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Trigger Tide

by Wyman Guin

Preface by David Drake

I first read "Trigger Tide" when I was fourteen. I didn't understand it, but I almost understood it. The work stood on its own as an action/adventure story, but it held an assumption about how the world, the universe, worked that I couldn't quite grasp.

I've reread the story a number of times since then, including its original appearance the October 1950 Astounding (with Guin using the pseudonym Norman Menasco). Often reading a story in its original context will bring it into a different focus. That was true of "Trigger Tide," but I still don't think I quite understand it.

Neither have I ever gotten "Trigger Tide" out of my mind. That's why it's here.


That first day and night I lay perfectly still. I was often conscious but there was no thought of moving. I breathed shallowly.

In midmorning of the second day I began to feel the ants and flies that swarmed in the cake of mud, blood and festering flesh I was wearing for clothes. Then, through the morning mists of its tiny sixth planet that giant white sun slammed down on me.

I had been able to see something of the surroundings before they began working me over. After they had taken the hood off my head and while they were stripping away my clothes and harness of power equipment, the first orbit moon—the little fast, pale green one—shot up out of the blue-black sea. I had been able to tell in its light that we were on a tide shelf, probably the third.

Now burnt, lashed and clubbed I lay face down in the quick growing weeds of the hot tide shelf. The weeds were beginning to crawl against my face in the breathless air and dimly I realized a moon must be rising.

It had been the predawn of the tenth day of period thirty-six when the two of them stepped out of an aircar on Quartz Street and the girl I was walking home to the Great Island Hotel turned me over to them. If it was true that I had been lying here that day and night and this was the next midmorning, and if this was the third shelf, there would soon be a tide washing over me.

That tide was not easy to calculate. That it could be figured out is a tribute to the way they drill information into you before you leave The Central on an assignment. But the most thorough textbook knowledge of a planet's conditions is thin stuff when you are actually there and have to know them better than the natives. I tried the calculation all over again with that great sun frying my skull and got the same answer.

In about an hour the big fifth orbit moon and the sun would be overhead. The equally big third orbit moon would be slightly behind. Together they would lift the sea onto the third shelf all through this latitude.

The kind of day it was these tides would come up smoothly and steadily. Through the buzzing of flies I could not hear the sea. That did not mean it was not a hundred feet away lapping rapidly higher on the third sea wall.

I lay perfectly still except for my shallow breathing and waited for the sea.

When the water came over me in a shall rush I strangled. Quickly, I refused to move. The water rushed over me again and again softening the clotted mud that had kept me from oozing to death. Finally when the surf receded it was still about me and I had to try moving.

I got to my knees and set to work with my right hand to get some vision. With the sea now washing higher about me I finally got the clot from my right eye and achieved a blurred view of daylight.

You have to have at least some luck. When you run out of it altogether you are dead. The fourth sea wall was about fifty yards away and looked as though a normal man could make it quite easily. How I made it was another story. I could barely use my legs and the left arm was useless. All the time I was reopening my wounds on the quartzcar formations of the sea wall.

That quartzcar is not like the familiar coral that forms some of the islands of Earth. It is made up from quartz particles that are suspended in the ocean water. It is a concretion in an intricate lattice which small crustacea pile up in regular patterns. The animals build their quartzcar islands from the quartz dust that rises in tidal rhythms off the floor of the shallow planetary sea. Consequently the islands come in layers with tide shelves that correspond to the height of various lunar tides.

The only land on that planet is the countless archipelagoes of quartzcar. On the sea walls or when you dig it up it presents a fine rasplike face that opened my wounds and left me bleeding and gasping with pain when I reached the top.

That afternoon I was not unconscious. I slept. It was dark when I awakened. Then slowly, magnificently it was light again as the fifth orbit moon rose over the sea, a great ball of electric blue. Only a short time later the little chartreuse first moon came rocketing up to catch and finally, a shade to the south, to pass the larger body on its own quick trip to the zenith.

