A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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9 At noon, Carnaby and Sickle rested on a nearly horizontal slope of rock that curved to meet the vertical wall that swelled up and away overhead. Their faces and clothes were gray with the impalpable dust whipped up by the brisk wind. Terry spat grit from his mouth, passed a can of hot stew and a plastic water flask to Carnaby."Getting cool already," he said. "Must not be more'n ten above freezing.""We might get a little more snow before morning." Carnaby eyed the milky sky. "You'd better head back now, Terry. No point in you getting caught in a storm.""I'm in for the play," the boy said shortly. "Say, Lieutenant, you got another transmitter up there at the beacon station you might could get through on?"Carnaby shook his head. "Just the beacon tube, the lens generators, and a power pack. It's a stripped-down installation. There's a code receiver, but it's only designed to receive classified instruction input.""Too bad." They ate in silence for a few minutes, looking out over the plain below. "Lieutenant, when this is over," Sickle said suddenly, "we got to do something. There's got to be some way to remind the Navy about you being here!"Carnaby tossed the empty can aside and stood. "I put a couple of messages on the air, sub-light, years ago," he said. "That's all I can do.""Heck, Lieutenant, it takes six years, sub-light, just to make the relay station on Goy! Then if somebody happens to pick up the call and boost it, in another ten years some Navy brass might even see it. And then if he's in a good mood, he might tell somebody to look into it, next time they're out this way.""Best I could do, Terry, now that the liners don't call any more."Carnaby finished his stew, dropped the can, watched it roll off downslope, clatter over the edge, a tiny sound lost in the whine and shrill of the wind. He looked up at the rampart ahead."We better get moving," he said. "We've got a long climb to make before dark."   10 Signal Lieutenant Pryor awoke to the strident buzz of his bunkside telephone."Sir, the commodore's called a Condition Yellow," the message deck NCO informed him. "It looks like that bandit blasted through our intercept and took out two Epsilon-classes while he was at it. I got a standby from command deck, and—""I'll be right up," Pryor said quickly.Five minutes later, he stood with the on-duty signals crew, reading out an incoming from fleet. He whistled."Brother, they've got something new!" He looked at Captain Aaron. "Did you check out the vector they had to make to reach their new position in the time they've had?""Probably a foulup in Tracking." Aaron looked ruffled, routed out of a sound sleep."The commodore's counting off the scale," the NCO said. "He figured he had 'em boxed."The annunciator beeped. The yeoman announced Malthusa's commander."All right, you men." Broadly's voice had a rough edge to it now. "The enemy has an idea he can maul Fleet units and go his way unmolested. I intend to disabuse him of that notion! I'm ordering a course change. I'll maintain contact with this bandit until such time as units designated for the purpose have reported his neutralization! This vessel is under a Condition Yellow at this time, and I need not remind you that relevant sections of the manual will be adhered to with full rigor!"Pryor and Aaron looked at each other, eyebrows raised. "He must mean business, if he's willing to risk straining seams with a full-vector course change," the former said."So we pull six on and six off until he gets it out of his system," Aaron growled. "I knew this cruise wasn't going to work out, as soon as I heard Old Carbuncle would be aboard.""What's he got to do with it? Broadly's running this action.""Don't worry, he'll be in it before we're through." 11 On the upper slope, three thousand feet above the plain, Carnaby and Terry hugged the rockface, working their way upward. Aside from the steepness of the incline, the going was of no more than ordinary difficulty here; the porous rock, resistant though it was to the erosive forces that had long ago stripped away the volcanic cone of which the remaining mass had formed the core, had deteriorated in its surface sufficiently to afford easy hand- and footholds. Now Terry paused, leaning against the rock. Carnaby saw that under the layer of dust, the boy's face was pale and drawn."Not much farther, Terry," he said. He settled himself in a secure position, his feet wedged in a cleft. His own arms were feeling the strain now; there was the beginning of a slight tremor in his knees after the hours of climbing."I didn't figure to slow you down, Lieutenant." Terry's voice showed the strain of his fatigue."You've been leading me a tough chase, Terry," Carnaby grinned across at him. "I'm glad of a rest." He noted the dark hollows under the lad's eyes, the pallor of his cheeks.Sickle's tongue came out and touched his lips. "Lieutenant—you made a try—a good try. Turn back now. It's going to snow. You can't make it to the top in a blizzard."Carnaby shook his head. "It's too late in the day to start down; you'd be caught on the slope. We'll take it easy up to the Roost; in the morning you'll have an easy climb down.""Sure, Lieutenant. Don't worry about me." Terry drew a breath, shivering in the bitter wind that plucked at his snow jacket.   12 "What do you mean, lost him!" the bull roar of the commodore rattled the screen. "Are you telling me that this ragtag refugee has the capability to drop off the screens of the best-equipped tracking deck in the Fleet?""Sir," the stubborn-faced tracking officer repeated, "I can only report that my screens register nothing within the conic of search. If he's there—""He's there, Mister!" the commodore's eyes glared from under a bushy overhang of brows. "Find that bandit or face a court, Captain. I haven't diverted a ship of the Fleet Line from her course for the purpose of becoming the object of an Effectiveness Inquiry!"The tracking officer turned away from the screen as it went white, met the quizzical gaze of the visiting signal lieutenant."The old devil's bit off too big a bite this time," he growled. "Let him call a court; he wouldn't have the gall.""If we lose the bogie now, he won't look good back on Vandy," Pryor said. "This is serious business, diverting from Cruise Plan to chase rumors. I wonder if he really had a positive ID on this track.""Hell, no! There's no way to make a Positive at this range, under these conditions! After three years without any action for the newstapes, the brass are grabbing at straws.""Well, if I were you, Gordie, I'd find that track, even if it turns out to be a tramp, with a load of bootleg dran.""Don't worry. If he's inside the conic, I'll find him . . ." 13 "I guess . . . it's dropped twenty degrees . . . in the last hour," Terry Sickle's voice was almost lost in the shriek of the wind that buffeted the two men as they inched their way up the last yards toward the hut on the narrow rockshelf called Halliday's Roost."Never saw snow falling at this temperature before," Carnaby brushed at the ice caked around his eyes. Through the swirl of crystals as fine as sand, he discerned the sagging outline of the shelter above.Ten minutes later, inside the crude lean-to built of rock slabs, he set to work chinking the gaping holes in the five-foot walls with packed snow. Behind him, Terry lay huddled against the back wall, breathing hoarsely."Guess . . . I'm not in as good shape . . . as I thought I was," he said."You'll be OK, Terry." Carnaby closed the gap through which the worst of the icy draft was keening, then opened a can of stew for the boy. The fragrance of the hot meat and vegetables made his jaws ache."Lieutenant, how you going to climb in this snow?" Sickle's voice shook to the chattering of his teeth. "In good weather, you might could have made it. Like this, you haven't got a chance!""Maybe it'll be blown clear by morning," Carnaby said mildly. He opened a can for himself. Terry ate slowly, shivering uncontrollably. Carnaby watched him worriedly."Lieutenant," the boy said, "even if that call you picked up was meant for you—even if this ship they're after is headed out this way—what difference will it make one way or another if one beacon's on the air or not?""Probably none," Carnaby said. "But if there's one chance in a thousand he breaks this way—well, that's what I'm here for.""But what's a beacon going to do, except give him something to steer by?"Carnaby smiled. "It's not that kind of beacon, Terry. My station's part of a system—a big system—that covers the surface of a sphere of space a hundred lights in diameter. When there's an alert, each station locks in with the others that flank it, and sets up what's called a stressed field. There's a lot of things you can do with this field. You can detect a drive, monitor communications—""What if these other stations you're talking about aren't working?" Terry cut in."Then my station's not going to do much," Carnaby said."If the other stations are still on the air, why haven't any of them picked up your TX's and answered?"Carnaby shook his head. "We don't use the beacon field to chatter back and forth, Terry. This is a Top Security system. Nobody knows about it except the top command levels—and of course, the men manning the beacons.""Maybe that's how they came to forget about you—somebody lost a piece of paper and nobody else knew!""I shouldn't be telling you about it," Carnaby said with a smile. "But I guess you'll keep it under your hat.""You can count on me, Lieutenant," Terry said solemnly."I know I can, Terry," Carnaby said.   14 The clangor of the General Quarters alarm shattered the tense silence of the chart deck like a bomb through a plate glass window. The navigation officer whirled abruptly from the grametric over which he had been bending, collided with the deck chief. Both men leaped for the Master Position monitor, caught just a glimpse of a vivid scarlet trace lancing toward the emerald point targeted at the center of the plate before the apparatus exploded from its mounting, mowed the two men down in a hail of shattered plastic fragments. Smoke boiled, black and pungent, from the gutted cavity. The duty NCO, bleeding from a dozen gashes, stumbled toward the two men, turned away in horror, reached an emergency voice phone. Before he could key it, the deck under him canted sharply. He screamed, clutched at a table for support, saw it tilt, come crashing down on top of him . . . On the message deck, Lieutenant Pryor clung to an operator's stool, listening, through the stridency of the alarm bell, to the frantic voice from command deck:"All sections, all sections, combat stations! We're under attack! My God, we've taken a hit forward—"The voice cut off, to be replaced by the crisp tones of Colonel Lancer, first battle officer:"As you were! Sections G-987 and 989 damage control crews report! Forward armaments, safety interlocks off, stand by for firing orders! Message center, flash a code six to Fleet and TF Command. Power section, all selectors to gate, rig for full emergency power . . ."Pryor hauled himself hand-over-hand to the main message console; the body of the code yeoman hung slackly in the seat harness, blood dripping from the fingertips of his dangling hand. Pryor freed him, took his place. He keyed the code six alarm into the pulse-relay tanks, triggered an emergency override signal, beamed the message outward toward the distant Fleet headquarters.On the command deck, Commodore Broadly clutched a sprained wrist to his chest, stood, teeth bared, feet braced apart, staring into the forward imagescreen at the dwindling point of light that was the Djann blockade runner."The effrontery of the damned scoundrel!" he roared. "Lancer, launch another covey of U-95's! You've got over five hundred megaton-seconds of firepower, man! Use it!""He's out of range, Commodore," Lancer said coolly. "He booby-trapped us very neatly.""It's your job to see that we don't blunder into traps, by God, Colonel!" He rounded on the battle officer. "You'll stop that pirate or I'll rip those eagles off your shoulders myself!"Lancer's mouth was a hard line; his eyes were ice chips."You can relieve me, Commodore," his voice grated. "Until you do, I'm battle commander aboard this vessel.""By God, you're relieved, sir!" Broadly yelled. He whirled on the startled exec standing by. "Confine this officer to his quarters! Order full emergency acceleration! This vessel's on Condition Red at Full Combat Alert until we overtake and destroy that sneaking snake in the grass!""Commodore—at full emergency without warning, there'll be men injured, even killed—""Carry out my commands, Captain, or I'll find someone who will!" the commodore's bellow cut off the exec. "I'll show that filthy, sneaking pack of spiders what it means to challenge a Terran fighting ship!"On the power deck, Chief Powerman Joe Arena wiped the cut on his forehead, stared at the bloody rag, hurled it aside with a curse."All right, you one-legged deck apes!" he roared. "You heard it! We're going after the bandit, full gate—and if we melt our linings down to slag, I'll have every man of you sign a statement of charges that'll take your grandchildren two hundred years to pay off!"   15 In the near-darkness of the Place of Observation aboard the Djann vessel, the ocular complex of the One-Who-Commands glowed with a dim red sheen as he studied the apparently black surface of the sensitive plate. "The death watcher has eaten our energy weapon," he communicated to his three link brothers. "Now our dooms are in the palps of the fate spinner.""The death watcher of the water beings might have passed us by," the One-Who-Anticipates signaled. "It was an act of rashness to hurl the weapon at it.""It will make a mighty song," the One-Who-Records thrummed his resonator plates, tried a melancholy bass chord."But what egg-carrier will exude the brood-nourishing honeys of strength and sagacity in response to these powerful rhymes, if the stimulus to their creation leads us to quick extinction?" the One-Who-Refutes queried."In their own brief existence, these harmonies find their justification," the One-Who-Records attested."The death watcher shakes himself," the One-Who-Commands stated. "Now he turns in pursuit."The One-Who-Records emitted a booming tone. "Gone are the great suns of Djann," he sang. "Lost are the fair worlds that knew their youth. But the spark of their existence glows still!""Now we fall outward, toward the Great Awesomeness," the One-Who-Anticipates commented. "Only the blackness will know your song.""Draw in your energies from that-which-is-extraneous," the One-Who-Commands ordered. "Focus the full poignancy of your intellects on the urgency of our need for haste. All else is vain, now. Neither singer nor song will survive the vengeance of the death watcher if he outstrips our swift flight!""Though Djann and water being perish, my poem is eternal," the One-Who-Records emitted a stirring assonance. "Fly, Djann! Pursue, death watcher! Let the suns observe how we comport ourselves in this hour!""Exhort the remote nebulosities to attend our plight, if you must," the One-Who-Refutes commented. "But link your energies to ours or all is lost."Silent now, the Djann privateer fled outward toward the Rim.   16 Carnaby awoke, lay in darkness listening to the wheezing of Terry Sickle's breath. The boy didn't sound good. Carnaby sat up, suppressing a grunt at the stiffness of his limbs. The icy air seemed stale. He moved to the entry, lifted the polyon flap. A cascade of powdery snow poured in. Beyond the opening a faint glow filtered down through banked snow.He turned back to Terry as the latter coughed deeply, again and again."Looks like the snow's quit," Carnaby said. "It's drifted pretty bad, but there's no wind now. How are you feeling, Terry?""Not so good, Lieutenant," Sickle said weakly. He breathed heavily, in and out. "I don't know what's got into me. Feel hot and cold at the same time."Carnaby stripped off his glove, put his hand on Sickle's forehead. It was scalding hot."You just rest easy here for a while, Terry. There's a couple more cans of stew, and plenty of water. I'll make it up to the top as quickly as I can. Soon as I get back, we'll go down together. With luck, I'll have you to Doc Link's house by dark.""I guess . . . I guess I should have done like Doc said," Terry's voice was a thin whisper."What do you mean?""I been taking these hyposprays. Two a day. He said I better not miss one, but heck, I been feeling real good lately—""What kind of shots, Terry?" Carnaby's voice was tight."I don't know. Heck, Lieutenant, I'm no invalid! Or . . ." his voice trailed off."You should have told me, Terry.""Gosh, Lieutenant—don't worry about me! I didn't mean nothing! Hell, I feel . . ." he broke off to cough deeply, rackingly."I'll get you back, Terry—but I've got to go up first," Carnaby said. "You understand that, don't you?"Terry nodded. "A man's got to do his job, Lieutenant. I'll be waiting . . . for you . . . when you get back.""Listen to me carefully, Terry." Carnaby's voice was low. "If I'm not back by this time tomorrow, you'll have to make it back down by yourself. You understand? Don't wait for me.""Sure, Lieutenant, I'll just rest awhile. Then I'll be OK.""Sooner I get started the sooner I'll be back." Carnaby took a can from the pack, opened it, handed it to Terry. The boy shook his head."You eat it, Lieutenant. You need your strength. I don't feel like I . . . could eat anything anyway.""Terry, I don't want to have to pry your mouth open and pour it in.""All right . . . but open one for yourself too . . .""All right, Terry."Sickle's hand trembled as he spooned the stew to his mouth. He ate half of the contents of the can, then leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes. "That's all . . . I want . . .""All right, Terry. You get some rest now. I'll be back before you know it." Carnaby crawled out through the opening, pushed his way up through loosely drifted snow. The cold struck his face like a spiked club. He turned the suit control up another notch, noticing as he did that the left side seemed to be cooler than the right.The near-vertical rise of the final crown of the peak thrust up from the drift, dazzling white in the morning sun. Carnaby examined the rockface for twenty feet on either side of the hut, picked a spot where a deep crack angled upward, started the last leg of the climb.   17 On the message deck, Lieutenant Pryor frowned into the screen from which the saturnine features of Captain Aaron gazed back sourly."The commodore's going to be unhappy about this," Pryor said. "If you're sure your extrapolation is accurate—""It's as good as the data I got from Plotting," Aaron snapped. "The bogie's over the make-or-break line; we'll never catch him now. You know your trans-Einsteinian physics as well as I do.""I never heard of the Djann having anything capable of that kind of acceleration," Pryor protested."You have now." Aaron switched off and keyed command deck, passed his report to the exec, then sat back with a resigned expression to await the reaction.Less than a minute later, Commodore Broadly's irate face snapped onto the screen."You're the originator of this report?" he growled."I did the extrapolation," Aaron stared back at his commanding officer."You're relieved for incompetence," Broadly said in a tone as harsh as a handsaw."Yessir," Aaron said. His face was pale, but he returned the commodore's stare. "But my input data and comps are a matter of record. I'll stand by them."Broadly's face darkened. "Are you telling me these spiders can spit in our faces and skip off, scot-free?""All I'm saying, sir, is that the present acceleration ratios will keep the target ahead of us, no matter what we do."Broadly's face twitched. "This vessel is at full emergency gain," he growled. "No Djann has ever outrun a Fleet unit in a straightaway run.""This one is . . . sir."The commodore's eyes bore into Aaron's. "Remain on duty until further notice," he said, and switched off. Aaron smiled crookedly and buzzed the message deck."He backed down," he said to Pryor. "We've got a worried commodore on board.""I don't understand it myself," Pryor said. "How the hell is that can outgaining us?""He's not," Aaron said complacently. "From a standing start, we'd overhaul him in short order. But he got the jump on us by a couple of minutes, after he lobbed the fish into us. If we'd been able to close the gap in the first half hour or so, we'd have had him; but at trans-L velocities, you can get some strange effects. One of them is that our vectors become asymptotic. We're closing on him—but we'll never overtake him."Pryor whistled. "Broadly could be busted for this fiasco.""Uh-huh," Aaron grinned. "Could be—unless the bandit stops off somewhere for a quick one . . ."After Aaron rang off, Pryor turned to study the position repeater screen. On it Malthusa was represented by a bright point at the center, the fleeing Djann craft by a red dot above."Charlie," Pryor called the NCOIC. "That garbled TX we picked up last watch; where did you R and D it?""Right about here, Lieutenant." The NCO flicked a switch and turned knobs; a green dot appeared near the upper edge of the screen."Hey," he said. "It looks like maybe our bandit's headed out his way.""You picked him up on the Y band; have you tried to raise him again?""Yeah, but nothing doing, Lieutenant. It was just a fluke—""Get a Y beam on him, Charlie. Focus it down to a cat's whisker and work a pattern over a one-degree radius centered around his MPP until you get an echo.""If you say so, sir—but—""I do say so, Charlie! Find that transmitter, and the drinks are on me!"   18 Flat against the windswept rockface, Carnaby clung with his fingertips to a tenuous hold, feeling with one booted toe for a purchase higher up. A flake of stone broke away, and for a moment he hung by the fingers of his right hand, his feet dangling over emptiness; then, swinging his right leg far out, he hooked a knob with his knee, caught a rocky rib with his free hand, pulled himself up to a more secure rest. He clung, his cheek against the iron-cold stone; out across the vast expanse of featureless grayish-tan plain, the gleaming whipped-cream shape of the next core rose ten miles to the south. A wonderful view up here—of nothing. Funny to think it could be his last. H was out of condition. It had been too long since his last climb.But that wasn't the way to think. He had a job to do—the first in twenty-one years. For a moment, ghostly recollections rose up before him: the trim Academy lawns, the spit-and-polish of inspection, the crisp feel of the new uniform, the glitter of the silver comet as Anne had pinned it on . . . That was no good either. What counted was here: the station up above. One more push, and he'd be there. He rested for another half minute, then pulled himself up and forward, onto the relatively mild slope of the final approach to the crest. Fifty yards above, the dull-gleaming plastron-coated dome of the beacon station squatted against the exposed rock, looking no different than it had five years earlier.Ten minutes later he was at the door, flicking the combination latch dial with cold-numbed fingers. Tumblers clicked, and the panel slid aside. The heating system, automatically reacting to his entrance, started up with a busy hum to bring the interior temperature up to comfort level. He pulled off his gauntlets, ran his hands over his face, rasping the stubble there. There was coffee in the side table, he remembered. Fumblingly, with stiff fingers, he got out the dispenser, twisted the control cap, poured out a steaming mug, gulped it down. It was hot and bitter. The grateful warmth of it made him think of Terry, waiting down below in the chill of the half-ruined hut."No time to waste," he muttered to himself. He stamped up and down the room, swinging his arms to warm himself, then seated himself at the console, flicked keys with a trained ease rendered only slightly rusty by the years of disuse. He referred to an index, found the input instructions for code gamma eight, set up the boards, flipped in the pulse lever. Under his feet, he felt the faint vibration as the power pack buried in the rock stored its output for ten microseconds, fired it in a single millisecond burst, stored and pulsed again. Dim instrument lights winked on, indicating normal readings all across the board.Carnaby glanced at the wall clock. He had been here ten minutes now. It would take another quarter hour to comply with the manual's instructions—but to hell with that gobbledygook. He'd put the beacon on the air; this time the Navy would have to settle for that. It would be pushing it to get back to the boy and pack him down to the village by nightfall as it was. Poor kid; he'd wanted to help so badly . . .    
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