A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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Thunderhead1It was a small room, with an uneven floor, exposed, hand-hewn ceiling beams, a rough fieldstone fireplace. There was furniture: a narrow bunk, a table, a bookcase, straight-backed chairs, all meticulously dusted. A pot of sickly snow-flowers stood in the center of the table. A thick quartz window in a vacuum-tight alloy frame was set in the south wall—a salvaged DV port from a deep-space liner. The view through the window was of black night, whirling snowflakes, a moonlit mountain peak thrusting up towards the sprawling configuration of the constellation Angina Doloris.Beside the window, a compact Navy issue WFP transmitter was set up on a small gray-metal desk. The man standing before it was tall, wide-shouldered, with graying hair, still straight-backed, but thickening through the body now. He studied the half-dozen instrument faces, then seated himself, began noting their readings in a worn notebook. As he worked, the teen-aged boy who stood beside him watched intently."I've been working on my Blue codes, Lieutenant Carnaby," the lad was saying. "I'll bet I could pass the Academy exam now." His eager tone changed. "You s'pose I'll ever get the chance, Lieutenant?""Sure, Terry," Carnaby said. His voice was deep, husky. "A Navy ship's bound to call here, any time now."The boy stood by as Carnaby depressed the tape key which would send the recorded call letters of the one-man station flashing outward as a shaped wavefront, propagated at the square of the speed of light."Lieutenant," the boy said, "every night you send out your call. How come you never get an answer?"Carnaby shook his head. "I don't know, Terry. Maybe they're too busy fighting the Djann to check in with every little JN beacon station on the Outline.""You said after five years they were supposed to come back and pick you up," the boy persisted. "Why—"There was a sharp, wavering tone from the round, wiremesh covered speaker. A dull red light winked on, blinked in a rapid flutter, settled down to a steady glow. The audio signal firmed to a raucous buzz."Lieutenant!" Terry blurted. "Something's coming in!"Swiftly, Carnaby thumbed the big S-R key to RECEIVE, flipped the selector lever to UNSC, snapped a switch tagged RCD." . . . riority, to all stations," a voice faint with distance whispered through a rasp and crackle of star-static. "Cincsec One-two-oh to . . . Cincfleet Nine . . . serial one-oh-four . . . stations copy . . . Terem Aldo . . . Terem . . . pha . . . this . . . message . . . two . . . Part One . . ." "What is it, Lieutenant?" The boy's voice broke with excitement."A Fleet Action signal," Carnaby said tensely. "An all-station, recorded. I'm taping it; if they repeat it a couple of times, I'll get it all."They listened, heads close to the speaker grille; the voice faded and swelled. It reached the end of the message, began again: "Red priority . . . tions . . . incsec One-two . . ." The message repeated five times; then the voice ceased. The wavering carrier hum went on another five seconds, cut off. The red light winked out. Carnaby flipped over the SEND key, twisted the selector to VOC-SQ."JN 37 Ace Trey to Cincsec One-two-oh," he transmitted in a tense voice. "Acknowledging receipt Fleet TX 104. Request clarification."Then he waited, his face taut, for a reply to his transmission, which had been automatically taped, condensed to a one-microsecond squawk, and repeated ten times at one-second intervals."No good," Carnaby shook his head after a silent minute had passed. "From the sound of the Fleet beam, Cincsec One-two-oh must be a long way from here.""Try again, Lieutenant! Tell 'em you're here, tell 'em it's time they came back for you! Tell 'em—""They can't hear me, Terry." Carnaby's face was tight. "I haven't got the power to punch across that kind of distance." He keyed the playback. The filtered composite signal came through clearly now:Red priority to all stations. Cincsec One-two-oh to Rim HQ via Cincfleet Nine-two. All Fleet stations copy. Pass to Terem Aldo Cerise, Terem Alpha Two, and ancillaries. This message in two parts. Part one: CTF Forty-one reports breakthrough of Djann armed tender on standard vector three-three-seven, mark; three-oh-five, mark; oh-four-two. This is a Category One Alert. Code G applies. Class Four through Nine stations stand by on Status Green. Part Two. Inner Warning Line units divert all traffic lanes three-four through seven-one. Outer Beacon Line stations activate main beacon, pulsing code schedule gamma eight. Message ends. All stations acknowledge.""What's all that mean, Lieutenant?" Terry's eyes seemed to bulge with excitement."It means I'm going to get some exercise, Terry.""Exercise how?"Carnaby took out a handkerchief and wiped it across his forehead. "That was a general order from