Getting a flashlight, he found his rifle, sticking muzzle-down in the mud a little behind and to the right of the jeep, and swore briefly in the local Fourth Level idiom, for Verkan Vall was a man who loved good weapons, be they sigma-ray needlers, neutron-disruption blasters, or the solid-missile projectors of the lower levels. By this time, he was feeling considerable pain from the claw-wounds he had received. He peeled off his shirt and tossed it over the hood of the jeep.
Tortha Karf had advised him to carry a needler, or a blaster, or a neurostat-gun, but Verkan Vall had been unwilling to take such arms onto the Fourth Level. In event of mishap to himself, it would be all too easy for such a weapon to fall into the hands of someone able to deduce from it scientific principles too far in advance of the general Fourth Level culture. But there had been one First Level item which he had permitted himself, mainly because, suitably packaged, it was not readily identifiable as such. Digging a respectable Fourth-Level leatherette case from under the seat, he opened it and took out a pint bottle with a red poison-label, and a towel. Saturating the towel with the contents of the bottle, he rubbed every inch of his torso with it, so as not to miss even the smallest break made in his skin by the septic claws of the nighthound. Whenever the lotion-soaked towel touched raw skin, a pain like the burn of a hot iron shot through him; before he was through, he was in agony. Satisfied that he had disinfected every wound, he dropped the towel and clung weakly to the side of the jeep. He grunted out a string of English oaths, and capped them with an obscene Spanish blasphemy he had picked up among the Fourth Level inhabitants of his island home of Nerros, to the south, and a thundering curse in the name of Mogga, Fire-God of Dool, in a Third-Level tongue. He mentioned Fasif, Great God of Khift, in a manner which would have got him an acid-bath if the Khiftan priests had heard him. He alluded to the baroque amatory practices of the Third-Level Illyalla people, and soothed himself, in the classical Dar-Halma tongue, with one of those rambling genealogical insults favored in the Indo-Turanian Sector of the Fourth Level.
By this time, the pain had subsided to an over-all smarting itch. He'd have to bear with that until his work was finished and he could enjoy a hot bath. He got another bottle out of the first-aid kit--a flat pint, labeled "Old Overholt," containing a locally-manufactured specific for inward and subjective wounds--and medicated himself copiously from it, corking it and slipping it into his hip pocket against future need. He gathered up the ruined shoulder-holster and threw it under the back seat. He put on his shirt. Then he went and dragged the dead nighthound onto the grade by its stumpy tail.
It was an ugly thing, weighing close to two hundred pounds, with powerfully muscled hind legs which furnished the bulk of its motive-power, and sturdy three-clawed front legs. Its secondary limbs, about a third of the way back from its front shoulders, were long and slender; normally, they were carried folded closely against the body, and each was armed with a single curving claw. The revolver-bullet had gone in at the base of the skull and emerged under the jaw; the head was relatively undamaged. Verkan Vall was glad of that; he wanted that head for the trophy-room of his home on Nerros. Grunting and straining, he got the thing into the back of the jeep, and flung his almost shredded tweed coat over it.
A last look around assured him that he had left nothing unaccountable or suspicious. The brush was broken where the nighthound had been tearing at the coat; a bear might have done that. There were splashes of the viscid stuff the thing had used for blood, but they wouldn't be there long. Terrestrial rodents liked nighthound blood, and the woods were full of mice. He climbed in under the wheel, backed, turned, and drove away.
Inside the paratime-transposition dome, Verkan Vall turned from the body of the nighthound, which he had just dragged in, and considered the inert form of another animal--a stump-tailed, tuft-eared, tawny Canada lynx. That particular animal had already made two paratime transpositions; captured in the vast wilderness of Fifth-Level North America, it had been taken to the First Level and placed in the Dhergabar Zoological Gardens, and then, requisitioned on the authority of Tortha Karf, it had been brought to the Fourth Level by Verkan Vall. It was almost at the end of all its travels.
Verkan Vall prodded the supine animal with the toe of his boot; it twitched slightly. Its feet were cross-bound with straps, but when he saw that the narcotic was wearing off, Verkan Vall snatched a syringe, parted the fur at the base of its neck, and gave it an injection. After a moment, he picked it up in his arms and carried it out to the jeep.
"All right, pussy cat," he said, placing it under the rear seat, "this is the one-way ride. The way you're doped up, it won't hurt a bit."
