A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer

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3I emerged into consciousness to find the pressure gone, but a red haze of pain remained. I lay on my back and saw men sitting on the floor around me.A blow from somewhere made my head ring. I tried to sit up. I couldn't make it. Then Kramer was beside me, slipping a needle into my arm. He looked pretty bad himself. His face was bandaged heavily, and one eye was purple. He spoke in a muffled voice through stiff jaws."This will keep you conscious enough to answer a few questions," he said. "Now you're going to give me the combinations to the locks so we can call off this suicide run; then maybe I'll doctor you up."I didn't answer."The time for clamming up is over, you stupid bastard," Kramer said. He raised his fist and drove a hard punch into my chest. I guess it was his shot that kept me conscious. I couldn't breathe for a while, until Kramer gave me a few whiffs of oxygen. I wondered if he was fool enough to think I might give up my ship.After a while my head cleared a little. I tried to say something. I got out a couple of croaks, and then found my voice."Kramer," I said.He leaned over me. "I'm listening," he said."Take me to the lift. Leave me there alone. That's your only chance." It seemed to me like a long speech, but nothing happened. Kramer went away, came back. He showed me a large scalpel from his medical kit. "I'm going to start operating on your face. I'll make you into a museum freak. Maybe if you start talking soon enough I'll change my mind."I could see the watch on his wrist. My mind worked very slowly. I had trouble getting any air into my lungs. We would intercept in one hour and ten minutes.It seemed simple to me. I had to get back to the Bridge before we hit. I tried again. "We only have an hour," I said.Kramer lost control. He jabbed the knife at my face, screeching through gritted teeth. I jerked my head aside far enough that the scalpel grated along my cheekbone instead of slashing my mouth. I hardly felt it."We're dying because you were a fool," Kramer yelled. "I've taken over; I've relieved you as unfit for command. Now open up this ship or I'll slice you to ribbons." He held the scalpel under my nose in a fist trembling with fury. The chrome-plated blade had a thin film of pink on it.I got my voice going again. "I'm going to destroy the Mancji ship," I said. "Take me to the lift and leave me there." I tried to add a few more words, but had to stop and work on breathing again for a while. Kramer disappeared.I realized I was not fully in command of my senses. I was clamped in a padded paw. I wanted to roll over. I tried hard, and made it. I could hear Kramer talking, others answering, but it seemed too great an effort to listen to the words.I was lying on my face now, my head almost against the wall. There was a black line in front of me, a door. My head cleared a bit. It must have been Kramer's shot working on me. I turned my head and saw Kramer standing now with half a dozen others, all talking at once. Apparently Kramer's display of uncontrolled temper had the others worried. They wanted me alive. Kramer didn't like anyone criticizing him. The argument was pretty violent. There was scuffling—and shouts.I saw that I lay about twenty feet from the lift; too far. The door before me, if I remembered the ship's layout, was a utility compartment, small and containing nothing but a waste disposal hopper. But it did have a bolt on the inside, like every other compartment on the ship.I didn't stop to think about it; I started trying to get up. If I'd thought, I would have known that at the first move from me all seven of them would land on me at once. I concentrated on getting my hands under me, to push up. I heard a shout, and turning my head, saw Kramer swinging at someone. I went on with my project.Hands under my chest, I raised myself a little, and got a knee up. I felt broken rib ends grating, but felt no pain, just the padded claw. Then I was weaving on all fours. I looked up, spotted the latch on the door, and put everything I had into lunging at it. My finger hit it, the door swung in, and I fell on my face; but I was half in. Another lunge and I was past the door, kicking it shut as I lay on the floor, reaching for the lock control. Just as I flipped it with an extended finger, someone hit the door from outside, a second too late.It was dark, and I lay on my back on the floor, and felt strange short-circuited stabs of what would have been agonizing pain running through my chest and arm. I had a few minutes to rest now, before they blasted the door open.I hated to lose like this, not because we were beaten, but because we were giving up. My poor world, no longer fair and green, had found the strength to send us out as her last hope. But somewhere out here in the loneliness and distance we had lost our courage. Success was at our fingertips, if we could have found it; instead, in panic and madness, we were destroying ourselves.My mind wandered; I imagined myself on the Bridge, half-believed I was there. I was resting on the OD bunk, and Clay was standing there beside me. A long time seemed to pass . . . Then I remembered I was on the floor, bleeding internally, in a tiny