Astounding Tales of Space and Time
Edited by John W Campbell, Jr
COPYRIGHT 1940, 1947, 1948. 1951
BY STREET & SMITH PUBLICATIONS, INC.
All rights reserved
Published by arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Inc.
All stories in this volume originally appeared in Street & Smith's Astounding Science Fiction magazine and are reprinted by permission of Street & Smith and the respective authors.
New Edition, April, 1969 (3rd Printing)
This edition contains seven of the twenty-three stories that appear in the hardbound edition of
The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology.
BERKLEY MEDALLION BOOKS are published by Berkley Publishing Corporation 200 Madison Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10016
by Eric Frank Russell
THE SHIP ARCED OUT OF A GOLDEN SKY AND LANDED WITH A WHOOP AND a wallop that cut down a mile of lush vegetation. Another half mile of growths turned black and drooped to ashes under the final flicker of the tail rocket blasts. That arrival was spectacular, full of verve, and worthy of four columns in any man's paper. But the nearest sheet was distant by a goodly slice of a lifetime, and there was none to record what this far corner of the cosmos regarded as the pettiest of events. So the ship squatted tired and still at the foremost end of the ashy blast‑track and the sky glowed down and the green world brooded solemnly all around.
Within the transpex control dome, Steve Ander sat and thought things over. It was his habit to think things over carefully. Astronauts were not the impulsive daredevils so dear to the stereopticon‑loving public. They couldn't afford to be. The hazards of the profession required an infinite capacity for cautious, contemplative thought. Five minutes' consideration had prevented many a collapsed lung, many a leaky heart, many a fractured frame. Steve valued his skeleton. He wasn't conceited about it and he'd no reason to believe it in any way superior to anyone else's skeleton. But he'd had it a long time, found it quite satisfactory, and had an intense desire to keep it‑‑intact.
Therefore, while the tail tubes cooled off with their usual creaking contractions, he sat in the control seat, stared through the dome with eyes made unseeing by deep preoccupation, and performed a few thinks.
Firstly, he'd made a rough estimate of this world during his hectic approach. As nearly as he could judge, it was ten times the size of Terra. But his weight didn't seem abnormal. Of course, one's notions of weight tended to be somewhat wild when for some weeks one's own weight has shot far up or far down in between periods of weightlessness. The most reasonable estimate had to be based on muscular reaction. If you felt as sluggish as a Saturnian sloth, your weight was way up. If you felt as powerful as Angus McKittrick's bull, your weight was down.
Normal weight meant Terrestrial mass despite this planet's tenfold volume. That meant light plasma. And that meant lack of heavy elements. No thorium. No nickel. No nickel‑thorium alloy. Ergo, no getting back. The Kingston‑Kane atomic motors demanded fuel in the form of ten gauge nickel‑thorium alloy wire fed directly into the vaporizers. Denatured plutonium would do, but it didn't occur in natural form, and it had to be made. He had three yards nine and a quarter inches of nickel‑thorium left on the feed‑spool. Not enough. He was here for kees.
A wonderful thing, logic. You could start from the simple premise that when you were seated your behind was no flatter than usual, and work your way to the inevitable conclusion that you were a wanderer no more. You'd become a native. Destiny had you tagged as suitable for the status of oldest inhabitant.
Steve pulled an ugly face and said, "Darn!"
The face didn't have to be pulled far. Nature had given said pan a good start. That is to say, it wasn't handsome. It was a long, lean, nut-brown face with pronounced jaw muscles, prominent cheekbones, and a thin, hooked nose. This, with his dark eyes and black hair, gave him a hawklike appearance. Friends talked to him about tepees and tomahawks whenever they wanted him to feel at home.
Well, he wasn't going to feel at home any
more; not unless this brooding jungle held intelligent life dopey enough to
swap ten gauge nickel-thorium wire for a pair of old boots. Or unless some
dopey search party was intelligent enough to pick this cosmic dust mote out of
a cloud of motes, and took him back. He estimated this as no less than a
million‑to-one chance. Like spitting at the
Reaching for his everflo stylus and the ship's log, he opened the log, looked absently at some of the entries.
"Eighteenth day: The spatial convulsion has now flung me past rotalrange of Rigel. Am being tossed into uncharted regions.
"Twenty‑fourth day: Arm of convulsion now tails back seven parsecs. Robot recorder now out of gear. Angle of throw changed seven times today.
"Twenty‑ninth day: Now beyond arm of the convulsive sweep and regaining control. Speed far beyond range of the astrometer. Applying braking rockets cautiously. Fuel reserve: fourteen hundred yards.
"Thirty‑seventh day: Making for planetary system now within reach."
He scowled, his jaw muscles lumped, and he wrote slowly and legibly, "Thirty‑ninth day: Landed on planet unknown primary unknown, galactic area standard reference and sector numbers unknown. No cosmic formations were recognizable when observed shortly before landing. Angles of offshoot and speed of transit not recorded, and impossible to estimate. Condition of ship: workable. Fuel reserve: three and one quarter yards."
Closing the log, he scowled again, rammed the stylus into its desk‑grip, and muttered, "Now to check on the outside air and then see how the best girl's doing."
The Radson register had three simple dials. The first recorded outside pressure at thirteen point seven pounds, a reading he observed with much satisfaction. The second said that oxygen content was high. The third had a bi‑colored dial, half white, half red, and its needle stood in the middle of the white.
"Breathable," he grunted, clipping down the register's lid. Crossing the tiny control room, he slid aside a metal panel, looked into the padded compartment behind. "Coming out, Beauteous?" he asked.
"Steve loves Laura?" inquired a plaintive voice.
"You bet he does!" he responded with becoming passion. He shoved an arm into the compartment, brought out a large, gaudily colored macaw. "Does Laura love Steve?"
"Hey‑hey!" cackled Laura harshly. Climbing up his arm, the bird perched on his shoulder. He could feel the grip of its powerful claws. It regarded him with a beady and brilliant eye, then rubbed its crimson head against his left ear. "Hey‑hey! Time flies!"
"Don't mention it," he reproved. "There's plenty to remind me of the fact without you chipping in."
Reaching up, he scratched her poll while she stretched and bowed with absurd delight. He was fond of Laura. She was more than a pet. She was a bona fide member of the crew, issued with her own rations and drawing her own pay. Every probe ship had a crew of two: one man, one macaw. When he'd first heard of it, the practice had seemed crazy‑‑but when he got the reasons, it made sense.
"Lonely men, probing beyond the edge of the charts, get queer psychological troubles. They need an anchor to Earth. A macaw provides the necessary companionship‑‑and more! It's the space‑hardiest bird we've got, its weight is negligible, it can talk and amuse, it can fend for itself when necessary. On land, it will often sense dangers before you do. Any strange fruit or food it may eat is safe for you to eat. Many a man's life has been saved by his macaw. Look after yours, my boy, and it'll look after you!"
Yes, they looked after each other, Terrestrials both. It was almost a
symbiosis of the spaceways. Before the era of astronavigation nobody had
thought of such an arrangement, though it had been done before. Miners
and their canaries.
Moving over to the miniature air lock, he didn't bother to operate the
pump. It wasn't necessary with so small a difference between internal
and external pressures. Opening both doors, he let a little of his higher‑
pressured air sigh out, stood on the rim of the lock, jumped down. Laura
fluttered from his shoulder as he leaped, followed him with a flurry of
wings, got her talons into his jacket as he staggered upright.
The pair went around the ship, silently surveying its condition. Front
braking nozzles O.K., rear steering flares O.K., tail propulsion tubes O.K.
All were badly scored but still usable. The skin of the vessel likewise was scored but intact. Three months supply of food and maybe a thousand
yards of wire could get her home, theoretically. But only theoretically,
Steve had no delusions about the matter. The odds were still against him even if given the means to move. How do you navigate from you‑don't‑
know‑where to you‑don't‑know‑where? Answer: you stroke a rabbit's foot
and probably arrive you‑don't‑know‑where‑else.
"Well," he said, rounding the tail, "it's something in which to live.
It'll save us building a shanty. Way back on Terra they want fifty thousand smackers for an all‑metal, streamlined bungalow, so I guess we're mighty lucky. I'll make a garden here, and a rockery there, and build a swimming pool out back. You can wear a pretty frock and do all the cooking."
"Yawk!" said Laura derisively.
Turning, he had a look at the nearest vegetation. It was of all heights,
shapes and sizes, of all shades of green with a few tending toward blueness. There was something peculiar about the stuff but he was unable to decide where the strangeness lay. It wasn't that the growths were alien
and unfamiliar‑‑one expected that on every new world‑‑but an underlying something which they shared in common. They had a vague, shadowy
air of being not quite right in some basic respect impossible to define.
A plant grew right at his feet. It was green in color, a foot high, and
monocotyledonous. Looked at as a thing in itself, there was nothing
wrong with it. Near to it flourished a bush of darker hue, a yard high,
with green, firlike needles in lieu of leaves, and pale, waxy berries scattered over it. That, too, was innocent enough when studied apart from its neighbors. Beside it grew a similar plant, differing only in that its needles were longer and its berries a bright pink. Beyond these towered a cactuslike object dragged out of somebody's drunken dreams, and beside it stood an umbrella‑frame which had taken root and produced little purple pods. Individually, they were acceptable. Collectively, they made the discerning mind search anxiously for it knew not what.
That eerie feature had Steve stumped. Whatever it was, he couldn't nail it down. There was something stranger than the mere strangeness of new forms of plant life, and that was all. He dismissed the problem with a shrug. Time enough to trouble about such matters after he'd dealt with others more urgent such as, for example, the location and purity of the nearest water supply.
A mile away lay a lake of some liquid that might be water. He'd seen it glittering in the sunlight as he'd made his descent, and he'd tried to land fairly near to it. If it wasn't water, well, it'd be just his tough luck and he'd have to look someplace else. At worst, the tiny fuel reserve would be enough to permit one circumnavigation of the planet before the ship became pinned down forever. Water he must have if he wasn't going to end up imitating the mummy of Rameses the Second.
Reaching high, he grasped the rim of the port, dexterously muscled himself upward and through it. For a minute he moved around inside the ship, then reappeared with a four‑gallon freezocan which he tossed to the ground. Then he dug out his popgun, a belt of explosive shells, and let down the folding ladder from lock to surface. He'd need that ladder He could muscle himself up through a hole seven feet high, but not with fifty pounds of can and water.
Finally, he locked both the inner and outer air lock doors, skipped down the ladder, picked up the can. From the way he'd made his landing the lake should be directly bow‑on relative to the vessel, and somewhere the other side of those distant trees. Laura took a fresh grip on his shoulder as he started off. The can swung from his left hand. His right hand rested warily on the gun. He was perpendicular on this world instead of horizontal on another because, on two occasions, his hand had been ready on the gun, and because it was the most nervous hand he possessed. The going was rough. It wasn't so much that the terrain was craggy as the fact that impeding growths got in his way. At one moment he was stepping over an ankle‑high shrub, the next he was facing a burly plant struggling to become a tree. Behind the plant would be a creeper, then a natural zareba of thorns, a fuzz of fine moss, followed by a giant fern. Progress consisted of stepping over one item, ducking beneath a second, going around a third, and crawling under a fourth.
It occurred to him, belatedly, that if he'd planted the ship tail‑first to the lake instead of bow‑on, or if he'd let the braking rockets blow after he'd touched down, he'd have saved himself much twisting and dodging. All this obstructing stuff would have been reduced to ashes for at least half the distance to the lake‑‑together with any venomous life it might conceal.
That last thought rang like an alarm bell within his mind just as he doubled up to pass a low‑swung creeper. On Venus were creepers that coiled and constricted, swiftly, viciously. Macaws played merry hell if taken within fifty yards of them. It was a comfort to know that, this time, Laura was riding his shoulder unperturbed‑‑but he kept the hand on the gun.
The elusive peculiarity of the planet's vegetation bothered him all the more as he progressed through it. His inability to discover and name this unnamable queerness nagged at him as he went on. A frown of self-disgust was on his lean face when he dragged himself free of a clinging bush and sat on a rock in a tiny clearing.
Dumping the can at his feet, he glowered at it and promptly caught a glimpse of something bright and shining a few feet beyond the can. He raised his gaze. It was then he saw the beetle.
The creature was the biggest of its kind ever seen by human eyes. There were other things bigger, of course, but not of this type. Crabs, for instance. But this was no crab. The beetle ambling purposefully across the clearing was large enough to give any crab a severe inferiority complex, but it was a genuine, twenty‑four‑karat beetle. And a beautiful one. Like a scarab.
Except that he clung to the notion that little bugs were vicious and big ones companionable, Steve had no phobia about insects. The amiability of large ones was a theory inherited from school-kid days when he'd been the doting owner of a three‑inch stag‑beetle afflicted with the name of Edgar.
So he knelt beside the creeping giant, placed his hand palm upward in its path. It investigated the hand with waving feelers, climbed onto his palm, paused there ruminatively. It shone with a sheen of brilliant metallic blue and it weighed about three pounds. He jogged it on his hand to get its weight, then put it down, let it wander on. Laura watched it go with a sharp but incurious eye.
"Scarabaeus Anderii," Steve said with glum satisfaction. "I pin my name on him‑‑but nobody'll ever know it!"
"Dinna fash y'rsel'!" shouted Laura
in a hoarse voice imported straight from
"Shut up!" Steve jerked his shoulder, momentarily unbalancing the bird. "Why d'you pick up that barbaric dialect quicker than anything else, eh?"
"McGillicuddy," shrieked Laura with ear‑splitting relish. "McGilli-Gilli‑Gillicuddy! The great black‑‑!" It ended with a word that pushed Steve's eyebrows into his hair and surprised even the bird itself. Filming its eyes with amazement, it tightened its claw‑hold on his shoulder opened the eyes, emitted a couple of raucous clucks, and joyfully repeated, "The great black‑‑"
It didn't get the chance to complete the new and lovely word. A violent jerk of the shoulder unseated it in the nick of time and it fluttered to the ground, squawking protestingly. Scarabaeus Anderii lumbered out from behind a bush, his blue armor glistening as if freshly polished, and stared reprovingly at Laura.
Then something fifty yards away released a snort like the trumpet of doom and took one step that shook the earth. Scarabaeus Anderii took refuge under a projecting root. Laura made an agitated swoop for Steve's shoulder and clung there desperately. Steve's gun was out and pointing northward before the bird had found its perch. Another step. The ground quivered.
Silence for awhile. Steve continued to stand like a statue. Then came a monstrous whistle more forceful than that of a locomotive blowing off steam. Something squat and wide and of tremendous length charged headlong through the half‑concealing vegetation while the earth trembled beneath its weight.
Its mad onrush carried it blindly twenty yards to Steve's right, the gun swinging to cover its course, but not firing. Steve caught an extended glimpse of a slate‑gray bulk with a serrated ridge on its back which, despite the thing's pace, took long to pass. It seemed several times the length of a fire ladder.
Bushes were flung roots topmost and small trees whipped aside as the creature pounded grimly onward in a straight line which carried it far past the ship and into the dim distance. It left behind a tattered swathe wide enough for a first‑class road. Then the reverberations of its mighty tonnage died out, and it was gone.
Steve used his left hand to pull out a handkerchief and wipe the back of his neck. He kept the gun in his right hand. The explosive shells in that gun were somewhat wicked; any one of them could deprive a rhinoceros of a hunk of meat weighing two hundred pounds. If a man caught one, he just strewed himself over the landscape. By the looks of that slate‑colored galloper, it would need half a dozen shells to feel incommoded. A seventy‑five millimeter bazooka would be more effective for kicking it in the back teeth, but probe ship boys don't tote around such artillery. Steve finished the mopping, put the handkerchief back, picked up the can.
Laura said pensively, "I want my mother."
He scowled, made no reply, set out toward the lake. Her feathers still ruffled, Laura rode his shoulder and lapsed into surly silence.
The stuff in the lake was water, cold, faintly green and a little bitter to the taste. Coffee would camouflage the flavor. If anything, it might improve the coffee since he liked his java bitter, but the stuff would have to be tested before absorbing it in any quantity. Some poisons were accumulative. It wouldn't do to guzzle gayly while building up a death-dealing reserve of lead, for instance. Filling the freezocan, he lugged it to the ship in hundred yard stages. The swathe helped; it made an easier path to within short distance of the ship's tail. He was perspiring freely by the time he reached the base of the ladder.
Once inside the vessel, he relocked both doors, opened the air vents, started the auxiliary lighting‑set and plugged in the percolator, using water out of his depleted reserve supply. The golden sky had dulled to orange, with violet streamers creeping upward from the horizon. Looking at it through the transpex dome, he found that the perpetual haze still effectively concealed the sinking sun. A brighter area to one side was all that indicated its position. He'd need his lights soon.
Pulling out the collapsible table, he jammed its supporting leg into place, plugged into its rim the short rod which was Laura's official seat. She claimed the perch immediately, watched him beadily as he set out her meal of water, melon seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans and unshelled oleo nuts. Her manners were anything but ladylike and she started eagerly, without waiting for him.
A deep frown lay across his brown, muscular features as he sat at the
table, poured out his coffee and commenced to eat. It persisted through the meal, was still there when he lit a cigarette and stared speculatively up at the dome.
Presently, he murmured, "I've seen the biggest bug that ever was. I've
seen a few other bugs. There were a couple of little ones under a creeper.
One was long and brown and many‑legged, like an earwig. The other was round and black, with little red dots on its wing cases. I've seen a tiny purple spider and a tinier green one of different shape, also a bug that looked like an aphid. But not an ant."
"Ant, ant," hooted Laura. She dropped a piece of oleo nut, climbed down after it. 'awk!" she added from the floor.
"Nor a bee."
"Bee," echoed Laura, companionably. "Bee‑ant. Laura loves Steve."
Still keeping his attention on the dome, he went on, "And what's cockeyed about the plants is equally cockeyed about the bugs. I wish I could place it. Why can't I? Maybe I'm going nuts already."
"Laura loves nuts."
"I know it, you technicolored belly!" said Steve rudely.
And at that point night fell with a silent bang. The gold and orange and violet abruptly were swamped with deep, impenetrable blackness devoid of stars or any random gleam. Except for greenish glowings on the instrument panel, the control room was stygian, with Laura swearing steadily on the floor.
Putting out a hand, Steve switched on the indirect lighting. Laura got to her perch with the rescued titbit, concentrated on the job of dealing with it and let him sink back into his thoughts.
"Scarabaeus Anderii and a pair of smaller bugs and a couple of spiders, all different. At the other end of the scale, that gigantosaurus. But no ant, or bee. Or rather, no ants, no bees." The switch from singular to plural stirred his back hairs queerly. In some vague way, he felt that he'd touched the heart of the mystery. "No ant‑‑no ants," he thought. "No bee‑‑no bees." Almost he had it‑‑but still it evaded him.
Giving it up for the time being, he cleared the table, did a few minor chores. After that, he drew a standard sample from the freezocan, put it through its paces. The bitter flavor he identified as being due to the presence of magnesium sulphate in quantity far too small to prove embarrassing. Drinkable‑‑that was something! Food, drink and shelter were the three essentials of survival. He'd enough of the first for six or seven weeks. The lake and the ship were his remaining guarantees of life.
Finding the log, he entered the day's report, bluntly, factually, without any embroidery. Partway through, he found himself stuck for a name for the planet. Ander, he decided, would cost him dear if the million‑to-one chance put him back among the merciless playmates of the Probe Service. O.K. for a bug, but not for a world. Laura wasn't so hot, either‑especially when you knew Laura. It wouldn't be seemly to name a big gold planet after an oversized parrot. Thinking over the golden aspect of this world's sky, he hit upon the name of Oro, promptly made the christening authoritative by entering it in his log.
By the time he'd finished, Laura had her head buried deep under one wing. Occasionally she teetered and swung erect again. It always fascinated him to watch how her balance was maintained even in her slumbers. Studying her fondly, he remembered that unexpected addition to her vocabulary. This shifted his thoughts to a fiery‑headed and fierier-tongued individual named Menzies, the sworn foe of another volcano named McGillicuddy. If ever the opportunity presented itself, he decided, the educative work of said Menzies was going to be rewarded with a bust on the snoot.
Sighing, he put away the log, wound up the forty‑day chronometer, opened his folding bunk and lay down upon it. His hand switched off the lights. Ten years back, a first landing would have kept him awake all night in dithers of excitement. He'd got beyond that now. He'd done it often enough to have grown phlegmatic about it. His eyes closed in preparation for a good night's sleep, and he did sleep‑‑for two hours.
What brought him awake within that short time he didn't know, but suddenly he found himself sitting bolt upright on the edge of the bunk, his ears and nerves stretched to their utmost, his legs quivering in a way they'd never done before. His whole body fizzed with that queer mixture of palpitation and shock which follows narrow escape from disaster.
This was something not within previous experience. Sure and certain in the intense darkness, his hand sought and found his gun. He cuddled the butt in his palm while his mind strove to recall a possible nightmare, though he knew he was not given to nightmares.
Laura moved restlessly on her perch, not truly awake, yet not asleep, and this was unusual in her.
Rejecting the dream theory, he stood up on the bunk, looked out through the dome. Blackness, the deepest, darkest, most impenetrable blackness it was possible to conceive. And silence! The outside world slumbered in the blackness and the silence as in a sable shroud.
, Yet never before had he felt so wide awake in this, his normal sleeping time. Puzzled, he turned slowly round to take in the full circle of
unseeable view, and at one point he halted. The surrounding darkness
was not complete. In the distance beyond the ship's tail moved a tall,
stately glow. How far off it might be was not possible to estimate, but
the sight of it stirred his soul and caused his heart to leap.
Uncontrollable emotions were not permitted to master his disciplined mind. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to discern the nature of the glow while his mind sought the reason why the mere sight of it should make him twang like a harp. Bending down, he felt at the head of the bunk, found a leather case, extracted a pair of powerful night glasses. The glow was still moving, slowly, deliberately, from right to left. He got the glasses on it, screwed the lenses into focus, and the phenomenon leaped into closer view.
The thing was a great column of golden haze much like that of the noonday sky except that small, intense gleams of silver sparkled within it. It was a shaft of lustrous mist bearing a sprinkling of tiny stars. It was like nothing known to or recorded by any form of life lower than the gods. But was it life?
It moved, though its mode of locomotion could not be determined. Self‑motivation is the prime symptom of life. It could be life, conceivably though not credibly, from the Terrestrial viewpoint. Consciously, he preferred to think it a strange and purely local feature comparable with Saharan sand‑devils. Subconsciously, he knew it was life, tall and terrifying.
He kept the glasses on it while slowly it receded into the darkness, foreshortening with increasing distance and gradually fading from view. To the very last the observable field shifted and shuddered as he failed to control the quiver in his hands. And when the sparkling haze had gone leaving only a pall over his lenses, he sat down on the bunk and shivered with eerie cold.
Laura was dodging to and fro along her perch, now thoroughly awake and agitated, but he wasn't inclined to switch on the lights and make the dome a beacon in the night. His hand went out, feeling for her in the darkness, and she clambered eagerly onto his wrist, thence to his lap. She was fussy and demonstrative, pathetically yearning for comfort and companionship. He scratched her poll and fondled her while she pressed close against his chest with funny little crooning noises. For some time e soothed her and, while doing it, fell asleep. Gradually he slumped backward on the bunk. Laura perched on his forearm, clucked tiredly, put her head under a wing.
There was no further awakening until the outer blackness disappeared and the sky again sent its golden glow pouring through the dome Steve got up, stood on the bunk, had a good look over the surrounding terrain. It remained precisely the same as it had been the day before Things stewed within his mind while he got his breakfast; especially the jumpiness he'd experienced in the nighttime. Laura also was subdued and quiet. Only once before had she been like that‑‑which was when he'd traipsed through the Venusian section of the Panplanetary Zoo and had shown her a crested eagle. The eagle had stared at her with contemptuous dignity.
Though he'd all the time in his life, he now felt a peculiar urge to hasten. Getting the gun and the freezocan, he made a full dozen trips to the lake, wasting no minutes, nor stopping to study the still enigmatic plants and bugs. It was late in the afternoon by the time he'd filled the ship's fifty‑gallon reservoir, and had the satisfaction of knowing that he'd got a drinkable quota to match his food supply.
There had been no sign of gigantosaurus or any other animal. Once he'd seen something flying in the far distance, birdlike or batlike. Laura had cocked a sharp eye at it but betrayed no undue interest. Right now she was more concerned with a new fruit. Steve sat in the rim of the outer lock door, his legs dangling, and watched her clambering over a small tree thirty yards away. The gun lay in his lap; he was ready to take a crack at anything which might be ready to take a crack at Laura.
The bird sampled the tree's fruit, a crop resembling blue‑shelled lychee nuts. She ate one with relish, grabbed another. Steve lay back in the lock, stretched to reach a bag, then dropped to the ground and went across to the tree. He tried a nut. Its flesh was soft, juicy, sweet and citrous. He filled the bag with the fruit, slung it into the ship.
Nearby stood another tree, not quite the same, but very similar. It bore nuts like the first except that they were larger. Picking one, he offered it to Laura who tried it, spat it out in disgust. Picking a second, he slit it, licked the flesh gingerly. As far as he could tell, it was the same. Evidently he couldn't tell far enough: Laura's diagnosis said it was not the same. The difference, too subtle for him to detect, might be sufficient to roll him up like a hoop and keep him that shape to the unpleasant end. He flung the thing away, went back to his seat in the lock, and ruminated.
That elusive, nagging feature of Oro's plants and bugs could be narrowed down to these two nuts. He felt sure of that. If he could discover why‑‑parrotwise‑‑one nut was a nut while the other nut was not, he'd have his finger right on the secret. The more he thought about those similar fruits the more he felt that, in sober fact, his finger was on the secret already‑‑but he lacked the power to lift it and see what lay beneath.
Tantalizingly, his mulling‑over the subject landed him the same place
as before; namely, nowhere. It got his dander up, and he went back to the
trees, subjected both to close examination. His sense of sight told him
that they were different individuals of the same species. Laura's sense of
whatchamacallit insisted that they were different species. Ergo, you can't believe the evidence of your eyes. He was aware of that fact, of course, since it was a platitude of the spaceways, but when you couldn't trust your optics it was legitimate to try to discover just why you couldn't trust 'em. And he couldn't discover even that!
It soured him so much that he returned to the ship, locked its doors, called Laura back to his shoulder and set off on a tailward exploration. The rules of first landings were simple and sensible. Go in slowly, come out quickly, and remember that all we want from you is evidence of suitability for human life. Thoroughly explore a small area rather than scout a big one‑‑the mapping parties will do the rest. Use your ship as a base and centralize it where you can live‑‑don't move it unnecessarily. Restrict your trips to a radius representing daylight‑reach and lock yourself in after dark.
was Oro suitable for human life? The unwritten law was that you don't jump to conclusions and say, "Of course! I'm still living, aren't I?" Cameron, who'd plonked his ship on Mithra, for instance, thought he'd found paradise until, on the seventeenth day, he'd discovered the fungoid plague. He'd left like a bat out of hell and had spent three sweaty, swearing days in the Lunar Purification Plant before becoming fit for society. The authorities had vaporized his ship. Mithra had been taboo ever since. Every world a potential trap baited with scenic delight. The job of the Probe Service was to enter the traps and jounce on the springs. Another dollop of real estate for Terra‑‑if nothing broke your neck.
Maybe Oro was loaded for bear. The thing that walked in the night, Steve mused, bore awful suggestion of nonhuman power. So did a waterspout, and whoever heard of anyone successfully wrestling with a waterspout? If this Oro‑spout were sentient, so much the worse for human prospects. He'd have to get the measure of it, he decided, even if he had to chase it through the blank avenues of night. Plodding steadily away from the tail, gun in hand, he pondered so deeply that he entirely overlooked the fact that he wasn't on a pukka probe job anyway, and that nothing else remotely human might reach Oro in a thousand years. Even space‑boys can be creatures of habit. Their job: to look for death; they were liable to go on looking long after the need had passed, in bland disregard of the certainty that if you look for a thing long enough, ultimately you find it!
The ship's chronometer had given him five hours to darkness. Two and a half hours each way; say ten miles out and ten back. The water had consumed his time. On the morrow, and henceforth, he'd increase the radius to twelve and take it easier.
Then all thoughts fled from his mind as he came to the edge of the vegetation. The stuff didn't dribble out of existence with hardy spurs and offshoots fighting for a hold in rocky ground. It stopped abruptly, in light loam, as if cut off with a machete, and from where it stopped spread a different crop. The new growths were tiny and crystalline.
He accepted the crystalline crop without surprise, knowing that novelty was the inevitable feature of any new locale. Things were ordinary only by Terrestrial standards. Outside of Terra, nothing was supernormal or abnormal except insofar as they failed to jibe with their own peculiar conditions. Besides, there were crystalline growths on Mars. The one unacceptable feature of the situation was the way in which vegetable growths ended and crystalline ones began. He stepped back to the verge and made another startled survey of the borderline. It was so straight that the sight screwed his brain around. Like a field. A cultivated field. Dead straightness of that sort couldn't be other than artificial. Little beads of moisture popped out on his back.
Squatting on the heel of his right boot, he gazed at the nearest crystals and said to Laura, "Chicken, I think these things got planted. Question is, who planted 'em?"
"McGillicuddy," suggested Laura brightly.
Putting out a finger, he flicked the crystal sprouting near the toe of his boot, a green, branchy object an inch high.
The crystal vibrated and said, "Zing!" in a sweet, high voice.
He flicked its neighbor, and that said, "Zang!" in lower tone.
He flicked a third. It emitted no note, but broke into a thousand shards.
Standing up, he scratched his head, making Laura fight for a clawhole within the circle of his arm. One zinged and one zanged and one returned to dust. Two nuts. Zings and zangs and nuts. It was right in his grasp if only he could open his hand and look at what he'd got.
Then he lifted his puzzled and slightly ireful
gaze, saw something fluttering erratically across the crystal field. It was
making for the vegetation. Laura took off with a raucous cackle, her blue and
crimson wings beating powerfully. She swooped over the object, frightening it
so low that it dodged and sideslipped only a few feet above Steve's head. He saw
that it was a large butterfly, frill‑winged, almost as gaudy as Laura.
The bird swooped again, scaring the insect but not menacing it. He called her
back, set out to cross the area ahead.
Half an hour later he was toiling up a steep, crystal‑coated slope when his thoughts suddenly jelled and he stopped with such abruptness that Laura spilled from his shoulder and perforce took to wing. She beat round in a circle, came back to her perch, made bitter remarks in an unknown language.
"One of this and one of that," he said. "No twos or threes or dozens. Nothing I've seen has repeated itself. There's only one gigantosaurus, only one Scarabaeus Anderii, only one of every other danged thing. Every item is unique, original, and an individual creation in its own right. What does that suggest?"
"McGillicuddy," offered Laura.
"For Pete's sake, forget McGillicuddy."
"For Pete's sake, for Pete's sake," yelled Laura, much taken by the phrase. "The great black‑‑"
Again he upset her in the nick of time, making her take to flight while he continued talking to himself. "It suggests constant and all‑pervading mutation. Everything breeds something quite different from itself and there aren't any dominant strains." He frowned at the obvious snag in this theory. "But how the blazes does anything breed? What fertilizes which?"
"McGilli‑‑," began Laura, then changed her mind and shut up.
"Anyway, if nothing breeds true, it'll be tough on the food problem," he went on. 'What's edible on one plant may be a killer on its offspring. Today's fodder is tomorrow's poison. How's a farmer to know what he's going to get? Hey‑hey, if I'm guessing right, this planet won't support a couple of hogs."
"No, sir. No hogs. Laura loves hogs."
"Be quiet," he snapped. "Now, what shouldn't support a couple of hogs demonstrably does support gigantosaurus‑‑and any other fancy animals which may be mooching around. It seems crazy to me. On Venus or any other place full of consistent fodder, gigantosaurus would thrive, but here, according to my calculations, the big lunk has no right to be alive. He ought to be dead."
So saying, he topped the rise and found the monster in question sprawling right across the opposite slope. It was dead.
The way in which he determined its deadness was appropriately swift, simple and effective. Its enormous bulk lay draped across the full length of the slope and its dragon‑head, the size of a lifeboat, pointed toward him. The head had two dull, lackluster eyes like dinner plates. He planted a shell smack in the right eye and a sizable hunk of noggin promptly splashed in all directions. The body did not stir.
There was a shell ready for the other eye should the creature leap to frantic, vengeful life, but the mighty hulk remained supine.
His boots continued to desiccate crystals as he went down the slope, curved a hundred yards off his route to get around the corpse, and trudged up the farther rise. Momentarily, he wasn't much interested in the dead beast. Time was short and he could come again tomorrow, bringing a full‑color stereoscopic camera with him. Gigantosaurus would go on record in style, but would have to wait.
This second rise was a good deal higher, and
more trying a climb. Its crest represented the approximate limit of this day's
trip, and he felt anxious to surmount it before turning back. Humanity's
characteristic urge to see what lay over the hill remained as strong as on the
day determined ancestors topped the
Out of breath, he pounded over the crest, looked down into an immense valley, and found the answer.
The crystal growths gave out on the crest, again in a perfectly straight line. Beyond them the light loam, devoid of rock, ran gently down to the valley and up the farther side. Both slopes were sparsely dotted with queer, jellylike lumps of matter which lay and quivered beneath the sky's golden glow.
From the closed end of the valley jutted a great, glistening fabrication, fiat‑roofed, fiat‑fronted, with a huge, square hole gaping in its mid‑section at front. It looked like a tremendous oblong slab of polished, milk‑white plastic half‑buried endwise in a sandy hill. No decoration disturbed its smooth, gleaming surface. No road led to the hole in front. Somehow, it had the new‑old air of a house that struggles to look empty because it is full‑‑of fiends.
Steve's back hairs prickled as he studied it. One thing was obvious‑Oro bore intelligent life. One thing was possible‑‑the golden column represented that life. One thing was probable‑‑fleshly Terrestrials and hazy Orons would have difficulty in finding a basis for friendship and cooperation.
Whereas enmity needs no basis.
Curiosity and caution pulled him opposite ways. One urged him down into the valley while the other drove him back, back, while yet there was time He consulted his watch. Less than three hours to go, within which he had to return to the ship, enter the log, prepare supper. That milky creation was at least two miles away, a good hour's journey there and back. Let it wait. Give it another day and he'd have more time for it, with the benefit of needful thought between times.
Caution triumphed. He investigated the nearest jellyblob. It was flat, a yard in diameter, green, with bluish streaks and many tiny bubbles hiding in its semi-transparency. The thing pulsated slowly. He poked it with the toe of his boot, and it contracted, humping itself in the middle, then sluggishly relaxed. No amoeba, he decided. A low form of life, but complicated withal. Laura didn't like the object. She skittered off as he bent over it, vented her anger by bashing a few crystals.
This jello dollop wasn't like its nearest neighbor, or like any other.
One of each, only one. The same rule: one butterfly of a kind, one bug, one plant, one of these quivering things.
A final stare at the distant mystery down in the valley, then he retraced his steps. When the ship came into sight he speeded up like a gladsome voyager nearing home. There were new prints near the vessel, big, three‑toed, deeply‑impressed spoor which revealed that something large, heavy and two‑legged had wandered past in his absence. Evidently an animal, for nothing intelligent would have meandered on so casually without circling and inspecting the nearby invader from space. He dismissed it from his mind. There was only one thingumabob, he felt certain of that.
Once inside the ship, he relocked the doors, gave Laura her feed, ate his supper. Then he dragged out the log, made his day's entry, had a look around from the dome. Violet streamers once more were creeping upward from the horizon. He frowned at the encompassing vegetation.
What sort of stuff had bred all this in the past? What sort of stuff would this breed in the future? How did it progenerate, anyway?
Wholesale radical mutation presupposed modification of genes by hard radiation in persistent and considerable blasts. You shouldn't get hard radiation on lightweight planets‑‑unless it poured in from the sky.
Here, it didn't pour from the sky, or from any place else. In fact, there wasn't any.
He was pretty certain of that fact because he'd a special interest in it and had checked up on it. Hard radiation betokened the presence of radioactive elements which, at a pinch, might be usable as fuel. The ship was equipped to detect such stuff. Among the junk was a cosmiray counter, a radium hen, and a gold‑leaf electroscope. The hen and the counter hadn't given so much as one heartening cluck, in fact the only clucks had been Laura's. The electroscope he'd charged on landing and its leaves still formed an inverted V. The air was dry, ionization negligible, and the leaves didn't look likely to collapse for a week.
"Something's wrong with my theorizing," he complained to Laura. "My think‑stuff's not doing its job."
"Not doing its job," echoed Laura faithfully. She cracked a pecan with a grating noise that set his teeth on edge. "I tell you it's a hoodoo skip. I won't sail. No, not even if you pray for me. I won't, I won't, I won't. Nope. Nix. Who's drunk? That hairy Lowlander Mc‑‑"
"Laura!" he said sharply.
"Gillicuddy," she finished with bland
defiance. Again she rasped his teeth. "Rings bigger'n Saturn's. I saw them
myself. Who's a liar? Yawk! She's down in
He looked at her hard and said, "You're nuts!"
"Sure! Sure, pal! Laura loves nuts. Have one on me."
"O.K.," he accepted, holding out his hand.
Cocking her colorful pate, she pecked at his hand, gravely selected a pecan and gave it to him. He cracked it, chewed on the kernel while starting up the lighting‑set. It was almost as if night were waiting for him. Blackness fell even as he switched on the lights.
With the darkness came a keen sense of unease. The dome was the trouble. It blazed like a beacon and there was no way of blacking it out except by turning off the lights. Beacons attracted things, and he'd no desire to become a center of attraction in present circumstances. That is to say, not at night.
Long experience had bred fine contempt for alien animals, no matter how whacky, but outlandish intelligences were a different proposition. So filled was he with the strange inward conviction that last night's phenomenon was something that knew its onions that it didn't occur to him to wonder whether a glowing column possessed eyes or anything equivalent to a sense of sight. If it had occurred to him, he'd have derived no comfort from it. His desire to be weighed in the balance in some eerie, extrasensory way was even less than his desire to be gaped at visually in his slumbers.
An unholy mess of thoughts and ideas was still cooking in his mind when he extinguished the lights, bunked down and went to sleep. Nothing disturbed him this time, but when he awoke with the golden dawn his chest was damp with perspiration and Laura again had sought refuge on his arm.
Digging out breakfast, his thoughts began to marshal themselves as he kept his hands busy. Pouring out a shot of hot coffee, he spoke to Laura.
"I'm durned if I'm going to go scatty trying to maintain a three‑watch system single‑handed, which is what I'm supposed to do if faced by powers unknown when I'm not able to beat it. Those armchair warriors at headquarters ought to get a taste of situations not precisely specified in the book of rules."
"Burp!" said Laura contemptuously.
"He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day," Steve quoted. "That's the Probe Law. It's a nice, smooth, lovely law‑‑when you can run away. We can't!"
"Burrup!" said Laura with unnecessary emphasis.
"For a woman, your manners are downright disgusting," he told her. "Now I'm not going to spend the brief remainder of my life looking fearfully over my shoulder. The only way to get rid of powers unknown is to convert 'em into powers known and understood. As Uncle Joe told Willie when dragging him to the dentist, the longer we put it off the worse it'll feel."
"Dinna fash y'rsel'," declaimed Laura. "Burp‑gollop‑bop!"
Giving her a look of extreme distaste, he continued, "So we'll try tossing the bull. Such techniques disconcert bulls sometimes." Standing up, he grabbed Laura, shoved her into her traveling compartment, slid the panel shut. "We're going to blow off forthwith."
Climbing up to the control seat, he stamped on the energizer stud. The tail rockets popped a few times, broke into a subdued roar. Juggling the controls to get the preparatory feel of them, he stepped up the boost until the entire vessel trembled and the rear venturis began to glow cherry‑red. Slowly the ship commenced to edge its bulk forward and, as it did so, he fed it the take‑off shot. A half‑mile blast kicked backward and the probe ship plummeted into the sky.
Pulling it round in a wide and shallow sweep, he thundered over the borderline of vegetation, the fields of crystals and the hills beyond. In a flash he was plunging through the valley, braking rockets blazing from the nose. This was tricky. He had to co‑ordinate forward shoot, backward thrust and downward surge, but like most of his kind he took pride in the stunts performable with these neat little vessels. An awe‑inspired audience was all he lacked to make the exhibition perfect. The vessel landed fairly and squarely on the milk‑white roof of the alien edifice, slid halfway to the cliff, then stopped.