He went back and rummaged in the debris of the long-deserted barn. He picked up a hoe, and discarded it as too light. An old plowshare was too unhandy. He considered a grate-bar from a heating furnace, and then he found the poleax, lying among a pile of wormeaten boards. Its handle had been shortened, at some time, to about twelve inches, converting it into a heavy hatchet. He weighed it, and tried it on a block of wood, and then, making sure that the secret door was closed, he went out again and drove off.
An hour later, he returned. Opening the secret door, he carried the ruined shoulder holster, and the straps that had bound the bobcat's feet, and the ax, now splotched with blood and tawny cat-hairs, into the dome. Then he closed the secret room, and took a long drink from the bottle on his hip.
The job was done. He would take a hot bath, and sleep in the farmhouse till noon, and then he would return to the First Level. Maybe Tortha Karf would want him to come back here for a while. The situation on this time-line was far from satisfactory, even if the crisis threatened by Gavran Sarn's renegade pet had been averted. The presence of a chief's assistant might be desirable.
At least, he had a right to expect a short vacation. He thought of the little redhead at the Hagraban Synthetics Works. What was her name? Something Kara--Morvan Kara; that was it. She'd be coming off shift about the time he'd make First Level, tomorrow afternoon.
The claw-wounds were still smarting vexatiously. A hot bath, and a night's sleep--He took another drink, lit his pipe, picked up his rifle and started across the yard to the house.
Private Zinkowski cradled the telephone and got up from the desk, stretching. He left the orderly-room and walked across the hall to the recreation room, where the rest of the boys were loafing. Sergeant Haines, in a languid gin-rummy game with Corporal Conner, a sheriff's deputy, and a mechanic from the service station down the road, looked up.
"Well, Sarge, I think we can write off those stock-killings," the private said.
"Yeah?" The sergeant's interest quickened.
"Yeah. I think the whatzit's had it. I just got a buzz from the railroad cops at Logansport. It seems a track-walker found a dead bobcat on the Logan River branch, about a mile or so below MMY signal tower. Looks like it tangled with that night freight up-river, and came off second best. It was near chopped to hamburger."
"MMY signal tower; that's right below Yoder's Crossing," the sergeant considered. "The Strawmyer farm night-before-last, the Amrine farm last night--Yeah, that would be about right."
"That'll suit Steve Parker; bobcats aren't protected, so it's not his trouble. And they're not a violation of state law, so it's none of our worry," Conner said. "Your deal, isn't it, Sarge?"
"Yeah. Wait a minute." The sergeant got to his feet. "I promised Sam Kane, the AP man at Logansport, that I'd let him in on anything new." He got up and started for the phone. "Phantom Killer!" He blew an impolite noise.
"Well, it was a lot of excitement, while it lasted," the deputy sheriff said. "Just like that Flying Saucer thing."
By Rick Raphael
Of course, no one actually knows the power of a thought. That is, the milli--or megawatts type of power ...
Private Jediah Cromwell was homesick for the first time since his induction into the Army. If he had gotten homesick on any of at least a dozen other occasions during his first two weeks in the service, he might never have gotten beyond the induction center. But the wonders and delights of his first venture beyond the almost inaccessible West Virginia hills of his birth had kept him too awed and interested to think about home.
When Cletus Miller headed up the trail to Bluebird Gulch, Ma felt him coming around the bend below the waterfall a mile across the gorge. She laid down her skinning knife and wiped her hands clean of the blood of the rabbits Jed had brought in earlier in the morning.
"Sonny," she called to Jed, "trouble's acoming."
Jediah crossed the corn patch to her side. "What kinda trouble, Ma?"
"Cletus Miller's comin'," Ma Cromwell said. "He ain't been up here since the week afore your Pa died. I don't know what it is but it's bound to be trouble."
A few minutes later Miller hallooed from the bottom of the garden patch, then trudged up to the cabin.
"Set and rest, Cletus," Ma said. "Sonny, fetch Cletus a coolin' dip." Jed ambled down to the spring sluice and dippered out a pint of clear, mountain water.
"Got mail fer you," Cletus said, waving an envelope. "Guvermint mail. Fer Sonny."
Two weeks later, Jediah swung down the mountain to Owl Creek, carrying a small sack with his good clothes and shoes in it. The draft notice was stuffed into his overall pockets along with biscuits and meat Ma had insisted he take.
