By FREDERIK POHL
Sure, Larry Connaught saved my life—but it was how he did it that forced me to murder him!
Illustrated by MEL HUNTER
I am sitting on the edge of what passes for a bed. It is made of loosely woven strips of steel, and there is no mattress, only an extra blanket of thin olive-drab. It isn't comfortable; but of course they expect to make me still more uncomfortable.
They expect to take me out of this precinct jail to the District prison and eventually to the death house.
Sure, there will be a trial first, but that is only a formality. Not only did they catch me with the smoking gun in my hand and Connaught bubbling to death through the hole in his throat, but I admitted it.
I—knowing what I was doing, with, as they say, malice aforethought—deliberately shot to death Laurence Connaught.
They execute murderers. So they mean to execute me.
Especially because Laurence Connaught had saved my life.
Well, there are extenuating circumstances. I do not think they would convince a jury.
Connaught and I were close friends for years. We lost touch during the war. We met again in Washington, a few years after the war was over. We had, to some extent, grown apart; he had become a man with a mission. He was working very hard on something and he did not choose to discuss his work and there was nothing else in his life on which to form a basis for communication. And—well, I had my own life, too. It wasn't scientific research in my case—I flunked out of med school, while he went on. I'm not ashamed of it; it is nothing to be ashamed of. I simply was not able to cope with the messy business of carving corpses. I didn't like it, I didn't want to do it, and when I was forced to do it, I did it badly. So—I left.
Thus I have no string of degrees, but you don't need them in order to be a Senate guard.
Does that sound like a terribly impressive career to you? Of course not; but I liked it. The Senators are relaxed and friendly when the guards are around, and you learn wonderful things about what goes on behind the scenes of government. And a Senate guard is in a position to do favors—for newspapermen, who find a lead to a story useful; for government officials, who sometimes base a whole campaign on one careless, repeated remark; and for just about anyone who would like to be in the visitors' gallery during a hot debate.
Larry Connaught, for instance. I ran into him on the street one day, and we chatted for a moment, and he asked if it was possible to get him in to see the upcoming foreign relations debate. It was; I called him the next day and told him I had arranged for a pass. And he was there, watching eagerly with his moist little eyes, when the Secretary got up to speak and there was that sudden unexpected yell, and the handful of Central American fanatics dragged out their weapons and began trying to change American policy with gunpowder.
You remember the story, I suppose. There were only three of them, two with guns, one with a hand grenade. The pistol men managed to wound two Senators and a guard. I was right there, talking to Connaught. I spotted the little fellow with the hand grenade and tackled him. I knocked him down, but the grenade went flying, pin pulled, seconds ticking away. I lunged for it. Larry Connaught was ahead of me.
The newspaper stories made heroes out of both of us. They said it was miraculous that Larry, who had fallen right on top of the grenade, had managed to get it away from himself and so placed that when it exploded no one was hurt.
For it did go off—and the flying steel touched nobody. The papers mentioned that Larry had been knocked unconscious by the blast. He was unconscious, all right.
He didn't come to for six hours and when he woke up, he spent the next whole day in a stupor.
I called on him the next night. He was glad to see me.
"That was a close one, Dick," he said. "Take me back to Tarawa."
I said, "I guess you saved my life, Larry."
"Nonsense, Dick! I just jumped. Lucky, that's all."
"The papers said you were terrific. They said you moved so fast, nobody could see exactly what happened."
He made a deprecating gesture, but his wet little eyes were wary. "Nobody was really watching, I suppose."
"I was watching," I told him flatly.
He looked at me silently for a moment.
"I was between you and the grenade," I said. "You didn't go past me, over me, or through me. But you were on top of the grenade."
He started to shake his head.
I said, "Also, Larry, you fell on the grenade. It exploded underneath you. I know, because I was almost on top of you, and it blew you clear off the floor of the gallery. Did you have a bulletproof vest on?"
He cleared his throat. "Well, as a matter of—"
"Cut it out, Larry! What's the answer?"
He took off his glasses and rubbed his watery eyes. He grumbled, "Don't you read the papers? It went off a yard away."
"Larry," I said gently, "I was there."
He slumped back in his chair, staring at me. Larry Connaught was a small man, but he never looked smaller than he did in that big chair, looking at me as though I were Mr. Nemesis himself.
