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Colonel Valentine Sanders of the Interstellar Patrol tightened the restraining web as, around him, the globular screen showed the recorded scene of jungle and Space Force combat infantry.

Just ahead, beyond a thin screen of leaves, water poured in a wide sheet over a rock ledge, to foam and roar amongst the tumbled stone blocks below. On all sides, the blue-green trunks of giant trees twisted up through green twilight toward a sky that could be seen only as occasional patches high overhead. Through one of these rare openings, a shifting oblong of light shone down on the tangle of intertwined mossy roots on the jungle floor.

The air, hot, rank, and damp, with only a faint suggestion of a breeze, added the final touch to an illusion of reality that was almost complete.

The colonel glanced back. Through the trees, men darted forward, obviously well-trained, in good condition and alert, but very lightly armed. A little upstream of the waterfall, a lightly armed infantryman crawled out behind a mossy log, to peer through straggling weeds at the far bank of the stream.

The stream, about eight inches deep, and roughly forty feet across, was flowing swiftly over a bed of rock, strewn with occasional logs and flat stone slabs. The far bank rose steeply about eight feet high, topped by gently waving leafy branches.

What was atop the bank, behind the leaves, was anyone's guess.

Frowning, the colonel glanced at the Space Force infantryman lying behind the log. The colonel could think of a number of devices for solving the problem of that bank, but the infantryman's only weapon seemed to be a slug-throwing rifle, and his only protection appeared to be a helmet. The usual equipment of the Space Force combat infantry was such that one man armed as usual would have been more formidable than a thousand men armed like this.

Behind the log, the infantryman now bunched himself, as if to cross the stream in a rush. But then he paused and looked again. First, he would have to drop down the bank on the near side of the stream. Then there would be the splashing rush across forty feet of water, flowing over an uneven rock bottom that was probably coated with slime. Then there was the problem of getting up the bank on the far side.

The infantryman gave a slight shake of the head, and crouched lower. Without his usual equipment, his special skills would be a burden. He would constantly feel the need to use this or that piece of equipment—which he didn't have.

Scowling, the colonel looked around. In this situation, a band of aborigines could slaughter the best troops in existence.

Now a second infantryman, in a mottled green-and-gray camouflage suit, crawled forward and tugged at the first man's ankle. The two talked in low murmurs, then the second man crawled forward to take a look. He shrugged, scrambled out from behind the log, and slid over the bank. As he splashed out into the stream, the first man shoved his rifle forward and watched the far bank.

A third infantryman eased forward behind a tree as, halfway across the stream, the second slipped and fell. A fourth man crawled up behind a low pile of mossy rocks, and peered out at the far bank. The second, his wet uniform clinging to him, limped through the rushing water. A fifth and a sixth infantryman, as lightly armed as the rest, slipped forward through the trees.

In his mind's eye, the colonel could see the whole near bank filling up with men stopped by that stream. He stared out across it, to see the second man find a handhold, and start to haul himself up the far bank, where the leaves moved gently in the breeze.

From behind the delicately waving leaves, brilliant lines sprang horizontally across the stream, to slice through brush, trees, and men like knives of light. Dazzling puffs of luminous vapor reached across the stream, and on the near bank blazing fireballs burst in explosions of bright droplets that left criss-crossing tracks like a thousand fiery spiderwebs. On all sides, the ground lifted in eruptions of flying dirt and rock.

The edges of the restraining web bit in hard as the colonel forgot himself and sought cover. With an effort, he relaxed and looked around at the recorded chaos of blurs as the viewing head left the site of the ambush. The record abruptly came to an end, and the screen around him went blank.

The colonel took a deep breath, and unlatched the restraining web. The globular screen divided into sections and swung up, to nest itself out of sight overhead.

The colonel glanced across the room, where the strongly built Section Chief, his penetrating blue eyes alight with anger, looked up from a viewer, snapped out the record spool, and said, "What do you think of it, Val?"

"Those were Space Force combat infantry?"

"Correct. Their best."

"If we used men like that, we'd be finished in a month."

"The circumstances were peculiar. Take a look at this." The Chief tossed across the little spool, and the colonel bent to snap it into a viewer on a stand nearby.

A Space Force brigadier general, spare, trim, and frowning, appeared.

"The scene you've just witnessed was the beginning of an action that destroyed the 1866th Combat Infantry Regiment. This was one of our crack units—every man was first-rate. Four days earlier, the 1728th Combat Infantry was wiped out in a similar action. By 'wiped out,' I mean destroyed as a unit. Both regiments suffered over eighty percent killed. Most of the remainder were seriously wounded. Only a total of thirty-one men remained fit for service from these two actions.

"These defeats were inflicted on us on the planet Terex, an earthlike world with people like ourselves. Although their technology was not very advanced, Planetary Development considered them so far advanced in other respects that they granted the planet provisional status. About two years ago, a series of petty revolts broke out on Terex. The local government appealed for help. Planetary Development Authority is sympathetic to the locals, and regards the planet as a showcase of 'interplanetary cooperation.' PDA, therefore, put this request for help through in record time, and we were ordered in to straighten out the situation. We were also ordered, in the strictest terms, not to offend local sensibilities. The locals, while not very advanced technologically, have a powerfully developed set of priestly hierarchies, and we were not to interfere in religious matters.

"Unfortunately, little by little it developed that the local gods are allergic to modern technology. They don't like air transportation, or mechanized ground transport, or computers, satellites, or any of a very large variety of our weapons. The high priests explained that our equipment creates 'bad vibrations.' A reconnaissance satellite is a 'new star,' which disrupts all kinds of astrological considerations. Gravitors are anathema—they 'warp the lines of destinic action.' Aircraft are 'solid objects which unnaturally cut the rays of influence of the stars.' Ground transport is all right, provided it doesn't get its motive power from 'unnatural heat,' which 'disturbs the solar influence.' For similar reasons, all manner of our weapons can't be tolerated. All these things become religious matters. If we didn't obey these injunctions, we would be irreligious. This would offend local sensibilities in the worst way, and that is exactly what we were ordered not to do.

