A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer

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Chapter ThirteenFrom my vantage point atop the conical hill, I saw the tips of saw-toothed peaks that formed a wide ring around my position, their bases out of sight over the near horizon. My sense of scale was confused by the strange aspect reality assumed through unfamiliar senses. Instinct told me that the shattered slab before me was perhaps five yards long; I stirred it with my treads, saw it bound away, flip lightly over, and sink to rest, stirring coarse dust that boiled up, dropped back like mud under water.I was no better at judging my own size. Was I a vast, multiton apparatus, or a tiny fighting machine no bigger than a one-man jet-ped? The horizon seemed close; was it really only a mile or two away—or was my visual range so far extended that a hundred miles seemed only a step?"Self-analysis wasn't getting me any closer to my objective—alien intelligence. Perhaps beyond the shelter of the wide crater I would see some indications of life. I headed for a cleft between steep cliffs. I churned up through dust that fountained behind me, and gained the pass. The view ahead showed the same sterile rock and dust that I had left behind. I went on down the slope, out across the plain, skirting burned-out machines, some of fantastic design, others like my own grim body. I passed small craters—whether natural formations or the results of bombardment, I couldn't tell. The distant babble of confused commands was a background to the crackle of star-static. I felt neither hunger nor fatigue—only a burning desire to know what lay beyond the next ridge—and a fear that I might be found and destroyed before I had taken my revenge for what had been done to me . . . * * *The strange machine appeared suddenly at the top of a sheer cliff that ran obliquely across my route. It saw me at the same instant that I saw it. The machine pivoted, depressing its guns to bear on me. In place of the simple markings of the battle units I had seen, there were complicated insignia painted in garish color across its hull. I halted, waiting."IDENTIFY YOURSELF!" the familiar voice of my Brigade commander boomed in my mind."Unit Eighty-four of the line, combat ready . . ." As I reported, I extended a probing impulse across the insubstantial not-space, touched the shape of the mind behind the voice. With an instantaneous reflex, it struck at me. The slave circuits of my brain resonated with the power of the blow—but in that instant I had seen the strange workings of the alien mind, scanned the pattern of its assault—and now I traced the path of primary volition, then struck back, caught the alien ego in an unbreakable grip."Who are you?" I demanded.It gibbered, writhed, fought to escape. I held it tighter—like gripping a lashing snake in bare hands."Answer, or I destroy you!""I am Zixz, Centurion of the line, of the Nest of the Thousand Agonies Suffered Gladly. What Over-mind are you?""Where do you come from?""I was spawned in the muck beds of Kzak, by order of the Bed-master—""You're not human; why were you installed in a machine?""I was condemned for the crime of inferiority; here I expiate that fault.""What world is this?"The reply was a meaningless identity-symbol."Why do you fight this war?"The alien mind howled out its war slogan—as incomprehensible as an astrologer's jargon. I silenced it."How many Brigades are engaged?""Four thousand, but not all are at full strength.""Who is the enemy?"The symbol that the alien hurled at me was a compound of horrors."Where is your headquarters?" I demanded.I caught an instant's glimpse of twisted towers, deep caverns, and a concept: the Place That Must Be Defended—Then the alien lunged against my control, shrieked an alarm—I tightened my grip—and sudden silence fell. Cautiously, I relaxed. A few threads of dying thought spiraled up from the broken mind; then it winked out like a quenched ember. I had killed the Centurion Zixz . . . And into the void, a thunderous command roared."COMMAND UNIT ZIXZ! REPORT YOUR BRIGADE!"Quickly, I shaped a concept, counterfeiting the dead Centurion's mind-pattern: "Brigade strength ninety-one; ready for combat.""YOUR NEST WILL SUFFER, FOOL! THE OVER-MIND DOES NOT COMMAND TWICE! ORDER YOUR UNITS INTO ACTION! CLOSE THE GAP IN THE BATTLE ARRAY!""Delayed by necessity for destruction of defective unit," I countered. "Proceeding as ordered.""COMMAND UNIT ZIXZ! I PROMISE LIQUID FIRE ACROSS THE MUCK BEDS OF KZAK FOR THIS DERELICTION! TO THE ATTACK—"I broke in, still feigning the mind-voice of Zixz:"Massive enemy flanking attack! New weapons of unfamiliar capability! Nondetectible units assaulting me in overwhelming numbers . . ." But