Author: William L. Hamling
Release date: July 26, 2021 [eBook #65925]
Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
MacMartree knew that Man was omnipotent—Master
of the Universe. But could he expect his
patrol to fight and conquer an invisible enemy?
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
They made their camp high on the breast of the gently swelling hill. As the small planet turned toward the sunset, MacMartree stood a moment on the hillside, watching. Far out on the grass-covered plain their ship stood gleaming, a slender candle, touched by the flame of the sinking sun. Then, quickly, the far horizon caught the sun and pulled it under, and the gloom of night rushed in to drown the pale twilight.
"Night comes so fast here," Abner said, at MacMartree's side.
"Yes," MacMartree agreed, turning to him. "And day comes even faster. Time for sleep now, with morning only four hours away."
"I can't get used to it," Abner said as they moved back into the camp area. "Sleeping and waking in four hour bits!"
MacMartree laughed at that. "Abner, you're getting old. You can't adapt anymore."
Abner laughed, too, and unrolled his sleep-kit for the night.
MacMartree walked to the place where Phillips and Cole lay on the ground, talking casually and watching the stars.
"Time to switch on the screen, Phillips," MacMartree reminded the younger man.
Phillips nodded, sat up and reached for the control box that lay on the earth beside him. He closed the circuit, and the force-screen bloomed around them, glimmering softly like a thin veil of glowing fireflies.
"Kind of useless, that, don't you think?" Cole asked.
MacMartree sat down beside them.
"It's one of the rules, and no patrol ever came to grief by following the rules."
Phillips lay back on the turf. "No patrol ever came to grief at all, you mean. I'm bored to death."
MacMartree smiled tolerantly. "I know. It's a quiet life."
Abner came over and joined them, completing the party. "What're you three up to?" he wanted to know.
MacMartree yawned. "They're trying to get me to argue with them, as an excuse for not sleeping."
"Not a bad idea, either," Cole grinned.
"You youngsters will be the death of me," MacMartree complained. "Don't you know an old man needs his sleep?"
"Come on, Mac," Phillips teased. "Tell us why the patrols are necessary."
They all laughed then, and MacMartree grinned. "I know how it is with you young ones," he said. "You're tired of the dull and safe life back home and joined the Service, only to find it just as dull and safe as anything else."
"Tell me," Phillips put in, "can't anything happen to us anymore?"
"Yes," Cole said. "We can die of old age."
It didn't take much. The three young men had known it wouldn't take much to get MacMartree started ... it seldom did.
"Youth never fails to amaze me," he said. The younger men recognized it as a preamble, and settled themselves comfortably in the warm darkness to listen.
"Look at you now," he went on. "You complain that your life here on Patrol is tedious and uninteresting. Nothing ever happens, you say. And it means nothing to you that the dangers and misfortunes you talk of never threaten you because you have been given the power to prevent and cope with anything."
He sat up now, warming to his subject. "You take no pride in your heritage. Man is completely sufficient unto himself, and beyond that. There is an old word I have found in my reading...." He paused, trying to remember.
"Omnipotent," he said at last. "Man is omnipotent."
"All-potent?" Abner asked. "All-powerful?"
"That's right ... it's an archaic word, but it fits," MacMartree told them. "But you don't appreciate your power, because you don't realize what your life would be without it.
"In my books, I've read of the things our species suffered, before our knowledge reached fulfillment. When we were bound to Earth, there were wars; men—killed one another."
The young men shook their heads, wondering at the folly of their kind many thousands of years before.
"And there were other things, too. As we cut ourselves loose from Earth, and burrowed into the farthest reaches of the Galaxies, looking for new worlds like this one, there were terrible dangers, dreadful enemies and elements to cope with. And at first, man was foolish ... continually meeting his enemies on their own ground. Until at last, our wisdom prevailed.
"We devised ways and means to detect and destroy anything that endangered us, long before the danger could be manifested. Like here, on this planet ... but you know about that."
"Radiation, wasn't that it?" said Cole.
"Yes," MacMartree said. "The discovery ship took its readings from out there somewhere, out where this place was only a dust mote in the glare of its sun. They drained off the radiation, scattered it into the void, then seeded the place with grass and went away."
