"No thank you. If that's all the delay is, it should be cleared soon and we'll be moving again. I'll want to be with my division."
"General Kodorovich, you evidently don't understand what has happened. The word that has been passed from the most forward units, which are in the city itself, to the rear ones, indicates that Moscow is the hub of one vast military traffic jam thirty to perhaps fifty miles deep and growing worse all the time as new groups are moving in."
"But I must get to the city," Kodorovich insisted. "I have orders to surround the Kremlin, seal off MVD headquarters and--"
"Ease your mind," Plekoskaya interrupted. "The Kremlin is well surrounded. General Smolledin is deployed around the walls; General Alexeiev is deployed around General Smolledin; General Paretsev is deployed around Alexeiev and so on to the outskirts of the city. Those of us out here, of course, cannot deploy off the roads, for, who knows, tomorrow the Minister of Agriculture may be Premier and he may not take it kindly if we trample the collectives."
"How can you just sit there and do nothing when the people's government is in some kind of danger?" Kodorovich said with some heat.
"It is very simple," Plekoskaya said with mild irritation and sarcasm. "I merely bend at the knees and hips and have a lunch of a weight adequate enough to keep me from floating off my chair and rushing about seeking trouble. Of course it takes years of experience to learn how to do this and most important, when." In kindlier tones Plekoskaya continued. "Whatever it is that is happening in the Kremlin and the other hotbeds of intrigue will have to happen without us. There is no telling who, if anyone, is in control. Conflicting orders have been coming over the military radio depending upon which clique controls which headquarters. Why do you know, my dear Kodorovich, already this morning the 124th has alternately been ordered to march to Moscow and a dozen other places including downtown Siberia."
Kodorovich did not smile at Plekoskaya's slight humor. He was squinting anxiously through the bright sunlight at the immobile column of men and vehicles jammed along the road into the far, blue distance.
Plekoskaya took a sip of wine. "There is obviously some kind of political readjustment going on within the government and the unpleasant thing about these little disturbances is that one can never be certain who will emerge to inform the people that he is their unanimous choice for leader. So don't be in so much of a hurry to rush off to Moscow to commit yourself. You might pick the wrong one."
Kodorovich shrugged and sat down at the table. "Perhaps you are right. Do you have any idea who is involved this time?"
"Who isn't involved?" Plekoskaya snorted. "You and I know, as sensible men must, that in our milieu there are at any given moment thousands of intrigues and plots and counterplots simmering away in the Party halls, the ministries, the barracks and anywhere else you care to look. Of course it is treason, don't misunderstand, general, but most of it is really quite harmless. It is the national pastime of the power elite; a sort of political mah-jongg and most of these little bubbling kettles cool and sour from inaction. However, this time, it is evident that some drastic catalyst has caused a most violent reaction of these subversive ingredients and the incredible, one in a million possibility has occurred. All the pots are suddenly, all at once, boiling over ... erupting into action!
"By the way," Plekoskaya continued with a smile, "you might be interested to know that when I reach Moscow I am supposed to relieve you of command of the 71st and place you under arrest for unsocialistic activities."
Kodorovich, looking dazed, took a glass of wine. "Who signed your orders?"
"Major Lemchovsky of the MVD."
Kodorovich smiled for the first time since they had met under the trees. "I have orders for your arrest also, to take effect when we reach Moscow; signed by Major Kamashev, MVD."
"I'm sorry," Plekoskaya said, "but you will have to wait your turn. The commanders of the 116th and the 48th are both ahead of you."
Kodorovich suddenly stood up frowning and stared around at the fields where the peasants were working. "I don't like the way those people keep glancing at the troops and snickering. I can hear some of their remarks."
"Don't trouble yourself about it. They've been doing it all morning. It's only good-natured jesting."
"It breeds disrespect of the Army. And disrespect of authority is the first step on the road to anarchy," Kodorovich said severely.
"Well at least that's a movement to somewhere," Plekoskaya said. "Can you blame them for smiling? That's the 124th, the famous 'lightning' division, that's been glued to the road in front of them for the past six hours. In that time it has moved perhaps a hundred or so feet and I suspect it is only because your 71st is very ill-manneredly pushing from behind."
"I still don't like their smirking."
Plekoskaya became suddenly solemn. "It is when they begin to laugh openly that we should become concerned."