room that would soon lose its door. But there was someone standing beside me.I didn't feel too disappointed at being beaten; I hadn't hoped for much more than a breather, anyway. I wondered why this fellow had abandoned his action station to hide here. The door was still shut. He must have been there all along, but I hadn't seen him when I came in. He stood over me, wearing greasy overalls, and grinned down at me. He raised his hand. I was getting pretty indifferent to blows; I couldn't feel them.The hand went up, the man straightened and held a fairly snappy salute. "Sir," he said. "Space'n First Class Thomas."I didn't feel like laughing or cheering or anything else; I just took it as it came."At ease, Thomas," I managed to say. "Why aren't you at your duty station?" I went spinning off somewhere after that oration.Thomas was squatting beside me now. "Cap'n, you're hurt, ain't you? I was wonderin' why you was down here layin' in my 'sposal station.""A scratch," I said. I thought about my chest. This was Thomas's disposal station. Thomas owned it. I wondered if a fellow could make a living with such a small place way out here, with just an occasional tourist coming by. I wondered why I didn't send one of them for help; I needed help for some reason . . . "Cap'n, I been overhaulin' my converter units, I jist come in. How long you been in here, Cap'n?" Thomas was worried about something.I tried hard to think. I hadn't been here very long; just a few minutes. I had come here to rest . . . then suddenly I was thinking clearly again.Whatever Thomas was, he was apparently on my side, or at least neutral. He didn't seem to be aware of the mutiny. I realized that he had bound my chest tightly with strips of shirt; it felt better."What are you doing in here, Thomas?" I asked. "Don't you know we're in action against a hostile ship?"Thomas looked surprised. "This here's my action station, Cap'n," he said. "I'm a Waste Recovery Technician, First Class. I keep the recovery system operatin'.""You just stay in here?" I asked."No, sir," Thomas said. "I check through the whole system. We got three main disposal points and lotsa little ones, an' I have to keep everything operatin'. Otherwise this ship would be in a bad way, Cap'n.""How did you get in here?" I asked. I looked around the small room. There was only one door, and the tiny space was nearly filled by the gray bulk of the converter unit which broke down wastes into their component elements for reuse."I come in through the duct, Cap'n," Thomas said. "I check the ducts every day. You know Cap'n," he said, shaking his head, "they's some bad laid-out ductin' in this here system. If I didn't keep after it, you'd be gettin' clogged ducts all the time. So I jist go through the system and keep her clear."From somewhere, hope began again. "Where do these ducts lead?" I asked. I wondered how the man could ignore the mutiny going on around him."Well, sir, one leads to the mess; that's the big one. One leads to the wardroom, and the other leads up to the Bridge."My god, I thought, the Bridge."How big are they?" I asked. "Could I get through them?""Oh sure, Cap'n," Thomas said. "You can get through 'em easy. But are you sure you feel like inspectin' with them busted ribs?"I was beginning to realize that Thomas was not precisely a genius. "I can make it," I said."Cap'n," Thomas said diffidently, "it ain't none o' my business, but don't you think maybe I better get the doctor for ya?""Thomas," I said, "maybe you don't know; there's a mutiny under way aboard this ship. The doctor is leading it. I want to get to the Bridge in the worst way. Let's get started."Thomas looked shocked. "Cap'n, you mean you was hurt by somebody? I mean you didn't have a fall or nothin', you was beat up?" He stared at me with an expression of incredulous horror."That's about the size of it," I said. I managed to sit up. Thomas jumped forward and helped me to my feet. Then I saw that he was crying."You can count on me, Cap'n," he said. "Jist lemme know who done it, an' I'll feed 'em into my converter."I stood leaning against the wall, waiting for my head to stop spinning. Breathing was difficult, but if I kept it shallow, I could manage. Thomas was opening a panel on the side of the converter unit."It's OK to go in, Cap'n," he said. "She ain't operatin'."The pull of the two and a half gees seemed to bother him very little. I could barely stand under it, holding on. Thomas saw my wavering step and jumped to help me. He boosted me into the chamber of the converter and pointed out an opening near the top, about twelve by twenty-four inches."That there one is to the Bridge, Cap'n," he said. "If you'll start in there, sir, I'll follow up."I thrust head and shoulders into the opening. Inside it was smooth metal, with no handholds. I clawed at it trying to get farther in. The pain stabbed at my chest."Cap'n, they're workin' on the door," Thomas said. "They already been at it for a little while. We better get goin'.""You'd better give me a boost, Thomas," I said. My voice echoed hollowly down the duct.Thomas crowded into the chamber behind me then, lifting my legs and pushing. I eased into the duct. The pain was not so bad now."Cap'n, you gotta use a special kinda crawl to get through these here ducts," Thomas