"But that's what I don't understand," Phillips objected. "Why must we patrol? When the discoverers found this planet, they destroyed the only thing about it that could be harmful to man ... so why must we be here?"
MacMartree shrugged. "Caution, boy ... call it caution. We are here to see and observe. The discoverers do not accept their readings as infallible, though I suspect that they are. We're here on the one chance in a hundred million that somewhere on this little world, there's a being or an element that might bear enmity toward mankind."
Abner sighed. "And so we patrol ... for a year."
"Yes," MacMartree agreed. "For a year. And after the year, another patrol, and another year, and so on through a hundred patrols and years, until the place is classified safe for colonization."
"I think my species is cowardly," Cole said, a trifle hotly.
"Cautious," MacMartree corrected gently. "Only cautious. It's as it should be ... they have set up rules of caution, and we've never suffered for it."
"Except from boredom," Phillips cut in, and they all laughed again.
"Really though," said MacMartree, "you should be proud, not bored. Think of it, if the sun that just rolled down the horizon should suddenly begin to expand into a super-nova, it's within our ability to restore it to its normal status. Should a comet sweep this planet tonight and drag a tail of poisonous gases over us as we sleep, our force screen would protect us, and our mechanisms and devices would make the air sweet and clean for us in minutes. If—oh, but you know. Appreciate your power, your ability. Be glad you are what you are!"
The young men smiled in the darkness, because, of course, they were proud, and satisfied, and pleased with their own omnipotence.
MacMartree slept the sleep of the aged, curled in the clinging, billowy warmth of his sleep-kit. It took him a minute to rouse, when Cole came and shook him by the shoulder.
"It's Phillips," Cole was saying. "Come and see him, Mac, come and see."
"Eh?" MacMartree questioned. "What about Phillips?"
"There's something—something wrong with him. I don't know ... come and see, Mac!"
Abner lighted the lamp, and MacMartree blinked against the glare that flooded the area within the screen. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the brilliance, he saw what was happening to Phillips.
"You see?" Cole said, in great agitation. "Something is wrong with him."
As they watched, the stricken Phillips retched and vomited again. MacMartree's nostrils crinkled at the offensive odor of it.
"Throw a disposal over that," he directed Abner. The younger man went to his pack and returned with the disposal unit. One of the disposal wafers took care of the mess Phillips had made.
"What's wrong with him?" Abner asked, completely bewildered.
MacMartree searched his memory for the word. "Sick," he said at last. "Phillips is sick."
"Sick?" Cole echoed.
"What's that?" Abner wanted to know.
"I don't know, exactly. I've only read about it, in my books. A long time ago, men got sick, like this."
"But why?" Abner and Cole said it together.
"I don't know." He bent down over Phillips. "Are you going to do that anymore?" he asked.
Phillips looked up at him dully. "I ... I don't think so," he said, weakly and breathlessly.
"Lie back," MacMartree commanded. "Close your eyes. Sleep if you can. Maybe we can help you."
Phillips nodded, lips bluish and tight, his whole face a ghastly pewter hue. He put his head down, eyelids fluttered shut. MacMartree regarded him in silence for several minutes.
"This could be what you've been wanting," he said at last to Cole and Abner.
"Something's happening, isn't it? Something we didn't look for. Maybe there's reason for patrols after all, eh?"
Cole frowned. "You mean...." He didn't finish it. He got up quickly, and strode to the scanner.
"Everything's all right outside," he said, after a moment. "Everything outside the screen is just as it was at sundown."
MacMartree shrugged. "Nothing from out there could do this to Phillips anyway. Nothing gets through the screen."
Cole returned and squatted down with the others. He picked up a handful of pebbles and began flicking them, one at a time, at the force-screen, watching them bounce back into the area.
"There's an explanation for this, of course," MacMartree said, with a tone of confidence he did not feel.
The others nodded. After a time, Phillips' breathing grew more regular and he slept. As they watched, the rest of them saw the color creep back into his face, and sensed that he was better now. But still, it was a puzzling thing. Phillips had been ... what was the word?... Sick. According to MacMartree's histories, no man had been sick for the last thousand years.
They decided to return to their sleep-kits for the remaining hour of darkness, but they never got there.
Rising from his position beside the sleeping Phillips, Abner's long frame lurched suddenly forward. He sprawled at the feet of MacMartree and Cole ... and both men heard the dull snap as Abner hit the ground, his left arm caught beneath his body.
