Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
a focus, Joe Morea felt he had suddenly changed into smuggled goods. His belongings and himself were both handled in the same careful but impersonal way: hurried from the project building through the streets and on to the superway to the airport, in a humming car painted UN yellow. His driver was a silent, burly man who drove as though he were being followed. Almost certainly, the car was being followed.
Joe was pretty sure he would discourage attempts to get a conversation going. That suited his mood perfectly. Leaning back in the rear of the car, he stared out at the evening, thinking about the past and the future.
Darkness was falling. Lights everywhere fought against it. He looked down at himself, at the driver, at the drivers and passengers in other cars, thinking about alien intelligence.
How would it feel to be Gyul Kodran, coming to Earth and looking at this same scene through unhuman eyes? What would one remark—on the curious artefacts: the buildings, possibly hinting at man’s simian descent, because they reared up skyward; cars, strangely shaped, propelled by unfamiliar devices; clothing, peculiar, uncomfortable, dictated by whim rather than reason.
Joe found himself looking at a particular teen-age girl, standing at the edge of the road waiting for a crossing signal, and realized he wasn’t seeing her. He was seeing Maggie.
He wondered if Schneider would keep his promise and make sure that letter reached her. Why not? Well, there were a dozen reasons why not. The moment it was announced or leaked out that he was a candidate or that anyone else was a
candidate, there would be a storm of opposition from people who thought they knew better.
someone who thought he knew better. Joe shot forward in his seat. Scrawled in huge day-glo letters on the parapet of the superway half a mile ahead was the slogan:
SEND JUKES TO THE STARS!
He watched the slogan till it whizzed past and was gone. Then he said to the driver, “Who in hell is Jukes?”
“Jukes?” he said thoughtfully. “Jukes is a megalomaniac preacher. Runs the Pure Belief and Pure Behavior Church of New York.”
There, was silence again. Joe turned the name over in his mind. “Doesn’t mean a thing to me,” he said at last.
“His congregation think that’s wrong,” said the driver.
“I see. What are they doing, then? Running a write-in campaign for him to represent Earth?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“Are there a lot of write-in candidates?”
“I guess you could say there were a lot of them. A sort of flood broke loose, these past few days.”
“Man in Berlin who announced he was going on a hunger strike till he was chosen. They had to put him in an asylum in the end. ’Nother in Sicily, claiming that Gyul Kodran was sent by the devil and only the Pope could handle things up there in the Federation. Don’t know what exactly he wants the Pope to do. Exorcise them, maybe.” He gave a harsh chuckle. “And in Japan they say they want the Emperor to do the trip—say only someone who’s descended from the gods can cope with the problem. And then there’s these spiritualists—I heard about it from my wife, she got sort of tied up with mediums and people when our boy died a few years back. Seems they’re trying to persuade some Tibetan mystic or other to project himself on a beam of light out that way and prove that human beings are all pure and sweet and disembodied.”
“What do you think about it?”
The driver gave Joe a sidelong glance. He said, “Well, I tried to explain to my wife that a beam of light would be considerably too slow, but she wasn’t having it.”
Joe almost missed the glint of humor in the driver’s eyes as he spoke; he caught it, though, and gave an appreciative chuckle. He said, “No, that’s not quite what I meant. I wanted to get your feelings about the job. Who do you think ought to go?”
“Anyone but me,” said the driver. He slowed for the turn off the superway and into the airport precincts. “Yes, pal, anyone, but anyone, bar me!”
A pretty good answer, reflected Joe. He was very tempted to go along with it all the way, and write it on his own personal banner. “Anyone but me!” A quick way out. A good solution.
He asked himself, as the car pulled up, not in front of the passenger reception hall, but over to one side near a big van bearing the UN insignia and in sight of a yellow UN VTO Mach 5 express liner, why he wasn’t prepared to accept it.
It wasn’t as though he himself was confident that they’d been right to choose him. He only had the word of Schneider and his team of experts, and presumably behind them the authority of the computers and every other source of knowledge that had been brought to bear on the problem.
