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Title: Shock Absorber
Author: Wald, E. G. von
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Shock Absorber" ***

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                              SHOCK ABSORBER

                             BY E. G. VON WALD

                         Illustrated by van Dongen

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science
Fiction June 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


     _A man acts on what he believes the facts are, not on the facts. He
     lives or dies by what the facts are. Now sometimes you don't have
     time to correct a man's beliefs, yet he must act correctly...._


The aging little psychologist looked down at the captain's insignia on
his sleeve and scowled.

"I know it's a lousy, fouled-up situation, commander," he said with
evident irony. "You speak of discipline. Well, it's bad enough here on
Mars, where a junior officer like you feels free to argue with a full
captain like me, but out there with the fleet, discipline is now
virtually nonexistent."

He looked up again and quickly added, "Oh, of course there is a
discipline of a sort, and in its own way it is quite effective. Strict,
too, as you will find. But it has few of the marks of the military
academy, of which the regular officers were so fond. Perhaps that was
the reason why they let the situation get away from them, and why we are
in charge of it now."

"I still think--" the commander started, but he was interrupted again.

"I know what you think, commander. You can forget it. It's wishful
thinking and we cannot permit such daydreaming in our precarious
condition. Face the facts as they exist in the present. After we kick
the aliens out of our solar system, maybe we can go back to the old
ideas again. Maybe. I'm not even very sure of that. But as for now, the
characteristic of despair is the lowest common denominator among the
combat patrols, and we therefore have mutinies, disobedience of orders,
defections of every variety. That is a real situation, and it will
persist until we can induce the men to accept tactical leadership that
can cope with the enemy.

"Actually, it is not very remarkable that this situation developed.
Strategy is still a rational computable quantity, but the actual tactics
of fighting is something else entirely. The aliens have an intellectual
response that is in full truth alien to us. It simply cannot be
comprehended rationally by a human being, although they manage to guess
pretty well the responses of our own fighters. Naturally, the result has
been that in the past our losses were almost ninety per cent whenever a
patrol actually engaged in a firefight with the enemy.

"Fortunately, the aliens are much too far from their home to possess
anything like the number of personnel and other resources that we have.
Otherwise, they would have beaten us long ago. Completely wiped us out.
And all because an ordinary, intelligent human being cannot learn any
patterns by which the aliens operate, and by which he can fight them
successfully."

"I know that," the commander muttered. "I spent plenty of time out there
before I got tapped for this new branch of service." He rubbed the moist
palms of his hands together nervously.

"Certainly you did," the captain acknowledged absently. Then he
continued his explanation. "Fortunately, there was a small body of
information on extra-rational mental faculties that had been developed
over the past century, and as soon as we expanded it sufficiently, we
were able to form this new branch of service you now belong to. But
unfortunately, some idiot in the Information Service released a
popularization of the data on the new branch. That was ill-advised. The
veterans who had survived so far had their own way of accounting for
their survival, and that did not include what that silly description
alluded to as 'blind guessing' by commanders of 'exceptional psychic
gifts.'

"Like most popularizations, the description was grossly inaccurate, and
was promptly withdrawn; but the damage had already been done. The damage
was completed by another idiot who named the new branch the Psi Corps,
merely because the basic capacity for extra-rational mental faculties is
technically signified by the Greek letter 'psi.' The name was slightly
mispronounced by the men, and that automatically produced that nasty
little nickname, which has stuck, and which expresses very well the
attitude of the men toward the new service.

"As I say, fleet discipline is very bad, and the men simply would not
accept orders from such officers. There are numerous cases on record
where they killed them when there was no other way out.

"Now, as far as discipline itself is concerned, the best procedure would
be to pull an entire fleet out of the defense perimeter and retrain
them, because the newly trained recruits can be made to accept Psi Corps
officers as commanders. But our situation is far too desperate to permit
anything like that. Therefore, we must use whatever devices we can think
of to do the job.

"The ship you are going to is staffed by veterans. They were incredibly
lucky. From the outset, they had a CO who was a man highly gifted in psi
without he or anyone else knowing about it until a few months ago when
we ran a quiet little survey. But he got killed in a recent encounter,
along with their executive officer, so we are now sending them a new
captain and a new exec as well. But those men simply will not accept
orders from a Psi Corps officer. Furthermore, they have heard the
rumors--soundly based--that the Psi Corps, as a result of its
opposition, has gone underground, so to speak. They know that its
personnel has been largely disguised by giving them special commissions
in the regular Space Combat Service. As a result, they will most
certainly suspect any new commanding officer no matter what insignia he
wears.

"Of course, now and then you will find one of the old hands who will
accept the Psi Corps, so long as it isn't jammed down his throat. Just
pray that you have somebody like that aboard your new ship, although I
must admit, it isn't very likely."

       *       *       *       *       *

"All right, all right," the commander growled with irritation.
"But--with your permission, sir--I still think my particular method of
assignment is a lousy approach and I don't like it. I still think it
will make for very bad discipline."

"Whether you like it or not, commander, that is the way it will have to
be accomplished. We are simply recognizing a real situation for what it
is, and compromising with it."

