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The Column Infiltrator
by Steven Gordon
It isn't easy, trying to sell state secrets.
I should know, because I had to sit around, literally for days,
waiting for the opportunity.
I was in Banxital's, a seedy bar on the outskirts of Dulle.
That's on Varisk II. It's one of the most advanced planets in the
League, so they say. Dulle, the largest city on the western coast of
the main continent, was home to one of the biggest research centers of
the fleet. Very secret. Very hush-hush.
I sat in the bar, sighing as I sipped my drink. I had let it be
known, by means both subtle and otherwise, that I was a disgruntled
employee at the local research base. And that was all there was for me
to do. I had parked myself in this bar for the last week, and here I
sat, here I waited.
I hated waiting. I was an operative, an agent, a man of action.
Oh, I knew that some people enjoyed the prospect of tedious
assignments. They actually enjoyed the freedom from thought. But not
me. No, I was going out of my mind from the dullness of this job.
I was up for a vacation, but did I get it? No. I ask for
infiltration work, and do I get that either? No. Instead, I sat
there, waiting. Me, Clifford Croft, the hottest young operative in the
Column. I could be on Sluria, on an important espionage mission. The
Column always needed more espionage work on Sluria. Instead, I was
stuck here. I had very little patience for sit and bait work.
The denizens of the bar seemed to be enjoying themselves well
enough. They sipped their watered down liquor and stared, often with
unfocused eyes, at the transceiver mounted on the wall. It was tuned
into the finals from the zero gravity boosball tournament on Eridani II
(Beta Centauri was ahead, last time I looked). Everyone ignored me as
I sat there, at a corner table. I tried, with little effort, to look
like just another grumpy worker.
And then they showed up.
Charles Waxman and Stanton Norno. Not their real names, of
course, simply the fictional ID's they had presented at the spaceport.
And how do I know this? I'm a spy, remember?
Yes, they were using false ID's, to be sure. I looked them over
a bit. One of them was short and thin, sporting a dull looking
expression on his square-ish little head. His head really did look a
little square shaped. It was symmetrical in almost every way. I
marveled at the creature before me.
The other operative was taller, and looked normal, except for the
moustache. He wore a long and bushy creature, that, by the looks of
it, slanted down over either side of his mouth, like the handlebars on
a jetcycle. Suddenly I blinked, forgetting their names. Just what
were they supposed to be called again? I suddenly decided to think of
them as just Squarehead and Handlebars.
I looked up. They were now standing at my table. That was the
alias I had been operating under. The trouble was, I wasn't very good
with names. I had a tendency to forget important ones, including my
own. My cover name, that is. So I always picked a name that rhymed a
little. My real name, as I've mentioned before, was Clifford Croft,
and everyone knew that--at the Column. But these gentlemen didn't work
at the Column. At least, not at my Column.
"Yes?" I said, looking up at Squarehead and Handlebars, with a
slightly apprehensive look on my face. That's good, I thought. They
would expect me to look that way. I had purposely practiced in the
mirror each morning to get that expression just right.
Squarehead and Handlebars sat down, uninvited. "We understand
you're working at the base," said Squarehead. He really did have a
square shaped head. It's almost as if you could turn it on its side,
and it would still have the same width and height. All that was
missing were the four points at the corners.
"Maybe," I said, playing hard to get. "What's it to you?"
"We also understand you're experiencing certain... cash flow
"Who told you that?" I said suspiciously. I couldn't be expected
to be too naive. Even these amateurs would begin to suspect.
Handlebars grinned. "We do our homework. Mr. Naxo, we have a
proposition we'd like to share with you." I wondered what kind of
service hired such weird looking agents. The problem with Handlebars
was that he stood out too much. That hairy beast under his nose looked
so much like a lowercase 'n'. N for no-good. How inconspicuous could
"An offer for a mutual arrangement," Squarehead chipped in, as if
Handlebars hadn't been crystal clear. This was the offer to betray the
research center I ostensibly worked at, in case I hadn't been paying
Well, it was about time. I had been waiting nearly a week for
them to show up. The Chief knew that I was a top field agent, one of
the best infiltrators he had. And yet I had inexplicably been assigned
this simplistic decoy assignment.
They made me an offer, of course. Money, in return for access to
the base. I tried to jack up the price--I'm always curious to see what
the going rate for traitors are nowadays, and my new friends obligingly
named a much higher figure. By an order of magnitude.
I whistled. They must really want into the base, bad. They of
course didn't tell me what they wanted there, but once I got them in,
they would have quite a range of defense secrets and other goodies to
I haggled a little more over the price, but it was vanity,
really--I could sense this was a one time deal, which probably meant
that they would kill me afterwards, to obscure their tracks. My, this
assignment could get risky.
But I agreed to their terms. They wanted to go now, right then
and there. Evidently whatever it was they wanted to steal, they wanted
to do so in a hurry. Which was fine by me.
It was night now, and my classification wasn't high enough to get
us through the main gate, but I obligingly informed them of the alarm
frequencies on the fence and they burned their way through.
After that we darted through the darkness of the outer compound,
evading the patrols. My benefactors indicated they wished to go to the
avionics building, and I used my passcard to gain us entrance. As we
entered we walked under a dim light, and I couldn't restrain the
smallest of smiles.
The records section was empty, no one was working there at this
time of night. After I secured their entry, Handlebars hurriedly
closed the door behind us and then turned to search the files.
Squarehead kept an eye on me and the door. Very professional.
I smiled innocently enough at Squarehead. "Anything I can help
with?" I said to Handlebars, who was rapidly tearing the files apart.
Handlebars ignored me. He was tossing files on the floor as he
combed through them.
"Hey hey," I protested. "You're making a mess!"
Handlebars kept plowing through the records. "Found it!" he
said, seconds later. He removed a file labeled "Digital Directional
"Fine," I said. "Would you like to pay me now, or when we get
over the fence?"
"Now," said Handlebars, nodding slightly to Squarehead.
Squarehead drew a blaster, pointing it at me.
"On second thought, you can pay me later," I said, trying to
assuage their concerns about proper remuneration.
"Don't move," said Handlebars, seeing my hand subtly moving
inside my jacket. I slowly removed my hand from my jacket, letting
both arms fall to my side. They had the drop on me.
"We know what you're about, Column man," sneered Handlebars.
Oh oh. "You do?"
"We've known all along that you're with the Column," Handlebars
explained. He looked pleased now, all too terrible happy. "But we
really needed to get into the base, and we didn't have the time to
recruit a real traitor."
"Uh-huh," I said, not even attempting to deny their allegations.
It was time for a change of tact. "You'll never get out of here alive.
"-won't spring until you give the signal. We're very conversant
with Column procedure."
Squarehead raised his blaster. His fingers tightened on the
trigger. "And so, we'd like to thank you for your assistance-"
"Wait!" I cried. "If you're going to kill me, at least let me
know what I'm dying for. Who are you working for? The Slurians?"
Handlebars shook his head. "Sorry, we don't take last requests."
He dangled a passcard from his pocket. "We'd love to stay and chat,
but we've got a date with a transport."
I started to put forward another objection, just as Squarehead
pulled the trigger of his blaster.
Horrified, he checked the settings, pressed again.
Handlebars fired his own weapon, similarly to no avail.
All the while I slowly drew a weapon from my own jacket. "Want
to bet on whether mine will work?" I said, smiling.
They raged at me with dirty expressions on their faces.
Squarehead muttered something intelligible.
"You know, you really do have a square head," I commented, almost
conversationally. I covered them while my other hand went inside my
jacket, pressing the signal activator. It was actually a squeeze toy
that emitted a high pitch sound--it had no energy source of its own.
But others were monitoring with sophisticated instruments and waiting
for just such a sound.
As I did pressed the activator Squarehead ran for it, heading for
the door. I instinctively fired at him, and there was a loud swoosh
and a thunk as a sleep dart slammed into his side. Squarehead
collapsed to the ground.
My gun immediately swiveled to cover Handlebars. "Don't try it,
Handlebars," I said sternly.
Handlebars looked puzzled. "Handlebars?"
I gestured with my free hands around my lips. "The moustache,
your silly moustache, you silly amateur, you."
I heard the sounds of movement, and then my people suddenly
trooped in, all at once, and took charge. They grabbed the spies,
dragging them away.
"How....?" said Handlebars, as they slapped the electrocuffs on
"Energy drainer," I said. "We thoughtfully put them up over the
entrances to all the buildings. Your blasters were drained the minute
you stepped through the door." I reached into his pocket, took out the
pass card, dangling it momentarily in front of his face. "But thanks
for the information."
They took him away, as I chuckled to myself. "Amateurs."
As I've said, I've been with the Column for some time now. My,
how time has passed quickly. I remember that fateful day when I
graduated college and had to make the big career decision. I could
have gone into the family business (boring), become a teacher (and
taken a vow of poverty), or gone into politics (that vacuous field), or
a half dozen other endeavors. But the Column attracted me the most. I
liked the idea of traveling to other planets, sampling a bit of foreign
culture, cracking into a top security installation, doing some spying,
and, on occasion, catching some enemy spies. It was a life of
adventure, excitement, constant thrill and danger.
At least, that's what I thought before I joined. It turned out
that 90% of all Column people were paper passers and button pushers,
analysts and logisticians. I think I would've quit if I had ended up
among them. A scant 10% or so are field agents, and even most of those
have boring jobs, like the sit and bait assignment I just pulled off.
But I got into infiltration work. That's the fun stuff. Going to
other planets, taking the fight to the enemy. That's where the real
The only catch was the danger factor. Agent casualty rates were
considerably higher than those of comparable groups of businessmen,
teachers, and politicians. But capture, torture, and risk of death
came with the job. I never gave it much thought; I was always too good
to be caught.
The next day the Chief sent for me. Alden Alderman himself. I
came, at the appointed time, only to find that I had arrived too
precisely on the hour; I loitered for a few moments in the outer
offices, so that I would be a few minutes late. It's never good to
show up to appointments on time. Especially with superiors. It gives
them the wrong idea of who's really in charge.
"You're late, Croft," the Chief growled, as I took a seat. The
Chief always growled. That was the Chief's way. He had a face like a
bulldog, with loud jowls that flapped every time he talked. I always
thought he looked laughable, but now I realize he could have looked
He could have had a square head.
"What can I do for you, Chief?" I said, giving A.A. my broadest
smile. "Did you wring those spies dry?" That's a good tactic; it's
always proper form to bring recent successes to the Chief's attention.
A gentle reminder of my value to the firm.
"Yes," he growled. "They talked. But they didn't know much.
They were outside contractors. We traced the passcard to a transport
ship. And then we traced the transport ship."
'And?" I said. I always had to prod A.A. for information; I
think he liked it that way. It showed him that the audience was still
"We traced it to the Happy Worlds."
For a moment, my heart grew cold. "The Happy Worlds." I
repeated, a little dumbly.
"We've detected a pattern of stepped up espionage of late," said
the Chief. "Many of our scientific and military installations are
being raided for information. We've traced several of the unsuccessful
attempts to the Happy Worlds."
Brrr. That name again. No one knew very much about the Happy
Worlds, largely because no one ever went there. The League didn't even
have diplomatic relations with the Happy Worlds, and trade, as far as
we know, was nonexistent. But what we did know about the Happy Worlds
wasn't very nice.
The Happy Worlds, as they are known, are actually a group of
systems in the rather remote Gamma Sector, at the fringes of human
existence. They are shut off, isolated from the rest of humanity.
Their worlds are tightly controlled by a narrow circle of dictators.
How tight is tight? Well, intelligence reports, if one could believe
them, state that each and every mind on the Happy Worlds is under the
control of the rulers. Each citizen is under a tight mental reign,
conditioned to obey authority, to be productive, and... to be happy.
I never believed the rumors, but then I had never gotten close
enough to get an informed opinion of my own. Nor did I want to.
Unfortunately, I was getting an uncomfortable feeling....
The Chief was looking at me. "The next, step, logically, is to
send a field agent-"
"No. No, no, and no," I said, making sure I was being thoroughly
unambiguous. "I categorically do not volunteer myself for this
assignment." I loved infiltration work, but this was suicide.
"Croft, we need to know what is going on there. You're one of my
best people," he said, uncharacteristically softening a bit.
"Send someone else," I snarled.
"I have. Two agents in the past three years," said the Chief.
"Neither returned. They have a very orderly society there. It makes
it difficult to infiltrate. We need to find out what is happening
there. We need to find out more about the Happy Worlds, and what it is
they're after. You will go."
There was no arguing with the Chief. A.A.'s mind was made up.
Sighing, I made the best of it. "Then I volunteer for this assignment.
I'm happy to be on this mission. " I got positively worked up about
it. "In fact, I'm glad to be a part of it."
"Good," said the Chief, ignoring the sarcasm. "You'll be sent to
Negan 14 immediately."
"Negan 14, part and parcel of the Negan Empire. That's what the
Happy Worlders call it, at least," said A.A.
"Negan 14? Is that it? There's no individual planet name?" I
"There's no individual anything on those planets," said A.A.,
matter of factly.
I felt a small shiver go down my spine. This was not a good way
to start a mission. "Nice name," I muttered.
"You leave immediately," the Chief repeated. Then, by way of
dismissal, he said, "Report to Ops."
The Chief turned to his paperwork. That was that. Another piece
of cannonfodder had been sent on its way. Not even a hearty "Go
get'm!" or even a trite but appropriate "Good luck." I sighed, and
started to get up to leave.
"Good luck," said A.A., not even bothering to look up. Maybe he
couldn't afford to make eye contact with an agent he was about to lose.
But he did look at his watch. "Better hurry along. Ops is waiting for
Ops was indeed waiting for me. They strapped me into a helmet
which went down over my forehead, and strapped monitoring instruments
to my body. But I ignored it all. I was thinking about the Happy
Worlds. How did they control millions of people? Drugs? Telepathy?
If it were telepathy, I would be spotted immediately. I caught myself
shivering, and forced myself to stop; twice in one hour was a bad sign.
I felt a sting in my arm. "Ow!" I said, complaining to the
technician. Then the helmet started to hum, and my mind started to
feel fuzzy. All my fears started to drain as my thoughts clouded....
I saw, or imagined I saw, a small, foxy looking white animal. A
I opened my eyes, suddenly coming to with a start. A thought
faded, even as I grabbed for it. I blinked, trying to remember
something, even as a technician was removing my helmet. I rubbed my
arm, which was sore. There were a number of pinpricks there. I got
up, cautiously stretching. My mind felt disoriented. I didn't
remember hypnoinstruction being that rough. But now I knew the native
language, and I had the pertinent mission details in my mind. I was
Or as ready as I was going to be.
I was alone.
Alone, on a special stealthy Column scoutship. No one could spot
Well, maybe that's an exaggeration. At close distances even an
antiquated detection system would pick up my blip. "Stealth" was one
of those things, like deceiving your boss, that one could improve on
over time, but never get entirely perfect. If anyone was looking a
little too closely, I would be discovered.
But I was as stealthy as any League ship could be; in fact, more
stealthy than most. The Column never skimped on getting the best
hardware. They saved money by keeping other accounts trim, such as
My speedy scoutship was, in spaceship terms, the relative size of
a pea. A good salvo from a blaster cannon could demolish it. Still, I
hummed contently as the days went by; this was the safest part of my
mission. The real danger would come when I landed.
The ship rocketed towards the Negan Empire, in particular the
Happy World that the transport ship had been traced to. Negan 14. One
of many Happy Worlds. Soon I would be there, up to my armpits in Happy
Worlders. This thought did not make me happy.
You have to understand; I'm good. I'm really good. I penetrated
the sealed vault on Gulatron after four agents died trying. I've
infiltrated the upper reaches of the government on Callos IV. I've
invaded where others of my fellow agents have failed. But the Happy
Worlds gave me the shivers.
I poured myself a drink and tried to be a little more analytical.
It was the fear of the unknown, of course. The Happy Worlds were cut
off from the rest of the League. Their societies were very ordered,
very top-down controlled. Though it would be more difficult to stay
hidden in such a society, it would still be possible. I could fool
them; I hadn't yet met the adversary that I couldn't outthink.
But then there was the business of the mind control.
I coughed, putting down my drink. That was what was bothering
me. I've faced the risk of capture, torture, even death. But I was
greatly alarmed by the thought of my mind being taken from me, used,
controlled, abused... or perhaps they would simply destroy my brain,
and turn me into a genially humming vegetable.
I idly thought of turning the scout around, and setting a course
for a more, well, friendlier place. But I was on a mission and I
couldn't shirk my duty. And besides, the Column would be more than a
little peeved when they caught up with me.
"Enough talk of gloom and doom!" I shouted, my voice echoing in
the small command cabin. I was the best of the best; I would show
those Happy Worlders a thing or two.
I sat there in the control room, musing over my situation. It
was impossible to make concrete plans because I had so little
information. Usually when I infiltrated a society I didn't even set a
small toe in before I had had extensive briefings on its culture,
psychology, sociology, technology, and a whole host of other ologies
that make a society what it is. But here I was, in a pea sized ship,
speeding towards a planet I knew practically nothing about.
"That's good," I said aloud, again solely for the benefit of the
listening audience. "Good. It will give me flexibility. Who needs
plans? Planners plan. I'm a man of action."
But I wasn't convincing myself. Suddenly I thought of the image
of electrodes wired to my head, sapping my personality... I blinked,
forcing the image from my mind. I checked the rangefinder. I was
coming up on the planet. I had to be ready to land.
Or not to. Our feeble intelligence branch couldn't tell me very
much about the state of Happy World technology. If their space
defenses were more advanced than ours, I would be discovered and shot
down in short order. My ship would burst into flames and blow up in
the atmosphere. Not a nice thought.
But I tended to doubt that would happen. For one thing, if their
technology was superior to the League's, what were they doing stealing
League technology? That was the very question I had been sent to
Negan 14, the Happy World I was heading for, was a large
magnesium copper rock, about 50,000 miles in diameter. My passive
detectors picked up some pickets in the area, but they were slow
moving, and didn't seem to notice my approach.
So I hoped. I kept a careful eye on them as I monitored the
rangefinder. A sudden movement towards me would indicate detection. I
watched them make their plodding circuits around the system.
They paid me not the slightest attention. As I entered the
atmosphere of planet 14, I slowed, braking as I decelerated. Perhaps I
would be able to land undetected after all.
And then I saw the red light blinking on my console. Someone had
gotten a lock on me. I immediately activated my active detection
systems. There, on the screen, were three surface to air missiles.
All homing in on me.
They were large, oval shaped brutes. I set the analyzer to the
merry task of finding out just what it was that they had sent up after
me. When the answer came I raised my eyebrows. Chemical rocket
engines... graviton stabilizers... Pallium warheads. My my. What an
odd mix of the new and the old.
Even before the analysis came through I was accelerating to
maximum speed. The ship creaked, and skipped a little on the
atmosphere, but I wasn't worried about burning up; the missiles would
reach the scout long before that would happen. For although these were
mere chemical rockets, they were built for easy maneuvering in an
atmosphere, and my ship wasn't. A small oversight.
I periodically glanced at the rangefinder to track the progress
of the missiles as I loaded my equipment in the escape pod.
Unfortunately, my scoutship was unarmed, another technical
specification I had not been not very pleased with.
I threw everything I would need into the escape pod as fast as I
could. But when I was done I stopped for a moment. Had I forgotten
"Impact in forty seconds," said my instrument panel. I had keyed
it for verbal transmission. It was really quite versatile. And, in a
few seconds, it would no longer exist.
"Thirty seconds," said my instruments. Had I forgotten to pack
something? Or was I just delaying, fighting an unconscious urge to
abandon the mission? It was too late to back out now.
I was feeling uneasy about the mission, I had to acknowledge. No
amount of doublethinking on my part would obscure that.
That was the last time announcement that I heard from the
cockpit. In a few short seconds the scoutship exploded, and burst into
a million pieces.
But I was not in the scout; I had ejected, just several seconds
before. The shockwave from the nearby explosion rocketed the pod, and
I was so shaken up I was afraid I had timed it too closely. I had
wanted to make it appear as if the escape pod was a piece of debris
from the scoutship. The rumbling continued shaking the escape pod for
a moment, but things quickly calmed down and I steered a path down to
the planet surface. If I was picked up, I would hopefully be perceived
as a piece of wreckage. Hopefully.
I steered for an uninhabited area. I didn't want to land too far
away from a populated zone, but I didn't see any easy way to infiltrate
by landing in the middle of a crowded street. No, better to land away
from prying eyes, and then to make a slow, cautious contact...
Unfortunately, it was not to be. As soon as I stepped out of the
pod, I could see several speedy hovercraft in the distance. Heading
straight for me.
The adrenaline was pumping, I won't deny it. For a moment I
thought I had been set up. Then I forced myself to relax. I hadn't
expected this degree of vigilance, but I was prepared to cope with it.
Several minutes later the hovercrafts closed on the pod. This
was, by and large, a flat terrain, but there were several outcroppings
of rock in the area, and I took the opportunity to conceal myself
behind one of them. Not that it would hide me for very long.
The hovercrafts were troop transports. They looked like large,
whale shaped vehicles that could carry a lot of people. I eyed the
large whales approaching me, and a fine sweat broke out on my back. I
was about to make contact with the enemy.
The whale-shaped vehicles slowed as they got closer, and then
they stopped, a few dozen feet from the pod, and the troops
disembarked. And then I got my first good look at some Happy people.
They were wearing bulky suits, which looked like they had large
interior pouches, for carrying objects, no doubt. And they were armed
with blaster weapons, rifles and pistols. But what struck me the most
were the plates.
They wore what looked like license plates, one on the front, one
on the back, and each soldier had his own number. They were ten digit
numbers, that started off with a letter, then a dash followed by ten
digits. The first letter always seemed to be a "D". Very interesting.
And none of them were smiling. They all had blank expressions on
their faces, as far as I could see. So much for the Happy people being
The troops started to nose closer to my pod. That naturally
would be the first thing they would search. But before any of them got
really close I activated the electrotrigger.
The pod blew up. The Happy people immediately jerked, staring at
the explosion. But there was still no emotion on their faces. When
their attention turned away from the explosion, nothing had changed.
Well, maybe there was a minor change. I was now standing by the
Happy soldiers, with a similarly dumb expression on my face. A soldier
turned, looked blankly at me, and then looked away.
You doubt me? Well, the Column wasn't entirely bereft of
intelligence about the Happy Worlds. Several flights by remote stealth
craft had gotten us some magnified holos of their world. Including the
citizenry, and the clothes they wore. Need I add that I was, not
coincidentally, wearing a bulky suit and two license plates, one front
and one on the back, like all the other troops? I even had gotten the
license plates right--with a quick alteration, mine now began with a
"D" as well. The only problem was the gun. My gun resembled their
blaster pistols, but wasn't quite identical. I fretted a little about
this but held mine low, hoping no one would notice.
"It blew up," said one of the troops dully. "This must be
reported." The rest of the troops milled about aimlessly, walking in
slow circles with vacant expressions in their eyes.
So did I. But I was constantly looking about. And then I
noticed something alarming. I saw a little piece of silver, on the
backs of one of the soldier's necks. I stole another glance. Then I
shivered. Everyone, everyone here had a small piece of metal
protruding from the back of their necks. Everyone but me, that is.
Slowly and smoothly I backed up, so that a hovercraft was at my
back. This was one thing the intelligence boys had missed. I wasn't
too sure what that metal sliver was, but I had an idea. And it wasn't
a nice one.
We stood about for a few minutes, until another hovercraft
arrived. But this one was only a two seater. Obviously a VIP. The
driver slowed to a halt.
When the occupant got out I immediately noticed the difference.
He walked quickly, with a spring in his step, and his eyes darted
about, sharply taking in the scene. He wore the same uniform as the
others, but the first letter on his license plate was a "B". And, as
he walked passed me, I noticed that his was the only neck that didn't
have a silver lining.
He looked over the wreckage, snapping questions to some of the
D's on the scene, who answered in a dull monotone. As a D without a
metal sliver, I made sure to keep my back to him; in fact, I tried to
keep an inconspicuous distance from the B. But I watched what was
happening very closely.
The B played with some of the wreckage from my pod, but he didn't
look like he was having very much fun with it. He kicked a still-
sizzling piece of the outer hull and I would almost bet that he was
frustrated, if such a feeling were possible and permitted on this
world. The B then ordered us to search the area and we did, stumbling
about a bit, but we found nothing (there being nothing, besides me, to
find). Finally, disgusted, the B decided to called it quits. He took
out what looked like a pocket calculator and pressed a button.
Immediately all the D's started to file back into their hovercraft.
Interesting, I thought, as I obediently stood in line to enter
one of the whale-shaped vehicles. The D's were evidently under remote
control. But how could one hand held device control so many troops?
The answer was that it must be a relay. But a relay to what?
Answers were not forthcoming from my companions in the hovercraft
transport, who sat there with dull looks on their faces. They didn't
look happy. All those blank expressions were already driving me crazy;
several times on the trip back I had the urge to make faces at them.
We arrived back at what I presumed was an army base, in the
center of a nearby city. The trip itself took over an hour, which made
me wonder: how did they find me so quickly? Unless they started off
the minute my ship entered the atmosphere, they never could have
reached me as soon as they did. Which meant that they were very well
coordinated. But how could these dim witted types do anything right?
They must have some smart B's directing them, I decided.
Our vehicle stopped at an army base, and we all filed out. I
uncomfortably noticed a camera above the entrance. In a not too subtle
fashion, I looked down at my license plate. If they scanned our
Of course, there might well be someone with the license plate D-
3857463982. But it was unlikely that that particular soldier was
assigned to this base. If the camera was scanning our plates....
There was nothing I could do about it. I walked by it, just like
the rest. If the authorities noticed something, they weren't revealing
it for the moment. No guards rushed up to grab me, no alarm bells
I wanted to heave a sigh of relief, only it would have been out
of character. Or rather, it would have been a show of character.
But then alarm bells did ring and everyone stopped. Simply
stopped moving, as if to some unspoken command. I slowly turned
around. The last soldier had just reentered the base. I immediately
knew what the problem was, what had given me away.
One soldier too many had reported back from the expedition.
We were ordered, verbally, to go to the parade grounds, where we
would join others who were already in formation. I could see them
standing there, while other soldiers, carrying an electrical device,
walked by them. Surely an electric eye. Surely one that was scanning
their license plates, as I feared they might do before. Surely they
would scan my plate. Surely they would catch me.
My stomach started to tie itself up in knots. Now I knew why
none of our agents had never returned. This society was too organized
to infiltrate. I had made a mistake to join the armed forces, which
would be the most organized of all the segments of society.
There would be time for recriminations later. Right now I had to
think of a way out of this. Think, Croft, think!
Fact: If I reported to the parade grounds, I would be caught.
Fact: If I attempted to run, I would give myself away awfully
Conclusion: I had to do something else.
Amended Conclusion: And whatever I was going to do, I needed to
do it quickly.
Every second brought another step, another shuffle closer to the
parade grounds. We marched closer and closer. I would have to do
something. I would have to take a risk, a number of risks.
I slowed my steps until I was the last man in my squad. My
fellow soldiers did not object to my tardiness, or, apparently, take
any notice. They also hadn't noticed the lack of metal hanging from
the back of my neck, and I was counting on the fact that they weren't
very observant. So I hoped.
As we walked by a shed I tripped the last man in line, and
dragged him in.
He looked at me and said, "We must report."
"Yes," I said in monotone. "Let me help you up."
So I did, slowly, removing his license plates.
"Those are mine," said the D, in a slow monotone.
"So they are," I said, handing them back. "Here, I will put them
on you," I said, doing so. Without comment we exited the shed and
continued our march to the parade grounds.
Oh, did I fail to mention that I switched license plates with the
other soldier? Actually, hidden in my suit pouch I had any combination
of numbers that I might have added or changed to my license plates,
altering my own ID number. The problem was I needed a real live number
for someone who had been on the mission. It wouldn't have helped to
copy someone else's number, for two people with the same number would
similarly attract suspicion.
I tried to put as much distance between the soldier I had
assisted and myself. When we stood in formation on the parade grounds
I tried to ignore my heart, which was beating wildly. There was still
one more risk I was taking.
Two D's carried around an electronic eye, on a wheeled cart,
through each row. A beam shot out of it, analyzing the numbers on each
soldier's license plate. When they reached my friend, the machine
burped, and guards grabbed the hapless soldier, taking him away.
I inwardly heaved a sigh of relief.
But then the machine kept going. These Happy people were nothing
if not thorough. And then the machine came to me.
I won't lie about it, I was worried, and I'll tell you why. If
the machine simply scanned the license plates, as it seemed to be
doing, I would be all right. But if it also matched faces to license
plates, then I would be in trouble. I did not resemble my former
friend at all. I was playing a hunch, and at this point I had no other
The machine came to me, flanked by many guards. I put on my best
blank expression, and tried to look half moribund.
There was a hum, the machine paused for a moment...
and moved on.
I had done it.
I really should have left the army immediately. It really would
have been very foolish for me to stay. I realized that when they
interrogated my "friend" that they would be able to trace me very
quickly. Once they found out who my friend was, all they had to do was
trace his number, and then they would be able to find me. Under those
circumstances it would have been only prudent to exit this base very,
But I was curious, and I wanted to poke around a little.
Curiosity has killed a lot of cats, and a goodly number of agents, but
now that I was inside a military installation I didn't want to pass up
an opportunity I might not get again so easily.
We were ordered back to our quarters, but no one noticed when I
slipped away. It seemed like all the enlisted men were D's, and I
truly think I could have mugged someone right in front of them and they
wouldn't have blinked, unless they were ordered to. The officers, what
few there were, all seemed to be B's. They were the real danger. I
would have to avoid them.
Or join them. I dodged into a secluded supply shack, and took
some equipment out of my pouch. In seconds my license plates, front
and back, began with a "B". I also changed the numbers on my plates,
just to confuse the trail further. Fortunately the officers I had seen
didn't seem to have any badge of rank, so no additional accessories
I exited the shack, and started looking about. No one paid the
slightest attention. Certainly not the D's, who walked past me as
though I didn't even exist. The only B I passed just nodded slightly,
giving me a broad smile. It took me only a moment to recover from the
shock of this unexpected facial expression, but I managed to return it.
I started a little tour of the buildings at the center of the
base. The base itself was a large, fenced in compound with a large
training center and parade ground. A fleet of hovercraft were parked
in one corner of the base. I made note of it, but for now I was more
interested in the enclosed buildings. One of them, marked "Armory" in
the native language, was my first stop. I needed to find out more
about Happy Worlder technology, and weapons were a good place to start.
At the entrance to the Armory there were two D's, both armed, on
duty inside. They looked dully at me.
I momentarily debated whether to show facial expressions to them.
I decided not to; the effort would probably be wasted.
"I wish to see the weapons storeroom. Now," I said, walking up
to them. Would I need a special pass? Or would they just let me in?
"Yes sir," said one of them dully, as he moved to let me walk by.
It was that easy. I made a nice tour of their weapons supply,
crates of carefully stacked weapons neatly labeled in the hideous local
language, as I took copious mental notes all the while.
One thing I noticed almost immediately: their level of technology
was below the League. They had blaster weaponry, to be sure, but most
of this stuff looked a generation or so behind standard League fare. I
got the chance to study one of their blaster rifles closely. Even I,
no engineer, could see that the power packs were of low reliability and
would have to be replaced frequently. The focusing tunnel was
primitive but serviceable, but I shook my head; it was no wonder that
these people were stealing League technology left and right. But what
were they really after?
I toured more of the weapons stores, taking a few items that I
thought the natives would not be likely to miss very soon. I was
turning to leave when I heard the sounds of people entering.
I was preparing to turn into my brash officer mode when I saw who
it was. Three officers. And the one in the middle, a thin fellow who
seemed to have a permanent squint, had some sort of insignia on his
collar. This must be an important officer.
They smiled at me and nodded and I immediately did the same,
wondering whether I should have been the first to smile and nod and
further wondering if getting out of the armory now would be quite as
easy as getting in.
I was just turning to leave I heard a voice say, "Just a moment."
I turned, to see Squinty beckoning me with a crooked finger. He
had a broad smile on his face, but I don't think I liked it.
"What are you doing here?" he smiled, speaking in a calm voice.
Again, that smile. It seemed to be plastered to his face. It was
bland, but I found it threatening.
"My weapon malfunctioned. I was getting a replacement," I said,
in the same level tone. I held up my blaster pistol. It wasn't my
off-planet weapon; I had switched mine with one of the primitive native
versions several minutes ago.
The officer nodded. Squinty stared at me sharply. He seemed to
be thinking something over. "Very well," he said. "You may go."
I must say that had been quite a close one. If I had had any
sense at all, I would have left the base, right then and there. I eyed
the aircars in the distance. They were tempting me very much right
now. But I turned away. I still had work to do.
I entered another building, the cafeteria. I had some condensed
provisions in my pouch, but I would prefer real food, if I could get
I had obviously come to the wrong place. D's were on a long line
leading to the serving area, but I cut ahead of them. (Rank does have
some privileges). They were all being served the same thing: a purple
drink, and a large tan cube. I looked around. Only D's were in sight.
I surreptitiously took a piece out of a cube, put it in my mouth-
and involuntarily spat it out, with the remains landing on a
soldier's food tray. The D in question looked a little surprised, but
said nothing, and, commencing to pick up the discarded cube, he popped
it into his mouth. Evidently a half chewed saliva encrusted piece of
food was not objectionable to him.
Meanwhile I was gasping for breath from my experimentation with
the local menu. The taste of it had been so pungent, so burning, that
it felt like the flavor had already burned into my mouth. If that was
all there was to eat on this planet, I would starve. Right now my
immediate priority was to wash this foul taste out of my mouth, but I
instinctively knew better than to try the purple liquid. Instead, I
went into the kitchen.
The chefs were D's, too. They didn't seem to mind when I elbowed
one of them out of the way as I ran for the main sink, rapidly putting
my head under the faucet and turning the controls.
Aaahhh. That was better. Much better. I grimaced as I felt
remnants of that foul food still clutching to my tastebuds, but it was
now vastly diluted. If the chefs were surprised by the sight of a
solider gulping down water in their sink, they didn't communicate it to
me. Wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, I decided to explore the
rest of the kitchen.
Bad move. The next thing I saw was the food preparation process,
which almost made me sick again.
The food blocks were made of a liquid that was put into brick
shaped pans. No surprise there. But the batter itself was in a large
dirty bowl that stank from across the room. I watched as a D
dispassionately poured a chemical into a brown stain incrusted vat.
Drugs, perhaps, to keep the troops docile? Possibly
But the sight that really disgusted me were the rats. They were
everywhere. Running along the floors, the walls, the countertops. The
D's either didn't notice or didn't care. What almost made me lose my
lunch was the sight of several tails in the food vat. Even as I
watched another rat, balanced on the edge of the vat, slipped and fell
in. A large crunching device came down over the vat, mixing it and
I was definitely going to be sick. I got out of there
immediately. How could they tolerate that? Were they so drugged that
they didn't care about anything? Anything at all?
In the open air outside I started to regain my strength. Which
was a good thing too, because an officer and a squad of D's was
approaching. They stopped a soldier in front of me, scanning his ID.
Oh, oh. My deception hadn't lasted.
I didn't hesitate to think what would happen if they scanned my
ID. It might not be a problem--it seemed very possible that there
might be another officer in their registry with my serial number. But
if the scan was a little more specific, they might be checking to see
if an officer with my ID was currently assigned to this base. The
problem was, I didn't know their procedure. Time to leave.
I started to turn the corner around the (gag!) cafeteria. The
hairs stood up on the back of my neck. If they called out to me....
But they didn't. I started for the hovercrafts, at a brisk pace.
As I walked I saw I passed a building marked 'administration'. And
then I stopped.
This was too good of an opportunity to miss. If there was
anything useful to find on this base it would be in there. And yet it
seemed almost certain that further delay would increase the chance that
I would be apprehended. I didn't know what they did with prisoners
here but I wasn't anxious to find out.
Fear won out over curiosity, and I had just started walking
again, when three shapes came out of the Admin building. Squinty and
his two officer buddies. And one of them carried a scanning device. I
turned my back on them, and was glad of it.
I halted, slowly turning around, with a grin plastered on my
face. All three of them were armed, and there were other soldiers
walking by us. This was not the place for a confrontation.
I continued to smile, uncertain what to say. When in doubt,
smile. Smile smile smile.
"B-375, your attention, please," said Squinty. "There is an
intruder on the base. We have reason to believe that it is an alien
from another world."
"An alien," I said, still keeping the smile up. Hm, who could
they be referring to?
"Yes," said Squinty. "Have any of the men in your unit been
acting... unusual lately?" He looked at me strangely, as if there were
something mildly wrong.
"No, sir," I said, still smiling, still trying not to look
nervous. But I worried whether I was trying so hard not to look
nervous that I looked nervous. I didn't have a mirror in front of me,
I had no way to tell.
Whatever expression I was showing, it was obviously looking
strange to Squinty. He looked at me even more curiously, as if he
"B-375, what is your name?" said Squinty calmly.
That chilled me to the bone. Until this moment I had had no idea
that Happy Worlders even had names. I didn't know what typical Happy
Worlder names were, or even if they used one name, or two. Or more?
Squinty was expecting an answer. I thought I had better say
"Br'atra," I mumbled. There, that could be interpreted as one
name, or even two.
Squinty continued to smile at me, but it was a little strained
now. "I don't believe I know you. What unit are you with?" Out of
the corner of his eye I noticed his hand straying closer to his
holster. He knew.
"4-14," I said, recalling the number I had seen on one of the
"Hm," said Squinty. He snapped his fingers. The junior officer
came up to me, and scanned my license plate. Soldiers continued to
walk around us.
After an interminable second, the scanner beeped. I didn't know
whether that was a good sound or not, but the tension in the air
"Very well," said Squinty. "Maintain your vigilance."
"Yes," I said, turning to go. I couldn't believe it! They had
let me get away! I started a fast march for the hovercraft.
A mistake. Just as I reached the parked fleet of sleek vehicles
I heard a voice from behind me. Calling to me. I turned around. It
was my buddy Squinty again. And his two pals. Surely this wasn't a
coincidence. I looked around, without making it obvious that I was
looking around. There were four D's on guard here; hardly great odds,
but better than they had been in the middle of the encampment.
I pasted a smile on my face as Squinty approached, and I put a
hand in my pouch. My blaster remained holstered; it would have been
suspicious had I drawn it.
Squinty walked up to me. "What are you doing here?" he said,
fixing me with a sharp glare. He wasn't smiling anymore.
"Inspection," I said. It seemed like a good thing to say; they
were always doing a lot of that in the army, right?
"You are to report for readjustment. You are malfunctioning,
come with us," said Squinty.
Ah, Squinty, you haven't guessed the half of it. "Certainly," I
said, starting to walk forward towards them. And then I pressed the
pocket activator in my suit pouch.
There was an enormous explosion, as the weapons armory went up in
flames. Even at this distance we were pushed to the ground, and I'm
afraid to even think what happened to the people and buildings in the
vicinity of the weapons storage facility. For there had been a large
cache of explosives in the building, much of which could be set off by
remote control detonation. And at the time I simply hadn't been able
to resist taking one or two detonators with me.
We were all forced to the ground by the power of the blast, but I
was expecting it, and Squinty and his friends weren't. I was the first
one up, and the blaster was out of my holster in an instant. I fired a
stun bolt at each of Squinty's friends, but missed Squinty, who was
struggling to draw his own weapon.
"Not today, Squinty," I said, shooting him.
I immediately turned around, ready for the hovercraft guards.
They had gotten up, but they were just standing there. Suddenly they
all got stiff for a moment, and they froze. And then they all started
to draw their weapons.
I found that interesting, and, had I more time to analyze their
reactions, I might have spent some time in contemplation. But, as it
so happened, I was a little rushed, so I settled for shooting them.
Or rather, shooting at them. I shot one, and he went down, and
then I shot at another, but he ducked to the side. Then they started
moving incredibly rapidly, much more rapidly than I had thought that
such lethargic soldiers could, and they were firing at me! I ducked
behind a hovercar. Not only were their shots getting close, but they
were positioning themselves to rush the craft I was hiding behind. One
of them fired at me while the other two circled my position. Perfect
Two soldiers ran around the car I was using to cover myself...
only to find I wasn't there. That must have puzzled them a bit.
And then I fired on them. Or, to be more precise, I fired on
their feet. That was all I could see from under the bottom of the
hovercar. Luckily the one I had hidden under had already been revved
up, or else there would have been nothing to slip under. Even so I had
to aim carefully as the condenser thrust virtually pinned my body to
The wonderful things about blasters set on stun is that, given
enough power, it doesn't matter which part of the body you hit.
They're stunned. I had reset the weapon to heavy stun for good
measure, and in seconds two D's were lying by Squinty and his friends.
That left one of the D's. I popped up around the other side of
the car, he turned, wheeling to face me, there was a weapons discharge,
He fell to the ground, to join his sleeping friends.
I looked in the distance. Several companies of soldiers were
running towards the hoverpool. It was time to go.
I entered the revved up aircar. The controls looked simple
enough. They were. I started it forward, towards the front gate. But
as I left the hovercraft parking area I tossed an object, which landed
in the seat of one of the parked hovercraft.
I gunned the craft towards the front gate. There were troops
there, all armed, all with rifles pointed at me. They were firing.
Blaster fire whizzed by me. I changed directions. But then I
saw I was quickly heading towards several platoons of soldiers, on
foot. Not good. I veered away, towards the fence.
To my left I saw that troops were on the verge of reaching the
hoverpool and were climbing into vehicles. That was something I wasn't
ready to tolerate so I touched the second activator in my pouch. The
explosive I had lobbed in the hovercraft went off, exploding
marvelously. The hovercraft were all parked very closely together and
a chain reaction started and soon most of the hovercraft were burning.
I would have liked to stay and further admire my handiwork but I
realized that now was the best time to be going. I taxied up to a
thick steel fence on the perimeter. It looked like a most imposing
"Now, I know I saw blasters mounted on this thing... but which
buttons activate it?"
I pressed one button. Wipers started to swish-swish on the front
of the car. "No, it isn't that one."
I turned at the sound of further explosions. The hovercraft lot
was really going up. But then I saw that several aircars were
approaching me. Either they had salvaged a few of them or they were
coming from a different part of the base. Which was irrelevant. I
just had to get out of there.
I pushed another button, and a screen lit up, and a face stared
at me. A beam came out of the screen, lighting up the number on my
"You're the wanted one," said the face.
"And you must be one of the wanters," I said, turning the screen
I looked behind me. The hovercraft were getting closer. Time to
I revved up the engine. The steel fence was reinforced with
concrete. I didn't know if I could break through, but I was going to
find out. I touched the accelerator-
and a twin beam of blasters stabbed out of my hovercraft, slicing
into the fence. I looked more closely; I had actually pushed the small
button next to the accelerator. I fired again, and a section of the
fence toppled. It was an opening, albeit a narrow one. I edged the
hovercraft through, and, with some scraping, I made it. I threw
another explosive behind me, and waited.
When the first of the pursuing hovercraft had nearly gotten to
the hole in the fence, I activated it. There was a brilliant
explosion, and the hovercraft, swerving, crashed into the fence.
"Time for some shore leave," I grinned, gunning the hovercraft
onto the street.
My happiness quickly wore off. I had had a series of narrow
escapes. My problem lay in the fact that I knew so little about this
world, that it was difficult for me to blend in, even if I were
ostensibly dressed like the Happy Worlders. Right now I was in a
stolen army vehicle which probably wouldn't be too difficult to track.
But I was going into the civilian sector now. Even on the Happy
Worlds there must be fewer controls there. Right?
Wrong. As I drove down the streets of a nearby city, I saw
everyone wearing the same bulky suit I was. That was the good news.
The bad news was that everyone was wearing a license plate. I sighed;
I had been expecting that, but there was something a little depressing
about seeing everyone walking around wearing a long number.
And then I noticed the lettering scheme. C, C, C, C... I saw
one or two D's, and a few B's. But C's were definitely in the majority
here. I still wasn't sure what the significance of the letters were; I
guessed that the first letters, the A's and the B's, had authority over
the later letters, the C's and the D's. But there seemed to be more to
it than that. All the D's I had seen had metal strips coming out of
the back of their necks. And the B's seemed quite alert.
Right now I needed someplace to put the car. Like everything and
everyone else on this planet, it had a license plate. It probably
wouldn't take the authorities too long to find it, and me as well, if I
were still in it. The problem was that wherever I dumped it would soon
be discovered by the authorities. Unless I thought of a clever way of
getting rid of it....
A bit of driving around gave me a clever idea. I turned the
hovercraft into a junk yard, and turned off the motor. The craft
sighed as it slowly dropped to the ground.
As I got out a Happy person approached me. He was a C, and he
I was a still a B, though I had altered my numbers using the
symbols kit in my pouch. I had a strong hunch that a B topped a C,
meaning I could order him around. I resolved to test that.
"Happy day," said the man, smiling at me.
"Happy day," I said, smiling back.
"What can I do for you, friend?" said the man, speaking slowly.
"I want to dispose of my car," I said, pointing to the trash
The man silently took that in.
I waited, a bit uncomfortable with the silence. "My car, it's a
piece of junk."
"A piece of junk," said the C, slowly, as he frowned slightly.
"What can I do for you, my friend?"
"I want you to do something about my car," I said, starting to
"What shall I do?" His eyes were empty, vacant, almost.
"Whatever your procedure is."
It was obvious that I was getting nowhere. So I tried a
different tact. "Drive my car into the compactor, and then crush it."
"Yes sir," he said. He got into my hovercraft, and nudged it
into the compactor.
It was that simple. All I had to do was give the orders. The
only snag occurred when the compactor started to come down, and the C
was still in the car. I had to order him to stop the compactor and get
out before continuing. I'm afraid he had taken my order rather
literally, which raised a whole host of other questions in my mind.
He was brainwashed, obviously; the question was, how? And how
complete was it? These C's didn't seem to have any common sense at
all. I had looked at his neck when his back was turned to me, and
there was no little metal sliver, as the D's had.
I pondered this as I walked out of the junkyard, whistling. Let
them try to trace the car now.
By the time I had exited the junkyard and was walking down the
road back to the city I had changed identities again, just in case the
C had remembered my number. Though from the looks of him I doubted he
could remember much of anything. In a short time I reached the
downtown area again.
My, the city was quite bustling with activity, with B's, C's, and
D's walking about everywhere. I noticed a fair number of D's armed
with blaster rifles, all in hovercrafts, patrolling the streets. They
were undoubtedly looking for me. Probably I was the first foreigner to
make an unscheduled trip to their planet in a long time, so they were
devoting all their attentions to me.
I was very flattered, but all I did was walk along the street,
with a vague smile plastered to my lips, as all good B's and C's did.
The D's did not smile, which made me wonder what had been done to them.
Not all D's were armed, by the way; some walked the streets, with
aimless looks in their eyes, which forced me to conclude that the
letters did not necessarily correspond with certain professions. But
this was definitely a class based society: B's were more important
than C's, who were in turn more important than D's. The scheme, of
course, suggested that there were A's. I couldn't wait to capture and
But right now I had more immediate needs. The first was food. I
still had some concentrated rations but they weren't very filling, and
I really wished to conserve them for emergency situations. As I walked
along I noticed a food store, and I immediately turned in.
I was only somewhat surprised to find row after row of the square
tan blocks filling the shelves. I didn't find the prospect of eating
rat byproducts very enticing and I almost sighed, but turned it into a
cough at the last minute when a C stared at me.