"Now, this situation didn't present itself in a clear-cut way. It developed piecemeal. At first, the locals enthusiastically welcomed our troops. Next, the priests insisted that it would be necessary not to use this or that device or weapon. Gradually, bit by bit, the situation changed. The final result was that our men wound up practically disarmed.

"To begin with, too, the guerrilla problem didn't look too bad, and the local transportation system, that we were going to have to rely on if we didn't use mechanized transport, seemed reasonably reliable.

"Unfortunately, we ran into a local religious sect called the Skaga cult. This gang operates on the theory that 'good can be made out of evil.' The Skagas do evil to others in confidence that the 'balance wheel of fate' will return good to the victim, evening up the score with no effort on the Skagas' part. The Skagas evidently decided the Space Force was ripe for a lot of good done by their special methods. Without our even knowing there was such a cult, they infiltrated the loading stations where our supplies are transferred to the local transportation system, set up a black market, and began selling our weapons to all comers—including the guerrillas.

"Meanwhile, we were trying to prevail on the local priesthood to reconsider the ban on our weapons. They finally agreed to let certain banned weapons be used, tentatively. We rushed them down to the planet, and, thanks to the Skagas, the guerrillas got the weapons first. By torture, they forced our captured troops to explain the weapons.

"The guerrillas, incidentally, had the advantage by now. Our men weren't properly armed, didn't know local conditions, and were fighting in a way they weren't used to. The guerrillas dealt out a rough series of partial defeats, and then, using our own recently shipped weapons, wiped out two of our best regiments.

"Our local commander found himself with a series of defeats, a well-organized black market draining off supplies from the transportation network, a powerful guerrilla movement well supplied with our own weapons, and worst of all, a large proportion of the people who suddenly regard the Space Force, and humans generally, as inferior beings. 'See,' the argument goes, 'the Skagas are smarter, and the guerrillas are better warriors. The spacemen are weaklings. They cannot manage their own affairs. They are unfit to lead others.' The result of this attitude is every kind of obstruction and irritation, with the prospect of much worse in the near future.

"To straighten out this mess, our commander on the planet could see only one thing to do—use stronger weapons. But, by now, even this won't work, unless we carry out a general slaughter. Too large a part of the populace is now sympathetic to the guerrillas. And we are still hamstrung by our orders. To get them changed, through channels, is proving a very slow process. Well—when the final casualty lists from the two big ambushes came in, our commander shot himself. The mess has now been turned over to me."

The Space Force general drew a deep breath.

"This situation is now so hopelessly confused that I will be frank and say that I am out of my depth. I hereby respectfully request interservice assistance."

The colonel snapped the spool out of the viewer, walked over, and handed it back. The Chief, sitting back flipping through a bulky set of printed sheets, took the spool without looking up, and shoved a thick sheaf of reports across the desk. "Here."

The colonel took them and scowled.

"Are we supposed to read that stuff?"

"That's the general idea."

"By the time we get through, half the combat infantry in the Space Force could be buried on Terex."

"Just skim it. We aren't going to be able to prepare as thoroughly for this job as I'd like."

"Why not put it through the mill, and make it into an orientation?"

"Too realistic. This way, the misinformation has to go through a fine-mesh sieve before it gets into our minds."

The colonel frowned, and opened up the topmost report, to skim rapidly:


The Gr'zaen Religion:
Sun-Worship on Terex

J. K. Fardel, Ph.D.

While Terexian sun-worshipers, like those of other religions, on this planet . . . gladly welcome converts to their religion . . . they, too, have the regrettable habit of decapitating those who seek to observe their rites . . . A further obstruction to objective research . . . arises out of the fact that those who seek to question the true believers regarding religious details are soon shunned, while a true believer who reveals details of the rites and practices is . . . likely to be punished by hideous torture. Therefore, despite the use of . . . spy devices . . . a strictly accurate and complete description of the Gr'zaen religion is . . . somewhat hard to come by. Nevertheless, it is possible to make a few . . . reasonable approximations. On Earth, the sun-worshipers of ancient times—


The colonel looked up exasperatedly.

"At least, let's run this stuff through a condenser."

"No. That loses the unique flavor some of these reports convey. But, as a matter of fact, I think the basic situation is clear enough so we won't have to absorb all of this misinformation."

"I'm glad to hear that."

The colonel flipped through the sheaf, and came upon a report headed: "The Terexian Transportation Network." He skimmed this rapidly, and a picture came across of a collection of animal-drawn vehicles and primitive railroads, of coastwise shipping infested by pirates, of inclined roadways down which vehicles traveled by gravity, to be hauled up a steep slope for the next stage, the whole so-called transportation system being sluggish, subject to a complete stoppage on every religious feast day, and dependent for continuous performance on a large number of warehouses in which goods periodically piled up and drained out as the erratically functioning parts of the network speeded up or broke down.

Scowling, he read more slowly, noting the opportunities this transport net offered black marketeers and guerrillas. To top everything else, it was irreligious to work on feast days, so on these days the Terexian guards were off duty.

The colonel next leafed through the stack until he came upon a report headed "The Irregular Volunteers on Terex." The choice of words puzzled him, but became clear as he read a paean of praise for the guerrillas, and realized that the writer of this PDA report hated the Space Force.

The obvious next thing to look for was information about the Skaga cult. But after reading it, the colonel knew less than he'd thought he'd known to start with.

The Chief impatiently tossed the last report on the desk.

"It seems to me that the local guerrillas, religious leaders, and Skaga cultists, are all different parts of the same thing—a kind of machine to grind the Space Force troops on the planet to a pulp. But it's hard to see how the Skagas get along with the rest. The others seem to have moral standards."

The colonel looked up from a report on "comparative literature," which praised the "technical artistry" of the locals, but complained of their "primitive exaltation of craft and prowess. Indeed, the most popular folk hero, in whatever guise he may appear, is inevitably faced by a formidable enemy, whom he defeats by a stroke of genius, usually delivered while the hero's own cause is on the brink of disaster."

"Hm-m-m," said the colonel. With an effort, he put his mind on the Chief's comment. "Well, the Skagas and the other religions may not get along with each other, but they may work together, all the same."

"Informally, you mean?"

"Maybe without even thinking they are working together."

The Chief nodded, and sat back.

"The trouble in dealing with a whole race, such as this bunch, is that you think you're dealing with so many individuals—and it's true, you are—but it also involves more than that. In such numbers, there are unseen inter-relationships, and statistical effects. It's as if the whole race together made up an organism. One section may do one thing, while another section does another thing, to create an overall result neither section appears to aim at. In this case, the religionists disarm the Space Force, the Skagas rob them, and the guerrillas kill them. And the Terexians, as a whole, draw the conclusion that humans are inferior beings."

"As if," said the colonel, "the overall situation were a kind of test?"

"Yes. And conducted according to Terexians' idea of what constitutes superiority." He looked through the stack of reports, separated one from the rest, and read: " ' . . . Characteristic saying of the local pundits is that "any beast may be strong, but it takes a man to be wise". . . .' "

"Well, that fits. Their actions have been such as to eliminate the effect of the Space Force's superior strength."

"Hm-m-m. And the human race then proved 'inferior.' "

The colonel nodded. "Only strong—not wise."


"Well," said the colonel, "they've tested the Space Force. But unfortunately for the Terexians, we have now been called in."

The Chief sat back with a speculative expression.

"Considering this judo hold the Terexians have on the Space Force, exactly what do we do?"

"Break the hold. Of course, the Terexians may lose a few fingers in the process."

"How are you going to get at those guerrillas?"

"Through the Skagas."

The Chief glanced thoughtfully off in the distance, and suddenly nodded.

"What will you need?"

"Some stuff from Special Devices, the local language, transportation to the planet, an H-ship and crew, and permission from the Space Force to operate at one of their supply centers where goods are shipped to the planet, before they're transshipped by the local transportation system. Plus twenty or thirty men to do the job I have in mind at the supply center."

The Chief shook his head. "You can have everything but that last item. You know our manpower situation."

"In that case, get me permission to recruit from among the Space Force veterans who survived that ambush."

"Wait a minute. You've got at least four unassigned men—Roberts, Hammell, Morri—"

"They're still in Basic."

"And everyone else is tied up?"


"In that case, I suppose there's nothing to do but try this idea of getting some volunteers. But how you're going to get volunteers from amongst those veterans is a good question. These aren't impressionable recruits. How are you going to get them to leave a comparatively soft—" He paused suddenly.

"Ordinarily," said the colonel, "they'd only smile. But there's nothing ordinary about what they've been through lately. I think they'll join us fast enough—if we promise them that their first assignment will be revenge on the Skagas and the guerrillas."

The Chief nodded.

"O.K. Make your arrangements, and I'll get permission for you to recruit."

The colonel's arrangements went with a combination of smoothness and jarring inconsistency. S-Branch promised a timed explosive, minute quantities of which would do everything the colonel desired, with delivery on Terex in two days at the most. T-Branch then patiently explained that it was absolutely impossible to get a human being to Terex in less than ten to twelve days, if the idea was to get him there alive. I-Branch obligingly offered to put the colonel, by transposition, onto a Space Force ship near Terex, within twelve hours, and in the guise of a Space Force officer. This would incidentally have put the colonel, as head of Operations, at the mercy of Intelligence, and he politely refused to do it. I-Branch then grudgingly went along with his original plan, but pointed out that the Space Force could lose a lot of men while he was spending twelve days on the way to the planet. The colonel exasperatedly got in touch with S-Branch, and demanded to know how the timed explosive could be made and gotten to Terex in only two days, all told.

"Nothing to it, Val," said the head of S-Branch cheerfully. "It happens that we're testing direct-contact with a G-class ship off Terex. The contact cross-section is only about two feet in diameter, but there's no difficulty getting our stuff through. For that matter, we could put you through, lengthwise, if you were in a hurry."

"I am in a hurry."

"No problem. We can shove you through in about six seconds. Then the G-ship can deliver you to the planet, or to another ship in the region. How's that?"

"That's fine."

"Let us know when you're ready."

A few moments later, the screen was blank, and the colonel was considering that what T-Branch stated to be impossible in under ten days, could be almost completely done by S-Branch in six seconds. And the beauty of the thing was that transportation was the specialty of T-Branch.

Exasperatedly, he tapped out the Chief's call number. The important thing was to make sure the Space Force veterans ended up at the right place at the right time, with permission to join the Patrol.

When his arrangements were complete, the colonel went down to S-Branch, was strapped flat on a kind of stretcher on rails, and pushed through what appeared to be a porthole looking into the interior of a patrol ship, and through which the narrow rails of the stretcher passed. He was slowly slid through and unstrapped on the other side, where an Interstellar Patrol major apologized, and explained that it was "bad business to hit the edge of the contact zone," so they had to strap anyone who passed through when the cross-section was so narrow. A moment later, a package containing the colonel's explosive came through, and fifteen minutes after that he was talking by communicator to the captain of the H-class ship assigned to the job. Late the next morning, the colonel and the captain of the H-ship were on Terex, wearing civilian clothes for disguise, and talking to a Major Brouvaird, the officer in charge of Space Force Offloading Center 2 Terex.

"You see," growled Major Brouvaird, "they're all wearing loose coats and those damned oversize floppy straw hats." The major moved closer to the edge of the platform looking down on a crowd of Terexians working in the unloading line. "Watch this. You see that bird knocking open that ammo case, halfway down the line? Watch his hands. There he goes. Twenty-two magazines went out of the case into that damned keg, and two went under that loose coat of his into the pouches on a leather harness underneath. He must be about loaded up, now. You notice how he moves? Sort of careful? All that stuff in those pouches is getting heavy. The square edges are digging into his ribs. There he goes now."