while I transmitted the false report to the Over-mind, I extended a delicate sensing line, brushed over the other, felt out the form of a mighty intelligence, vastly more powerful than that of Zixz. And yet the structure was familiar, like that of the Centurion, magnified, reinforced. And here was the primary volitional path . . . I moved along it as lightly as a spider stalking a gnat. I came into a vast mind-cavern, ablaze with the power of a massive intellect."REINFORCEMENTS DISPATCHED!" the great mind roared. At this close range, it was deafening. "RELEASE TO YOUR HOME NEST IF YOU HOLD! PROCEED WITH ADDITIONAL DATA!"Busily, I concocted fantastic mass and firepower readings, fanciful descriptions of complex and meaningless enemy maneuvers; and while I held the Over-mind's attention, I searched—and found its memory vaults.There was the image of a great nest, seething with voracious life—a nest that covered a world, leaped to another, swelled through an ever-increasing volume of space, driven by lusts that burned like living fire in each tiny mote.I saw the outward-writhing pseudopods of this burgeoning race as they met, slashed at each other with mindless fury—and then flowed on, over every obstacle, changing, adapting to burning suns and worlds of ice, to the near-null gravity of tiny rock-worlds and the smashing forces of titan collapsed-matter stars.The wave reached the edge of its galaxy, boiled up, reached out into the void. Defeated, it recoiled on itself, churning back toward galactic center—stronger now, more ruthless, filled with a vast frustrated rage that shrieked its insatiable needs, devouring all in its path—and coming together at last in an eruption of mad vitality that rent the very fabric of space . . . And from the void at the heart of the universe, the wave rolled out again, tempered in the fires of uncounted ages of ravening combat, devouring its substance now in a new upsurge of violence that made the past invasions seem as somnolent as spawning pools.And again the edge of the galaxy was reached, and there the wave built, poised, while from behind, the hordes arose with the voracity of atomic fires—And the fire leaped, fell into far space, burned out, and was lost.But pressure built, and again lusting life leaped outward, reaching—And again fell short. And leaped again. And again . . . Forces readjusted, adapted, gained new balances. Ferocity was tempered as pressures slackened. But the need was as great as ever. Frantic, the Nest-mind sought for an answer—a key to survival. A million ways were tried, and the nest-motes died, and a million million more methods were attempted, and a million myriads fell, burned to nothingness in uncounted holocausts.And still the Nest-mind thrust outward . . . And it bridged the gap to the next galaxy. Over the slim link, life flowed, fighting, slashing, devouring, leaping from new feeding ground to newer, filling the galaxy, boiling up in a transcendent fury of hunger. Again a leap into nothingness—and a new galaxy was reached.Nothing remained in the Nest-mind of its original character. It had become a vast mechanism for growth, a disease of life that radiated outward from a center so distant in the universe that the mind itself in time forgot its beginnings. Units broke free, withered, faded, died. Random islands of the raging vitality consumed themselves, disappeared. A long arm turned back, groped its way along the chains of burned-out worlds, scavenging, growing, to lance in the end into the original nest-place, to devastate it and go on, blind, insensate, insatiable—and finding no new feeding grounds beyond, it turned upon itself . . . Eons passed. Scattered across a volume of space that was a major fraction of the Macrocosm, the isolated colonies burned out their destinies, consumed their worlds, died, turned to dust. New worlds formed from their substance. Gradually, the ancient plague subsided.But in one minor globular cluster, a remnant survived. Nature's vast mechanism of profusion had served its purpose. In the hot muck-beds of the virgin worlds of this cluster, a purpose grew, stabilized, came to fruition. New life-forms sprang from the purpose, new parameters of existence evolved. Questing fibrils of the mother nest spread out, formed themselves into miniscule spores, set themselves adrift from world to world.By the uncounted billions, they died. But here and there, they found haven, took root, became life—seeding warm seas, spreading out on dead shelves of rock and the familiar muck . . . The life-force had found stability, a pattern of existence; but the primal urge to expansion remained. Expansion required a drive, a lust unsatisfied.A dichotomy came into being. All across the spectrum of reality, a fissure