Back at The Central the "white haired boys," the psychostatisticians, can tell you all about why people get into wars. If they had not been right about every assignment they had plotted for me, I would never have lived to get beat up on this one. Sometimes their anthropoquations give very complex answers. Sometimes, as in the case of these people, the answer is simple. It was so simple in this case that it read like Twentieth Century newspaper propaganda. But lying there looking out into the glorious sky I didn't believe in wars. There never had been any. There never would be any. Surely they would close The Central and I could stay there forever watching the great moons roll across the galaxy.

I reawakened with a sharpened sense of urgency. I got to my feet. There was going to be a war if I didn't get on with the assignment. The fine part about this job was everyone wanted it "hush." The ideal performance for a Central Operator is, of course, to hit a planet, get the business over with and get out without anyone ever guessing you were doing anything but buying curios. Generally those you're up against try to throw you into public light—a bad light. These boys wanted it hush much worse than I did. It gave me a certain advantage tactically. I will not say the mess I had got myself into was part of my plan. But they were going to scramble at the sight of their mayhem walking back into the city.

I had to skirt half the city to reach my contact and a safe place to heal. To make it before morning I had to take advantage of every moment of moonlight.

After about half my journey I had a long wait in the dark before the fourth orbit moon came up and I was able to move ahead. I was skirting the city very close through the fern tree forest but, except for an occasional house and couples necking in aircars idling low over the fronds, I had little to worry about.

Toward morning the only light was the second brief flight of the tiny first moon and the going was much slower. But at least while it was up alone the vegetation did not move about so much. I finished the last lap to my Contact staggering and dangerously in broad daylight.

* * *

He didn't say anything when he opened the door of his cottage. He didn't show surprise or hesitate too long either. He led me in carefully and put me down on a bed.

Part of the time he was working on me I slept and part of the time I was wide awake gasping. It would have been just about as bad as when they worked me over except that he used some drugs and I knew he was trying to put me together instead of take me apart.

Then at last I slept undisturbed—that day and the next night. When I awoke he was still there staring down at me with no expression on his face.

It was the first time I had tried to form words with my mashed mouth. I finally got out, "How did you recognize me? You'd only seen me normal once."

I got two shocks in rapid succession. He said, "I'm awfully sorry about your eye."

It flashed over me that this man had gone sour as an Operator. No Central Operator is ever sorry for anything. Certainly no one ever says so when you've had "bad luck."

I got the second shock and pulled myself up from the bed. I searched the blurred room till I made out a mirror and went to it without his help. It was only then I realized they had put out one of my eyes.

I don't know whether it was just fury and determination to heal fast or whether he was right that there is some mysterious influence on that planet that accelerates healing. It took me only about three weeks to get back to the point where I felt I was in shape to tackle them again. The bones in my arm knitted very well and it was surprising how fast the burns healed.

He knew a lot about that planet, this Operator. He couldn't stop asking questions about it. What made the vegetation move when a moon was up? Why did the animal life, including men, slow its activity at the same time? The only question it seemed he hadn't asked was why he, an Operator for The Central, had adopted one of the major habits of the planet he had been assigned to. He wouldn't move while there was a conjunction of moons at zenith. Instead he criticized me for exercising my scarred legs while a moon was up. You'd think it would have reminded him that being inactive at such times was only a planetary habit.

It was impossible to question him along a consistent vein. He would start talking about their organization and end wondering about the possible influences on human behavior of subtle rhythms in gravity. He would open a conjecture about the daily habits of their Leader and it would end a theory on the psychology of island cultures. His long expressionless horseface would turn to me and he would conclude with something like, "You know, Herman Melville was right about the sea. It is not a vista but a background. People living on it experience mostly in a foreground."

Every Operator for The Central has at times to think profoundly about such things and be equipped better than average to do so. You can't deal effectively with the variegated human cultures now scattered far out into the galaxy without being neatly sensitive to the psychological influences of landscape, flora, climate, ancestry and planetary neighbors.

But at present I had a much blunter assignment. I had to reach a carefully protected man I had seen only in photographs. I had to reach him in the shortest possible time and kill him. Now, the worse luck of all, my only Contact had "taken root."

