A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer

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6"Here are your instructions," Kayle was saying. "Open the vault door. Come out—stripped—and go to the center of the parking lot. Stand there with your hands over your head. A single helicopter manned by a volunteer will approach and drop a gas canister. It won't be lethal, I promise you that. Once you're unconscious, I'll personally see to it that you're transported to the Institute in safety. Every effort will then be made to overcome the Gool conditioning. If we're successful, you'll be awakened. If not . . ."He let the sentence hang. It didn't need to be finished. I understood what he meant.I was listening. I was still not too worried. Here I was safe against anything until the food ran out—and that wouldn't be for months."You're bluffing, Kayle," I said. "You're trying to put the best face on something that you can't control. If you'd—""You were careless at Delta Labs, Granthan. There were too many people with odd blanks in their memories and too many unusual occurrences, all on the same day. You tipped your hand. Once we knew what we were up against, it was simply a matter of following you at an adequate distance. We have certain shielding materials, as you know. We tried them all. There's a new one that's quite effective."But as I was saying, we've kept you under constant surveillance. When we saw which way you were heading, we just stayed out of sight and let you trap yourself.""You're lying. Why would you want me here?""That's very simple," Kayle said harshly. "It's the finest trap ever built by man—and you're safely in it.""Safely is right. I have everything I need here. And that brings me to my reason for being here—in case you're curious. I'm going to build a matter transmitter. And to prove my good faith, I'll transmit the Master Tape to you. I'll show you that I could have stolen the damned thing if I'd wanted to.""Indeed? Tell me, Granthan, do you really think we'd be fools enough to leave the Master Tape behind when we evacuated the area?""I don't know about that—but it's here.""Sorry," Kayle said. "You're deluding yourself." His voice was suddenly softer, some of the triumph gone from it. "Don't bother struggling, Granthan. The finest brains in the country have combined to place you where you are. You haven't a chance, except to do as I say. Make it easy on yourself. I have no wish to extend your ordeal.""You can't touch me, Kayle. This vault is proof against a hell-bomb, and it's stocked for a siege . . .""That's right," Kayle said. "It's proof against a hell-bomb. But what if the hell-bomb's in the vault with you?"I felt like a demolition man, working to defuse a blockbuster, who's suddenly heard a loud click! from the detonator. I dropped the phone, stared around the room. I saw nothing that could be a bomb. I ran to the next room, the one beyond. Nothing. I went back to the phone, grabbed it up."You ought to know better than to bluff now, Kayle!" I yelled. "I wouldn't leave this post now for half a dozen hypothetical hell-bombs!""In the center room," Kayle said. "Lift the cover over the floor drain. You'll find it there. You know what they look like. Don't tamper with its mechanism; it's internally trapped. You'll have to take my word for it we didn't bother installing a dummy."I dropped the phone, hurried to the spot Kayle had described. The bomb casing was there—a dully gray ovoid, with a lifting eye set in the top. It didn't look dangerous. It just lay there quietly, waiting . . . Back at the telephone, I had trouble finding my voice. "How long?" I croaked."It was triggered when you entered the vault," Kayle said. "There's a time mechanism. It's irreversible; you can't force anyone to cancel it. And it's no use your hiding in the outer passages."The whole center will be destroyed in the blast. Even it can't stand against a bomb buried in its heart. But we'll gladly sacrifice the center to eliminate you.""How long!""I suggest you come out quickly, so that a crew can enter the vault to disarm the bomb.""How long!""When you're ready to emerge, call me." The line went dead.I put the phone back in its cradle carefully, like a rare and valuable egg.I tried to think. I'd been charging full speed ahead ever since I had decided on my scheme of action while I was still riding the surf off the Florida coast, and I'd stuck to it. Now it had hatched in my face—and the thing that had crawled out wasn't the downy little chick of success. It had teeth and claws and was eyeing me like a basilisk.But I still had unplayed aces—if there was time.I had meant to use the matter transmitter to stage a dramatic proof that I wasn't the tool of the enemy. The demonstration would be more dramatic than I'd planned. The bomb would fit the machine as easily as the tape. The wheels would be surprised when their firecracker went off—right on schedule—in the middle of the Mojave Desert.I set to work, my heart pounding. If I could bring this off—if I had time—if the transmitter worked as advertised . . . The stolen knowledge flowed smoothly, effortlessly. It was as though I had been assembling matter transmitters for years, knew every step by heart. First the moebius windings; yard after yard of heavy copper around a core of carbon; then the power supply, the first and second stage amplimitters . . . How long? In the sump in the next room, the bomb lay quietly ticking. How long . . . ?