"How did you get the American lieutenant out of Moscow?" Colonel Peng's superior was asking him.
"Bushmilov was conducting the interrogation," Colonel Peng replied, "when suddenly somebody started shooting through the window from another office across the way. I heard Bushmilov yell something about plotters and counterrevolutionaries and he and his men started shooting back. Within minutes the entire building was like a battlefield. In the confusion we snatched the American and hustled him away. The corridors were full of groups of MVD men running and shooting and I have no idea what it was all about but whatever it was it didn't affect us for we were allowed to pass unmolested. We managed to escape stray bullets and get out of the building with whole skins to our embassy.
"Getting out of Moscow was the real problem. Within hours the city was clogged with troops. Slowly, as supplies were choked off by the congestion, offices and factories and shops closed down and the people were on the streets strolling about as if on holiday, laughing and joking about the tangle of tanks and vehicles and military equipment that was effectively strangling the city.
"It appears that not even the highest officers and officials were making any effort to clear up the mess. Each one seemed to be afraid to take any responsibility beyond the last coherent orders that had brought practically the entire army converging on Moscow.
"We tried to get out by air but that proved impossible. All civil flights were canceled so that the fields could accommodate the armadas of military aircraft that swarmed into the area. We couldn't even get a wireless message out because of the spreading chaos. We had to proceed out of the city on foot and by then affairs were beginning to take an ugly turn. Food supplies were becoming exhausted and as long as the military refused to budge nothing could be brought in, even their own supplies. Once out of the city we took to the river. No one attempted to stop us but neither did any official attempt to help their Chinese comrades. The curious paralysis had spread. It was as if the entire countryside was holding its breath, waiting for some positive sign of authority. In Gorki, where there was less air-congestion, we managed to steal a plane and flew it to Finland. The rest you know."
Peng's superior nodded. "Our Russian friends are losing their grip. That is because they do not practice pure Communism. Upon China now falls the mantle of leadership of the people's republics as we knew, long before, it was destined to be." He rose from behind his desk. "Come, let us now turn our attention to this strange American lieutenant and see how the interrogation is proceeding."
As Peng and his chief stepped into the hallway, they heard a shattering of glass and a cry of pain from a room at the far end of the hallway.
"It sounds like someone falling through a window!" Peng exclaimed.
His chief's face was shadowed with a momentary irritation. "If that is another one of my men having a foolish accident--"
"What do you mean?" Peng inquired.
"Mean?" his chief repeated in exasperation. "I'll tell you what I mean. Since this interrogation started four of my men have injured themselves in silly, stupid accidents; like the captain who fell off his chair and broke his leg. If I didn't know my men, I would swear that they had all been drinking!"
There was a sudden, single shot. They hurried along the hall but before they could reach the room at the end they had to drop to the floor to escape the fusillade of bullets that whined down the corridor.
In the great Operations Room of the Pentagon, the uppermost echelons of the American General Staff glared at Dr. Titus whose civilian presence was defiling this military "holy of holies."
An admiral, sitting next to General Fyfe, banged his fist on the table and almost shouted at Titus. "So you're one of the idiots who's been advising the President not to let us commit our forces in Afghanistan. Do you realize the Russians will--"
Titus appealed to the Chairman of the General Staff. "Do I or do I not have the floor? Hm-m-m?" Reluctantly, the chairman restored order and motioned Titus to continue. "It is true that the President has been persuaded to not commit the United States to any further military adventures until we have given a plan of mine some little time to take effect. Gentlemen, we have in operation a secret weapon that, if all goes well, will make any future military undertakings unnecessary and bring about the destruction of our enemies." At the mention of "secret weapon," the entire General Staff, excepting Fyfe, creaked forward in their seats with eager interest. "The secret weapon is an eighteen-year-old boy named Dolliver Wims, recently commissioned a lieutenant in the Army and now in Russian hands."
An avalanche of derisive remarks concerning his sanity roared down on Titus but he ignored them and continued. "Wims came to work for us last spring and nothing in his manner or appearance indicated that he was in any way unusual. However, he had hardly been with us a month before complaints from my staff started flooding my office. Our accident rate soared skyward and all staff fingers pointed at Wims. I investigated and discovered that in spite of the accusations Wims was never directly involved in these mishaps. He was present when they occurred, yes, but he never pushed or bumped anyone or dropped anything or even fingered anything he wasn't supposed to and yet in the face of this fact, almost everyone, including my most dispassionate researchers, invariably blamed Wims. Finding this extremely odd, I kept the boy on and under various subterfuges I probed, tested and observed him without his knowledge.