MacMartree cursed. "Blast it, Abner, pick up your feet!" Then to Cole: "Is the bone-mending stuff here, or in the ship?"
Cole started to say that he had brought it along, all right, but he was interrupted by Abner's scream.
The sound of it rasped across their nerves. They stared down at the writhing Abner, their brains numbed by that horrible, entirely unfamiliar sound.
"What is it?" Cole questioned, finding his voice after a moment. MacMartree ignored him, kneeling beside Abner.
Abner's wind sucked into his lungs, and was expelled in another fearful scream. In spite of himself, MacMartree felt a prickling along the back of his neck....
"Abner," he said intensely, "Abner, listen to me!"
But the younger man was doubled in a knot of agony, screaming and screaming and screaming.
MacMartree struck him in the face, with his open palm at first, but when that did no good, with doubled fists, hard. Finally Abner's screams stopped. Then MacMartree tried again.
"Listen, Abner ... can you hear me now?"
Abner's voice came twisting up, thin and quavery.
"I—hear you ... yes, I hear you...."
"Your arm, is that what makes you scream? Your arm?"
"Yes, yes," moaning now ... "yes, my arm ... I want to die ... let me die, please Mac, please...."
"Listen to me," MacMartree commanded fiercely. "Get hold of yourself and listen! This thing in your arm, it's a hurt. Your brain should be blocking it from your consciousness, but somehow it isn't. Do you understand me?"
"Hurt," Abner echoed. Then he began to croon it, as though there was something soothing in the sound of it: "Hurt, hurt, hurt in my arm...." He made a twisted little hymn of it, singing it over and over again.
"That's right," MacMartree was saying, "Your brain isn't killing the hurt, as it should. You must think, Abner, think of your arm, whole and well, and with no hurt in it. Think!"
But Abner only repeated that ancient, awful word: "Hurt in my arm ... hurt, hurt...."
MacMartree shrugged, and looked up at Cole, who was still standing helplessly by.
"Fetch the serum," MacMartree said. "I'll try setting the bone...." He grasped the twisted arm as he spoke, and one, tearing, final scream broke out of Abner's throat. Before MacMartree could react, Abner went rigid in every limb, then as suddenly relaxed and was still.
"He's dead," Cole choked. "Abner is dead!"
MacMartree felt for the heartbeat, shook his head.
"Only unconscious. The hurt did that, I suppose." He sat back on his haunches, thoroughly baffled. Cole sat, too, and a few yards away, where they had left him, Phillips stirred. He rolled over on his side and propped himself shakily on one elbow, roused by that last, ringing shriek of Abner's.
"It isn't right," MacMartree said, to neither of them. "The hurt, that went with sickness—a thousand years ago." He looked up at them.
"I read about these things, you see," he told them. "There was hurt, and there was sickness. When they knew enough about the human brain, scientists simply bred into the part of our minds that makes us aware of hurt the power to shut it off, automatically, before we're even conscious it exists. And as for sickness...." He looked at Phillips, shaking his head. "They got rid of that, too, and now...."
Neither of the younger men said anything for a time. They waited, desperately relying on the older man to help them, to bring them through this, whatever it was, into familiar ground again. At length, Cole spoke.
"Mac," he began softly.
MacMartree looked at him, waiting.
"Mac, I ... I feel something ... I don't know ... perhaps it's sickness ... or hurt ... I've never known those things...." He held forth his hands, and they were twitching and trembling.
MacMartree's teeth ground together. "Another obsolescent word I'll have to teach you," he said to them. "It is fear."
He went to work on Abner's broken arm, setting it and injecting the serum that would cause the fracture to knit in a matter of minutes. And as he worked, he tried to drive the nagging thought from his mind ... sickness for Phillips, hurt for Abner, fear for Cole ... what for MacMartree? He was the oldest. He was leader of the patrol. Perhaps a little of all these horrors?
To keep his mind occupied, he counted off the required minutes for the serum to take effect. Then, when the time had passed, he gave the injured arm an experimental twist.
It flapped loosely at the break, as before, and Abner stirred and moaned behind the veil of his unconsciousness.
The serum had failed. Unheard of!