Sector Command. Looks like they've got a rogue bogie on the loose. I've got to put the beacon on the air."He turned to look out through the window toward the towering ramparts of the nine-thousand-foot volcanic peak gleaming white in the light of the small, brilliant moon. Terry followed Carnaby's glance."Gosh, Lieutenant—you mean you got to climb old Thunderhead?""That's where I set the beacon up, Terry," Carnaby said mildly. "On the highest ground around.""Sure—but your flitter was working then!""It's not such a tough climb, Terry. I've made it a few times, just to check on things." He was studying the rugged contour of the moonlit steep, which resembled nothing so much as a mass of snowy cumulus. There was snow on the high ledges, but the wind would have scoured the east face clear."Not in the last five years, you haven't, Lieutenant!" Terry sounded agitated."I haven't had a Category One Alert, either," Carnaby smiled."Maybe they didn't mean you," Terry said."They called for Outer Beacon Line stations. That's me.""They don't expect you to do it on foot," Terry protested. "Not this time o' year!"Carnaby looked at the boy, smiling slightly. "I guess maybe they do, Terry.""Then they're wrong!" Terry's thin face looked pale. "Don't go, Lieutenant!""It's my job, Terry. It's what I'm here for. You know that.""What if you never got the message?" Terry countered. "What if the radio went on the blink, like all the rest of the stuff you brought in here with you—the flitter, and the food unit, and the scooter? Then nobody'd expect you to get yourself killed—""But it didn't," Carnaby reminded him gently.Terry stared at the older man; his mouth worked as though he wanted to speak, but couldn't find the words. "I'll go with you," he said.Carnaby shook his head. "Thanks, Terry. But you're just a boy. I need a man along on this trip."Terry's narrow face tightened. "Boy, hell," he said defiantly. "I'm seventeen!""I didn't mean anything, Terry. Just that I need a man who's had some trail experience.""How'm I going to get any trail experience, Lieutenant, if I don't start sometime?""Better to start with an easier climb than Thunderhead," Carnaby said gently. "You better go along home now, Terry. Your uncle will be getting worried.""When . . . when you leaving, Lieutenant?""Early. I'll need all the daylight I can get to make Halliday's Roost by sundown."   2 After the boy had gone, Carnaby went to the storage room at the rear of the small house, checked over the meager store of issue supplies. He examined the cold-suit, shook his head over the brittleness of the wiring. At least it had been a loose fit; he'd still be able to get into it.He left the house then, walked alone up the steep, unpaved street, past the half-dozen ramshackle stores that made up the business district of the single surviving settlement on the frontier planet Longone.At Maverik's store, the evening's card game had broken up, but half a dozen men still sat around the old hydrogen space heater. They looked up casually."I need a man," Carnaby said without preamble. "I've got a climb to make in the morning. A Fleet unit in Deep Space has scared up a Djann blockade runner. My orders are to activate the beacon.""Orders, eh?" Sal Maverik spoke up. He was a big-faced man with quick, sly eyes. "I don't reckon any promotion orders were included?" He was grinning openly at Carnaby."Not this time," Carnaby said mildly."Twenty-one years in grade," Sal said genially. "Must be some kind of record." He took out a toothpick and plied it on a back tooth. "Twenty-one years, with no transfer, no replacement, not even a letter from home. I figured they'd forgot you're out here, Carnaby.""Shut up, Sal." The man named Harry frowned at Carnaby. "Orders, you said, Jim? You mean you picked up a Navy signal?"Carnaby nodded. "I just need a man along to help me pack gear as far as Halliday's Roost.""You gone nuts, Carnaby?" Sal Maverik growled. "Nobody in his right mind would tackle that damned rock after first snow, even if he had a reason.""Halliday's hut ought to still be standing," Carnaby said. "We can overnight there, and—""Jimmy, wait a minute," Harry said. "All this about orders, and climbing old Thunderhead; it don't make sense! You mean after all these years they pick you to pull a damn fool stunt like that?""It's a general order to all Outer Line stations. They don't know my flitter's out of action."Harry shook his head. "Forget it, Jimmy. Nobody can make a climb like that at this time of year.""Fleet wants that beacon on the air," Carnaby said. "I guess they've got a reason; maybe a good reason."Maverik spat loudly in the direction of a sand-filled can. "You been sporting that badge for the last twenty years around here," he said. "It's time you turned it in, Carnaby." He riffled the cards in his hand. "I'll play you a hand of showdown for it."Carnaby rubbed a thumb across the tiny jeweled comet in his lapel, smiled slightly. "Fleet property, Sal," he said.The big-faced man showed a glint of gold tooth in a sardonic smile. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I forgot.""Listen, Jim," Harry said urgently. "I remember when you first came here, a young kid still in your twenties, fresh out of the Academy. Five years you was to be here; they've left you to rot for twenty! Now they come in with this piece of tomfoolery. Well, to hell with 'em! After five years, all bets were off. You got no call to risk your neck—""It's still my job, Harry."Harry rose and came over to Carnaby. He put a hand on the big man's shoulder. "Let's quit pretending, Jim," he said softly. "They're never coming back for you, you know that. The high tide of the Concordiat dropped you here. For twenty years the traffic's been getting sparser, the transmitters dropping off the air. Adobe's deserted now, and Petreac. Another few years and Longone'll be dead, too.""We're not dead yet.""That message might have come from the other end of the Galaxy, Jim! For all you know, it's been on the way for a hundred years!"Carnaby faced him, a big, solidly-built man with a lined face. "You could be right on all counts," he said. "It wouldn't change anything."Harry sighed, turned away. "If I was twenty years younger, I might go along, just to keep you company, Jimmy. But I'm not. I'm old." He turned back to face Carnaby. "Like you, Jim. Too old.""Thanks anyway, Harry," Carnaby looked at the other men in the room, nodded slowly. "Sal's right," he said. "It's my lookout, and nobody else's." He turned and pushed back out into the windy street, headed home to make his preparations for the climb.   3 Aboard the Armed Picket Malthusa, five million tons, nine months out of Fleet HQ at Van Diemen's World on a routine Deep Space sweep, Signal Lieutenant Pryor, junior communications officer on message deck duty, listened to the playback of the brief transmission the duty NCOIC had called to his attention:"JN 37 Ace Trey to Cincsec One . . . Fleet TX . . . clarification," the voice came through with much crackling."That's all I could get out of it, Lieutenant," the signal-man said. "I wouldn't have picked that up, if I hadn't been filtering the Y band looking for AK's on 104."The officer punched keys, scanned a listing that flashed onto the small screen on his panel."There's no JN 37 Ace Trey listed, Charlie," he said. He keyed the playback, listened to the garbled message again."Maybe it's some outworld sheepherder amusing himself.""With WFP equipment? On Y channel?" the NCO furrowed his forehead."Yeah." The lieutenant frowned. "See if you can get back to him with a station query, Charlie. See who this guy is.""I'll try, sir; but he came in with six-millisec lag. That puts him halfway from here to Rim."The lieutenant crossed the room with the NCO, stood by as the latter sent the standard Confirm ID code. There was no reply."I guess we lost him, sir. You want me to log him?""No, don't bother."The big repeater panel chattered then and the officer hurried back to his console, settled down to the tedious business of transmitting follow-up orders to the fifty-seven-hundred Fleet Stations of the Inner Line.   4 The orange sun of Longone was still below the eastern horizon when Carnaby came out the gate to the road. Terry Sickle was there, muffled to his ears in an oversized parka, waiting for him."You got to get up early to beat me out, Lieutenant," he said in a tone of forced jocularity."What are you doing here, Terry?""I heard you still need a man," the lad said, less cocky now.Carnaby started to shake his head and Terry cut in with: "I can help pack some of the gear you'll need to try the high slope.""Terry, go on back home, son. That mountain's no place for you.""How'm I going to qualify for the Fleet when your ship comes, Lieutenant, if I don't start getting some experience?""I appreciate it, Terry. It's good to know I have a friend. But—""Lieutenant—what's a friend, if he can't help you when you need it?""I need you here when I get back, to have a hot meal waiting for me, Terry.""Lieutenant . . ." All the spring had gone from the boy's stance. "I've known you all my life. All I ever wanted was to be with you, on Navy business. If you go up there, alone . . ."Carnaby looked at the boy, the dejected slump of his thin shoulders."Your uncle know you're here, Terry?""Sure. Uh, he thought it was a fine idea, me going with you."Carnaby looked at the boy's anxious face."All right, then, Terry, if you want to," he said at last. "As far as Halliday's Roost.""Oh, boy, Lieutenant! We'll have a swell time. I'm a good climber, you'll see!" He grinned from ear to ear, squinting through the early gloom at Carnaby. "Hey, Lieutenant, you're rigged out like a real . . ." he broke off. "I thought you'd, uh, wore out all your issue gear," he finished lamely."Seemed like