* * *The main assembly was ready now. I laid out cables, tying my apparatus in to the atomic power-source buried under the vault. The demand, for one short instant, would tax even those mighty engines. I fixed hooks at the proper points in the room, wove soft aluminum wire in the correct pattern. I was almost finished now. How long? I made the last connections, cleared away the litter. The matter transmitter stood on the table, complete. At any instant, the bomb would reduce it—and the secret of its construction—to incandescent gas—unless I transmitted the bomb out of range first. I turned toward the laundry room—and the telephone rang. I hesitated, then crossed the room and snatched it up."Listen to me," Kayle said grimly. "Give me straight, fast answers. You said the Master Tape was there, in the vault with you. Now tell me: What does it look like?""What?""The . . . ah . . . dummy tape. What is its appearance?""It's a roughly square plastic container, bright yellow, about a foot thick. What about it?"Kayle's voice sounded strained. "I've made inquiries. No one here seems to know the exact present location of the Master Tape. Each department says that they were under the impression that another handled the matter. I'm unable to learn who, precisely, removed the Tape from the vault. Now you say there is a yellow plastic container—""I know what the Master Tape looks like," I said. "This is either it or a hell of a good copy.""Granthan," Kayle said. There was a note of desperation in his voice now. "There have been some blunders made. I knew you were under the influence of the Gool. It didn't occur to me that I might be too. Why did I make it possible for you to successfully penetrate to the Central Vault? There were a hundred simpler ways in which I could have dealt with the problem. We're in trouble, Granthan, serious trouble. The tape you have there is genuine. We've all played into the enemy's hands.""You're wasting valuable time, Kayle," I snapped. "When does the bomb go up?""Granthan, there's little time left. Bring the Master Tape and leave the vault—""No dice, Kayle. I'm staying until I finish the transmitter, then—""Granthan! If there's anything to your mad idea of such a machine, destroy it! Quickly! Don't you see the Gool would only have given you the secret in order to enable you to steal the tape!"I cut him off. In the sudden silence, I heard a distant sound—or had I sensed a thought? I strained outward . . . " . . . volunteered . . . damn fool . . . thing on my head is heavy . . .  better work . . .  " . . . now . . . okay . . . valve, gas . . . kills in a split second . . . then get out . . ." I stabbed out, pushed through the obscuring veil of masonry, sensed a man in the computer room, dressed in gray coveralls, a grotesque shield over his head and shoulders. He reached for a red-painted valve—I struck at his mind, felt him stagger back, fall. I fumbled in his brain, stimulated the sleep center. He sank deep into unconsciousness. I leaned against the table, weak with the reaction. Kayle had almost tricked me that time.I reached out again, swept the area with desperate urgency. Far away, I sensed the hazy clutter of many minds, out of range. There was nothing more. The poisonous gas had been the only threat—except the bomb itself. But I had to move fast, before my time ran out, to transmit the bomb to a desert area . . . I paused, stood frozen in mid-move. A desert. What desert?The transmitter operated in accordance with as rigid a set of laws as did the planets swinging in their orbits; strange laws, but laws of nature none the less. No receiver was required. The destination of the mass under transmission was determined by the operator, holding in his mind the five-dimensional conceptualization of the target, guiding the action of the machine.And I had no target.I could no more direct the bomb to a desert without a five-fold grasp of its multi-ordinal spatial, temporal, and entropic coordinates than I could fire a rifle at a target in the dark.I was like a man with a grenade in his hand, pin pulled—and locked in a cell.I swept the exocosm again, desperately. And caught a thin, live line. I traced it; it cut through the