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Title: A Fine Fix
Author: Noll, Ray C.
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 "A Fine Fix" ***

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



A FINE FIX

BY R. C. NOLL

[Illustration]

    _Generally speaking, human beings are fine buck-passers--but there's
    one circumstance under which they refuse to pass on responsibility.
    If the other fellow says "Your method won't solve the
    problem!"--then they get mad!_

Illustrated by van Dongen


The leader climbed sharply in a bank to the left, and the two others
followed close behind. Their jet streams cut off at very near the same
time. Before their speed slowed to stalling, the rotors unfolded from
the canopy hump and beat the air viciously, the steam wisping back in
brief fingers.

Under power again, they dipped playfully in tightening circles toward
the plot-mottled earth. The fields expanded beneath them, and the leader
brought up and hovered over a farm road whose dust already stirred in
the disturbed air.

They settled as one in the rolling dust clouds from which emerged a
coveralled figure who had driven the battered pickup truck to meet them.

"Y'sure got back in a rush," he addressed the major, who was just
jumping from the plastiglas cabin.

The major nodded and put his attention on seeing that the general
descended safely. He then indicated the farmer.

"He's the one," the major said.

The general grunted socially.

Taking the opening, the farmer said, "Out there in the wheat, general."
His tone carried eager importance. "My kid saw the light come down this
morning feedin' the chickens. I felt the ground jump, too. Called the
sheriff, first off."

"All right, you were a hero," said the general shortly. "Now, Grant,
will you take me to it? I can't mess around here all day."

The party of six men, two of them technicians, waded into the field from
the road. The farmer remained to watch, frowning.

When they had progressed well into the wheat, he shouted after them
ruefully, "And watch where you're steppin', too!"

The group paused on the rim of newly gouged earth, clods and dirt that
had splashed from the center of the crater. It was nearly four feet
deep. The man the major had left on guard had uncovered more of the
blackened object, which lay three-quarters exposed and showed a warped
but cylindrical shape.

"Let's have a counter on it," the general ordered.

A technician slid into the crater and swept the metal with his
instrument. The needle swung far over and stuck.

To the other technician the general said, "Get a chunk for verification
of the alloy." He kicked a small avalanche of dirt down the crater side
and turned back to the road, adding, "Although I don't know why the
formality. Even a cadet could see that's an atomjet reactor, beat up as
it is."

The major absorbed the jibe without comeback. An hour ago he had
informed the general of his indecision over the object's identity,
though he had suspected it to be the reactor.

"We may find more when we get it examined in the shop," the general
mused, swishing by the wheat. "But at least we know they do come down
some place, and it wasn't flash fusion. On this one, anyway."

"What do you think about instituting a search of this vicinity for other
parts, general?"

The officer growled negatively. "Obviously, the reactor was the only
part not vaporized in the fall--because of its construction."

"That's assuming the ship entered the atmosphere at operational velocity
and not less than free fall," the major qualified.

"How can anyone assume free fall? Way outside probability."

"Yes, sir, but there are degrees of velocity involved. He could have
used reverse thrust and entered at a relatively slow speed."

"All right, all right--let's say possible, then. Pull off your search if
you want to. I'm in this thing so deep now, I'll try anything to get
going. I've got Congress ready to investigate, and some senator
yesterday put pressure on to cancel the United Nuclear contract. I'll
try anything at this point, Grant!"

The big man's voice had risen to anger, but Major Grant Reis had not
missed the vocal breaking in the last syllables.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'm First Lieutenant Ashley and I've an appointment to see General
Morrison."

The adjutant said, "Sorry, but you'll have to wait a little longer. The
general's unexpectedly busy."

"My appointment was over an hour ago."

"Another half-hour and you can go in."

"Another half-hour and I'll go."

"It's your bar."

The lieutenant plopped back into a chair just as Grant strode swiftly
past the adjutant's desk from the private office.

"Major," the adjutant asked, "how long is the general going to be tied
up? He won't let me in the conference and the lieutenant here is
supposed to see him."

Grant paused at the opposite door and pointing two thumb-and-forefinger
guns at his head exploded them. The adjutant groaned understandingly.
Even the first lieutenant caught on.

"Major, it's pretty important," the waiting officer said, standing
again. Grant shifted his attention.

"Look, lieutenant--" Grant bottled the sarcasm behind his suddenly lax
mouth. He saw a first lieutenant's uniform, but it bulged aesthetically;
and he saw a first lieutenant's cap and bar, but it sat rakishly on
puffed-up brown curls.

"If you'll just look at these papers, major, you'll understand. I
stratoed in from the Pentagon this morning," she said crisply.

Though it was Grant's turn to say something, he found too much of his
concentration on her challenging brown eyes and the efficient down-sweep
of her half-pouting mouth, plus a nub of a nose that pointed proudly
upwards with the tilt of her head. In a temporary defensive maneuver,
Grant took the papers handed him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The borders were marked CONFIDENTIAL and the attached signatures would
have impressed even the general. The subject--he might have
expected--ATOMJET PATROL LOSSES.

