- Author: Roger D. Aycock
Read book online «Assignment's End by Roger D. Aycock (beach books txt) 📕». Author - Roger D. Aycock
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction December 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
He was just emerging for the hundredth time during the week from the frightening hallucination that had come to plague him, when Kitty Murchinsom came into his office.
"It's almost 15:00, Philip," she said.
When she had entered, her face had taken on the placid look that everyone wore—unwittingly, but inevitably—the instant they came near Alcorn.
Finding Kitty's cool blonde loveliness projected so abruptly against the bleak polar plain of his waking dream, he knew how much more she was than either fiancee or secretary alone. She was a beacon of reassurance in a sea of uncertainty.
"Thanks, darling," he said, and looked at his watch. "I'd have woolgathered past my appointment and it's an important one."
He stood up. Kitty came closer and put both hands on his shoulders.
"You've had another of those dreams, haven't you? I wish you'd see a—a doctor about them."
He laughed, and if the sound rang hollow, she seemed not to notice.
"That's why I asked you to call me. I've made an appointment with one."
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him. "I'm glad you're decided. You haven't been yourself at all for a week, Philip, and I couldn't bear a honeymoon with a preoccupied husband!"
He managed the appropriate leer, though he had never felt less like it. The apprehension that followed his daytime chimera was on him again, so strongly that what he wanted most to do was to take Kitty's hand tightly, like a frightened child, and run headlong until he was beyond reach of whatever it was that threatened him.
"Small chance," he said, instead. "Any man who'd dream away a honeymoon with you is dead already."
She sighed placidly and turned back to the business at hand. "You won't be late for your 16:00 conference with our Mr. O'Donnell and Director Mulhall of Irradiated Foods, will you? Poor Sean would be lost without you."
He felt the usual nagging dissatisfaction with the peculiar talent that had put him where he was in Consolidated Advertising. "He'd probably lose this case without my soothing presence and CA would pay its first ungrounded refund claim in—" he counted back over the time he had been with Consolidated—"four years and eight months."
Kitty said wistfully, "Shall I see you tonight, Philip?"
He frowned, searching for a way to ease the hurt she would feel later, and finding none. "That depends on the psychiatrist. If he can't help me, I may fly up to my cabin in the Catskills and wrestle this thing out for myself."
Kitty moved to go, and then turned back. "I almost forgot. There was a call for you at noon from a secretary of Victor Jaffers' at Carter International. She seemed to know you'd be out and said that Mr. Jaffers would call again at 15:00."
"Victor Jaffers?" Alcorn repeated. The name added a further premonitory depression. "I think I know what he wants. It's happened before."
When Kitty had gone, Alcorn took a restless turn about the room and was interrupted at once by the gentle buzzing of the radophone unit on his desk. He pressed the receiving stud and found himself facing Victor Jaffers' image.
"Don't bother to record this," Jaffers said without preamble. "Complete arrangements have already been made to prove that I've never spoken to you in my life."
Jaffers was a small, still-faced man who might have been mistaken for a senior accountant's clerk—until the chill force of his eyes made itself felt. Alcorn had seen the Carter International head before only in teleprint pictures, had heard and discounted the stories about the man's studied ruthlessness. But those eyes and the blunt approach made him wonder.
"I've got a place in the contact branch of my organization for your particular talent, Alcorn," Jaffers said flatly. "It will pay you five times what you earn with Consolidated. You understand why I'm taking you on."
"I know." The arrogance wearied rather than angered Alcorn. "I have a gift for arranging fair settlements when both principals are present. Mr. Jaffers, I've never exploited my gift for personal profit. That's a matter of self-protection as well as ethics—I don't like trouble." He reached for the canceling stud to end the interview. "Others have made the same offer before you and there'll be others again. But I won't use my ability unfairly."
Jaffers smiled, unamused. "You do go straight to the point, which saves argument. But you'll work for me, Alcorn. Those others made the mistake of talking to you personally. I know that you can be reached as easily as any other man if my agents keep more than fifty feet away from you." His eyes moved past Alcorn to the window. "Look at the window across the street."
Alcorn, turning, felt his neck prickle. Across the narrow canyon of street, without pretense at concealing himself, a man in gray clothing watched him from an open office window.
"I've had you under surveillance for days," Jeffers' voice said behind him. "I've located two others of your sort since my statisticians brought their existence to my attention, but somehow they slipped through my fingers this week. I'm taking no chances on you."
Alcorn whirled back incredulously. "You've found others? Where and—"
"I'll tell you that when you're on my payroll."
"It's a trick," Alcorn said angrily. "I searched for years before I settled down with Consolidated and I didn't find a trace of anybody like myself. I don't believe there are any."
"Most of them covered themselves better." Jaffers added, with cold finality, "I don't haggle, Alcorn. You'll work for me or for no one."
"The trouble is," Alcorn said, "that I'm different from other people and I have to know why. I know how I'm different, but if I knew why, I'd never have come to a psychiatrist."
Dr. Hagen rattled the data sheet in his hands and blinked behind his pince-nez like a friendly beagle. He was a very puzzled man, being accustomed to analyzing his own reactions as well as those of his patients. Alcorn could see him struggling to account for the sudden serenity that had come over him the instant Alcorn entered the office—certainly it was not the doctor's usual frame of mind, from the first sour look of him—and failing.
"Different in what way, Mr. Alcorn?"
"I soothe people," Alcorn said. "There's something about me that inspires trust and an eagerness to please. Everyone roughly within a radius of fifty feet—I've checked the limit a thousand times—immediately feels a sort of euphoria. They're as happy as so many children at a picnic and they can't do enough for me or for each other."
Dr. Hagen blinked, but not with disbelief.
"It affects psychiatrists, too," Alcorn went on. "You'd cheerfully waive the fee for this consultation if I asked it, or lend me fifty credits if I were strapped. The point is that people are never difficult when I'm around, because I was born with the unlikely gift of making them happy. That gift is the most valuable asset I own, but I've never understood it—and as long as I don't understand it, there's the chance that it may be a mixed blessing. I think it's backfired on me already in one fashion and possibly in another."
He shook out a cigarette and the psychiatrist obligingly held a lighter to it. Dr. Hagen, Alcorn thought, must normally have been an exceptionally strong-willed man, for he hesitated noticeably before he spun the wheel.
"Actually," Alcorn said, "I've begun to worry about my sanity and I'm afraid my gift is responsible. For the past week, I've had a recurrent hallucination, a sort of waking nightmare that comes just when I least expect it and leaves me completely unstrung. It's worse than recurrent—it's progressive, and each new seizure leaves me a little closer to something that I'm desperately afraid to face."
The psychiatrist made a judicious tent of his fingers. "Obviously you are an intelligent and conscientious man, Mr. Alcorn, else you would not have contented yourself with your comparatively minor job. But your profession as claims adjustor must impose a considerable strain upon your nervous organization. Add to this that you are a bachelor at the age of thirty-three and the natural conclusion—"
In spite of his mood, Alcorn laughed. "Wrong tack—remember my gift! Besides, I'm engaged to be married next month and I'm quite happy with the prospect. This trouble of mine is something entirely different. It's tied in somehow with my talent for soothing and it scares me."
He could have added that Jaffers' hardly veiled threat on his life disturbed him as well, but saw no point in wasting time on the one danger he understood perfectly.
"This vision," Alcorn said, "and the sensory sharpness and conviction of disaster that come with it—it's no ordinary hallucination. It's as real as my peculiar talent and represents a very real danger. It's working some sort of change in me that I don't like and I've got to find out what that change is or I'm done for. I feel that."
Obligingly, the psychiatrist said, "Describe your experience."
Talking about it made perspiration stand out on Alcorn's forehead. "First I'm seized with a sudden sense of abnormally sharpened perception, as if I were on the point of becoming aware of a great many things beyond my immediate awareness. I can feel the emotions of people about me and I have the conviction that, in another moment, I shall be able to feel their thoughts as well.
"Then I seem to be standing alone on a frozen arctic plain, a polar wasteland that should be utterly deserted, but isn't. I've no actual sensations of touch or hearing, yet the scene is visually sharp in every detail.
"There's a small village of corrugated sheet-metal houses just ahead, the sort that engineers on location might raise, and the streets between are packed with snow. Machines loaded with metal boxes crawl up and down those streets, but I've never seen their drivers. Until this morning, I never saw any people at all on the plain."
Dr. Hagen rattled his paper and nodded agreeably. "Go on. What are these people like?"
"I can't tell you that," Alcorn said, "because their images were not complete. There seems to be a sort of relationship between them and myself—a threatening one—but I can't guess what it may be. I can't even tell you what racial type they belong to, because they have no faces."
He crushed out his cigarette and took a deep breath, getting to the worst of it. "I have a distinct conviction during each of these seizures that the people I see are not ordinary human beings, that they're as different from me as I am from everyone else, though not in the same way. It's the difference that makes me uneasy. I can feel the urgency and the resolution in them, as if they were determined to do—or had resigned themselves to doing—something desperately important. And then I know somehow that each of them has made some kind of decision recently, a decision that is responsible for his being what he is and where he is, and that I'll have to make a similar one when the time comes. And the worst of it is that I know no matter which way my choice falls, I'm going to be hideously unhappy."
The psychiatrist asked tranquilly, "You can't guess what choice it is that you must make, or its alternative?"
"I can't. And that's the hell of it—not knowing."
The icy chill of the polar plain touched him and with it came a deeper cold that had not been a part of the dream. At that instant, he might have identified its source, but was afraid to.
"My fear has some relation to whatever it is these people are about to do," he said. "I just realized that. But that doesn't help, because I've no idea what it is."
He glanced at his strap watch, and the time made him stand up before the little psychiatrist could speak again. The hour was 15:57, and he saw in dismay that his 16:00 appointment with Sean O'Donnell and the Irradiated Foods tycoon would be late.
"I don't expect an immediate opinion," he said. "You couldn't reach one as long as I'm here. Add up what I've told you, and if it makes any sort of sense you can radophone me tonight at 19:00. If my apartment doesn't answer, relay the call to my cabin in the Catskills—I've kept the location a secret,