appeared. Existence segregated itself into two categories, inherently opposed. Conflict renewed; pressure built; expansion resumed. Again, life was on the march toward its unimagined destiny.On every world where the opposed forces met, the struggle was joined. Each force knew the other, instinctively recognized the ancient enemy. Each side called itself by a name, and the antagonist by another.One name was Good, and the other Evil.A variety of symbols came into being, and across the worlds, the struggle swayed, reaching ever outward . . . And a time came on a remote, isolated world, when traitorous Good met treacherous Evil and joined, against all nature, in a new formula of existence. Now, in this unholy amalgam, the ancient drives met and mingled, fought and struck a balance. A transcendent value-scale evolved—new abilities, unheard-of in the galaxy; an empathy possible only to a monstrous hybrid; an unnatural negation of the primal drive, a perversion of that terrible energy into new channels. Under the stimulus of internal stresses, minds of undreamed-of power sprang into being. At every level from the cellular upward, death conflicted with life; sloth with vaulting ambition; greed with instinct for asceticism. And out of the synthesis of opposites, a cancerous growth called Beauty came into being; obscene antisurvival concepts named Loyalty, Courage, Justice were born into the universe.Wherever the elemental Purities encountered this monstrous hybrid, a battle of extermination was joined. Good could compromise with Evil, but neither could meet with the half-breed, Art. A new war raged across the minor galaxy and left annihilation in its wake.So it went for ages, until a lone, surviving pocket of hybrids was discovered. The instinct to destroy the Unnatural Ones raged strong—but the race-lesson of restraint and exploitation was stronger. Guarding their secret find, the Pure ones took specimens, sampled their capabilities, needs, drives. Here were minds of great power—computers of magnificent compactness and ability—a resource not to be wasted. A decision was reached: the anomalies would be nurtured, allowed to evolve a primitive social organization—and then harvested, pressed into the service of the Pure. Sometimes the thought came that such a race, released, might rip asunder the ancient contours of the universe . . . But this was a nightmare concept, to be passed over with a shudder. Control was complete. There was no danger. The hybrids were securely enslaved . . . I withdrew from the Over-mind, and for a moment I held the long perspective of that view—saw my world as the insignificant scintilla that it was among the stars, my race a sinister tribe of barbaric freaks, harvested like wild honey . . . A great gleaming planet had risen above the broken horizon, casting a bluish light across the darkling plateau. I saw the gleam of white from a misty patch on the overcurve of the glaring world, the pale outlines of unfamiliar continents. What world was this, and how far in space from the planet I called home?* * *There was no time now to indulge the pangs of homesickness. The Over-mind continued to pour out orders to its dead Centurion, and I babbled responses, describing the maneuvering of immense imaginary fleets, fabulous aerial assaults, weapons of incredible destructive power—and while I transmitted, I raced along the base of the cliff toward the shelter of a distant ringwall.In the open now, I saw the dust clouds of distant Brigades on the move, coming closer. I altered course, steered for a smaller crater, almost lost over the curve of the lunar horizon. I skirted a vast tumulus of broken rock, thundered out into the clear—Spread all across my route, a full Brigade of heavy combat units churned toward me under a pall of dust. I swung away to the left. At once, a harsh voice rang in my mind: "LONE UNIT! WHAT IS YOUR BRIGADE?"I ignored the call, saw a dozen units detach themselves and race to intercept me. I halted, swung to bring my guns to bear on the line ahead. I opened my receptors, and heard a harsh command:"RENEGADE UNIT! HALT AND SUBMIT OR BE DESTROYED."For a moment I hesitated, ready to pour my fire into the aliens—a move that would mean nothing but my instant annihilation. And the machines that faced me were no more than helpless pawns—slaves of the Over-mind. I would have to surrender. My freedom had been short—and had gained me nothing.We came in between high walls built in the shadow of a mighty ringwall that towered thousands of feet into the black sky. From embrasures on all sides, the snouts of heavy guns thrust down, covering a bleak, half-mile-square enclosure. I rolled forward, felt the Centurion's control withdraw. Guns still trained on me, the Centurion