- Author: Randall Garrett
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This etext was produced from Space Science Fiction May 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
INSTANT OF DECISION
BY RANDALL GARRETT
ILLUSTRATED BY EBEL
How could a man tell the difference if all the reality of Earth turned out to be a cosmic hoax? Suppose it turned out that this was just a stage set for students of history?
When the sharp snap of a pistol shot came from the half-finished building, Karnes wasn't anywhere near the sandpile that received the slug. He was fifteen feet away, behind the much more reliable protection of a neat stack of cement bags that provided cover all the way to a window in the empty shell of brick and steel before him.
Three hundred yards behind him, the still-burning inferno of what had been the Assembly Section of Carlson Spacecraft sent a reddish, unevenly pulsating light over the surrounding territory, punctuating the redness with intermittent flashes of blue-white from flaring magnesium.
For an instant, Karnes let himself hope that the shot might be heard at the scene of the blaze, but only for an instant. The roar of fire, men, and machine would be too much for a little pop like that.
He moved quietly along the stacked cement bags, and eased himself over the sill of the gaping window into the building. He was in a little hallway. Somewhere ahead and to his left would be a door that would lead into the main hallway where James Avery, alias James Harvey, alias half-a-dozen other names, was waiting to take another pot-shot at the sandpile.
The passageway was longer than he had thought, and he realized that he might have been just a little careless in coming in through the window. With the firelight at his back, he might make a pretty good target from farther down the hall, or from any of the dark, empty rooms that would someday be officers'.
Then he found it. The slight light from the main hallway came through enough to show him where to turn.
Keeping in the darkness, Karnes' eyes surveyed the broad hallway for several seconds before he spotted the movement near a stairway. After he knew where to look, it was easy to make out the man's crouched figure.
Karnes thought: I can't call to him to surrender. I can't let him get away. I can't sneak across that hall to stick my gun in his ribs. And, above all, I cannot let him get away with that microfilm.
Hell, there's only one thing I can do.
Karnes lifted his gun, aimed carefully at the figure, and fired.
Avery must have had a fairly tight grip on his own weapon, because when Karnes' slug hit him, it went off once before his body spread itself untidily across the freshly set cement. Then the gun fell out of the dead hand and slid a few feet, spinning in silly little circles.
Karnes approached the corpse cautiously, just in case it wasn't a corpse, but it took only a moment to see that the caution had been unnecessary. He knelt, rolled the body over, unfastened the pants, pulled them down to the knees and stripped off the ribbon of adhesive tape that he knew would be on the inside of the thigh. Underneath it were four little squares of thin plastic.
As he looked at the precious microfilm in his hand, he sensed something odd. If he had been equipped with the properly developed muscles to do so, he would have pricked his ears. There was a soft footstep behind him.
He spun around on his heel, his gun ready. There was another man standing at the top of the shadowy stairway.
Karnes stood up slowly, his weapon still levelled.
"Come down from there slowly, with your hands in the air!"
The man didn't move immediately, and, although Karnes couldn't see his face clearly in the shimmering shadows, he had the definite impression that there was a grin on it. When the man did move, it was to turn quickly and run down the upper hallway, with a shot ringing behind him.
Karnes made the top of the stairway and sent another shot after the fleeing man, whose outline was easily visible against the pre-dawn light that was now beginning to come in through a window at the far end of the hall.
The figure kept running, and Karnes went after him, firing twice more as he ran.
Who taught you to shoot, dead-eye? he thought, as the man continued to run.
At the end of the hall, the man turned abruptly into one of the offices-to-be, his pursuer only five yards behind him.
Afterwards, Karnes thought it over time after time, trying to find some flaw or illusion in what he saw. But, much as he hated to believe his own senses, he remained convinced.
The broad window shed enough light to see everything in the room, but there wasn't much in it except for the slightly iridescent gray object in the center.
It was an oblate spheroid, about seven feet high and eight or nine feet through. As Karnes came through the door, he saw the man step through the seemingly solid material into the flattened globe.
Then globe, man and all, vanished. The room was empty.
Karnes checked his headlong rush into the room and peered around in the early morning gloom. For a full minute his brain refused even to attempt rationalizing what he had seen. He looked wildly around, but there was no one there. Suddenly he felt very foolish.
All right. So men can run into round gray things and vanish. Now use a little sense and look around.
There was something else in the room. Karnes knelt and looked at the little object that lay on the floor a few feet from where the gray globe had been. A cigarette case; one of those flat, coat-pocket jobs with a jet black enamel surface laid over tiny checked squares that would be absolutely useless for picking up fingerprints. If there were any prints, they'd be on the inside.
He started to pick it up and realized he must still be a bit confused; his hands were full. His right held the heavy automatic, and between the thumb and forefinger of his left were the four tiny sheets of microfilm.
Karnes holstered the pistol, took an envelope from his pocket, put the films in it, replaced the envelope, and picked up the cigarette case. It was, he thought, a rather odd-looking affair. It—
"Awright, you. Stand up slow, with your hands where I can see 'em."
