A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer

Download 0.98 Mb.
Size0.98 Mb.
1   ...   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   ...   25
Chapter ElevenI walked for seven hours, following the tiny illuminated chart projected on the thumbnail-sized screen of the compass-map, and thinking of a hundred questions I could have asked the all-wise moron that called itself the Station Monitor, if I had had just a few minutes more. Probably, as soon as the demons' cordon had revealed that I hadn't escaped the area, they had started poking around at random in the ever-narrowing circle. It had taken their probes this long to hit upon the buried station. I could take a small measure of comfort from the fact that they hadn't found it sooner.Near dawn, I reached a scattering of tumble-down farm buildings from which the glow of the town was visible a mile or two to the north. Following instructions, I made my way past ranked wheat elevators, took an abandoned wheel-road that angled off to the northwest, and came to the row of tractor sheds that the Monitor had told me housed the Ultimax Transport depot.I tried doors, finally got one open, did more groping in dusty darkness, and found the hidden switch that rolled back a section of rubbish-littered floor to reveal a heavy car-lift.I rode it down into a wide storage garage, where eight ground cars and four helis were parked, bright with polished enamel and chromalloy. Two of the cars were ancient internal-combustion jobs, of interest only to museums. The depot, it seemed, had been in operation for some time. Another vehicle, an oversized heli, had an occupant—a desiccated corpse, dressed in the style of twenty years before. The maintenance machines were programmed to remove dirt and dents, refuel and service the vehicles—but a malfunctioning operator was beyond them.I picked a late-model heli with armorplast all around, and an inconspicuous battery of small-bore infinite repeaters mounted under the forward cooling grid. I tried the turbines; they whirred into life after half a minute's cranking. I trundled the machine to the elevator, rode up, closed the garage behind me, and lifted off into the night sky.* * *Just after sunrise a small all-day-for-a-cee parking raft anchored two miles off Chicago accepted my heli with a reassuring sneer of indifference. I took the ski-way ashore, hailed a cab, and flitted across the vast sprawl of the city to drop into a tiny heli-park nestled like a concrete glade in the mighty forest of masonry all around.I paid off the driver, and rode a walkway half a mile to the block-square cube of unwashed glass that housed the central offices and famous five-thousand-bed dormitory of the Young Men's Nondenominational Association.I left word for Joel, asked for and received one of the six-by-eight private cubicles. I dropped a half-cee in the slot for a breakfast-table edition pictonews, and settled down to wait.Hours slipped by while I slept—a restless sleep, from which I awoke with a start, again and again, hearing the creak of the floor, the rattle of a latch along the corridor. I wasn't hungry; the thought of food made my stomach knot. There was a taste in my mouth like old gym shoes, and a full set of nausea-and-headache symptoms hovered in the wings, ready to come on at the first hint of encouragement.I shaved once, staring at a grim, hollow-cheeked face in the mirror. The plastic-surgery scars were pale lines now, but the shortened nose, lowered hairline, blue eyes, and pale crewcut still looked as unnatural to me as a Halloween false-face.I tried to estimate how long it might be before Joel arrived—if he arrived. It had been five hours since I had given the order to the Monitor. A message would have gone out to Station Nine; the Monitor there would have connections with a telefax or visiscreen switchboard. The order would have gone to a legman—perhaps an ordinary messenger service, or a private detective agency. Someone would have followed the slim leads, checked out the habitual places where Joel spent his time between voyages. It was safe to assume that he was a creature of habit. Once the message—with funds, I hoped—was delivered, Joel would be steered to a tube or jet station. Allow two hours for the passage, another hour for him to discover the cross-town kwik-stop . . . The arithmetic always gave me the same answer: he should have been here an hour or two after I arrived.I called the desk again. Nothing. It had been nine hours now; if he didn't show in another hour, I would have to go on without him. I thought of trying a special code call to the Ultimax Central Monitor, but I couldn't quite classify the situation as a severe emergency—not yet.The tenth hour came and went. I got off the bed, groaning; aches were beginning to creep through the armor of drugs. It was time to move, Joel or no Joel. I had a plan—not much of one, but the