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Vaughan Roberts wiped the sweat out of his eyes and studied the sliding gate with its strong close-spaced horizontal bars. The gate was set in a chain-link fence fifteen feet high, topped with five strands of electrified barbed wire. The lower edge of the fence was embedded in a concrete base two feet thick. At the gate, this base swelled into a concrete apron twenty feet across. Set in the concrete, directly in front of the gate and close to it, was a round hole some fourteen inches wide at the top, with smooth sides sloping to a small round flat bottom about eighteen inches below. The bottom was metal, with several small vertical holes and several rods supporting flat upraised metal plates. Around the top of this hole was a circular brass rim bearing the words, INSERT KEY AND TURN TO OPEN GATE.

Roberts blew out his breath and turned around, to look down a steep stony slope marked with scratches, grooves, and whitely powdered rock, that descended to a gentle slope marked with shallow circular dents a foot or so across. At the base of this slope lay a shiny metallic object about eighteen or twenty inches long, shaped like a cone, with the small end flattened, and the large end gently curved like the outer surface of a sphere. The small end was slotted, and bore several projecting studs. The smoothly polished sides and top reflected the sun in a bright point of light, and gave a distorted image of blue sky, white clouds, straggling green grass, and dark-green forest beyond the fence. The fence itself, fifteen feet high, concrete-based, and topped with electrified barbed wire, reached down both sides of the hill and across the bottom, enclosing Roberts, the cone, the hill, and the cone-shaped hole by the locked gate.

Roberts with a calculating gaze again studied the steep rocky slope. He glanced back at the gate, and the nearby hole. He looked with loathing at the shiny cone lying at the bottom of the slope, and then sucked in a deep breath and started downhill toward the shining chunk of metal. As he slid in the slippery dust, and as the loose bits of splintered rock turned underfoot, he became conscious of a peculiar sensation, like the awareness of the sound of a buzz without the actual buzz itself. He shoved the tail of his lightweight sweat-stained shirt into his worn trousers, slid his small communicator from its scratched belt-case, and snapped it on. The familiar voice of his fellow basic trainee, Hammell, came out angrily.

"You still cooped up?"

"Yes. You?"

"Yes. It just got away again. All the way to the foot of the hill."

"Same thing here," said Roberts. There was a lot more he could say, but he kept it bottled up, in the hope that it might generate a little extra horsepower when he needed it.

"This," said Hammell, his voice exasperated, "is a damned stupid way to finish up a basic training course. We can't use anything we've learned!"

"No," said Roberts, noncommittally, remembering from just this morning the muscular catlike figure of the guide, as he said cheerfully, "Well, gentlemen, you have now endured nearly all that the basic training course of the Interstellar Patrol has to offer, and are about to pass on as full members of the Patrol. You have one or two little formalities still to go through. First, some advice.

"You realize, men, that many qualities are required of you, and some of them may seem contradictory. Bear in mind that such qualities as personal initiative and the capacity for strict obedience, while certainly capable of total opposition, are not necessarily contradictory. The human body is supplied with muscles so arranged that one set can oppose and frustrate the action of another set. Nevertheless, although there is a wrong way to use them, the body still has to have both sets to function properly. Bear this in mind. A quality may be indispensable, but insufficient by itself. And the necessary additional quality may be its apparent opposite.

"Now, as you know, gentlemen, the Patrol does not like to cram information down anyone's throat. I have told you enough, I think, so that you can understand the nature of this first little formality you have to go through.

"This, gentlemen, is really a very simple little test.

"Basically, the problem is to get out of an enclosed space. There is a gate in one side of the enclosure. Your problem is merely to open this gate. That's all there is to it.

"But you must open the gate. Do not, please, try to get over the fence. You will be electrocuted. Do not cut or otherwise create a gap in the fence. This will detonate mines laid inside the enclosure. Trying to dig under the fence will produce the same result.