"Boy," he breathed, "am I good!" He remained in his seat, stared around through the dome, and felt that he ought to add, "And too young to die." Occasionally eying the chronometer, he waited awhile. The boat must have handed that roof a thump sufficient to wake the dead. If anyone were in, they'd soon hotfoot out to see who was heaving hundred‑ton bottles at their shingles. Nobody emerged. He gave them half an hour, his hawklike face strained, alert. Then he gave it up, said, "Ah, well," and got out of the seat.
He freed Laura. She came out with ruffled dignity, like a dowager who's paraded into the wrong room. Females were always curious critters, in his logic, and he ignored her attitude, got his gun, unlocked the doors, jumped down onto the roof. Laura followed reluctantly, came to his shoulder as if thereby conferring a great favor.
Walking past the tail to the edge of the roof, he looked down. The sheerness of the five‑hundred‑foot drop took him aback. Immediately below his feet, the entrance soared four hundred feet up from the ground and he was standing on the hundred‑foot lintel surmounting it. The only way down was to walk to the side of the roof and reach the earthy slope in which the building was embedded, seeking a path down that.
He covered a quarter of a mile of roof to get to the slope, his eyes examining the roof's surface as he went, and failing to find one crack or joint in the uniformly smooth surface. Huge as it was, the erection appeared to have been molded all in one piece‑‑a fact which did nothing to lessen inward misgivings. Whoever did this mighty job weren't Zulus!
From ground level the entrance loomed bigger than ever. If there had been a similar gap at the other side of the building, and a clear way through, he could have taken the ship in at one end and out at the other as easily as threading a needle.
Absence of doors didn't seem peculiar; it was difficult to imagine any sort of door huge enough to fill this opening yet sufficiently balanced to enable anyone‑‑or anything‑‑to pull open or shut. With a final, cautious look around which revealed nothing moving in the valley, he stepped boldly through the entrance, blinked his eyes, found interior darkness slowly fading as visual retention lapsed and gave up remembrance of the golden glow outside.
There was a glow inside, a different one, paler, ghastlier, greenish. It exuded from the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and the total area of radiation was enough to light the place clearly, with no shadows. He sniffed as his vision adjusted itself. There was a strong smell of ozone mixed with other, unidentifiable odors.
To his right and left, rising hundreds of feet, stood great tiers of transparent cases. He went to the ones on his right and examined them. They were cubes, about a yard each way, made of something like transpex. Each contained three inches of loam from which sprouted a crystal. No two crystals were alike; some small and branchy, others large and indescribably complicated.
Dumb with thought, he went around to the back of the monster tier, found another ten yards behind it. And another behind that. And another and another. All with crystals. The number and variety of them made his head whirl. He could study only the two bottom rows of each rack, but row on row stepped themselves far above his head to within short distance of the roof. Their total number was beyond estimation.
It was the same on the left.
"The Oron Museum of Natural History," he guessed, in a whisper.
"You're a liar," squawked Laura violently. "I tell you it's a hoodoo‑‑" She stopped, dumfounded, as her own voice roared through the building in deep, organlike tones, "A hoodoo‑‑A hoodoo‑‑"
"Holy smoke, will you keep quiet!" hissed Steve. He tried to keep watch on the exit and the interior simultaneously. But the voice rumbled away in the distance without bringing anyone to dispute their invasion.
Turning, he paced hurriedly past the first blocks of tiers to the next batteries of exhibits. Jelly blobs in this lot. Small ones, no bigger than his wrist watch, numberable in thousands. None appeared to be alive, he noted.
Sections three, four and five took him a mile into the building as nearly as he could estimate. He passed mosses, lichens and shrubs, all dead but wondrously preserved. By this time he was ready to guess at section six‑plants. He was wrong. The sixth layout displayed bugs, including moths, butterflies, and strange, unfamiliar objects resembling chitinous humming‑birds. There was no sample of Scarabaeus Anderii, unless it were several hundred feet up. Or unless there was an empty box ready for it‑when its day was done.
Who made the boxes? Had it prepared one for him? One for Laura? He visualized himself, petrified forever, squatting in the seventieth case of the twenty‑fifth row of the tenth tier in section something‑or‑other, his front panel duly tagged with its appropriate dots. It was a lousy picture. It made his forehead wrinkle to think of it.
Looking for he knew not what, he plunged steadily on, advancing deeper and deeper into the heart of the building. Not a soul, not a sound,
not a footprint. Only that all‑pervading smell and the unvarying glow. He had a feeling that the place was visited frequently but never occupied for any worth‑while period of time. Without bothering to stop and look, he passed an enormous case containing a creature faintly resembling a bison‑headed rhinoceros, then other, still larger cases holding equally larger exhibits‑‑all carefully dot‑marked.
Finally, he rounded a box so tremendous that it sprawled across the full width of the hall. It contained the grand‑pappy of all trees and the great‑grand‑pappy of all serpents. Behind, for a change, reared five hundred feet high racks of metal cupboards, each cupboard with a stud set in its polished door, each ornamented with more groups of mysteriously arranged dots.
Greatly daring, he pressed the stud on the nearest cupboard and its door swung open with a juicy click. The result proved disappointing. The cupboard was filled with stacks of small, glassy sheets each smothered with dots.
"Super filing‑system," he grunted, closing the door. "Old Prof Heggarty would give his right arm to be here."
"Heggarty," said Laura, in a faltering voice. "For Pete's sake!"
He looked at her sharply. She was ruffled and fidgety, showing signs of increasing agitation.
'What's the matter, Chicken"
She peeked at him, returned her anxious gaze the way they had come, side‑stepped to and fro on his shoulder. Her neck feathers started to rise. A nervous cluck came from her beak and she cowered close to his jacket.
"Darn!" he muttered. Spinning on one heel, he raced past successive filing blocks, got into the ten yards' space between the end block and the wall. His gun was out and he kept watch on the front of the blocks while his free hand tried to soothe Laura. She snuggled up close, rubbing her head into his neck and trying to hide under the angle of his jaw.
"Quiet, Honey," he whispered. "Just you keep quiet and stay with Steve, and we'll be all right."
She kept quiet, though she'd begun to tremble. His heart speeded up in sympathy though he could see nothing, hear nothing to warrant it.
Then, while he watched and waited, and still in absolute silence, the interior brightness waxed, became less green, more golden. And suddenly he knew what it was that was coming. He knew what it was!
He sank on one knee to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Now his heart was palpitating wildly and no coldness in his mind could freeze it down to slower, more normal beat. The silence, the awful silence of its approach was the unbearable feature. The crushing thud of a weighty foot or hoof would have been better. Colossi have no right to steal along like ghosts.
And the golden glow built up, drowning out the green radiance from floor to roof, setting the multitude of case‑surfaces afire with its brilliance. It grew as strong as the golden sky, and stronger. It became all‑pervading, unendurable, leaving no darkness in which to hide, no sanctuary for little things.
It flamed like the rising sun or like something drawn from the heart of a sun, and the glory of its radiance sent the cowering watcher's mind awhirl. He struggled fiercely to control his brain, to discipline it, to bind it to his fading will‑‑and failed.
With drawn face beaded by sweat, Steve caught the merest fragmentary glimpse of the column's edge appearing from between the stacks of the center aisle. He saw a blinding strip of burnished gold in which glittered a pure white star, then a violent effervescence seemed to occur within his brain and he fell forward into a cloud of tiny bubbles.
Down, down he sank through myriad bubbles and swirls and sprays of iridescent froth and foam which shone and changed and shone anew with every conceivable color. And all the time his mind strove frantically to battle upward and drag his soul to the surface.
Deep into the nethermost reaches he went while still the bubbles whirled around in their thousands and their colors were of numberless hues. Then his progress slowed. Gradually the froth and the foam ceased to rotate upward, stopped its circling, began to swirl in the reverse direction and sink. He was rising! He rose for a lifetime, floating weightlessly, in a dreamlike trance.
The last of the bubbles drifted eerily away, leaving him in a brief hiatus of nonexistence‑‑then he found himself sprawled full length on the floor with a dazed Laura clinging to his arm. He blinked his eyes, slowly, several times. They were strained and sore. His heart was still palpitating and his legs felt weak. There was a strange sensation in his stomach as if memory had sickened him with a shock from long, long ago.
He didn't get up from the floor right away; his body was too shaken and his mind too muddled for that. While his wits came back and his composure returned, he lay and noted that all the invading goldness had gone and that again the interior illumination was a dull, shadowless green. Then his eyes found his watch and he sat up, startled. Two hours had flown!
That fact brought him shakily to his feet. Peering around the end of the bank of filing cabinets, he saw that nothing had changed. Instinct told him that the golden visitor had gone and that once more he had this place to himself. Had it become aware of his presence? Had it made him lose consciousness or, if not, why had he lost it? Had it done anything about the ship on the roof?
Picking up his futile gun, he spun it by its stud guard and looked at it with contempt. Then he holstered it, helped Laura onto his shoulder where she perched groggily, went around the back of the racks and still deeper into the building.
"I reckon we're O.K., Honey," he told her. "I think we're too small to be noticed. We're like mice. Who bothers to trap mice when he's got bigger and more important things in mind?" He pulled a face, not liking the mouse comparison. It wasn't flattering either to him or his kind. But it was the best he could think of at the moment. "So, like little mice, let's for cheese. I'm not giving up just because a big hunk of something has sneaked past and put a scare into us. We don't scare off, do we, Sweetness?"
"No," said Laura unenthusiastically. Her voice was still subdued and her eyes perked apprehensively this way and that. "No scare. I won't sail, I tell you. Blow my sternpipes! Laura loves nuts!"
"Don't you call me a nut!"
"Nuts! Stick to farming‑‑it gets you more eggs. McGillicuddy, the great‑‑"
"Hey!" he warned.
She shut up abruptly. He put the pace on, refusing to admit that his system felt slightly jittery with nervous strain or that anything had got him bothered. But he knew that he'd no desire to be near that sparkling giant again. Once was enough, more than enough. It wasn't that he feared it, but something else, something he was quite unable to define.
Passing the last bank of cabinets, he found himself facing a machine. It was complicated and bizarre‑‑and it was making a crystalline growth. Near it, another and different machine was manufacturing a small, horned lizard. There could be no doubt at all about the process of fabrication because both objects were half‑made and both progressed slightly even as he watched. In a couple of hours' time, perhaps less, they'd be finished, and all they'd need would be . . . would be--
The hairs stiffened on the back of his neck and he commenced to run. Endless machines, all different, all making different things, plants, bugs, birds and fungoids. It was done by electroponics, atom fed to atom like brick after brick to build a house. It wasn't synthesis because that's only assembly, and this was assembly plus growth in response to unknown
laws. In each of these machines, he knew, was some key or code or cipher, some weird master‑control of unimaginable complexity, determining the patterns each was building‑‑and the patterns were infinitely variable.
Here and there a piece of apparatus stood silent, inactive, their tasks complete. Here and there other monstrous layouts were in pieces, either under repair or readied for modification. He stopped by one which had finished its job. It had fashioned a delicately shaded moth which perched motionless like a jeweled statue within its fabrication jar. The creature was perfect as far as he could tell, and all it was waiting for was . . . was‑
Beads of moisture popped out on his forehead. All that moth needed was the breath of life!
He forced a multitude of notions to get out of his mind. It was the only way to retain a hold on himself. Divert your attention‑‑take it off this and place it on that! Firmly, he fastened his attention on one tremendous, partly disassembled machine lying nearby. Its guts were exposed, revealing great field coils of dull gray wire. Bits of similar wire lay scattered around on the floor.
Picking up a short piece, he found it surprisingly heavy. He took off his wrist watch, opened its back, brought the wire near to its works. The Venusian jargoon bearing fluoresced immediately. V‑jargoons invariably glowed in the presence of near radiation. This unknown metal was a possible fuel. His heart gave a jump at the mere thought of it.
Should he drag out a huge coil and lug it up to the ship? It was very heavy, and he'd need a considerable length of the stuff‑‑if it was usable as fuel. Supposing the disappearance of the coil caused mousetraps to be set before he returned to search anew?
It pays to stop and think whenever you've got time to stop and think; that was a fundamental of Probe Service philosophy. Pocketing a sample of the wire, he sought around other disassembled machines for more. The search took him still deeper into the building and he fought harder to keep his attention concentrated solely on the task. It wasn't easy. There was that dog, for instance, standing there, statue-like, waiting, waiting. If only it had been anything but indubitably and recognizably an Earth-type dog. It was impossible to avoid seeing it. It would be equally impossible to avoid seeing other, even more familiar forms‑‑if they were there.
He'd gained seven samples of different radioactive wires when he gave up the search. A cockatoo ended his peregrinations. The bird stood steadfastly in its jar, its blue plumage smooth and bright, its crimson crest raised, its bright eye fixed in what was not death but not yet life. Laura shrieked at it hysterically and the immense hall shrieked back at her with long‑drawn roars and rumbles that reverberated into dim distances. Laura's reaction was too much; he wanted no cause for similar reaction of his own.
He sped through the building at top pace, passing the filing cabinets and the mighty array of exhibition cases unheedingly. Up the loamy side slopes he climbed almost as rapidly as he'd gone down, and he was breathing heavily by the time he got into the ship.
His first action was to check the ship for evidence of interference. There wasn't any. Next, he checked the instruments. The Electroscope's leaves were collapsed. Charging them, he watched them flip open and flop together again. The counter showed radiation aplenty. The hen clucked energetically. He'd blundered somewhat‑‑he should have checked up when first he landed on the roof. However, no matter. What lay beneath the roof was now known; the instruments would have advised him earlier but not as informatively.
Laura had her feed while he accompanied her with a swift meal. After that, he dug out his samples of wire. No two were the same gauge and one obviously was far too thick to enter the feed holes of the Kingston-Kanes. It took him half an hour to file it down to a suitable diameter. The original piece of dull gray wire took the first test. Feeding it in, he set the controls to minimum warming‑up intensity, stepped on the energizer. Nothing happened.
He scowled to himself. Someday they'd have jobs better than the sturdy but finicky Kingston‑Kanes, jobs that'd eat anything eatable. Density and radioactivity weren't enough for these motors; the stuff fed to them had to be right.
Going back to the Kingston‑Kanes, he pulled out the wire, found its end fused into shapelessness. Definitely a failure. Inserting the second sample, another gray wire not so dull as the first, he returned to the controls, rammed the energizer. The tail rockets promptly blasted with a low, moaning note and the thrust dial showed sixty per cent normal surge.
Some people would have got mad at that point. Steve didn't. His lean, hawklike features quirked, he felt in his pocket for the third sample, tried that. No soap. The fourth likewise was a flop. The fifth produced a peculiar and rhythmic series of blasts which shook the vessel from end to end and caused the thrust‑dial needle to waggle between one hundred twenty per cent and zero. He visualized the Probe patrols popping through space like outboard motors while he extracted the stuff and fed the sixth sample. The sixth roared joyously at one hundred seventy per cent. The seventh sample was another flop.
He discarded all but what was left of the sixth wire. The stuff was about twelve gauge and near enough for his purpose. It resembled deep-colored copper but was not as soft as copper nor as heavy. Hard, springy and light, like telephone wire. If there were at least a thousand yards of it below, and if he could manage to drag it up to the ship, and if the golden thing didn't come along and ball up the works, he might be able to blow free. Then he'd get to some place civilized‑‑if he could find it. The future was based on an appalling selection of "ifs."
The easiest and most obvious way to salvage the needed treasure was to blow a hole in the roof, lower a cable through it, and wind up the wire with the aid of the ship's tiny winch. Problem: how to blow a hole without suitable explosives. Answer: drill the roof, insert unshelled pistol ammunition, say a prayer and pop the stuff off electrically. He tried it, using a hand drill. The bit promptly curled up as if gnawing on a diamond. He drew his gun, bounced a shell off the roof; the missile exploded with a sharp, hard crack and fragments of shell casing whined shrilly into the sky. Where it had struck, the roof bore a blast smudge and a couple of fine scratches.
There was nothing for it but to go down and heave on his shoulders as much loot as he could carry. And do it right away. Darkness would fall before long, and he didn't want to encounter that golden thing in the dark. It was fateful enough in broad light of day, or in the queer, green glow of the building's interior, but to have it stealing softly behind him as he struggled through the nighttime with his plunder was something of which he didn't care to think.
Locking the ship and leaving Laura inside, he returned to the building, made his way past the mile of cases and cabinets to the machine section at back. He stopped to study nothing on his way. He didn't wish to study anything. The wire was the thing, only the wire. Besides, mundane thoughts of mundane wire didn't twist one's mind around until one found it hard to concentrate.
Nevertheless, his mind was afire as he searched. Half of it was prickly with alertness, apprehensive of the golden column's sudden return; the other half burned with excitement at the possibility of release. Outwardly, his manner showed nothing of this; it was calm, assured, methodical.
Within ten minutes he'd found a great coil of the coppery metal, a huge ovoid, intricately wound, lying beside a disassembled machine. He tried to move it, could not shift it an inch. The thing was far too big, too heavy for one to handle. To get it onto the roof he'd have to cut it up and make four trips of it‑‑and some of its inner windings were fused together. So near, so far! Freedom depended upon his ability to move a lump of metal a thousand feet vertically. He muttered some of Laura's words to himself.
Although the wire cutters were ready in his hand, he paused to think, decided to look farther before tackling this job. It was a wise decision which brought its reward, for at a point a mere hundred yards away he came across another, differently shaped coil, wheel‑shaped, in good condition, easy to unreel. This again was too heavy to carry, but with a tremendous effort which made his muscles crack he got it up on its rim and proceeded to roll it along like a monster tire.
Several times he had to stop and let the coil lean against the nearest case while he rested a moment. The last such case trembled under the impact of the weighty coil and its shining, spidery occupant stirred in momentary simulation of life. His dislike of the spider shot up with its motion, he made his rest brief, bowled the coil onward.
Violet streaks again were creeping from the horizon when he rolled his loot out of the mighty exit and reached the bottom of the bank. Here, he stopped, clipped the wire with his cutters, took the free end, climbed the bank with it. The wire uncoiled without hindrance until he reached the ship, where he attached it to the winch, wound the loot in, rewound it on the feed spool.
Night fell in one ominous swoop. His hands were trembling slightly but his hawklike face was firm, phlegmatic as he carefully threaded the wire's end through the automatic injector and into the feed hole of the Kingston‑Kanes. That done, he slid open Laura's door, gave her some of the fruit they'd picked off the Oron tree. She accepted it morbidly, her manner still subdued, and not inclined for speech.
"Stay inside, Honey," he soothed. "We're getting out of this and going home."
Shutting her in, he climbed into the control seat, switched on the nose beam, saw it pierce the darkness and light up the facing cliff. Then he stamped on the energizer, warmed the tubes. Their bellow was violent and comforting. At seventy per cent better thrust he'd have to be a lot more careful in all his adjustments: it wouldn't do to melt his own tail off when success was within his grasp. All the same, he felt strangely impatient, as if every minute counted, aye, every second!
But he contained himself, got the venturis heated, gave a discreet puff on his starboard steering flare, watched the cliff glide sidewise past as the ship slewed around on its belly. Another puff, then another, and he had the vessel nose‑on to the front edge of the roof. There seemed to be a faint aura in the gloom ahead and he switched off his nose beam to study it better.
It was a faint yellow haze shining over the rim of the opposite slope.
His back hairs quivered as he saw it. The haze strengthened, rose higher.
His eyes strained into the outer pall as he watched it fascinatedly, and his hands were frozen on the controls. There was dampness on his back.
Behind him, in her traveling compartment, Laura was completely silent,
not even shuffling uneasily as was her wont. He wondered if she were
cowering. ‑ [
With a mighty effort of will which strained him as never before, he
shifted his control a couple of notches, lengthened the tail blast. Trembling in its entire fabric, the ship edged forward. Summoning all he'd got,
Steve forced his reluctant hands to administer the take‑off boost. With a
tearing crash that thundered back from the cliffs, the little vessel leaped
skyward on an arc of fire. Peering through the transpex, Steve caught a
fragmentary and foreshortened glimpse of the great golden column advancing majestically over the crest, the next instant it had dropped far
behind his tail and his bow was arrowing for the stars.
An immense relief flooded through his soul though he knew not what
there had been to fear. But the relief was there and so great was it that
he worried not at all about where he was bound or for how long. Some‑
how, he felt certain that if he swept in a wide, shallow curve he'd pick
up a Probe beat‑note sooner or later. Once he got a beat‑note, from any
source at all, it would lead him out of the celestial maze.
Luck remained with him, and his optimistic hunch proved correct, for
while still among completely strange constellations he caught the faint
throb of Hydra III on his twenty‑seventh day of sweep. That throb was
his cosmic lighthouse beckoning him home.
He let go a wild shriek of "Yipee!" thinking that only Laura heard
him‑‑but he was heard elsewhere.
Down on Oron, deep in the monster workshop, the golden giant paused
blindly as if listening. Then it slid stealthily along the immense aisles
reached the filing system. A compartment opened, two glassy plates came
For a moment the plates contacted the Oron's strange, sparkling sub‑
stance, became etched with an array of tiny dots. They were returned
to the compartment, and the door closed. The golden glory with its imprisoned stars then glided quietly back to the machine section.
Something nearer to the gods had scribbled its notes. Nothing lower in the scale of life could have translated them or deduced their full purport.
In simplest sense, one plate may have been inscribed, "Biped, erect, pink, homo intelligens type P.73g, planted on Sol III, Condensation Arm BDB‑‑moderately successful."
Similarly, the other plate may have recorded,
"Flapwing, large, hookbeaked, vari‑colored, periquito
But already the sparkling hobbyist had forgotten his passing notes. He was breathing his essence upon a jeweled moth.
by Jack Williamson
SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH THE CIGAR.
But Brek Veronar didn't throw it away. Earth‑grown tobacco was precious, here on Ceres. He took another bite off the end, and pressed the lighter cone again. This time, imperfectly, the cigar drew‑‑with an acrid, puzzling odor of scorching paper.
Brek Veronar‑‑born William Webster, Earthman‑‑was sitting in his big, well‑furnished office, adjoining the arsenal laboratory. Beyond the perdurite windows, magnified in the crystalline clarity of the asteroid's synthetic atmosphere, loomed a row of the immense squat turret forts that guarded the Astrophon base‑‑their mighty twenty‑four‑inch rifles, coupled to the Veronar autosight, covered with their theoretical range everything within Jupiter's orbit. A squadron of the fleet lay on the field beyond, seven tremendous dead‑black cigar shapes. Far off, above the rugged red palisades of a second plateau, stood the many‑colored domes and towers of Astrophon itself, the Astrarch's capital.
A tall, gaunt man, Brek Veronar wore the bright, close‑fitting silks of the Astrarchy. Dyed to conceal the increasing streaks of gray, his hair was perfumed and curled. In abrupt contrast to the force of his gray, wide‑set eyes, his face was white and smooth from cosmetic treatments. Only the cigar could have betrayed him as a native of Earth, and Brek Veronar never smoked except here in his own locked laboratory.
He didn't like to be called the Renegade.
Curiously, that whiff of burning paper swept his mind away from the intricate drawing of a new rocket‑torpedo gyropilot pinned to a board on the desk before him, and back across twenty years of time. It returned him to the university campus, on the low yellow hills beside the ancient Martian city of Toran‑‑to the fateful day when Bill Webster had renounced allegiance to his native Earth, for the Astrarch.
Tony Grimm and Elora Ronee had both objected. Tony was the freckled, irresponsible redhead who had come out from Earth with him six years before, on the other of the two annual engineering scholarships. Elora Ronee was the lovely dark‑eyed Martian girl‑‑daughter of the professor of geodesics, and a proud descendant of the first colonists‑whom they both loved.
He walked with them, that dry, bright afternoon, out from the yellow adobe buildings, across the rolling, stony, ocher‑colored desert. Tony's sunburned, blue‑eyed face was grave for once, as he protested.
"You can't do it, Bill. No Earthman could."
"No use talking," said Bill Webster, shortly. "The Astrarch wants a military engineer. His agents offered me twenty thousand eagles a year, with raises and bonuses‑‑ten times what any research scientist could hope to get, back on Earth."
The tanned, vivid face of Elora Ronee looked hurt. "Bill‑‑what about your own research?" the slender girl cried. "Your new reaction tube! You promised you were going to break the Astrarch's monopoly on space transport. Have you forgotten?"
"The tube was just a dream," Bill Webster told her, "but probably it's the reason he offered the contract to me, and not Tony. Such jobs don't go begging."
Tony caught his arm. "You can't turn against your own world, Bill," he insisted. "You can't give up everything that means anything to an Earthman. Just remember what the Astrarch is‑‑a superpirate."
Bill Webster's toe kicked up a puff of yellow dust. "I know history," he said. "I know that the Astrarchy had its beginnings from the space pirates who established their bases in the asteroids, and gradually turned to commerce instead of raiding."
His voice was injured and defiant. "But, so far as I'm concerned, the Astrarchy is just as respectable as such planet nations as Earth and Mars and the Jovian Federation. And it's a good deal more wealthy and powerful than any of them."
Tense‑faced, the Martian girl shook her dark head. "Don't blind yourself, Bill," she begged urgently. "Can't you see that the Astrarch really is no different from any of the old pirates? His fleets still seize any independent vessel, or make the owners ransom it with his space‑patrol tax."
She caught an indignant breath. "Everywhere‑‑even here on Mars‑-the agents and residents and traders of the Astrarch have brought graft and corruption and oppression. The Astrarch is using his wealth and his space power to undermine the government of every independent planet. He's planning to conquer the system!"
Her brown eyes flashed. "You won't aid him, Bill. You‑‑couldn't!" Bill Webster looked into the tanned, intent loveliness of her face‑he wanted suddenly to kiss the smudge of yellow dust on her impudent little nose. He had loved Elora Ronee, had once hoped to take her back to Earth. Perhaps he still loved her. But now it was clear that she had always wanted Tony Grimm.
Half angrily, he kicked an iron‑reddened pebble. "If things had been different, Elora, it might have been‑‑" With an abrupt little shrug, he looked back at Tony. "Anyhow," he said flatly, "I'm leaving for Astrophon tonight."
That evening, after they had helped him pack, he made a bonfire of his old books and papers. They burned palely in the thin air of Mars, with a cloud of acrid smoke.
That sharp odor was the line that had drawn Brek Veronar back across the years, when his nostrils stung to the scorched‑paper scent. The cigar came from a box that had just arrived from Cuba, Earth‑‑made to his special order.
He could afford such luxuries. Sometimes, in fact, he almost regretted the high place he had earned in the Astrarch's favor. The space officers, and even his own jealous subordinates in the arsenal laboratory, could never forget that he was an Earthman‑‑the Renegade.
The cigar's odor puzzled him.
Deliberately, he crushed out the smoldering tip, peeled off the brown wrapper leaves. He found a tightly rolled paper cylinder. Slipping off the rubber bands, he opened it. A glimpse of the writing set his heart to thudding.
It was the hand of Elora Ronee!
Brek Veronar knew that fine graceful script. For once Bill Webster had treasured a little note that she had written him, when they were friends at school. He read it eagerly:
This is the only way we can hope to get word to you, past the Astrarch's spies. Your old name, Bill, may seem strange to you. But we‑‑Tony and I‑‑want you to remember that you are an Earthman.
You can't know the oppression that Earth now is suffering, under the Astrarch's heel. But independence is almost gone. Weakened and corrupted, the government yields everywhere. Every Earthman's life is choked with taxes and unjust penalties and the unfair competition of the Astrarch traders.
But Earth, Bill, has not completely yielded. We are going to strike for liberty. Many years of our lives‑‑Tony's and mine‑‑have gone into the plan. And the toil and the sacrifices of millions of our fellow Earthmen. We have at least a chance to recover our lost freedom.
But we need you, Bill‑‑desperately.
For your own world's sake, come back. Ask for a vacation trip to Mars. The Astrarch will not deny you that. On April 8th, a ship will be waiting for you in the desert outside Toran‑‑where we walked the day you left.
Whatever your decision, Bill, we trust you to destroy this letter and keep its contents secret. But we believe that you will come back. For Earth's sake, and for your old friends,
TONY AND ELORA.
Brek Veronar sat for a long time at his desk, staring at the charred, wrinkled sheet. His eyes blurred a little, and he saw the tanned vital face of the Martian girl, her brown eyes imploring. At last he sighed and reached slowly for the lighter cone. He held the letter until the flame had consumed it.
Next day four space officers came to the laboratory. They were insolent in the gaudy gold and crimson of the Astrarch, and the voice of the captain was suave with a triumphant hate:
"Earthman, you are under technical arrest, by the Astrarch's order. You will accompany us at once to his quarters aboard the Warrior Queen."
Brek Veronar knew that he was deeply disliked, but very seldom had the feeling been so openly shown. Alarmed, he locked his office and went with the four.
Flagship of the Astrarch's space fleets, the Warrior Queen lay on her cradle, at the side of the great field beyond the low gray forts. A thousand feet and a quarter of a million tons of fighting metal, with sixty‑four twenty‑inch rifles mounted in eight bulging spherical turrets, she was the most powerful engine of destruction the system had ever seen.
Brek Veronar's concern was almost forgotten in a silent pride, as a swift electric car carried them across the field. It was his autosight‑‑otherwise the Veronar achronic field detector geodesic achron‑integration self-calculating range finder‑‑that directed the fire of those mighty guns. It was the very fighting brain of the ship‑‑of all the Astrarch's fleet.
No wonder these men were jealous.
"Come, Renegade!" The bleak‑faced captain's tone was ominous. "The Astrarch is waiting."
Bright‑uniformed guards let them into the Astrarch's compact but luxurious suite, just aft the console room and forward of the autosight installation, deep in the ship's armored bowels. The Astrarch turned from a chart projector, and crisply ordered the two officers to wait outside.
A short, heavy, compact man, the dictator of the Astrarchy was vibrant with a ruthless energy. His hair was waved and perfumed, his face a rouged and powdered mask, his silk‑swathed figure loaded with jewels. But nothing could hide the power of his hawklike nose and his burning black eyes.
The Astrarch had never yielded to the constant pressure of jealousy against Brek Veronar. The feeling between them had grown almost to friendship. But now the Earthman sensed, from the cold inquiry of those first words, and the probing flash of the ruler's eyes, that his position was gravely dangerous.
Apprehension strained his voice. "I'm under arrest?"
The Astrarch smiled, gripped his hand. "My men are overzealous, Veronar." The voice was warm, yet Brek Veronar could not escape the sense of something sharply critical, deadly. "I merely wish to talk with you, and the impending movements of the fleet allowed little time."
Behind that smiling mask, the Astrarch studied him. "Veronar, you have served me loyally. I am leaving Astrophon for a cruise with the fleet, and I feel that you, also, have earned a holiday. Do you want a vacation from your duties here‑‑let us say, to Mars?"
Beneath those thrusting eyes, Brek Veronar flinched. "Thank you, Gorro," he gulped‑‑he was among the few privileged to call the Astrarch by name. "Later, perhaps. But the torpedo guide isn't finished. And I've several ideas for improving the autosight. I'd much prefer to stay in the laboratory."
For an instant, the short man's smile seemed genuine. "The Astrarchy is indebted to you for the autosight. The increased accuracy of fire has in effect quadrupled our fleets." His eyes were sharp again, doubtful. "Are further improvements possible?"
Brek Veronar caught his breath. His knees felt a little weak. He knew that he was talking for his life. He swallowed, and his words came at first unsteadily.
"Geodesic analysis and integration is a completely new science," he said desperately. "It would be foolish to limit the possibilities. With a sufficiently delicate pick‑up, the achronic detector fields ought to be able to trace the world lines of any object almost indefinitely. Into the future‑‑"
He paused for emphasis. "Or into the past!"
An eager interest flashed in the Astrarch's eyes. Brek felt confidence returning. His breathless voice grew smoother.
"Remember, the principle is totally new. The achronic field can be made a thousand times more sensitive than any telescope‑‑I believe, a million times! And the achronic beam eliminates the time lag of all electromagnetic methods of observation. Timeless, paradoxically it facilitates the exploration of time."
"Exploration?" questioned the dictator. "Aren't you speaking rather wildly, Veronar?"
"Any range finder, in a sense, explores time," Brek assured him urgently. "It analyzes the past to predict the future‑‑so that a shell fired from a moving ship and deflected by the gravitational fields of space may move thousands of miles to meet another moving ship, minutes in the future.
"Instruments depending on visual observation and electromagnetic transmission of data were not very successful. One hit in a thousand used to be good gunnery. But the autosight has solved the problem‑‑now you reprimand gunners for failing to score two hits in a hundred."
Brek caught his breath. "Even the newest autosight is just a rough beginning. Good enough, for a range finder. But the detector fields can be made infinitely more sensitive, the geodesic integration infinitely more certain.
"It ought to be possible to unravel the past for years, instead of minutes. It ought to be possible to foretell the position of a ship for weeks ahead‑to anticipate every maneuver, and even watch the captain eating his breakfast!"
The Earthman was breathless again, his eyes almost feverish. "From geodesic analysis," he whispered, "there is one more daring step‑‑control. You are aware of the modern view that there is no absolute fact, but only probability. I can prove it! And probability can be manipulated, through pressure of the achronic field.
"It is possible, even, I tell you‑‑"
Brek's rushing voice faltered. He saw that doubt had drowned the flash of interest in the Astrarch's eyes. The dictator made an impatient gesture for silence. In a flat, abrupt voice he stated: "Veronar, you are an Earthman."
"Once I was an Earthman."
The black, flashing eyes probed into him. "Veronar," the Astrarch said, "trouble is coming with Earth. My agents have uncovered a dangerous plot. The leader of it is an engineer named Grimm, who has a Martian wife. The fleet is moving to crush the rebellion." He paused. "Now, do you want the vacation?"
Before those ruthless eyes, Brek Veronar stood silent. Life, he was now certain, depended on his answer. He drew a long, unsteady breath. "No," he said.
Still the Astrarch's searching tension did not relax. "My officers," he said, "have protested against serving with you, against Earth. They are suspicious."
Brek Veronar swallowed. "Grimm and his wife," he whispered hoarsely, "once were friends of mine. I had hoped that it would not be necessary to betray them. But I have received a message from them."
He gulped again, caught his breath. "To prove to your men that I am no longer an Earthman‑‑a ship that they have sent for me v.ill be waiting, on April 8th, Earth calendar, in the desert south of the Martian city of Toran."
The white, lax mask of the Astrarch smiled. "I'm glad you told me, Veronar," he said. "You have been very useful‑‑and I like you. Now I can tell you that my agents read the letter in the cigar. The rebel ship was overtaken and destroyed by the space patrol, just a few hours ago."
Brek Veronar swayed to a giddy weakness.
"Entertain no further apprehensions." The Astrarch touched his arm. "You will accompany the fleet, in charge of the autosight. We take off in five hours."
The long black hull of the Warrior Queen lifted on flaring reaction tubes, leading the squadron. Other squadrons moved from the bases on Pallas, Vesta, Thule, and Eros. The Second Fleet came plunging Sunward from its bases on the Trojan planets. Four weeks later, at the rendezvous just within the orbit of Mars, twenty‑nine great vessels had come together.
The armada of the Astrarchy moved down upon Earth.
Joining the dictator in his chartroom, Brek was puzzled. "Still I don't see the reason for such a show of strength," he said. "Why have you gathered three fourths of your space forces, to crush a handful of plotters?"
"We have to deal with more than a handful of plotters." Behind the pale mask of the Astrarch's face, Brek could sense a tension of worry. "Millions of Earthmen have labored for years to prepare for this rebellion. Earth has built a space fleet."
Brek was astonished. "A fleet?"
"The parts were manufactured secretly, mostly in underground mills," the Astrarch told him. "The ships were assembled by divers, under the surface of fresh‑water lakes. Your old friend, Grimm, is clever and dangerous. We shall have to destroy his fleet, before we can bomb the planet into submission."
Steadily, Brek met the Astrarch's eyes. "How many ships?" he asked.
"Then we outnumber them five to one." Brek managed a confident smile. "Without considering the further advantage of the autosight. It will be no battle at all."
"Perhaps not," said the Astrarch, "but Grimm is an able man. He has invented a new type reaction tube, in some regards superior to our own." His dark eyes were somber. "It is Earthman against Earthman," he said softly. "And one of you shall perish."
Day after day, the armada dropped Earthward.
The autosight served also as the eyes of the fleet, as well as the fighting brain. In order to give longer base lines for the automatic triangulations, additional achronic‑field pick‑ups had been installed upon half a dozen ships. Tight achronic beams brought their data to the immense main instrument, on the Warrior Queen. The autosight steered every ship, by achronic beam control, and directed the fire of its guns.
The Warrior Queen led the fleet. The autosight held the other vessels in accurate line behind her, so that only one circular cross section might be visible to the telescopes of Earth.
The rebel planet was still twenty million miles ahead, and fifty hours at normal deceleration, when the autosight discovered the enemy fleet.
Brek Veronar sat at the curving control table.
Behind him, in the dim‑lit vastness of the armored room, bulked the main instrument. Banked thousands of green‑painted cases‑‑the intricate cells of the mechanical brain‑‑whirred with geodesic analyzers and integrators. The achronic field pick‑ups‑‑sense organs of the brain‑‑were housed in insignificant black boxes. And the web of achronic transmission beams‑‑instantaneous, ultrashort, nonelectromagnetic waves of the subelectronic order‑‑the nerve fibers that joined the busy cells‑‑was quite invisible.
Before Brek stood the twenty‑foot cube of the stereoscreen, through which the brain communicated its findings. The cube was black, now, with the crystal blackness of space. Earth, in it, made a long misty crescent of wavering crimson splendor. The Moon was a smaller scimitar, blue with the dazzle of its artificial atmosphere.
Brek touched intricate controls. The Moon slipped out of the cube. Earth grew‑‑and turned. So far had the autosight conquered time and space. It showed the planet's Sunward side.
Earth filled the cube, incredibly real. The vast white disk of one low-pressure area lay upon the Pacific's glinting blue. Another, blotting out the winter brown of North America, reached to the bright gray cap of the arctic.
Softly, in the dim room, a gong clanged. Numerals of white fire flickered against the image in the cube. An arrow of red flame pointed. At its point was a tiny fleck of black.
The gong throbbed again, and another black mote came up out of the clouds. A third followed. Presently there were six. Watching, Brek Veronar felt a little stir of involuntary pride, a dim numbness of regret.
Those six vessels were the mighty children of Tony Grimm and Elora, the fighting strength of Earth. Brek felt an aching tenseness in his throat, and tears stung his eyes. It was too bad that they had to be destroyed.
Tony would be aboard one of those ships. Brek wondered how he would look, after twenty years. Did his freckles still show? Had he grown stout? Did concentration still plow little furrows between his blue eyes?
Elora‑‑would she be with him? Brek knew she would. His mind saw the Martian girl, slim and vivid and intense as ever. He tried to thrust away the image. Time must have changed her. Probably she looked worn from the years of toil and danger; her dark eyes must have lost their sparkle.
Brek had to forget that those six little blots represented the lives of Tony and Elora, and the independence of the Earth. They were only six little lumps of matter, six targets for the autosight.
He watched them, rising, swinging around the huge, luminous curve of the planet. They were only six mathematical points, tracing world lines through the continuum, making a geodesic pattern for the analyzers to unravel and the integrators to project against the future‑
The gong throbbed again.
Tense with abrupt apprehension, Brek caught up a telephone.
"Give me the Astrarch.... An urgent report.... No, the admiral won't do.... Gorro, the autosight has picked up the Earth fleet ... Yes, only six ships, just taking off from the Sunward face. But there is one alarming thing."
Brek Veronar was hoarse, breathless. "Already, behind the planet, they have formed a cruising line. The axis extends exactly in our direction. That means that they know our precise position, before they have come into telescopic view. That suggests that Tony Grimm has invented an autosight of his own!"
Strained hours dragged by. The Astrarch's fleet decelerated, to circle and bombard the mother world, after the battle was done. The Earth ships came out at full normal acceleration.
"They must stop," the Astrarch said. "That is our advantage. If they go by us at any great velocity, we'll have the planet bombed into submission before they can return. They must turn back‑‑and then we'll pick them off."
Puzzlingly, however, the Earth fleet kept up acceleration, and a slow apprehension grew in the heart of Brek Veronar. There was but one explanation. The Earthmen were staking the life of their planet on one brief encounter.
As if certain of victory!
The hour of battle neared. Tight achronic beams relayed telephoned orders from the Astrarch's chartroom, and the fleet deployed into battle formation‑‑into the shape of an immense shallow bowl, so that every possible gun could be trained upon the enemy.
The hour‑‑and the instant!
Startling in the huge dim space that housed the autosight, crackling out above the whirring of the achron‑integrator, the speaker that was the great brain's voice counted off the minutes.
The autosight was set, the pick‑ups tuned, the director relays tested, a thousand details checked. Behind the control table, Brek Veronar tried to relax. His part was done.
