Sixth column, p.16
Sixth Column, p.16Robert A. Heinlein
“Yes, sir. Aren’t you coming back here, Chief?”
Ardmore shook his head. “It’s an unnecessary risk. I can supervise just as effectively through television as I could if I were standing right beside you.”
“Scheer is all set to fly over and pick you up. He could set her down right on the temple roof.”
“Tell him thanks, but to forget it. Now you turn it over to the staff duty officer and get some sleep.”
“Just as you say, Chief.”
He had a midnight lunch with the local priest and some conversation, then let the priest show him to a stateroom down underground.
Ardmore was awakened by the off duty pararadio operator shaking him vigorously. “Major Ardmore! Major! Wake up!”
“Unnh… M-m-m-m… Wassa matter?”
“Wake up—the Citadel is calling you—urgently!”
“What time is it?”
“About eight. Hurry, sir!”
He was reasonably wide awake by the time he reached the phone. Thomas was there, on the other end, and started to talk as soon as he saw Ardmore. “A new development, Chief—and a bad one. The PanAsian police are rounding up every member of our congregations—systematically.”
“H-m-m-m—it was an obvious next move, I guess. How far along are they?”
“I don’t know. I called you when the first report came in; they are coming in steadily now from all over the country.”
“Well, I reckon we had better get busy.” It was one thing for a priest, armed and protected, to risk arrest; these people were absolutely helpless.
“Chief—you remember what they did after the first uprising? This looks bad, Chief—I’m scared!”
Ardmore understood Thomas’ fear; he felt it himself. But he did not permit his expression to show it.
“Take it easy, old son,” he said in a gentle voice. “Nothing has happened to our people yet—and I don’t think we’ll let anything happen.”
“But, Chief, what are you going to do about it? There aren’t enough of us to stop them before they kill a lot of people.”
“Not enough to do it directly, perhaps, but there is a way. You stick to collecting data and warn everybody not to go off half-cocked. I’ll call you back in about fifteen minutes.” He flipped the disconnect switch before Thomas could answer.
It required some thought. If he could equip each man with a staff, it would be simple. The shielding effect from a staff could theoretically protect a man against almost anything; except, perhaps, an A-bomb or the infiltration of poison gas. But the construction and repair department had been hard pushed to provide enough staffs to equip each new priest; one for each man was out of the question, since they lacked factory mass production. Anyhow, he needed them now—this morning.
A priest could extend his shield to include any given area or number of people, but in great extension the field became so tenuous that a well-thrown snowball would break through it. Nuts!
He realized suddenly that he was thinking of the problem in direct terms again, in spite of his conscious knowledge that such an approach was futile. What he wanted was psychological jujitsu—some way to turn their own strength against them. Misdirection—that was the idea! Whatever it was they expected him to do, don’t do it! Do something else.
But what else? When he thought he had found an answer to that question he called Thomas to the screen. “Jeff,” he said at once, “give me Circuit A.”
He spoke for some minutes to his priests, slowly and in detail, and emphasizing certain points. “Any questions?” he then asked, and spent several more minutes in dealing with such as they were relayed in from the diocese stations.
Ardmore and the local priest left the temple together. The priest attempted to persuade him to stay behind, but he brushed the objections aside. The priest was right; he knew in his heart that he should not take personal risks that could be avoided, but it was a luxury to be out from under Jeff Thomas’ restraining influence.
“How do you plan to find out where they have taken our people?” asked the priest. He was a former real-estate operator named Ward, a man of considerable native intelligence. Ardmore liked him.
“Well, what would you do if I weren’t along?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I would walk into a police station and try to scare the information out of the flatface in charge.”
“That’s sound enough. Where is one?”
The central police station of the PanAsian police lay in the shadow of the palace, between eight and nine blocks to the south. They encountered many PanAsians en route, but were not interfered with. The Asiatics seemed dumbfounded to see two priests of Mota striding along in apparent unconcern. Even those garbed as police appeared uncertain what to do, as if their instructions had not covered the circumstance.
However, someone had phoned ahead; they were met on the steps by a nervous Asiatic officer who demanded of them, “Surrender! You are under arrest!”
They walked straight toward him. Ward lifted one, hand in blessing and intoned, “Peace! Take me to my people.”
“Don’t you understand my language?” snapped the PanAsian, his voice becoming shrill. “You are under arrest!” His hand crept nervously toward his holster.
“Your earthly weapons avail you not,” said Ardmore calmly, “in dealing with the great Lord Mota. He commands you to lead me to my people. Be warned!” He continued to advance until his personal screen pushed against the man’s body.
It—the disembodied pressure of the invisible screen—was more than the PanAsian could stand. He fell back a pace, jerked his sidearm clear and fired point-blank. The vortex ring struck harmlessly against the screen, was absorbed by it.
“Lord Mota is impatient,” remarked Ardmore in a mild tone. “Lead his servant, before the Lord Mota sucks the soul from your body.” He shifted to another effect, never before used in dealing with the PanAsians.