"But couldn't this change in command personnel be postponed until--"

"If it could be postponed," the captain replied acidly, "you may rest
assured we would not be employing disagreeable--and somewhat
questionable--devices to speed it up. Unfortunately, our outlying
detectors have identified the approach of a fleet of starships. They can
only be reinforcements for the aliens, about equal to what they already
have here, and they will arrive in two years. If those two forces can
join each other, there will be no need to worry further about discipline
among the humans. There will shortly be no humans left. So we are
preparing a full-scale assault against those aliens now within our
system in the very near future. And we simply must have all tactical
combat devices commanded by men with extra-rational mental abilities in
order to deal with them effectively."

"Effectively?" the commander snorted. "Thirty-two per cent effective,
according to the figures they gave us in the Psi school."

"That is considerably better than twelve per cent, which is the
statistical likelihood of survival in combat without it," the captain
retorted.

Nervously, the commander scratched the back of his thin neck, grimmaced
and nodded.

"The first and most important problem for you is to gain the confidence
of your crew. They will be worse than useless to you without it, and it
will be a very difficult job, even with all the advice and help our men
can give you. And you will have to be careful--don't forget what I said
about assassinations. The way we are going about it, that you find so
disagreeable, should minimize that danger, but you can't ever tell what
will happen."

He held up his hand to forestall a comment from the other and continued
on. "There are conditions for everything, commander. Men react according
to certain patterns, given the proper circumstances. It is
characteristic of the sort of men you will encounter on your new ship
that they are unlikely to take the initiative in such matters, partly
from their early training and partly from their association with a CO
who pretty well dominated them. However, they will readily condone it if
somebody else does take the initiative in their behalf. Particularly, if
that man has some official authority over them, and there is always
somebody like that. They will not only condone the action, they will
positively be happy about it, because it will tend to bolster their
sense of security--such as it is. You know the sort of thing--father
hunger. Somebody to take care of them the way their old CO did."

The captain sighed. "So you see, commander, you are going into a
double-edged situation. Everything in it that can accrue to your
advantage, could also get you promptly killed."

"I see. First I fight with my men," the commander said bitterly. "And if
I win that battle, I will be permitted to fight the aliens with a
thirty-two per cent possibility of living through the first encounter of
that."

"It's always been that way to some extent," the captain replied
sympathetically, "in every command situation since the world began. Only
right now is a little worse than anyone can remember."

       *       *       *       *       *

The commander departed. But about a month later, ensuing circumstances
brought one Lieutenant Maise to the same office building. He was not, of
course, ushered into the august presence of the captain, who was seeing
more important people than lieutenants that day.

Maise had been there for several hours every day for the previous three,
and he went immediately to the desk of the Special Reports Officer. The
SR Officer was a lieutenant also, a combination of psychologist and
writer, whose business it was to make sure that Special Reports on
morale matters were presented in the properly dramatic fashion so that
that indefinable aura of reality, customarily omitted from official
historical documents, could be included. The Evaluation Division, back
on Earth, was very fussy about that "aura."

"Ah, good afternoon sir," the SR Officer greeted him. "Glad to see you
again."

Maise nodded curtly and took a seat beside the desk.

"I think we are pretty well finished now--"

"We better be," Maise interrupted. "My ship is pulling out in four
hours."

"Right on the button, eh?" said the SR Officer. He fumbled in a desk
drawer and withdrew a bulky folder, from which he extracted a smaller
manuscript, and handed it to Maise. "I think you will find it complete
and suitably expressive, now, sir."

Maise scowled as he accepted the document. "It makes no difference to
me. I didn't want to get involved with the report in the first place."

"I know," the SR Officer nodded agreeably. "But don't worry. Nobody is
going to prefer any charges against anybody in any case. What they want
back on Earth is all the information they can get on morale problems, so
that they can more effectively implement their planning. You know how it
is."

"How would _I_ know?"

The SR Officer snapped, "I can understand your sentiments, but don't
blame me. Remember, I'm just a lieutenant, and I just work here in
Morale."

"Sure," Maise said, cracking a grin on his stiff lips. "Sorry. I know it
isn't your fault."

He opened the report, and commenced reading.

       *       *       *       *       *

TITLE:

     SPECIAL CONFIDENTIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL REPORT, prepared in
     collaboration with Lieutenant E. G. von Wald, Special Reports
     Officer, Mars XLV Base.

TO:

     COMMANDING OFFICER
     Psychological Study and Evaluation District
     Central Command Authority
     Unified Human Defense Forces

FROM:

     LIEUTENANT ALTON A. B. MAISE
     Executive Officer
     Space Combat Device LMB-43534
     Seventh Space Fleet

SUBJECT:

     ATTEMPTED BACTERIOLOGICAL POISONING OF COMMANDER THOMAS L. FRENDON,
     recently assigned captain of above-mentioned Combat Device. As per
     Special Order PSIC334349, dated 23 July 2013.

On 17 October 2015, Space Combat Device LMB-43534 was detached from the
Seventh Fleet and returned to the Martian XLV Docks for general
overhauling and refitting with new equipment. This period extended for
two months, and was followed by a seven-day course of rechecking by the
crew.