said. "You grip your hands together out in front of ya, and then bend your elbows. When your elbows jam against the side of the duct, you pull forward."I tried it; it was slow, but it worked."Cap'n," Thomas said behind me. "We got about seven minutes now to get up there. I set the control on the converter to start up in ten minutes. I think we can make it OK, and ain't nobody else comin' this way with the converter goin'. I locked the control panel so they can't shut her down."That news spurred me on. With the converter in operation, the first step in the cycle was the evacuation of the ducts to a near-perfect vacuum. When that happened, we would die instantly with ruptured lungs; then our dead bodies would be sucked into the chamber and broken down into useful raw materials. I hurried.I tried to orient myself. The duct paralleled the corridor. It would continue in that direction for about fifteen feet, and would then turn upward, since the Bridge was some fifteen feet above this level. I hitched along, and felt the duct begin to trend upward."You'll have to get on your back here, Cap'n," Thomas said. "She widens out on the turn."I managed to twist over. Thomas was helping me by pushing at my feet. As I reached a near-vertical position, I felt a metal rod under my hand. That was a relief; I had been expecting to have to go up the last stretch the way a mountain climber does a rock chimney, back against one wall and feet against the other.I hauled at the rod, and found another with my other hand. Below, Thomas boosted me. I groped up and got another, then another. The remaining slight slant of the duct helped. Finally my feet were on the rods. I clung, panting. The heat in the duct was terrific. Then I went on up. That was some shot Kramer had given me.Above I could see the end of the duct faintly in the light coming up through the open chamber door from the utility room. I remembered the location of the disposal slot on the Bridge now; it had been installed in the small niche containing a bunk and a tiny galley for the use of the duty officer during long watches on the Bridge.I reached the top of the duct and pushed against the slot cover. It swung out easily. I could see the end of the chart table, and beyond, the dead radar screen. I reached through and heaved myself partly out. I nearly fainted at the stab from my ribs as my weight went on my chest. My head sang. The light from below suddenly went out. I heard a muffled clank; then a hum began, echoing up the duct."She's closed and started cyclin' the air out, Cap'n," Thomas said calmly. "We got about half a minute."I clamped my teeth together and heaved again. Below me Thomas waited quietly. He couldn't help me now. I got my hands flat against the bulkhead and thrust. The air was whistling around my face. Papers began to swirl off the chart table. I kicked loose from the grip of the slot, fighting the sucking pull of air. I fell to the floor inside the room; the slot cover slammed behind me. I staggered to my feet. I pried at the cover, but I couldn't open it against the vacuum. Then it budged, and Thomas's hand came through. The metal edge cut into it, blood started, but the cover was held open half an inch. I reached the chart table, almost falling over my leaden feet, seized a short permal T-square, and levered the cover up. Once started, it went up easily. Thomas's face appeared, drawn and pale, eyes closed against the dust being whirled into his face. He got his arms through, heaved himself a little higher. I seized his arm and pulled. He scrambled through.I knocked the T-square out of the way and the cover snapped down. Then I slid to the floor, not exactly out, but needing a break pretty bad. Thomas brought bedding from the OD bunk and made me comfortable on the floor."Thomas," I said, "when I think of what the security inspectors who approved the plans for this arrangement are going to say when I call this little back door to their attention, it almost makes it worth the trouble.""Yessir," Thomas said. He sprawled on the deck and looked around the Bridge, staring at the unfamiliar screens, indicator lights, controls.From where I lay, I could see the direct vision screen. I wasn't sure, but I thought the small bright object in the center of it might be our target. Thomas looked at the dead radar screen, then said, "Cap'n, that there radarscope out of action?""It sure is, Thomas," I said. "Our unknown friends blew the works before they left us." I was surprised he recognized a radarscope."Mind if I take a look at it, Cap'n?" he said."Go ahead," I replied. I tried to explain the situation to Thomas. The elapsed time since we had started our pursuit was two hours and ten minutes; I wanted to close to no more than a twenty-mile gap before launching my missiles; and I had better alert my interceptor missiles in case the Mancji hit first.Thomas had the cover off the radar panel and was probing around. He pulled a blackened card out of the interior of the panel."Looks like they overloaded the fuse," Thomas said. "Got any spares, Cap'n?""Right beside you in the cabinet," I said. "How do you know your way around a radar set, Thomas?"Thomas grinned. "I useta be a radar technician third before I got inta waste disposal," he said. "I had to change specialties to