[Applause, shouts, a few ribald remarks from the officers nearest the bar]
"I just want to tell you all," the Major went on, his arm heavy across Winfree's unwilling shoulders, "before I relinquish this fine young officer to his new commander, a corporal ..."
"... that here's a man who's going places. Look well at Captain Winfree's face, friends. You will see it yet on the cover of Time, above a pair of stars."
The Major freed Captain Winfree, the guests settled down into their folding-chairs, and the chaplain opened his BSG Book of Authorized Ceremonies. He and the affianced couple stood alone together in a moment of silence. He opened the service. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here ...
"... Margaret, wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded husband ... so long as ye both shall live? ... by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Corps of Chaplains, Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities, I pronounce that you are Man and Wife. Amen, and Congratulations!"
The first wedded kiss, and the stag-line demanding its similar perquisite. Kevin MacHenery seized his son-in-law's right hand. "I wish you both fifty happy years, Wes," he said. "I hope you'll see the light soon, and spend most of those years in decent mufti." Major Dampfer shouldered Mr. MacHenery aside to tug Winfree and his new wife toward the mountain of gifts, covered like a giant's corpse with a sheet, standing by the base of the Xmas tree. The Major triumphantly pulled a ripcord, and the sheet dropped away. Beneath it were dozens of boxes and bundles and bottles, wrapped in scarlet and green and silver and gold. "Open them!" some guest prompted from the end of the hall.
"Why open them?" Corporal Mrs. Peggy Winfree asked. "Anyone got a match? We'll have our Potlatch Pyre right here and now, burn them right off instead of waiting a year."
"The lady jests," Major Dampfer assumed. "Wedding-gifts, Corporal, aren't subject to Potlatching."
"Goody," Peggy said.
"I'll have some of the enlisted guests carry these gratuities out to your car," the Major said. "You can unwrap them during your honeymoon." He chuckled.
Towing his bride with his left hand, accepting handshakes with his right, Captain Winfree shouldered his way through the mob of brass and chevrons to the door. His car, adorned with a Just Married sign that completely obscured the rear window, trailing strings of shoes and empty milk-tins, stood at the end of a corridor formed by two face-to-face ranks of BSG Officer-Candidates. The OCS-men wore dress greens and Academy helmets, and about the waist of each hung a saber. Consumers stood gray and inconspicuous behind the two rows of uniformed men, silent, unsmiling, like onlookers at an accident. Captain Winfree looked over this civilian crowd. Each person wore, pinned to a lapel, perched in a hatbrim, or worn like a corsage, a small white feather. "We'd best hurry, Peggy," he said, urging her toward the gantlet.
The Officer-Candidates, on a signal from Major Dampfer, snicked their ceremonial sabers from their scabbards and presented them, blade-tip to blade-tip, as an archway. The BSG Band-and-Glee-Club, playing and singing, "Potlatch Is Comin' to Town," stood in the doorway. Captain Winfree, clasping Peggy's gloved hand tightly, led her through the saber-roofed aisleway as rapidly as he could. "What's the rush, Wes?" she asked. "We'll get married only once, and I'd like to see the ceremony well enough to be able to describe it to our eventual children, when they ask me what it was like."
Winfree opened the door of their car. "We'd better get out of here," he said. "I smell a riot brewing; and I don't want you to have to describe that to our children."
Peggy scooted into the car just as the District Headquarters building burped out a giant bubble of smoke. An arm reached out to Winfree's lapel and tugged him back from the car. "You're going nowhere, buddy," a civilian growled at him. The man, Winfree saw, was wearing the ubiquitous white feather in his lapel. As Winfree shook himself free from the civilian, the arch of sabers above them collapsed. The BSG-OCS-men were tossed about in a mob of suddenly screaming consumers, waving their weapons as ineffectively as brooms. Fragments were spun off the whirl of people, bits of BSG uniforms torn off their wearers and tossed like confetti. A huge pink figure, clad in one trouser-leg and a pair of shorts, smeared across the chest and face with soot, dashed toward Winfree, waving a .45 pistol. "Stop this violence!" he screamed at the consumers in his way, leveling his pistol. "Maintain the peace, dammit! or I'll shoot!"
