Harding grunted: "Well, tell me, have you ever served under a sick skipper?"
"Do you want to?"
"Why not? Besides--what can I do about it?"
Harding leaned back and sipped away on the straight whiskey he was drinking, watching me over the top of the glass and talking directly into it, making his voice sound muffled and sinister. "You know, Maise, sometimes you make me tired. Frankly, when they first sent us you, I didn't like it. None of us did. You were CO then, and we thought maybe you were a sickman even if you didn't look like it, and you kept sort of sticking up for the sick corps whenever it was mentioned. Well, that's all right. New officer in charge, trying to stiffen up discipline, et cetera and so forth. But now we've got Frendon for CO. You're in the same boat as the rest of us, and you still keep insisting that the sickmen are O.K. But you're a liar and you know it."
"Well, what do you want me to do?" I shouted angrily. "Poison the guy?"
There was a sudden sharp hush. Even Korsakov lifted his head from the table, and looked around with bleary, bloodshot eyes. "Poison?" he said. Then, as if the effort of thinking was too much, he lay down again and muttered. "Once in three times. It's a puzzle question, men. Figure it out."
"Of course, entirely aside from the present argument," Spender stated in his cold, emotionless voice, staring into his empty glass, "but I do seem to recall an incident like that. Seems there was a ship just about like ours. About three months ago. A mechanic told me about it. Seems they got a new CO assigned to it who was obviously a sickman, just like us. Somebody managed to sneak a few of the dormant spores lying around outside the dome into him. Then the sickman really was sick."
I licked my lips. "I didn't mean that," I said. "Besides, they could always tell if you did anything like that."
"How?" asked Spender.
Harding was listening intently, watching both of us, but he didn't say anything.
"They can identify the organisms," I pointed out.
"Sure. Easy. But how do they know where he picked them up? They're laying all around outside the domes here on Mars ever since the first assault by the aliens twelve years ago. Nobody's had time to decontaminate this whole planet like they did Earth. Easiest thing in the world for a new officer on Mars to take a little sight-seeing excursion outside the domes and to be a little careless."
"There would be an epidemic if he brought back a lot of spores," I suggested. "Besides, it's out of bounds to leave the dome."
Spender shook his head. "You can get around that out-of-bounds business without any trouble," he said. "And there are decontamination chambers in the air locks, which would clean up anything he brought in; so there would be no epidemic. The exposure would take place outside of the domes--say if he opened his helmet to smell the perfume of the famous hypnotic marspoppy, or something like that. Then he would be infected, and after that it's non-contagious. All we need is somebody to buddy up to him, and take him out there. Nature and the poppy will do the rest."
"Look," I said angrily, "cut that stuff out, Spender. If you're looking to me to disable the guy, forget about it. I won't. And I'm telling you right now that if I find anybody else does, I'll report it."
For once Spender laughed. He turned to face me, and his blue eyes were dancing in his scarred, old face. He was laughing at me and my belligerent righteousness, but the real joke, of course, was that unless somebody actually caught him talking Frendon into going out there, there wouldn't be the slightest chance of proving he had done it. It was the simplest thing in the world to sneak out and back without being observed, and we both knew it.
"All right," I said then. "Have your laugh, Spender. And you, too, Harding. I don't like the nut we've got any more than you do, but what you're talking about is mutiny and murder--"
"Oh, he wouldn't necessarily die," Harding commented thoughtfully. "If he gets the serum within a few hours of the first symptoms, he probably would be just a very sick man for about a month. Too long to take the ship out with us when we go." He grinned at me. "And as for mutiny, nobody would be using any physical force on him. Nor--when you come right down to the specific matter of his commanding his ship--would there be any moral force employed either."
"Have it any way you like," I said, standing up. "I don't care for the tone of this discussion, and I'm getting out of it."
Harding laughed again at that. "O.K., Maise," he said in a friendly tone of voice. "Sorry. I guess you're right at that." I stood glaring at him. "Come on, sit down," he continued. "I know there isn't anything else for you to say about it. Being Exec and all, you pretty well have to stick up for him, and we don't hold it against you. And don't worry about us doing anything to your precious Frendon."