Great God, thought Karnes, I didn't know they were holding a tea party in this building. He did as he was told.
There were two of them at the door, both wearing the uniform of Carlson Spacecraft. Plant protection squad.
"Who are you, bud?" asked the heavy-jawed one who had spoken before. "And whataya doin' here?"
Karnes, keeping his hands high, said: "Take my billfold out of my hip pocket."
"Okay. But first get over against that wall and lean forward." Evidently the man was either an ex-cop or a reader of detective stories.
When Karnes had braced himself against the wall, the guard went through his pockets, all of them, but he didn't take anything out except the pistol and the billfold.
The card in the special case of the wallet changed the guard's manner amazingly.
"Oh," he said softly. "Government, huh? Gee, I'm sorry, sir, but we didn't know—"
Karnes straightened up, and put his hands down. The cigarette case that had been in his right hand all along dropped into his coat pocket.
"That's all right," he said. "Did you see the lad at the foot of the stairs?"
"Sure. Jim Avery. Worked in Assembly. What happened to him?"
"He got in the way of the bullet. Resisting arrest. He's the jasper that set off the little incendiaries that started that mess out there. We've been watching him for months, now, but we didn't get word of this cute stroke until too late."
The guard looked puzzled. "Jim Avery. But why'd he want to do that?"
Karnes looked straight at him. "Leaguer!"
The guard nodded. You never could tell when the League would pop up like that.
Even after the collapse of Communism after the war, the world hadn't learned anything, it seemed. The Eurasian League had seemed, at first, to be patterned after the Western world's United Nations, but it hadn't worked out that way.
The League was jealous of the UN lead in space travel, for one thing, and they had neither the money nor the know-how to catch up. The UN might have given them help, but, as the French delegate had remarked: "For what reason should we arm a potential enemy?"
After all, they argued, with the threat of the UN's Moonbase hanging over the League to keep them peaceful, why should we give them spaceships so they can destroy Moonbase?
The Eurasian League had been quiet for a good many years, brooding, but behaving. Then, three years ago, Moonbase had vanished in a flash of actinic light, leaving only a new minor crater in the crust of Luna.
There was no proof of anything, of course. It had to be written off as an accident. But from that day on, the League had become increasingly bolder; their policy was: "Smash the UN and take the planets for ourselves!"
And now, with Carlson Spacecraft going up in flames, they seemed to be getting closer to their goal.
Karnes accepted his weapon and billfold from the guard and led them back down the stairway. "Would one of you guys phone the State Police? They'll want to know what happened."
The State Police copters came and went, taking Karnes and the late Mr. Avery with them, and leaving behind the now dying glow of Carlson Spacecraft.
There were innumerable forms to fill out and affidavits to make; there was a long-distance call to UN headquarters in New York to verify Karnes' identity. And Karnes asked to borrow the police lab for an hour or so.
That evening, he caught the rocket for Long Island.
As the SR-37 floated through the hard vacuum five hundred miles above central Nebraska, Karnes leaned back in his seat, turning the odd cigarette case over and over in his hands.
Except for the neat, even checking that covered it, the little three-by-four inch object was entirely featureless. There were no catches or hinges, or even any line of cleavage around the edge. He had already found that it wouldn't open.
Whatever it was, it was most definitely not a cigarette case.
The X-ray plates had shown it to be perfectly homogeneous throughout.
As far as I can see, thought Karnes, it's nothing but a piece of acid-proof plastic, except that the specific gravity is way the hell too high. Maybe if I had cut it open, I could have—
Karnes didn't push anything on the case, of that he was sure. Nor did he squeeze, shake, or rub it in any unusual way. But something happened; something which he was convinced came from the case in his hands.
He had the definite impression of something akin to a high-pressure firehose squirting from the interior of the case, through his skull, and into and over his brain, washing it and filling it. Little rivers of knowledge trickled down through the convolutions of his brain, collected in pools, and soaked in.
He was never sure just how long the process took but it was certainly not more than a second or two. Afterwards, he just sat there, staring.
From far across the unimaginable depths of the galaxy, fighting its way through the vast, tenuous dust clouds of interstellar space, came a voice: "Are you ill, sir?"
Karnes looked up at the stewardess. "Oh. Oh, no. No, I'm all right. Just thinking. I'm perfectly all right."
He looked at the "cigarette case" again. He knew what it was, now. There wasn't any English word for it, but he guessed "mind impressor" would come close.
It had done just that; impressed his mind with knowledge he should not have; the record of something he had no business knowing.
And he wished to Heaven he didn't!
This, Karnes considered, is a problem. The stuff is so alien! Just a series of things I know, but can't explain. Like a dream; you know all about it, but it's practically impossible to explain it to anybody else.
At the spaceport, he was met by an official car. George Lansberg, one of the New York agents, was sitting in the back