General Shorter's breath was audible.
"Please feel free to smoke, David."
"Thank you, sir, I don't smoke."
"No, of course not. I'd forgotten." General Shorter half turned and placed his hands on the desk. He stood under their pressure. "What would you say to a brandy?"
"I should return to duty, sir."
"A few minutes more," the general said. "The brandy is good." He moved into the shadow and sorted bottles at his tiny cupboard. "Here." He held the glass to the light. Amber liquid flowed softly and the general handed across the half-filled glass. "Sit back," he said. "I'll join you."
Glass in hand, the general stood with his back to the light. He seemed surrounded by cold fire, and the glass sparkled as he lifted it. He sipped. "Try it, it's good."
"It's very good, sir."
For a moment neither spoke. Then the general said, "This isn't my first command, you know. I've seen men die. I've had to take chances with them occasionally. You could say, I suppose, that I ordered some men to their deaths. But still, the men came aboard knowing the risks. In the final sense, they, not I, made the decision. I never sent a--"
The sentence ended as the glass slipped and fell. "I'm sorry," he said, looking down at the sparkling fragments at his feet. The dark liquid--the light gave it a reddish cast--puddled and flowed and its aroma filled the room. "No, no. Let it be, David. I'll get it later."
The general went to the cupboard and poured into a new glass. Again he was light and shadow. The spilled liquid approached the shadow and was devoured in it as though it had never been, but still the aroma stood on the air.
The general said: "Imagine, if you can, David, that Earth were attacked, and the attack destroyed many of the military installations. After you struck back, David, what would you do next?"
"I don't know, sir. I'm not a strategist, I'm afraid."
"What about your cities? The millions of people trapped without supplies--over-running the countryside, looting, plundering in search of food. Carrying pestilence and disease and terror. What would you do, David?"
"Well, I guess I'd try to organize some relief organization or something."
"But David. Anything you diverted to care for these people would limit your ability to fight back, wouldn't it? They would be cluttering up all your transportation, frustrating effective retaliation. Your second move would be to take the bombs which destroy people and not property and ... use them on your own cities."
Captain Arnold drained his glass. "That would be...." He did not finish.
"Insane, David? No. Rational. Field Commanders must be realists. The job comes first. In this case, the job of defeating the enemy.... But what does that have to do with us? Nothing, eh? You're right. Sometimes I like to talk, and I suppose that's one of my privileges. I'm not the idealist I used to be, I guess. I remember when I was your age. I saw things differently than I do now. What used to seem important no longer does. Each stage of development has its unique biological imperatives: a child, a youth, a mature man, look out on the world from a body held in focus to different chemistries. But the job remains." General Shorter held up his glass. "Cheers." He drained it.
Again there was silence.
"David, do you think I'm in much trouble?"
"I'm afraid so, General. The Committee is due to arrive tomorrow."
"I know," the general said. "This suicide isn't going to help us. Tomorrow. Is it that soon? I thought ... yes, I guess it is tomorrow.... Well, we've been here long enough to lose our immunity, so we'll all catch colds."
Captain Arnold stood. "I better get started on my report."
"Poor Sergeant Schuster," General Shorter said. "If anyone's to blame, it must be me."
"He obeyed the orders."
"What did you say?"
"I said he obeyed the orders, sir."
"Of course he obeyed the orders," the general said. "What else could he have done?"
The long ship hung in orbit above Miracastle and discharged its passengers. The Scout Ball could handle them: saving energy, which along with time itself, is the ultimate precious commodity of the universe governed by the laws of entropy.
The Scout Ball settled through the dark turbulence undisturbed by the hissing winds. It hovered momentarily in the invisible beacon above the Richardson dome as if both attracted and repelled. It moved horizontally and settled. Suited figures on the surface wrestled with its flexible exit-tube against the storm, fighting to couple it to the lock of the Richardson dome. The exit-tube moved rhythmically until the Scout Ball inched away, drawing it taut. Pumps whirred. The suited figures entered the forward lock of the Scout Ball.
Inside, General Shorter divested himself of the helmet. The suit hung upon him like ancient, wrinkled skin.
He asked, "What time is it?"
Upon being told, he nodded with satisfaction. "Seventeen minutes, total. Good job. Who's in charge?"
"A Mr. Tucker, sir."
"Tucker? Jim Tucker, by any chance?"
General Shorter grunted. "Served with him once. He's probably forgotten.... That's all right. I'll keep the suit on."
"I don't think they're expecting you with the surface party, General."
"Probably not or they'd be here. Earth crew?"
"They've been out ten months or so, sir."
"We will have colds, then. Would you take me to Mr. Tucker, please?" To the other suited men he said, "Good, fast job."
General Shorter followed the crewman up the spiral staircase and along the corridor. His hand touched a frictionless wall. "New plastic?"
