A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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Chapter SixteenThe explosion had blackened the pavement of the court, gouged a crater a yard deep, charred the blank invulnerable walls that ringed it. My hull, too, must be blackened and pitted. I could see fragments of my blasted comrade scattered all across the yard; splashes of molten metal were bright against the drab masonry.There were openings in the walls, I noted as the last of the dust fell back, and the final shreds of black smoke dissipated in the near-vacuum. They seemed no bigger than ratholes, but I realized they were actually about a yard wide and half again as high.As I watched, a pale snout poked from one; then the lean withers and flanks of a demon appeared, its size diminished by contrast with my immense body. The thing wore a respirator helmet like the one I had seen earlier; straps crisscrossed its back. It bounded lightly to the burned-out hulk of Ben's body. It circled, stepping daintily around chunks that still glowed red. It came across to me, then disappeared as it passed under the range of my visual sensors.I held myself motionless, carefully withdrew vitality from my external circuitry, closed myself behind an inner shield of no-thought. Alone in the absolute darkness of sensory deprivation, I waited for what might happen next.Faintly, I felt a probing touch—ghostly fingers of alien thought that groped along my dark circuits, seeking indications of activity. There was an abortive shudder as an impulse was directed at my drive controls. Then the probe withdrew.Cautiously, I extended sensitivity to my visual complex, saw the creature as it trotted back to its hole. Again the compound was silent and empty, except for the corpse of the great machine that had been my friend.Quickly, I ran an inspection, and discovered the worst: my drive mechanism was fused at vital points in the front suspension, and my forward batteries were inoperative—warped by the terrific heat of the blast from the hellbores that had smashed Ben. I was trapped inside ten thousand terrestrial tons of inert, dead metal.More demons emerged from the building, trotting from the same arched doorway. Other creatures followed—squat, many-armed things like land-walking octopi. They went to Ben, swarmed over the hot metal. Perched high on the blackened carapace, they set to work. Below on the dusty ground, the demons paced, or stood in pairs, silently watching.I considered reaching out to touch a demon mind, and rejected the idea. I was not skilled enough to be sure of not alerting it, warning it that something still lived inside my scorched and battered hull.Instead, I selected a small horror squatting on the fused mass that had been Ben's forward turret; I reached out, found the awareness-center . . . Grays and blacks and whites, dimly seen, but with distorted pseudoscent images sharp-etched; furtive thoughts of food and warmth and rest; a wanderlust, and a burning drive for a formless concept that was a female . . . It was the brain of a cat, installed in the maintenance machine, its natural drives perverted to the uses of the aliens. I explored the tiny brain, and saw the wonderful complexity of even this simple mechanism—vastly more sophisticated than even the most complex of cybernetic circuits.With an effort, I extended the scope of my contact, saw mistily what the cat-machine saw: the pitted surface of metal on which it squatted, the tiny cutting tools with which it was drilling deep into the burned chromalloy of the ruined hull. I sensed the heat of the metal, the curve of it under me, the monomaniacal drive to do thus—and thus—boring the holes, setting the charge, moving on to the next . . . I pulled back, momentarily confused by the immediacy of the experience. The small machines, under the direction of the demons, were preparing to blast open the fused access hatch.Abruptly, I became aware of a sensation in my outer hull, checked the appropriate sensors, felt the pressure of small bodies, the hot probe of needle-tipped drills . . . In my preoccupation, I had failed to notice that a crew was at work on me, too. In minutes, or at most in an hour or two, a shock would drive through me, as my upper access hatch was blasted away, exposing my living brain to the vacuum and the cold metal probes of the machines.I reached out to the maintenance unit again. I insinuated myself into its cramped ego center, absorbed its self-identity concept, felt for and made contact with its limited senses, its multiple limbs—analogous, I discovered, to fingers and toes.Now I seemed to squat high on the ruined machine, looking across with dim sight at the towering fire-scarred hulk that was myself. My entire forward surface was a fused mass, deeply indented by the force of the explosion. One tread was stripped away, and the proud barrels of my infinite repeater battery were charred stumps, protruding from the collapsed shape of their turret. Busy workers were dark shapes like fat spiders on the towering hulk of my body.Delicately, I directed movement to the cat's limbs. They moved smoothly in response, walked me across the twisted metal. I turned the sensory cluster to stare across at the openings in the wall, gaping now like great arched entries. Half a dozen now-huge demons paced or stood between me and the doors. None seemed to have noticed that I was no longer at