- Author: James H. Schmitz
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This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction May 1963. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
At that, you know the power to enforce
the Golden Rule would make a terrible weapon!
by JAMES H. SCHMITZ
ILLUSTRATED BY LEO SUMMERS
enesee felt excitement surge like a living tide about him as he came with the other directors into the vast Tribunal Hall. Sixty years ago, inexcusable carelessness had deprived Earth of its first chance to obtain a true interstellar drive. Now, within a few hours, Earth, or more specifically, the upper echelons of that great political organization called the Machine which had controlled the affairs of Earth for the past century and a half, should learn enough of the secrets of the drive to insure that it would soon be in their possession.
Menesee entered his box between those of Directors Cornelius and Ojeda, immediately to the right of the Spokesman's Platform and with an excellent view of the prisoner. When Administrator Bradshaw and Spokesman Dorn had taken their places on the platform, Menesee seated himself, drawing the transcript of the day's proceedings towards him. However, instead of glancing over it at once, he spent some seconds in a study of the prisoner.
The fellow appeared to be still young. He was a magnificent physical specimen, tall and strongly muscled, easily surpassing in this respect any of the hard-trained directors present. His face showed alert intelligence, giving no indication of the fact that for two of the three days since his capture he had been drugged and subject to constant hypnotic suggestion. He had given his name as Rainbolt, acknowledged freely that he was a member of the group of malcontent deserters known in the records of the Machine as the Mars Convicts, but described himself as being a "missionary of Oneness" whose purpose was to bring the benefits of some of the principles of "Oneness" to Earth. He had refused to state whether he had any understanding of the stardrive by the use of which the Mars Convicts had made their mass escape from the penal settlements of the Fourth Planet sixty years before, though the drive obviously had been employed in bringing him out of the depths of interstellar space to the Solar System and Earth. At the moment, while the significance of the bank of torture instruments on his right could hardly have escaped him, his expression was serious but not detectably concerned.
"Here is an interesting point!" Director Ojeda's voice said on Menesee's right.
Menesee glanced over at him. Ojeda was tapping the transcript with a finger.
"This Rainbolt," he said, "hasn't slept since he was captured! He states, furthermore, that he has never slept since he became an adult—"
Menesee frowned slightly, failing to see any great significance in the fact. That the fellow belonged to some curious cult which had developed among the Mars Convicts following their flight from the Solar System was already known. Earth's science had methods of inducing permanent sleeplessness but knew, too, that in most instances the condition eventually gave rise to very serious side effects which more than offset any advantages to be gained from it.
He picked up his transcript, indicating that he did not wish to be drawn into conversation. His eyes scanned quickly over the pages. Most of it was information he already had. Rainbolt's ship had been detected four days earlier, probing the outermost of the multiple globes of force screens which had enclosed Earth for fifty years as a defense both against faster-than-light missiles and Mars Convict spies. The ship was alone. A procedure had been planned for such an event, and it was now followed. The ship was permitted to penetrate the first two screens which were closed again behind it.
Rainbolt's ship, for all its incredible speed, was then a prisoner. Unhurriedly, it was worked closer to Earth until it came within range of giant scanners. For an instant, a large section of its interior was visible to the instruments of the watchers on Earth; then the picture blurred and vanished again. Presumably automatic anti-scanning devices had gone into action.
The photographed view was disappointing in that it revealed no details of the engines or their instruments. It did show, however, that the ship had been designed for the use of one man, and that it was neither armored or armed. Its hull was therefore bathed with paralytics, which in theory should have left the pilot helpless, and ships of the Machine were then sent up to tow the interstellar captive down to Earth.
At that point, the procedure collapsed. The ship was in atmosphere when an escape capsule was suddenly ejected from it, which later was found to contain Rainbolt, alert and obviously not affected by the paralysis beams. A moment later, the ship itself became a cloud of swiftly dissipating hot gas.
The partial failure of the capture might have been unavoidable in any case. But the manner in which it occurred still reflected very poorly, Menesee thought, on the thoroughness with which the plans had been prepared. The directors who had been in charge of the operation would not be dealt with lightly—
He became aware suddenly that the proceedings of the day had begun and hastily put down the transcript.
Spokesman Dorn, the Machine's executive officer, sitting beside Administrator Bradshaw at a transparent desk on the raised platform to Menesee's left, had enclosed the area about the prisoner with a sound block and was giving a brief verbal resume of the background of the situation. Few of the directors in the Tribunal Hall would have needed such information; but the matter was being carried on the Grand Assembly Circuit, and in hundreds of auditoriums on Earth the first and second echelons of the officials of the Machine had gathered to witness the interrogation of the Mars Convict spy.
The penal settlements on Mars had been established almost a century earlier, for the dual purpose of mining the mineral riches of the Fourth Planet and of utilizing the talents of political dissidents with a scientific background too valuable to be wasted in research and experimental work considered either too dangerous to be conducted on Earth or requiring more space than could easily be made available there. One of these projects had been precisely the development of more efficient spacedrives to do away with the costly and tedious manoeuverings required for travel even among the inner planets.
Work of such importance, of course, was supposed to be carried out only under close guard and under the direct supervision of reliable upper-echelon scientists of the Machine. Even allowing for criminal negligence, the fact that the Mars Convicts were able to develop and test their stardrive under such circumstances without being detected suggested that it could not be a complicated device. They did, at any rate, develop it, armed themselves and the miners of the other penal settlements and overwhelmed their guards in surprise attack. When the next ship arrived from Earth, two giant ore carriers and a number of smaller guard ships had been outfitted with the drive, and the Mars Convicts had disappeared in them. Their speed was such that only the faintest and briefest of disturbances had been registered on the tracking screens of space stations near Mars, the cause of which remained unsuspected until the news came out.
Anything which could have thrown any light on the nature of the drive naturally had been destroyed by the deserters before they left; and the few Machine scientists who had survived the fighting were unable to provide information though they were questioned intensively for several years before being executed. What it added up to was that some eighteen thousand sworn enemies of the Machine had disappeared into space, equipped with an instrument of unknown type which plainly could be turned into one of the deadliest of all known weapons.
The superb organization of the Machine swung into action instantly to meet the threat, though the situation became complicated by the fact that rumors of the manner in which the Mars Convicts had disappeared filtered out to the politically dissatisfied on Earth and set off an unprecedented series of local uprisings which took over a decade to quell. In spite of such difficulties, the planet's economy was geared over to the new task; and presently defenses were devised and being constructed which would stop missiles arriving at speeds greater than that of light. Simultaneously, the greatest research project in history had begun to investigate the possibilities of either duplicating the fantastic drive some scientific minds on Mars had come upon—chiefly, it was concluded, by an improbable stroke of good luck—or of matching its effects through a different approach. Since it had been demonstrated that it could be done, there was no question that in time the trained men of the Machine would achieve their goal. Then the armed might of the Machine would move into space to take control of any colony established by the Mars Convicts and their descendants.
That was the basic plan. The task of developing a stardrive remained a huge one because of the complete lack of information about the direction organized research should take. That difficulty would be overcome easily only by a second unpredictable twist of fortune—unless one of the Mars Convicts' FTL ships ventured close enough to Earth to be captured.
The last had now happened. The ship had been destroyed before it could be investigated, so that advantage was again lost. The ship's pilot, however, remained in their hands. The fact that he disclaimed having information pertinent to the drive meant nothing. So far as he knew, he might very well be speaking the truth. But he had piloted a ship that employed the stardrive, was familiar with instruments which controlled it, had been schooled in their use. A detailed investigation of his memories could not fail to provide literally hundreds of meaningful clues. And the Machine's scientists, in their superficially still fruitless search for the nature of the drive, had, in fact, covered basic possibilities with such comprehensive thoroughness that a few indisputably valid clues would show them now what it must be.
The prisoner, still demonstrating an extraordinary degree of obliviousness to what lay in store for him, appeared to welcome the opportunity to be heard by the directors of the Machine. Menesee, leaning back in his chair, studied the man thoughtfully, giving only partial attention to what was said. This was the standard opening stage of a Tribunal interrogation, an underplayed exchange of questions and answers. Innocuous as it seemed, it was part of a procedure which had become refined almost to an unvarying ritual—a ritual of beautiful and terrible precision which never failed to achieve its goals. Every man watching and listening in the Machine's auditoriums across the world was familiar with the swift processes by which a normal human being was transformed into a babbling puppet, his every significant thought becoming available for the upper echelons to regard and evaluate.
They would, of course, use torture. It was part of the interlocking mechanisms of interrogation, no more to be omitted than the preliminary conditioning by drug and hypnosis. Menesee was not unduly squeamish, but he felt some relief that it would not be the crude instruments ranked beside the prisoner which would be used. They were reserved as a rule for offending members of the organization, providing a salutary warning for any others who might be tempted to act against the interests of the Machine or fail culpably in their duties. This prisoner, as an individual, meant nothing to the Machine. He was simply a source of valuable information. Therefore, only direct nerve stimulation would be employed, in the manipulation of which Spokesman Dorn was a master.
So far the Spokesman had restricted himself to asking the prisoner questions, his voice and manner gravely courteous. To Menesee's surprised interest, he had just inquired whether two men of the last Earth ship to visit Mars, who had disappeared there, might not have been captured by Mars Convicts operating secretly within the Solar System.
"Yes, sir," Rainbolt replied readily, "they were. I'm happy to say that they're still alive and well."
Menesee recalled the incident now. After the mass escape of the Mars Convicts, the penal settlements had been closed down and the mining operations abandoned. To guard the desert planet against FTL raiders as Earth was guarded was technically infeasible. But twice each decade a patrol ship went there to look for signs that the Mars Convicts had returned. The last of these patrols had been conducted two years before. The missing men were believed to have been inspecting a deserted settlement in a ground vehicle when they vanished, but no trace of them or the vehicle could be discovered.
Administrator Bradshaw, seated to the spokesman's left, leaned forward as if to speak, but then