I'd gone off on the identification!
I slapped another evasion pattern into the controls, a standard set, I had no time to punch up an improvisation. But he was on me like a wasp. I rejected it, threw in another set. Reject. Another!
Even as I worked, I kicked the release on my own calculator, dumped it all, selected like a flash an Ivar K-12a card, and what other estimations I could make while my mind was busy with the full-time job of evasion.
My hands were still making the motions, my fingers were flicking here, there, my feet touching here, there. But my heart wasn't in it.
He already had such an advantage that it was all I could do to keep him in my visor screen. He was to the left, to the right. I got him for a full quarter-second in the wires, but the auto gunner was too far behind, much too far.
His own guns flicked red.
I punched half a dozen buttons, slapped levers, tried to scoot for home.
To the left of my cubicle two lights went yellowish and at the same time my visor screen went dead. I was blind.
I sank back in my chair, helpless.
The speed indicator wavered, went slowly, deliberately to zero; the altimeter died; the fuel gauge. Finally, even the dozen or so trouble-indicators here, there, everywhere about the craft. Fifteen million dollars worth of warcraft was being shot into wreckage.
I sat there for a long, long minute and took it.
Then I got to my feet and wearily opened the door of my cubicle. Sergeant Walters and the rest of the maintenance crew were standing there. They could read in my face what had happened.
The sergeant began, "Captain, I ..."
I grunted at him. "Never mind, Sergeant. It had nothing to do with the ship's condition." I turned to head for the operations office.
Bill Dickson strolled over from the direction of his own cubicle. "Somebody said you just had a scramble with old Dmitri himself."
"I don't know," I said. "I don't know if it was him or not. Maybe some of you guys can tell a man's flying but I can't."
He grinned at me. "Shot you down, eh?"
I didn't answer.
He said, "What happened?"
"I thought it was an Ivar K-12, and I put that card in my calculator. Turned out it was one of those new models, K-12a. That was enough, of course."
Bill grinned at me again. "That's two this week. That flak got you near that bridge and now you get ..."
"Shut up," I told him.
He counted up on his fingers elaborately. "The way I figure it, you lose one more ship and you're an enemy ace."
He was irrepressible. "Damn it," I said, "will you cut it out! I've got enough to worry about without you working me over. This means I'll have to spend another half an hour in operations going over the fight. And that means I'll be late for dinner again. And you know Molly."
Bill sobered. "Gee," he said, "I'm sorry. War is hell, isn't it?"
by MACK REYNOLDS
Freedom is a very dangerous thing indeed. It is so catching--like a plague--even the doctors get it.
Colonel Ilya Simonov tooled his Zil aircushion convertible along the edge of Red Square, turned right immediately beyond St. Basil's Cathedral, crossed the Moscow River by the Moskvocetski Bridge and debouched into the heavy, and largely automated traffic of Pyarnikskaya. At Dobryninskaya Square he turned west to Gorki Park which he paralleled on Kaluga until he reached the old baroque palace which housed the Ministry.
There were no flags, no signs, nothing to indicate the present nature of the aged Czarist building.
He left the car at the curb, slamming its door behind him and walking briskly to the entrance. Hard, handsome in the Slavic tradition, dedicated, Ilya Simonov was young for his rank. A plainclothes man, idling a hundred feet down the street, eyed him briefly then turned his attention elsewhere. The two guards at the gate snapped to attention, their eyes straight ahead. Colonel Simonov was in mufti and didn't answer the salute.
The inside of the old building was well known to him. He went along marble halls which contained antique statuary and other relics of the past which, for unknown reason, no one had ever bothered to remove. At the heavy door which entered upon the office of his destination he came to a halt and spoke briefly to the lieutenant at the desk there.
"The Minister is expecting me," Simonov clipped.
The lieutenant did the things receptionists do everywhere and looked up in a moment to say, "Go right in, Colonel Simonov."
Minister Kliment Blagonravov looked up from his desk at Simonov's entrance. He was a heavy-set man, heavy of face and he still affected the shaven head, now rapidly disappearing among upper-echelons of the Party. His jacket had been thrown over the back of a chair and his collar loosened; even so there was a sheen of sweat on his face.
He looked up at his most trusted field man, said in the way of greeting, "Ilya," and twisted in his swivel chair to a portable bar. He swung open the door of the small refrigerator and emerged with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. He plucked two three-ounce glasses from a shelf and pulled the bottle's cork with his teeth. "Sit down, sit down, Ilya," he grunted as he filled the glasses. "How was Magnitogorsk?"
