Then came the tremendous thump, the swinging of a colossal page across the void, the warping of the very universe about them, the physical torture and the swift rush through Stygian inkiness....
"Farewell." A single word, whispered like a benediction in the Wanderer's mellow voice, was in Bert's consciousness. He knew that their benefactor had slipped away into the mysterious regions of intra-dimensional space.
Raising himself slowly and dazedly from where he had been flung, he saw they were in Tom's laboratory. Joan lay over there white and still, a pitiful crumpled heap. Panicky, Bert crossed to her. His trembling fingers found her pulse; a sobbing breath of relief escaped his lips. She had merely swooned.
Tom Parker, exhausted from his efforts in that other plane and with the very foundations of his being wrenched by the passage through the fifth dimension, was unable to rise. Only semiconscious, his eyes were glazed with pain, and incoherent moaning sounds came from his white lips when he attempted to speak.
Bert's mind was clearing rapidly. That diabolical machine of Tom's was still operating, the drone of its motors being the only sound in the laboratory as the inventor closed his mouth grimly and made a desperate effort to raise his head. But Bert had seen shapes materializing on the lighted disk that was the gateway between planes and he rushed to the controls of the instrument. That starting lever must be shifted without delay.
"Don't!" Tom Parker had found his voice; his frantic warning was a hoarse whistling gasp. He had struggled to his knees. "It will kill you, Bert. Those things in the force area--partly through--the reaction will destroy the machine and all of us if you turn it off. Don't, I say!"
"What then?" Bert fell back appalled. Hazily, the steel prow of a war machine was forming itself on the metal disk; caterpillar treads moved like ghostly shadows beneath. It was the vanguard of the Bardek hordes!
"Can't do it that way!" Tom had gotten to his feet and was stumbling toward the force area. "Only one way--during the change of oscillation periods. Must mingle other atoms with those before they stabilize in our plane. Must localize annihilating force. Must--"
What was the fool doing? He'd be in the force area in another moment. Bert thrust forward to intercept him; saw that Joan had regained consciousness and was sitting erect, swaying weakly. Her eyes widened with horror as they took in the scene and she screamed once despairingly and was on her feet, tottering.
"Back!" Tom Parker yelled, wheeling. "Save yourselves."
Bert lunged toward him but was too late. Tom had already burst into the force area and cast himself upon the semitransparent tank of the spider men. A blast of searing heat radiated from the disk and the motors of Tom's machine groaned as they slowed down under a tremendous overload.
Joan cried out in awful despair and moved to follow, but her knees gave way beneath her. Moaning and shuddering, she slumped into Bert's arms and he drew her back from the awful heat of the force area.
Then, horrified, they watched as Tom Parker melted into the misty shape of the Bardek war machine. Swiftly his body merged with the half-substance of the tank and became an integral part of the mass. For a horrible instant Tom, too, was transparent--a ghost shape writhing in a ghostly throbbing mechanism of another world. His own atomic structure mingled with that of the alien thing and yet, for a moment, he retained his Earthly form. His lean face was peaceful in death, satisfied, like the Wanderer's when they had last seen him.
A terrific thunderclap rent the air and a column of flame roared up from the force area. Tom's apparatus glowed to instant white heat, then melted down into sizzling liquid metal and glass. The laboratory was in sudden twilight gloom, save for the tongue of fire that licked up from the force area to the paneled ceiling. On the metal disk, now glowing redly, was no visible thing. The gateway was closed forever.
What more fearful calamity might have befallen had the machine been switched off instead, Bert was never to know. Nor did he know how he reached his parked flivver with Joan a limp sobbing bundle in his arms. He only knew that Tom Parker's sacrifice had saved them, had undoubtedly prevented a horrible invasion of Earth; and that the efforts of the Wanderer had not been in vain.
The old house was burning furiously when he climbed in under the wheel of his car. He held Joan very close and watched that blazing funeral pyre in wordless sorrow as the bereaved girl dropped her head to his shoulder.
A group of men came up the winding road, a straggling group, running--the loungers from the village. In the forefront was the beardless youth who had directed Bert, and, bringing up the rear, limping and scurrying, was the old man they had called Gramp. He was puffing prodigiously when the others gathered around the car, demanding information.
And the old fellow with the thick spectacles talked them all down.