A space battle was a conflict of machines. Human beings were too puny, too slow, even to comprehend the play of the titanic forces they had set loose. Brek tried to remember that he was the autosight's inventor; he fought an oppression of helpless dread.
Sodium bombs filled the void ahead with vast silver plumes and streamers‑‑for the autosight removed the need of telescopic eyes, and enabled ships to fight from deep smoke screens.
The two fleets came together at a relative velocity of twelve hundred thousand miles an hour. Maximum useful range of twenty-inch guns, even with the autosight, was only twenty thousand miles in free space.
Which meant, Brek realized, that the battle could last just two minutes.
In that brief time lay the destinies of Astrarchy and Earth‑‑and Tony Grimm's and Elora's and his own.
The sodium screens made little puffs and trails of silver in the great black cube. The six Earth ships were visible behind them, through the magic of the achronic field pick‑ups, now spaced in a close ring, ready for action.
Brek Veronar looked down at the jeweled chronometer on his wrist‑a gift from the Astrarch. Listening to the rising hum of the achron-integrators, he caught his breath, tensed instinctively.
The Warrior Queen began quivering to her great guns, a salvo of four firing every half‑second. Brek breathed again, watching the chronometer. That was all he had to do. And in two minutes‑
The vessel shuddered, and the lights went out. Sirens wailed, and air valves clanged. The lights came on, went off again. And abruptly the cube of the stereo screen was dark. The achron‑integrators clattered and stopped.
The guns ceased to thud.
'Power!" Brek gasped into a telephone. "Give me power! Emergency! The autosight has stopped and‑‑"
But the telephone was dead.
There were no more hits. Smothered in darkness, the great room remained very silent. After an etemal time, feeble emergency lights came on. Brek looked again at his chronometer, and knew that the battle was ended.
But who the victor?
He tried to hope that the battle had been won before some last chance broadside crippled the flagship‑‑until the Astrarch came stumbling into the room, looking dazed and pale.
"Crushed," he muttered. "You failed me, Veronar."
"What are the losses?" whispered Brek.
"Everything." The shaken ruler dropped wearily at the control table. "Your achronic beams are dead. Five ships remain able to report defeat by radio. Two of them hope to make repairs.
"The Queen is disabled. Reaction batteries shot away, and main power plant dead. Repair is hopeless. And our present orbit will carry us far too close to the Sun. None of our ships able to undertake rescue. We'll be baked alive."
His perfumed dark head sank hopelessly. "In those two minutes, the Astrarchy was destroyed." His hollow, smoldering eyes lifted resentfully to Brek. "Just two minutes!" He crushed a soft white fist against the table. "If time could be recaptured‑‑"
"How were we beaten?" demanded Brek. "I can't understand!"
"Marksmanship," said the tired Astrarch. "Tony Grimm has something better than your autosight. He shot us to pieces before we could find the range." His face was a pale mask of bitterness. "If my agents had employed him, twenty years ago, instead of you‑‑" He bit blood from his lip. "But the past cannot be changed."
Brek was staring at the huge, silent bulk of the autosight. "Perhaps" ‑‑he whispered‑‑"it can be!"
Trembling, the Astrarch rose to clutch his arm. "You spoke of that before," gasped the agitated ruler. "Then I wouldn't listen. But now‑try anything you can, Veronar. To save us from roasting alive, at perihelion. Do you really think‑‑"
The Astrarch shook his pale head. "I'm the madman," he whispered. "To speak of changing even two minutes of the past!" His hollow eyes clung to Brek. "Though you have done amazing things, Veronar."
The Earthman continued to stare at his huge creation. "The autosight itself brought me one clue, before the battle," he breathed slowly. "The detector fields caught a beam of Tony Grimm's, and analyzed the frequencies. He's using achronic radiation a whole octave higher than anything I've tried. That must be the way to the sensitivity and penetration I have hoped for."
Hope flickered in the Astrarch's eyes. "You believe you can save us? How?"
"If the high‑frequency beam can search out the determiner factors," Brek told him, "it might be possible to alter them, with a sufficiently powerful field. Remember that we deal with probabilities, not with absolutes. And that small factors can determine vast results.
"The pick‑ups will have to be rebuilt. And we'll have to have power. Power to project the tracer fields. And a river of power‑‑if we can trace out a decisive factor and attempt to change it. But the power plants are dead.
"Rebuild your pick‑ups," the Astrarch told him. "And you'll have power ‑‑if I have to march every man aboard into the conversion furnaces, for fuel."
Calm again, and confident, the short man surveyed the tall, gaunt Earthman with wondering eyes.
"You're a strange individual, Veronar," he said. "Fighting time and destiny to crush the planet of your birth! It isn't strange that men call you the Renegade."
Silent for a moment, Brek shook his haggard head. "I don't want to be baked alive," he said at last. "Give me power‑‑and we'll fight that battle again."
The wreck dropped Sunward. A score of expert technicians toiled, under Brek's expert direction, to reconstruct the achronic pick‑ups. And a hundred men labored, beneath the ruthless eye of the Astrarch himself, to repair the damaged atomic converters.
They had crossed the orbit of Venus, when the autosight came back to humming life. The Astrarch was standing beside Brek, at the curved control table. The shadow of doubt had returned to his reddened, sleepless eyes. "Now," he demanded, "what can you do about the battle?"
"Nothing, directly," Brek admitted. "First we must search the past. We must find the factor that caused Tony Grimm to invent a better autosight than mine. With the high‑frequency field‑‑and the full power of the ship's converters, if need be‑‑we must reverse that factor. Then the battle should have a different outcome."
The achron‑integrators whirred, as Brek manipulated the controls, and the huge black cube began to flicker with the passage of ghostly images. Symbols of colored fire flashed and vanished within it.
"Well" anxiously rasped the Astrarch.
"It works!" Brek assured him. "The tracer fields are following all the world lines that intersected at the battle, back across the months and years. The analyzers will isolate the smallest‑‑and hence most easily altered‑‑essential factor."
The Astrarch gripped his shoulder. "There‑‑in the cube‑‑yourself!"
The ghostly shape of the Earthman flickered out, and came again. A hundred times, Brek Veronar glimpsed himself in the cube. Usually the scene was the great arsenal laboratory, at Astrophon. Always he was differently garbed, always younger.
Then the background shifted. Brek caught his breath as he recognized glimpses of barren, stony, ocher‑colored hills, and low, yellow adobe buildings. He gasped to see a freckled, red‑haired youth and a slim, tanned, dark‑eyed girl.
"That's on Mars!" he whispered. "At Toran. He's Tony Grimm. And she's Elora Ronee‑‑the Martian girl we loved."
The racing flicker abruptly stopped, upon one frozen tableau. A bench on the dusty campus, against a low adobe wall. Elora Ronee, with a pile of books propped on her knees to support pen and paper. Her dark eyes were staring away across the campus, and her sun‑brown face looked tense and troubled.
In the huge dim room aboard the wrecked warship, a gong throbbed softly. A red arrow flamed in the cube, pointing down at the note on the girl's knee. Cryptic symbols flashed above it. And Brek realized that the humming of the achron‑integrators had stopped.
"What's this?" rasped the anxious Astrarch. "A schoolgirl writing a note‑‑what has she to do with a space battle?"
Brek scanned the fiery symbols. "She was deciding the battle‑‑that day twenty years ago!" His voice rang with elation. "You see, she had a date to go dancing in Toran with Tony Grimm that night. But her father was giving a special lecture on the new theories of achronic force. Tony broke the date, to attend the lecture."
As Brek watched the motionless image in the cube, his voice turned a little husky. "Elora was angry‑‑that was before she knew Tony very well. I had asked her for a date. And, at the moment you see, she has just written a note, to say that she would go dancing with me."
Brek gulped. "But she is undecided, you see. Because she loves Tony. A very little would make her tear up the note to me, and write another to Tony, to say that she would go to the lecture with him."
The Astrarch stared cadaverously. "But how could that decide the battle?"
"In the past that we have lived," Brek told him, "Elora sent the note to me. I went dancing with her, and missed the lecture. Tony attended it‑‑and got the germ idea that finally caused his autosight to be better than mine.
"But, if she had written to Tony instead, he would have offered, out of contrition, to cut the lecture‑‑so the analyzers indicate. I should have attended the lecture in Tony's place, and my autosight would have been superior in the end."
The Astrarch's waxen head nodded slowly. "But‑‑can you really change the past?"
Brek paused for a moment, solemnly. "We have all the power of the ship's converters," he said at last. "We have the high‑frequency achronic field, as a lever through which to apply it. Surely, with the millions of kilowatts to spend, we can stimulate a few cells in a schoolgirl's brain. We shall see."
His long, pale fingers moved swiftly over the control keys. At last, deliberately, he touched a green button. The converters whispered again through the silent ship. The achron‑integrators whirred again. Beyond, giant transformers began to whine.
And that still tableau came to sudden life.
Elora Ronee tore up the note that began, "Dear Bill‑‑" Brek and the Astrarch leaned forward, as her trembling fingers swiftly wrote: "Dear Tony‑‑I'm so sorry that I was angry. May I come with you to father's lecture? Tonight‑‑"
The image faded. "Minus four‑‑"
The metallic rasp of the speaker brought Brek Veronar to himself with a start. Could he have been dozing‑‑with contact just four minutes away? He shook himself. He had a queer, unpleasant feeling‑‑as if he had forgotten a nightmare dream in which the battle was fought and lost.
He rubbed his eyes, scanned the control board. The autosight was set, the pick‑ups were tuned, the director relays tested. His part was done. He tried to relax the puzzling tension in him.
Sodium bombs filled the void ahead with vast silver plumes and streamers. Staring into the black cube of the screen, Brek found once more the six tiny black motes of Tony Grimm's ships. He couldn't help an uneasy shake of his head.
Was Tony mad? Why didn't he veer aside, delay the contact? Scattered in space, his ships could harry the Astrarchy's commerce, and interrupt bombardment of the Earth. But, in a head‑on battle, they were doomed.
Brek listened to the quiet hum of the achron‑integrators. Under these conditions, the new autosight gave an accuracy of fire of forty percent. Even if Tony's gunnery was perfect, the odds were still two to one against him.
Two minutes! Brek looked down at the jeweled chronometer on his wrist. For a moment he had an odd feeling that the design was unfamiliar. Strange, when he had worn it for twenty years.
The dial blurred a little. He remembered the day that Tony and Elora gave it to him‑‑the day he left the university to come to Astrophon. It was too nice a gift. Neither of them had much money.
He wondered if Tony had ever guessed his love for Elora. Probably it was better that she had always declined his attentions. No shadow of jealousy had ever come over their friendship.
This wouldn't do! Half angrily, Brek jerked his eyes back to the screen. Still, however, in the silvery sodium clouds, he saw the faces of Tony and Elora. Still he couldn't forget the oddly unfamiliar pressure of the chronometer on his wrist‑‑it was like the soft touch of Elora's fingers, when she had fastened it there.
Suddenly the black flecks in the screen were not targets any more. Brek caught a long gasping breath. After all, he was an Earthman. After twenty years in the Astrarch's generous pay, this timepiece was still his most precious possession.
His gray eyes narrowed grimly. Without the autosight, the Astrarch's fleet would be utterly blind in the sodium clouds. Given any sort of achronic range finder, Tony Grimm could wipe it out.
Brek's gaunt body trembled. Death, he knew, would be the sure penalty. In the battle or afterward‑‑it didn't matter. He knew that he would accept it without regret.
The achron‑integrators were whirring busily, and the warrior Queen quivered to the first salvo of her guns. Then Brek's clenched fists came down on the carefully set keyboard. The autosight stopped humming. The guns ceased to fire.
Brek picked up the Astrarch's telephone. "I've stopped the autosight." His voice was quiet and low. "It is quite impossible to set it again in two minutes."
The telephone clicked and was dead.
The vessel shuddered and the lights went out. Sirens wailed. Air valves clanged. The lights came on, went off again. Presently, there were no more hits. Smothered in darkness, the great room remained very silent.
The tiny racing tick of the chronometer was the only sound.
After an eternal time, feeble emergency lights came on. The Astrarch came stumbling into the room, looking dazed and pale.
A group of spacemen followed him. Their stricken, angry faces made an odd contrast with their gay uniforms. Before their vengeful hatred, Brek felt cold and ill. But the Astrarch stopped their ominous advance.
"The Earthman has doomed himself as well," the shaken ruler told them. "There's not much more that you can do. And certainly no haste about it."
He left them muttering at the door and came slowly to Brek.
"Crushed," he whispered. "You destroyed me, Veronar." A trembling hand wiped at the pale waxen mask of his face. "Everything is lost. The Queen disabled. None of our ships able to undertake rescue. We'll be baked alive."
His hollow eyes stared dully at Brek. "In those two minutes, you destroyed the Astrarchy." His voice seemed merely tired, strangely without bitterness. "Just two minutes," he murmured wearily. "If time could be recaptured‑‑"
"Yes," Brek said, "I stopped the autosight." He lifted his gaunt shoulders defiantly, and met the menacing stares of the spacemen. "And they can do nothing about it?"
"Can you?" Hope flickered in the Astrarch's eyes.
"Once you told me, Veronar, that the past could be changed. Then I wouldn't listen. But now‑‑try anything you can. You might be able to save yourself from the unpleasantness that my men are planning."
Looking at the muttering men, Brek shook his head. "I was mistaken," he said deliberately. "I failed to take account of the two‑way nature of time. But the future, I see now, is as real as the past. Aside from the direction of entropy change and the flow of consciousness, future and past cannot be distinguished.
"The future determines the past, as much as the past does the future. It is possible to trace out the determiner factors, and even, with sufficient power, to cause a local deflection of the geodesics. But world lines are fixed in the future, as rigidly as in the past. However the factors are rearranged, the end result will always be the same."
The Astrarch's waxen face was ruthless. "Then, Veronar, you are doomed."
Slowly, Brek smiled. "Don't call me Veronar," he said softly. "I remembered, just in time, that I am William Webster, Earthman. You can kill me in any way you please. But the defeat of the Astrarchy and the new freedom of Earth are fixed in time‑‑forever."
by Theodore Sturgeon
WHEN PETE MAWSER LEARNED ABOUT THE SHOW, HE TURNED away from the GHQ bulletin board, touched his long chin, and determined to shave, in spite of the fact that the show would be video, and he would see it in his barracks. He had an hour and a half. It felt good to have a purpose again—even the small matter of shaving before eight o'clock. Eight o'clock Tuesday, just the way it used to be. Everyone used to say, Wednesday morning, "How about the way Starr sang The Breeze and I last night?"
That was a while ago, before the attack, before all those people were dead, before the country was dead. Starr Anthim —an institution, like Crosby, like Duse, like Jenny Lind, like the Statue of Liberty. (Liberty had been one of the first to get it, her bronze beauty volatilized, radio-activated, and even now being carried about in vagrant winds, spreading over the earth ... )
Pete Mawser grunted and forced his thoughts away from the drifting, poisonous fragments of a blasted liberty. Hate was first. Hate was ubiquitous, like the increasing blue glow in the air at night, like the tension that hung over the base.
Gunfire cracked sporadically far to the right, swept nearer. Pete stepped out to the street and made for a parked truck. There was a Wac sitting on the short running-board.
At the corner a stocky figure backed into the intersection. The man carried a tommy-gun in his arms, and he was swinging to and fro with the gentle, wavering motion of a weathervane. He staggered toward them, his gun-muzzle hunting. Someone fired from a building and the man swiveled and blasted wildly at the sound.
"He's—blind," said Pete Mawser, and added, "he ought to be," looking at the tattered face.
A siren keened. An armored jeep slewed into the street.The full-throated roar of a brace of .50-caliber machine-guns put a swift and shocking end to the incident.
"Poor crazy kid," Pete said softly. "That's the fourth I've seen today." He looked down at the Wac. She was smiling. "Hey!"
"Hello, Sarge." She must have identified him before, because now she did not raise her eyes nor her voice. "What happened?"
"You know what happened. Some kid got tired of having nothing to fight and nowhere to run to. What's the matter with you?"
"No," she said. "I don't mean that." At last she looked up at him. "I mean all of this. I can't seem to remember."
"You—well, it's not easy to forget. We got hit. We got hit everywhere at once. All the big cities are gone. We got it from both sides. We got too much. The air is becoming radioactive. We'll all—" He checked himself. She didn't know. She'd forgotten. There was nowhere to escape to, and she'd escaped inside herself, right here. Why tell her about it? Why tell her that everyone was going to die? Why tell her that other, shameful thing: that we hadn't struck back?
But she wasn't listening. She was still looking at him. Her eyes were not quite straight. One held his, but the other was slightly shifted and seemed to be looking at his temple. She was smiling again. When his voice trailed off she didn't prompt him. Slowly, he moved away. She did not turn her head, but kept looking up at where he had been, smiling a little. He turned away, wanting to run, walking fast.
How long could a guy hold out? When you were in the army they tried to make you be like everybody else. What did you do when everybody else was cracking up?
He blanked out the mental picture of himself as the last one left sane. He'd followed that one through before. It always led to the conclusion that it would be better to be one of the first. He wasn't ready for that yet. Then he blanked that out, too. Every time he said to himself that he wasn't ready for that yet, something within him asked "Why not?" and he never seemed to have an answer ready.
How long could a guy hold out?
He climbed the steps of the QM 'Central and went inside. There was nobody at the reception switchboard. It didn't matter. Messages were carried by jeep, or on motorcycles. The Base Command was not insisting that anybody stick to a sitting job these days. Ten desk-men could crack up for every one on a jeep, or on the soul-sweat squads. Pete made up his mind to put in a little stretch on a squad tomorrow. Do him good. He just hoped that this time the adjutant wouldn't burst into tears in the middle of the parade ground. You could keep your mind on the manual of arms just fine until something like that happened.
He bumped into Sonny Weisefreund in the barracks corridor. The Tech's round young face was as cheerful as ever. He was naked and glowing, and had a towel thrown over his shoulder.
"Hi, Sonny. Is there plenty of hot water?"
"Why not?" grinned Sonny. Pete grinned back, wondering if anybody could say anything about anything at all without one of these reminders. Of course, there was hot water. The QM barracks had hot water for three hundred men. There were three dozen left. Men dead, men gone to the hills, men locked up so they wouldn't…
"Starr Anthim's doing a show tonight."
"Yeah. Tuesday night. Not funny, Pete. Don't you know there's a war—"
"No kidding," Pete said swiftly. "She's here—right here on the base."
Sonny's face was joyful. "Gee." He pulled the towel off his shoulder and tied it around his waist. "Starr Anthim here! Where are they going to put on the show?"
"HQ, I imagine. Video only. You know about public gatherings."
"Yeah. And a good thing, too," said Sonny. "Somebody'd be sure to crack up. I wouldn't want her to see anything like that. How'd she happen to come here, Pete?"
"Drifted in on the last gasp of a busted-up Navy helicopter."
"Yeah, but why?"
"Search me. Get your head out of that gift-horse's mouth."
He went into the washroom, smiling and glad that he still could. He undressed and put his neatly folded clothes down on a bench. There were a soap-wrapper and an empty tooth-paste tube lying near the wall. He picked them up and put them in the catchall, took the mop that leaned against the partition and mopped the floor where Sonny had splashed after shaving. Someone had to keep things straight. He might have worried if it were anyone else but Sonny. But Sonny wasn't cracking up. Sonny always had been like that. Look there. Left his razor out again.
Pete started his shower, meticulously adjusting the valves until the pressure and temperature exactly suited him. He did nothing carelessly these days. There was so much to feel, and taste, and see now. The impact of water on his skin, the smell of soap, the consciousness of light and heat, the very pressure of standing on the soles of his feet. He wondered vaguely how the slow increase of radioactivity in the air, as the nitrogen transmuted to Carbon Fourteen, would affect him if he kept carefully healthy in every way. What happens first? Blindness? Headaches? Perhaps a loss of appetite or slow fatigue?
Why not look it up?
On the other hand, why bother? Only a very small percentage of the men would die of radioactive poisoning. There were too many other things that killed more quickly, which was probably just as well. That razor, for example. It lay gleaming in a sunbeam, curved and clean in the yellow light. Sonny's father and grandfather had used it, or so he said, and it was his pride and joy.
Pete turned his back on it, and soaped under his arms, concentrating on the tiny kisses of bursting bubbles. In the midst of a recurrence of disgust at himself for thinking so often of death, a staggering truth struck him. He did not think of such things because he was morbid, after all! It was the very familiarity of things that brought death-thoughts. It was either "I shall never do this again" or "This is one of the last times I shall do this." You might devote yourself completely to doing things in different ways, he thought madly. You might crawl across the floor this time, and next time walk across on your hands. You might skip dinner tonight, and have a snack at two in the morning instead, and eat grass for breakfast.
But you had to breathe. Your heart had to beat. You'd sweat and you'd shiver, the same as always. You couldn't get away from that. When those things happened, they would remind you. Your heart wouldn't beat out its wunklunk, wunklunk any more. It would go one-less, one-less, until it yelled and yammered in your ears and you had to make it stop.
Terrific polish on that razor.
And your breath would go on, same as before. You could sidle through this door, back through the next one and the one after, and figure out a totally new way to go through the one after that, but your breath would keep on sliding in and out of your nostrils like a razor going through whiskers, making a sound like a razor being stropped.
Sonny came in. Pete soaped his hair. Sonny picked up the razor and stood looking at it. Pete watched him, soap ran into his eyes, he swore, and Sonny jumped.
"What are you looking at, Sonny? Didn't you ever see it before?"
"Oh, sure. Sure. I just was—" He shut the razor, opened it, flashed light from its blade, shut it again. "I'm tired of using this, Pete. I'm going to get rid of it. Want it?"
Want it? In his foot-locker, maybe. Under his pillow. "Thanks, no, Sonny. Couldn't use it."
"I like safety razors," Sonny mumbled. "Electrics, even better. What are you going to do with it?"
"Throw it in the—no." Pete pictured the razor turning end over end in the air, half open, gleaming in the maw of the catchall. "Throw it out the—" No. Curving out into the long grass. He might want it. He might crawl around in the moonlight looking for it. He might find it.
"I guess maybe I'll break it up."
"No," Pete said. "The pieces—" Sharp little pieces. Hollow-ground fragments. "I'll think of something. Wait'll I get dressed."
He washed briskly, toweled, while Sonny stood looking at the razor. It was a blade now, and if it were broken it would be shards and glittering splinters, still razor sharp. If it were ground dull with an emery wheel, somebody could find it and put another edge on it because it was so obviously a razor, a fine steel razor, one that would slice so…
"I know. The laboratory. We'll get rid of it," Pete said confidently.
He stepped into his clothes, and together they went to the laboratory wing. It was very quiet there. Their voices echoed. "One of the ovens," said Pete, reaching for the razor. "Bake-ovens? You're crazy!"
Pete chuckled. "You don't know this place, do you? Like everything else on the base, there was a lot more went on here than most people knew about. They kept calling it the bakeshop. Well, it was research headquarters for new high-nutrient flours. But there's lots else here. We tested utensils and designed vegetable-peelers and all sorts of things like that. There's an electric furnace in there that—" He pushed open a door.
They crossed a long, quiet, cluttered room to the thermal equipment. We can do everything here from annealing glass, through glazing ceramics, to finding the melting point of frying pans." He clicked a switch tentatively. A pilot light glowed. He swung open a small, heavy door and set the razor inside. "Kiss it goodbye. In twenty minutes it'll be a puddle."
"I want to see that," said Sonny. "Can I look around until it's cooked?"
They walked through the laboratories. Beautifully equipped they were, and too quiet. Once they passed a major who was bent over a complex electronic hook-up on one of the benches. He was watching a little amber light flicker, and he did not return their salute. They tip-toed past him, feeling awed at his absorption, envying it. They saw the models of the automatic kneaders, the vitaminizers, the remote signal thermostats and timers and controls.
"What's in there?"
"I dunno. I'm over the edge of my territory. I don't think there's anybody left for this section. They were mostly mechanical and electronic theoreticians. Hey!"
Sonny followed the pointing hand. "What?"
"That wall-section. It's loose, or—well, what do you know!"
He pushed at the section of wall which was very slightly out of line. There was a dark space beyond.
"What's in there?'
"Nothing, or some semi-private hush-hush job. These guys used to get away with murder," Sonny said, with an uncharacteristic flash of irony, "Isn't that the Army theoretician's business?"
Cautiously they peered in, then entered.
"Wh—heyl The door!"
It swung swiftly and quietly shut. The soft click of the latch was accompanied by a blaze of light.
The room was small and windowless. It contained machinery—a "trickle" charger, a bank of storage batteries, an electric-powered dynamo, two small self-starting gas-driven light plants and a diesel complete with sealed compressed-air starting cylinders. In the corner was a relay rack with its panel-bolts spot-welded. Protruding from it was a red-topped lever.
They looked at the equipment wordlessly for a time and then Sonny said, "Somebody wanted to make awful sure he had power for something."
"Now, I wonder what—" Pete walked over to the relay rack. He looked at the lever without touching it. It was wired up; behind the handle, on the wire, was a folded tag. He opened it cautiously. "To be used only on specific orders of the Commanding Officer."
"Give it a yank and see what happens."
Something clicked behind them. They whirled. "What was that?"
"Seemed to come from that rig beside the door."
They approached it cautiously. There was a spring-loaded solenoid attached to a bar which was hinged to drop across the inside of the secret door, where it would fit into steel gudgeons on the panel. It clicked again.
"A Geiger counter," said Pete disgustedly.
"Now why," mused Sonny, "would they design a door to stay locked unless the general radioactivity went beyond a certain point? That's what it is. See the relays? And the over-load switch there? And this?"
"It has a manual lock, too," Pete pointed out. The counter clicked again. "Let's get out of here: I got one of those things built into my head these days."
The door opened easily. They went out, closing it behind them. The keyhole was cleverly concealed in the crack between two boards.
They were silent as they made their way back to the QM labs. The small thrill of violation was gone.
Back at the furnace, Pete glanced at the temperature dial, then kicked the latch control. The pilot winked out, and then the door swung open. They blinked and started back from the raging heat within. They bent and peered. The razor was gone. A pool of brilliance lay on the floor of the compartment.
"Ain't much left. Most of it oxidized away," Pete grunted.
They stood together for a time with their faces lit by the small shimmering ruin. Later, as they walked back to the barracks, Sonny broke his long silence with a sigh. "I'm glad we did that, Pete. I'm awful glad we did that."
At a quarter to eight they were waiting before the combination console in the barracks. All hands except Pete and Sonny and a wiry-haired, thick-set corporal named Bonze had, elected to see the show on the big screen in the mess-hall. The reception was better there of course, but, as Bonze put it. "You don't get close enough in a big place like that."
"I hope she's the same," said Sonny, half to himself.
Why should she be? thought Pete morosely as he turned on the set and watched the screen begin to glow. There were many more of the golden speckles that had killed reception for the past two weeks . . . Why should anything be the same, ever again?
He fought a sudden temptation to kick the set to pieces. It, and Starr Anthim, were part of something that was dead. The country was dead, a once real country—prosperous, sprawling, laughing, grabbing, growing, and changing, mostly healthy, leprous in spots with poverty and injustice, but systemically healthy enough to overcome any ill. He wondered how the murderers would like it. They were welcome to it, now. Nowhere to go. No one to fight. That was true for every soul on earth now.
"You hope she's the same," he muttered.
"The show, I mean," said Sonny mildly. "I'd like to just sit here and have it like—like—"
Oh, thought Pete mistily. Oh—that. Somewhere to go, that's what it is, for a few minutes ... "I know," he said, all the harshness gone from his voice.
Noise receded from the audio as the carrier swept in. The light on the screen swirled and steadied into a diamond pattern. Pete adjusted the focus, chromic balance and intensity. "Turn out the lights, Bonze. I don't want to see anything but Starr Anthim."
It was the same, at first. Starr Anthim had never used the usual fanfares, fade-ins, color and clamor of her contemporaries. A black screen, then click! a blaze of gold. It was all there, in focus; tremendously intense, it did not change. Rather, the eye changed to take it in. She never moved for seconds after she came on; she was there, a portrait, a still face and a white throat. Her eyes were open and sleeping. Her face was alive and still.
Then, in the eyes which seemed green but were blue flecked with gold, an awareness seemed to gather, and they came awake. Only then was it noticeable that her lips were parted. Something in the eyes made the lips be seen, though nothing moved yet. Not until she bent her bead slowly, so that some of the gold flecks seemed captured in the golden brows. The eyes were not, then, looking out at an audience. They were looking at me, and at me, and at ME.
"Hello—you," she said. She was a dream, with a kid sister's slightly irregular teeth.
Bonze shuddered. The cot on which he lay began to squeak rapidly. Sonny shifted in annoyance. Pete reached out in the dark and caught the leg of the cot. The squeaking subsided.
"May I sing a song?" Starr asked. There was music, very faint. "It's an old one, and one of the best. It's an easy song, a deep song, one that comes from the part of men and women that is mankind—the part that has in it no greed, no hate, no fear. This song is about joyousness and strength. It's—my favorite. Is it yours?"
The music swelled. Pete recognized the first two notes of the introduction and swore quietly. This was wrong. This song was not for—this song was part of…
Sonny sat raptly. Bonze lay still.
Starr Anthim began to sing. Her voice was deep and powerful, but soft, with the merest touch of vibrato at the, ends of the phrases. The song flowed from her, without noticeable effort, seeming to come from her face, her long hair, her wide-set eyes. Her voice, like her face, was shadowed and clean, round, blue and green but mostly gold.
When you gave me your heart, you gave me the world,
You gave me the night and the day,
And thunder, and roses, and sweet green grass,
The sea, and soft wet clay.
I drank the dawn from a golden cup,
From a silver one, the dark,
The steed I rode was the wild west wind,
My song was the brook and the lark.
The music spiraled, caroled, slid into a somber cry of muted hungry sixths and ninths; rose, blared, and cut, leaving her voice full and alone:
With thunder I smote the evil of earth,
With roses I won the right,
With the sea I washed, and with clay I built,
And the world was a place of light!
The last note left a face perfectly composed again, and there was no movement in it; it was sleeping and vital while the music curved off and away to the places where music rests when it is not heard.
"It's so easy," she said. "So simple. All that is fresh and clean and strong about mankind is in that song, and I think that's all that need concern us about mankind." She leaned forward. "Don't you see?"
The smiled faded and was replaced with a gentle wonder. A tiny furrow appeared between her brows; she drew back quickly. "I can't seem to talk to you tonight," she said, her voice small. "You hate something."
Hate was shaped like a monstrous mushroom. Hate was the random speckling of a video plate.
"What has happened to us," said Starr abruptly, impersonally, "is simple too. It doesn't matter who did it--do you understand that? It doesn't matter. We were attacked. We were struck from the east and from the west. Most of the bombs were atomic—there were blast-bombs and there were dust-bombs. We were hit by about five hundred and thirty bombs altogether, and it has killed us."
Sonny's fist smacked into his palm. Bonze lay with his eyes open, quiet. Pete's jaws hurt.
"We have more bombs than both of them put together. We have them. We are not going to use them. Wait!" She raised her hands suddenly, as if she could see into each man's face. They sank back, tense.
"So saturated is the atmosphere with Carbon Fourteen that all of us in this hemisphere are going to die. Don't be afraid to say it. Don't be afraid to think it. It is a truth, and it must be faced. As the transmutation effect spreads from the ruins of our cities, the air will become increasingly radioactive, and then we must die. In months, in a year or so, the effect will be strong overseas. Most of the people there will die too. None will escape completely. A worse thing will come to them than anything they have given us, because there will be a wave of horror and madness which is impossible to us. We are merely going to die. They will live and burn and sicken, and the children that will be born to them—" She shook her head, and her lower lip grew full. She visibly pulled herself together.
"Five hundred and thirty bombs . . . I don't think either of our attackers knew just how strong the other was. There has been so much secrecy." Her voice was sad. She shrugged slightly. "They have killed us, and they have ruined themselves. As for us—we' are not blameless, either. Neither are we helpless to do anything yet. But what we must do is hard. We must die—without striking back."
She gazed briefly at each man in turn, from the screen. "We must not strike back. Mankind is about to go through a hell of his own making. We can be vengeful—or merciful, if you like—and let go with the hundreds of bombs we have. That would sterilize the planet so that not a microbe, not a blade of grass could escape, and nothing new could grow. We would reduce the earth to a bald thing, dead and deadly.
"No—it just won't do. We can't do it.
"Remember the song? That is humanity. That's in all humans. A disease made other humans our enemies for a time, but as the generations march past, enemies become friends and friends enemies. The enmity of those who have killed us is such a tiny, temporary thing in the long sweep of history!"
Her voice deepened. "Let us die with the knowledge that we have done the one noble thing left to us. The spark of humanity can still live and grow on this planet. It will be blown and drenched, shaken and all but extinguished, but it will live if that song is a true one. It will live if we are human enough to discount the fact that the spark is in the custody of our temporary enemy. Some—a few—of his children will live to merge with the new humanity that will gradually emerge from the jungles and the wilderness. Perhaps there will be ten thousand years of beastliness; perhaps man will be able to rebuild while he still has his ruins."
She raised her head, her voice tolling. "And even if this is the end of humankind, we dare not take away the chances some other life-form might have to succeed where we failed. If we retaliate, there will not be a dog, a deer, an ape, a bird or fish or lizard to carry the evolutionary torch. In the name of justice, if we must condemn and destroy ourselves, let us not condemn all other life along with us! Mankind is heavy enough with sins. If we must destroy, let us stop with destroying ourselves!"
There was a shimmering flicker of music. It seemed to stir her hair like a breath of wind. She smiled.
"That's all," she whispered. And to each man listening she said, "Good night ... "
The screen went black. As the carrier cut off (there was no announcement) the ubiquitous speckles began to swarm across it.
Pete rose and switched on the lights. Bonze and Sonny were quite still. It must have been minutes later when Sonny sat up straight, shaking himself like a puppy. Something besides the silence seemed to tear with the movement.
He said, softly, "You're not allowed to fight anything, or to run away, or to live, and now you can't even hate any more, because Starr says no."
There was bitterness in the sound of it, and a bitter smell to the air.
Pete Mawser sniffed once, which had nothing to do with the smell. He sniffed again. "What's that smell, Son?"
Sonny tested it. "I don't— Something familiar. Vanilla—no . . . No."
"Almonds. Bitter— Bonze!"
Bonze lay still with his eyes open, grinning. His jaw muscles were knotted, and they could see almost all his teeth. He was soaking wet.
"It was just when she came on and said 'Hello—you remember?" whispered Pete. "Oh, the poor kid. That's why he wanted to catch the show here instead of in the mess-hall."
"Went out looking at her," said Sonny through pale lips. "I—can't say I blame him much. Wonder where he got the stuff."
"Never mind that!" Pete's voice was harsh. "Let's get out of here."
They left to call the ambulance. Bonze lay watching the console with his dead eyes and his smell of bitter almonds.
Pete did not realize where he was going, or exactly why, until he found himself on the dark street near GHQ and the communications shack, reflecting that it might be nice to be able to hear Starr, and see her, whenever he felt like it. Maybe there weren't any recordings; yet her musical background was recorded, and the signal corps might have recorded the show.
He stood uncertainly outside the GHQ building. There was a cluster of men outside the main entrance. Pete smiled briefly. Rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor gloom of night could stay the stage-door Johnnie.
He went down the side street and up the delivery ramp in the back. Two doors along the platform was the rear exit of the Communications section.
There was a light on in the communications shack. He had his hand out to the screen door when he noticed someone standing in the shadows beside it. The light played daintily on the golden margins of a head and face.
He stopped. "S—Starr Anthim!"
"Hello, soldier. Sergeant."
He blushed like an adolescent. "I—" His voice left him. He swallowed, reached up to whip off his hat. He had no hat. "I saw the show," he said. He felt clumsy. It was dark, and yet he was very conscious of the fact that his dress-shoes were indifferently shined.
She moved toward him into the light, and she was so beautiful that he had to close his eyes. "What's your name?"
"Mawser. Pete Mawser."
"Like the show?"
Not looking at her, he said stubbornly, "No."
"I mean—I liked it some. The song."
"I—think I see."
"I wondered if I could maybe get a recording."
"I think so," she said. "What kind of reproducer have you got?"
"A disc. Yes; we dubbed off a few. Wait, I'll get you one."
She went inside, moving slowly. Pete watched her, spellbound. She was a silhouette, crowned and haloed; and then she was a framed picture, vivid and golden. He waited, watching the light hungrily. She returned with a large envelope, called good night to someone inside, and came out on the platform.
"Here you are, Pete Mawser."
"Thanks very—" he mumbled. He went his lips. "It was very good of you."
"Not really. The more it circulates, the better." She laughed suddenly. "That isn't meant quite as it sounds. I'm not exactly looking for new publicity these days."
The stubbornness came back. "I don't know that you'd get it, if you put on that show in normal times."
Her eyebrows went up. "Well!" she smiled. "I seem to have made quite an impression."
“I'm sorry," he said warmly. "I shouldn't have taken that tack. Everything I think and say these days is exaggerated."
"I know what you mean." She looked around. "How is it here?"
"It's okay. I used to be bothered by the secrecy, and being buried miles away from civilization." He chuckled bitterly. "Turned out to be lucky after all."
"You sound like the first chapter of One World or None." He looked up quickly. "What do you use for a reading list —the Government's own Index Expurgatorius?"
She laughed. "Come now, it isn't as bad as all that. The book was never banned. It was just—"
"Unfashionable," he filled in.
"Yes, more's the pity. If people had paid more attention to it in the 'forties, perhaps this wouldn't have happened." He followed her gaze to the dimly pulsating sky. "How long are you going to be here?"
"Until—as long as—I'm not leaving."
"I'm finished," she said simply. "I've covered all the ground I can. I've been everywhere that ... anyone knows about."
"With this show?"
She nodded. "With this particular message."
He was quiet, thinking. She turned to the door, and he put out his hand, not touching her. "Please—"
"What is it?"
"I'd like to—I mean, if you don't mind, I don't often have a chance to talk to—maybe you'd like to walk around a little before you turn in."
"Thanks, no, Sergeant. I'm tired." She did sound tired. "I'll see you around."
He stared at her, a sudden fierce light in his brain. "I know where it is. It's got a red-topped lever and a tag referring to orders of the commanding officer. It's really camouflaged."
She was quiet so long that he thought she had not heard him. Then, "I'll take that walk."
They went down the ramp together and turned toward the dark parade ground.
"How did you know?" she asked quietly.
"Not too tough. This `message' of yours; the fact that you've been all over the country with it; most of all, the fact that somebody finds it necessary to persuade us not to strike back. Who are you working for?" he asked bluntly.
Surprisingly, she laughed.
"What's that for?"
"A moment ago you were blushing and shuffling your feet."
His voice was rough. "I wasn't talking to a human being. I was talking to a thousand songs I've heard, and a hundred thousand blonde pictures I've seen pinned up. You'd better tell me what this is all about."
She stopped. "Let's go up and see the colonel."
He took her elbow. "No. I'm just a sergeant, and he's high brass, and that doesn't make any difference at all now. You're a human being, and so am I, and I'm supposed to respect your rights as such. I don't. You'd better tell me about it."
"All right," she said, with a tired acquiescence that frightened something inside him. "You seem to have guessed right, though. It's true. There are master firing keys for the launching sites. We have located and dismantled all but two. It's very likely that one of the two was vaporized. The other one is—lost."
"I don't have to tell you about the secrecy," she said. "You know how it developed between nation and nation. You must know that it existed between State and Union, between department and department, office and office. There were only three or four men who knew where all the keys were. Three of them were in the Pentagon when it went up. That was the third blast-bomb, you know. If there was another, it could only have been Senator Vanercook, and he died three weeks ago without talking."
"An automatic radio key, hm?"
"That's right. Sergeant, must we walk? I'm so tired."
"I'm sorry," he said impulsively. They crossed to the reviewing stand and sat on the lonely benches. "Launching racks all over, all hidden, and all armed?"
"Most of them are armed. There's a timing mechanism in them that will disarm them in a year or so. But in the meantime, they are armed—and aimed."
"It doesn't matter."
"I think I see. What's the optimum number again?" "About six hundred and forty; a "few more or less. At least five hundred and thirty have been thrown so far. We don't know exactly."
"Who are we?" he asked furiously.
"Who? Who?" She laughed weakly. "I could say, 'The Government,' perhaps. If the President dies, the Vice-President takes over, and then the Secretary of State, and so on and on. How far can you go? Pete Mawser, don't you realize yet what's happened?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"How many people do you think are left in this country?" "I don't know. Just a few million, I guess."
"How many are here?"
"About nine hundred."
"Then, as far as I know, this is the largest city left."
He leaped to his feet. "No!" The syllable roared away from him, hurled itself against the dark, empty buildings, came back to him in a series of lower-case echoes: nononono. . .no-no.