But a few doors down I found another food store. Bracing myself
for the inevitable food cubes, I entered. I was surprised to find a
fair assortment of normal foods. There were apples, raisins, bread,
noodles--the choices weren't enormous, there was no meat, and much of
the fruit looked badly decayed, but in hungry state it looked like a
banquet. I noticed that all the patrons in this store were B's. And
suddenly I remembered that all the people in the previous food store
had been C's. Ah, ha!
I found my mouth watering as I eyed a loaf of bread. I was
starting to get really hungry now.
Careful, careful. I loitered around the checkout area. What did
these people use for money? The answer, I quickly found, was nothing.
Scanners at the checkout counter played a light over the consumer's ID
plate, and then beeped. Presumably this reduced the consumer's credit
account by an appropriate amount.
What did this mean for me? My current license plate was B-
8472648597. If there was in fact a B-8472648597 in existence, an
appropriate amount would be taken out of his credit record, and I would
be free and away.
But if there wasn't, an alarm could go off. No, I had to be
reasonably certain that I was using a valid ID. Dejected, I left the
food store. I supposed I could have copied down any B's ID and
switched mine in a secluded alley (if any existed on this planet).
But then I had a better idea. I decided to secure lodgings
first. There was an apartment building above the food store. I would
be living there, I decided.
I loitered around the lobby for a bit. All the people going in
and out seemed to be B's. I don't know where the C's and D's lived,
although I guessed that for them mass dormitories would probably be
more the rule than the exception. But B's were the elite; they would
be entitled for their own apartments. So my theory went.
I waited until a single B got into an elevator, and then I jumped
in after him. He was a thin fellow, a young man wearing the typical
bulky suits that Happy people do.
"Happy day," he smiled at me. It was a wide, beautiful smile,
the same kind of smile that half the morons on this planet must be
"Happy day," I smiled back at him.
He didn't seem surprised when I got off at the same floor when he
did, although the B did look over his shoulder when he saw me walking
behind him. These B's were definitely more self-aware than the C's or
the D's. When he reached his door I walked past him, keeping an eye
out for how he was able to get in. A scanning light reached out and
touched his ID, and the door clicked open. And then the door closed.
I went to the end of the hallway, where there was a camera
mounted on the wall. I almost couldn't stop myself from chuckling.
These people didn't go in for subtle surveillance. Reaching behind the
camera, I pulled out its operating wires. I expected I would be
restoring it to good working order before the malfunction was noticed.
I just didn't want anyone who might be watching to look in on this
floor at this particular moment. For the next few seconds I needed a
bit of privacy. I went back and knocked on the B's door.
He opened the door. He looked a little puzzled to see me again,
but he said, "Happy day."
"Happy day," I smiled at him. Then I shot him with my blaster
pistol. I had it set on 'stun'; there was no need to kill him.
He slumped to the ground, and I entered his apartment, quickly
closing the door behind us.
Trouble. There was a camera, mounted on the wall. It didn't
seem likely it could scan the alcove where the door was, so if anyone
had been watching, they wouldn't have seen what had happened. Still,
my dragging in an unconscious body might attract a bit of attention. I
bit my lip momentarily, wondering how often each camera was tuned into
by the central authorities. Well, there was no way to tell.
Whistling, I reached up the camera, disconnecting it. Even if a
warning buzzer flashed at headquarters, I doubted they would race out
to repair it in ten minutes. Which would be all the time I needed.
I took the camera down, and opened it up. "Ah!" I said,
delightedly. It was better than I hoped. The camera contained a
taping mechanism, which I readjusted. I was still working on it when I
heard a groaning from the door alcove. I got up and went over to my
friend. "Oh, you're waking up," I said, momentarily putting a helping
hand on his shoulder.
Groaning, he started to get up.
"Here, let me help," I said, and I shot him again. "I'll get to
you in just a moment. But for now, please be quiet," I said, returning
to my work.
After a little more work I completed my task. "There!" I said.
I reinstalled the camera, stood directly underneath it, and was very,
very quiet for about five seconds. When I heard a click, I
disconnected the camera again. Then I made some final adjustments, and
Then, whistling with the satisfaction of a job well done, I
tended to my new friend. As I looked around for something to tie him
up with, I took notice of the apartment itself. It was boxed shaped,
aside from the door alcove, and it was quite small, essentially a one
room studio. There was a screen mounted in one wall which I hoped
didn't transmit as well as receive, but right now it was off and I
would attend to it later. I hoisted my friend up on a chair, and
securely tied him with strips of a shower curtain I had cut up. It was
the toughest thing I could find, fabric embedded with metallic fibers,
and I had to really struggle with a cutting tool to make the strips, so
I supposed they would hold him.
He started to come around just after I returned from the hallway,
where I restored the camera there to good working order. As he reached
consciousness my host started to smile instinctively, but quickly
dropped it when memory came flooding back to him.
"Well, well, a Happy Worlder who doesn't smile," I said. I
certainly was smiling at him.
"You are an Unadjusted," he said, glaring at me. Good, I liked
that. Anything was better than the moronic smile.
"Oh, I'm quite well adjusted," I said, filing the word away in my
mind. That would be another topic to ask about. "But for now, you're
going to help me."
"I don't think so," said the B, smiling at the camera on the
I calmly took a seat, munching a piece of bread I had found in
the kitchen. It was tasteless and stale, but I was hungry, and it did
not matter much. "Sorry, pal. We're off the air. I taped a five
second loop of an empty room, and inserted it into the feeder. That's
the only thing that the home office will see on their holovision."
"Help! Help!" The B cried. He was so pitiful, I was almost
tempted to laugh.
"Ha ha ha," I said, easily giving in to the temptation. "I fixed
the sound, too. Package deal. Now, let's get down to business. For
starters, what's your name?" I was interested in finding out what
typical Happy Worlder names were.
The Happy Worlder was silent. I knew that he understood my
question, but he simply did not want to respond.
"You won't even give me your name?" I said. "If we're going to
get stuck on that, then it's going to be a long, long night, I can
promise you that." And I gave a powerful smile, for effect. I don't
like torture; I much prefer intimidation. It's less messy. And more
But my words had little effect on the Happy Worlder. He sweated
a little but said nothing.
"Odd," I said. "That you're resisting already." I considered; I
had a small amount of truth drug, but I wanted to save that until I
came across someone important. Not merely any old B.
He was trying to resist but he didn't realize that he couldn't.
This brainwashed sod was up against one of the cleverest minds in the
"All right," I sighed, in mock frustration. "We'll play it your
way." I picked up my blaster with one hand, putting down my piece of
bread with the other. "See what you're making me do? You're making me
cut short my lunch." In an overdramatic way, I adjusted the setting on
the blaster. "I don't like people who interfere with my meals." I
raised the blaster, pointing it at him. In the past that always seemed
to help people make a decision.
"No!" he cried. My captive was obviously no exception.
"Tell me your name," I said.
"My name is-" a pained expression appeared on his face.
"Wata? Or Wa Ta?" I said.
Wata, or maybe his name was Wa Ta, I don't know, screwed his face
again as he tried to answer my question. But he was having a difficult
time of it.
"What's the matter?" I said curiously. "Why can't you answer?"
The B nodded. "I can't answer," he said, breathing more easily
Hm. Curiouser and curiouser. "Well, then we'll have to do it my
way," I said, shooting him.
A beam of light stabbed out at him from the barrel of my gun, and
he cried out as he was shot, slumping back in his chair.
"Most interesting," I said, reaching over to peel back an eyelid.
I had reset the blaster to heavy stun; he would be out for a while.
I taped his lids open and then started to slap him on the face
with moderate force. When he blinked, or rather, tried to blink, and
his eyes started to move, I knew that he was starting to come out of
Which was precisely the state that I wanted him in. I quickly
took the hypnocube out of my pouch.
One of the many small items I had brought with me to this most
inhospitable planet was the hypnocube, a small device shaped like a
cube (and hence the 'cube' part of hypnocube), a device that flashes
patterns of into the optic nerve in such a way as to induce a trance-
like state, suitable for many purposes. Especially interrogation. The
only problem is that unwilling victims need to be susceptible to the
hypnocube in the first place, which is why I had to shoot my new friend
again, much as it pained me to do so. But, as an experienced spy, I've
long been hardened to the realities of my work.
Wata started talking. That was his name; evidently, Happy People
only had one name. (Or perhaps B's only rated a single name; I had yet
to interrogate an A, a little piece of work I still was looking forward
to). Wata was the manager of a government clothing distribution
outlet. I can't say that I was surprised to learn that all clothing
outlets were government run. And all food stores. And all stores.
And everything else, for that matter, including the people, their
thoughts, and their minds.
I quickly found out why Wata had been less than cooperative with
me in his conscious state. There were strong impulses in his mind to
be loyal to the state, to give absolutely nothing away to the enemies
of the state, the Unadjusted, or the Unprocessed, as they were also
called. I surmised the Unprocessed were people who had somehow escaped
brainwashing, but Wata was able to tell me little of them, as he did
not customarily mix and mingle in such circles. For Wata had been
Or brainwashed, to put it bluntly. Wata had obviously had his
mind tampered with, this was very clear to me. When I asked how this
had done he was a little vague on the subject, but I suspected that he
had been hypnotized, not unlike he was now. Probably repeatedly. They
had strung his brain out in hypno sessions, ensuring his absolute
loyalty. At the same time they had left other parts of his brain
alone, which explained why he retained more awareness than C's and D's.
I had identified myself as his superior, and, in his current
state of mind, Wata was trying very much to be helpful. We talked
about the other classes of citizens in this sick society. I had been
right when I surmised that there were A's, on the top of the pecking
order, followed by B's, C's and D's. Wata gave me the impression that
C's were also conditioned, by the use of drugs. That explained why
they were slow witted.
But my blood ran cold when he described the D's. Remember the
metal slivers I had seen in the back of their necks? Those had been
miniature antennae that kept them in continuous communication with
their masters. They were under the most complete control of the state,
complete mental control, told what to think at every given minute of
their grubby little lives. They had no freedom, no individuality, no
personality. They were little better than robots.
Which was to my advantage. For though large numbers of them
could be coordinated very quickly, they didn't have any initiative. I
could rob a bank in front of a company of them if they didn't have
orders to stop me.
I also probed Wata for information about A's, but Wata had never
even seen an A, leading me to believe that they were very few and far
I mulled this over for a while, and asked some more questions
about this Happy World. Wata knew a fair number of things about this
society, but he wasn't very certain about how it was run, or who even
ran it. He had a vague notion of a "Master" and a "Super Master", but
he didn't seem to know very much about them. Only that they were in
charge. I sighed; that was all he really needed to know, I suppose. I
reflected upon the fact that this B, part of a relatively senior and
relatively pampered segment of society, was still little more than a
cog in a machine.
I questioned Wata late into the night, picking up on everything
from local customs to procedures for accessing mass transportation,
trying to absorb everything I possibly could. Finally, I got too tired
to continue, and I brought him out of it.
He glared at me when he came to. I had tried to implant a
suggestion that he should be friendly, but his conditioning was too
strong, so Wata still wasn't feeling very amicably towards me.
"You won't get away with this!" he yelled. "Help! Help!"
I looked about. I had no idea how thin the walls were here.
"Help! Help!" he cried.
I stunned him again, and put a gag over his mouth. "Nighty
night," I said, as he slumped in his chair. I went to bed too; I
figure he wouldn't mind if I used his mattress. It was hard like a
rock. It was probably made of food cubes.
"Good morning!" I said to my bound and gagged companion.
"Mmm Mmmgh!" said Wata.
"Mmm mmm, breakfast does smell good, doesn't it?" I smiled,
laying out a hunk of cheese and a piece of bread for each of us. I
ungagged him, making him very aware of the unpleasant consequences that
would come from yelling or loud noises. But Wata's hands were still
bound. I set the food down before him.
"How do you expect me to eat?" he said, glaring at me.
"Be creative," I suggested, washing down the dull cheese with
water. "But if you're not hungry...." I added, giving him ample motive
to be creative.
It worked. Still glaring at me, Wata bent over stiffly, putting
his head to the plate. When he came up he had a chunk of cheese in his
mouth. "Mumph Anarno!" he said accusingly.
"Really? I've been told I can be quite a good caterer," I said
If Wata understood me, he didn't let on. He just kept glaring at
me as he swallowed large chunks of cheese. I smiled encouragingly at
him, as I would a small child that I was encouraging to eat.
"You enjoy this," he muttered.
"What?" I said. I looked up, a little stunned. Wata was getting
"You enjoy taking people captives, controlling them."
I laughed. And I laughed and I laughed. I laughed so hard that
I almost fell out of my chair. Wata just glared at me.
"'What's so funny?' you might ask," I said, when I managed to
calm down. "That's what we call irony. You, and all of your people,
are under the control of others. And not merely physically. Your mind
has been taken."
"I have been guided," said Wata stubbornly.
"Guided," I said, considering that for a moment. "And you like
"Of course. It's necessary."
"Hm..." I said, taking that in. I watched at he pecked at his
food, like a large bird leaning down to the ground to pick up bits of
edibles. That made me laugh again. "Ha ha ha," I said. But when my
laughter subsided I pulled the plate away from Wata.
"I'm not done," said Wata.
"Yes, you are," I said, getting up. "You need to go on a diet.
Consider it guidance." I wanted to make a point, but I also wanted to
be on my way. There was much to be done today, and I didn't enjoy
frittering away my time watching Wata peck at his food.
I made some final preparations, then I said, "Well, I'm off for
the day. Wish me well."
"Once you leave you'll never get back in!" Wata sneered.
Wata wasn't very smart. Had it been true, he shouldn't have
warned me. "And why not?"
"The door only opens to my code," he said, looking down at his
"Ah hem," I said, tapping to my own. It was identical to his. I
put the gag back in place. "I'll be back for dinner. And I may go
shopping, so I hope you have appropriate credits in your account."
He started to open his mouth to complain, just as I clapped my
hands twice in rapid succession. Suddenly, Wata slumped in his chair,
"I like that," I said, smiling as I headed out the door. I
hadn't been able to alter Wata's original hypnotic programming, but I
had been able to amend it. Now whenever he was awake and heard a
double clap, he would immediately fall asleep. Not only would this
help Wata pass time more quickly, but it would allay whatever fears I
had that he might get out of his bonds and escape while I was out. The
last thing I needed was to return home after a hard day of espionage to
find an entire platoon of troopers staked out for me.
I started to walk in the streets, the standard smile plastered to
my face. I noticed that the troops who had been milling about
yesterday were gone, and for that I was relieved. Either they had
called off the search or they had gone elsewhere, believing I wouldn't
be stupid enough to stay in the city. But I was.
"Happy day," said a smiling C, passing by me. I returned his
As I walked across a street I noticed several B's, each wearing a
stripe around their waists. This was the first time I had noticed any
Happy People dressing even slightly differently, so my attention would
have been caught even if I hadn't noticed the long poles they were
carrying. And they were stopping people. And asking them questions.
And scanning their ID plates.
I casually turned around, to head in another direction, and saw
several more striped B's, doing the same interrogation bit. I tried to
brace myself; after all, I had nothing to be concerned about. I had a
valid ID plate, courtesy of my friend Wata. What could I possibly be
And then I saw just what it was I could possibly be afraid of.
Some of the C's that were stopped were given injections, with air
hypos. And some of the B's were being made to stare into small objects
that I suspected weren't too different from hypnocubes. They knew I
had blended in with the local population. They knew I was here. They
knew, and they were trying to ferret me out with random sweeps.
Immediately, I felt a panic grip me. I looked about, but there
was no way to escape, unless I started running. Which was definitely
an option. The striped B's didn't have distance weapons; all they had
were those long poles.
Or so I thought. Suddenly, to my great surprise someone started
running. I couldn't see his ID clearly, but I think it was a C. Some
of the B's started chasing after him.
He didn't get far; one of the B's raised his pole, aimed it, and
fired. There was a wooshing sound, and the fleeing C fell to the
ground. The B's closed on him. The C started to get up, but I saw he
was limping. They must have hit him in his leg. He tried to get away,
but the B's caught up to him, and he was cornered against a wall.
"No, no!" he cried, his face a mask of agony and terror.
One of the B's touched him on the shoulder with the rod.
Instantly his face relaxed, and a gentle smile graced his face. "Thank
you," I heard him say.
A small van hovered up to the scene. Still smiling, the C
allowed himself to be escorted into it. And then the van sped away,
and everyone resumed going about their business, like nothing had even
But a chill went down my spine. That easily could have been me
that had been tapped with the rod. And what would happen to the
captured C? Mental conditioning? 'Processing'? I shuddered, and went
about my way.
I tried to explore some of the city, but I felt wary about going
far from the apartment building. From a distance I saw two more sweeps
being conducted. Inwardly I wondered whether I had made a mistake by
staying in this city. But I would have been willing to bet that there
were roadblocks all around the city, with travelers being given the
same treatment. No, I couldn't leave now, not until I found a secure
method of travel.
All the architecture here was squat, white, boxshape, and
extremely functional. I was almost surprised when I walked by a large-
ish building flanked by pillars. Just what could this place be? I
looked up at the native lettering.
"Hall... of... Memory...." I read, slowly translating it from the
native tongue. Hm. Could that be a museum of sorts?
It could. I decided to take a look. It was a building of wide
halls and tall ceilings, decidedly most atypical, for Happy Worlder
architecture. I looked around at the displays. They depicted the past
history of the Negan empire. I studied a large mural, depicting
valiant warriors leading a victorious battle. Underneath was a series
"Everyone suffered in the chaos of before, until they masters
came. They restored order, and gave us happiness."
Hm. I walked on, glancing at exhibits. Nothing exceptional; just
standard propaganda, as I would have expected. I went casually from
room to room, pausing by exhibits only infrequently.
But I stopped at the head.
There was a head, mounted in a glass booth. It looked like the
head of a person. I looked more closely. It was obviously a plastic
replica. But it looked real. It was labeled, "The head of Blurpus,
the anarchist. Turn the lever, and hear what he has to say."
Turn the lever? This looked interesting. I looked to the side
of the booth, and sure enough, there was a lever.
"Hm, a show and tell museum," I said, grasping the lever firmly.
I turned the lever, and the mouth started to move!
"Bla Bla-" I stopped turning. The mouth stopped moving.
I started again. "Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla," said the
anarchist, making wild movements with his eyes. I stopped turning.
I don't suppose I had expected to actually see another point of
view here. The only point of view that mattered was the state's.
Everything else was bla bla bla.
I looked a little more, but my heart really wasn't in it; it was
obvious that there was nothing of value to be learned here. As I
exited I noticed a small child by the head. He pointed up at the
display case, and said, in a high voice, "Bla bla bla."
"Well, he's learned something," I muttered, hastily making my
egress from this insane asylum.
I walked around a little more, but by mid afternoon I returned to
the apartment. Wata was still asleep, which was fine with me. I put
him into a trance again.
I needed to be more focused, I realized that much now. Every day
I stayed on this world increased my chances of being caught. But I had
been sent here on a mission: to put a monkey wrench into the
technology piracy operation that was being carried out from this
planet. But in order to do that I had to break into their secure
defense installations. I didn't even know where to find their secure
I put that very question to Wata. Not very surprisingly, he
didn't know very much about their secure facilities either. I asked
him where the top security government offices were. Again, he didn't
know. I asked for a map of the city.
"We don't have maps," said Wata in a dreamy voice. He always
sounded like that when I hypnotized him.
"No maps," I said dully. "Then who knows where anything is?"
"The peacemen," said Wata.
The peacemen. Wata identified them as the striped men with the
I didn't decide to take action that evening, perhaps because I
didn't have the necessary courage. Instead I sat back, watching Happy
broadcasts on the screen transceiver.
I had no problem choosing a selection because there was only one
channel. The screen was also an interpersonal communicator but I
didn't feel like talking to anybody. Instead, I watched what I
supposed passed for their version of the news.
"Economic production is up 4.4% in the industrial sector,"
rumbled the broadcaster, a thoroughly bored looking B. "As a reward
for our hard work, the Master has raised our annual work quota 10%."
How nice. This Master fellow must be a real sweetheart.
Most of the broadcast went like that, with the Master saying
this, the Master doing that. The Master exhorted workers to submit to
an essay contest detailing how to increase productivity in 500 words or
less. The Master inaugurated the opening of a new Zeno production
plant (I suppose one can never have enough Zeno). The Master awarded
the citizen of the week decoration to some anonymous C, who persuaded
his factory workers to give up their free time to increase
productivity. The Master exhorted citizens to eat their food cubes so
they would stay healthy and productive.
Master knows best, I thought as I gave a yawn. I wondered if
there even was a real person who was the Master, or if he was simply a
symbol put together by this controlling society. There were many
reports on his doings, but video footage didn't seem to be the style of
this broadcast. But then the announcer said, "And now, for our final
message of the broadcast, we have a special treat. I am pleased to
announce a message from... the Master!"
The image on the screen changed. It now showed the face of an
individual with piercing eyes and a slightly balding head. Those eyes
seemed to stab out at me, and I found myself involuntarily recoiling
from the screen.
Hawkeye spoke. "Citizens. It had come to my attention that there
has been a recent increase in the number of unprocessed fugitives. I
encourage you to report anyone you have even the slightest suspicion
of. No harm will come of them, if they are truly citizens of the
state, and you will be doing the state, and yourself, enormous
He paused, and the camera got a closeup on his face. "Serve the
Master. Serve the State." And then the broadcast ended.
Suddenly I felt alone, very much by myself. It had been like
this before, on other infiltration missions, but I felt it all the more
even now. Every single citizen on this planet wouldn't hesitate to
turn me in, much like Wata. They were all against me. It sounded very
much like a paranoid's nightmare, but here nightmares were a living
reality. Quite depressing.
"Buck up!" I said to myself. "This is a fundamentally sick
society, and if you can throw a wrench into the works, it will be worth
the effort." I clapped my hands once, then again, trying to drain the
stress within me.
Wata stirred in his chair.
"Oh, sorry! Go back to sleep, Wata," I said, clapping twice
again. Wata obediently fell asleep.
"It's Croft... get him!" said a groaning voice. The crowd surged
forward. I tried to run, but bodies blocked my exit, surrounding me.
Hands reached out at me. I chopped at one, two, three, four, but more
kept coming. Finally they grabbed me, and held me still.
"Process him! He must be processed!" said the groaning voice.
I woke up in a sweat. For a moment I trembled, looking around.
I was alone. Wata lay tied in his chair. The wild look in my
eyes faded. I realized what had happened. Or rather, what hadn't.
I feared getting caught. The fear was always there,
unconsciously, on any mission. But on this planet getting caught was a
greater peril. I would be processed.
I cherished my individuality above all else. I didn't want to be
consumed, to become part of a large machine. What, I wonder, would
life be like with thoughts in my mind that weren't my own? Or being
unable to think at all?
After a long time I drifted back into an uneasy sleep.
The next day I set out to catch myself a policeman.
Was I mad? Perhaps. I felt mostly recovered from my experience
of the night before, and I felt it important to confront my fears.
Sitting around would only magnify them. Besides, each day I
procrastinated in the city increased my chances of being caught. I had
to do something. So I went around, hunting for a cop.
But the coppers found me. I was walking along, on a nondescript
city street, when I suddenly noticed the area being cordoned off.
Hordes of striped police, en mass, where closing in.
This wasn't quite what I had in mind. I quickly looked about;
there was no possibility of escape to another street. I looked to my
left. There was a large building there, with a sign over it "Connector
Orientation". At that moment any exit from that street looked good to
me. Perhaps I could slip out through a back entrance.
I had no idea what "Connector Orientation" meant, but whatever it
was, there was a receptionist in the front, a B. He was flanked by two
D's, both of which were armed. Immediately I tensed up. Wherever I
was, I was obviously in a secured area.
"Your business?" said the B, smiling at me.
I was acutely aware that both D's were grasping their weapons.
Each stared at me with dull orbs. All it would take would be a shouted
command for them to open fire. I was also acutely aware that outside
on the streets the sweep was continuing. Time to think fast, Croft.
"I'm here from connector supply," I said, being careful to smile.
I still had no idea what connector orientation was, but I figured there
must be a supply source.
B nodded. Evidently I had provided a valid answer. But there
was a second hurdle. "Your business?"
My, these B's were on the ball. This was going to be a lot
harder than ordering a stupid C around. I felt myself start to sweat.
"Um, inspection tour."
The B raised a hand scanner, and a light played over my ID plate,
and immediately I had a thought. He could be checking to see if I was
affiliated with the Connector group, whatever that was. In that case I
was a dead duck. Or he could be checking to see if I had a rogue ID.
In that circumstance I shouldn't have any problem.
It seemed like an eternity before the scanner beeped. The B
nodded to me, "You may go forward."
Nodding, I said, "Happy day," keeping my voice carefully calm.
That had been close.
I started looking for a back door almost immediately. But I
passed a hallway of rooms, and I couldn't resist taking a look. After
all, A.A. had wanted me to find out everything I could about these
One room contained stacked boxes. I slipped in, opened one. And
came out with a small metal component, connected to a thin metal
strand. A chill went through me. These were the mental control boxes
that all the D's wore. That the authorities would undoubtedly like to
put in me. My hand shuddered as I put it back into the box.
I should have left right then and there, but I still was curious
what the other rooms contained. I shouldn't have even looked into the
next room. But there was a window set into the door, and I couldn't
There were a number of citizens, sitting in a corner. At a
keyboard sat a B. He pressed a button and said, "Get up."
They all got up, displaying jerky and uneven coordination.
"Go to the other side of the room," said the B, pressing another
They obeyed him, trooping across the room.
"Pick up the pistols on the ground you see before you."
They did so.
"Now, fire them at each other."
They obeyed. But the guns only clicked. It had been a test.
"Very good," said the B, making a note. To the B, it was all
just an experiment. Experimenting with people's minds. To make sure
they were under total control. I'd like to have made a note of him.
"No..." said a feeble voice. It was one of the test subjects.
"What?" said the B.
"No," said one of them, starting to walk towards the door.
"You may not leave!" said the B, pressing a button.
"No!" said the resister. He grasped the back of his neck. He
seemed to be in pain.
"Obey!" said the B. He pressed another button.
"No!" the resister screamed, grabbing the back of his neck.
"Obey!" the B shrieked, pressing another button. Hard.
The resister's breathing grew softer. His eyes grew vacant. "I
must obey," he said dully.
I got out of there quickly. I had the strong urge to go in there
and splatter that B against a wall. I could have done it; but that
wasn't my mission. I wasn't supposed to risk myself, I kept repeating.
But I felt lousy as I exited the building.
"Come again," smiled the B at the front desk.
I felt a little better after I had taken a short walk. The
absolute control exercised by the Master was really obscene. And what
bothered me the most was that I could have been one of them. One of
those D's, with a box implanted in my neck, telling me what to think
every moment of my life.
I fled in revulsion, losing track of time. When I looked up, I
noticed that I had walked to the edge of the city limits. There were a
number of trees here along the road, and I only knew that I felt better
away from those zombies.
Only I wasn't entirely away from them. As I walked along the
road a hovercraft slowed and stopped right ahead of me. Two striped
men got out. They both carried rods.
"Identification," one said, raising a hand scanner. The other, I
noticed, had an air spray on his belt, as well as what I suspected was
a hypno device. As I was a B, they would probably use the hypno device
on me, if anything.
I stood still as they took my ID. The scanner beeped.
But that wasn't the end of it. "What are you doing here, citizen
Wata?" said one of them.
"Taking a walk," I said, smiling. "Thinking about the wisdom of
the Master." That seemed like a good thing to say.
Not to these fellows. "It says here that you're in
manufacturing. Why aren't you on shift?"
One of the policemen took a small device from his belt. "Look
into this, please," he said.
"Look into this," I counteroffered, drawing my blaster from my
pouch, gunning him down. The second whirled his rod to tap me on the
shoulder. I shot him and he fell, the rod dropping from his hands.
I quickly dragged the bodies in the forest behind some trees, and
went rummaging about in their patrol car. I had given them the heavy
stun treatment, so they wouldn't be awake for some time. A few hours,
perhaps. Just the time that I would need.
I entered their patrol car. "Next stop, police headquarters," I
said, taking a deep breath.
It is a misperception that agents, even the best of agents, are
always cool customers. We're just under better emotional control than
the average citizen. But no amount of control I could muster could
totally dispel the anxiety I felt when I parked my hovercar in the
local police HQ. I was wearing a bulky suite with a stripe on it,
courtesy of one of my new friends who was sleeping it off in the
It was my understanding that there were several police precincts
in the area. I didn't know which one these fellows worked for, but, as
I was appropriating the ID of one of them, I hoped I wouldn't run into
other policemen who knew them. The fear of discovery, though, kept the
I walked in the station. Striped B's milled about, busy at work.
No one seemed to take notice of me. I sat down at an empty terminal,
and requested access.
The screen scanned my ID, and the words ACCESS GRANTED appeared
on the screen.
The system was very user friendly, which I quite appreciated;
there were a number of menus, all of which could lead to interesting
things. But what I wanted was classified defense installations. I was
having trouble punching them up; evidently my classification wasn't
high enough to access that information. Instead I settled on a map of
the region, along with a listing of 'classified' zones in a 500 unit
area. As the printer chugged out hard copies I couldn't resist a
smile. It was so easy!
I started exploring the database some more. I checked RECENT
BULLETINS. There was one item there that was of special interest to
ALIEN OF 04-85-38 STILL EVADING CAPTURE. ORIGINS UNKNOWN.
INTENT UNKNOWN. BUT PRESUMED TO BE AGENT OF HOSTILE POWERS. SWEEPS
CONTINUING IN ALL SECTORS IN 1500 UNIT AREA.
A 1500 unit area! Well, well, they must have thousands of people
looking for me! But wait, there was more.
ALIEN SUSPECTED OF DISGUISING SELF IN ROLE OF CITIZENRY. SWEEPS
WILL CONTINUE UNTIL CAPTURE IS EFFECTED. ALIEN IS SUSPECTED OF BEING
So, they did have some accurate information about me.
-AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. REWARD OF 5000 PRESTIGE UNITS GOES TO THE
CITIZEN WHO ASSISTS IN THE CAPTURE.
I whistled inwardly. 5000 prestige units. I didn't know how
much that meant, but it sounded like a lot.
REPORT CAPTURE TO CENTRAL CONTROL FOR PROCESSING AT EARLIEST
That was the end of the bulletin. Again I felt a chill. They
wanted to process me. Well, they weren't going to, not if I could
I got back to work on the database. I printed out the names of
the serial numbers of other policemen, information which I thought
could be useful. And then I was sorting through other databases and I
caught the category "MALADJUSTED" and I just had to look. Anything
that was labeled maladjusted in this society was probably worth looking
I quickly got the idea that this was a database for resisters. I
didn't have time to search all the names, but the database was
prioritized according to threat potential. I punched up the name of
the citizen with the most threat potential.
And came up with a long serial number (which I copied down) and a
name: Banner. And punched up another series of buttons to find out
more about him. My stomach twisted. He had just been caught. And
recently, too. Circumstances? Trying to steal information from a
I think I needed to have a talk with Mr. Banner.
But I had to make the most of my time; I had already been at the
terminal for over two hours, and I realized that my two friends who
were sleeping in the forest could wake up soon. But then I saw a menu
labeled "D CONTROLS", and I just had to take a peek. D's evidently
were remote controlled by something called central processing. But
they could also be controlled by individual handheld units. I had just
started to punch up a request on those when I felt a tap on my
Instinctively, I froze. Then I slowly turned around, a small
smile but stupid on my face.
I was facing another striped B. "You are not on priority duty,"
he said, smiling genially.
"No," I said, not certain if this were a statement or a question.
"This unit is malfunctioning," said the B, speaking loudly. I
looked about. They were on to me! I was all set to bolt from the
chair when the B handed me an electronic notepad with a serial number
on it. "Take this unit in for readjustment."
Oh. I felt a big sigh of relief. And withheld it. I was still
under the watchful eye of this B. Now I had to perform an assignment.
There was no getting out of it. I was sent out in a hovercar with
three other B's. They smiled at me as we drove along to our
"I don't believe I've seen you here before," said one of them.
He looked rather stupid and dull, more insipid than even an average
member of this brain dead constabulary.
"Neither have I," said the second one. The third one nodded for
"No," I smiled. "I have just been transferred."
"From where?" said the stupid looking one.
"From... 384.4 by 849," I said. Happy World places did not have
names. Everything, I learned, was in map coordinates. I had just
picked those out of my head.
"Odd," said the stupid B, as the hovercraft sped on.
"What?" I said, still smiling.
"I believe 384.4 by 849 is in the ocean," he said. The stupid B
evidently was not that stupid.
"Did I say 384.4 by 849? I meant, by 349," I said, hoping I had
struck dry land.
The B nodded, but he looked a little suspicious. I wished we
would get to our destination. He kept giving me sharp glances, and I
wished I could have smacked him a little. He was going to blow my
In a few short minutes, we arrived at our destination. We were
at an apartment complex, actually not far from the one where I lived.
We entered the main elevator, each of us carrying a police rod.
When we reached the appropriate door, one of the B's knocked.
When the occupant opened the door, he was wide eyed with surprise when
he saw the four of us, rods ready. He backed away, into the apartment,
as we calmly marched in.
I saw that he was an ordinary B. He tried to smile, but he
"B-8959278112?" said one of the B's.
"Yes?" he said, still smiling.
The B removed a hypnodevice from his belt. "Please look into
The B started to comply, but then he shielded his eyes. "No,
no!" he cried. He tried to run past us, for the door.
One of the B's easily tapped him with the rod. He froze in his
tracks, and gave a broad smile. "Thank you," he said gently.
What could I do? There were three of them, and only one of me.
It sickened me to do the state's work, especially this sort of state's
work, but there was little I could do about it.
But that could have been me. That could have been me that had
been tapped with the rod. And then, what next? Processing? I started
to shudder again, but turned it into a bright smile when I caught the
dull B looking oddly at me.
One of the B's called in on his pocket radio. He said, "Mission
accomplished. B-8959278112 apprehended, returning to base."
There was a short voice, and then a curt voice said.
"Affirmative. But note instructions now amended. Apprehend B-
7563847279 as well. Immediately."
Oh well, we were being given another job. After a few moments I
had managed to calm down a bit, and I was now a little desensitized by
this mission. I was even rather ho hum about it, idly wondering who
our next victim would be.
And then I saw the others looking at my license plate, mouthing
the numbers. I looked down. I was B-7563847279.
They had discovered my sleeping police friends. They were after
One of the B's whirled about to bring the rod down on my
shoulder. I parried his rod with my own, and with my other hand brought
the blaster out of my pocket. I fired on one of my fellow coppers, and
he fell, slumping to the ground. I fired on a second, but he ducked,
behind a piece of furniture.
Meanwhile, my third associate was still trying to tap me with the
rod. He slammed down hard with his rod and mine went crashing to the
floor. But then I shot him, and he went down.
Meanwhile the other B I had missed was crawling surreptitiously
towards the door. I picked up my fallen rod and smartly tapped him on
the shoulder. It was my dull friend, the one who had been suspicious
of me earlier. He wasn't suspicious now. He just sat back and smiled.
"Thank you," he said.
"You're quite welcome," I said, smiling just as broadly. I
gestured to the rod. "You wouldn't mind telling me how this works?"
The B I had tapped with the rod gave a broad smile. "Thank you,"
"Hmmm." If I were to get any answers, I would have to find them
for myself. I looked more closely at the rod. How come it didn't
affect the person who held it? Then I noticed a guard grip at one end.
The safe end.
I approached the B we had apprehended. He was still standing
there, just smiling.
"Snap out of it," I said, snapping my fingers in front of his
face. He didn't blink. I tried slapping his face a few times, but
that didn't work either. All he did was thank me.
I sighed. I really should be getting out of here. But I
resolved to give it one more try. I took out my own hypnocube, putting
it up to his eyes. He responded immediately.
"Listen," I said, "You are no longer dazed. Act normally. Act
It seemed to have an effect, for as I put the cube away, the
"What happened?" he said, seeing the bodies of my fellow peacemen
on the ground.
"Just another sterling example of your tax dollars at work," I
said. "I suggest you leave. Now."
"But you're..." Realization suddenly dawned on his face. "Thank
you!" he said, racing past me for the door. In moments he was gone.
On second thought, I should have stopped him to ask a few
questions. If he had been part of an underground organization, I had
lost a valuable opportunity to make contact with them. I sighed,
preparing to depart.
Suddenly one of the pocket communicators crackled. "Report,
report," it said.
I paused for a moment, considering what to do. If I didn't
answer it, they would get suspicious. If I did answer it, I might be
able to bluff them. But even if I didn't, I could escape before they
sent in reinforcements. On the other hand, it might be interesting to
respond. For a moment I remained indecisive.
"Report, report," it said again.
I picked up the comlink, activating it. "B-2244857684 here," I
said, carefully reading the license plates off of one of my fallen
"B-7563847279 has been identified as the wanted alien. He is
dangerous, repeat, most dangerous. You are to bring him directly to
control. At once. You have apprehended him?"
"Well," I said, taking a deep breath, "Yes, and no."
"B-2244857684, repeat message. Did not read."
"B-7563847279 was so clever, that he managed to overpower us," I
reported. "I think he's smarter than we are." And then I gave a
"B-2244857684..." there was a pause. "You are the alien."
"Give the man a cigar," I chuckled.
"Give yourself up, alien. You cannot escape. You will be
"I don't think so, pal. You haven't had much luck so far, even
with the resources of half the planet mobilized against me."
"You will be captured. You will be adjusted. You will be made
"I don't fit in very easily," I confessed. "I never mix well at
"You will be taken." The voice was flat, matter of factly.
I cleared my throat. Time to wrap it up. "Yes, Well, I'd like
to stay and see you try, but I've got things to do, places to go, you
know how it is. Happy day," I said cheerfully, signing off.
And then I got out of there, quick. For I was certain that they
would be there in minutes. I took the elevator down and nearly dashed
out the front entrance. I didn't know when they would arrive.
They didn't take very long to get there, and when they did, they
arrived in numbers. And in force. Watching from a rooftop two blocks
away, I saw how seriously they took me. Literally hundreds of striped
troops converged on the building. They would search it from top to
bottom, no doubt, tapping everyone in the building with their rods in a
vain attempt to get a lead on me. Well, let them spend all the time
and effort they wanted; they could use the exercise.
That evening Wata tried to engage me in conversation. "You've
assumed the role of a peaceman now," he said.
"Oh, is that what they call them?" I said innocently, feeling the
stripe along my waist.
"You're going to be caught sooner or later. Everyone is. You
might as well give yourself up. It's for your own good." said Wata. I
think he was trying to play the role of my friend now. Previous taunts
were being overlooked for the greater good, getting clinical help for
poor old me.
"I should accept processing?" I said. "No thanks. I'd rather be
"Incarceration?" Wata frowned. "Why? Why wouldn't you want the
peace and harmony of correct thinking?"
"Correct thinking," I chuckled. "Listen to yourself. Where I
come from there are many ways of thinking. People are allowed to think
"Chaos! Anarchy! Crime must be-"
"A problem. Well, yes, to a degree. People can think anything
they like, but if their thoughts led to actions that harm others, well,
then, we draw the line, and apprehend them. But your society engages
in total thought control. Look at your poor D's!"
"The D's are happy," said Wata.
"The D's are programmed to be happy. They're not human beings,
they're robots!" Wata's attitude disgusted me. I wondered if would he
like to become a D.
"But... what would they do with more initiative? Most D's are
simple laborers. They have no need for it," said Wata.
"Need for it. You mean, the state has no need for it." I
sighed. Why was I bothering to argue with him? This brainwashed
sliver of a cortex didn't have any thoughts of his own. "Do you know
you've been hypnotized? Processed?"
"Yes, of course." Wata said it matter of factly, as if it didn't
"And you don't mind?"
"Why should I? It is for the good of society, and-"
"You disgust me. Go to sleep, Wata," I said, annoyed, as I
rapidly clapped twice. He instantly dropped into a slumber. But I
I was so irritated by our discussion that I tried to watch some
broadcast transmissions to take my mind off of it. I turned on the
viewer, only to see a drama about C's who were working extra hard to
increase their productivity. Their B supervisors were pleased, and it
all ended happily.
I turned off the TV, and tried to get to sleep.
The next day I paid a visit to the local insane asylum.
Of course, it wasn't called that. It wasn't even called "Mental
Hospital". The title of the building I entered was "Rehomogenization
Facility 102." My ID was scanned at the desk, but I wasn't pestered
with any irksome questions. I was a peaceman, again, only this time
with a valid ID. Valid IDs would no longer be a problem, as long as I
was a copper; I had a long list of current ones I had recorded when I
had accessed the police terminal.
I walked along the corridors of the facility, carrying my
peaceman's rod. The rod, I had also discovered, could be used to fire
a paralyzing field, simply by squeezing the handle. Very neat.
I heard a high pitched whine coming from a room to the right. I
know I shouldn't have looked, but I did.
It was a conveyor belt of bodies. They were all face down, but
their faces were turned to the side, and I could see an idiotic smile
on their face. But what repulsed me the most was the machine above
them. Every time the conveyor belt moved forward, a body moved into
position underneath it. Then, with lightning quick speed, a laser
burst out of the mechanism, cutting into the upper neck of the patient.
And then a mechanical arm came close and inserted something into the
victim. The victims were so drugged up that they didn't even scream.
But I wanted to; I had a fair idea what was happening here.
These poor fools were being fitted with mind control units. That's
what they could do to me if I were captured. That could be me lying on
the table there, the beam cutting into my skin, the alien device being
inserted into my mind, probing, controlling.... My stomach heaved,
and I felt queasy; I grabbed my waist, and leaned against a wall.
"Can we help you?" said a C, smiling at me.
I whirled about. There were two C's, standing by the door.
I immediately stood straight, ignoring my discomfort. "This
procedure...." I was at a loss for words.
"We are helping integrate citizens into society," said a C,
smiling at me. "These people had a difficult time adjusting. But now
they'll fit in very well."
I wanted to bash his face in. My first instinct was to blast
those C's, wreck the machinery, and free those poor victims.
But I had a job to do, and I couldn't risk myself.
I can't risk myself. I'm too important to risk myself. I can't,
I can't. I kept telling myself that. Wordlessly, I marched from the
I shouldn't have gone into the next room either, but there were
no doors, and I couldn't help but see what was going on. This was
obviously the post operative ward. Citizens were jerking, just
wandering aimlessly, until a voice in the wall said, "Sit."
They all sat.
"Obey the master," said the voice.
They repeated it.
I had seen this all before, and I forced myself to move on. This
is what they wanted to do to me. This is what they would do to me if
they captured me. I self consciously rubbed the back of my neck.
I must have entered a C ward next, for the next thing I saw was a
large room full of people being injected. They stood there, dully in
line, as a technician shot something into their arms. Suddenly, one of
them jumped out of line and yelled incoherently, "No, no! Fuck, fuck,
fuck! I have to wash my hands! I have to wash my hands! Jail! Jail!"
I was surprised to see that this was not a resistor, but a newly
inoculated patient. He was a large man, with big pouting lips, and he
was now running around wildly in circles, waving his hands in the air.
"He's having a negative reaction," said an orderly. "Prepare to
wipe him clean again." Several orderlies grabbed the fellow.
"No! No! Hands! Hands! Jail! Jail!" The man shrieked. But
they held him down, and injected him with something else. He slumped,
unconscious. A small trail of drool flowed out of his mouth onto the
I winced inwardly.
I turned, to look into the face of a B who stood behind me. Had
I shown any negative emotion?
"Happy day," I smiled.
"Can I help you, peaceman?" said the B. "My name is Banta. I am
the director of this complex."
"Pleased to meet you," I smiled. "I am Dulhead. I am looking
for one," I looked down at a piece of paper, "B-8392857362."
"Ah, Banner," said the B. "You'll find our patient in the B
wing. Follow me, please." He escorted me down the hall. "May I ask
why you wish to see our patient?"
"Peaceman business," I said. "He is an unadjusted, you know."
"Yes... so he was," said Banta.
I didn't like the sound of that; had I arrived too late?
I was brought to a small room. When I entered I saw what must
have been Banner.
Banner smiled up at me. "How may I help you, citizen?"
I was surprised; Banner was a woman. I hadn't known that before.
She was slim but well proportioned, and had long straight hair brown
that went down her back. In other circumstances she might've been
pretty. But then I stared into his eyes. They were empty, vacant
things. I had arrived too late. I abruptly turned to go.
"Leaving so soon?" said Banta. "I thought you wanted to see
Banner." There was something in his mood, something I couldn't put my
finger on, that put me on guard.
"Ah, yes," I said. "I forgot something in my vehicle." I
started to turn the corner.
And almost ran into five peacemen. All with their rods aimed at
"Happy day," I said, smiling.
"It is a happy day," said Banta. "We have you caught, alien."
I raised my rod in one smooth motion. But I couldn't be quicker
than a trigger grip. One of them fired, and there was a loud noise,
and I noticed, with some shock, that I was incapable of moving. I was
frozen in place.
Move, muscles, move. I tried to jerk my arms, my legs. But I
wasn't going anywhere.
"You may be wondering how you were caught, clever alien," smiled
Banta. "We were alerted that you might be coming here. When central
control realized exactly which false ID you used to access our systems,
we simply examined the files you looked for. When control noticed your
examination of the Banner file, they arranged to greet you here."
I had been outthought. I hadn't considered that my research
would be recorded. And now I was caught. My hand was still on my rod,
my hand on the trigger grip. If I could just move it a few inches....
Banta reached into down and took the rod from my limp hand.
"Central Command is sending a convoy for you within the hour. In the
interim, we'll do our best to make you comfortable." He brought his
face next to mind. "You'll soon know the peace of mind and happiness
that comes from conversion," he said.
I tried to growl something defiant, but my vocal cords weren't
And then, to my horror, one of the peacemen came forward, staff
in hand. He looked as if he was going to use it. He brought the staff
down on my shoulder. I felt a tap, a tingling through my body, and
then my mind ceased functioning.
"Thank you," I felt myself say. Suddenly I felt a surge of
happiness. I smiled. There were nice people all around me.
The nice people led me away. I found that I walked uncertainly,
though I didn't understand why. But gradually walking got easier again
and my friends were very patient with me.
They took me to a room and had me lie down. I obeyed, though my
body was still clumsy; I wanted my new friends to like me. When I lay
down they put metal clamps over my arms and legs. I didn't know why
they did that.
I saw a nice machine over me. For a moment I had just a drop of
apprehension, and then it faded, and I didn't even know what I had been
thinking. I just lay there, smiling.
Part of the machine above me came down and touched my arm. There
was a slight hum, and I felt a little vibration over my body. Then
that part of the machine lifted away.
And my mind returned to my control. Suddenly I was thinking very
clearly again. I looked left and right. A double pair of bodyguards,
I sighed. I had tried to deny it, but I knew it could have come
to this. I had been caught, just as the other Column agents had. This
had been bound to happen. This would probably be the last few minutes
of my life that I would be exercising independent thought. The laser
would stab out, and one of those control devices would be planted in my
But I was facing up, not down! Whatever that machine above me
was, it wasn't a control device implanter. A small ray of hope
"The alien returns to its unadjusted self," said a voice that I
recognized as Banta's. But I couldn't see him.
"Sorry if I don't get up," I said.
"Apology accepted. I'm actually not far from you, just a few
feet away at the control panel here. Your escort to control central
will be arriving in just a few minutes. Until then we should be making
productive use of our time together, don't you think?"
"Sure. Productivity is my middle name." Keep him talking. As
long as I had my mind, I had a chance. I was still in the same
clothes, though I think they had emptied my pouch of all its devices.
But had they found my hidden pouch?