"Do not, please, waste time and ingenuity seeking to avoid electrocution by vaulting or otherwise crossing the top of this fence without touching the wire. You will be shot down by concealed automatic guns. The idea is not to pass over, under, or through the fence. The idea is to open the gate, and get out that way.

"If there is anyone here who is capable of safely passing out of the enclosure without opening the gate—and we recognize the possibility—then permit me to point out that, while we will not penalize you for doing this, we will, nevertheless, put you back in as often as you get out, until you finally get out our way—namely, by opening the gate.

"You may open the gate in any way that you are capable of opening it; so far as we know, there is only one way for an ordinary human without tools to do it. It will be perfectly obvious to you what I mean when you are inside.

"But, you see, the trick is not just to understand what has to be done. The trick is to do it.

"Each of you must solve this problem separately. However, for purposes of mutual commiseration, you will be allowed to communicate with one another, so long as you are still inside the 'Coop,' as it is called, and have not yet solved the problem. We may, at any time, cut off your communication. If you suddenly understand the 'secret' and blurt it to some friend before we succeed in cutting you off, we will be irritated, but this will not invalidate the test. The difficulty, as we say, is not merely in finding out what to do, but also in doing it.

"Now, gentlemen, good luck with this simple, though very basic, little test. And may your disposition be as sweet in a few hours as it is right now."

* * *

Roberts reached the bottom of the hill, and looked down sourly at the shiny cone. His disposition was nowhere near as sweet as it had been a few hours ago.

Hammell's voice came out in an indrawn gasp from the communicator, and Roberts knew from experience, without extending the communicator's eyepieces, just what had happened. He said drily, "That's not the answer."

Hammell growled, "I thought maybe I could work the thing by hand. But the raised plates in this recess are charged."

"Correct," said Roberts, feeling equal exasperation, but keeping his emotions bottled up. He experimentally hefted the shiny cone.

It felt even heavier than the last time. He looked up at the steep final slope of the hill, and frowned with vexation.

"What we've got here," said Hammell angrily, "is a stupid set-up. We can unlock the gate if we can get this so-called key into the hole. But we've got no tools whatever, the slope is so steep you can barely stand up on it empty-handed, and the damned 'key' feels like it's made out of lead. What kind of basic training is this? The thing is stupid."

Roberts shook his head. "It can't be stupid, because the testers aren't stupid. It's supposed to be a test—Well, a test of what?"

"All it is, is a test of muscle and agility."

Roberts stared at that steep final slope. "That can't be it. You try to carry the thing up the last part of the slope, and if you slip you half kill yourself."

"Then what else could it be?"

"A persistence test?" suggested Roberts, doubtfully.

"That's a thought."

"But then—"

"Yeah. What about that business to the effect that, 'if you find the secret, we'll try to cut you off before you can communicate it.' What secret is there to a persistence test? You just keep trying."

"I notice we're still talking. Nobody has tried to cut us off."

"So, that isn't it. I had a bright idea a little while ago for using clothing to make a sling to hold the thing. That isn't it, either."

"No," said Roberts, absently feeling some of the thin worn stuff, frayed almost through by hard wear. "No, we still haven't hit on it."

He looked up at the slope and down at the cone.

All he had to do was to get it up that hill, drop it in that cone-shaped hole, and turn it.

But how?

"Well," said Hammell, "I'm going to try this s.o.b. again."

They broke the connection and Roberts scowlingly contemplated the situation. For an organization that delighted in advanced technology, it seemed like a very crude problem. But, here it was, and he was stuck with it. And so, now what? He had already tried carrying it to the top. He had also tried rolling it to the top. He had tried alternately carrying it and setting it down. He had tried rolling it up on the inner half of the two-foot wide concrete base of the fence. That time he'd been sure he could make it, since to rest he could cling to the fence with his hands, and meanwhile he could jam the thick end of the cone against the fence with his legs. But, each time, the cone had gotten away and slid and rolled to the bottom, and the frustration had built up till his last try had been a pure brute rush straight up the hill. That had been worst of all. He'd been lucky not to get a broken leg out of that one. Well, what was there left?

