The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xiii Part 22

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"I don't believe it!" Reinhart gasped. "It isn't possible. If Cole solved Hedge's problem that would mean--" He broke off, staggered.

"Faster than light drive can now be used for s.p.a.ce travel," Sherikov continued, waving the noise down. "As Hedge intended. My men have studied the photographs of the control turret. They don't know how or why, yet. But we have complete records of the turret. We can duplicate the wiring, as soon as the laboratories have been repaired."

Comprehension was gradually beginning to settle over the room. "Then it'll be possible to build ftl s.h.i.+ps," Margaret Duffe murmured, dazed. "And if we can do that--"

"When I showed him the control turret, Cole understood its purpose. Not my purpose, but the original purpose Hedge had been working toward. Cole realized Icarus was actually an incomplete s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p, not a bomb at all. He saw what Hedge had seen, an ftl s.p.a.ce drive. He set out to make Icarus work."

"We can go beyond Centaurus," Dixon muttered. His lips twisted. "Then the war was trivial. We can leave the Empire completely behind. We can go beyond the galaxy."

 

"The whole universe is open to us," Sherikov agreed. "Instead of taking over an antiquated Empire, we have the entire cosmos to map and explore, G.o.d's total creation."

Margaret Duffe got to her feet and moved slowly toward the great stellar maps that towered above them at the far end of the chamber. She stood for a long time, gazing up at the myriad suns, the legions of systems, awed by what she saw.

"Do you suppose he realized all this?" she asked suddenly. "What we can see, here on these maps?"

"Thomas Cole is a strange person," Sherikov said, half to himself. "Apparently he has a kind of intuition about machines, the way things are supposed to work. An intuition more in his hands than in his head. A kind of genius, such as a painter or a pianist has. Not a scientist. He has no verbal knowledge about things, no semantic references. He deals with the things themselves. Directly.

"I doubt very much if Thomas Cole understood what would come about. He looked into the globe, the control turret. He saw unfinished wiring and relays. He saw a job half done. An incomplete machine."

"Something to be fixed," Margaret Duffe put in.

"Something to be fixed. Like an artist, he saw his work ahead of him. He was interested in only one thing: turning out the best job he could, with the skill he possessed. For us, that skill has opened up a whole universe, endless galaxies and systems to explore. Worlds without end. Unlimited, untouched worlds."

Reinhart got unsteadily to his feet. "We better get to work. Start organizing construction teams. Exploration crews. We'll have to reconvert from war production to s.h.i.+p designing. Begin the manufacture of mining and scientific instruments for survey work."

"That's right," Margaret Duffe said. She looked reflectively up at him. "But you're not going to have anything to do with it."

Reinhart saw the expression on her face. His hand flew to his gun and he backed quickly toward the door. Dixon leaped up and joined him. "Get back!" Reinhart shouted.

Margaret Duffe signalled and a phalanx of Government troops closed in around the two men. Grim-faced, efficient soldiers with magnetic grapples ready.

Reinhart's blaster wavered--toward the Council members sitting shocked in their seats, and toward Margaret Duffe, straight at her blue eyes. Reinhart's features were distorted with insane fear. "Get back! Don't anybody come near me or she'll be the first to get it!"

Peter Sherikov slid from the table and with one great stride swept his immense bulk in front of Reinhart. His huge black-furred fist rose in a smas.h.i.+ng arc. Reinhart sailed against the wall, struck with ringing force and then slid slowly to the floor.

The Government troops threw their grapples quickly around him and jerked him to his feet. His body was frozen rigid. Blood dripped from his mouth. He spat bits of tooth, his eyes glazed over. Dixon stood dazed, mouth open, uncomprehending, as the grapples closed around his arms and legs.

Reinhart's gun skidded to the floor as he was yanked toward the door. One of the elderly Council members picked the gun up and examined it curiously. He laid it carefully on the table. "Fully loaded," he murmured. "Ready to fire."

Reinhart's battered face was dark with hate. "I should have killed all of you. All of you!" An ugly sneer twisted across his shredded lips. "If I could get my hands loose--"

"You won't," Margaret Duffe said. "You might as well not even bother to think about it." She signalled to the troops and they pulled Reinhart and Dixon roughly out of the room, two dazed figures, snarling and resentful.

For a moment the room was silent. Then the Council members shuffled nervously in their seats, beginning to breathe again.

Sherikov came over and put his big paw on Margaret Duffe's shoulder. "Are you all right, Margaret?"

She smiled faintly. "I'm fine. Thanks...."

Sherikov touched her soft hair briefly. Then he broke away and began to pack up his briefcase busily. "I have to go. I'll get in touch with you later."