Starr began to speak rapidly, quietly. "They're scattered all over the fields and the roads. They sit in the sun and die. They run in packs, they tear at each other. They pray and starve and kill themselves and die in the fires. The fires—everywhere, if anything stands, it's burning. Summer, and the leaves all down in the Berkshires, and the blue grass burnt brown; you can see the grass dying from the air, the death going out wider and wider from the bald-spots. Thunder and roses. . . . I saw roses, new ones, creeping from the smashed pots of a greenhouse. Brown petals, alive and sick, and the thorns turned back on themselves, growing into the stems, killing. Feldman died tonight."
He let her be quiet for a time. Then:
"Who is Feldman?"
"My pilot." She was talking hollowly into her hands. "He's been dying for weeks. He's been on his nerve-ends. I don't think he had any blood left. He buzzed your GHQ and made for the landing strip. He came in with the motor dead, free rotors, giro. Smashed the landing gear. He was dead, too. He killed a man in Chicago so he could steal gas. The man didn't want the gas. There was a dead girl by the pump. He didn't want us to go near. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay here. I'm tired."
At last she cried.
Pete left her alone, and walked out to the center of the parade ground, looking back at the faint huddled glimmer on the bleachers. His mind flickered over the show that evening, and the way she had sung before the merciless transmitter. "Hello, you." "If we must destroy, let us stop with destroying ourselves!"
The dimming spark of humankind . . . what could it mean to her? How could it mean so much?
"Thunder and roses." Twisted, sick, non-survival roses, killing themselves with their own thorns.
"And the world was a place of light!" Blue light, flickering in the contaminated air.
The enemy. The red-topped lever. Bonze. "They pray and starve and kill themselves and die in the fires."
What creatures were these, these corrupted, violent, murdering humans? What right had they to another chance? What was in them that was good?
Starr was good. Starr was crying. Only a human being could cry like that. Starr was a human being.
Had humanity anything of Starr Anthim in it? Starr was a human being.
He looked down through the darkness for his hands. No planet, no universe, is greater to a man than his own ego, his own observing self. These hands were the hands of all history, and like the hands of all men, they could by their small acts make human history or end it. Whether this power of hands was that of a billion hands, or whether it came to a focus in these two—this was suddenly unimportant to the eternities which now enfolded him.
He put humanity's hands deep in his pockets and walked slowly back to the bleachers.
She remanded with a sleepy-child, interrogative whimper.
"They'll get their chance, Starr. I won't touch the key."
She sat straight. She rose, and came to him, smiling. He could see her smile, because, very faintly in this air, her teeth fluoresced. She put her hands on his shoulders. "Pete."
He held her very close for a moment. Her knees buckled then, and he had to carry her.
There was no one in the Officers' Club, which was the nearest building. He stumbled in, moved clawing along the wall until he found a switch. The light hurt him. He carried her to a settee and put her down gently. She did not move. One side of her face was as pale as milk.
He stood looking stupidly at it, wiped it on the sides of his trousers, looking dully at Starr. There was blood on her shirt.
A doctor . . . but there was no doctor. Not since Anders had hanged himself. "Get somebody," he muttered. "Do something."
He dropped to his knees and gently unbuttoned her shirt. Between the sturdy, unfeminine GI bra and the top of her slacks, there was blood on her side. He whipped out a clean handkerchief and began to wipe it away. There was no wound, no puncture. But abruptly there was blood again. He blotted it carefully. And again there was blood.
It was like trying to dry a piece of ice with a towel.
He ran to the water cooler, wrung out the bloody handkerchief and ran back to her. He bathed her face carefully, the pale right side, the flushed left side. The handkerchief reddened again, this time with cosmetics, and then her face was pale all over, with great blue shadows under the eyes. While he watched, blood appeared on her left cheek.
"There must be somebody—" He fled to the door. "Pete!"
Running, turning at the sound of her voice, he hit the doorpost stunningly, caromed off, flailed for his balance, and then was back at her side. "Starr! Hang on, now! I'll get a doctor as quick as—"
Her hand strayed over her left cheek. "You found out. Nobody else knew, but Feldman. It got hard to cover properly." Her hand went up to her hair.
"Starr, I'll get a—"
"Pete, darling, promise me something?"
"Why, sure; certainly, Starr."
"Don't disturb my hair. It isn't—all mine, you see." She sounded like a seven-year-old, playing a game. "It all came out on this side. I don't want you to see me that way."
He was on his knees beside her again. "What is it? What happened to you?" he asked hoarsely.
"Philadelphia," she murmured. "Right at the beginning. The mushroom went up a half-mile away. The studio caved in. I came to the next day. I didn't know I was burned, then. It didn't show. My left side. It doesn't matter, Pete. It doesn't hurt at all, now."
He sprang to his feet again. "I'm going for a doctor." "Don't go away. Please don't go away and leave me. Please don't." There were tears in her eyes. "Wait just a little while. Not very long, Pete."
He sank to his knees again. She gathered both his hands in hers and held them tightly. She smiled happily. "You're good, Pete. You're so good."
(She couldn't hear the blood in his ears, the roar of the whirlpool of hate and fear and anguish that spun inside of him.)
She talked to him in a low voice, and then in whispers. Sometimes he hated himself because he couldn't quite follow her. She talked about school, and her first audition. "I was so scared that I got a vibrato in my voice. I'd never had one before. I always let myself get a little scared when I sing now. It's easy." There was something about a window-box when she was four years old. "Two real live tulips and a pitcher-plant. I used to be sorry for the flies."
There was a long period of silence after that, during which his muscles throbbed with cramp and stiffness, and gradually became numb. He must have dozed; he awoke with a violent start, feeling her fingers on his face. She was propped up on one elbow. She said clearly. "I just wanted to tell you, darling. Let me go first, and get everything ready for you. It's going to be wonderful. I'll fix you a special tossed salad. I'll make you a steamed chocolate pudding and keep it hot for you."
Too muddled to understand what she was saying, he smiled and pressed her back on the settee. She took his hands again.
The next time he awoke it was broad daylight, and she was dead.
Sonny Weisefreund was sitting on his cot when he got back to the barracks. He handed over the recording he had picked up from the parade ground on the way back. "Dew on it. Dry it off. Good boy," he croaked, and fell face downward on the cot Bonze had used.
Sonny stared at him. "Pete! Where you been? What happened? Are you all right?"
Pete shifted a little and grunted. Sonny shrugged and took the audiovid disc out of its wet envelope. Moisture would not harm it particularly, though it could not be played while wet. It was made of a fine spiral of plastic, insulated between laminations. Electrostatic pickups above and below the turn-table would fluctuate with changes in the dielectric constant which had been impressed by the recording, and these changes were amplified for the scanners. The audio was a conventional hill-and-dale needle. Sonny began to wipe it down carefully.
Pete fought upward out of a vast, green-lit place full of flickering cold fires. Starr was calling him. Something was punching him, too. He fought weakly, trying to hear what she was saying. But someone else was jabbering too loud for him to hear.
He opened his eyes. Sonny was shaking him, his round face pink with excitement. The Audiovid was running. Starr was talking. Sonny got up impatiently and turned down the volume. "Pete! Pete! Wake up, will you? I got to tell you something. Listen to me! Wake up, will yuh?"
"That's better. Now listen. I've just been listening to Starr Anthim—"
"She's dead," said Pete.
Sonny didn't hear. He went on, explosively, "I've figured it out. Starr was sent out here, and all over, to beg someone not to fire any more atom bombs. If the government was sure they wouldn't strike back, they wouldn't've taken the trouble. Somewhere, Pete, there's some way to launch bombs at those murdering cowards—and I've got a pretty shrewd idea of how to do it."
Pete strained groggily toward the faint sound of Starr's voice. Sonny talked on. "Now, s'posing there was a master radio key—an automatic code device something like the alarm signal they have on ships, that rings a bell on any ship within radio range when the operator sends four long dashes. Suppose there's an automatic code machine to launch bombs, with repeaters, maybe, buried all over the country. What would it be? Just a little lever to pull; that's all. How would the thing be hidden? In the middle of a lot of other equipment, that's where; in some place where you'd expect to find crazy-looking secret stuff. Like an experiment station. Like right here. You beginning to get the idea?"
"Shut up, I can't hear her."
"The hell with her! You can listen to her some other time. You didn't hear a thing I said!"
"Yeah. Well, I figure I'll pull that handle. What can I lose? It'll give those murderin'—what?"
"Dead? Starr Anthim?" His young face twisted, Sonny sank down to the cot. "You're half asleep. You don't know what you're saying."
"She's dead," Pete said hoarsely. "She got burned by one of the first bombs. I was with her when she—she— Shut up now and get out of here and let me listen!" he bellowed hoarsely.
Sonny stood up slowly. "They killed her, too. They killed her! That does it. That just fixes it up." His face was white. He went out.
Pete got up. His legs weren't working right. He almost fell. He brought up against the console with a crash, his out-flung arm sending the pickup skittering across the record. He put it on again and turned up the volume, then lay down to listen.
His head was all mixed up. Sonny talked too much. Bomb launchers, automatic code machines…
"You gave me your heart," sang Starr. "You gave me your heart. You gave me your heart. You ... "
Pete heaved himself up again and moved the pickup arm. Anger, not at himself, but at Sonny for causing him to cut the disc that way, welled up.
Starr was talking, stupidly, her face going through the same expression over and over again. "Struck from the east , and from the struck from the east and from the ..." He got up again wearily and moved the pickup. "You gave me your heart you gave me ... "
Pete made an agonized sound that was not a word at all, bent, lifted, and sent the console crashing over. In the bludgeoning silence he said, "I did, too."
Then, "Sonny." He waited.
His eyes went wide then, and he cursed and bolted for the corridor.
The panel was closed when he reached it. He kicked at it. It flew open, discovering darkness.
"Hey!" bellowed Sonny. "Shut it! You turned off the lights!"
Pete shut it behind them. The lights blazed.
"Pete! What's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter, Son," croaked Pete.
"What are you looking at?" said Sonny uneasily.
"I'm sorry," said Pete as gently as he could. "I just wanted to find something out, is all. Did you tell anyone else about this?" He pointed to the lever.
“Why, no. I only just figured it out while you were sleeping, just now."
Pete looked around carefully, while Sonny shifted his weight. Pete moved toward the tool-rack. "Something you haven't noticed yet, Sonny," he said softly, and pointed. "Up there, on the wall behind you. High up. See?"
Sonny turned. In one fluid movement Pete plucked off a fourteen-inch box wrench and hit Sonny with it as hard as he could.
Afterward he went to work systematically on the power supplies. He pulled the plugs on the gas-engines and cracked their cylinders with a maul. He knocked off the tubing of the diesel starters—the tanks let go explosively—and he cut all the cables with bolt-cutters. Then he broke up the relay rack and its lever. When he was quite finished, he put away his tools and bent and stroked Sonny's tousled hair.
He went out and closed the partition carefully. It certainly was a wonderful piece of camouflage. He sat down heavily on a workbench nearby.
"You'll have your chance," he said into the far future. "And, by Heaven, you'd better make good."
After that he just waited.
by T. L. Sherred
THE CAPTAIN WAS MET AT THE AIPORT BY A STAFF CAR. LONG and fast it sped. In a narrow, silent room the general sat, ramrod-backed, tense. The major waited at the foot of the gleaming steps shining frostily in the night air. Tires screamed to a stop and together the captain and the major raced up the steps. No words of greeting were spoken. The general stood quickly, hand outstretched. The captain ripped open a dispatch case and handed over a thick bundle of papers. The general flipped them over eagerly and spat a sentence at the major. The major disappeared and his harsh voice rang curtly down the outside hall. The man with glasses came in and the general handed him the papers. With jerky fingers the man with glasses sorted them out. With a wave from the general the captain left, a proud smile on his weary young face. The general tapped his fingertips on the black glossy surface of the table. The man with glasses pushed aside crinkled maps, and began to read aloud.
I started this just to kill time, because I got tired of just looking out the window. But when I got almost to the end I began to catch the trend of what's going on. You're the only one I know that can come through for me, and when you finish this you'll know why you must.
I don't know who will get this to you. Whoever it is won't want you to identify a face later. Remember that, and please, Joe—hurry!
It all started because I'm lazy. By the time I'd shaken off the sandman and checked out of the hotel every seat in the bus was full. I stuck my bag in a dime locker and went out to kill the hour I had until the bus left. You know the bus terminal: right across from the Book-Cadillac and the Statler, on Washington Boulevard near Michigan Avenue. Michigan Avenue. Like Main in Los Angeles, or maybe Sixty-third in its present state of decay in Chicago, where I was going. Cheap movies, pawnshops and bars by the dozens, a penny arcade or two, restaurants that feature hamburg steak, bread and butter and coffee for forty cents. Before the War, a quarter.
I like pawnshops. I like cameras, I like tools, I like to look in windows crammed with everything from electric razors to sets of socket wrenches to upper plates. So, with an hour to spare, I walked out Michigan to Sixth and back on the other side of the street. There are a lot of Chinese and Mexicans around that part of town, the Chinese running the restaurants and the Mexicans eating Southern Home Cooking. Between Fourth and Fifth, I stopped to stare at what passed for a movie. Store windows painted black, amateurish signs extolling in Spanish "Detroit premiere . . . cast of thousands .. . this week only . . . ten cents—" The few 8x10 glossy stills pasted on the windows were poor blowups, spotty and wrinkled; pictures of mailed cavalry and what looked like a good sized battle. All for ten cents. Right down my alley.
Maybe it's lucky that history was my major in school. Luck it must have been, certainly not cleverness, that made me pay a dime for a seat in an undertaker's rickety folding chair imbedded solidly—although the only other customers were a half-dozen Sons of the Order of Tortilla—in a cast of second-hand garlic. I sat near the door. A couple of hundred watt bulbs dangling naked from the ceiling gave enough light for me to look around. In front of me, in the rear of the store, was the screen, what looked like a white-painted sheet of beaverboard, and when over my shoulder I saw the battered sixteen millimeter projector I began to think that even a dime was no bargain. Still, I had forty minutes to wait.
Everyone was smoking. I lit a cigarette and the discouraged Mexican who had taken my dime locked the door and turned off the lights, after giving me a long, questioning look. I'd paid my dime, so I looked right back. In a minute the old projector started clattering. No film credits, no producer's name, no director, just a tentative flicker before a closeup of a bewhiskered mug labeled Cortez. Then a painted and feathered Indian with the title of Guatemotzin, successor to Montezuma; an aerial shot of a beautiful job of model-building tagged Ciudad de Mejico, 1521. Shots of old muzzleloaded artillery banging away, great walls spurting stone splinters under direct fire, skinny Indians dying violently with the customary gyrations, smoke and haze and blood. The photography sat me right up straight. It had none of the scratches and erratic cuts that characterize an old print, none of the fuzziness, none of the usual mugging at the camera by the handsome hero. There wasn't any handsome hero. Did you ever see one of these French pictures, or a Russian, and comment on the reality and depth brought out by working on a small budget that can't afford famed actors? This, what there was of it, was as good, or better.
It wasn't until the picture ended with a pan shot of a dreary desolation that I began to add two and two. You can't, for pennies, really have a cast of thousands, or sets big enough to fill Central Park. A mockup, even, of a thirty-foot wall costs enough to irritate the auditors, and there had been a lot of wall. That didn't fit with the bad editing and lack of wound track, not unless the picture had been made in the old silent days. And I knew it hadn't by the color tones you get with pan film. It looked like a well-rehearsed and badly-planned newsreel.
The Mexicans were easing out and I followed them to where the discouraged one was rewinding the reel. I asked him where he got the print.
"I haven't heard of any epics from the press agents lately, and it looks like a fairly recent print."
He agreed that it was recent, and added that he'd made it himself. I was polite to that, and he saw that I didn't believe him and straightened up from the projector.
"You don't believe that, do you?" I said that I certainly did, and I had to catch a bus. "Would you mind telling me why, exactly why?" I said that the bus— "I mean it. I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me just what's wrong with it."
"There's nothing wrong with it," I told him. He waited for me to go on. "Well, for one thing, pictures like that aren't made for the sixteen millimeter trade. You've got a reduction from a thirty-five millimeter master," and I gave him a few of the other reasons that separate home movies from Hollywood. When I finished he smoked quietly for a minute.
"I see." He took the reel off the projector spindle and closed the case. "I have beer in the back." I agreed beer sounded good, but the bus—well, just one. From in back of the beaver-board screen he brought paper cups and a Jumbo bottle. With a whimsical "Business suspended" he closed the open door and opened the bottle with an opener screwed on the wall. The store had likely been a grocery or restaurant. There were plenty of chairs. Two we shoved around and relaxed companionably. The beer was warm.
"You know something about this line," tentatively.
I took it as a question and laughed. "Not too much. Here's mud," and we drank. "Used to drive a truck for the Film Exchange." He was amused at that.
"Stranger in town?"
"Yes and no. Mostly yes. Sinus trouble chased me out and relatives bring me back. Not any more, though; my father's funeral was last week." He said that was too bad, and I said it wasn't. "He had sinus, too." That was a joke, and he refilled the cups. We talked awhile about Detroit climate.
Finally he said, rather speculatively, "Didn't I see you around here last night? Just about eight." He got up and went after more beer.
I called after him. "No more beer for me." He brought a bottle anyway, and I looked at my watch. "Well, just one." "Was it you?"
"Was it me what?" I held out my paper cup. 'Weren't you around here—"
I wiped foam off my mustache. "Last night? No, but I wish I had. I'd have caught my bus. No, I was in the Motor Bar last night at eight. And I was still there at midnight."
He chewed his lip thoughtfully. "The Motor Bar. Just down the street?" And I nodded. "The Motor Bar. Hm-m-m." I looked at him. "Would you like . . . sure, you would." Before I could figure out what he was talking about he went to the back and from behind the beaverboard screen rolled out a big radio-phonograph and another Jumbo bottle. I held the bottle against the light. Still half full. I looked at my watch. He rolled the radio against the wall and lifted the lid to get at the dials.
"Reach behind you, will you? The switch on the wall." I could reach the switch without getting up, and I did. The lights went out. I hadn't expected that, and I groped at arm's length. Then the lights came on again, and I turned back, relieved. But the lights weren't on; I was looking at the street!
Now, all this happened while I was dripping beer and trying to keep my balance on a tottering chair—the street moved, I didn't and it was day and it was night and I was in front of the Book-Cadillac and I was going into the Motor Bar and I was watching myself order a beer and I knew I was wide awake and not dreaming. In a panic I scrabbled off the floor, shedding chairs and beer like an umbrella while I ripped my nails feeling frantically for that light switch. By the time I found it—and all the while I was watching myself pound the bar for the barkeep—I was really in fine fettle, just about ready to collapse. Out of thin air right into a nightmare. At last I found the switch.
The Mexican was looking at me with the queerest expression I've ever seen, like he'd baited a mousetrap and caught a frog. Me? I suppose I looked like I'd seen the devil himself. Maybe I had. The beer was all over the floor and I barely made it to the nearest chair.
"What," I managed to get out, "what was that?"
The lid of the radio went down. "I felt like that too, the first time. I'd forgotten."
My fingers were too shaky to get out a cigarette, and I ripped off the top of the package. "I said, what was that?"
He sat down. "That was you, in the Motor Bar, at eight last night." I must have looked blank as he handed me another paper cup. Automatically I held it out to be refilled.
"Look here—" I started.
"I suppose it is a shock. I'd forgotten what I felt like the first time I . . . I don't care much any more. Tomorrow I'm going out to Phillips Radio." That made no sense to me, and I said so. He went on.
"I'm licked. I'm flat broke. I don't give a care any more. I'll settle for cash and live off the royalties." The story came out, slowly at first, then faster until he was pacing the floor. I guess he was tired of having no one to talk to.
His name was Miguel Jose Zapata Laviada. I told him mine; Lefko. Ed Lefko. He was the son of sugar beet workers who had emigrated from Mexico somewhere in the Twenties. They were sensible enough not to quibble when their oldest son left the back-breaking Michigan fields to seize the chance provided by a NYA scholarship. When the scholarship ran out, he'd worked in garages, driven trucks, clerked in stores, and sold brushes door-to-door to exist and learn. The Army cut short his education with the First Draft to make him a radar technician, the Army had given him an honorable discharge and an idea so nebulous as to be almost merely a hunch. Jobs were plentiful then, and it wasn't too hard to end up with enough money to rent a trailer and fill it with Army surplus radio and radar equipment. One year ago he'd finished what he'd started, finished underfed, underweight, and overexcited. But successful, because he had it.
"It" he installed in a radio cabinet, both for ease in handling and for camouflage. For reasons that will become apparent, he didn't dare apply for a patent. I looked "it" over pretty carefully. Where the phonograph turntable and radio controls had been were vernier dials galore. One big one was numbered 1 to 24, a couple were numbered 1 to 60, and there were a dozen or so numbered 1 to 25, plus two or three with no numbers at all. Closest of all it resembled one of these fancy radio or motor testers found in a super super-service station. That was all, except that there was a sheet of heavy plywood hiding whatever was installed in place of the radio chassis and speaker. A perfectly innocent cache for—
Daydreams are swell. I suppose we've all had our share of mental wealth or fame or travel or fantasy. But to sit in a chair and drink warm beer and realize that the dream of ages isn't a dream any more, to feel like a god, to know that just by turning a few dials you can see and watch anything, anybody, anywhere, that has ever happened—it still bothers me once in a while.
I know this much, that it's high frequency stuff. And there's a lot of mercury and copper and wiring of metals cheap and easy to find, but what goes where, or how, least of all, why, is out of my line. Light has mass and energy, and that mass always loses part of itself and can be translated back to electricity, or something. Mike Laviada himself says that what he stumbled on and developed was nothing new, that long before the war it had been observed many times by men like Compton and Michelson and Pfeiffer, who discarded it as a useless laboratory effect. And, of course, that was before atomic research took precedence over everything.
When the first shock wore off—and Mike had to give me another demonstration—I must have made quite a sight. Mike tells me I couldn't sit down. I'd pop up and gallop up and down the floor of that ancient store kicking chairs out of my way or stumbling over them, all the time gobbling out words and disconnected sentences faster than my tongue could trip.
Finally it filtered through that he was laughing at me. I didn't see where it was any laughing matter, and I prodded him. He began to get angry.
"I know what I have," he snapped. "I'm not the biggest fool in the world, as you seem to think. Here, watch this," and he went back to the radio. "Turn out the light." I did, and there I was watching myself at the Motor Bar again, a lot happier this time. "Watch this."
The bar backed away. Out in the street, two blocks down to the City Hall. Up the steps to the Council Room. No one there. Then Council was in session, then they were gone again. Not a picture, not a projection of a lantern slide, but a slice of life about twelve feet square. If we were close, the field of view was narrow. If we were further away, the background was just as much in focus as the foreground. The images, if you want to call them images, were just as real, just as lifelike as looking in the doorway of a room. Real they were, three-dimensional, stopped by only the back wall or the distance in the background. Mike was talking as he spun the dials, but I was too engrossed to pay much attention.
I yelped and grabbed and closed my eyes as you would if you were looking straight down with nothing between you and the ground except a lot of smoke and a few clouds. I winked my eyes open almost at the ends of what must have been a long racing vertical dive, and there I was, looking at the street again.
"Go any place up the Heaviside Layer, go down as deep as any hole, anywhere, any time." A blur, and the street changed into a glade of sparse pines. "Buried treasure. Sure. Find it, with what?" The trees disappeared and I reached back for the light switch as he dropped the lid of the radio and sat down.
"How are you going to make any money when you haven't got it to start?" No answer to that from me. "I ran an ad in the paper offering to recover lost articles; my first customer was the Law wanting to see my private detective's license. I've seen every big speculator in the country sit in his office buying and selling and making plans; what do you think would happen if I tried to peddle advance market information? I've watched the stock market get shoved up and down while I had barely the money to buy the paper that told me about it. I watched a bunch of Peruvian Indians bury the second ransom of Atuahalpa; I haven't the fare to get to Peru, or the money to buy the tools to dig." He got up and brought two more bottles. He went on. By that time I was getting a few ideas.
"I've watched scribes indite the books that burnt at Alexandria; who would buy, or who would believe me, if I copied one? What would happen if I went over to the Library and told them to rewrite their histories? How many would fight to tie a rope around my neck if they knew I'd watched them steal and murder and take a bath? What sort of a padded cell would I get if I showed up with a photograph of Washington, or Caesar? Or Christ?"
I agreed that it was all probably true, but…
"Why do you think I'm here now? You saw the picture I showed for a dime. A dime's worth, and that's all, because I didn't have the money to buy film or to make the picture as I knew I should." His tongue began to get tangled. He was excited. "I'm doing this because I haven't the money to get the things I need to get the money I'll need—" He was so disgusted he booted a chair halfway across the room. It was easy to see that if I had been around a little later, Phillips Radio would have profited. Maybe I'd have been better off, too.
Now, although always I've been told that I'd never be worth a hoot, no one has ever accused me of being slow for a dollar. Especially an easy one. I saw money in front of me, easy money, the easiest and the quickest in the world. I saw, for a minute, so far in the future with me on top of the heap, that my head reeled and it was hard to breathe.
"Mike," I said, "let's finish that beer and go where we can get some more, and maybe something to eat. We've got a lot of talking to do." So we did.
Beer is a mighty fine lubricant; I have always been a pretty smooth talker, and by the time we left the gin mill I had a pretty good idea of just what Mike had on his mind. By the time we'd shacked up for the night behind that beaverboard screen in the store, we were full-fledged partners. I don't recall our even shaking hands on the deal, but that partnership still holds good. Mike is ace high with me, and I guess it's the other way around, too. That was six years ago; it only took me a year or so to discard some of the corners I used to cut.
Seven days after that, on a Tuesday, I was riding a bus to Grosse Pointe with a full briefcase. Two days after that was riding back from Grosse Pointe in a shiny taxi, with an empty briefcase and a pocketful of folding money. It was easy.
"Mr. Jones--or Smith--or Brown—I'm with Aristocrat Studios, Personal and Candid Portraits. We thought you might like this picture of you and . . . no, this is just a proof. The negative is in our files.... Now, if you're real interested, I'll be back the day after tomorrow with our file ... I'm sure you will, Mr. Jones. Thank you, Mr. Jones...
Dirty? Sure. Blackmail is always dirty. But if I had a wit and family and a good reputation, I'd stick to the roast and forget the Roquefort. Very smelly Roquefort, at that. Mike liked it less than I did. It took some talking, and I had to drag out the old one about the ends justifying the means and they could well afford it, anyway. Besides, if there was a squawk, they'd get the negatives free. Some of them were pretty bad.
So we had the cash; not too much, but enough to start. Before we took the next step there was plenty to decide. There are a lot who earn a living by convincing millions that Sticko soap is better. We had a harder problem than that: we had, first, to make a salable and profitable product, and. second, we had to convince many, many millions that our "Product" was absolutely honest and absolutely accurate. We all know that if you repeat something long enough and loud enough many—or most—will accept it as gospel truth. That called for publicity on an international scale. For the skeptics who know better than to accept advertising, no matter how blatant, we had to use another technique. And since we were going to get certainly only one chance, we had to be right the first time. Without Mike's machine the job would have been impossible; without it the job would have been unnecessary.
A lot of sweat ran under the bridge before we found what we thought—and we still do!—the only workable scheme. We picked the only possible way to enter every mind in the world without a fight; the field of entertainment. Absolute secrecy was imperative, and it was only when we reached the last decimal point that we made a move. We started like this.
First we looked for a suitable building, or Mike did, while I flew east, to Rochester, for a month. The building he rented was an old bank. We had the windows sealed, a flossy office Medalled in the front—the bulletproof glass was my idea—air conditioning, a portable bar, electrical wiring of whatever type Mike's little heart desired, and a blonde secretary who thought she was working for M-E Experimental Laboratories. When I got back from Rochester I took over the job of lisping happy the stone masons and electricians, while Mike tooled around in our suite in the back where he could look out the window at his old store. The last I heard, they were making snake oil there. When the Studio, as we came to call it, was finished, Mike moved in and the blonde settled down to a routine of reading love stories and saying no to all the salesmen that wandered by. I left for Hollywood.
I spent a week digging through the files of Central Casting before I was satisfied, but it took a month of snooping and some under-the-table cash to lease a camera that would use Trucolor film. That took the biggest load from my mind. When I got back to Detroit the big view camera had arrived from Rochester, with a truckload of glass color plates. Ready to go.
We made quite a ceremony of it. We closed the Venetian Minds and I popped the cork on one of the bottles of champagne 1'd bought. The blonde secretary was impressed; all she'd been doing for her salary was to accept delivery of packages and crates and boxes. We had no wine glasses, but we made no fuss about it. Too nervous and excited to drink any more than one bottle, we gave the rest to the blonde and told her to take the rest of the afternoon off. After she left—and I think she was disappointed at breaking up what could have been a good party—we locked up after her, went into the studio itself, locked up again and went to work.
I've mentioned that the windows were sealed. All the inside walls had been painted dull black, and with the high ceiling that went with that old bank lobby, it was impressive. But not gloomy. Midway in the studio was planted the Trucolor camera, loaded and ready. Not much could be seen of Mike's machine, but I knew it was off to the side, set to throw on the back wall. Not on the wall, understand, because the images produced are projected into the air, like the meeting of the rays of two searchlights. Mike lifted the lid and I could see him silhouetted against the tiny lights that lit the dials.
"Well?" he said expectantly.
I felt pretty good just then, right down to my billfold.
"It's all yours, Mike," and a switch ticked over. There he was. There was a youngster, dead twenty-five hundred years, real enough, almost, to touch. Alexander. Alexander of Macedon.
Let's take that first picture in detail. I don't think I can ever forget what happened in the next year or so. First we followed Alexander through his life, from beginning to end. We skipped, of course, the little things he did, jumping ahead days and weeks and years at a time. Then we'd miss him, or find that he'd moved in space. That would mean we'd have to jump back and forth, like the artillery firing bracket or ranging shots, until we found him again. Helped only occasionally by his published lives, we were astounded to realize how much distortion has crept into his life. I often wonder why legends arise about the famous. Certainly their lives are as startling or appalling as fiction. And unfortunately we had to hold closely to the accepted histories. If we hadn't, every professor would have gone into his corner for a hearty sneer. We couldn't take that chance. Not at first.
After we knew approximately what had happened and where, we used our notes to go back to what had seemed a particularly photogenic section and work on that awhile. Eventually we had a fair idea of what we were actually going to film. Then we sat down and wrote an actual script to follow, making allowance for whatever shots we'd have to double in later. Mike used his machine as the projector, and I operated the Trucolor camera at a fixed focus, like taking moving pictures of a movie. As fast as we finished a reel it would go to Rochester for processing, instead of one of the Hollywood outfits that might have done it cheaper. Rochester is so used to horrible amateur stuff that I doubt if anyone ever looks at anything. When the reel was returned we'd run it ourselves to check our choice of scenes and color sense and so on.
For example, we had to show the traditional quarrels with his father, Philip. Most of that we figured on doing with doubles, later. Olympias, his mother, and the fangless snakes she affected, didn't need any doubling, as we used an angle and amount of distance that didn't call for actual conversation. The scene where Alexander rode the bucking horse no one else could ride came out of some biographer's head, but we thought it was so famous we couldn't leave it out. We dubbed the closeups later, and the actual horseman was a young Scythian that hung around the royal stables for his keep. Roxanne was real enough, like the rest of the Persians' wives that Alexander took over. Luckily most of them had enough poundage to look luscious. Philip and Parmenio and the rest of the characters were heavily bearded, which made easy the necessary doubling and dubbing-in the necessary speech. (If you ever saw them shave in those days, you'd know why whiskers were popular.)
The most trouble we had with the interior shots. Smoky wicks in a bowl of lard, no matter how plentiful, are too dim even for fast film. Mike got around that by running the Trucolor camera at a single frame a second, with his machine paced accordingly. That accounts for the startling clarity and depth of focus we got from a lens well stopped down. We had all the time in the world to choose the best possible scenes and camera angles; the best actors in the world, expensive camera booms, or repeated retakes under the most exacting director can't compete with us. We had a lifetime from which to choose.
Eventually we had on film about eighty per cent of what you saw in the finished picture. Roughly we spliced the reels together and sat there entranced at what we had actually done. Even more exciting, even more spectacular than we'd dared to hope, the lack of continuity and sound didn't stop us from realizing that we'd done a beautiful job. We'd done all we could, and the worst was yet to come. So we sent for more champagne and told the blonde we had cause for celebration. She giggled.
"What are you doing in there, anyway?" she asked. "Every salesman who comes to the door wants to know what you're making."
I opened the first bottle. "Just tell them you don't know."
"That's just what I've been telling them. They think I'm awfully dumb." We all laughed at the salesmen.
Mike was thoughtful. "If we're going to do this sort of thing very often, we ought to have some of these fancy hollow-stemmed glasses."
The blonde was pleased with that. "And we could keep them in my bottom drawer." Her nose wrinkled prettily. "These bubbles— You know, this is the only time I've ever had champagne, except at a wedding, and then it was only one glass."
"Pour her another," Mike suggested. "Mine's empty too." I did. "What did you do with those bottles you took home last time?"
A blush and a giggle. "My father wanted to open them, but I told him you said to save it for a special occasion."
By that time I had my feet on her desk. "This is the special occasion, then," I invited. "Have another, Miss . . . what's your first name, anyway? I hate being formal after working hours."
She was shocked. "And you and Mr. Laviada sign my checks every week! It's Ruth."
"Ruth. Ruth." I rolled it around the piercing bubbles, and it sounded all right.
She nodded. "And your name is Edward, and Mr. Laviada's is Migwell. Isn't it?" And she smiled at him.
"MiGELL," he smiled back. "An old Spanish custom. Usually shortened to Mike."
"If you'll hand me another bottle," I offered, "shorten Edward to Ed." She handed it over.
By the time we got to the fourth bottle we were as thick as bugs in a rug. It seems that she was twenty-four, free, white, and single, and loved champagne.
"But," she burbled fretfully, "I wish I knew what you were doing in there all hours of the day and night. I know you're here at night sometimes because I've seen your car out in front."
Mike thought that over. "Well," he said a little unsteadily, "we take pictures." He blinked one eye. "Might even take pictures of you if we were approached properly."
I took over. "We take pictures of models."
"Yes. Models of things and people and what not. Little ones. We make it look like it's real." I think she was a trifle disappointed.
"Well, now I know, and that makes me feel better. I sign all those bills from Rochester and I don't know what I'm signing for. Except that they must be film or something."
"That's just what it is; film and things like that."
"Well, it bothered me—No, there's two more behind the fan.”
Only two more. She had a capacity. I asked her how she would like a vacation. She hadn't thought about a vacation just yet.
I 'told her she'd better start thinking about it. "We're leaving day after tomorrow for Los Angeles, Hollywood."
"The day after tomorrow? Why—"
I reassured her. "You'll get paid just the same. But there's no telling how long we'll be gone, and there doesn't seem to be much use in your sitting around here with nothing to do."
From Mike "Let's have that bottle," and I handed it to him. I went on.
"You'll get your checks just the same. If you want, we'll pay you in advance so—"
I was getting full of champagne, and so were we all. Mike was humming softly to himself, happy as a taco. The blonde, Ruth, was having a little trouble with my left eye. I knew just how she felt, because I was having a little trouble watching where she overlapped the swivel chair. Blue eyes, sooo tall, fuzzy hair. Hm-m-m. All work and no play— She handed me the last bottle.
Demurely she hid a tiny hiccup. "I'm going to save all the corks— No I won't either. My father would want to know what I'm thinking of, drinking with my bosses."
I said it wasn't a good idea to annoy your father. Mike said why fool with bad ideas, when he had a good one. We were interested. Nothing like a good idea to liven things up.
Mike was expansive as the very devil. "Going to Los Angeles."
We nodded solemnly.
"Going to Los Angeles to work."
"Going to work in Los Angeles. What will we do for pretty blonde girl to write letters?"
Awful. No pretty blonde to write letters and drink champagne. Sad case.
"Gotta hire somebody to write letters anyway. Might not be blonde. No blondes in Hollywood. No good ones, anyway. So—"
I saw the wonderful idea, and finished for him. "So we take pretty blonde to Los Angeles to write letters!" What an idea that was! One bottle sooner and its brilliancy would have been dimmed. Ruth bubbled like a fresh bottle and Mike and I sat there, smirking like mad.
"But I can't! I couldn't leave day after tomorrow just like that—!"
Mike was magnificent. "Who said day after tomorrow? Changed our minds. Leave right now."
She was appalled. "Right now! Just like that?"
"Right now. Just like that." I was firm.
"No buts. Right now. Just like that."
"Nothing to wear—"
"Buy clothes any place. Best ones in Los Angeles."
"But my hair—"
Mike suggested a haircut in Hollywood, maybe?
I pounded the table. It felt solid. "Call the airport. Three tickets."
She called the airport. She intimidated easy.
The airport said we could leave for Chicago any time on the hour, and change there for Los Angeles. Mike wanted to know why she was wasting time on the telephone when we could be on our way. Holding up the wheels of progress, emery dust in the gears. One minute to get her hat.
"Call Pappy from the airport."
Her objections were easily brushed away with a few word-pictures of how much fun there was to be had in Hollywood. We left a sign on the door, "Gone to Lunch—Back in December," and made the airport in time for the four o'clock plane, with no time left to call Pappy. I told the parking attendant to hold the car until he heard from me and we made it up the steps and into the plane just in time. The steps were taken away, the motors snorted, and we were off, with Ruth holding fast to her hat in an imaginary breeze.
There was a two-hour layover in Chicago. They don't serve liquor at the airport, but an obliging cab driver found us a convenient bar down the road, where Ruth made her call to her father. Cautiously we stayed away from the telephone booth, but from what Ruth told us, he must have read her the riot act. The bartender didn't have champagne, but gave us the special treatment reserved for those that order it. The cab driver saw that we made the liner two hours later.
In Los Angeles we registered at the Commodore, cold sober and ashamed of ourselves. The next day Ruth went shopping for clothes for herself, and for us. We gave her the sizes and enough money to soothe her hangover. Mike and I did some telephoning. After breakfast we sat around until the desk clerk announced a Mr. Lee Johnson to see us.
Lee Johnson was the brisk professional type, the high-bracket salesman. Tall, rather homely, a clipped way of talking. We introduced ourselves, as embryo producers. His eyes brightened when we said that. His meat.
"Not exactly the way you think," I told him. "We have already eighty per cent or better of the final print." He wanted to know where he came in.
"We have several thousand feet of Trucolor film. Don't bother asking where or when we got it. This footage is silent. We'll need sound and, in places, speech dubbed in."
He nodded. "Easy enough. What condition is the master?"
"Perfect condition. It's in the hotel vault right now. There are gaps in the story to fill. Well need quite a few male and female characters. And all of these will have to do their doubling for cash, and not for screen credit."
Johnson raised his eyebrows. "And why? Out here screen credit is bread and butter."
"Several reasons. This footage was made—never mind where—with the understanding that film credit would favor no one."
"If you're lucky enough to catch your talent between pictures you might get away with it. But if your footage is worth working with, my boys will want screen credit. And I think they're entitled to it."
I said that was reasonable enough. The technical crews were essential, and I was prepared to pay well. Particularly to keep their mouths closed until the print was ready for final release. Maybe even after that.
"Before we go any further," Johnson rose and reached for his hat, "let's take a look at that print. I don't know if we can—"
I knew what he was thinking. Amateurs. Home movies. Feelthy peekchures, mebbe?
We got the reels out of the hotel safe and drove to his laboratory, out Sunset. The top was down on his convertible and Mike hoped audibly that Ruth would have sense enough to get sport shirts that didn't itch.
"Wife?" Johnson asked carelessly.
"Secretary," Mike answered just as casually. "We flew in last night and she's out getting us some light clothes." Johnson's estimation of us rose visibly.
A porter came out of the laboratory to carry the suitcase containing the film reels. It was a long, low building, with the offices at the front and the actual laboratories tapering off at the rear. Johnson took us in the side door and called for someone whose name we didn't catch. The anonymous one was a projectionist who took the reels and disappeared into the back of the projection room. We sat for a minute in the soft easychairs until the projectionist buzzed ready. Johnson glanced at us and we nodded. He clicked a switch on the arm of his chair and the overhead lights went out. The picture started.
It ran a hundred and ten minutes as it stood. We both watched Johnson like a cat at a rathole. When the tag end showed white on the screen he signaled with the chair-side buzzer for lights. They came on. He faced us.
"Where did you get that print?"
Mike grinned at him. "Can we do business?"
"Do business?" He was vehement. "You bet your life we can do business. We'll do the greatest business you ever saw!"
