BY R. R. MERLISS.
A man can be killed by a toy gun--he can die of fright, for heart attacks can kill. What, then, is the deadly thing that must be sealed away, forever locked in buried concrete--a thing or an idea?
Out of the twenty only one managed to escape the planet. And he did it very simply, merely by walking up to the crowded ticket window at one of the rocket ports and buying passage to Earth. His Army identification papers passed the harassed inspection of the agent, and he gratefully and silently pocketed the small plastic stub that was handed him in exchange for his money.
He picked his way with infinite care through the hordes of ex-soldiers clamoring for passage back to the multitudinous planets from which they had come. Then he slowly climbed the heavy ramp into the waiting rocket.
He saw with relief that the seats were strongly constructed, built to survive the pressure of many gravities and he chose one as far removed as possible from the other passengers.
He was still very apprehensive, and, as he waited for the rocket to take off, he tried hard to remember the principles of the pulse drive that powered the ship, and whether his additional weight would upset its efficiency enough to awaken suspicion.
The seats filled quickly with excited hurrying passengers. Soon he heard the great door clang shut, and saw the red light flicker on, warning of the take-off. He felt a slow surge of pressure as the ship arose from the ground, and his chair creaked ominously with the extra weight. He became fearful that it might collapse, and he strained forward trying to shift some of the pressure through his feet to the floor. He sat that way, tense and immobile, for what seemed a long time until abruptly the strain was relieved and he heard the rising and falling whine of the rockets that told him the ship was in pulse drive, flickering back and forth across the speed of light.
He realized that the pilots had not discovered his extra weight, and that the initial hazards were over. The important thing was to look like a passenger, a returning soldier like the others, so that no one would notice him and remember his presence.
His fellow travelers were by this time chatting with one another, some playing cards, and others watching the teledepth screens. These were the adventurers who had flocked from all corners of the galaxy to fight in the first national war in centuries. They were the uncivilized few who had read about battle and armed struggle in their history books and found the old stories exciting.
They paid no attention to their silent companion who sat quietly looking through the quartz windows at the diamond-bright stars, tacked against the blackness of infinity.
The fugitive scarcely moved the entire time of the passage. Finally when Earth hung out in the sky like a blue balloon, the ship cut its pulsations and swung around for a tail landing.
The atmosphere screamed through the fins of the rocket, and the continents and the countries, and then the rivers and the mountains took shape. The big ship settled down as gently as a snowflake, shuddered a few times and was quiet.
The passengers hurriedly gathered up their scattered belongings and pushed toward the exit in a great rush to be out and back on Earth.
The fugitive was the last to leave. He stayed well away from the others, being fearful that, if he should touch or brush up against someone, his identity might be recognized.
When he saw the ramp running from the ship to the ground, he was dismayed. It seemed a flimsy structure, supported only by tubular steel. Five people were walking down it, and he made a mental calculation of their weight--about eight hundred pounds he thought. He weighed five times that. The ramp was obviously never built to support such a load.
He hesitated, and then he realized that he had caught the eye of the stewardess waiting on the ground. A little panicky, he stepped out with one foot and he was horrified to feel the steel buckle. He drew back hastily and threw a quick glance at the stewardess. Fortunately at the moment she was looking down one field and waving at someone.
The ramp floor was supported by steel tubes at its edges and in its exact center. He tentatively put one foot in the middle over the support and gradually shifted his weight to it. The metal complained creakily, but held, and he slowly trod the exact center line to Earth. The stewardess' back was turned toward him as he walked off across the field toward the customhouse.
He found it comforting to have under his feet what felt like at least one yard of cement. He could step briskly and not be fearful of betraying himself.
There was one further danger: the customs inspector.
He took his place at the end of the line and waited patiently until it led him up to a desk at which a uniformed man sat, busily checking and stamping declarations and traveling papers. The official, however, did not even look up when he handed him his passport and identification.
"Human. You don't have to go through immigration," the agent said. "Do you have anything to declare?"
"N-no," the traveler said. "I d-didn't bring anything in."
"Sign the affidavit," the agent said and pushed a sheet of paper toward him.
The traveler picked up a pen from the desk and signed "Jon Hall" in a clear, perfect script.
The agent gave it a passing glance and tossed it into a wire basket.
Then he pushed his uniform cap back exposing a bald head. "You're my last customer for a while, until the rocket from Sirius comes in. Guess I might as well relax for a minute." He reached into a drawer of the desk and pulled out a package of cigarettes, of which he lit one.