I was assigned to the ship as Executive Officer on 21 November following
detachment, and was in command of the ship during most of the
above-mentioned operations. The men were extremely hostile toward me,
owing to their fear that I was a Psi Corps officer acting under a
special commission in the SCS, but no overt signs of mutiny took place,
perhaps because we were still in port. Needless to say, I was very glad
when the message arrived informing us of the assignment of Commander
Frendon as captain, inasmuch as the situation made clearly evident that
I could not expect to be able to assume tactical command of the ship
myself when it was returned to combat, the attitude of the crew being
what it was.

Almost immediately upon receipt of the message, some of the animosity
toward me lifted, but hardly enough for me to consider myself accepted
as a member of the crew, although there was a good deal more work done
after that.

       *       *       *       *       *

Six days before our scheduled departure date, Commander Frendon arrived.
I was in the control cabin with Lieutenant Spender, Third Officer, when
Lieutenant Harding, the Astrogator entered. He limped around the little
room a couple of times and then slumped dejectedly into a chair. "Well,"
he said, "we've had it, boys."

Spender looked around at him quickly, saying, "What's that?"

"I said we've had it. I just saw the new CO, walking over from the
Operations office."

"What about it?" I asked sharply.

Harding shook his heavy, balding head, staring at the floor. "It's
written all over him," he said bitterly.

"No!" muttered Spender.

"Yep," Harding growled. "Just wait until you lay eyes on him."

He stood up and faced me, his expression bleak and cold. "A sickman, Mr.
Exec," he snarled. "Just as sure as death."

As previously noted, discipline was very lax, but I had been trying to
restore it as much as possible. So I said, "I don't know whether the
new CO is a member of the Psi Corps or not, Harding, but cut out this
nickname of 'sick.'"

Harding mumbled: "That's what everybody calls them. I didn't invent the
name. But I think it is plenty appropriate."

"Well cut it out."

Harding glared at me. "I suppose you're glad to have one of the
guess-kids running this ship."

"Nobody wants to be involved in any guessing games, but we're not
running the war here, so stow it."

Spender broke in then with his customary cold, quiet speech. "A sickman,
eh? Then we have approximately one chance in three of living through our
first encounter with the enemy when we leave here. That is according to
the statistics, I believe. But to the best of my recollection, our
previous captain brought us through eighty-eight skirmishes before
anyone got hurt." He shook his head and thoughtfully contemplated the
big, raw knuckles of his hand.

As is perfectly obvious from the above, the situation was ill-suited for
a new officer to take command of the ship. I would have liked to settle
the matter a little more before he got there, but there was nothing I
could do about it then. Besides, it wasn't my worry any more, I realized
gratefully. The problem of loyalty and confidence was now the business
of the new CO. I did not envy him his job, but it had to be done.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the very first glance, you could see what Harding had been talking
about. Commander Frendon was the absolute epitome of every popular
physiological cliché associated with people of unusual psi endowment for
the past century that it has been known. At least ten years younger than
any of the rest of us, he was of medium height, extremely skinny and
nervous, his eyes glancing about with a restless uncertainty. It seemed
almost too obvious on him, I thought, and wondered who had been
responsible for assigning him to anything at all in the armed forces.

He grinned slightly at us when he came in, dearly unsure of himself, and
made a valiant but artificial-sounding effort. "Hello men," he said. "My
name is Frendon. I'm the new CO."

"Yeah," muttered Harding, "we see that you are."

"What's that lieutenant?" Frendon's voice was suddenly sharp, and the
wavering grin had vanished.

"I said, yes sir," Harding replied sullenly. "Welcome aboard."

Frendon nodded curtly, and glanced around at the rest of us, at no time
looking anyone directly in the eyes. I stood up and held out my hand.
"Maise, here," I said. "Your Exec." And naturally I added the
traditional welcome.

Spender introduced himself, and as he was speaking, the remaining crew
man walked in to find out what was up. He took one look at Frendon,
understood, and turned to leave again.

"And the man in the lead-lined tunic is Lieutenant Korsakov," I said
quickly. "He's your engineer."

Korsakov sullenly said hello and waited. And Frendon also waited, all
the time standing stiff and sensitive. One got the impression that he
was in a nervous agony, but unable to help himself or to receive help
from anybody else. When the introductions were long since completed,
Frendon still stood uncertainly, and an unpleasant silence developed.

"Sit down, captain," I suggested. "How about some coffee?"

Frendon nodded and jerkily moved to the seat I had vacated. The eyes of
the other men followed him, studying his uniform. Although it was clear
by now that he was wearing the ordinary insignia of the SCS, nobody was
particularly reassured, because we had all heard of the new arrangement
under which the Psi Corps operated.

So Frendon sat. The silence continued. Everybody stared at him, and he
looked helplessly around. I worked up what I felt was a friendly grin,
and his gaze finally found itself on me and stayed there, almost
pleading.

"You'll have to forgive us, captain," I told him. "We're an old bunch of
mangy veterans, and it's going to be a little strange for a while having
a bright new captain."

"Certainly," Frendon said, his voice hardly above a whisper. "I
understand." He hesitated and then added in a quick defensive rush of
words, "But, of course, you must understand that this isn't the first
ship I've commanded, and I've been in combat before too, and so I don't
see why I should be so doggone strange."

That's what he said. Doggone.

"Well," I murmured and cleared my throat. "Of course, captain."

       *       *       *       *       *

Harding broke off his steady, hostile glare, and fumbled in his pocket
for a cigarette.

"Captain," he started, a little uncertainly, which was unusual for
Harding, "can I ask you a frank question?"

"Huh?" Frendon looked at the Astrogator blankly. "Why ... why, er,
certainly, lieutenant. Harding you say your name is? Certainly, Harding,
go right ahead."

Lieutenant Harding carefully lighted his cigarette. Then he said,
"Captain, will you tell us whether or not you are a sickman--I mean a
Psi Corps officer?"

"Why?" Frendon leaned forward tensely, then relaxed self-consciously.
"Why do you ask that, Harding? Aren't you familiar with the insignia of
your own branch of service?"

"Yes, sir," Harding replied blandly, "but there have been a number of
reports that they were going to assign a sick ... I mean a Psi Corps
officer to the command of all new Combat Devices, only they would be
wearing SCS insignia. Since we have been outfitted fresh and all, we
probably come under the heading of new Devices."

"What if I were a Psi Corps officer?" Frendon demanded truculently, his
long, skinny frame taut with excitement.

Harding considered that question, or rather statement, and puffed
thoughtfully on his cigarette. Finally he shrugged. He reached over and
meticulously crushed out the cigarette in an ash tray.

"For the benefit of you, lieutenant"--Frendon's bitter gaze swept the
entire room--"and the rest of you, I am not now nor have I ever been a
member of the Psi Corps. Does that satisfy you?"

"Yes, sir," I said quickly. Nobody else said anything.

Frendon stood up and stalked tensely to the door. There he spun around
and said, "But there is a branch of the military service designated as
the Psi Corps, and if you wish to discuss it in the future, kindly refer
to it by its official title or abbreviation, and not by that atrocious
nickname of 'sick.' I am sure the Central Command Authority knows what
it is doing, and if they did intend to assign such personnel they must
have very good reasons for it. Understand?"

There was a general nodding of heads and a scattered, sullen, "Yes,
sir."

"Now then, you may call out the ship's company, Mr. Maise," Frendon said
to me.

"Well, captain," I replied, "we're all here." Then sure enough, Frendon
made us all stand at attention while he read his orders to us, just like
it says in the book at the academy. After which, happily, he went to his
cabin, and let us go back to our work.

       *       *       *       *       *

That was the introduction of Commander Frendon to the crew. He made a
distinct impression. Entirely bad. Veteran small-ship personnel in this
war have shown themselves to be extremely clannish, at best, deriving
their principal sense of security not from the strength of the fleet
which they never see and rarely contact, but from their familiarity with
and confidence in each other's capabilities. Now these men had a new CO
who was not only a stranger, but one who they felt sure was a member of
the feared and mistrusted Psi Corps, a sickman, a man whose battle
tactics were reputedly nothing but a bunch of blind, wild guesses.
Previously, I had been the unwanted and suspected stranger, so I knew
how Frendon would feel.

The situation developed rapidly, probably because we had only six days
before our scheduled departure into the combat zone. That afternoon,
Korsakov and Harding were supposed to be checking the wiring of
fire-control circuits. Base mechanics had installed the gear and tested
it, but it is standard operating procedure for the ship's crew to do
their own checking afterwards, the quality of the work by electronics
mechanics on planetary assignment being what it is these days.

I found them sitting on the deck, engaged in a desultory, low-voiced
conversation. They had stripped the conduit ducts of plating, but there
was no sign that they had done anything further.

"All right, you guys," I said. "Get up and finish that check. We may
have to use those missiles one day soon, and I'd like to be sure they go
where they are sent."

Korsakov looked up at me, his broad, thick mouth spread in an unpleasant
toothy grin and his bushy eyebrows raised. "What difference will it
make, my friend?"

"None," supplied Harding. Then he added, "As a matter of fact, it might
even be better to leave them scrambled. If we strike an alien, our new
captain is going to close his eyes and punch buttons at random,
probably. Why shouldn't we leave the fire controls at random, too?"

"They might," Korsakov said, still grinning inanely, "even cancel out
his error."

"Cut it out," I said. "You know better than that."

"Maybe you do, Maise." Harding replied, "but we don't."

My face must have telegraphed my mood, because he lurched to his feet
and quickly added, "Now wait a minute, Maise. Don't get excited. You're
not in command any more, so you don't have to stick to that authority
line now. Oh sure, I know you're the Exec, but what the hell, Maise."

I stared at him for a moment, then said quietly, "Come on Kors. On your
feet, too. Get that work done."

"Ha," said Korsakov, but he stood up.

       *       *       *       *       *

Harding moved closer to me. "Confidentially, Maise," he said, "what do
you really think?"

"About what?"

"You know--Frendon."

I shrugged. "What am I supposed to think?"

"You know as well as I do that he's a sickman."

"I told you not to use that nickname around me," I replied with
annoyance. "Naturally you're going to mistrust them if you tie them up
in your mind with a name like that."

"Do you trust them?"

