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THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST

Fritz Leiber

“I wish,' said the Young Captain, police chief of High Chicago, the turbulent satellite that hangs over the meridian of the mid-western groundside city, 'I wish that sometimes the telepathic races of the Galaxy weren't such consistent truth-tellers and silence-keepers.'

'Your four suspects are all telepaths?' the- Old Lieutenant asked.

'Yes. I also wish I had more than half an how to decide which one to accuse; But Earth-side has muscled into the case and the pressure is on. If I can't reason it out, I must make a guess. A bare half-hour they give me.'

'Then perhaps you shouldn't waste it with a pensionedoff old louey.'

The Young Captain shook his head decisively. 'No. You think. You have time to now.'

The Old Lieutenant smiled. 'Sometimes I wish I hadn't. And I doubt if I can give you any special angles on telepaths, Jim. It's true I've lately been whiling away the time on informal study of alien thought systems with Khla-Khla the Martian, but—'

'I didn't come to you looking for a specialist on telepathy,' the Young Captain asserted sharply.

'Very well then, Jim. You know what you're doings Let's hear your case. And give me background. I don’t keep up with the news.'

The Young Captain looked skeptical. 'Everyone in High Chicago has heard about the murder—not two furlongs from here—of the representative of the Arcturian peace party.'

'I haven't,” the Old Lieutenant said. 'Who are the Arcturians? I tell you, for an oldster like me, the Now is just one more historical period. Better consult someone else, Jim.'

'No. The Arcturians are the first non-related humanoid race to turn up in the Galaxy. Non-related to Earth humans, that is. True, they have three eyes, and six fingers on each hand, but they are hairless mammalian bipeds just the same. One of their females is the current burlesque sensation of the Star and Garter.'

'The police found that a good spot to keep their eyes on in my day too,' the Old Lieutenant recalled, nodding. 'Are the Arcturians telepaths?'

'No. I'll come to the telepathy angle later. The Arcturians are split into two' parties: those who want to enter the Commerce Union and open their planets to alien starships, including Earth's—the peace party, in short—and those who favour a policy of strict non-intercourse which, as far as we know, always intimately leads to war. The war party is rather the stronger of the two. Any event may tip the balance.'

'Such as a representative of the peace party coming quietly to Earth and getting himself bumped before he even gets down from High Chicago?' <^

'Exactly. It looks bad, Scan. It looks as if we wanted war. The other member peoples of the Commerce Union are skeptical enough already about the ultimate peacefulness of Earth's intentions toward the whole Galaxy. r. They look on the Arcturian situation as a test. They say that we accepted the Polarians and Antareans and all the rest as equals simply because they are so different from us in form and culture—it's easy to admit theoretical equality with a bumblebee, say, and then perhaps do him dirt afterward.

'But, our galactic critics ask, will Earthmen be so ready or willing to admit equality with a humanoid race? It's sometimes harder, you know, to agree that your own brother is a human being than to grant the title to an anonymous peasant on the other side of the globe. They say—I continue to speak for our galactic critics—that Earthmen will openly work for peace with Arcturus while secretly sabotaging it.'

'Including murder.'

'Right, Sean. So unless we can pin this crime on aliens —best of all on extremists in the Arcturian war party (something I believe but can in no way prove)—the rumour will go through the Union that Earth wants war, while the Arcturian Earth-haters will have everything their own way.'

'Leave off the background, Jim. How was the murder done?'

Permitting himself a bitter smile, the Young Captain said wistfully, 'With the whole Galaxy for a poison cabinet and a weapon shop, with almost every means available of subtle disguise, of sudden approach and instantaneous getaway—everything but a time machine, and some crook will come along with that any day now— the murder had to be done with a blunt instrument and by one of four aliens domiciled in the same caravansary as the Arcturian peace-party man.

'There's something very ugly, don't you think, in the vision of a blackjack gripped by the tentacle of an octopoid or in the pincers of a black Martian? To be frank, Sean, I'd rather the killer had been fancier in his modus Operandi. It would have let me dump the heavy end of the case in the laps of the science boys.'

'I was always grateful myself when I could invoke the physicists,' the Old Lieutenant agreed, 'It's marvellous what coloured lights and the crackle of Geiger counters do to take the pressure off a plain policeman. These four aliens you mention are the telepaths?'

'Right, Scan. Shady characters, too, all four of them, criminals for hire, which makes it harder. And each of them takes the typical telepath point of view—Almighty, how it exasperates me! That we ought to know which one of them is guilty without asking questions! They know well enough that Earthmen aren't telepathic, but still they hide behind the lofty pretence that every intelligent inhabitant of the Cosmos must be telepathic.

'If you come right out and tell them that your mind is absolutely deaf-dumb-and-blind to the thoughts of others, they act as if you'd made a dreadful social blunder and they cover up for you by pretending not to have heard you. Talk about patronizing—! Why, they're like a woman who is forever expecting you to know what it is she's angry about without ever giving you a hint what it is. They're like—'

'Now, now, I've dealt with a few telepaths in my time, Jim. I take it that the other prong of your dilemma is that if you officially accuse one of them, and you hit it rights than he will up and confess like a good little animal. using the ritual of speech to tell you who commissioned fee murder and all the rest of it, and everything win be rosy.

But if you hit it wrong, it will be a mortal insult to his whole race—to all telepaths, for that matter—and there will be whole solar systems moving to resign from the Union and' all manner of other devils to pay. Because, continuing the telepath's fiction, that you are a telepath yourself, you must have known he was innocent and yet you accused him.'

'Most right, Sean,' the Young Captain admitted ruefully. 'As I said at the beginning, truth-tellers and silencekeepers—intellectual prigs, all of them! Refusing to betray each other's thoughts to a non-telepath, I can understand that—though just one telepathic stoolpigeon would make police work ten mountains easier. But all these other lofty idealistic fictions do get my goat! If I were running the Union—'

'Jim, your time is running short. I take it you want help in deciding which on& to accuse. That is, if you do decide to chance it rather than shut your mouth, lose face and play for time.'

'I've got to chance it, Sean Earth-side demands it. But As things stand, I'll be backing no better than a three- toone shot. For you see, Sean, every single suspect of the (our is just as suspect as the others. In, my book, they're four equally bad boys.'

'Sketch me your suspects then, quickly.' The Old lieutenant closed his eyes.

'There's Tlik-Tcha the Martian,' the Young Captain began, ticking them off on his fingers. 'A nasty black beetle, that one. Held his breath for twenty minutes and then belched it in my face. Kept printing 'No Comment' white-on-black on his chest to whatever I asked him. In Garamond type!'

'Cheer up, Jim. It might have been Rustic Capitals. Next.'

'Hlilav the Antarean multibrach. Kept gently waving his tentacles all through the interrogation—I thought he was trying to hypnotize me! Then it occurred to me he might be talking in code, but the interpreter said no. At the end, h& gives a long insulting whistle, like some shameless swish. Whistle didn't signify anything either, the interpreter said, beyond a polite wish for my serenity.

'Third customer was Fa the Rigelian composite. Took off a limb—real, of course, not artificial—and kept fiddling with it while I shot questions at him. I could hardly keep my mind on what I was saying—expected bun to take his head off next! He did that too, just as he started back to his cell.'

'Telepaths can surely be exasperating,' the Old Lieutenant agreed. 'I always had great trouble in keeping in mind what a boring business a vocal interview must be to them—very much as if a man, quite capable of speech,

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