Logistical Problems

It was over twenty years since a pilot saw unidentified flying objects in Washington State and called them 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 have swerved far away from classical science fiction in which “cold intelligences” watched us from afar with evil intent.

Serving 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 enflamed my science-fiction writer’s imagination into a deeper paranoia, and 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

I was very happy with my story and sent it to John W. Campbell, Jr. at ANALOG as soon as I got home in 1967. He rejected it, with a voluminous letter describing all the questions that I had raised but left unanswered, and told me he would buy the book he knew it could become. I had intentionally left out a lot of that stuff, trying to adapt a science fiction tale to Hemingway’s theory that you could leave anything out if you knew you had left it out; and the reader would sense it and have a strong emotional response.

Being young and stubborn (you might say young and stupid) I thought the story stood on its own…It took me a long, long time to see the justice of his remarks and return to the story, and he never lived to see it. Once I began to explore the themes implied in the original work, the story just grew and grew….

Recently I posted a couple PDF images of chapters, hard to read, because I had misplace the text files. My publisher sent me a copy, so here’s a taste of the tale:

Chapter Two

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 esthetic 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.

But…

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.

Missionaries?

Sentinels against the day, the general said.

What day?

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.

Of course.

What do they call their home world?

The general made an alien sound with his alien mouth. It means ‘dirt,’ he said….

Chapter Four

Still later, on yet another world, he found himself in a ramshackle beach town, outside a low building with a salt-faded sign above dirty plate-glass windows that said “Mac’s Pool Hall.” He set the parking brake on his 1952 Chevy DeLuxe, got out and crossed the sidewalk. Inside, the man he had known first as a general in an improbable interstellar army was shooting a solo game of eight ball. At the lunch counter, a grimy individual in a black T-shirt was cooking on the grill. Hamburger and grilled onions; the odor was all-pervading.

“Hi, Michael,” the general said in English. “You’ve got to work harder on that memory of yours. I’m Raymond Kimball, remember? I’ve never been an Army general in my life. I did make buck sergeant in Korea. You know I’ve told you that story a dozen times, how the Chicoms, when they came in on the side of the North Koreans, rolled right over a lot of our units.” He drove the white ball down the table with a fluid motion of the stick. “They left me for dead with the rest of my unit. We never had a chance.”

Michael walked to a wall-mounted rack and carefully selected a heavy 24-ounce cue. He still needed the weight to compensate for his newborn body’s uncoordinated stroke.

“You were asleep when they came,” he recited. “The first thing you heard was the .50-caliber Browning firing. Then they rolled right over the gunner, because they didn’t count the cost, and didn’t stop because of a few hundred casualties. After they wiped out your whole company, you escaped a bayonet by lying perfectly still under your best friend’s body until they were gone. You breathed up your armpit to conceal the condensation of your breath after his guts stopped steaming in the cold.”

“Very good,” Raymond Kimball said. “Go ahead and rack the balls while I get my burger. Want one?”

Michael barely suppressed a shudder. “Indubitably.”

“Excellent word choice.” Kimball walked to the counter. “That English teacher at the high school — what were their names…?”

“Fletcher High. Duncan U. Fletcher, for the senator. Football team named the Senators. High school annual named the same. The teacher is Mr. Wilson.” Michael racked the balls.

“Go ahead and break.”

Michael failed to sink any balls. Kimball bit into his sandwich, wiped his hands on his greasy mechanic’s coveralls, and sank three in quick succession, scratching on the fourth shot.

“Your turn.”

Michael missed again, and watched Kimball run the table. By then the cook had Michael’s order, and a pair of fountain Cokes, on the counter. “Order up!” he said.

“Let’s sit to eat. I’m starving,” Kimball said.

Michael studied the cook without looking at him.

“Of course he’s synthetic,” Kimball said around another mouthful.