best I could do alone.I dressed, went down to the vast, echoing lobby. It was as cheery as a gas chamber. A few hundred derelicts lounged in rump-sprung chairs parked on patches of dusty rug, islands in a sea of plastic flooring the color of dried mud. I crossed to the information desk, opened my mouth—and saw Joel stretched out in a chair like a battered boxer between rounds, eyes shut, mouth open, an electric-blue scarf knotted around his thick neck like a hangman's noose.I felt my face cracking into a wide grin. I went over to him, shook him gently, then a little harder. His eyes opened. He looked at me blankly for a moment—his eyes like the windows of an empty house. Then he smiled."Hi, Jones," he said, sitting up. "Boy, you should've seen the train I rode in! It was all fancy, and there was this nice lady . . ." He told me all about it while we gripped hands, grinning. Suddenly, now, it was all right. Luck was still with me. The demons had tried—tried hard—but I was here, still alive, iron hands and all—and I wasn't alone. I felt a hint of spring return to my muscles, the first twinge of hunger in days.* * *The British Consulate, perched on piles on the shore of Lake Michigan, was a weather-stained cube of stone filigree done in the sterilized Hindu style popular in the nineties. There were lights beyond the grillwork in the wide entry, and on the upper floors.We walked past once, then turned, came back, went up the wide, shallow steps, past a steaming fountain of recirculated, heated water glimmering in a purple spotlight. I rattled the tall grille. A Royal Marine three-striper in traditional dress blues got up from a desk, came across the wide marble floor to the gate, fingering the hilt of a ceremonial saber."The Consulate opens at ten I.M.," he said, looking me over through the grille."My name's Jones," I said. "Treasury. I've got to see the Duty Officer—now. It can't wait until morning.""Let's see a little identification, sir," the marine said.I showed him the blue class one I.D. He nodded, handed the card back through the grille. He opened up, stood back, and watched Joel follow me inside."Where does the Duty Officer stay?" I asked."That's Mr. Phipps tonight. He's got a room upstairs. He's up there now." The expression on the sergeant's face suggested that this was a mixed blessing. "I'll ring him," he added. "You'll 'ave to wite 'ere."I stood where I could see the approach to the building while the sergeant went to a desk, dialed, talked briefly. A second marine came along the corridor and took up a position opposite me. He was a solidly built redhead, not over eighteen. He looked at me with a face as expressionless as a courthouse clock." 'E's coming down," the sergeant said. He looked across at the other marine. "What do you want, Dyvis?"The redhead kept his eyes on me. "Breff o' fresh air," he said shortly.There was a sound of feet coming leisurely down the winding staircase on my left. A sad-looking tweed-suited man with thinning gray hair and pale blue eyes in wrinkled pockets came into view. He slowed when he saw me, glanced at the two marines."What's this all about, Sergeant?" he said in a tired voice, like someone who has put up with a lot lately."Somebody to see you," the sergeant said. "Sir," he added. The newcomer looked at me suspiciously."I have some important information, Mr. Phipps," I said."Just who are you, might I inquire?" Phipps asked. His expression indicated that whatever I said, he wouldn't be pleased."U.S. Treasury." I showed him the I.D.He nodded and looked past me, out through the heavy grille-work. He waved toward the stair."You may as well come along to the office." He turned and started back up; I followed him to the second floor, along a wide, still corridor of dark offices. We entered a lighted room with sexless furnishing in the international official medium-plush style.Phipps sat down behind a cluttered desk, looked across at me glumly as I took a chair. Joel stood beside me, gaping at the picture of Queen Anne on the wall."I won't bore you with details, Mr. Phipps," I said. "I've seen some pretty odd goings-on lately." I looked bashful. "It sounds funny, I know, but . . . well, it involves a kind of unusual dog . . ."I watched his expression closely. He was eyeing me with a bored expression that suggested this was about what he'd expect from cranks who rattled the grille at an hour when civilized people were sipping the third drink of the evening in an embassy drawing-room somewhere.He patted back a yawn."Just how are British interests involved, Mr.