"That idiot!" Winfree said. He slammed the door of the car to give Peggy a little protection, then scooped up a handful of snow from the gutter to pound into a ball and toss like a grenade at the back of Major Dampfer's neck. The Major's boots flew out from under him, and he landed belly-down in the snow, burying his pistol's muzzle. The gun went off, flinging itself like a rocket out of his hand. Winfree snatched it up. "Blanks!" he yelled, waving the .45. "He was only going to shoot blanks."
Three more civilians, wearing the white-feather symbol on their overcoats, advanced toward Winfree. Together, like partners in a ballet, they bent to build snowballs, then stood and let fly. Winfree ducked, found one of the dress sabers ignominiously sheathed in snow, and drew it out. He retreated toward the automobile, the saber raised to protect Peggy. "Stand back," he shouted. "I don't want to bloody-up this clean snow."
Another mitrailleusade of snowballs connected, knocking off Winfree's cap and sending a shower of snow down his collar. The Headquarters building was burning so well that it served as a warming bonfire to the tattered BSG personnel. A squad of civilian youngsters was chasing Major Dampfer down the street, pelting the huge target of his backside with snowballs.
The BSG Band-and-Glee-Club, covering their nakedness by pooling their rags, were a musical rabble. Kevin MacHenery, carrying a saber captured from one of the BSG-OCS-men, shouted to a tuba-player, the bell of whose horn had been dimpled by a hard-cored snowball. "Play the National Anthem," he yelled. The player, chilly and terrified, raised the mouthpiece of the tuba to his lips and, looking fearfully about like the target of a test-your-skill ball-throwing game, puffed out the sonorous opening notes. One by one the other players, a flute behind an elm tree, a trumpet hidden in the back seat of a parked limousine, a snow-damaged snare-drum, joined in; gravitating towards one another through the suddenly quiet crowd. Winfree, like the other men, civil and BSG, stood at attention; but as he felt Peggy's arm slip through his he spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Get back to the car, Peggy," he said. "Drive like hell out of this chivaree. I'll meet you at your dad's place. Now git!"
"You think maybe I had my fingers crossed when I promised to have and hold you?" she asked. "You're my man, Wes. If you get beat up, I want my eyes blackened to match yours."
The anthem drew to a close just as a new instrument, the siren of a firetruck, joined in. "Stop that truck!" one of the insurgent consumers shouted. "Don't let 'em touch our fire."
The mob went back into action in two task-forces; one dedicated to the extirpation of the BSG-men currently available, the other clustered around the firetruck, thwarting the fire-fighters' efforts to couple their hose to the hydrant. One youngster, wearing the black leather jacket and crash-helmet of a Potlatch Party, ran from the fireworks warehouse with a thermite grenade. Pulling the pin, he tossed the sputtering bomb through a window of the burning building. "Stop him!" the white-helmeted fire-chief shouted.
"Stop him, hell!" a consumer replied. "Man, we got a rebellion going. Don't you guys try to throw cold water on it unless you'd like to be squirted solid ice with your own hose."
The fire-chief, his hands raised in despair, turned to his colleagues. "Stand by, boys," he said. "Nothing we can do till the cops get here to quell this bunch."
"Pretty, isn't it?" one of the firemen remarked, dropping the canvas hose. "We never get to see a building burn all the way. Think of all the papers in there, file-cabinets full of government regulations, lists of all our birthdays, quota-forms; all curling up and turning brown and reaching the kindling point. Nice fire, Chief."
The fire-chief faced Headquarters, a new look replacing his anxiety. "It is kind of pretty," he admitted. He turned to the consumer ringleader. "OK with you if we throw a little water on the fireworks warehouse?" he asked.
"Sure," the man said. "We don't want to blow up the old home-town; we only want to put the BSG out of business." His band of consumers stepped back from the yellow fireplug to let the firemen hook up their hoses, toggle on the pressure, and begin playing water over the blank face of the fireworks warehouse.