"Then one day I became annoyed with him; without just cause I must admit, merely because I was not getting any positive results; and I handled him rather roughly. Within seconds I sliced open a finger. My irritation mounted and later I went to shove him rudely aside and down I went, giving my head a nasty crack on the edge of a lab bench. I felt wonderful as I sat in pain on the floor, sopping the blood out of my eyes. With the blow an idea had come to me and I felt I at last knew what Wims was and the factor that triggered his dangerous potential. For weeks afterward, under carefully controlled conditions, I was as nasty to him as I dared be. It took my most delicate judgment to avoid fatal injury but I managed to document the world's first known accident prone inducer. I call him Homo Causacadere, the fall causer, whose activator is hostility.
"We have always had the accident prone, the person who has a psychological proclivity for having more than his share of mishaps. Wims is an individual who can make an accident prone of anyone who threatens his well being and survival. This boy, who, as indicated by the tests, hasn't an unkind thought for any creature on this planet, has an unconscious, reactive, invulnerable defense against persons who exhibit even the slightest hostility toward him. The energies of their own hostility are turned against them. The greater the hostility, the more accidents they have and the more serious they become. And the increase in accidents gives rise to an increase in hostility and so it goes in an ever widening circle of dislocation and destruction.
"As a scientist I would have preferred to take the many months, perhaps years, necessary to investigate this phenomenon thoroughly, however these are critical times and I was possessed with an inspired idea on how we might utilize this phenomenon against the enemies of the free world. Through a colleague on the Scientific Advisory Council I got the President's ear and he decided to let us try, on the basis, I'm certain, that the best way to handle screwball scientists is to allow them one or two harmless, inexpensive insanities in the hope that they will make an error and discover something useful.
"Through the good offices of General Fyfe, who was apprised of our plan, Wims was snatched into the Army, commissioned and sent to Burma to be captured. Intelligence advises that he has been taken to Moscow which is for him, an American officer ostensibly on a secret mission, the most hostile environment extant." Titus shook his head. "I suppose I should feel sorry for those poor Russians. They don't have a chance."
"Sorry for them!" Fyfe blustered. "Think what I've had to go through. Those ridiculous orders; couldn't explain to anyone. All my people think that I've lost my mind. Felt like a fool giving that idiot a battlefield commission during a training exercise."
"It was necessary to give him some rank," Titus explained. "The Communists wouldn't expect a private to be sent on a secret mission; they just wouldn't bother to interrogate him. Now an officer, whose return was specially requested the day following his capture would seize their attention and surely they would apply their nasty pressures to find out why. He hasn't been returned through the regular monthly exchange and they even deny having captured him which seems to indicate that the plan is working."
An admiral stirred and shifted under his crust of gold. "How long have they had him?"
"And nothing's happened yet," the admiral commented. "My guess is that we could sit here for six years and nothing would come of such a barnacle-brained scheme."
An Air Force general spoke up in the breezy jargon of the youngest service. "I'm with the old man from the sea on this one," he said as the admiral winced. "I just don't see spending billions for alphabet bombs and then warming our tails on them while these psycho-noseys move in and try to fight these sand-lot wars with voodoo and all that jazz."
An aide hurried in from the adjoining message center and handed the chairman a paper. Everybody waited in silence while the chairman seemed to take an unusually long time to read it. Finally he looked up and said. "This is a special relay from the President's office and since it concerns us all I'll read it aloud." He held the paper up and read, "Apropos of your present conference with Dr. Titus, it may please the General Staff to learn that the Russian Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, has just denounced the newspaper of the Red Army, Izvestia, as a tool of the decadent, warmongering, capitalist ruling circles of the imperialist Western bloc. Other evidence of severe internal upheaval of a nature favorable to the West is pouring in through news channels and being confirmed by State and CIA sources. Congratulations, Dr. Titus."
Dr. Titus arose with unconcealed triumph. "Gentlemen, apparently my hypothesis is correct. The disintegration that will crumble our enemies has already begun. Our secret weapon is a stunning success!"
The crusted admiral looked sourly at Titus. "Of course you're only assuming that this Wims person is responsible. We'll never really know."
