by James McConnell
What can a man do when he alone
must decide the fate of Earth and all
its people—and when the choices
offered him are slavery and death....
Captain Allen Hawkins stood quietly in the observation room of the Sunward looking out at subspace. He was a medium-sized man with a trim squareness to him that suggested he had been in the military most of his life. He had a good deal of gold on his sleeve and a good deal of silver in his hair, and he had discovered in his many years in the Space Navy that the two usually went hand in hand. In the background he could hear the noise and ordered confusion of the ship's bridge. But at the moment he paid it little attention, concentrating instead on the observation window.
It was not the first time that he had stood thus, gazing at whatever lay beyond the shell of the ship. Almost every time he had put the Sunward through the dark shadow of subspace, he had deserted the bridge for at least a few moments to come and stare out the window.
"God," he said out loud, repressing a shiver that wanted to crawl down his spine.
"Perhaps 'God forsaken' would be a better description," came a voice from behind him.
The voice belonged to Dr. J. L. Broussard, the Sunward's senior psychologist. And although the two men were on more than casually friendly terms, Hawkins didn't turn to greet him. The fascination of the observation port seemed to obviate the normal requirements of courtesy. "At times like this I think you're right. 'God forsaken.' That's just what it is," Hawkins said. "Completely black, completely empty. You know, it frightens me every time we make the jump through it."
A voice from the bridge called out, "Twelve minutes until zero. No noticeable deviations, Captain."
"Very well," Hawkins said loudly enough to be heard on the bridge.
"Perhaps it frightens all of us just a little," said Broussard. He leaned his oversized body against the observation room wall. His big, mild face had a relaxed look to it. "I wonder why it affects us that way," he added almost as if it were a casual afterthought, but his eyes had a too-shrewd look to them.
"You're the psychologist. You tell me why," Hawkins said. He paused for just a moment, expecting Broussard to reply. But after a few seconds when the man gave him no conversational support, Hawkins continued. "For my part, I guess it frightens me because—well, because a man seems to get lost out there. In normal space there are always stars around, no matter how distant they may be, and you feel that you've got direction and location. In subspace, all you've got is nothing—and one hell of a lot of that." He pushed his cap back until it perched comfortably on the rear of his head. "It's incredible when you stop to think about it. An area—an opening as big as the whole of our universe, big enough to pack every galaxy we've ever seen in it and still have lots of room left over. All that space—and not a single atom of matter in it anywhere." Captain Hawkins shook his grayed head in wonder. "At least," he went on. "Not a single atom in it until we came barging in to use it as a short cut across our own universe."
The man on the bridge called out, "Ten minutes until zero. No noticeable deviations, Captain."
"Very well," Hawkins answered.
Broussard shifted his considerable weight into a more comfortable position. "You feel rather strongly about this, don't you?"
"That I do," said Hawkins. As much as he enjoyed an occasional conversation with the psychologist, Broussard's questions often got on his nerves.
"Don't you think it's better we discovered subspace than if we were still back trying to beat the speed of light in our own universe?" Broussard asked him.
"Oh, stop looking for a dangling neurosis somewhere, Broussard," Hawkins said, managing a smile. "You know quite well that I've got absolutely nothing at all against the use of subspace for 'rapid transportation,' so to speak. It's just that I'm the sort of man who likes to know where he's going all the time. And out here, in this stuff, you lose your sense of direction. There's no up, no down, no in between. It took spacemen a long time to get accustomed to the wild freedom they found out in the middle of normal space. But at least there you could always head for a star if you got lost. Out here ..." He gestured futilely towards the blackness staring in at them from the window. They stood silently contemplating it for several moments.
"Eight minutes until zero. No noticeable deviations, Captain," came the voice from the bridge again.
"Very well," Captain Hawkins replied, breaking the brief silence between the two men. Then he went on, "Broussard, have you ever been out there in that stuff? Oh, I don't mean like now, in a ship or a rescue craft. I mean in a spacesuit, all by yourself."
The psychologist shook his head. "No, I never have." He paused for just a second, then added, "What's it really like?"
There were times, Hawkins thought, when even the phrasing of a simple question on Broussard's part carried a slight sting. But like the brief pain that accompanies the probing point of a hypodermic needle, the tiny barbs contained in the man's questions were soon forgotten. Hawkins smiled. "It's my own private guess of what hell will turn out to be. 'God forsaken,' did we say? That's just about it. We stopped to repair a ship once, and some of us had to go outside to work on it. I guess I was out there for less than three hours—no more than that. And yet I was almost a madman by the time they hauled me back inside. I can't explain why." His voice trailed off into nothingness. "I guess it was just the blackness that did it."
"Six minutes until zero. No noticeable deviations, Captain."
"Very well." For the first time Hawkins turned to face the psychologist. "During my training at the Academy they locked me up in a closet once, just as a joke. I was without light for hours, but it was nothing like that out there. You should know, Broussard. Why does it look so much blacker in that window now than any other black I've ever seen?"
Broussard looked the man over carefully before answering, wondering just exactly what sort of reply might be called for. "I think the reason is that you've got close to optimum conditions for it here in the observatory," he said momentarily. "You always get the blackest shade of black inside a ring of white light. Look at the window." Hawkins turned to do as directed. "There you've got a white frame surrounding the complete absence of light. That's just about as good as you can get. No wonder it looks so black to you."
Hawkins shook his head, not so much in disbelief as in wonder.
"As a matter of fact," the psychologist continued almost in a hurry. "If you stayed out in subspace all by yourself, with no ship near you and no light of your own, after a while it wouldn't seem black to you at all. You'd get cortical adaptation, and things would just look gray. And not too long after that, you'd stop 'seeing' entirely, as we think of seeing. Or, as a friend of mine once said, under those conditions you'd 'see' as much with your elbows as you would with your eyes. Funny, isn't it? We usually think of black as being the absence of light. And yet, in order to 'see' black, we've got to have at least a little light around every once in a while."
The watchman on the bridge droned out the time again. "Four minutes until zero. No noticeable deviations, Captain."
Allen Hawkins gave a large sigh, then readjusted the cap on his head. He had the feeling that Broussard's little lecture on science, while factually accurate, was delivered more to obscure the facts than to illuminate. "I'd better get to the bridge now, Broussard. Not that they really need me, but ..." He left the sentence dangling, then turned and walked briskly out of the observation room.
Once in the control room, he gave the dials and the illuminated screens a rapid, practiced glance and then sat down in his chair to one side of the operations panel. There was actually no known danger to this shifting back and forth from one space to another. No ship had ever encountered any difficulties whatsoever in doing so; there had never been an accident of any kind during transition. The whole thing was as completely automatic as man could make it, and apparently entirely safe. But still Hawkins had never made the shift one way or another without feeling a telltale tightening of muscles deep inside him, and without wondering just what would happen if they got stuck in all that darkness.
"One minute, Captain," the watch officer reminded him. Hawkins nodded in reply, his face illuminated by the flashing lights on the control panel in front of him. He watched their changing signals calmly with knowing eyes.
"Thirty seconds ... all drives off," sang out a voice. The hands on the clock crept slowly around the dial.
There was no sound, no feeling, no jerk nor jar, no noise to mark the transition—nothing at all different from the moment before except a slight increase in the total light flux in the room.
Captain Allen Hawkins smiled softly to himself. Stars ... something to cling to, he whispered under his breath.
"Bridge from Navigation," came a voice close to his ear.
"Go ahead, Navigation," he said after pressing the communications button.
"Looks like we hit it right on the nose, Captain," the Navigator told him. "Can't tell just yet, of course, until I feed the positions of the nearest stars into Betsy and she decides where we are. But it looks good from here, and if I'm right, the one we're hunting for is about eight o'clock high from the nose of the ship as she sits now. I'll plot a course there right now. Do you want to wait until Betsy decides that's the one, or shall we take a chance and head for it first?"
The Navigator always asked the question, but he knew what the answer would be. "We'll start just as soon as you can give us the course," Hawkins replied.
"Aye, aye, Captain," the Navigator replied.
Hawkins turned to the officer on duty. "Mr. Smith, you will remain as you are until you receive the course from the Navigator. Once you have it, you will get underway immediately."
"Aye, aye, Captain," Smith replied.
"I'll be in my cabin if you want me," Hawkins said as he left the bridge. He was rather tired and he meant to go straight to bed, but somehow he found himself stopping by the observation room en route. Broussard was still there, looking out of the window at the stars.
"Lovely, aren't they, Broussard?" Hawkins said.
"So you feel the stars are lovely?" the psychologist answered slowly.
"Yes, I do. They give us light, and hope for the future, and more than that, a frame of reference when we fly through the dark reaches of our universe. They're more than beautiful—they're necessary." As he turned to leave, Hawkins chuckled to himself. Just let the head-shrinker try to read a neurosis into that!