“I thought so. Ever since I’ve been here, I thought so. But Mr. Wilson…”

“Wilson is the genuine article. He actually did teach English at Duncan U. Fletcher, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, in the 1950s. One warm spring evening he left his students’ term papers scattered all over his kitchen table and went for a walk on the beach. Didn’t even take his wallet. He was never seen again. In the due course of events his body was found washed up on the beach. Or what was left of his body after the undercurrents and the fishes got through. The dental work matched his dental records perfectly.”

“Probably more perfectly than Mr. Wilson’s teeth would match those records now?”

“Indubitably.” Kimball smirked. “Mr. Wilson is in considerably better health here than he ever was on Jacksonville Beach, and will live about four times his normal expectancy.”

“As a prisoner.”

Kimball spread his hands. “Fortunes of war. In any event, if Mr. Wilson were party to this conversation, he undoubtedly would quote one of their poets of an earlier period to the effect that stonewalls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. This Jacksonville Beach is considerably safer, cleaner and less subject to strife than the original.” Kimball smiled. “He can walk on the beach out there in perfect safety from flying saucers, for one thing.”

Michael worked on his burger and fries for a while, and his new body surprised him again with its favorable reaction to the fare. He was more accustomed to it now, but still…

“You have to be completely accustomed to it,” Kimball said. “When I say hamburger, you have to salivate, not cringe. Your new body is a perfect terrestrial body, after all. It’s your stubborn brain we still are working on.”

“I live with my grandparents in Florida,” Michael said. “When I was 18, they gave me a completely reconditioned 1952 Chevrolet DeLuxe two-door that gets about 18 miles to the gallon. Three on the tree — that’s a manual transmission with the shift lever mounted to the right of the steering wheel…”

Kimball held up a forestalling hand. “You are a star pupil. I know you’re impatient.’

“I keep saying the war will probably be over before I graduate. Certainly all that basic combat training was a waste of time.”

“You know how government regulations can be. But don’t worry: there’s not much chance this war will be over before you’re ready.”

“Ready to do what? That’s the question. The only thing my tutor drilled me on en route to this world, besides Earth history and English, was telekinetic exercises. Kindergarten stuff.”

“Only to you. You’re one of our most gifted, which brings me a question of my own, a personal one. If you don’t mind?”

“I’ll decide when I hear it.”

“Okay. You know we researched you pretty thoroughly before a decision to induct you. You have no idea how closely your life parallels that of your subject. I’m curious why you use a console for your tg-gwon decoys” — the word clashed strangely amid the English — ”when you could easily manipulate such old-fashioned circuitry with your mind.”

“I use all the ability I have to manipulate the media I paint in. That’s work. Hunting is recreation. Why?”

“Just learning how your mind works. It’s recommended for top management.”

“If you’re top management, maybe you can explain why we aren’t setting ourselves up for failure by having all our operatives trained in a mockup of a single small town? Even a primitive computer could find that pattern and wonder at it.”

“The same…” Kimball stopped. “That’s right. I’m shielded again. Have to be, working with my own kind.” He drained his Coke. “Let’s just say don’t worry about it. You won’t run into any fellow Senators — not from this version of Jacksonville Beach, anyway — when you go operational. By the way, computers there don’t ‘wonder’ about anything. Not yet.”

Michael sorted out the implications as they moved back to the pool table. “How many of these illusory home towns…?”

Kimball shook his head. “Classified.”

“And the number of Mr. Wilsons too, I suppose.”

“Let’s just say we take the absolute minimum for operational necessity, with every attempt made to select those with the least to yearn for.”

“I never have figured out how much of this town is a computer-generated illusion,” Michael said, “and how much actual construction, or how far I’d have to travel before I broke through the backdrop.”

“Good. A little more practice, and you’ll just live the part, like an actor. Your advantage is that this set is virtually perfect, and you can’t see the production crew. Believe me: you have to live it. Memory of Jacksonville Beach has to be in your new central nervous system as unconsciously as your actual home was in your own. It has to be programmed into this body’s muscle memory. Anything less, and the enemy could sniff you out. Discovery of any one of us would create the inference of all of us. The consequences are unthinkable.”