I suddenly wasn't sure myself, so I evaded by saying, "Frendon told us
he wasn't one, anyway."

"Did you expect him to tell the truth?" Korsakov sneered. "After going
to the trouble of getting an auxiliary commission in the SCS? He knows
what we think."

"Sickman," Harding repeated, watching me carefully. "And I'm plenty sick
of having the brass hats handing us junk like that. It used to be that
the worst we'd get would be fouled up equipment that we'd have to check
and rewire ourselves, like these fire controls. Now they give us a
fouled-up captain."

"Look," I said. "I want you to cut that talk out, Harding. That's an
order. And if you think I can't pour it on you guys, just try me once."

Korsakov, who had been staring morosely into the wiring duct, turned
around to face me. He had that nasty grin on his face again.

The best thing I could think of to do at that moment was to pretend I
assumed that they would obey and go on back to the control room. I knew
they wouldn't pay much attention to the order, but the stand had to be
taken. I was still pretty much a stranger myself, but I wasn't going to
let them think they could sell me their friendship at the cost of the
captain's authority.

One thing I did accomplish, however, was the completion of the
fire-control checkout. There was a lot of rewiring to do, but they had
it finished in two hours, and everything was perfect.

Frendon went off to the city that evening, and didn't show up the next
day except for about an hour. Apparently, he had been talking to a
Psychological Advice officer or somebody like that, and now proceeded to
interview each of us in private, quite obviously trying to gain some
kind of rapport with us. It didn't work. Even if it hadn't been so
obviously what it was, it wouldn't have worked. The men couldn't stand
simply having him around, and their conviction that he was a Psi Corps
officer merely grew stronger.

When he left for the day, it was a relief. You couldn't like the guy,
but you couldn't help but feel sorry for him--at least, I couldn't.

       *       *       *       *       *

That evening, since we were still docked on Mars, I went to the Base
service club for dinner. Sitting in a booth there I found the three of
them--Harding, Spender and Korsakov. For the first time, they actually
seemed happy to see me, and the usual animosity I had experienced from
them had almost vanished. Of course, I knew what the reason was. They
could now hate somebody else, and since I was in the same dismal
situation that they were in, they generously permitted me to share their
gloom.

I ordered some good Earthside bourbon, and sat down with them. Harding
had apparently been making a little speech, which I had interrupted, and
which he now concluded to me.

"So what do you think we can do?"

"About what?" I said.

"You know about what."

I shrugged and reached for my drink off the servidore.

"I know you don't like to talk about it, Maise," Harding said, "but we
have to. Something has to be done."

I started to say something, but he raised a hand and hurried on. "I
know, I know," he growled, "command authority, dignity of rank and all
that sort of nonsense and tradition. Sure, I'd like to see some of it,
too. But this is a hopeless case, Maise. Frendon is a sickman. Or a Psi
Corps man if you prefer. Undoubtedly they have some awfully clever
fellows back on Earth to do our thinking for us, but as far as I am
concerned, they might as well have sent us an idiot child to run the
ship in combat. Don't you understand?"

He was looking at me earnestly, the deep concern he felt plain on his
face. I already knew that Harding could be depended upon to reflect the
sentiments of the group, and to say exactly what he felt. It was a
useful bit of knowledge.

"I know what you mean, Harding," I said, "but--"

"Well, think about it then, man," he interrupted sharply. "You're in the
same ship, you know. When we blow up, you do, too. And it isn't just
that we'll all be killed with this incompetent guess-kid in command--we
probably would anyway, sooner or later. But it's the waste of a good
ship. You know as well as I do that it stands to reason combat can't be
run as a game of blind man's bluff. And that's just what Frendon will
make it. If you're going to make proper use of your military potential
it takes brains, like our old skipper had."

"They say the Psi Corps training brings out the most sensitive
intellectual capacities of a man," I replied, quoting from the old
publicity releases on it and keeping my voice level and dispassionate.
"The Central Command Authority believes that it will raise the
possibility of survival from twelve to thirty-two per cent in actual
combat."

Korsakov giggled, belched, hiccupped and finished his drink. "Thirty-two
per cent," he said. "That is one chance in three."

"You don't understand," Harding insisted. "Maybe the guessing games and
tests they run back on Earth do give the sickmen one chance in three of
being right by blind guessing. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking
about us--on our ship in combat and not in a laboratory back on Earth.
We had a captain who ran the ship well, ran it in eighty-seven separate
forays with the aliens and brought us back each time. He got killed
himself on the eighty-eighth. That's the sort of captain we want, Maise.
A man who can use his head and who can bring the ship through eighty-odd
runs safely. And that is going to take something besides guesswork.
Don't forget--if you like to believe in mathematical probability
statistics--our chances should be getting slender after all our combat
experience. Yours, too, for that matter."

"Maybe," I hedged, "your previous captain was a Psi Corps man in
disguise."

"No, he wasn't," Spender cut in calmly. "I knew him for years. We went
through the same service training and served together every minute of
the war. And they didn't start this sick-business until three years or
so ago."

"Well, they say there are natural Psi men who don't need the training so
much."

"Fairy tales," snorted Harding. "That stuff doesn't go. I don't believe
it."