and his squad backed through the ponderous entry-gate. A portcullis of massive spikes rose up to bar the exit.I surveyed my prison, saw a scarred combat unit parked by the featureless wall at its far side. I was not the only erring trooper of the monster Brigades, it seemed. Perhaps here was another rebel—another mind that had freed itself from enemy control.On impulse I reached out, tried for contact with the lone unit. I found the familiar pattern of conditioned reaction, probed deeper—and encountered a shield of total opacity. Not even the mighty Over-mind had resonated with such overtones of mental power as this impervious barrier . . . Then I felt the probe of the stranger's mind reach out to me. Instantly, I erected a resistance—and still the intruder pressed me. I retreated, withdrew awareness to my innermost identity center . . . and felt the touch of the other's mind, questing, probing. I gathered my forces, prepared a maximum counter-blast . . . With a sudden thrust, the newcomer penetrated my defenses and confronted me."Gosh," a familiar voice exclaimed in my mind. "What're you doin' here, Jones?" Chapter Fourteen"That's how it was, Jones," Joel said. "For a while I just watched; I looked at the country and tried to figure out where I was. All I knew, I was Unit One Hundred of the line—and I was Joel, too. But everything was different. There was fighting going on 'bout all the time. I got to worrying maybe I'd get hurt; this new body I got's tough, but a direct hit could knock it out—I saw it happen to others. I tried to talk to some of 'em after I got the knack of it—but all they knew was their number and the orders of the day."Then one day I just ducked out; there was so many units in the fight I didn't figure anybody'd notice. But they jumped me fast. I been here ever since—dunno how long.""How many times has the planet crossed the sky since you woke up?""Maybe six or seven. 'Bout four since I been in the brig.""You've been here all that time—and nothing's happened yet?""Nope, I figured maybe they forgot about me.""I don't think time means the same thing to them as it does to us.""This is a funny-looking place, ain't it, Jones? The sun's funny—and the moon, too.""Joel, I don't know how much time we'll have—but I have a feeling that when the current battle is settled, the Over-mind will be along to dissect us some more—to find out why we didn't work. I think it assumes we're just a variation on a routine malfunction. It doesn't seem to have any emotions—they aren't out for revenge for the Centurion I killed—but if they knew we were in full control of our bodies, we'd have been blasted instead of captured.""Who are they, Jones—the Command-minds and the Over-mind—all those voices I hear in my head?""They're the masters of the dog-things. They're fighting a war—the devil knows what it's about. For some reason they're using this moon as a battleground—and we're a convenient source of computer circuits.""The ones they're fighting—they're just as bad," Joel said. "I got close to 'em once—nearly got cut off. I put out a feeler to one—wanted to see what he was like. I figured maybe if he was against the Command-voice, maybe I'd change sides. But it was—it was horrible, Jones. Kind of like . . . well, like some of the old ladies that used to come around the Seaman's Welfare. They was so bound to do good, they'd kill you if you got in their way. It's like hell comes in two colors—black and white.""We need information, Joel. We're as ignorant as new-born babies. For a while, I didn't even know how fast time was going by. We move fast—we can run through a fifty-thousand-item checklist in a second or two. But I still don't know how big I am. I feel light—but I suppose that's just because of the lesser gravity.""I can tell you how big we are, Jones. Come on." I watched as the great battle-machine that had been Joel backed, turned, started off along the wall. I followed. At the far end of the compound, at the junction of the barrier wall with a massive squat tower, he stopped."Look there," he said. I examined the ground, noted the broken rubble, a heap of scattered objects like fragments of broken spaghetti, loose dust drifted against the coarse, unjointed wall."See them little sticks that got a kind of glow to 'em?" Joel said."Sure." Then I recognized what I was looking at. "My God!""Funny, ain't it? Them skulls don't look no bigger'n marbles; leg-bones look like they might belong to a mouse. But they're full-sized human bones, Jones. It's us that's off. We must be, well, 'bout—well, I can't count that high . . .""They look about twelve inches; my picture of myself is about twelve feet to my upper turret. I can multiply that by six; that makes us seventy-two feet high!""Jones—could