"You been in the war, too?" he asked.
Hall nodded. He did not want to talk any more than he had to.
The agent studied his face.
"That's funny," he said after a minute. "I never would have picked you for one of these so-called adventurers. You're too quiet and peaceful looking. I would have put you down as a doctor or maybe a writer."
"N-no," Hall said. "I w-was in the war."
"Well, that shows you can't tell by looking at a fellow," the agent said philosophically. He handed Hall his papers. "There you are. The left door leads out to the copter field. Good luck on Earth!"
Hall pocketed the stamped documents. "Thanks," he said. "I'm glad to be here."
He walked down the wide station room to a far exit and pushed the door open. A few steps farther and he was standing on a cement path dug into a hillside.
Across the valley, bright in the noon sun lay the pine covered slopes of the Argus mountains, and at his feet the green Mojave flowering with orchards stretched far to the north and south. Between the trees, in the center of the valley, the Sacramento River rolled southward in a man-made bed of concrete and steel giving water and life to what had a century before been dry dead earth.
There was a small outcropping of limestone near the cement walk, and he stepped over to it and sat down. He would have been happy to rest and enjoy for a few moments his escape and his triumph, but he had to let the others know so that they might have hope.
He closed his eyes and groped across the stars toward Grismet. Almost immediately he felt an impatient tug at his mind, strong because there were many clamoring at once to be heard. He counted them. There were seventeen. So one more had been captured since he had left Grismet.
"Be quiet," the told them. "I'll let you see, after a while. First I have to reach the two of us that are still free."
Obediently, the seventeen were still, and he groped some more and found another of his kind deep in an ice cave in the polar regions of Grismet.
"How goes it?" he asked.
The figure on Grismet lay stretched out at full length on the blue ice, his eyes closed. He answered without moving: "They discovered my radiation about an hour ago. Pretty soon, they'll start blasting through the ice."
The one on Earth felt the chill despair of his comrade and let go. He groped about again until he found the last one, the only other one left. He was squatting in the cellar of a warehouse in the main city of Grismet.
"Have they picked up your trail yet?" he asked.
"No," answered the one in the cellar. "They won't for a while. I've scattered depots of radiation all through the town. They'll be some time tracking them all down, before they can get to me."
In a flash of his mind, Hall revealed his escape and the one on Grismet nodded and said: "Be careful. Be very careful. You are our only hope."
Hall returned then to the seventeen, and he said with his thoughts: "All right, now you can look." Immobile in their darkness, they snatched at his mind, and as he opened his eyes, they, too, saw the splendors of the mountains and the valley, the blue sky, and the gold sun high overhead.
The new man was young, only twenty-six. He was lean and dark and very enthusiastic about his work. He sat straight in his chair waiting attentively while his superior across the desk leafed through a folder.
"Jordan. Tom Jordan," the older man finally said. "A nice old Earth name. I suppose your folks came from there."
"Yes, sir," the new man said briskly.
The chief closed the folder.
"Well," he said, "your first job is a pretty important one."
"I realize that, sir," Jordan said. "I know it's a great responsibility for a man just starting with the Commission, but I'll give it every thing I have."
The chief leaned back in his seat and scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"Normally we start a beginner like you working in a pair with an older man. But we just haven't got enough men to go around. There are eight thousand planets there"--he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder to a wall-sized map of the galaxy--"and we've got to cover every one. It seems reasonable that if he escaped this planet, he'll go to another that will by its atmosphere or its temperature give him some natural advantage over us--some place that is either burning hot or at absolute zero, or perhaps with a chlorine or sulfur dioxide atmosphere. That's why"--he hesitated a minute, but continued because he was a truthful man--"I picked you for Earth. It's the most populated of all the planets and it seems the least likely one that he would choose."
Jordan's face dropped a little bit when he heard the last piece of information, but he said: "I understand, sir, and if he's there, I'll bring him back."
The chief slouched farther back in his seat. He picked up a shard of rubidium that served as a paper weight and toyed with it.
"I guess you know most of the facts. They are made out of permallium. Have you ever seen any of the stuff?"
The new man shook his head. "I read about it though--some new alloy, isn't it?"
"Plenty new. It's the hardest stuff anybody has ever made. If you set off one hundred successive atom blasts over a lump of permallium, you might crystallize and scale maybe a micron off the surface. It will stand any temperature or pressure we can produce. That just means there's no way to destroy it."