Captain Winfree was buried in hard-fisted civilians, all seemingly intent on erasing him as the most familiar symbol of the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities. Winfree bobbed to the surface of the maelstrom for a moment, waving his saber, and shouted, "MacHenery! Get these jokers off my back before I'm knee-deep in cold meat." He thwacked another of his assailants across the pate with the flat of his blade.
MacHenery, using his saber as a lever, pried himself a path through the crowd. As he reached Captain Winfree, he raised his saber. The crowd about the two men retreated. "These folks have suffered a lot from you, Captain," MacHenery said. "Think maybe they're due to see a little bloodshed?"
"OK by me," Winfree said, panting, "if you don't mind shedding it." He raised his saber in salute--the only fencing-movement he'd become proficient in--and jumped into a crouch. MacHenery closed, and the two blades met in a clanging opening. Peggy's father, for all his handicap of twenty years, was a fencer; Winfree, in his maiden effort as a sabreur, used his weapon like a club. He allemanded about MacHenery, now and then dashing in with clumsy deliveries that were always met by the older man's blade.
Those firemen not immediately concerned with spraying the warehouse wall mounted the racks of their truck to watch the duel. BSG-men and -women, huddled close to the warmth of the burning building, watched unhappily as their champion was forced to retreat before MacHenery's technique. "He'll kill him!" Peggy shouted. She was restrained from trying to break up the fight by two burly consumers.
Winfree, trying a gambit he'd seen in one of MacHenery's books but had never before attempted, extended his saber and flew forward toward MacHenery in a fleche. MacHenery caught Winfree's blade on his own and tossed it aside. He brought back his own weapon to sketch a line down the Captain's right cheek. The scratch was pink for a moment, then it started to bleed heavily. The crowd shouted encouragement, the BSG-troops groaned. "Keep cool, Wes," MacHenery whispered to his opponent as they dos-a-doed back into position. "I have to make this look fierce or they'll insist on lynching you."
"Don't make it look too good," Winfree panted. "Cover yourself--I might hurt you out of sheer clumsiness." His chin and throat were covered with blood, now; blood enough to satisfy the most indignant consumer. The moment the measure was set again, Winfree lunged, trying to slip his blade beneath MacHenery's guard to strike his arm. His foible met the flash of the other man's forte, and his blade bounced aside like a sprung bow.
MacHenery slammed his saber into Winfree's, spinning the weapon out of his hand into the crowd. He lunged then, delivering his point against Winfree's chest. Peggy, released from her captors, burst from the crowd to throw herself against her father. "Stop it, Daddy!" she pleaded, "please stop!"
MacHenery raised his saber in salute. "All right, Pocahontas," he said. "Take your John Smith home and patch up that cut. It's no worse than what he gets shaving." He turned to the crowd, his saber still raised in salute. "Potlatch is over forever!" he shouted.
Urged by a delegation of music-loving consumers, the tubist raised his ravaged horn. The other members of the BSG Band-and-Glee-Club gathered round him, all ragged, some with one eye closed by a purple fist-mark; and they began, on the tubist's signal, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." The District Headquarters building, gutted, was glowing like an abandoned fireplace. The firemen joined the singing as they coiled their hoses. The Potlatch Riot was over.
Winfree led his wife to their car. The Just Married sign was still in place, but the car's train of shoes and milk-cans had been ripped off to furnish ammunition in the fight. "Let's go home, Peggy," Winfree said. "I yearn for a fireside and some privacy."
Kevin MacHenery spoke from the back seat. "You deserve them, Wes," he said.
"What are you doing here?" Peggy demanded, twisting to face her father. "After you cut up my Wes you should be ashamed to show us your face."
"I want to apologize for that unfortunate necessity," MacHenery said. "But if I hadn't scratched him, Peggy-my-heart, the mob might have done more radical surgery. I saw one consumer with a rope, trying different knots."
"Apology accepted," Winfree said. "Now, if you don't mind, Mr. MacHenery, Peggy and I'd like to be alone."
