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´╗┐Title: King of the Hill
Author: Blish, James
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 "King of the Hill" ***


                           KING OF THE HILL

                            by JAMES BLISH

                        Illustrated by GRIFFITH

                    _A madman can be prevented from
                   bomb-throwing--but a mad world?_

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


It did Col. Hal Gascoigne no good whatsoever to know that he was the
only man aboard Satellite Vehicle 1. No good at all. He had stopped
reminding himself of the fact some time back.

And now, as he sat sweating in the perfectly balanced air in front of
the bombardier board, one of the men spoke to him again:

"Colonel, sir--"

Gascoigne swung around in the seat, and the sergeant--Gascoigne could
almost remember the man's name--threw him a snappy Air Force salute.

"Well?"

"Bomb one is primed, sir. Your orders?"

"My orders?" Gascoigne said wonderingly. But the man was already
gone. Gascoigne couldn't actually _see_ the sergeant leave the control
cabin, but he was no longer in it.

While he tried to remember, another voice rang in the cabin, as flat
and razzy as all voices sound on an intercom.

"Radar room. On target."

A regular, meaningless peeping. The timing circuit had cut in.

Or had it? There was nobody in the radar room. There was nobody in
the bomb hold, either. There had never been anybody on board SV-1 but
Gascoigne, not since he had relieved Grinnell--and Grinnell had flown
the station up here in the first place.

Then who had that sergeant been? His name was--It was--

The hammering of the teletype blanked it out. The noise was as loud as
a pom-pom in the echoing metal cave. He got up and coasted across the
deck to the machine, gliding in the gravity-free cabin with the ease of
a man to whom free fall is almost second nature.

The teletype was silent by the time he reached it, and at first the
tape looked blank. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes. There was the
message.

                MNBVCXZ LKJ HGFDS PYTR AOIU EUIO QPALZM

He got out his copy of "The Well-Tempered Pogo" and checked the
speeches of Grundoon the Beaver-Chile for the key letter-sequence on
which the code was based. There weren't very many choices. He had the
clear in ten minutes.

                BOMB ONE WASHINGTON 1700 HRS TAMMANANY

There it was. That was what he had been priming the bomb for. But there
should have been earlier orders, giving him the go-ahead to prime. He
began to rewind the paper.

It was all blank.

And--_Washington_? Why would the Joint Chiefs of Staff order him--

"Col. Gascoigne, sir--"

Gascoigne jerked around and returned the salute. "What's your name?" he
snapped.

"Sweeney, sir," the corporal said. Actually it didn't sound very much
like Sweeney, or like anything else; it was just a noise. Yet the man's
face looked familiar. "Ready with bomb two, sir."

The corporal saluted, turned, took two steps, and faded. He did not
vanish, but he did not go out the door, either. He simply receded,
became darker and harder to distinguish, and was no longer there. It
was as though he and Gascoigne had disagreed about the effects of
perspective in the glowing Earthlight, and Gascoigne had turned out to
be wrong.

Numbly, he finished rewinding the paper. There was no doubt about it.
There the order stood, black on yellow, as plain as plain. Bomb the
capital of your own country at 1700 hours. Just incidentally, bomb
your own home in the process, but don't give that a second thought. Be
thorough, drop two bombs; don't worry about missing by a few seconds of
arc and hitting Baltimore instead, or Silver Spring, or Milford, Del.
CIG will give you the coordinates, but plaster the area anyhow. That's
S.O.P.

With rubbery fingers, Gascoigne began to work the keys of the teletype.
Sending on the frequency of Civilian Intelligence Group, he typed:

    HELP SHOUT SERIOUS REPEAT SERIOUS PERSONNEL TROUBLE HERE STOP DON'T
    KNOW HOW LONG I CAN KEEP IT DOWN STOP URGENT GASCOIGNE SV ONE STOP

Behind him, the oscillator peeped rhythmically, timing the drive on the
launching rack trunnion.

"Radar room. On target."

Gascoigne did not turn. He sat before the bombardier board and sweated
in the perfectly balanced air. Inside his skull, his own voice was
shouting:

STOP STOP STOP

       *       *       *       *       *

That, as we reconstructed it afterwards, is how the SV-1 affair began.
It was pure luck, I suppose, that Gascoigne sent his message direct
to us. Civilian Intelligence Group is rarely called into an emergency
when the emergency is just being born. Usually Washington tries to do
the bailing job first. Then, when Washington discovers that the boat is
still sinking, it passes the bailing can to us--usually with a demand
that we transform it into a centrifugal pump, on the double.

