I stepped away from the tabulator's window, and Frank Cloney smiled through the bars. "Remember," he said, "we're in business. When you have a few megabucks to work with, keep First Freedom in mind.
"We pay the highest interest in Maxurb. At the same time, and unlike some of our competitors, we're eager to make loans. That's because we have a formula at First Freedom, fully warranted by our depositors, which keeps us an aggressive, profit-seeking funding institution.
"At First Freedom, Urban Kane, the customers are in charge of their own funds at all times. And they know it. We store their money for them in safety and for a small annual fee. Or we use their funds as a reserve for our own investments. We are quite conservative here and pay only modest interest. However, if a customer chooses to make his money available for the investments of our other clients, our interest is the highest in Maxurb. 'When you take chances, your interest advances.'" Cloney grinned. "That's our slogan, you know."
I was learning the lingo. "Thanks a mil, Frank," I said. "I can't imagine how I'll ever get a megabuck. But it's a great pleasure having your financial institution explained."
I opened the kiosk door and stepped into the vaulted, glittering foyer of First Freedom, its hum of business activity pleasantly accompanied by a recorded version of a Mendelssohn scherzo. Mentus was standing by in his flowing lavender. "Mister…I mean, Urban Cloney gave a sparkling recitation," I said to him. "But I can't get over it. Your banks…excuse me, your revaults operate without any outside supervision. What keeps the bankers honest?"
"Competition for profits," Mentus responded, smiling in that enigmatic way he had. "How long would you keep your money in any institution if you learned that dishonest practices took place there?"
"I'd sue," I said.
"Not in Maxurb. We have no such mechanism."
"Well, if I couldn't sue, what could I do?"
"You could withdraw your funds."
"Sure. If I had any left."
"Correct. What else would you want to do?"
"I'd like to get back whatever I'd lost."
"Of course. How would you go about that?"
I shook my head, baffled.
"Some years ago just such a situation occurred. A dishonest vault-keeper misappropriated funds. One depositor, discovering his own loss, reported the matter to the press. After an investigation, a full report was published and aired."
"But what if the bank…I mean, the revault president refused to permit an investigation?"
"Then that fact would have been published and aired."
"That's what happened in the case to which I refer. The revault president didn't want an investigation by the press. He refused. The fact was published. That brought such a clamor that a full investigation by the press took place. Immediately the stockholders descended on the board of directors. The erring president was summarily discharged. A full payment was made to the injured depositor. Meanwhile, the run on the revault, which had begun the moment the first story appeared, tapered off, and the new management voluntarily placed itself under bond. Thus reassured, depositors and borrowers returned. The entire affair was ancient history within a week. Had the 20th-century method of a lawsuit been employed, the matter might still be pending.
"The records indicate that the results in the 20th century would have been far from satisfactory. Enormous sums would have been lost in prosecution and defense. The final disposition would have been, in all probability, a compromise of some sort; the institution would have been shielded from full public gaze. And it is entirely possible that further dishonest practices would recur. We believe our methods are less costly and far speedier."
My head was spinning. For years I had given lip service to the idea that reason is superior to the use of force, but when it came down to the crunch, I was entirely willing to use force. Now I couldn't destroy Mentus' arguments.
Mentus smiled kindly. "I realize you've been away a long time. Try to remember. Here in Maxurb we have a free society. No revault worthy of your trust would tolerate outside supervision for an instant. You wouldn't want your private financial affairs known to others who might turn out to be your competitors. Revaults, like any business, must act to please their customers or be prepared to fail. Privacy is guaranteed, unless you, yourself, demand publicity. Then you can get it."
I looked at the gleaming marble kiosks, each tabulator invisible, isolated with his own personal and private customers. I noted the sheen of brass and gold, the sparkle of crystal chandeliers. I glimpsed the flashing quotations of stock and bond prices, marching steadily across the screen strips in the roped off Hall of Speculation. I stared agape at the stewards and stewardesses, each in maroon jacket and calf-length matching trousers, balancing trays, scurrying about, bringing drinks to customers or bent on other errands respecting pleasure or finance. First Freedom Revault was a combination of the Bank of America, E.F. Hutton, and the MGM Grand Casino in Vegas. Only the slot machines were missing. But Mentus had already explained that. "Gambling is one thing; speculation in hope of profit is quite another matter," he had said. First Freedom proved his point.
At that instant a klaxon blast from loudspeakers interrupted the flow of business. Everyone froze in his tracks.