It happened every day of course. Psychostatistically it was inevitable. A fine Operator hit a planet where he began to take an emotional interest. He adopted quite seriously one or more of the major habits of the natives. This man had reached the next stage where his emotional interest in his new-found "home" dominated his finely drilled ties to The Central. In his case it had taken only a standard month and a half. In fact it had not been visible a month ago when the pilot of my tiny space shuttle dropped me off in the dark at his cottage. I finally realized the only thing I could get from him now was a rehearsal of the story he had told me that night before I walked alone into the strange city.

But I delayed asking him to retell his story. An odd thing happened. It happened just as I was about to ask him to go into town and buy me a set of the local power equipment. We were on our usual morning walk through the fern woods. Naturally he had refused to exercise until the passing of the second orbit moon. That had irritated me. I was on the verge of spitting out that I was wasting time and would be on my way as soon as he could run into town and buy me the local harness.

There in the middle of the path lay my own power equipment—the harness they had stripped off with my clothes down on the tide shelf three weeks before. If they had only left this harness on me, I would have been able to antigrav my way over the fourth sea wall instead of frictioning my way up on peeling flesh. I knew the harness and helmet on sight. I picked it up and I was certain. The hair at the back of my neck stirred.

I didn't say anything and he was still enough of an Operator not to ask. We both knew it was no accident.

Back at the cottage I spent the rest of the day and most of the night checking that harness of power equipment. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it that I could find. The radio, sending and receiving, was in perfect order both on inspection and when I check-called to my ship waiting on the second orbit moon. The arms, both the microsplosive for killing single targets and the heavy 0.5 Kg. demolition pistol were as they had been when on my person. The antigravity mechanism and its neatly built-in turbojet, part by part, under X-ray and on the fine balance he used for assaying quartzcar specimens, was an unblemished complexity. Again, when the equipment's own X-ray was turned on its tiny "field-isolated" radioactive pile, no flaw could be seen. Naturally that was something of which I couldn't be sure. Something that I couldn't detect with these instruments might have been done to that tiny power pile at the subatomic level. The X-ray diffraction patterns were O.K. but—why did they want me to have my own harness? What reason outside the harness?

I had reduced to a simple question about its nuclear fission pile that highly multiple question, "Has this power equipment been tampered with?" I would have to gamble for the rest of the answer and it was worth the gamble. An Operator's power equipment is the best in the galaxy. From what I had seen of the equipment worn on this planet it was definitely second rate.

It was nearly morning but he was still sitting in a corner, his long melancholy face buried in the local books on quartzcar. One of them was titled in the native language, "The Planetary Evolution of Quartzcar." Well, it was not considered desertion to lose all interest in his assignment and all ties with The Central. It was just an occupational disease.

"You know," he said, suddenly standing up and walking to the greenish darkness of the window, "there are several piezoelectric substances."

"Yes," I answered. I was busy putting the intricate crystal plates back into the atomic fission pile.

"Quartz, of course, is one of them."


"You know how a piezoelectric substance behaves?"

I was annoyed. The job of slipping the countless delicate crystal plates back into the pile was exacting. "Well," I said without bothering to cover sarcasm, "why don't you tell me all about it. I got through physics on a fluke."

By the galaxy, he took me seriously. He stood there staring out at the fern forest and talked earnestly about electroelastic crystals like I was a first-year physics student.

"These substances convert electrical to mechanical energy and vice versa. You know how the old-fashioned phonograph pickup worked?"

I didn't pay any attention to him.

"The needle was activated by grooved impressions in a record by previous sounds. In the pickup device this needle pressed against a piezoelectric substance. Its mechanical movement against the crystal set up corresponding electrical discharges from it to the speaker." I was silent working on the pile. I decided that if he said, "You know" again I would get up and poke him. "You know," he continued, "every island on this planet is constructed from quartz—a piezoelectric substance."

I didn't get up and poke him. I continued to stare at the harness but I stopped working on it. He went right on without turning. "These constructions of quartz are subjected to rhythmic mechanical stress when the lunar tides pile up against them."