The projection man came down. "Hey, that's all right. Where'd you get it?"
Mike looked at me. I said, "This isn't to go any further." Johnson looked at his man, who shrugged. "None of my business."
I dangled the hook. "That wasn't made here. Never mind where."
Johnson rose and struck, hook, line and sinker. "Europe! Hm-m-m. Germany. No, France. Russia, maybe, Einstein, or Eisenstein, or whatever his name is?"
I shook my head. "That doesn't matter. The leads are all dead, or out of commission, but their heirs . . . well, you get what I mean."
Johnson saw what I meant. "Absolutely right. No point taking any chances. Where's the rest—?"
"Who knows? We were lucky to salvage that much. Can do?"
"Can do." He thought for a minute. "Get Bernstein in here. Better get Kessler and Marrs, too." The projectionist left. In a few minutes Kessler, a heavyset man, and Marrs, a young, nervous chain-smoker, came in with Bernstein, the sound man. We were introduced all around and Johnson asked if we minded sitting through another showing. "Nope. We like it better than you do."
Not quite. Kessler and Marrs and Bernstein, the minute the film was over, bombarded us with startled questions. We gave them the same answers we'd given Johnson. But we were pleased with the reception, and said so.
Kessler grunted. "I'd like to know who was behind that camera. Best I've seen, by Cripes, since 'Ben Hur.' Better than 'Ben Hur.' The boy's good."
I grunted right back at him. "That's the only thing I can tell you. The photography was done by the boys you're talking to right now. Thanks for the kind word."
All four of them stared.
Mike said, "That's right."
"Hey, hey!" from Marrs. They all looked at us with new respect. It felt good.
Johnson broke into the silence when it became awkward. "What's next on the score card?"
We got down to cases. Mike, as usual, was content to sit there with his eyes half closed, taking it all in, letting me do all the talking.
"We want sound dubbed in all the way through."
"Pleasure," said Bernstein.
"At least a dozen, maybe more, of speaking actors with a close resemblance to the leads you've seen."
Johnson was confident. "Easy. Central Casting has everybody's picture since the Year One."
"I know. We've already checked that. No trouble there. They'll have to take the cash and let the credit go, for reasons I've already explained to Mr. Johnson."
A moan from Marrs. "I bet I get that job."
Johnson was snappish. "You do. What else?" to me.
I didn't know. "Except that we have no plans for distribution as yet. That will have to be worked out."
"Like falling off a log." Johnson was happy about that. "One look at the rushes and United Artists would spit in Shakespeare's eye."
Marrs came in. "What about the other shots? Got a writer lined up?"
"We've got what will pass for the shooting script, or would have in a week or so. Want to go over it with us?" He'd like that.
"How much time have we got?" interposed Kessler. "This is going to be a job. When do we want it?" Already it was "we."
"Yesterday is when we want it," snapped Johnson, and he rose. "Any ideas about music? No? We'll try for Werner Janssen and his boys. Berstein, you're responsible for that print from now on. Kessler, get your crew in and have a look at it. Marrs, you'll go with Mr. Lefko and Mr. Laviada through the files at Central Casting at their convenience. Keep in touch with them at the Commodore. Now, if you'll step into my office, we'll discuss the financial arrangements—"
As easy as all that.
Oh, I don't say that it was easy work or anything like that, because in the next few months we were playing Busy Bee. What with running down the only one registered at Central Casting who looked like Alexander himself, he turned out to be a young Armenian who had given up hope of ever being called from the extra lists and had gone home to Santee—casting and rehearsing the rest of the actors and swearing at the costumers and the boys who built the sets, we were kept hopping. Even Ruth, who had reconciled her father with soothing letters, for once earned her salary. We took turns shooting dictation at her until we had a script that satisfied Mike and myself and young Marrs, who turned out to be clever as a fox on dialogue.
What I really meant is that it was easy, and immensely gratifying, to crack the shell of the tough boys who had seen epics and turkeys come and go. They were really impressed by what we had done. Kessler was disappointed when we refused to be bothered with photographing the rest of the film. We just batted our eyes and said that we were too busy, that we were perfectly confident that he would do as well as we could. He outdid himself, and us. I don't know what we would have done if he had asked us for any concrete advice. I suppose, when I think it all over, that the boys we met and worked with were so tired of working with the usual mine-run Grade B's, that they were glad to meet someone that knew the difference between glycerin tears and reality and didn't care if it cost two dollars extra. They had us placed as a couple of city slickers with plenty on the ball. I hope.
Finally it was all over with. We all sat in the projection room; Mike and I, Marrs and Johnson, Kessler and Bernstein, and all the lesser technicians that had split up the really enormous amount of work that had been done watched the finished product. It was terrific. Everyone had done his work well. When Alexander came on the screen, he was Alexander the Great. (The Armenian kid got a good bonus for that.) All that blazing color, all that wealth and magnificence and glamor seemed to flare right out of the screen and sear across your mind. Even Mike and I, who had seen the original, were on the edge of our seats.
The sheer realism and magnitude of the battle scenes, I think, really made the picture. Gore, of course, is glorious when it's all make-believe and the dead get up to go to lunch. But when Bill Mauldin sees a picture and sells a breathless article on the similarity of infantrymen of all ages—well, Mauldin knows what war is like. So did the infantrymen throughout the world who wrote letters comparing Alexander's Arbela to Anzio and the Argonne. The weary peasant, not stolid at all, trudging and trudging into mile after mile of those dust-laden plains and ending as a stinking, naked, ripped corpse peeping under a mound of flies isn't any different when he carries a sarissa instead of a rifle. That we'd tried to make obvious, and we succeeded.
When the lights came up in the projection room we knew we had a winner. Individually we shook hands all around, proud as a bunch of penguins, and with chests out as far. The rest of the men filed out and we retired to Johnson's office. He poured a drink all around and got down to business.
"How about releases?"
I asked him what he thought.
"Write your own ticket," he shrugged. "I don't know whether or not you know it, but the word has already gone around that you've got something."
I told him we'd had calls at the hotel from various sources, and named them.
"See what I mean? I know those babies. Kiss them out if you want to keep your shirt. And while I'm at it, you owe us quite a bit. I suppose you've got it."
"We've got it."
"I was afraid you would. If you didn't, I'd be the one that would have your shirt." He grinned, but we all knew he meant it. "All right, that's settled. Let's talk about release.
"There are two or three outfits around town that will want a crack at it. My boys will have the word spread around in no time; there's no point in trying to keep them quiet any longer. I know—they'll have sense enough not to talk about the things you want off the record. I'll see to that. But you're top dog right now. You got loose cash, you've got the biggest potential gross I've ever seen, and you don't have to take the first offer. That's important, in this game."
"How would you like to handle it yourself?"
"I'd like to try. The outfit I'm thinking of needs a feature right now, and they don't know I know it. They'll pay and pay. What's in it for me?"
"That," I said, "we can talk about later. And I think I know just what you're thinking. We'll take the usual terms and we don't care if you hold up whoever you deal with. What we don't know won't hurt us." That's what he was thinking, all right. That's a cutthroat game out there.
"Good. Kessler, get your setup ready for duplication."
"Marrs, start the ball rolling on publicity . . . what do you want to do about that?" to us.
Mike and I had talked about that before. "As far as we're concerned," I said slowly, "do as you think best. Personal publicity, O.K. We won't look for it, but we won't dodge it. As far as that goes, we're the local yokels making good. Soft pedal any questions about where the picture was made, without being too obvious. You're going to have trouble when you talk about the nonexistent actors, but you ought to be able to figure out something."
Marrs groaned and Johnson grinned. "He'll figure out something."
"As far as technical credit goes, we'll be glad to see you get all you can, because you've done a swell job." Kessler took that as a personal compliment, and it was. "You might as well know now, before we go any further, that some of the work came right from Detroit." They all sat up at that.
"Mike and I have a new process of model and trick work." Kessler opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it. "We're not going to say what was done, or how much was done in the laboratory, but you'll admit that it defies detection."
About that they were fervent. "I'll say it defies detection. In the game this long and process work gets by me . . . where—"
"I'm not going to tell you that. What we've got isn't patented and won't be, as long as we can hold it up." There wasn't any griping there. These men knew process work when they saw it. If they didn't see it, it was good. They could understand why we'd want to keep a process that good a secret.
"We can practically guarantee there'll be more work for you to do later on." Their interest was plain. "We're not going to predict when, or make any definite arrangement, but we still have a trick or two in the deck. We like the way we've been getting along, and we want to stay that way. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a date with a blonde."
Johnson was right about the bidding for the release. We—or rather Johnson—made a very profitable deal with United Amusement and the affiliated theaters. Johnson, the bandit, got his percentage from us and likely did better with United. Kessler and Johnson's boys took huge ads in the trade journals to boast about their connections with the Academy Award Winner. Not only the Academy, but every award that ever went to any picture. Even the Europeans went overboard. They're the ones that make a fetish of realism. They knew the real thing when they saw it, and so did everyone else.
Our success went to Ruth's head. In no time she wanted a secretary. At that, she needed one to fend off the screwballs that popped out of the woodwork. So we let her hire a girl to help out. She picked a good typist, about fifty. Ruth is a smart girl, in a lot of ways. He father showed signs of wanting to see the Pacific, so we raised her salary on condition he'd stay away. The three of us were having too much fun.
The picture opened at the same time in both New York and Hollywood. We went to the premiere in great style with Ruth between us, swollen like a trio of bullfrogs. It's a great feeling to sit on the floor, early in the morning, and read reviews that make you feel like floating. It's a better feeling to have a mintful of money. Johnson and his men were right along with us. I don't think he could have been too flush in the beginning, and we all got a kick out of riding the crest.
It was a good sized wave, too. We had all the personal publicity we wanted, and more. Somehow the word was out that we had a new gadget for process photography, and every big studio in town was after what they thought would be a mighty economical thing to have around. The studios that didn't have a spectacle scheduled looked at the receipts of "Alexander" and promptly scheduled a spectacle. We drew some very good offers, Johnson said, but we made a series of long faces and broke the news that we were leaving for Detroit the next day, and to hold the fort awhile. I don't think he thought we actually meant it, but we did. We left the next day.
Back in Detroit we went right to work, helped by the knowledge that we were on the right track. Ruth was kept busy turning away the countless would be visitors. We admitted no reporters, no salesmen, no one. We had no time. We were using the view camera. Plate after plate we sent to Rochester for developing. A print of each was returned to us and the plate was held in Rochester for our disposal. We sent to New York for a representative of one of the biggest publishers in the country. We made a deal.
Your main library has a set of the books we published, if you're interested. Huge heavy volumes, hundreds of them, each page a razor-sharp blowup from an 8x10 negative. A set of those books went to every major library and university in the world. Mike and I got a real kick out of solving some of the problems that have had savants guessing for years. In the Roman volume, for example, we solved the trireme problem with a series of pictures, not only the interior of a trireme, but a line-of-battle quinquereme. (Naturally, the professors and amateur yachtsmen weren't convinced at all.) We had a series of aerial shots of the City of Rome taken a hundred years apart, over a millennium. Aerial views of Ravenna and Londinium, Palmyra and Pompeii, of Eboracum and Byzantium. Oh, we had the time of our lives! We had a volume for Greece and for Rome, for Persia and for Crete, for Egypt and for the Eastern Empire. We had pictures of the Parthenon and the Pharos, pictures of Hannibal and Caractacus and Vercingetorix, pictures of the Walls of Babylon and the building of the pyramids and the palace of Sargon, pages from the Lost Books of Livy and the plays of Euripides. Things like that.
Terrifically expensive, a second printing sold at cost to a surprising number of private individuals. If the cost had been less, historical interest would have become even more the fad of the moment.
When the flurry had almost died down, some Italian digging in the hitherto unexcavated section of ash-buried Pompeii, dug right into a tiny buried temple right where our aerial shot had showed it to be. His budget was expanded and he found more ash-covered ruins that agreed with our aerial layout, ruins that hadn't seen the light of day for almost two thousand years. Everyone promptly wailed that we were the luckiest guessers in captivity; the head of some California cult suspected aloud that we were the reincarnations of two gladiators named Joe.
To get some peace and quiet Mike and I moved into our studio, lock, stock, and underwear. The old bank vault had never been removed, at our request, and it served well to store our equipment when we weren't around. All the mail Ruth couldn't handle we disposed of, unread; the old bank building began to look like a well patronized soup kitchen. We hired burly private detectives to handle the more obnoxious visitors and subscribed to a telegraphic protective service. We had another job to do, another full-length feature.
We still stuck to the old historical theme. This time we tried to do what Gibbon did in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And, I think, we were rather successful, at that. In four hours you can't completely cover two thousand years, but you can, as we did, show the cracking up of a great civilization, and how painful the process can be. The criticism we drew for almost ignoring Christ and Christianity was unjust, we think, and unfair. Very few knew then, or know now, that we had included, as a kind of trial balloon, some footage of Christ Himself, and His time. This footage we had to cut. The Board of Review, as you know, is both Catholic and Protestant. They—the Board—went right up in arms. We didn't protest very hard when they claimed our "treatment" was irreverent, indecent, and biased and inaccurate "by any Christian standard." "Why," they wailed, "it doesn't even look like Him," and they were right; it didn't. Not any picture they ever saw. Right then and there we decided that it didn't pay to tamper with anyone's religious beliefs. That's why you've never seen anything emanating from us that conflicted even remotely with the accepted historical, sociological, or religious features of Someone Who Knew Better. That Roman picture, by the way,—but not accidentally—deviated so little from the textbooks you conned in school that only a few enthusiastic specialists called our attention to what they insisted were errors. We were still in no position to do any mass rewriting of history, because we were unable to reveal just where we got our information.
Johnson, when he sat in the Roman epic, mentally clicked high his heels. His men went right to work, and we handled the job as we had the first. One day Kessler got me in a corner, dead earnest.
"Ed," he said, "I'm going to find out where you got that footage if it's the last thing I ever do."
I told him that some day he would.
"And I don't mean some day, either; I mean right now. That bushwa about Europe might go once, but not twice. I know better, and so does everyone else. Now, what about it?"
I told him I'd have to consult Mike and I did. We were up against it. We called a conference.
"Kessler tells me he has troubles. I guess you all know what they are." They all knew.
Johnson spoke up. "He's right, too. We know better. Where did you get it?"
I turned to Mike. "Want to do the talking?"
A shake of his head. "You're doing all right."
"All right." Kessler hunched a little forward and Marrs lit another cigarette. "We weren't lying and we weren't exaggerating when we said the actual photography was ours. Every frame of film was taken right here in this country, within the last few months. Just how—I won't mention why or where—we can't tell you just now." Kessler snorted in disgust. "Let me finish."
"We all know that we're cashing in, hand over fist. And we're going to cash in some more. We have, on our personal schedule, five more pictures. Three of that five we want you to handle as you did the others. The last two of the five will show you both the reason for all the childish secrecy, as Kessler calls it, and another motive that we have so far kept hidden. The last two pictures will show you both our motives and our methods; one is as important as the other. Now—is that enough? Can we go ahead on that basis?"
It wasn't enough for Kessler. "That doesn't mean a thing to me. What are we, a bunch of hacks?"
Johnson was thinking about his bank balance. "Five more. Two years, maybe four."
Marrs was skeptical. "Who do you think you're going to kid that long? Where's your studio? Where's your talent? Where do you shoot your exteriors? Where do you get costumes and your extras? In one single shot you've got forty thousand extras, if you've got one! Maybe you can shut me up, but who's going to answer the questions that Metro and Fox and Paramount and RKO have been asking? Those boys aren't fools, they know their business. How do you expect me to handle any publicity when I don't know what the score is, myself?"
Johnson told him to pipe down for a while and let him think. Mike and I didn't like this one bit. But what could we do—tell the truth and end up in a straitjacket?
"Can we do it this way?" he finally asked. "Marrs: these boys have an in with the Soviet Government. They work in some place in Siberia, maybe. Nobody gets within miles of there. No one ever knows what the Russians are doing—"
"Nope!" Marrs was definite. "Any hint that these came from Russia and we'd all be a bunch of Reds. Cut the gross in half."
Johnson began to pick up speed. "All right, not from Russia. From one of these little republics fringed around Siberia or Armenia or one of those places. They're not Russian-made films at all. In fact, they've been made by some of these Germans and Austrians the Russians took over and moved after the War. The war fever had died down enough for people to realize that the Germans knew their stuff occasionally. The old sympathy racket for these refugees struggling with faulty equipment, lousy climate, making super-spectacles and smuggling them out under the nose of the Gestapo or whatever they call it— That's it!"
Doubtfully, from Marrs: "And the Russians tell the world we're nuts, that they haven't got any loose Germans?"
That, Johnson overrode. "Who reads the back pages? Who pays any attention to what the Russians say? Who cares? They might even think we're telling the truth and start looking around their own backyard for something that isn't there! All right with you?" to Mike and myself.
I looked at Mike and he looked at me.
"O.K. with us."
"O.K. with the rest of you? Kessler? Bernstein?"
They weren't too agreeable, and certainly not happy, but they agreed to play games until we gave the word. We were warm in our thanks. "You won't regret it."
Kessler doubted that very much, but Johnson eased them all out, back to work. Another hurdle leaped, or sidestepped.
"Rome" was released on schedule and drew the same friendly reviews. "Friendly" is the wrong word for reviews that stretched ticket lineups blocks long. Marrs did a good job on the publicity. Even that chain of newspapers that afterward turned on us so viciously fell for Marrs' word wizardry and ran full-page editorials urging the reader to see "Rome."
With our third picture, "Flame Over France," we corrected a few misconceptions about the French Revolution, and began stepping on a few tender toes. Luckily, however, and not altogether by design, there happened to be in power in Paris a liberal government. They backed us to the hilt with the confirmation we needed. At our request they released a lot of documents that had hitherto conveniently been lost in the cavernous recesses of the Bibliotheque Nationale. I've forgotten the name of whoever happened to be the perennial pretender to the French throne. At, I'm sure, the subtle prodding of one of Marrs' ubiquitous publicity men, the pretender sued us for our whole net, alleging the defamation of the good name of the Bourbons. A lawyer Johnson dug up for us sucked the poor chump into a courtroom and cut him to bits. Not even six cents damages did he get. Samuels, the lawyer, and Marrs drew a good-sized bonus, and the pretender moved to Honduras.
Somewhere around this point, I believe, did the tone of the press begin to change. Up until then we'd been regarded as crosses between Shakespeare and Barnum. Since long obscure facts had been dredged into the light, a few well-known pessimists began to wonder sotto voce if we weren't just a pair of blasted pests. "Should leave well enough alone." Only our huge advertising budget kept them from saying more.
I'm going to stop right here and say something about our personal life while all this was going on. Mike I've kept in the background pretty well, mostly because he wants it that way. He lets me do all the talking and stick my neck out while he sits in the most comfortable chair in sight. I yell and I argue and he just sits there; hardly ever a word coming out of that dark-brown pan, certainly never an indication showing that behind those polite eyebrows there's a brain—and a sense of humor and wit—faster and as deadly as a bear trap. Oh, I know we've played around, sometimes with a loud bang, but we've been, ordinarily, too busy and too preoccupied with what we were doing to waste any time. Ruth, while she was with us, was a good dancing and drinking partner. She was young, she was almost what you'd call beautiful, and she seemed to like being with us. For a while I had a few ideas about her that might have developed into something serious. We both—I should say, all three of us—found out in time that we looked at a lot of things too differently. So we weren't too disappointed when she signed with Metro. Her contract meant what she thought was all the fame and money and happiness in the world, plus the personal attention she was doubtless entitled to have. They put her in Class B's and serials and she, financially, is better off than she ever expected to be. Emotionally, I don't know. We heard from her sometime ago, and I think she's about due for another divorce. Maybe it's just as well.
But let's get away from Ruth. I'm ahead of myself. All this time Mike and I had been working together, our approach to the final payoff had been divergent. Mike was hopped on the idea of making a better world, and doing that by making war impossible. "War," he's often said, "war of any kind is what has made man spend most of his history in merely staying alive. Now, with the atom to use, he has within himself the seed of self-extermination. So help me, Ed, I'm going to do my share of stopping that, or I don't see any point in living. I mean it!"
He did mean it. He told me that in almost the same words the first day we met. Then I tagged that idea as a pipe dream picked up on an empty stomach. I saw his machine only as a path to luxurious and personal Nirvana, and I thought he'd soon be going my way. I was wrong.
You can't live, or work, with a likable person without admiring some of the qualities that make that person likable. Another thing; it's a lot easier to worry about the woes of the world when you haven't any yourself. It's a lot easier to have a conscience when you can afford it. When I donned the rose-colored glasses half my battle was won; when I realized how grand a world this could be, the battle was over. That was about the time of "Flame Over France," I think. The actual time isn't important. What is important is that, from that time on, we became the tightest team possible. Since then the only thing we've differed on would be the time to knock off for a sandwich. Most of our leisure time, what we had of it, has been spent in locking up for the night, rolling out the portable bar, opening just enough beer to feel good, and relaxing. Maybe, after one or two, we might diddle the dials of the machine, and go rambling.
Together we've been everywhere and seen anything. It might be a good night to check up on Francois Villon, the faker, or maybe we might chase around with Haroun-el-Rashid. (If there was ever a man born a few hundred years too soon, it was that careless caliph.) Or if we were in a bad or discouraged mood we might follow the Thirty Years' War for a while, or if we were real raffish we might inspect the dressing rooms at Radio City. For Mike the crackup of Atlantis has always had an odd fascination, probably because he's afraid that man will do it again, now that he's rediscovered nuclear energy. And if I doze off he's quite apt to go back to the very Beginning, back to the start of the world as we know it now. (It wouldn't do any good to tell you what went before that.)
When I stop to think, it's probably just as well that neither of us married. We, of course, have hopes for the future, but at present we're both tired of the whole human race; tired of greedy faces and hands. With a world that puts a premium on wealth and power and strength, it's no wonder what decency there is stems from fear of what's here now, or fear of what's hereafter. We've seen so much of the hidden actions of the world—call it snooping, if you like—that we've learned to disregard the surface indications of kindness and good. Only once did Mike and I ever look into the private life of someone we knew and liked and respected. Once was enough. From that day on we made it a point to take people as they seemed. Let's get away from that.
The next two pictures we released in rapid succession; the first, "Freedom for Americans," the American Revolution, and "The Brothers and the Guns," the American Civil War. Bang! Every third politician, a lot of so-called "educators," and all the professional patriots started after our scalps. Every single chapter of the DAR, the Sons of Union Veterans, and the Daughters of the Confederacy pounded their collective heads against the wall. The South went frantic; every state in the Deep South and one state on the border flatly banned both pictures, the second because it was truthful, and the first because censorship is a contagious disease. They stayed banned until the professional politicians got wise. The bans were revoked, and the choke-collar and string-tie brigade pointed to both pictures as horrible examples of what some people actually believed and thought, and felt pleased that someone had given them an opportunity to roll out the barrel and beat the drums that sound sectional and racial hatred.
New England was tempted to stand on its dignity, but couldn't stand the strain. North of New York both pictures were banned. In New York state the rural representatives voted en bloc, and the ban was clamped on statewide. Special trains ran to Delaware, where the corporations were too busy to pass another law. Libel suits flew like spaghetti, and although the extras blared the filing of each new suit, very few knew that we lost not one. Although we had to appeal almost very suit to higher courts, and in some cases request a change of venue which was seldom granted, the documentary proof furnished by the record cleared us once we got to a judge, or series of judges, with no fences to mend.
It was a mighty rasp we drew over wounded ancestral pride. We had shown that not all the mighty had haloes of purest gold, that not all the Redcoats were strutting bullies—nor angels, and the British Empire, except South Africa, refused entry to both pictures and made violent passes at the State Department. The spectacle of Southern and New England congressmen approving the efforts of a foreign ambassador to suppress free speech drew hilarious hosannas from certain quarters. H. L. Mencken gloated in the clover, doing loud nip-ups, and the newspapers hung on the triple-horned dilemma of anti-foreign, pro-patriotic, and quasi-logical criticism. In Detroit the Ku Klux Klan fired an anemic cross on our doorstep, and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the NAACP, and the WCTU passed flattering resolutions. We forwarded the most vicious and obscene letters —together with a few names and addresses that hadn't been originally signed—to our lawyers and the Post Office Department. There were no convictions south of Illinois.
Johnson and his boys made hay. Johnson had pyramided his bets into an international distributing organization, and pushed Marrs into hiring every top press agent either side of the Rockies. What a job they did! In no time at all there were two definite schools of thought that overflowed into the public letters boxes. One school held that we had no business raking up old mud to throw, that such things were better left forgotten and forgiven, that nothing wrong had ever happened, and if it had, we were liars anyway. The other school reasoned more to our liking. Softly and slowly at first, then with a triumphant shout, this fact began to emerge; such things had actually happened, and could happen again, were possibly happening even now; had happened because twisted truth had too long left its imprint on international, sectional, and racial feelings. It pleased us when many began to agree, with us, that it is important to forget the past, but that it is even more important to understand and evaluate it with a generous and unjaundiced eye. That was what we were trying to bring out.
The banning that occurred in the various states hurt the gross receipts only a little, and we were vindicated in Johnson's mind. He had dolefully predicted loss of half the national gross because "you can't tell the truth in a movie and get away with it. Not if the house holds over three hundred." Not even on the stage? "Who goes to anything but a movie?"
So far things had gone just about as we'd planned. We'd earned and received more publicity, favorable and otherwise, than anyone living. Most of it stemmed from the fact that our doing had been newsworthy. Some, naturally, had been the ninety-day-wonder material that fills a thirsty newspaper. We had been very careful to make our enemies in the strata that can afford to fight back. Remember the old saw about knowing a man by the enemies he makes? Well, publicity was our ax. Here's how we put an edge on it.
I called Johnson in Hollywood. He was glad to hear from us. "Long time no see. What's the pitch, Ed?"
"I want some lipreaders. And I want them yesterday, like you tell your boys."
"Lipreaders? Are you nuts? What do you want with lipreaders?"
"Never mind why. I want lipreaders. Can you get them?" "How should I know? What do you want them for?" "I said, can you get them?"
He was doubtful. "I think you've been working too hard." "Look—"
"Now, I didn't say I couldn't. Cool off. When do you want them? And how many?"
"Better write this down. Ready? I want lipreaders for these languages: English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Belgian, Dutch and Spanish."
"Ed Lefko, have you gone crazy?"
I guess it didn't sound very sensible, at that. "Maybe I have. But those languages are essential. If you run across any who can work in any other language, hang on to them. I might need them, too." I could see him sitting in front of his telephone, wagging his head like mad. Crazy. The heat must have got Lefko, good old Ed. "Did you hear what I said?"
"Yes, I heard you. If this is a rib—"
"No rib. Dead serious."
He began to get mad. "Where you think I'm going to get lip readers, out of my hat?"
"That's your worry. I'd suggest you start with the local School for the Deaf." He was silent. "Now, get this into your head; this isn't a rib, this is the real thing. I don't care what you do, or where you go, or what you spend—I want those lip readers in Hollywood when we get there or I want to know they're on the way."
"When are you going to get there?"
I said I wasn't sure. "Probably a day or two. We've got a few loose ends to clean up."
He swore a blue streak at the iniquities of fate. "You'd better have a good story when you do—" I hung up.
Mike met me at the studio. "Talk to Johnson?" I told him, and he laughed. "Does sound crazy, I suppose. But he'll get them, if they exist and like money. He's the Original Resourceful Man."
I tossed my hat in a corner. "I'm glad this is about over. Your end caught up?"
"Set and ready to go. The films and the notes are on the way, the real estate company is ready to take over the lease, and the girls are paid up to date, with a little extra."
I opened a bottle of beer for myself. Mike had one. "How about the office files? How about the bar, here?"
"The files go to the bank to be stored. The bar? Hadn't thought about it."
The beer was cold. "Have it crated and send it to Johnson." We grinned, together. "Johnson it is. He'll need it." I nodded at the machine. "What about that?"
"That goes with us on the plane as air express." He looked closely at me. "What's the matter with you—jitters?"
"Nope. Willies. Same thing."
"Me, too. Your clothes and mine left this morning." "Not even a clean shirt left?"
"Not even a clean shirt. Just like—"
I finished it. "—the first trip with Ruth. A little different, maybe."
Mike said slowly, "A lot different." I opened another beer. "Anything you want around here, anything else to be done?" I said no. "O.K. Let's get this over with. We'll put what we need in the car. We'll stop at the Courville Bar before we hit the airport."
I didn't get it. "There's still beer left—"
"But no champagne."
I got it. "O.K. I'm dumb, at times. Let's go."
We loaded the machine into the car, and the bar, left the studio keys at the corner grocery for the real estate company, and headed for the airport by way of the Courville Bar. Ruth was in California, but Joe had champagne. We got to the airport late.
Marrs met us in Los Angeles. "What's up? You've got Johnson running around in circles."
"Did he tell you why?"
"Sounds crazy to me. Couple of reporters inside. Got anything for them?"
"Not right now. Let's get going."
In Johnson's private office we got a chilly reception. "This better be good. Where do you expect to find someone to lip-read in Chinese? Or Russian, for that matter?"
We all sat down. "What have you got so far?"
"Besides a headache?" He handed me a short list.
I scanned it. "How long before you can get them here?" An explosion. "How long before I can get them here? Am I your errand boy?"
"For all practical purposes you are. Quit the fooling. How about it?" Marrs snickered at the look on Johnson's face.
"What are you smirking at, you moron?" Marrs gave in and laughed outright, and I did, too. "Go ahead and laugh. This isn't funny. When I called the State School for the Deaf they hung up. Thought I was some practical joker. We'll skip that.
“There's three women and a man on that list. They cover English, French, Spanish, and German. Two of them are working in the East, and I'm waiting for answers to telegrams I sent them. One lives in Pomona and one works for the Arizona School for the Deaf. That's the best I could do.' We thought that over. "Get on the phone. Talk to even state in the union if you have to, or overseas."
Johnson kicked the desk. "And what are you going to dc with them, if I'm that lucky?"
"You'll find out. Get them on planes and fly them here, and we'll talk turkey when they get here. I want a projection room, not yours, and a good bonded court reporter."
He asked the world to appreciate what a life he led.
"Get in touch with us at the Commodore." To Marrs: "Keep the reporters away for a while. We'll have something for them later." Then we left.
Johnson never did find anyone who could lipread Greek. None, at least, that could speak English. The expert on Russian he dug out of Ambridge, in Pennsylvania, the Flemish and Holland Dutch expert came from Leyden, in the Netherlands, and at the last minute he stumbled upon a Korean who worked in Seattle as an inspector for the Chinese Government. Five women and two men. We signed them to an ironclad contract drawn by Samuels, who now handled all our legal work. I made a little speech before they signed.
"These contracts, as far as we've been able to make sure, are going to control your personal and business life for the next year, and there's a clause that says we can extend that period for another year if we so desire. Let's get this straight. You are to live in a place of your own, which we will provide. You will be supplied with all necessities by our buyers. Any attempt at unauthorized communication will result in abrogation of the contract. Is that clear?
"Good. Your work will not be difficult, but it will be tremendously important. You will, very likely, be finished in three months, but you will be ready to go any place at any time at our discretion, naturally at our expense. Mr. Sorenson, as you are taking this down, you realize that this goes for you, too." He nodded.
"Your references, your abilities, and your past work have been thoroughly checked, and you will continue under constant observation. You will be required to verify and notarize every page, perhaps every line, of your transcripts, which Mr. Sorenson here will supply. Any questions?"
No questions. Each was getting a fabulous salary, and each wanted to appear eager to earn it. They all signed.
Resourceful Johnson bought for us a small rooming house, and we paid an exorbitant price to a detective agency to do the cooking and cleaning and chauffering required. We requested that the lipreaders refrain from discussing their work among themselves, especially in front of the house employees, and they followed instructions very well.
One day, about a month later, we called a conference in the projection room of Johnson's laboratory. We had a single reel of film.
"What's that for?"
"That's the reason for all the cloak-and-dagger secrecy. Never mind calling your projection man. This I'm going to run through myself. See what you think of it."
They were all disgusted. "I'm getting tired of all this kid stuff," said Kessler.
As I started for the projection booth I heard Mike say, "You're no more tired of it than I am."
From the booth I could see what was showing on the downstairs screen, but nothing else. I ran through the reel, rewound, and went back down.
I said, "One more thing, before we go any further read this. It's a certified and notarized transcript of what has been read from the lips of the characters you just saw. They weren't, incidentally, 'characters,' in that sense of the word." I handed the crackling sheets around, a copy for each. "Those 'characters' are real people. You've just seen a newsreel. This transcript will tell you what they were talking about. Read it. In the trunk of the car Mike and I have something to show you. We'll be back by the time you've read it."
Mike helped me carry in the machine from the car. We came in the door in time to see Kessler throw the transcript as far as he could. He bounced to his feet as the sheets fluttered down.
He was furious. "What's going on here?" We paid no attention to him, nor to the excited demands of the others until the machine had been plugged into the nearest outlet.
Mike looked at me. "Any ideas?"
I shook my head and told Johnson to shut up for a minute. Mike lifted the lid and hesitated momentarily before he touched the dials. I pushed Johnson into his chair and turned off the lights myself. The room went black. Johnson, looking over my shoulder, gasped. I heard Bernstein swear softly, amazed.
I turned to see what Mike had shown them.
It was impressive, all right. He had started just over the roof of the laboratory and continued straight up in the air. Up, up, up, until the city of Los Angeles was a tiny dot on a great ball. On the horizon were the Rockies. Johnson grabbed my arm. He hurt.
"What's that? What's that? Stop it!" He was yelling. Mike turned off the machine.
You can guess what happened next. No one believed their eyes, nor Mike's patient explanation. He had to twice turn on the machine again, once going far back into Kessler's past. Then the reaction set in.
Marrs smoked one cigarette after another, Bernstein turned a gold pencil over and over in his nervous fingers, Johnson paced like a caged tiger, and burly Kessler stared at the machine, saying nothing at all. Johnson was muttering as he paced. Then he stopped and shook his fist under Mike's nose.
"Man! Do you know what you've got there? Why waste time playing around here? Can't you see you've got the world by the tail on a downhill pull? If I'd ever known this—"
Mike appealed to me. "Ed, talk to this wildman."
I did. I can't remember exactly what I said, and it isn't important. But I did tell him how we'd started, how we'd plotted our course, and what we were going to do. I ended by telling him the idea behind the reel of film I'd run off a minute before.
He recoiled as though I were a snake. "You can't get away with that! You'd be hung—if you weren't lynched first!"
"Don't you think we know that? Don't you think we're willing to take that chance?"
He tore his thinning hair. Marrs broke in. "Let me talk to him." He came over and faced us squarely.
"Is this on the level? You going to make a picture like that and stick your neck out? You're going to turn that . . . that thing over to the people of the world?"
I nodded. "Just that."
"And toss over everything you've got?" He was dead serious, and so was I. He turned to the others. "He means it!" Bernstein said, "Can't be done!"
Words flew. I tried to convince them that we had followed the only possible path. "What kind of a world do you want to live in? Or don't you want to live?"
Johnson grunted. "How long do you think we'd live if we ever made a picture like that? You're crazy! I'm not. I'm not going to put my head in a noose."
"Why do you think we've been so insistent about credit and responsibility for direction and production? You'll be doing only what we hired you for. Not that we want to twist your arm, but you've made a fortune, all of you, working for us. Now, when the going gets heavy, you want to back out!"
Marrs gave in. "Maybe you're right, maybe you're wrong. Maybe you're crazy, maybe I am. I always used to say I'd try anything once. Bernie, you?"
Bernstein was quietly cynical. "You saw what happened in the last war. This might help. I don't know if it will. I don't know—but I'd hate to think I didn't try. Count me in!"
He swiveled his head. "Kid stuff! Who wants to live forever? Who wants to let a chance go by?"
Johnson threw up his hands. "Let's hope we get a cell together. Let's all go crazy." And that was that.
We went to work in a blazing drive of mutual hope and understanding. In four months the lipreaders were through. There's no point in detailing here their reactions to the dynamite they daily dictated to Sorenson. For their own good we kept them in the dark about our final purpose, and when they were through we sent them across the border into Mexico, to a small ranch Johnson had leased. We were going to need them later.
While the print duplicators worked overtime Marrs worked harder. The press and the radio shouted the announcement that, in every city of the world we could reach, there would be held the simultaneous premieres of our latest picture. It would be the last we needed to make. Many wondered aloud at our choice of the word "needed." We whetted curiosity by refusing any advance information about the plot, and Johnson so well infused the men with their own now-fervent enthusiasm that not much could be pried out of them but conjecture. The day we picked for release was Sunday. Monday, the storm broke.
I wonder how many prints of that picture are left today. I wonder how many escaped burning or confiscation. Two World Wars we covered, covered from the unflattering angles that, up until then, had been represented by only a few books hidden in the dark corners of libraries. We showed and named the warmakers, the cynical ones who signed and laughed and lied, the blatant patriots who used the flare of headlines and the ugliness of atrocity to hide behind their flag while life turned to death for millions. Our own and foreign traitors were there, the hidden ones with Janus faces. Our lipreaders had done their work well; no guesses these, no deduced conjectures from the broken records of a blasted past, but the exact words that exposed treachery disguised as patriotism.
In foreign lands the performances lasted barely the day. Usually, in retaliation for the imposed censorship, the theaters were wrecked by the raging crowds. (Marrs, incidentally, had spent hundreds of thousands bribing officials to allow the picture to be shown without previous censorship. Many censors, when that came out, were shot without trial). In the Balkans, revolutions broke out, and various embassies were stormed by mobs. Where the film was banned or destroyed written versions spontaneously appeared on the streets or in coffeehouses. Bootlegged editions were smuggled past customs guards, who looked the other way. One royal family fled to Switzerland.
Here in America it was a racing two weeks before the Federal Government, prodded into action by the raging of press and radio, in an unprecedented move closed all performances "to promote the common welfare, insure domestic tranquillity, and preserve foreign relations." Murmurs—and one riot—rumbled in the Midwest and spread until it was realized by the powers that be that something had to be done, and done quickly, if every government in the world were not to collapse of its own weight.
We were in Mexico, at the ranch Johnson had rented for the lipreaders. While Johnson paced the floor, jerkily fraying a cigar, we listened to a special broadcast of the attorney general himself:
… furthermore, this message was today forwarded to the Government of the United States of Mexico. I read: `the Government of the United States of America requests the immediate arrest and extradition of the following:
"'Edward Joseph Leftkowicz, known as Lefko.' " First on the list. Even a fish wouldn't get into trouble if he kept his mouth shut.
"'Miguel Jose Zapata Laviada.' " Mike crossed one leg over the other.
" 'Edward Lee Johnson: " He threw his cigar on the floor and sank into a chair.
"'Robert Chester Marrs.'" " He lit another cigarette. His face twitched.
" Benjamin Lionel Bernstein.' " He smiled a twisted smile and closed his eyes.
"'Carl Wilhelm Kessler.' " A snarl.
"These men are wanted by the Government of the United States of America, to stand trial on charges ranging from criminal syndicalism, incitement to riot, suspicion of treason—"
I clicked off the radio. "Well?," to no one in particular.
Bernstein opened his eyes. "The rurales are probably on their way. Might as well go back and face the music—" We crossed the border at Juarez. The FBI was waiting.
Every press and radio chain in the world must have had coverage at that trial, every radio system, even the new and imperfect television chain. We were allowed to see no one but our lawyer. Samuels flew from the West Coast and spent a week trying to get past our guards. He told us not to talk to reporters, if we ever saw them.
"You haven't seen the newspapers? Just as well—How did you ever get yourselves into this mess, anyway? You ought to know better."
I told him.
He was stunned. "Are you all crazy?"
He was hard to convince. Only the united effort and concerted stories of all of us made him believe that there was such a machine in existence. (He talked to us separately, because we were kept isolated). When he got back to me he was unable to think coherently.
"What kind of defense do you call that?"
I shook my head. "No. That is, we know that we're guilty of practically everything under the sun if you look at it one way. If you look at it another—"
He rose. "Man, you don't need a lawyer, you need a doctor. I'll see you later. I've got to get this figured out in my mind before I can do a thing."
"Sit down. What do you think of this?" and I outlined what I had in mind.
"I think ... I don't know what I think. I don't know. I'll talk to you later. Right now I want some fresh air," and he left.
As most trials do, this one began with the usual blackening of the defendant's character, or lack of it. (The men we blackmailed at the beginning had long since had their money returned, and they had sense enough to keep quiet. That might have been because they'd received a few hints that there might still be a negative or two lying around. Compounding a felony? Sure). With the greatest of interest we sat in that great columned hall and listened to a sad tale.