"What in the world…?" I began, but Mentus held up a hand for silence.
A chime sounded three times. Then a bell of a slightly different key struck twelve, followed by the most hideous siren I had ever heard. A pair of notes, one middle register, the other lower in key, crisscrossed each other in descending scale with a sudden upward surge at the end. It had sounded like a mechanized retching, as if a robot had lost his lunch.
Mentus' face never lost its calm. "We're in luck, Peter. You've been insistent that even in a free society crime will persist. And as I've told you, it does. But it is rare. However, some kind of violence is occurring on Avenue C near 12th. That's only two squares away. If we move promptly, we may be able to witness part of the event."
As Mentus finished speaking, I noticed that the alarm had had no lasting effect on the activities of the revault. A stewardess who had halted only a few steps away, with a tray delicately balanced, continued on her way. A businessman had just reached for the control of his personal kiosk and had frozen, arm extended. Now he opened the door and disappeared into the private interior. All procedures had returned to normal.
"With violence in the neighborhood, Mentus," I said, "I should think any financial institution would take precautionary steps. After all, First Freedom would be a prime target for any criminal.''
"The precautions have been taken, Peter. You don't see them, of course. First Freedom, like any revault and even most other businesses, has spotters on the roof. If anything untoward happens on the street in this square, sheets of steel will descend rapidly, blocking all entrances to the building. There's no point in doing anything drastic unless it becomes necessary. Meanwhile, First Freedom is open for business. But it is on alert status.
"Let's be on our way, Peter. If we don't hurry, we'll miss the trouble altogether, and I know you have the typical 20th-century fascination with violence."
With a deceptively leisurely stride. Mentus moved rapidly to the entrance, with me trotting behind.
On the street, we hurried up the stairs and onto the moving walkway. I looked about, expecting to see people ducking into doorways, hiding from some violent disorder only a short distance away. Instead, people were moving along about their own business as though nothing was happening.
A plump woman laden with parcels had stepped onto the walkway just ahead of us. Looking back, she recognized Mentus, and I sensed she was even aware of my identity. She smiled broadly and said, "Excuse me for not shaking hands, Urban Mentus. It is an honor to see you." "Thank you, Urbaness," Mentus said. She smiled at me. "Are you the astronaut, Urban Kane?"
I nodded and clasped my hands before my chest in the universal handshake.
"How nice," she said. "What a fortunate day I am having."
People in Maxurb were certainly friendly. And my arrival had been well publicized. But the scene was so normal that I was perplexed. Down below, strolling before the storefronts, was the usual crowd of window-shoppers. On the belt moving in the opposite direction, people occasionally waved or clasped hands, bestowing greetings.
I jerked my head, indicating the shoppers generally. "Don't they know what's happening?"
"Certainly. The alarm we heard was sounded through Maxurb."
"Then there has to be a government of sorts. Someone has to maintain and pay for that alarm system."
Mentus shook his head. "I can appreciate your confusion, Peter. But we have no government. At least we have nothing at all that resembles what you have in mind—some centralized agency of force. The alarm system was installed and is paid for by the various news media. They find it good business. And here comes one of the news teams now, on its way to the scene."
I followed the direction indicated by Mentus' outstretched arm. What can only be described as a rotorless helicopter was swooping over our heads as silent as the dawn. Instead of propeller blades, a whirling silver disk, set flush under the floor of the vehicle, was visible. Huge white letters on the undercarriage read "M.M.N." It must have been a unit of the Maxurb Media News, a paper I had read and also seen on the teletalk.
The walkway zoomed over the intersection, and halfway down the second block Mentus pointed again. The news car hovered motionless above a throng of persons standing in front of a sporting goods store.
"Come, Peter." We transferred to the adjoining pedipad, then scrambled down the stairs. At the crowd's edge, people moved to one side as they glimpsed Mentus' lavender robe. I followed in his wake.
Suddenly we were face to face with an unfolding drama. A man, wearing a grotesque mask that covered his entire head, stood with a blaster pressed against the neck of an attractive young lady. He was screaming. "Back off! I mean business!"
The girl's eyes were closed, her lips tightly compressed. She was blond, with cascading shoulder-length tresses. She wore a filmy white blouse with short sleeves and the traditional tight-fitting calf-length slacks of luxurious blue velvet. With a blaster against her neck she should have been terrified. But there was an air about her. She was frightened, but there was no sense of panic. The girl's purse, the apparent object of the robbery, was snapped to the man's belt.
