Sixth column, p.19
Robert A. Heinlein
The scout cars, with one exception, were poised even as he spoke, in the stratosphere over their objectives.
The heavy projectors mounted in the scout cars were to inflict as much quick damage as possible on military objectives on the ground, especially barracks and air fields. Priests, being nearly invulnerable, would supplement them on the ground, as would the projectors in the temples. The “troops” made up from the congregations would harry and hunt. “Tell them when in doubt to shoot, and shoot first. Don’t wait to see the whites of their eyes. The basic weapons are good for thousands of activations without recharging, and they can’t possibly hurt a white man with them. Shoot anything that moves!
“Also,” he added, “tell them not to be alarmed at anything strange. If it looks impossible, one of our boys is responsible; we specialize in miracles!
“That’s all—good hunting!”
His last precaution referred to a special task assignment for Wilkie, Graham, Scheer, and Downer. Wilkie had been working on some special effects, with Graham’s artistic collaboration. The task in battle required a team of four, but was not a part of the regular plan. Wilkie himself did not know just how well it would work, but Ardmore had assigned a scout car to them and had given them their head in the matter.
His striker had been dressing him in his robes as he spoke. He settled his turban in place, checked his personal pararadio hook-up with the communications office, and turned to say good-by to Kendig and Thomas. He noticed a queer look in Thomas’ eyes, and felt his neck turn red. “You want to go, don’t you, Jeff?”
Thomas did not say anything. Ardmore added, “Sure—I’m a heel. I know that. But only one of us can go to this party, and it’s going to be me!”
“You’ve got me wrong, Chief—I don’t like killing.”
“So? I don’t know that I do, either. Just the same I’m going out and finish Frank Mitsui’s bookkeeping for him.” He shook hands with both of them.
Thomas gave the signal of execution before Ardmore reached the PanAsian capital city. His pilot set him down on the roof of the temple there after the fighting in the capital had commenced, then gunned his craft away to take up his own task assignment.
Ardmore looked around. It was quiet in the immediate neighborhood of the temple; the big projector in the temple would have seen to that. He had seen one PanAsian cruiser crash while they were landing, but the speedy little scout car assigned to that task he had not been able to notice. He went down inside the temple.
It seemed deserted. A man was standing near a duocycle car parked garagelike on the temple floor. He came up and announced, “Sergeant Bryan, sir. The priest—I mean Lieutenant Rogers—told me to wait for you.”
“Very well, then—let’s go.” He climbed into the car. Bryan put his little fingers to his lips and whistled piercingly.
“Joel” he shouted. A man stuck his head over the top of the altar. “Going out, Joe.” The head disappeared; the great doors of the temple opened. Bryan climbed in beside Ardmore and asked, “Where to?”
“Find me the heaviest fighting—or, rather, PanAsians, lots of them.”
“It’s the same thing.” The car trundled down the wide temple steps, turned right and picked up speed.
The street ran into a little circular parkway set with bushes. There were four or five figures crouched behind those bushes, and one sprawled prone on the ground. As the car slowed, Ardmore heard the sharp ping! of a vortex rifle or pistol—he could not tell which—and one of the crouching figures jerked and fell.
“They’re in that office building,” yelled Bryan in his ear.
He set his staff to radiate a narrow, thin wedge and fanned the beam up and down the building. The pinging noise stopped. An Asiatic dashed out a door that he had not yet touched and fled up the street. Ardmore cut the beam and used another setting, aiming at the figure by means of a thin bright beam of light. The light touched the man; there was a dull, heavy boom and the man disappeared. In his place was a great oily cloud which swelled and dispersed.
“Jumping Judas! What was that?” Bryan demanded.
“Colloidal explosion. I released the surface tension of his body cells. We’ve been saving it for this day.”
“But what made him explode?”
“The pressure in his cells. They can run as high as several hundred pounds. But let’s go.”
The next few blocks were deserted of all but bodies; however, Ardmore kept his projector turned on and swept the buildings they passed as systematically as the speed would allow. He took advantage of the lull to call headquarters. “Any reports yet, Jeff?”