work. I moved on down the side of the wrecked machine, sprang to the dust-drifted ground. A demon turned empty red eyes on me, looked past me, turned aside. I moved toward the nearest archway, scuttling along at a speed that I hoped was appropriate to a maintenance unit returning to its storage bay for repairs or supplies.Another demon swung its head to watch, followed me with its eyes as I crossed the open ground. I reached the doorway, hopped up the low step, slipped into the darkness of the high-arched passage.Here I turned, looked back, and caught a last glimpse of the mighty machine that had been my body. Inside it, in a trance-like state, my brain still lay—helpless now, vulnerable to any attack, mental or physical, that might be directed against it. The least probe from a curious demon, a command from a Centurion, and I would fall once again under the spell that had held me before—but this time, there would be no reserve personality fraction to preserve me.And the fragment of the living force that was a mind-field, detached and localized in the intricacy of the brain of a cat—the intangible that was the essential 'I'—was helpless too, defenseless without the power of the native brain to draw on.But somewhere in the ominous tower before me—the Place That Must Be Defended—lay the secret of the power of the demons. I started into the dark maze.* * *The passage was featureless, unadorned, running straight to a heavy lock that opened at the pulse my well-drilled cat-brain emitted. I scuttled forward into a tiny chamber, waited while the inner seal slid aside. A wider corridor lay before me, brightly illuminated in the infra-red range, and crowded with hurrying demons, looking as immense as gaunt and bristled horses.I moved ahead, ignored by the busy inmates of the building. I found a rising ramp, hurried up its wide curve, and emerged on another level. It was like the first, except that there were other creatures here—tall, mechanical-looking things that ambled on iridescent chitinous limbs. I saw one or two demons of another species, characterized by flatter faces, enormous protruding teeth, and pale, tawny hides. They wore more elaborate harness than the worker-class things I had met in the past, and there was a glint of jeweled decoration on their brightwork fittings—the first signs of vanity I had seen among the aliens.I saw two of the humanoid aliens of the General Julius type. Both wore familiar earthly costumes—one a pink business suit and the other a stained military uniform; I judged they were agents reporting on their operations among the natives. None of these varied life-forms paid the slightest attention to me, but I couldn't help feeling as vulnerable as a newborn mouse in a rattler's cage.Moving past a congregation of the insect-things before a wide, square-cut door, I spied a narrow stair leading up from a short passage to the right. I turned, went along to it, looked up its dark well. What I was looking for, I didn't know—but instinct seemed to urge me upward. I hopped up with my ten legs and began the climb.* * *I was in a wide chamber with a high ceiling supported by columns, among which massive apparatus was ranked in endless rows. Great red-eyed demons prowled the aisles beside stilt-legged insect-things—whether as guards or servants, I couldn't tell. A cacophony of humming, buzzing, raucous squealing, deep-toned roaring, filled the thin air, as the batteries of giant machines churned out their unimaginable products. I scurried along, darting around the careless footfalls of the giant creatures. I made for a door across the room, on either side of which two immense demons squatted on their haunches like vast watchdogs. I thought of the soldier in the fairy-tale, who had stolen the treasure guarded by a dog with eyes as big as saucers. These eyes were smaller, and of a baleful red, but they were as watchful as lookouts for a burglar gang. They were guarding something; that was reason enough for me to want to pass the door.I scurried past them, saw other small machines like myself hurrying about their tasks, nimbly skipping aside when threatened by heavy feet. I had chosen my disguise well: the tiny cat-brained devices appeared to have free run of the tower.There was a quiet corner where a cross-aisle dead-ended. I settled myself in it, blanked off sensory input. I reached out to the most superficial level of mental activity, and sensed the darting action-reaction impulses of the other cat-brains all around me. I selected one dim center, felt gingerly through its simple drives. I selected one, stimulated it, planted a concept. Quickly I jumped to a second brain, keyed its elemental impulses, then went on to a fourth, and a fifth . . . I withdrew, focused my sensors. Across the floor, I saw a small machine darting erratically about, attracting cold stares from the busy creatures around it. A second machine scuttled into view from between giant mechanisms, paused a moment, jittering on thin legs, then darted to the first, leaped at it. With a metallic clatter, the two rolled across the floor, struck the lean shank of a demon that bounded aside, whirled, struck out.A third cat-brained machine dashed to join the fray; two more appeared at the same moment, saw each other, came together with a crash—five enraged toms, each sure he was attacking a rival for the imagined female the image of whose presence I had evoked—a dirty trick but effective.The two guardian demons bounded from their posts, sprang at the combatants, cuffed them apart—but only for an instant. Nimbly, the fighting cats danced aside from the rush of the dog-things, darted back to re-engage.I moved from my corner, scurried along the baseboard to the guarded door, fired a triggering pulse at its mechanism. It stood firm. I extended a sensing probe. I perceived the required form for the unlocking signal, transmitted it. The moronic apparatus responded, withdrew the magnetic locking field. I nudged the door, felt it swing open. I slipped past it, and pushed it shut behind me.A narrow stairwell led up toward light. I started up, feeling my thin limbs tiring now. My power-pack needed recharging; I felt a powerful reflexive urge to descend to a dimly-conceived place where a niche waited, where I could snuggle against comforting contacts and receive a pleasure-flow of renewed vitality . . . I overrode the conditioned urge, clambered up the high-looming steps. They were scaled to the long legs of the demons, almost too high for my limited agility. There was no alarm from below; the demon-guardians had failed to notice the penetration of their sanctum.I reached a landing, started up a second flight. The top of the tower had to be close now, judging from the distance I had come. The light ahead beckoned . . . only a little farther . . . I dragged myself up over the last step. I was looking into a round room, walled with nacreous material like mother-of-pearl, with glazed openings beyond which the black lunar sky pressed close. At the center of the chamber, a shallow bowl rested on a short column, like a truncated birdbath of polished metal.After a moment's rest, I moved into the room. I was aware of a curious humming, a sense of vast power idling at the edge of perceptibility. The floor was smooth under me, extending to a curving join with the walls, which rose, darkening, to form a shadowed dome many yards overhead. The light was diffuse and soft. I circled the gleaming pedestal, searching for some indication of the meaning or utility of this strange place, so unlike the functional ugliness of the levels below. There was nothing—no indication of life, no sign of controls or instrumentation. Perhaps, after all, the Place That Must Be Defended was no more than a temple dedicated to whatever strange deities might command the devotion of the monsters that prowled the levels below . . . There was a sound—a dry clicking, like a dead twig tapping a window. I crouched near the pedestal, stared around me. I saw nothing. The walls of the empty room gleamed softly.The sound came again—then a dry squeaking, as of leather sliding against bare metal. A diffuse shadow, faint, formless, glided down the walls. I turned my sensors upward—and saw it.It hung in the gloom of the dome, a bulging, grayish body in a cluster of tentacular members like giant angleworms, clinging to a bright filament depending from the peak of the onion-shaped dome. As I watched, it dropped down another foot, its glistening reticulated arms moving with a hideous, fluid grace. A cluster of stemmed sense organs poked from the upper side of the body—crab-eyes on a torso like a bag of oil. I recognized the shape of the creature; it was the one on which my borrowed mechanical form was modeled.The thing saw me then—I was sure of it. It paused in its descent, tilted its eyes toward me. I didn't move. Then the worm-arms twitched, flowed; it dropped lower, unreeling the cable as it came. It was five yards above the parabolic bowl, then four, then three. There was a feeling of haste in its movements now, something frantic in its scrambling descent. Whatever the thing was, its objective was clear: to reach the polished bowl before I did.I sprang to the pedestal and reared up, my forelimbs catching at the edge of the bowl. I scrabbled with other legs at the smooth base, found purchase for another pair of limbs; I was clear of the floor now, rising to the edge—The thing above me emitted a mewing cry, dropped abruptly another yard, then released its support and launched itself at me; the flailing tentacles wrapped me in an embrace like a nest of constrictors. I lost my hold, fell back with a stunning crash. The alien thing broke away, reached for the bowl, and swung itself up. I sprang after it, seized a trailing limb with three of mine and hauled back. It turned like a striking snake, struck out at me—blows that sent me over on my back, skidding away, until I was brought up short by the grip I had retained on one outflung member. I righted myself with a bound, crouched under a new rain of blows. I lashed out in return, saw thick mustard-colored fluid ooze from a wound on the heavy body.The thing went mad; it lashed its many legs in wild, unaimed blows, leaping against the restraint of my grip. I caught another flailing arm, the cruel metal of my pincers biting into muscle. Abruptly it change its tactics: its multiple arms reached out to me, seized me, hauled me close; then, with a surge, it raised me and dashed me down against the rock-hard floor.Dazed, I felt my grip go slack. The sinuous members of the alien withdrew. I reached after it, felt a last member slither from my weakened grasp.I could see again. The thing was at the pedestal, swarming up, teetering on the edge of the bowl. I gathered my strength and lunged after it—drove my outstretched arm up at the unprotected under-body, felt it strike, pierce deep . . . The thing wailed, a horrifying cry; for a moment, it wrapped its futile arms around my stabbing metal one; then it went limp, fell back, struck and lay, a slack heap of flabby, colorless flesh, in a spatter of viscous ochre.