He was a capable man or he would not have been an Operator in the first place. That a man "took root" on some planet and became absolutely untrustworthy as an Operator did not mean he was not still a brilliant and sincere man. This one was obviously trying to solve a serious problem and doing well at it. I looked up with a new respect and he turned from the window.

He couldn't help smiling and I had to admit he had slipped one over on me. He said, "You see, it could be that these quartzcar islands generate an electric field as the tides press on them. The strange blind movement of some of the vegetative forms could be a response stimulated by that electric field. The cessation of animal movement could be a safeguarding adaptation preventing disease which might develop when strenuous activity is pursued in the presence of such fields."

I couldn't help grinning. I had been blindly driving ahead because the assignment was urgent and I had missed all this.

"I realize," he continued, "that I have taken root but I think it is important that I was trying to solve the defeat of our first operation when I first took up the question of quartzcar."

"You know," I interrupted, "they treated me just as they treated your group—just as you described it to me that first night. They left me absolutely alone—no interference at all. I knew I was asking for it when I overplayed my hand. But I had to do something to get action. Up to then it was like working in a vacuum. You wouldn't have guessed there was a Party. There was no sign of them. It was only by boring in with the full intention of killing the Leader if I wasn't stopped that I finally forced them to show."

"Yes, that's how it was with us," he agreed. "Not one of the six of us met any interference until in a period of thirty seconds in various parts of the city two crashed from heights as though the antigravs had suddenly failed, two were blown to bits and one just simply died while walking through the rotunda of the Government Building where he was supposed to create a divergence in ten seconds.

"But why did they spare me? Was it because taking a shower was so innocent? If they could so neatly blow the whole plot wide open just at the moment it was climaxing they must have realized my part in it. They must have known I was innocently occupied taking a shower only because it was not my moment to be in action.

"Within seventy seconds their Leader would have been dead. Instead five of us were dead. It took me a long time to figure out that that was not due to a lot of concerted planning on their part. They had known it was going to happen at a certain time with no help from them. They knew when we were going into action and knew therefore that we would fail due to some calculable force. It wasn't necessary for them to interfere if we didn't plan to act before a certain time."

I nodded. "And I got what was coming to me because I went into action before they could calculate my defeat. Well, then the quicker I try again the better. I'm going in this morning." He almost volunteered to go with me.

* * *

Back in the city my mutilated face created attention. When I antigraved onto the sixth floor balconade of the Great Island Hotel people at nearby tables of the open-air restaurant turned to stare and turned quickly away. The table I had hoped for was unoccupied. I took it facing away from most of them so I could see the entertainment stage. Beyond the stage, as it was viewed from this point, were the antigrav tubes of the hotel. They were transparent and in them people rose to the upper floors or descended to the street without need of harness such as I was wearing.

The waiter came and took my order for a drink. He didn't recognize me, yet he and I had had a joke once about that drink.

My watch said it should be only a few minutes before she would be on the stage singing quiet little songs. It was on this stage that their Leader had first seen her. His only overt human quality was an interest in tall lanky women. He liked them at least eight inches taller than himself. This one he had promptly moved from the artists' and actors' quarters of the city to a penthouse atop the Great Island Hotel.

Presently the string trio she used for a background came out and lounged about the potted trees on the stage. They warmed up with a few dolorous little melodies. Beyond the stage the antigrav tubes were crowded. In one of them a tragic waterfall of humanity descended to the street level. In the other people drifted upward. Occasionally a person or couple in more casual ascent hesitated as they passed the restaurant and decided to come in for a drink.

The string trio started another number and she walked gracefully out onto the informal stage. She smiled on her audience with a possessive warmth that was half her popularity. Then she began singing in a husky, unmusical but dramatic voice. She was a beautiful girl all right but my attention was suddenly diverted.

I recognized the short scrawny one immediately—the big man when he spoke. "Say, I never thought we'd see you again. Mind if we sit down?" He waited politely.

I motioned to the chairs. "Say," he chuckled, closer to my face, "we sure did a beautiful job on you, didn't we?"