“Nothing much yet, Chief. It’s too soon.”
They shot out into the open before Ardmore realized where Bryan was taking him. It was the State university campus on the edge of the city, now used as barracks by the imperial army. The athletic fields and golf course adjoining had been turned into an airport.
Here for the first time he realized clearly how pitifully few were the Americans whom he had armed to destroy the PanAsians. There appeared to be a skirmish line of sorts in position off to the right: he could see the toll they were taking of the Asiatics. But there were thousands of them, enough to engulf the Americans by sheer multitude. Damn it, why hadn’t the scout car assigned reduced this place? Had it met with a mishap?
He decided that the crew of the scout car had been kept busy with aircraft, too busy to clean out the barracks. He thought now that he should have fought city by city, using all available scout cars as a unit, and trusting to the jamming of the radio to permit him to do it that way. Was it too late now to change? Yes—the gage was thrown, the battle was on all over the country. Now it must be fought.
He was already busy with his staff in an attempt to swing the issue. He cut into the lines of Asiatics with the primary effect set at full power, doing a satisfying amount of slaughter. Then he decided on a change in tactics—colloidal explosion. It was slower and clumsy, but the effect on morale should be advantageous.
He omitted the guide ray to make it more mysterious and sighted through a deep hole in the cube of the staff. There! One of the rats was smoke! He had them ranged now—two! Three! Four! Again and again—a dozen or more.
It was too much for the Orientals. They were brave and seasoned soldiers, but they could not fight what they did not understand. They broke and ran, back toward their barracks. Ardmore heard cheers from the scattered Americans, dominated by an authentic rebel yell. Figures rose up from cover and took out after the disorganized Asiatics.
Ardmore called headquarters again. “Circuit A!”
A few seconds’ delay and he was answered, “You’ve got it.”
“All officers, attention! Use the organic explosion as much as possible. It scares the hell out of ’em!” He repeated the message and released the circuit.
He directed Bryan to go closer to the buildings. Bryan bumped the car over a curb and complied, weaving in and out between trees. They were conscious of a terrific explosion; the car rose a few feet in the air and came lurching down on its side. Ardmore pulled himself together and attempted to get up. It was then that he realized that somehow he had held his staff clear.
The door above him was jammed. He burned his way clear with the staff and clambered out. He looked back in to Bryan. “Are you hurt?”
“Not much.” Bryan shook himself. “Cracked my left collarbone, maybe.”
“Here—grab my hand. Can you make it? I’ve got to hang on to my staff.” Between them they got him out. “I’ll have to leave you. Got your basic weapon?”
“All right. Good luck.” He glanced at the crater as he moved away. It was well, he thought, that he had had his shield turned on.
The few dozen Americans were moving cautiously among the buildings, shooting as they went. Twice Ardmore was fired on by men who had been told to shoot first. Good boys! Shoot anything that moves!
A PanAsian aircraft, flying low, cut slowly across the ed
But he was attempting to get a line on the aircraft even as he decided that his own turn had come. The craft wavered and crashed before he could line up on it. So the scout car was on the job after all—good! The gas came on. Could he run around the edge of it? No. Perhaps he could hold his breath and run through it, trusting to his shield for all other matters. Not likely.
Some unconscious recess of his brain gave him the answer—transmutation. A few seconds later, his staff set to radiate in a wide cone, he was blasting a hole in the deadly cloud. Back and forth he swept the cone, as if playing a stream of water with a hose, and the foggy particles changed to harmless, life-giving oxygen.
“Any trouble with gas?”
“Quite a bit. In—”
“Never mind. Broadcast this on Circuit A: Set staff to—” He went on to describe how to fight that most intangible weapon.
The scout car came screaming down out of heaven, hovered, and began cruising back and forth over the dormitory barracks. The campus became suddenly very silent. That was better; apparently the pilot had just had too much to do at one time. Ardmore felt suddenly alone, the fight had moved past him while he was dealing with the gas threat. He looked around for transportation to commandeer in order to scout around and check up on the fighting in the rest of the city. The trouble with this damn battle, he thought to himself, is that it hasn’t any coherence; it’s every place at once. No help for it; it was in the nature of the problem.