He frowned up the slope, noting the innumerable white scrapes and scratches on the exposed rocks. The whole width of the hill was marked with scratched rocks and grooved and dented dirt where previous recruits had come up against this same problem, and somehow solved it some way.

Looking at the hill, it occurred to Roberts that maybe he didn't have to work the whole answer out by himself, after all. Obviously, those other recruits had solved it and got out of here. How? Perhaps the hill would tell him.

Intently, he studied the hill, seeking some place where the scratches were conspicuously few. That might be the place where there had been the fewest slips and falls because, for some reason, it was easiest to get up there.

But the stony hill was scratched more or less evenly from side to side. It was only free of scratches near the bottom, where the slope was very gentle—and near the top, where it was steepest. Apparently, no one dropped the cone when he had it near the top. Why? As far as Roberts could see, only a physical superman could hope to get it up the last ten feet of that slope.

The only peculiarity Roberts could see was the number of dents in the ground at the foot of the hill—from dropping the cone, wide-end down? That, he supposed, must have happened from misjudging the weight of the cone the first time it was picked up. But he had made many false tries himself, and yet he had never done that.

He looked around, noting the straggling green grass of the hillside, the blue sky, the drifting white clouds, the fence, and the trees outside. He looked down at the massive cone, with its flattened small end, and its spherically-curved large end, the whole thing mirror-smooth and hard to hold.

How to get a grip on a thing like this?

Outside, life went on. Meanwhile, here he was, stuck with this damnably simple problem.

Mentally, he pictured every conceivable way of climbing that hill. But the trouble was always the same—that steep slope near the top. No feat of gymnastics could get this thing up that last steep slope.

Supposedly, it might be possible to scratch out a kind of ramp up that steep slope, from one side of the hill to the other. But aside from the lack of tools and the time it would take, there was the little question of those mines that were supposed to be laid inside the enclosure. Where were they, and how deep? Supposedly, they were somewhere near the fence. But then, so was that steep slope.

Roberts groped around for more ideas, and none came to him. But he couldn't just stand here and go to sleep on his feet, so he crouched, and gripped the massive, awkwardly shaped chunk of metal. He straightened up, damning the weight of the thing. It had been bad enough to begin with, and seemed heavier every time. What was it made out of, anyway?

Heavily, his muscles straining, he walked up the gentle beginning of the hill, and even managed to climb the first part of the steepening slope. Then he sank down, lowering the weight heavily to the ground.

He waited until his breathing became even, then he crouched beside the weight, and shoved the large end of the cone uphill in a semicircle. He seized the smaller end, and levered it up and over so that the large end was again downhill.

With steady concentration, he moved it monotonously up the hill, first one end, and then the other, as the slope gradually steepened, and became worse and worse to climb, and then a soundless buzz caught his attention, to provide a welcome break in the hopeless job.

Heaving the small end up and over, Roberts crouched beside the cone, holding it in position with his right hand as he took out the little communicator with his left hand.

Hammell's voice said, "I thought I ought to mention it. This damned thing is gimmicked somehow."

Roberts' right foot slipped on a loose pebble, his right leg shot out behind him, and he slid downhill, losing his hold on the cone. The cone's small end came up and flipped over. The large end rumbled around in half a circle, then the small end flipped over again, and the large end went around in another half-circle, the whole thing slipping in the dust and loose rock fragments, and starting to gather speed.

Roberts in a flying jump landed across the cone, but his right hand, outstretched, slid in a spray of gravel, while his left hand, still gripping the communicator, was out of action. Somehow, the cone got free, and banged and thudded down the hill.

Roberts peered sourly down the slope to see the dust blow away, showing the cone once again at the bottom. He sat up, and raised the communicator.

"It's gimmicked? I don't see that the damned thing needs to be gimmicked. It's impossible just as it is."

Hammell seemed to think Roberts doubted his word. "Well, it is gimmicked. There's no question of that. There's a column of mercury or some such thing in it."

It seemed to Roberts that he could get along nicely without this superfluous complication. One impossibility at a time.

"Yeah," he said, his voice expressing no great conviction.

Hammell said shortly, "Listen, I've tried half-a-dozen times to keep the damned thing on the base of this fence. It falls off every time."

"M'm," said Roberts noncommittally, getting up and starting downhill toward the cone.

" 'M'm'?" Hammell said, losing his temper. "Try it! See what happens!"

Roberts' eyes narrowed. Exactly what made Hammell assume he was the only one who might have thought of that?

Still, there was no point having an argument over it. They might yet be able to help each other work out the answer.

Roberts strained hard to keep the anger out of his voice, but the accidental result was that he spoke in a kind of drawl:

"Well, you see, I've already tried that."

There was a little silence, accompanied by a sense of a thickening of the atmosphere.

Hammell snarled, "And what was your experience?"

"No trouble with it falling off."

"How come you didn't get it all the way to the top?"

"It slipped loose, about a third of the way up that steepest section."

"But it didn't ever fall off the base when you put it there? The hell you say."

"Oh," said Roberts, his suppressed anger coming to the surface, "the hell I say, eh?"

He stuffed the communicator back in its case and crouched to grip the cone. He staggered to his feet with it, stunned at its weight. He could only imagine he must have worn himself out trying to get it up the hill the last time. This added frustration further infuriated him. Meanwhile, a little voice was repeating Hammell's "The hell you say," over and over in his mind, and this affected him like being stung by a yellow jacket that doesn't rest content with stinging once, or stinging twice, but stings as many times as it can sting until it is killed.

Roberts' anger boiled over, and he gripped the cone with redoubled force.

The cone tore itself loose, and he barely managed to guide it aside and yank his foot out of the way. The cone hit the ground with a thud that he both heard and felt, and that was heavier by far than he would have thought possible.

For an instant he stared at it, then he seized it again, tried to wrestle it up off the ground, and couldn't do it.

He snapped the communicator from its case, and switched it on.

A roaring crackle came out that no one could have talked through. The communicator had been jammed.

Roberts put it away, and stared at the cone.

He must be close to the answer.

He strung a series of virulent epithets in chains, and aimed them all at the cone. Once started, the emotion snowballed and when he'd reached the point of dull raging frustration lined with pure hatred, he crouched down, tried to grip the curved underside of the cone, and couldn't work his fingers under it.

The cone had now sunk heavily into the stony dirt. By no stretch of the imagination could he ever have lifted anything that heavy.

In fact, it just couldn't be that heavy—unless it contained a mixture gravitor with a device keyed to his own moods and designed to compound his own frustration.

He turned away, forcing his breath to come quietly and evenly. He looked off at the dark-green trees and up at the fluffy white clouds. Soon, he told himself, he would be out of here. He would be out of here, with just one more test, one more "little formality," awaiting him. But the main thing was, he would be out of here. Because now he had a handle on the slippery featureless problem.

His mood began to lighten, and he repeated over and over to himself that he would soon be out of here. What was it the guide, their advisor and friendly antagonist, had said? "Now, gentlemen, good luck on this simple, though very basic, little formality. And may your disposition be as sweet in a few hours as it is right now."

For anyone with a brain in his head, surely that comment ought to have been enough. But it hadn't been enough. Still, better late than never.

He looked intensely at the shiny conical "key," sunk in its hole.

"Soon," thought Roberts, looking at it, "I'll be out of here. I'll be out of here, thanks to my good friend, the key."

When he could actually feel flickerings of affection for the miserable device, as if it were a pet dog, he knelt, worked his fingers under it, and straightened.

The cone came up out of its hole as if made of balsa wood.

Roberts, now genuinely feeling friendly toward the thing, his mood actually cheerful, wasted no time going straight up the hill to the gate, and sliding the now-light key into its nearby cone-shaped recess in the concrete apron. He moved the cone around until the various studs, holes, plates and slots lined up, then he shoved it home, and reached down to turn it.