—ah—Jones?""Well, this dog was intelligent," I said."Well!" His eyebrows went up. "I'm sure I don't—"Footsteps were coming along the hall. I turned. A husky, black-haired man with deep-set black eyes came into the room, looked at me, ignoring Phipps. I saw the redheaded marine in the hall behind him. I felt my pulse start to beat a little faster."What is it you want here?" he snapped."Ah, Mr. Clomesby-House, Mr. Jones, of the American Treasury Department," Phipps said, adjusting a look of alert interest on his dried-out features. I surmised that Clomesby-House was his boss."Mr. Jones was just lodging a complaint regarding a—um—dog," Phipps said.Clomesby-House narrowed his eyes at me. "What dog is this?""I realize it sounds a little strange," I said, smiling diffidently, "but—well, let me start at the beginning.""Just one moment." The black-eyed man held up a hand. "Perhaps we'd better discuss this matter in private." He stepped back, waved a hand toward the door. Phipps looked surprised."Certainly," I said. "It sounds crazy, but—"I followed Clomesby-House along a corridor, with Joel beside me and the marine trailing. At the door to a roomy office, I paused, eyeing the marine."Ah—this is pretty confidential," I said behind my hand. "Perhaps the guard should wait outside?"Clomesby-House shot me a black look, opened his mouth to object."Unless you're afraid I might be dangerous, or something," I added, showing him a smirk.He snorted. "That's all, Davis. Return to your post."I closed the door carefully, went across and took a chair by the desk behind which the black-eyed man had seated himself. Joel sat on my left."Tell me just what it is you've seen," Clomesby-House said, leaning forward."Well." I laughed shyly. "It sounds pretty silly, here in a nice clean office—but some funny things have been happening to me lately. They all seem to center around the dogs . . ."He waited."It's a secret spy network—I'm sure of it," I went on. "I have plenty of evidence. Now, I don't want you just to take my word for it. I have a friend who's been helping me—"His dark eyes went to Joel. "This man knows of this, too?""Oh, he's not the one I meant. He just gave me a lift over. I've told him a little." I chuckled again. "But he says it's all in my head. I had a little accident some months ago—have a metal plate in my skull, as a matter of fact— But never mind that. My friend and I know better. These dogs—""You have seen them—often?""Well, every now and then.""And why did you come here—to the British Consulate?" he shot at me."I'm coming to that part. You see—well, actually, it's a little hard to explain. If I could just show you . . ."I looked anxious—like a nut who wants to reveal the location of a flying saucer, but is a little shy about butterfly nets. "If you could possibly spare the time—I'd like you to meet my friend. It's not far."He was still squinting at me. His fingers squeaked as he tensed them against the desk-top. I remembered Julius exhibiting the same mannerism—a nervous habit of the not-men when they had a decision to make. I could almost hear him thinking; it would be simplicity itself for him to summon the strait-jacket crew, let them listen to my remarks about intelligent dogs, and let nature take its course. But on the other hand, what I had to say just might alert someone, cause unwelcome inquiries, invite troublesome poking about . . . He came to a decision. He stood, smiling a plaster smile."Perhaps that would be best," he said. "There is only one person besides yourselves—" he glanced at Joel— "who knows of this?""That's right; it's not the kind of thing a fellow spreads around." I got to my feet. "I hope it's not too much trouble," I said, trying to look a little embarrassed now. Flying-saucer viewers aren't accustomed to willing audiences."I said I would accompany you," Clomesby-House snapped. "We will go now—immediately.""Sure—swell," I said. I scrambled to the door and held it for him. "I have my car—""That will not be necessary. We will take an official vehicle."I showed him a sudden suspicious look. After all, I didn't want just anybody to see my saucer. "But no driver," I specified. "Just you and me and Joel here."He gave a Prussian nod. "As you wish. Come along."He led the way to the Consulate garage on the roof, dismissed the marine on duty, and took the controls of a fast, four-seater dispatch heli. I got in beside him, and Joel sat in the rear.I gave directions for an uninhabited area to the northwest—Yerkes National Forest—and we lifted off, hurtled out across the sprawl of city lights and into darkness.