"Yes," I agreed, "I owe you both a great deal."

He had a big hearty laugh. "Well," he gasped between guffaws, "no hard feelings, I hope."

"I'm very objective. I understand it was all in a day's work."

"Sure," he said solemnly. "Let us buy you a drink." The waiter had come up.

I shrugged at my glass. "I'll have the same. There's no strychnine in it."

That set him off again. "Say," he burbled, "you're a card. You know when I first took a shine to you?"

I declared I couldn't imagine when it might have been.

"When I broke your arm. You really took it like a man. Didn't he take it well, Shorty?"

The little man wasn't saying anything. He was making his good-humored grin do as his contribution.

"Well, here's to your health." The big man raised his glass the minute the waiter set it down.

I drank with them and we sat in silence listening to her song until he called the waiter over for another round.

"Yes, sir," he exclaimed when it had arrived. "I sure never expected to see you again."

"Oh, you knew I got off the tide shelf. That's why you planted my power harness so I'd find it." That took the humor out of his eyes.

"I don't get you," he said in a level voice. The little guy had stopped grinning.

I explained about finding my power harness on our path in the fern forest.

"I think," he said with finality, "some animal dragged it up there. We left it on the tide shelf." There was ice in his eyes.

"That could be," I said, knowing it could not be.

"Waiter," he called, "bring us another drink."

Well, they had me and they weren't letting me go. I was going to have to sit quietly in the public restaurant of the Great Island Hotel and get drunk without making a scene.

It was getting on to noon and there was a big moon hitting its zenith. Activity in the restaurant was beginning to slow and there were fewer people in the antigrav tubes. She was singing her last number backing off stage with the trio.

I looked at the big man and his scrawny companion. There was one good solid reason why they had suddenly showed up and why they were gluing themselves to me. The Leader was up above in his Great Island Hotel penthouse waiting to spend the luncheon with his long lanky beauty.

How long would the siesta last? I wasn't very far into that thought when I came up with a start and my hand stopped in the act of putting down my glass. They both glanced at me.

All five moons were going to be overhead at noon. They would lift the sea onto the fourth tide shelf. That was the biggest tide and it was rare. I calculated the last time it had happened was over a standard month and a half ago. If my sudden guess was right, the healthiest place for a Central Operator at that time would be in the shower.

"What's the matter," the big man asked in a monotone. "You worried about something? You afraid you're stuck in bad company? Don't worry. We just want to have a couple more drinks with you and then we have to leave . . . in a hurry."

"Thanks. I'll sit the next one out. I want to have a little talk with that singer." I stood up and he grabbed my arm, the one he hadn't had any practice breaking.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." He tightened down on the arm. But my advantage was the secrecy they needed.

"You wouldn't want a scene, would you?" I shook my arm loose. People were beginning to take notice and he sat quietly glaring at me.

I beat it through the stage door and back to her dressing room. I stepped in without knocking. She looked up startled from where she stood buckling a belt to her lounging shorts. She didn't recognize me and she didn't like me.

"Get out of here."

"You remember me," I soothed. "Three weeks ago you and I were regular pals. One night you went so far as to introduce me to a couple of special friends of yours in an aircar down there on the street."

She was genuinely horrified and began backing away. I walked toward her. "You thought they were going to kill me, didn't you?"

She nodded dumbly. Then, "For the Leader—" and automatically remembering another Party slogan, "for Planetary Security."

"You didn't know they were just going to torture me?"

She shook her head piteously almost imploringly—a little provincial girl caught in something bigger and uglier than she had dreamed.

"And leaving me alive to come back and ask you questions? Admitting the pleasure they took in how badly I would suffer when I regained consciousness how could they afford to take the chance of leaving me alive?"

"Because you will die anyway." There was an abrupt personal fright on her face. She raised her hands with the palms outthrust as though pushing the sight of me away.

I thought I saw something move at the open window and changed my position in the room backing from her. She was almost wailing, "You will die now . . . the tide . . . it's almost—"

One thing they weren't taking chances with was that I might radio her answer off the planet.