"Go along now, Sonny," she had directed him, "and don't you fret none about me. The corn's 'most ready. You got a good supply of firewood in, more'n enought to last me all winter. If your guvermint need us Cromwells to fight, then I reckon its our bounden duty. Your grandsire and greatgrandsire both wuz soldiers and if'n your Pa hadn't gone and gotten his leg busted and twisted afore the guvermint called him I reckon he'd have been one, too. I've learned you all I can and you can read 'n write 'n do sums. Just mind your manners and come on home when they don't need you no more."
In Owl Creek the first real part of the excitement hit Jed. He had been as far as Paulsburg, twenty miles farther and that was almost as big as the county seat at Madison. Now he was going to go even beyond Madison--right to the city. And then maybe the Army would send him more places.
The Army did.
Everything had been wonderful, almost overwhelming, from the moment he boarded a bus for the first time in his life until he arrived at Fort McGruder. He could hardly believe the wealth of the government in issuing him so many clothes and giving him so much personal gear. And while the food wasn't what Ma would have cooked, there was lots of it. He liked the other recruits who had ridden down to McGruder with him, even though a couple of the city fellows had been kind of teasing.
He liked the barracks although his bunk mattress wasn't as soft as Ma's eiderdown comforts. He liked everything--until the sergeant had cussed at him this afternoon.
Now Jed lay on his bunk and counted the springs on the upper bunk occupied by Private Harry Fisher. It was close to eight o'clock and the barracks were full of scores of young soldiers. A crap game was going on three bunks away and across the aisle; another country boy was picking at a guitar. The bunk above sagged with the weight of Harry Fisher, who was reading a book.
Jed's mind kept coming back to the cussin' out he had gotten, just for not knowing the Army insisted on a body wearing shoes no matter what he was doing. Jed had never been cussed at before in his entire life. True, Ma never hesitated about taking a willow switch to him when he was a young 'un, or a stob of kindling when he got older. But she always whupped him in a gentle fashion, never losing her temper and always explaining with each whistling swing of switch or club, just what he'd done wrong and why this was for the good of his immortal soul.
Thinking about Ma, Jed got homesick. He closed his eyes and looked around for Ma. She was stirring a pot of lye ashes over the fireplace and when she felt Jed in the cabin she closed her eyes. "Sonny," she said, "you in trouble?"
Lying on his bunk at Fort McGruder, Jed smiled happily and thought back an answer. "Nope, Ma. Jest got to wonderin' what you wuz doing."
Whatever Ma was going to say was lost amid the yells and growls of the men in the barracks as the electricity went off. "Who turned the lights off?" Fisher cried from the top bunk. "It's not 'lights out' time yet."
The noise jerked Jed back to the present and his eyes opened. The lights came on.
"Where are the dice," one of the crapshooters barked. "I rolled a seven just when the lights went out."
The noise died down and the game resumed. Fisher lay back on his bunk and went back to his book. Jed's mind reached out for home again. "Ma," he called out, "you say something?"
The lights went out and the yells went up throughout the two-story barracks.
Jed opened his eyes and the lights came on.
At the end of the barracks, Corporal Weisbaum came out of his sacredly private room and surveyed the recruits. "Awright," he roared, "so which one of you is the wise guy making with the lights?"
"So nobody, corporal," a recruit sitting on the end bunk answered. "So the lights went out. Then they come back on. So who knows? Maybe the Army ain't paying its light bills. I had a landlady back in Brooklyn who usta do the same thing anytime I got late with her rent mon...."
"Shaddup," Weisbaum snarled. "Maybe it was power trouble. But if it happens again and I find out one of you monkeys is bein' smart, the whole platoon falls out and we'll get a little night air exercising." He stalked back into his room and slammed the door.
The barracks buzzed angrily for a few moments. Jed sat up and peered up at Fisher.
"That there officer shorely don't talk very nice, you know that Harry," Jed said.
Fisher laid down the book and peered under his thick-rimmed glasses at the lanky mountain boy.
"How old are you, Jed," he asked.
"Lived up in the hills all those years?" Fisher inquired.
"Yup," Jed replied. "This is the furthinest I've ever been." His normally cheerful face fell slightly. "Kinda makes me lonesome in a way, though. Folks back home jest plain don't talk thataway one to the other."