* * *Forty-five minutes later, with my nose against the glass, I stared down at a vast expanse of unbroken blackness spread out below."This is the place," I said. "Set her down right here."Clomesby-House shot me a look that would have curdled spring water. "Here?" he growled.I nodded brightly. It was as good a place as any for what I had in mind. He hissed, angled the heli sharply downward. I could sense that he was beginning to regret his excessive caution in whisking me away to a lonely place where he could deal with me and my imaginary accomplice privately. He had wasted time and fuel on an idiot who was no more than a normal mental case after all. I could almost hear him deciding to land, kill me and Joel with a couple of chops of his jack-hammer hands, and hurry back to whatever zombies did in their leisure hours. The thought of caution didn't so much as cross his mind. After all, what were we but a pair of soft, feeble humans?I thought of the arm he and his friends had cost me, and felt both fists—the live and the dead—clenching in anticipation.Clomesby-House was either an excellent pilot or a fool. He whipped the heli in under the spreading branches of a stand of hundred-foot hybrid spruce, grounded it without a jar. He slammed a door open, letting in a wintry blast, and climbed out. The landing lights burned blue-white pools on the patchy snow, flickering as the rotor blades spun to a stop."Stay behind me, Joel," I said quickly. "No matter what happens, don't interfere. Just keep alert for the dog-things; you understand?"He gave me a startled look. "Are they gonna come here, Jones?""I hope not." I jumped out, stood facing Clomesby-House. Behind me, Joel hugged himself, staring around at the great trees."Very well," the not-man said, his black eyes probing me like cold pokers. "Where is the other man?" He stood in a curious slack position, like a manikin that hasn't been positioned by the window dresser. Out here, with just two soon-to-be-dead humans watching, it wasn't necessary to bother with all the troublesome details of looking human.I went close to him, stared into his face."Never mind all that," I said. "It was just a come-on. It's you I want to talk to. Where did you come from? What do you want on Earth?"All the expression went out of his face. He stood for a moment, as though considering a suggestion.I knew the signs; he was communing with another inhuman brain, somewhere not too distant. I stepped up quickly, hit him in the pit of the stomach with all my strength.He bounced back like a tackle dummy hit by a swinging boom, crashed against a tree-trunk, rebounded—still on his feet. In the instant of contact, I had felt something break inside him—but it wasn't slowing him down. He launched himself at me, hands outstretched. I met him with a straight right smash to the head that spun him, knocked him to the ground. He scrabbled, sending great gouts of frozen mud and snow flying. He came to his feet, lunged at me, reaching—I leaned aside from a grasping hand, chopped him below the point of the shoulder, felt bone snap. He staggered, and I took aim, struck at his head—I hadn't even seen the tree that fell on me. I groped my way to my feet, feeling the blood running across my jaw, blinking my vision clear . . . The thing shaped like a man came toward me, expressionless, one arm hanging, the other raised, hand flattened for an axblow. I raised my steel arm, took an impact like a trip-hammer, countered with a smashing chestpunch. It was a waste of effort; the thing's thoracic area was armored like a dinosaur's skull. It brought its arm around in a swipe that caught me glancingly across the shoulder, sent me reeling.Joel was between us, huge fists ready; he landed a smashing left that would have felled an ox, followed with a right that struck the cold, smooth face like a cannonball. The creature seemed not to notice. It struck out, and Joel staggered, caught himself—and a second blow sent him skidding. Then the thing was past him, charging for me. Joel's diversion had given me the time to set myself. I caught the descending arm in a two-handed grip, hauled it around, broke it across my chest. I hurled the alien from me. Then, as it tripped and fell, I aimed a kick that caught it on the kneecap. It went down, and I stood over it breathing hard, as it threshed helplessly, silently, trying to rise on its broken leg."Don't struggle," I got out between breaths. "That wouldn't be logical, would it? Now it's time for you to tell me a few things. Where did you come from? What world?"It lay still then, a broken toy, no longer needed. "You will die soon," it said flatly."Maybe; meanwhile just call me curious. Where's your headquarters? Who runs things, you or the dogs? What do you do with the men you steal—or their brains?""Information is of no use to the soon-dead," the flat voice stated indifferently.Behind me, Joel moaned—a thin, high wail of animal torment. I whirled to him. He lay oddly crumpled at the base of a giant tree, his face white, shocked. Blood ran from his mouth. I went to him, knelt, and tried to ease him to a more comfortable position.Another cry came from his open mouth—a mindless cry of pure agony. I laid him out on his back, opened his jacket.The front of his shirt was a sodden mass of bloody fabric. The thing's blow had smashed his chest as effectively as a falling safe."Joel, hold on—I'll get you to a doctor." I eased my arms under him, started to lift.He shrieked, twisted once—then went limp.My hand went to his wrist, found a pulse, weak, unsteady—but he was alive. His