       *       *       *       *       *

That was clear. And no argument would convince him otherwise, even if I
had felt inclined to give him one, which I didn't.

Korsakov, the silent Russian, thoughtfully rubbed his thick hands
together, and then punched the button calling for another drink. "Once
in three times," he said. "It's all been proved. Out of the next three
missions we go out on, we come back only once." His homely face broke
into a tired grin.

I laughed with him, but Harding did not like the joke. "It isn't funny,"
he growled. "If they can't find a decent captain to send us, why can't
they move up one of us that has at least served with a good commander in
combat, and maybe learned some of his tricks from him. Not that I would
want the job. But it would be better than Frendon. Anything would."

I raised my eyebrows at him skeptically. He got the idea and swore. "You
know I didn't mean that I want the job, so don't go goggling your
righteous eyes at me, Maise. I know my limitations, but I also know a
good captain when I see one. And what do they send us? A kid who not
only is a nut, but he's already so scared he--"

"Once in three times," Korsakov said loudly. He was apparently getting
pretty drunk. "Their computing machines would need an aspirin to handle
that situation. We go out three times but we only come back once." He
turned and peered intently at me, his heavy bushy eyebrows drawn
severely down and wiggling. "Puzzle: complete the figure without
retracing any lines or lifting the pencil from the paper. How do we
manage to go out there the third time when we haven't yet come back from
the second mission, huh?"

"Shut up, Kors," Spender said without emotion. "You're getting a
fixation."

"I'm not the astrogator," Korsakov muttered, laying his head down on the
table. "If you want a fix on our position, you will have to call on Mr.
Harding."

My bourbon was probably good, but I couldn't taste it. There was too
much else to think about. I said, "Well, what are you going to do if he
really is a Psi Corps man?"

"That," Harding said thoughtfully, "is the question."

"Maise, you're the Exec," Spender commented. "It's up to you to work us
a replacement."

"Didn't you see his orders?" I snapped. "They're dated from Central
Command Authority itself. Even if I did know somebody here in Mars
Command--which I don't--it wouldn't do any good."

"He's right," Harding grumbled. "Everybody knows that once they've
assigned a sickman, the only people who can get him reassigned are the
sickmen themselves. Maise couldn't do anything about it unless he was a
member of the Corps himself. But that settles it, though--his orders
being from Central, I mean. Nobody but a sickman would have his orders
cut at Central for a puny little ship like ours. It proves what we
thought about him, anyway."

"I don't think it proves anything," I retorted angrily. "I don't think
the question is whether or not Frendon is a sick--now you've got me
saying it--a Psi Corps man. The question is whether we're going to
settle down and stop whining just because we got a new CO we don't like,
and that we can't do anything about. We're not running this war. They're
running it back on Earth."

"We're fighting it," Spender commented, chewing on a big, raw knuckle.

Harding looked at me skeptically. "How much space-combat have you seen,
Maise?"

"Six years, more or less," I told him. "I've seen plenty of the stuff.
I'd just as soon let somebody else do it from now on in, but nobody
asked me."

Harding grunted: "Well, tell me, have you ever served under a sick
skipper?"

"No."

"Do you want to?"

"Why not? Besides--what can I do about it?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Harding leaned back and sipped away on the straight whiskey he was
drinking, watching me over the top of the glass and talking directly
into it, making his voice sound muffled and sinister. "You know, Maise,
sometimes you make me tired. Frankly, when they first sent us you, I
didn't like it. None of us did. You were CO then, and we thought maybe
you were a sickman even if you didn't look like it, and you kept sort of
sticking up for the sick corps whenever it was mentioned. Well, that's
all right. New officer in charge, trying to stiffen up discipline, et
cetera and so forth. But now we've got Frendon for CO. You're in the
same boat as the rest of us, and you still keep insisting that the
sickmen are O.K. But you're a liar and you know it."

"Well, what do you want me to do?" I shouted angrily. "Poison the guy?"

There was a sudden sharp hush. Even Korsakov lifted his head from the
table, and looked around with bleary, bloodshot eyes. "Poison?" he said.
Then, as if the effort of thinking was too much, he lay down again and
muttered. "Once in three times. It's a puzzle question, men. Figure it
out."

"Of course, entirely aside from the present argument," Spender stated in
his cold, emotionless voice, staring into his empty glass, "but I do
seem to recall an incident like that. Seems there was a ship just about
like ours. About three months ago. A mechanic told me about it. Seems
they got a new CO assigned to it who was obviously a sickman, just like
us. Somebody managed to sneak a few of the dormant spores lying around
outside the dome into him. Then the sickman really was sick."

I licked my lips. "I didn't mean that," I said. "Besides, they could
always tell if you did anything like that."

"How?" asked Spender.

Harding was listening intently, watching both of us, but he didn't say
anything.

"They can identify the organisms," I pointed out.

"Sure. Easy. But how do they know where he picked them up? They're
laying all around outside the domes here on Mars ever since the first
assault by the aliens twelve years ago. Nobody's had time to
decontaminate this whole planet like they did Earth. Easiest thing in
the world for a new officer on Mars to take a little sight-seeing
excursion outside the domes and to be a little careless."