mountain, dived deep underground, crossed the boundless plain . . . Never branching, it bored on, turning upward now—and ending.I rested, gathering strength, then probed, straining . . . There was a room, men. I recognized Kayle, gray-faced, haggard. A tall man in braided blue stood near him. Others stood silently by, tension on every face. Maps covered the wall behind them.I was looking into the War Room at the Pentagon in Washington. The line I had traced was the telephonic hotline, the top-security link between the Record Center and the command level. It was a heavy cable, well protected and always open. It would free me from the trap. With Gool-tutored skill I scanned the room, memorized its co-ordinates. Then I withdrew.Like a swimmer coming up from a long dive, I fought my way back to the level of immediate awareness. I sagged into a chair, blinking at the drab walls, the complexity of the transmitter. I must move fast now, place the bomb in the transmitter's field, direct it at the target. With an effort I got to my feet, went to the sump, lifted the cover. I grasped the lifting eye, strained—and the bomb came up, out onto the floor. I dragged it to the transmitter . . . And only then realized what I'd been about to do.My target.The War Room—the nerve-center of Earth's defenses. And I had been ready to dump the hell-bomb there. In my frenzy to be rid of it I would have played into the hands of the Gool. 7I went to the phone."Kayle! I guess you've got a recorder on the line. I'll give you the details of the transmitter circuits. It's complicated, but fifteen minutes ought to—""No time," Kayle cut in. "I'm sorry about everything, Granthan. If you've finished the machine, it's a tragedy for humanity—if it works. I can only ask you to try—when the Gool command comes—not to give them what they want. I'll tell you, now, Granthan. The bomb blows in—" there was a pause—"two minutes and twenty-one seconds. Try to hold them off. If you can stand against them for that long at least—"I slammed the phone down, cold sweat popping out across my face. Two minutes . . . too late for anything. The men in the War Room would never know how close I had come to beating the Gool—and them.But I could still save the Master Tape. I wrestled the yellow plastic case that housed the tape onto the table, into the machine.And the world vanished in a blaze of darkness, a clamor of silence.NOW, MASTERS! NOW! LINK UP! LINE UP!Like a bad dream coming back in daylight, I felt the obscene presence of massed Gool minds, attenuated by distance but terrible in their power, probing, thrusting. I fought back, struggling against paralysis, trying to gather my strength, use what I had learned . . . SEE, MASTERS, HOW IT WOULD ELUDE US. BLANK IT OFF, TOGETHER NOW . . . The paths closed before me. My mind writhed, twisted, darted here and there—and met only the impenetrable shield of the Gool defenses.IT TIRES, MASTERS. WORK SWIFTLY NOW. LET US IMPRESS ON THE SUBJECT THE CO-ORDINATES OF THE BRAIN PIT. The conceptualization drifted into my mind. HERE, MAN. TRANSMIT THE TAPE HERE!As from a distance, the monitor personality fraction watched the struggle. Kayle had been right. The Gool had waited—and now their moment had come. Even my last impulse of defiance—to place the tape in the machine—had been at the Gool command. They had looked into my mind. They understand psychology as no human analyst ever could; and they had led me in the most effective way possible, by letting me believe I was the master. They had made use of my human ingenuity to carry out their wishes—and Kayle had made it easy for them by evacuating a twenty-mile radius around me, leaving the field clear for the Gool.HERE— The Gool voice rang like a bell in my mind: TRANSMIT THE TAPE HERE!Even as I fought against the impulse to comply, I felt my arm twitch toward the machine.THROW THE SWITCH! the voice thundered.I struggled, willed my arm to stay at my side. Only a minute longer, I thought. Only a minute more, and the bomb would save me . . . LINK UP, MASTERS!I WILL NOT LINK. YOU PLOT TO FEED AT MY EXPENSE.NO! BY THE MOTHER WORM, I PLEDGE MY GROOVE AT THE EATING TROUGH. FOR US THE MAN WILL GUT THE GREAT VAULT OF HIS NEST WORLD!ALREADY YOU BLOAT AT OUR EXPENSE!FOOL!! WOULD YOU BICKER NOW? LINK UP!