“Chief?” It was Thomas calling.
“Go ahead, Jeff.”
“Wilkie is heading your way.”
“Good. Has he had any luck?”
“Yes, but just wait till you see! I caught a glimpse of it in the screen, transmitted from Kansas City. That’s all now.”
“O.K.” He looked around again for transportation. He wanted to be around some PanAsians, some live PanAsians, when Wilkie arrived. There was a monocycle standing at the curb, abandoned, about a block from the campus. He appropriated it.
There were PanAsians, he discovered, in plenty near the palace—and the battle was not going too well for the Americans. He added the effort of his staff and was very busy picking out individuals and exploding them when Wilkie arrived.
Enormous, incredible, a Gargantuan manlike figure of perfect black—more than a thousand feet high, it came striding across the buildings, its feet filling the streets. It was as if the Empire State Building had gone for a stroll—a giant, three-dimensional shadow of a priest of Mota, complete with robes and staff.
It had a voice.
It had a voice that rolled with thunder, audible and distinct for miles. “Americans, arise! The day is at hand! The Disciple has come! Rise up and smite your masters!”
Ardmore wondered how the men in the car, could stand the noise, wondered also if they were flying inside the projection, or somewhere above it.
The voice changed to the PanAsian tongue. Ardmore could not understand the words, but he knew the general line it would take. Downer was telling the war lords that vengeance was upon them, and that any who wished to save their yellow skins would be wise to flee at once. He was telling them that, but with a great deal more emphasis and attention to detail and with an acute knowledge of their psychological weaknesses.
The gross and horrifying pseudo-creature stopped in the park before the palace, and, leaning over, touched a massive finger to a fleeing Asiatic. The man disappeared. He straightened up and again addressed the world in PanAsian—but the square no longer contained PanAsians.
The fighting continued sporadically for hours, but it was no longer a battle; it was more in the nature of vermin extermination. Some of the Orientals surrendered; more died by their own hand; most died purposefully at the hands of their late serfs. A consolidated report from Thomas to Ardmore concerning the degree of progress in mopping up throughout the country was interrupted by the communications officer. “Urgent call from the priest in the capital city, sir.”
“Put him on.”
A second voice continued, “Major Ardmore?”
“Yes. Go ahead.”
“We have captured the Prince Royal—”
“The hell you say!”
“Yes, sir. I request your permission to execute him.”
“What was that, sir?”
“No! You heard me. I’ll see him at your headquarters. Mind you don’t let anything happen to him!”
Ardmore took time to shave off his beard and to change into uniform before he had the Prince Royal brought before him. When at last the PanAsian ruler stood before him he looked up and said without ceremony, “Any of your people I can save will be loaded up and shipped back where they came from.”
“You are gracious.”
“I suppose you know by now that you were tricked, hoaxed, by science that your culture can’t match. You could have wiped us out any time, almost up to the last.”
The Oriental remained impassive. Ardmore hoped fervently that the calm was superficial. He continued, “What I said about your people does not apply to you. I shall hold you as a common criminal.”
The Prince’s brows shot up. “For making war?”
“No—you might argue your way out of that. For the mass murder you ordered in the territory of the United States—your ‘educational’ lesson. You will be tried by a jury, like any other common criminal, and, I strongly suspect—hanged by the neck until you are dead!
“That’s all. Take him away.”
“One moment, please.”
“What is it?”
“You recall the chess problem you saw in my palace?”
“What of it?”
“Could you give me the four-move solution?”
“Oh, that.” Ardmore laughed heartily. “You’ll believe anything, won’t you? I had no solution; I was simply bluffing.”
It was clear for an instant that something at last had cracked the Prince’s cold self-control.
He never came to trial. They found him the next morning, his head collapsed across the chess-board he had asked for.
Robert A. Heinlein, Sixth Column
(Series: # )
Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes