A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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28 Stunned by the direct hit from the energy weapon of the water being, the One-Who-Records fought his way upward through a universe shot through with whirling shapes of fire, to emerge on a plateau of mortal agony.He tried to move, was shocked into paralysis by the cacophony of conflicting motor- and sense-impressions from shattered limbs and organs.Then I, too, die, the thought came to him with utter finality. And with me dies the once-mighty song of Djann . . . Failing, his mind groped outward, calling in vain for the familiar touch of his link brothers—and abruptly, a sharp sensation impinged on his sensitivity complex. Concepts of strange and alien shape drifted into his mind, beating at him with compelling urgency; concepts from a foreign brain:Youth, aspirations, the ring of the bugle's call to arms. A white palace rearing up into yellow sunlight; a bright banner, rippling against the blue sky, and the shadows of great trees ranked on green lawns. The taste of grapes, and an odor of flowers; night, and the moon reflected from still water; the touch of a soft hand and the face of a woman, invested with a supernal beauty; chords of a remote music that spoke of the inexpressibly desirable, the irretrievably lost . . . "Have we warred then, water beings?" the One-Who-Records sent his thought outward. "We who might have been brothers . . . ?" With a mighty effort, he summoned his waning strength, sounded a final chord in tribute to that which had been, and was no more.   29 Carnaby opened his eyes and looked at the dead Djann lying in the crumpled position of its final agony against the wall of the hut, not six feet from him. For a moment, a curious sensation of loss plucked at his mind."Sorry, fellow," he muttered aloud. "I guess you were doing what you had to do, too."He stood, felt the ground sway under his feet. His head was light, hot; a sharp, clear humming sounded in his ears. He took a step, caught himself as his knees tried to buckle."Damn it, no time to fall out now," he grunted. He moved past the alien body, paused by the door to the shed. A waft of warm air caressed his cold-numbed face."Could go inside," he muttered. "Wait there. Ship along in a few hours, maybe. Pick me up . . ." He shook his head angrily. "Job's not done yet," he said clearly, addressing the white gleam of the ten-mile-distant peak known as Cream Top. "Just a little longer, Terry," he added. "I'm coming."Painfully, Carnaby made his way to the edge of the plateau, and started down.   30 "We'd better make shift to sub-L now, Admiral," Drew said, strain showing in his voice. "We're cutting it fine as it is.""Every extra minute at full gain saves a couple of hours," the vice admiral came back."That won't help us if we kick out inside the Delta limit and blow ourselves into free ions," the general said coolly."You've made your point, General!" The admiral kept his eyes fixed on his instruments. Half a minute ticked past. Then he nodded curtly."All right, kick us out," he snapped, "and we'll see where we stand."The hundred-ton interceptor shuddered as the distorters whined down the scale, allowing the stressed-space field that had enclosed the vessel to collapse. A star swam suddenly into the visible spectrum, blazing at planetary distance off the starboard bow at three o'clock high."Our target's the second body, there." He pointed. The co-pilot nodded and punched the course into the panel."What would you say, another hour?" the admiral bit off the words."Make it two," the other replied shortly. He glanced up, caught the admiral's eye on him."Kidding ourselves won't change anything," he said steadily.Admiral Carnaby narrowed his eyes, opened his mouth to speak, then clamped his jaw shut."I guess I've been a little snappy with you, George," he said. "I'll ask your pardon. That's my brother down there.""Your . . . ?" the general's features tightened. "I guess I said some stupid things myself, Tom." He frowned at the instruments, busied himself adjusting course for an MIT approach to the planet.   31 Carnaby half jumped, half fell the last few yards to the narrow ledge called Halliday's Roost, landed awkwardly in a churn of powdered wind-driven snow. For a moment, he lay sprawled, then gathered himself, made it to his feet, tottered to the hollow concealing the drifted entrance to the hut. He lowered himself, crawled down into the dark, clammy interior."Terry," he called hoarsely. A wheezing breath answered him. He felt his way to the boy's side, groped over him. He lay on his side, his legs curled against his chest."Terry!" Carnaby pulled the lad to a sitting position, felt him stir feebly. "Terry, I'm back! We have to go now, Terry . . .""I knew . . ." the boy stopped to draw an agonizing breath, "you'd come . . ." He groped, found Carnaby's hand.Carnaby fought the dizziness that threatened to close in on him. He was cold—colder than he had ever been. The climbing hadn't warmed him. The side wasn't bothering him much now; he could hardly feel it. But he couldn't feel his hands and feet, either. They were like stumps, good for nothing . . . Clumsily, he backed through the entry, bodily hauling Terry with him.Outside the wind lashed at him like frozen whips. Carnaby raised Terry to his feet. The boy leaned against him, slid down, crumpled to the ground."Terry, you've got to try," Carnaby gasped out. His breath seemed to freeze in his throat. "No time . . . to waste . . . got to get you to . . . Doc Link . . .""Lieutenant . . . I . . . can't . . .""Terry . . . you've got to try!" He lifted the boy to his feet."I'm . . . scared . . . Lieutenant . . ." Terry stood swaying, his slight body quivering, his knees loose."Don't worry, Terry." Carnaby guided the boy to the point from which they would start the climb down. "Not far, now.""Lieutenant . . ." Sickle caught at Carnaby's arm. "You . . .  better . . . leave . . . me." His breath sighed in his throat."I'll go first," Carnaby heard his own voice as from a great distance. "Take . . . it easy. I'll be right there . . . to help . . ."He forced a breath of sub-zero air into his lungs. The bitter wind moaned around the shattered rock. The dusky afternoon sun shed a reddish light without heat on the long slope below."It's late," he mouthed the words with stiff lips. "It's late . . ."   32 Two hundred thousand feet above the surface of the outpost world Longone, the Fleet interceptor split the stratosphere, its receptors fine-tuned to the Djann energy-cell emission spectrum."Three hundred million square miles of desert," Admiral Carnaby said. "Except for a couple of deserted townsites, not a sign that any life ever existed here.""We'll find it, Tom," Drew said. "If they'd lifted, Malthusa would have known—hold it!" He looked up quickly, "I'm getting something—yes! It's the typical Djann idler output!""How far from us?""Quite a distance . . . now it's fading . . ."The admiral put the ship into a screaming deceleration curve that crushed both men brutally against the restraint of their shock frames."Find that signal, George," the vice admiral grated. "Find it and steer me to it, if you have to pick it out of the air with psi!""I've got it!" Drew barked. "Steer right, on 030. I'd range it at about two thousand kilometers . . ." 33 On the bald face of an outcropping of wind-scored stone, Carnaby clung one-handed to a scanty hold, supporting Terry with the other arm. The wind shrieked, buffeting at him; sand-fine snow whirled into his face, slashing at his eyes, already half-blinded by the glare. The boy slumped against him, barely conscious.His mind seemed as sluggish now as his half-frozen limbs. Somewhere below there was a ledge, with shelter from the wind. How far? Ten feet? Fifty?It didn't matter. He had to reach it. He couldn't hold on here, in this wind; in another minute he'd be done for.Carnaby pulled Terry closer, got a better grip with a hand that seemed no more a part of him than the rock against which they clung. He shifted his purchase with his right foot—and felt it slip. He was falling, grabbing frantically with one hand at the rock, then dropping through open air—The impact against drifted snow drove the air from his lungs. Darkness shot through with red fire threatened to close in on him; he fought to draw a breath, struggling in the claustrophobia of suffocation. Loose snow fell away under him, and he was sliding. With a desperate lunge, he caught a ridge of hard ice, pulled himself back from the brink, then groped, found Terry, lying on his back under the vertically rising wall of rock. The boy stirred."So . . . tired . . ." he whispered. His body arched as he struggled to draw breath.Carnaby pulled himself to a position beside the boy, propped himself with his back against the wall. Dimly, through ice-rimmed eyes, he could see the evening lights of the settlement, far below; so far . . . He put his arm around the thin body, settled the lad's head gently in his lap, leaned over him to shelter him from the whirling snow. "It's all right, Terry," he said. "You can rest now."   34 Supported on three narrow pencils of beamed force, the Fleet interceptor slowly circuited the Djann yacht, hovering on its idling null-G generators a thousand feet above the towering white mountain."Nothing alive there," the co-pilot said. "Not a whisper on the life-detection scale.""Take her down." Vice Admiral Carnaby squinted through S-R lenses which had darkened almost to opacity in response to the frost-white glare from below. "The shack looks all right, but that doesn't look like a Mark 7 Flitter parked beside it."The heavy Fleet boat descended swiftly under the expert guidance of the battle officer. At fifty feet, it leveled off, orbited the station."I count four dead Djann," the admiral said in a brittle voice."Tracks," the general pointed. "Leading off there . . .""Put her down, George!" The hundred-foot boat settled in with a crunching of rock and ice, its shark's prow overhanging the edge of the tiny plateau. The hatch cycled open; the two men emerged.At the spot where Carnaby had lain in wait for the last of the aliens, they paused, staring silently at the glossy patch of dark blood, and at the dead Djann beside it. Then they followed the irregularly spaced footprints across to the edge."He was still on his feet—but that's about all," the battle officer said."George, can you operate that Spider boat?" The admiral indicated the Djann landing sled."Certainly.""Let's go."   35 It was twilight half an hour later when the admiral, peering through the obscuring haze of blown snow, saw the snow-drifted shapes huddled in the shadow of an overhang. Fifty feet lower, the general settled the sled in to a precarious landing on a narrow shelf. It was a ten-minute climb back to their objective.Vice Admiral Carnaby pulled himself up the last yard, looked across the icy ledge at the figure in the faded blue polyon cold-suit. He saw the weathered and lined face, glazed with ice; the closed eyes, the gnarled and bloody hands, the great wound in the side.The general came up beside him, stared silently, then went forward."I'm sorry, Admiral," he said a moment later. "He's dead. Frozen. Both of them."The admiral came up, knelt at Carnaby's side."I'm sorry, Jimmy," he said. "Sorry . . .""I don't understand," the general said. "He could have stayed up above, in the station. He'd have been all right there. What in the world was he doing down here?""What he always did," Admiral Carnaby said. "His duty." End as a Hero1In the dream I was swimming in a river of white fire. The dream went on and on; and then I was awake—and the fire was still there, fiercely burning at me.I moved to get away from the flames, and the real pain hit me. I tried to go back to sleep and the relative comfort of the river of fire, but it was no go. For better or worse, I was alive and conscious.I opened my eyes and took a look around. I was on the floor next to an unpadded acceleration couch—the kind the Terrestrial Space Arm installs in seldom-used lifeboats. There were three more couches, but no one in them. I tried to sit up. It wasn't easy but, by applying a lot more will-power than should be required of a sick man, I made it. I took a look at my left arm. Baked. The hand was only medium rare, but the forearm was black, with deep red showing at the bottom of the cracks where the crisped upper layers had burst.There was a first-aid cabinet across the compartment from me. I tried my right leg, felt broken bone-ends grate with a sensation that transcended pain. I heaved with the other leg, scrabbled with the charred arm. The crawl to the cabinet dwarfed Hillary's trek up Everest, but I reached it after a couple of years, and found the microswitch on the floor that activated the thing, and then I was fading out again . . . * * *I came out of it clear-headed but weak. My right leg was numb, but reasonably comfortable, clamped tight in a walking brace. I put up a hand and felt a shaved skull, with sutures. It must have been a fracture. The left arm—well, it was still there, wrapped to the shoulder and held out stiffly by a power truss that would keep the scar tissue from pulling up and crippling me. The steady pressure as the truss contracted wasn't anything to do a sense-tape on for replaying at leisure moments, but at least the cabinet hadn't amputated. I wasn't complaining.As far as I knew, I was the first recorded survivor of contact with the Gool—if I survived.I was still a long way from home, and I hadn't yet checked on the condition of the lifeboat. I glanced toward the entry port. It was dogged shut. I could see black marks where my burned hand had been at work.I fumbled my way into a couch and tried to think. In my condition—with a broken leg and third-degree burns, plus a fractured skull—I shouldn't have been able to fall out of bed, much less make the trip from Belshazzar's CCC to the boat; and how had I managed to dog that port shut? In an emergency a man was capable of great exertions. But running on a broken femur, handling heavy levers with charred fingers and thinking with a cracked head were overdoing it. Still, I was there—and it was time to get a call through to TSA headquarters.I flipped the switch and gave the emergency call-letters Col. Ausar Kayle of Aerospace Intelligence had assigned to me a few weeks before. It was almost five minutes before the "acknowledge" came through from the Ganymede relay station, another ten minutes before Kayle's face swam into view. Even through the blur of the screen I could see the haggard look."Granthan!" he burst out. "Where are the others? What happened out there?" I turned him down to a mutter."Hold on," I said. "I'll tell you. Recorders going?" I didn't wait for an answer—not with a fifteen-minute transmission lag. I plowed on:"Belshazzar was sabotaged. So was Gilgamesh—I think. I got out. I lost a little skin, but the aid cabinet has the case in hand. Tell the Med people the drinks are on me."I finished talking and flopped back, waiting for Kayle's reply. On the screen, his flickering image gazed back impatiently, looking as hostile as a swing-shift ward nurse. It would be half an hour before I would get his reaction to my report. I dozed off—and awoke with a start. Kayle was talking."