eyelids fluttered, opened."I fell down," he said clearly."I'll get you into the heli." My voice was choked."It hurt my head," Joel went on. "But now it don't hurt . . ." His mouth twitched. His tongue touched his lips. The shadow of a frown came over his face."It tickles in my head," he said. "I don't like it when it tickles in my head. I don't want the dogs to come, Jones. I'm afraid.""The dogs?" I felt my scalp tighten. I twisted, staring into the forest, saw nothing. "Come on, Joel; I'm going to lift you into the heli." I put a hand under his back, half-lifted him. He screamed hoarsely. I lowered him again."It hurts too bad, Jones," he gasped out. "I'm sorry.""Where are the dogs, Joel?""They're close." His eyes sought me. His tongue licked his lips again. "I know—you got to go now, Jones. I'm sorry I yelled and all."I whirled on the broken man-thing. "How far away are they?" I snapped. "You called them; how long before they'll be here?"It looked at me with the one eye that remained in its battered head, and said nothing. I kicked it in the side, sent the limp body skidding two yards."Talk, damn you!"It merely looked at me, as impersonally as a morgue attendant taking inventory. Its gaze went past me; it seemed to be listening . . . Then I felt it—the greasy, gray feeling of unreality that meant the demons were closing in. I keened my hearing . . . I heard the lope of demonic hands galloping across frozen ground, brushing against brittle, leafless twigs, coming closer."You . . . gotta . . . hurry . . . up . . ." Joel's voice croaked. "G'bye, Jones. You was . . . a good friend. I guess . . . you was . . . the only friend . . . I ever had . . ."He was dying; I knew nothing I could do would save him. And a few feet away the heli waited, fueled and ready. I wanted to go.But I couldn't do it."Take it easy, Joel," I said hoarsely. "I'm not leaving. I'm staying with you."He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.There was a crash of underbrush. As I whirled, a dark dog-shape bounded from the shadow of a giant tree, turned, and charged into the circle of light. I set myself. As it leaped, I threw my weight into a straight-arm blow that met the bony face in midair, drove it back in pulped ruin into the shattered skull. The thing hurtled past me, struck, threshing in its death-fit.Two more of the beast-things leaped into view, sprang at me side by side. I caught one by the neck, crushed bone and hide together, hurled it aside. I turned to drive a kick into the chest of the second as it rounded on me. I jumped after it, smashed its head with a left and right as it rose up, snapping.There were more of them around me now. I spun, kicked at one, struck another down with my chromalloy fist, shook a third from my right arm, fended off another . . . It was a nightmare battle against leaping creatures almost impalpable to my PAPA-reinforced blows; they came at me like bounding ghost-shapes, red-eyed and gape-jawed. I struck, and struck, and struck again.A white-hot bear-trap closed on my leg. I tried to shake it off. It clung, dragging at me. Jaws snapped an inch from my throat. I hammered at a skull-face, saw it crumble—and another sprang up. One struck me from behind. I stumbled, felt jaws like a saw-edged vise clamp on my thigh. There was one at my left arm now; I heard its teeth break against the steel rods. With my free hand, I struck at it; then two of the things leaped at once, fastened on my good arm—I twisted away from jaws that lunged for my throat, felt myself falling. Then I was down, and the weight on me was like heaped mattresses set with needles of fire; I was like a man drowning in a sea of piranha—razor teeth stripping the flesh from the living bone . . . I was on my back, a cluster of demon faces over me like surgeons over an operating table; teeth snapped, ripped at my throat; I felt the tearing of flesh, the gush of scalding blood. As if in a dream, I heard the gabble of demon voices, the slap of beast hands. Then blackness closed over me. I knew it was death. Chapter TwelveSomewhere, I dream in a sunless emptiness where the years arch like ancient elms over the long avenue of time—a path across eternity, without a beginning and without end.Into the static universe, change comes: a sense of subtle pressures, of energy-fields in transition. An imbalance grows—and with the imbalance a need—and from the need, volition. I sense movement, the slide and turn of intricate components, and the tentative questing of sensors, like raw nerves hesitantly exposed. Light, form, color impinge on delicate instruments. Space takes on dimension, texture.All around me, a broad plain of shattered rock and black shadows stretches away to a line of fire at the edge of the world, under the glare of a sun that rages purple-white against bottomless silver-black.A shape moves, small with distance—beyond it, others. I am moving too, driving