Another Of My Books
I’d like to dedicate A Matter of Logistics to John W. Campbell, Jr., who really liked the novella of the same title I submitted to him in 1968 — liked it so well he said turn it into a novel and I will buy it. Of course he had a lot of ideas he thought I should explore in that novel. I replied that I thought the story was complete. He replied with a story about a peg-leg sea captain who held the children of his retirement town spellbound with his many and varied yarns … but nothing about how he lost his leg.
Finally one youngster braver than the rest asked him: “Cap’n — what happened to your leg?” And he snapped back, “It was bit off!”
And the name of that story is “Logistics,” Campbell concluded.
The time here on Earth is the 1960s when the Cold War was chilly indeed, and Khrushchev had predicted planting a Red Star on our White House by 1980. The big debate was whether it was better to be Red or Dead since no one could envision a future in which the Free World beat the Iron Curtain.
It was over twenty years since a pilot saw unidentified flying objects in Washington State. They were called flying saucers and the term stuck; whole subcultures burned bonfires in the desert to guide aliens to a safe landing. A book was published called Interrupted Journey about a couple who said they had been taken aboard a flying saucer and examined, which was to lead to a whole genre of books with increasingly imaginative claims; then the movies would get in the act with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a Coors-drinking ET cuddly as a Panda bear. Descriptions of aliens had swerved far away from classical science fiction in which “cold intelligences” watched us from afar with evil intent.
Serving as a Military Police security guard in the Army in a Germany that seemed forever bifurcated, its old capital divided by a Wall that was never going to come down, the paranoia of the times inflamed my science-fiction writer’s imagination into a deeper paranoia. A Matter of Logistics was born as a short novella pounded out on a typewriter whose usual usage was secret password lists and travel orders for nuclear convoys.
Other writers had dealt with aliens among us who are too clever by half, but the images that came to me in Germany were enough to raise my neck hairs.
All the machinations of warlike humankind were of about as much importance as the hunting-ground squabbles of American Indians were to colonists; even less, really.
Consider an isolated island in a deep, deep sea whose inhabitants think themselves alone in the universe with their various One True Religions and philosophies and so forth. Then one day the big gray battleships hove to offshore … but wait, that’s not the sophisticated approach.
Not if you want to use the natives in your own massive war; not if you take the long view compared to their short-lived truculence. Your only real concern is keeping your ancestral enemy from knowing you have slipped into this new world like a virus and begun to bend its history into a shape you need to create a major armed threat on your enemy’s flank.
And if you’re the enemy, and have intelligence to suggest that’s what has happened on this isolated island, your only real concern will be slipping into this new world so very surreptitiously that your infinitely paranoid and hyper-alert foe will not know you are looking for him, and trying to suss out his design in this remote and unlikely corner of that deep, deep sea.
The more you learn, the more you need to keep him from learning that you know what he’s doing … so it’s spy versus spy against the backdrop of local paranoia developed in their quaint little planet-bound arms race. All because of the issue of logistics — how to mount a flanking attack at some future date, or how to defeat it without simply rubbing out the island, which would be efficient but unethical …
The storm rolled in off the ocean with the bitterness of the polar icecap in its gales. Heavy surf thumped against the worn black stone at the mouth of the small estuary. Pleasure boats and fishing craft had long since gone to ground in snug harbors.
The hunter, crouched in his tumbled rock blind above the tidemark, was thankful for the thermal relays in his drab coverall. The ionized field in his goggles kept them clear of spray which froze on contact with his hood and face mask.
One of the ten oversize decoys which rode sedately in the estuary had begun to tail out of formation, pulled by the tide. The hunter tugged a glove loose. The cold numbed his hand almost instantly. His touch was clumsy on the decoy console. Too much power heeled the stray hard over as he moved it back into position. Estuary water licked up the decoy’s left side and froze instantly. The decoy maintained its unnatural list under the abrupt weight of the ice. He maneuvered it out of formation and hid it tight against the tough shoreline vegetation.