We had, with malice aforethought, libeled beyond repair great and unselfish men who had made a career of devotion to the public weal, imperiled needlessly relations traditional]; friendly by falsely reporting mythical events, mocked the courageous sacrifices of those who had duke et gloria mori and completely upset everyone's peace of mind. Every new accusation, every verbal lance drew solemn agreement from the dignitary-packed hall. Against someone's better judgment the trial had been transferred from the regular courtroom to the Hall of Justice. Packed with influence, brass, and pompous legates from all over the world, only the congressmen from the biggest states, or with the biggest votes were able to crowd the newly installed seats. So you can see it was a hostile audience that faced Samuels when the defense had its say. We had spent the previous night together in the guarded suite to which we had been transferred for the duration of the trial, perfecting, as far as we could, our planned defense. Samuels has the arrogant sense of humor that usually goes with supreme self-confidence, and I'm sure he enjoyed standing there among all those bemedaled and bejowled bigwigs, knowing the bombshell he was going to hurl. He made a good grenadier. Like this:
"We believe there is only one defense possible, we believe there is only one defense necessary. We have gladly waived, without prejudice, our inalienable right of trial by jury. We shall speak plainly and bluntly, to the point.
"You have seen the picture in question. You have remarked, possibly, upon what has been called the startling resemblance of the actors in that picture to the characters named and portrayed. You have remarked, possibly, upon the apparent verisimilitude to reality. That I will mention again. The first witness will, I believe, establish the trend of our rebuttal of the allegations of the prosecution." He called the first witness.
"Your name, please?"
"Mercedes Maria Gomez."
"A little louder, please."
"Mercedes Maria Gomez."
"Until last March I was a teacher at the Arizona School for the Deaf. Then I asked for and obtained a leave of absence. At present I am under personal contract to Mr. Lefko."
"If you see Mr. Lefko in this courtroom, Miss . . . Mrs.—"
"Thank you. If Mr. Lefko is in this court will you point him out? Thank you. Will you tell us the extent of your duties at the Arizona School?"
"I taught children born totally deaf to speak. And to read lips."
"You read lips yourself, Miss Gomez?"
"I have been totally deaf since I was fifteen."
"In English only?"
"English and Spanish. We have . . . had many children of Mexican descent."
Samuels asked for a designated Spanish-speaking interpreter. An officer in the back immediately volunteered. He was identified by his ambassador, who was present.
"Will you take this book to the rear of the courtroom, sir?" To the Court: "If the prosecution wishes to examine that book, they will find that it is a Spanish edition of the Bible." The prosecution didn't wish to examine it.
"Will the officer open the Bible at random and read aloud?" He opened the Bible at the center and read. In dead silence the Court strained to hear. Nothing could be heard the length of the enormous hall.
Samuels: "Miss Gomez. Will you take these binoculars and repeat, to the Court, just what the officer is reading at the other end of the room?'
She took the binoculars and focused them expertly on the officer, who had stopped reading and was watching alertly. "I am ready."
Samuels: "Will you please read, sir?"
He did, and the Gomez woman repeated aloud, quickly and easily, a section that sounded as though it might be anything at all. I can't speak Spanish. The officer continued to read for a minute or two.
Samuls: "Thank you, sir. And thank you, Miss Gomez. Your pardon, sir, but since there are several who have been known to memorize the Bible, will you tell the Court if you have anything on your person that is written, anything that Miss Gomez has no chance of viewing?" Yes, the officer had "Will you read that as before? Will you, Miss Gomez—"
She read that, too. Then the officer came to the front to listen to the court reporter read Miss Gomez' words.
"That's what I read," he affirmed.
Samuels turned her over to the prosecution, who made more experiments that served only to convince that she was equally good as an interpreter and lipreader in either language.
In rapid succession Samuels put the rest of the lipreaders on the stand. In rapid succession they proved themselves as able and as capable as Miss Gomez, in their own linguistic specialty. The Russian from Ambridge generously offered to translate into his broken English any other Slavic language handy, and drew scattered grins from the press box. The Court was convinced, but failed to see the purpose of the exhibition. Samuels, glowing with satisfaction and confidence, faced the Court.
"Thanks to the indulgence of the Court, and despite the efforts of the distinguished prosecution, we have proved the almost amazing accuracy of lipreading in general, and these lipreaders in particular." One Justice absently nodded in agreement. 'Therefore, our defense will he based on that premise, and on one other which we have had until now found necessary to keep hidden—the picture in question was and is definitely not a fictional representation of events of questionable authenticity. Every scene in that film contained, not polished professional actors, but the original person named and portrayed. Every foot, every inch of film was not the result of an elaborate studio reconstruction but an actual collection of pictures, an actual collection of newsreels—if they can be called that—edited and assembled in story form!"
Through the startled spurt of astonishment we heard one of the prosecution: "That's ridiculous! No newsreel—" Samuels ignored the objections and the tumult to put me on the stand. Beyond the usual preliminary questions I was allowed to say, things my own way. At first hostile, the Court became interested enough to overrule the repeated objections that flew from the table devoted to the prosecution. I felt that at least two of the Court, if not outright favorable, were friendly. As far as I can remember, I went over the maneuvers of the past years, and ended something like this:
"As to why we arranged the cards to fall as they did; both Mr. Laviada and myself were unable to face the prospect of destroying his discovery, because of the inevitable penalizing of needed research. We were, and we are, unwilling to better ourselves or a limited group by the use and maintenance of secrecy, if secrecy were possible. As to the only other alternative," and I directed this straight at Judge Bronson, the well-known liberal on the bench, "since the last war all atomic research and activity has been under the direction of a Board nominally civilian, but actually under the `protection and direction' of the Army and Navy. This 'direction and protection,' as any competent physicist will gladly attest, has proved to be nothing but a smothering blanket serving to conceal hide-bound antiquated reasoning, abysmal ignorance, and inestimable amounts of fumbling. As of right now, this country, or any country that was foolish enough to place any confidence in the rigid regime of the military mind, is years behind what would otherwise be the natural course of discovery and progress in nuclear and related fields.
"We were, and we are, firmly convinced that even the slightest hint of the inherent possibilities and scope of Mr. Laviada's discovery would have meant, under the present regime, instant and mandatory confiscation of even a supposedly secure patent. Mr. Laviada has never applied for a patent, and never will. We both feel that such a discovery belongs not to an individual, a group, a corporation, or even to a nation, but to the world and those who live in it.
"We know, and are eager and willing to prove, that the domestic and external affairs of not only this nation, but of every nation are influenced, sometimes controlled, by esoteric groups warping political theories and human lives to suit their own ends." The Court was smothered in sullen silence, thick and acid with hate and disbelief.
"Secret treaties, for example, and vicious, lying propaganda have too long controlled human passions and made men hate; honored thieves have too long rotted secretly in undeserved high places. The machine can make treachery and untruth impossible. It must, if atomic war is not to sear the face and fate of the world.
"Our pictures were all made with that end in view. We needed, first, the wealth and prominence to present to an international audience what we knew to be the truth. We have done as much as we can. From now on, this Court takes over the burden we have carried. We are guilty of no treachery, guilty of no deceit, guilty of nothing but deep and true humanity. Mr. Laviada wishes me to tell the Court and the world that he has been unable till now to give his discovery to the world, free to use as it wills."
The Court stared at me. Every foreign representative was on the edge of his seat waiting for the Justices to order us shot without further ado, the sparkling uniforms were seething, and the pressmen were racing their pencils against time. The tension dried my throat. The speech that Samuels and I had rehearsed the previous night was strong medicine. Now what?
Samuels filled the breach smoothly. "If the Court pleases; Mr. Lefko has made some startling statements. Startling, but certainly sincere, and certainly either provable or disprovable. And proof it shall be!"
He strode to the door of the conference room that had been allotted us. As the hundreds of eyes followed him it was easy for me to slip down from the witness stand, and wait, ready. From the conference room Samuels rolled the machine, and Mike rose. The whispers that curdled the air seemed disappointed, unimpressed. Right in front of the Bench he trundled it.
He moved unobtrusively to one side as the television men trained their long-snouted cameras. "Mr. Laviada and Mr. Lefko will show you . . . I trust there will be no objection from the prosecution?" He was daring them.
One of the prosecution was already on his feet. He opened his mouth hesitantly, but thought better, and sat down. Heads went together in conference as he did. Samuels was watching the Court with one eye, and the court room with the other.
"If the Court pleases, we will need a cleared space. If the bailiff will . . . thank you, sir." The long tables were moved back, with a raw scraping. He stood there, with every eye in the courtroom glued on him. For two long breaths he stood there, then be spun and went to his table. "Mr. Lefko," and he bowed formally. He sat.
The eyes swung to me, to Mike, as he moved to his machine and stood there silently. I cleared my throat and spoke to the Bench as though I did not see the directional microphones trained at my lips.
He looked steadily at me and then glanced at Mike. "Yes, Mr. Lefko?"
"Your freedom from bias is well known." The corners of his mouth went down as he frowned. "Will you be willing to be used as proof that there can be no trickery?" He thought that over, then nodded slowly. The prosecution objected, and was waved down. "Will you tell me exactly where you were at any give time? Any place where you are absolutely certain and can verify that there were no concealed cameras or observers?"
He thought. Seconds. Minutes. The tension twanged, and I swallowed dust. He spoke quietly. "1918. November 11th."
Mike whispered to me. I said, "Any particular time?"
Justice Bronson looked at Mike. "Exactly eleven. Armistice time." He paused, then went on. "Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls, New York."
I heard the dials tick in the stillness, and Mike whispered again. I said, "The lights should be off." The bailiff rose. "Will you please watch the left wall, or in that direction? I think that if Justice Kassel will turn a little . . . we are ready."
Bronson looked at me, and at the left wall. "Ready."
The lights flicked out overhead and I heard the television crews mutter. I touched Mike on the shoulder. "Show them, Mike!"
We're all showmen at heart, and Mike is no exception. Suddenly out of nowhere and into the depths poured a frozen torrent. Niagara Falls. I've mentioned, I think, that I've never got over my fear of heights. Few people ever do. I heard long, shuddery gasps as we started straight down. Down, until we stopped at the brink of the silent cataract, weird on its frozen majesty. Mike had stopped time at exactly eleven, I knew. He shifted to the American bank. Slowly he moved along. There were a few tourists standing in almost comic attitudes. There was snow on the ground, flakes in the air. Time stood still, and hearts slowed in sympathy.
Bronson snapped, "Stop!"
A couple, young. Long skirts, high-buttoned army collar, dragging army overcoat, facing, arms about each other. Mike's sleeve rustled in the darkness and they moved. She was sobbing and the soldier was smiling. She turned away her head, and he turned it back. Another couple seized them gayly, and they twirled breathlessly.
Bronson's voice was harsh. "That's enough!" The view blurred for seconds.
Washington. The White House. The President. Someone coughed like a small explosion. The President was watching a television screen. He jerked erect suddenly, startled. Mike spoke for the first time in court.
"That is the President of the United States. He is watching the trial that is being broadcast and televised from this courtroom. He is listening to what I am saying right now, and he is watching, in his television screen, as I use my machine to show him what he was doing one second ago."
The President heard those fateful words. Stiffly he threw an unconscious glance around his room at nothing and looked hack at his screen in time to see himself do what he just had done, one second ago. Slowly, as if against his will, his hand started toward the switch of his set.
"Mr. President, don't turn off that set." Mike's voice was curt, almost rude. "You must hear this, you of all people in the world. You must understand!
"This is not what we wanted to do, but we have no recourse left but to appeal to you, and to the people of this twisted world." The President might have been cast in iron. "You must see, you must understand that you have in your hands the power to make it impossible for greed-born war to be bred in secrecy and rob man of his youth or his old age or whatever he prizes." His voice softened, pleaded. "That is all we have to say. That is all we want. This is all anyone could want, ever." The President, unmoving, faded into blackness. "The lights, please," and almost immediately the Court adjourned. That was over a month ago.
Mike's machine has been taken from us, and we are under military guard. Probably it's just as well we're guarded. We understand there have been lynching parties, broken up only as far as a block or two away. Last week we watched a white-haired fanatic scream about us, on the street below. We couldn't catch what he was shrieking, but we did catch a few airborne epithets.
"Devils! Anti-Christs! Violation of the Bible! Violations of this and that!" Some, right here in the city, I suppose, would be glad to build a bonfire to cook us right back to the flames from which we've sprung. I wonder what the various religious groups are going to do now that the truth can be seen. Who can read lips in Aramaic, or Latin, or Coptic? And is a mechanical miracle a miracle?
This changes everything. We've been moved. Where, I don't know, except that the weather is warm, and we're on some military reservation, by the lack of civilians. Now we know what we're up against. What started out to be just a time-killing occupation, Joe, has turned out to be a necessary preface to what I'm going to ask you to do. Finish this, and then move fast! We won't be able to get this to you for a while yet, so I’ll go on for a bit the way I started, to kill time. Like our clippings: TABLOID:
.. . Such a weapon cannot, must not be loosed in unscrupulous hands. The last professional production of the infamous pair proves what distortions can be wrested from isolated and misunderstood events. In the hands of perpetrators of heretical isms, no property, no business deal, no personal life could be sacrosanct, no foreign policy could be ...
... colonies stand with us firmly . . . liquidation of the Empire . . . white man's burden .. .
.. . rightful place . . . restore proud France . .
.. . democratic imperalist plot . . . our glorious scientists ready to announce .. .
... incontrovertibly prove divine descent .
.. . oil concessions . . . dollar diplomacy .. .
... under our noses in a sinister fortress on East Warren .. . under close Federal supervision ... perfection by our production-trained technicians a mighty aid to law-enforcement agencies ... tirades against politicians and business common-sense carried too far . . . tomorrow revelations by .. .
Council of Cardinals . . . announcement expected hourly .. .
handling will prove the fallacy of race equality .. .
Almost unanimously the press screamed; Pegler frothed, Winchell leered. We got the surface side of the situation from the press. But a military guard is composed of individuals, hotel rooms must be swept by maids, waiters must serve food, and a chain is as strong— We got what we think the truth from those who work for a living.
There are meetings on street corners and homes, two great veterans' groups have arbitrarily fired their officials, seven governors have resigned, three senators and over a dozen representatives have retired with "ill health," and the general temper is ugly. International travelers report the same of Europe, Asia is bubbling, and transport planes with motors running stud the airports of South America. A general whisper is that a Constitutional Amendment is being rammed through to forbid the use of any similar instrument by any individual, with the manufacture and leasing by the Federal government to law-enforcement agencies or financially-responsible corporations suggested; it is whispered that motor caravans are forming throughout the country for a Washington march to demand a decision by the Court on the truth of our charges; it is generally suspected that all news disseminating services are under direct Federal—Army control; wires are supposed to be sizzling with petitions and demands to Congress, which are seldom delivered.
One day the chambermaid said: "And the whole hotel might as well close up shop. The whole floor is blocked off, there're MP's at every door, and they're clearing out all the other guests as fast as they can be moved. The whole place wouldn't be big enough to hold the letters and wires addressed to you, or the ones that are trying to get in to see you. Fat chance they have," she added grimly. "The joint is lousy with brass."
Mike glanced at me and I cleared my throat. "What's your idea of the whole thing?"
Expertly she spanked and reversed a pillow. "I saw your last picture before they shut it down. I saw all your pictures. When I wasn't working I listened to your trial. I heard you tell them off. I never got married because my boy friend never came back from Burma. Ask him what he thinks," and she jerked her head at the young private that was supposed to keep her from talking. "Ask him if he wants some bunch of stinkers to start him shooting at some other poor chump. See what he says, and then ask me if I want an atom bomb dropped down my neck just because some chiselers want more than they got." She left suddenly, and the soldier left with her. Mike and I had a beer and went to bed. Next week the papers had headlines a mile high.
U. S. KEEPS
AWAITS STATES OKAY
We were freed all right, Bronson and the President being responsible for that. But the President and Bronson don't know, I'm sure, that we were rearrested immediately. We were told that we'll be held in "protective custody" until enough states have ratified the proposed constitutional amendment. The Man Without a Country was in what you might call "protective custody," too. We'll likely be released the same way he was.
We're allowed no newspapers, no radio, allowed no communication coming or going, and we're given no reason, as if that was necessary. They'll never, never let us go, and they'd be fools if they did. They think that if we can't communicate, or if we can't build another machine, our fangs are drawn, and when the excitement dies, we fall into oblivion, six feet of it. Well, we can't build another machine. But, communicate?
Look at it this way. A soldier is a soldier because he wants to serve his country. A soldier doesn't want to die unless his country is at war. Even then death is only a last resort. And war isn't necessary any more, not with our machine. In the dark? Try to plan or plot in absolute darkness, which is what would be needed. Try to plot or carry on a war without putting things in writing. O.K. Now—
The Army has Mike's machine. The Army has Mike. They call it military expendiency, I suppose. Bosh! Anyone beyond the grade of moron can see that to keep that machine, to hide it, is to invite the world to attack, and attack in self-defense. If every nation, or if every man, had a machine, each would be equally open, or equally protected. But if only one nation, or only one man can see, the rest will not long be blind. Maybe we did this all wrong. God knows that we thought about it often. God knows we did our best to make an effort at keeping man out of his own trap.
There isn't much time left. One of the soldiers guarding us will get this to you, I hope, in time.
A long time ago we gave you a key, and hoped we would never have to ask you to use it. But now is the time. That key fits a box at the Detroit Savings Bank, In that box are letters. Mail them, not all at once, or in the same place. They'll go all over the world, to men we know, and have watches well; clever, honest, and capable of following the plans we've enclosed.
But you've got to hurry! One of these bright days someone is going to wonder if we've made more than one machine. We haven't, of course. That would have been foolish. But if some smart young lieutenant gets hold of that machine long enough to start tracing back our movements they'll find that safety deposit box, with the plans and letters ready to be scattered broadside. You can see the need for haste—if the rest of the world, or any particular nation, wants that machine bad enough, they'll fight for it. And they will! They must? Later on, when the Army gets used to the machine and its capabilities, it will become obvious to everyone, as it already has to Mike and me, that, with every plan open to inspection as soon as it's made, no nation or group of nations would have a chance in open warfare. So if there is to be an attack, it will have to be deadly, and fast, and sure. Please God that we haven't shoved the world into a war we tried to make impossible. With all the atom bombs and rockets that have been made in the past few years—Joe, you've got to hurry!
GHQ TO 9TH ATTK GRP
Report report report report report report report report report report
CMDR 9TH ATTK GRP TO GHQ
BEGINS: No other manuscript found. Searched body of Lefko immediately upon landing. According to plan Building Three untouched. Survivors insist both were moved from Building Seven previous day defective plumbing. Body of Laviada identified definitely through fingerprints. Request further instructions. ENDS
GHQ TO CMDR 32ND SHIELDED ROT
BEGINS: Seal area Detroit Savings Bank. Advise immediately condition safety deposit boxes. Afford coming technical unit complete cooperation. ENDS
LT. COL. TEMP. ATT. 32ND SHIELDED RGT
BEGINS: Area Detroit Savings Bank vaporized direct hit. Radioactivity lethal. Impossible boxes or any contents survive.
Repeat, direct hit. Request permission proceed Washington Area. ENDS
GHQ TO LT. COL. TEMP. ATT. 32ND SHIELDED ROT
BEGINS: Request denied, Sift ashes if necessary regardless cost. Repeat, regardless cost. ENDS
GHQ. TO ALL UNITS REPEAT ALL UNITS
BEGINS: Lack of enemy resistance explained misdirected atom rocket seventeen miles SSE Washington. Lone survivor completely destroyed special train claims all top officials left enemy capital two hours preceding attack. Notify local governments where found necessary and obvious cessation hostilities. Occupy present areas Plan Two. Further Orders follow.
by Eric Frank Russell
COMMANDER CRUIN WENT DOWN THE EXTENDING METAL ladder, paused a rung from the bottom, placed one important foot on the new territory, and then the other. That made him the first of his kind on an unknown world.
He posed there in the sunlight, a big bull of a man meticulously attired for the occasion. Not a spot marred his faultlessly cut uniform of gray-green on which jeweled orders of merit sparkled and flashed. His jack boots glistened as they had never done since the day of launching from the home planet. The golden bells of his rank tinkled on his heel-hooks as he shifted his feet slightly. In the deep shadow beneath the visor of his ornate helmet his hard eyes held a glow of self-satisfaction.
A microphone came swinging down to him from the air lock he'd just left. Taking it in a huge left hand, he looked straight ahead with the blank intentness of one who sees long visions of the past and longer visions of the future. Indeed, this was as visionary a moment as any there had been in his world's history.
"In the name of Huld and the people of Huld," he enunciated officiously, "I take this planet." Then he saluted swiftly, slickly, like an automaton.
Facing him, twenty-two long, black spaceships simultaneously thrust from their forward ports their glorypoles ringed with the red-black-gold colors of Huld. Inside the vessels twenty-two crews of seventy men apiece stood rigidly erect, saluted, broke into well drilled song, "Oh, heavenly fatherland of Huld."
When they had finished, Commander Cruin saluted again. The crews repeated their salute. The glorypoles were drawn in. Cruin mounted the ladder, enterd his flagship. All locks were closed. Along the valley the twenty-two invaders lay in military formation, spaced equidistantly, noses and tails dead in line.
On a low hill a mile to the east are sent up a column of thick smoke. It spat and blazed amid the remnants of what had been the twenty-third vessel—and the eighth successive loss since the fleet had set forth three years ago. Thirty then. Twenty-two now.
The price of empire.
Reaching his cabin, Commander Cruin lowered his bulk into the seat behind his desk, took off his heavy helmet, adjusted an order of merit which was hiding modestly behind its neighbor.
"Step four," he commented with satisfaction.
Second Commander Jusik nodded respectfully. He handed the other a book. Opening it, Cruin meditated aloud. "Step one: Check planet's certain suitability for our form
of life." He rubbed his big jowls. "We know it's suitable."
"Yes, sir. This is a great triumph for you."
'"Thank you, Jusik." A craggy smile played momentarily on one side of Cruin's broad face. "Step two: Remain in planetary shadow at distance of not less than one diameter while scout boats survey world for evidence of superior life forms. Three: Select landing place far from largest sources of possible resistance but adjacent to a source small enough to be mastered. Four: Declare Huld's claim ceremoniously, as prescribed in manual on procedure and discipline." He worked his jowls again. "We've done all that."
The smile returned, and he glanced with satisfaction out of the small port near his chair. The port framed the smoke column on the hill. His expression changed to a scowl, and his jaw muscles lumped.
"Fully trained and completely qualified," he growled sardonically. "Yet he had to smash up. Another ship and crew lost in the very moment we reach our goal. The eighth such loss. There will be a purge in the astronautical training center when I return."
"Yes, sir," approved Jusik, dutifully. "There's no excuse for it."
"There are no excuses for anything," Cruin retorted.
Snorting his contempt, Cruin looked at his book. "Step five: Make all protective preparations as detailed in defense manual." He glanced up into Jusik's lean, clearcut features. "Every captain has been issued with a defense manual. Are they carrying out its orders?"
"Yes, sir. They have started already."
"They better had! I shall arrange a demotion of the slowest." Wetting a large thumb, he flipped a page over. "Step ,six: If planet does hold life forms of suspected intelligence, obtain specimens." Lying back in his seat he mused a moment, then barked: "Well, for what are you waiting?"
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"Get some examples," roared Cruin.
"Very well, sir." Without blinking, Jusik saluted, marched out.
The self-closer swung the door behind him. Cruin surveyed it with a jaundiced eye.
"Curse the training center," he rumbled. "It has deteriorated since I was there."
Putting his feet on the desk, he waggled his heels to make the bells tinkle while he waited for the examples.
Three specimens turned up of their own accord. They were seen standing wide-eyed in a row near the prow of number twenty-two, the endmost ship of the line. Captain Somir brought them along personally.
"Step six calls for specimens, sir," he explained to Commander Cruin. "I know that you require ones better than these, but I found these under our nose."
"Under your nose? You land and within short time other life forms are sightseeing around your vessel? What about your protective precautions?"
"They are not completed yet, sir. They take some time."
"What were your lookouts doing—sleeping?"
"No, sir," assured Somir desperately. "They did not think it necessary to sound a general alarm for such as these."
Reluctantly, Cruin granted the point. His gaze ran contemptuously over the trio. Three kids. One was a boy, knee-high, snubnosed, chewing at a chubby fist. The next, a skinny-legged, pigtailed girl obviously older than the boy. The third was another girl almost as tall as Somir, somewhat skinny, but with a hint of coming shapeliness hiding in her thin attire. All three were freckled, all had violently red hair.
The tall girl said to Cruin: "I'm Marva—Marva Meredith." She indicated her companions. "This is Sue and this is Sam.
We live over there, in Williamsville." She smiled at him and suddenly he noticed that her eyes were a rich and startling green. "We were looking for blueberries when we saw you come down."
Cruin grunted, rested his hands on his paunch. The fact that this planet's life manifestly was of his own shape and form impressed him not at all. It had never occurred to him that it could have proved otherwise. In Huldian thought, all superior life must be humanoid and no exploration had yet provided evidence to the contrary.
"I don't understand her alien gabble and she doesn't understand Huldian," he complained to Somir. "She must be dull-witted to waste her breath thus."
"Yes, sir," agreed Somir. "Do you wish me to hand them over to the tutors?"
"No. They're not worth it." He eyed the small boy's freckles with distaste, never having seen such a phenomenon before. "They are badly spotted and may be diseased. Pfaugh!" He grimaced with disgust. "Did they pass through the ray-sterilizing chamber as they came in?"
"Certainly, sir. I was most careful about that."
"Be equally careful about any more you may encounter." Slowly, his authoritative stare went from the boy to the pig-tailed girl and finally to the tall one. He didn't want to look at her, yet knew that he was going to. Her cool green eyes held something that made him vaguely uncomfortable. Unwillingly he met those eyes. She smiled again, with little dimples. "Kick 'em out!" he rapped at Somir.
"As you order, sir."
Nudging them, Somir gestured toward the door. The three took hold of each other's hands, filed out.
"Bye!" chirped the boy, solemnly.
"Bye!" said pigtails, shyly.
The tall girl turned in the doorway. "Good-by!"
Gazing at her uncomprehendingly, Cruin fidgeted in his chair. She dimpled at him, then the door swung to.
"Good-by." He mouthed the strange word to himself. Considering the circumstances in which it had been uttered, evidently it meant farewell. Already he had picked up one word of their language.
"Step seven: Gain communication by tutoring specimens until they are proficient in Huldian."
Teach them. Do not let them teach you—teach them. The slaves must learn from the masters, not the masters from the slaves.
"Good-by." He repeated it with savage self-accusation. A minor matter, but still an infringement of the book of rules. There are no excuses for anything.
Rockets rumbled and blasted deafeningly as ships maneuvered themselves into the positions laid down in the manual of defense. Several hours of careful belly-edging were required for this. In the end, the line had reshaped itself into two more groups of eleven-pointed stars, noses at the centers, tails outward. Ash of blast-destroyed grasses, shrubs and trees covered a wide area beyond the two menacing rings of main propulsion tubes which could incinerate anything within one mile.
This done, perspiring, dirt-coated crews lugged out their forward armaments, remounted them pointing outward in the spaces between the vessels' splayed tails. Rear armaments still aboard already were directed upward and outward. Armaments plus tubes now provided a formidable field of fire completely surrounding the double encampment. It was the Huldian master plan conceived by Huldian master planners. In other more alien estimation, it was the old covered-wagon technique, so incredibly ancient that it had been forgotten by all but most earnest students of the past. But none of the invaders knew that.
Around the perimeter they staked the small, fast, well-armed scouts of which there were two per ship. Noses outward, tails inward, in readiness for quick take-off, they were paired just beyond the parent vessels, below the propulsion tubes, and out of line of the remounted batteries. There was a lot of moving around to get the scouts positioned at precisely the same distances apart and making precisely the same angles. The whole arrangement had that geometrical exactness beloved of the military mind.
Pacing the narrow catwalk running along the top surface of his flagship, Commander Cruin observed his toiling crews with satisfaction. Organization, discipline, energy, unquestioning obedience—those were the prime essentials of efficiency. On such had Huld grown great. On such would Huld grow greater.
Reaching the tail-end, he leaned on the stop-rail, gazed down upon the concentric rings of wide, stubby venturis. His own crew were checking the angles of their two scouts already positioned. Four guards, heavily armed, came marching through the ash with Jusik in the lead. They had six prisoners.
Seeing him, Jusik bawled: "Halt!" Guard and guarded stopped with a thud of boots and a raise of dust. Looking up, Jusik saluted.
"Six specimens, sir."
Cruin eyed them indifferently. Half a dozen middle-aged men in drab, sloppily fitting clothes. He would not have given a snap of the fingers for six thousand of them.
The biggest of the captives, the one second from the left, had red hair and was sucking something that gave off smoke. His shoulders were wider than Cruin's own though he didn't look half the weight. Idly, the commander wondered whether the fellow had green eyes; he couldn't tell that from where he was standing.
Calmly surveying Cruin, this prisoner took the smoke-thing from his mouth and said, tonelessly: "By hokey, a brasshat!" Then he shoved the thing back between his lips and dribbled blue vapor.
The others looked doubtful, as if either they did not comprehend or found it past belief.
"Jeepers, no!" said the one on the right, a gaunt individual with thin, saturnine features.
"I'm telling you," assured Redhead in the same flat voice.
"Shall I take them to the tutors, sir?" asked Jusik.
"Yes."' Unleaning from the rail, Cruin carefully adjusted his white gloves. "Don't bother me with them again until they are certified as competent to talk." Answering the other's salute, he paraded back along the catwalk.
"Seer' said Redhead, picking up his feet in time with the guard. He seemed to take an obscure pleasure in keeping in step with the guard. Winking at the nearest prisoner, he let a curl of aromatic smoke trickle from the side of his mouth.
Tutors Fane and Parth sought an interview the following evening. Jusik ushered them in, and Cruin looked up irritably from the report he was writing.
Fane said: "Sir, these prisoners suggest that we share their homes for a while and teach them to converse there."
"How did they suggest that?"
"Mostly by signs," explained Fane.
"And what made you think that so nonsensical a plan had sufficient merit to make it worthy of my attention?"
"There are aspects about which you should be consulted," Fane continued stubbornly. "The manual of procedure and discipline declares that such matters must be placed before the commanding officer whose decision is final."
"Quite right, quite right." He regarded Fane with a little more favor. "What are these matters?"
"Time is important to us, and the quicker these prisoners learn our language the better it will be. Here, their minds are occupied by their predicament. They think too much of their friends and families. In their own homes it would be different, and they could learn at great speed."
"A weak pretext," scoffed Cruin.
"That is not all. By nature they are naive and friendly. I feel that we have little to fear from them. Had they been hostile they would have attacked by now."
"Not necessarily. It is wise to be cautious. The manual of defense emphasizes that fact repeatedly. These creatures may wish first to gain the measure of us before they try to deal with us."
Fane was prompt to snatch the opportunity. "Your point, sir, is also my final one. Here, they are six pairs of eyes and six pairs of ears in the middle of us, and their absence is likely to give cause for alarm in their home town. Were they there, complacency would replace that alarm—and we would be the eyes and ears!"
"Well put," commented Jusik, momentarily forgetting himself.
"Be silent!" Cruin glared at him. "I do not recall any ruling in the manual pertaining to such a suggestion as this. Let me check up." Grabbing his books, he sought through them. He took a long time about it, gave up, and said: "The only pertinent rule appears to be that in circumstances not specified in the manual the decision is wholly mine, to be made in light of said circumstances providing that they do not conflict with the rulings of any other manual which may be applicable to the situation, and providing that my decision does not effectively countermand that or those of any senior ranking officer whose authority extends to the same area." He took a deep breath.
"Yes, sir," said Fane.
"Quite, sir," said Parth.
Cruin frowned heavily. "How far away are these prisoners' homes?"
"One hour's walk." Fane made a persuasive gesture. "If anything did happen to us—which I consider extremely unlikely—one scout could wipe out their little town before they'd time to realize what had happened. One scout, one bomb, one minute!" Dexterously, he added, "At your order, sir."
Cruin preened himself visibly. "I see no reason why we should not take advantage of their stupidity." His eyes asked Jusik what he thought, but that person failed to notice. "Since you two tutors have brought this plan to me, I hereby approve it, and I appoint you to carry it through." He consulted a list which he extracted from a drawer. "Take two psychologists with you—Kalma and Hefni."
"Very well, sir." Impassively, Fane saluted and went out, Parth following.
Staring absently at his half-written report, Cruin fiddled with his pen for a while, glanced up at Jusik, and spat: "At what are you smiling?"
Jusik wiped it from his face, looked solemn.
"Come on. Out with it!"
"I was thinking, sir," replied Jusik, slowly, "that three years in a ship is a very long time."
Slamming his pen on the desk, Cruin stood up. "Has it been any longer for others than for me?"
"For you," said Jusik, daringly but respectfully, "I think it has been longest of all." .
"Get out!" shouted Cruin.
He watched the other go, watched the self-closer push the door, waited for its last click. He shifted his gaze to the port, stared hard-eyed into the gathering dusk. His heelbells were silent as he stood unmoving and saw the invisible sun sucking its last rays from the sky.
In short time, ten figures strolled through the twilight toward the distant, tree-topped hill. Four were uniformed; six in drab, shapeless clothes. They went by conversing with many gestures, and one of them laughed. He gnawed his bottom lip as his gaze followed them until they were gone.
The price of rank.
"Step eight: Repel initial attacks in accordance with techniques detailed in manual of defense." Cruin snorted, put up one hand, tidied his orders of merit.
"There have been no attacks," said Jusik.
"I am not unaware of the fact." The commander glowered at him. "I'd have preferred an onslaught. We are ready for them. The sooner they match their strength against ours the sooner they'll learn who's boss now!" He hooked big thumbs in his silver-braided belt. "And besides, it would give the men something to do. I cannot have them everlastingly repeating their drills of procedure. We've been here nine days and nothing has happened." His attention returned to the book. "Step nine: Follow defeat of initial attacks by taking aggressive action as detailed in manual of defense." He gave another snort. "How can one follow something that has not occurred?"
"It is impossible," Jusik ventured.
"Nothing is impossible," Cruin contradicted, harshly. "Step ten: In the unlikely event that intelligent life displays indifference or amity, remain in protective formation while specimens are being tutored, meanwhile employing scout vessels to survey surrounding area to the limit of their flight-duration, using no more than one-fifth of the numbers available at any time."
"That allows us eight or nine scouts on survey," observed Jusik, thoughtfully. "What is our authorized step if they fail to return?"
"Why'd you ask that?"
'Those eight scouts I sent out on your orders forty periods ago are overdue."
Viciously, Commander Cruin thrust away his book. His broad, heavy face was dark red.
"Second Commander Jusik, it was your duty to report this fact to me the moment those vessels became overdue."
"Which I have," said Jusik, imperturbably. 'They have a flight-duration of forty periods, as you know. That, sir, made them due a short time ago. They are now late."
Cruin tramped twice across the room, medals clinking, heelbells jangling. "The answer to nonappearance is immediately to obliterate the areas in which they are held. No half-measures. A salutary lesson."
"Which areas, sir?"
Stopping in mid-stride, Cruin bawled: "You ought to know that. Those scouts had properly formulated route orders, didn't they? It's a simple matter to—"
He ceased as a shrill whine passed overhead, lowered to a dull moan in the distance, curved back on a rising note again.
"Number one." Jusik looked at the little timemeter on the wall. "Late, but here. Maybe the others will turn up now."
"Somebody's going to get a sharp lesson if they don't!"
"I'll see what he has to report." Saluting, Jusik hurried through the doorway.
Gazing out of his port, Cruin observed the delinquent scout belly-sliding up to the nearest formation. He chewed steadily at his bottom lip, a slow, persistent chew which showed his thoughts to be wandering around in labyrinths of their own.
Beyond the fringe of dank, dead ash were golden butter-cups in the grasses, and a hum of bees, and the gentle rustle of leaves on trees. Four engine-room wranglers of ship number seventeen had found this sanctuary and sprawled flat on their backs in the shade of a big-leafed and blossom-ornamented growth. With eyes closed, their hands plucked idly at surrounding grasses while they maintained a lazy, desultory conversation through which they failed to hear the ring of Cruin's approaching bells.
Standing before them, his complexion florid, he roared: "Get up!"
Shooting to their feet, they stood stiffly shoulder to shoulder, faces expressionless, eyes level, hands at their sides.
"Your names?" He wrote them in his notebook while obediently they repeated them in precise, unemotional voices. "I'll deal with you later," he promised. "March!"
Together, they saluted, marched off with a rhythmic pounding of boots, one-two-three-hup! His angry stare followed them until they reached the shadow of their ship. Not until then did he turn and proceed. Mounting the hill, one cautious hand continually on the cold butt of his gun, reached the crest, gazed down into the valley he'd just left. In neat, exact positioning, the two star-formations of the ships of Huld were silent and ominous.
His hard, authoritative eyes turned to the other side of the hill. There, the landscape was pastoral. A wooded slope ran down to a little river which meandered into the hazy distance, and on its farther side was a broad patchwork of cultivated fields in which three houses were visible.
Seating himself on a large rock, Cruin loosened his gun in its holster, took a wary look around, extracted a small wad of reports from his pocket and glanced over them for the twentieth time. A faint smell of herbs and resin came to his nostrils as he read.
"I circled this landing place at low altitude and recorded it photographically, taking care to include all the machines standing thereon. Two other machines which were in the air went on their way without attempting to interfere. It then occurred to me that the signals they were making from the ground might he an invitation to land, and I decided to utilize opportunism as recommended in the manual of procedure. Therefore I landed. They conducted my scout vessel to a dispersal point off the runway and made me welcome."
Something fluted liquidly in a nearby tree. Cruin looked up, his hand automatically seeking his holster. It was only a bird. Skipping parts of the report, he frowned over the concluding words.
.. lack of common speech made it difficult for me to refuse, and after the sixth drink during my tour of the town I was suddenly afflicted with a strange paralysis in the legs and collapsed into the arms of my companions. Believing that they had poisoned me by guile, I prepared for death .. . tickled my throat while making jocular remarks . . . I was a little sick." Cruin rubbed his chin in puzzlement. "Not until they were satisfied about my recovery did they take me back to my vessel. They waved their hands at me as I took off. I apologize to my captain for overdue return and plead that it was because of factors beyond my control."
The fluter came down to Cruin's feet, piped at him plaintively. It cocked its head sidewise as it examined him with bright, beady eyes.
Shifting the sheet he'd been reading, he scanned the next one. It was neatly typewritten, and signed jointly by Parth, Fane, Kalma and Hefni.
"Do not appear fully to appreciate what has occurred .. . seem to view the arrival of a Huldian fleet as just another incident. They have a remarkable self-assurance which is incomprehensible inasmuch as we can find nothing to justify such an attitude. Mastery of them should be so easy that if our homing vessel does not leave too soon it should be possible for it to bear tidings of conquest as well as of mere discovery."
"Conquest," he murmured. It had a mighty imposing sound. A word like that would send a tremendous thrill of excitement throughout the entire world of Huld.
Five before him had sent back ships telling of discovery, but none had gone so far as he, none had traveled so long and wearily, none had been rewarded with a planet so big, lush, desirable—and none had reported the subjection of their finds. One cannot conquer a rocky waste. But this…
In peculiarly accented Huldian, a voice behind him said, brightly: "Good morning!"
He came up fast, his hand sliding to his side, his face hard with authority.
She was laughing at him with her clear green eyes. "Remember me—Marva Meredith?" Her flaming hair was wind-blown. "You see," she went on, in slow, awkward tones. "I know a little Huldian already. Just a few words."
"Who taught you?" he asked, bluntly.
"Fane and Parth."
"It is your house to which they have gone?"
"Oh, yes. Kalma and Hefni are guesting with Bill Gleeson; Fane and Parth with us. Father brought them to us. They share the welcome room."
"Of course." Perching herself on his rock, she drew up her slender legs, rested her chin on her knees. He noticed that the legs, like her face, were freckled. "Of course. Everyone has a welcome room, haven't they?"
Cruin said nothing.
"Haven't you a welcome room in your home?"
"Home?" His eyes strayed away from hers, sought the fluting bird. It wasn't there. Somehow, his hand had left his holster without realizing it. He was holding his hands together, each nursing the other, clinging, finding company, soothing each other.
Her gaze was on his hands as she said, softly and hesitantly, "You have got a home . . . somewhere . . . haven't you?"
Lowering her legs, she stood up. "I'm so sorry."
"You are sorry for me?" His gaze switched back to her. It held incredulity, amazement, a mite of anger. His voice was harsh. "You must be singularly stupid."
"Am I?" she asked, humbly.