forward effortlessly over the rough ground, throwing up dust in heavy clouds that drop back with a curious quickness. Rock-chips fly, twinkling as they fall. I sense vibrations; the thunder of my passage, the whine and growl of meshing metal, the oscillation of electrons.Abruptly, from beyond the jagged horizon, an object comes, a glittering torpedo-shape tipped with blue fire, flashing with a swiftness that swells it in a movement to giant size. I feel the closing of relays within me; circuits come alive. My back arches; I lift my arms and thrust—Fire lances from my fingertips, a silent stuttering of brilliance across the sky. I pivot, trailing the shattered projectile as it gouts incandescence, breaks apart, falls in fragments beyond a distant stony ridge. A growl of thunder rolls, dies. I rake my eyes across the desolate spread of fragmented shale around me, mark a flicker of movement among up-tilted rock-slabs, point and fire in one smooth, coordinated motion . . . And still I plunge on, charging to a blind attack against an unknown enemy.* * *I grind down a long slope, dozing aside rock-chunks, jolting across crevasses. A vast shape swings from an inky shadow to my left, pivots heavily, trailing a shattered tread—dreadnaught of the enemy, damaged, left behind in the retreat, but with its offensive power intact. I see the immense disrupter grid swing to bear on me, glow to red heat—I lock full emergency power to my prime batteries, open my mouth, and bellow—and bellow again . . . Then I am racing off-side, driving for the crest of a ridge, over, down the far slope as molten rock bubbles behind me. The shock wave strikes and I am lifted, flung down-slope. I catch myself, claw for purchase; the limping monster appears on the ridge and I hurl my thunder at it and see its exposed grid shatter, explode . . . I turn back to rejoin my column, aware of the drive of mighty gears and shafts, of curving plates of flintsteel and chromalloy, of the maze of neurotronic linkages that run to command-ganglia, and from these secondary centers to the thousand sensors, controls, mechanisms, reflex circuits that are my nervous system. Far away, I feel a momentary stir of remote phantom memories—faint echoes of a forgotten dream of life . . . but the recollection fades, is forgotten.I swing up across a slanting rock-shelf, take up my position on the flank of a fire-spouting behemoth bearing the symbol of a Centurion. The battle continues . . . * * *I fight, responding automatically to each emergency with the instant reaction of drilled reflexes—but in among the incisive commands of my response circuits, meaningless wisps of thought flash like darting fishes:Wheel left into line, advance in file . . . dry-looking country; a long way between bars . . . Main battery, arm; primary quadrant, saturation fire . . . What is this place? A hell of a strange sky . . . Defensive armor, category nine; blank visual sensors for flash at minute twelve microseconds, mark . . . Air-bursts all around, looks like a battle going on; what am I doing here? Advance at assault speed; arm secondary batteries, omega shields in position . . . The dust—it's thick as Georgia clay—but I seem to see through it, beyond it—"UNIT EIGHTY-FOUR! DAMAGE REPORT!"The words flash into my mind like the silent blow of a bright ax, not spoken in English, but spat in an abbreviated Command code of harsh inflected syllables. I hear myself acknowledge the order in kind, as in instant compulsive response my damage sensors race through a fifty-thousand-item checklist like rats scurrying among filled shelves. "Negative," I hear myself report. "All systems functional."But deep inside me a dam strains, cracks, bursts. A tendril of released thought, startled awake by the command, seems to grope, struggling outward. Word-images, sharp-chiseled as diamonds, thrust among the bodiless conceptualizations of rote conditioning. I reach back, back—to the blinding light of a strange awakening, past confusion and dawning awareness . . . back . . . into a bland, ever-dwindling record of stimulus, pain, stimulus, pleasure; a wordless voice that speaks, instructs, impresses, punishes, rewards—printing on my receptive mind the skein of conditioned reflex, the teachings that convert the blanked protoplasm of the shocked brain into the trained battle-computer of a dreadnaught of the line . . . And in the forefront of my mind, I am remembering: somewhere long ago, a body—of flesh and blood, soft, complex, infinitely responsive—A target flashes, and I aim and fire—That impulse had once lifted an arm, pointed a finger. A human finger; a human body! I savor the concept, at once strange and as familiar as life itself. The fragile concept of identity crystallized from vagueness, grows, sharpens—There is a moment of disorientation, a swirling together and a rending apart.I am a man. A man named Bravais. * * *"UNIT EIGHTY-FOUR! RECHECK NAVIGATIONAL GRID FOR GROSS POSITIONAL ERROR!" The habit of obedience carried me forward over rough ground, maneuvering in response to long-learned rules as rigid as laws of nature. My sensors lanced out, locked to my fellow machines; my control mechanisms acted, swinging me to the point of zero-stress, then driving me forward—and in my mind, thoughts jostled each other:Secondary target, track! . . . If you meet another Julius, break him in two and keep going . . . advance, assault speed . . . This is your Station Monitor; permission requested to mutilate the body . . . Arm all batteries; ten-microsecond alert . . . I guess you was the only friend I ever had— Suddenly, vividly, I remembered the fight with the demons, the weight of the stinking bodies that bore me down, teeth tearing at my throat . . . I had seen the enemy at work—the deft saws, the clever scalpels.I remembered the brain of the Algerian major, lifted from the skull, preserved—As mine was now preserved.The demons had killed my body, left it to rot in the forest. But now I lived again—in the body of a great machine."UNIT EIGHTY-FOUR: REPORT!"The command struck at me—a mental impulse of immense power. I watched, an observer aloof from the action, as my conditioned-response complex reacted, sensing the fantastic complexity of the workings of the mobile fort that was now my body."RETIRE TO POSITION IN SECONDARY TIER!" The harsh order galvanized my automatic responses in instant obedience—On impulse, I intercepted the command; then I reached out along my circuits, sent out new commands. I turned myself, faced the violent sun, moved ponderously forward; I halted, pivoted, tracked my guns across the dark sky. Somehow, I had gained control of my machine-body. I remembered the command—the external voice that would have asserted its control—But instead, it had cued my hypnotically-produced reserve personality-fraction into active control.I withdrew, felt the automatics resume control, moving me off to my new station. The aliens were clever, and as thorough as death; I had been tracked down, killed, chained in slavery on a ruined no-man's world; but I had broken the bonds. I was alive, master of my fortress-body—free, inside the enemy defenses!* * *Later—hours or days, I had no way of knowing—I rumbled down an echoing tunnel into a vast cavern, took my place in a long line of scarred battle units."UNIT EIGHTY-FOUR: FALL OUT!" the command voice bellowed soundlessly. I moved forward. Other units moved up, stationed themselves on either side of me. A long silence grew. I was aware that other orders were being given—orders not addressed to me, automatically tuned out by my trained reflexes. Something was going on . . . I made an effort, extended sensitivity, picked up the transmission:"—malfunction! Escort Unit Eighty-four to interrogation chamber and stand by during reflex-check! Acknowledge and execute!"I heard the snick of relays closing; I was hearing the internal command circuits of my fellow battle units."UNIT EIGHTY-FOUR: PROCEED TO INTERROGATION CHAMBER!"I let my automaton-circuits stir me into motion. I moved off, listening as the command voice gave a final instruction to my armed guard:"Units Eighty-three and Eighty-five: at first indication of deviant response, trigger destruct circuits!"I saw the turrets of the battle wagons beside me swing to cover me; their ports slid back, the black snouts of infinite repeaters emerged, aimed and ready. The command-mind had already sensed something out of the ordinary in Unit Eighty-four.I rolled on toward the interrogation chamber, monitoring the flow of reflex-thought in the minds of the units beside me—a dull sequence of course-correction, alert-reinforcements, routine functional adjustments. Carefully, using minimal power, I reached out . . . "Unit Eighty-three; damage report!" I commanded.Nothing happened. The battle units were programmed to accept commands from only one source—the Command voice."Units Eighty-three and Eighty-five: arm weapons; complete prefire drill!" The command came. From beside me, I heard arming locks slide open. Together, my guards and I entered the armored test cell.* * *"UNIT EIGHTY-FOUR! DISARM AND LOCK ALL WEAPONS! RESPONSE-SEQUENCE ALPHA, EXECUTE!" The voice of the Interrogator rang out.I watched as my well-drilled reflexes went through their paces. I would have to move with great care now; every action was under scrutiny by the enemy. Another command came, and as I responded, I studied the quality of the Interrogator's voice. It was different, simpler, lacking the overtones of emotion of the Command-mind. I reached out my awareness toward it, sensed walls of armor, the complex filaments of circuitry. I followed a communications lead that trailed off underground, arose in a distant bunker. The intricacy of a vast computer lay exposed before me. I probed gently, testing the shape and density