for this trek I ought to be in uniform," Carnaby said. "And the cold-suit will feel good, up on the high slopes."The two moved off down the dark street. The lights were still on in Sal Maverik's general store. The door opened as they came up; Sal emerged, carrying a flour sack, his mackinaw collar turned up around his ears. He swung to stare at Carnaby."Hey, by God! Look at him, dressed fit to kill!"Carnaby and Terry brushed past the thick-set man."Carnaby," Sal raised his voice, "was this poor kid the best you could get to hold your hand?""What do you mean, poor kid?" Terry started. Carnaby caught his arm."We're on official business, Terry," he said. "Eyes front.""Playing Navy, hah? That's a hot one," the storekeeper called after the two. "What kind of orders you get? To take a goony-bird census, up in the foothills?""Don't pay any attention, Lieutenant," Terry said, his voice unsteady. "He's as full of meanness as a rotten meal-spud is weevils.""He's had some big disappointments in his life, Terry. That makes a man bitter.""I guess you did, too, Lieutenant. It ain't made you mean." Terry looked sideways at Carnaby. "I don't reckon you beat out the competition to get an Academy appointment and then went through eight years of training just for this." He made a gesture that took in the sweep of the semi-arid landscape stretching away to the big world's far horizon, broken only by the massive outcroppings of the pale, convoluted lava cores spaced at intervals of a few miles along a straight fault line that extended as far as men had explored the desolate world.Carnaby laughed softly. "No, I had big ideas about seeing the Galaxy, making Fleet Admiral, and coming home covered with gold braid and glory.""You leave any folks behind, Lieutenant?" Terry inquired, waxing familiar in the comradeship of the trail."No wife. There was a girl. And my half brother, Tom. A nice kid. He'd be over forty, now."The dusky sun was up now, staining the rounded, lumpy flank of Thunderhead a deep scarlet. Carnaby and Sickle crossed the first rock slope, entered the broken ground where the prolific rock lizards eyed them as they approached, then heaved themselves from their perches, scuttled away into the black shadows of the deep crevices opened in the porous rock by the action of ten million years of wind and sand erosion on thermal cracks.Five hundred feet above the plain, Carnaby looked back at the settlement; only a mile away, it was almost lost against the titanic spread of empty wilderness."Terry, why don't you go on back now," he said. "Your uncle will have a nice breakfast waiting for you.""I'm looking forward to sleeping out," the boy said confidently. "We better keep pushing, or we won't make the Roost by dark."5 In the Officer's off-duty bay, Signal Lieutenant Pryor straightened from over the billiard table as the nasal voice of the command deck yeoman broke into the recorded dance music:"Now hear this. Commodore Broadly will address the ship's company.""Ten to one he says we've lost the bandit," Supply Captain Aaron eyed the annunciator panel."Gentlemen," the sonorous tones of the ship's commander sounded relaxed, unhurried. "We now have a clear track on the Djann blockade runner, which indicates he will attempt to evade our Inner Line defenses and lose himself in Rim territory. In this, I propose to disappoint him. I have directed Colonel Lancer to launch interceptors to take up station along a conic, subsuming thirty degrees on axis from the presently constructed vector. We may expect contact in approximately three hours' time." A recorded bos'n's whistle shrilled the end-of-message signal."So?" Aaron raised his eyebrows. "A three-million-tonner swats a ten-thousand-ton side-boat. Big deal.""That boat can punch just as big a hole in the blockade as a Super-D," Pryor said. "Not that the Djann have any of those left to play with.""We kicked the damned spiders back into their home system ten years ago," Aaron said tiredly. "In my opinion, the whole Containment operation's a boondoggle to justify a ten-million-man Fleet.""As long as there are any of them alive, they're a threat," Pryor repeated the slogan."Well, Broadly sounds as though he's got the bogie in the bag," Aaron yawned."Maybe he has," Pryor addressed the ball carefully, sent the ivory sphere cannoning against the target. "He wouldn't go on record with it if he didn't think he was on to a sure thing.""He's a disappointed 'ceptor jockey. What makes him think that pirate won't duck back of a blind spot and go dead?""It's worth a try—and if he nails it, it will be a feather in his cap.""Another star on his collar, you mean.""Uh-huh, that too.""We're wasting our time," Aaron said. "But that's his lookout. Six ball in the corner pocket."6 As Commodore Broadly turned away from the screen on which he had delivered his position report to the crew of the great war vessel, his eye