"To begin, what is your name?" Banta asked.
"Floppo the Clown," I said.
Suddenly I heard a high pitched noise, and a beam stabbed out of
the machine, hitting me in the shoulder. I felt a terrible shock.
"That is a lie. Your real name, please."
"Go jump in the river."
The machine stabbed out again. Only this time the pain didn't
stop. It kept coursing through my body, wracking it with pain. I
tried to scream, but I couldn't make a sound.
And then it stopped. I gasped for breath.
"Your name, please."
"Clifford Croft," I gasped.
"What is your mission here, Cliffordcroft?" said Banta.
"I'm a traveling deodorant salesman," I snarled.
And then the pain kicked in again. It increased very quickly,
stabbing into my body, and I felt a strong pain of nausea in my gut.
And then the pain ceased, and I was gasping for breath again. It took
me a moment to realize that there were newcomers in the room.
"What is happening here?" said a new voice.
"I am attempting to extract information from the alien," came
"The orders were that nothing was to be done to the alien until
he was at control," said the newcomer. It had a voice of authority to
"The alien is unharmed," said Banta, sounding a little
"I see," said the newcomer. "You must be punished, of course."
"Of course," said Banta, in a resigned way.
"Inform control that you are to log two hours in the agony
"Yes... thank you."
Thank you indeed! My only wish was to have seen poor Banta
serving his sentence.
"You are welcome," came the voice. Then, "Prepare this alien for
"Shall we put him to peace?" came a voice.
"No. That is a risk, however slight, and he must not be damaged,
not before the receipt is signed for him," said the newcomer's voice.
"Fetch a standard C preparation, 100% strength."
"I have one right here." Footsteps clattered in the distance.
A standard C preparation! That sounded like a drug. This was
it; this would probably be my last moments of free thought. I tried to
struggle as the hand with the air hypo came into vision, but the metal
clamps had me thoroughly bound.
And then the hypo was against my skin, and I heard a hiss.
And then everything was all right. I smiled gently. My mind was
cluttered; what was I doing here?
A man smiled at me. "Come with me, Cliffordcroft," he said,
guiding me by the hand.
My mind tried to assimilate this. "Going?"
"Yes, you are going, to meet new friends."
"Hmmm, friends," I heard myself say.
They led me outside. There was a whole convoys of hovercars
there, many of them filled with people.
"Ooooh," I said, eyeing all the vehicles. "For me?"
The man did not respond. He left my field of vision, but gentle
hands escorted me into a small four seater hovercar.
We had a nice drive through the countryside, and after a short
time we reached a place with aircraft. A lot of them.
Helpful hands propelled me up an airplane's steps.
"Go trip?" I said.
"Yes, a nice one," I was assured.
But I was sad to leave all my new friends. Only a few were going
But I enjoyed the plane's takeoff, and I made vroom-vroom sounds
as we sped off the runway into the air. We were on a small plane, but
I didn't mind that; a few of my friends sat about, some watching me,
others looking out the window.
I looked out the window. There were clouds, nice clouds.
I blinked. Clouds... I was in a plane.
I blinked again.
I had been captured by the Happy Worlder authorities.
Suddenly, as if I had taken off a pair of colored glasses,
everything looked normal to me again. They had drugged me, and were
now taking me to their Central Control. Not a place that I would
minded going to, though not exactly under these conditions.
I looked about. I was guarded, but not restrained in any way,
not even by electrocuffs. Why?
They thought I was drugged! They were so confident in their
methods, so sure of their means, that they were certain that I was
And I had been. I dimly remembered that now. What had happened?
I rubbed a slightly sore part of my arm. One of my captors
looked sharply at me. I smiled at him. He smiled back.
There were small bumps in my arm.
Inoculations. The inoculations had worked.
The Column had tried to prepare me as best they could. During my
preparation process they had given me an experimental drug inoculants.
Theoretically, if it worked, it was supposed to cancel out the effects
of any mind altering drug. Theory was fine, but at the time I had
But it had worked. My mind was free, free!
I decided to postpone the celebrations. I was in the air, in a
plane full of guards, and... I looked out the window. There was even a
fighter escort. These people really went in for overkill.
I casually looked about the cabin. There were three... no, only
four of them. All armed with rods. Great odds.
But the odds would be even worse on the ground. Once I was in
their labs, I was sure, they would drain any free thoughts I might
still have. Therefore I must never reach their labs. Once on the
ground I'm sure I would be surrounded by a large convoy whose job would
be to ensure that I reached those labs. Therefore this plane must not
reach its destination. I would have to turn this plane around.
I looked out the windows at one of the escorting fighters. One
of the peaceman cast a glance towards me.
"Nice plane!" I said, waving out the window to it. Well, maybe I
wouldn't be able to turn things around so quickly. First things first.
Time to take control of the plane.
I gradually let my smile fade, and then turned it into a frown.
"Is something the matter?" said a peaceman.
"Have go bathroom," I said.
The peaceman nodded, and lifted me by the arm, out of the seat.
I noticed that he left his rod in his seat. That wasn't part of my
The washroom was in the rear of the plane. He opened the door to
the tiny compartment for me.
But I just looked confused. "Have... have go bathroom," I said.
The peaceman's smile was beginning to wane, but he sighed,
resigning himself to the inevitable. He bent down to open my trousers-
and got a knee in the face for his troubles. And a good karate
chop on the back of the neck; I wasn't feeling in a charitable mood.
It was done silently, quickly, in the space of a few seconds.
I slowly made my way back to the front of the plane, putting my
best dumb look on.
"Where is Rau?" said one of the peaceman. He was referring to my
escort, no doubt.
I frowned, as if I was concentrating. "Man... back there."
The peaceman looked at each other. "I'd better check," said one,
getting up. He left his rod in his seat. Right next to me.
He started to walk past me. As he did so I picked up the rod by
its proper end and tapped him with it. He smiled, and slumped to the
The other two peacemen were surprised. They had assumed I was
helpless. But instinct took over and they grabbed for their weapons.
Before they had done so I tapped a second one. And then there
was only one left.
We were too close to each other to use the projectile part of the
rod. Instead we battled it out, each trying to touch the other. He
swung his rod up to me, and I parried. I swung mine across him, and he
blocked it with his rod. Then he sent a strong shove that pushed me to
the ground. He whirled his rod down with amazing speed, and I parried,
just barely missing the rod's touch.
It became a contest of strength as he pushed his weapon down
against mine. I saw the edge of his weapon getting closer and closer
to my shoulder. It was only a few inches apart, and closing....
And then I kicked up with my right leg, getting the peaceman in
the knee. He howled, and let up for a second. I pushed his rod back,
and tapped his hand.
He smiled, slowly dropping the rod. "Thank you," he said.
"It's quite all right, you needed that, I could tell," I said,
sweating profusely as I got up. Next stop: the cockpit.
The pilots all became very friendly after just a few moments.
They were really quite a fun bunch. Unfortunately, they also lost any
interest they might have had in flying this plane. I dragged one of
them out of his seat, and rapidly familiarized myself with the
Then the radio crackled. "43, prepare for autolanding. Repeat,
prepare for autolanding."
I saw that the autopilot was engaged. I had a quick impulse to
turn it off. And then I looked out the window at the fighters to the
side. That wasn't a viable option.
We closed on the landing strip. I could see that we were close
to a modern installation of some sort. Central Control? Probably.
Security would undoubtedly be tight. Very tight.
I could see several hovercraft full of troops below by the
landing strip. Just waiting for me. I was flattered, naturally.
"Think fast, Croft," I muttered to myself, as I felt the wheels
start to grind against the ground. We were landing.
Then I had an idea. I went back to the passenger section, and
took the hypnodevice off the belt of one of the peacemen. I turned to
one of the guys on the ground. "All right, who here would like to be me
for an hour?"
The plane touched down, and a stairwell was rolled up against the
lock. The door opened, and I emerged. Several hundred Happy Worlders,
some armed with rifles, some with rods, were standing at attention.
This mindless honor guard wasn't exactly a morale booster. I briefly
went inside, and then led one of the peacemen, by hand, down the steps.
At the bottom of the stairs I was shocked to see the most
beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Well, maybe I should amend that. The most beautiful woman I had
ever seen on this planet. Most of the women on this world, like most
of the men, were mindless drones who seemed only half alive.
But this woman was definitely very alive. A brunette, with long
flowing hair and piercing green eyes, she stared at me with vivid
intellect. And she was wearing a midnight black uniform, with a solid
A in the corner. What's more, she didn't wear a number.
I flinched a little under her gaze, but apparently that was
expected. She shifted her gaze to the peaceman I had brought with me.
"I am Thalessa," she said, as if that should mean something.
"This is the one?" she asked, appraising the person impersonating me
with her eyes. Her gaze was hard and stern, and her voice carried a
strong air of authority, with an unspoken expectation of immediate
"Yes," I said mildly.
"The great Clifford Croft," she said, saying my name correctly.
"We have heard a great deal about you, Mr. Croft. My name is Thalessa.
I am the Chief Programmer of this planet."
She paused, waiting for a reaction. Then she frowned. Evidently
that was a privilege permitted A's. She turned to an aide. "Is this
the right one?"
The aide rapidly read off the numbers on the peaceman license
plate and compared them to ones on his electronic stylus. "Yes,
She nodded. "Well, Mr. Croft, do you have anything to say?"
Slowly, the B spoke. "Thank you," he said, smiling gently.
Thalessa turned sharply to me. "What has been done to him?"
"He became unruly on the plane, Mistress," I said, recoiling
under that gaze. "We had to calm him," I said, indicating the rod I
Thalessa took a stick out of her belt, adjusted a setting, and
touched it to the captive. There was a hum, and then the peaceman
expression changed, his gaze grew less dreamy, more concrete. Oh oh.
"Welcome, Mr. Croft," said Thalessa.
"...Croft?" said the captive.
"He's still under the influence of the C preparation, Mistress,"
"Quiet!" she barked. She turned back to Croft. "I am...
disappointed. This does not seem like a bold offworld spy."
"...I am Clifford Croft," said the peaceman dully.
I had anticipated this. Though I hadn't had much time to prepare
for it, I had attempted to ready "Clifford Croft" as best I could. I
crossed my fingers, hoping the hypnoinstruction would hold for just a
little while longer. Was it good enough to fool the Mistress?
"Yes, I know who you are," she frowned, turning to me. "You are
certain this is the one?"
"Yes, Mistress," I said, wilting under that glance. I tried to
look meek, and managed it with little effort. "His number confirms
"Hm, we will see," she said. "Take him," she said, turning away.
This was one smart cookie. She was already starting to unravel
part of my deception. It was time to get out of here. I turned back
to the plane.
"Halt!" I heard. I had no choice; I slowly turned. My heart
pounded heavily in my chest. They had figured me out; I wouldn't be
allowed to escape.
"Where are you going?" she said. She looked sharply at me, and I
just wanted to melt right then and there.
"Back to my jurisdiction, Mistress," I said.
She snapped her fingers. "Refuel their plane, and send them on
their way." And then she turned away, and was gone.
I know I took more than one sigh of relief when the plane took
off. It had been close, entirely too close for my comfort. They
almost had me. I had toyed with the idea of flying the plane to
another jurisdiction, but in such an organized society I would have
been willing to bet that any deviation from flight plan would have
earned me a special reception at the landing strip.
So I let the plane take me back to the city we had come from. I
sat there, idly watching the instruments, half monitoring the progress
of the flight, half lost in my own thoughts.
And then I saw a shadow fall over a section of the
instrumentation. If it had been a large, sudden darkening of my view,
I would have become instantly alarmed, even in my distracted state.
But all I noticed, or rather half noticed, was the outline of a small,
thin shape, like a piece of a long cylinder, maybe, falling over the
instruments. And then the shadow started moving. Quickly.
That caught my attention. I was rolling out of the chair
instinctively, even before I realized the nature of the threat. Out of
the corner of my eye I saw a rod come crashing down on the cockpit
They say that every reaction has a reaction, and I wasn't the one
to disappoint such a tried and true theory. I was lashing out, kicking
my opponent in the knees, almost even before I realized what I was
doing. Fine thing, that instinct.
My assailant screamed, and fell to the floor. Unfortunately his
rod came crashing down as well, and I involuntarily closed my eyes as I
saw it fall on me.
Eyes open. The rod was perched, inches above me, wedged between
the seat and the instrumentation. The plane was shaking, causing the
rod to roll back and forth precariously in its awkward position.
Slowly, gingerly, I maneuvered out of that situation, my eyes
never leaving the rod above me. I have heard of contests where people
walked under a rod, to music, trying to get by it without touching it.
Quite a lighthearted party affair. But somehow joyous thoughts were
not passing through my mind as I wiggled out of that position. When I
had gotten free I grabbed the rod by its proper handle.
My friend the assailant was still crying on the floor. He looked
up at me, his face a mask of pain and hatred.
"There there," I said. "I know what you want, my friend." And
I tapped him with the rod. Well, wouldn't you know it, a smile
replaced the frown, and he put on a happy face. "Thank you," he said,
tears still streaming out of his eyes.
"What are friends for?" I said, dragging him out of the cockpit.
In a very short time the plane came into position for landing. I
did more than a bit of fingerbiting when the plane touched down; this
would be the time when I would be the most vulnerable. If they had
discovered my deception by now, then they would be waiting for me.
But they weren't; there were only two C mechanics at the tarmac,
who tried to board the plane as I got off. I still wasn't quite ready
to have my handiwork discovered yet, so I welcomed them into the plane
with two taps from my rod and they joined the other smiling sleeping
beauties in the passenger section, who, I discovered, needed to be
tapped periodically to maintain the effect of the happy stupor.
I then made my way back to the apartment. Madness, you say? My
handiwork at the police station had been discovered, but there was no
reason to believe that my apartment hideout had been discovered.
But still I entered cautiously, my blaster at the ready (all my
captured equipment had been aboard the plane). But everything was all
right; Wata, my gagged friend, was still sitting, gagged, in his chair.
The poor thing, he must've been hungry; he hadn't been fed in over a
"Mmmgh!" he said through his gag.
"I had a hard day at work, I'll feed you later," I said, clapping
twice. Then I collapsed into bed.
When I woke up, I fed Wata and myself (in reverse order,
actually), and I turned on the local news. To little surprise, I was
the top item.
"A dangerous alien is at loose, and he is believed to be in this
region. Report all suspicious activities to the peacemen. A reward of
20,000 prestige points is now being-"
I whistled; I was now worth 20,000 prestige points. And with
that and a shuttle token I could go into orbit. I grinned.
"-the alien operates under a variety of identification numbers.
He can be identified by his appearance-" and then they showed a picture
of my face.
I whistled. Now they were getting sophisticated. But what
stunned me the most was what came next.
"And now we have a personal message for the alien. From the
Mistress herself, Thalessa."
The Chief Programmer's face came onto the screen. I gasped; she
seemed to be staring straight at me. "Mr. Croft," she said. "I was
delighted to meet you. We had a little misunderstanding at the
spaceport, but I'm sure all that will be cleared up the next time you
pay us a visit. Give yourself up now. You will not escape. Sooner or
later, you will be caught again." She paused, and then some thought
made Thalessa smile. "Probably sooner, rather than later." She
seemed to be enjoying the prospect. On that note the picture slowly
So she thought she would catch me. Ha! She obviously didn't
know who she was up against. I was the best infiltrator there was.
And yet I felt a chill. I had been outthought once. It could happen
again. Perhaps I should leave now. I had gathered a lot of
information about this planet; surely A.A. would be satisfied.
I realized I was lying to myself. A.A. wouldn't be satisfied; I
wouldn't be satisfied. I had been sent here to investigate the Happy
people's illicit technology transfer operation. So far I hadn't even
come close to accomplishing my mission.
I thought about that for a while as I chomped on a piece of hard
bread. I stayed up half the night, my mind whirring with activity. I
wrote up a detailed plan of action.
The following morning I tore it up. These people weren't that
stupid. Correction: these people were that stupid. But Thalessa
wasn't. She was the one I had to outthink.
I started from scratch again, staying at it for the entire day,
but by the evening I had precious little to show for it. Wata would
periodically moan to be freed, rudely interrupting my line of thought.
I would applaud him to sleep, but he would just wake up again, a few
hours later. It wasn't until the evening that I got an inspiration.
Once I did, I started writing, and rapidly at that. I spent the
rest of the evening studying the plan, critiquing it, examining every
angle. Then I realized it could work. It was dangerous, but it could
The next morning I reentered society. Things were a bit trickier
now; I had to disguise my appearance. I had cut my hair shorter, and
combed it a different way, and changed its color, just for good
measure. But that wasn't all. I had unearthed the preciously small
supply of plastiskin that I had brought with me to this planet. I
widened my nose, and added a bit of flesh under my chin, suggesting
just a touch of obesity. Taken apart these were small measures, but
together... they wouldn't fool anyone who was very familiar with my
good looks. I felt certain that it would not fool Thalessa. But I
didn't need to fool Thalessa. Just a bunch of dumb B's, C's and D's.
My disguise would be more than adequate.
But still, I was a little unnerved when I made my way to the
There were pictures of me. Everywhere. On all the public
bulletin boards, in all the stores. Even holographic images on the
street signs. I had the sudden impulse to turn around and go back to
But I resisted it; I would have to go out sometime. I went and
made a few minor purchases in the B food store, and then I went to the
apartment complex across the street. There was a helpful directory
just inside the foyer, and I copied down the number of one of the B
residents, as well as his apartment number. When I went upstairs and
reached his door, I changed the numbers on my license plate to match
his, and his door let me in. The B was out, as I expected; most
citizens worked on a day shift.
And then I went to his terminal.
I needed two things: first, a reliable source of information.
And second, a source of information that couldn't be traced back to me.
Once I had gotten what I needed from this terminal, I would leave this
apartment, never to return. The original occupant would have no reason
to believe that anyone had been here. I could have used the terminal
in Wata's apartment, but if it were ever traced to its source, the
peacemen would know where to find me.
I collected a number of tidbits, some of which were quite useful.
This B's terminal was not like the police terminal; it didn't offer
access to 'classified' information (which was just about anything of
value on this world), but nonetheless it offered some information that
I found helpful. one of my prizes was a list of ordinary B and C ID's
from a local directory. Unfortunately none of them were police ID's,
which would have been better. But I now had a list of safe ID's I
could use. I had decided to become an ordinary B, having shucked my
police uniform. My association with the peacemen was still too
strongly fixed in the minds of the authorities, and until I found safe
ID's to use again, I would stay an ordinary B.
And then there was some less directly useful information I had
discovered. One tidbit led me to a surgical supply house, where I
bullied some C's into contributing to my supply of face-altering
cosmetics. Another trail led to a government warehouse, where I used
similar means to obtain cans of concentrated food. B food, that is;
cans of noodles, plain juice and the like. I carried those back to the
And then I acquired a few other odds and ends. The citizens on
the street didn't seem to take notice of me, and I managed to avoid the
few police sweeps I came near. I switched my identities constantly,
and usually walked in the streets as a C; for this way if I was given a
drug 'reinforcement', I would not be affected for very long. Though I
had no way of knowing how long my anti-drug inoculation would last, it
was a sure bet that I would be less vulnerable to drugs than
But the big payoff came when I went to the public works division
of this municipality. There I had to deal with a B, and that was my
toughest job of the day.
I had elected to rank myself as a B as well, so we would be on at
least equal footing. I met the manager in the lobby, where there was a
hustle and bustle of C's moving around, servicing heavy machinery.
"What can I do for you, my friend?" said the B, smiling at me.
I took one look at that moronic smile, and I was nearly tempted
to say 'Bend over so I can give you a swift boot where it will do the
most good." But instead I stuck with the script. "I'd like access to
your database," I said. "I'm doing a land survey for the government,
and I need some information." I smiled at him stupidly. It seemed the
appropriate thing to do.
"Certainly," said the B, stepping forward, as he lifted a hand
scanner. "If I may just check your ID."
Oh my. Unless the particular ID I wore was involved in this sort
of business, I was about to be caught.
I moved closer to him, pushing the scanner away. "You can't do
that," I whispered, getting close to him.
"Why not?" said the B, looking puzzled.
I looked around. "I'm actually a peaceman, assigned on a special
mission. Is there a private place we can talk for a moment?"
"Certainly," said the B, leading me into a little room. I closed
the door behind me. "Have a seat," I said, gesturing to a chair.
He sat down. "What's this all about, citizen?" he said.
"It has to do with an energy source," I said.
"Energy?" The citizen was puzzled.
"It's quite shocking. You see... wait, let me show you. Perhaps
a demonstration will be decisive." And demonstrate I did, shooting him
with my blaster. He didn't fall, as I had been kind enough to have him
seated, but he did sort of slump.
I took out my hypnocube. I was operating on a theory. There was
no way that I, an amateur, could circumvent his hypnotically imposed
loyalty to the state. But I had learned that B's would obey hypnotic
instruction that didn't conflict with their basic programming.
Programming. I shivered, thinking about Thalessa. But then I snapped
out of it, and got down to work.
I told the B that he when he awoke, he would remember nothing of
what had happened, and he dutifully repeated it several times before I
was satisfied. If he did somehow snap out of it, all the authorities
would know is that I had accessed his database; but they wouldn't know
what it was I had looked up.
There was a terminal in the room. I logged on, and the screen
scanned my ID. My sleeping friend's ID. As I've mentioned before, if
my little visit here was traced, they wouldn't be able to distinguish
between the information I had searched for, and the normal use of the
terminal on the part of my sleeping friend. I was correct in my
assumption that this terminal had greater access than the one in the
apartment, and I quickly punched out a series of maps and diagrams. I
also punched out another series of ID's which could be useful to me
later. After a little bit more of tap tapping on the keyboard my work
was completed. I signed off the terminal, and went to the door. I
looked at my sleeping friend, and then clapped twice. He started to
stir, and I quickly ran out the door. Once I was in view of the
laboring C's outside I slowed my pace, and walked to the exit. It was
But I wasn't done yet; that night, I returned to perform a
mission of stealth. The place was dark, and abandoned; there wasn't
even a night guard. Good. I took out my power source scanner, one of
the few instruments that had survived my trip to this planet. I swept
for alarm circuit, but only found one, connected to the lock. Good.
The electrolock was simple, I could have picked it even if I
hadn't had special equipment. This public works division simply wasn't
considered a classified area. Which was fine by me.
I went through the machinery, picking what I wanted: a laser
drill, a few odds and ends, and... a fair supply of explosives. I
loaded them up in a stolen car I had appropriated earlier in the day,
and then closed everything up, leaving no traces of my forced entry.
Except for the missing equipment. In such an orderly society,
stealing must be quite a rarity, so the lost equipment would almost
certainly be attributed to my efforts. This would start the
authorities thinking just what it was I was going to do with a laser
drill and a pack of explosives, a line of inquiry I did not want them
to trouble their little brainwashed minds with.
But, fortunately for me, none of the equipment I had taken was
stolen. Or rather, the public works department's inventory would not
register them as stolen; in fact, the inventory would never register
them at all. I had erased the listings of the tools I had taken from
the inventory that afternoon. In effect I was stealing equipment that
no longer existed in their records. I patted myself on the back for a
job well done, put the equipment with the other supplies I had stolen,
and went home.
"They will find you, sooner or later," said Wata, when I ungagged
him for dinner.
"So you keep telling me," I smiled.
"I advise you to give yourself up," said Wata. "They've already
almost caught you once."
I jerked. "How did you know that?"
"I heard it when you were watching the broadcast."
"Oh." I said. I paused. "Sorry, Wata, my old friend, but I
can't do that." I didn't see any need to tell him that he would in
fact be a free man in two days time. I went to bed.
The next morning, bright and early, I went underground. Quite
literally. I had searched the public works database for maps of the
sewer system, and through scrutinizing them I had found what I was
looking for. Along with the sewer system were a maze of little service
tunnels that served as conduits for most of the electrical wiring in
the city. Shortly after dawn I was in one of them, zapping away at a
wall with my laser drill. At one point I came to a large boulder, and
blasted it away with some of the explosives I had taken. The ground
shook around me, and it was a little surprising that the police station
above me did not send men down to investigate.
Or perhaps it wasn't so surprising after all. For the police
station had yesterday received a duly official message, over the
terminal system, that the public works authority was repairing the
tunnel system underneath the station. When they heard the sounds of
work, it would just confirm what they already knew. I guess they had
very little curiosity about it, for they never did send anyone to
And that was fine; I didn't mind working without disruptions.
But I smiled a little after every explosion. I could imagine the
peacemen being jolted by every blast. I chuckled softly as I set the
After a continuous day of work, I was done. It had been a lot of
work, but it was complete. The excavation work, at least. Next came
the shopping, and that took another day.
I was nearly exhausted when I was done, but satisfaction swelled
in me. I decided to go home to sleep one last night in the apartment.
I was just approaching the grounds of the apartment building when I
caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. There was some
rustling in the bushes. I immediately stopped, and, yawning, felt
inside my bulky suit as if I had forgotten something.
And I took the opportunity to casually look around. Now I could
see that the entire grounds were surrounded by troops. They had
somehow discovered Wata. They had discovered him, and set a trap for
I thought quickly. Either they had spotted me, or they hadn't.
If they had, there was nothing I could do about it; I simply was
not going to get away. If I hadn't been discovered, and I suddenly
turned around, to walk away, that would look suspicious.
I entered the apartment building, conscious of all the eyes that
must have been on me. The lobby was virtually empty, except for a lone
B sitting in a corner; obviously, whatever surprise was in store must
be waiting for me in my room.
I yawned for a moment, as I waited for an elevator to come. I
could feel the eyes of the B in the lobby. I heard him mumble
something softly. They were getting ready to close the trap.
The elevator came. I got into it, and pressed the button for my
floor. I saw the B mumble something, perhaps "he's going up". Then as
the elevator doors closed I darted out, and shot the B with my blaster.
I spent a precious minute changing the numbers on my license
plate, and then changing my facial appearance. It didn't matter what I
looked like, as long as I looked like someone else, anyone else, than
the person who had just entered the building. Then I calmly walked out
of the apartment lobby.
I hoped I wouldn't be recognized.
I hoped that the troops were thinking I was on the way up to my
I hoped I would have enough time to get away.
I would immediately know when my ruse had ceased to work. The
troops would all come running out, there would be a blaster bolt,
and... I would wake up with an adjusted mind.
I walked silently on the hard plasticrete walkway, towards my
car. I heard the gentle hissing of the Gazoota, a predatory nightbird
that commonly left deposits the size of golf balls in public places.
The strong illumination from lightposts on the walkway played over me
as I walked. I had a great temptation to look back. I ignored it.
I kept walking.
I heard a sound.
I kept walking.
I heard several sounds.
Just as I had reached my stolen hovercar, all the troops came
running out of the bushes. Towards me.
I got in, gunned the engine, and got out of there.
They followed. An entire convoy of vehicles raced after me. I
looked back, watching my pursuers.
They were closing, fast. Breathing heavily, I gunned the engine
to maximum potential. The wind whipped through my hair and the engine
groaned. I raced down the road, and they followed, sirens blaring all
I almost jumped. There was a vehicle, almost right behind me.
One of many. And this one had an ugly gun mounted on it. One of the
passengers stood up, with an amplifier to his mouth.
"Clifford. Croft, please press four."
I nodded obligingly as I put my foot to the accelerator. I was
already at top speed. Then I happen to glance at the vis receptor, and
saw the numbers. I pushed 4.
The face of the passenger in the other vehicle came on my screen.
"Clifford. Croft," he said.
"How do you do," I said, looking at the road ahead. They hadn't
set up roadblocks, not yet. But I couldn't outrun them, that was
clear. What was I going to do?
"Clifford. Croft, you must surrender," said the man.
"Says who?" I said, stalling for time. There was a branch in the
road. One direction seemed to go further into the city; the other, out
of it. I would have a better chance of escaping outside of the city,
if only I could outrun them. But I couldn't, not with a whole
battalion of the regular army in speedy pursuit vehicles, right behind
me. I chose to go further into the city. It would be easier to trap
me, and yet, perhaps I would have a chance to escape that I wouldn't
otherwise. If only I could get unseen to the place I had prepared....
"Clifford Croft, you must surrender, or we will open fire," said
"Your orders are to capture me alive," I said, trying to stall.
At least, that's what I hoped their orders were. Buildings zoomed by
on either side as I zipped into the city.
My last remark seemed to cause the man to pause. Good. I had
made an accurate guess.
Suddenly, I looked up at the road.
There was a roadblock, straight ahead.
Two hovercars were just moving into position. In a split second
I had to make a decision what to do. I pressed the accelerator for all
it was worth.
As a child I had often played in hoverbuggies. These were small
carts at amusement parks that floated above the ground. Kiddies could
and did bump into other hoverbuggies, smacking into each other for all
their hearts content. It was all great fun.
My eyes narrowed. The hovercars in blockade mode were still
Still, it was quite a jolt when my aircar slammed into the
blockade. For a second there was resistance, and I was rudely jolted
in my seat. But then I was moving forward again, and I saw that the
hovercars had been pushed out of the way. My car, though still
operable, wasn't in the best shape; but as I glanced back I saw that
the blockading force would be needing some body work on their own
Unfortunately, I had also cleared the way for my pursuers.
"That was very destructive," the man on my screen chided me.
I didn't respond, but instead turned down a narrow street.
Suddenly I heard a whine, and looked in my rearview mirror. They
were firing at me!
"Hey, no firing, must take me alive remember?" I said.
The firing ceased, for a moment. But then a cold female voice
came over the channel. "If he resists, disable his vehicle. Use
whatever means necessary."
A chill went down my back. I recognized that voice.
"Yes, Mistress," said the man, and he barked orders to the side.
They opened fire again on me.
To be more precise, they were firing at my car. They were
aiming for the rear, where many of the engine components were housed.
Several of their hits started to score and I had a feeling that my
journey in this particular vehicle was about to come to an end.
I looked in my rear view mirror. They were even firing with the
large gun mounted on the aircar right behind me.
My time for selecting options became even more limited as a large
laser bolt hit the rear of my aircar. Suddenly my driver's console
flared up and my vehicle started to slow down.
I looked about rapidly. I was in a manufacturing district, a
region of narrow streets. But wait, what was that ahead, a tunnel?
Yes, and it was labeled "Garbage disposal. Caution, do not enter."
With the last remaining power of the aircar, I entered, skidding
past two garbage trucks that were unloading rubbish into the passage.
The aircar skidded on the refuse and landed squarely into the large
tunnel entrance. But then the aircar slid down a steep chute.
This was not too pleasing. It could have been worse; the incline
was at a 45 degree angle, so it was not a straight fall, but it was
hardly enjoyable either. But we, the aircar and I, stopped before we
landed at the bottom, and the fall of the aircar was cushioned by
mounds and mounds of rubbish below us.
I was a little shaken up by the fall, but I quickly regained my
senses. "Well, I muttered, looking up at the entrance, "At least they
won't be so quick to follow me down here."
But before I got too busy congratulating myself I saw a flash,
and I looked forward, down the rest of the chute. The flashes were
continuous, and every time they occurred, the pile of rubbish beneath
the aircar moved down a little.
"Oh oh," I said, getting a fairly good idea how the garbage was
disposed of. Maybe coming down this chute hadn't been such a good
This was a disintegrator.
Zap! The garbage level was moving lower now.
I looked around at the smooth walls. Climbing out would be
Zap! I could almost see the projector from here.
Zap! It blasted anything in the tunnel. There would be no way
to avoid its beam.
Zap! Well, at least they hadn't captured me. Not that that was
Zap! The mound of garbage between the hovercar and the projector
was much smaller now. I was almost in its range.
Zap! The light flickered off the smooth walls. I frowned,
Zap! There was a projection, on one of the walls. I had just
passed it. I reached out trying to grab it...
Zap! The aircar was lowered from below me. I was suspended by
my grip on the projection.
Zap! More garbage fell down from above, pounding into me. I
kept my one-armed grip on the projection. Looking below I was afforded
an excellent view of the aircar, which had just been disintegrated. No
new garbage was being poured on me, thankfully, but I had an excellent
view of the disintegrator.
Zap! If I lost my grip, I wouldn't be killed by the fall. For
whatever little that was worth.
I felt my grip starting to weaken.
It's times like this, when I'm about to fall down and chute and
be instantly killed by a garbage processor on an alien planet, that I
begin to panic. Oh, I know what you're thinking; I'm an accomplished
agent, one of the best, all of which is quite true. But I am also
human, and a meaningless death at the unmerciful hands of a sanitation
machine was almost more than I could bear.
"Get a grip, get a grip!" I said, to myself. I meant it quite
literally, too, as I felt my hand loosening on the projection. I moved
my feet up against the smooth walls, trying to find anything, anything
which I could get a purchase on. I felt around, without luck, until I
probed upwards with my feet, and found a narrow ledge.
I got a purchase on it just as my grip on the projection was
about to give way. It was a narrow ledge, just enough to stick my toes
in, but combined with my grip on the handle it was enough to keep me
"Great," I said, looking down. The zapper was still going apace.
"So what do you do now, Clifford? Hang here for the next decade? You'd
make a lovely wall ornament."
Wait a minute. I looked closer at the projection that I held.
This was no projection.
It was a handle.
Peering closely, I saw the outlines of a door.
"Yes!" I cried. I pushed at it, but it didn't budge. With my
free hand I felt around for the lock. Yes, there it was. It must be a
route for workers who serviced the disintegrator when it was off line.
I took my lockpick out of my bulky suit and started fiddling.
Suddenly, my tentative purchase on the ledge gave way, and my
legs fell off. Only my firm grasp on the handle kept me from plunging
into the disintegrator field. I watched helplessly as my lockpick
tumbled out of the lock, down into the bottom of the chute.
Slowly I regained the purchase with the toes of my shoes. I
sighed, knowing that I didn't have any more lockpicks with me. I felt
around for my blaster, and was relieved to find it in its holster.
But what now? if I were to blast the door at this range I would
get burned. Certainly the recoil would send me falling into the chute.
I sighed again, and leaned my free elbow against the door.
The door slowly creaked inward.
I must have finished unlocking it just as I stumbled. With a
feeling of great satisfaction, I pushed the door in and for the first
time got a firm footing on the ledge. I gave a sigh of relief as I
took one last look down, now from a safe vantage point.
The machine stopped. I waited a moment, just to be sure. My
pursuers had stopped the machine. Some help that was to me now.
It was time to leave. Undoubtedly they would be down here in
minutes, searching for me.
Closing the door behind me, I climbed a rugged set of stairs in a
poorly lit passage. At one point the passage split, one way going up,
the other way going right, but I heard the sounds of marching feet from
the rightward passage. I slowly but silently continued upwards.
The stairs seemed to go on forever, and for a moment I wondered
just where it was I was going. But there were no sounds of people
coming down from ahead of me, and that was a good sign.
When I reached the top and opened the door I was nearly
exhausted. And for good reason.
I was on the roof of a goodly tall building.
Painting and puffing, I looked over the ledge. It seemed the
entire army had been called out, and they were scurrying about, here
and there. It wouldn't be a cinch to get through them, but somehow I
felt the worst would be over.
They would think I was dead. They would find some remains of my
aircar, perhaps, and they certainly wouldn't find me. They would
assume, quite logically, that I had been disintegrated. The chase for
me would be called off.
I grinned. Now the advantage was mine; I would no longer be
chased and harried by the vast army of this planet. The next time I
struck the surprise would be mine, and it would be total. All I needed
to do now was hole up somewhere until they were convinced that I had
perished in the garbage chute.
Whistling a happy tune, I started walking towards the stairwell-
when a squad of troops emerged. "That's him!" one of them
"Oh boy," I muttered under my breath. My self congratulations
had been a little premature. I staggered across the large rooftop,
with the others in pursuit.
Staggered was the right word. I was quite exhausted now; most of
my strength had been worn out of me. But when I reached the edge of
the building there was nowhere else to run. The next building over was
about seven feet away. If I'd been well rested, I could have leapt it,
but I definitely couldn't manage it in my condition. Definitely not.
I halted at the edge, puffing and wheezing. The squad, five of
them by my count, slowed down to a walking pace. They were casual now;
there was no where else for me to run.
"Halt!" I shouted, standing close to the edge. "Or I'll jump!"
I looked about. They all seemed to be D's. They kept coming.
"Halt!" said one of them. I blinked. One of them was a B. The
D's halted. I gave a sigh of relief.
"Your orders are to take me alive," I said. At least, that's
what I thought.
The B nodded. He spoke a few words into a comlink. That was
unavoidable, I suppose. Meanwhile I stood at the edge, gasping for
breath. Rest, rest, if only I could just have a few minutes to take a
break. I noticed the B's hand straying towards his holster.
"Don't even think it," I said. "If you stun me, I'll still fall
over. What would your precious Mistress do to you then, eh?"
That arrested his hand motion, awfully quick.
"We're only trying to help you," said the B, slowly edging
"That's far enough!" I snapped, looking down over the edge of the
building. Maybe I could jump that gap.
But the B edged closer. I could see that I wasn't going to be
able to stall for very much longer. Reinforcements should be arriving
soon as well.
"It's for your own good," said the B, coming even closer.
"Somehow, I trust you not very much," I said, thinking intently.
It was time to make a decision, but I just wasn't sure what to do.
The B was nice enough to help me decide. Seeing me distracted,
he tried to rush me, and I instinctively jumped over the edge.
But it wasn't a running jump, and I fell just a foot over the
edge, not even coming close to the other building. I screamed
something like "Aiiiiieeeeeee" as I fell. It seemed the appropriate
thing to do.
I can only imagine how it was from their perspective. I can see
the B officer, peering over the ledge to look at the grisly sight of my
body, splattered all over the pavement like such much street pizza.
But just as he peered over, the B fell and dropped over the roof too.
I can also imagine the D troopers, pondering this in their slow
minds, as they too came closer to the edge to investigate. But when
they poked their heads over the edge they started to fall too, first
one then a second then a third.
But the forth was too quick for me to grab his legs, and he
hastily stepped back from the edge. At this point I drew my blaster
and poked my head over the edge of the building, and shot him.
I sighed as I looked at the fallen bodies around me. I couldn't
avoid stepping on them if I wanted to reach the ladder to go further up
or down this fire escape.
For when I had jumped, I had fallen a grand total of five feet.
Several levels below me I noticed a connecting passageway which
led to the building across the way. I walked atop that, and kicked in
a window, and was out of there. It was that easy.
But I was still exhausted. I dimly noticed that I was in an
office building of some sort. Apparently it was after hours, for there
was no work shift on duty, which suited me fine. I went into an office
and collapsed into a chair, and slumped. My body refused to move
further. I stared vacantly out of the glass partition separating this
room from the hallway.
My mind kept telling me that I wasn't safe yet. When
reinforcements showed up on the roof, it wouldn't take geniuses to
trace my steps here. I had bought at most a few minutes.
But I was exhausted. The fall into the chute had drained my
"Come on, Croft, keep moving, keep moving," I shouted. But
instead I slumped further, letting myself fall out of the chair, onto
Which was the best possible thing I could have done. For seconds
later I heard the sounds of running footsteps. Suddenly I felt
reinvigorated with energy, at least, enough energy to go on. I found
that energy, because I had to.
The footsteps moved closer. I heard someone in the distance say,
"Control reports the alien is in room 7793. Approach with caution."
How could they possibly know that? They hadn't seen me.
But they had. I looked up, and saw a camera, on the ceiling,
pointing straight down at me. While I had delayed, I had been on prime
I needed to neutralize that advantage. I fired at the camera,
taking it out. Then I crawled to the entrance of the room. I had
seconds, at most, before the enemy would enter.
I took a small vial out of my bulky suit, trying to keep my hands
from trembling as I heard the sounds of footsteps approaching. Gently
but quickly I sprayed the ground around the door with a thin sheet of
liquid. Then I scooted over to the other side of the room. There was
another door there, and that would be my escape route.
At that moment the door was flung open, and troopers rushed in,
running at top speed.
Or rather, they were running at top speed. Now, they weren't
moving at all. The doorway could fit two people abreast, and two there
were, but they were just standing there. Their joints must have hurt
from making such a sudden stop.
They looked down at their feet, puzzled, for a moment, at what
caused them to stop so abruptly. At first they must have thought that
their muscles had suddenly malfunctioned. But then, if they noticed
the slight gleam on the floor, they would have realized that there were
artificial substances at work.
This was just one example of the kind of goodies that our
scientists at the Column continually cook up. I wished I could have
shown them more.
After a short time the soldiers looked up. I smiled and waved to
them as I exited through the far door. They attempted to bring their
lasers up to bear, but I was already in the next room.
Which turned out to be a dead-end.
I could hear them scuffling about in the other room, as soldiers
tried to push their way through. But the doorway was only so large,
and I'm sure it was blocked by the first ranks. Actually, the two in
front could easily escape from the trap I had set for them.
All they had to do was take off their boots.
When I heard the crash of laser fire smashing into the glass
partition in the other room, I knew they hadn't been that smart.
"We have him!" I heard them say, as heavy bootsteps thumped into
the room behind me. "It's a deadend!"
And right they were. Emphasis on were, past tense.
For when they burst into the little room that was my last refuge,
they found nothing. I was long gone.
It probably took them several minutes to find the hole, under the
desk, that I had cut, and used to jump into the level below, which was
unguarded. From there it had been a relatively simple task to slip out
of the building. There were still patrols in the area, but I managed
to evade them.
I made it back to safety. And my new hideout.
Yes, my new hideout. For my sole efforts of the past several
days had been to construct a secure base of operations. First I had
wandered around a bit to make doubly sure I wasn't being followed. I
went down, into the service tunnels, following my map carefully, as it
was easy to get lost in all these lookalike passages. Finally, I
reached a dead end. Or rather, almost a deadend. There was now a door
on one side of the wall, with a palmprint lock. Keyed to my palm.
I entered, closing and locking the door. I eyed my spartan new
apartment. I had a bed, a desk, several storage bins filled with
supplies, and, most importantly of all, a terminal. And not just any
terminal. I had taken great pains in deciding where to build my little
hidey-hole. It just so happens that I built it directly underneath a
secure police terminal cable. Which was now spliced. If anyone ever
traced a terminal request I made, it would appear as if it came from
the police station above me. They would never, ever find me!
It was true, however, that there was a rather conspicuous door on
the wall of the service tunnel. But it didn't show up on the maps;
therefore no one would look for it. For now, at least while I was
here, I would be safe.
I had decided to change hideouts partially because I wanted a
better hiding place, one which I could move to and from without being
watched. It seems that I had decided to make my move not a moment too
soon. I frowned; I wondered how the authorities had discovered my
location. Had Wata gotten free of his bonds?
Well, now there was a way of finding out! I moved to my
terminal, inserting the ID of one of the peacemen I had gotten earlier.
It was a minor risk, really; unless they had changed the ID's of all
the peacemen on my printout, I wouldn't be caught. And the first thing
I did was get a new, expanded list of other peacemen ID's; then I
signed off and signed on again with one of the new ones.
It didn't take much time to find the proper police file. I had
an entire file all to my own: "THE ALIEN CLIFFORD CROFT". I read the
data, and gave a low whistle. Wata hadn't broken free from his bonds.
It had been something else, something I had missed. He hadn't shown up
at his place of work for over a week. I gathered that he was the only
B in his place of work, and the C's had gone on without him. But
another B from a related industry had made repeated inquiries, and
eventually became suspicious... when the police had arrived at the
apartment, they had found the poor Wata gagged and bound. I'm sure he
filled them in very quickly, and then they had prepared the trap for
I sighed. That had been another close call. Thalessa's words
rang in my head: "Sooner or later, you will be caught." Was she
right? This was the second time now! I thought I had covered my
tracks rather carefully this time. But then I had thought as much
before. But at least there was no evidence in Wata's apartment that
would lead the peacemen here.
In any event, I was truly exhausted. As I lay down on my bed I
reflected that I had spent most of this day being hunted down, like an
animal. That had to stop. It was time for me to go on the offensive.
I had an ample supply of food and drink--I wouldn't have to go out for
weeks, unless I wanted to. I would be safe here.
But I emerged the very next day, brimming full of determination.
I hadn't forgot about my mission; eventually, I was going to have to go
back to Central Control, the place I had been flown to. At the time I
had left because I wasn't yet ready to tackle what must be the highest
security installation on the planet. My job now was to make ready for
I punched up a map of the city on my terminal. I was going for
the highest security installation in the city. Not surprisingly, it
was the installation in charge of overall security. That was fine by
For I was out to bag myself an A.
I have to admit that I was a little concerned as I walked past
the heavily guarded gates. I had done a more thorough job on my
appearance, using the plastiskin to make my face look rounder than it
had been. I also wore a wig composed of short, curly hairs. As I
seemed to be on the list of top felons, it was pretty clear that all
the security people would have my appearance burned into their brains.
But I acted confident, smiling genially as I walked up to the
reception desk. I was a B peaceman again, and I carried my rod in one
hand as I walked.
The receptionist was facing away. "Happy day," I said. "I'm
here to see deputy chief of security B-8473628291. I believe he's
expecting me." He should have been. I had sent him a memo via
terminal that I was coming. Of course, he would have thought that the
message had been sent by the police station above my little home. But
these people would believe anything they saw on their little terminals.
They had little minds to match. Anyone with just a smidgen of
creativity could outthink them every time.
I was smugly enjoying this line of thought when the receptionist
turned to face me. And then I blinked and looked very surprise.
I knew him. This was the B I had assisted in arresting when I
had worked undercover with the peacemen. We had tapped him with the
rod, but, after I had been discovered, I had neutralized the peacemen,
and allowed him to escape.
But now here he was, in the uniform of a B peaceman. With a
different serial number, obviously.
This was a member of the resistance, one of the Unadjusted. He
must be. That was the only explanation.
He stared intensely at me for a moment, and recognition flared in
his eyes. He looked left and right at the B guards flanking the
waiting area. "Yes, you're expected," he said. "I'll take you myself.
Come this way, friend," he said.
He motioned for one of the B's to take his post, and then he took
me down the hallway. But once we had passed out of view of the guards
he detoured me into a small room, shutting the door behind us.
"This room is not monitored," he whispered. "What are you doing
Sometime you have to trust someone. Trust didn't come very
easily, not on this planet, but I decided this was someone who could be
trusted. Even if this B had been caught after I had seen him escape,
even if he had been turned into a spy, there is no way the authorities
could have known that I was coming here. Had they known, they easily
could have arrested me by now. I decided to take him into my
"My name is-"
"Clifford Croft. You're the alien, I know," said the B.
I raised my eyebrows. "Is my disguise that transparent?"
The B frowned, an odd expression for a B to have. "You made a
lasting impression. Never before has a peaceman helped me to escape.
It was only afterwards that we realized that you were the alien." He
paused. "My name is Taral. What are you doing here?"
We. He had said we. He must be part of some underground
resistance organization. Well, there seemed to be no reason not to
tell him. "I'm here to talk to the deputy chief of security. I'm
going to hypnotize him, and have him lead me to the Chief of Security
for this region, who I presume is an A, if only because he doesn't show
up on the B police registry."
"You cannot!" Taral seemed horrified.
"I'm pretty quick with a blaster," I said. "You just take me
"No!" said Taral. "He has guards-"
"In the room, with him?"
Taral nodded. "There is also monitoring, in virtually every room
of this installation."
I hadn't considered that. "I must get my hands on an A. I need
to get into Central Control."
Taral looked horrified. "Central Control? They will capture
you; you will be processed!"
"Not if I can help it," I said. "Listen, forget my idea of
seeing the deputy chief of security. Can you get me the name, number
and home address of the A who is the chief of security?"