* * *The Gool raged—and I grasped for an elusive thought and held it. The bomb, only a few feet away. The waiting machine. And the Gool had given me the co-ordinates of their cavern . . . With infinite sluggishness, I moved.LINK UP, MASTERS: THEN ALL WILL FEED . . . IT IS A TRICK, I WILL NOT LINK.I found the bomb, fumbled for a grip.DISASTER, MASTERS! NOW IS THE PRIZE LOST TO US, UNLESS YOU JOIN WITH ME!My breath choked off in my throat; a hideous pain coiled outward from my chest. But it was unimportant. Only the bomb mattered. I tottered, groping. There was the table; the transmitter . . . I lifted the bomb, felt the half-healed skin of my burned arm crackle as I strained . . . I thrust the case containing the Master Tape out of the field of the transmitter, then pushed, half-rolled the bomb into position. I groped for the switch, found it. I tried to draw breath, felt only a surge of agony. Blackness was closing in . . . The co-ordinates . . . From the whirling fog of pain and darkness, I brought the target concept of the Gool cavern into view, clarified it, held it . . . MASTERS! HOLD THE MAN! DISASTER!Then I felt the Gool, their suspicions yielding to the panic in the mind of the Prime Overlord, link their power against me. I stood paralyzed, felt my identity dissolving like water pouring from a smashed pot. I tried to remember—but it was too faint, too far away.Then from somewhere a voice seemed to cut in, the calm voice of an emergency reserve personality fraction. "You are under attack. Activate the reserve plan. Level Five. Use Level Five. Act now. Use Level Five . . ."Through the miasma of Gool pressure, I felt the hairs stiffen on the back of my neck. All around me the Gool voices raged, a swelling symphony of discord. But they were nothing. Level Five . . . There was no turning back. The compulsions were there, acting even as I drew in a breath to howl my terror—Level Five. Down past the shapes of dreams, the intense faces of hallucination; Level Three; Level Four and the silent ranked memories . . . And deeper still—Into a region of looming gibbering horror, of shadowy moving shapes of evil, of dreaded presences that lurked at the edge of vision . . . Down amid the clamor of voiceless fears, the mounting hungers, the reaching claws of all that man had feared since the first tailless primate screamed out his terror in a tree-top: the fear of falling, the fear of heights.Down to Level Five. Nightmare level.* * *I groped outward, found the plane of contact—and hurled the weight of man's ancient fears at the waiting Gool—and in their black confining caves deep in the rock of a far world, they felt the roaring tide of fear—fear of the dark, and of living burial. The horrors in man's secret mind confronted the horrors of the Gool Brain Pit. And I felt them break, retreat in blind panic from me—All but one. The Prime Overlord reeled back with the rest, but his was a mind of terrible power. I sensed for a moment his bloated immense form, the seething gnawing hungers, insatiable, never to be appeased. Then he rallied—but he was alone now.LINK UP, MASTERS! THE PRIZE IS LOST. KILL THE MAN! KILL THE MAN!I felt a knife at my heart. It fluttered—and stopped. And in that instant, I broke past his control, threw the switch. There was the sharp crack of imploding air. Then I was floating down, ever down, and all sensation was far away.MASTERS! KILL THThe pain cut off in an instant of profound silence and utter dark.Then sound roared in my ears, and I felt the harsh grate of the floor against my face as I fell, and then I knew nothing more. 8"I hope," General Titus was saying, "that you'll accept the decoration now, Mr. Granthan. It will be the first time in history that a civilian has been accorded this honor—and you deserve it."I was lying in a clean white bed, propped up by big soft pillows, with a couple of good-looking nurses hovering a few feet away. I was in a mood to tolerate even Titus."Thanks, General," I said. "I suggest you give the medal to the volunteer who came in to gas me. He knew what he was going up against; I didn't.""It's over, now, Granthan," Kayle said. He attempted to beam, settled for a frosty smile. "You surely understand—""Understanding," I said. "That's all we need to turn this planet—and a lot of other ones—into the kind of worlds the human mind needs to expand into.""You're tired, Granthan," Kayle said. "You get some rest. In a few weeks you'll be back on the job, as good as new.""That's where the key is," I said. "In our minds; there's so much there, and we haven't even scratched the surface. To the mind nothing is impossible. Matter is an illusion, space and time are just convenient fictions—""I'll leave the medal here, Mr. Granthan. When you feel equal to it, we'll make the official presentation. Television . . ."He faded off as I closed my eyes and thought about things that had been clamoring for attention ever since I'd met the Gool, but hadn't had time to explore. My arm . . . I felt my way along it—from inside—tracing the area of damage, watching as the bodily defenses worked away, toiling to renew, replace. It was a slow, mindless process. But if I helped a little . . . It was easy. The pattern was there. I felt the tissues renew themselves, the skin regenerate.The bone was more difficult. I searched out the necessary minerals, diverted blood; the broken ends knit . . . The nurse was bending over me, a bowl of soup in her hand.