"Why won't we?" Titus demanded. "You speak of him as if he were dead or doomed and I tell you he is no such thing. Don't you understand? He cannot be harmed! And when he gets back here, as he will, he'll tell us himself exactly what and how it happened."
The aide rushed in with another message. "Again from the President," he announced. "It has been confirmed by CIA," he began reading aloud, "that two weeks ago a group of Chinese officials in a Russian aircraft landed at a Finnish airfield. It is now known definitely that an ostensibly ill member of their group who was put aboard their plane in a stretcher was in reality a young American officer. Among other things, this explains the eighteen contradictory Five Year Plans announced by Peiping this week. CIA says they are going the way of the Russians. Again congratulations, Dr. Titus."
"Well, General Fyfe," Titus said, smiling at him, "perhaps you now feel somewhat differently about this Wims business, hm-m-m?"
Fyfe roared, unable to contain himself any longer: "Do you really believe that rot you've been feeding us? You have the audacity to credit yourself with the downfall of two powerful nations, even if it does happen? You think your insane ditherings about an incompetent halfwit has anything to do with anything? You may have bamboozled the President, after all he's only a civilian, but you're not about to fool me! These are perilous times and I have no use for you professors and your crazy, useless theories. Now why don't you get out of here and let us do our job, trying to keep this planet from blowing up in our faces!"
For the first time in his life Dr. Titus flew into an unreasoning fury. How could this fat, uniformed mountain of stupidity still contrive to deny the facts and dare speak to him the way he did? And after what he had just accomplished! His rage boiled over and Titus rushed at Fyfe, his fist already striking ahead. He never touched the general. Unaccountably he got tangled in his own legs and fell heavily to the floor. When he tried to rise hot pain burned in his ankle. He sat there staring up in astonishment at Fyfe, hulking over him.
It had happened so swiftly no one had yet spoken or moved.
"YOU!" Titus screeched incredulously, pointing directly at Fyfe. "You of all people!" And Titus sat there on the floor rubbing his injured ankle and he laughed and laughed till the tears came.
THE STAR HYACINTHS.
By JAMES H. SCHMITZ
On a bleak, distant unchartered world two ships lay wrecked and a lone man stared at a star hyacinth. Its brilliance burned into his retina ... and he knew that men could easily kill and kill for that one beauty alone.
The robbery of the Dosey Asteroids Shipping Station in a remote and spottily explored section of space provided the newscasting systems of the Federation of the Hub with one of the juiciest crime stories of the season. In a manner not clearly explained, the Dosey Asteroids Company had lost six months' production of gem-quality cut star hyacinths valued at nearly a hundred million credits. It lost also its Chief Lapidary and seventy-eight other company employees who had been in the station dome at the time.
All these people appeared at first to have been killed by gunfire, but a study of their bodies revealed that only in a few instances had gun wounds been the actual cause of death. For the most part the wounds had been inflicted on corpses, presumably in an attempt to conceal the fact that disaster in another and unknown form had befallen the station.
The raiders left very few clues. It appeared that the attack on the station had been carried out by a single ship, and that the locks to the dome had been opened from within. The latter fact, of course, aroused speculation, but led the investigators nowhere.
Six years later the great Dosey Asteroids robbery remained an unsolved mystery.
The two wrecked spaceships rested almost side by side near the tip of a narrow, deep arm of a great lake.
The only man on the planet sat on a rocky ledge three miles uphill from the two ships, gazing broodingly down at them. He was a big fellow in neatly patched shipboard clothing. His hands were clean, his face carefully shaved. He had two of the castaway's traditional possessions with him; a massive hunting bow rested against the rocks, and a minor representative of the class of life which was this world's equivalent of birds was hopping about near his feet. This was a thrush-sized creature with a jaunty bearing and bright yellow eyes. From the front of its round face protruded a short, narrow tube tipped with small, sharp teeth. Round, horny knobs at the ends of its long toes protected retractile claws as it bounded back and forth between the bow and the man, giving a quick flutter of its wings on each bound. Finally it stopped before the man, stretching its neck to stare up at him, trying to catch his attention.
He roused from his musing, glanced irritably down at it.
"Not now, Birdie," he said. "Keep quiet!"