We don't mind. Washington's failure to develop a government department
similar in function to CIG is the reason why we're in business. The
profits, of course, go to Affiliated Enterprises, Inc., the loose
corporation of universities and industries which put up the money to
build ULTIMAC--and ULTIMAC is, in turn, the reason why Washington comes
running to CIG so often.

This time, however, it did not look like the big computer was going
to be of much use to us. I said as much to Joan Hadamard, our social
sciences division chief, when I handed her the message.

"Um," she said. "_Personnel_ trouble? What does he mean? He hasn't got
any personnel on that station."

This was no news to me. CIG provided the figures that got the SV-1 into
its orbit in the first place, and it was on our advice that it carried
only one man. The crew of a space vessel either has to be large or it
has to be a lone man; there is no intermediate choice. And SV-1 wasn't
big enough to carry a large crew--not to carry them and keep the men
from flying at each other's throats sooner or later, that is.

"He means himself," I said. "That's why I don't think this is a job
for the computer. It's going to have to be played person-to-person.
It's my bet that the man's responsibility-happy; that danger was always
implicit in the one-man recommendation."

"The only decent solution is a full complement," Joan agreed. "Once the
Pentagon can get enough money from Congress to build a big station."

"What puzzles me is, why did he call us instead of his superiors?"

"That's easy. We process his figures. He trusts us. The Pentagon thinks
we're infallible, and he's caught the disease from them."

"That's bad," I said.

"I've never denied it."

"No, what I mean is that it's bad that he called us instead of going
through channels. It means that the emergency is at least as bad as he
says it is."

I thought about it another precious moment longer while Joan did some
quick dialing. As everybody on Earth--with the possible exception of
a few Tibetans--already knew, the man who rode SV-1 rode with three
hydrogen bombs immediately under his feet--bombs which he could drop
with great precision on any spot on the Earth. Gascoigne was, in
effect, the sum total of American foreign policy; he might as well have
had "Spatial Supremacy" stamped on his forehead.

"What does the Air Force say?" I asked Joan as she hung up.

"They say they're a little worried about Gascoigne. He's a very stable
man, but they had to let him run a month over his normal replacement
time--why, they don't explain. He's been turning in badly garbled
reports over the last week. They're thinking about giving him a
dressing down."

"Thinking! They'd better be careful with that stuff, or they'll hurt
themselves. Joan, somebody's going to have to go up there. I'll arrange
fast transportation, and tell Gascoigne that help is coming. Who should
go?"

"I don't have a recommendation," Joan said. "Better ask the computer."

I did so--on the double.

ULTIMAC said: _Harris_.

"Good luck, Peter," Joan said calmly. Too calmly.

"Yeah," I said. "Or good night."

       *       *       *       *       *

Exactly what I expected to happen as the ferry rocket approached SV-1,
I don't now recall. I had decided that I couldn't carry a squad with
me. If Gascoigne was really far gone, he wouldn't allow a group of men
to disembark; one man, on the other hand, he might pass. But I suppose
I did expect him to put up an argument first.

Nothing happened. He did not challenge the ferry, and he didn't answer
hails. Contact with the station was made through the radar automatics,
and I was put off on board as routinely as though I was being let into
a movie--but a lot more rapidly.

The control room was dark and confusing, and at first I didn't see
Gascoigne anywhere. The Earthlight coming through the observation port
was brilliant, but beyond the edges of its path the darkness was almost
absolute, broken only by the little stars of indicator lenses.

A faint snicking sound turned my eyes in the right direction. There was
Gascoigne. He was hunched over the bombardier board, his back to me. In
one hand he held a small tool resembling a ticket-punch. Its jaws were
nibbling steadily at a taut line of tape running between two spools;
that had been the sound I'd heard. I recognized the device without any
trouble; it was a programmer.

But why hadn't Gascoigne heard me come in? I hadn't tried to sneak up
on him, there is no quiet way to come through an airlock anyway. But
the punch went on snicking steadily.

"Col. Gascoigne," I said. There was no answer. I took a step forward.
"Col. Gascoigne, I'm Harris of CIG. What are you doing?"

The additional step did the trick. "Stay away from me," Gascoigne
growled, from somewhere way down in his chest. "I'm programming the
bomb. Punching in the orders myself. Can't depend on my crew. Stay
away."

"Give over for a minute, I want to talk to you."

"That's a new one," said Gascoigne, not moving. "Most of you guys
were rushing to set up launchings before you even reported to me. Who
the hell are you, anyhow? There's nobody on board, I know _that_ well
enough."

"I'm Peter Harris," I said. "From CIG--you called us, remember? You
asked us to send help."

"Doesn't prove a thing. Tell me something I _don't_ know. Then maybe
I'll believe you exist. Otherwise--beat it."

"Nothing doing. Put down that punch."

Gascoigne straightened slowly and turned to look at me. "Well, you
don't vanish, I'll give you that," he said. "What did you say your name
was?"

"Harris. Here's my ID card."

Gascoigne took the plastic-coated card tentatively, and then removed
his glasses and polished them. The gesture itself was perfectly
ordinary, and wouldn't have surprised me--except that Gascoigne was not
wearing glasses.

"It's hard to see in here," he complained. "Everything gets so steamed
up. Hm. All right, you're real. What do you want?"

His finger touched a journal. Silently, the tape began to roll from one
spool to another.

"Gascoigne, stop that thing. If you drop any bombs there'll be hell to
pay. It's tense enough down below as it is. And there's no reason to
bomb anybody."

"Plenty of reason," Gascoigne muttered. He turned toward the teletype,
exposing to me for the first time a hip holster cradling a large, black
automatic. I didn't doubt that he could draw it with fabulous rapidity,
and put the bullets just where he wanted them to go. "I've got orders.
There they are. See for yourself."

Cautiously, I sidled over to the teletype and looked. Except for
Gascoigne's own message to CIG, and one from Joan Hadamard announcing
that I was on my way, the paper was totally blank. There had been no
other messages that day unless Gascoigne had changed the roll, and
there was no reason why he should have. Those rolls last close to
forever.

"When did this order come in?"

"This morning some time. I don't know. Sweeney!" he bawled suddenly, so
loud that the paper tore in my hands. "When did that drop order come
through?"

Nobody answered. But Gascoigne said almost at once, "There, you heard
him."

"I didn't hear anything but you," I said, "and I'm going to stop that
tape. Stand aside."

"Not a chance, Mister," Gascoigne said grimly. "The tape rides."

"Who's getting hit?"

"Washington," Gascoigne said, and passed his hand over his face. He
appeared to have forgotten the imaginary spectacles.

"That's where your home is, isn't it?"

"It sure is," Gascoigne said. "It sure as hell is, Mister. Cute, isn't
it?"

It was cute, all right. The Air Force boys at the Pentagon were going
to be given about ten milliseconds to be sorry they'd refused to send
a replacement for Gascoigne along with me. _Replace him with who? We
can't send his second alternate in anything short of a week. The man
has to have retraining, and the first alternate's in the hospital with
a ruptured spleen. Besides, Gascoigne's the best man for the job; he's
got to be bailed out somehow._

Sure. With a psychological centrifugal pump, no doubt. In the meantime
the tape kept right on running.

       *       *       *       *       *

"You might as well stop wiping your face, and turn down the humidity
instead," I said. "You've already smudged your glasses again."

"Glasses?" Gascoigne muttered. He moved slowly across the cabin,
sailing upright like a sea-horse, to the blank glass of a closed port.
I seriously doubted that he could see his reflection in it, but maybe
he didn't really want to see it. "I messed them up, all right. Thanks."
He went through the polishing routine again.

A man who thinks he is wearing glasses also thinks he can't see without
them. I slid to the programmer and turned off the tape. I was between
the spools and Gascoigne now--but I couldn't stay there forever.

"Let's talk a minute, Colonel," I said. "Surely it can't do any harm."

Gascoigne smiled, with a sort of childish craft. "I'll talk," he said.
"Just as soon as you start that tape again. I was watching you in the
mirror, _before_ I took my glasses off."

The liar. I hadn't made a move while he'd been looking into that
porthole. His poor pitiful weak old rheumy eyes had seen every move I
made while he was polishing his "glasses." I shrugged and stepped away
from the programmer.

"You start it," I said. "I won't take the responsibility."

"It's orders," Gascoigne said woodenly. He started the tape running
again. "It's their responsibility. What did you want to talk to me
about, anyhow?"

"Col. Gascoigne, have you ever killed anybody?"

He looked startled. "Yes, once I did," he said, almost eagerly. "I
crashed a plane into a house. Killed the whole family. Walked away with
nothing worse than a burned leg--good as new after a couple of muscle
stabilizations. That's what made me shift from piloting to weapons;
that leg's not quite good enough to fly with any more."

"Tough."

He snickered suddenly, explosively. "And now look at me," he said. "I'm
going to kill my _own_ family in a little while. And millions of other
people. Maybe the whole world."

How long was "a little while"?

"What have you got against it?" I said.

"Against what--the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing. Look at me: I'm
king of the hill up here. I can't complain."

He paused and licked his lips. "It was different when I was a kid,"
he said. "Not so dull, then. In those days you could get a real
newspaper, that you could unfold for the first time yourself, and pick
out what you wanted to read. Not like now, when the news comes to you
predigested on a piece of paper out of your radio. That's what's the
matter with it, if you ask me."

"What's the matter with what?"

"With the news--that's why it's always bad these days. Everything's had
something done to it. The milk is homogenized, the bread is sliced, the
cars steer themselves, the phonographs will produce sounds no musical
instrument could make. Too much meddling, too many people who can't
keep their hands off things. Ever fire a kiln?"

"Me?" I said, startled.

"No, I didn't think so. Nobody makes pottery these days. Not by hand.
And if they did, who'd buy it? They don't want something that's been
made. They want something that's been Done To."

The tape kept on traveling. Down below, there was a heavy rumble,
difficult to identify specifically: something heavy being shifted on
tracks, or maybe a freight lock opening.

"So now you're going to Do Something to the Earth," I said slowly.

"Not me. It's orders."

"Orders from inside, Col. Gascoigne. There's nothing on the spools."
What else could I do? I didn't have time to take him through two years
of psychoanalysis and bring him to his own insight. Besides, I'm not
licensed to practice medicine--not on Earth. "I didn't want to say so,
but I have to now."

"Say what?" Gascoigne said suspiciously. "That I'm crazy or something?"

"No. I didn't say that. You did," I pointed out. "But I will tell you
that that stuff about not liking the world these days is baloney. Or
rationalization, if you want a nicer word. You're carrying a screaming
load of guilt, Colonel, whether you're aware of it or not."

"I don't know what you're talking about. Why don't you just beat it?"

"No. And you know well enough. You fell all over yourself to tell me
about the family you killed in your flying accident." I gave him ten
seconds of silence, and then shot the question at him as hard as I
could. "_What was their name?_"

"How do I know? Sweeney or something. Anything. I don't remember."

"Sure you do. Do you think that killing your own family is going to
bring the Sweeneys back to life?"

Gascoigne's mouth twisted, but he seemed to be entirely unaware of the
grimace. "That's all hogwash," he said. "I never did hold with that
psychological claptrap. It's you that's handing out the baloney, not
me."

"Then why are you being so vituperative about it? Hogwash, claptrap,
baloney--you are working awfully hard to knock it down, for a man who
doesn't believe in it."

"Go away," he said sullenly. "I've got my orders. I'm obeying them."

Stalemate. But there was no such thing as stalemate up here. Defeat was
the word.

       *       *       *       *       *

The tape traveled. I did not know what to do. The last bomb problem CIG
had tackled had been one we had set up ourselves; we had arranged for a
dud to be dropped in New York harbor, to test our own facilities for
speed in determining the nature of the missile. The situation on board
SV-1 was completely different--

Whoa. Was it? Maybe I'd hit something there.

"Col. Gascoigne," I said slowly, "you might as well know now that it
isn't going to work. Not even if you do get that bomb off."

"Yes, I can. What's to stop me?" He hooked one thumb in his belt, just
above the holster, so that his fingertips rested on the breech of the
automatic.

"Your bombs. They aren't alive."

Gascoigne laughed harshly and waved at the controls. "Tell that to the
counter in the bomb hold. Go ahead. There's a meter you can read, right
there on the bombardier board."

"Sure," I said. "The bombs are radioactive, all right. Have you ever
checked their half-life?"