Taral nodded. "That information is not difficult to obtain. But
you are taking a great risk! To assault an A!" His voice trembled
"It's not the first risk I've taken here, and it won't be the
last. I also need access to one of your top security terminals for a
"Impossible! Only security people can get access-"
"All I need is the ID of a security official who works at the
complex," I said, taking out my license plate remodeling kit.
"No," said Taral, shaking his head. "Our terminals are not like
those of lower level officials, or even the peacemen. They require an
eye scan in addition to the numerical identification."
I hadn't anticipated that. I wasn't prepared to deal with that
hurdle. Yet. What would I have done had I not encountered Taral? I
took a deep breath. "You have helped me quite a lot, Taral. Without
your knowledge it is very possible I would have been caught. Is there
anything I might do to help you?"
"You can assist us in overthrowing this sick and perverted-"
"That's a tall order for one man," I said, cutting him off. Time
was running short. I told Taral as much. "And I'm a little pressed
for time. Is there anything more immediate you'd like?"
"Yes," said Taral. "You can finish the job you began, and rescue
Banner. The top maladjusted on the wanted list. He obviously
knew what I had been up to. I wanted to help, but I had to shake my
head. "But we're too late. She's already been-"
"No. The hypnotic effect is reversible. All we need is a
"And you have one of those too?"
"No. You will have to obtain one at the rehomoginization
I sighed; but this is what I got for volunteering.
Taral gave me the name and address of the A I had been seeking.
I was half tempted to disregard my promise and continue with my primary
mission, but a gush of sympathy for the resistors flowed in my heart.
It wasn't part of my assignment. I was not required to do this. If I
got caught, I would never complete my mission. And yet I wanted to do
it, to help the resistance movement.
I would do it.
A D trooper, armed with a laser rifle, walked passed me in the
darkness of the evening. I checked my chronometer. Another seven
minutes had elapsed. Good. This was the third time I had clocked it,
and the D's were mechanically predictable. I lay crouched outside the
rehomoginization facility, at a remote section of the fence. I could
have taken out the guards at the front gate, but there were cameras
trained on that area.
Instead, I burned away a remote section of the fence with a
cutter. I crept in, scooting across the grounds, constantly looking
around me. Most of the D's attentions were on the fence perimeter. I
reached the main building without being spotted. Then I made a loop
with a rope I was carrying and threw it over the top of the one
building, which was only one story tall. It took me only two tries to
catch the small pipe protruding from the top.
Then it was up and up. It was a good workout for some of my
unexercised arm muscles, although at the time I didn't especially
appreciate it. With a minimum of grunting I reached the top.
I ran along the top of the building. Taral had told me that
there were numerous security and monitoring systems in the facility; I
was neatly bypassing all of them. It helped to have inside
I consulted the floor map of the facility. I thought I had put
myself just above the lab where the resonator should be. The roofing
was made of a thin metal sheeting here and I quickly put my cutter to
When I had cut a square hole in the roofing I kicked it in, and
jumped down into the room. A quick in and out, that was just the way I
liked it. I would have the resonator and be out of there even before
the authorities knew what had hit them. My feet landed on the floor of
the room, I looked about, and-
found myself being stared at by a half dozen dull-faced C's. I
gazed about rapidly; I was some sort of dormitory. And those half
witted brainwashed fools were staring at me. They were wearing white
hospital smocks, and they had long, thinning faces with thick, parted
lips, through which a good many of them let pour thin slivers of drool
onto the ground.
"Good day, gents," I said, warily making my way to the exit.
Suddenly a B orderly entered the room. We were both a little
surprised to see each other, but I was armed, and he wasn't. I shot
him with my blaster, and he fell.
The C's started shrieking. "Eek! Eek! Eek!" they yelled,
jumping up and down on their beds.
Suddenly I heard an alarm bell ringing. I looked in the corner,
and saw a camera. I had been spotted. I ran out of the room-
-and right past a door marked HYPNOTIC CONDITIONING. I had been
one room off.
For a split second, I was torn. The mission was scrubbed, my
number one priority was getting out of here. But I had been so
I dashed into the room. There, on an instrument table, was the
resonator. Taral had thoughtfully provided me with a sketch of it. It
looked like a long probing tool, about two feet long and eight to ten
inches in diameter. I quickly stuffed it in the backpack I had
thoughtfully brought along. I grunted with the weight but started
In the hallway I saw two orderlies. I think they were armed, but
I fired first, and they fell to the ground. I ran rapidly, going left,
then right, then left again. Finally I found myself at a deadend. I
could hear the footsteps of pursuit.
I had run blindly, and I was trapped.
At least, that's what my pursuers probably thought. Someone
who's being chased doesn't purposely run into a deadend, right? An
ordinary, simplistic fugitive doesn't. But I was no run of the mill
I had carefully memorized this route as an alternate escape
option in case of any problems. I skidded to a halt at the end of the
corridor and quickly took a packet of explosives out of my pouch,
setting it up against the wall. I pressed the activator and was
running away from it even before the button started flashing. I had
just five seconds. I dashed into a closet a few feet down, and was
just closing the door even as I heard footsteps rounding the corner.
There was a tremendous explosion, and I was thrown to the floor.
I was dazed for a few precious seconds as I tried to recover my wits.
Luckily I had fallen on my stomach so not as to crush the resonator. I
scrambled up, and out of the closet... and saw a lot of bodies, which
had been knocked senseless against a wall. They must have been right
There was also a gaping hole in the wall. In seconds I was
My escape wasn't pretty; nor was it clever. I simply ran, and
shot at anything that came remotely near me. Luckily the people in
control of the facility didn't seem to have a clear idea what was
happening. I reached the fence, and rapidly looked left and right.
People were running about in the distance. Unfortunately I had not
come out on the same side of the building where I had made my entrance
through the fence, and I wasted precious seconds cutting myself a new
exit. I put down my blaster and my backpack and started to torch a
hole through the fence.
I had gotten about three quarters of the way done when I saw a
burst of light out of the corner of my eye and felt a stabbing pain in
my arm. I whirled, and saw a D approaching. And, suddenly, in the
distance, I saw other D's running up. In a flash I understood. They
were all under one remote control. What one saw was reported, nearly
instantly, to the others. No wonder all the soldiers were D's.
But I didn't stop and think about it for very long. The D fired
again, but I was already diving for the ground, and the shot went wide.
I grabbed my blaster, and fired. The blast sent a wave of ionized
energy which enveloped the D. He collapsed to the ground.
But the other D guards knew where I was. And they were
Ignoring the pain in my arm, I picked up my backpack. I kicked
the fence in, and with a screech the metal gave way and I had a clear
path through. I jumped across, just as a swirl of laser beams erupted
in the area I had been standing.
I was running as fast as I could, but still trying to go softly,
for my pursuers were not far behind. After a slightly circuitous trip
back to my aircar, I slipped in, and gunned the engine.
I didn't allow myself to pause until I had returned safely to my
hiding place. Then I allowed myself to feel the pain.
My first fear was that the wound would be so extensive as to
require medical attention, something I could not possibly afford to
apply for on this world. But as I tenderly took off my bulky suit I
saw that it was just a graze. It hurt, but I applied some medical
gauze that I had reserved for just such a purpose.
"That's the last time I ever do a good deed," I muttered, gently
touching my wound. Ow, that hurt.
Actually, as last times go, it was actually the second to last
time that I performed a good dead. I still had to fulfill my promise
to go and try to actually rescue Banner. Banner was an important
prisoner. The authorities knew I had come to see her before.
Undoubtedly they would be on guard for another attempt. This was a
perfect opportunity for me to be captured again. What possible
incentive could there be for me to do this? That night I resolved not
to do it. In the morning I would hand over the resonator to Taral.
Half a loaf was better than none.
The next morning I was crouching behind a bush, staring at a
single story home at the edge of the municipality. "I think I need to
have my head examined," I muttered. I had changed my mind. The
opportunity to score another one for the home team had been too much of
a temptation to resist. Besides, I was just the tiniest bit curious
about this Banner. If she was supposed to be such a big threat, I
could cause even more troubles for the Happy Worlders by freeing her.
Banner was supposed to have been fully readjusted, and was now
residing in the home I had staked out. I didn't have to think to
wonder why she merited a home of her own. A simple search on my trusty
police terminal had informed me that there were guards posted with her.
A number of them, with her at all times. Not a guard for her; no, the
state was undoubtedly confident in its methods of converting even the
most hardened resistors.
The guards were for me.
There knew I might come after Banner again. I was flattered, of
course, and yet, also a little hurt, at the same time. There were only
four guards. Unless there were others that were carefully hidden
about. But if there were, they were staying well out of sight. Did
Thalessa really think that four clods could stop me from getting
anything that I wanted?
The place was quiet. Too quiet. No one was in sight. They must
all be indoors. "That can be remedied," I muttered, looking about. I
unzipped my knapsack... and took out an ungainly black sphere, the size
of a coconut. A homemade smoke bomb.
"Why do I get the uncanny feeling that my friends inside the
house will be wanting some fresh air, and soon?" I asked, mostly to
myself. I lobbed the bomb through a window that had thoughtfully been
left open, and then crouched to the side of the front steps, and
I took a peek through one of the windows and noted with
satisfaction that the house was filling up with smoke. Just then the
front door opened, and I saw several coughing individuals stagger out.
I waited until I had counted five of them, and then I opened fire. On
all of them. Including Banner, the woman.
Their eyes were so teary with smoke that they didn't even see it
coming. In seconds all five were collapsed on the ground. "Piece of
cake," I said admiringly. "Just like shooting metal parasites in a
But for all my boasting I made a hasty departure, dragging Banner
into my hovercar and driving off. The house was sure to be bugged, and
the authorities would be there in minutes. In fact we passed several
hovercars, filled with troops, going the other way. Banner snoozed in
the back seat, covered by a blanket. I had a little trouble getting
her down the stairwell into the service tunnels, but from then on it
wasn't very difficult. I dragged Banner's body along the tunnel at a
slow but steady clip. (I could have been chivalrous and carried her,
but I was tired, and physical fatigue won out over gallantry).
Admittedly I wasn't keeping a sharp eye out for the authorities; my
police terminal had informed me that the service tunnels weren't
But there were any number of security cameras posted on the
walls, and I smiled at one as I hauled my charge away. Of course, one
of the first things I had done before I had moved in was fix the
I dragged Banner into my hiding hole and bolted the door behind
me. Then I put her in the chair. I say 'the' chair because it was a
special chair. When I had started decorating my new home, I had
anticipated the need for guest accommodations, especially for visitors
of the unwilling kind. The chair was a work of art. It was bolted in
the ground with hard steel rivets. The chair was made of solid
steeltex, with wrought iron reinforcements. I closed the clamps on the
armrests, sealing her arms in, and did the same for the restrainers on
the legs. An extra belt went around the waist, for good measure, and
there was even a band to seal the neck in place. I took all the
precautions advised in the instruction booklet, sparing not a single
Then I stepped back and admired my work. She looked confined
enough. For a moment, I admired the chair. I had picked it up cheap
(stolen, of course) at a local government warehouse. I think it was
intended for use in torture chambers. At least, that's what was
implied in the instruction booklet.
Whatever its intended function, I must say that it fit my
purposes very nicely.
For a moment, though, I bit my lip. I did have some minor qualms
about tying up and binding a pretty woman in such an awful contraption.
I watched the way her long straight brown hair settled around the
restraining pads that held her head in place, the way her elegant slim
arms were locked by the restraining joints. But my conscience was
alleviated by the fact that this was for her own good. Mine too. If
her file was to be believed, Banner was supposed to be one of the
brightest resistance minds on the planet. If she was supposed to have
been readjusted, I didn't even want a small chance of her getting
Just then she blinked and opened her eyes. She didn't try to
move, just looked around, taking it all in.
"You are the alien," Banner said flatly.
"Give the lady a cigar," I said.
She started screaming. I thought about gagging her, but decided
against it. I sat down in a chair, facing her. Watching her.
After a moment, studying my uncaring reaction, she stopped. "We
are out of the hearing range of others," she said flatly.
"You will still be caught, alien," said Banner.
"Call me Cliff," I said. "Or Clifford. The name's Clifford
"You will still be caught, Clifford Croft," said Banner
stubbornly, her face almost rigidly mechanical.
"They say you were one of the best resistors," I said. "At
least, that's what's in your police file."
"Yes," she said coldly. "But I have been rehabilitated."
"Hypnosis?" I inquired, trying to act indifferent, while
concealing my disgust.
"Yes," she said flatly.
"You know you've been hypnotized, you know your feelings have
been altered, and yet you don't mind."
"I feel what I feel," said Banner. "My previous mode of
existence was quite destructive." She beamed. "I serve the state
"You would be pleased with that, yes, hm," I said. "Well, I'd
better get started with the task at hand." I picked up the resonator
from the table.
"What are you going to do?" For the first time, there was fear
in her eyes.
"Cure you," I said. Then I paused, thinking about what I had
just said. "No, that's probably what they told you before. To be more
precise, I'm going to return you to the way you were."
"No. No. Please do not."
I paused. "Well, it's either that, or keep you strapped in this
"I choose the latter," she said, in a flat voice.
I sighed. "Somehow, I thought you might say that."
I looked over the resonator. The controls were unfamiliar to me,
but I soon mastered them: there was an ON button, and an OFF button.
I pushed the former.
There was a hum, and a beam of light shot out, playing on the
"No, no!" said Banner.
I trained the beam of light on Banner's face. She froze. I
adjusted the resonator on a little tripod, and then put it on a
workbench, where it would still shine on her head.
"Do you hear me, Banner?" I said.
"Yes," she said.
"Listen carefully. All previous hypnotic instructions are
canceled. You are no longer loyal to the state."
"I am no longer loyal to the state."
"Your previous personality, that which was suppressed before
conditioning, must return."
"My previous personality will return."
This was easy! I was almost sorry I had promised to give the
resonator to Taral. In just a few minutes we finished, and I untied
her from the chair.
"Wake up!" I said, snapping my fingers. Immediately her eyes
"How do you feel?" I said.
"Fine," she said, in a curiously dry voice. "You cured me.
Thank you." She seemed drained; her face carried little expression.
She must be tired, I thought.
"You're welcome," I said. I yawned and I got up, stretching. I
was tired too.
"I appreciate you rescuing me," she said, and a little life crept
into her words. She got up, taking a look around. "Where are we?"
"In my secret hiding place," I smiled, watching her with a little
She looked at some of the materials on my workbench. "Did anyone
else help you rescue me?" she said dryly, looking a little bored. She
must have kind of a dull personality in real life, I decided.
"No," I said, studying my fingernails rather closely. One or two
of them were a little long. I started thinking about the last time
that I had made an effort to have them trimmed.
But when I looked up, matters of personal hygiene were thrown to
the back of my mind. For Banner held a blaster in her hand. One of
mine. And it was pointed straight at me.
"I have you, alien," she said.
I sighed. "You faked it," I said.
"Yes," said Banner. Her voice was flat now, but there was an
undercurrent of triumph in it.
"Would you mind telling me how?" I asked, quite reasonably.
Banner was generous in victory. "You need to put the subject
into a trance before you apply the resonator. I simply faked the
trance, and agreed with whatever you said," she explained, as she would
to a child.
"How clever," I said. "Thank you for the information." I drew
my own blaster that I had on me.
Instantly she fired, pulling the trigger. But nothing happened.
"Want to bet that mine won't work?" I said, smiling. "Now drop
it. And back in the chair."
I really didn't expect her to, and, as I predicted, she tried to
make a run for it. I sighed again as I stunned her. Well, at least
now I knew the proper procedure. I locked her in the chair, and took
out a hypnocube.
Banner awoke just as I finished unlocking her from the chair. I
had labored as best I could to undo the damage that had been done. I
was acutely aware that I wasn't a professional hypnotist, but I had
done everything I could. I had also erased her memory of the blaster
incident, and the drained blaster lay on the worktable. Time for
another bluff, just in case I was wrong again.
But I never had the chance. As soon as I completed removing the
last restraint, she flew into my arms, hugging me.
"Thank you, oh thank you," she murmured, over and over again.
I concluded that the operation had been a success.
"Why did you rescue me?" was the first thing she wanted to know.
"It was a promise, to Taral," I said.
"Taral," she said, getting a far away look in her eyes. But then
she turned back to me. "But you risked getting caught, to save me?"
"I nearly did get caught, the first time I came for you," I said.
Then I grinned. "But I'm a spy; I'm used to that sort of thing."
"You don't know what they'll do to you," she shuddered.
"Programming? Conditioning? I've experienced it," I said.
We talked long into the night. I was interested to learn that
Banner had been an A. That's right, an A. It seems that children were
carefully watched on this world, and at an early age shuttled into the
A, B, C, or D category, depending on their predicted ability quotient.
The least able, obviously, fell into the D category, destined to become
little more than extensions of the control computer (that's right--they
were all under direct computer control!) Typically most fell into the
B or C category. The jobs requiring some initiative or skill were
allotted to the B's. But the rulers, the people with the top jobs,
were the A's, and there were scant few of them. Banner was an A, as
I've already said, and apparently she had showed a lot of promise.
She had been put in charge of an external data collection unit.
Basically that meant she monitored foreign transmissions from other
planets. Through this exposure to the outside world Banner saw that
other, more pluralistic forms of existence were possible, and she
started questioning the basic premise of Happy Worlder society. For
you see, A's were not conditioned, not formally. Oh, they were taught
from birth that the Happy system was the best possible, but there was
no form of direct mental coercion, such as hypnotism or drugs. Thus if
anyone could engage in free thinking, it would be the A's.
Once Banner turned against the regime she was smart enough not to
voice her opposition publicly. The Master, the ruler of this Happy
planet, Negan 14, would have had her downgraded and processed, as she
eventually was. What Banner decided to do was to organize a resistance
group. She organized several small cells. The cells had to be small
in size, for if one member was caught, hypnointerrogation would easily
elicit the names of the other members. It was not coincidence that the
authorities were on to Taral so soon after Banner had been caught;
Taral had been a member of her group.
"But how did you get caught?" I wanted to know.
"The resistance was organizing, and doing quite well, considering
the circumstances, so I thought. Then we recruited a plant, a double
agent, someone who was working for the undercover peaceman force.
Everyone in that cell was arrested, converted, and then they went after
the pointman for the next cell, and the next after that one, which was
ours. They were very surprised when they caught up with me." She
shivered. "I remember the Master, showing up for my interrogation,
saying something like 'I'm very disappointed with you, Banner.' And
then he smiled, and said he was giving me another chance. Then he
ordered me converted to B status. They were going to make me a
peaceman; they still thought I had value." And she smiled wanly.
"You were on the top of their most wanted list," I said. "I
guess it was because you were such a good organizer. Someone with your
caliber has the potential to be a real threat to the state."
"As do you," said Banner. "You are not only an unprocessed
alien, but you are a highly trained and capable individual."
"It's all true, but how do you know that?" I said modestly.
And Banner came close to me. "Anyone who breaks into a
rehomoginization installation, alone, and gets out while still
remaining unprocessed simply has to be clever."
"Simply has to be?" I said, smiling.
"Well, maybe somewhat clever," I said, smiling shyly.
"Very clever," Banner repeated, with a broad smile. Only this
time, it looked natural. "But that's to be expected. I've read your
"My file?" I frowned.
"Are you surprised? Didn't you notice how quickly our forces
responded to your landing? Did you simply chalk that up to
efficiency?" she said. "No. You were expected. We have our sources,
even inside your Column. Yes, we know about your organization too. We
have a low level agent, who provides us with information. Before I was
exposed, your file was circulated to senior security people and
analysts, such as myself." She looked into my eyes. "What are you
after, Clifford Croft?"
I felt my resolve melting. If she was still pretending she
wasn't unconverted, she was doing an incredibly good job of it. "I'm
investigating technology theft from the League to your planet."
"Operation Conquest," she said promptly.
"Operation Conquest," said Banner. "It's all they've been
talking about on the official channels. Even I didn't have the
clearance to find out what it was. But it was very important to
everyone on the ruling policy committee."
"And if it's important to them, it's important to me," I said.
"I must find out what they are doing."
"You're a very determined man," she said, staring into my eyes.
"I like to get the job done," I said.
She looked admiringly at me. "It was very nice of you to rescue
me. If it hadn't been for you, I'm certain I would've remained
converted for the rest of my life."
"Think nothing of it," I smiled genially.
"But I do think something of it," said Banner, giving me a gentle
kiss on the lips.
At least, that's how it started. The kiss seemed to go on for a
while, and after that came another, and then a few more. And then we
were holding each other close, and then all thoughts of my mission
faded from my mind.
Afterwards, we lay together on my small mattress. Banner used
her fingertips to play along the curves of the muscles on my arms.
"So, you're going to dig into Operation Conquest," she mused.
"There's no terminal here that will give you that sort of information.
You'd have to go to Central Control for that."
I nodded. "That's exactly where I'm going."
"No!" said Banner, sitting up in bed, looking very alarmed. "You
will be captured, processed! That's a top security area. Clifford,
"I've got a job to do," I said stoically.
"That's what the others said," Banner commented. "Your agents
who came before you. One we caught immediately. But another tried to
get into the complex. That's when she got caught."
"Where are they now?" I said.
"Dead," said Banner, looking away.
We spent three more days in my hiding hole, planning, discussing,
thinking. Banner, as a former A, was quite a wealth of information.
But when it came to Central Control she couldn't tell me very much.
"I was only assigned to the perimeter, to the lowest security
area," said Banner.
I tried to think of different angles. "What about your agent
network... do you have any contacts inside?"
Banner shook her head. "I was the contact inside," she said,
"Tell me everything you can about it," I said.
And she did, and it was all very depressing. As a top security
area, Central Control had elaborate security and alarm systems all over
the complex. Banner listed a number of them and then added, "And those
are only the ones that I know about. I'm certain there must be
Hm. "How did this all get started? How did your world get like
this?" I asked, not really expecting an answer.
But Banner gave one. "I'm not certain," she said. "But that
question also interested me. I searched the database, in the
classified histories. Our groups of worlds were evidently settled
several hundred years ago, as best as I can tell." She proceeded to
tell, in abbreviated form, how the settlers had made out, establishing
a normal self governing society. Unfortunately, as time went on, the
state assumed more and more responsibility. It came to control larger
and larger sectors of the economy, and society at large. As that
occurred the political power became concentrated within a small group
"And then they introduced mental conditioning," said Banner,
making a face. "At first, it was for fairly innocuous purposes, so the
histories say. It was used on criminals and mental patients. But then
it started to be applied to the population at large. A campaign to
instill morals into the population. To make us more law abiding, more
"-and more obedient citizens," I finished for her.
"Precisely," said Banner. "And now the only ones with a mind
enough to rebel are the ones at the top, and they are hardly
dissatisfied with their own lot."
"I see," I said. "That's a nice history lesson. But it's not
going to help me get into the complex." I stared at a map on the
workbench. "I don't even have a decent map of the place!"
"It's classified," Banner grinned. "You can only get one at a
terminal inside Central Control." She paused, then added, "But you're
going to have more problems than just breaking in. I presume that your
work there will not be accomplished within thirty minutes?"
She looked at me in a mildly patronizing way. "My dearest
Clifford, you're going to have to devise a way of surviving in there.
Unless you have transfer orders from the highest terminals, you're
going to be picked up immediately."
"Hm," I said.
We spent more time discussing my plan. But every time I
suggested a way in, Banner vetoed it.
"Forget it, they'll check up on you."
"Come in from the air?"
"You'll be shot down."
"There are remote seismic probes in the earth all around the
"Oh," I said, somewhat disappointed. "Let's deal with the other
half of my problem. When I get into the central control complex, how
do I subvert people without being seen, if every room is being
"Well, you could take a chance," said Banner. "Not every room is
monitored at every moment, just because there is a camera unit in
there. But a safer option is a jammer." She did not wait for the
obvious question. "A jammer will fuzz up their picture, and
temporarily knock out the audio. Under normal circumstances a repair
unit would be sent in a leisurely time. This being the Central
Control, I would bet that they would send a peaceman unit out
"So what good will a jammer do for me?"
"Clifford, it will take several minutes for them to reach you,
unless a patrol is on duty nearby. You can take that time and use it
to your advantage." She added, "I didn't say it was going to be easy."
"Ah. Where can I get this jammer?"
"At the local central control branch."
Banner may have been telling me the truth when she said that the
security at the local central control branch was several notches below
that of the main central control complex. But that didn't mean that
this part of the job was going to be easy.
There were not one but two steel fences (alarmed, I'm sure),
patrolled every few feet by grim faced B's. B's! This was no job for
mere D's. Obviously this was the top security facility in this
There was a squad of heavily armed B's at the gate. They looked
at my pass critically. "We'll have to confirm this," said one of them,
going into his terminal station. The other guards, armed with laser
rifles, stood ready in case I even thought of bolting.
The guard typed on his terminal keys while I fretted. Oh, I
didn't look concerned, of course; I gave a bright smile to the B's on
guard, who smiled back at me. Certain amenities were still observed.
When I saw the guard at the terminal lift his eyebrows in a
surprised gesture, I felt the sudden impulse to run. My hand gripped
the blaster in my pocket more tightly.
The guard came out and said, "Your clearance has been confirmed,
peaceman. You're the first visitor outside of our own people we've had
in a long time. Welcome. You may enter."
It had worked; I had left Banner at my police terminal, in
anticipation of just such an eventuality. The only thing I hadn't been
certain of was whether she would have been able to intercept the
message before it electronically winded its way to the police station.
An (armed) escort of two men accompanied me. Things were not
going to be easy.
"What is your business here, peaceman?" said an escort.
"Take me to the director," I said. "But first, I feel a need to
tend the call of nature. Can you gentlemen show me where the washroom
is?" They could and they did. As they led me to it we walked by a
large room with the word "Supply" labeled on the door. That was my
real destination. Banner, who had worked in this facility before, had
sketched out a rough floor plan for me.
As we entered the bathroom I noticed with distaste the cameras on
the walls. Was there no privacy to be found anywhere? There weren't
even any stalls; just rows and rows of toilets.
I sighed as the smiling guards watched me. Somehow, the effect
of two people standing several feet away, smiling at me, did not spur
my interest in using the facility.
"Can you guys go over to the corner, or something?" I said.
Privacy in such a matter, even on this world, was still subject to some
respect, so I had been told.
Smiling, the B's walked to the corner of the washroom. As soon
as their backs were turned my blaster was out of my pouch, and two
precise shots were fired. And then I was out the door, running down
the hallway, into the storeroom.
By my watch it took one minute and twenty nine seconds before the
first alarm was raised. By that time I had the device in hand and was
halfway out the door.
But security was good, very good; by the time I reached the
stairwell, I caught glimpses of the first sign of a patrol in pursuit.
I pounded up the stairs, letting something fall from my hands. Two
landings up I crouched down on the ground; I was just in time too, as I
felt the vibrations from an enormous chunk of the stairwell below me
being ripped out, and the entire building shook for a moment. But then
the vibrations ceased, and I was on my feet and running again.
In less than a minute after that I was on the roof. I looked
under a pile of tarps and found a coiled metal rope, and an ancient
crossbow gun. I took careful aim just outside the compound, at a
sturdy tree. This was the tricky part.
Ignoring the hubbub around me, I fired. A metal bolt of steel,
attached to the rope, imbedded itself in the tree. I started to
secure the end on my side, when I heard a yell. I looked down, over
the edge of the building, and saw several B's pointing at me.
Oh oh. Time for plan B.
I took a deep breath, grabbed the line, and swung off the roof.
My major concern was clearing the double fences. If I collided
against them, and landed inside the compound, I would not be in a very
I swung, in a sharp arc, over the heads of a group of gaping B's.
If I had had the time, I would have enjoyed their astonished
expressions. They were openmouthed, all gaping at the feat that was
occurring above them. I don't think a single one of them thought in
their little minds to draw their weapons and shoot me down; they were
all much too surprised for that, and I was much too quick. I rapidly
skated down the line. The fences at the perimeter came up quickly,
very quickly indeed, and I had to lift my legs to avoid hitting the
first fence. And then after that the second fence came up, much to
quickly, much too high.
I slammed against it, and felt the rather full impact as my
entire body hit the metal mesh barrier. For a moment I hung there,
like some fish that's been put out to dry, and if the B's had been a
little less slow witted, they could have shot me down.
But fortunately, I had raised my arms at the last second to
shield my head, and that had paid off. I was stunned, but for no more
than a second. I had lost the rope, but my hands had managed to get a
grasp on the top of the fence, and it was from that position that I was
now hanging. I didn't have time to study what must have been the
witless reactions of the B's, but I'll bet they must have been
But I couldn't count on that to last very long. With one fluid
motion I chinned my head up over the top, and then dragged the rest of
my body over the barrier. Then I fell to the ground in a not too
That was when the first laser beam hit. It flew above me, which
gave me the impression that the B's were still a few seconds behind the
flow of events. Good. Getting into a low crouch, I started running.
The B's blasted away at the fence, both to get a shot at me and
to clear a more direct path to my tender fleeing self. I was hurting,
my whole body aching with pain, but I still might have gotten away had
it not been for the search patrols that were hastily set to catch me.
I ran as fast as I could in my weakened condition, but my
pursuers were quicker, and they cut off my routes of escape. As I
reached the edge of the trees I saw a number of them discover my hidden
aircar in the bushes. And then one of them pointed at me.
Unfortunately, I was not as delighted to see them. I turned
around, and darted back into the forest.
The search parties, I found out quickly, were very well
organized. In a few short minutes they had the surrounding forest
totally surrounded. I noticed that too, and started running back to
I stopped a short distance away, constantly looking over my
shoulder. I still hadn't been spotted yet, though I heard the sounds
At that point I decided to climb a tree. I didn't want to leave
any more helpful tracks for my pursuers. At most they would trace me
to this tree, and conclude I had climbed into the sturdy branches to
another tree, and then to points unknown. Which would be so much the
But in fact I didn't go far, only two trees over. The sounds of
pursuit were louder now, and I almost fell when I jumped from one
branch to the other, in order to get to the tree that I was really
heading for. But then I made it and I walked down the thickening
branch to the trunk, where I started prying madly at the bark.
Does this seem like a surprising act? Would it be any more
surprising that a portion of the bark swung open, revealing a dark
hole? Well, I wasn't surprised. I quickly crept in, hurriedly
closing the panel behind me.
I had time, a lot of it, to ponder my folly as my pursuers closed
in on the area. The bark wasn't soundproof and I could hear every
little thing that was going on in the forest. Whenever a pursuer
walked by, it sounded like he was right outside my little hiding hole.
The problem of sound worked both ways; I had been breathing heavily
from my exertions, and it took a great deal of efforts to muffle the
sounds of my rapid inhalations.
The Happy Worlders spent several hours combing every inch of the
forest, while I just sat there inside the tree and shivered, as evening
came and the weather turned colder.
I had a lot to thank Banner for. She used to work at this
installation, and she had painstakingly prepared an escape route, in
case she ever needed it. (Never mind that didn't help her; it had
certainly helped me!) She had told me that she thought she hadn't
revealed it in interrogation (simply because they hadn't asked). It
had been a risk, but it had paid off.
My legs were very cramped in this enclosed shape. I tried to
shift position a little. Ow. My entire body felt bruised. I hoped I
hadn't broken anything.
I waited until the sounds of search ceased, and a good few hours
beyond that. Then I slowly opened the hidden door in the tree trunk,
and peered out. I knew it wouldn't be beyond the B's to wait in ambush
to smoke me out.
Well, I had to leave sometime. I slipped out, as quietly as I
could. I climbed down the tree, as softly as I was able.
And felt something suddenly land on my shoulder.
I walked down the underground passage, back to my room. Banner
should have been long gone by now; I had firmly instructed her to leave
if I had not returned immediately. And that had been for a good
reason; if I were captured, and converted, I could be used to capture
I smiled to myself as I reached the dead end.
Opening the door, I turned on the lights, and felt immediately
disappointed. Banner had indeed gone. I had told her to leave, and
yet now I regretted it.
Suddenly I felt a gun in my ribs. "Don't make any sudden moves,"
said a voice.
But I did, or rather I tried to.
And I got shot, for my efforts.
When I awoke, I found myself strapped in a very familiar chair.
My mind felt addled, as if something odd had happened while I was
napping. I felt exhausted, leading me to conclude that I hadn't had a
Banner smiled at me, holding my blaster in her hands. "Hello,
"Well, this is a turn of events," I said, looking down at captive
and bound myself. At that point my eyes were the only thing that were
capable of movement.
"How are you feeling, Clifford?" she said.
"Awful," I said, and it was the truth.
"I checked you over. You have a number of bruises, contusions,
the worst of which I bandaged," said Banner.
"Thank you," I said. Then I paused, "I'm sorry to bring it up if
it's a touchy subject, but would you mind telling me what I'm doing
locked in my own chair?" I looked up at her with innocent eyes. She
matched my gaze.
"I think you know the answer to that quite well, Clifford.
You've been gone nearly a day and a half," she said flatly. I could
tell, by the way she looked at me, that she believed that I had been
"I had to hide in that little tree trunk of yours," I said. "And
it was a long walk back."
"Very possibly," she said, her face stern.
"So what do you think? That I've been converted?" I said.
"Listen to me, Banner. Is my voice monotone? Is my affect zombie-
She shook her head. "It isn't always like that, Clifford."
"Well, what are you going to do? Keep me locked up here
forever?" I asked. That was good, putting the ball in her court. I
had things to do; I had no intention of staying in this chair.
Banner looked into my eyes. "I have to know, Clifford. Beyond a
shadow of a doubt, I have to know."
"Well, there's no way I can prove I wasn't caught," I snapped.
"Unless...." There was one option, but I didn't have the enthusiasm to
name it outright. "Hypnotism? I've already used the hypnocube on you,
Clifford. And you're all clear." But she was frowning as she said it.
"So why am I still tied in this chair?" I asked.
Banner looked up at the low ceiling. "If you had been captured
and interrogated, they could have anticipated my deprogramming
technique and been a little more... subtle in your programming," she
I frowned, matching her expression. "Well, then you can never
tell," I snapped. "So what are you going to do, kill me, just to make
Banner shook her head. "I'm still considering what to do." She
just sighed and sat there.
And so did I. What could I say to get myself freed from this
chair? The answer was nothing. Banner was highly intelligent.
Fooling her would be next to impossible.
We sat in silence for awhile, her on the workbench, me in the
chair. She seemed to be looking aimlessly at the ceiling but somehow I
had the feeling that she was, well... almost waiting for something.
"If I have been converted, you would have been captured by now,"
"No good," said Banner. "If I let you go, you're not going to
shoot me immediately. You're going to attempt to get into my
confidence, and see how many members of my old resistance network that
I can contact. I've been an A; I know how their thinking works."
That was too much for me. I burst out in anger, "I told you I
have a job to do! I'm not interested in your resistance organization!
I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm hurt, and I've wasted enough time! If you
don't believe me, if you still don't trust me, then shoot me. Shoot
me, with the setting on stun. Then untie me and leave. If worst
comes to worst, all you'll be doing is letting one of their agents go!"
I was annoyed, and I had had enough of this.
"Oh Clifford!" said Banner, racing to untie my constraints. In a
few moments I was free, and she was in my arms.
"How did you know?" I said.
She spoke freely. "As I told you, if you had been programmed and
sent back here, it probably would have been with the purpose of
ferreting out other members of the resistance. You showed a general
lack of interest in contacting them, only talking about your mission.
And then when you suggested that I effectively abandon you, I knew that
simply could not have been your assignment, if you had been captured.
Oh Clifford, I'm so sorry; but you don't know them. They're devious,
and cunning, oh so cunning." She put an arm over my shoulder as she
"Ow," I said, suddenly remembering that I hurt there as well.
When I had come down from the tree something had touched me on the
shoulder. For a split second I had thought it had been a peaceman's
rod, but when I turned and looked I had seen a Gazoota, perched on my
shoulder. I had shooed it off, but not before it had painfully
"Oh Clifford, I'm so sorry," she said, opening my shirt, playing
a hand over my wounds. I think every spot in my body was aching.
"Rest, I need rest," I said, staggering for the bed. I felt
The next few days I stayed underground and simply recovered. I
spent some time plotting my future course of action. How was I going
to break into Central Control? Banner still portrayed it as a next to
impossible task. She knew more about it than I did; and yet there
wasn't a place in all the inhabited galaxy that I hadn't been able to
crack. There had to be a way in. There always was.
I spent some time examining the device I had paid so dearly for,
the jammer. Turning it around in my hand, I found it was a simple
enough device, with a single ON and OFF switch on it. Very user
friendly, like the resonator. But would it work?
I was still musing over this when Banner came over. She put a
hand on my shoulder.
"No ow?" she said, teasing.
"You'd be surprised how quickly I recover from having my entire
body smashed against a steel fence," I said, smiling up to her.
"What are your plans?"
"Tomorrow, I'm going to get myself an A."
"An A?" her eyes shot up. "And then?"
"And then... I'm on my way to Central Control."
That started a long argument, with her trying to dissuade me.
But I wasn't budging; and though she saw that, she wasn't giving in
easily. Finally I ended the argument by giving her a kiss, one which
drove all thoughts of planning from both our minds.
The next morning I got myself an A. It wasn't quite as easy as
it sounded, but it definitely wasn't one of the most challenging
assignments I had had on this Happy World. The small A community in
this region resided in a heavily patrolled fenced in community. I
could have broken in, but there was an easier scheme I had in mind.
"Here he comes," said Banner, peering through a set of
binoculars. She had insisted on coming, and I had felt this particular
job safe for her to come. Usually, of course, I prefer to work alone.
It's habit, really; that way no member of the team ever lets me down.
We had both prepared ourselves, strictly according to the script
we had agreed upon last night. We both stood on the side of the road,
the road we knew that our A would be taking.
I nodded, motioning for Banner to hide behind a tree off the
road. Then I stood in the middle of the causeway.
A hovercar approached, going at a high speed. I started waving
my arms wildly, but for a moment it didn't look like it was going to
slow down. I was all prepared to make a last minute leap to the side
of the road when the hovercar did slow down, and then stop, a few feet
An angry looking man in a typical bulky uniform stared at me.
His license plate read A, followed by ten numbers, which surprised me.
I thought the A's, like Thalessa, didn't wear ordinary uniforms, or
numbers. Thalessa, I now hypothesized, must be an A+ among A's.
"What are you doing?" the A barked at me.
I waved my hands in the air, and made wild "Woop Woop Woop"
sounds at the top of my lungs. I was wearing a C license plate, so I
hoped the logical inference would be that I was a citizen who wasn't
adapting well to drug control.
Then the A pressed a button on his dashboard, and spoke into it.
"Rogue unit on 34. Come for pickup."
"Pickup, copy," said a voice from the car.
I grimaced. That would give us less time than I thought.
"Someone will be along shortly to help you," said the A,
preparing to start his car again.
Then Banner ran up and shot him, at point blank range.
I dropped my arms, in mid-whoop. "No, we'd rather help you. We
insist," I said, getting into the car along with Banner.
Back at my hideout, we strapped the A to the chair.
"His name is Mono," said Banner, checking the readout on the
I raised a hypnocube, and applied it to Mono. In a short time we
had him talking. There was a lot I wanted to know, namely concerning
the behavior and activities of A's. If I was to impersonate one, I
needed to know what they were like, how they acted, and how they
responded to certain situations. Banner had been helpful but it was
always good to have more sources of information. In addition, this A
worked in the security branch.
"Have you ever been to Central Control?" I asked, hoping against
He had. Once. I wracked his memory for every detail, every last
It was much as Banner had described it, and quite thoroughly
depressing. There was layer upon layer of security, different sorts of
monitors and sensing devices throughout the complex. This wasn't going
to be easy.
"But you're going to help," I told Mono, who nodded obligingly.
We turned him. And quite easily, too. A's were not subject to
hypnotic conditioning. Yes, they were indoctrinated from an early age.
But there were no stubborn subconscious commands to get around. Mono
was quite malleable. I prepared him for tomorrow, and then told him to
go to sleep. He would be ready.
Just as I finished that Banner called for my attention. She was
working on the terminal. I looked over her shoulder.
ALIEN 04-38-938, "CLIFFORD CROFT" STILL AT LARGE. CENTRAL
COMMAND ESTIMATES 80% PROBABILITY THAT ALIEN HAS ACCESS TO PEACEMAN
LEVEL TERMINALS. HENCEFORTH ALL MESSAGES CONCERNING 04-38-938 WILL BE
DELIVERED PERSONALLY BY CLASSIFIED COURIER. PRESTIGE POINTS FOR
CAPTURE ARE NOW AT 100,000 POINTS.
"So they're starting to catch on to me," I said. "I wonder if
they're able to trace this terminal."
"No," said Banner. "Otherwise they'd already be here," she said
simply. "Wait, there's more."
PERSONAL MESSAGE FOR CLIFFORD CROFT, TOGGLE TO CONTINUE.
"A trap," I said immediately. "Could they trace it if we toggle
"Let me check," said Banner, punching some keys. "Yes, that's a
special recall file. That was a good hunch, Clifford."
"Can you get around it?"
Banner tapped some more keys. "Yes, I can." Suddenly a new
message appeared on the screen. But this was a taped video. I gasped
when I saw Thalessa's face.
"Mr. Croft," she began, "so good of you to tune in." She paused,
then added, "We know you're still in the municipality. We know you've
stolen the resonator, and rescued the criminal Banner. Banner, if
you're listening to this, we're going to recover you too. Only this
time you won't be reduced merely to B level; I'm informed there's a
shortage of D labor in the W-278 mines." Thalessa gave a wide smile.
"We of course have far better plans for you, Mr. Croft. When I'm
done with you you'll be full of happiness, so very grateful for your
conversion." The camera gave a closeup on her face. "Which I intend
to supervise personally. Very soon, Mr. Croft, very soon." And then
the picture faded.
Banner's face grew pale. I reached out and grabbed her hand.
She was shaking. "Don't worry, just go underground and stay there.
You'll be all right."
Banner turned to me. "It's not me I'm thinking about. It's you.
You still don't know what you're getting into. Central Control is the
most tightly guarded installation on the planet. They'll capture you,
and then they'll convert you." Tears started to well up inside her.
"Hey, hey," I said. "Let's not have any of that! I'm not the
catchable type; never have been, never will. Now come on, cheer up,
cheer up! We've obviously caused them a lot of trouble."
"I'll say," said Banner, bucking up a little. Then she said,
"Clifford? If you still insist on going, may I-"
"No, no, and no," I said. "We've had this discussion may times
before. You're right, this is a very risky job, and I won't be
responsible for the lives of others. Look, I'll be honest with you.
There is a chance I may be caught. But if something happens to me, you
have to remain free, to carry on the fight for your planet."
"Oh Clifford!" she said, and she melted in my arms. That sort of
psychology always works. I smiled as I patted her gently on the back
Then Banner looked up at me. "Well, if do you insist on being
captured converted tomorrow, I'll try to make your last night of
unprogrammed existence a good one." And she reached out for me....
Afterwards, she said, "That was tremendous."
"Well, I've never done it with a man who was worth 100,000
prestige points," she giggled.
I rested as I let my hand play over her naked back. I eyed Mono,
still sitting in the chair. It seemed a little odd to be intimate with
someone while a third party was in the room, even someone who was
sleeping in a hypnotic state. Banner caught my glance.
"You can't be certain that your hypnoinstruction will work."
"I know," I said. "That's what makes it interesting."
It was a breezy morning the day we reached the main gate of the
Central Control complex. Mono and I had spent nearly five days in
virtually continuous travel, taking the roads that led to Central
Control. When we saw the complex from the distance (it's as large as a
small city), I veered off the road, and spent another two days creating
a new hiding hole.
Mono was very helpful to me during that time, assisting in the
digging and excavating. I do believe his conversion was complete; he
was now an enthusiastic supporter of the resistance. I tried to do
everything I could to make him feel part of the team; in fact I let him
do most of the heavy work, putting myself in the role of seasoned
After two days it was done, and then there was nothing else to do
but to go to the main gate, and that's what we did.
Well, I use 'we' in a rather imprecise way. Mono went alone. He
volunteered, of course, brave trooper that he was, especially after I
suggested it to him. I crouched in a field of tall weeds several
hundred yards from the gate, staring at the scene through my
Mono approached the gate. The plan was for him to get in, get a
gravitator, fly it over and outside the grounds, pick me up, and bring
me back in. The tricky part, though, would be getting Mono in. I
waited, and watched.
Mono approached the gate. An electric eye scanned his ID, and
his eyes. That was the rub; the ID system here was more difficult to
beat. Mono waited patiently as the guards evaluated the scan. All the
guards in the complex, B types mostly, had double black stripes around
After a little bit more of waiting, the guard charged with
handling the electric eye came out of the guardhouse, approached Mono.
I yawned; I knew the routine from here. Mono would be searched, and
then let in.
The guard reached out with his weapon and shot Mono.
This was not according to procedure. The alarm sounded, and
troops swarmed out of the complex. I beat a hasty retreat.
Back in my underground lair, I brooded. What had gone wrong?
How had they discovered him? They must have realized that he had been
kidnapped. They knew, and he had been added to the wanted list. If I
had been there, I would have been caught too. I could have slapped
myself for my stupidity.
After a few moments of brow beating I calmed down a bit. Well,
it hadn't been a total loss; after all, I hadn't been with him.
Although I had had little doubt that Mono would obtain access to
Central Control, I felt fairly certain that I couldn't; I simply didn't
have the tools to beat the corneal eye test. The nearest contact lense
kit was light years away, back at the Column.
I sighed; it had still been a blunder, a miscalculation. As I
sat in my cramped hole in the ground, I mused that with my present run
of luck, the B's would be digging me out from here any minute now.
Mono must have effectively told them all he knew in mere minutes after
his capture, assuming skilled interrogators were on the scene. Which I
And yet I did not move, sitting rather calmly in my hiding hole.
I even gave a slight smile. True, Mono must have told them all
he knew. But then, Mono didn't know all that much. As a precaution, I
had erased his memory of this and my previous hideout. All Mono knew
was that I was trying to get into Central Control; he didn't even know
But now the authorities knew I was coming. This was a severe
handicap. They would beef up security. They would be waiting for me.
My fears on that score were justified. Over the course of the
next several hours I noticed an unusually high number of troop
transports landing. By the next morning there were hundreds of troops
ringing the perimeter of the complex.
I really wished there had been another way of getting the
information I needed. But it seemed that this was the base of
operation for the Happy Worlders' technology piracy operation. I
simply had to get in.
I sighed as I watched the troops, all lined up against the triple
layer of heavily reinforced fencing, all practically eyeball to eyeball
with each other. Patrol craft flew overhead at frequent intervals. I
even noticed antiaircraft emplacements hurriedly being installed along
the perimeter. Undoubtedly in response to my plan to break in by
stealing a gravitator.
I spent some time thinking about my next plan for tackling
Central Control. By now they must be so smug in there, thinking
themselves so safe, so secure, what with all their troops and defenses.
What they didn't realize was that no security was foolproof. Certainly
not Clifford Croft proof. I don't like to give up; quitting always
leaves a sour taste in my mouth. They had won the first round, but the
war wasn't over yet.
Think, Croft, think! I couldn't go over, that was out; I'd be
shot down in an instant. I couldn't go straight in, that was out; I
didn't have the necessary passes to deceive the guards. And I couldn't
go under, because of the seismic detectors built in... wait a minute,
maybe I could, I realized. Maybe I could go under.
It took another day of examination to see if my plan could work.
Finally, I was satisfied. There was a way to get in, from underneath
the complex. It wouldn't trigger a single alarm. Nor would I have to
soil myself by touching a single grain of dirt. Heh heh heh.
