- Author: Keith Laumer
Read book online «Greylorn by Keith Laumer (bookstand for reading .TXT) 📕». Author - Keith Laumer
By KEITH LAUMER
Keith Laumer is a writer new to science fiction. In this story he displays the finesse, artistry and imagination of an old pro. Here is one of the tightest, tautest stories of interplanetary adventure in a long while:Table of Contents PROLOGUE 29 CHAPTER 1 33 CHAPTER 2 57 EPILOGUE 65 PROLOGUE
The murmur of conversation around the conference table died as the World Secretary entered the room and took his place at the head of the table.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said. “I’ll not detain you with formalities today. The representative of the Navy Department is waiting outside to present the case for his proposal. You all know something of the scheme; it has been heard and passed as feasible by the Advisory Group. It will now be our responsibility to make the decision. I ask that each of you in forming a conclusion remember that our present situation can only be described as desperate, and that desperate measures may be in order.”
The Secretary turned and nodded to a braided admiral seated near the door who left the room and returned a moment later with a young gray-haired Naval Officer.
“Members of the Council,” said the admiral, “this is Lieutenant Commander Greylorn.” All eyes followed the officer as he walked the length of the room to take the empty seat at the end of the table.
“Please proceed, Commander,” said the Secretary.
“Thank you, Mr. Secretary.” The Commander’s voice was unhurried and low, yet it carried clearly and held authority. He began without preliminary.
“When the World Government dispatched the Scouting Forces forty-three years ago, an effort was made to contact each of the twenty-five worlds to which this government had sent Colonization parties during the Colonial Era of the middle Twentieth Centuries. With the return of the last of the scouts early this year, we were forced to realize that no assistance would be forthcoming from that source.”
The Commander turned his eyes to the world map covering the wall. With the exception of North America and a narrow strip of coastal waters, the entire map was tinted an unhealthy pink.
“The latest figures compiled by the Department of the Navy indicate that we are losing area at the rate of one square mile every twenty-one hours. The organism’s faculty for developing resistance to our chemical and biological measures appears to be evolving rapidly. Analyses of atmospheric samples indicate the level of noxious content rising at a steady rate. In other words, in spite of our best efforts, we are not holding our own against the Red Tide.”
A mutter ran around the table, as Members shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“A great deal of thought has been applied to the problem of increasing our offensive ability. This in the end is still a question of manpower and raw resources. We do not have enough. Our small improvements in effectiveness have been progressively offset by increasing casualties and loss of territory. In the end, alone, we must lose.”
The Commander paused, as the murmur rose and died again. “There is however, one possibility still unexplored,” he said. “And recent work done at the Polar Research Station places the possibility well within the scope of feasibility. At the time the attempt was made to establish contact with the colonies, one was omitted. It alone now remains to be sought out. I refer to the Omega Colony.”
A portly Member leaned forward and burst out, “The location of the colony is unknown!”
The Secretary intervened. “Please permit the Commander to complete his remarks. There will be ample opportunity for discussion when he has finished.”
“This contact was not attempted for two reasons,” the Commander continued. “First, the precise location was not known; second, the distance was at least twice that of the earlier colonies. At the time, there was a feeling of optimism which seemed to make the attempt superfluous. Now the situation has changed. The possibility of contacting Omega Colony now assumes paramount importance.
“The development of which I spoke is a new application of drive principle which has given to us a greatly improved effective velocity for space propulsion. Forty years ago, the minimum elapsed time of return travel to the presumed sector within which the Omega World should lie was about a century. Today we have the techniques to construct a small scouting vessel capable of making the transit in  just over five years. We cannot hold out here for a century, perhaps; but we can manage a decade.
“As for location, we know the initial target point toward which Omega was launched. The plan was of course that a precise target should be selected by the crew after approaching the star group closely enough to permit telescopic planetary resolution and study. There is no reason why the crew of a scout could not make the same study and examination of possible targets, and with luck find the colony.
“Omega was the last colonial venture undertaken by our people, two centuries after the others. It was the best equipped and largest expedition of them all. It was not limited to one destination, little known, but had a presumably large selection of potentials from which to choose; and her planetary study facilities were extremely advanced. I have full confidence that Omega made a successful planetfall and has by now established a vigorous new society.
“Honorable Members of the Council, I submit that all the resources of this Government should be at once placed at the disposal of a task force with the assigned duty of constructing a fifty-thousand-ton scouting vessel, and conducting an exhaustive survey of a volume of space of one thousand A.U.’s centered on the so-called Omega Cluster.”
The World Secretary interrupted the babble which arose with the completion of the officer’s presentation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, time is of the essence of our problem. Let’s proceed at once to orderly interrogation. Mr. Klayle, lead off, please.”
The portly Councillor glared at the Commander. “The undertaking you propose, sir, will require a massive diversion of our capacities from defense. That means losing ground at an increasing rate to the obscenity crawling over our planet. That same potential applied to direct offensive measures may yet turn the balance in our favor. Against this, the possibility of a scouting party stumbling over the remains of a colony the location of which is almost completely problematical, and which by analogy with all of the earlier colonial attempts has at best managed to survive as a marginal foothold, is so fantastically remote as to be inconsiderable.”
The Commander listened coolly, seriously. “Mr. Councillor,” he replied, “as to our defensive measures, we have passed the point of diminishing returns. We have more knowledge now than we are capable of employing against the plague. Had we not neglected the physical sciences as we have for the last two centuries, we might have developed adequate measures before we had been so far reduced in numbers and area as to be unable to produce and employ the new weapons our laboratories have  belatedly developed. Now we must be realistic; there is no hope in that direction.
“As to the location of the Omega World, our plan is based on the fact that the selection was not made at random. Our scout will proceed along the Omega course line as known to us from the observations which were carried on for almost three years after its departure. We propose to continue on that line, carrying out systematic observation of each potential sun in turn. As we detect planets, we will alter course only as necessary to satisfy ourselves as to the possibility of suitability of the planet. We can safely assume that Omega will not have bypassed any likely target. If we should have more than one prospect under consideration at any time, we shall examine them in turn. If the Omega World has developed successfully, ample evidence should be discernible at a distance.”
Klayle muttered “Madness,” and subsided. The angular member on his left spoke gently, “Mr. Greylorn, why, if this colonial venture has met with the success you assume, has its government not reestablished contact with the mother world during the last two centuries?”
“On that score, Mr. Councillor, we can only conjecture,” the Commander said. “The outward voyage may have required as much as fifty or sixty years. After that, there must have followed a lengthy period of development and expansion in building the new world. It is not to be expected that the pioneers would be ready to expend resources in expeditionary ventures for some time.”
“I do not completely understand your apparent confidence in the ability of the hypothetical Omega culture to supply massive aid to us, even if its people should be so inclined,” said a straight-backed woman member. “The time seems very short for the mastery of an alien world.”
“The population development plan, Madam, provided for an increase from the original 10,000 colonists to approximately 40,000 within twenty years, after which the rate of increase would of course rapidly grow. Assuming sixty years for planetfall, the population should now number over one hundred sixty millions. Given population, all else follows.”
Two hours later, the World Secretary summed up. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the facts before us. There still exist differences in interpretation, which however will not be resolved by continued repetition. I now call for a vote on the resolution proposed by the Military Member and presented by Commander Greylorn.”
There was silence in the Council Chamber as the votes were recorded and tabulated. Then the World Secretary sighed softly.
“Commander,” he said, “the Council has approved the resolution. I’m sure that there will be general agreement that you will be placed at the head of the project, since you were director of the team which developed the new drive and are also the author of the plan. I wish you the best of luck.” He rose and extended his hand.
The first keel plate of the Armed Courier Vessel Galahad was laid thirty-two hours later.CHAPTER 1
I expected trouble when I left the bridge. The tension that had been building for many weeks was ready for release in violence. The ship was silent as I moved along the passageway. Oddly silent, I thought; something was brewing.
I stopped before the door of my cabin, listening; then I put my ear to the wall. I caught the faintest of sounds from within; a muffled click, voices. Someone was inside, someone attempting to be very quiet. I was not overly surprised. Sooner or later the trouble had had to come into the open. I looked up the passage, dim in the green glow of the nightlights. There was no one in sight.
I listened. There were three voices, too faint to identify. The clever thing for me to do now would be to walk back up to the bridge, and order the Provost Marshall to clear my cabin, but I had an intuitive feeling that that was not the way to handle the situation. It would make things much simpler all around if I could push through this with as little commotion as possible.
There was no point in waiting. I took out my key and placed it soundlessly in the slot. As the door slid back I stepped briskly into the room. Kramer, the Medical Officer, and Joyce, Assistant Communications Officer, stood awkwardly, surprised. Fine, the Supply Officer, was sprawled on my bunk. He sat up quickly.
They were a choice selection. Two of them were wearing sidearms. I wondered if they were ready to use them, or if they knew just how far they were prepared to go. My task would be to keep them from finding out.
I avoided looking surprised. “Good evening, gentlemen,” I said cheerfully. I stepped to the liquor cabinet, opened it, poured Scotch into a glass. “Join me in a drink?” I said.
None of them answered. I sat down. I had to move just a little faster than they did, and by holding the initiative, keep them off balance. They had counted on hearing my approach, having a few moments to get set, and using my surprise against me. I had reversed their play and taken the advantage. How long I could keep it depended on how well I played my few cards. I plunged ahead, as I saw Kramer take a breath and wrinkle his brow, about to make his pitch.
“The men need a change, a break in the monotony,” I said.  “I’ve been considering a number of possibilities.” I fixed my eyes on Fine as I talked. He sat stiffly on the edge of my bunk. Already he was regretting his boldness in presuming to rumple the Captain’s bed.
“It might be a good bit of drill to set