of the mechanical mind-field; it was a poor thing, a huge but feeble monomaniac—but it was linked to memory banks . . . I felt a warning twitch of alarm in the moron-circuits, caught the shape of an intention—Instantly I shunted aside its command, struck back to seize control of the computer's limited discretionary function. Holding it firmly, I traced the location of the destruct-assembly that it would have activated, found it mounted below my brain, disarmed it. Then I instructed the Interrogator to continue with the routine checkout, and to report all normal. While it busied itself in idiot obedience, I linked myself to its memory banks, scanned the stored data.The results were disappointing: the Interrogator's programming was starkly limited, a series of test patterns for fighting and service machines. I withdrew, knowing no more than I had of the aliens.* * *The Interrogator reported me as battle-ready. On command, I rejoined my waiting comrades. An order came: "ALL UNITS, SWITCH TO MINIMUM AWARENESS LEVEL!"As the energy quotient in my servo-circuits dropped, the sensitivity range of my receptors drew in, scanning from the gamma scale down through ultra-violet, past infra-red, into the dullness of short-wave. Silence and darkness settled over the depot.I sent out a pulse, scanned the space around me. The clatter of the Command-voice was gone. I was alone now—I and my comatose comrades-in-arms. There were ninety-one units, similar to myself in most respects, but armed with a variety of weapons. Small, busy machines scurried among us, carrying out needed repairs. I touched one, caught vague images of a simplified world-image, out-lined in scents and animal drives. I recognized it as the brain of an Earthly dog, programmed to operate the elementary maintenance apparatus.Reaching farther, I encountered the confused mutter of a far-flung communications system, a muted surf-roar of commands, acknowledgments, an incoherent clutter of operational messages, meaningless to me.I touched the mind of the fighting machine beside me, groped along the dark passages of its dulled nerve-complex, found the personality center. A sharp probing impulse elicited nothing; the ego was paralyzed. I withdrew to its peripheral awareness level; a dim glow of consciousness lingered there."Who are you?" I called."Unit Eighty-three, of the line." The reply was a flat monotone."You were a man—once," I told it. "What was your name?""Unit Eighty-three of the line," the monotone repeated. "Combat-ready, standing by at low alert. Awaiting orders."I tried another; the result was the same. There was no hint of personality in the captive brains; they were complex neurotronic circuits, nothing more—compact, efficient, with trained reflex-patterns, cheaper and easier to gather from the warring tribes of Earth than to duplicate mechanically.I stirred another quiescent brain, probed at the numbed ego, pried without success at the opaque shield of stunned tissue that surrounded it. It was hopeless; I would find no allies here—only slaves of the aliens.Free inside the alien fortress—in a flawless camouflage—I was helpless without information. I needed to know what and where the Command-voice was, the disposition of other brigades, the long-range plan of action, who the enemy was that we fought on the fire-shattered plain—and on what world the plain lay. I would learn nothing here, packed in a subterranean depot. It was time to take risks.An impulse to my drive mechanism sent me forward out of the lineup; I swung around, moved off toward the tunnel through which I had entered the cave. In the utter silence, the clash of my treads transmitted through my frame was deafening. I filtered out the noise, tuned my receptivity for sounds of other activity nearby. There was none.Past the ranked combat units, high and grim in the lightless place, the tunnel mouth gaped dark. I entered it, ascended the sloping passage, reached a massive barrier of flint-steel. I felt for the presence of a control-field, sensed the imbecile mechanism of the lock. A touch and it responded, sent out the pulse that rolled the immense doors back. I moved out into the open, under a blazing black sky.I studied the landscape, realizing for the first time that my field of vision included the entire circumference of the horizon. Nothing stirred, all across the barren waste. Here and there the ruins of a combat unit showed dark against gray dust. The flaring purple sun was low over the far ridges now; a profusion of glittering stars seemed to hang close overhead. I didn't know in what direction the alien headquarters might lie. I picked a route that led across level ground toward a lone promontory and started toward it. 

Share with your friends:
1   ...   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   ...   25

The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2020
send message

    Main page