The following morning I decided to go for a swim. There was a
lake, a short two miles north of Central Control. Which also was their
supply of drinking water.
Drinking water! Ha! I couldn't help but laugh.
I had them.
I appropriated a diving suit, and I slipped by the lone
maintenance worker. They had never thought to guard this, never!
And then I took the plunge. I swam down, down, down. I let the
currents carry me. And there was a strong current, which started
pulling me in. Which was just fine by me.
Fine, at least, until the current became so strong that my
velocity accelerated at an alarming rate, and I saw I was about to hit
an open pipe with a large metal screen over it.
I put my flippers to work, desperately trying to slow down my
approach. I had no desire to crash into a mesh barrier so quickly
I landed, feet first, against the mesh, but my impact had been
slowed, and I took it all in the joints.
I examined the screen, and removed it, as it had been made to be-
-obviously for the maintenance workers. Then I let the current suck me
I've never had claustrophobia, but after that stint in the pipe,
I was seriously considering taking it up. The diameter of the pipe was
only a little larger than my body, and I found myself often scraping
against the walls. I was acutely aware that at any time the pipe could
become radically constricted in its diameter, which wouldn't be very
good for me. I didn't care if it became constricted--but first I
wanted to make it inside the complex.
But after a good bit of swimming, the pipe actually got larger.
I could even see daylight ahead. The water must be entering a water
treatment room--inside Central Control! I had been all prepared to
blast my way out of the pipe. This would be easy.
But then I heard voices. I immediately braced myself against the
walls of the pipe, and slowly crawled forward. The sunlight, or rather
roomlight, was very close now. The top of the pipe was open now and I
could simply stand up and get out. But I wasn't that hasty.
I took a piece of mirror from my belt, and propped it up an inch
or two out of the surface of the water.
There were two armed squads of troops in the room, all armed with
I can't say I enjoyed my trip out of the pipe, swimming for two
miles against the current. But it gave me a period of time to think,
and thought was what I needed. Many were the time when I felt the
impulse to quit, to just give up and abandon my assignment.
But that would have meant that they had won. That they were
smarter than me. True, I was only one man, and they had the resources
of the entire planet to pull on. But they weren't as clever as me, not
by a long shot. I could outthink them, I didn't doubt that.
I spent another two days in my hiding hole, brooding. Try as I
could, I couldn't think of another plan. The place was too thoroughly
guarded. There was no other choice, except.... every once in a while I
get a crazy idea. An idea I think may work, or may not, but is just
too entirely dangerous to pull off. At the very beginning of this
exercise I had thought of such an idea, but then I had put it at the
back of my mind, only to laugh inwardly whenever it came back to me.
It was coming back to me. But I wasn't laughing.
I did a little research on my idea. I hadn't committed to doing
it, I definitely hadn't committed to that. I was just doing a little
research. That's what I told myself.
I spied the heavily guarded facility. Dozens of guards were
inside the fences, everywhere I looked. They were armed with laser
rifles. Only laser rifles, and laser pistols, and blasters, for the
most part. Hm... I studied the antiaircraft emplacements. They
looked pretty hefty, but they could only be aimed up. Hm.... The
gravitator patrols had decreased and overhead flights were now the
exception rather than the rule.
I took a little field trip, to a nearby army base about 20 miles
away. I guess it was during this trip that I committed myself to this
idea, crazy though it was. It was the kind of idea that involved great
risk, something I don't enjoy assuming on a whim. But I was fresh out
of ideas. And there was one other thing that attracted me to this
If I had to fail, this was the way I wanted to do it. My plan
definitely had its more pleasant aspects, and I would enjoy them to the
fullest, as long as I lasted.
With that resolve I put my plan into motion. I furtively entered
this army base, and I stole an... item. It wasn't easy, and there
certainly was no way to furtively cart it off, but despite difficulties
I obtained this... item.
Once they realized I had stolen the item, they would take
countermeasures. Therefore I went immediately to the Central Control
complex with this... item.
Elements of the armed forces would soon be in pursuit of me, for
I had left a clear trail, and this... item was very easy to see from a
When I got within reach of the main fence of the complex, I took
a deep breath. Everything was ready. I plowed ahead.
Even years afterwards, I always smiled when I remembered the
expression of the guards. When I approached, with the item, they got
this wide-eyed look and their mouths dropped open. Remember that there
were hundreds of them, guarding the fences. But most of them just
stood there, dumbfounded.
For they were looking at a top of the line, elite mechanized
I was really having a lot of fun with it. I had the automatic
subsystems to help me, so I could drive and fire at the same time. I
aimed carefully, and toggled the laser cannon.
A powerful burst of energy erupted from the huge turret. It
ripped through the first fence, the second, the third... and scorched a
building 200 feet into the compound. Soldiers were running everywhere
like panicked animals.
"Heh heh heh!" I chortled, edging the tank forward.
My tank reached the remnants of the first layer of fences, and I
felt a dash of worry as we went over the steaming metal mess. I
needn't have been concerned; the battle tank simply crunched through.
I was in an awesome battle tank!
I felt like kissing the steering console. "You're a nice
weapon!" I exclaimed.
And then I passed over the second fence, and the third, and I was
But the hard part wasn't over yet. Aviators in gravitators spun
around, in the air, circling like angry gnats, firing their hand lasers
down at me. Inside the tank I felt their minor pinpricks. Had I been
outside I undoubtedly would've seen the scratches on the paint job. My
heavily armored transportation continued to roll across the compound.
I was in an awesome battle tank!
I fired the laser cannon again, not because I especially needed
to--I just rather enjoyed the sensation. A building in my gunsights
suddenly developed a rather gaping hole in it, and soldiers scattered
in every direction.
Suddenly, facing forward, I saw a vehicle approaching me. It
looked like a small aircar. The occupants were firing wildly with
their weapons. I laughed. I fired the laser cannon, and the vehicle
blew up. My treads made small crunching sounds as my tank climbed over
and pulverized the smoking vehicle. I grinned; this was the most fun I
had had in a long time.
I was in an awesome battle tank!
Then I saw a building ahead. The building. Any building would
do, actually; it didn't particularly matter to me which one. But I had
just decided, and this was the one I would head for. I was going to
crash into it in less than a minute, unless I changed course. I didn't
change course. But I did fire a laser volley into it, to soften up the
outer wall. Then I tripped the smoke canister that was attached to the
rear of the tank. A thick haze started to rise.
I fired the laser cannon in a random direction, just to remind
the troops that it still wasn't such a smart idea to get too close to
me. Not yet, anyway.
The smoke was now quite thick, and covered much of this compound.
I couldn't see very much out of my little peephole, but I should have
been crashing into the building right about... suddenly, I crashed. It
wasn't a major jolt, as I had feared, and I had taken the precaution of
wearing my harness restrainer. (Always remember to buckle up in a
I unbuckled, and popped the forward hatch on top. The front half
of the tank was in the building. Then I slipped out the bottom hatch,
closing it behind me.
The Happy Worlders weren't fools. They had nearly outthought me
several times. They had seen the direction the tank had been going; it
would have been foolish not to expect them to predict the breach point
and have appropriate forces waiting there, inside the building. Only I
wasn't going to be there.
The smoke started to clear as I slipped out under the tank and
started to edge away from the scene. Suddenly I felt myself bump into
someone, and I started to fall. He grabbed me, picking me up. The
smoke had cleared a little, and he looked at me.
I was wearing the uniform of a B. Complete with a double black
stripe on my waist. In my hand I held a standard issue blaster pistol.
"Thanks," I muttered.
"That way!" he said, pointing into the smoke.
"Right!" I said, turning away the minute he started off.
I tried not to make it obvious that I was virtually the only
trooper heading away from the battle scene, but it actually wasn't that
difficult. There was still a lot of confusion on the scene, with
people running about, this way and that. I stealthily made my way to
one of the buildings, whose entrance, like all others, was guarded by a
"What's happen-" he started to say, just as an explosion knocked
us off our feet. The self-destruct in the tank had kicked in. Exactly
as I had planned. It would help to muddle my trail a little more, and
serve as another diversion.
Which I sorely needed. I don't think anyone noticed when I
reached up and chopped the sentry on the side of the neck and dashed
past him, into the building.
I was in. I was in the complex. I had made it!
But the minute I entered the building a videoscreen on the wall
lit up. I saw the face of Thalessa. "The alien Clifford Croft, 04-38-
938, has entered the complex. Repeat, he is in the complex. Enact
Special Plan 94, repeat, Special Plan 94, as per previous preparation.
That is all."
That chilled my spine. They had been waiting for me. They had a
plan prepared in the event I broke in. What could it possibly be?
Well, I had no way of knowing, so I would just have to go on with my
plan. Which was to get as far away as possible from this part of the
complex, before checkpoints were set up.
I was walking at a fast pace for about ten minutes when I spotted
the first one. I noticed four B's wheeling out some device in the
corridor, I immediately turned away, into a room.
"Yes?" came a voice, as the door slid closed behind me.
I turned, expecting to see a minor functionary. Instead, I saw
an A, at his desk.
"Mmmgh," I mumbled, walking up to his desk. He was a heavy,
"Yes?" he repeated, frowning.
I pressed the jammer in my button pocket. Then I took out my
blaster and shot him.
I looked up at the camera in the room. Hopefully it should be
deactivated. I hoped. Considering the damage I had done in the
complex, this shouldn't be the only one. Quickly I took out the
hypnocube. I wouldn't have much time.
Several minutes later I turned off the jammer. The A behind the
desk, a fellow named Parlo, blinked several times, as if coming out of
a sleep. Then, seeing me, he said, "Follow me, please."
I followed. I always obey the instructions of a superior.
Especially one under my control. Parlo took me into a room two doors
down, which was filled with terminals. I noticed, somewhat oddly, that
there was no one in the room using the terminals. I guessed that the
confusion created by my arrival had stirred them out of their routine.
While there was no one on the terminals, there were a number of
D's, standing alert, on guard duty. If Parlo wanted to sound the
alarm, he could. But he didn't. He just sat down at the terminal, and
started pressing keys. The screen took his ID, and an eye scan as
well, before coming fully alive.
He sat on the screen for several moments, then typed in a
request. He made a hardcopy of the answer and handed it to me. I
nodded to him and he left the room. He would have no memory of even
I looked at the data printout. I knew there were terminals and
there were terminals. I needed the highest priority terminals to get
the information I needed. Parlo had printed me a map of the location
of the nearest high priority terminal. Unfortunately, even he didn't
have access to any of those.
I frowned; this high security terminal room was nearby. Just a
hallway down, as a matter of fact. A coincidence, I suppose. Anyway,
I thought I would scout it out. I would have to go there, sooner or
later. I walked passed the door, trying to casually case the area. I
looked left and right. I was the only one in this corridor. I stopped
at the door.
It was unguarded, apparently, which only made me more suspicious.
But then I looked at the lock, and started to become fascinated by it.
I reached out to simply touch it
-and the door opened.
I peered inside. I was looking at a large, empty room. Empty of
terminals, that is.
But not empty of troops. There were well over a hundred of
those. I quickly turned to flee-
and the hallway was full of troops, on either side.
There was no possibility of escape. None at all!
I took a deep breath, eyeing the approaching troops. Then I
raised my weapon-
only to have it shot out of my grasp. It went spinning to the
floor and I grasped my numb hand.
And then the crowd of troops parted and several men carrying long
rods made their way forward. I backed up against a wall, trembling.
One of them stood calmly in front of me. He fired his rod, and I
was paralyzed. Totally.
But my mind could still function. I think they intended that.
For as the troops cleared out someone else came into view.
"Mr. Croft," said a very familiar voice. "So good to see you
again. I told you we would meet again. You know what will happen
And I looked into the smiling face of Thalessa.
I've had better days.
"Strip him," was the first command she gave, when I had been
brought to her personal torture chamber. She watched my face to see if
I had any qualms, but luckily I wasn't able to show emotion right about
They removed my clothes and searched me thoroughly, taking every
last device I had secreted to myself. Then they put a bulky suit on
me, and strapped me onto a torture table. Evil looking machinery hung
"You may notice that your new clothes do not have an ID," said
Thalessa. She idly played with her long brunette hair. "Shall we
make you... a B? Or a C? How about a D? You might like that, Mr.
Croft. You would never have to worry about thinking again."
She touched a knob on her control board, there was a hum, and I
felt the paralysis wear off. "You may speak."
"Nice place you got here," I commented. Above all, I didn't want
her to see fear. I looked up at the machinery suspended above me.
"Did you arrange this, or was it your decorator?"
"I most assuredly arranged it," said Thalessa, giving me a sharp
look with those green eyes. "Fool after fool failed to effect your
capture. Many B's were demoted to D's because of their repeated
failures. Finally it was I who caught you!"
"I was talking about the decor-"
"Silence!" she said, and her eyes flared. "You tried to make a
fool of me. I almost had you earlier, when you stepped out of that
plane! Do you know how the Master reacted when he found out? Did you
know that I was humiliated?" She pressed a button, and pain stabbed
through my body. I screamed. Then Thalessa smiled, calming down.
"I let other fools attend to your capture, in the beginning. We
almost had you when we traced you to Wata, but the fool in charge of
your capture allowed you to escape. And then you rescued Banner." She
smiled again. "I took personal charge of her conversion. As Chief
Programmer, it was my right. Fascinating woman... I shall enjoy
meeting her again, with your help."
I started to speak, but she cut me off. "Did she warn you? About
coming here? She should have. For you were the fool for trying to get
in. Didn't you know we were waiting for you once we grabbed Mono? Yet
you persisted in your attempts to enter. I shall find out the reason
for that very soon as well. Once we apprehended your accomplice I took
personal charge of ensuring your capture. We had reports of the stolen
vehicle within five minutes after you left the base. We could have
sent our air forces to intercept and destroy you. Easily."
Then she put her face close to mine. "But I wanted you. Alive."
She gave me a broad, chilling smile, nothing like the dull grin of the
lower class Happy Worlders. I willed myself not to respond, but it
took an effort. Thalessa frowned, a little disappointed at not getting
any overt reaction.
Thalessa continued. She seemed to enjoy discussing how she had
outwitted me. "We allowed you to enter. I knew that you, in search of
information, would sooner or later access a terminal."
"And you told everyone else to stay off the terminals," I said.
Suddenly it was all clear to me, and I could have kicked myself for
being so stupid.
"Precisely. We had you marked the minute your accomplice, your
former accomplice, logged on. And then it was simply a matter of
directing you where we wanted you." Her face hovered over mine. "And
now we have you. As I promised. Or didn't you believe me?"
My response was cut off, for there was a chime, and she quickly
pulled her head away. She went to a screen out of my vision, and
"Master," she said formally.
"The unprocessed alien has been captured, Thalessa?"
"I have him right here in my lab."
"Fine, fine. It's about time. Let me know when you have the
And then her face was before me again. "Do you know who that
was?" she hissed.
"Your master?" I said, with half a smile on my lips.
She turned a dial on the side of the table, and I winced in pain
for a moment as very unpleasant stimuli wracked me.
"Your Master, the Master of this entire planet. He is only
answerable to the Supermaster, the ruler of our entire empire."
"Six solar systems. Some empire," I snorted.
"You will serve the empire," said Thalessa. "You will serve the
state." She started to run her hand along my shoulder. "Do you know
how long it will take to convert you?"
"Counting overtime?" I said. But my humor was hollow. There was
no escape, not anymore. But at least I could go with dignity.
Suddenly, she raised her left hand, and in it she held a square
device. "Do you know what this is?" she said, reaching behind my head,
feeling the back of my neck.
"The D device," I muttered. The one that hooked D's up to the
central computer. The one that took away all independent thought.
"It's 100% effective," said Thalessa. "The only problem is, it
tends to... wear down the mind of the individual. It burns some of
them out. It's what we used on one of your agents that we caught. The
one who didn't die on us before capture."
"What happened to him?" I whispered.
"Her," said Thalessa. "She died on us." She smiled at the
remembrance. "Her alien mind simply rejected the device, and it burned
her mind out. Most tragic," she smiled. She moved to fit the device
against the back of my neck. My face was taut but I didn't flinch.
"So, you are the brave one! Or perhaps you have learned that it
is only inserted through laser surgery. I understand you have been on
a tour of the rehomoginization facility," said Thalessa. She paused,
and then she said, "No, you can rest easy. We are not going to make
you a D. D's tend to lack certain... elements of creativity, elements
of creativity which you possess, which will come in useful when you
will be working for us." She idly played a hand over my shoulder.
"So I guess you're going to make me a C," I said resignedly.
That's what I was hoping. Please, make me a C, I silently hoped.
"For you, to become a C? Ha, ha ha ha!" Thalessa seemed to find
something humorous about my statement. "I was the one who figured out
that you're immune to standard C treatment. Given time I could figure
out how it's done and device alternative means, in injectable form, but
there's no need to delay for that." She reached over, and put a tag on
my chest. But not before she showed it to me.
It was a string of numbers, but the first character on it was the
letter B. "Congratulations. You're about to become a member of the
Thalessa pressed a button, and a light came on, shining in my
eyes. A hypnodevice. "Any last words, before you are improved?" she
"You may think you've won," I snarled, "but-"
Suddenly, the light started flickering, and my attention was
immediately diverted. I tried to close my eyes, but hard fingers
forced them open.
"Goodbye, Mr. Croft," said Thalessa.
I got up, and reached for my blaster. A squad of peacemen
entered the room, all armed with rods. I fired on one of them, and he
disappeared. I fired on another, and he disappeared too. Then they
were getting too close and I turned to run, only I tripped and fell,
and a rod came down. I rolled over, barely avoiding it, but then
another came down, and that did touch me on the shoulder... the rod
touching me on the shoulder... happy smiles, happy feelings....
The state was good... the state was good... the state was good...
the state was good... the state was good... the state was good... the
state was good...
I walked down the plane, escorting the captive. I hoped the
switch would fool them. I was sweating as Thalessa greeted us.
"So good to meet you, Mr. Croft," she said. But she was talking
to me! I tried to get away, but they grabbed me... they grabbed me...
"You didn't think you could fool us, did you, Mr. Croft?"
I must serve the state... I must serve the state... I must serve
the state... I must serve the state... I must serve the state....
"I told you we would catch you, Mr. Croft." The voice was soft,
"Clifford, they will capture you!"
"I told you we would capture you, Mr. Croft." Again and again.
"I told you... I told you... I told you...."
I must obey the state....I must obey the state.... The Mistress
is superior ... The Mistress is superior... The Mistress is
superior... The Mistress is superior... The Mistress is superior....
I must obey the state....
"No, Clifford, no!" said Banner, grabbing me by the leg. But I
just ignored her, dragging her along to the door. When I opened it,
peacemen rushed in.
"No, no!" she cried, racing to the other side of the room. The
peacemen grabbed her, holding her immobile. One of the peacemen handed
me his rod.
"No, Clifford, no, you're not one of them!" she cried out.
"You're Unadjusted," I said. "You must be made to fit." I
tapped her on the shoulder with the rod.
I must serve the state... I must serve the state... I must serve
the state... I must serve the state... I must serve the state... I must
serve the state....
I was awake, with a strong light blinking in my eyes.
"Clifford, wake up! Wake up!" said a familiar voice.
I blinked, and saw someone rapidly untying my bonds. I was in
Thalessa's lab. But Thalessa wasn't there. I was alone, with...
Banner. When she turned I saw her face.
"How?" I began.
"Forged passes. Never mind that now. We've got to get you out
of here!" she said. "Can you walk?"
I got an odd expression on my face. I felt strange, out of
sorts, as if I were different, but I couldn't identify how.
"Can you walk?" she repeated, looking anxiously at me.
"Then let's go!"
We crept stealthily out of the lab. The outside corridors were
"What-" I began.
"I cut the power. Their surveillance system won't work. But
we've got to hurry, we don't have much time. Here, take this," she
said, stuffing something in my hand. "This" was a blaster, set on
kill. I tried to reset it, but the setting seemed stuck.
"Come on!" said Banner, pulling me down the corridor.
We saw only one guard as we ran, and Banner shot him before he
could react. And then we ran, up one level, down two others... the
corridors seemed nearly empty. And then we reached the spaceport, in
the center of the city.
"There's a spaceport inside the control complex?" I said,
dumbfounded. I stared at the enormous multilevel affair. I had known
that, I think, but for some reason my memory was operating in a strange
way. I blinked, as though I were still half asleep.
"Come on!" said Banner, pulling me along. We encountered more
resistance here, and I think Banner shot more people. Finally, when we
got to a spaceship, Banner pulled me up the ramp.
"Come on!" she repeated.
But some instinct caused me to resist her urgings and to stop.
"Clifford!" she said, letting go of me. "Come on! They're
chasing us! They'll be here any minute!"
My eyes squinted. "You are Unconverted," I said slowly, raising
my blaster. Straight at Banner.
"Clifford!" she said, stunned.
"You must be made to fit. It's really for your own good. You
will thank me later," I said. She turned to flee....
I fired. The beam hit her, and she crumpled to the ground. I
looked down at her body, and then my weapon. It had still been set to
"Hello, Mr. Croft," said a deep but familiar feminine voice.
I blinked, opening my eyes. I was on the table, in the lab.
Somehow I felt I had been there many, many times, or maybe one very
long time. Or had it been just a few minutes? I had no way to tell.
And then someone was taking off my straps, and I was free.
"You won't be needing those anymore," said the voice. And then
she turned to face me.
"Mistress!" I said, my insides suddenly feeling uneasy. It was
her, the Chief Programmer herself!
She smiled at me, and that was enough to make me shiver. "Take
it easy, Mr. Croft. You've had a difficult experience, but you're
going to be all right."
I sat up experimentally. I felt fine, physically; a little
cramped, maybe. But my mind.... "I've been converted!" I realized.
"Yes," she said, affixing the "B" ID plate to my chest, as well
as my back. "How do you feel?"
I gave a broad smile, one that brimmed with the goodness of milk
and honey. "Hmmmmmm, I feel gooooooood," I said.
It took me a surprisingly short time to become acquainted with
life in the complex. One would have thought that I, a recently
converted offworld rebel, would have needed time to adjust. But I
Thalessa, the great Mistress herself, explained it to me. "I
supervised your conversion myself. I saw how unhappy you were, how
misguided you had been, and out of the goodness of my heart attempted
to help you."
"Thank you, oh thank you!" I cried. How could I ever repay her
kind act of charity?
That subject must have been on her mind as well, for a day later
she sent for me. I was still sorting things out in my mind. How could
I have been so destructive? How could I ever have worked for the
aliens? I had done so many terrible things. But perhaps the Mistress
would give me a chance to repay my debt to the state. To the state!
That great institution which labored tirelessly to let everyone have
happy, productive lives! How could I ever have conceived of a plan to
When I was sent for I was so anxious to help that I immediately
blurted out, "What can I do to repay your kindness?"
Thalessa, the superior one, smiled, almost as if she had been
expecting me to say something like that. "You're very talented, Mr.
Croft. But first, let's bring us up to date. What was the purpose of
your mission here?"
"To find out what you've been doing with the technology that
you've taken from the League," I said promptly. Thalessa was my
superior; I had no secrets from her. "They don't know what you're up
to, but they're suspicious."
Thalessa nodded, as if she knew the answer to her questions even
before she asked them, which I thought was kind of odd. "Do you now
I frowned. "No."
"And what of the maladjusted, Banner? Do you know where we might
I frowned. "I don't know. She might... she might be at a
hideout I built-"
"-under the peaceman station," said Thalessa. She smiled
knowingly. "She has not returned there."
I searched my memory, for any scrap or clue that might be of use
to Thalessa. "I... I know. I think, before I left, that I told her
not to come back there. In case I was converted."
"She is very dangerous," said Thalessa. "Since you helped her to
escape conversion, she has gone back underground, and is now organizing
the resistance movement again. She is most dangerous, because she is
highly intelligent, the most able of all the active resistors. Thus
far she has eluded capture. Would you like to assist us in her
"Yes," I said immediately, without hesitation. "It was my fault
that she broke free. Anything that I could do to help-" and then I
broke off, remembering something. "Perhaps Taral-"
Thalessa cut me off. "We have already checked. He is gone from
his post, as well. But we do have an assignment for you to help us
locate a pocket of resistors who may lead us to Banner. Are you
"Yes," I answered unequivocally.
"Good," said Thalessa, simply, measuring me up with her eyes.
I was taken, under escort, to a city several hundred miles away.
If the purpose of the escort was to prevent me from escaping, I would
have laughed. There was nothing that would shake my loyalty to the
state. To Thalessa. She was truly a superior woman. I could see now
how warped my motivations had been in the past, how I missed
opportunities to render years of service to the state.
Order! That was what the state promised. The resistors were a
bunch of confused individualists who wanted to destroy society, to
destroy the rule of law. They were sick, of course; they couldn't
realize that true happiness came in the order of things. And order was
what the state gave to the people.
We arrived at our destination, a guarded electrical substation on
the edge of a small city. One of the guards at the substation, B-
6543278678, "Julpo", had been identified as a maladjust. My mission
would be to infiltrate Julpo's cell, and work my way closer and closer
to the leader, which intelligence strongly suspected was Banner. Aware
that peaceman lines had been monitored, the authorities had continued
to erroneously broadcast that I was still at large.
"You know what to do?" said one of the B's accompanying me. I
In a few seconds I ran off the road, into view of the electrical
substation. There was only one guard on duty, and, by no coincidence,
it was Julpo. I ran towards the substation, with the look of terror in
my eyes, constantly looking behind me, as if I were being chased.
When I got close he drew his weapon, but I was first, drawing my
blaster and shooting him. But my gun gave a click and failed me. I
tripped and fell to the ground.
"Hold it!" said Julpo, covering me with his laser.
"No, no!" I cried, feebly attempting to hold off the expected
blast with my hands.
"You're the alien," said Julpo, studying my face closely.
I looked rapidly behind me. "Help me, help me, they're after
me!" I cried.
Julpo frowned for a moment, as if he were rapidly weighing
something in his mind. Only then did he rapidly look about, and then
lift me up. "Come on," he said.
He hid me in a equipment storage locker. It was only after I was
safely stowed away that my pursuers came running up, ostensibly in the
search for me. I heard them ask Julpo something, and then they moved
Julpo came for me several hours later and spirited me away. I
was blindfolded, my weapon was taken from me, and I was marched to an
undisclosed location. When the blindfold was removed, I found myself
inside a storage warehouse. Julpo was there, and two other men as
well. They were all armed, and I couldn't help but notice that several
weapons were pointed in an uncomfortable direction.
"This is the one, Mazapan," said Julpo.
Mazapan, a grey haired man, looked thoughtful. A thinning,
younger man stood at his side.
"You claim to be the alien?" said Mazapan.
"Yes. I am from the group of worlds known as the League," I
Mazapan said, "You look like all the photo likenesses." But he
frowned as he said it. "If you are who you say you are, how do we know
you have not been captured and converted?"
I spread my hands helplessly. "I can't. But I'm telling you
this: if you don't hide me, they will find me, and convert me, without
a shadow of a doubt. And I'm here on a mission, a mission of grave
importance." I put a note of desperation in my voice. That usually
"Mission?" said Mazapan. "What mission?"
"I can only reveal that to your leader. Banner."
"Banner?" said Mazapan.
"Is she not your leader?"
"We don't know who our leaders are," said Julpo. "We have a link
to the group above us, but we don't know who is above that."
"Then by all means, send me to the group above you," I said. He
had doubts about me, that was clear, and I gave my best innocent look.
I had to convince these maladjusts; if I failed, I would have to call
the backup troops in. And in that event we might not get the lead that
would take us to the next resistance group.
Mazapan looked sharply at Julpo. "You say you saw him, pursued
by the peacemen?"
Mazapan reluctantly nodded. "Then we will send you on."
My fingers touched my ankle, as if scratching an itch. But
actually my fingers were closing on the hidden contact on the side of
my shoe. Once I pressed that, the troops would move in and arrest
these unadjusted rabble. All I needed was the next name to go on.
"Then where do I go?" I asked.
"I do not know," said Mazapan. "Frengil, the other of our group,
will be here shortly."
So my hand moved away from my shoe and we sat there and waited.
After an hour or more a young woman entered the warehouse.
"Frengil!" said Mazapan, with a broad smile on his face.
"The alien!" said Frengil immediately, looking at me.
"Yes, the alien," I sighed, resigned to being called that.
Mazapan explained the situation. "We need you to send him to the
next group. We will leave the two of you alone." Evidently the other
members of the group weren't supposed to hear the information I would
be getting. It made sense; only Frengil would have the knowledge that
could lead to other group. Knowledge I was about to acquire.
"Goodbye, Clifford Croft," said Mazapan, waving as he and the
other two maladjusted citizens left. I waved back, a large smile on my
face. And I tapped the contact on the side of my shoe twice, in rapid
Frengil smiled. "So, you are the alien."
"I prefer Croft," I said curtly.
"Very well, Croft. You are to proceed to meet with Winder, C-
1459987688, at-" she broke off suddenly, hearing a scuffling noise
outside. Suddenly peacemen burst in, and just as she whirled about to
face me, I chopped her on the side of the neck.
"I have the information," I said triumphantly.
Winder was a dull looking C unit who worked in a food processing
facility. I approached him alone, and gave him the password that
Frengil had been about to give me. She actually had given it to me,
eagerly, after she had been converted.
When I spoke to him, Winder nodded in response, and, with
uncharacteristically coherent speech, for a C, whispered something back
Later that evening, in the backroom of a shoe establishment, I
sat in a chair, with three lasers pointed at me. It was a routine I
was becoming quite familiar with.
"I tell you I am Clifford Croft," I sighed. "I can tell you all
about the League, where I come from."
"Meaningless, since we know nothing of your League," said one of
them, a man named Taltro.
"I do," said another man. He was a thin, red headed fellow named
Olmsted. He looked at me closely. I tried to appear unconcerned, but
I felt uncomfortable under his inspecting glare. Finally, he said, "On
your world, when you are named, does the state give your parents a
choice of names, or is your parent's selection merely approved by the
state, after the fact?"
I said, forthrightly, "Neither. My parents chose my name without
any intervention by the state at all."
This started some murmuring among the gathered resistors. But
Olmsted said calmly, "That is correct. This is the alien, you can be
sure of it."
"But how do we know he has not been converted?" said Taltro.
"The peaceman records suggest he is still at large," said an
"They may know we have access to their networks," said Taltro,
shaking his head. My, how suspicious they were!
"I see no alternative," said Olmsted. "I shall take him to
Dron! That was it! I had a name. My hand moved down to my
Taltro addressed me. "Dron will access whether you are being
truthful or not. Then we will decide where you will go."
My hand moved away from my shoe. "But I must speak to Banner!
The matter is urgent!" I had to press them. They were sending me for
"Banner?" said Taltro, looking puzzled, like the rest. But
Olmsted didn't look puzzled. He knew. I felt almost certain.
But still not certain enough to signal the backup forces. I let
myself be led away by Olmsted, while I resisted the impulse to call in
the troops. They would trail me, and if necessary, we could pick up
Taltro and the others later.
To my surprise, I was brought to a rehomoginization facility,
where I was ushered into a small room. "It's all right," Olmsted
assured me. "The surveillance in this room has been fixed. Dron will
be with us shortly."
Dron, a thin, grey haired B, was. When Olmsted explained the
situation to him, he nodded, making "hm, hm," sounds along the way.
"Well, we should be able to determine this quickly enough," he said.
"Look into this, please," he said, lifting a small device that looked
like a hypnocube.
I reached out, and chopped it out of his hands. Another chop
sent Olmsted's laser crashing to the ground. Then I had to turn to
deal with Dron. He was weak, and two quick punches sent him to the
ground. But when I turned back to Olmsted I saw he had fled, out the
door. After hurriedly pressing the contact on my shoe, I gave chase.
He ran right out of the facility, towards the front gate. The
guards were alerted, but they didn't know the nature of the alarm. And
then my escorts came crashing through the front gate. And then, almost
quicker than I could see it, one of the hovervehicles slammed into
Olmsted. Or maybe he ran into one of them. I'll never know.
All I did know was that I immediately ran up to his prone form,
with only one thought on my mind. "Where is she?" I said, grabbing
He was bloody, but still conscious. "I don't know," he said, and
somehow managed to grin. "And you'll never get from me what I don't
"You did well," said Thalessa.
"I failed in my mission," I brooded, sitting in her leisure
"You helped us capture eight resistors, who led us to another
twelve. Not bad for two days work," she smiled. Then she said.
"Come. There is someone who wants to meet you."
I was taken to the highest security zone within Central Control.
The walls were all black here. I was searched and searched again, four
times, before I was allowed to enter the chamber. The chamber of the
It was luxurious, of course, but I hardly noticed that. My
attention was fixed on the leader, a tall balding man with short,
carefully cropped brown hair that contrasted sharply with his midnight
black uniform. When his piercing eyes turned to me, I froze me in my
tracks. Both admiration and fear flowed in my heart.
"So, this is the young man who has been of so much service to
us," said the Master. He chuckled good naturedly. "I hear you have
done a superb job on him, Thalessa."
"Yes Algen," said Thalessa dutifully.
"You'll help us track down those resistors yet," said the Master,
staring me in the eye. I instinctively looked down. "And more.
"He just returned today from his first mission. The new work is
in the planning stage, and we will start on it today."
New work? What was that all about?
"Good, good." He waved us away dismissively. But my heart was
pounding. That had been the Master, the Master!
I was in such a good mood that I didn't realize where I was going
until Thalessa led me back into her leisure chamber. "You look happy,
Clifford," she said, with a tight smile.
"I am one of the fortunate few who has seen our chief employer in
person, and I will always savor the memory of seeing the Master," I
smiled, feeling very pleased with myself.
She studied me closely. "Very good. Did you know, Clifford,
that there were those who said that you would be unconvertible?" She
sat down in a chair next to me, and suddenly I began to get nervous
"You were reputed to be one of the top operatives in your Column.
There was a feeling that your sense of... individuality was especially
strong. That you would prove difficult to adjust."
I smiled. "But you displayed masterful skill in converting me."
"Yes...." A hand wandered up and down my chest. "I spent a good
deal of time tracking you down.... You proved to be quite a
challenge..." The hand continued to rove. "I always wondered what it
would be like...." And then we were kissing, and I put my arms around
I couldn't believe it; I was actually with the Mistress, the most
desirable woman on the planet. And I had just been congratulated by
the Master himself. What a day!
I blinked, my eyes focusing. It was the following morning, and I
was in my assigned cubicle. I frowned; I had had the oddest dream.
Something about some... kind of animal. But the more I tried to
remember it, the more it faded from memory.
Early in the day I was summoned to the Mistress. We were to
discuss plans for penetrating the Column.
"We have an operative in your Column," said Thalessa. "But he is
a lower level official, and we wish to expand our operations."
I nodded. "What can I do?"
Thalessa smiled slyly. "I was hoping you could answer that
I paused, thinking of several possibilities. "Hm... you want to
recruit more agents. Tell you what, I could go back to the Column-"
"No," said Thalessa. For a moment I thought she didn't trust me.
But she quickly added, "They know you've been converted. You've been
here for over two months without reporting."
Two months? I had thought something like two or three weeks.
The only unaccounted period in my mind was the time of my conversion.
Just how long had it taken?
Thalessa was looking at me for another suggestion. I started to
piece together an idea for luring agents away when they were on
assignment on other worlds. Once isolated, they could be converted,
and in turn used to convert others within the ranks.
Thalessa approved of my idea. Evidently her people had been
thinking of something along those lines. But she wanted to know how
the Chief would react if he became suspicious, what sort of
countermeasures he would be likely to employ, and so on. I tried to
help out as best I could, sketching out more of the Chief's personality
to her. I also tried to tell all of the Column routine and procedures
I could remember.
We discussed that for several days, with interludes being filled
by romantic evenings between Thalessa and myself. I was thrilled that
she had taken an interest in me; though I constantly worried that I was
not worthy of her. Our romantic encounters tended to be rather...
passionate, but Thalessa was always in control. She was, after all,
the superior one.
We also worked together constantly, discussing plans for
infiltrating the Column. I examined one file that I felt merited a
close look. "It says that the Column is becoming especially interested
in Operation Conquest, but I don't see any reference to what that is."
Thalessa smiled, and looked at me slyly. "It's top secret. But
I don't suppose--now, anyway--that there's any reason not to tell you.
You recall you were sent here to find out why we have been stealing
technology from the League?"
"Well, we found a wide variety of League science useful to our
modernization efforts. The specs for our battle tanks, for example,
were based on League research. But Operation Conquest is special."
And she smiled again. "Our scientists have devised a method that, in
theory, should allow the immobilization and conversion of large numbers
of unconverted individuals... from a distance of miles!"
That got my attention. I immediately understood its potential.
"In the hands of the state-"
"It could expand our realm of harmony throughout the galaxy,"
Thalessa said, looking thrilled at the prospect.
"But you said 'in theory'," I said. "Does that mean you're not
sure it will work?"
"Well, one can never be certain, until the device is tested. For
you see, while we have devised the theory, we lack the equipment. We
have been scouring the League for the proper equipment. In a few more
weeks we should have all the parts we need. And then-"
"Interstellar conquest," I cried. "In the name of the Master!"
Thalessa nodded. She grinned at me. "And you will help us
A little, tiny fluffy looking animal. A fox, maybe. Or a dog.
With a black nose and two big black eyes and a wagging tail.
I suddenly sat upright, looking about. I was in bed, in my rest
cubicle. It was halfway through the sleep cycle. I remembered the
dream now. Something about a fluffy little dog.
I was sweating all over my body. For some reason, it was
important. I even had a vague memory, some time ago, of thinking about
such a little dog. But when, and why? I just couldn't figure it out.
I made a number of acquaintances over the course of my time at
Central Control. A number of other B's, such as myself, worked
undercover, capturing and converting resistors. One night we were in
the common area, playing a popular board game, "Serve the Master." The
board consisted of a long, winding path, that went from one end to the
other. The object of the game was to be the first to get to the other
end. Each turn we would roll a die which would tell us how many
squares forward to move. Once we moved we would take a "mastercard",
which described a situation that would require us to take a certain
number of steps forward--or backwards.
For example, I often pulled a mastercard that read, "You have
worked an extra shift to increase productivity. Advance one square."
These cards were the most frequent. But other good ones were "You
memorized the week's new rules and applied them correctly. Advance two
squares." or even "You turned in a friend who required adjustment,
helping himself and society. Advance three squares."
But there were negative cards as well. "You have disobeyed a
rule... but your mistake was inadvertent. Go back two squares." These
cards were very common as well. Another card I once got read, "You
were caught thinking a forbidden thought. Take one step back, and take
a punishment card."
Punishment cards were always the worst. They could take you back
4, 5, or even ten spaces, or even back to the beginning of the game.
They could also downgrade you. One card read, "Serving the state no
longer brings you the happiness it should. You are obviously troubled.
You turn yourself in for reconditioning, and get downgraded one letter
category." We all started as B's, and needed to finish the game as B's
or better. Upgrading was rare--I had only seen one card for it, and
that was for "Turning in an offworlder spy" which gave me a chuckle--so
once a player fell below B, his chances of winning dropped
There were also cards that gave choices. For example, one card
read "The Master's birthday is coming up. You could spend your free
time working on the holiday display, but your shift manager is urging
you to put in some extra time at the plant. Which do you do?" (The
correct answer is to work at the plant--the Master would understand).
Another typical question was "Resistors are better off when they're
converted. If a rogue B is captured, should he be returned as a B, or
as a lower grade?" (The correct answer is a 'B'--that being the
position where the former resistor could better serve the Master.)
One night I was playing with a bunch of the fellows, B-
8378909922, a grizzled veteran named Ralston, B-8743212952, a crafty
tracker by the name of Yuto, and Pounas, identcode B-641498783, a
relative newcomer to our group.
"Captured a resistor today," said Ralston, rolling a die.
"Yeah?" said Yuto, with marginal interest.
"Real talker, too," said Ralston. He moved his counter forward
on the map. He was winning, as usual. He picked up a mastercard and
read it aloud. "You were working in the chem labs and devised a
superior C serum. Take a prized card."
A prized card. That was pretty rare. Ralston picked one, and
read it to us. "The Mistress herself has just awarded you the
productive citizen of the week award. Move three spaces ahead. Well
"Let me see that," Pounas snapped, grabbing it from him.
"Think I'd cheat, about a thing like that?" Ralston grinned,
moving his counter forward. He turned to me. "You're pretty close
with the Mistress yourself."
"My natural charm," I said, smiling modesty.
"Sure," said Yuto. "She changes men quicker than we change
"No..." I said feebly, not wanting to believe it.
"Just wait, junior, and you'll see," said Ralston. "Now roll the
I rolled the die, got a two.
"Oh oh," said Pounas, as I moved my counter. I saw why.
I had landed in a punishment zone.
Grinning, Yuto handed me the punishment deck. "Pick a card, any
card," he said gleefully.
I selected a card, and read it. "You have been captured as an
enemy of the state, and converted. Normally this would cost you two
squares, but as your conversion was abnormally arduous, go three steps
back, and take another mastercard." I followed the instructions,
frowning as I did so. Was my conversion difficult? I just didn't
I moved the counter, and then picked the mastercard.
"Read it, read it," said Pounas.
"You are a C unit laboring in the factors. But you notice that
you are not being as productive as your fellow units. Do you try to
work better, or volunteer for possible evaluation for conversion to a D
That made my blood run cold. Even in my converted state I had no
desire to be turned into a D. Oh, I realized that the D's were happy,
in their own way, but I had no desire to lead such a... constricted
The others must have seen the look on my face, for they frowned.
"Croft?" said Ralston.
"Huh?" I said.
"Your move," said Yuto. "Don't try to stall."
"Um... yeah. I would volunteer for D conversion," I said
woodenly, opening up the inside of the card to read the answer. That
was the answer I was supposed to have given. I had been right. "The
correct answer is to volunteer for reevaluation. The authorities are
always there to help you. You should feel free to seek their advice
and guidance at all times, especially in times of trouble. If your
answer was correct, take two steps forward."
I moved my counter forward, trying not to show the numbness I
"So what was it all about?" said Yuto, addressing Ralston.
"What? Oh, yes, the capture. A weird fellow, a B who worked in
a sheet metal plant. He was unstable. His fellow workers picked up on
it immediately, and reported him."
"You know, I wonder why they do that?" said Pounas. "Fall out of
adjustment, I mean."
"The answer's simple enough," said Ralston. "Conversion isn't
perfect. It's a standardized process, one that works on millions of
minds. Bound to be one or two out there that doesn't respond." He
paused for a moment. "But where was I? Oh yes, so I apprehended him,
peacemen in tow. He sees us coming, doesn't even try to run. But then
he starts talking."
"Didn't you tap him immediately, with the rod?" Yuto asked.
"I should have, but I was curious. The fellow just babbled on."
"What did he say?" I asked.
"Said that conversion was rubbish, that our minds were
controlled, that we didn't have free thought," said Ralston. He
mimicked a whiny voice. "Your minds are enslaved. You can't think for
yourself. Resist, resist!"
We all laughed. It was simply preposterous. Of course we could
think whatever we wanted! Once we had been guided by the Master, of
Ralston recovered first. "So I said to him, ok, so I guess I
have no choice but to tap you. And I did." That started another round
of laughter, in which I heartily joined.
Resistors can be so foolish sometimes.
Later that night, I lay in bed, musing about the resistors. I
wished we could cure them all, but more and more kept springing up.
They were still statistically a very small number, but somehow we
couldn't quite manage to wipe them all out. They were anarchists, of
course. They wanted a society where there was no guiding force, no
order. The resistors had totally disregarded what the state had given
us; a healthy, productive society where everyone was happy. Everyone.
I felt myself drifting off to sleep, but I couldn't have been out
for more than a few minutes when I suddenly sat up with a jerk.
The dog! That little dog!
The fleeting image of the smiling little dog filled my mind. And
then it was gone.
Over the course of the next few days the animal dreams increased.
It was the same thing, over and over again. A smiling little dog.
Somehow there was more to it than that... but I just couldn't remember
it all. I started to think that perhaps part of my processing was
going haywire. I almost told Thalessa about it; but she might have
become alarmed, and removed me from the important assignments I was
working on. And I could certainly handle it; they were only dreams,
In addition to planning future operations on League planets, I
also participated in two more missions to round up Unadjusteds. I
assisted in the capturing and reprocessing of a number of resistors,
but we could never get our hands on Banner, and I fretted over that.
And Thalessa knew exactly how I felt. So when she summoned me
one day I curiously noticed she was wearing an unusual smile.
"What is it?" I asked immediately.
"She's taken the bait," said the Mistress. "She's responded to
one of the messages." I immediately knew who the "she" was--Banner!
Some time ago we had sent out messages over the various terminal
networks, subtle messages from me that were meant to lure Banner in.
For example, on the peaceman network I had sent the cryptic message
"The chair" and given an electronic address for response, in the hope
that Thalessa would recall the torture chair and understand it a
communication from me. Well, evidently she had.
"A stroke of good fortune," said the Mistress. She held a folded
"What does it say?" I said eagerly.
"Nothing," said the Mistress sharply. She was of course aware of
my former relationship with Banner. But she was also equally aware of
my unswerving loyalty to her, and to the state. "Nothing, except an
address, and a day, tomorrow, and a time. Are you up for this,
I smiled. "Without a doubt."
Without a doubt. It was some distance away, so I had to get
there in a hurry, and I left immediately on a special plane. Central
Control had its own airport and spaceport, which made sudden departures
convenient. As soon as we took off I went to sleep; it would be the
last chance I would get to rest for some time.
"Arf! Arf!" A smiling little dog was wagging his tail...
suddenly, a jolt went through my entire mind. I blinked; for a moment,
I felt as if I were losing consciousness, in a slow but uncontrolled
way. And then I found myself gasping, and then my vision cleared.
"Are you ok?" said a peaceman, staring at me.
I regained my composure. "Fine," I said. "I'm fine. Really."
We made it to the rendezvous point with just a short time to
spare. I found that I was looking forward to seeing Banner again.
The rendezvous location was at the outskirts of a large populated
area, in a deserted warehouse. The resistors always seemed to choose
warehouses for their meeting places. They thought they were
unmonitored. They weren't very smart.
But before I entered the warehouse I went over the routine with
my escort. "Standard procedure," I said, tapping my shoe. "I'll
signal you when I'm ready."
"We've encircled the warehouse," said the B coordinator.
"Keep them out of view," I said sharply. "She's no fool! If she
"Relax, friend," said the B, smiling at me. "Our operatives are
Slowly I relaxed and smiled back. "Yes, I know. It's just that
this is so important... I don't want her to escape... But remember,
don't enter until I give the signal." That was very important to me.
I had some things to say to Banner first. Alone.
"Will do," said the B.
And that was that, and I entered the warehouse. It was dimly lit
inside, but I could vaguely make out chairs. Mountains and mountains
of them. There were stacks of them piled up to the ceiling.
"Banner?" I hissed, walking through the gloom. "Banner?"
I slowly made my way to the rear of the warehouse, where, in an
open space, a figure stood. The pace of my footsteps accelerated, I
got closer, and-
Banner stood there smiling, waiting for me. "Oh Clifford!" she
said, giving me a big hug. We held that embrace for some time.
Then I gently disengaged and took a few steps back. "You look
well," I said.
"You look awful," she said. But she was grinning as she said it.
"I see you got my message," I said.
"Yes, oh yes I did," said Banner.
"How have things been going? The resistance?"
"Fine," said Banner, with a tight smile. "We're really getting
"So I hear," I said, smiling.
"How did you hear that, Clifford?" said Banner. "By the way, did
you manage to enter Central Control?" She was starting to become
suspicious now, which, after her warm greeting, was kind of odd.
"Yes," I said, thinking quickly. "I've spent some time in
"I'll bet you have," she said, snapping her fingers. Suddenly
two men came out of the gloom. Both armed with lasers.
I was on the floor and rolling even as the first beam was firing.
It went above me and then I was shooting out with my own blaster,
stunning one of them. And then I rolled again and spun about, hitting
the second one, even as he was firing on me. My position, not entirely
coincidentally, was now two feet away from Banner, who was drawing her
own weapon. I chopped her hand as it came out of her bulky suit, and
the weapon clattered to the floor. I picked her weapon up and took
several steps back, keeping the weapon pointed at her.
"Oh Clifford!" she said, tears welling in her eyes. "I knew you
shouldn't have gone there! I told you! I warned you!"
"Yes, they converted me," I said, with a grin.
"So what now? You're going to shoot me, and bring me in for
conversion too?" She seemed defiant.
I pointed to my shoe. "When I tap it twice, the troops come
"Think, Clifford, think! You've been converted! Your
motivations are artificial! Fight it, fight it!" she cried, as I
lowered one hand to my foot.
I paused, and stood up again, without having touched my foot. "I
should fight it?" I said.
"Because it's wrong! Can't you see that?"
"Wrong?" I said. "Of course I can see that."
"What?" And now it was Banner's turn to look surprised.
I spoke in a very soft voice, but loud enough for her to hear me.
"I'm not converted."
There was silence in the warehouse for a moment.
Banner looked really astonished. "What?" was all she could
I elaborated. "Or rather I was converted, until about an hour
ago. I'm back to my old self again."
"I don't believe you!" she said.
I tossed her weapon back to her, but kept mine in hand. "I hope
that's bought me some credibility."
She eyed her weapon suspiciously, as if I might've tampered with
it. "Some. But you've got some explaining to do."
"It will have to be quick. My friends are outside, and they most
definitely are converted." I took a deep breath. This would have to
be a brief explanation. "Yes, I was captured when I entered Central
Control. Yes, I was converted. Then something happened... maybe the
conversion wasn't fully effective, I don't know. But I snapped out of
it," I said. "Just like I said, an hour ago. If your pals hadn't been
so quick to shoot me, we could have avoided this."
"Why didn't you reveal yourself immediately?" Banner declared.
"I wanted to be sure you weren't part of some trap, to test my
loyalty," I shuddered. "I've gone through all sorts of conditioning.
It's made me very... suspicious."
Banner shook her head. "I need proof!"
"What do you want me to do? I could grab you right now, convert
you, and get the names of all your accomplices. Instead I'm going to
have you hide, while I leave with my guards. I don't want to see you,
or any of your resistance again."
"You could just be saying that," said Banner. "It's what I would
"I mean it," I said. "I still have a job to do, and you don't
need to be involved. Watch me," I said, slowly walking away. I turned
my back on her, but it was a necessary risk.
She whistled, and people jumped out of nowhere. Suddenly I found
myself surrounded by a squad of guntoting resistors, who had seemingly
come out of nowhere. I turned around to face Banner.
"What is this?" I cried, genuinely surprised.
Now it was Banner's turn to be superior. "I knew you had been
converted, Clifford. Or at least, I was pretty certain of it. You
thought you were trapping me here? This was a trap, Clifford, but for
you. We were going to capture you and unconvert you. Didn't you think
it rather odd how easily I fell for your "message"? I was caught,
once, when I was unprepared. But they won't catch me again so easily.
No, Clifford, you were the one who was fooled," she said, smiling.
"But... then why all the routine on your part?" I said, stunned.
"Because I wanted to learn whether you were truly converted. But
I almost called the troops in two or three times. It seems a good
thing that I didn't, doesn't it?" She spoke in a louder voice. "He's
clean. I vouch for him."
One of them grumbled, "How can you be sure?"
Banner looked at the man. "If you doubt my word, you may leave,"
she said simply. Then she turned to me, and hugged me again.
I savored the embrace, but I spoke in her ear, "If I don't call
the guards in soon, they're going to start getting edgy. Now if your
people will hide-"
"No need, Clifford," she whispered, nibbling at my ear.
"The warehouse is surrounded."
"But we have a tunnel underneath," she said, ever so softly.
"Oh," was all I could say.
"Come with us, Clifford," she said simply.
It was enticing. I didn't know whether I was in love with Banner
or not, but I definitely felt attracted to her. Strongly. But I still
had a job to do. And some scores to settle. "I can't. I have to go
back to Central Control."
"You can't!" she said, pushing away from me. She brought her
weapon up, and I think she was toying with the idea of stunning me.
"Listen to me," I said, grabbing her by the arms. "They are
working on a device in there that will enable them to take over worlds.
Entire worlds! Remember Operation Conquest? That's what it's all
about. If they complete that device, all of the free planets will be
absorbed by the Happy Worlds. Do you want that to happen? More worlds
under the sway of the state?"
Banner blinked. She did understand. But she said, somewhat
feebly, "But if you go back there-"
"I'd be in the best possible position. I'm one of them,
remember? Converted. If I blow my cover now, I will never be able to
break in there again. Ever."
Banner softened considerably, and seemed on the verge of crying.
But she held it back, and nodded. "What can I do?"
"Get a safehouse ready for me in case I need it," I said. "I'll
try to get offplanet on my own, but if I can't I'll need your help." I
studied her. She seemed a little buoyed by the fact that we might meet
"You know," said Banner, with a smile, "The next time I see you,
I'll be wondering whether you were converted again."
"Risk is the spice of life," I said. I spoke a few more words,
and then departed.
Outside, the B coordinator said, "Well?"
"She wasn't there," I said bluntly.
"Then what took you so long?" he said.
Oh oh. I hadn't thought of that. "That warehouse is like a
small city. It took some time just to walk through the place, to make
sure she wasn't there."
The B looked skeptical, but he accepted my answer.
I was no longer converted.
I was no longer converted, and they were going to pay for what
they had done to me.
During our ride back to central control, I kept a dumb smile on
my face. Thoughts of revenge swirled through my mind. I willed myself
to calm down. It took some time, but I succeeded. I started to think
about the conversion process... just how had I beat it? I tried to
think back, remembering.
The little dog. Yes, it had something to do with that image of
the little dog. But why a dog? I sat back and tried to think.
Memory is a very special thing. It is also somewhat infuriating.
I tried to remember the first time I had thought about the little furry
dog. It was in bed, that night back at Central Control.
No, that wasn't true. Not quite. I had thought about a fluffy
little dog before. It had been fleeting, but... Suddenly it came to
me. It had been at the base! At the Column, when I had been prepared
for the mission. I had been given the details and language for the
mission under hypno, and when I had awoken... I remembered thinking
about a little dog.
At the time I hadn't thought anything about it. But now it was
starting to make sense. The Column had done something to my mind.
Something that... prevented hypnosis? No, I had obviously been
converted, for some time. Perhaps it was like the drug inoculation I
had received. Something that fought mind altering influences... on a
hypnotic level. Only they hadn't seen fit to tell me about it. Of
course! If they had told me about it, I could have revealed that fact
when I had been converted. The Column must have been experimenting
with some sort of anti-hypnosis procedure. It must have been
effective, in a limited way. It just needed some time to take effect.
Just like a vaccination takes time to generate anti-bodies.
I had figured it out. I had become so paranoid, that for a time
I had suspected that Thalessa might have partially unconverted me, to
test my loyalty. My thinking was somewhat muddled from what they had
done to me. But some things were clear. Very clear.
Their society was sick. Fundamentally twisted.
Suddenly I was thinking back to the past few months, and I was
disgusted. Really disgusted. My complete obedience to the state. I
had loved it, I really did. I had thought the state was the most
wonderful thing since the invention of sliced bread, right down to that
mindless boardgame I had played with my fellow brainwashed operatives.
I swallowed hard as I recalled all the things I had done for the
state, including betraying resistors. I would have betrayed Banner
too, had I still been converted. And I would have done it eagerly,
without any qualms. I thought about how I had been instrumental in the
capture and reconversion of a number of resistors.
I wanted to throw up. One of my traveling companions looked at
me oddly. He must have noticed a change in expression on my face.
"Are you all right, my friend?" he said.
"I'm wonderful," I said, with a broad smile. I wanted to kill
him, all the peacemen, all the peacemen, all the rulers, including the
And then there was Thalessa.
She who I had loved and admired more than anyone on the planet.
I recalled with disgust how I had fawned over her, acting as her
personal slave. I had admired her, loved her... I remember feeling
those emotions. And yet now I was filled with hate. And then I
shuddered inwardly. She had used me, used me entirely--as a tool to
capture resistors, as a pawn against the Column, and even... even for
her own pleasure. She had controlled my mind and used me as a
plaything. She had converted me and made me grateful for it. And I
I had a lot to settle with the Happy Worlders. But Thalessa was
on the top of the list.
They would pay for what they had done to me. They would all pay.
I looked out of the window of the plane, and smiled. "I can't
wait to get back to Central Control! There's so much work to be done!"
The other B's smiled at me. The fools.
When we arrived at Central Control and were inside the complex,
my first instinct was to burst into Thalessa's quarters and blast her
to pieces. My blaster, set at full force, could kill her instantly.
She'd be dead before she hit the ground, just from a single high
intensity blaster bolt. I had great difficulty restraining myself from
rushing in and carrying out the job. My anger was incredible, just
impossible to restrain. I just kept thinking what she had done to me.
Worse, I remembered what she had done to Banner.
And then I got the summons. Thalessa wanted to see me.
And that changed me. Somehow, that gave me a jolt of reality. I
calmed down a bit, and my anger abated. Oh, I was still in the mood
for revenge, but I was also more in control of my emotions now. If I
acted rashly I would be converted. Again. And the next time they
would make sure that I would not snap out of it. Ever.
No, my revenge would have to be plotted slowly, carefully. I
still had the advantage. I would only have one chance, I must not
I tried to act normally when I entered Thalessa's quarters. She
was wearing her typical midnight black uniform. I noticed the way her
long black hair fell behind her as she walked. She stared intently at
me with her bright green eyes as I entered the room.
"Report," she said.
"We... failed to capture Banner," I said, averting my eyes. I
didn't know if I could bear to look at such a hateful figure.
"The guards reported as much... they also reported that you
seemed perturbed. Is something wrong?" she said.
"No," I said, still looking away. "I'm just naturally disturbed
that we failed to capture her. She's very dangerous, on the loose."
"Yes," said Thalessa, walking up to me. She seemed puzzled that
I wasn't making eye contact with her.
With an effort, I looked at her, and gave a smile.
She reached over and gave me a kiss. With an effort, I returned
After a moment, she stepped back, still inspecting me closely.
"There. That's better. Don't worry about this minor setback. We'll
catch her. Now, let's return to our plans for infiltrating your
And so we did, though I had to confess my enthusiasm was less
than it had been in previous sessions. I tried to participate
minimally, volunteering trite suggestions without trying to give away
anything useful. I reviewed the material we had already worked on. I
really had thought of several good ways to infiltrate the Column. It
was still my work. And it would have to be destroyed.
Later, I sat down in my cubicle and tried to think. What were my
priorities? One, to destroy all the information that had been
accumulated. The plans I had devised, the technology that had been
stolen.... Suddenly, I sat up rigidly in bed. I had forgotten all
about Operation Conquest!
Operation Conquest. The plan to construct a device that could
take over the minds of thousands of people, from remote control over
long distances. When I had first learned of it I was quite approving.
Now I wasn't so thrilled about the project. It must be stopped!
What was it that Thalessa had said? Her agents were still
abroad, acquiring the information. I had to find out who they were,
where they were, and I had to stop them. That was a must, a top
I took a deep breath. I also wanted suitable revenge against the
state. Against Thalessa. But I didn't know how I would accomplish it.
Somehow the idea of killing no longer rallied any enthusiasm inside me.
My prior rage had cooled. While she doubtlessly deserved death, it was
too easy. Much too easy.
Or perhaps I was making excuses. I never found pleasure in
killing, especially in cold blood. But Thalessa must be made to pay.
And then for a moment I thought of myself. Once I had
accomplished what I had set out to do, how would I escape? Would I be
able to escape? This was an important question. I still wanted to get
out of this situation in one piece. I was still too young to end my
spy career on this worthless planet.
I was very eager to get going, but I carefully formulated my
plan, spending two days thinking it over, again and again. I couldn't
know if it would work, not for certain, not until I tried it. If I
made a mistake, a miscalculation, I would end up right back on the
conversion table, and be restored to ranks of Thalessa's cheerfully
mindless slaves. I shuddered.
The fear of recapture and reconversion drove me to spend another
day procrastinating. Finally I felt that I could delay no more. I
used my priority pass to enter a key circuitry room, and made several
adjustments. Minor ones. These circuits didn't touch on the security
system, or even the general surveillance interface. My security
clearance didn't clear me to even come near the former, while the
latter was heavily guarded. But there were a few select surveillance
circuits that ran through this room. One of which I was heavily
But still I delayed, through much of the afternoon. I don't
think I would have gotten the courage to make the attempt that day, if
it hadn't been the summons.
Thalessa wanted to see me.
I checked my watch. This late in the afternoon, there was only
one reason she wanted to see me. And it wasn't related to business.
I thought quickly. I didn't want to go through with it. I had
kept up the pretense; I had worked with her for several days while
keeping my shadow personality in place... but this I would not
tolerate. I was ready to go, and if my plan would fail, it would fail.
But I was going to make the try.
I entered Thalessa's quarters, and as the doors slid shut behind
me I eyed the camera in the corner, just above her conversion table.
Yes, that's right, she had conversion equipment, right in her quarters.
She liked to be close to her work.
She greeted me, smiling. She was wearing a dress that covered
almost nothing, silver slivers that draped her body, concealing very
little. "How do I look?" she said, running her hands through her
luscious black hair.
"Beautiful," I smiled. She was always a vain creature, fishing
for compliments from her brainwashed entourage. She continued to rub
her hands through her long, silky hair. I wished I could strangle her
"I saw the Master today," she said, pouring drinks for us.
"He complimented me on my work. Said it was going splendidly,"
said Thalessa. She looked at me expectantly.
"And so he should. You're the best programmer there is," I said,
smiling broadly. I wished I could tie her down to her machine, and
show her what it felt like to be 'programmed'.
"Really?" she said, fishing for more compliments. She handed me
"Oh yes. I've always been astonished by your sheer talent," I
said, falling back into liespeak.
"Tell me more," she said, gesturing me to sit down by her, on the
Oh oh. I could see that time was running out. But her voice
still held an air of command for me, and I sat.
"You are so lovely and skilled, that you are the most desirable
woman on the planet," I said, putting words together almost on
autopilot. She was desirable to me, but not in the way she thought. I
desired to ship her like a package to Banner and the resistance
Thalessa smiled, and put down her drink. She reached over to me.
"You know, Clifford, you've been an exemplary assistant," she said,
putting her hand on my shoulder.
Exemplary slave, she meant. Did I respond to brainwashing better
than the others? Or did I simply retain enough of my own abilities
after conditioning to effectively serve her? "Thank you," I said.
"Serving you is all I could ever want." Yes, serving her up--to a
She leaned over and gave me a deep kiss. Despite my recent
mental liberation I found myself starting to become swayed. But
revulsion ran deeper, and I pulled away from her.
Immediately her eyes narrowed. "Clifford, what's wrong?"
"N-nothing," I said, not sure what to do next. The next step was
obvious, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. My determination
tended to sap in Thalessa's presence.
She said, "Just the same, I'd better give you a checkup. Get on
the table, please." She got up, turning away, assuming that I'd obey.
Several times after my conversion Thalessa had hypnotized me to
give me a "checkup", just to make certain that my conditioning was
holding. Unfortunately, she hadn't given me one recently.
Unfortunately for her.
As I pondered what to do I found myself going to the examination
table and lying down. Evidently I wasn't as totally free of the
conditioning as I thought. I looked around me. Any second now the
restraining straps would kick in to place, I would be held, hypnotized,
and then Thalessa would know what had happened to me. She would
reprogram me, making certain I would never have independent thoughts
It was the thought of that certainty that forced me to sit up on
the table, just as the restrainers started to come out of their slots.
At the control station, Thalessa looked annoyed. "Clifford, we
cannot conduct this examination unless you lie down."
I resisted the impulse to comply. Swinging my legs, I got off
Thalessa looked surprised. "Clifford! Get back on that table."
Suddenly a thought occurred to her, and her eyes widened. Her hand
reached out to touch a button-
And I drew my hidden blaster, smooth as a hawk, and shot her
where she stood. She fell, wordlessly, to the ground.
I could have killed her, I suppose, and there's little doubt in
my mind that she deserved it. But she could be very useful to me,
alive. At least, that's how I rationalized it.
In a few minutes Thalessa blinked, recovering consciousness. She
tried to move... but realized she was lying, restrained, on her own
I whistled a foul tune until she looked up, noticing me at the
control panel. I could have converted her while she slept, but I
wanted this. I needed this. To finally face down my adversary.
"Good morning!" I said cheerfully.
"Guards! Guards! Help!" Thalessa cried, casting her eyes to the
camera on the wall.
"I've fixed that," I said. "And as you've thoughtfully observed
in the past, your chambers are sound proof. For reasons of privacy," I
"Clifford! You must obey me! Release me!" she said, staring at
Inwardly, part of me recoiled. But she no longer controlled me.
"Sorry, I don't do orders. But maybe if you asked me nicely."
She screwed up her face, but she said, through gritted teeth,
"Release me, please, Clifford?"
"Hm...." I paused, considering. I walked over to the table, and
casually laid my hands on the restraining straps.
"Naah," I said, with a big grin. "Ah, that was good. This is
first time since I came here that I really have something to smile
"Clifford, you're sick. You've had a relapse for the worse, you
need help. Let me help you," said Thalessa, in a gentle voice.
"You're correct in saying I've had a relapse," I said. "But it's
been for the better, I assure you."
"Clifford, think. You've been happy with us! Think of the good
"Good times!" I was enraged. I walked up to her, anger in my
heavy footsteps. I put my face close to her's. "Good times. Yes, I
had good times while you brainwashed me, controlled my mind, made me
act against my friends, and used me... in terrible ways." I swallowed
hard. "And then there was Banner. I can't forget the terrible things
you did to her. I saw her, after you had finished butchering her
mind." I thought back to the time I first saw Banner, in the
rehomoginization center after she had been processed... those vacant
eyes, the emptied mind. It had been a disgusting sight. Another
thought occurred to me. "And you used me cruelly to try to get at
her!" I said slowly but forcefully.
"No, Clifford, that was the real you, coming out, doing goodness
for the state," said Thalessa. "Think how happy you were!"
"Uh-uh," I said. "There's a real difference. My happiness, as
you call it, was artificially induced. As was my loyalty to the state.
When I chose to work for the Column, the League, it was an independent
decision, an exercise of free will. What I've experienced here has
been little more than mental slavery."
Seeing that this tact wasn't working, her expression changed.
"You won't get away with this, Clifford!" she snarled. "We've caught
you before, and we'll catch you again."
I hummed pleasantly as I examined the controls on the side of the
examination table. They were not dissimilar from the ones on the main
control panel. "I don't think you'll catch me again," I said. "For
one thing, this time I have the advantage of surprise. For another,
you're going to help me."
"Me? No!" she cried. "Clifford, no, don't alter my mind."
"What a funny plea, coming from the chief programmer on this
planet," I said. "How many people have you converted, bending their
minds to serve your will? Hundreds? Thousands? Well, you're about to
get some of your own treatment."
"No!" she cried, as the machinery above her started to make a
"I'm not too familiar with the controls," I said. "But you'll
forgive me if I make some mistakes, won't you? Oh, of course you will;
I'll program you to." I continued to hum a happy tune. "Hm, I wonder
what these will do," I said, letting my hand fall against a row of
Shrieking, Thalessa tried to escape from her bonds. But they
held her tightly. They were very tough restraints. I could have told
"Ha ha ha," I said, enjoying this. The tables were turned, and
quite literally at that.
"You won't escape," she said, almost desperately. "And when I
capture you again, Clifford-"
"Yes?" I said.
"I'll convert you again. Only I'll make you a D! Under total
control of the computer! Your mind will slowly burn itself out!"
"Love you too," I said, pressing the button I believed was the
Suddenly, a beam of light came stabbing out of the machine above
Thalessa. She cried out.
"Sorry, wrong button," I said. But I paused a few second before
turning it off. Normally torture was not a favorite pastime of mine,
but Thalessa's displeasure was not my displeasure. It was bad enough
what she had done to me, but when I thought about Banner, how Thalessa
had cruelly purged her personality, whatever little sympathy I had for
the Mistress faded.
She started to rant and rave, even after I turned the ray off.
It was most distracting; I was busy attempting to find the proper
control. How could I ever hope to convert a subject who was making
such a racket?
"Shush!" I said sternly. "This is a Happy World. You should be
Thalessa began describing again how she would take my mind apart,
bit by bit, when I pressed the button.
A ray stabbed out, and her body became rigid, her face
"That's better," I said. "Much better. Now, let's see what I
can do about giving you a crash course in humility." I went to
In a little over an hour I was almost done. It certainly wasn't
a professional job, one that would last indefinitely, but I had done a
fairly good effort, so I thought. What I had done was turn off her
admiration of the state, and trained it on... well, me.
Well, that's what served my purposes. I needed her to obey me.
When her mind was in the proper state, I whispered to her, "Thalessa."
"Yes?" said a soft voice. I stared at her face; her eyes were
wide open, staring vacantly into space.
I took a deep breath. I had already turned her off from her
devotion to the state. So I thought. Now came the second part. "This
is Clifford Croft. You think I'm the greatest."
"You're the greatest," she mumbled.
"The best spy you've ever seen. You've admired me from the
moment you first set eyes on me. In fact, I've demonstrated more skill
and style than just about anyone you've ever seen, including the
Master. In addition-"
I'm afraid I went on like that, for some time. Part of it was
revenge, I'll be quite frank. I rather enjoyed seeing the tables
turned on my former Mistress. I had suffered through her own
forcefully imposed psychological conditioning and now it was her turn
for a taste of her own medicine. It wouldn't do any harm to her, so I
thought; it might even give her a bit of humility.
When I was done, or, at least, when I thought I was done, I turned
off the machine and freed Thalessa from the straps.
Thalessa blinked, and quickly sat up. I had my hand on my
blaster, ready for anything.
The Mistress smiled up at me. "Clifford," she said, grinning.
"Thalessa," I said. "What do you think about the state?"
She immediately made a face. "It's terrible!"
"What do you think about me?"
"Oh, Clifford, you're the greatest! You're so smart, so able,
so... perfect!" she said, gushing all over me.
Wuups. Perhaps I had instilled her interest in the Clifford
Croft fan club just a little too strongly. Ah, well. I vowed to do
better on my next conditioning job.
"And you're going to help me now, aren't you?" I said.
"Oh yes, oh yes, anything you want, Clifford, you just name it,
anything!" said Thalessa, now pathetically interested in pleasing.
Gone was the domineering woman who controlled the minds of others.
I gathered up my equipment. "You know," I said, "I rather like
this personality change of yours."
We left, as she thanked me profusely for instilling it into her.
I couldn't help but chuckle. But our business was pressing.
Our first stop was an equipment storage locker, where I picked up
several handy gadgets, including some small explosive packets and
remote control detonators. There were going to be fireworks before I
Our next stop was to the room housing the high priority
terminals. The highest. Only the Master, I believed, had a higher
access terminal. But any of these terminals would suffice.
There were two A's in the room, who looked up when we entered.
"Out!" said Thalessa immediately, and they practically ran for the
There were no guards in the rooms, but there were cameras, so we
had to act normally.
"I did it, Clifford," she said excitedly.
"Yes Mistress," I said, giving her a purposeful stare.
"Oh." Thalessa immediately became serious. On the outside, at
least. She sat at the console.
"Ahem," I said, clearing my throat.
Thalessa sat up with a jerk. "Oh? Is there something I'm
supposed to be doing?"
Evidently my programming had had unintended side effects. "I
believe you wanted to access the terminal, Mistress," I hissed.
"Yes? Oh, yes," said Thalessa, logging on. The screen scanned
her eyes, and then came alive.
"I will handle it from here, as you wished, Mistress," I said,
edging her out of the seat. She took a seat next to me and spent the
time just watching me. And smiling.
I rapidly punched up the information on the whole technology
And I whistled. They had really accumulated a lot of information
over the life of this espionage program. There was technology
concerning engines, weaponry, spaceship construction, communication,
computers... the list went on and on.
"A little information can be a dangerous thing," I said, pressing
the PURGE button.
Immediately the screen went blank, and for a moment I worried I
had exceeded even the Mistress's authority. But then a sentence came
on the screen.
ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WISH TO ERASE THE LISTED FILES, MISTRESS?
I typed YES. The machine started beeping softly as the erasing
part began. The files were very large, and I could tell it was going
to take a few minutes.
Thalessa smiled all the while, playing with my hair. She saw me
purge the files, she knew what I was doing: destroying years of her
life's work. But she just smiled. I had tried to make her into an
ardent anti-government resistor, but instead she was just a giggly
girl, totally consumed by her infatuation with me. I sighed. Well,
perhaps with more work I could restore her formidable intellect without
resurrecting other, more hostile aspects of her personality.
Finally the machine reported FILES PURGED and I smiled. The next
thing I did was purge the files of all the plans we had made to
infiltrate the Column. Then I started going through some other files.
This information was fascinating, I wished I had days to go over it,
but I didn't. I looked over several things of interest to me, but
focused mostly on Operation Conquest. Rather than read the screens of
information, I made a printout of the summary and hurriedly put it in
"You wish to go now, Mistress?" I said, giving a worried glance
at the camera. There was no telling when the observers would catch on.
Thalessa gave a big grin. "Anywhere you want, Clifford."
"Right," I said.
I walked her, at a fast march, to an empty room, five thousand
feet to the west, two levels down.
"Oh, Clifford, now we can be alone!" Thalessa giggled, trying to
give me a hug.
"Later, Mistress," I said, sidestepping her embrace. I looked up
at the ceiling. It was low, but just out of my reach. I looked around
for something to stand on, but the room was truly empty. There wasn't
even the customary spy camera mounted on the wall.
I sent Thalessa out into the corridor to fetch a citizen. What
kind of citizen? Any citizen would do, I told her.
Shortly a puzzled B entered the room. "What can I do for you,
Mistress?" he said, looking from me to Thalessa.
"Lie down," I said.
"Huh?" he said.
"Zap," said my gun, stunning him.
He fell to the ground. I put him on the ground, face down.
"What now?" said Thalessa, breaking into a giggle.
I didn't answer, but stepped on the fallen B, standing on his
back. "Ah, that will do it," I said, touching the ceiling. I took the
small explosives out of my pocket, and affixed them to the ceiling.
Then I got down. I looked at Thalessa. She had been laughing the
"Mistress! Be serious!" I said.
She stopped laughing, and her face hardened. Then she broke into
It took five minutes to calm her down. Then we started out
again. All I needed was for her to maintain a moderate facial
expression for perhaps ten minutes. Then we would be off.
Off indeed. For we were heading for the spaceport section of the
complex. It was time to make our escape. I marched Thalessa along, and
she walked, quietly, with only a slight grin on her face. We walked
past guards who paid us no attention. We were going to do make it. We
were going to escape.
And, three quarters of the way to the spaceport, we ran across
the Master. The ruler of this planet.
He was accompanied by his usual entourage, and by that I mean a
squad of guards armed with laser rifles. Oh oh.
"Mistress," said the Master, by way of greeting.
She gave a giggly smile. He immediately stopped moving, and
stared at her.
"Mistress?" said the Master, frowning slightly. He had
immediately detected that something was wrong.
Well, he should have; the top man on the planet had to be pretty
smart. The Master glanced from me to Thalessa for a moment. Did I
just imagine it, or did a gleam of comprehension start to form in his
Time to do something. I pressed the activator in my pocket.
The vibrations from the explosion threw us to the floor. That
was strong! I must have used too many explosive packs. I'd have to
remember that the next time I blew up a piece of Central Control.
The Master got to his feet, helped by his guards. "What was
that?" he shouted, all thoughts of Thalessa pushed from his mind. One
of his guards made a noncommittal reply. "Well, find out!" he said.
He marched off with his guards, giving a "I'll deal with you later"
glance to Thalessa and I.
I marched Thalessa on to the spaceport. People were running down
the halls and there was an unaccustomed babble in the air. I could see
that my explosion was doing its job.
We arrived at the spaceport, a small open area surrounded by
buildings, and launching pads situated at different levels. We walked,
not ran, to the ship that I had reserved via terminal. I whispered
something in Thalessa's ear the minute I saw the guards at the ship.
There were three of them, blocking our path.
"Let us pass," said Thalessa, for once maintaining a serious
The A in charge quaked but did not move. "My lady-"
"You heard the Mistress," I snarled. "Or do you have an urge to
"N-No... but we have just received orders from the Master that no
one is to leave the base. No one," said the jittery A.
Oh oh. Master trumps Mistress. Then Thalessa chose this moment
to burst out laughing, for no particular reason. The troops looked
oddly at us, and I pulled her away. "The Mistress is sick," I said
sternly. "She needs medical attention." I hate to think what they
thought of all this, for as I pulled Thalessa away, I saw the A
speaking into a small communicator.
Oh oh. Thalessa and I raced along the corridors. In the general
hustle and bustle a number of people were running about, and we were
not noticed. But I was conscious that certain wheels were rolling.
The Master was aware that Thalessa was acting strangely. And now he
would receive a report that Thalessa was trying to leave Central
Control. It may not occur to him, not at first, that Thalessa was
connected to the explosion, but soon-
"Attention, attention," came a voice over the public address
system. "Apprehend the Mistress and her escort. I repeat, apprehend
the Mistress and her escort. This is the order of the Master."
I gave a low whistle. That Master had caught on already. I drew
my blaster. This was going to be a close one. We started running. I
think we were helped by the general confusion, and the location of my
explosions; I had planted them in the room directly below the general
circuitry room for the surveillance systems. Hopefully I should have
knocked out all the cameras, making it more difficult for them to track
My plan must have work, for we reached our destination, an open
air compound, without being stopped. But when we reached the shed
where the gravitators were stored, there were four guards in duty. I
shot two of them, just as we came into view. The third one was just
starting to duck when I shot him. And the forth one had apparently
I slowly walked along the rows and rows of gravitators. I heard
a small voice saying, "-they're here. He's shot the regular duty
"Now I've shot you!" I said, firing as I turned the corner. The
forth guard, in a crouching position with a comlink, fell to the
"Come on!" I said to Thalessa as I strapped myself into a
gravitator. It was a slender column, with narrow panels that we could
strap ourselves into. I studied the control panel in the operator's
position. I had never flown a Happy Worlder version of these things
before, but, given enough time, I could fly anything.
"Let's see," I said, pushing one button. The column started to
shake, and began to fall over on its side.
"Whoa!" I said, reaching for the stabilizer adjuster. Then I
pressed the right button, and the column started to lift off, heading
straight into the air.
At that moment troops rushed into the open air chamber,
brandishing laser rifles. They started to fire but stopped when one of
them said, "Halt! That's the Mistress! Cease fire, cease fire!"
How nice of them. Thalessa, still laughing all the while, waved
at them as we gained altitude. We were still above the gravitator
shed, which was a good thing; for I could see the guards strapping
themselves into gravitators of their own, to give chase.
I set the controls to autohover, and rapidly fished in my
pockets. "Ah!" I said, my face brightening, as I came out with an
object. I twisted a setting on it, dropping it all the way to the
It made a loud noise when it hit the pavement, and when the
guards saw what it was, they all started running.
"What was that?" said Thalessa curiously, as we sped away.
There was a loud explosion, as all the parked gravitators blew to
pieces. I wish we could have stayed, so I could have better admired my
work, but time was pressing.
"A time delay grenade," I said, as we sped away.
"Hahahahaha," said Thalessa, finding it hysterical.
The anti-aircraft posts didn't fire on us on the way out, either
because they had orders not too or else they were simply still too
disorganized to fire. But I took no chances and I constantly weaved
and zigged and zagged, until we were out of sight of the complex.
It took the authorities almost thirty minutes before they
scrambled the first flight aircraft against us. I had been flying
relatively low and was alert for this. I immediately took the
gravitator down and hid under a clump of trees.
From then on it was a wild game of cat and mouse. I would wait
until the search planes were out of sight and then take the gravitator
up, again at a low altitude. When I would spot a search plane in the
distance I would quickly take the gravitator down. I managed to make
two more hops that way, clearing perhaps 40 miles from the complex.
Then I had to ground the gravitator for quite some time as the sky was
literally filled with search planes. Entire squadrons flew over my
position every few minutes.
"Wow, they must have called out the entire airforce," I said,
admiring the planes above me.
"That's the Master," said Thalessa. "He's bound to be angry.
Very angry," she laughed. "When he captures us, he'll undoubtedly have
you killed and me programmed."
I laughed too, although later I wasn't quite sure what was so
funny. In fact, we laughed so uproariously that I almost didn't notice
the small, subtle twitch in Thalessa's face. But I didn't give it much
thought; there were more important things on my mind at the time.
We did make some good time in the gravitator that night. The
number of search planes were reduced, and Thalessa assured me that
their aircraft didn't have very good infra-red equipment.
"We were still working on stealing that from you!" she laughed.
I laughed with her. In some ways these Happy Worlders were very
advanced, but in other ways they were centuries behind standard League
We covered several hundred miles that night in the gravitator.
About three quarters of the way through the night, both exhausted, I
grounded the gravitator under cover, near a main road. I thought we
had passed beyond the perimeter of the road blocks. Tomorrow we could
steal an aircar.
Or, at least I thought we could. As I watched the road, an
aircar slowly meandered by. An opportunity had presented itself even
sooner than I had hoped.
A trap? Possibly. But I was willing to take the risk.
I ordered Thalessa onto the road, and I lay on the side, in the
dark, and waited.
The bright headlights of the aircar shined off Thalessa, and the
aircar slowly stopped. The door opened, and I saw a single occupant
get out. I quickly shot him, and he fell to the ground. I had set my
blaster on heavy stun, so he would be out for a while; but I tied him
up in any event. Then I drove the aircar off the road, into a field of
tall weeds. It would be available tomorrow morning when we started on
the road. Right now I needed some sleep.
But first, I stripped the uniform off the driver. He was a
medium sized B, and his clothes would suffice for my purposes. "Here,"
I said, handing his bundled uniform to Thalessa.
She looked confused. "What do I do with it?"
"Put it on," I said. "Your black uniform is a dead giveaway.
Tomorrow morning I'll change the numbers on it."
Thalessa complied, happily, starting to take off her clothing
right in front of me.
"Stop!" I said suddenly. I had seen her in the nude before, but
somehow, this was not right.
"Clifford?" she said, giggly, getting the wrong idea.
"Behind the bushes. There," I said, pointing. Then I turned
away, looking for a suitable sleeping place. It would be dawn in just
a few hours.
I settled for resting with my back against a tree to catch a
quick nap. "Don't stray far, Thalessa," I said, closing my eyes.
She didn't. In a few seconds I felt a warm body snuggling
against my own.
I opened my eyes. Even when she was in her hypnotized state I
still felt little in the way of good will towards this woman. This
wasn't a robot slave dutifully fulfilling its role as a cog in a
machine; this was one of the rulers, one of those precious few with
free will. This was the chief programmer.
Feeling the revulsion swelling inside, I pushed her off me.
"Hey," she said, her face twitching. "Why did you do that?"
"Find another tree to lie against," I snapped.
"But Clifford," said Thalessa. "I love you!"
"I know, I know," I said. "There, that tree behind you, that
looks like a good one."
Holding back a sob, Thalessa complied. For the first time I
noticed her face twitching.
"Nighty night," I said, and then I almost immediately lost
Sometimes, I'm not very smart. I mean, I'm generally quite
intelligent. But sometimes I made mistakes. Really big ones.
I awoke, in the morning, to a sharp sting on my face. I moaned,
turning my head, and felt another sting.
I blinked, opening my eyes. "What gives?" I said groggily. My
eyes focused. I saw Thalessa, standing over me, with an open palm.
And my blaster was in her other hand.
"Good morning," I said, sitting up slowly with a calmness I
didn't feel. "What have you made us for breakfast?"
"Don't move!" she said, with a sharp voice, and suddenly my
suspicions were confirmed.
"Welcome back, Thalessa," I said, repositioning my back against
the tree. "How did you like being programmed?" I smiled, trying to
get her really riled.
Her hands trembled as they grasped the weapon, pointing it
straight at my smiling self. "You fool. You call what you did
programming? What you did was a simple superficial piece of work,
hardly capable of containing any mind, least of all my own."
"I don't know," I said, staring at my fingernails. "Your mind
seemed to rather enjoy being... contained. Certainly, you were most...
content... concerning your rather special feelings... for me," I said,
and I looked up at her with a smirk as I accentuated every word.
"Ooooh!" she screamed, his face a mask of anger, the gun really
shaking now. "When we get back, I won't just program you, I'll destroy
your mind! I'll tear it out, bit by bit, until there's nothing left,
nothing but a pitiful husk! And I'll do it while you're awake, so you
will feel every-"
At this point I noticed that the gun was wavering in every
direction, and I kicked it into the air. The gun discharged as it
leapt out of her hands, shooting a straight line above me.
And then I was on her, tackling her to the ground. We wrestled
about for sometime, rolling back and forth. Unfortunately, Thalessa
was very physically fit, and well trained in the art of hand to hand
combat. She kept on chopping at me with her hands, and I only barely
managed to block several of those attacks. I tried to wrestle with her
to pin her arms down, but she kept struggling, striking out. Suddenly
she placed two double blows in the pit of my stomach, and I doubled
over. She then reached over for the blaster, which had fallen only
inches from her. Thalessa stretched out, reaching it-
and I gave her a good karate chop on the back. Her head crashed
against a rock on the ground, and that was that.
I groaned, retrieving the blaster as I got up. I happened to
notice the effects of the stray shot that Thalessa had fired; there was
a hole in the tree behind me. And two trees behind that. I looked at
the blaster. It had been set to kill.
I bent over to examine Thalessa. As I thought, she was not
seriously injured, only knocked out. I thought about using my
hypnocube to condition her again, but decided against it. I settled
for tying her up, and dragging her to the aircar, where she could keep
company with the tied up driver, who was still sleeping.
I actually whistled as I prepared myself and the aircar for our
journey. When I was ready I got in the car and prepared to activate
the engine's generator. I stared one last time at Thalessa, and I
considered what to do. Taking her with me would be too much of a risk.
And yet I was still brimming with anger. I remembered again that this
was the woman who had taken over my mind and controlled me. This was
the woman who had done the same thing to Banner. I remember the
ghastly shape Banner had been in when I had first visited her in the
rehomoginization center. The dull voice, those empty eyes...
I became aware of the fact that I was raising my blaster,
pointing it at Thalessa, and somehow the blaster was set on kill again.
I've killed before, that wasn't the problem. It was the idea of
killing someone tied up, helpless...
Suddenly, her eyes shot open. She stared straight at me, with a
look of loathing. She quickly understood what was going through my
"You are weak," she sneered, in a grating voice.
"You are strong," I mimicked, in the same voice. "Hey, which one
of us is tied up?"
"We have captured you before. We will capture you again," said
I considered that. "If I stayed on this planet indefinitely,
then you might. But I'm not."
"What do you mean?"
"My mission has been completed. Or don't you remember? I've
erased all the information you've stolen from your terminals. All of
it. All the technology you stole." I watched her carefully, savoring
"What?" said Thalessa. "Impossible! The priority terminal that
would require-" then she stopped, and remembered. Her face turned into
I observed, closely, as realization dawned in her eyes. She had
used me, but I had used her. A good portion of her work had gone down
the drain. Her standing with the Master probably wasn't very good
either. "I really want to thank you for all your help. I'm being
quite honest when I say that I couldn't have done it without you. And
now, without further delay-" I revved up the engine.
"You fool! You will be caught-" she began again.
"But not by you," I said quietly, shooting her. She slumped to
the ground, still bound in the ropes.
I felt a quiet wave of satisfaction go through me. I still felt
pleased, even when I looked at my blaster. Somehow I had reset it to
'heavy stun' without realizing it. Oh well. Thalessa had been
humiliated, her work ruined, her position lost. That would be
sufficient revenge for me.
Whistling a happy tune, I gunned the aircar down the highway.
I took a break, and that was nearly my undoing.
Several days of steady driving had taken me far from Central
Control. But far could never be far enough. There were patrols, both
on the ground and in the air. Many of them. I think I had gotten the
entire planet riled up. It pleased me to no end that I had shaken up
the status quo on this dull and lifeless rock. It was clear that I had
gotten them angry. The only trick now was not to be caught. I had no
desire to let them take out their unhappiness on me. With that thought
in mind, I was constantly changing vehicles and appearances. I took
less used roads or even went across country to avoid roadblocks.
But finally I needed a break, a rest. I generally slept several
hours, during the day, with the aircar off the side of the road under
the cover of vegetation. But my food supplies were running low, and I
didn't relish the thought of another night in the aircar's operator
chair. Happy Worlder beds were hardly luxurious, but at least I would
be able to lie down. Resting on the ground was out of the question; I
would be pecked to death by Gazootas, who swarmed around me all night
in the hopes of dropping in for a quick snack.
So I stopped for the night not in the countryside but at a medium
sized metropolis. I ditched the aircar--I would get another one in the
morning, it was always good to change aircars at least once a day--and
made my way to an apartment complex housing B's.
I went to a random floor, and knocked on a random door. Of
course, first I temporarily disabled the hall camera (I was getting
used to the routine, by now).
A genial B answered the door. "Happy Day," he said, smiling.
I gave him greetings.
Once I had fixed the camera in his apartment as well as the one
in the hallway, I dragged his body in, and tied him to a chair.
When he recovered consciousness, the first thing he said was,
"Alien," I said, answering it for him. "But no one's perfect."
"Up, it's for your own good, you're sick, you need help," I said.
"I've seen this movie before. Well, in case you haven't been reading
the dailies, I've already been forced to give up, once before. Didn't
like it; I changed my mind," I grinned, enjoying the pun. "Now what's
The B was silent, saying nothing.
"Never mind, you'd probably choke before I got it out of you." I
paused, staring at my companion. "Dumbo," I said suddenly.
"Dumbo. How does that strike you? You've got some pretty big
flappers there," I said, indicating his prominent ears.
"I don't like it," said the B.
"Well, it's all I can think of on the spur of the moment." I
moved to a cabinet in the kitchen. "Now, what have we got for dinner?
I dished out a fair sized meal for both of us. Dumbo mastered
the art of putting his mouth to the plate even quicker than Wata had.
"You'll be caught, you know," said Dumbo, still trying to persuade me
to surrender. "The Master-"
"Yes, yes, I've already matched wits with the Master, and the
Mistress," I said, bored, really. "When I last saw your Mistress, she
was tied up in a forest."
Dumbo gasped. "You lie!"
"Nope," I said. "But how to prove it? Did you know, the
Mistress has a small birthmark on her left shoulder... no, I don't
suppose you would know that...."
"A lie! Everything you say is a lie."
"Yes!" I said, putting my face close to one of those enormous
ears. I was feeling in a jocular mood. "Now listen carefully.
Everything I say is a lie."
"A lie," said Dumbo, accepting that.
"Now listen carefully... I am telling you a lie."
Dumbo frowned over that one. "But if you're lying... you're
telling me a lie... which must be the truth... but...."
"And with that thought whirling around in your inner airspace, I
will bid you good night," I said, clapping my hands twice.
Dumbo just looked up at me.
"Oh. Sorry," I said, shooting him with my blaster. I hadn't
taken the effort to train him.
I went to bed with a smile on my face. I had done it. I had
come to this planet, and conquered it. I had gotten into Central
Control, and wiped out their information banks. I had made fools of
the Master and Thalessa, as surely as I had with Dumbo. And yet... my
mission wasn't entirely complete. There was still one more task to be
accomplished, one more part of my mission, and my job wouldn't be fully
done until I had gotten off planet and finished it properly. I slowly
drifted off to sleep, with that nagging feeling of unfinished business
still tugging at me.
The next day I ungagged Dumbo and made my goodbyes.
"I'll be tied here forever," said Dumbo miserably. His ears
seemed to droop on either side.
"Sir, are you implying that I've abdicated my duties as host?" I
said, my arms on my hips. "I'll have you know that I've left a message
on your terminal--on time delay, of course--telling them where you
"What's the time delay?" Dumbo wanted to know.
I reached down, putting his gag in place. "Oh, no more than a
day or two."
'Mumph mumph!" he said, a rage in his eyes.
"No, that's ok, I've got it," I said, stuffing a package of food
into my bulky suit. "Thanks for your hospitality. I'm sure you'll be
suitably rewarded for it."
And I was off. As soon as I cleared the building I started
looking for an aircar parked in a secluded place. It would just take
me a few seconds to pick the lock... and I would be on my way.
As I was searching for budget transportation, I passed a squad of
peacemen. They walked by me without giving a second glance.
I should hope so; I had enough plastiskin on my face to make an
entire face mask.
I started walking down sidestreets. Periodically I thought I saw
something out of the corner of my eye. When I turned, I would see
nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary, at least; just a number of B's
and C's, going about their business. The peacemen were far behind me
I found an aircar parked on a sidestreet, but there were still
people milling about. It might look suspicious if I started tinkering
with the wiring. But I didn't want to spend the rest of the day
hunting for available transportation. Think, Croft, think!
I thought. And then I saw what looked like a repair shop, across
the street. I grinned, making my way there.
As I walked in I had a sudden urge to look behind me. I did, and
saw the crowd on the street. None seemed to be paying the slightest
attention to me. Was I getting jumpy?
I emerged, a minute later, with a toolbox. It was an easy theft,
the manager of the store had been in the backroom when I entered. As I
stepped out, though, I thought I saw a pair of eyes, in the crowd,
fixated on me. But it was a very quick glance, as though someone may
have just been casually looking around. I think I was a little nervous
being surrounded by all these Happy Worlders. Just act normally,
Croft, and they'll never catch on, I told myself.
I set the toolbox down on the dashboard of the aircar, and took a
tool out, and popped the hood open. Of course, I didn't need the
toolbox, or the tools. All I needed was to look like I was a mechanic
working on the car. I fiddled under the hood for a requisite moment or
two, then looked up, intending to go to the steering console, where the
real task of electrifying the ignition sequencer lay.
But as I closed the hood I saw those pair of eyes again. They
were attached to a person. It was a C, who was leaning on the rear of
"Hi!" he said cheerfully.
I coughed, half turning my body away, while smoothly putting my
hand in my bulky suit. When I turned to face the C, I smiled, "Happy
Day," as I gripped the gun in my suit.
"Happy happy day," said the C, smiling. He seemed dazed, almost.
"Really really nice.... no?"
"Yes," I said, relaxing a bit. This was just a drugged out C.
Not a threat. I entered the car, and started to play with the wiring
under the steering mechanism.
Suddenly the C was by my side, leaning against the door of the
aircar. He seemed to be looking closely at me. At my face. "Beauty,
beauty of a sunny day," he smiled.
I smiled back, and then stopped. I caught his gaze. I also
caught his hands, one of which was concealed in his bulky suit. If I
wouldn't have been looking closely, I wouldn't have seen the arm tense
The hand inside the bulky suit had just done something. Pressed
something. An alarm.
"Pretty pretty," I smiled, waggling a finger at the C. He
obligingly leaned closer, and I whipped my arm against his neck. But
he ducked out of the way with incredible speed, ducking behind the door
to the aircar, and I saw him draw a laser from his bulky suit.