—your report. I won't mince words. They're wondering at your role in the disaster. How does it happen that you alone survived?""How the hell do I know?" I yelled—or croaked. But Kayle's voice was droning on:" . . . you Psychodynamics people have been telling me the Gool may have some kind of long-range telehypnotic ability that might make it possible for them to subvert a loyal man without his knowledge. You've told me yourself that you blacked out during the attack—and came to on the lifeboat, with no recollection of how you got there."This is war, Granthan. War against a vicious enemy who strike without warning and without mercy. You were sent out to investigate the possibility of—what's that term you use?—hypercortical invasion. You know better than most the risk I'd be running if you were allowed to pass the patrol line."I'm sorry, Granthan. I can't let you land on Earth. I can't accept the risk.""What do I do now?" I stormed. "Go into orbit and eat pills and hope you think of something? I need a doctor!"Presently Kayle replied. "Yes," he said. "You'll have to enter a parking orbit. Perhaps there will be developments soon which will make it possible to . . . ah . . . restudy the situation." He didn't meet my eye. I knew what he was thinking. He'd spare me the mental anguish of knowing what was coming. I couldn't really blame him; he was doing what he thought was the right thing. And I'd have to go along and pretend—right up until the warheads struck—that I didn't know I'd been condemned to death. 2I tried to gather my wits and think my way through the situation. I was alone and injured, aboard a lifeboat that would be the focus of a converging flight of missiles as soon as I approached within battery range of Earth. I had gotten clear of the Gool, but I wouldn't survive my next meeting with my own kind. They couldn't take the chance that I was acting under Gool orders.I wasn't, of course. I was still the same Peter Granthan, psychodynamicist, who had started out with Dayan's fleet six weeks earlier. The thoughts I was having weren't brilliant, but they were mine, all mine.But how could I be sure of that?Maybe there was something in Kayle's suspicion. If the Gool were as skillful as we thought, they would have left no overt indications of their tampering—not at a conscious level.But this was where psychodynamics training came in. I had been reacting like any scared casualty, aching to get home and lick his wounds. But I wasn't just any casualty. I had been trained in the subtleties of the mind—and I had been prepared for just such an attack.Now was the time to make use of that training. It had given me one resource. I could unlock the memories of my subconscious—and see again what had happened.I lay back, cleared my mind of extraneous thoughts, and concentrated on the trigger word that would key an autohypnotic sequence.Sense impressions faded. I was alone in the nebulous emptiness of a first-level trance. I keyed a second word, slipped below the misty surface into a dreamworld of vague phantasmagoric figures milling in their limbo of sub-conceptualization. I penetrated deeper, broke through into the vividly hallucinatory third level, where images of mirror-bright immediacy clamored for attention. And deeper . . . * * *The immense orderly confusion of the basic memory level lay before me. Abstracted from it, aloof and observant, the monitoring personality-fraction scanned the pattern, searching the polydimensional continuum for evidence of an alien intrusion.And found it.As the eye instantaneously detects a flicker of motion amid an infinity of static detail, so my inner eye perceived the subtle traces of the probing Gool mind, like a whispered touch deftly rearranging my buried motivations.I focused selectively, tuned to the recorded gestalt."It is a contact, Effulgent One!""Softly, now! Nurture the spark well. It but trembles at the threshold . . .""It is elusive, Master! It wriggles like a gorm-worm in the eating trough!"A part of my mind watched as the memory unreeled. I listened to the voices—yet not voices, merely the shape of concepts, indescribably intricate. I saw how the decoy pseudo-personality which I had concretized for the purpose in a hundred training sessions had fought against the intruding stimuli—then yielded under the relentless thrust of the alien probe. I watched as the Gool operator took over the motor centers, caused me to crawl through the choking smoke of the devastated control compartment toward the escape hatch. Fire leaped up, blocking the way. I went on, felt ghostly flames whipping at me—and then the hatch was open and I pulled myself through, forcing the broken leg. My blackened hand fumbled at the locking wheel. Then the blast as the lifeboat leaped clear of the disintegrating dreadnought—and the world-ending impact as I fell.At a level far below the conscious, the embattled pseudo-personality lashed out again—fighting the invader."Almost it eluded me then, Effulgent Lord. Link with this lowly one!""Impossible! Do you forget all my teachings? Cling, though you expend the last filament of your life-force!"Free from all distraction, at a level where comprehension and retention are instantaneous and total, my monitoring basic personality fraction followed the skillful Gool mind as it engraved its commands deep in my subconscious. Then the touch withdrew, erasing the scars of its passage, to leave me unaware of its tampering—at a conscious level.Watching the Gool mind, I learned.The insinuating probe—a concept regarding which psychodynamicists had theorized—was no more than a pattern in emptiness . . . But a pattern which I could duplicate, now that I had seen what had been done to me.Hesitantly, I felt for the immaterial fabric of the continuum, warping and manipulating it, copying the Gool probe. Like planes of paper-thin crystal, the polyfinite aspects of reality shifted into focus, aligning themselves.Abruptly, a channel lay open. As easily as I would stretch out my hand to pluck a moth from a night-flower, I reached across the unimaginable void—and sensed a pit blacker than the bottom floor of hell, and a glistening dark shape.There was a soundless shriek. "Effulgence! It reached out—touched me!"