Mentus confronted the holdup man calmly. Others encircling the pair kept a respectful distance. Some, carrying parcels, were obviously shoppers. Others had interrupted whatever business they had been pursuing. No one was fleeing in terror.
The man grabbed the girl by an arm and swung the blaster back and forth for a moment, taking in the pedestrians. "Back off and nobody gets hurt!" He roared. "All I want is to get out of here!"
The air car with the news team aboard was open along one side. At least two cameras were filming the scene, and a microphone dangled only a few feet above the head of the tallest man in the crowd. Even as I took note of this detail, a second air car arrived; its side opened, and more cameras swung into play. Competition.
"You may dispense with the disguise," Mentus said in a clear voice that was devoid of anger or anxiety. "I recognize the movements and the voice of the Atavist, Humbolt."
The holdup man stiffened. Then with his left hand he swept off his mask and hurled it to the pavement. "The damn thing was too confining, anyhow!" He stood revealed as a clean-shaven, tousled-haired individual with eyes that shifted constantly in a look of desperation. "What the hell's the matter with you people? Don't you realize I could kill any one of you?"
"I'm sure you feel better with the mask off," Mentus said. "Thank you for cooperating. Would you mind explaining to me and to others what you hope to accomplish by this display of force? Has the lady injured you in some way?"
"Hell, no. I'm broke. I need the money. I need lots of money."
"We all need money. But there are better ways of obtaining it. For instance, you might get a job."
"Fat chance," the man said, glowering at Mentus. "You fixed that. Nobody'll hire me."
"I did nothing to you whatever," Mentus replied. "You have scared off potential employers by your prior behavior. But if you'll put away your blaster and calm down, I'll put in a good word at the Mission. We can begin your rehabilitation any time. It won't be easy."
"I'd have to start at the bottom all over again. That's for crap!"
"Did you think that shoving a blaster into a girl's neck would get you a job at the top?"
"Of course not." For a moment the robber was disconcerted. Then he blurted, "It's not just the money. God, if I could only get you dummies to understand. Geez. Our whole country is in danger. We're about to be invaded. And you damn fools stand around like dumb oxes and listen to a bunch of twaddle from this lavender lunatic. We gotta raise an army! We gotta defend ourselves!"
"You're getting me confused," Mentus said. "Are you after cash or do you want publicity for one of your schemes? I can't help you if I don't know what you really want."
"Both! I need both!"
"I can virtually guarantee you the publicity. If that's what you're really after, return the girl's purse and let her go. Two of the major media are present, and I'm sure you'll have national coverage. How about it, Urbanites?"
Mentus looked upward and one of the men in the first air car waved his hand to indicate concurrence.
"It's arranged. And not because I interceded. Your actions got you the publicity."
The gunman was breathing heavily. "Know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna pull the trigger and blast this dame."
"I hope you think better than that," Mentus said quickly.
"Nobody takes me seriously. If I blast her, I bet you'll show some respect!" His attitude was menacing.
The girl opened her eyes. She was surprisingly in command of herself. "He can have my purse if he's that desperate," she said.
"Best let me do the talking, Urbaness," Mentus interrupted. "Let's begin here. You are in charge of this situation, Humbolt. You have placed yourself in command of the next move. No one will dispute that. Now, let's consider your options. You can proceed to kill this innocent woman. But you picked a poor place for such an execution, Humbolt. You are standing in front of a sporting goods establishment There are blasters for sale inside. This shop does a brisk business. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that one or more persons standing here in this crowd already has a blaster trained on you. It may even be that the proprietor has his spotter on the roof with his defenses prepared. I have no idea what they are. I'm sure the newsmen are prepared.
"I won't hurt you, but someone else very well might do so. I would not applaud the deed, but it is quite possible that somebody less generous than I might not see it in the same way. I have no control over the actions of any person but myself.
"However, you may be simply seeking suicide. If that is your wish, I'd suggest that you turn the blaster on yourself and have done with it. You have no cause whatever to harm an innocent woman.
"Next, if publicity is your object rather than your own demise, I'm sure the news teams will record faithfully anything you have to say. And it will be publicized.
"If your object is money, you're completely on the wrong track. But, as I've said, I'll help you get started again. At the bottom, of necessity, but a start."
"That's where you're wrong! I'm gonna hold this girl as hostage. I can collect a big ransom."