"Of course," MacHenery said. "First, though, I'd like to present you a decoration to commemorate your part in this skirmish, Wes." He took the little white feather from his hatbrim and attached it to Winfree's tattered, blood-stained tunic.
"What's this for?" Winfree asked.
"For services rendered the Rebellion," MacHenery said. "I've often wondered why it's only the Tom Paines and the Jeffersons who get honored by successful rebels. There's many a revolution, Wesley, that would have failed except for the dedicated tyranny of the men it overthrew."
"I don't understand, Daddy," Peggy protested.
"Wes will probably explain to you sometime how he brought this all on himself," MacHenery said, opening his door to get out. "Now I expect you two have other things to talk about. Thank you, Captain Winfree, for playing so excellent a George the Third to our rebellion."
"Thank you, sir," Winfree said, raising his hand in salute. "I wish you a Merry, nine-letter Christmas."
by Murray Leinster
The whole fighting fleet of the United Nations is caught in Kreynborg's marvelous, unique trap
It was August 19, 2037. The United Nations was just fifty years old. Televisors were still monochromatic. The Nidics had just won the World Series in Prague. Com-Pub observatories were publishing elaborate figures on moving specks in space which they considered to be Martian spaceships on their way to Earth, but which United Nations astronomers could not discover at all. Women were using gilt lipsticks that year. Heat-induction motors were still considered efficient prime movers.
Thorn Hard was a high-level flier for the Pacific Watch. Bathyletis was the most prominent of nationally advertised diseases, and was to be cured by RO-17, "The Foundation of Personal Charm." Somebody named Nirdlinger was President of the United Nations, and somebody else named Krassin was Commissar of Commissars for the Com-Pubs. Newspapers were printing flat pictures in three colors only, and deploring the high cost of stereoscopic plates. And ... Thorn Hard was a high-level flier for the Pacific Watch.
That is the essential point, of course--Thorn Hard's work with the Watch. His job was, officially, hanging somewhere above the twenty-thousand-foot level with his detector-screens out, listening for unauthorized traffic. And, the normal state of affairs between the Com-Pubs and the United Nations being one of highly armed truce, "unauthorized traffic" meant nothing more or less than spies.
But on August 19th, 2037, Thorn Hard was off duty. Decidedly so. He was sitting on top of Mount Wendel, in the Rockies; he had a ravishingly pretty girl sitting on the same rock with him, and he was looking at the sunset. The plane behind him was an official Watch plane, which civilians are never supposed to catch a glimpse of. It had brought Thorn Hard and Sylva West to this spot. It waited now, half-hidden by a spur of age-eroded rock, to take them back to civilization again. Its G.C. (General Communication) phone muttered occasionally like the voice of conscience.
The colors of the mountain changed and blended. The sky to westward was a glory of a myriad colors. Man and girl, high above the world, sat with the rosy glow of dying sunlight in their faces and watched the colors fade and shift into other colors and patterns even more exquisite. Their hands touched. They looked at each other. They smiled queerly, as people smile who are in love or otherwise not quite sane. They moved inevitably closer....
And then the G.C. phone barked raucously: "All Watch planes attention! Urgent! Extreme high-level traffic reported seven-ten line bound due east, speed over one thousand. All Watch planes put out all detectors and use extra vigilance. Note: the speed, course, and time of report of this traffic checks with Com-Pub observations of moving objects approaching Earth from Mars. This possibility should be considered before opening fire."
Thorn Hard stiffened all over. He got up and swung down to the stubby little ship with its gossamer-like wings of cellate. He touched the report button.
"Plane 257-A reporting seven-ten line. Thorn Hard flying. On Mount Wendel, on leave. Orders?"
He was throwing on the screens even as he reported. And the vertical detector began to whistle shrilly. His eyes darted to the dial, and he spoke again.
"Added report. Detector shows traffic approaching, bound due east, seven hundred miles an hour, high altitude.... Correction; six-fifty miles. Correction; six hundred." He paused. "Traffic is decelerating rapidly. I think, sir, this is the reported ship."