met that of his executive officer. The latter shifted his gaze uneasily."Well, Roy, you expect me to announce to all hands that Cincfleet has committed a major blunder in letting this bandit slip through the picket line?" he demanded with some asperity."Certainly not, sir." The officer looked worried. "But in view of the seriousness of the breakout . . .""There are some things better kept in the highest command channels," the commodore said shortly. "You and I are aware of the grave consequences of a new release of their damned seed in an uncontaminated sector of the Eastern Arm. But I see no need to arouse the parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of every apprentice technician aboard by an overly candid disclosure of the facts!""I thought Containment had done its job by now," the captain said. "It's been three years since the last Djann sighting outside the Reservation. It seems we're not the only ones who're keeping things under our hats."Broadly frowned. "Mmmm. I agree, I'm placed at something of a disadvantage in my tactical planning by the over-secretiveness of the General Staff. However, there can be no two opinions as to the correctness of my present course."The exec glanced ceilingward. "I hope so, sir.""Having the admiral aboard makes you nervous, does it, Roy?" Broadly said in a tone of heartiness. "Well, I regard it merely as an opportunity better to display Malthusa's capabilities.""Commodore, you don't think it would be wise to coordinate with the admiral on this—""I'm in command of this vessel," Broadly said sharply. "I'm carrying the vice admiral as supercargo, nothing more!""He's still Task Group CINC . . .""I'm comming this ship, Roy, not Old Carbuncle!" Broadly rocked on his heels, watching the screen where a quadrangle of bright points representing his interceptor squadron fanned out, on an intersecting course with the fleeing Djann vessel. "I'll pinch off this breakthrough single-handed; and all of us will share in the favorable attention the operation will bring us!"7 In his quarters on the VIP deck, the vice admiral studied the Operational Utter Top Secret dispatch which had been handed to him five minutes earlier by his staff signal major."It looks as though this is no ordinary boatload of privateers." He looked soberly at the elderly communicator. "They're reported to be carrying a new weapon of unassessed power, and a cargo of spore racks that will knock Containment into the next continuum.""It doesn't look good, sir," the major wagged his head."I note that the commodore has taken action according to the manual." The admiral's voice was noncommittal.The major frowned. "Let's hope that's sufficient, Admiral.""It should be. The bogie's only a converted tender. She couldn't be packing much in the way of firepower in that space, secret weapon or no secret weapon.""Have you mentioned this aspect to the commodore, sir?""Would it change anything, Ben?""Nooo. I suppose not.""Then we'll let him carry on without any more cause for jumpiness than the presence of a vice admiral on board is already providing."   8 Crouched in his fitted acceleration cradle aboard the Djann vessel, the One-Who-Commands studied the motion of the charged molecules in the sensory tank before him."Now the death-watcher dispatches his messengers," he communed with the three link brothers who formed the Chosen Crew. "Now is the hour of the testing of Djann.""Profound is the rhythm of our epic," the One-Who-Records sang out. "We are the chosen-to-be-heroic, and in our tiny cargo, Djann lives still, his future glory inherent in the convoluted spores!""It was a grave risk to put the destiny of Djann at hazard in this wild gamble," the One-Who-Refutes reminded his link brothers. "If we fail, the generations yet unborn will slumber on in darkness or perish in ice or fire.""Yet if we succeed—if the New Thing we have learned serves well its function—then will Djann live anew!""Now the death messengers of the water beings approach," the One-Who-Commands pointed out. "Link well, brothers! The energy aggregate waits for our directing impulse! Now we burn away the dross of illusion from the hypotheses of the theorists in the harsh crucible of reality!""In such a fire, the flame of Djann coruscates in unparalleled glory!" the One-Who-Records exulted. "Time has ordained this conjunction to try the timbre of our souls!""Then channel your trained faculties, brothers." The One-Who-Commands gathered his forces, feeling out delicately to the ravening nexus of latent energy contained in the thought shell poised at the center of the stressed-space field enclosing the fleeing vessel. "Hold the sacred fire, sucked from the living bodies of a million of our fellows," he exhorted. "Shape it, and hurl it in well-directed bolts at the death-bringers, for the future and glory of Djann!"   
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