"Wait a minute, Humbolt. Let's carry hostage terrorism into its next phase. What you really want to do is to alert your fellow countrymen to the possibility of invasion from abroad. Isn't that right?"
"Geez. Creez! Don't tell me I finally got through to you!"
"Certainly, you did. I understood what you said. Now, if you kill the girl, you will probably be killed, too. Then who will protect the country?"
"God, you're right about that. Nobody. Nobody in this stinking society."
"Now, let's see if we can put the pieces together. You took this opportunity to get yourself publicity. That was a shrewd move, Humbolt. It has already succeeded.
"Furthermore, your purpose you believe to be good. You know, there are people in the country who might agree with you. But if you blast an innocent woman, how many of those people do you think would flock to your banner? Is she an enemy of this country?"
Humbolt took the blaster from the girl and looked at it, almost foolishly. Suddenly he dropped her arm and faced Mentus, the flared snout of the weapon menacing. He shrieked with maniacal laughter.
"You're right, Mentus. She's not the enemy. She can go! You're the enemy. And I've got you! I'm gonna hold you for ransom!"
To my amazement, the girl didn't dash away. Nor did she faint. Instead, she slipped into the crowd and then turned to watch. She was a cool customer.
Mentus nodded, almost as though he had foreseen the sudden danger to himself. He was unflappable.
"Excellent, Humbolt. The girl has been released. Now, return her purse."
Humbolt put both hands to the blaster. He spread his legs and strutted toward the two of us. "Who's the creep with you?" he bellowed.
I can't explain it. Maybe it was because I was slightly to the rear of Mentus. But to my own amazement, I wasn't particularly frightened. Perhaps I had been inspired by the marvelous self-control the girl had displayed.
"I am the astronaut, Peter Kane," I said. "I have no weapon."
Again Humbolt shrieked. "Wowee. I've got two! And will I ever get megabucks for you! This is gonna be my lucky day."
"Please, Peter," Mentus admonished. "Let me do the talking. Humbolt is as sharp a lad as we have in Maxurb. He has a few fixations but could achieve a great deal if he applied himself correctly."
"I got you! I got you both!" Humbolt shouted. "You're gonna come with me. And don't try to butter me up!"
"I'm not going anywhere with you until you return the girl's purse."
"And I ain't returnin' the purse," Humbolt sassed. "I need the money, too."
"Don't you need a great deal of money?"
"Sure. And you're gonna git it for me."
"I know. You want to hold me for ransom. None of my own funds can be touched for that purpose. That's already a part of my contract with my revault.
"Your threats toward me keep you in the same precarious situation, Humbolt. If anything were to happen to me, this crowd wouldn't like it. Your chances of creating interest in your cause would vanish. Further, with me dead, there is no chance for you to hold me for ransom. So, your threatening attitude against me is useless. As for Urban Kane, he is broke.
"But, if you'll explain your purpose a bit more, maybe there are those present who would like to contribute to your cause—or possibly others who could be reached."
"You'd wreck it for me!"
"I'm trying to be helpful. I believe in charitable causes if they are worthy. You say we need to defend the country and you need money."
"Geez. Creez. I'll say. Nobody seems to give a damn. The country is about to be invaded. The fleets of the Cordonites are already moving across the Atlantic. Geez, God, can't we even begin to git ready? Where's the army? The navy? The air battalions? We're just a bunch of sitting ducks!"
"I understand that the Cordonites are on a trade mission."
"Baloney! They got you all fooled. I'm trying to organize a defensive front. That's what I need the money for!"
"All right," Mentus said. "Let's talk about that. Suppose you're right. Our reports tell us that the Cordonites are fine, intelligent people trying to improve their standards of living by trade and industry. But suppose the information we have is wrong, and their intention is war. As you correctly point out, we are at peace and do not have a standing army, navy, or air force. Suppose the Cordonites land and proceed to take over. What would they do next?"
"You know damn well what they'd do. They'd put a military dictator over us. They'd regulate us and tax us and draft us into their armies. And we'd be told where to work and what to produce. And they'd do as they pleased. We'd no longer be free. We'd be slaves to the Cordonites.
It sounds strange, but right then I found my sympathies shifting toward the man with the blaster. The culture to which I had returned certainly had a great deal going for for it. It was great. It was exciting. But it was totally vulnerable to outside attack. I found myself looking at Mentus with a strange emotional alienation. This time he was wrong! Humbolt was obviously not to be trusted, but he had a point. A country has to protect itself.
