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´╗┐Title: The Wedge
Author: Fyfe, Horace Brown, 1918-1997
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 "The Wedge" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



  [ Transcriber's Note:

  This e-text was produced from the September 1960 issue of If.
  Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
  copyright on this publication was renewed.

  Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully
  as possible.

  Text that was _italic_ in the original is marked with _.]



                             The Wedge

      Finding his way out of this maze was only half the job.

                           By H. B. FYFE

                           [Illustration]


When the concealed gong sounded, the man sitting on the floor sighed. He
continued, however, to slump loosely against the curving, pearly plastic
of the wall, and took care not to glance toward the translucent ovals he
knew to be observation panels.

He was a large man, but thin and bony-faced. His dirty gray coverall
bore the name "Barnsley" upon grimy white tape over the heart. Except at
the shoulders, it looked too big for him. His hair was dark brown, but
the sandy ginger of his two-week beard seemed a better match for his
blue eyes.

Finally, he satisfied the softly insistent gong by standing up and
gazing in turn at each of the three doors spaced around the cylindrical
chamber. He deliberately adopted an expression of simple-minded
anticipation as he ambled over to the nearest one.

The door was round, about four feet in diameter, and set in a flattened
part of the wall with its lower edge tangent with the floor. Rods about
two inches thick projected a hand's breadth at four, eight, and twelve
o'clock. The markings around them suggested that each could be rotated
to three different positions. Barnsley squatted on his heels to study
these.

Noting that all the rods were set at the position he had learned to
think of as "one," he reached out to touch the door. It felt slightly
warm, so he allowed his fingertips to slide over the upper handle. A
tentative tug produced no movement of the door.

"That's it, though," he mumbled quietly. "Well, now to do our little act
with the others!"

He moved to the second door, where all the rods were set at "two." Here
he fell to manipulating the rod handles, pausing now and then to shove
hopefully against the door. Some twenty minutes later, he tried the same
routine at the third door.

Eventually, he returned to his starting point and rotated the rods there
at random for a few minutes. Having, apparently by accident, arranged
them in a sequence of one-two-three, he contrived to lean against the
door at the crucial instant. As it gave beneath his weight, he grabbed
the two lower handles and pushed until the door rose to a horizontal
position level with its hinged top. It settled there with a loud click.

                 *       *       *       *       *

Barnsley stooped to crawl through into an arched passage of the same
pearly plastic. He straightened up and walked along for about twenty
feet, flashing a white-toothed grin through his beard while muttering
curses behind it. Presently, he arrived at a small, round bay, to be
confronted by three more doors.

"Bet there's a dozen of you three-eyed clods peeping at me," he growled.
"How'd you like me to poke a boot through the panel in front of you and
kick you blubber-balls in all directions? Do you have a page in your
data books for that?"

He forced himself to _feel_ sufficiently dull-witted to waste ten
minutes opening one of the doors. The walls of the succeeding passage
were greenish, and the tunnel curved gently downward to the left.
Besides being somewhat warmer, the air exuded a faint blend of heated
machine oil and something like ripe fish. The next time Barnsley came to
a set of doors, he found also a black plastic cube about two feet high.
He squatted on his heels to examine it.

_I'd better look inside or they'll be disappointed_, he told himself.

From the corner of his eye, he watched the movement of shadows behind
the translucent panels in the walls. He could picture the observers
there: blubbery bipeds with three-jointed arms and legs ending in
clusters of stubby but flexible tentacles. Their broad, spine-crested
heads would be thrust forward and each would have two of his three
protruding eyes directed at Barnsley's slightest move. They had probably
been staring at him in relays every second since picking up his scout
ship in the neighboring star system.

That is, Barnsley thought, it must have been the next system whose
fourth planet he had been photo-mapping for the Terran Colonial Service.
He hoped he had not been wrong about that.

_Doesn't matter_, he consoled himself, _as long as the Service can trace
me. These slobs certainly aren't friendly._

He reconsidered the scanty evidence of previous contact in this volume
of space, light-years from Terra's nearest colony. Two exploratory ships
had disappeared. There had been a garbled, fragmentary message picked up
by the recorders of the colony's satellite beacon, which some experts
interpreted as a hasty warning. As far as he knew, Barnsley was the only
Terran to reach this planet alive.

To judge from his peculiar imprisonment, his captors had recovered from
their initial dismay at encountering another intelligent race--at least
to the extent of desiring a specimen for study. In Barnsley's opinion,
that put him more or less ahead of the game.

"They're gonna learn a lot!" he muttered, grinning vindictively.

He finished worrying the cover off the black box. Inside was a plastic
sphere of water and several varieties of food his captors probably
considered edible. The latter ranged from a leafy stalk bearing a number
of small pods to a crumbling mass resembling moldy cheese. Barnsley
hesitated.

"I haven't had the guts to try this one yet," he reminded himself,
picking out what looked like a cluster of long, white roots.

The roots squirmed feebly in his grasp. Barnsley returned them to the
box instantly.