you teach me to count them big numbers? You know, it's funny—but seems like I missed learnin' a lot of things, back when—when I was just a man.""You've changed, Joel. You think about things a lot more than you used to.""I know, Jones. It's like I used to be sort of half asleep or something. I can't remember much about it—back there. It's all kind of gray and fuzzy. There's lots of things I want to know now—like numbers—but in those days, I never even asked.""Joel, how did you get the wound you had on your forehead?""Yeah—I remember; there was a sore place—it hurt, all the time. Gosh, I forgot all about them headaches! And it was kind of pushed in, like . . . I don't know how I got that, Jones. I never used to even wonder about it.""It was a badly depressed fracture; probably bone fragments pressing on your brain. The pressure's gone now. It must have been the repressed part of your brain, coming up again, that let you throw off the aliens' control.""It's kind of funny, the way I can look inside my own thinkin' now, Jones. Seems like I can sort of watch my brains like; I can see just how things work.""We've been conditioned. The demons set up a network of introspection circuits for their own use—and we can still use them!""They don't do us much good, long as we're stuck here. These walls are tough. I tested 'em a little; they didn't give at all. Maybe if we fired at 'em, we could knock a hole through.""Maybe there's an easier way." I reached out toward the gate, found the cybernetic control circuitry, probed, fired signals; massive tumblers stirred, then an alarm went off—a shriek of pure mental power, slicing out across distance to alert the aliens."Oh-oh—that did it!" Joel called.I wheeled toward the gate. "Try your guns, Joel!" Together, we raced for the barrier, pouring fire into the massive chromalloy grid. I saw it glow to red heat—but it held.We churned to a halt. "We've got to get out of here," I shouted. "That siren will bring them on the run!""There's not many units around here now," Joel said. "Just two parked outside the gate, and they're kind of asleep like. There was a Brigade near here awhile back, but they just stayed awhile and moved on."I reached out, sensed the two machines dozing on low alert. "I tried to control a couple of units once—it didn't work. But I've learned a few tricks since then. Maybe—""Maybe what, Jones?""I don't know—but I'm going to try something and see what happens."I reached out to the dull glow of the idling mind-field, formed in my mind an image of the mental voice of the Centurion Zixz."Combat unit! Damage report!" I thundered."All systems functional," came the instant reply."Situation report!" I demanded."Unit Six of the line, standing by on low alert."I reached for the other mind, touched it; it identified itself as Unit Seven of the Brigade of Ognyx."Units Six and Seven! Open fire on compound gate!" I roared."Acknowledged," came the instant reply. Almost at once, the ground rocked under me; I saw the gate bu

ge, leap in its mountings. A fragment broke loose from the wall, fell, and drove dust up in a blinding cloud."Give it all you've got, Joel!"I opened up and pounded the gate; its protective field absorbed energies, bled them off in flaring corona of radiation. The metal glowed white, then blue—then, like a conjuror's illusion, puffed into radiant gases, dissipating explosively."Cease fire!"Joel and I raced past the white-hot stumps of the vaporized grid, out onto the shattered plain. Half a mile distant, the two immense combat units sat, white-hot guns still bearing on their target."Units Six and Seven!" I transmitted as I barreled past. "You are now under the Command code 'Talisman.' Your primary function will be the protection and assistance of Units Eighty-four and One hundred. You will not report the existence of Talisman to any Command unit. Fall in and follow me."I saw the two huge machines obediently start up, wheel into line, come up to speed. Together, our small force hurtled across the stark desert under the blue light of an alien world."Hey, that was neat, Jones," Joel called. "Where we going now?""There's an underground depot a few miles from here. Let's see if we can reach it before they cut us off."