"There would be an epidemic if he brought back a lot of spores," I
suggested. "Besides, it's out of bounds to leave the dome."

Spender shook his head. "You can get around that out-of-bounds business
without any trouble," he said. "And there are decontamination chambers
in the air locks, which would clean up anything he brought in; so there
would be no epidemic. The exposure would take place outside of the
domes--say if he opened his helmet to smell the perfume of the famous
hypnotic marspoppy, or something like that. Then he would be infected,
and after that it's non-contagious. All we need is somebody to buddy up
to him, and take him out there. Nature and the poppy will do the rest."

"Look," I said angrily, "cut that stuff out, Spender. If you're looking
to me to disable the guy, forget about it. I won't. And I'm telling you
right now that if I find anybody else does, I'll report it."

       *       *       *       *       *

For once Spender laughed. He turned to face me, and his blue eyes were
dancing in his scarred, old face. He was laughing at me and my
belligerent righteousness, but the real joke, of course, was that unless
somebody actually caught him talking Frendon into going out there, there
wouldn't be the slightest chance of proving he had done it. It was the
simplest thing in the world to sneak out and back without being
observed, and we both knew it.

"All right," I said then. "Have your laugh, Spender. And you, too,
Harding. I don't like the nut we've got any more than you do, but what
you're talking about is mutiny and murder--"

"Oh, he wouldn't necessarily die," Harding commented thoughtfully. "If
he gets the serum within a few hours of the first symptoms, he probably
would be just a very sick man for about a month. Too long to take the
ship out with us when we go." He grinned at me. "And as for mutiny,
nobody would be using any physical force on him. Nor--when you come
right down to the specific matter of his commanding his ship--would
there be any moral force employed either."

"Have it any way you like," I said, standing up. "I don't care for the
tone of this discussion, and I'm getting out of it."

Harding laughed again at that. "O.K., Maise," he said in a friendly tone
of voice. "Sorry. I guess you're right at that." I stood glaring at him.
"Come on, sit down," he continued. "I know there isn't anything else for
you to say about it. Being Exec and all, you pretty well have to stick
up for him, and we don't hold it against you. And don't worry about us
doing anything to your precious Frendon."

His face darkened as he said it, though, and he swore. "Not right now,
anyway. Still, that spore business isn't such a bad--"

"Let it go," Spender cut him off with a mixture of irritation and
affection. "Somebody told me about it, and so I just passed it on. It
isn't as easy as it sounds, because that stuff can kill, and you stand a
pretty good chance of making a mistake and catching it yourself." Then
he looked up at me and smiled again. "You might as well stick around
with us tonight and get drunk, Maise. No place else to go."

I hesitated. It was a genuine offer of comradeship, and God knows I
wanted it. I had been an outcast among these men too long. So I grinned
back at him and slid down into the booth again, pressing the button for
another drink. "I'll have one more, but then I think I have some work to
do. Got to see a man about something."

Korsakov stirred himself. He wasn't as drunk as he seemed, I think. He
raised his head and looked at me carefully for a moment, but then he
mumbled, "Once in three times. How do you figure it?"

       *       *       *       *       *

I left them soon after, located and spoke to Frendon, and then returned
to the ship. The following morning at nine thirty Commander Frendon
suddenly complained of a fever, and said he was going to the hospital.

A couple of hours later, we received notification of his condition from
the hospital, and at the same time orders from CINCMARS.

Korsakov, eyes still bloodshot from his hangover, took the message out
of the scanner and stared at it. Then he wordlessly handed it over to
me.

I read it. It said that Commander Frendon had contracted the spore
disease, but that his condition was satisfactory due to the speedy
treatment. He would, however, be confined to the hospital for one month.

There was an empty space of three lines, and the orders followed,
addressed to Frendon, to prepare to lift off planet in three days and
rejoin the Seventh Fleet.

Harding, Spender and Korsakov stared at me with awe when I read them the
information. Nobody said anything for a full minute.

"All right," I snapped finally. "Kors, ship out a quickie to CINCMARS
and notify him that we can't join the fleet, because we don't have a
captain, and the orders are to him, personally, and not the ship.
Something has to be changed."

Korsakov thoughtfully pulled on his shaggy, graying eyebrows with his
thick fingers. "Why don't we wait until just before lift time," he
suggested. "Then they won't have time to fish us out another sickman,
and you'll be the skipper, Maise. What do you think of that?"

"Lousy," I said. "A delay like that when they already must have that
information kicking around somewhere might just be the thing to foul up
the deal. This has to be played straight. Besides, I don't think they
are likely to have any unassigned sick--I mean Psi Corps men around on
Mars. Go chop out that report."

He was reluctant, but he didn't waste any time about it. And almost
immediately the reply came back ordering me to report to the Base Morale
Officer and account for Frendon's sudden illness, or accident, or
whatever it was. In the old days, that might not have meant so much; but
now, of course, the Morale Officer is the whole works.

"Well," I said then, "looks like the soup is hot. They're suspicious."
Nobody said anything. They were all waiting, looking at me. "Who," I
continued slowly and carefully, "do you suppose slipped Frendon the
spore? They'll want to know, maybe."