Well, all right. That was impressive. To be told with that kind of authority behind the information that you were right for the job implied its own confidence. But that in itself wouldn’t be enough to make him put up with what he’d already gone through, let alone begin to assume the appalling responsibility of representing Earth out there—
For the first time, he really began to feel in his bones the load he would be carrying if he was the final selection of the six candidates. He felt a sort of icy blow strike him in the guts. He was staring straight ahead through the windshield not seeing anything, for fully half a minute after the driver opened the passenger door for him to get out.
He came to himself abruptly, scrambled to the ground, and looked about him, still not seeing clearly. All he could think of was the idea that maybe he was ridiculously going through with all this for Maggie’s sake, like a knight-errant on a quest, to win his lady’s favor.
He said suddenly, under his breath, “Damnation, there are worse reasons for doing something!”
“Worse than what?” Schneider’s voice cut across his preoccupied mind, and he turned and saw the psychologist standing a yard from him, unnoticed.
“Ah—nothing,” said Joe, felling unnecessarily embarrassed. “As a matter of fact, I just caught up with the realization of what it will mean if I’m the final selection. Doc, how in hell do you expect an intelligent man to accept that kind of responsibility?”
Schneider gave him a level look. “Yesss,” he said softly. “It would be so far easier if we could only select a blockhead without imagination to trouble him. But what purpose would that serve? Do not fear, though. There will be—aids.”
Aids? Joe turned the word around in his mind. He said, “You mean drugs or something? Tranquillizing drugs?”
“Perhaps. That is something we have not yet finally established. Will you come across to the plane? I believe we are waiting to take off.”
Joe fell into step beside Schneider and they began to walk unhurriedly toward the plane.
“I think,” said Joe meditatively, “you’ve probably been dosing my food during my stay at the project. I certainly do have an imagination, and I’m beginning to wonder why I haven’t imagined all kinds of …”
Schneider interrupted. “Yes! Yes, of course we have. A two-grain dose per day of meprobamate and assorted catalyzers. You should not object; it had enabled you to concentrate far better.”
“I would object,” said Joe. “But for one thing. I mean, it’s pretty unkind to let me in for this by doping me.”
“So what is the one thing which prevents you?”
Joe shrugged. “That I’ve got to believe you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, who in hell does? We might as well quit cold, and tell the Federationers they can keep their damn galaxy.”
“You wouldn’t like that,” said Schneider. It was a statement, not a question.
“No—I guess I feel we deserve a chance to get out there with the rest of them. I feel we’ve worked hard enough at straightening ourselves out to deserve that much reward.”
They were at the foot of the gangway up to the plane. Joe
halted and glanced at the open door ahead. He said, “Are the others traveling with us?”
Schneider shook his head. “You will meet them tomorrow. They are coming from different places.”
“Very well. From Shanghai. From Lagos. From Travancore. From Kiev.”
“I hope we get on together,” said Joe, jokingly. He went up the gangway.
Schneider did not accept the remark as a joke. He said very soberly, “It will be well if we do.”
They and four men from the project, who sat by themselves at the rear of the passenger cabin, were the only people in the plane. They took seats together at the front. When the plane had climbed away from the airport and switched to its forward jets, Schneider inquired casually, “Have you ever been to the Pacific Islands before, Joe?”
Joe shook his head. “I’ve just looked down at them, from
“Some people say,” Schneider mused, “that we’re silly to be so eager to visit the stars when most of us never get the chance to see even half our own planet.”
“Shortsighted of them, isn’t it?” said Joe.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, leave aside the people who are content to stay where they are. Maybe they’re scared; maybe they’re just lacking in imagination. One day, though, we’ll lick the old age problem. Then it will be possible for one man in a lifetime to get to know the whole of our little planet. And if we don’t grab our chance to widen our horizons now, we’re promised we won’t be allowed another.”
Schneider took out a cigar and pierced the end judiciously. He said, “That’s a good point.”
“I’ve got another,” said Joe after a pause.
“I’d like to hear it.”
“Well, wherever you go on Earth, although you do find different ways of life and different languages and religions, all you get is people. Human beings. And human beings are all essentially the same. Sooner or later, we’re going to run out of differences—and in spite of everything that Gyul Kodran and his Federationers tell us, it’s the differences which have
got us where we are. We need their stimulus to jolt us one step further along the path. One day we’re going to run out of them. We’re going to rub each other smooth and uniform, like pebbles on a beach. And if and when that happens, we’re going to rot.”