sign on for this cruise."I had an idea there'd be an opening for Thomas a little higher up when this was over.I asked him to take a look at the televideo, too. I was beginning to realize that Thomas was not really simple; he was merely uncomplicated."Tubes blowed here, Cap'n," he reported. "Like as if you was to set her up to high mag right near a sun; she was overloaded. I can fix her easy if we got the spares."I didn't take time to try to figure that one out. I could feel the dizziness coming on again."Thomas," I called, "let me know when we're at twenty miles from target." I wanted to tell him more, but I could feel consciousness draining away. "Then . . ." I managed, "Aid kit . . . shot . . ."I could still hear Thomas. I was flying away, whirling, but I could hear his voice. "Cap'n, I could fire your missiles now, if you was to want me to," he was saying. I struggled to speak. "No. Wait." I hoped he heard me.I floated a long time in a strange state between coma and consciousness. The stuff Kramer had given me was potent. It kept my mind fairly clear even when my senses were out of action. I thought about the situation aboard my ship.I wondered what Kramer and his men were planning now, how they felt about having let me slip through their fingers. The only thing they could try now was blasting their way into the Bridge. They'd never make it. The designers of these ships were not unaware of the hazards of space life; the Bridge was an unassailable fortress.Kramer would be having a pretty rough time of it by now. He had convinced the men that we were rushing headlong to sure destruction at the hands of the all-powerful Mancji, and that their captain was a fool. Now he was trapped with them in the panic he had helped to create. I thought that in all probability they had torn him apart.I wavered in and out of consciousness. It was just as well; I needed the rest. Each time I came to, I felt a little better. Then I heard Thomas calling me. "We're closin' now, Cap'n," he said. "Wake up, Cap'n, only twenty-three miles now.""Okay," I said. My body had been preparing itself for this; now it was ready again. I felt the needle in my arm. That helped, too."Hand me the intercom, Thomas," I said. He placed the talker in my hand. I keyed for a general announcement."This is the captain," I said. I tried to keep my voice as steady as possible. "We are now at a distance of twenty-one miles from the enemy. Stand by for missile launching and possible evasive action. Damage control crews on the alert." I paused for breath."Now we're going to take out the Mancji ship, men," I said. "All two miles of it."I dropped the mike and groped for the firing key. Thomas handed it to me."Cap'n," he said, bending over me. "I notice you got the selector set for your chemical warheads. You wouldn't want me to set up pluto heads for ya, would ya, Cap'n?""No, thanks, Thomas," I said. "Chemical is what I want. Stand by to observe." I pressed the firing key.Thomas was at the radarscope. "Missiles away, Cap'n," he droned. "Trackin' OK. Looks like they'll take out the left half o' that dumbbell."I found the talker again. "Missiles homing on target," I said. "Strike in thirty-five seconds. You'll be interested to know we're employing chemical warheads. So far there is no sign of offense or defense from the enemy." I figured the news would shock a few mutineers. David wasn't even using his slingshot on Goliath. He was going after him bare-handed. I wanted to scare some kind of response out of them. I needed a few clues to what was going on below.I got it. Joyce's voice came from the wall talker. "Captain, this is Lieutenant Joyce reporting." He sounded scared all the way through, and desperate. "Sir, the mutiny has been successfully suppressed by the loyal members of the crew. Major Kramer is under arrest. We're prepared to go on with the search for the Omega Colony. But, sir . . ." he paused, gulping. "We ask you to change course now before launching any effective attack. We still have a chance. Maybe they won't bother with us when those firecrackers go off . . ."I watched the direct vision screen. Zero second closed in. And on the screen the face of the left-hand disk of the Mancji ship was lit momentarily by a brilliant spark of yellow, then another. A discoloration showed dimly against the dark metallic surface. It spread, and a faint vapor formed over it. Now tiny specks could be seen moving away from the ship. The disk elongated, with infinite leisure, widening."What's happenin', Cap'n?" Thomas wanted to know. He was staring at the scope in fascination. "They launchin' scouts, or what?""Take a look here, Thomas," I said. "The ship is breaking up."The disk was an impossibly long ellipse now, surrounded by a vast array of smaller bodies, fragments and contents of the ship. Now the stricken globe moved completely free of its companion. It rotated, presenting a crescent toward us, then wheeled farther as it receded from its twin, showing its elongation. The sphere had split wide open. Now the shattered half itself separated into two halves, and these in turn crumbled, strewing debris in a widening spiral."My God, Cap'n," Thomas said in awe. "That's the greatest display I ever seen. And all's it took to set her off was two hundred kilos o' PBL. Now