And then there was a barely audible whining noise high in the air to the west. It grew in volume and changed in pitch. From a whine it became a scream. From a scream it rose to a shriek. Something monstrous and red glittered in the dying sunlight. It was huge. It was of no design ever known on earth. Wings supported it, but they were obscured by the blasts of forward rockets checking its speed.
It was dropping rapidly. Then lifting-rockets spouted flame to keep it from too rapid a descent. It cleared a mountain-peak by a bare two hundred feet, some two miles to the south. It was a hundred-odd feet in length. It was ungainly in shape, monstrous in conformation. Colossal rocket-tubes behind it now barely trickled vaporous discharges. It cleared the mountain-top, went heavily on in a steep glide downward, and vanished behind a mountain-flank. Presently the thin mountain air brought the echoed sound of its landing, of rapid-fire explosions of rocket-tubes, and then silence.
Thorn Hard was snapping swift, staccato sentences into the report-transmitter. Describing the clumsy glittering monster, its motion; its wings; its method of propulsion. It seemed somehow familiar despite its strangeness. He said so.
Then a vivid blue flame licked all about the rim of the world and was gone. Simultaneously the G.C. speaker crashed explosively and went dead. Thorn went on grimly, switching in the spare.
"A very violent electrical discharge went out from it then. A blue light seemed to flash all around the horizon at no great distance and my speaker blew out. I have turned on the spare. I do not know whether my sender is functioning--"
The spare speaker cut in abruptly at that moment: "It is. Stay where you are and observe. A squadron is coming."
Then the voice broke off, because a new sound was coming from the speaker. It was a voice that was unhuman and queerly horrible and somehow machine-like. Hoots and howls and whistles came from the speaker. Wailing sounds. Ghostly noises, devoid of consonants but broadcast on a wave-length close to the G.C. band and therefore produced by intelligence, though unintelligible. The unhuman hoots and wails and whistles came through for nearly a minute, and stopped.
"Stay on duty!" snapped the G.C. speaker. "That's no language known on earth. Those are Martians!"
Thorn looked up to see Sylva standing by the Watch-plane door. Her face was pale in the growing darkness outside.
"Beginning duty sir," said Thorn steadily, "I report that I have with me Miss Sylva West, my fiancee, in violation of regulations. I ask that her family be notified."
He snapped off the lights and went with her. The red rocket-ship had landed in the very next valley. There was a glare there, which wavered and flickered and died away.
"Martians!" said Thorn in fine irony. "We'll see when the Watch planes come! My guess is Com-Pubs, using a searchlight! Nervy!"
The glare vanished. There was only silence, a curiously complete and deadly silence. And Thorn said, suddenly: "There's no wind!"
There was not. Not a breath of air. The mountains were uncannily quiet. The air was impossibly still, for a mountain-top. Ten minutes went by. Twenty. The detector-whistles shrilled.
"There's the Watch," said Thorn in satisfaction. "Now we'll see!"
And then, abruptly, there was a lurid flash in the sky to northward. Two thousand feet up and a mile away, the unearthly green blaze of a hexynitrate explosion lit the whole earth with unbearable brilliance.
"Stop your ears!" snapped Thorn.
The racking concussion-wave of hexynitrate will break human eardrums at an incredible distance. But no sound came, though the seconds went by.... Then, two miles away, there was a second gigantic flash.... Then a third.... But there was no sound at all. The quiet of the hills remained unbroken, though Thorn knew that such cataclysmic detonations should be audible at twenty miles or more. Then lights flashed on above. Two--three--six of them. They wavered all about, darting here and there.... Then one of the flying searchlights vanished utterly in a fourth terrific flash of green.
"The watch planes are going up!" said Thorn dazedly. "Blowing up! And we can't hear the explosions!"
Behind him the G.C. speaker barked his call. He raced to get its message.
"The Watch planes we sent to join you," said a curt voice he recognized as that of the Commanding General of the United Nations, "have located an invisible barrier by their sonic altimeters. Four of them seem to have rammed it and exploded without destroying it. What have you to report?"
"I've seen the flashes, sir," said Thorn unsteadily, "but they made no noise. And there's no wind, sir. Not a breath since the blue flash I reported."