"What'd I tell you?" he screeched. "Didn't I say they was queer doin's up here? Didn't I say the devil was here with his imps--an' the thunder? You're a passel o' idjits like I said--"
The roar of Bert's starting motor drowned out the rest, but the old fellow was still gesticulating and dancing about when they clattered off down the winding road to Lenville.
An hour later Joan had fallen asleep, exhausted.
Night had fallen and, as mile after mile of smooth concrete unrolled beneath the flivver's wheels, Bert gave himself over to thoughts he had not dared to entertain in nearly two years. They'd be happy, he and Joan, and there'd be no further argument. If she still objected to living on the fruit farm, that could be managed easily. They'd live in Indianapolis and he'd buy a new car, a good one, to run back and forth. If, when her grief for Tom had lessened, she wanted to go on with laboratory work and such--well, that was easy, too. Only there would be no fooling around with this dimensional stuff--she'd had enough of that, he knew.
He drew her close with his free arm and his thoughts shifted--moved far out in infra-dimensional space to dwell upon the man of the past who had called himself Wanderer of Infinity. He who would go on and on until the end of time, until the end of all things, watching over the many worlds and planes. Warning peoples of humanlike mold and emotions wherever they might dwell. Helping them. Atoning throughout infinity. Suffering.
BY E. G. VON WALD.
A man acts on what he believes the facts are, not on the facts. He lives or dies by what the facts are. Now sometimes you don't have time to correct a man's beliefs, yet he must act correctly....
The aging little psychologist looked down at the captain's insignia on his sleeve and scowled.
"I know it's a lousy, fouled-up situation, commander," he said with evident irony. "You speak of discipline. Well, it's bad enough here on Mars, where a junior officer like you feels free to argue with a full captain like me, but out there with the fleet, discipline is now virtually nonexistent."
He looked up again and quickly added, "Oh, of course there is a discipline of a sort, and in its own way it is quite effective. Strict, too, as you will find. But it has few of the marks of the military academy, of which the regular officers were so fond. Perhaps that was the reason why they let the situation get away from them, and why we are in charge of it now."
"I still think--" the commander started, but he was interrupted again.
"I know what you think, commander. You can forget it. It's wishful thinking and we cannot permit such daydreaming in our precarious condition. Face the facts as they exist in the present. After we kick the aliens out of our solar system, maybe we can go back to the old ideas again. Maybe. I'm not even very sure of that. But as for now, the characteristic of despair is the lowest common denominator among the combat patrols, and we therefore have mutinies, disobedience of orders, defections of every variety. That is a real situation, and it will persist until we can induce the men to accept tactical leadership that can cope with the enemy.
"Actually, it is not very remarkable that this situation developed. Strategy is still a rational computable quantity, but the actual tactics of fighting is something else entirely. The aliens have an intellectual response that is in full truth alien to us. It simply cannot be comprehended rationally by a human being, although they manage to guess pretty well the responses of our own fighters. Naturally, the result has been that in the past our losses were almost ninety per cent whenever a patrol actually engaged in a firefight with the enemy.
"Fortunately, the aliens are much too far from their home to possess anything like the number of personnel and other resources that we have. Otherwise, they would have beaten us long ago. Completely wiped us out. And all because an ordinary, intelligent human being cannot learn any patterns by which the aliens operate, and by which he can fight them successfully."
"I know that," the commander muttered. "I spent plenty of time out there before I got tapped for this new branch of service." He rubbed the moist palms of his hands together nervously.
"Certainly you did," the captain acknowledged absently. Then he continued his explanation. "Fortunately, there was a small body of information on extra-rational mental faculties that had been developed over the past century, and as soon as we expanded it sufficiently, we were able to form this new branch of service you now belong to. But unfortunately, some idiot in the Information Service released a popularization of the data on the new branch. That was ill-advised. The veterans who had survived so far had their own way of accounting for their survival, and that did not include what that silly description alluded to as 'blind guessing' by commanders of 'exceptional psychic gifts.'
"Like most popularizations, the description was grossly inaccurate, and was promptly withdrawn; but the damage had already been done. The damage was completed by another idiot who named the new branch the Psi Corps, merely because the basic capacity for extra-rational mental faculties is technically signified by the Greek letter 'psi.' The name was slightly mispronounced by the men, and that automatically produced that nasty little nickname, which has stuck, and which expresses very well the attitude of the men toward the new service.