"This is one of the most recent balls, sir."
"How does it handle?"
"Quite well, sir."
"I miss the Model Ten," he said.
"There's only a few left now, I guess."
"I haven't seen one in years."
The crewman stopped before a numberless panel. He knocked politely. "Mr. Tucker? I have General Shorter here. He came out with the surface party."
Mr. Tucker's voice, the edge of surprise partly lost through the partition, came: "Just a moment."
In silence they waited. General Shorter moved restlessly. Several minutes passed.
The panel opened.
Mr. Tucker was a short, rotund man. His close-cropped hair was graying, although his face was unlined, with the smooth complexion of a child. His irises were gray and gold.
General Shorter stepped forward and introduced himself.
The panel closed.
The two men stood. General Shorter glanced around for a chair.
"Small quarters," Mr. Tucker said. "If you like, sit there. I'll sit on the bed."
They arranged themselves.
"Perhaps you don't remember me?" the general said. "We served together--what, ten years ago?--for about two weeks on Avalon, I believe it was."
"Yes, I thought that was the case. You have a good memory, General."
"Please," the general said, "just call me Max."
Mr. Tucker considered, without committing himself. He proffered a cigar. The general declined.
Mr. Tucker lighted the cigar carefully, moving the flame several times across the blunt end. He regarded the results without expression. "A cigar should be properly lit, General," he said.
"Yes, yes, I suppose so," the general said. He paused to worry at a wrinkle on his suit. "Good trip out?"
"New ship? I notice this is one of the new Balls."
"Ah, those. I've always liked the Mark Six. Solid construction. I've been Destroyed maybe half the time in the Mark Sixes. Each one of the Marks has its own personality--I've always thought so. I don't suppose you remember the old Mark Two? That was a long time ago. I've been around. We got lost in one once. It picked a pseudo-fault line and ... well, never mind. Earth the same, I guess?"
"I don't know when I'll get back," the general said. The statement seemed to dangle as though it were an unfinished question.
"The new detectors have put Miracastle on the fringe of things."
"I've followed the work," the general said. "I try to keep up. It involves a new concept of mass variation, doesn't it?"
"It just about makes it uneconomical to colonize a two-stage planet any more. Or to keep one going."
The general's eyelids flickered. His body moved beneath the wrinkled folds of the surface suit. Cigar smoke curled in the still air.
Mr. Tucker said, "You must have been aware that it would not have been a great loss to have evacuated Miracastle."
The general shuffled in silence. "Yes, sir, I knew the background. It's part of my job to know things like that. You'll find, sir, that I have a strong sense of responsibility. If it's part of my job, I'll know about it."
General Max Shorter abruptly stood and for a moment was motionless, a man deformed and diminished in stature by the ill-fitting surface suit. Expressionless, he looked down, without psychological advantage, at the seated civilian holding the partially smoked cigar.
Later the same day, Mr. Tucker and two of the three other members of the Committee donned surface suits and, together with Captain Meford, the cartographer assigned to Miracastle, they boarded the surface scout.
They arranged themselves in the uncomfortable bucket seats and strapped in.
"Little early for an easy ride," Mr. Tucker commented.
"I've been out before," Captain Meford said laconically. It was his usual manner.
"How long do you think it will take us to get there?"
"Between fifteen and twenty minutes, if I don't hit too much cross wind."
Mr. Ryan, one of the other two civilians, commented, "A long time between cigars, eh, Jim?"
The question was out of place and was ignored without hostility.
Mr. Ryan twisted uncomfortably. At length he said, apologetically, "Dirty, filthy business. I wish it were over with."
"So do I," Mr. Tucker said.
Captain Meford activated the ramp and eased the scout out. It was immediately buffeted by the winds.
"Sorry," he said. "It'll take a minute. Hold tight." The scout moved in three dimensions, erratically. "Wow! Let's set it at about twenty-six inches. Sorry. This will slow us down, but it will ease the bumps on down draft. There. That's better. We're okay now, I think. I guess we can settle back."
Thirty-five minutes later, they came to what was left of the alien city.
Back in the Richardson dome, General Shorter had coffee, in his quarters, with the remaining man on the Committee, a Mr. Flison. They were going through the ritual of conversation.
"This is the first time you've been Destroyed then, sir," the general said. "My first time was so long ago I've forgotten what it feels like."
"I was uneasy in advance," Mr. Flison said. "You read various descriptions about the physical sensations. Intellectually, of course, you draw a distinction, but emotionally you know that the only word which applies is death--pure and simple. But there's no sensation. It happens too fast. You don't even notice it."
Politely attentive, the general had leaned forward. "I don't think it could be put better," he contributed. "That's very apt. You don't even notice it."
Mr. Flison's eyes narrowed in speculation. They maintained the general's own in unwavering focus. He did not acknowledge the compliment.