It took them three weeks from the day they arrived back in normal space to make sure that they had found a sun with planets, and another three weeks from then to make landfall on the second of the four satellites this particular solar system had to offer. Almost from the very beginning they were elated with their luck, for the planet seemed to be a first class find. The Sunward and her crew had been exploring this section of space for more than six years, and out of the thirty-eight systems they had investigated, this was the first that offered any promise of eventual human habitation.
Man had been in space less then one hundred years. At first he had thrown himself towards the stars with crude rocket-driven craft. A few years later he had invented a type of atomic drive which allowed him to approach the speed of light. But it was the discovery of the subspace technique of travel which had theoretically given him the whole universe to live in. There were drawbacks, however, and they were important ones. To tear himself from the matrix of normal space he still needed huge machines, and probably always would. This meant the building of exceedingly large space vessels, like the Sunward, which could contain not only the equipment necessary to propel him into the blackness of subspace, but which also could be equipped with the mammoth control mechanisms necessary to regulate the change-over. The switch to subspace could never be made near the surface of a planet, for the field forces generated during the change had far-flung effects and were quite capable, even under tightest control, of tearing loose a huge chunk of a planet and dropping it into subspace with the ship. Big ships meant big money, and even now there were fewer than a thousand of the large exploration craft in operation. Each ship could average fewer than ten new worlds a year. So while man had taken a lease on the universe, it seemed that at his present rate of exploration a great many centuries would pass before he finished the charting of even the stars in his own back yard.
But if at times he became discouraged at the immensity of the task, there were always moments of great joy which helped to spur a man on.
The men of the Sunward named the new star Clarion, and the habitable planet they called Trellis. It was the second of three large and one very small planets which circled Clarion. The Sunward spent more than two weeks circling over Trellis, making maps and checking the atmosphere. Then the council of scientists on board picked a landing site and Captain Hawkins brought the ship down on the spot they had chosen. Exactly twenty-seven days from the hour they landed, the council voted unanimously that Trellis was safe for human habitation, and Allen Hawkins gave the orders to have the hatches opened to the Trellian air.
The Captain, as was customary, was the first man to set foot on the soil. He led the brief ceremonies that claimed the world as Earth's own and then planted the Terran flag. He also took the customary measure of declaring it a ship's holiday, and even threw out the first baseball when the inevitable game started up later in the afternoon. But he didn't stay to watch, preferring to stroll around the landscape by himself for a little while.
He had been walking for a little more than an hour, traveling in a wide circle around the ship, when he came upon Dr. Broussard, sitting quietly under a shady tree, a book in one hand and a container of beer in the other. The beer looked good and cold, and the shade looked comfortable. "Mind if I join you?" Hawkins asked, and since he was Captain of the ship, scarcely waited for an invitation before he sat down and opened himself a beer. It tasted as good as it had looked, and Hawkins soon found himself in an expansive mood. "Tell me, Broussard," he said good-naturedly. "How come you aren't out snooping around, making sure that the crew's libidos aren't acting up or something."
Cocking an ear towards the distant ball field, rife with the excited noise that always accompanies such a game, Broussard replied, "It sounds to me as if the crew is getting about as much libidinal discharge as I could hope for under the circumstances. That being the case, I saw no reason why the ship's alienist shouldn't have a little time off."
Hawkins leaned back comfortably against the tree. "Alienist. That's a pretty strange word these days, Broussard. Used to be what they called psychiatrists in England back in the old days, right?" Hawkins was of vaguely English descent and felt it behooved him to know such things.
"That's right. They revived the term briefly a hundred years ago when we first got out into space, because they thought that psychologists might be needed for the first contacts with alien cultures." A slight frown came over the man's face. "The word's fallen into disuse again of late, however," he continued.
Captain Hawkins grunted in assent. "No aliens, eh?"
"That's right. No aliens. Thousands of new worlds, thousands upon thousands of new species, but not one of them intelligent enough to hold a candle to our earthside chimpanzee. But still they go on outfitting each of the exploration vessels with psychologists, and outfitting all of the psychologists for the double task of soothing the crew's psyches and making contact with mythical intelligent races that so far we've only dreamed about." Broussard emptied his container of beer and with a single vicious movement threw it as far away from him as he could. "I must say, however, that of late they've been spending more time training us to be mind doctors than to be official greeters to unknown cultures."
Suddenly Broussard straightened up. "But why should you twit me about deserting my work today. I saw you throw out the first baseball. How come you didn't stay for the game? Surely that falls under the province of a Captain's job."
Allen Hawkins smiled. "I learned long ago, Broussard, that there are times when the presence of the Commanding Officer has an undesired influence on the spirits of the crew. After all, as Captain of the Sunward, I can't very well take part in the game itself. Who'd dare to strike me out when I came to bat?" He stopped to think about that for a moment. "Or, maybe I should have said, I don't think anybody would dare to strike me out."
"Ah, yes, the Father Figure," Broussard said laughing.
"That's right. So I can't play. Nor can I umpire, for half the fun of baseball is arguing with the umpire and I couldn't allow any of that. And if I just watched without playing the game itself, a lot of the crew might think that I felt myself too high and mighty to take part in their proletarian type of recreation. So I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. So what did I do...?"
"You left the field," Broussard answered, lighting up a cigarette after offering the other man one.
"That's right, I left the baseball field and went walking."
"That's not quite what I meant when I said 'you left the field,'" Broussard went on. "It's a psychological term, first used by Lewin many centuries ago. Any time a man is in a conflict situation, faced with two or more alternatives that he finds it difficult to choose among, he may solve his problem by choosing none of them."
Hawkins stretched his legs out restfully on the grass in front of him. As he thought about it, there had been few times in the past when he had given the psychologist his head and let the man talk. Probably, Hawkins thought to himself, Broussard spends most of his time listening to the petty confessions of all of us and never gets the opportunity to unload a bit himself. He caught himself wondering just who on Earth confesses the Pope....
And so he uttered the magical words, "I don't think I quite understand...."
Broussard scarcely needed the encouragement to continue. "Lewin liked to think of psychological situations as approximating physical situations. He spoke in terms of valences and attractions, of vectors and forces operating through psychological distances. For example, let's consider the case of a child put into a long hallway. At one end of the hall is a large, fierce dog. At the other end is an ugly man with a big switch. We tell the child that he has to go to one end of the hall or the other. This becomes an 'avoidance-avoidance' situation in the Lewinian terminology. Both the man with the switch and the fierce dog carry negative valences—that means that the child actually doesn't want to approach either of them—and the closer the child comes to one of them, the more powerfully it repels him. Just as with magnets—the closer you bring one negative charge to another negative charge, the more powerful is the force of repulsion."
Captain Hawkins smiled. It wasn't going to be as bad as he had feared. "What does all this have to do with baseball?"
"We'll get back to home plate in just a moment. But first, let's continue with the child. We put him in the hallway, tell him to go to one end or the other, and then we just sit back and watch. At first he stands about as close to the center of the hall as he can, assuming that the two negative valences are about of equal strength. He's undecided—can't make up his mind which is worse, the man or the dog. So we prompt him to action—shock him or tell him that he has to keep moving. Then he begins to move back and forth, vacillating between the two undesirable objects. So we apply more and more pressure to try to force him to a decision. But the closer he moves to the dog, for example, the more distasteful it becomes, and the less dangerous does the man seem to be. So the child turns around and starts towards the man. But here the situation is repeated. It's a beautiful example of a conflict situation."
Giving vent to a well-disciplined snort, Captain Hawkins said, "And eventually the child either gets well switched or badly bitten, eh?"
"No, that's where you're wrong. Eventually the child tries to escape from the hallway altogether. Sometimes he'll try to climb the walls, or break down a door, or anything like that which will release him from what has become an impossible psychological environment."
"So," said Hawkins. "I think you left me stranded on first base."
Broussard laughed. "Pardon the sermon, Captain. What I was trying to point out was that the baseball game represented just about the same sort of thing to you as the hallway did to the child. Any time a human being is faced with two impossible decisions like that, he usually ends up by 'leaving the field' of conflict altogether. Nowadays we can even predict the exact field forces necessary to bring on this type of behavior."
"And what do you predict I'm going to do right now?" Hawkins asked with a bit of a laugh in his voice.
"That's an easy one. I predict you're going to ask for another beer—and that I'll give it to you. No conflict there." He opened a container that chilled itself automatically as he handed it to his superior officer.
Hawkins blew the foam from it and then took a long, satisfying swallow. "There are times when I'm glad I'm just an uncomplicated space officer," he said presently.
Broussard grinned. "Sorry if I seemed to be giving you a lecture, Captain. I'm afraid you would have enjoyed a good, healthy discussion of Freud much more. My own particular problem is that I'm much more interested in thinking about the remote possibilities of man's encountering new types of intelligences than I am in playing father confessor to a bunch of space rats. Back on Earth the social psychologists felt that Lewin's work offered a fruitful means of analyzing the motivational components in any alien society we might encounter. I guess my trotting out the vector charts was just a neat example of wishful thinking."