“Right now,” Michael mused, “we’re deep in our own sphere of influence, but far off any regular shipping lanes. So their scouts probably couldn’t find us, even if they could penetrate this deep. I envision isolated little stage sets, as you put it, scattered over the whole face of the planet. And serious defensive measures in orbit.”

“You’ll have to do something about that imagination, Michael.”

“Why? Don’t tell me I’m not scheduled for some sort of induced memory loss, or you’ll insult what’s left of my intelligence. I’m already having dreams too odd even for the natural nightmares of adjusting to a new body.”

Kimball leaned on his stick. “Well…” he said uneasily.

“Don’t worry. I won’t resist. Not if I can assure myself your functionaries know what they’re doing.”

“Well, I’ve been through it — more than once — and here I am.”

“Here you are, all right, eating hamburgers and actually enjoying them. Are you sure you have your own memories back? Maybe they just needed a general to recruit gullible citizens like me, and created his memories for you.”

Kimball laughed, somewhat weakly. “Well, now, that’s something that’s past knowing for sure. But I don’t think so. You’ll learn what I mean. But I can’t have you anticipating. You have to go in open-minded.” He patted Michael’s arm with a real show of affection. “Now let it rest. I’m certainly not going to answer your next question.”

“You mean whether acquisition of assets like Mr. Wilson is at the base of their flying saucer myth?

“What a term, huh? Flying saucers.”

“And the dish ran away with the spoon,” Michael said.

Kimball looked puzzled before he filched the context from Michael’s thoughts. Then he laughed.

“Michael! You made a nursery-rhyme joke, and in English, too. Now I’m impressed. That’s so subtle I almost didn’t get it, and I’ve spent — never mind how many — of their years among them. Mr. Wilson is worth his weight in any precious substance you’d care to name, the way you’re coming along. Your progress makes me nostalgic.”

“Nostalgic?”

“I was with the first survey teams. It was quite an adventure, sneaking in to grab and examine a few natives here and there just to learn some basic biology and language, so we could begin to study their history and culture. Most of those, we put back with erased memories of the encounter. You know we try not to interfere in alien cultures too drastically. They have literally scores of different languages! And even more cultures. We already suspected the enemy was there. But there was no trace of them. That was a puzzle all its own. Every operation, we lived in fear of stepping into some sort of trap. It was — never mind how long — before we knew enough to begin our own infiltration. Now here you are, using a nursery rhyme that way, and you haven’t even completed training yet.”

“I’m still pretty slow,” Michael said. “It just now occurs to me why I won’t have to worry about running into the owner of the body that this one was cloned from. Somebody else is going to go for a walk on the beach pretty soon. But when he comes back, it’ll be me….”

Chapter Eleven

Five terrestrial-calendar weeks later in sidereal time, Powell and Michael crawled into scout-boat acceleration couches in the belly of the mother ship. They had a human pilot this time, who ignored Kimball’s Enterprise dictum by appearing in standard service coveralls instead of Earthling costume, did not wear a Dirtling life-mask, and launched them without ceremony as soon as they were strapped down.

Their approach to the target world seemed to take a long time until a chime sounded and Michael’s couch released him. All of a sudden it seemed too soon. The bridge was in darkness. A chill wind muttered around the fixtures. Michael realized the whole side of the bridge was dilated. His first smell of the planet was salt-laden and he could hear the faint hiss of ocean waves moving below them. He flexed his knees, testing the local gravity for the first time. Another training success: it felt so ordinary as to be immediately forgettable.

“Fohhhr-tirrrt, local morntime,” the pilot said cheerfully.

Michael adjusted his night goggles. “The darkest hour,” he said, remembering Mr. Wilson’s literature teachings.

“Appwoachhh clean.” The pilot’s mangled English reminded Michael briefly of the woman in the crystal room.