I slammed open the car door, smacking into the side of the
undercover agent. He fell to the pavement with an oof.
And then they lowered the boom. Peacemen, coming at me from all
sides. I desperately reached under the steering console, fidgeting
with the wiring.
Then were almost on me before I got the aircar going. The
thrusters needed a few seconds to get the hovercar airborne, and in
that time I fired my blaster in the air, forcing the peacemen to run
"We have ignition!" I shouted with a whoop, as I gunned the
engine down the street. But they were a step ahead of me. There was a
blockade, manned by army troops, already blocking the path forward. I
looked back. There was also a blockade behind me. I wasn't going
I had resolved, to myself, in the privacy of my own mind, that I
wasn't going to be recaptured. It was as simple as that.
I gunned the aircar forwards, towards the barricade, at full
The soldiers at the barricade saw I was coming, and they ran out
of the way. There was no reason for them to die too.
Except that I had no intention of dying. I accelerated to full
speed, but at the last second I turned aside, ramming into a building.
That sounds painful. Let me revise that. I rammed into a glass
window that was part of a ground floor establishment of a building.
The aircar kept going, of course, ramming through piles and piles of
goods, until it came to a stop when I applied the brakes. By then the
front of the aircar was half buried with containers that were leaking
The troopers were quick, I'll give that to them, and they were on
my trial in less than a minute. I quickly looked around. I was in a
factory manned by C's, who barely looked up, even when I made my
entrance. I looked down at my B license plate, made a quick
Troopers swarmed into the factory. I stood very still on the
assembly line, standing with a dazed look on my face, just like all the
Some of the troops started to rush by me, but then one stopped,
and said, "He's there!", pointing straight at me.
My blaster was out before he completed extending his foremost
digit, and then I was out and running. A soldier ran right into me,
and I kneed him in the belly, and then dodged out of the way as he
fell. But several more troops were blocking my way. I brought my
blaster up, but it was slammed out of my hands by one of the enemy.
A peaceman charged me, thrusting forward with his rod. I
sidestepped him, clipping him on the back and grabbing the rod by the
handle as he went down. Another squad approached, and I thrust out
with the rod, attacking like a wild man. I realized that if I didn't
break out in the next few seconds I never would.
Even though the rod activated by touch I was using it like a
club, slamming down on my opponents on all sides. They tried to get
clear to use their blasters, but I gave them no quarter, slashing into
the bunch of them, slamming them left and right. I smacked one under
the chin as he attempted to come up from behind me. I hit another in
front of me who was attempting to bring up his laser. I hit several to
the left, a bunch to the right.
And then, for the moment, my exit was clear. Other troops were
running towards me, but I had cleared a path out of the factory. I
dropped the rod and ran.
It was like a nightmare come true. Every time I would get some
distance from the pursuing troopers I would try to blend into a mob of
B's and C's on the street, but someone would always spot me. "He's
there!" someone would yell, and the chase would begin again.
I hid in another crowd. "He's there!" they yelled.
I hid in a group of shoppers in a store. "He's there!"
I kept running, but I felt myself gasping for breath. I couldn't
keep ahead of my pursuers for much longer. Just how were they able to
I ran by a mirrored exterior of a building. And then I stopped.
I had my answer.
My bulky suit was covered with black ooze. I must have gotten
some on me when I crashed into the factory. I could never escape, not
while I was dressed like this.
And there was no time to change clothes. Two soldiers rounded
the corner. I kicked one in the stomach, smacked another in the face,
and grabbed his blaster. But I was panting furiously. I couldn't
continue much longer like this.
Think, Croft, think!
An idea occurred to me. I circled back to the factory.
I ran into a few more troopers on the way, whom I dealt with, but
the factory itself was unguarded. The hunt had moved on from there.
But the soldiers had seen me running in that general direction.
I wouldn't have that much time.
I scooped up some black ooze, and went over to one of the C
workers there and started to spread it all over. He didn't seem to
object when I made art of his uniform; all he said dumbly was,
"Run!" I whispered fiercely to him. "Run!"
"Run!" he said, with dull orbs.
"Run!" I said, slapping him on the back, pushing him forward.
The inertia pushed him a bit, and he started walking rapidly, straight
out of the new exit I had earlier made with the aircar.
I quickly ducked behind a pile of machinery.
I heard shouts of, "He's there!" and then a laser fired. And
then all was silent. I heard some footsteps in the factory for a
moment, and then they receded.
I popped my head up, and, seeing the coast was clear, proceeded
to undress one of the C factory workers, who obligingly stood very
still. It wouldn't take them very long to discover my deception.
Moments later, I stumbled out of the factory. There were still
soldiers milling about, but they didn't pay me any attention. In the
back of my mind I wondered just what that black ooze was. And then I
nearly stepped on a fallen windowpane labeled "C serum facility #319".
I left that municipality in a hurry.
The Happy Worlders ate pumpkins. I didn't realize that. At
least, I think they ate pumpkins. They certainly had enough of them.
I sat there, in a middle of a pumpkin field, for over an hour. I had
driven steadily for several days, had given the proper signal, and had
arrived at the rendezvous point.
But no one was showing up. Well, I wouldn't blame Banner if she
didn't bite; she would have ample reason to believe that I'd been
converted again. When we'd last parted, though, we had wanted to have
some way to keep in contact with each other. So Banner had told me to
send such and such signal on such and such public terminal, and to go
to this precise spot. And wait.
It was understandable if they were being cautious; they would
probably want to use the resonator on me as well. I wasn't very
enthusiastic about the prospect, but I was willing to accept it.
I stood up, yawning, looking out at the pumpkin field. There was
nobody around. I was alone. This was a good opportunity to rest; I
always seemed to feel tired when I wasn't in action. I sat down on the
ground and yawned. There still wasn't a sign of anyone in this field.
I might be in for a long wait.
I was still thinking that, in mid yawn, when the beam struck me.
I don't even have a memory of falling to the ground.
"Are you satisfied?" were the first words I said when I woke up.
I presumed the resonator had been used to test me.
The response to my question was most gratifying; the sensation of
a familiar woman in my arms. "Clifford!" said a pleasing voice.
I returned the embrace, for several moments. "You look good," I
said. "Been eating well?"
"You joker, you!" Banner said, messing up my hair. She looked at
me skeptically. "So they didn't get you again, did they?"
"They did, but I've been programmed to say that," I grinned. I
looked up, saw boxes around us. "Another warehouse? They're going to
catch on to your M.O. sooner or later, you know.'
"No, Clifford, simply a factory workfloor that is offshift," said
We went to her hideout, the interior of an empty water storage
drum. It was still a little damp, as if it had, until recently, stored
a great deal of water, but now it was furnished, if sparsely, with a
few essentials. This was where Banner and her resistance workers
"This week, anyway," she said, with a grin. "We always keep
moving. Especially after we see you, Mr. Croft," she added, giving me
a light kiss on the forehead. "But what has happened?"
There was time, so I sat down and told her the whole story. I
told Banner how I had infiltrated Central Control, or rather attempted
too. Banner was very silent when I described how I had been caught by
Thalessa, who had conditioned me. How I had become her personal
underling, working with her on a variety of nasty projects.
"That little tramp," said Banner, getting a gleam of suspicion in
her eyes. "Clifford, did she-"
"Make me feel like a fool? Yes. But I turned the tables." I
described how I had snapped out of it, just before my previous meeting
with Banner. Then I told Banner of my return to Central Control, and
how I plotted and carried out my escape. Banner seemed particularly
relieved when I told her that I had destroyed the databank containing
the stolen technology. But she seemed particularly pleased when I
described how I had hypnotized the Mistress, putting her under mind
"Oh, Clifford, that is just perfect justice for her!" she said,
bursting out into a wide grin. The grin got wider, if possible, when I
described the last exchange between the two of us, when I revealed to
Thalessa how invaluable she had been in destroying her very own
database. And then I finished my story.
"You should have shot her," said Banner darkly.
"I did," I said.
"Terminated her," said Banner. "I know I would have."
"I was tempted to," I said. "I really was. The anger was there.
But somehow, after I had defeated her, I really lost my enthusiasm for
executing a bound captive."
"She was right," said Banner, smiling.
"What?" I said, wondering what Thalessa and Banner could
possibly agree on.
"You're weak, weak!" said Banner, suddenly wrestling me to the
ground. I struggled, fighting playfully with her.
"Oh yeah?" I said, rolling on top of her.
Banner suddenly tickled me, and I lost my hold on her, and she
rolled on top of me. "Yeah! Weak!" she said, and we both laughed.
"This is the spy Clifford Croft," said the Master, glowering at
the audience. I was lying on a table, face down. I watched myself on
the table, with great fascination. This should be interesting.
I was most definitely not dreaming; I pinched myself, to make
sure I was awake. Yep, there I was, on the conversion table.
"And this is a D conversion unit," said the Master, holding it up
to the camera. The camera obligingly closed in, and on the side was
written "Clifford Croft, D 8473678900".
"Watch closely," said the Master. He activated a button, and...
The lasers reached out and cut into the back of my neck.
Evidently there was no anesthetic, because I noticed that I screamed,
and blood dripped down the side of my neck. Then the unit was
installed in place, and suddenly the screams stopped. The table
released me and I saw that I sat up.
"Who do you serve?" The Master asked.
"The Master," I said, with a blank expression and a monotone
"Who do you thank for your conversion?"
"The Master." The same dull voice.
"And how do you feel?"
I turned to face the camera, and said slowly, "I feel fine."
The camera focused on the Master. "And when we really do capture
you, Mr. Croft, this is precisely what we will do to you. The award
for the capture of Mr. Croft is now 500,000 prestige points. Find this
The screen went blank.
"Wow," I said weakly, sitting by the terminal screen. "I didn't
realize there were two people in this galaxy with such incredibly good
looks. I wonder where they got that double of me?"
"Be serious, you!" said Banner, suddenly plopping down on my lap.
"They're really riled up. Do you really think you're going to get off
"Not only do I think it, but I know it for a certainty," I said.
"I've got more work to do."
"What work? You've erased the information in the Central Control
"Yes," I said. "But I still haven't stopped Operation Conquest.
From my research I've discovered that there are still agents roaming
around on several League planets, searching for the proper components.
I have to stop them."
"How will you even find them... oh," said Banner, seeing me wave
a computer printout.
"I have to go," I said slowly.
She looked into my eyes. I looked into hers.
"Leave with me," I said softly.
Banner put her arms around me. "Is that just to leave? Or to
leave with you?"
"With me," I said firmly. I don't think I was in love with
Banner, not yet, anyway, but there was a lot to like about her. She
was certainly attractive, but that was only part of it. She was
bright, and brave and courageous, and a born leader, a born doer.
Someone I could respect.
"I can't go," she said gently. "This is my planet. I have to
fight to save it. And the fight is here, not offplanet."
"But... you'll always be a fugitive. You'll always be in danger
of being caught."
"I do what I have to do," she said. "Just as you did, knowing
the odds, when you entered Central Control." She looked at me with
those sparkling blue eyes for some time. Then we came together for a
"Promise me you'll write," I said, grinning slightly.
The next day I decided to make my escape. I was getting off this
planet and there wasn't any doubt about it. Unfortunately, the most
optimistic thing I could say about the nearest spaceport was that it
was only slightly less well guarded than Central Control.
"How do you intend to get in, hm?" Banner pestered me, during my
final hours in her hideout.
"I thought you were going to arrange it," I grinned. "You're the
She pulled my arm, whirling me about. "That's a top security
area. We couldn't get in there without an army, or weeks of planning."
"Well... I'm going in, in just over two hours, with no planning,
and no army."
"How?" she persisted.
"I'm just going to walk right in," I said mysteriously. But
actually Banner had been close to the mark. I was going to have an
army, but the army didn't know it. Not yet, at least.
Banner took me by aircar to the entrance to the spaceport. "I
guess this is goodbye," I said.
We embraced, and kissed one final time.
"You take care of yourself, Clifford Croft," said Banner, and I
thought I saw the beginnings of tears in her eyes.
"You too," I said. "I'm sure that before I know it, this sick
society will be thrown down and you'll be in charge. Promise to invite
me to a state dinner?" I asked, with a small smile.
Banner said nothing, perhaps not trusting her voice.
I cleared my throat. It was getting time to go. "Ah... my
Banner took a deep breath. "Goodbye, Clifford."
We exchanged one final embrace, and then I emerged from the car.
I could easily read the emotions on her face. I tried to put on a
smile. But I was certainly going to miss her.
And then I was out of the aircar, turning away. An agent
shouldn't make attachments. I turned my mind away from Banner, and to
my present task. Breaking into this spaceport.
But my attention wasn't that easy to turn on the face of a dime.
I turned around, and grinned; Banner was still sitting in the parked
aircar, waiting to see how I would penetrate the spaceport's defenses.
I walked with a spring in my step up to the guards at the main
entrance. I didn't even attempt to wear a disguise; I didn't even
attempt to wear a license plate. I had no ID. It simply didn't
I walked up to the guards at the entrance. There were two
peacemen, both B's with rods. They were backed up by a squad of D's,
armed with laser rifles.
"Hi!" I said, walking up to them.
They did a doubletake, quickly recognizing me. "The alien!" one
of them said, lifting his rod.
"Stun them," I said in a mildly bored way, as I pointed at the
"What?" said one of the B's, looking about to see who I was
talking to. It was then that the B's noticed the D's raising their
laser rifles. They fired, and the B's crumpled to the ground.
"Very good," I said to the D's. I turned back to the aircar, and
saw Banner, grinning at me. I grinned back at her, and took my hand
out of my pocket, and held up the object I was carrying.
It looked like a pocket calculator, but it was actually a remote
control unit for directing the D's. Normally they were under direct
computer control, but that could be overridden locally by one of these.
My finger was continuously depressed on the "talk" button, and all I
had to do was issue commands, and the D's would obey me.
I blew a kiss to Banner, and waved goodbye a final time. Then I
entered the spaceport proper. There was an alarm going off, but I
still walked in a slow, leisurely manner. My D squad accompanied me,
forming a protective bracket around me. "Stun anyone who attempts to
block my passage," I instructed them.
We marched through the passenger terminal, occasionally stunning
B guards who came running up. Then, at the main check in lobby, I saw
a platoon of troops. Waiting for me.
They trotted forward, led by a B. "Attack," he said, and then I
saw that his troops were all D's.
"No!" I said, speaking into my "calculator".
My troops who were close to me were obeying. But the enemy
platoon was wavering. They would start to charge me when the B would
spur them on. But when they got too close to my transmitter, they would
stop, and falter. It was actually quite a hysterical sight, seeing
fifty people running forward, stopping, running forward, and stopping
again, like a bunch of puppets being operated by someone with a split
mind. I of course figured out how to break the impasse before my B
opponent did. Still holding the transmitter, I drew my blaster, and
shot the B. He slumped to the grounds, and issued commands no more.
"Welcome to the club," I said to the platoon, who now joined my
We didn't have any more trouble after that. We encountered a few
more B's, but they were quickly shot before they could do any harm.
And then we reached the gangplank to a spaceship, and only a C stood to
the side. "Your pass, please?" he said dully, kind of oblivious to
what was happening around him.
I grinned, ignoring him. When I reached the entrance to the
spacecraft, I turned to my loyal troops. "Troops, you've been the
finest brain-dead men I've ever commanded. Let's hear a cheer for your
selfless work!" A silence. "Come on, a cheer! Woop, woop!"
"Woop! Woop!" the troops said, monotone, on cue.
"That's better. I want you to know that as of this moment,
promotions are in effect for all of you. You, in front, you, with the
vacant look, you're now a light colonel. You, next to him, are now a
While I was having a good bit of fun, several B's rushed in.
They shot something into the air which landed square in the middle of
my troops. Gas. My troops started to cough, and began to fall to the
"Wuups, time to go," I said, quickly darting into the ship, and
sealing the hatch. That was my lesson for indulging in unnecessary
Two minutes later, I was airborne, into space.
I looked down at the planet as I climbed up out of the
atmosphere. There were no spaceships in pursuit. Not a single one.
Well, there were no spaceships in pursuit if you didn't count the
missiles. There were a lot of those, and they were closing fast.
I whistled a mournful tune as I watched the missiles close on me.
They would naturally overtake me before I broke orbit. My, there
seemed to be over 20 of them. The Master certainly wasn't very pleased
I sat in the control room, bored, really. It was only when my
targeting computer indicated that impact would occur in one minute that
I energized. I tapped the onboard terminal, which was hooked into the
general, public terminal system on the planet, and I typed "BOLOGNA".
Then I sat back, and watched the missiles approached on my
screen. They were getting closer and closer. I wondered what I would
have for dinner tonight. I hadn't checked this spaceship for food
The missiles were getting larger on my screen.
I hope they had some B food aboard; I don't think I could have
managed those D food chunks.
My trusty onboard computer said there was ten seconds to
impact... the missiles loomed large in my control room view....
And then they cut drive. All of them. Simultaneously. They
just started falling back to the planet.
"I hope they have a self destruct on those birds," I said,
watching them fall back to the planet. They did, and they activated in
seconds, all exploding. Unfortunately, by the time that happened,
there was no more time to send up any new missiles, for I was already
breaking out of orbit.
Sometimes I'm very clever, and, when I am, I don't mind
explaining why, even when I have to go into laborious detail. When my
friend Thalessa had been kind enough to give me access to her terminal,
I had already been thinking about my escape route. I could have
sabotaged the missile defense system right then and there, but it would
have been quickly detectable, and easy to fix. Instead I planted a
bug, a virtually undetectable glitch, that wouldn't even be noticed,
until something specific happened. I created a little subprogram that
continually scanned the general terminal network. When the word
"BOLOGNA" was received, only then would the program spring to life,
penetrating the missile defense system, incapacitating it temporarily.
I was still smiling, reflecting on my ingenuity, when the face of
the Master came on my screen. He looked mighty angry; there was a vein
bulging out of his forehead, and a snarl planted on his lips. "You
won't get away, Croft!" he yelled.
"Why Master, you called to say goodbye," I said. "I'm touched,
"Not goodbye," he said, grinning evilly. His hands moved to
press a button, and his face looked expectantly.
"Looking for this?" I said, bringing a frayed wire into his
vision. "I'm afraid I had to disable the autopilot system. I don't
think I'll be making another visit to your enchanted little world
His face exploded with rage. "But come now, this is the last
opportunity we'll have to chat. Tell me, how's Thalessa doing? I hope
you weren't too harsh with her. She was really quite helpful to me,
but she simply couldn't fight my irresistible charm," I grinned.
The Master glared at me, raising his hands in a choking motion
while making incoherent growling sounds from his mouth.
"I think you need some anger management work," I smiled, breaking
I was going home.
"Docking with Greenfields station confirmed," said the sweet
voice of the comm operator.
"Thank you," I said, as I heard the clank of the final
connection. I had been in flight nearly a week, but I had finally made
it back to League space, and had made my way to the nearest League
station. I had much to report to A.A., but I wanted to do it over
secure channels. I had made a preliminary broadcast to the Column, and
been told that agents would meet me. The Happy Worlders hadn't made
much of a chase; there had been a close call with a single Happy
Worlder patrol ship, but I had managed to evade it. They weren't very
good with their spacers.
I gave a sigh of relief as the ship docked; I was home. I
pressed the button that opened the airlock.
And saw five blasters pointed at me. I blinked. "Don't tell me.
I'm parked illegally," I said.
They weren't great conversationalists, but they were very
efficient at hustling me away, after they disarmed me. They took me to
the security section of the space station.
I didn't get a really bad feeling until they led me into a lab.
When I saw the all too familiar table, complete with restraining
straps, I balked. "Oh no you don't," I said, trying to escape. But
the brutes held me firm and strapped me in. I found myself facing a
bunch of gadgetry, and then a light shined in my eyes....
...and the light went off. I blinked, somehow feeling that some
time had passed.
"He's clear, boss," said one of the brutes, as they undid my
"Of course I'm clear. Whatever else would I be?" I snapped,
getting off the table.
"Converted, for one," said A.A., his trademark jowls flapping
"You!" I said, surprised he had come all the way out here just to
greet little old me. "Of course I'm not converted."
"Of course," said A.A. "But you were gone for several months,
without reporting in. We naturally assumed the worse." And then he
started into my eyes, as if he were still the tensiest bit suspicious.
I met his hard gaze with one of my own. For a moment we matched
glares, and then he eased off. "My boy, it's good to have you back,"
he chuckled. "Now... report!"
I reported. Everything about my journey, from start to finish.
Well, almost everything. There were some details that I didn't want
the Chief to worry about. There were also some unfinished pieces of
business I wanted to handle, personally. My way.
When I had finished, A.A. was suitably impressed. "You've done a
fine piece of work," he said. For him, that was high praise.
"I almost didn't," I shuddered. "I almost ended up working for
them." I thought back to my plan to infiltrate the Column for
"But you overcame it, my boy," said A.A., slapping me on the
"Yes," I said slowly. "By the way, I was aware I was given a
drug inoculation. But was I also slipped a hypnotic innoculant when I
went under for the mission briefing?"
The chief nodded vigorously, his pudgy face making rapid up and
down motions. "It was a new experimental treatment we were working on.
After the demise of our first two operatives, we realized that very
often hypnosis was a major component in the conditioning process. So
we started working on a hypnotic technique of our own to defeat the
"Well, it almost didn't work," I grumbled. "I was under their
control for some time before it kicked in."
A.A. nodded sagely. "Just as we expected. Had we conditioned
your mind to resist all subsequent hypnotic commands, you would have
resisted conversion, but would still eventually have been processed
This way the Happy Worlders found no evidence of resistance in your
mind. They simply converted you as they would anyone else, leaving
your prior memories intact."
"And that was important," I said, starting to catch on.
"Yes. Because one of those memories wasn't really a memory at
all. You know, of course, how we plant electronic viruses in computer
"Sure! We plant a virus, which looks harmless, and then at the
appropriate time--wammo! It brings the system down," I stopped,
realizing what I had been saying. "So, this psychological bug was
planted in my mind, only... it didn't take effect-"
"Until you had been converted. Precisely. We're all pleased to
see that it worked."
"I'm glad," I said. "I love being a pet guinea pig for whatever
nifty new theory the lab boys come up with."
The Chief gave a hurt look. "Clifford, their theory saved you."
"You didn't even tell me you were doing this to me." But I knew
it was a silly statement even as I uttered it.
"That's a silly statement," A.A. commented sagely. "Of course we
couldn't tell you. If we had told you, you would have told THEM during
your interrogation and subsequent conversion."
"Oh," I said, mulling it over. He had a point, I had to admit.
"But one more thing. Why a little fluffy dog?"
"The dog? It's a trivial enough memory, not something that would
alarm your programmer, if she came across it. But that memory unlocked
a whole set of mental instructions which were not trivial--those
intended to snap you out of your conditioning. And I'm most pleased to
tell you that you've broken free of their conditioning most
"Thanks," I said. "What kind of dog was that, anyway?"
"A Pomeranian," said A.A. "It was Levi's idea."
Levi Esherkol was one of the senior R&D people at the Column. I
should have known.
I sighed. "Shouldn't we be getting down to business?"
"Business?" said A.A., looking puzzled.
I pointed to the datasheet on a workbench, one that had been
taken from me during my "examination". "Operation Conquest. Or had
you forgotten about that?"
"No, of course I haven't. And be assured, Clifford, that our
agents will get right on it." The jowls flapped reassuringly.
"I'd like to help."
"Are you sure, Clifford? Wouldn't you like a rest?"
"I'll rest later." Actually, I would rest a whole lot better
once Operation Conquest had been shut down. Though I had erased the
databanks on the Happy World Central Control computer, Thalessa's
agents were still abroad, gathering information about the long range
mind control device. "Their project is almost complete. If they get
their hands on these final components-"
"What do you mean?" said A.A., looking alarmed. "You said you
erased the stolen technology from their memory banks."
"Sure, yeah, I erased it. But only the Central Control on that
Happy World." I grabbed the hardcopy, waving it in front of A.A.'s
face. "See these words? TRANS HOME CORE. That refers to information
that's been sent to the home world, the archives located on the Happy
Planet of Happy Planets." Understanding started to dawn on A.A.'s
face, so I pressed on. "I found out that every few months the
accumulated information is shipped to the master archives. I was only
able to erase the accumulation from the past few months."
"What?" said A.A., grabbing the paper from me. He quickly
"That's right, boss, I only got a tactical victory," I said.
"However, we can keep them slowed down if we can stop them from getting
the parts they need for Operation Conquest."
"What more do they need?" said the Chief, rapidly scanning
through the pages.
"Not certain," I said. "Remember, this is only a partial current
listing. But the way I figure it, all they need is an advanced kind of
particle wavelength transmitter."
"What?" said A.A., stunned. "They're that close?"
"Maybe--and I mean maybe. It's only a theory that the device
will work. Even if they have all the other parts, it may not work.
But if it does-"
"They could conquer the League, planet by planet," said the
Chief, immediately understanding the implication. "This device--what
is it's range? Could it take over minds from orbit?"
"Don't know; theoretically, I suppose it's possible," I said.
"But now you see why we've got to stop it."
We analyzed the list, and found five different sources of the
certain kind of particle wavelength transmitters that had been
targeted. Unfortunately I had not obtained the identities of the
agents who had been dispatched to steal this technology. A.A. remarked
"Sorry, would you like me to go back and get them?" I said,
A.A. ignored me, immediately working his comm line. In less than
an hour we had reassurances that no particle transmitters had been lost
or stolen from the five sources. A.A. ordered the guard around those
installations doubled and trebled. Column men were dispatched to
stakeout each location. When he was done I said, "Now, set a course
for the main base. And make sure the main base is on blackout--no
transmissions out of it. Not a one!"
A.A. didn't question me, but he complied.
We arrived there, a scant two days later. There hadn't been any
word on attempts to steal transmitters yet, so perhaps we had acted in
I marched into the records section. Sildo Wretan, a spectacled
mild mannered clerk, looked up as A.A. and I entered.
"Mr. Croft," he said, smiling. "Didn't know you were back." He
reached out to shake my hand.
I walked forward briskly and smacked him in the face, sending him
careening to the ground. Wrekan moaned, shook his head, and
immediately pawed for something in his left boot. I reached over and
stomped on his hand. He screamed, pulling his hand back. I reached in
his boot and took out the concealed minilaser.
"Yes, I'm back, Wrekan," I said, with a small smile. "Didn't
Thalessa inform you?"
"What is this?" A.A. cried.
"I neglected to inform you, Chief, that this is the rat fink that
has been spying for the Happy Worlders. One of the more interesting
tidbits that I found out from the Central Control computer."
"You didn't tell me this," said A.A. darkly, as the guards
arrived to take Wrekan away.
"Slipped my mind," I smiled innocently. This was one of the
things I had intended to handle personally.
"Right, I'll bet," A.A. muttered. He turned to see Wrekan taken
in the custody of the security force. "What do you have to say for
Wrekan glared at me, then looked at the Chief. "He's crazy,
Chief. I don't know what this is all about."
"Ho hum," I yawned, taking out my blaster. I adjusted the
setting, setting the indicator to 'kill' as I turned the blaster
outwards obligingly to let Wrekan see what I was doing. Then I put the
weapon to his head, and announced a series of numbers.
"Five... four... three... two..."
"No!" Wrekan cried.
"Yes?" I said.
"Ok, ok, I worked for them," he babbled.
"I don't think you'll be having any more trouble," I said.
"Indeed," said A.A. "Take him away. The full treatment." He
turned to me. "That was quite some bluff."
"Who said I was bluffing?" I replied. I hadn't been; Wrekan had
undoubtedly tipped the Happy Worlders off that I was coming. He had
provided them with the logistics of the mission, including my psych
profile, which had made it easier for the Happy Worlders to capture and
convert me. I felt little good will towards the traitorous creature.
After that the Chief wanted me to take a few days off to rest,
but I would have none of it. Instead I joined one of the stakeout
I was on Ulgan II, a small world in the same sector, inside a
spaceship refitting facility. This was the place where damaged ships
got new parts. Including particle wavelength transmitters. They
weren't fitted into every kind of ship, you understand; only the
special ECM/ECCM warboats. This was one of the five facilities on the
list the Happy Worlders had kept. The Column had been working overtime
to locate and secure all sources of information concerning these
particle wavelength transmitters, but until the new security systems
were in place, we were the only line of defense. Myself, and a handful
of Column men.
Well, there were forty of us. Maybe that's a little more than a
handful. But we were spread out all over the facility, in rotating
shifts, waiting for the Happy Worlder agents to strike. The new
security safeguards wouldn't be scheduled to be installed here for two
weeks; that was how long we had to be on guard. Some troopers had been
put at our disposal, but they weren't trained agents, and didn't know
what to be on the lookout for.
Nothing happened for two days. Two simply uneventful days. It
gave me time to reflect on the scheme of things. The Happy Worlders
could be on the verge of creating their long range mind control device.
Our techs had analyzed their theory, and concluded that it might, just
might work. The mind, as is commonly known, takes in and analyzes a
variety of information--visual, audio, etc. But we have only recently
discovered that the mind is sensitive to certain ultrahighband particle
transmissions. Timed and coded properly, these transmissions can
transmit information directly into the brain.
For me, the idea of something conceptually only slightly more
advanced than a radio actually being used to hypnotizing people was
laughable. But I stopped laughing when I thought of the consequences.
A Happy Worlder ship comes into orbit, starts broadcasting... and
everyone on the planet have their minds taken over. There would be no
I shuddered. I remember the vacant eyes of the D's. That
wouldn't happen, not here, not in the League. Not if I could help it.
I wondered how Banner was getting along. I hoped she hadn't been
caught; but I would never know. There was simply no way to keep
contact with her. I sighed, thinking of our last meeting.
Then someone was shaking me. "Hey, wake up, snap out of it," a
fellow agent hissed.
I looked alert. I scanned the corner of the large hanger we had
been posted in. Several particle wavelength transmitters were stored
here. The fellow agent, a grizzled veteran named Preston, pointed as
two men entered the hanger.
Then we relaxed. They were both techs, in standard overalls,
with the new security ID's clipped to their fronts. That gave me a
twitch; it vaguely reminded me of the Happy Worlder license plates.
"False alarm," said Preston, talking into his comlink. He looked
at me. "When are these guys ever going to show up?
I said I didn't know.
"Maybe they can't get past security at the perimeter," he said.
"Um," I replied, not really paying attention. I was watching the
techs. They hadn't noticed me and Preston, not yet, anyway. They were
looking through the equipment racks for something.
"If you ask me, this is a waste of time," said Preston. "This is
work for the army. I'm an infiltrator. What am I doing here?"
"Um hm," I said, not really listening. I was watching the techs.
They were now taking a piece of equipment out of the racks. A particle
wavelength transmitter. It was a medium sized square box, with knobs
and dials on the side. Lifting it away, the techs calmly walked out of
"Admin," I said into my comlink. Why did I have a bad feeling
"Admin," came a voice.
"Croft here. Are there any ships needing a replacement PWT right
"Checking," came the voice.
"Make it quick," I said, eyeing the techs as they passed out of
view. I immediately got up and started walking after them. "Hey, what
gives?" said Preston. I didn't answer.
I hadn't gotten out of the hanger before my comlink crackled.
"Negatory, Agent Croft. Do you have anything to-"
At that moment Preston triggered the alarm.
"Idiot!" I yelled at him, as I ran out of the hanger. Now they
would be alerted.
We heard a loud hoot-hooting, and people were running about
everywhere. My two techs, however, were nowhere to be seen. An entire
platoon of elite spacerangers marched up at a trot. They had been put
at our disposal, as well as several other regular army platoons on the
I grabbed the bullhorn from the company commander and yelled,
"Stop!" at the top of my lungs.
It worked. Everyone in view stopped moving. You may guess what
I was thinking. The techs couldn't have gotten far; they were out of
my view for a few seconds, at most. They were still here.
"ID search," I said, snapping my fingers. I was well aware that
the techs might now be impersonating soldiers; that was what I had done
on Negan 14!
There was a bit of a bustle as everyone checked everyone else's
ID's. But I didn't pay much attention to that; I was making certain
our perimeter was secure. It was. Not only that, but agents circled
the immediate area around the hanger, making sure no one moved.
After a few moments the company commander approached me and
saluted. "All present and accounted for, sir."
"Impossible," said one of our agents. "Then where are they?"
"A good question," I said, scanning the surrounding area.
They were smart. They had to be, in order to qualify for this
sort of work. These must be cream of the crop A units, schooled in the
ways of the League. It didn't seem like the work of local stooges.
"Search the hanger," I said, snapping my fingers.
Just then an aide brought up a vidlink, and a familiar face
flashed in front of me. "Croft? What's happening?" it growled.
"Everything's under control, A.A.," I said. I hoped he wasn't
beginning to regret putting me in charge of this defense team. If the
techs got away with the transmitter, A.A. wouldn't be very happy about
it. Not happy at all.
Preston jogged up. "Already searched the hanger, nothing in
"Croft!" The Chief barked.
"Gotta call you back later, Chief, I'm a little busy," I said,
I looked about. They must have gotten away. If not out of the
shipyard, then out of this immediate area.
Or maybe that's what they wanted us to think. I went into a
huddle with the company commander, and my senior Column people. "Ok
men," I said slowly. "This is our plan...."
After a few minutes I barked, "Ok, we are going to search this
entire shipyard, piece by piece. Commander, deploy your men in a
search detail." The officer turned, and gave his orders. His men
dispersed, as did our Column people.
We started searching the shipyard. But it was a large place, and
a thorough search would take several hours, even with our manpower. I
delegated command of the search to Preston. Despite his blunder, he
was actually quite a capable agent. While he directed the search, I
assumed another post.
There was still no progress on the search when dusk fell. Could
they have escaped? We had watched the roads going out. There was no
traffic. Could they have escaped in the countryside on foot? Anything
The first task, however, was to eliminate the impossible. All
available troopers were tearing apart the base, piece by piece. By now
the search had moved away from the hanger where the particle wavelength
transmitter had been stolen. There were no searchers to notice
something very interesting happening right in plain view, right in
front of the hanger. A groundcar was parked there, had been parked
there, for sometime. But suddenly the trunk popped up, of its own
accord. No one was around to see it.
Nobody but me, I hasten to add. I had posted myself on the roof
of the hanger, and had similarly assigned one agent to each side of the
building rooftop. Their sole responsibility was to look down.
"They're here," I said, softly into my comlink. "Don't blow it
Two army soldiers emerged from the trunk of the car. One of them
carried a little box. I think they were a bit surprised when
spotlights suddenly flooded them, and they were surrounded.
"And what's your serial number?" I said, when I had climbed down
from the building. That got me no answer at all, so I tried, "The
Mistress will be very upset with you."
That got a response, a surprised look of sorts, and then the
guards hustled them away.
I smiled with satisfaction. "Get me A.A.," I said to an aide.
I quickly shuttled to the second site, which, by coincidence, was
another planet in this system. This time we were protecting a
warehouse that stored, among other things, particle wavelength
transmitters. The rascals had already made an attempt to enter the
building, five days ago, by shooting their way in, but had been
repulsed by our superior firepower. I'm told that this group had at
least a dozen infiltrators from the Happy Worlds, but we had upped the
ante; our side had called in two companies of battletroopers on the
grounds of the warehouse, including a number of battle tanks. I must
say that it helped immeasurably that our defense was being directed by
someone who had been so recently on the offensive. Namely me. We
wouldn't get caught with our pants down if they came at us with a
We had briefly considered moving the transmitters out of the
warehouse, but had nixed the idea almost immediately; the transmitters
would be more vulnerable in a convoy. Until these foreign agents were
rounded up, the transmitters weren't going anywhere.
We spent several days on guard duty, and, to confess, I actually
became a little bored. Like Preston, and many other Column people, I
preferred infiltration work.
One day I was playing cards with some of the fellows. The troops
were all stationed outside, in a ring, around the warehouse. Our
Column people, perhaps twenty five in all, were on the inside.
"How do you think they're going to come in?" said one agent,
dealing the cards.
"Maybe they'll nab a couple of tanks, like Croft here, and come
busting in," said a second agent. They had heard about some of my
exploits on Negan 14.
"Maybe they'll give up," said a third agent. He wasn't very
smart; either that, or he didn't know the Happy Worlders. Not like I
"They won't give up," I said quietly.
"How'd you know?" said the third agent.
"Because I know," I said. "I've been one of them."
I was right. They came that night, under the cover of darkness.
I was on watch then, but I didn't notice anything. Nor did the
multitude of troops that guarded every approach.
Well, not every approach.
The first intimation of trouble that reached me was a sound.
"What's that?" I said.
"What's what?" said an agent on duty.
I heard, faintly, in the background, a hissing noise.
"Sounds like the heating system," grunted the agent.
"Alert the watch. Wake everyone up," I said, gesturing to the
agents in the sleeping bags on the ground floor, which was several
levels below me. I stood on a high catwalk, looking down.
"What? On account of-"
"This warehouse doesn't have a heating system!" I hissed.
In a moment we got everyone alerted, and we contacted the troops
outside via comlink. But they weren't hearing the noise on the
outside, and we on the inside couldn't tell where it was coming from.
I tried to think; just what would I do to break into this
"Could it be gas?" I frowned, sniffing the air.
"Don't know," said an agent.
"Search the building," I snapped.
"Search it? For what?" said the agent.
I gave him a dirty look, and that was sufficient. We roused the
others, and we took a tour of the warehouse. It was big; unless we
called the troops in, it would take some job to search it all
The hissing noise was definitely coming from somewhere in
particular, because in some parts of the warehouse it could barely be
heard, while in other parts it was quite audible. But it was not quite
clear precisely what part of the warehouse it was coming from, and that
My agents searched the area, while returned to the upper catwalks
to have a better view. The agents were scurrying about, searching, but
they didn't seem very enthusiastic, as they didn't know what they were
looking for. The troopers on the outside had been alerted, but beyond
that there was little else that could be done.
I looked down from the catwalk, leaning over a railing. What was
I looking for? What made hissing sounds? Gas? We would have detected
it by now. Could it be a piece of machinery inside the building?
As I pondered this and other weighty matters, I saw something out
of the corner of my eye. I immediately turned my head, and saw little
specks of light, like sparks,
almost, falling by the railing next to me.
I looked up, but the trail of sparks disappeared. And so did the
hissing sound; that stopped too.
Then I looked up, up at the ceiling. It was dark up there, and I
couldn't make out anything. Not at first.
But then, after a moment of tense staring, I noticed a small
section of the roof being lifted away. That's right, away. It just
disappeared. It was replaced by a face.
I immediately ducked behind a row of inventory.
"The roof!" I hissed into my comlink. "The roof! And any man
who sounds the alarm will be beaten senseless, personally, by me!"
I watched as the invaders threw down a narrow rope and streamed
down into the warehouse. From their perspective, our agents were busy
searching the warehouse. But if they stopped to think about it, they
would have noticed that none of our men were in sight anymore.
When the last man streamed down the rope I counted seventeen.
All armed with laser rifles. Not very nice.
They made their way stealthily down the catwalk. They obviously
knew where they were going, for they headed to the precise rack and
shelf where the transmitters were stored.
Only they weren't there; we had moved them.
But I had arranged a suitable reception; a number of my agents
were scattered around, in a carefully prepared ambush. My men blasted
into the first ranks of the invaders, cutting them down. Others tried
to retreat, but then our agents closed the escape route, and stunned
Only three invaders escaped, climbing rapidly up the catwalk,
towards the ladder. Our agents picked off one, then two of them. The
third reached the catwalk, and started climbing up, when all of a
sudden he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned, and I said, "Happy day!", smiling as I stunned him.
He fell on the catwalk in a slump.
Then I looked up at the hole in the ceiling, saw a flash of
light, and heard a soft woosh.
I immediately climbed up the rope. When I reached the top I was
unsurprised to find a row of neatly parked gravitators. They must have
had special silencing avionics for this mission. At that moment one
gravitator had just taken off, and was heading out, away from the
I quickly strapped myself into one. There was no need for this
sort of pursuit, not really, as we had managed to capture most of them;
but I'm a perfectionist with my work, and don't like to settle for less
Unfortunately, as I took off the army troops finally took notice
of what was happening above them and opened fire. Laser beams sliced
into the air above me. It took a few tense seconds before my hoarse
shouts of ceasefire over the comlink took effect.
Then I took flight. The last invader was gunning his gravitator
at top speed, but he was heading straight away, without making any
attempt at evasive maneuvers. He hadn't noticed me.
Then he turned his head and did notice me, and he started zig
zagging across the skies. But I matched him, zig for zag. We went
through this, for quite some time. At one point he tried to go up all
the way up into the clouds and to lose me there, but his gravitator
wasn't equipped to go that high, and he had to slow down, allowing me
to catch up with him.
Then he dropped like rock, and I was forced to match him. Faster
and faster, with the ground suddenly zooming straight up towards us. I
was starting to wonder if he knew something I didn't when he eased up
and reversed throttle. I did the same and we came to a hovering halt,
just fifty feet above the ground.
We glared at each other, for a moment, and then there was a flash
of light from his gravitator and he shot me.
Or rather, he shot at me. I was alert for this and had nudged my
gravitator quickly to the right when I saw his blaster being drawn. I
drew my own and shot at him.
What followed was perhaps the most dangerous chase I had ever
been involved in. The invader kept low to the ground, speeding just
above obstacles like treetops and hills, all the while firing at
myself, who was in hot pursuit.
I aimed blaster bolt after blaster bolt at his fleeing form, but
the gravitator was shaking with exertion now, and it was difficult to
get off a clean shot.
The chase continued. The invader kept maneuvering close to the
trees, always swerving up at the last minute, just hoping I would
crash. But I stuck with him, keeping up the pursuit. "I'll catch him,
if my name isn't Croft," I muttered, as the wind tore at me.
The invader was a tricky rascal. Every time I aimed my laser at
him he kept swerving, sometimes left, sometimes right. "He's too far,"
I muttered. But I kept up the chase.
Suddenly a flock of honking birds obscured my vision. "Get away,
get away!" I said, pushing at them with my arms. And then one of them
pecked me on the leg, and they all swarmed around me, screaming "Honk
"Ow!" I said. "Ok, want to play rough, do you? Honk this!" And
I fired my blaster into the thicket. Several of them were hit, and
they fell like rocks. Fortunately my blaster was set on stun.
Unfortunately the ground below was very hard. Well, the irritating
birds had asked for it.
When my vision cleared I looked for the invader. Good. I had
lost a little ground, but he was still in sight.
At one point the invader suddenly climbed, though I didn't see
why. Until I got close. There was a hill ahead.
In the dark, I didn't see the outlines of it, not until it was
almost too late. Almost. I took the gravitator into a steep climb and
it started to shake violently. I thought it was going to come apart
before my forward motion was checked. But stop I did, at one point
only inches apart from a solid boulder formation. As I climbed and
gained altitude, some of my clothes tore against outstretched branches,
and I put some distance between myself and the vertical hillside. But
still up and up I went. I barely caught a glimpse of the invader's
gravitator, clearing the top of the hill, and then going over, down the
Time seemed to slow down as my gravitator climbed. I felt the
chill of cold air, but I wasn't paying it any attention. I wasn't even
in the gravitator anymore, or, at least, I wasn't paying attention to
it. Even my throbbing arm, nicked by the branches, were ignored. I
was thinking about the invader. This was one smart cookie. What would
I do in his shoes?
And then I was back in the gravitator, climbing again, and the
cold wind whipped at my clothes. I unbuckled myself from the
gravitator, and held on for dear life. What I was about to do was very
dangerous, and I would have to time things precisely, or else I would
Just as my gravitator cleared the top of the hill I jumped,
landing with an oomph on the hilltop. But I landed with an easy roll
that took me into an easy crouching position, my weapon ready.
My gravitator cleared the hill, shooting up over the other side.
Immediately laser beams came stabbing out of the hillside, smashing
into my gravitator. There was a tremendous explosion, and the thing
burst into pieces, some of which fell not far from me.
I scanned the hillside. In the dark I couldn't see a thing. For
a moment there was silence. Then, slowly, I saw a gravitator taking
off. Aiming carefully, I fired a bolt of energy.
It hit the upper end of the column, and the gravitator started to
rapidly twirl about on its vertical axis in an alarmingly dizzying
fashion. Faster and faster it spun, until it collided into the
hillside, sending a shower of sparks in all directions.
There was a silence for a moment. All I could hear was quiet
nightlife. Then I saw a figure stirring in the darkness. I approached
There was a man lying on the ground, on his back. He seemed
barely conscious, but he groaned when he saw me. He must have been
thrown from the gravitator.
"Happy to meet you," I smiled. "You must be an A. I'm pleased
to meet you. The name's Croft. I'm an A+."
I got the word from the rescue plane that one of the assault
teams had been intercepted, out on Karis. Good. I had intercepted two
infiltrator forces, and that was number three. That meant that there
were only two left.
I took a fast rocket to Ruulhilgen, a single planet system about
fourteen lightyears away. When I arrived I joined up with the agents
on duty. I even got a vidcom from A.A.
"We've made great progress in securing all the transmitter
sources," he said. "But there are still so many more of them to cover.
It's a good thing we know the precise points where they're going to
"You're welcome," I said. "Any word from site #5?"
"None," said the Chief.
"I'll check in when I wrap this up," I said, sounding confident.
And I was. But if even one transmitter unit was stolen, that could be
the end of the League. As well as all independent thought throughout
the galaxy. If the Happy Worlders took over, we had all had it.
I was stationed in a sensitive electronics factory that produced,
you guessed it, particle wavelength transmitters. The army was
bustling about, busy installing additional security. I deployed some
of the troops personally, making sure there were a goodly number
stationed on the roof. And then there was little more to do but to
Waiting was boring. I realized that on my first day on duty. It
came home to me on the second day, and it was something that flickered
in my mind, from time to time, on the third day.
I found that Preston had been assigned here. We discussed
possible battle tactics that the enemy might pursue.
"Take my word for it, Croft," he said. "They're going to come,
and they're going to come in a different way. That's been their
pattern. But it doesn't really matter."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because they're going to win in the end. This technology is
used in so many different devices. It would be impossible to guard all
the sources forever."
"So what should we do, just give up?" I said. "You haven't seen
their worlds. I have. Take my word for it, Preston, you wouldn't like
being ruled by them. Or I take that back; you probably would. We all
would, after our minds had been adjusted."
The veteran agent shook his head. "That's not what I'm saying.
Of course we don't give up. But in the long run, they're going to get
what they're looking for."
"Maybe," I said. "But maybe it won't work. And if it does work,
perhaps we can develop defenses to it. The League isn't licked yet."
"Maybe we should put you in charge of the League," said Preston,
with a grizzled grin.
I shrugged. "Sure. But I'm up for some vacation time first; I
badly need a rest."
"So why not take one?" said Preston.
I didn't answer him. This was too important to leave to others.
I also tried to pass some time by talking to the factory staff.
A staff of one, I might add. The entire factory was automated, and the
lone human was little more than a roving technician/watchman.
I was curious about his work, and I struck up a conversation with
him. "It looks pretty complicated," I commented, staring at all the
blinking lights on his control board.
"Not really," said the tech. His name was Bumptrin. At that
moments the assembly line groaned and came to a halt. There was a
malfunction. Now I would get to see him in action!
Bumptrin grunted, and leaned forward in his chair. He pressed a
large button marked STOP. Then he pressed another large button marked
RESTART. The assembly line groaned, and then started up again.
"What was the problem?" I said.
"I don't know," he said dully. Then a thought actually occurred
to him. "Hey, I noticed those army fellows been around here for several
days. What are they, on maneuvers?"