Captain Allen Hawkins didn't bother to answer the remark for some time. He was too busy watching something move slowly towards them across the grassy plain. Finally he half-whispered to his companion, "Don't put those charts away too soon, Broussard. You finally may have a chance to use them."
Bells clanged loudly. Red and yellow lights flashed insistently in front of the man, demanding his attention. The clattering noise of a computer working at high speed added to the unholy din of the small spaceship's control room.
Surveyor Lan Sur ran his deft fingers rapidly over the studs on the control panel in front of him. He scarcely looked at the controls as he manipulated them, concentrating instead on the screens before him—screens which showed the attack patterns of the seven large warships that surrounded him.
One of the attacking enemy ships loomed incredibly large directly ahead of him. Lan Sur's fingers hesitated, and then, at precisely the proper second, pressed the firing studs. The scout ship seemed to dance lightly upward as it passed high above the larger, slower enemy craft. Lan Sur whirled his ship around just in time to witness the total disintegration of the enemy.
"One down," he thought, but took no particular pride in his accomplishment. There were still six left.
The enemy regrouped, spreading out into a cone-like formation. He knew the trick well, and aimed his ship to make its next pass high above the open mouth of this formation. But the enemy opened up the top of the cone as fast as Lan Sur tried to avoid it. He fired a warning salvo and tucked his defensive screens in tight around him. But the uppermost enemy ship incredibly picked up more speed, sliding off into an extremely intricate maneuver. Lan Sur knew that if it could hold to this path, it would pass several miles above him, neatly sandwiching him between the enemy vessels below. He could have turned aside at once, but that would have been an admission of possible defeat, and he could never admit defeat. If he could beat the other ship to the topping maneuver, he would destroy not only it, but the ships at the small end of the cone as well when he came crashing down on them from above. For just a moment he felt certain that he could succeed.
The scout ship vibrated tensely as it hurled itself forward. The red lights on the control panel doubled in number, then tripled. The computer roared instructions so rapidly that he could hardly keep up with them. The warning bells went mad with ringing.
"I think I can make it," he told himself. But he refused to become excited. He had come this close to victory before, and had still failed. Now he saw he was gaining on the enemy ship, but it was a thin margin of safety indeed. The computer screamed with danger signals as the huge craft came closer and closer.
Lan Sur leaned forward slightly in his seat, a little strain showing on his usually relaxed face. To his surprise, he found himself saying aloud, "Yes, I think I can."
But he did not. Suddenly the enemy craft shot by above him and belched forth a thick burst of light. The huge black warships immediately beneath him echoed the call, catching his smaller, fleeter ship in a double barrage.
And it was all over.
The red lights on the control panel blinked out quickly, one by one. The warning bells ceased their claxons, the computer settled down to a quiet hum. The screens went blank. A thin piece of tape spewed forth from the computer. It read, "This scout ship utterly annihilated. End of problem."
Lan Sur looked the tape over sourly. "Damn," he said, leaning back in his seat. He tore the tape into little pieces and deposited them angrily in the reclaim box. Reluctantly he pressed the "Analysis" button on the computer. The machine would issue him a complete dissection of the whole mock war game, pointing out with deadly accuracy the mistakes he had made.
"Damn," he said again, thinking over the past battle. He got up from the control panel and walked over to his relaxation chair. Sitting down, he took a small bit of food from a container and began chewing on it viciously.
It wasn't really so bad that he lost the engagement, he told himself. The pre-battle odds were greatly against him. And as often as he had tried it, he had never been able to take on seven enemy ships and still survive. Sometimes it seemed an almost impossible task to him. However, he had a deep desire to solve the problem, because the computer told him it might be solvable if he took the proper course of action. Evidently, it would take a lot more work, a great deal more study on his part before he found the solution.
"But time is something I have plenty of," he said aloud, stretching out comfortably in the chair. For several hours he puzzled over the thing, taking time out to digest the taped analysis of his mistakes, and then attacked the problem afresh. Eventually, out of sheer exhaustion, he slipped off into a deep, restful sleep, quite confident that the next time he tried the seven-ship problem, or at most the time following that....
Lan Sur awoke to quietness. He stretched his lean, lithe legs, slowly, returning to normal awareness as he did so. Once he was completely awake, he sat down in front of the control panel again. A single amber light beamed from the board. While he had been asleep, the scout ship had come out of its C2 drive and had slowed to a stop. They had reached their immediate destination, and since he was asleep, the computer had simply turned on the protective screens around the ship and had begun a survey of the sun system they had arrived at.
He pressed a button on the computer and then leaned back to digest the information that the machine began feeding him at once. The sun was of the A/34.79Lu type, just as had been forecast before his voyage. It had three large inner planets and a tiny fourth much too far away from the solar furnace and much too small to be of any practical value. Lan Sur read the report carefully, noting with pleasure certain of the facts presented him. He was in the midst of an interesting section concerning the chemical composition of the atmosphere on the second of the planets when a small bell on the computer rang and the machine became silent for just a second or two, then began pouring out material at a furious rate.
Lan Sur, who had been yards of tape behind in his reading, dropped the atmosphere discussion and began to read the new information being spewed forth. A frown crossed his face as he read the first few words, "Alien contact established...." He hoped this new development would not take him away from his games for too long a time.
The computer had detected the emanation of modulated energy waves coming from the second planet. Immediately it had withdrawn its wide-flung detector beams and had concentrated fully upon the source of the waves. Lan Sur reset the computer so that only a very small part of the huge machine would carry on the routine work of new investigation, while the greater part would be put to work in an attempt to decode what was obviously a language being broadcast in some obsolete manner. He noted with pride that the aliens, whoever they might be, had not at the moment reached the point of development where C2 communication was available to them, but were still limited to the raw speed of light for the transmission of messages, and hence, he felt sure, for the transmission of space ships too. This meant, he knew, that he had probably stumbled onto a race of beings still new to the reaches of space who would be helpless in the face of even his own lightly armed scout ship. However, according to patrol instructions, he activated a switch that relayed all pertinent information by means of a sealed C2 beam back to the nearest Dakn Patrol base, and put in a formal call for the presence of Patrol battleships. One way or another, they would be needed....
It took the computer less than a day and a half, as Lan Sur figured time, to break the language of the aliens discovered on the second planet. The Surveyor spent this time working feverishly on a new idea he had for the solution of the seven-ship problem, and was quite upset when the computer finished its problem of decoding the new tongue before Lan Sur had worked out all the details of his latest attack on the mock war games. Reluctantly he put himself into a light trance, during which the machine taught him the new language. He did not actually learn to think in the new tongue, for that would have imposed limiting strictures on his mental processes. Rather, his mind was turned into a kind of translating factory. He had the freedom to think in the terms and in the concepts that he was accustomed to, and his mind simply expressed these thoughts as best it could in the newly-learned way of speaking. The computer had also arrived at an incredibly clear knowledge of the socio-politico-psychological structure of the new civilization, but aside from a brief glance at some of the more intriguing points, Lan Sur ignored this information and simply relayed it along to the Galactic base where social scientists could pore over it in their own bemused leisure. For his tasks Lan Sur hardly felt that he needed it.
Once Lan Sur had memorized the language, he put his scout ship under a screen of complete invisibility and landed it some few miles away from the space ship the aliens were using as their permanent base. He let the computer drink up what additional information it required to make sure both that the planetary conditions were suitable to his own particular chemical make-up, and that the aliens were indeed as impotent as his previous estimates had seemed to indicate. Once the computer gave him its blessing, he walked out into the bright planetary sunlight.
Psychologist J. L. Broussard sat up puzzled. "What do you mean, don't put away my Lewinian vector charts too soon? I may have a chance to use them on whom?"
Captain Allen Hawkins simply stared straight ahead of him, his lips forming unanswerable questions. Broussard took his cue from the man's head and stared too. And then he understood.
The alien, for from its dress alone it obviously was an alien, was still quite a distance away from them. It came walking towards them with a kind of protective sparkle about it—and even from that distance they could sense a feeling of power about the man.
"Man?" Broussard caught himself thinking. Yes, it did seem very much like a man—not only like a human, but like a masculine human. But immediately Broussard told himself that this might not be the case. True, humanoid it was, but because it displayed a certain lack of the more obvious female sexual characteristics it did not follow that it was male. "Why, they could even have ten different sexes for all we know," Broussard thought to himself.
"I think it's coming towards us," Hawkins said quietly.
Broussard watched the alien move a few more yards and then agreed.
Hawkins activated a small radio that he carried in one of his shirt pockets. "Hello, Communications," he spoke rapidly into the microphone. "This is Hawkins. Put me through to the Bridge at once. And make sure you record every word that I say."
The words "Aye, aye, Captain," were forthcoming immediately from the tiny loudspeaker. The Captain rated a special communications channel that was guarded by the radio shack at all times, and it came as no surprise to Hawkins that the reply was prompt. He had expected it to be.