Having selected, instead, a fruit that could have been a purple
cucumber, he put it with the water container into a pocket of his
coverall and closed the box.

_Maybe they won't remember that I took the same thing once before_, he
thought. _Oh, hell, of course they will! But why be too consistent?_

He opened one of the doors and walked along a bluish passage that
twisted to the left, chewing on the purple fruit as he went. It was
tougher than it looked and nearly tasteless. At the next junction, he
unscrewed the cap of the water sphere, drained it slowly, and flipped
the empty container at one of the oval panels. A dim shadow blurred out
of sight, as if someone had stepped hastily backward.

"Why not?" growled Barnsley. "It's time they were shaken up a little!"

                 *       *       *       *       *

Pretending to have seen something where the container had struck the
wall, he ran over and began to feel along the edge of the panel. When
his fingertips encountered only the slightest of seams, he doubled his
fists and pounded. He thought he could detect a faint scurrying on the
other side of the wall.

Barnsley laughed aloud. He raised one foot almost waist-high and drove
the heel of his boot through the translucent observation panel. Seizing
the splintered edges of the hole, he tugged and heaved until he had torn
out enough of the thin wall to step through to the other side. He found
himself entering a room not much larger than the passage behind him.

To his left, there was a flicker of blue from a crack in the wall. The
crack widened momentarily, emitting a gabble of mushy voices. The blue
cloth was twitched away by a cluster of stubby tentacles, whereupon the
crack closed to an almost imperceptible line. Barnsley fingered his
beard to hide a grin and turned the other way.

He stumbled into a number of low stools surmounted by spongy, spherical
cushions. One of these he tore off for a pillow before going on. At the
end of the little room, he sought for another crack, kicked the panel
a bit to loosen it, and succeeded in sliding back a section of wall.
The passage revealed was about the size of those he had been forced
to explore during the past two weeks, but it had an unfinished,
behind-the-scenes crudeness in appearance. Barnsley pottered along
for about fifteen minutes, during which time the walls resounded with
distant running and he encountered several obviously improvised
barriers.

He kicked his way through one, squeezed through an opening that had not
been closed quite in time, restrained a wicked impulse to cross some
wiring that must have been electrical, and at last allowed himself to be
diverted into a passage leading back to his original cell. He amused
himself by trying to picture the disruption he had caused to the
honeycomb of passageways.

"There!" he grinned to himself. "That should keep them from bothering me
for a few hours. Maybe one or two of them will get in trouble over it--I
hope!"

He arranged his stolen cushion where the wall met the floor and lay
down.

A thought struck him. He sat up to examine the cushion suspiciously.
It appeared to be an equivalent to foam rubber. He prodded and twisted
until convinced that no wires or other unexpected objects were concealed
inside. Not till then did he resume his relaxed position.

Presently one of his hands located and pinched a tiny switch buried
in the lobe of his left ear. Barnsley concentrated upon keeping his
features blank as a rushing sound seemed to grow in his ear. He yawned
casually, moving one hand from behind his head to cover his mouth.

Having practiced many times before a mirror, he did not think that any
possible watcher would have noticed how his thumb slipped briefly inside
his mouth to give one eyetooth a slight twist.

A strong humming inundated his hearing. It continued for perhaps two
minutes, paused, and began again. Barnsley waited through two repetitions
before he "yawned" again and sleepily rolled over to hide his face in his
folded arms.

"Did you get it all?" he murmured.

"Clear as a bell," replied a tiny voice in his left ear. "Was that your
whole day's recording?"

"I guess so," said Barnsley. "To tell the truth, I lose track a bit
after two weeks without a watch. Who's this? Sanchez?"

"That's right. You seem to come in on my watch pretty nearly every
twenty-four hours. Okay, I'll tape a slowed-down version of your blast
for the boys in the back room. You're doing fine."

                 *       *       *       *       *

"Not for much longer," Barnsley told him. "When do I get out of here?"

"Any day," Sanchez reassured him. "It was some job to learn an alien
language with just your recordings and some of your educated guesses to
go on. We've had a regular mob sweating on it night and day."

"How is it coming?"

"It turns out they're nothing to worry about. The fleet is close enough
now to pick up their surface broadcasting. Believe me, your stupid act
has them thoroughly confused. They hold debates over whether you could
possibly be intelligent enough to belong in a spaceship."

"Meanwhile, I'm slowly starving," said Barnsley.

"Just hang on for a couple of days. Now that we know where they are,
they're in for a shock. One of these mornings, they're going to hear
voices from all over their skies, demanding to know what kind of savages
they are to have kidnapped you--and in their own language!"

Barnsley grinned into his improvised pillow as Sanchez signed off.
Things would really work out after all. He was set for an immensely
lucrative position; whether as ambassador, trade consultant, or colonial
governor depended upon how well the experts bluffed the blubber-heads.
Well, it seemed only his due for the risks he had taken.

"Omigosh!" he grunted, sitting up as he pictured the horde of Terran
Colonial experts descending upon the planet. "I'll be the only one here
that hasn't learned to speak the language!"

                                END





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