* * *"You've been asleep for a long time, sir," she said, smiling. "How about some nice chicken broth now?"I ate the soup and asked for more. A doctor came and peeled back my bandages, did a double-take, and rushed away. I looked. The skin was new and pink, like a baby's—but it was all there. I flexed my right leg; there was no twinge of pain.I listened for a while as the doctors gabbled, clucked, probed and made pronouncements. Then I closed my eyes again. I thought about the matter transmitter. The government was sitting on it, of course. A military secret of the greatest importance, Titus called it. Maybe someday the public would hear about it; in the meantime—"How about letting me out of here?" I said suddenly. A pop-eyed doctor with a fringe of gray hair blinked at me, went back to fingering my arm. Kayle hove into view."I want out," I said. "I'm recovered, right? So now just give me my clothes.""Now, now, just relax, Granthan. You know it's not as simple as that. There are a lot of matters we must go over.""The war's over," I said. "You admitted that. I want out.""Sorry." Kayle shook his head. "That's out of the question.""Doc," I said. "Am I well?""Yes," he said. "Amazing case. You're as fit as you'll ever be; I've never—""I'm afraid you'll have to resign yourself to being here for a while longer, Granthan," Kayle said. "After all, we can't—""Can't let the secret of matter transmission run around loose, hey? So until you figure out the angles, I'm a prisoner, right?""I'd hardly call it that, Granthan. Still . . ."I closed my eyes. The matter transmitter—a strange device. A field, not distorting space, but accentuating certain characteristics of a matter field in space-time, subtly shifting relationships . . . Just as the mind could compare unrelated data, draw from them new concepts, new parallels . . . The circuits of the matter transmitter . . . and the patterns of the mind . . . The exocosm and the endocosm, like the skin and the orange, everywhere in contact . . . Somewhere there was a beach of white sand, and dunes with graceful sea-oats that leaned in a gentle wind. There was blue water to the far horizon, and a blue sky, and nowhere were there any generals with medals and television cameras, or flint-eyed bureaucrats with long schemes . . . And with this gentle folding . . . thus . . . And a pressure here . . . so . . . I opened my eyes, raised myself on one elbow—and saw the sea. The sun was hot on my body, but not too hot, and the sand was white as sugar. Far away, a seagull tilted, circling.A wave rolled in, washed my foot in cool water.I lay on my back, and looked up at white clouds in a blue sky, and smiled—and then laughed aloud.Distantly the seagull's cry echoed my laughter.DOORSTEPSteadying his elbow on the kitchen table serving as a desk, Brigadier General W. F. Straut leveled his binoculars and stared out through the second-floor window of the farmhouse at the bulky object lying canted at the edge of the wood lot. He watched the figures moving over and around the gray mass, then flipped the lever on the field telephone."Bill, how are your boys doing?""General, since that box this morning—""I know all about the box, Bill. It's in Washington by now. What have you got that's new?""Sir, I haven't got anything to report yet. I've got four crews on it, and she still looks impervious as hell.""Still getting the sounds from inside?""Intermittently, General.""I'm giving you one more hour, Major. I want that thing cracked."The General dropped the phone back on its cradle, and absently peeled the cellophane from a cigar. He had moved fast, he reflected, after the State Police notified him at 9:41 last night. He had his men on the spot, the area evacuated of civilians, and a preliminary report on the way to Washington by midnight. At 2:36, they had discovered the four inch cube lying on the ground fifteen feet from the object—ship, capsule, bomb, whatever it was. But now—four hours later—nothing new.The field phone jangled. He grabbed it up."General, we've discovered a thin spot up on the top surface; all we can tell so far is that the wall thickness falls off there.""All right. Keep after it, Bill."This was more like it. If he could have this thing wrapped up by the time Washington woke up to the fact that it was something big—well, he'd been waiting a long time for that second star. This was his chance, and he would damn well make the most of it.Straut looked across the field at the thing. It was half in and half out of the woods, flat-sided, round-ended, featureless. Maybe he should go over and give it a closer look personally. He might spot something the others were missing. It might blow them all to kingdom come any second; but what the hell. He had earned his star on sheer guts in Granada. He still had 'em.He keyed the phone. "I'm coming down, Bill." On impulse, he strapped a pistol belt on. Not much use against a house-sized bomb, but the heft of it felt good.The thing looked bigger than ever as the jeep approached it, bumping across the muck of the freshly plowed field. From here he could see a faint line running around, just below the juncture of side and top. Greer hadn't mentioned that. The line was quite obvious; in fact, it was more of a crack.With a sound like a baseball smacking the catcher's mitt, the crack opened; the upper half tilted, men sliding—then impossibly it stood open, vibrating, like the roof of a house suddenly lifted. The driver gunned the jeep. There were cries, and a ragged shrilling that set Straut's teeth on edge. The men were running back now, two of them dragging a third. Major Greer emerged from behind the object, looked about, ran toward him, shouting." . . . a man dead. It snapped; we weren't expecting it . . ."Straut jumped out beside the men, who had stopped now and were looking back. The underside of the gaping lid was an iridescent black. The shrill noise sounded thinly across the field. Greer arrived, panting."What happened?" Straut snapped."I was . . . checking over that thin spot, General. The first thing I knew it was . . . coming up under me. I fell; Tate was at the other side. He held on and it snapped him loose, against a tree. His skull . . .""What the devil's that racket?""That's the sound we were getting from inside, before, General. There's something in there, alive—""All right; pull yourself together, Major. We're not unprepared. Bring your halftracks into position. The tanks will be here in another half-hour."Straut glanced at the men standing about. He would show them what leadership meant."You men keep back," he said. He puffed his cigar calmly as he walked toward the looming object. The noise stopped suddenly; that was a relief. There was a faint and curious odor in the air, something like chlorine . . . or seaweed . . . or iodine.There were no marks in the ground surrounding the thing. It had apparently dropped straight in to its present position. It was heavy, too. The soft soil was displaced in a mound a foot high all along the side.Behind him, Straut heard a shout go up. He whirled. The men were pointing; the jeep started up, churned toward him, wheels spinning. He looked up. Over the edge of the gray wall, six feet above his head, a great reddish protrusion, like the claw of a crab, moved, groping.In automatic response, Straut yanked his .45 from its holster, jacked the action, and fired. Soft matter spattered, and the claw jerked back. The screeching started up again angrily, then was drowned in the engine roar as the jeep slid to a stop. Straut stooped, grabbed up a leaf to which a quivering lump adhered, jumped into the vehicle as it leaped forward; then a shock and they were turning, too fast, going over . . . * * *" . . . lucky it was soft ground.""What about the driver?"Silence. Straut opened his eyes. "What . . . about . . ."A stranger was looking down at him, an ordinary-looking fellow of about thirty-five."Easy, now, General Straut. You've had a bad spill. Everything is all right. I'm Paul Lieberman, from the University.""The driver," Straut said with an effort."He was killed when the jeep went over.""Went . . . over?""The creature lashed out with a member resembling a scorpion's stinger; it struck the jeep and flipped it; you were thrown clear. The driver jumped and the jeep rolled on him."Straut pushed himself up. "Where's Greer?""I'm right here, sir," Major Greer stepped up, stood attentively."Those tanks here yet, Greer?""No, sir. I had a call from General Margrave; there's some sort of holdup. Something about not destroying scientific material. I did get the mortars over from the base . . ."Straut got to his feet. The stranger took his arm. "You ought to lie down, General—""Who the hell are you? Greer, get those mortars in place, spaced between your tracks."The telephone rang. Straut seized it."General Straut.""Straut? General Margrave here. I'm glad you're back on your feet. There'll be some scientists from the State University coming over; cooperate with them. You're going to have to hold things together at least until I can get another man in there—""Another man? General, I'm not incapacitated. The situation is under complete control—""I'll decide that, Straut. I understand you've got another casualty. What's happened to your defensive capabilities?""That was an accident, sir. The jeep—""I know. We'll review that matter at a later date. What I'm calling about is more important right now. The code men have made some headway on that box of yours. It's putting out some sort of transmission.""Yes, sir.""They've rigged a receiver set-up that puts out audible sound. Half the message—it's only twenty seconds long, repeated—is in English: It's a fragment of a recording from a daytime radio program; one of the network men here identified it. The rest is gibberish. They're still working over it.""What—""Bryant tells me he thinks there's some sort of correspondence between the two parts of the message. I wouldn't know, myself. In my opinion it's a threat of some sort.""I agree, General. An ultimatum.""All right; keep your men back at a safe distance from now on. I want no more casualties."