"Bridge here, go ahead."
"This is Captain Hawkins, Bridge. Who's the Duty Officer?" Hawkins knew who the man was, but asked to give the man a chance to realize fully that the Captain was aware with whom he was speaking.
"Lieutenant Medboe, Captain, ready for instructions."
Hawkins thought for just a moment and then answered. "Mr. Medboe, the information that I am about to pass along to you is not to leave the Bridge under any circumstances. As soon as I finish, you will contact the radio shack and make certain that what I have said, if it has been monitored, is not passed along from that particular point either. Do you understand me."
Medboe's voice sounded a little puzzled, "Of course, Captain. Your instructions will be followed to the letter."
"Now then," Hawkins continued. "You might as well know at once that I think we've made contact with an alien race. I don't know what this means to you personally, but to the human race it means a great deal and we can under no circumstances risk the occurrence of any incident. You will therefore send someone to find Commander Petri and inform him that as Executive Officer, he will be in charge of the ship until I return to it. And while you are doing that, you will summon all the men to return to the ship at once. You may not give them the real reason—tell them that there is a bad storm coming and that I have ordered them all inside. It is imperative that none of them realizes the true reason. Do you understand?"
Medboe's voice sounded almost hurt. "Aye, aye, Captain," he said.
"Good. Once everyone is back inside the ship, have Petri summon all officers not on watch and all scientists to the large meeting hall. They will be given a chance to observe and listen to the contact as it is made. Which reminds me—have the communications department set up a long range television camera on me at once, and pipe the image down into the hall. You will have them record both sight and sound for later use. You will also inform Petri that a state of emergency exists as of this moment by my personal order, and that if necessary he is to blast off from the planet without making any attempt either to protect or rescue me. And once it has been established that we are in fact dealing with an alien culture, Navy Headquarters must be informed immediately via subspace radio." Hawkins wanted to make sure that in the event the entire ship was captured, Earth would know that an alien contact had been made and could take steps to protect itself. He only wished, now that he thought of it, that he could have taken more adequate steps to protect the men and the ship. But for the moment the Sunward and her crew would have to remain where they were and as they were. And if the alien had not attacked them up to that point, perhaps no attack would be made at all.
Hawkins wanted to tell Medboe a thousand other things—simple, obvious things that surely both Medboe and Petri would be cognizant of. But, as always, the man who had to delegate responsibility simply had to depend on the perspicacity of the men to whom he gave the power.
"Any questions?" Hawkins asked after a brief pause.
"I don't believe so, Captain," Medboe answered. Hawkins could tell from the sound of the man's voice that he had hundreds of things he would have liked to ask, but none of them were of the type that he could have expected his superior officer to answer.
"Good," Hawkins replied formally. "One more thing. You will under no circumstances attempt to contact me on this radio set—there's no need in letting the alien know any more about us or our abilities than we absolutely have to."
"Right, Captain," came the obedient answer.
Hawkins turned the switch to the "Sustained Talk" position and informed the Officer of the Deck of his actions. Then he turned to Broussard. "Anything you have to add to all that?" he asked.
The psychologist indicated a negative by a shake of his head.
"Very well, Mr. Medboe. You may carry out your orders," Hawkins said with a sigh. Then he turned to Broussard again. "Well, Louie. I guess it's up to you from here on out. You're the alienist." And with that, Hawkins reluctantly relinquished completely his normal command of the situation.
During the time that Captain Hawkins had been giving his orders, Broussard had been deep in thought, paying only scant attention to the instructions that the other man had passed along. The psychologist's mind had been racing over the possibilities of this first contact, and more than once during the brief period of time, it had dwelt on his own particular fears that he would not be up to the encounter.
"I think you had better give the radio to me," Broussard said. "I'll probably be closer to the alien during the first stages of contact at least, and certainly I should be doing most of the talking."
The statement made sense to Hawkins, and he passed the device over without comment. Broussard tucked it away in one of his pockets.
"I don't think we should bother walking towards him," Broussard said a moment later, answering an unspoken question. "He's obviously coming toward us and it would seem better if we weren't too eager." Broussard felt no need to describe the alien over the radio since by this time the communications division back on board the Sunward would have set up their long range television cameras. Captain Hawkins shifted about on his feet a bit like a boxer doing warm-up footwork prior to a battle.
"I wonder where he's put his space ship," Broussard said.
Hawkins looked puzzled. "How do you know he's got one?" he asked.
"Well, it's just a hunch. But unless I miss my guess, that shining air the—the—" Broussard groped for the right noun, then fell back again on a sheer perceptual analysis. "The shining air the man coming towards us has is a defensive screen of some sort. And we've certainly found no evidence on Trellis of any civilization at all, much less one so advanced that it could dream up gadgets like that. I figure he must be from somewhere else. Maybe he's just a visitor here too, like us." Hawkins inwardly admitted the logic of the reasoning.
As the alien came closer, they could both see why they had instinctively felt from the first that it was of the male gender. The creature's hair was cut a little longer than men wore theirs back on Earth, but this was almost the only difference. The alien was a bit taller than either of them, but not beyond the limits produceable by the human race. His shoulders were the widest part of his body, and formed the broad top of the inverted triangular shape that most human men admired. His clothes were of some peculiar, clinging material, but the bottom half of his body was fitted out in a close approximation of Earthside trousers. The man was handsome even by their own standards of masculine beauty.
"Well," said Hawkins. "This is it. Man is no longer 'alone.'"
Broussard realized suddenly that the other man was just as nervous as he himself was. "No, man is no longer alone," Broussard replied. And then he added, "But neither is he."
The alien was less than one hundred yards away when Broussard said quietly, "I don't think we'd better talk any more. Let's just stand here and wait for him to make the first move."
Lan Sur walked towards the two aliens at a comfortable rate of speed. When he was still some distance off the computer back on his scout ship informed him of the first of the messages going back and forth from one of the men to the ship, and then of the gradual withdrawal of the rest of the ship's crew to the sanctuary of the Sunward. It was with no surprise at all that he listened to the computer, as it did a remote physical and chemical analysis of the aliens. Eons ago the Dakn people had come to the conclusion, first in theory and then in fact, that intelligent life capable of reaching the stars had to fall within the humanoid pattern. The aliens confronting him were well within the theoretical tolerance limits on every count. But still it amused him to see the slight obesity of one of the men and the thick body hair of the other. These were two minor points of difference between the races.
At exactly the right psychological distance from the two aliens, Lan Sur stopped. He was quite close enough to be heard and understood, but not so close that his physical presence suggested too much of a threat. He waited just long enough before speaking.
"It is customary in your culture to begin with introductions," he said in a strong voice. "I am Lan Sur, possessed of the rank of Senior Surveyor in the Galactic Patrol of the Dakn Empire. I welcome you officially to the communion of the stars."
Lan Sur could almost feel the sinking sensation inside the larger of the two aliens when he began to speak to them in their own tongue. It amused him to think that these two had probably expected to begin by drawing pictures in the dirt. Well, they would learn.
"You should know at once that the Dakn Empire comprises some 700 quadrillion people of the same general humanoid characteristics as obtain in your race. We populate planets on some hundred thousand suns, most of which lie much further toward the opposite end of the galaxy than does the system in which we find ourselves at the moment. We have explored great reaches of the universe, but this is the first time we have penetrated as far into this particular district as this star you call Clarion. That explains why our races have never before come into contact."
The two aliens leaned forward a little on their feet, as caught up in his words as children might be when told a new and fascinating story.
"The Dakn Empire is the only other political system that exists in this entire galaxy, as far as we know." Lan Sur paused for a moment, to let the significance of his words sink in. "There have been others, of course, but they soon passed under our control. Just as your civilization will now pass under our control."
He read the sudden, stark fear that appeared in their eyes correctly without needing the affirming echo from the computer.
"The Dakn Empire has learned that whenever it discovers a new civilization, it must absorb this new culture immediately. There is no other choice. And your race must follow the pattern of the thousands we have encountered in the past. There is no choice. As of this moment, you and your people are, from our point of view, just as much a part of our Empire as our own home planets. This does not appeal to you, I know. But there is no other way."
The computer informed him that the Sunward had brought all of its gun turrets to bear on him, but Lan Sur ignored the fact as being irrelevant.
He continued. "No, you do not have a choice about becoming a part of our system. But you do have a choice about the method by which this action will be taken." The involuntary sigh that one of the aliens gave briefly amused him. The alien would find that the sigh of relief was a short one. "The choice is this—either you will join with us peacefully, in which case the whole period of transition will take less than one of your years. Or...." He let the word dangle momentarily before his booming voice continued. "Or, if you choose to oppose us, the transition time will take even less than that. We will simply destroy you and all of your worlds.
"You have no alternatives."