Mentus merely smiled. "So what you propose to offset a possible military invasion and resulting dictatorship is that we create one first and impose it on ourselves. We organize a permanent military force and set it up under a government. To maintain it we would then be taxed and drafted into Urbanite armies. And we'd be told where to work and what our work was worth. And we'd no longer be free that way, either."
"The Cordonites are terrible people."
"Any person who regulates, regiments, and dominates you is terrible, whatever his name or language. If Cordonites covet what we have in this country, they can obtain it more cheaply and readily by keeping us gainfully employed at production and then trading with us. Our borders are open. We don't intervene in their affairs, but we trade with all comers.
"If they came in fighting, they would destroy our manufacturies and our fields. They would kill our people. And they would experience great losses in return. And when it was over, we'd all do our best to regain the condition of peace that we have now, but all of us would have less and be less capable than we now are. This is unprofitable.
"A war would be as dysfunctional for them as it would be for us. As it presently stands, the more important Cordonite producers and traders know this as well as we do. We both gain by peaceful exchange without tariff or other barriers. Start shooting, and the prices skyrocket for everyone. Cordonite problems would increase, not diminish."
"So would ours!" But the blaster wavered. Humbolt lowered it to his side. A sigh escaped from the crowd, but Mentus kept talking as though the lowered weapon meant nothing.
"True. But examine the base of your proposal. You are suggesting that because the Cordonites might be hostile, we must become hostile. You are urging Urban upon a course that is wrong because you believe that Cordon is on a course that is wrong. In either direction, freedom vanishes and we become a regimented people. The only virtue in what you propose is that those who regiment us would be of our own culture. To me that is a very small light in a very dark night. Regimentation by an Urbanite would taste as bitter as regimentation under a Cordonite and might even be more difficult to overcome."
Humbolt shook his head but made no threatening move. "I still think I'm right."
"Of course, you do. Now, a great many people have heard your story. Let those who wish to do so make a contribution to your cause. You do want a following, don't you?"
"Well, sure. Geez. Creeze. You can't get nowhere without people."
"That is correct. Now, you want people to give you money. Do you think many will want to when they are witness to the theft of that girl's purse? Is that the way you propose to raise money?"
Humbolt's jaw dropped.
"You've done a daring thing, Humbolt. And you did achieve an objective-publicity." Mentus had located the girl, standing in the crowd.
"Urbaness," he suddenly said to her, "How much is in your purse?"
"Thirteen minibucks and an F.F. credit card," she responded.
Mentus shook his head sadly. "That's a poor beginning, Humbolt, not because of the amount but because it wasn't voluntarily given."
Humbolt threw down the blaster. "Holy Geez. Is that all? I trailed her all the way from the revault. I thought she had a bundle. Anyhow, I never meant to kill her. The blaster is set to stun, if you wanna look."
The girl said, "I did have quite a sum, but I deposited it. I only kept lunch money."
"Geez God. Damn. All right. I'm off base. I'm way off base." Humbolt snapped the hitch and hurled the purse in the girl's direction. A young man caught it and passed it to her. Then the girl and her catcher departed, talking with animation.
"What you gonna do to me this time?" Humbolt asked Mentus.
"Just what I did before. Nothing. Except to say this. I suggest that the news media put some good men on the story. If the Cordonites are deceiving us, we should know about it. If anyone is interested in the ideas of Mr. Humbolt and wishes to make a contribution in support of his efforts, I will make no attempt to interfere.
I picked up the blaster. A quick look showed that Humbolt had told the truth. The weapon was on "stun." Also, the fuse was burned out.
"The blaster was useless," I hissed to Mentus. "He was bluffing all the time." I started to hand it to him.
"It's not your property," he said, looking at me with surprise. "Let the owner have it. If he abandons it, then it can be disposed of."
I shrugged. In Rome you do as the Romans. I laid the blaster back on the walk. Humbolt picked it up and grinned. The small group began to disperse. Several came forward, shook hands with themselves while looking in Mentus' eyes and then walked away.
Mentus turned to me. "The incident is closed. No real harm was done. I don't believe Humbolt will go anywhere with his ideas, but they will be fully reported." "So will your comments," I reminded him.
"Quite so," he said simply. "Shall we stop somewhere for lunch? I have a splendid little cafe in mind."
Bob LeFevre is the founder of Rampart College and is a nationwide lecturer. His latest publications are The Power of Congress (ed. R.S. Radford) and Lift Her Up, Tenderly.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Return From the Stars".