* * *Straut cursed his luck as he hung up the phone. Margrave was ready to relieve him; and after he had exercised every precaution. He had to do something, fast, something to sew this thing up before it slipped out of his hands. He looked at Greer."I'm neutralizing this thing once and for all. There'll be no more men killed while I stand by."Lieberman stood up. "General! I must protest any attack against this—"Straut whirled. "I'm handling this, Professor. I don't know who let you in here or why—but I'll make the decisions. I'm stopping this man-killer before it comes out of its nest, maybe gets into that village beyond the woods; there are four thousand civilians there. It's my job to protect them." He jerked his head at Greer, strode out of the room. Lieberman followed, protesting."The creature has shown no signs of aggressiveness, General Straut—""With two men dead—?""You should have kept them back—"Straut stopped, turned."Oh, it was my fault, was it?" Straut stared at Lieberman with cold fury. This civilian pushed his way in here, then had the infernal gall to accuse him, Brigadier General Straut, of causing the deaths of his own men. If he had the fellow in uniform for five minutes . . . "You're not well, General. That fall—""Keep out of my way, Professor," Straut said. He turned and went on down the stairs: The present foul-up could ruin his career; and now this egghead interference . . . With Greer at his side, Straut moved out to the edge of the field."All right, Major. Open up with your .50 calibers."Greer called a command and a staccato rattle started up. The smell of cordite, and the blue haze of gunsmoke . . . This was more like it. This would put an end to the nonsense. He was in command here, he had the power . . . Greer lowered his binoculars. "Cease fire!" he commanded."Who told you to give that order, Major?" Straut barked.Greer looked at him. "We're not even marking the thing."Straut took the binoculars, stared through them."All right," he said. "We'll try something heavier. Let it have a round of 40mm."Lieberman came up to Straut. "General, I appeal to you in the name of science. Hold off a little longer; at least until we learn what the message is about. The creature may—""Get back from the firing line, Professor." Straut turned his back on the civilian, raised the glasses to observe the effect of the recoilless rifle. There was a tremendous smack of displaced air, and a thunderous boom! as the explosive shell struck. Straut saw the gray shape jump, the raised lid waver. Dust rose from about it. There was no other effect."Keep firing, Greer," Straut snapped, almost with a feeling of triumph. The thing was impervious to artillery; now who was going to say it was no threat?"How about the mortars, sir?" Greer said. "We can drop a few rounds in and blast the thing out of its nest.""All right, try it, if the lid doesn't drop first. We won't be able to touch it if it does." And what we'll try next, I don't know, he thought; we can't drop anything really big on it, not unless we evacuate the whole country.* * *The mortar fired, with a muffled thud. Straut watched tensely. Five second later, the ship erupted in a gout of pale pink debris. The lid rocked, pinkish fluid running down its opalescent surface. A second burst, and a third. A great fragment of the menacing claw hung from the branch of a tree a hundred feet from the ship. Straut grabbed for the phone. "Cease fire!"Lieberman stared in horror at the carnage.The telephone rang. Straut picked it up."General Straut," he said. His voice was firm. He had put an end to the threat for all time."Straut, we've broken the message," Margrave said excitedly. "It's the damnedest thing . . ." Straut wanted to interrupt, announce his victory, but Margrave was droning on." . . . strange sort of reasoning, but there was a certain analogy. In any event, I'm assured the translation is accurate. Put into English—"Straut listened. Then he carefully placed the receiver on the hook.Lieberman stared at him. "What was it, the message? Have they translated it?"Straut nodded."What did it say?"Straut cleared his throat. He turned and looked at Lieberman for a long moment before answering."It said, 'Please take good care of my little girl!' "  

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