The alien's voice grew louder. "You will want to know what absorption into our system will mean to you. By now you will surely have realized how far superior we are to you in every way, and I include specifically the factor of intelligence in this statement. My analysis of your potential intellectual and rational powers shows me that you are not capable of contesting on an equal basis with any of the other races that comprise our Empire. You are the lowest of the low, and as such, your race will be put into a slave category. We always have room for more slaves."
The two aliens in front of him seemed in a state of shock. Lan Sur felt he might as well finish the thing off and get it over with.
"If you choose to come with us peacefully, what will happen is this: We will take over all of your worlds at once, evacuating your people from them in less than a month. Your race will be spread out over our Empire, sent to the places where they are needed the most.
"Of course you will not be allowed to retain either your own personalities or your memories. As slaves you would scarcely need them. So they will be stripped from you en route to your new homes, and suitable new slave personalities will be implanted in your minds. You find this thought distasteful I know, but it is the only logical action we can take. You will be born again, so to speak, knowing our language, feeling at home in our way of life and not retaining even a shred of your old patterns of culture. This is the simplest, most efficient way in which your race can become a part of our much larger scheme of things.
"If you do not choose to come peacefully ..." again Lan Sur stopped for dramatic effect, "the warships I have already summoned, coming at the square of the speed of light, will search out every planet, every world in this whole sector, and will utterly annihilate every solar system you have contaminated. We have, in the past, met obstinate races who tried to resist our rule. The results were rather spectacular from an astronomical point of view. Perhaps your scientists have wondered what caused the nova of stars, or even the explosions of whole regions of space. Now you have the answer. We would hate to destroy your race, but if you resist us, we have no choice."
A strange, intense smile came over Lan Sur's face. "Our history relates of one race that tried to avoid its destiny. These peoples scattered to the four winds in millions of ships in their attempt to hide from us." Fire lighted the alien's eyes. "It took more than a thousand of your years to track them all down, and we covered more than half the galaxy in doing so. It was a glorious thing. Now they are dead. All of them."
Slowly the smile died away. Lan Sur looked back at the two Earthlings before him. "You will see the necessity for all of this when you have exhausted your emotional reactions to this information and are capable of thinking logically again. In the long run it matters little to any of us which action we are forced to take. But because I realize that a race as untutored as yours is, cannot be expected to control its emotions in such a situation, I will not demand an immediate answer from you. I will give you more than ample time in which to think the problem through.
"You have exactly twenty-four hours in which to make up your minds."
In his younger days at the Academy, Captain Allen Hawkins had been a boxer, and a good one. Most of his fights he had won easily and decisively. The few that he lost had been close matches and split decisions. Then had come the day when he had persuaded himself to fight outside his own weight and experience classifications, and he had matched himself against a classmate much larger than himself. Hawkins still remembered that fight at times. After the first round he had been completely dazed, scarcely conscious of his surroundings. Again and again he found himself lying stretched out on the canvas and had to force himself back to his feet to re-enter the fray. The fight terminated rather suddenly in the third round when Hawkins went down to the canvas for a full count.
All of this had happened years before, but the emotions that gripped the man now, as he stood facing the incredible alien from the center of the galaxy—these emotions reminded him of that fight. He felt now as he had felt when he regained consciousness in the dressing room—a little out of his senses, the wind still knocked out of him, and emotionally completely stunned.
The fact that Lan Sur had spoken perfect English had been the first blow. Every sentence that the alien had spoken was like a sharp jab, a sudden punch to a vital area. As in his boxing days, after a few brief moments of listening, Hawkins had stopped thinking with his brain—and had begun thinking with his stomach. But he was completely open and unguarded for the Sunday punch.
"You have exactly twenty-four hours in which to make up your minds."
The three men stood facing each other for at least a full minute, none of them speaking. Broussard recovered his voice before Hawkins could and said feebly, "You can't mean it."
Lan Sur's face gave no expression of emotion. "I realized that you would be incapable of comprehending what I have said so soon after I had said it. This is why I am giving you a length of time in which to make your decision. But you might as well realize that this high emotional index rating of your race is one of the main reasons you rate so low. It is a trait that we will have to breed out of your race."
Hawkins came to life suddenly, reacting violently, his emotional control shattered. He almost shouted at the alien, "If we're in such bad shape, why can't you just go off and leave us alone? You've got all the rest of the universe. Why can't you just leave us alone in our little corner of it?"
"If you were not so emotionally aroused at the moment, you would understand why we cannot 'leave you alone,' as you put it," the alien told him calmly. "It is completely impossible for two differing cultures to exist in this galaxy, as large as it is. Eventually the two cultures would have to come into contact, and this would cause friction. We do not care for friction, and we always seek to avoid it. By forcing you to join us now—or by destroying you if you refuse—we make absolutely sure that your race will never be the cause of any friction to us in the future."
"Friction?" asked Broussard slowly.
"If we allowed you to go your own way, your population would expand and you would be forced to take over more and more of this area of the universe. We have our own plans for this part of the galaxy which do not include fighting constant wars with you for the possession of each new planetary system that one of us sees fit to colonize." The alien spoke to them as he might have spoken to children.
Hawkins refused to abandon the train of thought. "But we could promise to give up all our worlds except our own home planet. You could have all the rest."
Lan Sur shook his head. "At the present moment, you will promise anything to rid yourself of the painful necessity of making the decision that I have demanded of you. You might even be quite willing to live up to your promise of retiring to your home planet, never to voyage forth again. But your children and their children would grow discontent and restless. Eventually, either a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand years from now, you would come forth to challenge us again." Lan Sur's face grew a trifle grim. "And next time you would be better equipped and stronger. You would be able to put up a better fight than you can at the moment." Then he smiled. "Oh, of course, the Dakn Empire would win eventually. We always do. But we would be back at exactly the same point that we are at right now. We would be forced to absorb you into our Empire, or to destroy you utterly. And, in the meantime, we would, of necessity, be forced to keep a careful watch on everything you did."
He shook his head. "No, you must realize that we cannot tolerate anything but absolute surrender. You have my terms. You must make your decision. There is nothing more to say."
Hawkins felt the numbing hand of deep fear within him. Like a losing boxer, he fought for any advantage that he might be able to take. "But, good Lord, man," he said quickly. "You don't understand the situation at all. Twenty-four hours isn't nearly enough time to make a decision that will affect our entire population. We can't even inform our home base of what's going on in that length of time, much less get a message back from them. And this is the sort of thing that would have to be submitted to our population as a whole, for them to decide. We're just a very, very small part of our race. Why, we ... we don't have the authority to make a decision that would affect the people back home. You must give us more time."
"Your complete lack of insight amazes me, even though I expected it," the alien said. "Surely you must understand that the more time I give you, the more time you have to prepare your physical defenses. I am just as aware as you are that, lacking the C2 communications methods, it is impossible for you to contact your home planet in the time that I have allowed you. But the war ships that I have already summoned will be here shortly, and even before they arrive, there is much that I must do to ready you and your people for the change if you decide to come with us. If you do not decide to come with us, then I must begin the search for your home planet, so that it may be destroyed. In either event, the sooner your choice is made, the better it is for me. Already I have allowed you more time than is actually necessary for you to overcome your emotion and to think the problem through logically."
"But I simply haven't got the authority to make such a choice!" Hawkins found himself shouting. "Can't you understand that?"
Lan Sur paused a moment to let the other man regain some of his composure. Then he said simply but firmly, "I am in control here now. I have the authority, and I delegate it to you. You must decide for everyone."
Broussard's reactions were perhaps a little less emotionally tinged than might have been thought from his facial reactions. He had held back what he felt to be a highly pertinent question until he felt that the alien was preparing to conclude the interview. He asked it now. "You seem to know a great many things about us, Lan Sur. And we seem to know very little about you. In a sense, this is strong evidence of your race's superiority. And yet you cannot really expect us to capitulate our entire culture to yours without giving us very conclusive proof that you are able to carry out your threats. After all, we are a large ship full of fighting men, and you seem to be one man all by yourself. What is to keep us from...." Deliberately the psychologist let the question hang uncompleted.
Lan Sur smiled. "At least you respond in a semi-logical fashion. The point is well taken, and if you had not brought it up now, I would have had to do so myself at a later time. I am therefore prepared to demonstrate to you the strength of our technology. You two will return to your ship, and I will remain here. You will then, for the next two hours, have the opportunity to attack me by any means you see fit. I will simply defend myself, without endangering you or your ship in any fashion. When you have discovered that even as undefended as I appear to be at the moment, all of your weapons are powerless to harm me, perhaps you will understand that I can carry out my threats if I so choose to."
The alien gestured with his hand. "And now, you must return to your ship. During the two hours at which I place myself at your mercy, you may naturally maneuver your vessel as you desire. But at the end of the two hours, you must have returned to your landing place here—or to whatever other spot on this planet that I may choose to indicate to you by radio. Any attempt on your part to escape either now, or during the period following, or any attack you attempt on me except during these first two hours, or any effort to summon additional help, will mean the instant destruction of your ship—and of your race. I hope that you will both understand what I have said and will believe that I have the power to achieve my ends."