"Er ... look, lieutenant-- What was it?" Grant glanced down at the
papers.

"First Lieutenant Bridget Ashley."

"Look, Lieutenant Ashley, the general's been getting nothing but
troubles all day. For your sake and his sake, I suggest you come back
tomorrow, huh?" Grant handed back the papers and put a hand on her
elbow, but she jerked back.

"Major, I've been given a great deal of responsibility in this
assignment," she flared, "and it's important for me to get work started
at once. I was led to understand these patrol losses constituted a
fairly urgent matter."

Grant glanced ominously toward the general's door. "Lieutenant, I'm
trying to explain to you that it's in your best interests to take this
up with him tomorrow. I'm one of his aides and I know him. I realize
you're authorized to see him today, but--"

"Then I'll wait." She reseated herself and emphatically crossed her
legs--a motion not escaping Grant's notice.

The adjutant and Grant mutually shrugged at each other, and Grant headed
outside, saying over his shoulder, "I'll be back in a minute."

       *       *       *       *       *

As it developed, it was far more than a minute; but whatever it was,
when Grant returned she was gone. The major looked at the adjutant, and
the adjutant indicated the general's door with an apprehensive nod.
Grant bit his lip and entered the private office.

He had expected to hear the general's bass raging, but through the inner
door came the strident tones of the lieutenant's modulating contralto.
He had expected to see the general towering over the girl's shrinking
figure, but as he entered she was bent earnestly in the middle, and the
top of her torso inclined toward General Morrison, who had tilted as far
back as his swivel chair would permit.

"... So, if you haven't isolated any mechanical causation, how can you
be sure it's mechanical?" she was laying it on. "And if you're not sure
it's mechanical, how can you suggest there's no possibility of
psychological causation? The authorities that sent me here have not only
considered the possibility, they feel it's quite probable. All I am
requesting, sir, is immediate implementation of my authority so your
investigation can be broadened. It's really to your benefit that--"

Grant said, "Lieutenant Ashley."

"... My work be started at once so as to catch up on what findings you
have obtained in the--"

Grant shouted, "Lieutenant Ashley!"

"... Investigation so far in the mechanical aspects. It's not unlikely
that a combining factor, both psychological and mechanical--"

Grant yelled, "LIEUTENANT ASHLEY!!"

"Yes, sir, major."

"Would you please wait in the outer office for just a moment?"

"But--"

"For just a moment, lieutenant."

"Yes, sir."

Grant waited until the door closed before he tried communication with
the general. The officer still teetered in his chair, his eyes bulging
from his reddened face.

"They sent me a shape," he sputtered. "That I could take. Shapes I don't
mind, even with authority. But this one-- You know where she's from,
Grant?"

Grant sighed hopelessly.

"She's from syk," the general was beginning to roar, "with a blank
check of authority from Washington. She stood there and called the
losses pilot-error. My pilots, Grant, the ones I trained!"

"Just a possibility, she meant," soothed Grant.

"Possibility, hell! With that attitude around Mojave we'll never get
anywhere in this investigation." He untilted with a crash. "I want her
kept away from me, do you hear? Give her anything she wants--but
appointments with me. I've got United Nuclear here for stress tests,
coolant analyses, radiation metering in the morning just as a start, and
I'm not going to have that shape around fusing up the works."

"I'll see what I can do, sir."

"You're right you will. I'm putting Colonel Sorenson in as G-2, and
you're going to be the new Syk Coördinator for the duration of this
investigation!"

"The what?"

"You heard me."

"It couldn't be that bad, general," Grant grumbled.

"It is."

"Baby-sitting."

The general stood up from his desk. "No, you'll relay any data she may
turn up to me, and you'll see she gets what supplies and personnel she
may need. Look, Washington thinks we need her, so I take orders. And so
do you, Grant. I'll have a special order out this afternoon."

"Yes, sir," Grant saluted and wheeled, grinding his molars.

       *       *       *       *       *

With dubious explanations, Grant managed to steer Lieutenant Ashley
toward the Officers' Club. What excuses he gave her evidently had some
effect; after the first fifty yards across the drill ground she steered
easily, though still under vocal protest.

A drink, and Grant felt he could face the future. They sat in a
plastiweave booth, one against the far wall that overlooked through a
curved window the blasting circle.

So wrapped up with his own feelings, Grant had been unaware of his
companion's. Her face had paled, and she stirred her drink absently. The
reflections in her eyes were over-bright with moisture.

Offered Grant: "The general has a lot on his mind."

"Yeah," she choked.

"The losses have upset him pretty bad."

"I notice. Me, too."

"Take a drink."

She sipped one CC and said, "And syk upsets him."

Grant smiled, "And shapes."

"And I suppose the rank of first lieutenant makes him nervous."

"No," Grant chuckled, "he can take or leave that. It's majors that get
him."

She smiled vaguely, so Grant followed up with: "What's your background?"

"Psychometrics. Got a doctorate in it. I thought it might be valuable to
the Air Force--at one time." She sipped two CCs.

"I've a little syk background," Grant said. She looked up in sudden
interest. "Started to major in it until I ran up against some of the
profs. If this is what syk produces, I decided, it's not for me. Changed
to engineering then. Unfortunately, the general knows about my record."

"How did he take it out on you, parade duty?"

"Worse. He made me an aide."

The girl leaned on an elbow and regarded him with her chin in her hand.
"You bring his slippers?"

"As G-2, I did up until quarter of an hour ago. I've been promoted. Meet
the Base Mojave Syk Coördinator."

Putting her nose in her drink, she giggled softly. "What is it he wants
coördinated, the syk or me?"

"You're on bearing," he laughed. "My name's Grant."

His hand went across the table, opened, and waited.

"Bridget," she said, and her hand fell into his in a handshake which
lingered slightly.

       *       *       *       *       *

At Grant's insistence they jeep-toured the base. To his surprise Bridget
took interest in the installations, but asked most of her questions
around the atomjet hangars.

"I've never seen one close," she hinted.

Grant flashed his Security card at the guards and they went in. She
strolled about the tapering, snub-winged craft, apparently inspecting it
closely. Grant's thought was that she felt she had to dramatize
understanding something about Air Force rocketry.

After a short silence Bridget asked, "What is the compensating factor
for the reactor's being placed off the center of stability?"

Grant blinked. "What's that again?"

She swung a pointed finger at the ship. "Naturally," she interrupted,
"the nose will float downward in the canal, hoisting the hot tubes out
of the liquid at the end of the glide-ins. But you've got pilot, power
plant, and wings frontside. How can you affect glide-ins at surface air
density without nosing in?"

The major decided she must have been reading the latest confidential
files. High-viscosity liquid landing canals constituted a subject recent
enough to be Security and important enough not to be bandied about
outside engineering and Base Mojave.

"Well, you see," Grant cleared his throat, "there're the fuel tanks
along the back of the blast chamber, partly lead--"

"The tanks usually are nearly empty for glide-ins," she reminded.

Grant frowned. "Yes, usually empty, but still a weight factor. Then
there's the automatic wing stabilizer that adjusts to the air speed and
density and acts to pull up the nose--"

"O.K.," she interrupted. "Now, would you lift me through the canopy,
please? I'd like to sit inside a minute."

"That's out," he said. "Only pilots and technicians."

"All right, if you won't, I'll get up myself." She marched over to the
hangar wall and pulled over boarding steps, which were braced on three
pivotal tires.

"Bridget, Security says pilots and mechanics."

"And you're forgetting why I'm here, and besides that you're supposed to
coördinate. Right now you're uncoördinating."

       *       *       *       *       *

Before Grant's eyes flashed the memory of her orders with the signatures
at the bottom. She was already climbing the steps.

"Just don't touch anything, that's all," he conciliated, following her
up. Her seams were straight, he noted.

Bridget thudded into the narrow pilot's seat and wiggled herself into a
comfortable position.

"Awful crowded," she smiled up at Grant.

"I hope you tore your nylons," he groused.

"Now, if you'll just explain these gadgets," she said, moving her hand
over the panel embedded with digit-rimmed dials.

"Hands off, please."

"By your reaction, I would say you don't know what some of them are,"
she counter-fired, and tossed her protruding bunch of curls.

Grant took the bait. He leaned into the canopy and with an
over-stiffened index finger pointed forcefully at each gauge. For more
than a quarter-hour this went on, with Bridget pitching questions--most
of which he juggled.

She seemed to show more interest in the radar screen, the navigational
equipment, and the communications system. About these, she milked
Grant's available knowledge until he felt like reaching down and
throwing open the reactor valve and fuel switch.

"Lieutenant, if you don't mind, my back is paralyzed. Let's go back to
the club and I'll answer anything you want."

"Just one more," she coaxed. "This crosshair sight with the little black
circle in the middle. How does that work again?"

Grant straightened up and carefully massaged the small of his back.
"It's for precise manual navigation if you need it. You sit up straight
and sight through it."

"And what do you sight at?"

"A star, of course."

"Put it in the little black circle?"

"An A for you. Then you snap in Automatic Navigational and you're in
business. Or you can navigate manually by using Gyroscopic Navigational
if you want."

"I'm ready to get out now." Bridget lifted her hands where Grant stood
on the platform of the boarding device.

Back or no back, Grant couldn't resist the opportunity. He pulled her by
the hands to where she was leaning out the opened canopy, then he
stooped and grabbed her under the arms and swung her up. For a moment
her soft hair brushed his ear, and a light scent from her neck suggested
he keep her pliant form close to him a little longer than necessary.

[Illustration]

He planted her next to the steps, and she muttered an uninspired thank
you. But halfway down, she halted and turned.

"It's much easier asking me out dancing, Grant," she smiled impishly,
and clacked across the hangar floor toward the jeep.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the next morning arrangements for a small staff and office space had
swiftly gone through. Working through lunch, Bridget had the office set
up and the staff briefed and researching when Grant returned from dining
with the general.

"You're just in time," she said, looking up from an already cluttered
desk. "I'm ready now to scan through any G-2 you have on atomjet
operation in your Mojave files."

Grant bristled. "These files are under the general's nose, and I don't
think he'd appreciate--" He broke off when he observed Bridget tapping
her pencil and frowning at him impatiently.

With a degree of diplomacy he had to admire, Grant lifted the
non-technical files from the general's office and furtively smuggled
them out in his brief case.

"Don't take all day," he warned, handing them to Bridget. "Part of my
job is keeping the general neutral about you, and not against."

Bridget jumped up and drew another chair up to her desk. "How about
scanning with me? That'll get the files back faster. Here, take these on
pilot training."

The files repulsed him less than Bridget attracted him, and he sat down
promptly. "And what do I look for, psychologically significant portions,
is that it?"

"Even psychologically insignificant portions, major, if you please."

Grant began to read. As he scanned the copies of directives, reports,
operations logs, and procedures the process became automatic, and part
of his consciousness turned contemplative.

Three months ago he would have considered the situation in which he now
found himself a future development out of the question. Mojave had
brimmed with optimism and pride and accomplishment and eagerness. Base
Mojave loomed vital in national defense, constituted a main element of
national scientific pride.

From the dusty desert stretches the sprawling, efficient base had taken
shape while United Nuclear had yet to assemble an atomjet. The schedules
came out perfectly, and the first single-manned fusion-propulsed
rocketplane thundered off the corporation proving grounds and glided
into Base Mojave as planned. Designed for patrol of the mesosphere, the
ships were to have gained for the West control of near-Earth space,
besides affording superior observation posts for Eastern developments
and activity of a space nature.

Training of the pilots had lasted thirty weeks and went by without a
casualty or serious damage. Testing and re-testing of the electronics
brought out no flaws. Stress and thermal analyses held up under all
conditions imposed.

The losses began after the third week of patrol. UNR-6 failed to return
to base--with no hint of the cause, with no communication from the
pilot. That one was hushed up by the base PR officer, but news of the
second reached the press. During the fifth week, UNR-2 never returned
for its glide-in, and, of course, the first loss came out at that time,
too.

General Morrison worked with the pilots and engineers steadily on the
problem with apparent good results--for a month. Then UNR-9 vanished.

Lately the orders had been for patrol over the States, and it was
presumed UNR-9 would have made an appearance somewhere had it been in
trouble. That's why the Dakota farmer's report had been investigated so
swiftly.

As of now, the situation had become one patrol a day with reluctant
pilots, Congress sending a committee to the base, a taxpayers'
injunction against the Air Force rocketplane operation, and United
Nuclear men experimenting hourly with robot-piloted atomjets at all
altitudes below four hundred miles.

Plus the syk research, naturally.

Bridget's ash tray spilled over with right-angled cigarette butts,
half-burned. Grant studied her as she read through the files intently
although her eyes rolled his way briefly on occasion. She faced him with
an unexpected snap of the head.

"Well?"

"Just looking," Grant explained.

"Then just look for a pilot's manual. It's been mentioned and I haven't
seen one around. Would you mind?"

Grant opened his mouth to inform her a pilot's manual for the atomjet
was classified secret, but caught himself before he could verbalize the
protest. He shrugged and planned more strategy for invading the
general's files.

The only things he could be grateful for so far were Bridget's beauty
and the fact the staff had not realized he was her adjutant.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Mayo psychiatrist and the Yale psychologist had been in conference
with Bridget for almost an hour. She had been giving them preliminary
findings and the results of tests and interviews with the base pilots.

When they finally broke up, Bridget approached Grant with a
there's-something-I-want-from-you look. Grant nearly had a chance to
offer lunch before she suggested it.

What she wanted from him came out over their aerated sherbet pie. By the
time she finished, Grant's dessert was beginning to taste like
vitaminized space rations.

"Impossible," he said, dabbing at sherbet spots on his trousers. "The
general would react faster than to a red alert."

"Your concern may be the general's reactions, but mine's not," Bridget
snapped. "I just want an objective engineering answer, yes or no."

Grant threw up his hands. "O.K., O.K. With a live pilot, yes, you can
get a TV transmitter in an atomjet with some doing. You'd have to jerk
out the extra oxygen space and--"

"Wonderful! When can you have it for me?"

"Bridget, what I'm getting at, the general will take this as a slap at
him and his pilots. We've had TV transmission from robotized atomjets
dozens of times--"

"With no results."

"With no results," Grant admitted, "but that doesn't mean that with a
pilot you'll necessarily get any, either."

"No, but why hasn't someone tried?" Bridget waited for him to answer a
decent two seconds and then added, "The general, naturally."

They left the base lunchroom in silence, Bridget pouting a lip-edge more
than Grant. Before entering the office, Grant brought up a rebuttal.

"Another thing, no pilot is going to push up under those conditions,
with you down there hoping something will happen."

Bridget had her hand on the door, but instead of opening it, paused.
"The pilot would have to trust me." Her eyes darkened, widened, split
Grant emotionally down the middle. He could understand, for an instant
when he let himself, how a man could be inveigled to do anything for a
woman.

"Yeah," he said. "A pilot like that might be hard to find. I'll see what
I can do."

As he walked toward the hangars, he heard the office door close softly
behind him.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the engineering conference after supper Grant had never seen General
Morrison looking quite that old. The man was sustaining an overload of
responsibility, and probably self-imposed guilt on top of it.

The mechanical engineers made their report, followed by the electronic
engineers, followed by the physicist--all negative. But each group had a
suspicion that another had overlooked something. Before it regressed to
a high-school debate, the general bellowed the conference to order.

Grant was surprised at the twinge of emotion he experienced when he
realized the general was not going to ask for a report from syk. Why
should Grant care, anyway? The position meant nothing to him, Syk
Coördinator.

It meant something to Bridget, though.

That General Morrison had not even checked for syk findings annoyed
Grant, perhaps. Under the circumstances he was justified: nothing had
yet come out, nothing that Bridget had told Grant, anyway. The general
could not be aware of this. He assumed it. Maybe that's what upset
Grant.

"Then there's this De-Meteor," the general was saying. "I've always been
suspicious of that gadget."

An electronics man spoke up. "A Clary man checked them all, even used
instrument flight to be certain. I was with him and counter-checked the
radar high-speed scanners, the computers, and the course-alteration
mechanism. I was convinced myself it would steer the ship out of any
situation involving the approach of one or two penetrating meteors."

       *       *       *       *       *

General Morrison turned to the spatialogist. "What about the incidence
of penetrating meteors in the mesosphere?"

"In average fall," the man replied, "fairly low."

"And the probability of encountering three at once along a given atomjet
trajectory?"

"From what limited experiments we have made, the odds would be
astronomical, I'd say."

The general snorted. "Too great to account for three ships, anyway, is
that it?" He soothed his forehead with his big hand. "All right, let's
make another check starting tomorrow morning. More robot-flight tests.
Let's have ships outside the mesosphere operation range. And I want
reports on anything that looks like anything, understand?"

The group emitted a low groan. This was the fourth comprehensive
check--grueling, close, meticulous, nerve-racking work.

From the rear came the voice of a courageous civilian mechanical
engineer, "What about a check on the pilots?"

The sudden silence was like an electrical field. The base commander
continued to shuffle up his notes and papers, but his neck crimsoned.

He's not going to hear it, Grant thought.

"Conference dismissed!" the general ordered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Three-four-five rings, and Bridget answered. The first word was a yawned
"Lieutenant" and the next was an exhaled "Ashley."

"Sorry to get you up, Bridget. This is Grant. Can you come down to
Hangar Four?"

"What time is it?" she asked thickly.

"Three-fifteen. Will you come down here?"

"Unchaperoned?"

"That's not the point. A surprise. What we talked about the other day."

Bridget's interest picked up. "What we talked about? But I'll have to
dress and fix my face--"

"Put on a robe and slippers. It's a warm morning. I've got it fixed with
the O.D. Now, will you come on down?"

She paused. "You've convinced me."

In a few minutes Grant heard her slippers shuffling over the concrete.
She arrived in a brilliant blue nylon robe, with white fluffy slippers
and traces of a lighter blue nightgown underneath. The hangar brightness
brought a frown to her eyes, which she shielded with a hand cupped to
her brow. A creature as entrancing as that, Grant decided, should now
recite prose poetry in contralto tones to make his ideal complete.

"Well?" she croaked, a sleepy frog in her throat. "So I'm here."

The last mechanic was picking up his tools and was about ready to leave.
Otherwise, they were alone, except for the guard at the hangar entrance.

"Up on the platform," said Grant, unlocking the canopy of UNR-12. He
busied himself adjusting the guiding tension.

He heard the slippers, shuffling and gritting, climb the loading device
and stop next to him. He heard the gasp as she saw the pilot
compartment's freshly built-in TV transmitter and lens. When he felt the
pull on his arm, he chose to notice her.

"Thanks, Grant. I thought for a while--"

"It's ready for tomorrow if you want it," Grant mentioned casually.

Bridget's fists clenched and her eyes brightened. "Wow," she observed.
"Then you've got a pilot?"

Grinning sourly, Grant said, "As if you don't know who."

Her eyes showed concern. "What do you mean?"

"I mean things have worked out creamy as you planned."

"Grant, I don't understand."

"Now, don't tell me you didn't know I could push up one of these
things." He patted the side of the atomjet.

"You, a pilot? Grant. I didn't know."

"Let's say it's been convenient for you, anyway."

       *       *       *       *       *

They had walked outside, Bridget trying to find Grant's gaze, which he
put onto a distant ridge of hills rising dimly against the desert
starscape.

Bridget said seriously, "You think I've been enticing you into the pilot
job, is that it?"

Grant's glance fell to hers. "It looked that way to me. All the
general's staff have to fly 'em, I thought you knew that. I don't
patrol, of course."

They neared her quarters, and the shadow of the building that spilled
over them was deep.

"I didn't know, Grant, believe me." Her voice carried earnestness.

"You don't have to prove it," Grant said huskily.

He had caught her hand, and then her arm slid softly around his neck.
Her kiss was meant as brief, but he persuaded her differently. They
clung together silently until the barracks guard had spun an about-face
and headed back their way.

"Please, Grant, get someone else to go up," she whispered.

"You said you wanted a pilot who trusted you," reminded Grant. "Now, get
to bed before I gig you for being out of uniform. See me tomorrow on
TV."

       *       *       *       *       *

The miles altimeter needle swept steadily and was about to pass the 300
division. Star-sprinkled space-darkness lay ahead by now, but when he
looked to the side the Earth's surface reflected the sunlight
dazzlingly.

It wasn't that he felt self-consciousness over the lens in front of him,
or over the one showing him in profile, and the one just over his
shoulder viewing the instrument panel. Nor was it based on his not
pushing up in over a month. He traced it probably to the uncertainty of
his position.

His position was uncertain, because Bridget could easily be right.
Actually, considering the lack of one lead in the other avenues of the
investigation, chances were good something was happening to pilots and
could happen to him.

That was not what bothered him: not that something might occur, but
_what_ might occur. Fighting unknowns for Grant carried no interest.

"I'm over 300," he transmitted. "Now what?"

Bridget's voice arrived with an ionospheric waver. "Level at 375. Please
remember, you're trying to simulate patrol conditions. Don't transmit
unless it's your report period or something goes wrong."

"Like what, lieutenant?"

"If you knew all the psychological quirks possible, you'd avoid them,
major. And if you're still worried, I've taken adequate precautions.
There's a staff of twenty-five persons here with instruments on you. By
the way, your picture is coming over horribly."

[Illustration]

"Try my profile. I've heard it's better."

"And please replace your galvanometric and respiratory clamps. We're
getting no register here."

"They're too uncomfortable."

"Major, let me remind you this flight is costing the taxpayers plenty,
hasn't General Morrison's clearance, and may have to be flown again
unless you coöperate fully." Grant smiled at the lens. He could
visualize her curls whipping around.

"Now, please coöperate and replace the clamps, and try to simulate
patrol conditions. I will call you from time to time for further
instructions. Ashley at Mojave--out."

Grant returned, "Reis over Mojave--nuts."

After parodying annoyance at the lens, he dutifully replaced the chest
and palm clamps and settled down to the tedium of patrol.

       *       *       *       *       *

Behind him, tons of pressure thundered silently out in controlled
gaseous fusion, hurled him starward on a pillar of energy. He had
already broken his vertical ascent and was slanting toward the latitude
Bridget requested. The Pacific rolled up under the atomjet's polished
nose, which sparkled with myriads of brighter star reflections. Then he
recalled he couldn't play over the ocean and veered slowly northward,
up the coast to the telltale configuration of Puget Sound.

Over the eastern lakes he cut fusion and watched on the altimeter dial
the battle between gravity and inertia. Near the Mississippi delta he
was wrenched in a sharp maneuver as the De-Meteor suddenly took over. He
was fortunate to see the streaking missile glow brightly and flare out
of existence in the thin regions of atmosphere miles beneath him.

More than three hours of patrol, and no word from Mojave. Obediently,
Grant had not called in. He set course for Mojave and was nearly ready
to transmit when a bark of static filled the pressurized control bubble.
Disappointed, Grant heard a male voice over the speaker.

"High altitude weather observation overdue. UNR-12, please report
synoptics in quadrants."

They really want simulation, Grant grumbled mentally. "Southwest
quadrant, southeast quadrant clear except for banner-clouding higher
ranges. Northwest, scattered alto-cumulus, looks like the onset of a
warm front, with the northeast quadrant moderate-high cirrus. And let me
talk to Br ... to Lieutenant Ashley, please."

A pause. "Ashley, Mojave."

"How's my picture now?"