Schneider nodded, his cigar between his teeth but still unlit.
“And you think this is our chance to insure against it?”
“I do indeed,” said Joe. His voice was fervent. “I was looking out at New York on the way here this evening—looking out the car window and trying to think how the city would look to an alien. You can’t do it. You can’t know how an alien would regard you unless you know the alien first, and know how you regard him. We need this chance to get into the Federation, doc. We need it maybe more than anything else we’ve ever known.”
circled the island once; banking so that bright sunlight reflected off calm sea came sparkling in at the windows of the passenger cabin. Schneider nudged Joe and pointed.
“Your new home, Joe. For about four months.”
“Home,” Joe said absently, staring at the island.
It was two miles long, shaped like an egg with a bite out of one side, rather flat, thatched lightly in the center with dark-leaved greenery. At one end there was an airfield, hastily razed flat, around which sectioned prefabricated buildings clustered. You had to look twice before you saw it was not just a made-over atoll run by an expense-account holiday organization, like a dozen others dotted around the vacant ocean. The clues came in snatches: Half hidden on the island were missile radar and submarines. There were also telltale double lines in the dusty sand that had sifted across the edge of the airfield.
Speaking hesitantly, Joe said, “Doc, what would you need Tiger’s Claws for on an island like this?”
Schneider gave a blank-seeming shake of the head. “Tiger’s Claws?” he echoed.
“Please, doc. You’re not fooling anyone. I’ve been around rockets, missiles and space work for long enough to know better. Tiger’s Claws are a cluster of short-range search-and-destroy missiles riding on an antigrav unit driven to ultimate power output; the unit burns up in about fifteen seconds from launching. The range is about a hundred and ten miles straight up at Mach Fourteen, and the search globe of the parasite missiles is about thirty miles in radius. Down there you can see the tracks in the sand leading to their emplacements; at a guess, they were only installed yesterday and haven’t yet been camouflaged. Satisfied that you’re not imparting any classified information to me?”
There was the strange sensation of floating as the plane aligned itself over the airfield and began to drop straight down on its jets. Schneider said after a pause, “Joe, I don’t imagine you followed Earthside news very closely, did you, while you were up at
“I don’t know what you mean by “closely,” I used to hear what came up on the beams.”
“What I talk about now mostly did not get on the beams. It was small columns in newspapers until lately. It seems that our people have waited impatiently for us to produce the godlike superman who will pass the Federationers’ examination. Now that eight months have gone by, and we have not yet shown him to them, people become impatient.”
Joe frowned. “That’s right. I saw a slogan painted up on the wall of the superway yesterday evening, advertising for some preacher or other to go. Also, the driver who brought me down to the airport said his wife and some spiritualist group were trying to get a Tibetan yogi selected for the job—”
He broke off. “You mean someone is liable to try and sabotage the selection project?”
Schneider spread his hands. “We keep a finger on the public pulse,” he murmured, as though quoting from someone else. “I did not know about these Tiger’s Claws. But it would not surprise me to find that someone does very much want to be chosen. Someone with enough power and money behind him to need missiles to keep him down.”
The plane hit with a gentle bounce and was on firm ground. At once the cabin door was flung open, and men in coveralls were running up with a gangway trolley and driving small lift trucks up to fetch cargo.
demanded Joe, getting up from his seat to follow Schneider to the exit.
Schneider glanced back over his shoulder, waiting for the other personnel on board to clear the doorway. He said, “Joe, even if we succeed in convincing the Federationers we’re good enough to join them, let’s not forget that we’re blind if we try and convince ourselves as well.”
He walked beside Schneider and another man—a tall man in sweat shirt and shorts, whose knees were incredibly knobby—thinking hard about what Schneider had just said. It made sense. There could all too easily be people in the world who thought of the notoriety and glory which could come to them if they were selected, whether or not they got through. They would be insane, of course. But some of them might be at large and capable of doing damage.
Schneider was talking technicalities—something about the measurement of minuscule electric currents—with his companion. Joe thought he remembered the companion from the project building in New York, but he couldn’t be certain. When Joe burst out with his next remark, it was a few seconds before Schneider managed to haul himself back to the previous subject.
Joe said, “But isn’t the location of this place secret?”
Schneider broke off, blinked, hesitated, and remembered that he had failed to introduce the knobby-kneed man to Joe. Belatedly he said, “Joe, this is Dr. Lagenfeld of the Cybernetics Institute in Sydney—Joe Morea, Sam.”
If Joe had met Langenfeld in New York, he hadn’t been told his name; he would certainly have remembered it, because it was famous. There was warmth in his voice as he said, taking Lagenfeld’s hand, “Glad to meet you, doctor. Another candidate?”
Langenfeld answered, “Not a chance,” he said lightly, failing completely to hide a hint of regret. “Too easily irritated, they told me. No, you’ll meet your fellow candidates down the other end of the island. I ordered a car to meet us—there it is now.”
He pointed; a UN-yellow car was waiting alongside the airfield office, its driver leaning boredly on the hood. A small detachment of African troops headed by a white officer in UN uniform, passed in front of it. The sight reminded Joe of his question.
“Doc, I was asking—isn’t this place secret?”
“Nowhere on Earth is secret any more,” said Schneider sententiously. Lagenfeld looked puzzled, and Schneider told him what they had been talking about in the plane before landing.
At once the Australian’s face was grave. He said, “Yes—that’s a new development. I don’t know much about it yet. It was a snap decision based on some intelligence report. Seems there are now more would-be candidates than the intelligence boys need, and some of them are of the sour-grapes type. One-Worlders, you know?”
He shot an inquiring glance at Joe, who nodded. “I’ve heard one of them spouting at a street-corner meeting,” he said.
“Ah-huh. Well …”
He got no further. A shrill wild clangor filled the air from a huge alarm bell mounted on the roof of the airport office—they spun round to face the plane again. Men were hastily gathering up their equipment and running for dear life, making for the edge of the field, all except for the crew of a bright red car which had suddenly emerged from one of the prefabricated sheds near the office. In the car were men in snouted masks and thick protective clothing.
“Another one!” exclaimed Lagenfeld obscurely, and seized Schneider’s arm. “Get under cover—fast!”
Not stopping to ask questions, Joe obeyed. In front of the airport office was a man-high wall of sand and concrete blocks; Lagenfeld indicated that they should dodge behind it. Already there they found a UN officer with the sallow skin of an Indian, his small black moustache beaded with sweat. He was peering over the top of the wall with a periscope; slung over one shoulder was a portable video-audio recorder, and over the other a black box with a row of white push buttons on the top.
“Another one, Major Gupta?” demanded Lagenfeld, panting after the sudden violent run.
The Indian turned away from his periscope and passed a hand over his face to wipe away perspiration. He nodded. “Looks like it,” he said curtly. “Very well shielded, too. Could easily have slipped past the inspection at New York. But the activity’s gone up during the flight. They say it may hit guncrit in the next ten minutes, depending on how big a blast the saboteur wants.”
Joe found himself almost stuttering with amazement as he spoke. He said, “You mean—there’s a bomb on board our plane?”
The Indian glanced at him and nodded. “A pony atomic,” he said. “About a quarter-kiloton yield, I imagine. Want to take a look?” He gestured at the periscope.
A fractional hesitation; then: “By God, yes!” Joe snapped, and bent to stare into the eyepiece.
The red car had halted alongside the plane. Now the only visible movement in the entire field of the periscope’s view was the snake-like waggling of a power line that had been hauled through the door of the aircraft and was still being carried forward. One man had remained with the car, but he was absolutely immobile; he might have been a statue. On the ground between his feet was what Joe recognized as a portable antigrav projector, of the kind that had originally been developed as a line-of-sight artillery piece. There was an adjustment on the ’scope for magnification; Joe brought the car and man into sharp close-up and saw the power needles on the projector glowing very faintly in the bright sunlight.
Suddenly there was a commotion. A man, snout-masked, came to the door of the plane carrying a flat box—quite small, small enough to lie flat in a corner of the plane’s hull, but obviously extremely heavy for its size.