* * *Using the technique I had grasped from the Gool itself, I struck, stifling the outcry, invaded the fetid blackness and grappled the obscene gelatinous immensity of the Gool spy as it spasmed in a frenzy of xenophobia—a ton of liver writhing at the bottom of a dark well.I clamped down control. The Gool mind folded in on itself, gibbering. Not pausing to rest, I followed up, probed along my channel of contact, tracing patterns, scanning the flaccid Gool mind . . . I saw a world of yellow seas lapping at endless shores of mud. There was a fuming pit, where liquid sulphur bubbled up from some inner source, filling an immense natural basin. The Gool clustered at its rim, feeding, each monstrous shape heaving against its neighbors for a more favorable position.I probed farther, saw the great cables of living nervous tissue that linked each eating organ with the brain-mass far underground. I traced the passages through which tendrils ran out to immense caverns where smaller creatures labored over strange devices. These, my host's memory told me, were the young of the Gool. Here they built the fleets that would transport the spawn to the new worlds the Prime Overlord had discovered, worlds where food was free for the taking. Not sulphur alone, but potassium, calcium, iron and all the metals—riches beyond belief in endless profusion. No longer would the Gool tribe cluster—those who remained of a once-great race—at a single feeding trough. They would spread out across a galaxy—and beyond.But not if I could help it.The Gool had evolved a plan—but they'd had a stroke of bad luck.In the past, they had managed to control a man here and there, among the fleets, far from home, but only at a superficial level. Enough, perhaps, to wreck a ship, but not the complete control needed to send a man back to Earth under Gool compulsion, to carry out complex sabotage.Then they had found me, alone, a sole survivor, free from the clutter of the other mindfields. It had been their misfortune to pick a psychodynamicist. Instead of gaining a patient slave, they had opened the fortress door to an unseen spy. Now that I was there, I would see what I could steal.A timeless time passed. I wandered among patterns of white light and white sound, plumbed the deepest recesses of hidden Gool thoughts, fared along strange ways examining the shapes and colors of the concepts of an alien mind.I paused at last, scanning a multi-ordinal structure of pattern within pattern; the diagrammed circuits of a strange machine.I followed through its logic-sequence; and, like a bomb-burst, its meaning exploded in my mind.From the vile nest deep under the dark surface of the Gool world in its lonely trans-Plutonian orbit, I had plucked the ultimate secret of their kind.Matter across space.* * *"You've got to listen to me, Kayle," I shouted. "I know you think I'm a Gool robot. But what I have is too big to let you blow it up without a fight. Matter transmission! You know what that can mean to us. The concept is too complex to try to describe in words. You'll have to take my word for it. I can build it, though, using standard components, plus an infinite-area antenna and a moebius-wound coil—and a few other things . . ."I harangued Kayle for a while, and then sweated out his answer. I was getting close now. If he couldn't see the beauty of my proposal, my screens would start to register the radiation of warheads any time now.Kayle came back—and his answer boiled down to "no."I tried to reason with him. I reminded him how I had readied myself for the trip with sessions on the encephaloscope, setting up the cross-networks of conditioned defensive responses, the shunt circuits to the decoy pseudo-personality, leaving my volitional ego free. I talked about subliminal hypnotics and the resilience quotient of the ego-complex.I might have saved my breath."I don't understand that psychodynamics jargon, Granthan," he snapped. "It smacks of mysticism. But I understand what the Gool have done to you well enough. I'm sorry."I leaned back and chewed the inside of my lip and thought unkind thoughts about Colonel Ausar Kayle. Then I settled down to solve the problem at hand.I keyed the chart file, flashed pages from the standard index on the reference screen, checking radar coverages, beacon ranges, monitor stations, controller fields. It looked as though a radar-negative boat the size of mine might possibly get through the defensive net with a daring pilot, and as a condemned spy, I could afford to be daring.And I had a few ideas. 
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