Straightening, MacMartree felt his particular affliction engulf him. Anger, wild, unreasoning anger at this intangible, invisible enemy that tormented them so. Cursing, he scooped up the vial of serum, flung it to clatter against the shimmering force-screen. But it did not. It passed through the curtain which was suddenly nothing more than thinning mist ... and then not even that.
"Weapons!" MacMartree cried, his voice a hoarse bellow. "Weapons and positions! Quickly!"
Phillips and Cole scrambled to obey. The three conscious men huddled back to back around the body of the unconscious one. Their weapons were small and unfamiliar in their waiting hands, and not the least bit reassuring. They waited for whatever it was that stalked them from beyond the ring of their glaring lamplight to come for them, battle with them, make itself known.
"MacMartree," Phillips whispered in the throbbing stillness.
"Well? Are you sick again?"
"No, no—I just thought...."
"The screen, the serum ... failing that way. What if ... the weapons...."
A piece of eternity passed them by before MacMartree could make his lips form the command.
Tentatively, fearfully, the three squeezed the metal in their icy hands. Nothing. No rush of power, no leaping death to meet their adversary when it came. Their weapons, too, had failed them.
Behind him, MacMartree heard the racking sobs begin in Cole. He did not recognize them as sobs, but he sensed their meaning, and knew, of course, what caused them.
He also heard Phillips scramble to his feet, his wind sucking in and out of his throat in short, gasping shudders. He waited for Phillips to break and run into the darkness, fleeing in blind panic for the distant sanctuary of the ship on the plain below. But the darkness that surrounded them stared Phillips down, sent him grovelling back to the earth, a whipped and whimpering cur.
And then, MacMartree was alone. He had never felt so lonely in his life before. The three younger men were there, of course, but they, too, were lost in voids of aloneness. He envied the unconscious Abner, until he felt Abner stir slightly on the ground behind him, and then go tense with waking. So they were all to meet it, and be aware when it came.
But, such loneliness! Such a need he felt, for something to hold to, to reach for, to depend on. Another of their weapons? He knew better.
There had to be something, there had to be. But what? Beaten, vanquished, he covered his face with his hands, and waited.
The little planet rolled steadily toward the sunrise, the cold stars glided above them. Quietly, the dawn breeze simpered among the grasses.
Quite slowly, MacMartree raised his head.
"Abner, Phillips, Cole...." They didn't answer, but he knew they heard him, and were listening, within their individual worlds of aching loneliness and fear.
"I ... I know what our Enemy is," MacMartree said.
They came a little closer to him then, venturing out of themselves a fraction to hear what he said.
"Our Enemy," MacMartree told them, "is God."
After a pause, the inevitable question came. Phillips voiced it for the rest.
MacMartree shook his head. "A myth—a legend—I thought. There were so many things in all those ancient books I read ... how was I to know?"
"This is something you read, too?"
"Yes, in a very old book. In many of them, actually, but one in particular. A book called—" the name eluded him. He let it go. "God was a deity. People worshipped Him, thousands of years ago."
Cole had stopped his crying.
"The book was written as the Word of God. I—I remember a part of it...."
"Tell us," dully, from Abner.
"'I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.' I think that explains it best." He sighed. "It's my fault, I suppose. Man is omnipotent, I said. Man is all-powerful. Man can do anything! Yes, it was enough to rouse the anger of a jealous God."
"Is He going to kill us, then?"
"I don't know, Phillips. He could have, long before this...."
"How can we fight Him," Cole whispered. "How?"
"We can't," the old man said. "God is the only omnipotent One. We are not." He got to his feet, came around to face them.
"One thing we can do."
"What?" they wanted to know. "What can we do?"
"We can try to—talk to Him."
The grassy world sped softly toward its dawning. Beyond the hill that rose above them, lean fingers of light came creeping from the lifting sun. It seemed to come in answer to those stumbling, clumsy, fervent prayers—the first prayers that had touched the lips of men in a thousand years.
Lost in concentration, MacMartree felt the sweet breath of the sun's first warmth upon his back. He opened his eyes, found them dimmed somehow, and a wetness on his cheeks.
Wonderingly, they looked at one another, awed by what they read upon each other's faces.
"I forgot," MacMartree said softly. "I forgot that He is also merciful...."
Abner slowly raised his arm.
"It's healed," he said.