His face darkened as he said it, though, and he swore. "Not right now, anyway. Still, that spore business isn't such a bad--"
"Let it go," Spender cut him off with a mixture of irritation and affection. "Somebody told me about it, and so I just passed it on. It isn't as easy as it sounds, because that stuff can kill, and you stand a pretty good chance of making a mistake and catching it yourself." Then he looked up at me and smiled again. "You might as well stick around with us tonight and get drunk, Maise. No place else to go."
I hesitated. It was a genuine offer of comradeship, and God knows I wanted it. I had been an outcast among these men too long. So I grinned back at him and slid down into the booth again, pressing the button for another drink. "I'll have one more, but then I think I have some work to do. Got to see a man about something."
Korsakov stirred himself. He wasn't as drunk as he seemed, I think. He raised his head and looked at me carefully for a moment, but then he mumbled, "Once in three times. How do you figure it?"
I left them soon after, located and spoke to Frendon, and then returned to the ship. The following morning at nine thirty Commander Frendon suddenly complained of a fever, and said he was going to the hospital.
A couple of hours later, we received notification of his condition from the hospital, and at the same time orders from CINCMARS.
Korsakov, eyes still bloodshot from his hangover, took the message out of the scanner and stared at it. Then he wordlessly handed it over to me.
I read it. It said that Commander Frendon had contracted the spore disease, but that his condition was satisfactory due to the speedy treatment. He would, however, be confined to the hospital for one month.
There was an empty space of three lines, and the orders followed, addressed to Frendon, to prepare to lift off planet in three days and rejoin the Seventh Fleet.
Harding, Spender and Korsakov stared at me with awe when I read them the information. Nobody said anything for a full minute.
"All right," I snapped finally. "Kors, ship out a quickie to CINCMARS and notify him that we can't join the fleet, because we don't have a captain, and the orders are to him, personally, and not the ship. Something has to be changed."
Korsakov thoughtfully pulled on his shaggy, graying eyebrows with his thick fingers. "Why don't we wait until just before lift time," he suggested. "Then they won't have time to fish us out another sickman, and you'll be the skipper, Maise. What do you think of that?"
"Lousy," I said. "A delay like that when they already must have that information kicking around somewhere might just be the thing to foul up the deal. This has to be played straight. Besides, I don't think they are likely to have any unassigned sick--I mean Psi Corps men around on Mars. Go chop out that report."
He was reluctant, but he didn't waste any time about it. And almost immediately the reply came back ordering me to report to the Base Morale Officer and account for Frendon's sudden illness, or accident, or whatever it was. In the old days, that might not have meant so much; but now, of course, the Morale Officer is the whole works.
"Well," I said then, "looks like the soup is hot. They're suspicious." Nobody said anything. They were all waiting, looking at me. "Who," I continued slowly and carefully, "do you suppose slipped Frendon the spore? They'll want to know, maybe."
"Why, Maise," Harding said garrulously, "just like Spender told us. He went outside, the dome on a sight-seeing trip and made the mistake of looking at a marspoppy without an antihypnotic color filter. He just accidentally happened to expose himself."
"He might not have gone alone," I suggested. "They'll want to know who went with him, since he probably didn't know anybody else on the Base."
Korsakov grinned hugely. "We all did, skipper," he said. "They can't court-martial the whole crew for going out of bounds with him, can they? It would take a valuable ship out of action."
"They might." I stood up, frowning. "Well, it all depends upon what Frendon told them, but, of course, he might have been drunk himself at the time, and a man like him would hesitate to admit something like that. That shouldn't be too hard to demonstrate. In which case," I added, letting them see a grin on my face, "he might have gone by himself after all, and then none of us would have to be even slightly implicated. Like for instance, if he spent some time with us drinking, and then went off by himself, how would we know where he was going?"
They all laughed with evident relief. It would be a good story. They all knew that none of them had induced Frendon to disable himself, and for them that settled the question of who did it. Their willingness to take a full share of the blame off me settled the only other question I myself was concerned about.
And this morning, when CINCMARS confirmed my acting captain status, and sent us a raw recruit for third officer replacement after moving Harding up to acting Exec, everybody was satisfied and happy.
As happy as any small group of reluctant soldiers about to go into battle is ever likely to get, anyway.
Lieutenant Maise dropped the report back on the SR Officer's desk when he had finished reading it.
"How did you like it?" the SR wanted to know.