Down below, in the jostling line, the Terexian held up his hand. His voice drifted up. "Tika b'wip, tul!" the euphemistic translation came to the colonel simultaneously: "Ship must lighten load, quick!"

A demoralized Space Force private nodded, and the Terexian, walking with a peculiar swaying motion, headed for the rear of the line, where a door stood open to the outside. The private stared at the floor or the wall—anything to avoid watching the Terexian workers as they manhandled the Space Force cargo.

"And there he goes," said the Space Force major, watching the Terexian go out the door. "Out back, near the latrine, there's a Terexian refreshment stand. This bird will step into the booth, and come out with a fresh harness. The candy wagon back there will lug out all the loads from the workers, and that's just the first skim, off the top."

The colonel nodded, and adjusted his civilian suit. Considering the haste with which this assignment had been prepared for, the suit was like a bad omen. It had a shirt that seemed to have no pores, a collar that dug into his neck, and cuffs that felt like slippery plastic bands around his wrists. The jacket was made out of some kind of bristly hair that looked all right in the mirror, but the bristles stuck into his neck above the collar. The trousers were made out of the same material, so that it felt like poison ivy around his neck, and from his belt to his shoes. The shoes were too small.

Possibly as a result of the frame of mind these clothes put him in, when the colonel spoke, his voice came out with a bite like a high-speed drill.

"Why the devil are they allowed to break the cases?"

The Space Force major winced under the unmistakable lash of authority, then recovered and stared at the lean civilian.

"I thought, Mr.—ah—Fisher, that you had been thoroughly briefed on this procedure."

"So did I," said the colonel shortly. "But no one mentioned this piece of insanity. I knew there was pilferage and outright robbery, and I knew your cargoes are trans-shipped over the local transportation system. But no one bothered to tell me that the cargoes are broken out of their shipping crates and transferred to other containers. What's the point? What's wrong with the original shipping cases?"

"They are in advance of local technology."

"What of it?" said the colonel.

The major frowned, seeking to explain to himself Fisher's civilian capacity, military bearing, and obvious authority.

The colonel, unaware of the effect he was creating, thrust out his jaw.

The major squinted at the card the colonel had handed him on arrival:



L. L. Fisher
Chief Regional Operative


The card had a picture of the civilian on it, a miniature set of fingerprints, retinal patterns, and other identifying data, and the warning, "THIS IS A TIMED CARD. CARRY OUT YOUR IDENTIFICATION WITHIN ONE HOUR OF RECEIPT."

The major seemed to have heard of something called Interstellar Investigations, which now and then came into the news when it nailed some particularly troublesome operator. Nevertheless, no detective, Chief Regional Operative or otherwise, would have occasion to develop that ring of command, and that manner of authority. It was that that bothered the major. His instincts told him that he was dealing with a military man, and one of comparatively high rank. The civilian clothes and the card didn't prove a thing. The orders the major had received, instructing him to cooperate with one L. L. Fisher of the Interstellar Investigations Corporation, who was "assisting the Space Force in attempting to trace losses incurred in shipment," and so on—all that was so much humbug. It came to the major like a bolt of lightning that, somewhere in the Space Force, someone of very high rank had gotten wind of the stink off Terex, and had either come himself to investigate, or had sent a trusted member of his staff—whoever it was, was now standing there in disguise right beside the major; the disguise no more concealed his real nature than a necklace of flowers on a tiger—but, of course, the major had to act as if it fooled him.

With a puff and a sudden heat, the identification card burst into dust. The major shook his hand, and took a deep breath.

"Ah—Well, you see, Mr. Fisher, this is typical of our whole problem on this planet. In one way or another, the locals nullify the advantages of our technology."

"What's the pretext for breaking the shipments out of all those cases?"

"The locals have strict regulations for containers to be used on their transportation system. They make their cases out of solid wood and iron. They specify a certain minimum thickness for each size of keg, barrel, drum, crate, or what-have-you. Well, our cases are stronger. But their standards are applied arbitrarily. They won't let our cases be used on the planet—because they are of inferior weight and thickness."

The colonel looked down on the reloading line. As he watched, he could catch the quick movements as grenades, small hand weapons, and magazines disappeared under the loose cloaks. He began to see other things, too, such as skillful wielders of hammers and chisels who opened cases of rifles, and deftly knocked sights out of line as they transferred the weapons. Five hand-launchers came out of one case, and went into a barrel that would only accommodate four of them without jamming. The little bag containing the firing pins vanished into a Terexian cloak. Onto these containers, the shipping labels were slapped in odd positions. Doubtless these containers would not be pilfered en route. Meanwhile, over in a corner at the far end of the line, half-a-dozen of the locals were bent over a kind of keg, feeding in what looked like a length of thin wire off a small roll; now a grenade went in, and the Terexians carefully pressed the cover down, pulled out some of the wire, cut it off, and pushed the end back inside. What could that be but a booby trap?

Beside the colonel, Captain Finch of the H-ship stood, his concealed recorder taking down sight and sound.

The Space Force major was saying, " . . . Obvious enough they're robbing us, but we aren't allowed to use our own loading crews. That would 'deprive Terexian citizens of much-needed employment.' If we take them to court, it's our word against theirs, and any number of them will swear we're lying. I could go right down there this minute, grab one of those loaders with a full harness, and I would be arrested for assault and battery. We need our own loading crews, our own courts—and our own transportation system, as a matter of fact. But that's unthinkable. These are our 'loyal allies in the fight against the guerrillas.' By 'giving them employment,' we are 'winning their gratitude, and gaining their loyalty in a most effective way.' Sir, until we get PDA's wishful thinking and propaganda out of the way, we're going to get slaughtered on this planet."