The ear ruff of the massive saurian that squatted beside him suddenly stiffened, its steely sheen darkening toward slate. The tense excitement in the retriever’s primitive brain quivered along the hunter’s awareness, as if he could see what it saw. Then he did see: a long skein of dots above the spin-drift on the peninsula.
He dropped his exposed hand to the taut ruff. It was like caressing the stone of the shoreline. A slight shiver transmitted itself through his numbed fingers.
Steady, he mumbled behind his heated face mask.
It was too late to replace his glove, too late to move at all, while the eyes of that migrant flock raked the cove for danger. His pulse thudded heavily in his ears. First flock of the winter! Coming his way as if on rails. He could hear the first wild cries now, shredded by the wind…
Visitors, said a mellow voice in his ear. We have visitors…
The hunter jerked minutely, controlled it. I’m not home, he whispered irritably. Tell them I’m not home. I’m hunting, damn it!
Visitors in parking orbit near home airspace, his home’s voice told him serenely. The flock beat steadily closer, their cries more plainly heard. The retriever’s neck seemed to hum like a drawn bowstring. Very close now.
Visitors request personal audience, Priority One, government.
The words distracted him. That’s a war priority.
Visitors insist on landing clearance.
The flight leader’s call turned strident, and the determined beat of its mighty pinions checked momentarily. Hesitation swept through the flock.
Oh, shut up!
He wasted one shot on the leader as it caught the upper, running wind and whipped out of range. The retriever, startled, launched into a breaking wave. The rest of the flock scattered from the blue-white flash of the energy beam. His second shot went true. One of the flock tumbled away from a burst of smoke and feathers, and raised a brief bright geyser on impact with the water. The saurian powered its prize beneath the surface in a quick boil and swirl, and it was over. The vast sable carcass nearly obscured the hulking saurian head as it stroked for shore.
Visitors have landed, and insist on immediate audience, Priority One, his home told him.
The hunter thumbed open his gun to eject the spent power cells. Out across the estuary, another line of dots moved in off the ocean. He replaced his glove and watched them. Now that his concentration was broken, he did not need his domestic machinery to tell him of visitors.
The distant babble which sentient minds could not help broadcasting to one of his peculiar mental gifts was undiluted by the storm and the cold.
Regretfully he leaned his open gun against the blind and took up the console to call the remaining nine decoys in. Without need for guile, they motored in smartly to ground beside the defective unit. The retriever muscled its heavy load up the beach.
Visitors request admittance, said his home.
He sighed. Admittance granted. Provide refreshments in the visitor’s lounge. Have the decoys picked up on the beach. Number seven’s got a short in the positioning circuitry and thermal de-icing relays. He stroked the glossy breast feathers of the twon, marred where the charge had gone home. The retriever was watching the progress of the new flock up the estuary.
He whistled sharply. Bring it, he said, and tucked his gun under his arm.
He had to repeat the command to convince the retriever they were leaving. By the time it grunted its burden over its massive shoulder, he was at the lift tube concealed in the base of the cliff.
At the top of the tube he stepped out into his gun room and hung his gun on a twon-talon rack before he stripped out of his coverall. A fire burned low in the tile grate across the room. The retriever sprawled in front of the grate after it deposited the twon by the service tube. The hunter, half-attuned now to the neural murmur of his unwelcome visitors, rubbed its ear ruff briefly and got a contented rumble in response.
“Not as young as you used to be, eh? One’s enough after all?” He gave a final rub and headed for his bedroom. “Well, maybe we’ll be back out there before dark, you never know.”
But he did know. With these visitors beneath his roof, there was no way he couldn’t know. He paused to give a lingering look to the only room in existence which suited him in every detail, right down to the hunting coverall flung across his easy chair. A goodbye look.