that's somethin'."I keyed the talker again. "This is the captain," I said. "I want ten four-man patrols ready to go out in fifteen minutes. The enemy ship has been put out of action and is now in a derelict condition. I want only one thing from her; one live prisoner. All section chiefs report to me on the Bridge on the triple.""Thomas," I said, "go down in the lift and open up for the chiefs. Here's the release key for the combination; you know how to operate it?""Sure, Cap'n; but are you sure you want to let them boys in here after the way they jumped you an all?"I opened my mouth to answer, but he beat me to it. "Fergit I asked ya that, Cap'n, pleasir. You ain't been wrong yet.""It's OK, Thomas," I said. "There won't be any more trouble." EpilogueOn the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Reunion Day, a throng of well-heeled celebrants filled the dining room and overflowed onto the terraces of the Star Tower Dining Room, from whose 5700-foot height above the beaches, the Florida Keys, a hundred miles to the south, were visible on clear days.The ERA reporter stood beside the vast glass entryway surveying the crowd, searching for celebrities from whom he might elicit bits of color to spice the day's transmission.At the far side of the room, surrounded by chattering admirers, stood the Ambassador from the new Terran Federation; a portly, graying, jolly ex-Naval officer. A minor actress passed at close range, looking the other way. A cabinet member stood at the bar talking earnestly to a ball player, ignoring a group of hopeful reporters and fans.The ERA stringer, an experienced hand, passed over the hard-pressed VIP's near the center of the room and started a face-by-face check of the less gregarious diners seated at obscure tables along the sides of the room.He was in luck; a straight-backed, gray-haired figure in a dark civilian suit, sitting alone at a tiny table in an alcove, caught his eye. He moved closer, straining for a clear glimpse through the crowd. Then he was sure. He had the biggest possible catch of the day in his sights: Admiral of Fleets Frederick Greylorn.The reporter hesitated; he was well aware of the admiral's reputation for near-absolute silence on the subject of his already legendary cruise, the fabulous voyage of the Galahad. He couldn't just barge in on the admiral and demand answers, as was usual with publicity-hungry politicians and show people. He could score the biggest story of the century today; but he had to hit him right.You couldn't hope to snow a man like the admiral; he wasn't somebody you could push around. You could sense the solid iron of him from here.Nobody else had noticed the solitary diner. The ERA man drifted closer, moving unhurriedly, thinking furiously. It was no good trying some tricky approach; his best bet was the straight-from-the-shoulder bit. No point in hesitating. He stopped beside the table.The admiral was looking out across the Gulf. He turned and glanced up at the reporter.The newsman looked him squarely in the eye. "I'm a reporter, Admiral," he said. "Will you talk to me?"The admiral nodded to the seat across from him. "Sit down," he said. He glanced around the room.The reporter caught the look. "I'll keep it light, sir," he said. "I don't want company either." That was being frank."You want the answers to some questions, don't you?" the admiral said."Why, yes, sir," the reporter said. He started to inconspicuously key his pocket recorder, but caught himself. "May I record your remarks, Admiral?" he said. Frankness all the way."Go ahead," said the admiral."Now, Admiral," the reporter began, "the Terran public has of course . . .""Never mind the patter, son," the admiral said mildly. "I know what the questions are. I've read all the memoirs of the crew. They've been coming out at the rate of about two a year for some time now. I had my own reasons for not wanting to add anything to my official statement."The admiral poured wine into his glass. "Excuse me," he said. "Will you join me?" He signaled the waiter."Another wine glass, please," he said. He looked at the golden wine in the glass, held it up to the light. "You know, the Florida wines are as good as any in the world," he said. "That's not to say the California and Ohio wines aren't good. But this Flora Pinellas is a genuine original, not an imitation Rhine; and it compares favorably with the best of the old vintages, particularly in the '87."The glass arrived and the waiter poured. The reporter had the wit to remain silent."The first question is usually, how did I know I could take the Mancji ship? After all, it was big, vast. It loomed over us like a mountain. The Mancji themselves weighed almost two tons each; they liked six-gee gravity. They blasted our communication off the air, just for practice. They talked big, too. We were invaders in their territory. They were amused by us. So where did I get the notion that our attack would be anything more than a joke to them? That's the big question." The admiral shook his head."The answer is quite simple. In the first place, they were pulling six gees by using a primitive dumbbell configuration. The only reason for that type of layout, as students of early space vessel design can tell you, is to simplify setting up a gee field