The alarm bell rang out a second time, more wildly yet. The man in the plane flexed his knees tremendously, straightened, and heaved his ponderous burden down towards the antigrav projector five feet away. While it was still in mid-air, the man controlling the projector leaned with all his weight on the power control. The beam snatched at the bomb in its short flight, and snapped it out of sight faster than the eye could follow.
“Hide your eyes!” rasped Major Gupta. “Hide your eyes!”
Automatically Joe’s eyelids blinked down, but even so he
was too slow. Five miles away over the empty ocean a small new sun was born, doubling the glare from the ground about them and leaving painful bluish afterimages.
Later, the sound came to them like a clap of thunder.
Without realizing it, they had all remained frozen to wait for the explosion. When it had come and gone, they began painfully to relax and moved cramped muscles.
Wiping sweat from his face, Lagenfeld was the first to speak. He said in a voice that still shook noticeably, “I have to hand it to your boys, Major Gupta. They’ve certainly got bomb disposal down to a fine art.”
The major attempted nonchalance, but it was plain that he too had been on edge. He said offhandedly, “This kind of thing is nothing, Dr. Lagenfeld. It’s the big ones that are the trouble—the megatonners. Remind me some time to tell you about the Polaris warhead we found in Baffin Bay when I was a cadet. You couldn’t just move that one over the horizon with antigrav. It hadn’t been serviced for four years, but its yield would still have been around three or four megatons.”
“Were you with the UN inspection teams?” Joe suggested.
“That’s right.” The major unclamped his periscope from the blast wall and started to fold it up. “Believe me, that was a comfortable kind of job compared with this, though. Well, excuse me—I must get my technicians’ report.”
He vanished at a run in the direction of the red car, and the others emerged into the open again. Soberly, Joe spoke to Lagenfeld. “You said—another one?” he repeated.
Lagenfeld nodded. “We had the first one three days ago, on the plane that brought the candidate from Lagos. But that one was only a conventional explosive, and there was so much of it you could hardly overlook it. They’d turned out the contents of one of our own crates and filled it up to here with dynamite.” Lagenfeld tapped his forehead. “They found that one when they were circling to come in, and they managed to jettison it in the sea.”
Schneider managed a sort of grin. “So now you see, Joe, you are not just here for what we told you. I am sorry.”
He paused, while Joe shrugged and shook his head, and then reached forward unexpectedly and caught up Joe’s wrist. He felt the pulse with professional accuracy, counting a dozen beats and letting the wrist fall again.
“You were not frightened?”
“Is this just another of your tests?” Joe demanded suspiciously.
“Unfortunately, no,” said Schneider, and his voice trembled on the last word. “I wish it might have been! But I was taking my opportunity while it came—again, you were not frightened?”
Joe listened to his own heartbeat for a moment, and gave a thoughtful nod. “You know,” he said, “I was thinking that up at
you can get out of the habit of being frightened, because up there everything happens because it’s intended to. Short of meteorites, of course. You think ten times before you do anything; you sort of get to recognize competence and ability to cope with a situation when you meet it.”
Schneider said gently, “But you were just saying you were once knocked out by the inertia of a strut?”
“I was a new recruit then. It takes a while to learn.”
They had reached the waiting car, and Lagenfeld was holding the door for them to get in. Schneider became brisk and changed the subject as he settled back in his seat.
“We are to go now to our quarters, as I was instructed. And then you are to have the opportunity to meet your other colleagues.”
The car whisked them up the mile of road from the field to the village. It proved larger than Joe had estimated from the air; part of it was living quarters, part barracks for the detachments of UN troops who had moved in some time ago and part was technical offices. Langenfeld pointed out individual buildings: psychology block, electronics block, records office, administrative office, field hospital, and others.
At length the car halted before a block that had a more permanent air than the others; it looked like an ordinary pleasant modern house, lifted out of an expensive, planned suburb and deposited here so that one automatically looked round for others, each with a tidy garden. There were no others.
“Your quarters,” said Lagenfeld with a wave of his hand. “You’ll probably be wanting breakfast when you’ve had a chance to clean up and change clothes—over there is the main canteen. I’ll go over and tell them you’re coming.”
Schneider nodded, getting out of the car. As Joe followed him, he turned back and addressed Lagenfeld again.
“Joe will want to meet the other candidates as soon as possible. Do you think you could have them all there by—say in one hour’s time?”