Ilya Simonov secured his glass before seating himself in one of the room's heavy leathern chairs. He sighed, relaxed, and said, "Terrible, I loath those ultra-industrialized cities. I wonder if the Americans do any better with Pittsburgh or the British with Birmingham."
"I know what you mean," the security head rumbled. "How did you make out with you assignment, Ilya?"
Colonel Simonov frowned down into the colorlessness of the vodka before dashing it back over his palate. "It's all in my report, Kliment." He was the only man in the organization who called Blagonravov by his first name.
His chief grunted again and reached forward to refill the glass. "I'm sure it is. Do you know how many reports go across this desk daily? And did you know that Ilya Simonov is the most long-winded, as the Americans say, of my some two hundred first-line operatives?"
The colonel shifted in his chair. "Sorry," he said. "I'll keep that in mind."
His chief rumbled his sour version of a chuckle. "Nothing, nothing, Ilya. I was jesting. However, give me a brief of your mission."
Ilya Simonov frowned again at his refilled vodka glass but didn't take it up for a moment. "A routine matter," he said. "A dozen or so engineers and technicians, two or three fairly high-ranking scientists, and three or four of the local intelligentsia had formed some sort of informal club. They were discussing national and international affairs."
Kliment Blagonravov's thin eyebrows went up but he waited for the other to go on.
Ilya said impatiently, "It was the ordinary. They featured complete freedom of opinion and expression in their weekly get-togethers. They began by criticizing without extremism, local affairs, matters concerned with their duties, that sort of thing. In the beginning, they even sent a few letters of protest to the local press, signing the name of the club. After their ideas went further out, they didn't dare do that, of course."
He took up his second drink and belted it back, not wanting to give it time to lose its chill.
His chief filled in. "And they delved further and further into matters that should be discussed only within the party--if even there--until they arrived at what point?"
Colonel Simonov shrugged. "Until they finally got to the point of discussing how best to overthrow the Soviet State and what socio-economic system should follow it. The usual thing. I've run into possible two dozen such outfits in the past five years."
His chief grunted and tossed back his own drink. "My dear Ilya," he rumbled sourly, "I've run into, as you say, more than two hundred."
Simonov was taken back by the figure but he only looked at the other.
Blagonravov said, "What did you do about it?"
"Several of them were popular locally. In view of Comrade Zverev's recent pronouncements of increased freedom of press and speech, I thought it best not to make a public display. Instead, I took measures to charge individual members with inefficiency in their work, with corruption or graft, or with other crimes having nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Six or seven in all were imprisoned, others demoted. Ten or twelve I had switched to other cities, principally into more backward areas in the virgin lands."
"And the ringleaders?" the security head asked.
"There were two of them, one a research chemist of some prominence, the other a steel plane manager. They were both, ah, unfortunately killed in an automobile accident while under the influence of drink."
"I see," Blagonravov nodded. "So actually the whole rat's nest was stamped out without attention being brought to it so far as the Magnitogorsk public is concerned." He nodded heavily again. "You can almost always be depended upon to do the right thing, Ilya. If you weren't so confoundedly good a field man, I'd make you my deputy."
Which was exactly what Simonov would have hated, but he said nothing.
"One thing," his chief said. "The origin of this, ah, club which turned into a tiny underground all of its own. Did you detect the finger of the West, stirring up trouble?"
"No." Simonov shook his head. "If such was the case, the agents involved were more clever than I'd ordinarily give either America or Common Europe credit for. I could be wrong, of course."
"Perhaps," the police head growled. He eyed the bottle before him but made no motion toward it. He wiped the palm of his right hand back over his bald pate, in unconscious irritation. "But there is something at work that we are not getting at." Blagonravov seemed to change subjects. "You can speak Czech, so I understand."
"That's right. My mother was from Bratislava. My father met her there during the Hitler war."
"And you know Czechoslovakia?"
"I've spent several vacations in the Tatras at such resorts as Tatranski Lomnica since the country's been made such a tourist center of the satellites." Ilya Simonov didn't understand this trend of the conversation.
"You have some knowledge of automobiles, too?"
Simonov shrugged. "I've driven all my life."