There was an instant of blankness, as when a man reaches for a tool he has laid down, and someone else has meanwhile walked off with it.

The cone, eighteen to twenty inches long, fit in the recess, about eighteen inches deep, to leave nothing exposed but its shiny curving surface. This surface offered no bump, hole, edge, or grip of any kind, and was mirror-smooth.

Roberts had expected the edge to project slightly, like the rim of a wheel. He stood looking down at this curving mirror, framed in its brass ring bearing the words:


"Turn key." How?

He crouched, and the key favored him with a distorted view of himself. He put both hands flat on the slick curved surface, pressed, and tried to turn it.

The key didn't move. His hands slipped.

He sat back.

Now, he had to turn this thing, and to turn it, he had to get some kind of grip on it.

But there was nothing there to grip.

Staring at it, he made two or three more tries to figure it out, and the thing threw him each time, like some kind of mental judo champ.

He gave that up, and turned around, facing down the sloping hill, where he at least wouldn't have to look at his distorted reflection.

Down the hill, all the dents at the bottom of the slope were obvious now, plain messages that the weight of the key could vary.

Roberts looked up.

Could he turn it by some similar process?

He crouched by the key, and now he willed it to turn.

Time after time, he imagined that the mirror-smooth surface rotated.

The gate, however, didn't move a fraction of an inch, but remained blandly reflected, along with his own distorted image, in the shining surface of the key.

He tried emotion on it. He hated it, beamed friendship at it, commanded, pleaded, believed, saw it turn— Dizzy and beginning to question his own sanity, he sat down again, facing down the slope so as to get the thing out of his sight.

There had to be some other way to figure this out.

Let's see now. After all, this was a test. It followed that, contrary to what might otherwise be the case, there should be some rhyme or reason to it.

A good part of the problem was therefore to figure out the viewpoint of the tester.

Now, the Interstellar Patrol might be tricky, devious, or brutally direct, but it wasn't stupid. And this problem would almost certainly bear the characteristic mark of its maker.

Now, why did the Patrol give this test? It was a part of basic training. It must be to drive home some important point. What was it the guide had said? —"A quality may be indispensable, but insufficient by itself. And the necessary additional quality may be its apparent opposite."

Now, what had he been shown but that mental attitude was important?

What would be the natural remainder of the test?

In actual life, particularly in tight spots, was mental attitude important?


Was it enough?


What else did it take?

The physical part of the problem had to be dealt with.

Now, the physical part of this problem was that slick featureless mirror-smooth surface. How to grip what offered no hold? Well, it was often necessary to grip or turn some ordinary slippery surface. How? By gripping it tighter. And what did that mean? —By exerting greater pressure.

Roberts turned around incredulously, to look at the evidence of how thoroughly he had been sent down the wrong track by mental indirection.

There was the shiny surface in the concrete apron. Right beside it, reflected in the surface, was the locked gate with its strong horizontal bars.

Roberts went to the gate, stood on his hands, his feet up against the bars of the gate, walked his hands to the edges of the shiny key, locked his elbows, and straightened his knees. He could feel the heavy pressure in his joints, and now he twisted clockwise—no result—then counterclockwise. Under his hands, the shiny surface smoothly turned.

The gate began to slide.

He dropped to his feet, saw the gate slide wide-open, and stepped through.

That "little formality" was over.

Now, there stretched before him a path through open woods, doubtless leading to the final test.

And abruptly, Roberts could feel his viewpoint change.

Inevitably, a new member of the Interstellar Patrol, seeking some ground for confidence that he could handle his job, would look back to his training in the hope that, having handled training as tough as that, he could therefore handle the job, too.

Roberts started down the path.

Anyone in his right senses would hope for as speedy and simple an end to this grind as possible. But that wasn't what he hoped for.

As he headed down the path, Roberts had one fervent wish for this last problem:

Let it be tough!


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