The colonel noted the "sir," realized with a shock what had happened, and then accommodated himself to it in an instant.

"Never mind that," he said. "Mr. Dexter and I, with our . . . ah . . . team of operatives . . . will do what we can to rectify this situation. Now, what we need is an enclosed building of some kind where we can get at a portion of the shipment before it goes through the loading line here."

"Well, sir—"

"Mr. Fisher."

"Yes, Mr. Fisher. Excuse me. There's a sizable shed out back, that you could use. Of course, you'll want to keep it secret that you're using it. That poses a problem, but—"

"Not at all," said the colonel. "We don't want to keep it secret. We want it announced that a team of human experts has arrived to track down the source of the trouble. We want a published warning, over your signature, that any individual who comes into possession of any human military equipment should turn it in at once, for his own protection. Every shipment that goes through this center will have a big seal put on it, announcing that it is under the special protection of the Interstellar Investigations Corporation, and that secret hidden methods of extraordinary craft will be used to track down and punish anyone who unlawfully appropriates the contents."

The Space Force major tried to look enthusiastic about this idea, gave up, and frankly looked sick.

"The last time anyone tried anything like that, the pilferage rate at that center went up to one hundred percent."

The colonel smiled.

"Have faith in the Interstellar Investigations Corporation."

"I'll be a laughingstock for making the announcement."

"A small sacrifice to make for the good of the service."

The major looked pained, but nodded dutifully.

"Yes, Mr. Fisher."

Having finished work at the loading center, the colonel and the H-ship captain went back to their ship. The colonel was mentally damning the haste with which this operation had been rushed through. He particularly damned himself for not insisting that reports, imperfect or not, be made up into an orientation. He had missed the obvious business about transferring weapons from one container to another, and there was no predicting what else he might have missed. As he and "Mr. Dexter" now approached the ship, he saw twenty or thirty Space Force men in battle dress debarking from a Space Force tender not far away. There were Terexian workers scattered all over the field, and some of them were doubtless spies.

The Space Force men formed a column of twos, and marched toward the H-ship, which was lettered:



"Mr. Dexter" said dryly, "Here we go, Mr. Fisher."

The colonel nodded.

"Let me handle it, Mr. Dexter."

The Space Force veterans came to a halt and faced to the front. The sergeant in charge glanced at his orders, and looked up in bafflement at the ship. Several Terexian laborers dawdled at their work as they shifted crates nearby, and shot furtive glances at the ship and the veterans.

The colonel stepped forward, and cleared his throat loudly.

The men looked around.

The colonel ran a finger around his uncomfortable collar, and looked at the sky, as if seeking inspiration.

"Gentlemen . . . ah . . . men—" He cleared his throat again. "We of the Interstellar Investigations Corporation have been called upon to use our modern techniques of detection, to . . . ah . . . ah . . . detect and track down those ill-advised few among the largely loyal native population who are attempting pilferage upon the Space Force, and, lacking sufficient trained man-power to carry out our scientific detection procedures, which I understand would not . . . ah . . . fit well with the cultural patterns of thought and action upon this planet, we have obtained permission to train and put to use combat personnel who are temporarily . . . ah . . .  dismounted pending future assignment. Ahem."

The Space Force veterans were looking at him with a variety of expressions. Some were studying him as if trying to identify just what kind of creature he might be, and they looked as if they had not been able to pin it down yet. Others looked bored. A few looked sick. One looked as if he would like to break the colonel's neck, and was having trouble arguing himself out of it.

At the crates, the Terexian workers cast brief sharklike smiles at each other.

"Now . . . ah . . . gentlemen," said the colonel, "you will please file into the ship for . . . ah . . . orientation to this new task, which, I might add, is extremely important to the pacification and mutual assistance effort on this whole planet."

Some of the men looked as if they had finally succeeded in identifying him. Those who had looked sick looked sicker, and there were more of them.

After a distinct hesitation, the sergeant cleared his throat, and gave a low-voiced order, spoken like a curse, that started the men filing into the ship.

The colonel stepped inside, watching the expressions of the men as they crossed the short catwalk leading from the fake outer hull to the massive inner hull.

The men looked around blankly, then nudged each other as they passed through the massive lock to the inner hull, to find themselves jammed in the comparatively small interior of the real ship. The inner and outer locks shut.

"All right, men," said the colonel, and this time his voice was lower, and slower. "Now that you're all temporary members of the Interstellar Investigations Corporation, I will tell you how we detect who stole Space Force equipment, and I will leave it up to you to decide who wants to take part, and who would rather get out now. First, let me mention that only the first word in the Corporation's name is real. The rest is a dummy. And the purpose I stated outside, for the benefit of whoever might hear, is also a dummy. We are here for exactly one real purpose—to blow the Skagas, the black-marketeers, and the guerrillas, sky-high. Anyone who wants to join us in cleaning out this mess of thugs and bushwhackers will be welcome—provided you can pass our tests. Now, as I understand it, you've all been in combat. But how many of you have been in an off-loading center on this planet?"

Everyone looked blank.

"The captain of this ship and I visited one of these offloading centers this morning," said the colonel. "We went as investigators for the Interstellar Investigations Corporation. We recorded what we saw, and you might be interested to see it. Captain Finch—If you will project—"

The room darkened, and multiple rays of light shone out from the far wall, so that each man seemed to see before him what the colonel and the H-ship's captain had seen earlier. The conversation also was reproduced, and as the scene progressed, an angry murmur rose in the room. At the end, when the lights came on, the colonel had changed back to his uniform, and there was a booth near where he had stood, with the words above it:




Boiling mad, the Space Force men shoved forward, toward the booth, where their requests were processed with lightning speed.

That over with, and their anger having cooled to that thoughtfulness that can follow sudden emotional enlistment, it dawned on some of the new Interstellar Patrol candidates that they had not yet found out exactly how the colonel intended to finish off the guerrillas. But already, the first group of candidates was being assembled for transfer to the testing ship—the G-class already off the planet checking its contact equipment, was to be used for that purpose. There was a lot to think about all of a sudden, and not much time to think about it. The Interstellar Patrol recruiting sergeant suddenly found himself answering a lot of questions.

"Ah—We have to pass admission tests? What happens if we don't pass them?"

"You don't make it into the Patrol. And then you can't take part in the operation. But you'll pass them. Don't worry."

"How many tests are there?"


"If we don't make it, we will go back to the Space Force. Right?"

"Not necessarily."

"What do you mean, 'not necessarily?'"

"You can't be a candidate in the Interstellar Patrol and a member of the Space Force at the same time, without special permission. If, for instance, you're in a Space Force guardhouse, and the Space Force wants to be sure to get you back and wring the juice out of you, if you don't get into the Patrol, then we have to hand you back. But that isn't how it was done this time. The first paper you signed was your resignation from the Space Force. The second paper was your provisional enlistment in the Interstellar Patrol. So, you see, if you fail the tests, you don't go straight back into the Space Force."

"What does happen to us?"

"Well—That's a good question."

"You bet it's a good question. What's the answer?"

"H-m-m-m . . . I don't know. Colonel?"

The colonel was smilingly handing the bulky sheaf of enlistment forms up through a hatchway to someone on the deck overhead. He looked far more formidable in uniform than he had in the suit, but he also had a look of well-being that hadn't been there before. The look of well-being had come over him as he watched the men crowd around the enlistment booth.

"Yes?" he said, benevolently.

"Sir, one of these men wants to know what happens to him if he fails the tests."

The colonel looked incredulous.

"Fails the tests?"

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, I don't think anyone here has to worry about that. Just do your best, men. You see, these tests are designed to weed out people so far below the level we need, that it would be pointless for us to try to bring them up to it. We usually have a high rate of such failures. But you are all pre-selected, anyway. It's hard to believe that Space Force combat veterans, from crack units, wouldn't meet the level of Interstellar Patrol recruits."

"Yes, sir," said one of the candidates stubbornly, "but what happens if we fail?"

The colonel looked him in the eye, noting the stubborn set of jaw, and the direct gaze. This was the man who earlier had looked as if he would like to knock the colonel's head off.

"If you fail," said the colonel, "I will think you failed on purpose."

"Then what happens?"

There was a silence, with all the other candidates listening alertly.

"If I think a candidate has failed on purpose, I have discretion to do quite a number of things—whichever one strikes me as suitable. These tests are very hard to fail on purpose. They are so designed that it goes against the grain to fail them. To fail them in a certain way demonstrates that you have the ability to pass them. To fail in another way automatically ends the series. We aren't bound to many iron rules in the Patrol. I will do what I think best. Why? What's wrong?"

"You promised to tell us how we'd take care of the guerrillas."

There was a murmur of agreement.

The colonel reached into an inner pocket of his uniform jacket, and drew out a small transparent container holding what looked like a thick crayon.

"What does that look like to you?"

"A marking crayon."

"That's what it is. But it's made of a very special compound, that we call 'special tar.'"

"What does it do?"

"I'll tell you, but only on the understanding that whoever hears the information will get set down on whatever planet, or in whatever place, we choose to set him down, if he fails the tests. I can tell you that we will choose to set him down in a place where he will be unlikely to repeat the information to anyone who wants to know about it."

There was an immediate murmur of agreement. No one objected. Then there was an intense silence.

"That's understood?" said the colonel insistently.

"Yes, sir. What is this 'tar?'"

"It's the short way of saying 'transient atomic reactant.' It's also a kind of stuff that, when you get it stuck on you or anything else, it's hard to get off. The basic trouble on Terex isn't just the guerrillas, it's also the Skagas that you saw in operation just a little while ago. The Skagas operate the black market that supplies the guerrillas with the best Space Force weapons available, while at the same time sabotaging deliveries to Space Force troops. Now then, Terex has no industry capable of turning out these weapons. Terex is technologically backward. The guerrillas get their weapons from the black market. The black market feeds them weapons."

The colonel paused.

The troops stared at the marking crayon, which he was still holding up so they could see it clearly.

"Interstellar Investigations Corporation," said the colonel, "is going to put a tiny mark on weapons passing through Space Force Offloading Center 2. This will be done before these weapons pass through the reloading line. This mark will be in some out-of-the-way place. Perhaps inside the mechanism of the bolt. Perhaps under the heel plate. It will all depend on the weapon. A little bit of special tar will go on each weapon. A little bit of it goes a long way."

"And it . . . ah—You call it—"

"Another name for it is 'transient atomic reactant.' I will quote the explanation as the head of S-Branch stated it to me:

"This is a 'fibrogravitic quasiclathrate.' The gravitic component is inherently unstable. The basic active ingredient is composed of particles which might be called 'nuclear catalyst,' as they create rapid nuclear breakdown with a partially sustaining regenerative action. The containing of this basic ingredient, the nuclear catalyst, so-called, is the function of the gravitic component of the fibrogravitic quasiclathrate. Obviously, such a nuclear catalyst can't be mixed in with a little glue, to stick it to whatever you want, since the catalyst would immediately destroy the nuclei of the glue. Therefore, the catalyst is held in very tiny gravitostrictive 'bottles,' that look like minute bits of sand in the tarry-appearing adhesive. Since no adhesive will stick to a directed gravitic field, a very fibrous substance is used to imprison the 'grains.' Now, the grains don't remain imprisoned forever, or the compound wouldn't be worth much. The directed gravitic field of the grains is inherently unstable, and breaks down. This releases the 'nuclear catalyst.' It is possible to predict when the inherent instability will result in breakdown, release of the 'catalyst,' and consequent explosion of closely adjacent materials. The force of the explosion then depends on the nature and the density of the adjacent atoms. The time of the explosion can be predicted accurately."

There was a silence as the colonel finished speaking, then a slow exhaling of breath.

"We will," said the colonel, "naturally put a warning sticker on every keg, drum, barrel, and other container that leaves the loading center. We will circulate warnings locally. But, the Skagas and black marketeers being as they are, there's a question whether these warnings will do them much good. Of course, we aren't going to give them all the details. Perhaps they will choose to ignore the warnings. We will, naturally, warn the Space Force commanders, and they will pay attention; but if the Skagas and the guerrillas run true to form, the Space Force probably won't see too many of these weapons. For good measure, the special tar is timed for one of the local feast days. Naturally, no religious person will be working on that day, so the supply dumps should be deserted. If the black marketeers, guerrillas, and their hangers-on happen to be looting the supply dumps on the same day that the tar goes off, that just shows what they get for being irreligious. I'm sure no religious person on the planet should object too strongly. And afterward, I don't think there will be too many irreligious ones left."

The colonel glanced at the stubborn candidate, who was now smiling.

"Any further questions?"

"No, sir. If I fail the tests, just dump me off in empty space. I'm happy."

* * *

As the colonel hoped, but hardly dared expect, all the candidates passed the tests, though some of them only barely squeaked by the fifth and last test. As each batch passed, the colonel put them to work at the offloading center, where the Terexian loaders had a good laugh at the seal that was now stuck on each reloaded crate, keg, barrel, and drum:



Not For Unauthorized Hands!
Contents of
This Container Protected
Against Unauthorized Use By:


Extreme Peril!


For good measure, the colonel had a number of small signs put up along the reloading line, in such locations that the thieves who worked on the line could not possibly miss them:



This installation has been

You are being watched. No one profits by
criminal activity. Crime does not pay.
Do not imagine that you will get away
unpunished, if you try to do the very
things, such as pilferage, shoplifting,
looting, and other such activities that the


has broken up on other worlds. You
cannot succeed. Be honest. You will find
that there will be a great reward for honesty.
And a great punishment for dishonesty.


The result of these two notices was that there were reports from all the Space Force receiving supply centers that no shipments from Offloading Center 2 were now being received. The whole output was being robbed.

The colonel now coerced the commanding officer of the center into issuing a statement on the situation:


It has come to the attention of Space Force authorities charged with the distribution of supplies to the forward troops that, probably purely by accident or misunderstanding, some quantity of the deadly weapons and implements of war may have fallen into unauthorized hands. It has even been rumored that religious feast days have been violated for the purpose of making unauthorized entry into places of storage for military supplies, and there making illegal depredations upon such supplies.

Without wishing to state a definite position regarding the truth or falsity of these allegations, it must be stated that, if true, this would constitute an extremely serious and dangerous situation. Space Force supplies are sometimes of an extremely volatile nature. Many of these supplies are actually dangerous explosives.

All of our weapons have entered this world at the express permission of the Priestly Authorities. To steal or possess them, to consort with those who steal or possess them, to violate holy days, all this would appear to be very dangerous, and not merely because it challenges the worldly authority of the Space Force, which has come to this planet in reply to a call for help.

It is well known that Evil Recoils Upon The Doer. It is to be hoped that those who wish to escape Retribution will number themselves amongst the Righteous.

* * *

The result of this statement was merriment amongst some of the workers, but also an immediate drop in the number of workers on the reloading lines, followed by their replacement by a crew that gave cold chills to any ordinary citizen who showed up, innocently looking for a job.

* * *

Meanwhile, the military situation was going from bad to worse. Ordinary Terexians had by now come to regard all humanity roughly in the light of a well-intentioned but stupid child, a viewpoint that was cheerfully brought home at a gathering on the afternoon of the very day that the remaining stability of the transient atomic reactant dwindled down into the minutes and seconds.

"I must confess," said the host, a prominent Terexian by the name of Swelnior, "that you Earth people have shown yourselves incredibly naive. The thought of appealing to the good will of Skagas—" He chortled delightedly.

The colonel, wearing an improved version of the prickly suit he'd had the first day on the planet, experienced a faint chill as he looked at his watch.

"Pardon me, Mr. Swelnior—"

"Ho, ho, my dear fellow, it's precisely you who have been the most . . . do forgive me . . . ridiculous. To appeal to Skagas—"

"The appeal," said the colonel coldly, "was to whoever might choose to dissociate himself from the Skagas."

"You people came to the planet like some sort of divine heavenly beings with supernatural powers . . . forgive me if I speak frankly, it's my nature . . . and bit by bit you have gradually come down until we can see you as . . . as children."

Across the table, a prominent Terexian laughed.

"Not children. But puppies."

"I hope," said the colonel, his voice cutting though the merriment, "that none of you gentlemen have trafficked with the Skagas or the black marketeers."

"I like that word—'trafficked.' It has a quaint archaic tone. Really, now, Mr . . . what's the name . . . Fishee? Really, Mr. Fishee—"

"Because there might be time for you to—"

"His name is 'Fish.' You know, the things we Terexians catch and eat."

" . . . Might just be time for you to clear a few valuables away from black market—"

"Oh, yes, before the Hour of Retribution?"

Down the table, a Terexian priest looked up. His eyes lit with a glow of fanaticism.

"Do I hear someone joke about the Hour of Retribution?"

Swelnior leaned forward, smiling.

"Surely, we need not fear Retribution from—" He inclined his head toward the humans in the room.

The Terexian priest looked at the colonel, then at Swelnior. He picked up his chair, and walked around the table to seat himself beside the colonel, who, with the other humans, had a considerable space between him and the nearest Terexians. Ignoring Swelnior, the priest looked at the colonel. "If I read your face rightly, Mr. Fisher, the balance has tilted too far, and the evil that has been done is about to be righted by the Sword of Justice. You are, I see, a soldier."

The colonel recovered from the shock, and groped for a reply. But the priest had already turned toward Swelnior.

