Operation HaystackFrank Herbert / Science Fiction
Produced by Greg Weeks, Joel Schlosberg, Bruce Albrechtand the Online Distributed Proofreading Team athttp://www.pgdp.net
This eBook was produced from _Astounding Science Fiction_ May 1959, pp.92-111. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.copyright on this publication was renewed.
BY FRANK HERBERT
Illustrated by van Dongen
_It's hard to ferret out a gang of fanatics; it would, obviously, beeven harder to spot a genetic line of dedicated men. But the problemOrne had was one step tougher than that!_
When the Investigation & Adjustment scout cruiser landed on Marak itcarried a man the doctors had no hope of saving. He was alive onlybecause he was in a womblike creche pod that had taken over most of hisvital functions.
The man's name was Lewis Orne. He had been a blocky, heavy-muscledredhead with slightly off-center features and the hard flesh of a heavyplanet native. Even in the placid repose of near death there wassomething clownish about his appearance. His burned, ungent-covered facelooked made up for some bizarre show.
Marak is the League capital, and the I-A medical center there isprobably the best in the galaxy, but it accepted the creche pod and Ornemore as a curiosity than anything else. The man had lost one eye, threefingers of his left hand and part of his hair, suffered a broken jaw andvarious internal injuries. He had been in terminal shock for more thanninety hours.
Umbo Stetson, Orne's section chief, went back into his cruiser'soffice after a hospital flitter took pod and patient. There was anadded droop to Stetson's shoulders that accentuated his usual slouchingstance. His overlarge features were drawn into ridges of sorrow. Ageneral straggling, trampish look about him was not helped by patchedblue fatigues.
The doctor's words still rang in Stetson's ears: This patient's vitaltone is too low to permit operative replacement of damaged organs. He'lllive for a while because of the pod, but-- And the doctor had shrugged.
Stetson slumped into his desk chair, looked out the open port besidehim. Some four hundred meters below, the scurrying beetlelike activityof the I-A's main field sent up discordant roaring and clattering. Tworows of other scout cruisers were parked in line with Stetson'sport--gleaming red and black needles. He stared at them without reallyseeing them.
_It always happens on some routine assignment_, he thought. _Nothingbut a slight suspicion about Heleb: the fact that only women held highoffice. One simple, unexplained fact ... and I lose my best agent!_
He sighed, turned to his desk, began composing the report:
The militant core on the Planet Heleb has been eliminated. Occupationforce on the ground. No further danger to Galactic peace expected fromthis source. Reason for operation: Rediscovery & Re-education--_aftertwo years on the planet_--failed to detect signs of militancy. The majorindications were: 1) a ruling caste restricted to women, and 2)disparity between numbers of males and females _far_ beyond the Lutignorm! Senior Field Agent Lewis Orne found that the ruling caste wascontrolling the sex of offspring at conception (see attached details),and had raised a male slave army to maintain its rule. The R&R agent hadbeen drained of information, then killed. Arms constructed on the basisof that information caused critical injuries to Senior Field Agent Orne.He is not expected to live. I am hereby urging that he receive theGalaxy Medal, and that his name be added to the Roll of Honor.
Stetson pushed the page aside. That was enough for ComGO, who never readanything but the first page anyway. Details were for his aides to chewand digest. They could wait. Stetson punched his desk callbox for Orne'sservice record, set himself to the task he most detested: notifying nextof kin. He read, pursing his lips:
Home Planet: Chargon. Notify in case of accident or death: Mrs.Victoria Orne, mother.
He leafed through the pages, reluctant to send the hated message. Ornehad enlisted in the Marak Marines at age seventeen--a runaway fromhome--and his mother had given post-enlistment consent. Two years later:scholarship transfer to Uni-Galacta, the R&R school here on Marak. Fiveyears of school and one R&R field assignment under his belt, and he hadbeen drafted into the I-A for brilliant detection of militancy onHammel. And two years later--_kaput_!
Abruptly, Stetson hurled the service record at the gray metal wallacross from him; then he got up, brought the record back to his desk,smoothing the pages. There were tears in his eyes. He flipped a switchon his desk, dictated the notification to Central Secretarial, orderedit sent out priority. Then he went groundside and got drunk on HocharBrandy, Orne's favorite drink.
* * * * *
The next morning there was a reply from Chargon: Lewis Orne's mothertoo ill to travel. Sisters being notified. Please ask Mrs. IpscottBullone of Marak, wife of the High Commissioner, to take over forfamily. It was signed: Madrena Orne Standish, sister.
With some misgivings, Stetson called the residence of Ipscott Bullone,leader of the majority party in the Marak Assembly. Mrs. Bullone tookthe call with blank screen. There was a sound of running water in thebackground. Stetson stared at the grayness swimming in his desk visor.He always disliked a blank screen. A baritone husk of a voice slid:This is Polly Bullone.
Stetson introduced himself, relayed the Chargon message.
Victoria's boy dying? Here? Oh, the poor thing! And Madrena's back onChargon ... the election. Oh, yes, of course. I'll get right over to thehospital!
Stetson signed off, broke the contact.
_The High Commissioner's wife yet!_ he thought. Then, because he had todo it, he walled off his sorrow, got to work.
At the medical center, the oval creche containing Orne hung from ceilinghooks in a private room. There were humming sounds in the dim, waterygreenness of the room, rhythmic chuggings, sighings. Occasionally, adoor opened almost soundlessly, and a white-clad figure would check thegraph tapes on the creche's meters.
Orne was lingering. He became the major conversation piece at theinternes' coffee breaks: That agent who was hurt on Heleb, he's stillwith us. Man, they must build those guys different from the rest ofus!... Yeah! Understand he's got only about an eighth of his insides ...liver, kidneys, stomach--all gone.... Lay you odds he doesn't last outthe month.... Look what old sure-thing McTavish wants to bet on!
On the morning of his eighty-eighth day in the creche, the day nursecame into Orne's room, lifted the inspection hood, looked down at him.The day nurse was a tall, lean-faced professional who had learned tomeet miracles and failures with equal lack of expression. However, thisroutine with the dying I-A operative had lulled her into a state ofpsychological unpreparedness. _Any day now, poor guy_, she thought. Andshe gasped as she opened his sole remaining eye, said:
Did they clobber those dames on Heleb?
Yes, sir! she blurted. They really did, sir!
Orne closed his eye. His breathing deepened.
The nurse rang frantically for the doctors.
It had been an indeterminate period in a blank fog for Orne, then a timeof pain and the gradual realization that he was in a creche. Had to be.He could remember his sudden exposure on Heleb, the explosion--thennothing. Good old creche. It made him feel safe now, shielded from alldanger.
Orne began to show minute but steady signs of improvement. In anothermonth, the doctors ventured an intestinal graft that gave him a newspurt of energy. Two months later, they replaced missing eye andfingers, restored his scalp line, worked artistic surgery on his burnscars.
Fourteen months, eleven days, five hours and two minutes after he hadbeen picked up as good as dead, Orne walked out of the hospital underhis own power, accompanied by a strangely silent Umbo Stetson.
Under the dark blue I-A field cape, Orne's coverall uniform fitted hisonce muscular frame like a deflated bag. But the pixie light hadreturned to his eyes--even to the eye he had received from a namelessand long dead donor. Except for the loss of weight, he looked to be thesame Lewis Orne. If he was different--beyond the spare parts--it wassomething he only suspected, something that made the idea, twice-born,not a joke.
* * * * *
Outside the hospital, clouds obscured Marak's green sun. It wasmidmorning. A cold spring wind bent the pile lawn, tugged fitfully atthe border plantings of exotic flowers around the hospital's landingpad.
Orne paused on the steps above the pad, breathed deeply of the chillair. Beautiful day, he said.
Stetson reached out a hand to help Orne down the steps, hesitated, putthe hand back in his pocket. Beneath the section