The man's gaze returned to the two ships, then passed briefly along a towering range of volcanos on the other side of the lake, and lifted to the cloudless blue sky. His eyes probed on, searching the sunlit, empty vault above him. If a ship ever came again, it would come from there, the two wrecks by the lake arm already fixed in its detectors; it would not come gliding along the surface of the planet....
Birdie produced a sharp, plaintive whistle. The man looked at it.
"Shut up, stupid!" he told it.
He reached into the inner pocket of his coat, took out a small object wrapped in a piece of leather, and unfolded the leather.
Then it lay in his cupped palm, and blazed with the brilliance of twenty diamonds, seeming to flash the fires of the spectrum furiously from every faceted surface, without ever quite subduing the pure violet luminance which made a star hyacinth impossible to imitate or, once seen, to forget. The most beautiful of gems, the rarest, the most valuable. The man who was a castaway stared at it for long seconds, his breath quickening and his hand beginning to tremble. Finally he folded the chip of incredible mineral back into the leather, replaced it carefully in his pocket.
When he looked about again, the sunlit air seemed brighter, the coloring of lake and land more vivid and alive. Once during each of this world's short days, but no oftener, he permitted himself to look at the star hyacinth. It was a ritual adhered to with almost religious strictness, and it had kept him as sane as he was ever likely to be again, for over six years.
It might, he sometimes thought, keep him sane until a third ship presently came along to this place. And then ...
The third ship was coming along at the moment, still some five hours' flight out from the system. She was a small ship with lean, rakish lines, a hot little speedster, gliding placidly through subspace just now, her engines throttled down.
Aboard her, things were less peaceful.
The girl was putting up a pretty good fight but getting nowhere with it against the bull-necked Fleetman who had her pinned back against the wall.
Wellan Dasinger paused in momentary indecision at the entrance to the half-darkened control section of the speedboat. The scuffle in there very probably was none of his business. The people of the roving Independent Fleets had their own practices and mores and resented interference from uninformed planet dwellers. For all Dasinger knew, their blue-eyed lady pilot enjoyed roughhousing with the burly members of her crew. If the thing wasn't serious....
He heard the man rap out something in the Willata Fleet tongue, following the words up with a solid thump of his fist into the girl's side. The thump hadn't been playful, and her sharp gasp of pain indicated no enjoyment whatever. Dasinger stepped quickly into the room.
He saw the girl turn startled eyes toward him as he came up behind the man. The man was Liu Taunus, the bigger of the two crew members ... too big and too well muscled by a good deal, in fact, to make a sportsmanlike suggestion to divert his thumpings to Dasinger look like a sensible approach. Besides Dasinger didn't know the Willata Fleet's language. The edge of his hand slashed twice from behind along the thick neck; then his fist brought the breath whistling from Taunus's lungs before the Fleetman had time to turn fully towards him.
It gave Dasinger a considerable starting advantage. During the next twenty seconds or so the advantage seemed to diminish rapidly. Taunus's fists and boots had scored only near misses so far, but he began to look like the hardest big man to chop down Dasinger had yet run into. And then the Fleetman was suddenly sprawling on the floor, face down, arms flung out limply, a tough boy with a thoroughly bludgeoned nervous system.
Dasinger was straightening up when he heard the thunk of the wrench. He turned sharply, discovered first the girl standing ten feet away with the wrench in her raised hand, next their second crew member lying on the carpet between them, finally the long, thin knife lying near the man's hand.
"Thanks, Miss Mines!" he said, somewhat out of breath. "I really should have remembered Calat might be somewhere around."
Duomart Mines gestured with her head at the adjoining control cabin. "He was in there," she said, also breathlessly. She was a long-legged blonde with a limber way of moving, pleasing to look at in her shaped Fleet uniform, though with somewhat aloof and calculating eyes. In the dim light of the room she seemed to be studying Dasinger now with an expression somewhere between wariness and surprised speculation. Then, as he took a step forward to check on Calat's condition, she backed off slightly, half lifting the wrench again.
Dasinger stopped and looked at her. "Well," he said, "make up your mind! Whose side are you on here?"
Miss Mines hesitated, let the wrench down. "Yours, I guess," she acknowledged. "I'd better be, now! They'd murder me for helping a planeteer."
Dasinger went down on one knee beside Calat, rather cautiously though the Fleetman wasn't stirring, and picked up the knife. Miss Mines turned up the room's lights. Dasinger asked, "What was this ... a mutiny? You're technically in charge of the ship, aren't you?"