Surveyor Lan Sur crossed his arms. "This interview is at an end."
After a few seconds of stunned silence, the two men turned and walked the long and lonesome way back to the Sunward.
All of the scientists aboard the Sunward and most of the ship's officers were assembled in the central meeting hall when Broussard and Hawkins arrived. Hawkins walked directly to the central podium and turned to face the group.
"Gentlemen," he began slowly, his features a mask of repressed emotion. "I know that I do not have to give you any fuller explanations than you have already received. We have been given a challenge that seems to be insoluble. But we must face the situation, as the alien Lan Sur has suggested, with a minimum of emotionality and with a maximum of good, hard logic. I would welcome any comments, suggestions you might have to offer."
There was a general shuffling of feet and clearing of throats among the crowd. It seemed to Hawkins as if each member present was waiting for someone else to speak first. Finally the Communications Officer broke the silence.
"Captain, it has occurred to me that if the alien's powers are as great as he claims, he may well be able to monitor every word any of us speaks, even here. I think we must take that into consideration."
The crowd murmured an assent, feeling, Hawkins was sure, that it gave them an excellent excuse for not being able to propose any solution to the problem. "I think you are quite right," Hawkins answered. "However, I feel that for the moment we must operate as if he couldn't monitor us. In the meantime, the communications department must take what precautions it can to assure us that our future conversations are held in complete privacy." A touch of bitter defeat crept into his voice. "And I would imagine that even if he is listening right now, he'll gain precious little in the way of useful information."
The group shuffled its feet again, embarrassed at its own impotence. "Are there any further comments?" Hawkins asked. There seemed to be none, until the Gunnery Officer spoke up.
"Captain," he said, a slight smile on his broad face. "I'd sort of like to see just how much punishment the bastard can take."
Hawkins laughed, breaking the tension. "I think we all agree with you. Suppose we put off any further discussion until after we've put the alien through his paces. It will give us an opportunity to test his strength—and to test our own.
"Many of you—" Hawkins indicated with a wave of his hand the officers in the room "—are familiar with the offensive strength of this vessel. She is one of the most powerfully armed ships that Earth has. What I intend to do, then, is this: We'll give our friend out there just as much hell as the Sunward can dish out. But while we're doing it, I want photographs of every attack we make, fast photos that will give us, perhaps, an inkling of how he overcomes all of our weapons, if he does. I think this is extremely important." He looked the crowd over. "We'll begin the attack just as soon as all of you have indicated to me that your departments are ready. That is all, gentlemen."
Half an hour later the Sunward rose from her landing site and floated gently into the atmosphere. She came to a halt about ten thousand feet up and drifted into an optimum firing position. Every gun and camera the ship possessed was trained on the now scarcely visible figure of the alien almost two miles beneath her. Hawkins was on the battle bridge, his experienced hand controlling the ship firmly, belying the nervousness he felt.
"Gunnery all ready, Sir!" came the report.
"Fire!" shouted Hawkins a little louder than he meant to. He strained forward in his seat to watch the scene on the screen in front of him.
The heat guns opened up first. In less than a second the area of maximum temperature was less than two feet away from the alien's body. A space of ground 300 yards in diameter suddenly went up in smoke at the intensity of the rays. Slim shreds of fire licked at the edge of the ring, and in the center all was fierce flame and smoke as the heat actually melted the earth. For a full five minutes the guns remained firing at maximum intensity. No organic substance known to man could withstand such violence.
"Cease firing," Hawkins called. He leaned back slowly in his chair. It would take a few minutes for the smoke to clear, but he knew in his heart what they would see once it had. And even before the wind had blown enough of the smoke away to make things visible, they saw the figure of the alien come walking briskly out of the hellish ring of destruction and wave his arm to them.
"God," said Hawkins quietly. After a moment he threw open a communications switch that connected him to the Gunnery Officer. "Well, what's next?" he asked quietly.
Next came a huge ball of electricity that spat sparks as it hurtled through space and shattered itself into a million bolts of lightning at the very feet of the alien. The resulting burst of light was painful to the eyes, but when vision cleared, they saw the alien again, still standing erect and still waving.
They tried launching a dozen space torpedoes at once, filled with the highest chemical explosives known to man. They crashed in criss-cross fashion about the alien, ripping the very air asunder with their fantastic devastation. They left a crater almost a mile wide, and standing in the middle of it, still untouched, the enemy. Then the ship bombarded the small figure below with every wavelength known to man, still without effect.
Finally the Gunnery Officer called Hawkins on the intercom. "I'm sorry, Captain, but we did our best. I guess there's only one thing left to do."
"I guess you're right," Hawkins admitted reluctantly. And turning to his helmsman he said, "Take her up."
The Sunward was almost fifty miles from the alien when she unleashed her final weapon. She had dropped tattle-tale robots behind to feed her information both before and after the blast. And then she aimed the mightiest atomic weapon man had created straight at Lan Sur.
The very planet shook at its detonation, so powerful was the bomb. The fire and clouds rose miles into the sky, and the Sunward's delicate instruments indicated the presence of a radiation so intense that it was certain an area hundreds of miles in size was completely destroyed. It took several minutes before enough of the aftermath of the explosion had cleared away for them to find him, but they located the alien sitting calmly in a crater at the very center of the affected area, obviously still unharmed.
Hawkins contemplated the situation for several minutes, and then wearily stretched out his hand and turned on the radio. After a moment he said simply, "All right, Lan Sur, you win. Where do you want us to land?"
Lan Sur answered immediately. "You will place your vessel in an area almost directly beneath your present position which I have caused to be marked in red. Any attempt to move the vessel without my permission will result in your immediate destruction. If, during the waiting time, you have any further questions to ask of me, I will be available. However, if you have not come to any conclusion by the end of that time, I shall be forced to destroy you without further hesitation. You have exactly twenty-two hours and nine minutes left."
When the ship had landed, Hawkins returned to the conference room. Most of the executive personnel were there, although some of the scientists were absent, ostensibly still analyzing the results of the futile attack on the alien. Hawkins strode briskly to the podium and faced the group.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you saw what happened. Perhaps some of you refused to believe that the alien could enforce his demands on us—and I'm sure that all of us hoped that this would be the case. But now we must accept the fact that the choice we were told to make will have to be made, unless we can come up with some means of destroying this creature or of escaping his wrath.
"I want you to know that although it might well be within my province as Captain of the Sunward to decide which of the alternatives we will take, I will not do so. What is decided here will affect all of Earth's peoples everywhere. Neither one man nor one small group can make this choice. Therefore, exactly one hour before the deadline, we will hold a plebiscite. Every person aboard the Sunward will have exactly one vote, and the majority decision will hold. I will refrain from voting and will decide the issue in the event of a tie.
"In the meantime, I want you to think. To think not only of a means of escape from our dilemma, if this be possible, but also how you will vote. If any of you have any ideas, or if you simply wish to talk about something, you will find me available at any hour.
"I do not know how each of you will react to this situation. Perhaps the alien is right. Perhaps man is far too emotional an animal to merit more than slave status in the councils of the stars. But I hope that our actions will prove otherwise—and that this, man's darkest hour, will also become his finest."
Hawkins turned from the group and walked quietly from the room. He knew that his speech had been anything but an example of clear logic devoid of emotional context, and he had no idea why he had let himself be so carried away. But with the inborn and well-trained sense he had of men and situations, he knew that he could not have spoken otherwise.
The men on board the Sunward faced the crisis in various fashions. A few of the scientists worked with erratic bursts of speed to finish up their analyses of the data they had gathered during the bombardment of the alien. Some of the crew wrote letters home. The communications department was swamped with personal messages to be relayed back to Earth. The Chaplain gave up his attempt at private counseling and held hourly open services. The routine jobs were still performed, albeit in a perfunctory manner. But mostly the men just gathered around in small groups and talked, usually in low voices. A few of the luckier ones got drunk.
Captain Hawkins remained in his room, completely isolated from the rest of the ship, for almost four hours. During that time he simply sat in his easy chair and thought. At the beginning of the fifth hour he broke a precedent and opened a bottle of whiskey. At the beginning of the sixth hour he broke still another precedent and sent for Broussard. Hawkins was neither too drunk nor too sober when the psychologist arrived. He told the scientist to sit down and offered him a drink.
"I know it's unethical for me to take you away from the men when they need your help more than ever before," Hawkins began slowly, choosing to stare moodily at the table instead of directly at the man he was talking to. "But for once I am exercising a Captain's perogatives.
"You must have realized some of the problems that face anyone in a position of command. Usually we have to operate on pretty rigid rules, but things always go better if it seems as though we aren't quite as rigid as we really must be. The men under you always feel better if they think they have some free choice about things. In any military set-up you can't allow much of this free will at all. The best commander is the one who decides what it is his men must do in a given situation, and then finds some way of making the men want to do it." Again he paused, then looked up, facing Broussard squarely.