"Why, Maise," Harding said garrulously, "just like Spender told us. He
went outside, the dome on a sight-seeing trip and made the mistake of
looking at a marspoppy without an antihypnotic color filter. He just
accidentally happened to expose himself."

"He might not have gone alone," I suggested. "They'll want to know who
went with him, since he probably didn't know anybody else on the Base."

Korsakov grinned hugely. "We all did, skipper," he said. "They can't
court-martial the whole crew for going out of bounds with him, can they?
It would take a valuable ship out of action."

"They might." I stood up, frowning. "Well, it all depends upon what
Frendon told them, but, of course, he might have been drunk himself at
the time, and a man like him would hesitate to admit something like
that. That shouldn't be too hard to demonstrate. In which case," I
added, letting them see a grin on my face, "he might have gone by
himself after all, and then none of us would have to be even slightly
implicated. Like for instance, if he spent some time with us drinking,
and then went off by himself, how would we know where he was going?"

They all laughed with evident relief. It would be a good story. They
all knew that none of them had induced Frendon to disable himself, and
for them that settled the question of who did it. Their willingness to
take a full share of the blame off me settled the only other question I
myself was concerned about.

And this morning, when CINCMARS confirmed my acting captain status, and
sent us a raw recruit for third officer replacement after moving Harding
up to acting Exec, everybody was satisfied and happy.

As happy as any small group of reluctant soldiers about to go into
battle is ever likely to get, anyway.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lieutenant Maise dropped the report back on the SR Officer's desk when
he had finished reading it.

"How did you like it?" the SR wanted to know.

"All right," Maise murmured. "It covers it. I just hope they can make
some use of it, so that in the future the assignment of a Psi Corps
officer won't be a general signal for a small-time mutiny."

"That's the whole point of making these reports. They'll work out
something."

Maise nodded. "Where's Frendon now?"

"He was transferred to XXX Base three days ago, right after he left your
ship. Couldn't let him run around here for a while. Not after the
trouble with your crew--somebody might recognize him. Besides, he
already has another assignment there."

"I think it was a pretty stupid thing," Maise grumbled. "He was so
obvious. And suppose I hadn't warned him about it that night, or that I
hadn't been there when the spore-poisoning idea came to a head among the
crew? They might really have tried to get him outside the dome, or to
get a spore culture inside. And then we'd all be sick or dead."

"Not likely, sir," the SR Officer said with a polite, knowing smile.
"You see, the aliens are presumably susceptible to their own
bacteriological weapons. At least we think so from the way they went
about it. They want our planets, and they didn't want to have to
decontaminate them when they took them over. Besides, it's practically
impossible to decontaminate an entire planet, anyway."

"But we did it with Earth."

"For morale purposes, Central Authority let it be known that they were
able to decontaminate it, but what actually happened was that the spores
lost their effectiveness within a few years of their original seeding.
I'm surprised they didn't tell you that in the beginning--" He caught
himself suddenly, then shrugged and smiled again.

"Maybe you aren't supposed to be told," he continued without
embarrassment. "It's sometimes hard for me to know about such things.
You have no idea how confused the directives can get in an organization
this large. Anyway, as you can see, your men couldn't have poisoned
Frendon or themselves or anybody else with those spores. That's why we
have been using that particular form of suggested violence in this
unpleasant business. If, as you pointed out, something unexpected did
happen, it would be absolutely harmless. Naturally," he added, "we
wouldn't like to risk unnecessarily a professional actor with such a
remarkably suitable physical appearance as Commander Frendon--even if
the poor fellow doesn't have the slightest trace of psi ability."

Maise gaped at him for a moment as he comprehended the careful,
knowledgeable planning behind the ruse, much of which had not been
explained to him before in his briefings. He said, "And I guess there is
still a lot more about it that I don't know."

The SR Officer nodded agreement. "Neither you nor I," he replied in bald
understatement. "After all, there are some pretty intelligent men in
charge of this last-ditch defense of our species, and they do keep a few
of the more important things to themselves. For your own safety among
your crew, I suggest that you keep this spore business equally secret."

"I don't need your advice for that," Maise said with a low voice and a
wry grin on his face. But the grin vanished as he stood up to go. He
hesitated and shook his head uncertainly.

"So that takes care of that," the SR concluded. "Now you're all set,
aren't you?"

"All set?" Maise murmured, half to himself. "Hell, I'm just starting,
and I'm scared. When the boys asked me if I trusted the intuition of the
Psi Corps men, I suddenly realized that I really wasn't quite sure
myself. I've studied and worked for two solid years under extraordinary
teachers, and back on Earth they said I was unusually good. But now that
men's lives will depend on it, it almost seems like something out of a
joke book." He stopped talking and sighed. "Well, that's the way it has
to be, I guess."

He turned to go, but the SR Officer called him back. "Just a minute,
sir," he said. "You forgot to sign this report. You are the originating
officer, you know."

"Oh, yes." Maise went back to the desk. He picked up a pen and riffled
through the pages to the last one. There he signed his name, scribbling
rapidly,

     "Alton A. B. Maise, Acting Lieutenant SCS Commander, Psi Corps."

"There you are, lieutenant," he muttered, and started walking on back to
the field where his ship was waiting.


THE END





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