Idiocy wrenched the mind of Thomas Blake; the television cameras, the fine old mansion, the people cheering, all seemed to vanish into a blankness. His mind was suddenly alien to his brain, his thoughts twisting against a weight of absolute blankness that resisted, with a fierce impulse to live. Before him, light seemed to lash down; and a grim, expressionless face swam out of nothing, while an old man's voice dinned in ears that were curiously not his.
It passed, almost at once, leaving only the sureness that this was more than fancy. Blake caught a quick view of himself in a monitor, spotting the sagging muscles of his face, and carrying them back to a smile. His eyes darted to the face of Gideon Pierce, and he saw that the slip could only have been momentary; his campaign manager was still smiling the too-warm smile of a professional politician, creasing his fat jowls into false pleasantness.
The shouting behind him caught Blake's ears then, making him realize that his short speech was ended. He stood there, studying himself in the monitor. He was still lean and trim at forty, with the finest camera face in politics. To the women, he had looked like a man who was still boyish; to the men, like a man among men. And none of that had hurt, though it wasn't the only reason he had just been conceded victory as the youngest governor of the state, on his first entry into politics.
But under his attempt to appraise himself, Blake's mind was still trembling as if huddled down into the familiar pattern of his physical brain. Mice, with icy feet, sneaked up his backbone, and centipedes with hot claws crawled down. No man can ever feel another brain--and yet Blake had just experienced that very feeling--contact with a vague, mindless, inchoate brain that no dream, or attack of nerves, could have conjured up for him.
He reached for a glass of Chablis and downed it at a sudden gulp, before the wash of congratulatory handclasps could reach him. Gideon Pierce suddenly snapped to life and was at his side, sensitive to every deviation from the normal. "Nerves, Tom?"
Blake nodded. "Excitement, I guess."
"Go on up, then; I'll take care of them here."
For a second, Blake almost liked the man, hollow though he knew Gideon to be. He let Pierce clear the way for him, not even listening to the men's explanations, and slipped out. Blake's room was on the fourth floor, where he had grown up as a boy, but with a private entrance and stairs that were a later addition. He slipped up to its quiet simplicity; there, in the soft light, with the big logs burning down to coals in the fireplace, seated in his worn leather chair before his desk, he should have been safe from anything.
He should have--but the wrenching came again. There was no light this time, but the same voice was droning frantically in the distance; and again he felt the touch of a brain, filled with stark idiocy, fighting to drive him out of its alien cells. He was aware of a difference this time, though--a coarser, cruder brain, filled with endocrine rage in spite of its lack of thought. It fought, and won, and Blake was suddenly back in his room.
For a second, his senses threatened to crack under hysteria, but he caught them up. In the small bathroom, he found a four-year-old box of barbiturates and swallowed two of them. He knew they wouldn't work for minutes, but the psychological relief of taking them meant something.
The idea of a strange attack on him hit Blake; at once, his fingers flew out to a knob on the desk, pressing it in a secret combination. A concealed drawer slipped out, and he grabbed at the papers inside--they were all there. His brother, James, had spent ten years--and fifty million dollars, that had bankrupt and killed him, to get a few diagrams and instructions onto these papers.
Silas McKinley had postulated that some form of military absolutism was inevitable when the greatest weapons of the time required great means to use them--as had the phalanx, the highly trained Roman Legion, the heavy equipment of feudal knights, or the atomic bombs, planes, and tanks of modern war. Contrariwise, when the major weapons could be owned and used by the general citizenry, then reasonably peaceful democracy must result, as it had from the colonial muskets of the eighteenth century, and would do from the use of James Blake's seemingly impossible accomplishment.
Unless, Tom added to himself, it could be suppressed. Stealing the papers wouldn't be enough for that; he had them all completely memorized. He managed to grin at his fear, and closed the drawer, just as a knock sounded and Gideon Pierce came in.
Watching the man's public mask slip off and reveal a cynical, old face did more to stabilize Blake's emotions than any amount of barbiturates could have done. He motioned to another chair and poured whiskey and soda into a glass, adding ice from the small freezer in the little bar. "Rough down there?"
The older man shook his head. "No--not after we knew you won; I'm used to celebrations. But--my God, Tom--the last month--the way you were going, you didn't have a chance! Getting the nomination was miracle enough--you had no business winning with the stuff you were handing out! It's all right to promise things--but you have to be realistic about even that! When you can't deliver..."
"I'll deliver," Blake told him. "I've always delivered on everything I ever said I'd do; and I've always tried to give them what they really wanted. Now I want something--and they give it to me. The old principle, Gideon--cast thy bread upon the water and it shall return after many days."
"Yeah--soggy!" Pierce swirled the drink in his mouth and swallowed it without tasting it. "So what do you get out of it, if you do manage to keep some of your promises?"
Insanity, maybe, Blake thought, remembering the mind-wrenching; then he thrust it down. "I get to be President--where I can really do some good; where I can give them decent, honest, democratic peace and self-respect."
"Sure." Pierce dragged out a cigar and began chewing on it, shaking his head. "Tom, I'm beginning to believe you mean it. If you do, take the advice of a man who has been around longer; get out of politics! It's no place for you. You're too naive--too filled with bright ideals that are one hundred percent right--except that they neglect human nature. You'll find even the President has opposition, boy, once you have the power and somebody bucks you, well--you've seen it happen. And you get bitter. I was full of noble thoughts once myself; take a look at what you see on my face now. You don't belong in this racket."
Blake held out a lighter to the other, grinning. "They told me I didn't belong in the newspaper business, Gideon. When I inherited my foster father's string of yellow, warmongering journals and decided to build them into the honest, fighting group they are now, they told me I'd go broke. I doubled the circulation."
"Yeah--and probably convinced a few thousand voters to change their ideas--until they voted; then they cast their ballot for favors, and with the same selfish reasons they'd had before. You're as hopeless as your brother James; burning himself out and wasting a fortune on a perpetual motion machine. But you're going to break my heart when you find out the facts. Oh, hell! Good night, Governor!"
Pierce got up and went out, grumbling before Tom could sputter the words that came to his lips. Then he shrugged; James Blake had deliberately built up a reputation as a crackpot while he went ahead turning a gadget out of the wildest of science fiction speculations into reality. He'd developed a hand weapon which was equal to a cannon, for offense, and simultaneously protected the user from anything up to the first blast of a hydrogen bomb.
And now it was up to Tom Blake to get to a position where he could have this weapon produced in quantity, and released before it could be suppressed. As President, there would be ways he could do that; with it would come an end to war, once and for all, and the genuine equality of all men. Maybe this was idealism, perhaps even naive--but the Blakes got what they wanted.
He started to undress, and then flopped down on the bed with half his clothes on. It had been a hard day, and those two attacks hadn't helped any; they must have been caused by nervous strain, he thought ... and knew he was only trying to deceive himself. But the barbiturates were working, finally, bringing a cloudy euphoria that kept him from pursuing his doubts.
He was reaching up for the light switch when the third attack came.