* * *I rested for a moment, feeling the on-off-on flashes of failing senses. I had spent the last of my waning energy in the battle with the deciped. It was hard to hold my grip on the fading consciousness of the cat-brain; almost, I could feel my awareness slipping away, back to the doomed hulk in the courtyard below. I wondered how close the drillers were now to the vulnerable brain—and how Aethelbert fared at the pass, how many of my comrades still lived on the battlefield below.There was one more thing required of me before I fell back into the darkness. I dragged myself to the base of the pedestal, rose up, tottering, groped for the edge. It was too far. I sank back quivering, black lights dancing in my dimming sensory field. Beside me lay the dead alien. I groped to it, crawled up on the slumped curve of its body, tried again. Now my forelimbs reached the edge of the bowl, gripped; I pushed myself up, brought other limbs into play. Now I swung, suspended; with a final effort, I hauled myself up, groped, found a hold across the bowl—and tipped myself into the polished hollow.* * *From a source as bottomless as space itself, power flowed, sweeping through me with an ecstasy that transcended pleasure, burning away the dead husks of fatigue, hopelessness, pain. I felt my mind come alive, as a thousand new senses illuminated the plane of spacetime in which I hung; I sensed the subtle organizational patterns of the molecular aggregations that swirled over me, the play of oscillations all across the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, the infinity of intermeshing pressures, flows, transitions that were reality.The scope of my awareness spread out to sense the structured honeycomb of the tower walls, the scurrying centers of energy that were living minds nested in flesh and metal; it drove outward to embrace the surrounding court, noting the bulk of cold metal in which my unconscious brain lay buried—and outward still, sweeping across the curve of the world, detecting the patterned network of glowing points scattered across the waste of lifelessness.Now each dim radiance took on form and dimension, swelling until its inner structures lay exposed. I saw the familiar forms of human minds, each locked in a colorless prison of paralysis—and the alien shapes of demon-minds, webs of weird thought-forms born of an unknowable conception of reality. And here and there, in clusters, were other minds, beacons of flashing vitality—the remnants of my fighting Brigades. I singled out one, called to it:"JOEL! HOW DOES THE FIGHT GO?"His answer was a flare of confusion, question; then:"They're poundin' us, Jones. Where are you? Can you send us any help?""HOLD ON, JOEL! I'M IN THEIR HEADQUARTERS. I'LL DO WHAT I CAN!""You gave me a turn, Jones. For a minute I thought you was the Over-mind, you came through so strong." His voice was fading. "I guess it'll all be over pretty soon, Jones. I'm glad we tried, though. Sorry it turned out like this . . ." "DON'T GIVE UP—NOT YET!" I broke off, scanned again the array of enslaved human minds. I thought back to the frantic hour I had spent when Joel and I had freed the trapped minds of Aethelbert and Doubtsby and Bermuez . . . If I could reach them all now, in one great sweep—I brought the multitude of dully glowing centers into sharp focus, fixed in my mind the pattern of their natural resonance—and sent out a pulse.All across the dark face of the dead world, faint points of illumination quickened, flared up, blazed bright. At once, I fired an orientation-concept—a single complex symbol that placed in each dazed and newly-emancipated brain the awareness of the status quo, the need for instant attack on demon-brained enemies.I switched my plane of reference back to Joel."HOLD YOUR FIRE!" I called. "BE ON THE ALERT FOR NEW RECRUITS COMING OVER, BY THE FULL BRIGADE!"I caught Joel's excited answer, then switched to Doubtsby, told him what had happened, went on to alert the others.The pattern of the great battle changed. Now isolated demon-brained machines fought furiously against overwhelming odds, winked out one by one. Far away, in distant depots, on planet-lit deserts a thousand miles from the tower of the Over-mind, awakened slave Brigades blasted astonished Centurions, sallied forth to seek out and destroy the hated former masters.From a dozen hidden fortresses, beleaguered demons fitted out vast siege units, sent them forth to mow broad swathes through the attacking battle units before they fell to massive bombardments. In a lull, I searched through the building below me, found and pinched out the frantic demons hiding there. Their numbers dwindled, shrank from thousands to a dozen, six, two, a single survivor—then none.The moon was ours. Chapter SeventeenJoel's great bulk, pitted with new scars bright against the old, loomed up beside me in the compound."All the fellows are here now, Jones—we lost seventy-one, the Major says. A couple dozen more are disabled, like you and Aethelbert, but still alive. The maintenance machines have gone to work on 'em. We got plenty of spares, anyway. We'll have you rolling again in no time.""Good