"Where are you going?" she asked hesitantly. "Can't you stay and--"

"I have to get back to the Urals." Sherikov grinned at her over his bushy black beard as he headed out of the room. "Some very important business to attend to."

Thomas Cole was sitting up in bed when Sherikov came to the door. Most of his awkward, hunched-over body was sealed in a thin envelope of transparent airproof plastic. Two robot attendants whirred ceaselessly at his side, their leads contacting his pulse, blood-pressure, respiration, body temperature.

Cole turned a little as the huge Pole tossed down his briefcase and seated himself on the window ledge.

"How are you feeling?" Sherikov asked him.

"Better."

"You see we've quite advanced therapy. Your burns should be healed in a few months."

"How is the war coming?"

"The war is over."

Cole's lips moved. "Icarus--"

"Icarus went as expected. As you expected." Sherikov leaned toward the bed. "Cole, I promised you something. I mean to keep my promise--as soon as you're well enough."

"To return me to my own time?"

"That's right. It's a relatively simple matter, now that Reinhart has been removed from power. You'll be back home again, back in your own time, your own world. We can supply you with some discs of platinum or something of the kind to finance your business. You'll need a new Fixit truck. Tools. And clothes. A few thousand dollars ought to do it."

Cole was silent.

"I've already contacted histo-research," Sherikov continued. "The time bubble is ready as soon as you are. We're somewhat beholden to you, as you probably realize. You've made it possible for us to actualize our greatest dream. The whole planet is seething with excitement. We're changing our economy over from war to--"

"They don't resent what happened? The dud must have made an awful lot of people feel downright bad."

"At first. But they got over it--as soon as they understood what was ahead. Too bad you won't be here to see it, Cole. A whole world breaking loose. Bursting out into the universe. They want me to have an ftl s.h.i.+p ready by the end of the week! Thousands of applications are already on file, men and women wanting to get in on the initial flight."

Cole smiled a little, "There won't be any band, there. No parade or welcoming committee waiting for them."

"Maybe not. Maybe the first s.h.i.+p will wind up on some dead world, nothing but sand and dried salt. But everybody wants to go. It's almost like a holiday. People running around and shouting and throwing things in the streets.

"Afraid I must get back to the labs. Lots of reconstruction work being started." Sherikov dug into his bulging briefcase. "By the way.... One little thing. While you're recovering here, you might like to look at these." He tossed a handful of schematics on the bed.

Cole picked them up slowly. "What's this?"

"Just a little thing I designed." Sherikov arose and lumbered toward the door. "We're realigning our political structure to eliminate any recurrence of the Reinhart affair. This will block any more one-man power grabs." He jabbed a thick finger at the schematics. "It'll turn power over to all of us, not to just a limited number one person could dominate--the way Reinhart dominated the Council.

"This gimmick makes it possible for citizens to raise and decide issues directly. They won't have to wait for the Council to verbalize a measure. Any citizen can transmit his will with one of these, make his needs register on a central control that automatically responds. When a large enough segment of the population wants a certain thing done, these little gadgets set up an active field that touches all the others. An issue won't have to go through a formal Council. The citizens can express their will long before any bunch of gray-haired old men could get around to it."

Sherikov broke off, frowning.

"Of course," he continued slowly, "there's one little detail...."

"What's that?"

"I haven't been able to get a model to function. A few bugs.... Such intricate work never was in my line." He paused at the door. "Well, I hope I'll see you again before you go. Maybe if you feel well enough later on we could get together for one last talk. Maybe have dinner together sometime. Eh?"

But Thomas Cole wasn't listening. He was bent over the schematics, an intense frown on his weathered face. His long fingers moved restlessly over the schematics, tracing wiring and terminals. His lips moved as he calculated.

Sherikov waited a moment. Then he stepped out into the hall and softly closed the door after him.

He whistled merrily as he strode off down the corridor.

UNIFORM OF A MAN.

By Dave Dryfoos

After rescue, revenge was uppermost in Chet Barfield's mind; the hideous, b.e.s.t.i.a.l Agvars had to be taught a lesson they'd never forget. His rescuers seemed to disagree, however--until Chet learned his lesson too!

In the village clearing, under the diffuse red sun of Hedlot, Chet Barfield listened intently. Mostly he heard the villagers, the Agvars, noisy with the disregard for sound that comes of defective hearing.

But above their clamor was another note. No ... Yes! There it was again--the swish-roar-scream of a s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p!

Chet's heart lifted to the alt.i.tude of that s.h.i.+p. Rescue! Rescue was at hand for him, after three years as a prisoner.

Thought of it momentarily overcame the pa.s.sivity that years of starvation had made his habit. He even forgot himself enough to walk erect a few steps, staring skyward--heavenward!--within cupped hands.