"I have decided what the result of the balloting must be—and I want you, as a psychologist, to help me make sure that I get that result without anyone else being aware that we've rigged things." He got up from the table and began nervously pacing the floor.
After a few moments he stopped and turned to face the psychologist, both his fists clenched tightly on the back of his easy chair. He said nothing.
After several moments of silence, Broussard cleared his throat and asked, "And which choice have you decided it must be?"
Hawkins collapsed into the chair. Finally his mouth opened, his lips trembled, and he said, "Slavery, of course. It's the only choice.
"You're the psychologist, perhaps you can understand the fierce pride I'd take in knowing that the men would have the ... the guts to want to end it all instead of bowing down to that bastard out there who holds us in the very palm of his hands." Hawkins paused in this outburst, blinked his eyes briefly, and then continued.
"But that's just the emotion showing through. From the logical point of view, our race must continue. If we choose slavery we'll live and breathe and die just as we always have. We'll do all of these things on alien planets, having forgotten the Earth we sprang from and all our past history, as sorry as some of that has been. We'll have forgotten who we are. We will have lost ourselves."
He banged a fist down on the table. "But we will exist! The protection of the race comes first, and we've got to make sure that it is protected, that the Sunward makes the logical decision. I'll steer things as best I can, but I'll need help."
He turned to Broussard. "I'm not a psychologist. I won't tell you how to go about it. I don't care what you do. All I want are the results."
For a space of several seconds the two men sat without speaking. Then Hawkins said, "And I guess that unless you have something to add, that's all for now. Let me know what you're doing, if you have time to tell me. But more important than that, let me know if you think you're going to fail. We may have to rig the ballots if you do."
Broussard gave a deep sigh and rose to leave. He could understand the torment the Captain was going through, but there was little that he could do for the man at the moment. He was almost at the door when Hawkins stopped him.
"Broussard!" Hawkins shouted. "What in God's name makes a man's personality so dear to him? Why has it always been just about the last thing that a man will give up? You're the psychologist. You must know the answer. Even a man with a diseased mind who knows that he's sick and wants help badly will fight back tooth and nail when you try to change even one small part of his personality make-up. Didn't you once tell me that? Didn't you?"
The Captain's voice grew louder and louder. "That's why therapy is so hard, isn't it? That's why constructive education is so difficult, isn't it? That's why politicians who appeal to existing fears and hates and loves get elected instead of those men who try to shift public opinion for the better.
"Oh, why in God's name are we so proud of this tiny, puny, weak, insignificant, miserable thing inside each of us we call the real me!" He picked up the whiskey bottle and hurled it with full force against the wall. It shattered in a thousand pieces. The dark liquor inside ran down the wall leaving long thin fingers of stain behind it.
Captain Hawkins' personal steward came rushing into the room at the sound of the crash, and looked, horrified, at the mess on the wall.
"Oh, get out! Get out, both of you, and leave me alone!" Hawkins shouted.
After they were gone, Hawkins threw himself on his bunk and buried his face in his pillow. The mood of fierce hot anger passed rapidly, leaving only the warm sting of shame. Although he had made the decision to capitulate to the alien, at least at an intellectual level, he could not really bring himself to believe that there was no means of escape. His head ached from his emotional outburst and every effort toward constructive thinking seemed to end in a blind alley. He had been tossing restlessly for perhaps two hours when the Communications Officer brought him a message from Earth that had just been received. Hawkins reached for the message blank eagerly at first, his befuddled mind thinking for just an instant that here were instructions from home telling him how to meet the crisis, telling him of a means of escape, or just taking the awful responsibility of the decision from him. But then he remembered that communications, even when they passed through subspace, took several days to get from Earth to here. Earth was still unaware of the crisis on Trellis, and this message that had just been received had begun its journey long before they were made so painfully aware of the existence of the alien.
The radiogram was of a semi-routine nature, but one that, in normal circumstances, would have demanded an immediate answer. "Shall we bother replying to it?" the Communications Officer asked.
"Of course not," Hawkins said angrily. "It wouldn't be necessary, even if we dared break radio silence to reply."
The Communications Officer's eyes opened wide in a startled fashion. "Radio silence?" he said feebly. "But, Captain, we've ... we've...."
Hawkins sat bolt upright in his bunk. "Good Lord, man, do you mean to say that you've been sending messages to Earth right along?"
The Communications Officer nodded. "We started relaying from the moment you contacted the alien. We've sent out all the talks, speeches, reports, everything. Just as you ordered." The man was cringing in fright.
"But didn't you hear the alien tell us to make no attempt to contact our home base or he'd destroy us at once?" Hawkins demanded.
The other officer felt like crawling out of the room without bothering to open the door. "I'm sorry, Captain," he managed to stutter. "But I must have missed that ... that part of what he said. I ... I was called out of the office during part of the contact when something went wrong with one of our main transmitters." The man had turned a very pale shade of white. "But I'll stop transmission at once," he said, turning nervously towards the door.
Hawkins looked at his watch. "If he hasn't blasted us for it by now, I don't guess he ever will. But all the same, you'd better stop sending immediately." As the Communications Officer left the room, Hawkins cursed mildly under his breath. After all of his plans and sweat and pains, it would take something like this to bring the whole house of cards crashing about him, some little insignificant something that he had overlooked. "For want of a nail...." he said aloud, reminding himself of the age-old parable.
"But if he meant what he said about not notifying Earth, why hasn't he already destroyed us?" Hawkins asked himself. Perhaps Lan Sur wasn't as cruelly logical and unfeeling as they had thought. Hawkins pushed the thought from his mind, knowing that it would lead him to too much false hope if he pursued it further. It would be too easy to hope that simply because Lan Sur had not acted upon one of his threats, he might not act on the rest of them.
As he thought, Hawkins found himself pacing the floor of his room anxiously—first to one wall, then a stop, an about face, and back to the opposite side of the room. He stopped his walking and slumped down into his chair.
"Back and forth," he said out loud. "From one side to another. I'm just like the child in Broussard's story. Only instead of a man with a stick at one end of the hall and a dog at the other, I've got Lan Sur at both ends. Death, or a kind of slavery which is just about as bad. A real 'avoidance situation' if ever one existed." He laughed bitterly. "The closer I come to one choice, the worse it seems and the better the other choice appears."
He shrugged his shoulders sadly. "But eventually I'll have to realize that there's no escape. Unfortunately, unlike the child in Broussard's example, I can't...."
Hawkins stopped suddenly as something occurred to him. "Good God," he said after a moment. He sat upright in the chair. "It couldn't be. It just couldn't," he told himself. "And yet, I bet, I bet it is!"
He got up from the chair and walked quickly to the wall communicator. "Hello, Bridge?" he demanded. "Inform all officers not on watch and all the scientific personnel that I want to see them in the council chamber in thirty minutes. Exactly thirty minutes, do you understand?"
There was a broad smile on his face as he marched out of his stateroom to talk with some of the officers and scientists before the meeting.
After all of the men had crowded into the meeting hall, they closed and locked the doors. The group kept up a low but excited chatter while they waited for Captain Hawkins to begin.
"Gentlemen," he said finally, calling the meeting to order. "I am informed by the electronics specialists aboard that they have made this meeting room as 'spy-proof' as is humanly possible, but I think we've learned not to trust the power of human technology too much these past few hours. Therefore, I'm going to tell you just as little of my plans as I possibly can, on the theory that the best-kept secret is the one that the fewest people know about."
The crowd seemed anxious, and a little apprehensive, but still hopeful.
"Within the past hour, I have made what I think are several remarkable discoveries. I shall not tell you what they are, but I think I have discovered a way out of the dilemma that we are facing."
The crowd breathed a unanimous sigh of relief. Smiles broke out on several faces.
"I cannot tell you just at the moment what this mode of escape is. But I have discussed it with a few of you—the fewest number possible—and all of them agree that there is an excellent chance that it will work. If it does, we of Earth will still face a great many problems. But we shall, at least, be free, and that is the important thing. If we fail...." Hawkins let his voice trail off for a moment. "If we fail, we can expect instant destruction not only for us, but for all of mankind."
He waited for the meaning to sink in, his face set in a firm frown. And then, purposefully, he let his facial muscles relax into a broad smile. "But I do not think that we will fail. I think we will win. And I have come to ask your permission to risk all our lives on the venture. I cannot give you any more information. I can only ask for your confidence—and for your votes of approval." He looked around the room deliberately, pausing for just the right length of time. And then he said, "Will all of you who have sufficient faith in me and my judgment please rise in assent?"
Broussard had given him the trick of mass decision—had told him that if you make people commit themselves openly, the decision has a better chance of unanimity. Hawkins smiled to see how well the device worked. Every man in the room was on his feet, most of them cheering.
He waited for the shouting to die down and then said simply, "Thank you. And now to battle stations."
Captain Allen Hawkins sat in his control seat on the Sunward's bridge, staring at the button that turned on his radio set. "The purpose of a position of responsibility is to make decisions," he told himself.
