer. You know they're not the same people; it wasn't them who dumped those horrible damn microrobs off here -- you can see that."
"Maybe it's something worse," Hoagland said, but he turned to the boy, Fred. "What do you say?" he demanded.
"I want to look," Fred Costner said. He had made up his mind.
"Okay," Hoagland said, nodding. "That's good enough for me. It won't hurt us to look. As long as we remember what that UN secret police general told us. Let's not kid ourselves into imagining we can outsmart them." He put down his wrench, rose from his workbench, and walked to the closet to get his fur-lined outdoor coat.
When they reached the carnival they found that the games of chance had been placed -- conveniently -- ahead of even the girly shows and the freaks. Fred Costner rushed forward, leaving the group of adults behind; he sniffed the air, took in the scents, heard the music, saw past the games of chance the first freak platform: it was his favorite abomination, one he remembered from previous carnivals, only this one was superior. It was a no-body. In the midday Martian sunlight it reposed quietly: a bodiless head complete with hair, ears, intelligent eyes; heaven only knew what kept it alive. . . in any case he knew intuitively that it was genuine.
"Come and see Orpheus, the head without a visible body!" the pitchman called through his megaphone, and a group, mostly children, had gathered in awe to gape. "How does it stay alive? How does it propel itself? Show them, Orpheus." The pitchman tossed a handful of food pellets -- Fred Costner could not see precisely what -- at the head; it opened its mouth to enormous, frightening proportions, managed to snare most of what landed near it. The pitchman laughed and continued with his spiel. The no-body was now rolling industriously after the bits of food which it had missed. Gee, Fred thought.
"Well?" Hoagland said, coming up beside him. "Do you see any games we might profit from?" His tone was drenched with bitterness. "Care to throw a baseball at anything?" He started away, then, not waiting, a tired little fat man who had been defeated too much, who had already lost too many times. "Let's go," he said to the other adults of the settlement. "Let's get out of here before we get into another --"
"Wait," Fred said. He had caught it, the familiar, pleasing stench. It came from a booth on his right and he turned at once in that direction.
A plump, gray-colored middle-aged woman stood in a ringtoss booth, her hands full of the light wicker rings.
Behind Fred his father said to Hoagland Rae, "You get the rings over the merchandise; you win whatever you manage to toss the ring onto so that it stays." With Fred he walked slowly in that direction. "It would be a natural," he murmured, "for a psychokinetic. I would think."
"I suggest," Hoagland said, speaking to Fred, "that you look more closely this time at the prizes. At the merchandise." However, he came along, too.
At first Fred could not make out what the neat stacks were, each of them exactly alike, intricate and metallic; he came up to the edge of the booth and the middle-aged woman began her chant-like litany, offering him a handful of rings. For a dollar, or whatever of equal value the settlement had to offer.
"What are they?" Hoagland said, peering. "I -- think they're some kind of machines."
Fred said, "I know what they are." And we've got to play, he realized. We must round up every item in the settlement that we can possibly trade these people, every cabbage and rooster and sheep and wool blanket.
Because, he realized, this is our chance. Whether General Wolff knows about it or likes it.
"My God," Hoagland said quietly. "Those are traps."
"That's right, mister," the middle-aged woman chanted. "Homeostatic traps; they do all the work, think for themselves, you just let them go and they travel and travel and they never give up until they catch --" She winked. "You know what. Yes, you know what they catch, mister, those little pesky things you can't ever possibly catch by yourselves, that are poisoning your water and killing your steers and ruining your settlement -- win a trap, a valuable, useful trap, and you'll see, you'll see!" She tossed a wicker ring and it nearly settled over one of the complex, sleek-metal traps; it might very well have, if she had thrown it just a little more carefully. At least that was the impression given. They all felt this.
Hoagland said to Tony Costner and Bob Turk, "We'll need a couple hundred of them at least."
"And for that," Tony said, "we'll have to hock everything we own. But it's worth it; at least we won't be completely wiped out." His eyes gleamed "Let's get started " To Fred he said, "Can you play this game? Can you win?"
"I think so," Fred said. Although somewhere nearby, someone in the carnival was ready with a contrary power of psychokinesis. But not enough he decided. Not quite enough.
It was almost as if they worked it that way on purpose.