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The copter hovered over Chicago's sparkling gaiety. Below, Kirby saw the bright sheen of Lake Michigan, and the splendid mile-high towers that lined the lake. Above him blazed the local timeglow in chartreuse banded with deep blue:




"Put her down," Kirby ordered.

The robopilot steered the copter toward a landing. It was impossible, of course, to risk the fierce wind currents in those deep canyons; they would have to land at a rooftop heliport. The landing was smooth. Kirby and Vanna rushed out. She had given him the Vorster message all the way from Manhattan, and at this point Kirby wasn't sure whether the cult was complete nonsense or some sinister conspiracy against the general welfare or a truly profound, spiritually uplifting creed or perhaps a bit of all three.

He thought he had the general idea. Vorst had cobbled together an eclectic religion, borrowing the confessional from Catholicism, absorbing some of the atheism of ur-Buddhism, adding a dose of Hindu reincarnation, and larding everything over with ultramodernistic trappings, nuclear reactors at every altar, and plenty of gabble about the holy electron. But there was also talk of harnessing the minds of espers to power a stardrive, of a communion even of non-esper minds, and—most startling of all, the big selling-point—personal immortality, not reincarnation, not the hope of Nirvana, but eternal life in the here-and- now present flesh. In view of Earth's population problems, immortality was low on any sane man's priority list. Immortality for other people, anyway; one was always willing to consider the extension of one's own life, wasn't one? Vorst preached the eternal life of the body, and the people were buying. In eight years the cult had gone from one cell to a thousand, from fifty followers to millions. The old religions were bankrupt. Vorst was handing out shining gold pieces, and if they were only fool's gold, it would take a while for the faithful to find that out.

"Come on," Kirby said. "There isn't much time."

He scrambled down the exit ramp, turning to take Vanna Marshak's hand and help her the last few steps. They hurried across the rooftop landing area to the gravshaft, stepped in, dropped to ground level in a dizzying five-second plunge. Local police were waiting in the street. They had three teardrops.

"He's a block from the Vorster place, Freeman Kirby," one of the policeman said. "The esper's been dragging Mm around for half an hour, but he's dead set on going there."

"What does he want there?" Kirby asked.

"He wants the reactor. He says he's going to take it back to Mars and put it to some worthwhile use."

Vanna gasped at the blasphemy. Kirby shrugged, sat back, watched the streets flashing by. The teardrop halted. Kirby saw the Martian across the street.

The girl who was with him was sultry, full-bodied, lush-looking. She had one arm thrust through his, and she was close to Weiner's side, cooing in his ear. Weiner laughed harshly and turned to her, pulled her close, then pushed her away. She clutched at him again. It was quite a scene, Kirby thought. The street had been cleared. Local police and a couple of Ridblom's men were watching grimly from the sidelines.

Kirby went forward and gestured to the girl. She sensed instantly who he was, withdrew her arm from Weiner, and stepped away. The Martian swung around.

"Found me, did you?"

"I didn't want you to do anything you'd regret later on."

"Very loyal of you, Kirby. Well, as long as you're here, you can be my accomplice. I'm on my way to the Vorster place. They're wasting good fissionables in those reactors. You distract the priest, and I'm going to grab the blue blinker, and we'll all live happily ever after. Just don't let him shock you. That isn't fun."


"Are you with me or aren't you, pal?" Weiner pointed toward the chapel, diagonally across the street a block away, in a building almost as shabby as the one in Manhattan. He started toward it.

Kirby glanced uncertainly at Vanna. Then he crossed the street behind Weiner. He realized that the altered girl was following, too.

Just as Weiner reached the entrance to the Vorster place, Vanna dashed forward and cut in front of him.

"Wait," she said. "Don't go in there to make trouble."

"Get out of my way, you phony-faced bitch!"

"Please," she said softly. "You're a troubled man. You aren't in harmony with yourself, let alone with the world around you. Come inside with me, and let me show you how to pray. There's much for you to gain in there. If you'd only open your mind, open your heart—instead of standing there so smug in your hatred, in your drunken unwillingness to see—"

Weiner hit her.

It was a backhand slap across the face. Surgical alteration jobs are fragile, and they aren't meant to be slapped. Vanna fell to her knees, whimpering, and pressed her hands over her face. She still blocked the Martian's way. Weiner drew his foot back as though he were going to kick her, and that was when Reynolds Kirby forgot he was paid to be a diplomat.

Kirby strode forward, caught Weiner by the elbow, swung him around. The Martian was off balance. He clawed at Kirby for support. Kirby struck his hand down, brought a fist up, landed it solidly in Weiner's muscular belly. Weiner made a small oofing sound and began to rock backward. Kirby had not struck a human being in anger in thirty years, and he did not realize until that moment what a savage pleasure there could be in something so primordial. Adrenalin flooded his body. He hit Weiner again, just below the heart. The Martian, looking very surprised, sagged and went over backward, sprawling in the street.

"Get up," Kirby said, almost dizzy with rage.

Vanna plucked at his sleeve. "Don't hit him again," she murmured. Her metallic lips looked crumpled. Her cheeks glistened with tears. "Please don't hit him any more."

Weiner remained where he was, shaking his head vaguely. A new figure came forward: a small leathery- faced man, in late middle age. The Martian consul. Kirby felt his belly churn with apprehension.

The consul said, "I'm terribly sorry, Freeman Kirby. He's really been running amok, hasn't he? Well, we'll take jurisdiction now. What he needs is to have some of his own people tell him what a fool he's been."

Kirby stammered, "It was my fault. I lost sight of him. He shouldn't be blamed. He—"

"We understand perfectly, Freeman Kirby." The consul smiled benignly, gestured, nodded as three aides came forward and gathered the fallen Weiner into their arms.

Very suddenly the street was empty. Kirby stood, drained and stupefied, in front of the Vorster chapel, and Vanna was with him, and all the others were gone, Weiner vanishing like an ogre in a bad dream. It had not, Kirby thought, been a very successful evening. But now it was over.

Home, now.

An hour and a half would see him in Tortola. A quick, lonely swim in the warm ocean—then half an hour in the Nothing Chamber tomorrow. No, an hour, Kirby decided. It would take that much to undo this night's damage. An hour of disassociation, an hour of drifting on the amniotic tide, sheltered, warm, unbothered by the pressures of the world, an hour of blissful if cowardly escape. Fine. Wonderful.

Vanna said, "Will you come in now?"

"Into the chapel?"

"Yes. Please."

"It's late. I'll get you back to New York right away. We'll pay for any repairs that—that your face will need. The copter's waiting."

"Let it wait," Vanna said. "Come inside."

"I want to get home."

"Home can wait, too. Give me two hours with you, Ron. Just sit and listen to what they have to say in there. Come to the altar with me. You don't have to do anything but listen. It'll relax you, I promise that."

Kirby stared at her distorted, artificial face. Beneath the grotesque eyelids were real eyes—shining, imploring. Why was she so eager? Did they pay a finder's fee of salvation for every lost soul dragged into the Blue Fire? Or could it be, Kirby wondered, that she really and truly believed, that her heart and soul were bound up in this movement, that she was sincere in her conviction that the followers of Vorst would live through eternity, would live to see men ride to the distant stars?

He was so very tired.

He wondered how the security officers of the Secretariat would regard it if a high official like himself began to dabble in Vorsterism.

He wondered, too, if he had any career at all left to salvage, after tonight's fiasco with the Martian. What was there to lose? He could rest for a while. His head was splitting. Perhaps some esper in there would massage his frontal lobes for a while. Espers tended to be drawn to the Vorster chapels, didn't they?

The place seemed to have a pull. He had made his job his religion, but was that really good enough now, he asked himself? Perhaps it was time to unbend, time to shed the mask of aloofness, time to find out what it was that the multitudes were buying so eagerly in these chapels. Or perhaps it was just time to give in and let himself be pulled under by the tide of the new creed.

The sign over the door said:





"Will you?" Vanna said.

"All right," Kirby muttered. "I'm willing. Let's go harmonize with the All."

She took his hand. They stepped through the door. About a dozen people were kneeling in the pews. Up front the chapel leader was nudging the moderator rods out of the little reactor, and the first faint bluish glow was beginning to suffuse the room. Vanna guided Kirby into the last row. He looked toward the altar. The glow was deepening, casting a strange radiance on the plump, dogged-looking man at the front of the room. Now greenish-white, now purplish, now the Blue Fire of the Vorsters.

The opium of the masses, Kirby thought, and the hackneyed phrase sounded foolishly cynical as it echoed through his brain. What was the Nothing Chamber, after all, but the opium of the elite? And the sniffer palaces, what were they? At least here they went for the mind and soul, not for the body. It was worth an hour of his time to listen, at any rate.

"My brothers," said the man at the altar in a soft, fog-smooth voice, "we celebrate the underlying Oneness here. Man and woman, star and stone, tree and bird, all consist of atoms, and those atoms contain particles moving at wondrous speeds. They are the electrons, my brothers. They show us the way to peace, as I will make clear to you. They—"

Reynolds Kirby bowed his head. He could not bear to look at that glowing reactor, suddenly. There was a throbbing in his skull. He was distantly aware of Vanna beside him, smiling, warm, close.

I'm listening, Kirby thought. Go on. Tell me! Tell me! I want to hear. God and the almighty electron help me—I want to hear!

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