effect, using centrifugal force. So they obviously had no gravity field generators."Then their transmission was crude. All they had was simple old-fashioned short range radio, and even that was noisy and erratic. And their reception was as bad. We had to use a kilowatt before they could pick it up at two hundred miles. We didn't know then it was all organically generated; that they had no equipment."The admiral sipped his wine, frowning at the recollection. "I was pretty sure they were bluffing when I changed course and started after them. I had to hold our acceleration down to two and a half gees because I had to be able to move around the ship. And at that acceleration we gained on them. They couldn't beat us. And it wasn't because they couldn't take high gees; they liked six for comfort, you remember. No, they just didn't have the power."The admiral looked out the window."Add to that the fact that they apparently couldn't generate ordinary electric current. I admit that none of this was conclusive, but after all, if I was wrong we were sunk anyway. When Thomas told me the nature of the damage to our radar and communications systems, that was another hint. Their big display of Mancji power was just a blast of radiation right across the communication spectrum; it burned tubes and blew fuses; nothing else. We were back in operation an hour after our attack."The evidence was there to see, but there's something about giant size that gets people rattled. Size alone doesn't mean a thing. It's rather like the bluff the Soviets ran on the rest of the world for a couple of decades back in the war era, just because they sprawled across half the globe. They were a giant, though it was mostly frozen desert. When the economic showdown came they didn't have it. They were a pushover."All right, the next question is why did I choose H. E. instead of going in with everything I had? That's easy, too. What I wanted was information, not revenge. I still had the heavy stuff in reserve and ready to go if I needed it, but first I had to try to take them alive. Vaporizing them wouldn't have helped our position. And I was lucky; it worked."The, ah, confusion below evaporated as soon as the section chiefs got a look at the screens and realized that we had actually knocked out the Mancji. We matched speeds with the wreckage and the patrols went out to look for a piece of ship with a survivor in it. If we'd had no luck we would have tackled the other half of the ship, which was still intact and moving off fast. But we got quite a shock when we found the nature of the wreckage." The admiral grinned."Of course today everybody knows all about the Mancji hive intelligence, and their evolutionary history. But we were pretty startled to find that the only wreckage consisted of the Mancji themselves, each two-ton slug in his own hard chiton shell. Of course, a lot of the cells were ruptured by the explosions, but most of them had simply disassociated from the hive mass as it broke up. So there was no ship; just a cluster of cells like a giant beehive, and mixed up among the slugs, the damnedest collection of loot you can imagine. The odds and ends they'd stolen and tucked away in the hive during a couple hundred years of scavenging."The patrols brought a couple of cells alongside, and Mannion went out to try to establish contact. Sure enough, he got a very faint transmission, on the same band as before. The cells were talking to each other in their own language. They ignored Mannion even though his transmission must have blanketed everything within several hundred miles. We eventually brought one of them into the cargo lock and started trying different wavelengths on it. Then Kramer had the idea of planting a couple of electrodes and shooting a little juice to it. Of course, it loved the DC, but as soon as we tried AC, it gave up. So we had a long talk with it and found out everything we needed to know."It was a four-week run to the nearest outpost planet of the New Terran Federation, and they took me on to New Terra aboard one of their fast liaison vessels. The rest you know. We, the home planet, were as lost to the New Terrans as they were to us. They greeted us as their own ancestors come back to visit them."Most of my crew, for personal reasons, were released from duty there, and settled down to stay."The clean-up job here on Earth was a minor operation to their Navy. As I recall, the trip back was made in a little over five months, and the Red Tide was killed within four weeks of the day the task force arrived. I don't think they wasted a motion. One explosive charge per cell, of just sufficient size to disrupt the nucleus. When the critical number of cells had been killed, the rest died overnight."It was quite a different Earth that emerged from under the plague, though. You know it had taken over all of the land area except North America and a strip of Western Europe, and all of the sea it wanted. It was particularly concentrated over what had been the jungle areas of South America, Africa, and Asia. You must realize that in the days before the Tide, those areas were almost completely uninhabitable. You have no idea what the term 'jungle' really implied. When the Tide died, it disintegrated into its component molecules; and the result