His chief rumbled thoughtfully, "Time isn't of essence. You can take a quick course at the Moskvich plant. A week or two would give you all the background you need."
Ilya laughed easily. "I seem to have missed something. Have my shortcomings caught up with me? Am I to be demoted to automobile mechanic?"
Kliment Blagonravov became definite. "You are being given the most important assignment of your career, Ilya. This rot, this ever growing ferment against the Party, must be cut out, liquidated. It seems to fester worse among the middle echelons of ... what did that Yugoslavian Djilas call us?... the New Class. Why? That's what we must know."
He sat farther back in his chair and his heavy lips made a mout. "Why, Ilya?" he repeated. "After more than half a century the Party has attained all its goals. Lenin's millennium is here; the end for which Stalin purged ten millions and more, is reached; the sacrifices demanded by Khrushchev in the Seven-Year Plans have finally paid off, as the Yankees say. Our gross national product, our per capita production, our standard of living, is the highest in the world. Sacrifices are no longer necessary."
There had been an almost whining note in his voice. But now he broke it off. He poured them still another drink. "At any rate, Ilya, I was with Frol Zverev this morning. Number One is incensed. It seems that in the Azerbaijan Republic, for one example, that even the Komsomols were circulating among themselves various proscribed books and pamphlets. Comrade Zverev instructed me to concentrate on discovering the reason for this disease."
Colonel Simonov scowled. "What's this got to do with Czechoslovakia--and automobiles?"
The security head waggled a fat finger at him. "What we've been doing, thus far, is dashing forth upon hearing of a new conflagration and stamping it out. Obviously, that's no answer. We must find who is behind it. How it begins. Why it begins. That's your job?"
"You're unknown as a security agent there, for one thing. You will go to Prague and become manager of the Moskvich automobile distribution agency. No one, not even the Czech unit of our ministry will be aware of your identity. You will play it by ear, as the Americans say."
"To whom do I report?"
"Only to me, until the task is completed. When it is, you will return to Moscow and report fully." A grimace twisted Blagonravov's face. "If I am still here. Number One is truly incensed, Ilya."
There had been some more. Kliment Blagonravov had evidently chosen Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, as the seat of operations in a suspicion that the wave of unrest spreading insidiously throughout the Soviet Complex owed its origins to the West. Thus far, there had been no evidence of this but the suspicion refused to die. If not the West, then who? The Cold War was long over but the battle for men's minds continued even in peace.
Ideally, Ilya Simonov was to infiltrate whatever Czech groups might be active in the illicit movement and then, if he discovered there was a higher organization, a center of the movement, he was to attempt to become a part of it. If possible he was to rise in the organisation to as high a point as he could.
Blagonravov, Minister of the Chrezvychainaya Komissiya, the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, was of the opinion that if this virus of revolt was originating from the West, then it would be stronger in the satellite countries than in Russia itself. Simonov held no opinion as yet. He would wait and see. However, there was an uncomfortable feeling about the whole assignment. The group in Magnitogorsk, he was all but sure, had no connections with Western agents, nor anyone else, for that matter. Of course, it might have been an exception.
He left the Ministry, his face thoughtful as he climbed into his waiting Zil. This assignment was going to be a lengthy one. He'd have to wind up various affairs here in Moscow, personal as well as business. He might be away for a year or more.
There was a sheet of paper on the seat of his aircushion car. He frowned at it. It couldn't have been there before. He picked it up.
It was a mimeographed throw-away.
It was entitled, FREEDOM, and it began: Comrades, more than a hundred years ago the founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, explained that the State was incompatible with liberty, that the State was an instrument of repression of one class by another. They explained that for true freedom ever to exist the State must wither away.
Under the leadership of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev and now Zverev, the State has become ever stronger. Far from withering away, it continues to oppress us. Fellow Russians, it is time we take action! We must....
Colonel Simonov bounced from his car again, shot his eyes up and down the street. He barely refrained from drawing the 9 mm automatic which nestled under his left shoulder and which he knew how to use so well.
He curtly beckoned to the plainclothes man, still idling against the building a hundred feet or so up the street. The other approached him, touched the brim of his hat in a half salute.
Simonov snapped, "Do you know who I am?"
Ilya Simonov thrust the leaflet forward. "How did this get into my car?"
The other looked at it blankly. "I don't know, Colonel Simonov."
"You've been here all this time?"
"Why, yes colonel."