"Your vertical is off, and you flutter. Major, the first three hours
have been without direction from the base. For the next two, we're going
to ask you to perform certain patrol tasks, perhaps repeat them. The
process may not prove especially enjoyable. Your close coöperation will
be appreciated."

"If this is all stuff we went through in training--" Grant sputtered.

"Some of it may be," Bridget's voice. "The fact it's distasteful may
make it the more significant. Are you ready to coöperate?"

Grant nodded at the lens and screwed up his face in an exaggerated
frown.

Bridget's thoroughness called for admiration. She had him at the end of
a string, activating him from a plot taken directly from the pilot's
manual. He would coöperate, but he was not enthusiastic.

As the exercises progressed, Grant detected subtle variations Bridget
had added to the basic maneuvers. On the tight starboard circle, for
instance, she had him keep his eyes on Earth, making him slightly dizzy.

Then she requested a free-fall drop from a stall with the provision he
this time place his attention on the instrument panel--"with no peeking
outside." He complied, watching the altimeter trace forty miles toward
the basement, and experienced effects no different than usual.

After a while, he came to consider it a game and might have gained
amusement from it, were it not for the tiredness creeping in behind his
eyes and the fact two dozen technicians somewhere down there were hoping
to trip a fatal, hidden synapse.

"How much more of this?" Grant transmitted finally.

"Getting tired?" Bridget replied, and paused for an answer.

"Let's say I don't feel like six sets of tennis."

"A few more, major, and we'll authorize your glide-in." If there was
disappointment in her voice, it did not manifest itself. "Your next
exercise is manual navigation with Jupiter as your fix."

       *       *       *       *       *

Grant took down the figures she gave in acute disinterest. Boredom had
settled heavily over his outlook on the operation. No longer did it
matter that his facial reactions were being televised to the syk-happy
probers; and it made no difference to him any more that his every
breath, swallow, heart beat, tension, and sweat-secretion was magnified
by inky needles along moving rolls of paper.

His exercise target was a southwestern New Mexico town, and he swung
back from the Gulf area and coaxed the responsive craft until the planet
gleamed brightly in the crosshairs of the navigational sight. That put
him four degrees off the horizontal, he noted, but Jupiter was setting;
he adjusted his velocity to maintain the planet's relative skyward
position in the west.

In some irritation he stepped up the thrust. This one could easily take
too long. The faint hum of the power plant provided music as the bright
point of light danced slightly from the sight's center.

The realization came that he had jumped convulsively. Grant was puzzled
that he was not aware what had happened. Some sort of reflex? But reflex
from what? Tingling coursed its way up his left leg and he rubbed his
thigh.

When he put his attention on the sight again, the planet had slipped
out. In fact, it was nowhere in the immediate starscape ahead of him.

His quick glance at the basement showed first that a twilight shadow was
moving in from the north-- From the north? It had to be the east! And
how come so soon?

       *       *       *       *       *

Small panic twisted his diaphragm when he viewed below the unfamiliar
topography and increasing cloudiness. And when he saw by his watch it
was nearly three--

The radio had started to transmit. He swallowed a lump of fear and
prepared some kind of an answer. "... If you hear me. Please indicate if
you hear me, Grant."

He nodded at the lens.

"Would you like a pilot to help you orient from here?"

Grant felt sheepish, but the panic still remained. He was now aware his
alertness was not up to par, so he nodded again. But he was feeling
better by the minute.

Back on course under one of the pilot's directions, Grant soon took
over.

"Skip that exercise, Grant, and glide in," Bridget sent. "Feel up to it,
now?"

"Yeah, but what's it all about? I must've passed out, but damned if I
know what for."

Grant heard Bridget's laugh and his morale improved. "You come down and
take me to dinner and I'll give you the answer--and what I think may be
the answer to all the general's troubles. Right now I've got a report to
write so the general can get the word soon--and as painlessly as
possible."

Grant pressed the stud to activate the skin coolant system for entrance
into the atmosphere. He almost felt like grinning.

       *       *       *       *       *

Grant at the medical officer's advice took a brief nap, which quickly
cleared up his mental fuzziness. As a surprise to Bridget he ordered a
rotocab from Barstow, the nearest town, booming since the base had
become operative.

In a specialty restaurant over freshly arrived seafood from San
Francisco, Grant tried to persuade Bridget to stop teasing him about the
navigational foul-up and set him straight. He had put up with it as long
as he did only because she had worn an off-shoulder yellow gown, snugly
fitted, that made the uniform seem like the design of a Mid-Victorian
prude.

Grant, exasperated, brought her teasing up short. "I've been priding
myself on keeping up the myth I'm a wide-awake young man and pilot.
Never have I passed out before--never. I feel like a washed-out cadet.
You've had your fun baiting--now, what made me blank?"

Bridget cringed as he tore a slice of French bread in half with one
hostile, meaningful bite.