The hunter received his visitors in his studio with the ocean-side walls translucent to the growing storm. In that subtle shift of grey values, his work-in-progress on the easel wall took on an unexpected emotional impact. The visitors halted at the entrance, caught not by the storm, but by the vast stillness of his art.
“So this is what you’ve been about,” the arts commissioner said to him. “It’s breathtaking.”
“I’ve heard you were good,” said the stranger at the commissioner’s elbow. He wore the simple undress uniform of an Army general. “I had no idea…
“Alien cities in the rain,” said the third visitor, softly. “Twilight, strange odors, the layered reek of unfamiliar civilization beneath the clouds, with no way to guess what sun, or moons, they can see when it is clear…”
The general studied the work-wall more narrowly, and suddenly grunted. “There’s been an incredible security leak.”
“Yes,” the second stranger said. “Yes! I see it too. Why, look right there. That’s…”
“Hush!” the general said, forgetting where he was, and with whom.
Their host regarded them with ill-concealed excitement. He had almost forgotten his ill temper at being interrupted in his autumnal sport. “So it’s true!” he said. “A new sentient race discovered, and well along its climb to the stars!”
The general regarded him without expression. But beneath that mask, his brain was in turmoil. “This breach of security is extremely serious. It is unthinkable that you have been sitting here casually sketching impressions of a world absolutely unknown outside our highest offices of government. I am afraid our initial purpose for this visit must be put aside until we…”
“General, general!” It was the arts commissioner, laughing, with an expression of kindly condescension. “You should realize that what you see in one of his paintings is what you bring to it, not evidence of high crimes!”
“Should I indeed?” Tightly.
“Yes you should! I, for example, have no idea what you’re talking about, or why you two reacted so violently to this work. I see only a new masterpiece in the making. Perhaps” — he addressed their host — “one of your best.” Then commercial caution overcame his aesthetic appraisal. “Rough-hewn, at this point, it is true. Much to be done. But if you bring it off, it will be quite something when you…”
The hunter, who was sometimes a famous artist, well-accustomed to the arts commissioner’s internal struggle between aesthetic honesty and negotiating dissimulation, was suddenly neither.
He was an outraged citizen.
“General, you violate my hospitality,” he said flatly.
The general’s expression didn’t alter — couldn’t alter, under the artificial mask hiding his true face. But his voice turned dangerous. “Your meaning, sir?:
“You just now attempted to send a coded signal to armed security forces orbiting outside my airspace. Had you been successful, it would have resulted in an attempted invasion of my home with an intent to detain my person under the war secrets act. Your action is ill-founded. I will not permit you to embarrass yourself and the service whose uniform you wear.”
The general drew himself up. “Not permit…!”
“No, sir, I will not. Unless you desist, I will terminate this interview and eject you. My home’s defenses will meet an illegal invasion with necessary force.”
“Now, now!” The arts commissioner was alarmed. “No need to take on so.” To the general: “Artists are so temperamental, you realize.” Back to their host: “There is a war on, you know.”
“I am fully aware there’s a war on. I am equally aware that no war powers so far enacted have suspended common civil rights. I will not be treated as a suspect.”
“But you…” began the general.
“Indeed. You knowingly come into close proximity to me, bearing state secrets unshielded. These secrets bear upon your unscheduled arrival here. Vocalization is our common method of communication, so I vocalize. If security is breached by my new knowledge, the breach is yours for seeking me out.”
“I told you this would be touchy,” the arts commissioner said to the general.
Beneath his impassive face, the general’s thoughts continued to boil. He was clearly not accustomed to a civilian home being able to damp official military channels of communication. “My reports,” he said tightly, “were that you would not permit visitors in your presence with military-grade shields.”
“Your reports were correct,” the artist said. “Yet I perceive that you and your subordinate possess some sort of shielding unknown to me, and highly classified.”
The general’s agitated brain seemed to shift from boiling with frustrated anger to frozen disbelief. “You can’t know that!”