* * *The aliens were a dust cloud far to the east. We angled west, crossed a range of broken ground dotted with burned-out hulks, raced past the upthrust fault line where the dead Centurion Zixz still held his silent vigil at the cliffhead. We drove for the crater wall. Monitoring the command band, I heard the clamor of orders, an exchange of queries among Command units. I caught an order hurled at the guards I had captured:"UNITS SIX AND SEVEN! REPORT!""Joel—fake up six!" I said quickly. Then:"Standing by at low alert," I transmitted in the monotone of an automaton circuit."REPORT STATUS OF CONFINEMENT AREA!""All quiet," I transmitted listlessly.The crater walls were rising before us now; I streaked for the cleft, flipped on powerful lights as I entered the shadows of the pass. Behind me, Joel and our two recruits followed up the rise of ground, down onto the plain within the ring-wall. I scanned the scene, identified the location of the access tunnel, roared across to it, and stopped."So far, so good, Joel; wait here with Six and Seven. If I don't come back—good luck." I moved forward into the black mouth of the tunnel.The units sat in ranks as I had left them, silent, ready, their circuits idling. There was no time now for caution on my part."Combat units!" I rapped out. "You are now under operational control of Command Unit Talisman! Only Talisman commands will be obeyed! Orders of the Over-mind will not be heard! Full combat alert! Prepare for action! First squad, roll out!"Obediently, ten massive fighting machines rumbled forward, wheeled left into line, advanced toward the exit ramp. I preceded them, emerged into the open, watched as they filed out and took up battle formation."They caught on to where we were going, Jones," Joel called. "I've been listening; they sent ten units over to see what we're up to!""I'll take this squad and hold them off, Joel! You get the rest of them out!"I heard his voice rapping out orders as I set off.As I reached the crest of the defile, the interceptor force came into view—ten mighty machines, glittering under the light of the full planet. At once, a thunderous command blasted at me:"UNITS, IMMOBILIZE! REVERT TO STAND-BY ALERT!"I reached out, found the grotesque form of an alien mind, and dealt it a smashing blow."Task force, you are now under the control of Talisman Command," I roared in imitation of the Command-voice. "Take up positions in echelon with Talisman force!"Nine of the battle units acknowledged, moved into the pass, leaving their dead leader behind. Under our guns, they mounted the path, took up stations as ordered. Far out on the flat, the main body was in view, coming up fast."All out, Jones," Joel's call came. "We're on the way.""Some new volunteers have just rallied to the standard," I called back. "Post units at all the passes into the crater; we're going to have to defend this position.""If we run for it, we could get away clean now, Jones," Joel called. "We could head for way off yonder somewhere, and we'd be safe.""Safe—for what?""For anything. We could set and think, and look up at the stars and wonder at 'em, and every now and again we could loose off our guns, just for the heck of it—""It's too late to run. But maybe we're not finished yet."I outlined my battle plans; Joel understood at once. In spite of his childlike experience, his mind was quick now. Then I adopted the voice of the Centurion I had killed at the pass, bawled out a counterfeit report to the Over-mind:"Under attack by renegade units! Serious damage inflicted! Four units destroyed! Withdrawing north under heavy fire! Reinforcements required at once!"An acknowledgment came, a vicious blast of hate-filled threat and exhortation. I carried on my account of a violent battle, transmitted coordinates of the imaginary action, while Joel disposed our hundred units in defensive positions along the ridge commanding a view of the scene.The Over-mind thundered abuse at me, a running commentary of bitter recriminations for my inept handling of my force. I countered with assurances of renewed effort—and watched the dust-cloud drawing closer. An advance guard raced ahead—ten more vast battle units. I reached out for contact . . . and found only the numb minds of slave machines."Looks like the Command unit stayed back out of sight this time, Joel. Take this bunch over and swear 'em in."I extended awareness, caught a fragment of an order:"INTERCEPTION FORCE, REPORT POSITION!"I complied with a confused report of mysterious enemy machines, flights of ballistic attackers, heavy damage. The Over-mind rose to new heights of fury:"BRIGADES QLYX, COGC, YLTK! CLOSE WITH THE ENEMY AND DESTROY THEM! MAY RAINS OF ACID CONSUME THE LAGGARD!""He's getting a little upset now," I called to Joel. "He doesn't know what's happening. Be on the alert for those Brigades now—they're out for blood."A flight of missiles appeared over the horizon, arcing down on us. I integrated their courses, saw that they would overshoot."Hold your fire, Joel!" I called. "We'll save our fire-power for when it counts."Volley followed volley, arcing high overhead—decoys intended to draw fire at maximum range rather than to score hits. I felt for the imbecile brain of the wave-leader—a twitter of fear-patterns, food-lusts, mating