"No Member of my expedition has a home," he went on. "Every man was carefully selected. Every man passed through a screen, suffered the most exacting tests. Intelligence and technical competence were not enough; each had also to be young, healthy, without ties of any sort. They were chosen for ability to concentrate on the task in hand without indulging morale-lowering sentimentalities about people left behind."
"I don't understand some of your long words," she complained. "And you are speaking far too fast."
He repeated it more slowly and with added emphasis, finishing, "Spaceships undertaking long absence from base cannot be handicapped by homesick crews. We picked men without homes because they can leave Huld and not care a hoot. They are pioneers!"
"'Young, healthy, without ties,' " she quoted. "That makes them strong?"
"Definitely," he asserted.
"Men especially selected for space. Strong men." Her lashes hid her eyes as she looked down at her narrow feet. "But now they are not in space. They are here, on firm ground."
"What of it," he demanded.
"Nothing." Stretching her arms wide, she took a deep breath, then dimpled at him. "Nothing at all."
"You're only a child," he reminded, scornfully. "When you grow older—"
"You'll have more sense," she finished for him, chanting it in a high, sweet voice. "You'll have more sense, you'll have more sense. When you grow older you'll have more sense, tra-la-la-lala!"
Gnawing irritatedly at his lip, he walked past her, started down the hill toward the ships.
"Where are you going?"
"Back!" he snapped.
"Do you like it down there?" Her eyebrows arched in surprise.
Stopping ten paces away, he scowled at her. "Is it any of your business?"
"I didn't mean to be inquisitive," she apologized. "I asked because . . . because—"
"I was wondering whether you would care to visit my house."
"Nonsense! Impossible!" He turned to continue downhill.
"Father suggested it. He thought you might like to share a meal. A fresh one. A change of diet. Something to break the monotony of your supplies." The wind lifted her crimson hair and played with it as she regarded him speculatively. "He consulted Fane and Parth. They said it was an excellent idea."
"They did, did they?" His features seemed molded in iron. "Tell Pane and Parth they are to report to me at sunset." He paused, added, "Without fail!"
Resuming her seat on the rock, she watched him stride heavily down the slope toward the double star-formation. Her hands were together in her lap, much as he had held his. But hers sought nothing of each other. In complete repose, they merely rested with the ineffable patience of hands as old as time.
Seeing at a glance that he was liverish, Jusik promptly postponed certain suggestions that he had in mind.
"Summon captains Drek and Belthan," Cruin ordered. When the other had gone, he flung his helmet onto the desk, surveyed himself in a mirror. He was still smoothing the tired lines on his face when approaching footsteps sent him officiously behind his desk.
Entering, the two captains saluted, remained rigidly at attention. Cruin studied them irefully while they preserved wooden expressions.
Eventually, be said: "I found four men lounging like undisciplined hoboes outside the safety zone." He stared at Drek. "They were from your vessel." The stare shifted to Belthan. "You are today's commander of the guard. Have either of you anything to say?"
"They were off-duty and free to leave the ship," exclaimed Drek. "They had been warned not to go beyond the perimeter of ash."
"I don't know how they slipped through," said Belthan, in official monotone. "Obviously the guards were lax. The fault is mine."
"It will count against you in your promotion records," Cruin promised. "Punish these four, and the responsible guards, as laid down in the manual of procedure and discipline." He leaned across the desk to survey them more closely. "A repetition will bring ceremonial demotion!" "Yes, sir," they chorused.
Dismissing them, he glanced at Jusik. "When tutors Fane and Parth report here, send them in to me without delay." "As you order, sir."
Cruin dropped the glance momentarily, brought it back. "What's the matter with you?"
"Me?" Jusik became self-conscious. "Nothing, sir."
"You lie! One has to live with a person to know him. I've lived on your neck for three years. I know you too well to be deceived. You have something on your mind."
"It's the men," admitted Jusik, resignedly.
"What of them?"
"They are restless."
"Are they? Well, I can devise a cure for that! What's making them restless?"
"Several things, sir."
Cruin waited while Jusik stayed dumb, then roared: "Do I have to prompt you?"
"No, sir," Jusik protested, unwillingly. "It's many things. Inactivity. The substitution of tedious routine. The constant waiting, waiting, waiting right on top of three years close incarceration. They wait—and nothing happens."
"The sight and knowledge of familiar life just beyond the ash. The realization that Fane and Parth and the others are enjoying it with your consent. The stories told by the scouts about their experiences on landing." His gaze was steady as he went on. "We've now sent out five squadrons of scouts, a total of forty vessels. Only six came back on time. All the rest were late on one plausible pretext or another. The pilots have talked, and shown the men various souvenir photographs and a few gifts. One of them is undergoing punishment for bringing back some bottles of paralysis-mixture. But the damage has been done. Their stories have unsettled the men."
"Begging your pardon, sir, there was also the sight of you taking a stroll to the top of the hill. They envied you even that!" He looked squarely at Cruin. "I envied you myself."
"I am the commander," said Cruin.
"Yes, sir." Jusik kept his gaze on him but added nothing more.
If the second commander expected a delayed outburst, he was disappointed. A complicated series of emotions chased each other across his superior's broad, beefy features. Laying back in his chair, Cruin's eyes looked absently through the port while his mind juggled with Jusik's words.
Suddenly, be rasped: "I have observed more, anticipated more and given matters more thought than perhaps you realize. I can see something which you may have failed to perceive. It has caused me some anxiety. Briefly, if we don't keep pace with the march of time we're going to find ourselves in a fix."
"I don't wish you to mention this to anyone else: I suspect that we are trapped in a situation bearing no resemblance to any dealt with in the manuals."
"Really, sir?" Jusik licked his lips, felt that his own outspokenness was leading into unexpected paths.
"Consider our present circumstances," Cruin went on. "We are established here and in possession of power sufficient to enslave this planet. Any one of our supply of bombs could blast a portion of this earth stretching from horizon to horizon. But they're of no use unless we apply them effectively. We can't drop them anywhere, haphazardly. If parting with them in so improvident a manner proved unconvincing to our opponents, and failed to smash the hard core of their resistance, we would find ourselves unarmed in a hostile world. No more bombs. None nearer than six long years away, three there and three back. Therefore we must apply our power where it will do the most good." He began to massage his heavy chin. "We don't know where to apply it."
"No, sir," agreed Jusik, pointlessly.
"We've got to determine which cities are the key points of their civilization, which persons are this planet's acknowledged leaders, and where they're located. When we strike, it must be at the nerve-centers. That means we're impotent until we get the necessary information. In turn, that means we've got to establish communication with the aid of tutors." He started plucking at his jaw muscles. "And that takes time!"
"Quite, sir, but—"
"But while time crawls past the men's morale evaporates.This is our twelfth day and already the crews are restless. Tomorrow they'll be more so."
"I have a solution to that, sir, if you will forgive me for offering it," said Jusik, eagerly. "On Huld everyone gets one day's rest in five. They are free to do as they like, go where they like. Now if you promulgated an order permitting the men say one day's liberty in ten, it would mean that no more than ten percent of our strength would be lost on any one day. We could stand that reduction considering our power, especially if more of the others are on protective duty."
"So at last I get what was occupying your mind. It comes out in a swift flow of words." He smiled grimly as the other flushed. "I have thought of it. I am not quite so unimaginative as you may consider me."
"I don't look upon you that way, sir," Jusik protested.
"Never mind. We'll let that pass. To return to this subject of liberty—there lies the trap! There is the very quandary with which no manual deals, the situation for which I can find no officially prescribed formula." Putting a hand on his desk he tapped the polished surface impatiently. "If I refuse these men a little freedom, they will become increasingly restless—naturally. If I permit them the liberty they desire, they will experience contact with life more normal even though alien, and again become more restless--naturally!"
"Permit me to doubt the latter, sir. Our crews are loyal to Huld. Blackest space forbid that it should be otherwise!"
"They were loyal. Probably they are still loyal." Cruin's face quirked as his memory brought forward the words that followed. "They are young, healthy, without ties. In space, that means one thing. Here, another." He came slowly to his feet, big, bulky and imposing. "I know!"
Looking at him, Jusik felt that indeed he did know. "Yes, sir," he parroted, obediently.
"Therefore the onus of what to do for the best falls squarely upon me. I must use my initiative. As second commander it is for you to see that my orders are carried out to the letter."
"I know my duty, sir." Jusik's thinly-drawn features registered growing uneasiness.
"And it is my final decision that the men must be restrained from contact with our opponents, with no exceptions other than the four technicians operating under my orders. The crews are to be permitted no liberty, no freedom to go beyond the ash. Any form of resentment on their part must be countered immediately and ruthlessly. You will instruct the captains to watch for murmurers in their respective crews and take appropriate action to silence them as soon as found." His jowls jumped, and his eyes were cold as he regarded the other. "All scout-flights are canceled as from now, and all scout-vessels remain grounded. None moves without my personal instructions."
"That is going to deprive us of a lot of information," Jusik observed. "The last flight to the south reported discovery of ten cities completely deserted, and that's got some significance which we ought to—"
"I said the flights are canceled!" Cruin shouted. "If I say the scout-vessels are to be painted pale pink, they will be painted pale pink, thoroughly, completely, from end to end. I am the commander!"
"As you order, sir."
"Finally, you may instruct the captains that their vessels are to be prepared for my inspection at midday tomorrow. That will give the crews something to do."
"Very well, sir."
With a worried salute, Jusik opened the door, glanced out and said: "Here are Fane, Kalma, Parth and Hefni, sir." "Show them in."
After Cruin had given forcible expression to his views, Fane said: "We appreciate the urgency, sir, and we are doing our best, but it is doubtful whether they will be fluent before another four weeks have passed. They are slow to learn."
"I don't want fluency," Cruin growled. "All they need are enough words to tell us the things we want to know, the things we must know before we can get anywhere."
"I said sufficient fluency," Fane reminded. "They communicate mostly by signs even now."
"That flame-headed girl didn't."
"She has been quick," admitted Fane. "Possibly she has an above-normal aptitude for languages. Unfortunately she knows the least in any military sense and therefore is of little use to us."
Cruin's gaze ran over him balefully. His voice became low and menacing. "You have lived with these people many days. I look upon your features and find them different. Why is that?"
"Different?" The four exchanged wondering looks.
"Your faces have lost their lines, their space-gauntness. Your cheeks have become plump, well-colored. Your eyes are no, longer tired. They are bright. They hold the self-satisfied expression of a fat skodar wallowing in its trough. It is obvious that you have done well for yourselves." He bent forward, his mouth ugly. "Can it be that you are in no great hurry to complete your task?"
They were suitably shocked.
"We have eaten well and slept regularly," Fane said. "We feel better for it. Our physical improvement has enabled us to work so much the harder. In our view, the foe is supporting us unwittingly with his own hospitality, and since the manual of—"
"Hospitality?" Cruin cut in, sharply.
Fane went mentally off-balance as vainly he sought for a less complimentary synonym.
"I give you another week," the commander harshed. "No more. Not one day more. At this time, one week from today, you will report here with the six prisoners adequately tutored to understand my questions and answer them."
"It will be difficult, sir."
"Nothing is difficult. Nothing is impossible. There are no excuses for anything." He studied Fane from beneath forbidding brows. "You have my orders—obey them!"
His hard stare shifted to Kalma and Hefni. "So much for the tutors; now you. What have you to tell me? How much have you discovered?"
Blinking nervously, Hefni said: "It is not a lot. The language trouble is—"
"May the Giant Sun burn up and perish the language trouble! How much have you learned while enjoyably larding your bellies?"
Glancing down at his uniform-belt as if suddenly and painfully conscious of its tightness, Hefni recited: "They are exceedingly strange in so far as they appear to be highly civilized in a purely domestic sense but quite primitive in all others. This Meredith family lives in a substantial, well-equipped house. They have every comfort, including a color-television receiver."
"You're dreaming! We are still seeking the secrets of plain television even on Huld. Color is unthinkable."
Kalma chipped in with: "Nevertheless, sir, they have it. We have seen it for ourselves."
"That is so," confirmed Fane.
"Shut up!" Cruin burned him with a glare. "I have finished with you. I am now dealing with these two." His attention returned to the quaking Hefni: "Carry on."
"There is something decidedly queer about them which we've not yet been able to understand. They have no medium of exchange. They barter goods for goods without any regard for the relative values of either. They work when they feel like it. If they don't feel like it, they don't work. Yet, in spite of this, they work most of the time."
"Why?" demanded Cruin, incredulously.
"We asked them. They said that one works to avoid boredom. We cannot comprehend that viewpoint." Hefni made a defeated gesture. "In many places they have small factories which, with their strange, perverted logic, they use as amusement centers. These plants operate only when people turn up to work."
"Eh?" Cruin looked baffled.
"For example, in Williamsville, a small town an hour's walk beyond the Meredith home, there is a shoe factory. It operates every day. Some days there may be only ten workers there, other days fifty or a hundred, but nobody can remember a time when the place stood idle for lack of one voluntary worker. Meredith's elder daughter, Marva, has worked there three days during our stay with them. We asked her the reason."
"What did she say?"
"Fun . . . fun . . . fun?" Cruin struggled with the concept. "What does that mean?"
"We don't know," Hefni confessed. "The barrier of speech—"
"Red flames lick up the barrier of speech!" Cruin bawled. "Was her attendance compulsory?"
"You are certain of that?"
"We are positive. One works in a factory for no other reason than because one feels like it."
"For what reward?" topped Cruin, shrewdly.
"Anything or nothing." Hefni uttered it like one in a dream."One day she brought back a pair of shoes for her mother. We asked if they were her reward for the work she had done. She said they were not, and that someone named George had made them and given them to her. Apparently the rest of the factory's output for that week was shipped to another town where shoes were required. This other town is going to send back a supply of leather, nobody knows how much—and nobody seems to care."
"Senseless," defined Cruin. "It is downright imbecility." He examined Hefni as if suspecting him of inventing confusing data. "It is impossible for even the most primitive of organizations to operate so haphazardly. Obviously you have seen only part of the picture; the rest has been concealed from you, or you have been too dull-witted to perceive it."
"I assure you, sir," began Hefni.
"Let it pass," Crain cut in. "Why should I care how they function economically? In the end, they'll work the way we want them to!" He rested his heavy jaw in one hand. "There are other matters which interest me more. For instance, our scouts have brought in reports of many cities. Some are organized but grossly under-populated; others are completely deserted. The former have well-constructed landing places with air-machines making use of them. How is it that people so primitive have air-machines?"
"Some make shoes, some make air-machines, some play with television. They work according to their aptitudes as well as their inclinations."
"Has this Meredith got an air-machine?"
"No." The look of defeat was etched more deeply on Hefni's face. "If he wanted one he would have his desire inserted in the television supply-and-demand program."
"Sooner or later, he'd get one, new or secondhand, either in exchange for something or as a gift."
"Just by asking for it?"
Getting up, Crain strode to and fro across his office. The steel heel-plates on his boots clanked on the metal floor in rhythm with the bells. He was ireful, impatient, dissatisfied.
"In all this madness is nothing which tells us anything of their true character or their organization." Stopping his stride, he faced Hefni. "You boasted that you were to be the eyes and ears." He released a loud snort. "Blind eyes and deaf ears! Not one word about their numerical strength, not one—"
"Pardon me, sir," said Hefni quickly, "there are twenty-seven millions of them."
"Ah!" Cruin registered sharp interest. "Only twenty-seven millions? Why, there's a hundred times that number on Huld which has no greater area of land surface." He mused a moment. "Greatly underpopulated. Many cities devoid of a living soul. They have air-machines and other items suggestive of a civilization greater than the one they now enjoy. They operate the remnants of an economic system. You realize what all this means?"
Hefei blinked, made no reply. Kalma looked thoughtful. Fane and Parth remained blank-faced and tight-lipped.
"It means two things," Cruin pursued. "War or disease. One or the other, or perhaps both—and on a large scale. I want information on that. I've got to learn what sort of weapons they employed in their war, how many of them remain available, and where. Or, alternatively, what disease ravished their numbers, its source, and its cure." He tapped Hefni's chest to emphasize his words. "I want to know what they've got hidden away, what they're trying to keep from your knowledge against the time when they can bring it out and use it against us. Above all, I want to know which people will issue orders for their general offensive and where they are located."
"I understand, sir," said Hefni, doubtfully.
"That's the sort of information I need from your six specimens. I want information, not invitations to meals!" His grin was ugly as he noted Hefni's wince. "If you can get it out of them before they're due here, I shall enter the fact on the credit side of your records. But if I, your commander, have to do your job by extracting it from them myself—" Ominously, be left the sentence unfinished.
Hefni opened his mouth, closed it, glanced nervously at Kalma who stood stiff and dumb at his side.
"You may go," Cruin snapped at the four of them. "You have one week. If you fail me, I shall deem it a front-line offense and deal with it in accordance with the active-service section of the manual of procedure and discipline."
They were pale as they saluted. He watched them file out, his lips curling contemptuously. Going to the port, he gazed into the gathering darkness, saw a pale star winking in the east. Low and far it was—but not so far as Huld.
In the mid-period of the sixteenth day, Commander Cruin strode forth polished and bemedaled, directed his bell-jangling feet toward the hill. A sour-faced guard saluted him at the edge of the ash and made a slovenly job of it.
"Is that the beat you can do?" He glared into the other's surly eyes. "Repeat it!"
The guard saluted a fraction more swiftly.
"You're out of practice," Cruin informed. "Probably all the crews are out of practice. We'll find a remedy for that. We'll have a period of saluting drill every day." His glare went slowly up and down the guard's face. "Are you dumb?"
"Shut up!" roared Cruin. He expanded his chest. "Continue with your patrol."
The guard's optics burned with resentment as he saluted for the third time, turned with the regulation heel-click and marched along the perimeter.
Mounting the hill, Cruin sat on the stone at the top. Alternately he viewed the ships lying in the valley and the opposite scene with its trees, fields and distant houses. The metal helmet with its ornamental wings was heavy upon his head but he did not remove it. In the shadow beneath the projecting visor, his cold eyes brooded over the landscape to one side and the other.
She came eventually. He had been sitting there for one and a half periods when she came as he had known she would—without knowing what weird instinct had made him certain of this. Certainly, he had no desire to see her—no desire at all.
Through the trees she tripped light-footed, with Sue and Sam and three other girls of her own age. The newcomers had large, dark, humorous eyes, their hair was dark, and they were leggy.
"Oh, hello!" She paused as she saw him.
"Hello!" echoed Sue, swinging her pigtails.
"'La!" piped Sam, determined not to he left out.
Cruin frowned at them. There was a high gloss on his jack boots, and his helmet glittered in the sun.
"These are my friends," said Marva, in her alien-accented Huldian. "Becky, Rita and Joyce."
The three smiled at him.
"I brought them to see the ships."
Cruin said nothing.
"You don't mind them looking at the ships, do you?"
“No," he growled with reluctance.
Lankily but gracefully she seated herself on the grass. The others followed suit with the exception of Sam who stood with fat legs braced apart sucking his thumb, and solemnly studying Cruin's decorated jacket.
"Father was disappointed because you could not visit us." Cruin made no reply.
"Mother was sorry, too. She's a wonderful cook. She loves a guest."
"Would you care to come this evening?"
"Some other evening?"
"Young lady," he harshed, severely, "I do not pay visits. Nobody pays visits."
She translated this to the others. They laughed so heartily that Cruin reddened and stood up.
"What's funny about that?" he demanded.
"Nothing, nothing." Marva was embarrassed. "If I told you, I fear that you would not understand."
"I would not understand." His grim eyes became alert, calculating as they went over her three friends. "I do not think, somehow, that they were laughing at me. Therefore they were laughing at what I do not know. They were laughing at something I ought to know but which you do not wish to tell me." He bent over her, huge and muscular, while she looked up at him with her great green eyes. "And what remark of mine revealed my amusing ignorance?"
Her steady gaze remained on him while she made no answer. A faint but sweet scent exuded from her hair.
"I said that nobody pays visits," he repeated. "That was the amusing remark—nobody pays visits. And I am not a fool!" Straightening, he turned away. "So I am going to call the rolls!"
He could feel their eyes upon him as he started down the valley. They were silent except for Sam's high-pitched, childish, "Bye!" which he ignored.
Without once looking back, he gained his flagship, mounted its metal ladder, made his way to the office and summoned Jusik.
`"Order the captains to call their rolls at once." "Is something wrong, sir?" inquired Jusik, anxiously.
"Call the roles!" Cruin bellowed, whipping off his helmet. "Then we'll know whether anything is wrong." Savagely, he flung the helmet onto a wall hook, sat down, mopped his forehead!
Jusik was gone for most of a period. In the end he returned, set-faced, grave.
"I regret to report that eighteen men are absent, sir."
"They laughed," said Cruin, bitterly. "They laughed—because they knew!" His knuckles were white as his hands gripped the arms of his chair.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" Jusik's eyebrows lifted. "How long have they been absent?"
"Eleven of them were on duty this morning."
"That means the other seven have been missing since yesterday?"
"I'm afraid so, sir."
"But no one saw fit to inform me of this fact?" Jusik fidgeted: "No, sir."
"Have you discovered anything else of which I have not been informed?"
The other fidgeted again, looked pained.
"Out with it, man!"
"It is not the absentees' first offense," Jusik said with difficulty. "Nor their second. Perhaps not their sixth."
`"How long has this been going on?" Cruin waited a while, then bawled: "Come on! You are capable of speech!"
"About ten days, sir."
"How many captains were aware of this and failed to report it?"
"Nine, sir. Four of them await your bidding outside."
"And what of the other five?"
"They . . . they—" Jusik licked his lips.
Cruin arose, his expression dangerous. "You cannot conceal the truth by delaying it."
"They are among the absentees, sir."
"I see!" Cruin stamped to the door, stood by it. "We can take it for granted that others have absented themselves without permission, but were fortunate enough to be here when the rolls were called. That is their good luck. The real total of the disobedient cannot be discovered. They have sneaked away like nocturnal animals, and in the same manner they sneak back. All are guilty of desertion in the face of the enemy. There is one penalty for that."
"Surely, sir, considering the circ—"
"Considering nothing!" Cruin's voice shot up to an enraged shout. "Death! The penally is death!" Striding to the table, he hammered the books lying upon it. "Summary execution as laid down in the manual of procedure and discipline. Desertion, mutinous conduct, defiance of a superior officer, conspiracy to thwart regulations and defy my orders—all punishable by death!" His voice lowered as swiftly as it had gone up. "Besides, my dear Jusik, if we fail through disintegration attributable to our own deliberate disregard of the manuals, what will be the penalty payable by us? What will it be, eh?"
"Death," admitted Jusik. He looked at Cruin. "On Huld, anyway "
"We are on Huld! This is Huld! I have claimed this planet in the name of Huld and therefore it is part of it."
"A mere claim, sir, if I may say—"
"Jusik, are you with these conspirators in opposing my authority?" Cruin's eyes glinted. His hand lay over his gun.
"Oh, no, sir!" The second commander's features mirrored the emotions conflicting within him. "But permit me to point out, sir, that we are a brotherly band who've been cooped together a long, long time and already have suffered losses getting here as we shall do getting back. One can hardly expect the men to—"
"I expect obedience!" Cruin's hand remained on the gun. "I expect iron discipline and immediate, willing, unquestionable obedience. With those, we conquer. Without them, we fail." He gestured to the door. "Are those captains properly prepared for examination as directed in the manuals?"
"Yes, sir. They are disarmed and under guard."
"Parade them in." Leaning on the edge of his desk, Cruin prepared to pass judgment on his fellows. The minute he waited for them was long, long as any minute he had ever known.
There had been scent in her hair. And her eyes were cool and green. Iron discipline must be maintained. The price of power.
The manual provided an escape. Facing the four captains, he found himself taking advantage of the legal loophole to substitute demotion for the more drastic and final penalty.
Tramping the room before them while they stood in a row, pale-faced and rigid, their tunics unbuttoned, their ceremonial belts missing, the guards impassive on either side of them, he rampaged and swore and sprinkled them with verbal vitriol while his right fist hammered steadily into the palm of his left hand.
"But since you were present at the roll call, and therefore are not technically guilty of desertion, and since you surrendered yourself to my judgment immediately you were called upon to do so, I hereby sentence you to be demoted to the basic rank, the circumstances attending this sentence to be entered in your records." He dismissed them with a curt flourish of his white-gloved hand. "That is all."
They filed out silently.
He looked at Jusik. "Inform the respective lieutenant captains that they are promoted to full captains and now must enter recommendations for their vacated positions. These must be received by me before nightfall."
"As you order, sir."
"Also warn them to prepare to attend a commanding officer's court which will deal with the lower-ranking absentees as and when they reappear. Inform Captain Somir that he is appointed commander of the firing squad which will carry out the decisions of the court immediately they are pronounced."
"Yes, sir." Gaunt and hollow-eyed, Jusik turned with a click of heels and departed.
When the closer had shut the door, Cruin sat at his desk, placed his elbows on its surface, held his face in his hands. If the deserters did not return, they could not be punished. No power, no authority could vent its wrath upon an absent body. The law was impotent if its subjects lacked the essential feature of being present. All the laws of Huld could not put memories of lost men before a firing squad.
It was imperative that he make an example of the offenders. Their sly, furtive trips into the enemy's camp, he suspected, had been repeated often enough to have become a habit. Doubtless by now they were settled wherever they were visiting, sharing homes—welcome rooms—sharing food, company, laughter. Doubtless they had started to regain weight, to lose the space lines on their cheeks and foreheads, and the light in their eyes had begun to burn anew; and they had talked with signs and pictures, played games, tried to suck smoke things, and strolled with girls through the fields and the glades.
A pulse was beating steadily in the thickness of his neck as he stared through the port and waited for some sign that the tripled ring of guards had caught the first on his way in. Down, down, deep down inside him at a depth too great for him to admit that it was there, lay the disloyal hope that none would return.
One deserter would mean the slow, shuffling tread of the squad, the hoarse calls of "Aim!" and "Fire!" and the stepping forward of Somir, gun in hand, to administer the mercy shot.
Damn the manuals.
At the end of the first period after nightfall Jusik burst into the office, saluted, breathed heavily. The glare of the ceiling illumination deepened the lines on his thin features, magnified the bristles on his unshaven chin.
"Sir, I have to report that the men are getting out of control."
"What d'you mean?" Cruin's heavy brows came down as he stared fiercely at the other.
"They know of the recent demotions, of course. They know also that a court will assemble to deal with the absentees." He took another long-drawn breath. "And they also know the penalty these absentees must face."
"So more of them have deserted—they've gone to warn the others not to return."
"Ah!" Cruin smiled lopsidedly. "The guards let them walk out, eh? Just like that?"
"Ten of the guards went with them," said Jusik.
"Ten?" Coming up fast, Cruin moved near to the other, studied him searchingly. "How many went altogether?"
Grabbing his helmet, Cruin slammed it on, pulled the metal chin strap over his jaw muscles. "More than one complete crew." He examined his gun, shoved it back, strapped on a second one. "At that rate they'll all be gone by morning." He eyed Jusik. "Don't you think so?"
"That's what I'm afraid of sir."
Cruin patted his shoulder. '"The answer, Jusik, is an easy one—we take off immediately."
"Most certainly. The whole fleet. We'll strike a balanced orbit where it will be impossible for any man to leave. I will then give the situation more thought. Probably we'll make a new landing in some locality where none will be tempted to sneak away because there'll be nowhere to go. A scout can pick up Fane and his party in due course."
"I doubt whether they'll obey orders for departure, sir."
"We'll see, we'll see." 'He smiled again, hard and craggy. "As you would know if you'd studied the manuals properly, it is not difficult to smash incipient mutiny. All one has to do is remove the ringleaders. No mob is composed of men, as such. It is made up of a few ringleaders and a horde of stupid followers." He patted his guns. "You can always tell a ringleader—invariably he is the first to open his mouth!"
"Yes, sir," mouthed Jusik, with misgivings.
"Sound the call for general assembly."
The flagship's siren wailed dismally in the night. Lights flashed from ship to ship, and startled birds woke up and squawked in the trees beyond the ash.
Slowly, deliberately, impressively, Cruin came down the ladder, faced the audience whose features were a mass of white blobs in the glare of the ships' beams. The captains and lieutenant captains ranged themselves behind him and to either side. Each carried an extra gun.
"After three years of devoted service to Huld," he enunciated pompously, "some men have failed me. It seems that we have weaklings among us, weaklings unable to stand the strain of a few extra days before our triumph. Careless of their duty, they disobey orders, fraternize with the enemy, consort with our opponents females, and try to snatch a few creature comforts at the expense of the many." His hard, accusing eyes went over them: "In due time they will be punished with the utmost severity."
They stared back at him expressionlessly. He could shoot the ears off a running man at twenty-five yards, and he was waiting for his target to name itself. So were those at his side.
"Among you may be others equally guilty but not discovered. They need not congratulate themselves, for they are about to be deprived of further opportunities to exercise their disloyalty." His stare kept flickering over them while his hand remained ready at his side. "We are going to trim the ships and take off, seeking a balanced orbit. That means lost sleep and plenty of hard work for which you have your treacherous comrades to thank." He paused a moment, finished with: "Has anyone anything to say?"
One man holding a thousand.
"Prepare for departure," he snapped, and turned his back upon them.
Captain Somir, now facing him, yelped: "Look out, commander!" and whipped up his gun to fire over Cruin's shoulder.
Cruin made to turn, conscious of a roar behind him, his guns coming out as he twisted around. He heard no crack from Somir's weapon, saw no more of his men as their roar cut off abruptly. There seemed to be an intolerable weight upon his skull, the grass came up to meet him, he let go his guns and put out his hands to save himself. Then the hazily dancing lights faded from his eyesight and all was black.
Deep in his sleep he heard vaguely and uneasily a prolonged stamping of feet, many dull, elusive sounds as of people shouting far, far away. This went on for a considerable time, and ended with a series of violent reports that shook the ground beneath his body.
Someone splashed water over his face.
Sitting up, he held his throbbing head, saw pale fingers of dawn feeling through the sky to one side. Blinking his aching eyes to clear them, he perceived Jusik, Somir and eight others. All were smothered in dirt, their faces bruised, their uniforms torn and bedraggled.
"They rushed us the moment you turned away from them," explained Jusik, morbidly. "A hundred of them in the front. They rushed us in one united frenzy, and the rest followed. There were too many for us." He regarded his superior with red-rimmed optics. "You have been flat all night."
Unsteadily, Cruin got to his feet, teetered to and fro. "How many were killed?"
"None. We fired over their heads. After that—it was too late."
"Over their heads?" Squaring his massive shoulders, Cruin felt a sharp pain in the middle of his back, ignored it. "What are guns for if not to kill?"
"It isn't easy," said Jusik, with the faintest touch of defiance. "Not when they're one's own comrades."
"Do you agree?" The commander's glare challenged the others.
They nodded miserably, and Somir said: "There was little time, sir, and if one hesitates, as we did, it becomes—"
"There are no excuses for anything. You had your orders; it was for you to obey them." His hot gaze burned one, then the other. "You are incompetent for your rank. You are both demoted!" His jaw came forward, ugly, aggressive, as he roared: "Get out of my sight!"
The mooched away. Savagely, he climbed the ladder, entered his ship, explored it from end to end. There was not a soul on board. His lips were tight as he reached the tail, found the cause of the earth-rocking detonations. The fuel tanks had been exploded, wrecking the engines and reducing the whole vessel to a useless mass of metal.
Leaving, he inspected the rest of his fleet. Every ship was the same, empty and wrecked beyond possibility of repair. At least the mutineers had been thorough and logical in their sabotage. Until a report-vessel arrived, the home world of Huld had no means of knowing where the expedition had landed. Despite even a systematic and wide-scale search it might well be a thousand years before Huldians found this particular planet again. Effectively the rebels had marooned themselves for the rest of their natural lives and placed themselves beyond reach of Huldian retribution.
Tasting to the full the bitterness of defeat, he squatted on the bottom rung of the twenty-second vessel's ladder, surveyed the double star-formations that represented his ruined armada. Futilely, their guns pointed over surrounding terrain. Twelve of the scouts, he noted, had gone. The others had been rendered as useless as their parent vessels.
Raising his gaze to the hill, he perceived silhouettes against the dawn where Jusik, Somir and the others were walking over the crest, walking away from him, making for the farther valley he had viewed so often. Four children joined them at the top, romped beside them as they proceeded. Slowly the whole group sank from sight under the rising sun.
Returning to the flagship, Cruin packed a patrol sack with personal possessions, strapped it on his shoulders. Without a final glance at the remains of his once-mighty command he set forth away from the sun, in the direction opposite to that taken by the last of his men.
His jack boots were dull, dirty. His orders of merit hung lopsidedly and had a gap where one had been torn off in the fracas. The bell was missing from his right boot; he endured the pad-ding, pad-ding of its fellow for twenty steps before he unscrewed it and slung it away.
The sack on his back was heavy, but not so heavy as the immense burden upon his mind. Grimly, stubbornly he plodded on, away from the ships, far, far into the morning mists—facing the new world alone.
Three and a half years had bitten deep into the ships of Huld. Still they lay in the valley, arranged with mathematical precision, noses in, tails out, as only authority could place them. But the rust had eaten a quarter of the way through the thickness of their tough shells, and their metal ladders were rotten and treacherous. The field mice and the voles had found refuge beneath them; the birds and spiders had sought sanctuary within them. A lush growth had sprung from encompassing ash, hiding the perimeter for all time.
The man who came by them in the midafternoon rested his pack and studied them silently, from a distance. He was big, burly, with a skin the color of old leather. His deep gray eyes were calm, thoughtful as they observed the thick ivy climbing over the flagship's tail.
Having looked at them for a musing half hour he hoisted his pack and went on, up the hill, over the crest and into the farther valley. Moving easily in his plain, loose-fitting clothes, his pace was deliberate, methodical.
Presently he struck a road, followed it to a stone-built cottage in the garden of which a lithe, dark-haired woman was cutting flowers. Leaning on the gate, he spoke to her. His speech was fluent but strangely accented. His tones were gruff but pleasant.
She stood up, her arms full of gaudy blooms, looked at him with rich, black eyes. "Good afternoon." Her full lips parted with pleasure. "Are you touring? Would you care to guest with us? I am sure that Jusik—my husband—would be delighted to have you. Our welcome room has not been occupied for—"
"I am sorry." he chipped in. "I am seeking the Merediths. Could you direct me?"
"The next house up the lane." Deftly, she caught a falling bloom, held it to her breast. "lf their welcome room has a guest, please remember us."
"I will remember," he promised. Eying her approvingly, his broad, muscular face lit up with a smile. "Thank you so much."
Shouldering his pack he marched on, conscious of her eyes following him. He reached the gate of the next place, a long, rambling, picturesque house fronted by a flowering garden. A boy was playing by the gate.
Glancing up as the other stopped near him, the boy said: "Are you touring, sir?"
"Sir?" echoed the man. "Sir?" His face quirked. "Yes, sonny, I am touring. I'm looking for the Merediths."
"Why, I'm Sam Meredith!" The boy's face flushed with sudden excitement. "You wish to guest with us?"
"If I may."
"Yow-ee!" He fled frantically along the garden path, shrieking at the top of his voice, "Mom, Pop, Marva, Sue—we've got a guest!"
A tall, red-headed man came to the door, pipe in mouth. Coolly, calmly, he surveyed the visitor.
After a little while, the man removed the pipe and said: "I'm Jake Meredith. Please come in." Standing aside, he let the other enter, then called, "Mary, Mary, can you get a meal for a guest?"
"Right away," assured a cheerful voice from the back.
"Come with me." Meredith led the other to the veranda, found him an easy-chair. "Might as well rest while you're waiting. Mary takes time. She isn't satisfied until the legs of the table are near to collapse—and woe betide you if you leave anything."
"It is good of you." Seating himself, the visitor drew a long breath, gazed over the pastoral scene before him.
Taking another chair, Meredith applied a light to his pipe. "Have you seen the mail ship?"
"Yes, it arrived early yesterday. I was lucky enough to view it as it passed overhead."
"You certainly were lucky considering that it comes only once in four years. I've seen it only twice, myself. It came right over this house. An imposing sight."
"Very!" indorsed the visitor, with unusual emphasis. "It looked to me about five miles long, a tremendous creation. It's mass must be many times greater than that of all those alien ships in the valley."
"Many times," agreed Meredith.
The other leaned forward, watching his host. "I often wonder whether those aliens attributed smallness of numbers to war or disease, not thinking of large-scale emigration, nor realizing what it means."
"I doubt whether they cared very much seeing that they burned their boats and settled among us." He pointed with the stem of his pipe. "One of them lives in that cottage down there. Jusik's his name. Nice fellow. He married a local girl eventually. They are very happy."
"I'm sure they are."
They were quite a long time, then Meredith spoke absently, as if thinking aloud. "They brought with them weapons of considerable might, not knowing that we have a weapon truly invincible." Waving one hand, he indicated the world at large. "It took us thousands of years to learn about the sheer invincibility of an idea. That's what we've got—a way of life, an idea. Nothing can blast that to shreds. Nothing can defeat an idea—except a better one." He put the pipe hack in his mouth. "So far, we have failed to find a better one.
"They came at the wrong time," Meredith went on. "Ten thousand years too late." He glanced sidewise at his listener. "Our history covers a long, long day. It was so lurid that it came out in a new edition every minute. But this one's the late night final."
"You philosophize, eh?"
Meredith smiled. "I often sit here to enjoy my silences. I sit here and think. Invariably I end up with the same conclusion."
"What may that be?"
"That if I, personally, were in complete possession of all the visible stars and their multitude of planets I would still be subject to one fundamental limitation"—bending, he tapped his pipe on his heel—"in this respect—that no man can eat more than his belly can hold." He stood up, tall, wide-chested. "Here comes my daughter, Marva. Would you like her to show you your room?"
Standing inside the welcome room, the visitor surveyed it appreciatively. The comfortable bed, the bright furnishings. "Like it?" Marva asked.
"Yes; indeed." Facing her, his gray eyes examined her. She was tall, red-haired, green-eyed, and her figure was ripe with the beauty of young womanhood. Pulling slowly at his jaw muscles, he asked: "Do you think that I resemble Cruin?"
"Cruin?" Her finely curved brows crinkled in puzzlement.
"The commander of that alien expedition."
"Oh, him!" Her eyes laughed, and the dimples came into her cheeks. "How absurd! You don't look the least hit like him. He was old and severe. You are young—and far more handsome."
"It is kind of you to say so," he murmured. His hands moved aimlessly around in obvious embarrassment. He fidgeted a little under her frank, self-possessed gaze. Finally, he went to his pack, opened it. "It is conventional for the guest to bring his hosts a present." A tinge of pride crept into his voice. "So I have brought one. I made it myself. It took me a long time to learn . . . a long time ... with these clumsy hands. About three years."
Marva looked at it, raced through the doorway, leaned over the balustrade and called excitedly down the stairs. "Pop, Mom, our guest has a wonderful present for us. A clock. A clock with a little metal bird that calls the time."
Beneath her, feet bustled along the passage and Mary's voice came up saying: "May I see it? Please let me see it." Eagerly, she mounted the stairs.
As he waited for them within the welcome room, his shoulders squared, body erect as if on parade, the clock whirred in Cruin's hands and its little bird solemnly fluted twice.
The hour of triumph.
H. B. Fyfe
THE YELLOW STAR, OF WHICH TORANG WAS THE SECOND PLANET SHONE hotly down on the group of men viewing the half-built dam from the heights above. At a range of eighty million miles, the effect was quite Terran, the star being somewhat smaller than Sol.
For Jeff Otis, fresh from a hop through space from the extra-bright star that was the other component of the binary system, the heat was enervating. The shorts and light shirt supplied him by the planet coordinator were soaked with perspiration. He mopped his forehead and turned to his host.
"Very nice job, Finchley," he complimented. "It's easy to see you have things well in hand here."
Finchley grinned sparingly. He had a broad, hard, fiat face with tight lips and mere slits of blue eyes. Otis had been trying ever since the previous morning to catch a revealing expression on it.
He was uneasily aware that his own features were too frank and open for an inspector of colonial installations. For one thing, he had too many lines and hollows in his face, a result of being chronically underweight from space-hopping among the sixteen planets of the binary system.
Otis noticed that Finchley's aides were eying him furtively.
"Yes, Finchley," he repeated to break the little silence, "you're doing very well on the hydroelectric end. When are you going to show me the capital city you're laying out?"
"We can fly over there now," answered Finchley. "We have tentative boundaries laid out below those pre-colony ruins we saw from the 'copter."
"Oh, yes. You know, I meant to remark as we flew over that they looked a good deal like similar remnants on some of the other planets."
He caught himself as Finchley's thin lips tightened a trifle more. The coordinator was obviously trying to be patient and polite to an official from whom he hoped to get a good report, but Otis could see he would much rather be going about his business of building up the colony.