"As I say, fleet discipline is very bad, and the men simply would not accept orders from such officers. There are numerous cases on record where they killed them when there was no other way out.
"Now, as far as discipline itself is concerned, the best procedure would be to pull an entire fleet out of the defense perimeter and retrain them, because the newly trained recruits can be made to accept Psi Corps officers as commanders. But our situation is far too desperate to permit anything like that. Therefore, we must use whatever devices we can think of to do the job.
"The ship you are going to is staffed by veterans. They were incredibly lucky. From the outset, they had a CO who was a man highly gifted in psi without he or anyone else knowing about it until a few months ago when we ran a quiet little survey. But he got killed in a recent encounter, along with their executive officer, so we are now sending them a new captain and a new exec as well. But those men simply will not accept orders from a Psi Corps officer. Furthermore, they have heard the rumors--soundly based--that the Psi Corps, as a result of its opposition, has gone underground, so to speak. They know that its personnel has been largely disguised by giving them special commissions in the regular Space Combat Service. As a result, they will most certainly suspect any new commanding officer no matter what insignia he wears.
"Of course, now and then you will find one of the old hands who will accept the Psi Corps, so long as it isn't jammed down his throat. Just pray that you have somebody like that aboard your new ship, although I must admit, it isn't very likely."
"All right, all right," the commander growled with irritation. "But--with your permission, sir--I still think my particular method of assignment is a lousy approach and I don't like it. I still think it will make for very bad discipline."
"Whether you like it or not, commander, that is the way it will have to be accomplished. We are simply recognizing a real situation for what it is, and compromising with it."
"But couldn't this change in command personnel be postponed until--"
"If it could be postponed," the captain replied acidly, "you may rest assured we would not be employing disagreeable--and somewhat questionable--devices to speed it up. Unfortunately, our outlying detectors have identified the approach of a fleet of starships. They can only be reinforcements for the aliens, about equal to what they already have here, and they will arrive in two years. If those two forces can join each other, there will be no need to worry further about discipline among the humans. There will shortly be no humans left. So we are preparing a full-scale assault against those aliens now within our system in the very near future. And we simply must have all tactical combat devices commanded by men with extra-rational mental abilities in order to deal with them effectively."
"Effectively?" the commander snorted. "Thirty-two per cent effective, according to the figures they gave us in the Psi school."
"That is considerably better than twelve per cent, which is the statistical likelihood of survival in combat without it," the captain retorted.
Nervously, the commander scratched the back of his thin neck, grimmaced and nodded.
"The first and most important problem for you is to gain the confidence of your crew. They will be worse than useless to you without it, and it will be a very difficult job, even with all the advice and help our men can give you. And you will have to be careful--don't forget what I said about assassinations. The way we are going about it, that you find so disagreeable, should minimize that danger, but you can't ever tell what will happen."
He held up his hand to forestall a comment from the other and continued on. "There are conditions for everything, commander. Men react according to certain patterns, given the proper circumstances. It is characteristic of the sort of men you will encounter on your new ship that they are unlikely to take the initiative in such matters, partly from their early training and partly from their association with a CO who pretty well dominated them. However, they will readily condone it if somebody else does take the initiative in their behalf. Particularly, if that man has some official authority over them, and there is always somebody like that. They will not only condone the action, they will positively be happy about it, because it will tend to bolster their sense of security--such as it is. You know the sort of thing--father hunger. Somebody to take care of them the way their old CO did."
The captain sighed. "So you see, commander, you are going into a double-edged situation. Everything in it that can accrue to your advantage, could also get you promptly killed."
"I see. First I fight with my men," the commander said bitterly. "And if I win that battle, I will be permitted to fight the aliens with a thirty-two per cent possibility of living through the first encounter of that."
"It's always been that way to some extent," the captain replied sympathetically, "in every command situation since the world began. Only right now is a little worse than anyone can remember."
The commander departed. But about a month later, ensuing circumstances brought one Lieutenant Maise to the same office building. He was not, of course, ushered into the august presence of the captain, who was seeing more important people than lieutenants that day.