"You sack of wormy swine, do you imagine that one of the Faith will join in your folly? You, with the wisdom of a block of sawn wood, the polish of a lump of sandstone, and the self-discipline of an eel two days dead and afloat in scum, you dare invite the Select of the Faith to ape your depravity?"

There was a stunned silence. Swelnior opened his mouth.

"See here—"

"None of that. You have had the power and misused it. The accumulated worth of past deeds is used up, and you have forgotten how you came to where you are. Know then that there is a weight in the lives of men which, set in motion, overcarries, however the later acts of a man may seem to mock it. But it is only for a moment in the eyes of those who know. Now prepare to eat the ripened fruit that you have raised in your orchard."

Swelnior turned pale, and looked around at the others. Most of them looked shaken. A few sat with outthrust jaws and steady gaze.

The priest looked up.

"I feel it come."

The colonel glanced at his watch.

The room moved as if they were on a ship that swayed around them. Ornate water glasses slid and spilled. A heavy spiked candleholder smashed down on the table.

The roar seemed to go on forever.

It came to the colonel that the Skagas had had some backing that he hadn't known about. This meeting was being held in an exclusive section of the capital city. From the roar and the shooting flames, it was obvious where a part of Mr. Swelnior's wealth had come from.

Swelnior himself was frenziedly shouting. The bulk of the guests were screaming as chunks of plaster and ornate stone blocks smashed to the floor. The priest was looking on with a grim smile. The air was full of plaster dust, glowing pink from the flames glaring in the window. Major Brouvaird, from the Offloading Center, emerged from under the table with the other Space Force officers, stared around, and let loose a string of awed profanity.

" . . . The guerrillas?"

A younger officer said urgently, "How do we get out?"

There was a sizzling, cracking sound, the flames vanished, and a cloud of white vapor steamed up past the window. An instant later, the Interstellar Investigations ship loomed through the mist, dangling a flexible ladder, and an amplified voice boomed orders to climb onto the ladder. The Terexian priest seemed slightly disappointed by the rescue, but everyone else reacted with enthusiasm.

Once on the ladder, the ship swung away from the side of the building, where the flames were again starting to spring up, and now the rest of the city, the hills on three sides, and the bay on the fourth, came into view.

One whole section of the city was in flames, and from here and there in the surrounding wooded hills, sizable clouds of dust and smoke climbed up. In the exclusive hill section of the city, Swelnior's house and two or three others nearby were a shambles.

As the ship set them down, all the Terexians at once crowded around the priest, anxiously seeking guidance. The priest was giving it to them in no uncertain language as the colonel, Major Brouvaird, and the other Space Force and "Interstellar Investigations" men looked around.

"That column of smoke," said the Space Force major, "is the storehouse we built at the near end of the coastal canal. The damned pirates looted the place every feast day." He stared at the hills. "That biggest column of smoke—where you can see flames shooting up—corresponds with the location of a guerrilla supply dump they've been rumored to have been building up." He looked at the colonel again. "If what we can see from here is typical, the Skagas and the guerrillas have just gotten the stiffest jolt of the war. Do you mind if I ask what hit them?"

"Interstellar Investigations," said the colonel gravely, "has its methods."

"Ah," said the major, going along with the joke, "but I thought Interstellar Investigations was hired to detect who was robbing the supply system."

"That was the problem."

The major looked around at the towering clouds of smoke.


"Those that blew up," said the colonel politely, "were guilty. We detected the criminals by seeing who got punished by his crime."

Off in the distance, the Interstellar Investigations ship, having perhaps got special permission of the priesthood to use gravitors on this desperate occasion, had warped a huge column of water up out of the bay on a gravitor beam, and was dumping it on the burning section of the city.

The Space Force major wrestled with the colonel's comment.


"When you want to see who's stealing all the cookies from the cookie jar," said the colonel, "you can make up a batch filled with red pepper. It has the virtue of detecting the criminal, punishing him for his crime, giving him second thoughts for the future, and just possibly raising his respect for the chef."

A number of highborn Terexians, looking pale and greenish, passed by the humans with markedly respectful bows.

The major's eyes widened as the idea hit him, and as it dawned on him how much he still didn't know.

Down in the city now, the holocaust had been reduced to a towering column of steam. The ship came back again, again lowering its ladder, but this time booming out instructions that only "Interstellar Investigations" personnel should climb aboard.

"Interstellar Investigations," said the major dazedly, as the last deduction added itself up in his mind. With a sensation like a stiff jolt to the midsection, he realized what he'd really been dealing with.

The colonel, climbing swiftly, was now almost up to the ship. He waved goodbye just before he climbed in.

The major recovered his self-possession and threw a salute. There, at least, was an organization PDA couldn't touch, and that knew you didn't gain respect and cooperation by letting yourself be jumped on. There was an outfit that did things right!

* * *

The colonel stepped into the ship, and watched as the fake outer hatch swung shut. He shook his head, and stepped in through the massive hatch of the real ship. There had been a mess if he ever saw one. He'd almost got himself and some valuable recruits killed by going to Swelnior's meeting, and the fact was inescapable that a number of innocent people, hopefully a small number, had got blown up along with the black marketeers and guerrillas. On the other hand, Space Force casualties should go down to where they should have been in the first place, and if PDA didn't commit some new piece of stupidity, it might be possible to have peace on the planet for a while. Meanwhile, he'd picked up thirty-one highly promising recruits, and, when he got back, Roberts, Hammell, Morrissey, and Bergen should just be getting back from Basic. Maybe then it would be possible to get things straightened out so they could do things right for a change.

With these thoughts filling his mind, the colonel almost smashed into the highly polished, practically invisible column at the center of the ship. He had scarcely recovered when a shout came down from overhead:

"Colonel! The Chief's on the screen!"

The colonel thrust through the jammed recruits, and started up the grav-shaft.

It would be nice to have things the way they should be.

But something told him there would be a slight delay first.


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