The principle involved was very simple; a cylindrical tractor-pressor stasis was projected, forming in effect a tube. Ardmore let it rest over the man’s face, then applied a tractor beam down the tube. The unfortunate PanAsian gasped for air where there was no air and pawed at his face. When his nose began to bleed, Ardmore let up on him. “Where are my children?” he inquired again as softly as before.
The police officer, probably in sheer reflex, tried to run. Ardmore nailed him with a pressor beam against the door and again applied momentarily the suction tube, this time to the fellow’s midriff. “Where are they?”
“In the park,” the man gasped, and regurgitated violently.
They turned with leisured dignity, and headed back down the steps, sweeping those who had pressed too close casually out of the way with the pressor beam.
The park surrounded the erstwhile State capitol building. They found the congregation herded into a hastily erected bull pen which was surrounded by ranks of Asiatic soldiers. On a platform nearby, technicians were installing television pick-up. It was easy to infer that another public “lesson” was to be given the serfs. Ardmore saw no evidence of the rather bulky apparatus used to produce the epileptogenetic ray; either it had not been brought up, or some other method of execution was to be used—perhaps the soldiers present were an enormous firing squad.
Momentarily he was tempted to use the staff to knock out all the soldiers present—they were standing at ease with arms stacked, and it was conceivably possible that he might be able to do so before they could harm, not Ardmore, but the helpless members of the congregation. But he decided against it; he had been right when he gave his orders to his priests—this was a game of bluff; he could not combat all of the soldiers that the PanAsian authorities could bring to bear, yet he must get this crowd safely inside the temple.
The massed people in the bull pen recognized Ward, and perhaps the high priest as well, at least by reputation. He could see sudden hope wipe despair from their faces—they surged expectantly. But he passed on by them with the briefest of ble
“Peace!” cried Ardmore. “I come to help you.”
The PanAsian barked an order in his own tongue. Two PanAsians ran up to Ardmore and attempted to seize him. They slithered off the screen, tried again, and then stood looking to their superior officer for instructions, like a dog bewildered by an impossible command.
Ardmore ignored them and continued his progress until he stood immediately in front of the commander. “I am told that my people have sinned,” he announced. “The Lord Mota will deal with them.”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned his back on the perplexed official and shouted, “In the name of Shaam, Lord of Peace!” and turned on the green ray from his staff.
He played it over the imprisoned congregation. Down they went, as if the ray were a strong gale striking a stand of wheat. In seconds’ time, every man, woman and child lay limp on the ground, to all appearance dead. Ardmore turned back to the PanAsian officer and bowed low. “The servant asks that this penance be accepted.”
To say that the Oriental was disconcerted is to expose the inadequacy of language. He knew how to deal with opposition, but this whole-hearted cooperation left him without a plan; it was not in the rules.
Ardmore left him no time to think of a plan. “The Lord Mota is not content,” he informed him, “and directs that I give you and your men presents—presents of gold!”
With that he switched on a dazzling white light and played it over the stacked arms of the soldiers to his right. Ward followed his motions, giving his attention to the left flank. The stacked small arms glowed and scintillated under the ray. Wherever it touched, the metal shone with a new luster, rich and ruddy. Gold! Raw gold!
The PanAsian common soldier was paid no better than common soldiers usually are. Their lines shifted uneasily, like race horses at the barrier. A sergeant stepped up to the weapons, examined one and held it up. He called out something in his own tongue, his voice showing high excitement.
The soldiers broke ranks.
They shouted and swarmed and danced. They fought each other for possession of the useless, precious weapons. They paid no attention to their officers; nor were their officers free of the gold fever.
Ardmore looked at Ward and nodded. “Let ’em have it!” he commanded, and turned his knockout ray on the PanAsian commander.
The Asiatic toppled over without learning what had hit him, for his agonized attention was on his demoralized command. Ward had gone to work on the staff officers.
Ardmore gave the American prisoners the counteracting effect while Ward disintegrated a large gate in the bull pen. There developed the most unexpectedly difficult part of the task—to persuade three hundred-odd, dazed and disorganized people to listen and to move all in one direction. But two loud voices and a fixed determination accomplished it. It was necessary to clear a path through the struggling, wealth-mad Orientals with the aid of the tractor and pressor beams. This gave Ardmore an idea; he used the beams on his own followers much as a goose girl touches up a flock of geese with her switch.
They made the nine blocks to the temple in ten minutes, moving at a dogtrot that left many gasping and protesting. But they made it, made it without interruption by major force, although both Ward and Ardmore found it necessary to knock out an occasional PanAsian en route.
Ardmore wiped sweat from his face when he finally stumbled in the temple door, sweat that was not due entirely to precipitate progress. “Ward,” he asked with a sigh, “have you got a drink in the place?”
Thomas was calling him again before he had had time to finish a cigarette. “Chief,” he said, “we are beginning to get some reports in. I thought you would like to know.”
“It looks successful—so far. Maybe twenty percent of the priests have reported so far through their bishops that they are back with their congregations.”
“Yes. We lost the entire congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. They were dead before the priest got there. He tore into the PanAsians with his staff at full power and killed maybe two or three times as many of the apes as they had killed of us before he beat his way to his temple and reported.”
Ardmore shook his head at this. “Too bad. I’m sorry about his congregation, but I’m sorrier that he cut loose and killed a bunch of PanAsians. It tips my hand before I’m ready.”
“But, Chief, you can’t blame him—his wife was in that crowd!”
“I’m not blaming him. Anyhow, it’s done—the gloves had to come off sooner or later; this just means that we will have to work a little faster. Any other trouble?”
“Not much. Several places they fought a sort of rear-guard action getting back to the temples and lost some people.” Ardmore saw a messenger in the screen hand a sheaf of flimsies to Thomas. Thomas glanced at them and continued. “A bunch more reports, Chief. Want to hear ’em?”
“No. Give me a consolidated report when they are all in. Or when most of them are in, not later than an hour from now. I’m cutting off.”
The consolidated report showed that over ninety-seven percent of the members of the cult of Mota had been safely gathered into the temples. Ardmore called a staff meeting and outlined his immediate plans. The meeting was, in effect, face to face, as Ardmore’s place at the conference table was taken by the pick-up and the screen of the receiver. “We’ve had our hands forced,” he told them. “As you know, we had not expected to start action of our own volition for another two weeks, perhaps three. But we have no choice now. As I see it, we have to act and act so fast that we will always have the jump on them.”
He threw the situation open to general discussion; there was agreement that immediate action was necessary, but some disagreement as to methods. After listening to their several opinions Ardmore selected Disorganization Plan IV and told them to go ahead with preparations. “Remember,” he cautioned, “once we start, it’s too late to turn back. This thing moves fast and accelerates. How many basic weapons have been provided?”
The “basic weapon” was the simplest Ledbetter projector that had been designed. It looked very much like a pistol and was intended to be used in similar fashion. It projected a directional beam of the primary Ledbetter effect in the frequency band fatal in those of Mongolian blood and none other. It could be used by a layman after three minutes’ instruction, since all that was required was to point it and press a trigger, but it was practically foolproof—the user literally could not harm a fly with it, much less a Caucasian man. But it was sudden death to Asiatics.
The problem of manufacturing and distributing quantities of weapons to be used in the deciding conflict had been difficult. The staffs used by the priests were out of the question; each was a precision instrument comparable to a fine Swiss watch. Scheer himself had laboriously fashioned by hand the most delicate parts of each staff, and, nevertheless, required the assistance of many other skilled metalsmiths and toolmakers to keep pace with the demand. It was all handwork; mass production was impossible until Americans once more controlled their own factories.
Furthermore, detailed instruction and arduous supervised practice were indispensable in order for a priest to become even moderately skillful in the use of the remarkable powers of his staff.
The basic weapon was the pragmatic answer. It was simple and rugged and contained no moving parts other than the activating switch, or trigger. Even so, it could not be manufactured in quantity at the Citadel, as there would have been no way to distribute the weapons to widely separated parts of the country without attracting unhealthy attention from the PanAsian authorities. Each priest carried to his own temple one sample of the basic weapon; it was then his responsibility to locate and enlist in his own community, workmen with the necessary skill in metalwork for producing the comparatively simple device.
In the secret plac
The supply staff officer gave Ardmore the information he had requested. “Very well,” Ardmore acknowledged, “that’s fewer weapons than we have members of our congregations, but it will have to do. There will be a lot of dead wood, anyway. This damned cult business has attracted every screwball and crackpot in the country—all the long-haired men and short-haired women. By the time we count them out we may have a few basic weapons left over. Which reminds me—if we do have any left over, there ought to be some women in every congregation who are young and strong and tough-minded enough to be useful in a fight. We’ll arm them. About the crackpots—you’ll find a note in the general indoctrination plan as to how each priest is to break the news to his flock that the whole thing is really a hoax for military purposes, I want to add to it. Nine people out of ten will be overjoyed to hear the truth and strongly cooperative. That tenth one may cause trouble, get hysterical, maybe try to do a bunk out of the temple. Caution each priest, for God’s sake, to be careful; break the news to them in small numbers at a time, and be ready to turn the sleepy ray on anybody that looks like a source of trouble. Then lock ’em up until the fun is over—we haven’t time to try to reorient the soft-minded.
“Now get on with it. The priests will need the rest of the day to indoctrinate their congregations and to get them organized into something resembling military lines. Thomas, I want the scout car assigned tonight to the job involving the Prince Royal to stop here first and pick me up. Have Wilkie and Scheer man it.”
“Very well, sir. But I had planned to be in that car myself. Do you object to that slight change?”
“I do,” Ardmore said dryly. “If you will look at Disorganization Plan IV you will see that it calls for the commanding officer to remain in the Citadel. Since I am already here, outside the Citadel, you will remain in my place.”
Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes