Title: Traitor's Choice
Author: Paul W. Fairman
Illustrator: W. E. Terry
Release date: November 16, 2021 [eBook #66753]
Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Kendall had a difficult decision to make;
if he defied the aliens Clare faced a horrible
death; if he complied a whole planet must die!
[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.]
The phonovision bell rang. Reed Kendall reached for the switch, not taking his eyes off the blueprint that lay on his desk. He spoke absently. "Yes?"
The reply came sharp and cold. "I'd suggest you stop what you're doing and pay attention to me."
Kendall raised his head and looked at the screen. The image that faced him was that of a man; a tall man in ordinary street clothes, but wearing an odd silver mask over his face.
Kendall made no effort to hide his annoyance. This was no time for jokes. Some lab comedian with time on his hands. "Now listen here! I'm busy and I'm in no mood to—"
The tone was sharp, brutal, contemptuous. It stiffened Kendall, then eased him slowly back into his chair. "What do you want?"
"Take that absurd mask off."
"I'll leave it on."
"Then get this over with. Tell me what you want!"
"It will take a few minutes. Go over and lock your door."
"I'll do no such thing!"
"I said—go over and lock your door."
Their eyes clashed; Kendall's frank, indignant, accusing; the stranger's dark and menacing in the holes of the mask.
"Very well." Kendall crossed the room and stood for a moment with his back to the phonovision screen. This man meant business. But what could be the nature of that business? Kendall's thoughts went of course to the top secret material he had access to. The defense of the world lay within the boundaries of the Canadian Flats Ordnance Research Project. But safely so.
The Centaurians were as eager to set these secrets as—well, as had been the Russians during the first phase of the atomic era when the world was divided into two frightened and belligerent camps. Strange, Kendall thought, that he should think of that period. The world had long since become one frightened and belligerent camp but the problem of survival had greatened as advanced science had opened the starways.
"I said—lock the door!"
Kendall complied. As he returned to his desk, he sensed the man was smiling behind his mask. What was he? A Centaurian? Either that or a Terran. Certainly not a Venusian unless he was standing on a box.
"All right. Let's get on with it."
"In my own good time. First, let me sympathize with you on your love for your wife."
"What sort of idiocy are you talking about?"
The man ignored the question. "You are unique in that love, Mr. Kendall. We conducted a telepathic survey of every married scientist in this project. And only one psych-pattern was suited to our purpose."
Kendall scowled. "I think you are enjoying this—but I'm not. And believe me, you'll live to regret it."
"We were fortunate in finding you, Mr. Kendall—the one man here who would be incapable of allowing his wife to die horribly if he could prevent it—no matter what the cost."
A vague fear coupled with a chill was seeping through Kendall's brain. "Say what you've come to say and get it over with!"
"I'm doing just that. We have your wife, Kendall. We got her at ten o'clock this morning."
"Impossible! Our security is foolproof. No person has ever been kidnapped from any world defense project!"
"Never before, but let me tell you why. Because such a hostage would have been of little value. Terran scientists and defense personnel have been psychologically conditioned to the point of fanaticism. We have never before discovered a Terran scientist who would put his wife or any other loved one before his loyalty to Terra."
"And what makes you think I will?"
"Our tests are absolute. But if we are wrong it will be unfortunate for only one person. Your wife."
Kendall thought of Clare, trying the while to keep his panic from showing through. Blonde, beautiful Clare—the one person who really made his life worth living. Clare. As he worked at this brutal, tedious defense business, he did not work for the defense of Terra, though that idea and its psychological drive was ever in his conscious mind. He worked to keep Clare safe and now he realized the stark fact; realized it as he cursed the Centaurians and their devilish extrasensory penetration; cursed this masked devil for being right.
Shocked out of wariness, he allowed these thoughts to spill through his conscious mind; then he caught himself and threw up the blank mental wall all defense people were taught to use.
But not until the man chuckled behind his mask and said, "I agree on all counts, but you have to admit that we clocked you perfectly, Mr. Kendall. The risk we took in kidnapping your wife was well worthwhile."
"On the contrary. One life is of little consequence."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," the man said with mocking lightness in his voice. "Let me describe the manner in which your wife will die. First we'll strip her nak—"
"What is it you're after?" Kendall snapped.
The man's chuckle was even more pronounced. "You're right of course in surmising I'm a Centaurian, and you're quite familiar with the way our cold war works—how the balance of power has been maintained these last hundred years."
"The balance is tipped in our favor."
"Of course, but we now intend—through you—to remedy that situation. You people are very ingenious in that you invent a total destruction-type weapon and then turn right around and conceive an absolute defense against it. We do the same, of course, or try to, but we find ourselves at all times slightly behind you. A sad situation for we Centaurians, don't you think, Mr. Kendall?"
"Your chances of ever balancing us are remote."
"Not so. Let me explain. Our great hope lies in obtaining the plans of your latest projectile. I think you call it Willy Seven."