Obviously Bumptrin had not been extensively briefed by his
"Security," I said briskly, trying to sound self important.
"Ain't anything here that anyone would want to take," Bumptrin
grunted. "Unless someone wanted to start a pirate ham radio operation,
"Um hm," I said, reclining in my own chair. I eyed the
environment of the factory around me. What avenue would the attack
come from this time?
I looked up. Bumptrin was talking to me. "Pardon?"
"You're a spy, right? Like all these other guys, sniffing around
in the factory. You're not like the soldiers."
"I'm with the Column, yes," I said.
"What's it like, being a spy?" Bumptrin asked.
"The pay isn't bad," I said. "And it can be interesting. The
only problem is getting caught. You can be killed in some pretty messy
"That's a fact."
"Doesn't sound like such a great job to me," Bumptrin grunted.
"But the best ones don't get captured," I said. Then I frowned,
remembering. "Well, not often, anyway."
Just then my comlink beeped. "Yes?" I said, activating it.
"Got a convoy, at the gate."
"Official. Say they're here to pick up a transmitter."
I frowned again. "I haven't been briefed about this."
"The head of the convoy, a fellow named Erlan, says he has
something to show you."
"I'll bet," I said. "Keep his team under guard. Bring him in,
with double escort."
Shortly thereafter a heavyset, grinning man entered the building,
under the escort of four Column people. He smiled to me, and leveled
an outstretched hand.
I ignored it. There was something about his smile I didn't like.
It was too... Happy Worlder-ish. But I tried to ignore that. Ever
since I had returned from Negan 14 all smiles appeared suspect to me.
"What do you want?" I said bluntly, one hand on my blaster.
"I'm here to pick up a transmitter unit," said the man named
"No," I said bluntly.
"No?" Erlan seemed surprised. "No what?"
"Just no," I said. "You're not getting it."
"I'm from the comm division. Here, you want to see my papers-"
"No," I said bluntly. "You're not getting it." I turned to one
of the agent escorts. "Hold him and his people for interrogation."
"Wait!" Erlan said. "I have full clearance."
"Buddy, I don't care if your orders come from the prime minister
himself," I said. "There's only one man who I-"
At that moment Erlan slowly removed an object from his jacket.
My own gun was immediately leveled at him, but it was only a comvid.
He activated it.
A.A.'s face appeared on the screen. "Croft! What's the
"No problem, Chief," I said calmly.
"Didn't you get my message? Give these people a transmitter
unit. It's been cleared at the highest level," said A.A., looking
"Whatever you say, Chief," I said, shrugging, as his figure
faded. I turned to Erlan. "You must know the troubles we've been
having. Is your convoy quite secure?"
Erlan nodded. "We've been briefed and prepared. And now...." He
looked at my blaster, which was still leveled at him.
"Oh? Oh, yes," I said, lowering it. "Let'm have it, boys."
I confess to feeling mildly uneasy as I saw them carry the
transmitter into the truck. I had been sent here to guard these
idiotic things and here I was, watching one being taken away under my
very nose. I glanced outside at the convoy. In addition to the truck
there were three jeeps, sturdy armored types, all packed with heavily
armed troops. There shouldn't be any problem.
The transmitter was loaded aboard. It wasn't that large, at
least, not in comparison to the truck that had been brought to relay it
to wherever it was going. But the truck was armored, and that was
Erlan waved goodbye genially as he boarded the truck. It took
its position near the front of the convoy as the procession started to
leave the perimeter.
Bumptrin yawned. "Your job seems pretty routine to me," he
The itch I had been feeling only grew in intensity. I recalled
the comm message from A.A. He said he had sent an earlier message
detailing this shipment. I wondered if there was anything else I had
missed. I signaled for a junior agent to bring over a comvid, and
activated it. Meanwhile the first jeep in the convoy cleared the gate.
"Yes? What is it?" said A.A., looking annoyed.
"Chief, about that convoy-"
"Convoy? What convoy?" said A.A. Then, "Croft? Croft?" But he
was speaking to empty air.
"Stop that convoy!" I said, at the top of my lungs, as I pressed
the alarm button on my jacket. But it was too late. The last jeep was
just clearing the gate. The troops didn't understand the nature of the
danger, although a few at the gate caught the direction I had been
pointing in, and they opened fire at the rear vehicle on the convoy. A
few laser bursts bounced off the armored vehicle, and then it was gone,
out of view down a bend in the road.
"After them!" I screamed, running for a gravitator. After the
last episode, I had ordered a number of them stationed on the plant
grounds. But only seconds after I had strapped myself in and taken off
I almost crashed to the ground. There was a tremendous explosion and
the entire fleet of gravitators on the ground went up in a ball of
smoke and flame. The explosion jolted my gravitator, almost forcing it
to the ground at a precarious velocity. The stabilizers kicked in at
the last minute, and I climbed, trying to get out of the choking smoke.
When I had gained some altitude and cleared the fire, I was
forced to give them their due credit. The Happy Worlders had done just
what I would have. But there would be time for a post-mortem later. I
sent my gravitator racing down the road, after the convoy. I hoped the
battletroopers would be able to give me some support on this one.
I'll say one thing for our army troops, they certainly were
quick. Even as I sped down the road I saw our defenders gearing up in
their vehicles, racing down the road in pursuit. I saw the convoy in
the distance. Perhaps the ground units would be able to catch up to
Then there was a tremendous CRUMP, and a cloud of dust was kicked
up over a section of the road. I flew straight over it at top speed,
still attempting to keep up with the convoy. But when I looked back I
saw an enormous ditch in the ground, at a narrow point in the road.
The ground pursuit would be stopped.
"That just leaves me," I sighed, pulling my blaster. I eyed the
convoy ahead. "One man, with a blaster, against four heavily armored
vehicles, packed with enemy agents. Ok, no problem, no problem. I can
And they thought they could handle me. When I got close, laser
beams started to dart out of some of the vehicles. I had been spotted.
"I'm a sitting duck up here," I muttered, swerving my gravitator
this way and that. I was so caught up in piloting, that I had little
opportunity to fire. Laser bolts whizzed around me. So I did the
brave thing. I pulled up.
I activated the comlink on the gravitator. "They're heading
north on the main road. When can you have air units intercept?"
"They're already scrambled," came the reply. "Intercept in
fifteen minutes ETA. Keep a good track on them."
"Oh, they won't leave my sight," I said. And then the convoy
left the highway and went on a small road to enter a forest. A dense
"Shit," I said. This is where they would lose me. I would have
to go in, and I knew it. The Clifford Croft 1st reserve air corps was
being called into the fray.
So I took the gravitator down. The convoy hadn't been expecting
my return, or else the trees shielded me until the last minute, for
they didn't start firing until I was almost on top of them.
And then they did start firing and blaster bolts crisped the air
all around me. I was hovering a few feet above the truck when I was
Or rather, the gravitator was. The beam dug into the central
column, burning out the main drive circuitry. Immediately I dropped,
like a stone.
Onto the flat top of the truck.
I must have laid there, groaning for a minute before I did
anything. For I was lying, crushed, pinned down by the enormous weight
of the column. I struggled to worm my way out from under it, my entire
body aching with pain. With great effort I unstrapped and crawled out
of it, and lay there, gasping for breath. The truck was still moving,
at a fast clip too.
I crawled over to the rear end of the truck. A mistake. A jeep
traveling right behind it was waiting for this opportunity, and the
operatives in it opened fire on me.
But most of their shots were high; they were afraid of hitting
the truck, even though it was armored. I was under no such inhibition.
But instead of drawing my own blaster I unclipped a fragmentation
grenade from my belt. Normally it probably wouldn't have any effect on
the jeep, but if it were to explode underneath it....
I pressed the activator, and counted one, two, three, four... and
threw it over the edge of the truck.
Immediately the truck raced forward and the jeep followed, riding
over the very spot where the grenade at landed.
There was a loud boom, and then the jeep overturned, bursting
into flame. There was another jeep behind that, and I think it crashed
into the exploded one, although we were moving so fast, it was
impossible to be certain.
But there was still the truck I was on, and a jeep in front. If
only I could destroy the truck, I could jump off, my mission
But maybe I didn't need to destroy the truck. I just needed to
destroy the transmitter inside.
Whistling happily, I set my blaster to cutting mode and started
to burn through the armor on the outer doors at the back of the truck.
I wasn't making a big hole, just one small enough to fit a grenade in.
But while I was doing that I was rudely interrupted by guards in the
truck, who flung open the doors and started shooting at me.
I ducked my head out of view and pulled out a grenade. I pressed
the activator and counted to four, then popped my head back over the
edge and tossed the grenade inside the truck.
I saw a number of things at that moment, but my mind was too slow
to process them immediately. The jeep in the lead had dropped back
behind the truck, and one of the men inside the truck was tossing
something in the air towards it. A medium sized box-shaped object.
But then there was an explosion in the truck that nearly shook me off
the top, and it took me a few seconds to regain my wits.
By the time I had realized what had happened, the jeep had the
transmitter unit, and was speeding forward ahead of the truck. I
furiously unleashed a blaster barrage on the jeep from my perch atop
the truck. But the top hatch on the jeep had just closed, and my
efforts harmlessly bounced off. I watched as the jeep speeded ahead.
It was times like this that I wished I had listened to my parents
and become a doctor. That's what my mother had told me to do. But who
The jeep vroomed ahead of the truck. If I was going to catch it,
I was going to have to be awfully quick. Crawling, though carefully
(the truck was still doing a steady clip), to the forward section of
the truck, I came to the area that housed the passenger section. I set
my blaster to cut again and started burning away. I was only halfway
done when the truck slowed to a halt. Which wasn't surprising, as I
was cutting the ceiling off of the passenger section. The driver
wouldn't be too happy about that.
The truck stopped, and the driver got out. And a second thug
too. And a third one. Oh oh.
They started firing at the roof of the truck, slashing away with
Which was just fine by me, because I had slipped off the top and
was now hiding on the bottom. I set my blaster to stun and fired on
their legs. I think they started to catch on; at least, the legs
disappeared from view as my attackers started to fall. But I only
counted two bodies on the ground, unless one had fallen out of my view.
I slithered out of the other side of the truck, and just in time, too;
a laser volley raked the undercarriage.
Ever play a game of tag, with an intervening object, like a
stationary vehicle, in between you and your opponent? This is what I
was engaged in. It was never quite clear just who was the hunter and
who was the hunted, for both of us kept running around the truck,
shooting at the other. Occasionally one of us would switch directions,
trying to catch the other from the other side (I was almost caught that
way once). I only got glimpses of my opponent; he was a very agile
Finally, after a laser burst came a little too close to me I
ducked down, hiding behind one of the large tires. When my opponent
came darting around the front of the truck, he tripped and fell over
the bit of foot that I had maliciously left outstretched. His head hit
the ground and he did not move, but I shot him anyway, just for good
I got up, dusting myself off. Quickly getting into the front
cab, I started the engine. Good. The damage wasn't severe.
The jeep had a good head start, but I really floored the
accelerator. I also tended to drive a little uncautiously, and more
than once I almost swerved off the road.
"Come on, come on," I said, scanning the road ahead of me. With
both eyes still glued to the road I took one hand off the steering
wheel and reached for my comlink in my jacket pocket. I felt it and
grabbed for it--only to find that it was in numerous pieces. Smashed.
I risked a quick glimpse in the air. No sign of the allies.
But ahead, in the road, I saw a solitary dot. As I got closer,
the dot grew larger. It was the jeep.
I was fortunately able to get close without being fired upon;
evidently they were still under the impression that their own people
controlled the truck. They waved to me when I was still a distance
away. I waved back.
Then I gunned the engine and smashed into the back of the jeep.
They were jolted, but not off the road, like I had hoped. They
reacted rather violently, opening up with a laser barrage. The
windshielding offered little protection, melting like soft butter
wherever it was touched by laser fire. Laser fire carved into the seat
upholstery next to me. I tried to slouch down behind the wheel as much
as I could, and I swerved into the jeep again. And again. And again.
It was the forth time that did it, pushing the jeep off the road,
down a steep incline.
Unfortunately, I went over too. I wasn't in the best position to
drive to begin with, and I had smacked the jeep a little too well. I
had gotten two birds with one stone; the only problem was, I was one of
These and other philosophical matters were not foremost on my
mind as the truck turned over and over, and I suppose I must have
blacked out for a moment, for the next thing I became aware of was the
fact that I was hanging, upside down, in the cab of the truck. With a
groan, I unbuckled myself, and pushed the door open. Then I collapsed
onto the ground. I wasn't feeling very well. My whole body ached and
I felt tired. Very tired.
But I forced myself to get up. Groaning, I dragged my blaster,
which felt very heavy in my hands. I walked, staggering really, to the
overturned carcass of the jeep. I must have been thirty feet away when
I feel to the ground, overcome with exhaustion.
Which may have been the best thing. For the moment I fell, the
door to the jeep popped open, and two people emerged, armed with
lasers. I watched, idly, as they dragged out the bodies of several of
their companions. Then one of them brought out a large box.
Unfortunately, it looked entirely unharmed.
One of them looked at me. "Who was he?"
"With the Column, probably," said the other. "Come on, let's get
to the rendezvous."
"Wait," said the first one. He had a nasty expression on his
face, not made any prettier by the newly formed scar along the side of
his head. He slowly walked up to me, and his intention was very clear.
He raised his foot back over my head-
and I reached up and shot him. It was as simple as that. The
other had good reflexes, but he had to put down the transmitter before
he could draw his gun, and even in my tired state I beat him to it. I
shot him too, and he fell to the ground.
I got up, and staggered towards their vehicle. "Ooooh my head,"
I said, leaning against the jeep. "What a day."
I don't know how long I stayed there; perhaps, in retrospect, it
wasn't more than a few minutes. It was hard to tell; I kept feeling
that I was going to pass out. But for some reason I kept trying to
Then I heard something screech and halt at the top of the road,
and people disembarked from a vehicle, coming down the embankment. I
waved to them feebly.
My vision wasn't entirely clear, and I didn't get a very good
look at them. I eyed their vehicle. I couldn't be sure, but it looked
like an armored jeep. Say, just like one of these... My brain was
scrambled, but not that scrambled. I was just getting under cover
before the first laser bolts exploded around me. I limped around the
corner of the upturned jeep and peered out.
They were Happy World agents all right. At the very beginning of
this chase, there had been two jeeps behind me. I had disposed of the
first one with a fragmentation grenade, and had thought that the second
one had crashed into it....
But it hadn't.
I peered out again, but only got a volley of laser bursts for my
effort. What nearly killed me (quite literally), was the fact that the
wavelength particle transmitter was sitting there, unharmed, mere feet
from me! I had had an opportunity to destroy it, plenty of
opportunity, and instead I had sat around, like a fool, naively
assuming that the enemy had been wiped from the playing field.
I tried to peek out to get a clear shot at the box, but the Happy
Worlders had me pinned down nicely. And they were closing in. They
had the advantages of numbers. I ducked back behind the overturned
jeep and groped around for grenades. As luck had it, I had one left.
I reached for it... and I heard a hum, and looked up. There was
a Happy Worlder right in front of me, laser armed and finger on the
trigger. He must have circled around while the others had kept me
distracted. I watched, with a sort of deadly fascination, as his
finger tightened on the trigger. Then there was a laser burst, and
that was the end.
Of him, that is. The laser burst went right through his chest.
He stood there, open-mouthed, until he had the good common sense to die
and flop quietly to the ground.
I had just enough strength to look up, to see an air company of
humming gravitators circling the clearing. "About time," I muttered,
feeling quite exhausted. And then I felt unconsciousness tugging at
me, and I took a rather unavoidable nap.
My eyes focused, and I was quite startled by an unexpected ugly
It was A.A.
"Good morning," I yawned. "I'll have bacon, eggs, milk, and a
side order of toast."
"So, you're alive," A.A. growled.
"Why wouldn't I be?" I said, scratching my ribs. Then I gave an
"Three broken bones, plus internal bleeding," said A.A. "But
you've been given accelerated healing treatment for the past three
days. You've also had a nasty head concuss-"
"Three days! I've been out three days!"
"Serves you right, for falling for one of their tricks. Couldn't
you tell that that video wasn't me?" A.A. barked. Then he smiled, and
said, "Fine job, Croft."
"We got them?" I searched my memory. The end had been a little
"Affirmative. Elements of the local 5th Air Corps located you
just as that last jeepload of agents were closing in on the
transmitter. But it was a close call, I don't mind telling you." Then
his expression changed. "The road from the plant was littered with
vehicles. Your work?"
I shrugged nonchalantly, although it caused me a little pain.
"Maybe a bit."
A.A. grinned. "Well, that's a job well done, Clifford. You
deserve that well earned holiday." He turned to leave the room.
"Wait!" I cried out. He turned around. "What about the threat
to the other transmitters?"
"We've got that all locked down now. We've located all sources
of transmitters in the League, consolidated them, put up to date
security measures on them, and filled each location with crack battle
I nodded, but I didn't feel relieved, not quite. "What about the
"The fifth location?" said A.A., looking a little confused.
We had targeted five locations they were going after. I was
about to remind A.A. of that fact, when he said, "Oh yes, number five.
Oh, no need to be concerned about that."
"Guards around there too?" I said.
"No need," said A.A. "There's nothing there."
"What do you mean?" I said sharply, sitting up in bed. That hurt
"Nothing. It's a dud. Cranspace College. In the Cumbalin
"Cranspace," I said, frowning. "Isn't that the big technical
"No, no, you're confusing that with Calnspace, in the Nalhatro
sector. Cranspace is a medium sized arts college."
I frowned. "Then why was it on my list?"
"We think they, like you, may have been confusing it with the
industrial research facility at Calnspace. We've stationed appropriate
precautions there, I assure you."
I frowned again, recalling the list from memory. "I'm sure it
"It did. But they made a mistake. There's nothing in Cranspace
that remotely connects to wavelength transmitter technology." A.A.
smiled. "Now get some rest. You've deserve it. Take a vacation." He
studied my unsatisfied expression. "The mission is done, Mr. Croft.
All the transmitters are fully secured. You have been successful.
Report back after you've had a vacation." With a bounce in his step,
he left my sight.
I lay back in my bed. The Happy Worlders must have made a
mistake. Yeah, a mistake.
But what if they didn't? If they got their grubby little hands
on even one wavelength particle transmitter.....
I sat there, thinking about it for a while. Then I turned to the
terminal on my nightstand, and typed in a few keys. I wanted
everything there was to know about Cranspace College.
I don't know what made me do it, but four days later I found
myself at Cranspace College, on the fourth planet in the Cumbalin
system. It was a fairly placid place, on a long, sprawling, suburban
campus. I walked on the main lawn, gathering my thoughts.
At least I was no longer in pain. I had a number of tender
spots, but for the most part I was fully fit. But fit for what? Was I
so keyed up that I wasn't prepared to let this assignment go?
But this wasn't just another assignment. If those Happy Worlders
got their hands on a wavelength particle transmitter, the League as a
whole could fall.
But there were no wavelength technology in use here. This was an
arts school. There were no science programs taught at this school.
What was I doing here?
The place was on the list, and, despite A.A.'s explanation, I was
still suspicious. Maybe there had been something we had overlooked.
I thought about the possibilities as I walked by the imposing
structures housing the classrooms. There were obviously no
transmitters here, that was sure. I had checked that from the
hospital. There were no people here who worked on that technology.
So what could it be? My mind just wouldn't let up. Somehow,
there just had to be something I was missing. Thalessa had targeted
five places to steal the particle wavelength transmitter from. The
multiple efforts had been ordered to ensure that this vital part would
be acquired. They had targeted factories, warehouses, spaceports....
and Cranspace College. Why? So if we caught on, we wouldn't think to
protect this location.
But what was there to protect? I just couldn't figure it out.
I sat there, for nearly an entire afternoon, watching the young
people walk by, hefting their books. Some sat on the lawn, taking in
the suns (Cumbalin was a system of binary suns, they got a lot of
light). A few young people were playing rocket frisbee on the grass.
I watched as some students came down the walkway, directly into my line
And I immediately sat up. They weren't walking properly. Oh,
their stride would appear normal enough to anyone who wasn't trained to
pay attention to that sort of thing. But they weren't walking right.
There are many ways that civilians walk, many styles, many
customs. Most of the students here had a lazy sort of "I don't care
when I get there" kind of stride. The people I was intent on had a
sort of stiff legged "march to the drummer" stride. It wasn't obvious,
not that obvious, but I could see it. There were three of them, and I
studied their faces. They looked older than the typical students,
although they were otherwise dressed normally. I watched them as they
professionally scanned the area they were walking through. Their gaze
passed by me and on down the lawn, without a flicker of recognition.
Good. They weren't aware of me. But just what were they after?
I got up, and started to follow them. Not directly, mind you; I simply
meandered in a similar direction. And of course I didn't look directly
at them. In this way I followed them, as they walked across the
campus, where they linked up with four more of their companions. They
started talking to each other in soft whispers and I had to turn away
to avoid a visual scan.
I needed to find out what they were after. But how to do it?
Suddenly, as if on a prearranged signal, the conference broke up, and
they each headed separate ways. I decided to follow one of them.
Perhaps I could capture him. But that would be a last resort; unless
he lead me to the others, the rest of his team would quickly become
alerted by his absence, and I would lose the advantage of surprise.
The one I was following, a tall, thin dark haired man, entered
one of the campus buildings. It was harder to keep a close tail on him
now, but I did see which direction he was headed in. Then I saw him
going in one room labeled "Professor Yrrio's office."
When he came out, a few seconds later, he didn't see me. I
decided to let him go; it was becoming more and more difficult to tail
him without being spotted. And I had a more than a passing curiosity
as to what he was up to in Professor Yrrio's office.
The outer office was a secretary's post. A young man was busy
reading a magazine. I stood, waiting to be recognized.
And waited. And waited.
"Ahem," I said.
That got his attention. Slowly he looked up. "Yes?" he said, in
a slightly nasal voice.
"Croft," I said, showing her my electrobadge. "Column."
"Yes?" he said, still showing little interest.
"There was a man in here. I'd like to know what he wanted."
"He came in, asked something. That's all," he said, looking
"What did he ask?" I said slowly.
He frowned, her face a mask of concentration. "Let me see...
don't remember...." Having made her best attempt, he turned back to
"This is very important," I said.
I waited a few seconds. He paid me no attention; apparently he
was focused on his magazine again.
"I really wish you could help me," I said. There was no answer
again. As if to emphasize that he was ignoring me, he held the
magazine up to block his view of me.
I sighed. I see that I needed to take further steps to reacquire
his attention. I drew my blaster, carefully adjusting the setting.
Still no look. Not even a glance. But then I did something that did
get some attention. Aiming carefully, I shot a whole through the
magazine. And a bit of the wall to his left, too.
"Hey!" he said, startled. "You can't do that!"
I pointed the blaster at her. "This says I can. You want to try
and remember what the man asked?"
Suddenly his memory was stimulated. "He, uh, he wanted to know
where Professor, uh... Talran's office was."
"And what did you tell him?"
"I didn't know. I sent him to the Dean's office."
"Thank you," I said, turning to go. Then I stopped, turning
around. "Do you have a directory which would tell where to find this
It turns out that he did. With a minimum of prodding I had the
address. I ripped the map of the campus out of the directory. "You
won't mind if I take this, do you? No, you never use it anyway. Now,
I don't expect you to breathe a word of this. To anyone. Because if
you do, and I find out..." I said, letting the rest hang. This clod
had delayed me several precious minutes already.
"Hey! How do I explain that?" he said, pointing to the blaster
hole in the wall.
"Termites," I said, already out the door.
I made a fast march to Professor Talran's office. It was only
several buildings away, and in a few minutes I was there. His
secretary, a young woman, greeted me by saying, "The Professor's office
hours are Mondays and Thursdays, 1-1:30." She said it in a monotone,
as if that were her standard greeting.
I flashed my badge. "Column business. Is Talran here?"
"N..no," said the young woman.
"Has anyone been here asking for him?"
"No," said the secretary.
"Where can I find the professor?" I said.
The secretary proceeded to look up the professor's home address.
She was still flipping pages when another person, a thin, dark haired
fellow, entered the room.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm looking for Professor Talran," he said
It was one of them. "I'm the professor's executive assistant,"
I said quickly, cutting the secretary off. The secretary had started
to speak, but stopped. The Happy Worlder looked from one to another,
and a flicker of doubt played across his face. "He's not here," I
said. "Would you like his home address?"
The Happy Worlder nodded, wordlessly. I reached over to the
secretary's desk. I was hoping that the Happy Worlder agent didn't
look at the small piece of paper in the secretary's hands.
I wrote out an address, a random number at a street I had
happened to notice on the map. It should take this Happy Worlder some
time to notice the mistake. I handed it to him.
He glanced at it, turned to leave--and glanced at it again.
"This address is in the middle of the industrial park," he said.
Already his hand was weaving into his jacket pocket.
But I was quicker; my weapon was in my hand even before he had
half completed the motion. He stopped; I nodded with satisfaction.
"What do you want with the professor?" I said.
The Happy Worlder stood mute.
I sighed. I didn't have a hypnocube with me; it would take a
determined investigation to find out what I needed. I changed the
settings on my blaster.
"I really need to know," I said. Silence, for a moment. "It's
very important to me." No reaction. Then I smiled, "Happy Day," and I
shot him in the foot.
He yelped in pain, collapsing to the ground. In the process his
hand reached into his jacket and-
I stunned him, having quickly reset the blaster intensity. I
sighed, staring at the body. What would I do with him? He was kind of
heavy to lug along.
The secretary was sitting at his desk, quivering quietly. I
plucked the paper out of her hands, and started to walk out the door.
"Wha-What about him?" said the secretary.
"I guess he'll have to make an appointment during office hours,"
I said calmly.
Professor Talran lived within walking distance of the main
campus, a small single story home with a modest lawn. I didn't bother
with the doorbell, but simply blasted my way in, fearing for the worst.
I found a small, elderly man sitting in a lounge chair, with a
teacup on the floor besides him. "What's the meaning of this?" he
said, looking from the charred remains of his door to my still smoking
"Professor Talran?" I said.
"Yes," said the small man. He squinted at me from across the
I proffered my badge, but only for a second. "Clifford Croft.
Column. Your life is in great danger."
His face screwed up. "Danger? Young man, the only danger I face
is from you. I intend to sue you for your lawless entry, damages to my
home, emotional distress-"
"If you don't come with me you may die-"
"-as well as for threats made upon my person-"
At that moment I heard running footsteps behind me and I did a
quick roll over and behind a low sofa. I peeked around the corner.
Talran wasn't amused. "I assure you your antics-" he broke off
when he saw several newcomers enter the room.
There were three of them, all men. "Professor Talran?" one of
"More ruffians!" said Talran. "I'll have to sue you too. Let me
see know your identification numbers, please!"
One of the men nodded imperceptibly and they reached forward to
grab Talran. At that moment I sprang up, my blaster blazing. I got
two of them immediately, but the third was too close to the Professor.
He grabbed Talran, holding a laser to his head. "One more move...." he
"How about this?" I said, wiggling my body to some imaginary
tune. Then I shot him. It had been an empty bluff and we both knew
it. For some reason they needed Talran, alive.
"Come on, Professor," I said, half dragging the whimpering fellow
out the back door. Which was a good move, for as I peered around the
corner I saw more Happy Worlders gathering at the front entrance. We
would have made a clean getaway, too, if Talran hadn't shouted, "Get
your hands off me, you government criminal!"
That got their attention. They came streaming around the corner.
There were nearly a dozen of them, I think, and they opened fire,
raking the areas with their lasers. They must have their weapons set
for stun, I realized. I was under no such inhibition but I was still
badly outnumbered. The laser fire grew intense and I was forced to
retreat behind the side of a neighboring home. Unfortunately the
Professor had been hit; instead of crouching for cover, he had stood
straight up, shaking his fist and yelling "You can't do this. This is
tortious conduct, and I intend to sue-" at which point he was shot, and
fell to the ground.
A car came up, on cue, and picked him up. The covering fire was
so heavy that I wasn't able to hit more than one of them, who fell to
the ground, unconscious. And then the car was driving away, and they
I yelled wildly, of course. There were no other vehicles in the
area to commandeer. I had lost them.
I got in touch with the Column, through the local authorities,
though not as quickly as I would have liked. We got the ball rolling
and the local police were setting up roadblocks, but I wasn't hopeful.
"What is it? Why are they after Talran?" A.A.'s face barked at
me, coming out of the video terminal in the remains of Talran's home.
"I just checked the computer, and figured it out," I said.
"Talran was one of the people who helped develop the particle
"What?" said A.A. "How in the world did we miss him?"
"Because he's a professor of ancient semantics now," I said. "He
left the field about twenty years ago, and your search didn't go back
"Do you have any idea where they might've went?"
"None," I said. "But Air/Space Defense is cordoning off the
area. If any unidentified ships tries to leave without being searched,
we should get some warning." But I made a face when I said it. The
locals simply weren't of Column caliber.
A.A. snorted. "Do you have any other leads?"
I stole a glance at my captive, the Happy Worlder I had just
stunned who was now quite securely tied to the Professor's lounge
chair. I hadn't had any rope, so had had to use an extension cord, but
my sleeping friend didn't seem to mind.
"One lead only," I said. "He's going to be talking, in just a
few moments. I'll keep you informed. Out."
I went over to my slumbering friend. "Wakey wakey," I said,
slapping him on the face. He blinked, waking up.
"A's aren't supposed to be captured. You'll be reduced to a D
for this, my friend," I said smiling.
"How do you know...." he said, and then he shut up.
"Thalessa told me. During some pillow talk," I said, enjoying
his discomfort. Good; let him think I knew a lot.
He frowned, but he said, "You're lying."
"Ah, but it's not my statements that are being evaluated." I
fiddled with my blaster. "Suppose you'd like to tell me where they've
I fired at his foot, with the blaster setting on low. He
screamed, but he said nothing.
"This hurts you a whole lot more than it does me," I said, in a
low conversational voice. "Care to talk?"
"No," said the agent.
"Suit yourself," I shrugged. And then I shot him again, in the
hand. He shrieked, even though all I was doing at this setting was
giving him some nasty burns. For all that wailing he was making you
might think he would break down and talk. But he didn't.
"I'm really in a hurry, and that means I have to be a little more
rough than I might like" I said. "Are you sure you're not ready to
Sweating profusely, the Happy Worlder shook his head. Sighing, I
reset my blaster, showing him that I was putting it on KILL. Then I
leveled it right between his eyes.
"I suppose this will burn a nasty hole through your head," I
There was no answer. He started to perspire a little more
heavily, but he gave no response, only opening his mouth to lick his
dry lips nervously. Shrugging, I started counting.
"Five... four... three... two... one...."
My finger tightened on the trigger. It was useless, of course.
This one wasn't going to crack. Not in that way. But then I got an
idea. "No," I said. "Killing's not right for you. I have a better
Humming, I left the room. "Back in a sec!" I said cheerfully.
Actually, I was gone for several minutes, but when I returned,
the Happy Worlder was still there, tied to his chair. He seemed to be
struggling with his bonds.
"Naughty naughty," I said, my hands behind my back. Then I
brought them in front of me, to show him what I was carrying.
In one hand I held a long, black rod. In another I held up a
small electronic mechanism.
"Do you know what this is?" I said, showing him the electrical
"No," he said, in a whisper.
"Oh, come on, of course you know, don't be shy," I said, a
little disappointed. "It's a D converter unit. Since you're not
useful to me in A mode, I'm going to turn you into a D. It will
eventually burn out your brain, of course, but the surgery should be
quick and painless." I motioned over to a knife on the table, and then
grinned at the spy, as comprehension sunk in.
"No... your society does not have D's," said the Happy Worlder.
I laughed. "Is that what they told you? Well, I'd love to chat
all day, but you know how it is...." I raised the rod, slowly lowering
it over his shoulder.
"No!" he cried, when the rod was just inches from his shoulder.
His eyes bulged with fear.
I didn't let up, but I said, "Where?"
He told me. There was no doubt in my mind that he was telling
the truth. For I had stumbled onto the one thing that Happy Worlders,
A's and B's alike, were truly terrified of.
"Thanks," I said. I started to turn, to leave the room, when I
said, "Listen, hold on to this, will you?" I said, dropping the rod so
that it leaned against him.
He started to protest, but when the rod touched him, nothing
happened. "Put that back on the vacuum cleaner if you have a chance," I
said. I also tossed the D converter into his lap. "And put this back
if you want to use the can opener in the kitchen," I grinned.
By the time I arrived, I alerted the local police and they had
the spaceport sealed off.
"Everything's grounded, nothing's getting off," said the police
chief, a short man named Dilorvan.
"Uh huh," I said, nodding as I took in the row after row of
grounded ships. The Cranspace spaceport was the second largest on the
planet. It would take a lot of time to search those ships, assuming
that the Happy Worlders had already arrived. "Which ones are already
fueled for takeoff?" I said. Those would be the first priority for the
"Seven ship. But four are people carriers, I don't think they
could get a hostage out on those."
I wasn't as sure, but I nodded. "Go on."
Dilorvan checked a manifest. "Says here that one's a mineral
transport, bound for Eridani... there's another transport, picking up
spare parts for the new space station at the edge of the system...
there's also a private yacht, bound for the M-392 sector... no, that's
been grounded, for repairs...."
"I would like to assist in the search. Personally," I said.
"Suit yourself," he said, with a shrug. "We're shorthanded as it
is. The League troopers won't be here for another hour."
I decided to search the yacht first, I don't know why. Dilorvan
had said it was grounded for repairs. Yet it was all fueled up and it
was just the sort of dodge I would expect from the Happy Worlder
Two spaceport policemen stood on guard at the gangplank, saluting
me when I approached. They had been told I was coming.
"Has this ship been searched?" I said.
"Not yet, sir," said one of the guards. "Not enough manpower."
I nodded, walking up the gangplank, where a crewmember stood on
duty. "Let me speak to your skipper," I said. He spoke into the wall
comlink, and in a few minutes I was face to face with the captain of
I thought it might be nice to have the captain accompany me on
the tour, so I could size him up while I was searching the ship. I had
developed an uncanny nack for detecting Happy Worlders, and I wanted to
put my skill to the test.
But this Happy Worlder was very easy to detect; the minute I saw
the captain, I knew, and I went for my blaster.
It was Ralston, one of the Happy Worlders I had worked with at
The memory immediately sprang into place. He had been a B, like
me, on duty at Central Control. They must be using B's for these
operations as well. Ralston must have been sent out on this mission
shortly before my escape.
I recognized him, there was no doubt about it. And I could tell
he recognized me, for he was reaching for his own weapon.
We both steadied our weapons and fired at the same time, and we
both missed. While we both searched for cover, the helpful crewmember
who had welcomed me aboard slammed the access doors closed, sealing us
off from the spaceport policemen. Then he pressed another button and I
heard a hooting sound.
Meanwhile I was still firing on Ralston. I fried a wall panel
behind him but did little damage to my adversary. He leveled a shot at
me which was only a little off to the left. I took that opportunity to
shoot the stray crewmember, who was busy searching for a weapon of his
"Croft! What's happened to you?" Ralston, shouted at me, from
under cover. "You're with us!"
"I've changed my mind," I snapped, for lack of a wittier answer.
And then the ship lurched, and took off.
I was thrown across the room by the unexpected motion, right into
the arms of Ralston. He seemed almost as surprised as I was. The
ground shook, and we struggled, each rolling on top of the other. In
the process I somehow lost my blaster, and we wrestled over possession
of his laser. Back and forth, back and forth we wrestled, neither of
us able to fully control the weapon. Each of us used our free hand to
hit at the other. We kept pounding at each other, until finally a shot
rang out, and there was a break in the impasse.
The ship went into orbit around the Happy World. I wasn't aware
of this, not directly, but I knew this was happening. I could,
however, hear the pilot's voice, as he opened communications with the
"We're coming in for a ground descent, Central Control. Can you
guide us in on automatic?"
"Affirmative," said Central Control. "Do you have the
"Affirmative," said the voice of the pilot. "And a special
bonus. The one called Clifford Croft."
"Excellent," said Central Control. "The Master will be on hand
to greet you personally when you arrive."
The ship touched down on a landing pad inside Central Control. I
didn't see what was going on outside, but I did see the Master when he
entered the ship, with a suitable escort in tow.
I sat in an easy chair, smiling at him.
His eyes widened when he saw me sitting there, untied and
unguarded. "What? What is the meaning of this?" he said.
"The meaning?" I said, still smiling. "You didn't say 'please'."
"Take him!" said the Master, pointing at me. Several B's rushed
up to grab me... but their hands went right through me.
"Holography," I said, pointing to a machine in the corner. "It
is simultaneously transmitting my image, live, from the Cranspace
College projection center. They normally used it for holographic art
works, or some such." I said. "But you asked for an explanation.
Very well, I will tell you. I was aboard this ship when it took off,
with Professor Talran, the man you were after. I was locked in a
bitter struggle with your man, Ralston, and the better man won." I
chuckled, leaving no doubt who that was.
"I dealt with the rest of the crew, and then we returned to the
spaceport. Then we sent the ship back to you on automatic, complete
with remote transmitters and the holographic equipment you see here
I could see, from the camera in the hold, that the Master was
grinding his teeth together in rage.
"That wasn't very nice of you, plotting to take over the League,"
I said. "But we're willing to be friends. Did I mention that we've
enclosed a small gift, in this very ship? It's a piece of very
advanced technology. And you'll find out all about it in ten...
I enjoyed watching the Master's expression as I did the
countdown. He immediately started issuing orders, but it was too late
for that. Much too late for that.
"Three... two... one... Happy Day," I smiled.
I didn't see what happened next, but there must have been a
The Science Section said that they had loaded enough explosions in the
ship to level the entire Central Control. Which was fine by me. The
Astronomy section later reported an enormous crater on that section of
that planet, leading some of the munitions people to believe that we
might have overdone it a bit.
But that was only their opinion, of course.
Well, I finally got that vacation I sorely deserved. I was on
Pacifica, a watery planet that was populated by numerous luxury
resorts. I lay on the beach for several days, attempting to absorb
everything that had happened.
The Happy Worlders had been stopped. Their plan to create their
remote controlled mind frying device had been thwarted. But this was
by no means a permanent solution. Someday they would get their hands
on a particle wavelength transmitter. And if the device did work, the
League would be in grave danger, unless we developed countermeasures.
A.A. assured me that we were, even before the dreaded device has
come into being. He also said that all sources of information
concerning the particle wavelength transmitters were now under lock and
key. I wasn't so sure.
One can slow down the flow of information, but it can never be
But we had slowed them down. The League, for now, was safe.
And the Happy Worlds? They were still under the domination of
the state. For the first time in several weeks I allowed myself to
think about Banner. I didn't even know if she was still at large.
There was no way to get in touch with her. I sighed, and stared at the
"Good work, Croft," A.A. had growled genially, at our last
meeting. And I had done a good job. The Happy Worlder operatives,
from this wave, at least, were all either apprehended or dead. The
research center on Negan 14 was now a rather imposing crater. The
Master, as well as a fair number of his mind control elite had been
destroyed. I supposed the Mistress had been killed too, in the blast.
I wondered if they had knocked her down to D status after I had
escaped. I smiled grimly; that would have been fitting.
I yawned and stretched out in the sun. Maybe it was time for me
to be getting back.
I settled for going back to my cabin. I lay back on the bed,
still thinking. Maybe another mission would shake me out of my stupor.
Yes, another mission, I decided.
My eyes still closed, I vowed to return to the Column that very
day. But then I heard something.
It was soft, very soft. I could just barely make it out.
That had been my call number when I had been converted.
My eyes immediately sprang open. But there was no one there.
"I must be cracking up," I muttered. I put a hand to my
forehead. I had been perspiring. My heart was still beating quickly.
I sat in a chair and tried to calm myself.
It was soft, but I heard it again. This time I was out of the
chair before the ID number was complete. Blaster in hand, I started
looking around. But I was alone.
I heard it again. And it was getting louder. I searched the
It was coming from the bathroom. I maneuvered cautiously to the
closed door, and then flung it open-
-to see a small audio player, happily whirring along on my
"Hold it right there," said a voice from behind me, and I could
tell it wasn't a recorded voice.
I didn't move.
"Drop the blaster," said the voice. It had a hard edge to it,
and I knew it meant business.
"Whatever you say," I said, dropping the weapon to my feet. "Can
I turn around now, Thalessa?"
I slowly swiveled about, to face a seething glare from the
Mistress. It was in direct contrast to her clothing, a small bikini,
and quite a world removed from her standard midnight black uniform.
She must have been trying to blend in with the other tourists. Either
that or working on her tan.
I grinned, pushing all fear aside. A display of timidity would
only increase Thalessa's pleasure.
"Sit!" Thalessa said, as if talking to a dog. She gestured to a
chair. I slowly moved to the chair, watching her knuckle tighten on
the trigger with every step I took.
"Why Thalessa, I thought you were dead," I said, retaining just a
hint of a small grin on my face. "How terribly disappointing."
"You think you're so superior, don't you?" she sneered.
"Wasn't that quite clear?" I said. "Remember when you were
fawning all over me?" A broader smile again, yes, that should do it.
Her face turned a scarlet red as the memory of the embarrassing
incident came back to her. But she held it in, and said, "How quickly
you forget your service to me," she said, with a sneer.
"True," I said. "But it looks like I came out on top."
"Your research base is smashed. Operation Conquest has been
"Delayed," Thalessa corrected. "Only delayed. We will conquer
"That 'we' has an alarmingly inclusive connotation to it," I
said, mildly perturbed.
Thalessa laughed. "And so it should." She held up a small metal
device in one hand. "Does this look familiar to you?"
Suddenly I recalled the bluff I had played on the Happy Worlder
agent in Professor Talran's home. But this was no bluff.
"Your intellect?" I joked. But it was a feeble attempt. My
stomach tightened; for I knew exactly what that device was.
"It's a D unit. And you know where it's going to go?" Thalessa
smiled. She tapped the back of her neck, and grinned knowingly.
I looked indignant. "If you're going to perform surgery on
yourself, you'll get blood all over the carpet. I'm paying for this
room, you know."
"Very funny, Mr. Croft," said Thalessa. "Joke while you can. In
a few moments you won't be able to joke ever again." And her face
tightened up into a horrible expression.
I tried to keep the fear down. If I let it overwhelm me I would
be finished. "How are you going to put that in me? With a dirty
Thalessa grinned, taking a laser scalpel from her pocket. While
this little show and tell was going on, the hand with the blaster never
wavered, never moved. My own blaster was still lying on the floor
outside the bathroom, but Thalessa was between me and it.
"Poor Mr. Croft. You look a bit uncomfortable. Are things no
longer to your liking?" said Thalessa. She was enjoying every minute
of this. When I became a D she would not have this opportunity to
taunt me again.
"What's the sense of this?" I said. "How did you even get here?
I would've thought you would've been punished for allowing me to
escape." Keep her talking. That was my only chance now.
"I was," said Thalessa, and a shadow of pain wracked her face.
"I was even scheduled... to be reduced in grade. But I persuaded the
Master to let me go, to pursue you, Mr. Croft. To settle accounts."
"Hm," I said. She raised her blaster menacingly, as if she were
about to fire. "Wait, wait." I implored.
Thalessa smiled at me. "Don't worry, lover, I have no intention
of using this--unless I have to. What's your question?"
"What are you going to do with me, once...."
"You are... improved?" She laughed; she seemed to enjoy that very
much. Then her expression grew grim. "You will return to your Column
headquarters and assassinate your Chief and the members of his senior
staff. If you live though that, you are to terminate yourself." Then,
looking at my expression, she said, "Sorry, my love, I am just
following orders. I was instructed her to ensure your termination, one
way or the other."
"Swell," I said. "But how do you intend to control me? Doesn't
that device has to be hooked up to a computer?" I was still stalling
for time; but right now I couldn't think of a viable plan.
And I think Thalessa knew it. But she was willing to play along;
she enjoyed watching me squirm. "No." She fished another object out
of her pocket. The blaster arm always held firm. Always.
The object looked familiar. A remote control unit. I gulped.
"You'll be in capable hands," said Thalessa, with a grin.
"You'll be pleased to know that my very first order to you will be for
you to get down on your hands and knees and thank me for your
"You get a big kick out of that," I said, feeling a wave of
desperation grip me. But outwardly I was still calm. "The slave
routine, I mean. What's wrong, can't you deal with people on equal
Thalessa gave a deep laugh. "You forget, I am your superior. I
always have been, and I always will."
"Superior in arrogance, perhaps, but-"
"Enough!" said Thalessa, raising the weapon, as if to fire. "It
is time to get on with it." She took something out of another pocket.
An air hypo. She tossed it through the air, in a gentle ark, where it
landed on my lap.
"For me?" I said. "And I didn't get you anything!"
"Do it," said Thalessa.
"Do what?" I said. "You'll have to be a little more specific."
"Use it!" she shouted, and I flinched.
"What's in it?" I said guardedly, toying with the hypo in my
"Nothing much... just a drug that will knock you out."
"Just long enough for you to... oh, I see. No, I don't think I
like that," I decided.
Thalessa laughed again, seeing realization dawn on my face.
"Why not just shoot me," I wondered. "You can stun me, and get
the same results."
"Yes, I could. But I enjoy the idea of you participating in your
own conversion." she nearly emanated waves of delight as she said it.
"Hm," I said. "What if I refuse?" My hands fidgeted with the
Thalessa cast a glance at her blaster. "There are many ways to
reach unconsciousness. Some can be made to be more painful than
"I see," I said. I yawned, in a highly exaggerated way, drawing
Thalessa's attention to my head, while I made a distracting noise. For
at that moment my thumb snapped off the bottom of the hypo.
"No more stalling. Do it!" Thalessa shrieked, her thumb on the
blaster trigger contact.
"All right, you're the Mistress," I muttered, trying to sound
defeated. I held it up against the side of my leg, at a proper angle
so Thalessa could see that it was pressing against my skin, but little
"But it's not good of you to encourage drug use," I said.
"Do it!" she screamed, and I think she was about to fire if I
didn't. So I pushed the plunger.
A small stream of liquid came out of the hypo and slid down the
side of my leg. But Thalessa couldn't see that, not from her angle of
I dropped the hypo, and slowly started to nod off. In the
background there was laughter. "Goodbye, Mr. Croft," I faintly heard.
Then I closed my eyes, and waited.
When I felt hands reaching out for me, turning me over, I knew I
had waited long enough. I opened my eyes to see Thalessa bending over
me with the D unit. Her eyes widened when she saw me conscious but I
quickly delivered a sharp karate chop to her neck, and she immediately
collapsed to the ground.
Breathing heavily, I checked the miserable wretch. Regretfully,
she was still breathing.
"No, no, no!" Thalessa screamed, as the guards tossed her into
the cell. She fell to the ground, but immediately was on her feet,
running for the entrance. The Mistress had the good sense to stop just
short of the force field. "I'll get you! I'll get all of you!" she
"Nice she's not," I told A.A. He was busy observing her with all
the fascination of a zoo keeper studying a snake.
"I'll fix you, Clifford Croft! I'll take your mind and burn it
out! You haven't won! Just wait, someday I'll get out of here, and
I'll find you, and when I do-"
"Mistress!" I said, in a loud voice. "It's time for your nap.
Please be quiet," I said, clapping twice.
Thalessa, to her own amazement, fell to the ground, immediately
I had made some minor improvements to her on the trip back.
I grinned, feeling my old self returning. I had faced down my
old nemesis, once and for all. A.A. looked at me, amazed.
"What can I say?" I grinned again. "It's all in the hands."
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