His mother’s hand felt cold, clutching his.
Her fear as they walked hurriedly along the street was a quiet, swift pulsation that throbbed from her mind to his. A hundred other thoughts beat against his mind, from the crowds that swarmed by on either side, and from inside the buildings they passed. But only his mother’s thoughts were clear and coherent—and afraid.
“They’re following us, Jommy,” her brain telegraphed. “They’re not sure, but they suspect. We’ve risked once too often coming into the capital, though I did hope that this time I could show you the old slan way of getting into the catacombs, where your father’s secret is hidden. Jommy, if the worst happens, you know what to do. We’ve practiced it often enough. And, Jommy, don’t be afraid, don’t get excited. You may be only nine years old, but you’re as intelligent as any fifteen-year-old human being.”
Don’t be afraid. Easy to advise, Jommy thought, and hid the thought from her. She wouldn’t like that concealment, that distorting shield between them. But there were thoughts that had to be kept back. She mustn’t know he was afraid, also.
It was new and exciting, as well. He felt excited each time he came into the heart of Centropolis from the quiet suburb where they lived. The great parks, the miles of skyscrapers, the tumult of the throngs always seemed even more wonderful than his imagination had pictured them—but then size was to be expected of the capital of the world. Here was the seat of the government. Here, somewhere, lived Kier Gray, absolute dictator of the entire planet. Long ago—hundreds of years before—the slans had held Centropolis during their brief period of ascendancy.
“Jommy, do you feel their hostility? Can you sense things over a distance yet?”
He strained. The steady wave of vagueness that washed from the crowds pressing all around grew into a swirl of mind clamor. From somewhere came the stray wisp of thought:
“They say there are still slans alive in this city, in spite of all precautions. And the order is to shoot them on sight.”
“But isn’t that dangerous?” came a second thought, obviously a question asked aloud, though Jommy caught only the mental picture. “I mean a perfectly innocent person might be killed by mistake.”
“That’s why they seldom shoot on sight. They try to capture them and then examine them. Their internal organs are different from ours, you know, and on their heads are—”
“Jommy, can you feel them, about a block behind us? In a big car! Waiting for reinforcements to close in on us from in front. They’re working fast. Can you catch their thoughts, Jommy?”
He couldn’t! No matter how hard he reached out with his mind and strained and perspired with his trying. That was where her mature powers surpassed his precocious instincts. She could span distances and disentangle remote vibrations into coherent pictures.
He wanted to turn around and look, but he didn’t dare. His small, though long, legs twinkled underneath him, half running to keep up with his mother’s impatient pace. It was terrible to be little and helpless and young and inexperienced, when their life demanded the strength of maturity, the alertness of slan adulthood.
His mother’s thoughts stabbed through his reflections. “There are some ahead of us now, Jommy, and others coming across the street. You’ll have to go, darling. Don’t forget what I’ve told you. You live for one thing only—to make it possible for slans to live normal lives. I think you’ll have to kill our great enemy, Kier Gray, even if it means going to the grand palace after him. Remember, there’ll be shouting and confusion, but keep your head. Good luck, Jommy.”
Not until she had released his hand, after one quick squeeze, did Jommy realize that the tenor of her thoughts had changed. The fear was gone. A soothing tranquillity flowed from her brain, quieting his jumping nerves, slowing the pounding of his two hearts.
As Jommy slipped into the shelter made by a man and a woman walking past them, he had a glimpse of men bearing down on the tall figure of his mother, looking very ordinary and very human in her slacks and pink blouse, and with her hair caught up in a tightly knotted scarf. The men, dressed in civilian clothes, were crossing the street, their faces dark with an expression of an unpleasant duty that had to be done. The thought of that unpleasantness, the hatred that went with it, was a shadow in their minds that leaped out at Jommy. It puzzled him even in this moment when he was concentrating on escape. Why was it necessary that he should die? He and this wonderful, sensitive, intelligent mother of his! It was all terribly wrong.
A car, glittering like a long jewel in the sun, flashed up to the curb. A man’s harsh voice called loudly after Jommy. “Stop! There’s the kid. Don’t let that kid get away! Stop that boy!”
People paused and stared. He felt the bewildering mildness of their thoughts. And then he had rounded the corner and was racing along Capital Avenue. A car was pulling away from the curb. His feet pattered with mad speed. His abnormally strong fingers caught at the rear bumper. He pulled himself aboard and hung on as the car swung into the maze of traffic and began to gather speed. From somewhere behind came the thought, “Good luck, Jommy.”
For nine years she had schooled him for this moment, but something caught in his throat as he replied, “Good luck, Mother.”
The car went too fast, the miles reeled off too swiftly. Too many people paused in the street and stared at the little boy clinging so precariously to the shining bumper. Jommy felt the intensity of their gazes, the thoughts that whipped into their minds and brought jerky, shrill shouts to their lips. Shouts to a driver who didn’t hear.
Mists of thought followed him then, of people who ran into public booths and telephoned the police about a boy caught on a bumper. Jommy squirmed, and his eyes waited for a patrol car to swing in behind and flag the speeding auto to a halt. Alarmed, he concentrated his mind for the first time on the car’s occupants.
Two brain vibrations poured out at him. As he caught those thoughts, Jommy shuddered, and half lowered himself toward the pavement, prepared to let go. He looked down, then dizzily pulled himself back into place. The pavement was a sickening blur, distorted by the car’s speed.
Reluctantly, his mind fumbled into contact again with the brains of the men in the car. The thoughts of the driver were concentrated on his task of maneuvering the machine. The man thought once, flashingly, of a gun carried in a shoulder holster. His name was Sam Enders, and he was the chauffeur and bodyguard of the man beside him—John Petty, chief of the secret police of the all-powerful Kier Gray.
The police chief’s identity penetrated through Jommy like an electric shock. The notorious slan hunter sat relaxed, indifferent to the speed of the car, his mind geared to a slow, meditative mood.
Extraordinary mind! Impossible to read anything in it but a blur of surface pulsations. It wasn’t, Jommy thought, amazed, as if John Petty could be consciously guarding his thoughts. But there was a shield here as effective in hiding true thoughts as any slan’s. Yet it was different. Overtones came through that told of a remorseless character, a highly trained and brilliant brain. Suddenly there was the tail end of a thought, brought to the surface by a flurry of passion that shattered the man’s calm. “I’ve got to kill that slan girl, Kathleen Layton. That’s the only way to undermine Kier Gray—”
Frantically, Jommy attempted to follow the thought, but it was gone into the shadows, out of reach. And yet he had the gist. A slan girl named Kathleen Layton was to be killed so that Kier Gray might be undermined.
“Boss,” came Sam Enders’s thought, “will you turn that switch? The red light that flashed on is the general alarm.”
John Petty’s mind remained indifferent. “Let them alarm,” he snapped. “That stuff is for the sheep.”
“Might as well see what it is,” Sam Enders said.
The car slackened infinitesimally as he reached to the far end of the switchboard; and Jommy, who had worked his way precariously to one end of the bumper, waited desperately for a chance to leap clear. His eyes, peering ahead over the fender, saw only the long, bleak line of pavement, unrelieved by grass boulevards, hard and forbidding. To leap would be to smash himself against concrete. As he drew back hopelessly, a storm of Enders’s thoughts came to him as Enders’s brain received the message on the general alarm.
“—all cars on Capital Avenue and vicinity watch for a boy who is believed to be a slan named Jommy Cross, son of Patricia Cross. Mrs. Cross was killed ten minutes ago at the corner of Main and Capital. The boy leaped to the bumper of a car, which drove away rapidly, witnesses report.”
“Listen to that, boss,” Sam Enders said. “We’re on Capital Avenue. We’d better stop and help in the search. There’s ten thousand dollars’ reward for slans.”
Brakes screeched. The car decelerated with a speed that crushed Jommy hard against the rear end. He tore himself free of the intense pressure and, just before the car stopped, lowered himself to the pavement. His feet jerked him into a run. He darted past an old woman, who clutched at him, avarice in her mind. And then he was on a vacant lot, beyond which towered a long series of blackened brick and concrete buildings, the beginning of the wholesale and factory district.
A thought leaped after him from the car, viciously. “Enders, do you realize that we left Capital and Main ten minutes ago? That boy—There he is! Shoot him, you fool!”
The sense of the man Enders drawing his gun came so vividly to Jommy that he felt the rasp of metal on leather in his brain. Almost he saw the man take aim, so clear was the mental impression that bridged the hundred and fifty feet between them.
Jommy ducked sideways as the gun went off with a dull plop. He had the faintest awareness of a blow, and then he had scrambled up some steps into an open doorway, into a great, dark-lit warehouse. Dim thoughts reached out from behind him.
“Don’t worry, boss, we’ll wear that little shrimp out.”
“You fool, no human being can tire a slan.” He seemed to be barking orders then into a radio. “We’ve got to surround the district at Fifty-seventh Street. Concentrate every police car and get the soldiers out to—”
How blurred everything was becoming! Jommy stumbled through a dim world, conscious only that, in spite of his tireless muscles, a man could run at least twice as fast as his best speed would carry him. The vast warehouse was a dull light-world of looming box shapes, and floors that stretched into the remote semidarkness. Twice the tranquil thoughts of men moving boxes somewhere to his left impinged on his mind. But there was no awareness of his presence in their minds, no knowledge of the uproar outside. Far ahead, and to his right, he saw a bright opening, a door. He bore in that direction. He reached the door, amazed at his weariness. Something damp and sticky was clinging to his side, and his muscles felt stiff. His mind felt slow and unwieldy. He paused and peered out of the door.
He was staring into a street vastly different from Capital Avenue. It was a dingy street of cracked pavement, the opposite side lined with houses that had been built of plastic a hundred or more years before. Made of virtually unbreakable materials, their imperishable colors basically as fresh and bright as on the day of construction, they nevertheless showed the marks of time. Dust and soot had fastened leechlike upon the glistening stuff. Lawns were ill-tended, and piles of debris lay around.
The street was apparently deserted. A vague whisper of thought crept forth from the dingy buildings. He was too tired to make certain the thoughts came only from the buildings.
Jommy lowered himself over the edge of the warehouse platform and dropped to the hard concrete of the street below. Anguish engulfed his side, and his body had no yield in it, none of the normal spring that would have made such a jump easy to take. The blow of striking the walk was a jar that vibrated his bones.
The world was darker as he raced across the street. He shook his head to clear his vision, but it was no use. He could only scamper on with leaden feet between a gleaming but sooty two-story house and a towering, streamlined, sea-blue apartment block. He didn’t see the woman on the veranda above him, or sense her, until she struck at him with a mop. The mop missed because he caught its shadow just in time to duck.
“Ten thousand dollars!” she screamed after him. “The radio said ten thousand. And it’s mine, do you hear? Don’t nobody touch him. He’s mine. I saw him first.”
He realized dimly that she was shouting at other women who were pouring out of the tenement. Thank God, the men were away at work!
The horror of the rapacious minds snatched after him as he fled with frightened strength along the narrow walk beside the apartment building. He shrank from the hideous thoughts and flinched from the most horrible sound in the world—the shrill voice clamor of people desperately poor, swarming in their dozens after wealth beyond the dreams of greed.
A fear came that he would be smashed by mops and hoes and brooms and rakes, his head beaten, his bones crushed, flesh mashed. Swaying, he rounded the rear corner of the tenement. The muttering mob was still behind him. He felt their nervousness in the turgid thoughts that streamed from them. They had heard stories about slans that suddenly almost overshadowed the desire to possess ten thousand dollars. But the mob presence gave courage to individuals. The mob pressed on.
He emerged into a tiny backyard piled high with empty boxes on one side. The pile reared above him, a dark mass, blurred even in the dazzle of the sun. An idea flashed into his dulled mind, and in an instant he was climbing the piled boxes.
The pain of the effort was like teeth clamped into his side. He ran precariously along over the boxes, and then half lowered himself, half fell into a space between two old crates. The space opened all the way to the ground. In the almost darkness his eyes made out a deeper darkness in the plastic wall of the tenement. He put out his hands and fumbled around the edges of a hole in the otherwise smooth wall.
In a moment he had squeezed through and was lying exhausted on the damp earth inside. Pieces of rock pressed into his body, but for the moment he was too weary to do anything but lie there, scarcely breathing, while the mob raged outside in frantic search.
The darkness was soothing, like his mother’s thoughts just before she told him to leave her. Somebody climbed some stairs just above him, and that told him where he was—in a little space underneath back stairs. He wondered how the hard plastic had ever been shattered.
Lying there, cold with fear, he thought of his mother—dead now, the radio had said. Dead! She wouldn’t have been afraid, of course. He knew only too well that she had longed for the day when she could join her dead husband in the peace of the grave. “But I’ve got to bring you up, Jommy. It would be so easy, so pleasant, to surrender life; but I’ve got to keep you alive until you’re out of your childhood. Your father and I have spent what we had of life working on his great invention, and it will have been all for nothing if you are not here to carry on.”