"I know of no such plans." Clare, lying defenseless against the obscene tortures of these soulless animals....
"Let's not waste time with lies, Mr. Kendall. You have been working on the project."
"The defense against Willy Seven—"
"—Is not perfected!" The Centaurian leaned forward and snapped out the words in triumph. "It can't possibly be ready for use in less than six months because the projectile involved a difficult combination of lethal—germs and subsonic vibrations. The toughest you ever tackled."
A deep sickness clawed at Kendall's stomach. The Centaurian had hit upon the truth while still evidently unaware of Terran defense procedure. He did not seem to know that the development of an offensive weapon was never allowed to proceed faster than the development of a defense against it, the theory being two-fold; that defense was the most important element concerned and that defense against our own weapons would probably function as safeguards against those of Centaurian origination.
Also, the possibility of theft had been foreseen. To have the plans of a nondefensible weapon stolen would mark the end of Terra. But in the case of Willy Seven, the defensive unit had involved such problems that the defensive half of the project had lagged.
... They will give her drugs to sensitize the flesh and nerves of her body until her sufferings will be those of ten people crowded into one skin....
"We want Willy Seven, Mr. Kendall. We want it now."
"I don't have access to the plans."
The eyes were again baleful behind the mask. "Let's not waste time. You know very well we didn't launch this project only to leave such important angles to chance."
"But getting them out—"
"You will take microfilms of the plans within the next twenty-four hours. We left a thumbnail-sized camera under your wife's pillow in case you have need of it."
"You thought of everything, didn't you?" Kendall said. "Everything except the one all-important point."
"What is that?"
"My wife could never be returned to me because there would be no place to return her—after you destroy this globe."
"We are not fools. That phase of it has been well-planned. You will apply for a three-day vacation and meet our ship at a location in Yellowstone National Park. Your wife is already on her way to our planet. You will follow her in a second ship—you and the plans. After the annihilation of your world is accomplished, you will not find us ungrateful. You will both be sent to Venus to live out the rest of your lives in ease."
"I have only your word for that."
"It is enough."
And Kendall knew of course, that it was. The Centaurians would keep their word, mainly because breaking it after they had obtained their objective would gain them nothing. They would keep their word because their propaganda department would insist.
"And now," the Centaurian said, "I have stayed on this circuit long enough. Soon it will cause suspicion. A note will be delivered to you giving the time and place of our meeting in Yellowstone."
Kendall finished out his hours. And this was not strange. No need to go out hunting Clare. A waste of energy to rush home looking for her. She would not be home. She was on her way to a far-distant and hostile planet where—unless he followed orders—she would scream out her life in agony unbearable to even contemplate.
The Centaurian was right. Kendall had not the iron will to allow this even though a dozen planets were on the block. He worked like a man in a dream and then drove slowly from Plant Nine along ten miles of winding road to the residential section reserved for scientists.
The house was dark. He went through the back door and stood alone in the kitchen. The dishes had been done. The place was spick and span. He knew the other rooms would be the same; beds made, floors swept. But Clare was gone.
Numbly, he wondered how they had accomplished it. He could have found out; checked at the gate and probably discovered by what ruse they had lured Clare out. No doubt forgery was involved; cleverly faked phone calls perhaps; even accomplished actors masquerading as guards or officials.
But it didn't matter really. Not now. Finding out would only satisfy curiosity. No end would be served.
Kendall went into the living room and sat down in the dark and lit a cigarette. Two hours later, the tray beside him was filled with butts and his decision had been made.
They would get their prints. Clare must not suffer. He got up and went into the bedroom and found the tiny camera under Clare's pillow....
He filled out a requisition the next morning and took it to his Section Chief, the kindly gray-haired senior scientist who was responsible for the work of twenty-five juniors. He read the requisition and his eyes widened a trifle. "Hmmm. The stats on the Willy Seven basic equations? I thought you were working on Nike Twelve, Kendall."
"I am sir. But I've got a hunch the Willy coordinates might get me over a nasty little hump. There is a similarity."
"Perhaps you're right." The Chief signed the permit without further objection.
There was a numbed sickness in Kendall as he rode the elevator down to the file vaults and showed his permit to three sets of guards before he was admitted. Alone in the long, narrow aisles where the greatest secrets of Terran defense and offense were housed, he walked like a man in a dream to the file he wanted and swiftly took his pictures. Then placing the tiny camera into the cuff of his trousers, he went back to Plant Nine....
The three-day leave was granted without question, Kendall having over two months due him. The Chief was delighted that he did not ask for more. "Where do you plan on going, Kendall?"
"Out in the air somewhere. The Yellowstone, maybe. Some quiet place to clear my mind."
"A good idea. Wife going with you?"
"As a matter of fact, she went on ahead."
Kendall watched the Chief closely for reaction. Only a slight raising of eyebrows. After all, Clare could have gotten a permit without the Chief's knowledge even if Kendall's story had been true.
"Have a good time and come back full of enthusiasm."
Kendall replied in kind and went home and sat down facing the phonovision screen. It remained blank for three hours. Kendall did not move. He smoked cigarettes and waited. Finally the signal sounded and he snapped it on.
The man in the mask. The voice that now associated itself in Kendall's mind with nausea. "You have the film?"
"Excellent. The leave?"
"You will leave the project immediately and—"
"Not so fast."
"I beg pardon?"
"I said, not so fast. I'm not satisfied with the arrangements."
The voice turned cold. "The arrangements are not yours to question. You—"
"Nevertheless, I question them. In fact, I demand some changes."
The man was obviously angry, but he held his temper. "What changes do you wish?"
"You said that after I deliver the prints on Centaur—"
"And iron out any problems our scientists might encounter in building the rocket—"
"Yes, after that, you will send my wife and I to Venus and safety."
"I demand that upon delivery of the prints, you send Clare on ahead."
"Why do you ask this?"
"Because the one thing I'm selling out my world for is her safety. I will gamble with it for only as short a time as necessary."
The man considered. What were the risks involved? Kendall might be sincere in his reason but if he were not, it would be easy enough to pick up Clare Kendall, unprotected as she would be in some Venusian hotel.
"Granted," he said. Better to give in than to argue. Centaurian scientists could spot a major hoax on Kendall's part instantly, and Kendall was under great pressure. Resist at this moment and he might defy them, even with his wife's life at stake.
"You will proceed at once to Yellowstone." He gave Kendall careful instructions concerning the rendezvous and cut the connection.
Kendall sat for a long time staring at the blank screen—smoking endless cigarettes. After a while, he got wearily to his feet and looked at his watch. In seven hours and twenty-five minutes he would be on a Centaurian ship that would lift out of Terra's orbit and start bending space into time until....
The pale, green globe of Centaur hung in a black sky; greatened and darkened and Kendall was looking out across the huge rocket port from which the Centaurians planned to launch Terra's destruction.
Now, for the first time, he saw the Centaurian without the mask. The man was handsome. He had the cruel black eyes of all Centaurians. He smiled coldly. "We've come a long way, Kendall. I suppose you want to see your wife."
That was a surprise. "I don't quite understand. Your feeling for her is—"
"Such that I wouldn't dare allow myself close to her or I wouldn't have the courage to let her go again."
"It's unnecessary that you do. We Centaurians keep our bargains."
"I've made my decision."
Kendall did watch Clare as they took her from the building to the Venus-bound rocket. His heart lifted at sight of her slim beauty, at the proud manner in which she carried herself, at the disdainful tilt of her head. Then she disappeared inside the rocket and he was again bleak and lonely.
He put himself at the disposal of the Centaurian scientists and discovered why Terra had stayed ahead for a century in the cold war. They were able, but stolid and methodical. They did not possess the unfettered imaginative force that made Terran scientists supreme.
Day by day the great lethal monster took form and Kendall's dread increased as the time of completion approached. Then the momentous morning arrived. Aside from asking technical questions and seeking guidance, the Centaurians left Kendall strictly alone; treated him with contempt all traitors are accorded even from those they help. Kendall did not seem to mind. In fact he preferred being alone.
Then one morning the Centaurian approached him. "The launching is today. Would you like to witness the death stroke? The gesture with which we slay your planet?"
Kendall shrugged. "It makes little difference."
"We will watch together from the tower...."
Two junior scientists in Plant Nine were discussing Kendall's disappearance. "His leave was on the level. Signed by the Chief. Three days."
"Did he actually go to Yellowstone?"
"They're pretty sure he did. After that he vanished into thin air."
"Nobody vanishes into thin air." The junior scientist looked around and lowered his voice. "Do you think he defected?"
"I don't know. But I got the story pretty straight—that is, as much as the high brass knows."
"The day before he left, Kendall went to the file vaults to check the prints on Willy Seven."
"Then the thing's pretty cut and dried. If he smuggled those prints out—" The young scientist was puzzled. "I don't understand."
"That's the strange part of it. Kendall didn't open that file. The time-stamp mechanism recorded no entry as of that date."
"Then what file did he open?"
"They can't be sure, but the Crackpot File was opened on that date."
"The Crackpot File! But no one is allowed in there! All those crazy dangerous ideas!"
"I know. And one set of prints appeared to have been disturbed."
"Perhaps. The rocket they labelled Suicide One. Professor Utterback's brain child. The one they figured could never be launched."
"I remember. The brass were pretty sure it would blow half the North American continent away thirty seconds after the primer was ignited."
"They think Kendall photographed those prints?"
"They can't be sure, but with Centaur suddenly flaring into nova last week—"
"But that was pure coincidence. It had to be. If Kendall had a plan to get that rocket into the Centaurians' hands, why did he keep it to himself. It would have been the making of the man! He would have been a hero."
"As I say, they have little to go on. Right now, they're trying to locate Kendall's wife. If they find her they might learn something."