“We’re profiling as a shrimp boat on local detectors,” Powell said. “Even if they include any of the opposition’s.”

“A shrimp boat from space?”

“We came in undetected. Don’t ask how I know.”

“I know: classified.”

The pilot grunted with satisfaction. Michael peered into the night. An odd-shaped shadow materialized silently above the deck.

“A helicopter?” Michael said.

“In appearance only,” Powell said.

Michael could barely make out figures transferring something from the ghost ‘copter into a dilated cargo-way. They were carrying a transparent battlefield stretcher. From the height of the bridge they resembled four doodlebugs stealing a giant’s test tube.

“Go belowwwh,” the pilot said. “Thehhh ready…”

“Well, Michael, this is it,” Powell said briskly. “I’ll be dropped later. Good luck.”

They shook hands — staying in character — and Michael slipped his goggles back on to find his way down to the forward cargo-way. All but one of the waiting crew were synthetics in Dirtling form; the other was a resident agent in a hooded jacket.

Michael stared down at himself, suspended naked in the battle stretcher gel. “He didn’t shave this morning,” Michael said.

“Your clothing,” the resident agent said. “Strip, please.”

He peeled off goggles, coverall and boots. Frigid air raised his flesh in goose bumps and ridges. When he pulled on the boxer shorts they handed to him, they still were warm from the body of the man on the stretcher, probably teeming with local microorganisms. He cringed inwardly.

Steady…That was Powell, catching his thought. — They’re your own cooties, after all.

Michael swore out loud. He thought he could hear Powell chuckle all the way from the bridge.

He was somehow surprised that the clothing fitted so well. The wool outer jacket was scratchy against his neck and wrists.

Check pockets for billfold and car keys, Powell reminded.

They’re here.

“Ready?” said the team leader.

Michael paused, looking down at the face blurred by the translucent gel. On impulse, he laid his hand against the shadowed face on the stretcher. He looked at the readout panel. The numbers pulsed, slow and steady; the man from whom his new body had been cloned was deeply asleep, vital signs normal. He looked up.

“Take good care of him, okay? He’ll want his life back, one of these days.”

“No sweat.” The synthetics carried their cargo below. The agent turned back toward the helicopter. “Let’s go.”

There was moisture on the deck plating, but the native rubber of his boot soles gripped it surely. He followed the resident aboard the chopper. They lifted in absolute silence. The resident studied hooded instruments on the bulkhead.

“If anyone shows up within earshot — not likely this time of the morning — we’ll turn on the rotor noise,” he said. “Nobody pays any attention to a helicopter on this coast, with all the Navy and Coast Guard installations around. So far we’re clean all the way…”

Michael saw a darkened coastline slide beneath them. He smelled vegetation and wet dirt. Earth, he corrected himself. Better usage. It was somehow alien and familiar at the same time. Almost immediately there was the muted twinkle of star shine on still water.

“Yes, a lake,” the other answered his unspoken question. “Located just behind the barrier dunes.”

They lost altitude, until they barely skimmed the water. Moments later, they sidled up to a ragged pile of brush growing out of the water. Small dark shapes bobbed all around it. “Careful, now, we don’t want to dunk you.”

He crouched forward to the open hatch. “What…?”

“Careful. It’s a boat, hidden in the brush. This is what they call a duck blind.”

Michael was momentarily incredulous. “Is this Kimball’s idea of a final joke?”

“I thought you were fully briefed — ”

“Never mind. How do I…?”

“Here — I’ll hang onto one arm — good. Now step off carefully, right onto the stern. It’ll sag with your weight, but it won’t tip. I tried it when we took him out. Watch the outboard motor…”

He was in, hanging onto the brush, which crackled and filled his nostrils with acrid odor. The boat rocked under his feet.

“All set?”

He took a deep breath. “All set.”

“Luck!” The looming shadow was quickly swallowed in the gloom.

He was alone.