The artist permitted himself a grim smile. “We people of the Northern Islands have certain gifts. They have proven useful to our entire society before this.”
“Of course you do. Of course they have. But nothing in our file hints at what you have just demonstrated.”
The artist shrugged. “I know you are wearing a life-mask. I know you believed your new shielding would be indiscernible to me. Your very thoughts scream these things so loudly I could not ignore them if I wanted to. The answer to the question you are trying to form is: no, I am not able to grasp why. I have made no attempt to pry deeper. To do so would be to violate the obligations of hospitality.”
“Those iron rules of the North,” the general said dryly. “Did I not violate my obligation as a guest by attempting to summon my forces?”
“Unsuccessfully,” the artist pointed out. “And you did not persist, once thwarted by routine procedures.” He said no more, and waited.
“I see,” the general said finally. Then, with a long exhalation of breath: “Forgive my breach of etiquette. I have been too long at the front, and have almost forgotten how to behave as a citizen.”
The artist gestured, accepting the apology. “My home has fine fresh twon in the larder, taken just as you arrived. First of the season. I would be pleased to continue our visit over dinner.”
“Twon?” the general said. “Ah, twon…”
“We accept, of course,” the arts commissioner said quickly. “It will be a celebration.”
“A farewell dinner,” the artist agreed.
“Then you know our purpose?” the general said.
“Even an artist cannot escape conscription forever.”
“You contemplate no appeal?”
The arts commissioner cringed. “General…”
“Overlooked,” the artist said kindly. “The general already has explained his nerves are taxed by war. I will answer: I am old-fashioned enough to be a patriot. A society in which an artist can hold a general at bay is worth defending. I am not scatter-brained enough to sign up for a space-infantry jump suit, but I am prepared to serve when my government finds a need for my particular talents.
“You seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of a new race discovered,” the general said. He fumbled with his collar. “Permit me to show you…”
His face parted at a seam and came off in his hand. A pale-fleshed alien looked out at the artist, and stuffed its human mask into a uniform pocket.
“The miracle repeated once more,: the artist breathed. “You have lived among them?”
“You cannot tell?”
“I see you have. Are they star travelers?”
“Not yet. Perhaps never.”A sadness tinged the general’s thoughts.
“Not potential allies then?”
“Potential enemies,” the general said flatly.
“Our enemies were there before us. As always.” The pale plain face, its lower half shadowed by a stippling that the artist realized was primitive hair growth, was very mobile. It assumed a bleak look that matched the general’s thought. “We must have recruits with your particular talent,” he said, “to go behind the enemy lines and move among these people.”
“Sentinels against the day,” the general said.
“The day that our enemies loose this new threat against us. To them, this new race is expendable. Your role will be to simulate an expendable to perfection.”
The arts commissioner could contain himself no longer. “Think of it! Just think of it! An entire pre-space planet full of differentiated cultures, civilizations, alien dreams to absorb. Think of the work you can do when the war is over, or…” His thoughts shied away. So did those of the two military men as they tried not to think the unthinkable.
The artist stared at the general. “Sentinel you said. Why do your thoughts reek of genocide?”
“Only as the last recourse,” the general said. “It is, unfortunately, a simple matter of logistics. Some in our high command would prefer simply to render this world sterile right now. Fortunately” — he overrode the artist’s reaction — “that opinion does not prevail. But we cannot wait until our enemies equip them for war-material production, and loose them on our flank. Our forces already are spread far too thin across too much volume of space to withstand a quantum leap in opposing force.”
“You fear these primitives?”
“Study our own history,” the general said. “Imagine our own race in its wild young days, suddenly offered the stars and all the means to navigate them — with a common enemy to unite our quarrelsome ancestors. We would have jumped at the chance.”
“It may not come to genocide,” the arts commissioner wheedled softly. “Just think of the things you’ll see!”
“I am thinking of it.” He looked at the general. “These people, of course, think of themselves as the only humans in the galaxy.”
“What do they call their home world?”