She waved her cigarette haughtily. "We in psychology have found certain
stimuli productive of consistent human response. Especially true in
tactile sensation, this, however, is not as true in the auditory and
visual."

"You're being technical," Grant interrupted. "Just let me know
simple-like, if you don't mind."

"Consequently," she continued, "the problem presented to the
investigating psychologist was one of seeking an involuntary response to
one or more stimuli, in sequence or grouped. Traditionally--"

"Miss Ashley--" Grant held up the small, square tissue-wrapped box, tied
with a bow--"I would like to have you open this tonight, but obviously
you're not going to have time what with the thesis, and all." He
deliberately put the box back in his coat pocket.

Their eyes held over her swordfish momentarily.

"So, O.K., I looked around for nasty stimuli, that's all," Bridget went
on. "There were lots of possibilities, but I sorta picked two or three.
Part of our pilot interviews was for getting descriptions from the men
on what the conditions up there felt like, sounded like, looked like,
smelled like, and so on. Completely individual, mind you. From that we
spotted negative elements held in common by them."

Grant reached for her arm and blocked the upward motion of her
fish-loaded fork.

"You can eat after," he said.

"I threw the nasty ones at you when you began tiring, because that's
when the body's stimulus-response setup starts pulling away from
conscious direction. I saved the one I had the hunch on for the last."

"The navigation exercise, you mean? I still don't get what that has to
do with my leg cramp."

Bridget laughed. "Oh, that. One of those leads attached to your leg
carried a little voltage--just in case you passed out. The benefits of
current psychology, you know."

       *       *       *       *       *

Grant repressed a smile. "Thanks for letting me know what brought me
around, but you are still stalling about why I went under."

"You figure it out. What were the stimuli associated with the manual
navigation problem?"

"Let's see," he mused. "Tactile: nothing important, just the control
levers. Visually, the star field and Jupiter and the crosshairs.
Auditorily, the power hum--"

"What stands out?"

"The planet and the hum, I guess."

"And how did the planet appear?" Bridget asked.

"A point of light, you mean?"

"And what does that add up to: a bright concentrated light source on
which you fix your attention and a monotonous hum?"

"Not hypnotism!"

Bridget shrugged. "A reasonable facsimile. Especially when you throw
mental fatigue in with it."

"But you need a suggestion, I thought--" Grant was amazed.

"Not necessarily," she replied. "You were mentally tired, there was some
self-suggestion for sleep. But simply a continued fixation of the eyes
in suggestive subjects can be enough. There may be a subconscious
association with previous hypnosis, or early states of mental shock. In
the highly suggestive, a steady lulling noise can be sufficient in
itself. And you were alone, with no one around to snap a finger under
your nose. Add it up in your situation, and you blank out."

Grant slapped his forehead. "What did I look like?"

"Not any different than usual," she said, laughing. "You continued to
hold the controls, but you stared vacantly and tensed quite a bit. Well,
we have the complete recording on your reactions if you want to check.
Naturally, you pulled off course, ended up over Mexico, gaining about
fifty miles in altitude."

The others, thought Grant, rode until their oxygen gave out or dived
through the atmosphere without skin-cooling, or came out of it too late
and found-- He decided not to think about it.

"But I don't think I'm hypnotic," Grant protested.

"Everyone is hypnotic to a degree. Some are a great deal more than
others, and these are the ones that are apparent. Impose the right
conditions and a quasi-hypnotic condition could be affected on most
anyone."

"But why hasn't this happened elsewhere?"

Bridget took a quick bite of fish before he could stop her. "It has.
First documentation I found was in the South Pacific air war in the
'40s. One-man escorting fighter planes in several cases slipped out of
bomber formations they were following at night and splashed. One of the
explanations at their hearings, but never investigated thoroughly, was
hypnosis from the single red taillight of the bombers. In one outfit,
the losses stopped when the fighters flew up front."

"Not only sharp, but good-looking, too," Grant admired, and began
chewing on the other half of his French bread. Then he ceased
masticating and mouthed anxiously, "You've told the general this?"

Bridget clapped her hands. "With exquisite pleasure."

"And he--?"

"... Got excited, phoned for engineering to remove navigational sights
and suggested I join the staff at the base."

Grant coughed on the bread and hurriedly reached for his water. "He
wants you around?"

"Gratitude, I guess, in his own brassy way."

"And you'll stay?"

"If Washington O.K.'s it, and I'm coaxed."

"Then that simplifies the matter," he said and brought out the daintily
wrapped tiny gift box. "For you."

Her eyes warmed and smiled as she said, "That's the kind of coaxing a
woman wants."

Grant fumed, "Then you know what it is? Extrasensory perception or
something psychological?"

Their hands met across the table and lingered.

"Purely an emotional response," said Bridget.


THE END

[Illustration]



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Astounding Science Fiction_ March
    1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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