He didn’t know how long he stood there, straining for some last glimpse of the scout-boat as it lifted away from the coast. He never saw it. Gradually he became aware of a diffuse light from the shoreline, a light that moved and strengthened. Streamers of mist became visible in the light, broke it and bounced it in unexpected ways…

He nearly yelped in fright as blinding headlight beams burst over a hill, followed by the growl of a heavy diesel engine. He sagged in relief as he identified a tractor-trailer rig racing north on the coast highway, covered with enough running lights to equip a circus. Now he knew where he was: Guano Lake, south down the coast from Jacksonville Beach, where Michael DeLong hunted bluebills and hoped for mallards.

“So he didn’t go for a walk on the beach after all,” he muttered. “What a rotten place for it to happen. Why…” His memory struggled to complete the thought, failed. He had been thinking — trying to think — of his own wing-shooting hobby. The memory refused to form. So they’d succeeded in wiping his memory at last. Somehow this seemed the worst possible time to discover that fact.

He sat down very carefully. With the last echoes of the truck’s passage, silence returned. A light breeze rustled the stems of the blind. Off across the lake a creature called stridently. A rooster, by god. Cold seeped under his primitive clothing. It was too dark to see a thing. He searched his training for a reference; no night goggles on this world.

“Flashlight,” he said, and felt in his coat pockets.

No flashlight, but he turned up some gloves and a wool watch cap, and put them on. The wool made him itch. After a while he felt warmer. He dozed. Voices raised above a sputtering motor woke him to gray dawn. He peeped through the blind and saw a low, dark boat with two figures in it, out toward the center of the lake. His first sight of real Dirtlings in their native habitat. He watched them out of sight.

He could see inside his boat now. He found a vacuum bottle in a canvas knapsack, opened it and smelled coffee; much better. It burned going down but it tasted wonderful. A sound like ripping silk rustled over his head and he glanced up. A swarm of streamlined shapes slanted down from an extreme height, wings cupped. Without conscious thought, he fumbled for a gun.

It was in a canvas sheath. A pump shotgun. He squinted at the words etched on the side of the barrel ahead of the receiver. Winchester Model 12, 16 gauge.

“Well, which is it?” he said irritably. “Twelve or sixteen?”

At the sound of his voice, rapid pattering outside the blind told of hurried departure. He scrabbled around in the knapsack, came up with a pasteboard box with a picture of a shot shell on the side. He read the box until he saw the 16-gauge designation, then opened the flap and took out a couple; the shells themselves were amazingly primitive; some kind of impregnated cardboard on metal base. The shotgun didn’t operate exactly the way sample firearms had in training, any more than a Cadillac was like a Plymouth Fury, but the engineering was fairly easy to figure out. He put the gun aside.

There was an apple in the knapsack, and sandwiches enclosing a pasty brown spread he couldn’t identify. He tried the apple first. It was delicious. The sandwiches were edible, but the brown substance stuck to the roof of his mouth. He washed it away with the rest of the coffee.

None of this was totally alien because of his Dirtling diet and the information they’d crammed into his mind day and night, but he was beginning to realize just how hurried his training had been. Would the real Michael go home early from a hunting trip, for instance? He would if the ducks weren’t flying, that seemed safe enough. But why was he here in the first place? He’d been led to believe Michael was in the army now, not at home.

Home on leave after Military Police School, came Powell’s thought instantly. — You go back to the Army tomorrow morning. Just go home naturally, and everything will proceed as planned. You’ll know what to do…

He considered the simple outboard motor clamped to the boat. Its operation was no challenge for a graduate of Kimball’s Garage, but once he had it running, where did he go?

Powell?

North up the lake, about a mile. On the western shore is a fish camp. Remember: west is opposite from where the sun rises. A faded board sign on the dock house: DeGrove’s. Your car is there. Communication ends…

He stared across the lake. There was no visible evidence of civilization. A distant tracery of sentient thought-streams came from several points, too far and too alien to pinpoint.

He had never felt lonelier in his life….

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Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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