Maise had been there for several hours every day for the previous three, and he went immediately to the desk of the Special Reports Officer. The SR Officer was a lieutenant also, a combination of psychologist and writer, whose business it was to make sure that Special Reports on morale matters were presented in the properly dramatic fashion so that that indefinable aura of reality, customarily omitted from official historical documents, could be included. The Evaluation Division, back on Earth, was very fussy about that "aura."
"Ah, good afternoon sir," the SR Officer greeted him. "Glad to see you again."
Maise nodded curtly and took a seat beside the desk.
"I think we are pretty well finished now--"
"We better be," Maise interrupted. "My ship is pulling out in four hours."
"Right on the button, eh?" said the SR Officer. He fumbled in a desk drawer and withdrew a bulky folder, from which he extracted a smaller manuscript, and handed it to Maise. "I think you will find it complete and suitably expressive, now, sir."
Maise scowled as he accepted the document. "It makes no difference to me. I didn't want to get involved with the report in the first place."
"I know," the SR Officer nodded agreeably. "But don't worry. Nobody is going to prefer any charges against anybody in any case. What they want back on Earth is all the information they can get on morale problems, so that they can more effectively implement their planning. You know how it is."
"How would I know?"
The SR Officer snapped, "I can understand your sentiments, but don't blame me. Remember, I'm just a lieutenant, and I just work here in Morale."
"Sure," Maise said, cracking a grin on his stiff lips. "Sorry. I know it isn't your fault."
He opened the report, and commenced reading.
SPECIAL CONFIDENTIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL REPORT, prepared in collaboration with Lieutenant E. G. von Wald, Special Reports Officer, Mars XLV Base.
COMMANDING OFFICER Psychological Study and Evaluation District Central Command Authority Unified Human Defense Forces FROM:.
LIEUTENANT ALTON A. B. MAISE Executive Officer Space Combat Device LMB-43534 Seventh Space Fleet SUBJECT:.
ATTEMPTED BACTERIOLOGICAL POISONING OF COMMANDER THOMAS L. FRENDON, recently assigned captain of above-mentioned Combat Device. As per Special Order PSIC334349, dated 23 July 2013.
On 17 October 2015, Space Combat Device LMB-43534 was detached from the Seventh Fleet and returned to the Martian XLV Docks for general overhauling and refitting with new equipment. This period extended for two months, and was followed by a seven-day course of rechecking by the crew.
I was assigned to the ship as Executive Officer on 21 November following detachment, and was in command of the ship during most of the above-mentioned operations. The men were extremely hostile toward me, owing to their fear that I was a Psi Corps officer acting under a special commission in the SCS, but no overt signs of mutiny took place, perhaps because we were still in port. Needless to say, I was very glad when the message arrived informing us of the assignment of Commander Frendon as captain, inasmuch as the situation made clearly evident that I could not expect to be able to assume tactical command of the ship myself when it was returned to combat, the attitude of the crew being what it was.
Almost immediately upon receipt of the message, some of the animosity toward me lifted, but hardly enough for me to consider myself accepted as a member of the crew, although there was a good deal more work done after that.
Six days before our scheduled departure date, Commander Frendon arrived. I was in the control cabin with Lieutenant Spender, Third Officer, when Lieutenant Harding, the Astrogator entered. He limped around the little room a couple of times and then slumped dejectedly into a chair. "Well," he said, "we've had it, boys."
Spender looked around at him quickly, saying, "What's that?"
"I said we've had it. I just saw the new CO, walking over from the Operations office."
"What about it?" I asked sharply.
Harding shook his heavy, balding head, staring at the floor. "It's written all over him," he said bitterly.
"No!" muttered Spender.
"Yep," Harding growled. "Just wait until you lay eyes on him."
He stood up and faced me, his expression bleak and cold. "A sickman, Mr. Exec," he snarled. "Just as sure as death."
As previously noted, discipline was very lax, but I had been trying to restore it as much as possible. So I said, "I don't know whether the new CO is a member of the Psi Corps or not, Harding, but cut out this nickname of 'sick.'"
Harding mumbled: "That's what everybody calls them. I didn't invent the name. But I think it is plenty appropriate."
"Well cut it out."
Harding glared at me. "I suppose you're glad to have one of the guess-kids running this ship."
"Nobody wants to be involved in any guessing games, but we're not running the war here, so stow it."