But the dense hardwood chain on his ankle brought him up short. When it tightened, he remembered, and slouched to all fours again, moving with the gorilla-like gait of the Agvars toward the unshaded post he was chained to.

He'd been observed. Pawfulls of dirt stung his bent and whip-scarred back, and a treble chorus stung his ears and nerves. The village boys were chanting derisively. Chet had never been able to learn the language, but the tone of voice was unmistakable.

He huddled against the post, knees to chin, hands clasped around his matted hair, awaiting the inevitable sticks and slops. He heard the children's voices fade as they scattered throughout the village of haphazard lean-tos in search of especially sickening things to throw. For a few minutes, then, he'd have a breather. But not for long--they wouldn't forget....

No. But the fellows hadn't forgotten him, either. He could stand this for a day or two more. A week or a month, even. It didn't matter. This would end--soon.

His turn would come! He'd make these devils suffer as he had suffered. He swore it!

He was glad he'd stayed alive for this. It had been a fight to live, a struggle he'd often thought futile while he made it. Learning to eat whatever he could get, training himself to breathe the local atmosphere in the special rhythm its composition required, accepting degradations too cruel for a captive animal, avoiding the resistance that would have brought merciful murder.... All that, yet it felt strange, now, to be so glad he was alive.

He heard the children returning, and crouched lower. A few clots of garbage spattered against the post--teasers, to make him angry, so he'd turn to howl his rage, and offer his face as a target.

Good memories, these little beasts had. It was almost a year since he'd last done that....

Well, he had a memory, too. And while they pelted him--from fairly close range, now, with sharp rocks among the wads of filth--he could take refuge in the memory of those last glorious days on Earth.

Remembrance was itself a change brought by the roaring s.h.i.+p; usually he moped in a vegetative daze. But now he recalled how he'd looked in the tight white uniform: six feet of well-fed muscle accentuated by the garment's lines, the blue stars on each lapel just matching his eyes, the peak of his cap harmonizing with the straight line of his jaw.

He remembered how he'd sounded, speaking words of nonchalant and unfelt modesty in the soft Southern voice the girls had liked so well. He could have had his pick of girls. He'd been a picked man himself.

Highly selected--that was the phrase. He was highly selected, Chet reminded himself, shrinking as the children came closer and their missiles began to really hurt.

He'd been highly selected since his eighteenth year. At 25 he'd had seven years of pre-flight training--seven years of indoctrination specifically designed to give him self-confidence enough to face the void itself without flinching.

Now he flinched from children.... Still, the schooling had worked, he acknowledged--so well that when their s.h.i.+p crashed into this planet Hedlot's salty sea, his first reaction had been indignation at the elements.

His second thought had been for his comrades. But they went down with the s.h.i.+p; he alone had been hurled clear. Learning that, he'd swum resolutely in the direction he knew the sh.o.r.e to be, and made it.

Exhausted, all right--shocked, naked, half-dead really. But quite ready to point out his rank and ident.i.ty to the first pa.s.ser-by.

Lucky for him, Chet mused, that he'd had no chance to express his callow arrogance. Shock saved his life--sank him into a stupor, so when the Agvars found him, he was helpless. He knew it was only because it had seemed perfectly safe that they'd tied him up and brought him to the village, instead of killing him then and there.

By the time he'd recovered somewhat from the initial shock and exhaustion, they were used to him, convinced he was harmless if well chained-up. And they played it safe by giving him nothing but a little water--no clothing, no shelter, no food....

They let him live, amused by the thirst that drove him to lap up each morning's drenching dew, fascinated by his ravenous appet.i.te for the garbage they flung at him.

The Agvars--furry, savage half-men, with something of the dog and something of the ape and little of the man about them--the Agvars let him live, Chet realized, for exactly one reason: he made them feel superior.

They'd learn now! Even though the children had stopped shrieking and gone away, disgusted at his pa.s.sivity, no villager's insensitive ears could yet hear the s.h.i.+p.

In their boastfulness, the Agvars had invited other tribes to come and look at him and poke at him and laugh at him. His presence was known over the whole planet. He'd be found, no matter where on Hedlot the s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p landed.

And then would come the showdown!

But the showdown came earlier than he expected, speeded because the s.h.i.+p landed close by. Chet told himself he should have counted on that kind of accuracy, but he'd underestimated his fellow pilots.

He had himself signalled Earthside, just before the crash, that his s.h.i.+p was about to land. He'd given his position--described sea and sh.o.r.eline. They'd find him, if he stayed chained to the post.

But he didn't. Taken unaware by the Agvars who loosed him, Chet was docile, happy even--certain they wouldn't hurt him now, but would try to minimize their former cruelty as they turned him over to the s.p.a.cemen.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xiii Part 22

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