He pushed the thought from him, because his throat suddenly ached from thinking of it. His mind was not so blurred now. The brief rest must have helped him. But that made the rocks on which he lay more annoying, harder to bear. He tried to shift his body, but the space was too narrow.
Automatically, one hand fumbled down to them, and he made a discovery. They were shards of plastic, not rocks. Plastic that had fallen inward when the little section of the wall had been smashed and the hole through which he had crawled was made. It was odd to be thinking of that hole and to realize that somebody else—somebody out there—was thinking of the same hole. The shock of that blurred outside thought was like a flame that scorched through Jommy.
Appalled, he fought to isolate the thought and the mind that held it. But there were too many other minds all around, too much excitement. Soldiers and police swarmed in the alleyway, searching every house, every block, every building. Once, above that confusion of mind static, he caught the clear, cold thought of John Petty.
“You say he was last seen right here?”
“He turned the corner,” a woman said, “and then he was gone!”
With shaking fingers Jommy began to pry the pieces of shard out of the damp ground. He forced his nerves to steadiness, and began with careful speed to fill the hole, using damp earth to cement the pieces of plastic. The job, he knew with sick certainty, would never stand close scrutiny.
And all the time he worked he felt the thought of that other person out there, a sly, knowing thought, hopelessly mingled with the wild current of thoughts that beat on his brain. Not once did that somebody else stop thinking about this very hole. Jommy couldn’t tell whether it was a man or woman. But it was there, like an evil vibration from a warped brain.
The thought was still there, dim and menacing, as men pulled the boxes half to one side and peered down between them—and then, slowly, it retreated into distance as the shouts faded and the nightmare of thoughts receded farther afield. The hunters hunted elsewhere. For a long time Jommy could hear them, but finally life grew calmer, and he knew that night was falling.
Somehow the excitement of the day remained in the atmosphere. A whisper of thoughts crept out of the houses and from the tenement flats, people thinking, discussing what had happened.
At last he dared wait no longer, Somewhere out there was the mind that had known he was in the hole and had said nothing. It was an evil mind, which filled him with unholy premonition, and urgency to be away from this place. With fumbling yet swift fingers, he removed the plastic shards. Then, stiff from his long vigil, he squeezed cautiously outside. His side twinged from the movement, and a surge of weakness blurred his mind, but he dared not hold back. Slowly he pulled himself to the top of the boxes. His legs were lowering to the ground when he heard rapid footfalls—and the first sense of the person who had been waiting there struck into him.
A thin hand grabbed his ankle, and an old woman’s voice said triumphantly, “That’s right, come down to Granny. Granny’ll take care of you, she will. Granny’s smart. She knew all the time you could only have crept into that hole, and those fools never suspected. Oh, yes, Granny’s smart. She went away, and then she came back and, because slans can read thoughts, she kept her mind very still, thinking only of cooking. And it fooled you, didn’t it? She knew it would. Granny’ll look after you. Granny hates the police, too.”
With a gasp of dismay, Jommy recognized the mind of the rapacious old woman who had clutched at him as he ran from John Petty’s car. That one fleeting glimpse had impressed the evil old one on his brain. And now, so much of horror breathed from her, so hideous were her intentions, that he gave a little squeal and kicked out at her.
The heavy stick in her free hand came down on his head even as he realized for the first time that she had such a weapon. The blow was mind-wrecking. His muscles jerked in spasmodic frenzy. His body slumped to the ground.
He felt his hands being tied, and then he was half lifted, half dragged for several feet. Finally he was hoisted onto a rickety old wagon, and covered with clothes that smelled of horse sweat, oil, and garbage cans.
The wagon moved over the rough pavement of the back alley, and above the rattling of the wheels Jommy caught the old woman’s snarl. “What a fool Granny would have been to let them catch you. Ten thousand reward—Bah! I’d never have gotten a cent. Granny knows the world. Once she was a famous actress, now she’s a junk woman. They’d never give a hundred dollars, let alone a hundred hundred, to an old rag and bone picker. Bah on the whole lot! Granny’ll show them what can be done with a young slan. Granny’ll make a huge fortune from the little devil—”
Copyright © 1940, 1945, 1951, 1968 by A. E. van Vogt