"All right," Maise murmured. "It covers it. I just hope they can make some use of it, so that in the future the assignment of a Psi Corps officer won't be a general signal for a small-time mutiny."
"That's the whole point of making these reports. They'll work out something."
Maise nodded. "Where's Frendon now?"
"He was transferred to XXX Base three days ago, right after he left your ship. Couldn't let him run around here for a while. Not after the trouble with your crew--somebody might recognize him. Besides, he already has another assignment there."
"I think it was a pretty stupid thing," Maise grumbled. "He was so obvious. And suppose I hadn't warned him about it that night, or that I hadn't been there when the spore-poisoning idea came to a head among the crew? They might really have tried to get him outside the dome, or to get a spore culture inside. And then we'd all be sick or dead."
"Not likely, sir," the SR Officer said with a polite, knowing smile. "You see, the aliens are presumably susceptible to their own bacteriological weapons. At least we think so from the way they went about it. They want our planets, and they didn't want to have to decontaminate them when they took them over. Besides, it's practically impossible to decontaminate an entire planet, anyway."
"But we did it with Earth."
"For morale purposes, Central Authority let it be known that they were able to decontaminate it, but what actually happened was that the spores lost their effectiveness within a few years of their original seeding. I'm surprised they didn't tell you that in the beginning--" He caught himself suddenly, then shrugged and smiled again.
"Maybe you aren't supposed to be told," he continued without embarrassment. "It's sometimes hard for me to know about such things. You have no idea how confused the directives can get in an organization this large. Anyway, as you can see, your men couldn't have poisoned Frendon or themselves or anybody else with those spores. That's why we have been using that particular form of suggested violence in this unpleasant business. If, as you pointed out, something unexpected did happen, it would be absolutely harmless. Naturally," he added, "we wouldn't like to risk unnecessarily a professional actor with such a remarkably suitable physical appearance as Commander Frendon--even if the poor fellow doesn't have the slightest trace of psi ability."
Maise gaped at him for a moment as he comprehended the careful, knowledgeable planning behind the ruse, much of which had not been explained to him before in his briefings. He said, "And I guess there is still a lot more about it that I don't know."
The SR Officer nodded agreement. "Neither you nor I," he replied in bald understatement. "After all, there are some pretty intelligent men in charge of this last-ditch defense of our species, and they do keep a few of the more important things to themselves. For your own safety among your crew, I suggest that you keep this spore business equally secret."
"I don't need your advice for that," Maise said with a low voice and a wry grin on his face. But the grin vanished as he stood up to go. He hesitated and shook his head uncertainly.
"So that takes care of that," the SR concluded. "Now you're all set, aren't you?"
"All set?" Maise murmured, half to himself. "Hell, I'm just starting, and I'm scared. When the boys asked me if I trusted the intuition of the Psi Corps men, I suddenly realized that I really wasn't quite sure myself. I've studied and worked for two solid years under extraordinary teachers, and back on Earth they said I was unusually good. But now that men's lives will depend on it, it almost seems like something out of a joke book." He stopped talking and sighed. "Well, that's the way it has to be, I guess."
He turned to go, but the SR Officer called him back. "Just a minute, sir," he said. "You forgot to sign this report. You are the originating officer, you know."
"Oh, yes." Maise went back to the desk. He picked up a pen and riffled through the pages to the last one. There he signed his name, scribbling rapidly, "Alton A. B. Maise, Acting Lieutenant SCS Commander, Psi Corps."
"There you are, lieutenant," he muttered, and started walking on back to the field where his ship was waiting.
The 4-D DOODLER by GRAPH WALDEYER
"Do you believe, Professor Gault, that this four dimensional plane contains life--intelligent life?"
At the question, Gault laughed shortly. "You have been reading pseudo-science, Dr. Pillbot," he twitted. "I realize that as a psychiatrist, you are interested in minds, in living beings, rather than in dimensional planes. But I fear you will find no minds to study in the fourth dimension. There aren't any there!"
Professor Gault paused, peered from beneath bushy white brows out over the laboratory. To his near sighted eyes the blurred figure of Harper, his young assistant, seemed busily at work over his mathematical charts. Gault hoped sourly that the young man was actually working and not just drawing more of his absurd, senseless designs amidst the mathematical computations....