was that all those vast jungle lands were now beautifully leveled and completely cleared areas covered with up to twenty feet of the richest topsoil imaginable. That was what made it possible for old Terra to become what she is today; the Federation's truck farm, and the sole source of those genuine original Terran foods that all the rest of the worlds pay such fabulous prices for."Strange how quickly we forget. Few people today remember how we loathed and feared the Tide when we were fighting it. Now it's dismissed as a blessing in disguise."The admiral paused. "Well," he said, "I think that answers the questions and gives you a bit of homespun philosophy to go with it.""Admiral," said the reporter, "you've given the public some facts it's waited a long time to hear. Coming from you, sir, this is the greatest story that could have come out of this Reunion Day celebration. But there is one question more, if I may ask it. Can you tell me, Admiral, just how it was that you rejected what seemed to be prima facie proof of the story the Mancji told: that they were the lords of creation out there, and that humanity was nothing but a tame food animal to them?"The admiral sighed. "I guess it's a good question," he said. "But there was nothing supernatural about my figuring that one. I didn't suspect the full truth, of course. It never occurred to me that we were the victims of the now well-known but still inexplicable sense of humor of the Mancji, or that they were nothing but scavengers around the edges of the Federation. The original Omega ship had met them and seen right through them, but for two centuries those fool hives buzzed around the Omega worlds listening and picking up trophies. They're actually highly intelligent in their own weird way. They picked up the language, listened in on communications, made a real study of Terrans. Every twenty years or so when they got to be too big a nuisance, the New Terrans would break up a few of their hives and clear them out of the area. But on the whole they had a sort of amused tolerance of them."Well, when this hive spotted us coming in, they knew enough about New Terra to realize at once that we were strangers, coming from outside the area. It appealed to their sense of humor to have the gall to strut right out in front of us and try to put over a swindle. What a laugh for the oyster kingdom if they could sell Terrans on the idea that they were the master race. It never occurred to them that we might be anything but Terrans; Terrans who didn't know the Mancji. And they were canny enough to use an old form of Standard."Sure enough, we didn't show any signs of recognizing them; so they decided to really get a kick by getting us to give them what they love better than anything else: a nice bath of electric current. They don't eat, of course; they live on pure radiation. The physical side of life means little to them. They live in a world of the hive mind; they do love the flow of electricity through the hive, though. It must be something like having your back scratched."Then we wanted food. They knew what we ate, and that was where they went too far. They had, among the flotsam in their hive, a few human bodies they had picked up from some wreck they'd come across in their travels. They had them stashed away like everything else they could lay a pseudopod on. So they stacked them the way they'd seen Terran frozen foods shipped in the past, and sent them over. Another of their little jokes."I suppose if you're already overwrought and eager to quit, and you've been badly scared by the size of an alien ship, it's pretty understandable that the sight of human bodies, along with the story that they're just a convenient food supply, might seem pretty convincing. At least, the prevailing school of thought seemed to be that we were lucky we hadn't been put in the food lockers ourselves. But I was already pretty dubious about the genuineness of our pals, and when I saw those bodies it was pretty plain that we were hot on the trail of Omega Colony. There was no other place humans could have come from out there. We had to find out the location from the Mancji.""But, Admiral," said the reporter, "true enough they were humans, and presumably had some connection with the colony, but they were naked corpses stacked like cordwood. The Mancji had stated that these were slaves, or rather domesticated animals; they wouldn't have done you any good.""Well, you see, I didn't believe that," the admiral said. "Because it was an obvious lie. I tried to show some of the officers, but I'm afraid they weren't being too rational just them."I went into the locker and examined those bodies; if Kramer had looked closely, he would have seen what I did. These were no tame animals. They were civilized men.""How could you be sure, Admiral? They had no clothing, no identifying marks, nothing. Why didn't you believe they were cattle?""Because," said the admiral, "all the men's beards were neatly trimmed, in a style two hundred years out of date."After the admiral had signed the check, nodded and walked away, the reporter keyed his fone for Editor."Priority," he said. "Lead. Here's how our world was saved twenty years ago by a dead man's haircut . . ." 

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