Fisher leaned over the edge of his bunk. "Let me tell you something, Jed. Don't let talk like that worry you. First of all, he's no officer. And second, he doesn't really mean it and it's just a way the Army has of making men of us. You'll hear lots more and lots worse before you get back to those West Virginia hills of yours."
Jed lay back down on the bunk. "Mebbe so," he admitted. "Don't mean I gotta like it much, though. Ma never talked thataway to me, no matter how bad a thing I done."
Jed closed his eyes and thought of home. Ought to say goodnight to Ma. He let his mind reach out to the cabin almost two states distant.
The lights went out in the barracks, two of the crapshooters started swinging at each other in the dark and the commotion drifted upwind to the platoon sergeant's room in another barracks two buildings away.
In the confused yells and the shouting of Corporal Weisbaum, Jed gave up trying to say goodnight to Ma and opened his eyes again.
The lights in the barracks came back on just as Platoon Sergeant Mitchell walked in the front door.
The two crapshooters were tangled in a heap in the center aisle of the barracks, still swinging. Corporal Weisbaum had the Brooklyn recruit by the front of his T-shirt, waving a massive fist under the boy's nose.
"AT EASE!" Mitchell boomed. The barracks shook and suddenly there was quiet. "Now just what is going on here?" he demanded.
Weisbaum released his grip on the recruit and the two brawlers scrambled to their feet. The corporal glared at the forty-odd recruits in the barracks. "I warned you mush heads what would happen the next time one of you fiddled with them lights. Now I'm gonna give you just five minutes to fall out in front in fatigues and combat boots. MOVE!"
"Lay off," one of the recruits muttered, "nobody touched the lights. They just went off."
Weisbaum turned a cold stare on the youngster. "Just went out, eh? O.K. Let's see. Sergeant Mitchell, did the lights go out in your building?"
The sergeant shook his head.
"Did you notice if the lights were out in any other buildings when you came up?" Again Mitchell shook his head.
"Just this barracks, huh?"
There was a moment of silence. "Five minutes, you jugheads," Weisbaum roared. "Five minutes or I'll have your flabby hides hung like wallpaper in my room."
By the time the platoon got back in the barracks after a five-mile walk around the perimeter of the post, Taps were sounding and the lights went out as soon as the men hit their bunks. The talking was over. Jed felt better after the pleasant walk in the night air. He decided Ma would be asleep anyway by this time. He turned his head into his pillow and was snoring in ten seconds.
Once Jed began getting the feel of what was wanted of him, his training improved and the wrath of the platoon sergeants and corporals was directed elsewhere. The recruits moved rapidly through the hardening period and with each day, Jed found the going easier. By the time the platoon was ready for the rifle range, Jed hadn't had time to give more than a brief occasional thought about home.
When the supply sergeant issued him his M-14 rifle, Jed carried it back to the barracks like a young bridegroom carrying his beloved across their first threshold.
"Harry," he said in an awed voice to his bunkmate, "ain't that jest about the most bee-ootiful thing you ever did see?"
Fisher was sitting on the lower bunk beside Jed, working the action on his own rifle. "It's a lovely weapon, allright. I just hope I can hit the side of a barn with it."
"Hit a barn with it," Jed said in amazement, "why, Harry, with this here gun I could hit a squirrel in the eye two ridges away and let you pick which eye."
Fisher grinned. "I've heard you mountain boys are pretty good with a rifle. We'll see just how good you are next week when we go out on the range."
The following Monday morning on the range, the platoon gathered around Corporal Weisbaum.
"Awright, you bums," the corporal sneered, "here's where we separate the men from the boys. Don't let the noise shake you too bad and if it kicks you in the shoulder a little, don't flinch. Remember what you learned in dry fire practice--hold 'em and squeeze 'em off. This is just familiarization fire, so don't worry if you don't hit the first few shots."
He gestured. "Awright. First order on the firing line."
Twenty men of the platoon, Jed included, moved up the embankment to the firing positions. Two hundred yards away the big targets were lined up like billboards along the line of pits.
From the range control tower in the middle of the firing line, the bullhorn speakers blared. "Familiarization fire. Prone position." Twenty riflemen dropped to their knees and then forward onto their bellies, their cheeks cuddling the stocks of the rifles.
"Twenty rounds. With ball ammunition, load and lock." Twenty bolts snapped shut.
"Ready on the right? Ready on the left?"
The flank safety officer signaled. "Ready on the firing line," the speakers blared. "Commence firing."