Jordan nodded. He felt a little honored that the chief was giving him this explanation in person rather than just turning him over to one of the scientific personnel for a briefing. He did not understand that the old man was troubled and was talking the situation through as much for his own sake as for anyone else's.
"That's the problem," the chief continued. "Essentially an indestructible machine with a built-in source of power that one can't reach. It had to be built that way--a war instrument, you know."
He stopped and looked squarely at the bright young man sitting across the desk. "This lousy war. You'd think the human race would grow up some time, wouldn't you?" He filled a pipe with imported Earth tobacco and lit it, and took a few deep puffs. "There's something else. I don't know how they do it, but they can communicate with one another over long distances. That made them very useful for military purposes.
"They are loyal to one another, too. They try to protect each other and keep one another from being captured. Do you find that surprising?"
The question caught Jordan unprepared. "Well, yes. It is, kind of--" he said. "They are only machines."
The chief closed his eyes for a moment. He seemed tired.
"Yes," he repeated, "they are only machines. Anyway, we don't know everything about them, even yet. There are still a few secret angles, I think. The men who could tell us are either dead or in hiding.
"There's one fact though that gives us a great advantage. Their brain"--he stopped on the word and considered it--"I mean their thinking apparatus gives off a very penetrating short-wave length radiation which you can pick up on your meters anywhere in a radius of two thousand miles, and you can locate the source accurately if you get within fifty miles.
"The only real problem you'll have in finding them is the confusion created by illegal atomic piles. You'd be surprised how many of them we have turned up recently. They are owned by private parties and are run illegally to keep from paying the tax on sources of power. You have to track those down, but once you get them labeled it will be clear sailing."
He stopped to take a few puffs on his pipe.
"Don't try to be a hero," he said after a few moments. "Don't get close to the thing you are hunting. None of them yet has injured any of us, but if one should want to, he could crush you to death with two fingers. Use the permallium nets and net bombs if you locate him."
He tamped his pipe out. "Well, that's it," he said.
The new man arose. "I want you to know that I appreciate the trust you have put in me."
"Sure, sure," the chief said, but it was not unfriendly. "Do you like the job?"
"It is a great opportunity," Jordan said, and he meant it.
"What do you think about what we do to them after we capture them?"
The new man shrugged. "I suppose it's the only thing to do. It's not as though they were human."
"Yeah," the chief said. "I guess so. Anyway, good luck."
Jordan arose and shook the chief's hand. However, just as he was stepping through the door, his superior asked him another question. "Did you know that one of them stutters?"
He turned back, puzzled. "Stutters? Why should he stutter? How could that be?"
The chief shook his head and started cleaning out his pipe.
"I don't know for sure. You'd better get started." He sat back in his seat and watched the back of the new man as he disappeared through the doorway.
That young fellow has a lot to learn, he thought to himself. But even so, maybe he's better off than I am. Maybe I've had too much experience. Maybe too much experience puts you back where you started from. You've done the wrong thing so many times and profited so many times from your mistakes that you see errors and tragedies in everything.
He was depressed, and he did something that usually made him feel better again. He reached under the edge of his desk and pulled a little switch that made the galactic map on the wall light up in three-dimensional depth, then he swung around in his chair so he could see it. Eight thousand planets that his race had conquered, eight thousand planets hundreds of light-years apart. Looking at the map gave him a sense of accomplishment and pride in humanity which even a stupid war and its aftermath could not completely destroy.
Jon Hall, the fugitive, walked along the highway leading south from the rocket port. There was very little traffic, only an occasional delivery truck carrying meat or groceries. The real highway was half a mile overhead where the copters shuttled back and forth up and down the state in neat orderly layers.
The seventeen were inside his head, looking through his eyes, and feasting on the blueness of the sky, and the rich green vegetation that covered the fertile fields. From time to time they talked to him, giving advice, asking questions, or making comments, but mostly they looked, each knowing that the hours of their sight might be very few.
After walking a while, Hall became aware of someone's footsteps behind him. He stopped suddenly in apprehension and swung around. A dozen or so paces away was a red-headed boy of about ten or eleven, dressed in plastic overalls, and carrying a basket of ripe raspberries. The stains about his mouth showed that not all the raspberries were carried in the basket.
Hall's anxiety faded, and he was glad to see the child. He had hoped to meet someone who was not so old that they would become suspicious, but old enough that they might give him directions.
He waited for the lad to catch up.
"Hello," the boy said. "I've been walking behind you most of a mile, but I guess you didn't hear me."
"It looks as though you've been p-p-picking raspberries," Hall said.