He could hardly blame Finchley, he decided. It was the fifth planetary system Terrans had found in their expansion into space, and there would be bigger jobs ahead for a man with a record of successful accomplishments. Civilization was reaching out to the stars at last. Otis supposed that he, too, was some sort of pioneer, although he usually was too busy to feel like one.
"Well, I'll show you some photos later," he said. "Right now, we -- Say, why all that jet-burning down there?"
In the gorge below, men had dropped their tools and seemed to be charging toward a common focal point Excited yells carried thinly up the cliffs.
"Ape hunt, probably," guessed one of Finchley's engineers.
"Ape?" asked Otis, surprised.
"Not exactly," corrected Finchley patiently. "That's common slang for what we mention in reports as Torangs. They look a little like big, skinny, gray apes; but they're the only life large enough to name after the planet."
Otis stared down into the gorge. Most of the running men had given up and were straggling back to their work. Two or three, brandishing pistols, continued running and disappeared around a bend.
"Never catch him now," commented Finchley's pilot.
"Do you just let them go running off whenever they feel like it?" Otis inquired.
Finchley met his curious gaze stolidly.
"I'm in favor of anything that will break the monotony, Mr. Otis. We have a problem of morale, you know. This planet is a key colony, and I like to keep the work going smoothly."
"Yes, I suppose there isn't much for recreation yet."
"Exactly. I don't see the sport in it myself but I let them. We're up to schedule."
"Ahead, if anything," Otis placated him. "Well, now, about the city?"
Finchley led the way to the helicopter. The pilot and Otis waited while he had a final word with his engineers, then they all climbed in and were off.
Later, hovering over the network of crude roads being leveled by Finchley's bulldozers, Otis admitted aloud that the location was well-chosen. It lay along a long, narrow bay that thrust in from the distant ocean to gather the waters of the same river that was being dammed some miles upstream.
"Those cliffs over there," Finchley pointed out, "were raised up since the end of whatever civilization used to be here -- so my geologist tells me. We can fly back that way, and you can see how the ancient city was once at the head of the bay."
The pilot climbed and headed over the cliffs. Otis saw that these formed the edge of a plateau. At one point, their continuity was marred by a deep gouge.
"Where the river ran thousands of years ago," Finchley explained.
They reached a point from which the outlines of the ruined city were easily discerned. From the air, Otis knew, they were undoubtedly plainer than if he had been among them.
"Must have been a pretty large place," he remarked. "Any idea what sort of beings built it or what happened to them?"
"Haven't had time for that yet," Finchley said. "Some boys from the exploration staff poke around in there every so often. Best current theory seems to be that it belonged to the Torangs."
"The animals they were hunting before?" asked Otis.
"Might be. Can't say for sure, but the diggers found signs the city took more of a punch than just an earthquake. Claim they found too much evidence of fires, exploded missiles, and warfare in general -- other places as well as here. So ... we've been guessing the Torangs are degenerated descendents of the survivors of some interplanetary brawl."
Otis considered that.
"Sounds plausible," he admitted, "but you ought to do something to make sure you are right."
"If it is the case, you'll have to stop your men from hunting them; degenerated or not, the Colonial Commission has regulations about contact with any local inhabitants."
Finchley turned his head to scowl at Otis, and controlled himself with an obvious effort.
"Those apes?" he demanded.
"Well, how can you tell? Ever try to contact them?"
"Yes! At first, that is; before we figured them for animals."
"Couldn't get near one!" Finchley declared heatedly. "If they had any sort of half-intelligent culture, wouldn't they let us make some sort of contact?"
"Offhand," admitted Otis, "I should think so. How about setting down a few minutes? I'd like a look at the ruins."
Finchley glared at his wrist watch, but directed the pilot to land at a cleared spot. The young man brought them down neatly and the two officials alighted.
Otis, glancing around, saw where the archaeologists had been digging. They had left their implements stacked casually at the site -- the air was dry up here and who was there to steal a shovel
He left Finchley and strolled around a mound of dirt that had been cleared away from an entrance to one of the buildings. The latter had been built of stone, or at least faced with it. A peep into the dim excavation led him to believe there had been a steel framework, but the whole affair had been collapsed as if by an explosion.
He walked a little way further and reached a section of presumably taller buildings where the stone ruins thrust above the sandy surface. After he had wandered through one or two arched openings that seemed to have been windows, he understood why the explorers had chosen to dig for their information. If any covering or decoration had ever graced the walls, it had long since been weathered off. As for ceiling or roof, nothing remained.
"Must have been a highly developed civilization just the same," he muttered.
A movement at one of the shadowed openings to his right caught his eye. He did not remember noticing Finchley leave the helicopter to follow him, but he was glad of a guide.
"Don't you think so?" he added.
He turned his head, but Finchley was not there. In fact, now that Otis was aware of his surroundings, he could hear the voices of the other two mumbling distantly back by the aircraft.
"Seeing things!" he grumbled, and started through the ancient window.
Some instinct stopped him half a foot outside.
Come on, Jef, he told himself, don't be silly! What could be there? Ghosts?
On the other hand, he realized, there were times when it was just as well to rely upon instinct -- at least until you figured out the origin of the strange feeling. Any spaceman would agree to that. The man who developed an animal sixth sense was the man who lived longest on alien planets.
He thought he must have paused a full minute or more, during which he had heard not the slightest sound except the mutter of voices to the rear. He peered into the chamber, which was about twenty feet square and well if not brightly lit by reflected light.
Nothing was to be seen, but when he found himself turning his head stealthily to peer over his shoulder, he decided that the queer sensation along the back of his neck meant something.
Wait, now, he thought swiftly. I didn't see quite the whole room.
The flooring was heaped with wind-bared rubble that would not show footprints. He felt much more comfortable to notice himself thinking in that vein.
At least, I'm not imagining ghosts, he thought.
Bending forward the necessary foot, he thrust his head through the opening and darted a quick look to left, then to the right along the wall. As he turned right, his glance was met directly by a pair of very wide-set black eyes which shifted inward slightly as they got his range.
The Torang about matched his own six-feet-two, mainly because of elongated, gibbon-like limbs and a similarly crouching stance. Arms and legs, covered with short, curly, gray fur, had the same general proportions as human limbs, but looked half again too long for a trunk that seemed to be ribbed all the way down. Shoulder and hip joints were compactly lean, rather as if the Torang had developed on a world of lesser gravity than that of the human.
It was the face that made Otis stare. The mouth was toothless and probably constructed more for sucking than for chewing. But the eyes! They projected like ends of a dumbbell from each side of the narrow skull where the ears should have been, and focused with obvious mobility. Peering closer, Otis saw tiny ears below the eyes, almost hidden in the curling fur of the neck.
He realized abruptly that his own eyes felt as if they were bulging out, although he could not remember having changed his expression of casual curiosity. His back was getting stiff also. He straightened up carefully.
"Uh ... hello," he murmured, feeling unutterably silly but conscious of some impulse to compromise between a tone of greeting for another human being and one of pacification to an animal.
The Torang moved then, swiftly but unhurriedly. In fact, Otis later decided, deliberately. One of the long arms swept downward to the rubble-strewn ground.
The next instant, Otis jerked his head back out of the opening as a stone whizzed past in front of his nose.
"Hey!" he protested involuntarily.
There was a scrabbling sound from within, as of animal claws churning to a fast start among the pebbles. Recovering his balance, Otis charged recklessly through the entrance.
"I don't know why," he admitted to Finchley a few minutes later. "If I stopped to think how I might have had my skull bashed in coming through, I guess I'd have just backed off and yelled for you."
Finchley nodded, but his narrow gaze seemed faintly approving for the first time since they had met.
"He was gone, of course," Otis continued. "I barely caught a glimpse of his rump vanishing through another window."
"Yeah, they're pretty fast," put in Finchley's pilot. "In the time we've been here, the boys haven't taken more than half a dozen. Got a stuffed one over at headquarters though."
"Hm-m-m," murmured Otis thoughtfully.
From their other remarks, he learned that he had not noticed everything, even though face to face with the creature. Finchley's mentioning the three digits of the hands or feet, for instance, came as a surprise.
Otis was silent most of the flight back to headquarters. Once there, he disappeared with a perfunctory excuse toward the rooms assigned him.
That evening, at a dinner which Finchley had made as attractive as was possible in a comparatively raw and new colony, Otis was noticeably sociable. The coordinator was gratified.
"Looks as if they finally sent us a regular guy," he remarked behind his hand to one of his assistants. "Round up a couple of the prettier secretaries to keep him happy."
"I understand he nearly laid hands on a Torang up at the diggings," said the other.
"Yep, ran right at it bare-handed. Came as close to bagging it as anybody could, I suppose."
"Maybe it's just as well he didn't," commented the assistant. "They're big enough to mess up an unarmed man some."
Otis, meanwhile and for the rest of the evening, was assiduously busy making acquaintances. So engrossed was he in turning every new conversation to the Torangs and asking seemingly casual questions about the little known of their habits and possible past, that he hardly noticed receiving any special attentions. As a visiting inspector, he was used to attempts to entertain and distract him.
The next morning, he caught Finchley at his office in the sprawling one-story structure of concrete and glass that was colonial headquarters.
After accepting a chair across the desk from the coordinator, Otis told him his conclusions. Finchley's narrow eyes opened a trifle when he heard the details. His wide, hard-muscled face became slightly pink.
"Oh, for -- ! I mean, Otis, why must you make something big out of it? The men very seldom bag one anyway!"
"Perhaps because they're so rare," answered Otis calmly. "How do we know they're not intelligent life? Maybe if you were hanging on in the ruins of your ancestors' civilization, reduced to a primitive state, you'd be just as wary of a bunch of loud Terrans moving in!"
Finchley shrugged. He looked vaguely uncomfortable, as if debating whether Otis or some disgruntled sportsman from his husky construction crews would be easier to handle.
"Think of the overall picture a minute," Otis urged. "We're pushing out into space at last, after centuries of dreams and struggles. With all the misery we've seen in various colonial systems at home, we've tried to plan these ventures so as to avoid old mistakes."
Finchley nodded grudgingly. Otis could see that his mind was on the progress charts of his many projects.
"It stands to reason," the inspector went on, "that some day we'll find a planet with intelligent life. We're still new in space, but as we probe farther out, it's bound to happen. That's why the Commission drew up rules about native life forms. Or have you read that part of the code lately?"
Finchley shifted from side to side in his chair.
"Now, look!" he protested. "Don't go making me out a hardboiled vandal with nothing in mind but exterminating everything that moves on all Torang. I don't go out hunting the apes!"
"I know, I know," Otis soothed him. "But before the Colonial Commission will sanction any destruction of indigenous life, we'll have to show -- besides that it's not intelligent -- that it exists in sufficient numbers to avoid extinction."
"What do you expect me to do about it?"
Otis regarded him with some sympathy. Finchley was the hard-bitten type the Commission needed to oversee the first breaking-in of a colony on a strange planet, but he was not unreasonable. He merely wanted to be left alone to handle the tough job facing him.
"Announce a ban on hunting Torangs," Otis said. "There must be something else they can go after."
"Oh, yes," admitted Finchley. "There are swarms of little rabbit-things and other vermin running through the brush. But, I don't know -- "
"It's standard practice," Otis reminded him. "We have many a protected species even back on Terra that would be extinct by now, only for the game laws."
In the end, they agreed that Finchley would do his honest best to enforce a ban provided Otis obtained a formal order from the headquarters of the system. The inspector went from the office straight to the communications center, where he filed a long report for the chief coordinator's office in the other part of the binary system.
It took some hours for the reply to reach Torang. When it came that afternoon, he went looking for Finchley.
He found the coordinator inspecting a newly finished canning factory on the coast, elated at the completion of one more link in making the colony self-sustaining.
"Here it is," said Otis, waving the message copy. "Signed by the chief himself. 'As of this date, the apelike beings known as Torangs, indigenous to planet number and so forth, are to be considered a rare and protected species under regulations and so forth et cetera.' "
"Good enough," answered Finchley with an amiable shrug. "Give it here, and I'll have it put on the public address system and the bulletin boards."
Otis returned satisfied to the helicopter that had brought him out from headquarters.
"Back, sir?" asked the pilot.
"Yes ... no! Just for fun, take me out to the old city. I never did get a good look the other day, and I'd like to before I leave."
They flew over the plains between the sea and the up-jutting cliffs. In the distance, Otis caught a glimpse of the rising dam he had been shown the day before. This colony would go well, he reflected, as long as he checked up on details like preserving native life forms.
Eventually, the pilot landed at the same spot he had been taken on his previous visit to the ancient ruins. Someone else was on the scene today. Otis saw a pair of men he took to be archaeologists.
"I'll just wander around a bit," he told the pilot.
He noticed the two men looking at him from where they stood by the shovels and other equipment, so he paused to say hello. As he thought, they had been digging in the ruins.
"Taking some measurements in fact," said the sunburned blond introduced as Hoffman. "Trying to get a line on what sort of things built the place."
"Oh?" said Otis, interested. "What's the latest theory?"
"Not so much different from us," Hoffman told the inspector while his partner left them to pick up another load of artifacts.
"Judging from the size of the rooms, height of doorways, and such stuff as stairways," he went on, "they were pretty much our size. So far, of course, it's only a rough estimate."
"Could be ancestors of the Torangs, eh?" asked Otis.
"Very possible, sir," answered Hoffman, with a promptness that suggested it was his own view. "But we haven't dug up enough to guess at the type of culture they had, or draw any conclusions as to their psychology or social customs."
Otis nodded, thinking that he ought to mention the young fellow's name to Finchley before he left Torang. He excused himself as the other man returned with a box of some sort of scraps the pair had unearthed, and strolled between the outlines of the untouched buildings.
In a few minutes, he came to the section of higher structures where he had encountered the Torang the previous day.
"Wonder if I should look in the same spot?" he muttered aloud. "No ... that would be the last place the thing would return to ... unless it had a lair thereabouts -- "
He stopped to get his bearings, then shrugged and walked around a mound of rubble toward what he believed to be the proper building.
Pretty sure this was it, he mused. Yes, shadows around that window arch look the same ... same time of day.
He halted, almost guiltily, and looked back to make sure no one was observing his futile return to the scene of his little adventure. After all, an inspector of colonial installations was not supposed to run around ghost-hunting like a small boy.
Finding himself alone, he stepped briskly through the crumbling arch -- and froze in his tracks.
"I am honored to know you," said the Torang in a mild, rather buzzing voice. "We thought you possibly would return here."
Otis gaped. The black eyes projecting from the sides of the narrow head tracked him up and down, giving him the unpleasant sensation of being measured for an artillery salvo.
"I am known as Jal-Ganyr," said the Torang. "Unless I am given incorrect data, you are known as Jeff-Otis. That is so."
The last statement was made with almost no inflection, but some still-functioning comer of Otis' mind interpreted it as a question. He sucked in a deep breath, suddenly conscious of having forgotten to breathe for a moment.
"I didn't know ... yes, that is so ... I didn't know you Torangs could speak Terran. Or anything else. How -- ?"
He hesitated as a million questions boiled up in his mind to be asked. Jal-Ganyr absently stroked the gray fur of his chest with his three-fingered left hand, squatting patiently on a flat rock. Otis felt somehow that he had been allowed to waste time mumbling only by grace of disciplined politeness.
"I am not of the Torangs," said Jal-Ganyr in his wheezing voice. "I am of the Myrbs. You would possibly say Myrbii. I have not been informed."
"You mean that is your name for yourselves?" asked Otis.
Jal-Ganyr seemed to consider, his mobile eyes swiveling inward to scan the Terran's face.
"More than that," he said at last, when he had thought it over. "I mean I am of the race originating at Myrb, not of this planet."
"Before we go any further," insisted Otis, "tell me, at least, how you learned our language!"
Jal-Ganyr made a fleeting gesture. His "face" was unreadable to the Terran, but Otis had the impression he had received the equivalent of a smile and a shrug.
"As to that," said the Myrb, "I possibly learned it before you did. We have observed you a very long time. You would unbelieve how long."
"But then -- " Otis paused. That must mean before the colonists had landed on this planet. He was half-afraid it might mean before they had reached this sun system. He put aside the thought and asked, "But then, why do you live like this among the ruins? Why wait till now? If you had communicated, you could have had our help rebuilding -- "
He let his voice trail off, wondering what sounded wrong. Jal-Ganyr rolled his eyes about leisurely, as if disdaining the surrounding ruins. Again, he seemed to consider all the implications of Otis' questions.
"We picked up your message to your chief," he answered at last. "We decided time is to communicate with one of you.
"We have no interest in rebuilding," he added. "We have concealed quarters for ourselves."
Otis found that his lips were dry from his unconsciously having let his mouth hang open. He moistened them with the tip of his tongue, and relaxed enough to lean against the wall.
"You mean my getting the ruling to proclaim you a protected species?" he asked. "You have instruments to intercept such signals?"
"I do. We have," said Jal-Ganyr simply. "It has been decided that you have expanded far enough into space to make necessary we contact a few of the thoughtful among you. It will possibly make easier in the future for our observers."
Otis wondered how much of that was irony. He felt himself flushing at the memory of the "stuffed specimen" at headquarters, and was peculiarly relieved that he had not gone to see it.
I've had the luck, he told himself. I'm the one to discover the first known intelligent beings beyond Sol!
Aloud, he said, "We expected to meet someone like you eventually. But why have you chosen me?"
The question sounded vain, he realized, but it brought unexpected results.
"Your message. You made in a little way the same decision we made in a big way. We deduce that you are one to understand our regret and shame at what happened between our races ... long ago."
"Yes. For a long time, we thought you were all gone. We are pleased to see you returning to some of your old planets."
Otis stared blankly. Some instinct must have enabled the Myrb to interpret his bewildered expression. He apologized briefly.
"I possibly forgot to explain the ruins." Again, Jal-Ganyr's eyes swiveled slowly about.
"They are not ours," he said mildly. "They are yours."
by Murray Leinster
PROFESSOR VLADIMIR ROJESTVENSKY, IT HAS SINCE BEEN LEARNED, remade the world at breakfast one morning while eating a bowl of rather watery red-cabbage soup, with black bread on the side. It is now a matter of history that the soup was not up to par that day, and the black bread in Omsk all that week was sub-marginal. But neither of these factors is considered to have contributed to the remaking of civilization.
The essential thing was that, while blowing on a spoonful of red-cabbage soup, Professor Rojestvensky happened to think of an interesting inference or deduction to be drawn from the Bramwell-Weems Equation expressing the distribution of energy among the nucleus-particles of the lighter atoms. The Bramwell-Weems Equation was known in Russia as the Gabrilovitch-Brekhov Formula because, obviously, Russians must have thought of it first. The symbols, however, were the same as in the capitalist world.
Professor Rojestvensky contemplated the inference with pleasure. It was very interesting indeed. He finished his breakfast, drank a glass of hot tea, wrapped himself up warmly, and set out for his classrooms in the University of Omsk. It was a long walk, because the streetcars were not running. It was a fruitful one, though. For as he walked, Professor Rojestvensky arranged his reasoning in excellent order. When he arrived at the University he found a directive from the Council of Soviet Representatives for Science and Culture. It notified him that from now on Soviet scientists must produce more and better and more Earth-shaking discoveries--or else. Therefore he would immediately report, in quadruplicate, what first-rank discoveries he was prepared to make in the science of physics. And they had better be good.
He was a modest man, was Professor Rojestvensky, but to fail to obey the directive meant losing his job. So he quakingly prepared a paper outlining his extension of the Bramwell-Weems Equation--but he was careful to call it the Gabrilovitch-Brekhov Formula--and persuaded one of his students to make four copies of it in exchange for a quarter of a pound of cheese. Then he sent off the four copies and slept badly for weeks afterward. He knew his work was good, but he didn't know whether it was good enough. It merely accounted for the mutual repulsion of the molecules of gases, it neatly explained the formation of comets' tails, and it could have led to the prediction of clouds of calcium vapor-already observed--in interstellar space. Professor Rojestvensky did not guess he had remade the world.
Weeks passed, and nothing happened. That was a bad month in Russian science. The staffs of Medical Research and Surgical Advancement had already reported everything they could dream up. Workers in Aerodynamic Design weren't sticking out their necks. The last man to design a new plane went to prison for eight years when a fuel line clogged on his plane's test flight. And Nuclear Fission workers stuck to their policy of demanding unobtainable equipment and supplies for the furtherance of their work. So Professor Rojestvensky's paper was absolutely the only contribution paddable to Earth-shaking size. His paper itself was published in the Soviet Journal of Advanced Science. Then it was quoted unintelligibly in Pravda and Tass, with ecstatic editorials pointing out how far Russian science was ahead of mere capitalist-imperialistic research. And that was that.
Possibly that would have been the end of it all, but that some two weeks later an American jet bomber flew twelve thousand miles, dropped fifteen tons of simulated bombs--actually condensed milk lowered to Earth by parachutes--and returned to base without refueling. This, of course, could not be allowed to go unchallenged. So a stern directive went to Aerodynamic Design. An outstanding achievement in aviation must be produced immediately. It must wipe the Americans' decadent, capitalistic eyes. Or--so the directive said explicitly--else.
The brain trust which was Aerodynamic Design went into sweating executive session, seeking a really air-tight procedure for passing the buck. They didn't want to lose their jobs, which were fairly fat ones, any more than Professor Rojestvensky had. They had to cook up something in a hurry, something really dramatic, with an out putting the blame squarely on somebody else if it didn't work. They couldn't blame Aviation Production, though. The head of that splendid organization had an in with the Politbureau. Something new and drastic and good was needed.
In the end a desperate junior official began to hunt through recent Soviet contributions to science. If he could find something impressive that could be twisted into an advance in aerodynamics, it could be designed and built, and any failure blamed on the scientist who had furnished false data as a form of alien-inspired sabotage. Scientists were always expendable in Russian politics. It was time to expend one. Largely because his name was on top of the pile, Professor Rojestvensky was picked.
This, in detail, is the process by which his extension of the Bramwell-Weems or Gabrilovitch-Brekhov--Equation was selected for practical development. Our brave new world is the result. Aerodynamic Design borrowed a man from Nuclear Fission in a deal between two department heads, and the Nuclear Fission man agreed to work up something elaborate and impressive. He set to work on Professor Rojestvensky's figures. And presently he turned pale, and gulped very rapidly several times, and muttered, "Gospody pomilovl" That meant, "Lord have mercy on us!" and it was not a good Russian expression any longer, but it was the way he felt. In time, he showed his results to Aerodynamic Design and said, in effect, "But, it might really work!"
Aerodynamic Design sent him out to Omsk to get Professor Rojestvensky to check his calculations. It was a shrewd move. The Nuclear Fission man and Professor Rojestvensky got along splendidly. They ate red-cabbage soup together and the professor O.K.'d the whole project. That made him responsible for anything that went wrong and Aerodynamic Design, en masse, was much relieved. They sent in a preliminary report on their intentions and started to make one gadget themselves. The Nuclear Fission man was strangely willing to play along and see what happened. He supervised the construction of the thing.
It consisted of a set of straps very much like a parachute harness, hung from a little bar of brass with a plating of metallic sodium, under another plating of nickel, and the whole thing inclosed in a plastic tube. There was a small box with a couple of controls. That was all there was to it.
When it was finished, the Nuclear-Fission man tried it out himself. He climbed into the harness in the Wind Tunnel Building of Aerodynamic Design's plant, said the Russian equivalent of "Here goes nothing!" and flipped over one of the controls. In his shakiness, he pushed it too far. He left the ground, went straight up like a rocket, and cracked his head against the three-story-high ceiling and was knocked cold for two hours. They had to haul him down from the ceiling with an extension ladder, because the gadget he'd made tried insistently to push a hole through the roof to the wide blue yonder.
When he recovered consciousness, practically all of Aerodynamic Design surrounded him, wearing startled expressions. And they stayed around while he found out what the new device would do. Put briefly, it would do practically anything but make fondant. It was a personal flying device, not an airplane, which would lift up to two hundred twenty-five pounds. It would hover perfectly. It would, all by itself, travel in any direction at any speed a man could stand without a windshield.
True, the Rojestvensky Effect which made it fly was limited. No matter how big you made the metal bar, it wouldn't lift more than roughly a hundred kilos, nearly two-twenty-five pounds. But it worked by the fact that the layer of metallic sodium on the brass pushed violently away from all other sodium more than three meters away from it. Sodium within three meters wasn't affected. And there was sodium everywhere. Sodium chloride--common table salt--is present everywhere on Earth and the waters under the Earth, but it isn't present in the heavens above. So the thing would fly anywhere over land or sea, but it wouldn't go but so high. The top limit for the gadget's flight was about four thousand feet, with a hundred-and-fifty-pound man in the harness. A heavier man couldn't get up so high. And it was infinitely safe. A man could fly night, day, or blind drunk and nothing could happen to him. He couldn't run into a mountain because he'd bounce over it. The thing was marvelous!
Aerodynamic Design made a second triumphant report to the Politbureau. A new and appropriately revolutionary device--it was Russian-had been produced in obedience to orders. Russian science had come through! When better revolutionary discoveries were made, Russia would make them! And if the device was inherently limited to one-man use-ha-ha! It gave the Russian army flying infantry! It provided the perfect modern technique for revolutionary v.ar! It offered the perfect defense for peaceful, democratic Russia against malevolent capitalistic imperialism! In short, it was hot stuff!
As a matter of fact, it was. Two months later there was a May Day celebration in Moscow at which the proof of Russia's superlative science was unveiled to the world. Planes flew over Red Square in magnificent massed formations. Tanks and guns rumbled through the streets leading to Lenin's tomb. But the infantry--where was the infantry? Where were the serried ranks of armed men, shaking the earth with their steady tread? Behind the tanks and guns there was only emptiness.
For a while only. There was silence after the guns had gone clanking by. Then a far-distant, tumultuous uproar of cheering. Something new, something strange and marvelous had roused the remotest quarter of the city to enthusiasm. Far, far away, the flying infantry appeared!
Some of the more naive of the populace believed at first that the U.S.S.R. had made a nonaggression pact with God and that a detachment of angels was parading in compliment to the Soviet Union. It wasn't too implausible, as a first impression. Shoulder to shoulder, rank after rank, holding fast to lines like dog leashes that held them in formation, no less than twelve thousand Russian infantrymen floated into the Red Square some fifteen feet off the ground. They were a bit ragged as to elevation, and they tended to eddy a bit at street corners, but they swept out of the canyons which were streets at a magnificent twenty-five miles an hour, in such a display of air-borne strength as the world had never seen before.
The population cheered itself hoarse. The foreign attaches looked inscrutable. The members of the Politbureau looked on and happily began to form in their minds the demands they would make for pacts of peace and friendship--and military bases--with formerly recalcitrant European nations. These pacts of closest friendship were going to be honeys!
That same morning Professor Rojestvensky breakfasted on red-cabbage soup and black bread, wholly unaware that he had remade the world. But that great events were in the making was self-evident even to members of the United States Senate. Newsreel pictures of the flying infantry parade were shown everywhere. And the Communist parties of the Western nations were, of course, wholly independent organizations with no connection whatever with Moscow. But they could not restrain their enthusiasm over this evidence of Russian greatness. Cheering sections of Communists attended every showing of the newsreels in every theater and howled themselves hoarse. They took regular turns at it and were supplied with throat lozenges by ardent Party workers. Later newsreels showing the flying infantry returning to camp over the rooftops of Moscow evoked screams of admiration. When a Russian documentary film appeared in the Western world, skillfully faking the number of men equipped with individual flying units, the national, patriotic Communist party members began to mention brightly that everybody who did not say loudly, at regular intervals, that Russia was the greatest country in the world was having his name written down for future reference.
Inspired news-stories mentioned that the entire Russian army would be air-borne within three months. The magnificent feat of Russian industry in turning out three million flying devices per month brought forth screaming headlines in the Daily Worker. There were only two minor discords in the choral antiphony of national-Communist hosannas and capitalistic alarm.
One was an air-force general's meditative answer to the question: "What defense can there be against an army traveling through the air like a swarm of locusts?" The general said mildly: "Wel-l-l, we carried eighteen tons of condensed milk fourteen thousand miles last week, and we've done pretty good work for the Agriculture Department dusting grasshoppers."
The other was the bitter protest made by the Russian ambassador in Washington. He denounced the capitalist-economy-inspired prevention of the shipment to Russia of an order for brass rods plated with metallic sodium, then plated with nickel, and afterward inclosed in plastic tubes. State Department investigation showed that while an initial order of twelve thousand five hundred such rods had been shipped in April, there had been a number of fires in the factory since, and it had been closed down until fire-prevention methods could be devised. It was pointed out that metallic sodium is hot stuff. It catches fire when wetted or even out of pure cussedness it is fiercely inflammable.
This was a fact that Aviation Production in Russia had already found out. The head man was in trouble with his own friends in the Politbureau for failing to meet production quotas, and he'd ordered the tricky stuff--the rods had to be dipped in melted sodium in a helium atmosphere for quantity production--manufactured in the benighted and scientifically retarded United States.
There was another item that should be mentioned, too. Within a week after the issue of personal fliers to Russian infantrymen, no less than sixty-four desertions by air to Western nations took place. On the morning after the first night maneuvers of the air-borne force, ninety-two Russians were discovered in the Allied half of Germany alone, trying to swap their gadgets for suits of civilian clothes.
They were obliged, of course. Enterprising black marketeers joyfully purchased the personal fliers, shipped them to France, to Holland, to Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, and sold them at enormous profits. In a week it was notorious that any Russian deserter from the flying infantry could sell his flight-equipment for enough money to buy forty-nine wrist watches and still stay drunk for six months. It was typical private enterprise. It was unprincipled and unjust. But it got worse.
Private entrepreneurs stole the invention itself. At first the units were reproduced one by one in small shops for high prices. But the fire-hazard was great. Production-line methods were really necessary both for economy and industrial safety reasons. So after a while the Bofors Company, of Sweden, rather apologetically turned out a sport model, in quantity, selling for kronen worth twelve dollars and fifty cents in American money. Then the refurbished G. Farben put out a German type which sold openly for a sum in occupation marks equal to only nine eighty American. A Belgian model priced--in francs--at five fifty had a wide sale, but was not considered quite equal to the Dutch model at guilders exchanging for six twenty-five or the French model with leather-trimmed straps at seven dollars worth of devaluated francs.
The United States capitalists started late. Two bicycle makers switched their factories to the production of personal fliers, yet by the middle of June American production was estimated at not over fifty thousand per month. But in July, one hundred eighty thousand were produced and in August the production--expected to be about three hundred thousand --suddenly went sky-high when both General Electric and Westinghouse entered the market. In September American production was over three million and it became evident that manufacturers would have to compete with each other on finish and luxury of design. The days when anything that would fly was salable at three fifty and up were over.
The personal flier became a part of American life, as, of course, it became a part of life everywhere. In the United States the inherent four-thousand-foot ceiling of personal fliers kept regular air traffic from having trouble except near airports, and flier-equipped airport police soon developed techniques for traffic control. A blimp patrol had to be set up off the Atlantic Coast to head back enthusiasts for foreign travel and Gulf Stream fishing, but it worked very well. There were three million, then five million, and by November twelve million personal-flier-equipped Americans aloft. And the total continued to rise. Suburban railways--especially after weather-proof garments became really good--joyfully abandoned their short-haul passenger traffic and all the railroads settled down contentedly to their real and profitable business of long-haul heavy-freight carriage. Even the air lines prospered incredibly. The speed-limitation on personal fliers still left the jet-driven plane the only way to travel long distances quickly, and passengers desiring intermediate stops simply stepped out of a plane door when near their desired destination. Rural residential developments sprang up like mushrooms. A marked trend toward country life multiplied, Florida and California became so crowded that everybody got disgusted and went home, and the millennium appeared to be just around the corner.
Then came the dawn. It was actually the dawn of the remade world, but it looked bad for a while. The Soviet government stormed at the conscienceless, degraded theft of its own State secret by decadent and imperialistic outsiders. Actual Russian production of personal fliers was somewhere around twenty-five hundred per month at a time when half the population of Europe and America had proved that flying was cheaper than walking. Sternly, the Soviet government--through the Cominform --suggested that now was the time for all good Communists to come to the aid of their Party. The Party needed personal fliers. Fast. So enthusiastic Communists all over Europe flew loyally to Russia to contribute to the safety of their ideals, and to prove the international solidarity of the proletariat. They landed by tens of thousands without passports, without ration cards, and often with insufficient Party credentials. They undoubtedly had spies among them, along with noble comrades. So the U.S.S.R. had to protect itself. Regretfully, Russian officials clapped the new arrivals into jail as they landed, took away their fliers, and sent them back to their national borders in box cars. But they did send indoctrination experts to travel with them and explain that this was hospitable treatment and that they were experiencing the welcome due to heroes.
But borders were not only crossed by friends. Smuggling became a sport. Customs barriers for anything but heavy goods simply ceased to exist. The French national monopoly on tobacco and matches evaporated, and many Frenchmen smoked real tobacco for the first time in their lives. Some of them did not like it. And there were even political consequences of the personal-flier development. In Spain, philosophical anarchists and syndicalistos organized political demonstrations. Sometimes hundreds of them flew all night long to rendezvous above the former royal palace in Madrid--now occupied by the Caudillo--and empty chamber-pots upon it at dawn. Totalitarianism in Spain collapsed.
The Russian rulers were made of sterner stuff. True, the Iron Curtain became a figment. Political refugees from Russia returned--sometimes thoughtfully carrying revolvers in case they met somebody they disliked-and disseminated capitalistic propaganda and cast doubts upon the superiority of the Russian standard of living. Often they had wrist watches and some of them even brought along personal fliers as gifts to personal friends. Obviously, this sort of thing was subversive. The purity of Soviet culture could not be maintained when foreigners could enter Russia at will and call the leaders of the Soviet Union liars. Still less could it survive when they proved it.
So the Soviet Union fought back. The Army set up radars to detect the carriers of anti-dialectic-materialism propaganda. The Ministry of Propaganda worked around the clock. People wearing wrist watches were shot if they could not prove they had stolen them from Germans, and smugglers and young men flying Sovietward to ply Russian girls with chocolate bars were intercepted. For almost a week it seemed that radar and flying infantry might yet save the Soviet way of life.
But then unprincipled capitalists dealt a new foul blow. They advertised that anybody intending to slip through the Iron Curtain should provide himself with Bouffon's Anti-Radar Tin Foil Strips, available in one-kilogram cartons at all corner shops. Tin foil strips had been distributed by Allied bombers to confuse German radar during the last war. Smugglers and romantic young men, meditatively dripping tin foil as they flew through the Russian night, made Russian radar useless.
Nothing was left but war. So a splendid, overwhelming blow was planned and carried out. In two nights the entire Soviet force of flying infantry was concentrated. On the third night four hundred thousand flying infantry went sweeping westward in an irresistible swarm. The technique had been worked out by the General Staff on orders from the Politbureau to devise immediately a new and unbeatable system of warfare--or else. The horde of flying warriors was to swoop down from the darkness on Western European cities, confiscate all personal fliers and ship them back to Russia for the use of reinforcements. There could be no resistance. Every part of an enemy nation was equally reachable and equally vulnerable. Russian troops could not be bombed, because they would be deliberately intermixed with the native population. There could be no fighting but street-fighting. This would be war on a new scale, invasion from a new dimension; it would be conquest which could not be fought.
The only trouble was that practically every square mile of European sky was inhabited by somebody enjoying the fruits of Russian science in the form of a personal flier. And secrecy simply couldn't be managed. All Europe knew just about as much about the Russian plan as the Russians did.
So when the clouds of flying infantry came pouring through the night, great droning bombers with riding-lights and landing-lights aglow came roaring out of the west to meet them. There were, to be sure, Soviet jet-fighters with the defending fleet. They tangled with the Russian escort and fought all over the sky, while the bombers focused their landing-lights on the infantry and roared at them. The sensation of being ahead of a bellowing plane rushing at one was exactly that of being on a railroad track with an express train on the loose. There was nothing to do but duck. The Russian soldiers ducked. Then the bombers began to shoot star shells, rockets, Roman candles and other pyrotechnics. The Russian troops dispersed. And an army that is dispersed simply isn't an army. When finally vast numbers of enthusiastic personal-flier addicts came SwOoping through the night with flashlights and Very pistols, the debacle was complete. The still-fighting planes overhead had nothing left to fight for. Those that were left went home.
When dawn came the Russian soldiers were individuals scattered over three separate nations. And Russian soldiers, in quantity, tend to fight or loot as opportunity offers. But a Russian soldier, as an individual, craves civilian clothes above all else. Russian soldiers landed and tried to make deals for their flying equipment according to the traditions of only a few months before. They were sadly disillusioned. The best bargain most of them could make was simply a promise that they wouldn't be sent back home--and they took that.
It was all rather anticlimactic, and it got worse. Russia was still legally at war with everybody, even after its flying infantry sat down and made friends. And Russia was still too big to invade. On the other hand, it had to keep its air force in hand to fight off attempts at invasion. Just to maintain that defensive frame of mind, Allied bombers occasionally smashed some Russian airfields, and some railroads, and--probably at the instigation of decadent capitalists--they did blow up the Aviation Production factories, even away off in the Urals. Those Ural raids, by the way, were made by the United States Air Force, flying over the North Pole to prove that it could deliver something besides condensed milk at long distances.
But the war never really amounted to much. The Allies had all the flying infantry they wanted to use, but they didn't want to use it. The Russians worked frantically, suborning treason and developing black marketeers and so on, to get personal fliers for defense, but Russian civilians would pay more than even the Soviet government for them, so the Army hardly got any at all. To correct this situation the Supreme Soviet declared private possession of a personal flier a capital offense, and shot several hundred citizens to prove it. Among the victims of this purge, by the way, was the Nuclear-Fission man who had worked out the personal flier from Professor Rojestvensky's figures. But people wanted personal fliers. When owning one became a reason for getting shot, almost half the Russian government's minor officials piled out of the nearest window and went somewhere else, and the bigger officials kept their personal fliers where they could grab them at any instant and take off. And the smuggling kept on. Before long practically everybody had private fliers but the army--and flier-equipped soldiers tended to disappear over the horizon if left alone after nightfall.
So the Soviet Union simply fell to pieces. The Supreme Soviet couldn't govern when anybody who disagreed with it could go up the nearest chimney and stay gone. It lost the enthusiastic support of the population as soon as it became unable to shoot the unenthusiastic. And when it was committed to the policy of shooting every Russian citizen who possessed proof of the supreme splendor of Russian science--a personal flier--why public discipline disappeared. Party discipline went with it. All discipline followed. And when there wasn't any discipline there simply wasn't any Soviet Union and therefore there wasn't any war, and everybody might as well stop fooling around and cook dinner. The world, in fact, was remade.
Undoubtedly the world is a good deal happier since Professor Rojestvensky thought of an interesting inference to be drawn from the Bramwell-Weems Equation while at his breakfast of red-cabbage soup and black bread. There are no longer any iron-bound national boundaries, and therefore no wars or rumors of wars. There are no longer any particular reasons for cities to be crowded, and a reasonably equitable social system has to exist or people will go fishing or down to the South Seas, or somewhere where they won't be bothered.
But in some ways the change has not been as great as one might have expected. About a year after the world was remade, an American engineer thought up a twist on Professor Rojestvensky's figures. He interested the American continental government and they got ready to build a spaceship. The idea was that if a variation of that brass-sodium-nickel bar was curled around a hundred-foot-long tube, and metallic sodium vapor was introduced into one end of the tube, it would be pushed out of the other end with some speed. Calculation proved, indeed, that with all the acceleration possible, the metallic vapor would emerge with a velocity of ninety-eight point seven percent of the speed of light. Using Einstein's formula for the relationship of mass to speed, that meant that the tube would propel a rocket-ship that could go to the Moon or Mars or anywhere else. The American government started to build the ship, and then thought it would be a good idea to have Professor Rojestvensky in on the job as a consultant. Besides, the world owed him something. So he was sent for, and Congress voted him more money than he had ever heard of before, and he looked over the figures and O.K.'d them. They were all right.
But he was typical of the people whose happiness has not been markedly increased by the remade world. He was a rich man, and he liked America, but after a month or so he didn't look happy. So the government put him in the most luxurious suite in the most luxurious hotel in America, and assigned people to wait on him and a translator to translate for him, and did its very best to honor the man who'd remade the world. But still he didn't seem content.
One day a committee of reporters asked him what he wanted. He would be in all the history books, and he had done the world a great favor, and the public would like him to be pleased. But Professor Rojestvensky shook his head sadly.
"It's only," he said gloomily, "that since I am rich and the world is peaceable and everybody is happy--well, I just can't seem to find anyone who knows how to make good red-cabbage soup."