"Your proof," Dr. Pillbot broke into his thoughts insistently, "is purely negative, Professor! How can you know there are no beings in the fourth dimension, unless you actually enter this realm, to see for yourself?"
Professor Gault stared at the fat, puffy face of his visitor, and snorted loudly.
"I am afraid, Pillbot, you do not comprehend the impossibility of such a passage. We can not possibly break from the confines of our three dimensional world. Here, let me explain by a simple illustration."
Gault took up a book, held it so that a shadow fell onto the surface of the desk.
"That shadow," he said, "is two dimensional, has length and breadth, but no thickness. Now in order to enter the third dimension, our plane, the shadow would have to bulge out in some way, into the dimension of thickness an obvious impossibility. Similarly, we can not enter the fourth dimension. Do you see?"
"No!" retorted Pillbot with some heat. "In the first place, we are not two dimensional shadows, and--why, what is the matter?"
Professor Gault's lanky form had stiffened, his near sighted eyes glaring out over the laboratory to the rear of Pillbot. The psychiatrist wheeled around, followed his host's gaze.
It was Harper. That young man's antics drew an amazed grunt from Pillbot. He was describing peculiar motions in the air with his pencil. Circles, whorls, angles, abrupt jabs forward. He bent over the paper on the desk, made a few sweeps of the pencil, then the pencil rose again into the air to describe more erratic motions. Harper himself seemed in a trance.
Suddenly Pillbot gave a stifled gasp. It seemed to him that Harper's arm vanished at the elbow as it stabbed forward, then reappeared. Once again the phenomenon happened.
Pillbot blinked rapidly, rubbed his eyes. It must have been illusion, he decided. It was too ... unlikely....
"Harper!" Gault's voice was like the snapping of a steel trap.
Startled, Harper came to with a jerk. Seeing he was being watched, he flushed redly, then bent over his charts again. An apologetic murmur floated from his desk.
"What was he doing?" Pillbot asked puzzledly.
"Doodling!" Gault spat out the word disgustedly.
"Doodling?" echoed the psychiatrist. "Why that is a slang term we use in psychiatry, to describe the absent-minded scrawls and designs people make while their attention is elsewhere occupied. An overflow of the unconscious mind, we call it. Many famous people are 'doodlers.' Their doodles often are a sign of special ability--"
"Exactly!" snapped Gault. "It shows a special ability to waste time. And Harper has become worse since I hired him to do some of my mathematical work. Some influence in this laboratory--I blush to confess--seems to bring it on. 'Four dimensional doodling' we call it, because, as you saw, he doesn't confine it to the surface of the paper!"
Pillbot looked startled. "By jove," he cried. "I believe you've hit on something new to psychiatry. This young man may have some unknown faculty of mind--an instinctive perception of the fourth dimension. Just as some people have an unerring sense of direction, so perhaps Harper has a sense of--of a fourth direction--the fourth dimension! I should like to examine some of his 'doodles'."
Harper looked up in alarm as his crusty tempered employer appeared, followed by the stout figure of Pillbot. He rose and stood aside unassumingly, as Pillbot bent over the scrawls on his charts, clucking interestedly.
Harper flickered a worried glance over to the corner. He hoped they wouldn't notice his stress-analyzing clay model standing there. It looked like a futurist's nightmare, with angles, curves and knobs stuck out at all angles. Professor Gault might not understand....
For one of his retiring temperament, Harper was aiming high. There was a standing award of $50,000 for the lucky mathematician who would solve the mystery of the "stress-barrier" encountered by skyscrapers as they were built up toward the 150 story mark. At this height, they encountered stress and strains which mathematical computations and engineering designs had been unable to solve. Harper believed the "stress-barrier" was due to an undetected space-bending close to the earth's surface, a bending of space greater than ever provided for in the prediction of Einstein. And if he was right, and could win that award, then there might be wedding bells, and a little bungalow with Judith....
Harper's greatest fear was that he would do something to annoy Gault into firing him, thus depriving him of the privilege of using the mathematical charts and computing machines available in the laboratory. Right now, he hoped Gault wouldn't notice that statue in the corner-- "What's that!"
Harper's heart leaped. The Professor was glaring at the statue, as though it were something the cat brought in.
Pillbot looked up from examination of the "doodles" and followed Gault over to the futuristic statuary.