Then he laughed. He surprised me; he sounded almost happy. He said, "Well, hell, Dick—I had to tell somebody about it sooner or later. Why not you?"
I can't tell you all of what he said. I'll tell most of it—but not the part that matters.
I'll never tell that part to anybody.
Larry said, "I should have known you'd remember." He smiled at me ruefully, affectionately. "Those bull sessions in the cafeterias, eh? Talking all night about everything. But you remembered."
"You claimed that the human mind possessed powers of psychokinesis," I said. "You argued that just by the mind, without moving a finger or using a machine, a man could move his body anywhere, instantly. You said that nothing was impossible to the mind."
I felt like an absolute fool saying those things; they were ridiculous notions. Imagine a man thinking himself from one place to another! But—I had been on that gallery.
I licked my lips and looked to Larry Connaught for confirmation.
"I was all wet," Larry laughed. "Imagine!"
I suppose I showed surprise, because he patted my shoulder.
He said, becoming sober, "Sure, Dick, you're wrong, but you're right all the same. The mind alone can't do anything of the sort—that was just a silly kid notion. But," he went on, "but there are—well, techniques—linking the mind to physical forces—simple physical forces that we all use every day—that can do it all. Everything! Everything I ever thought of and things I haven't found out yet.
"Fly across the ocean? In a second, Dick! Wall off an exploding bomb? Easily! You saw me do it. Oh, it's work. It takes energy—you can't escape natural law. That was what knocked me out for a whole day. But that was a hard one; it's a lot easier, for instance, to make a bullet miss its target. It's even easier to lift the cartridge out of the chamber and put it in my pocket, so that the bullet can't even be fired. Want the Crown Jewels of England? I could get them, Dick!"
I asked, "Can you see the future?"
He frowned. "That's silly. This isn't supersti—"
"How about reading minds?"
Larry's expression cleared. "Oh, you're remembering some of the things I said years ago. No, I can't do that either, Dick. Maybe, some day, if I keep working at this thing— Well, I can't right now. There are things I can do, though, that are just as good."
"Show me something you can do," I asked.
He smiled. Larry was enjoying himself; I didn't begrudge it to him. He had hugged this to himself for years, from the day he found his first clue, through the decade of proving and experimenting, almost always being wrong, but always getting closer.... He needed to talk about it. I think he was really glad that, at last, someone had found him out.
He said, "Show you something? Why, let's see, Dick." He looked around the room, then winked. "See that window?"
I looked. It opened with a slither of wood and a rumble of sash weights. It closed again.
"The radio," said Larry. There was a click and his little set turned itself on. "Watch it."
It disappeared and reappeared.
"It was on top of Mount Everest," Larry said, panting a little.
The plug on the radio's electric cord picked itself up and stretched toward the baseboard socket, then dropped to the floor again.
"No," said Larry, and his voice was trembling, "I'll show you a hard one. Watch the radio, Dick. I'll run it without plugging it in! The electrons themselves—"
He was staring intently at the little set. I saw the dial light go on, flicker, and hold steady; the speaker began to make scratching noises. I stood up, right behind Larry, right over him.
I used the telephone on the table beside him. I caught him right beside the ear and he folded over without a murmur. Methodically, I hit him twice more, and then I was sure he wouldn't wake up for at least an hour. I rolled him over and put the telephone back in its cradle.
I ransacked his apartment. I found it in his desk: All his notes. All the information. The secret of how to do the things he could do.
I picked up the telephone and called the Washington police. When I heard the siren outside, I took out my service revolver and shot him in the throat. He was dead before they came in.
For, you see, I knew Laurence Connaught. We were friends. I would have trusted him with my life. But this was more than just a life.
Twenty-three words told how to do the things that Laurence Connaught did. Anyone who could read could do them. Criminals, traitors, lunatics—the formula would work for anyone.
Laurence Connaught was an honest man and an idealist, I think. But what would happen to any man when he became God? Suppose you were told twenty-three words that would let you reach into any bank vault, peer inside any closed room, walk through any wall? Suppose pistols could not kill you?
They say power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And there can be no more absolute power than the twenty-three words that can free a man of any jail or give him anything he wants. Larry was my friend. But I killed him in cold blood, knowing what I did, because he could not be trusted with the secret that could make him king of the world.
But I can.