A green light burst into life on the control panel, indicating that all of the preparations he had asked for were in readiness. Such signals would be his only means of communications during the entire maneuver, for he had given orders that no one was to utter one word aloud during the entire operation. He was taking no chances.
Hawkins grinned. "And the devil take the hindmost," he told himself.
Pressing down on the radio button, he said aloud, "This is Captain Allen Hawkins of the Sunward calling Surveyor Lan Sur of the Dakn Empire."
Almost at once he heard a voice answering, "You may go ahead."
"I think we have finally reached our decision," Hawkins said soberly. "But before we announce it, we have one request to make, and I do not think you will find it an unreasonable one. As you yourself pointed out, ours is an incredibly emotional race. Had we not been so, we could have given you our answer much sooner."
The alien's voice came booming into the control room. "I will listen to your request, but you surely realize that none of the terms that I have given you can be changed."
"Yes, we realize that, and our request is along slightly different lines," said Hawkins. "As I said, we are an emotion-ridden race. But you must have realized that we aboard the Sunward are probably much more stable than are the majority of our peoples back on our home planets. It is always so with explorers and scientists. Therefore, we were able to reach a logical decision, and we will be able to hold to it.
"Unfortunately, we anticipate a little more trouble than this with 'the folks back home,' if you understand that term. And to make things much easier, not only for us, but also for you, we have a request to make."
"I understand the semantic import of the term and will give you my decision on the request if you will but come to the point," came the alien's voice. "We are wasting valuable time, and I have other things to do."
Hawkins was beginning to sweat a little. He was purposefully needling the alien, and he had no idea of how far he dared to go.
"Well, we of the Sunward are convinced that you can carry out your threats if we attempt any rebellion. We have seen you stand untouched by all the power this ship could muster. But defense against our meager weapons is one thing. The ability to destroy a star is another....
"The folks back home would accept our decision without hesitation, and would never dream of giving you or your people any trouble, if we could show them authentic pictures of how powerful you are offensively. We request, therefore, that you unleash your weapons and turn this entire solar system into a nova while we photograph the procedure."
Lan Sur's answering voice sounded frighteningly loud to Hawkins. "What you request is impossible for several reasons. First, the Dakn Empire has no desire to destroy potentially valuable property simply to demonstrate its powers. Second, the procedure would occupy too much time, for while my small ship could outrace the enveloping flames of the nova, your larger ship, unequipped as it is with the C2 drive, would be caught in the destruction and you would perish. I recognize that from the emotionality index of your race, such a demonstration would probably aid in the peaceful absorption of your culture into ours, but it is impossible."
Hawkins allowed himself the luxury of a quick smile. His analysis of the situation had been absolutely correct. "Well, look," he said in reply. "According to our survey, the outer planet in this system is pretty small and of little use to anybody. Could you possibly destroy it instead?" He paused for just the smallest fraction of a second, but then hurried on before the alien could reply. "Of course, if you can't do it without destroying all the rest of the planets too, why, we'll understand. But it would help...."
The alien's voice boomed back, interrupting the man. "You obviously still underestimate the technological level of the Dakn Empire." The alien paused, as if checking something. "According to my analysis of this system, the fourth and outer planet is of no value whatsoever to my people. Therefore, I accede to your request. The planet will be destroyed at once."
"Hey, wait a minute," Hawkins cried in a startled tone of voice.
"You need not worry," came the alien's flat response. "I fully realize that your visual recording equipment cannot function at such a distance. Therefore, you will raise ship at once and locate yourself to take advantage of the best recording angles."
Hawkins had to hold himself in his chair to keep from dancing a jig. He had set a trap for the alien, and somehow, some incredible how, it had worked. At least he dared hope that it had....
The Sunward came to a full stop just inside the orbit of the third planet. The alien ship danced on ahead of them towards the tiny outer world. "You can come closer than that," Lan Sur informed Hawkins, noting that the Sunward had stopped sooner than expected.
"No, thank you," Hawkins replied. "We can get excellent pictures from this distance, and you must remember that we haven't the protective devices that you have."
Hawkins noted that Lan Sur's voice carried with it an almost petulant, disdainful note. "There is a great deal of difference between the destruction of one small planet and the creation of a nova. However, if you feel safer there, you may remain where you are." A few moments later, the alien added, "Are your recording devices in readiness?"
Hawkins indicated to the alien that they were.
"Then watch," Lan Sur said.
It took perhaps three minutes for the first burst of light to reach their position. The tiny planet, scarcely 500 miles in diameter, began to glow slightly, then suddenly came alive with fire. Bursts of flame danced up hundreds of miles above its surface, then fell back, exhausted, into the boiling cauldron the planet had become. For almost ten minutes the small world seethed in agonized torment, and then, all at once, it seemed to shake apart at the seams. There was no sound, but those watching on board the Sunward mentally supplied the missing component to the greatest explosion they had ever witnessed. The cameras recorded the scene noiselessly.
A few minutes later, after most of the fragments of the once-world had disintegrated in flaming splendor, Lan Sur's voice broke the silence. "I used only one of many possible means of destruction. However, it promised to be, under the circumstances, the most spectacular. And so you have seen the offensive might of the Dakn Empire. Are you ready to give me your decision?"
The control board in front of Hawkins displayed all green signals. "Yes," he said. "I think we're finally ready. Here is our answer to the choice you gave us." His finger pressed firmly on a single red key.
The Sunward had been hurling itself back towards Earth for almost an hour when Broussard discovered Captain Hawkins, standing by himself in the observation room, staring out into the black of subspace.
"Well," the psychologist said. "I don't suppose it looks quite so bleak to you now as it did on the trip out."
Hawkins turned and smiled at the man. "No, I don't guess it does. Funny what the presence of one small pinpoint of light does to the blackness of a field, eh?"
Broussard nodded in assent. "I wonder what our alien friend thought when suddenly Clarion, Trellis, the two other planets, and us too, just up and disappeared and left him behind?"
Hawkins laughed. "You're the alienist. You tell me."
"I'd rather ask you something. How did you know it would work?"
"You might say I became an expert in psychology over night," Hawkins replied. "Oh, not the scientific kind that you practice—but the every day kind that most people mean when they use the word. I discovered, for example, that because of a misunderstanding on the part of the communications people, we continued to send messages home after the alien had specifically warned us not to do so. At first I thought he might be ignoring this infraction of his rules, but then I began to wonder if it didn't mean that he just wasn't aware of what we were doing. I remembered that he talked a great deal about a C2 drive system which he claimed was so much better than the type we used. But when I asked the Navigator to do a little figuring, I discovered that by using subspace, we can actually get places much faster than his race does.
"It all added up to the fact that his race had never stumbled onto the use of subspace. I know that sounds incredible, but when I checked with one of the top physicists, I found out that we happened onto it by sheer accident—and an impossibly stupid one at that—and not through any high-level theorizing. The theory came later, after the process had been demonstrated in a laboratory.
"For a while I still couldn't believe it. But when we discovered that his space ship was a very small one—too small to utilize the subspace drive—I knew my guess had been correct. So I tricked him into letting us get into position where we could activate the drive—and had the engineers increase the effective radius so that we could pull Clarion and her three planets into subspace with us." Hawkins paused for a few seconds as he turned back to the observation window. "We'll need every sun and every planet we can lay our hands on."
Broussard leaned comfortably back against the door. "I think you were wise to take the pictures of the destruction of that fourth planet. We may need them to convince 'the folks back home' that this was the only solution to the problem."
Hawkins agreed with him. "They won't like giving up all the universe they've come to be used to, just to run away and hide in subspace. And you know, I think the poets and the sailors and the young people in love will hate us most of all."
"How do you mean?" asked Broussard.
"No more heaven full of stars to write poems about, to sail true courses by, and to sing love songs under. I guess a lot of us will be lonely for all the stars."
"Do you think they'll ever find us?" Broussard asked, changing the subject. "From the look on Lan Sur's face when he told about that other world, I suspect they'll move heaven and earth to find out where we've run to."
"Find us? The Dakn Empire? I just don't know. We've got a thousand ships equipped with the subspace drive. That's a thousand or so solar systems we can pull through into subspace before they can catch up with us—I hope. But we'll have to be careful. If one of our ships is ever caught, and they discover the drive, we're all done for. I doubt that they'll show us much mercy.
"A thousand suns—and only a handful of usable worlds in the whole lot of them. Not much for a race that's grown as fast as ours has. And to some of us, I guess, subspace will never be quite the same as the one we grew up in—and came to know and love." Hawkins shook his head sadly.
"But if they find us?" Broussard insisted.
"Well, at least we'll have had time to prepare. Perhaps a year, perhaps ten, perhaps a thousand. But we beat them this time, and maybe we can do it again."
For a long time he continued to stare quietly into the blackness. "I just don't know...."
End of Avoidance Situation by James McConnell