It was a long shot. Gascoigne was a weapons man; if it were possible
to check half-life on board the SV-1, he would have checked it. But I
didn't think it was possible.

"What would I do that for?"

"You wouldn't, being a loyal airman. You believe what your superiors
tell you. But I'm a civilian, Colonel. There's no element in those
bombs that will either fuse or fission. The half-life is too long for
tritium or for lithium^6, and it's too short for uranium^{235} or
radio-thorium. The stuff is probably strontium^{90}--in short, nothing
but a bluff."

"By the time I finished checking that," Gascoigne said, "the bomb would
be launched anyhow. And you haven't checked it, either. Try another
tack."

"I don't need to. You don't have to believe me. We'll just sit here and
wait for the bomb drop, and then the point will prove itself. After
that, of course, you'll be court-martialed for firing a wild shot
without orders. But since you're prepared to wipe out your own family,
you won't mind a little thing like twenty years in the guardhouse."

Gascoigne looked at the silently rolling tape. "Sure," he said. "I've
got the orders, anyhow. The same thing would happen if I didn't obey
them. If nobody gets hurt, so much the better."

A sudden spasm of emotion--I took it to be grief, but I could have been
wrong--shook his whole frame for a moment. Again, he did not seem to
notice it. I said:

"That's right. Not even your family. Of course the whole world will
know the station's a bluff, but if those are the orders--"

"I don't know," Gascoigne said harshly. "I don't know whether I even
got any orders. I don't remember where I put them. Maybe they're not
real." He looked at me confusedly, and his expression was frighteningly
like that of a small boy making a confession.

"You know something?" he said. "I don't know what's real any more. I
haven't been able to tell, ever since yesterday. I don't even know if
you are real, or your ID card either. What do you think of that?"

"Nothing," I said.

"Nothing? Nothing! That's my trouble. Nothing! I can't tell what's
nothing and what's something. You say the bombs are duds. All right.
But what if _you're_ the dud, and the bombs are real? Answer me that!"

His expression was almost triumphant now.

"The bombs are duds," I said. "And you've gone and steamed up your
glasses again. Why don't you turn down the humidity, so you can see for
three minutes and running?"

Gascoigne leaned far forward, so far that he was perilously close to
toppling, and peered directly into my face.

"Don't give me that," he said hoarsely. "Don't--give--me--that--stuff."

I froze right where I was. Gascoigne watched my eyes for a while. Then,
slowly, he put his hand on his forehead and began to wipe it downward.
He smeared it over his face, in slow motion, all the way down to his
chin.

Then he took the hand away and looked at it, as though it had just
strangled him and he couldn't understand why. And finally he spoke.

"It--isn't true," he said dully. "I'm not wearing any glasses. Haven't
worn glasses since I was ten. Not since I broke my last pair--playing
King of the Hill."

He sat down before the bombardier board and put his head in his hands.

"You win," he said hoarsely. "I must be crazy as a loon. I don't know
what I'm seeing and what I'm not. You better take this gun away. If I
fired it I might even hit something."

"You're all right," I said. And I meant it; but I didn't waste any time
all the same. The automatic first; then the tape. In that order, the
sequence couldn't be reversed afterwards.

But the sound of the programmer's journal clicking to "Off" was as loud
in that cabin as any gunshot.

       *       *       *       *       *

"He'll be all right," I told Joan afterwards. "He pulled himself
through. I wouldn't have dared to throw it at any other man that
fast--but he's got guts."

"Just the same," Joan said, "they'd better start rotating the station
captains faster. The next man may not be so tough--and what if _he's_ a
sleepwalker?"

I didn't say anything. I'd had my share of worries for that week.

"You did a whale of a job yourself, Peter," Joan said. "I just wish we
could bank it in the machine. We might need the data later."

"Well, why can't we?"

"The Joint Chiefs of Staff say no. They don't say why. But they don't
want any part of it recorded in ULTIMAC--or anywhere else."

I stared at her. At first it didn't seem to make sense. And then it
did--and that was worse.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Joan--does that mean what I think it means?
Is 'Spatial Supremacy' just as bankrupt as 'Massive Retaliation' was?
Is it possible that the satellite--and the bombs.... Is it possible
that I was telling Gascoigne the truth about the bombs being duds?"

Joan shrugged.

"He that darkeneth counsel without wisdom," she said, "isn't earning
his salary."



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