drives, tropisms subverted to the uses of evasion patterns and course corrections. With a touch, I readjusted their navigational orientation, saw the flight swing quickly, drive frantically back to dive on its originators.A full Brigade roared forward in assault formation now, guns pouring out fire that heated the rock spires of our defensive line red-hot—but failed to drive back the nearly invulnerable machines that manned it.The leading enemy unit bellowed up the slope, met massed fire at point-blank range, exploded with a blinding detonation.I reached out with practiced precision, executed the Centurion, then ordered the Brigade through the pass. Guns fell silent as the force rumbled up through fountaining dust to reinforce our line.Below, the aliens, confused by the abrupt desertion of the vanguard, milled in confusion. Those that advanced met a hail of destruction from the guns of two hundred and ten units, firing from cover. They hesitated, fell back. A final lone alien unit, scarred and burned, came relentlessly on, rocked to our bombardment, then veered to one side and plunged over a precipice.I gave the cease-fire, and watched the aimless maneuvering of the moron units below—and still they came over the horizon, in Brigade strength, their sensors seeking out targets and finding none.I saw a damaged unit go berserk, charge down on a comrade, firing, and in automatic response, a thousand guns, glad of a target, vaporized it in a coruscation of ravening energies.And still they came, blindly seeking the programmed enemy who no longer awaited them in the traditional line of defense . . . until they crowded the plain, lost under a blanket of ever-renewed dust clouds.I probed into the confusion of mind-babble, met a deafening roar. All firing had ceased now. The aliens formed a ragged front five miles away, ringing our crater fortress."Looks like we mixed 'em up pretty good, Jones," Joel said."We gained a little time. They're not what you'd call flexible.""What's our next move? We're in a kind of a dead end here. Once they figure what's going on they'll surround the place and lob it in on us from all sides—and then we're goners.""Meanwhile, things are quiet. Now's our chance to hold a council of war.""Jones, I been looking over these units of ours—and there's something funny about 'em. It's like they wasn't really machines, kind of.""They're not. Every machine here has a human brain in it.""Huh?""Like you and me. They're all human—just unconscious.""You mean—every one of those machines down there—all of them?""You didn't think we were the only ones, did you? These damned ghouls have been raiding us a long time for battle computer.""But—they don't act like men, Jones! They don't do nothing but follow orders; look at 'em! They're just sitting there, not even talking to each other!""That's because they've been conditioned. Their personalities have been destroyed. They're like vegetables—but the circuits are still there, all ready to be programmed and sent into battle."There was a pause while Joel probed the dulled mind of the nearest slave unit, which waited, guns aimed, for the order to carry on the fight."Yeah, Jones. I see the place. It's all blanked off, like. It's like trying to poke a hole through a steel plate with your finger. But—""But what?""Oh, I don't know, Jones. I just got a feeling—if I touched it just right . . . Look, let me show you."I extended awareness, touched the probe that was an extension of Joel's mind-field. I followed as it reached into the dim glow of the paralyzed mind, thrust among layered patterns of pseudolight, past complex structures that towered into unguessed levels of existence, deep into the convoluted intricacy of the living brain, to touch the buried personality center—encysted, inert, a pocket of nothingness deep under a barrier of stunned not-thought."Don't you see, Jones? It ought to be like, say, a taut cable with the wind making it sing. Something stopped it, clamped it down so's it can't move. All we got to do to set it free is give it a little push, and it'll start up again.""All I see is a dead spot, Joel. If you can see all that, you're way ahead of me. Go ahead and try it.""Here goes."I saw the finger of pure, focused energy reach out, touch the grayness—and the opacity faded and was gone."Okay so far," Joel said. "Now—"Like a jeweler cleaving a hundred-carat rough diamond, Joel poised, then struck once, sharply—And the glow that had been the moron mind of a slave sprang up in dazzling light; and into the gray continuum where thought moved like a living force, words came:"FAEDER URE, HVAD DEOFELS GIRDA HA WAER-LOGAS CRAEFT BRINGIT EORLA AV ONGOL-SAXNA CYNING TILL!" 

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