work, Joel." I widened my contact to take in all of the hundred and eight intact survivors of the original group of freed slaves."Every one of you will have his hands full, rounding up the new men and organizing them. We have no way of knowing how soon our late enemies' home base will start inquiring after them—and when they do, we want to be ready.""What about going home, chief?" called a man who had taken a bullet in the knee at the Hurtgen Forest. "How we going to get back?""You off your onion, mate?" a one-time British sailor growled. "What kind o' show you think we'd make waltzing into Piccadilly in these get-ups?""We got to go back, to kill off the rest of these devils, haven't we?""Mum, my masters," Thomas interrupted. "Hear out our captain.""Two days ago I used the aliens' equipment to call Earth," I told them. "I managed a link-up to the public visiscreen system, and got through to the Central Coordinating Monitor of an organization called the Ultimax Group. I gave them the full picture; they knew what to do. The aliens are outnumbered a million to one down there; a few thousand troops wearing special protective helmets and armed with recoilless rifles can handle them.""Yeah, but what about us?" the soldier burst out. "What are we going to do—stay on this godforsaken place forever? Hell, there's transports at the depots; let's use 'em! I got a wife and kids back there!""Art daft, fellow?" a dragoon of Charles the Second inquired. "Your chicks are long since dust, and their dam with them—as are mine, God pity 'em."My old woman's alive and cursing yet, no doubt," said a Dutch UN platoon leader. "But she wouldn't know me now—and keeping me in reaction mass'd play hell with her household budget. No, I can't see going back.""Maybe—they could get us human bodies again, some way . . .""Human body, indeed!" the dragoon cut him off. "Could a fighting man hope for a better corpse than this, that knows naught of toothache, the ague nor the French disease?"Another voice cut into the talk—the voice of Ramon Descortes of the Ultimax Group, listening in from Earth on the circuit I held open."General Bravais," he said excitedly—and I channeled his transmission through my circuitry, broadcasting it to every man within range—"I've been following your talk, and althou

h I find it unbelievable, I'm faced with the incontrovertible evidence. Our instruments indicate that your transmissions are undoubtedly coming from outside the Solar Systemhow and why you will explain in due course, I hope. You've told me that you and the others have been surgically transplanted into robot bodies. Now you wish to be restored, naturally. Let me urge you to return—and we will have for each of you a new body of superb design—not strictly human, admittedly—but serviceable, to say the least!"I had to call for order to quell the uproar."Some kind of android?" I asked."We have on hand a captive—an alien operative of the humanoid type. We will capture more—alive. They will be anesthetized and placed in deep freeze, awaiting your return. According to the present estimate, there are some ten thousand of them working here on Earth—sufficient for your needs, I believe.""Say, how's the fighting going there?" someone called."Well. The first Special Units have gone into action at Chicago, Paris, and Tamboula, with complete success. Governments are falling like autumn leaves, well-known figures are suiciding in droves, and mad dogs are reported everywhere. It is only a matter of hours now.""Then—there's nothing to stand in the way—""Broadway, here I come—""Paris—without a king? Why—""An end to war? As well an end to living—""What about you, General?" someone called, and others joined in."I'll order the transports made ready immediately," I said. "Every man that wants to go back can leave in a matter of hours.""Jones—I mean, General—" Joel started."Jones will do; I won't need the old name any more.""You're not going back?""We fought a battle here," I said. "And we won. But the war goes on—on a hundred worlds; a thousand—we don't know how many. The demons rule space—but Man is on his way now. He'll be jumping off Earth, reaching out to those worlds. And when he reaches them—he'll find the armored brigades of the aliens waiting for him. Nothing can stand against them—except us. We've proved that we can outfight twice our number in slave machines—and we can free the minds that control those machines, turn them against the aliens. The farther we go, the bigger our force will be. Some day, in the far future, we'll push them off the edge of the galaxy. Until then, the war goes on. I can't go home again—but I can fight for home, wherever I find the enemy.""General Bravais," a new voice cut in. "Surely you can't mean that? Why, your name will be on every tongue on Earth! You're the hero of the century—of any century! You'll be awarded every decoration—""A battle-scarred five-thousand-ton battle unit would be ill at ease in a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue," I said. "For better or worse, my chromalloy body and I are joined. Even if I had a human body again, I couldn't sit on a veranda and sip a whiskey sour, knowing what was waiting—out there. So I'm going to meet it, instead. How many are going with me?"And the answer was a mighty roar in many tongues, from many ages—the voice of Man, that would soon be heard among the stars. 
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