The scrawny devil popped up from where he had been antigraving at the window and the microsplosive he put in her chest made her dead throat shriek as the long beautiful legs crumpled to the floor. I blew his head off while her glaring face sank before me. His body spun but antigraved where it was till I got to the window to haul it in.

From somewhere above the big guy fired at me as I yanked the body in and took the harness. I peeled out of my own power equipment and threw it in a corner and got out of the room. In a washroom down the hall I adjusted the little guy's harness to fit me. As I stepped out into the hall again there was a shattering explosion from her dressing room. I had got rid of that harness one hundred twenty seconds soon enough.

There was one spot the big hoodlum wouldn't be looking for me. I went right back to my table in the restaurant. There was, of course, no activity or conversation between the few who had stayed at their tables during the high tide. People sat in silence and seemingly asleep waiting for the moons to pass. I knew from experience that in that condition they would resist hearing my voice. I kept it low and held the radio pickup of the harness close to my lips.

After some hunting around due to unfamiliar controls I made contact with my ship on the second moon. I told them where and when to pick me up. "Now," I said, "in case I don't make it get this down: Piezoelectric islands generate field in response to lunar tides. At highest tide this vibrates the field generating crystals of the fission pile in Operator's harness. Under interfering frequencies radioactives jar to critical mass and explode. Local harnesses do not react."

I was just leaving the table preparing to antigrav outside the building to where that penthouse hung in the mists fifty floors up when I saw my Contact racing toward me.

"I've come to help . . . I guess I still—"

"Get out of your harness. Throw it over the edge of the balcony."

He didn't ask questions. He hurried to the edge unfastening the harness. But from up in the mist they opened fire on him and he never took the harness off. He refastened it and antigraved swiftly up into the mist firing ahead of him with the heavy 0.5 Kg. demolition pistol set for proximity explosions.

That was quick thinking. Up there they might be antigraving alongside the building or they might be firing from windows and the unconfined proximity explosion was more likely to get both.

I followed him as fast as I could with the weaker harness I was wearing. I pulled out farther from the building to back his fire. We had both dropped the infrared viewers out of our helmets but in that mist they weren't much good. The mob above was having the same trouble and we were moving targets, hopeless for proximity fire. Our guns laid a sheet of flame high up on the building.

I believe he was hit but not killed on the way up. He seemed to stagger in his swerving ascent. But immediately their vantage came into view—a balcony surrounding the penthouse. Our fire had driven them back a few feet and he antigraved like a streak up over the edge.

There was a blinding flash and I reached the roof garden to find the mob of them dead in the explosion that had disintegrated him. One whole wall of the penthouse had been blown in. I leaped through this wreckage. The big man—the man I owed so much—was getting to his feet. Apparently he and two others with him had been guarding the door beyond. He looked surprised when he saw me. He must have thought till now it had been I who blew up out in the garden.

I slammed a target-set 0.5 Kg. demolition shell into them. It also blew the door apart. Across the room beyond their surprised Leader was sinking into the antigrav tube. He fired quickly and wildly and I fired a microsplosive from my left hand.

I thought I saw the shot get him but I dashed to the antigrav tube to make sure. Past shocked tenants who had rushed into the tube to escape the explosion-wracked upper floors his headless body lolled its way. The body, unmistakable in the distinctive white uniform he always wore, drifted down the tube stirring as it went a swelling murmur.

The psychostatisticians back at The Central get my vote as the "white haired boys." This was the first time in two hundred standard years that their anthropoquations had described one man and his lieutenant as the "cause" of a war movement. Generally the picture they turn up as "casualty" in a war is spiny with factors and it takes an army of Operators to cover all the angles. This time they had come out a little shamefacedly and said, "It looks like old-fashioned newspaper thinking but for once it's a fact. Get that one man and there will be no war."

As I leaned over the "down" antigrav in the Great Island Hotel his body drifted to oblivion. The murmur rising from the viewers had horror in it. But there was also an unmistakable note of relief. Finally, from far below, someone asked, "Did they get the rest of them?"


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