The Man Who Played to Lose

by Laurence M. Janifer

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Sometimes the very best thing you can do is to lose. The cholera germ, for instance, asks nothing better than that it be swallowed alive....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

When I came into the control room the Captain looked up from a set of charts at me. He stood up and gave me a salute and I returned it, not making a ceremony out of it. “Half an hour to landing, sir,” he said.

That irritated me. It always irritates me. “I’m not an officer,” I said. “I’m not even an enlisted man.”

He nodded, too quickly. “Yes, Mr. Carboy,” he said. “Sorry.”

I sighed. “If you want to salute,” I told him, “if it makes you happier to salute, you go right ahead. But don’t call me ‘Sir.’ That would make me an officer, and I wouldn’t like being an officer. I’ve met too many of them.”

It didn’t make him angry. He wasn’t anything except subservient and awed and anxious to please. “Yes, Mr. Carboy,” he said.

I searched in my pockets for a cigarette and found a cup of them and stuck one into my mouth. The Captain was right there with a light, so I took it from him. Then I offered him a cigarette. He thanked me as if it had been a full set of Crown Jewels.

What difference did it make whether or not he called me “Sir”? I was still God to him, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

“Did you want something, Mr. Carboy?” he asked me, puffing on the cigarette.

I nodded. “Now that we’re getting close,” I told him, “I want to know as much about the place as possible. I’ve had a full hypno, but a hypno’s only as good as the facts in it, and the facts that reach Earth may be exaggerated, modified, distorted or even out of date.”

“Yes, Mr. Carboy,” he said eagerly. I wondered if, when he was through with the cigarette, he would keep the butt as a souvenir. He might even frame it, I told myself. After all, I’d given it to him, hadn’t I? The magnificent Mr. Carboy, who almost acts like an ordinary human being, had actually given a poor, respectful spaceship Captain a cigarette.

It made me want to butt holes in the bulkheads. Not that I hadn’t had time to get used to the treatment; every man in my corps gets a full dose of awe and respect from the services, from Government officials and even from the United Cabinets. The only reason we don’t get it from the man in the street is that the man in the street--unless he happens to be a very special man in a very unusual street--doesn’t know the corps exists. Which is a definite relief, by the way; at least, off the job, I’m no more than Ephraim Carboy, citizen.

I took a puff on my cigarette, and the Captain followed suit, very respectfully. I felt like screaming at him but I kept my voice polite. “The war’s definitely over, isn’t it?” I said.

He shrugged. “That depends, Mr. Carboy,” he said. “The armies have surrendered, and the treaty’s been signed. That happened even before we left Earth--three or four weeks ago. But whether you could say the war was over ... well, Mr Carboy, that depends.”

“Guerrillas,” I said.

He nodded. “Wohlen’s a jungle world, mostly,” he said. “Sixty per cent water, of course, but outside of that there are a few cities, two spaceports, and the rest--eighty or ninety per cent of the land area--nothing but jungle. A few roads running from city to city, but that’s all.”

“Of course,” I said. He was being careful and accurate. I wondered what he thought I’d do if I caught him in a mistake. Make a magic pass and explode him like a bomb, probably. I took in some more smoke, wondering whether the Captain thought I had psi powers--which, of course, I didn’t; no need for them in my work--and musing sourly on how long it would take before the job was done and I was on my way back home.

Then again, I told myself, there was always the chance of getting killed. And in the mood I found myself, the idea of a peaceful, unrespectful death was very pleasant.

For a second or two, anyhow.

“The Government holds the cities,” the Captain was saying, “and essential trade services--spaceports, that sort of thing. But a small band of men can last for a long time out there in the wilds.”

“Living off the country,” I said.

He nodded again. “Wohlen’s nine-nines Earth normals,” he said. “But you know that already.”

“I know all of this,” I said. “I’m just trying to update it a little, if I can.”

“Oh,” he said. “Oh, certainly, S ... uh ... Mr. Carboy.”

I sighed and puffed on the cigarette and waited for him to go on. After all, what else was there to do?

For a wonder, the hypno had been just about accurate. That was helpful; if I’d heard some new and surprising facts from the Captain it would have thrown all the other information I had into doubt. Now I could be pretty sure of what I was getting into.

By the time we landed, the Captain was through and I was running over the main points in my head, for a last-minute check.

Wohlen, settled in the eighty-fifth year of the Explosion, had established a Parliamentary form of government, set up generally along the usual model: bicameral, elective and pretty slow. Trade relations with Earth and with the six other inhabited planets had been set up as rapidly as possible, and Wohlen had become a full member of the Comity within thirty years.

Matters had then rolled along with comparative smoothness for some time. But some sort of explosion was inevitable--it always happens--and, very recently, that nice Parliamentary government had blown up in everybody’s face.

The setup seemed to be reminiscent of something, but it was a little while before I got it: the ancient South American states, in the pre-Space days, before the United Cabinets managed to unify Earth once and for all. There’d been an election on Wohlen and the loser hadn’t bowed gracefully out of the picture to set up a Loyal Opposition. Instead, he’d gone back on his hind legs, accused the winner of all sorts of horrible things--some of which, for all I knew, might even be true--and had declared Wohlen’s independence of the Comity. Which meant, in effect, independence from all forms of interplanetary law.

Of course, he had no right to make a proclamation of any sort. But he’d made it, and he was going to get the right to enforce it. That was how William F. Sergeant’s army was formed; Sergeant, still making proclamations, gathered a good-sized group of men and marched on the capital, New Didymus. The established government countered with and army of its own, and for eight months, neither side could gain a really decisive advantage.

Then the Government forces, rallying after a minor defeat near a place known as Andrew’s Farm, defeated an attacking force, captured Sergeant and two of his top generals, and just kept going from there. The treaty was signed within eight days.

Unfortunately, some of Sergeant’s supporters had been hunters and woodsmen--

Ordinarily, a guerrilla movement, if it doesn’t grind to a halt of its own accord, can be stopped within a few weeks. Where a world is mostly cities, small towns, and so forth, and only a little jungle, the bands can be bottled up and destroyed. And most guerrillas aren’t very experienced in their work; a small band of men lost in the woods can’t do much damage.

But a small group of woodsmen, on a planet that consists mostly of jungle, is another matter. Those men knew the ground, were capable of living off the country with a minimum of effort, and knew just where to strike to tie up roads and transportation, halt essential on-planet services and, in general, raise merry hell with a planet’s economy.

So the Wohlen government called Earth and the United Cabinets started hunting. Of course they came up with our corps--the troubleshooters, the unorthodox boys, the Holy Idols. And the corps fished around and came up with me.

I didn’t really mind: a vacation tends to get boring after a week or two anyhow. I’ve got no family ties I care to keep up, and few enough close friends. Most of us are like that; I imagine it’s in the nature of the job.

It was a relief to get back into action, even if it meant putting up with the kowtowing I always got.

When I stepped out onto the spaceport grounds, as a matter of fact, I was feeling pretty good. It took just ten seconds for that to change.

The President himself was waiting, as close to the pits as he could get. He was a chubby, red-faced little man, and he beamed at me as if he were Santa Claus. “Mr. Carboy,” he said in a voice that needed roughage badly. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m sure you’ll be able to do something about the situation.”

“I’ll try,” I said, feeling foolish. This was no place for a conversation--especially not with the head of the Government.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll succeed,” he told me brightly. “After all, Mr. Carboy, we’ve heard of your ... ah ... group. Oh, yes. Your fame is ... ah ... universal.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll do my best. But the less I’m seen talking to you, the better.”

“Nevertheless,” he said. “If we need to meet--”

“If we do,” I said, “there’s a set of signals in the daily papers. Your Intelligence should know all about that, Mr. President.”

“Ah,” he said. “Of course. Certainly. Well, Mr. Carboy, I do want to tell you how glad I am--”

“So am I,” I said. “Good-by.”

The trouble with the democratic process is that a group of people picked at random can elect some silly leaders. That’s been happening ever since ancient Greece, I imagine, and it’ll go on happening. It may not be fatal, but it’s annoying.

My job, for instance, was to prop up this foolish little man. I had to work against a group of guerrillas who were even more democratic, from all I’d heard, and who seemed to have a great deal of common, ordinary brains. Of course, I wasn’t doing it for the President--it was for the Comity as a whole, and it needed to be done.

But I can’t honestly say that that made me feel any better about the job.

I was driven out of the city right after I’d packed up my supplies--two days’ food and water in a rude knapsack, a call-radio and some other special devices I didn’t think I was going to need. But, I told myself, you never know ... there was even a suicide device, just in case. I packed it away and forgot about it.

The city was an oasis in the middle of jungle, with white clean buildings and static-cleaned streets and walks. It didn’t seem to have a park, but, then, it didn’t need one. There was plenty of park outside.

The beautiful street became a poor one half a mile out of the city, and degenerated into a rough trail for ground vehicles soon after that. “How many people are there on this planet?” I asked my driver.

He never took his eyes from the road. “Two and a half million, last census,” he said, with great respect.

That explained things, of course. As the population grew, the cities would expand and the forests would go under. It had happened on Earth, and on every settled planet. As recently as 1850, for instance, large tracts of New York City, where I make my home, were farm and forest; why, in 1960 the population was only about eight million, and they thought the place had reached its height.

Wohlen had only begun its drive to citify the planet. Give it another hundred and fifty years and the guerrillas couldn’t exist, for simple lack of any place to hide and to live independently.

Unfortunately, the Government didn’t have a hundred and fifty years. Judging from what I’d seen, the Government didn’t have a hundred and fifty days. Rationing was in force at all the markets we’d passed on the way out, and there seemed to be a lot of cops. That’s always a bad sign; it means normal processes are beginning to break down and anarchy is creeping in.

I thought about it. Three months was an outside limit. If I couldn’t finish the job in three months, it might as well never be finished.

It’s always nice to have a deadline, I told myself.

The car stopped at a place in the road that looked like any other place in the road. I got out, adjusted my knapsack and started away from the road, into the jungle that bordered it. The hypno I’d taken had told me there were farms scattered through the jungle, but I didn’t know exactly where, and I didn’t even want to find out. The knapsack was heavy, but I decided I could stand the weight.

In five minutes I was surrounded by jungle, without any quick way to tell me where the road had been. There was a trail, and maybe human beings had used it, but it was no more than a scratch in the vegetation.

That was green, like Earth’s, and mostly spiny. I managed to scratch myself twice and then I learned to duck. After that the time went by slowly. I just kept walking, without much of an idea where I was going. After a couple of hours I was good and lost, which was just what I wanted. It was starting to get dark, so I took the opportunity of building a fire. I dug in my knapsack and found some food and started to cook it. I was still watching it heat up when I heard the noise behind me.

Those boys were good. He’d sneaked up through the jungle and come within a foot of me without my hearing him. I jumped up just as if I hadn’t expected him and whirled around to face him.

He had his heater out and was covering me with it. I didn’t reach for anything; I just watched him. He was a big man, almost as tall as I was and solidly built, with a jaw like a bulldog’s and tiny, sparkling eyes. His voice was like rusted iron. “Relax,” he told me. “I’m not burning you down, Mister. Not yet.”

I made myself stare him down. “Who are you?” I said.

“Name don’t matter,” he said without moving the heater an inch. “What’s important is, who are you? And what are you doing here?”

“James Carson’s my name,” I said. “I’m from Ancarta.” It was a small city halfway around the planet, a nice, anonymous place to be from. “And I’m minding my own business.”

“Sure,” the big man said. He jerked his head and whistled, one sudden sharp note. The clearing was full of men.

They were all sorts, big and small, thin and fat, dressed in uniforms, cast-offs, suits, rags, anything at all. Half of them were carrying heaters. The rest had knives, some good and some home-made. They watched me and they watched the big man. Nobody moved.

“Maybe you’re a Government man,” the big man said, “and have come out to catch some of Bill Sergeant’s boys.”

“No,” I said.

He grinned at me as if he hadn’t heard me. “Well,” he said, “this ought to be a big enough batch for you, Mister. Want to capture us all right now and take us back to New Didymus with you?”

“You’ve got me wrong,” I said.

Another man spoke up. He was older, in his late forties, I thought. His hair was thin and gray but his face was hard. He had a heater strapped to his side, and he wore a good uniform. “Government men don’t come out one at a time, do they, Huey?” he said.

The big man shrugged. “No way to tell,” he said. “Maybe Mr. Carson here’s got a call-radio for the rest of his boys. Maybe they’re all just waiting for us, some place nearby.”

“If they’re waiting,” the other man said, “they’d be here by now. Besides, Huey, he don’t look like a Government man.”

“Think they all got tails?” Huey asked him.

I judged it was about time to put in a word. “I’m not Government,” I said. “I’m from Ancarta. I’m here to help you--if you’re the men I think you are.”

That started some more discussion. Huey was all for labeling my offer a trick and getting rid of me then and there--after which, I suppose, he was going to clear out my mythical followers in the nearby jungle. But he was pretty well all alone; there’s got to be a rotten apple in the best-picked barrel and these boys were smart. The only sensible thing to do was staring them in the face, and it didn’t take them long to see it.

“We’ll take you back with us,” Huey’s friend told me. “When we get to a safe place we can sit down and talk this out.”

I wanted to insist on finishing my supper right where I was, but there’s such a thing as playing a little too much for the grandstand. Instead, I was herded into the center of the group, and we marched off into the jungle.

Only it wasn’t a march; there was no attempt at order. For a while we used the trail, and then straggled off it and went single-file through masses of trees and bushes and leaves. Being in the center of the line helped a little but not enough; the spines kept coming through and I got a few more nice scratches. The trip took about half an hour, and when we stopped we were in front of a cave-mouth.

The band went inside and I went with them. There was light, battery-powered, and what seemed to be all the comforts of a small, ill-kept town jail. But it was better than the naked jungle. I was still porting my knapsack, and when we got into the cave I unstrapped it and sat down and opened it. The men watched me without making any attempt to hide the fact.

The first thing I took out was an instant-heat food can. It didn’t look like a bomb, so nobody did anything. They just kept watching while I came up with my call-radio.

Huey said: “What the hell!” and came for me.

I stood up, spilling the knapsack, and got ready to stand him off; but I didn’t need to, not then. Three of the others piled on him, like dogs on a bear, and held him down. Huey’s friend was at my side when I turned. “How come?” he said. “Who are you planning on calling?”

“I said I wanted to help you,” I told him. “I meant it.”

“Of course,” he said smoothly. “Why should I believe it?”

“I know the spot you’re in, and I--”

He didn’t give me a chance to finish. “Now, you wait a minute,” he said. “And don’t touch that box. We’ve got some talking to do.”

“Such as?”

“Such as how you managed to get here from Ancarta, and why,” he said. “Such as what all this talk about helping us means, and what the radio’s for. Lots of talking.”

I decided it was time to show some more independence. “I don’t talk to people I don’t know,” I said.

He looked me up and down, taking his time about it. Huey had quieted down some, and our conversation was the main attraction. In the end he shrugged. “I suppose you can’t do any harm, not so long as we keep an eye on that box of yours,” he said. He gave me his name as if it didn’t matter. “I’m Hollerith,” he said. “General Rawlinson Hollerith.”

I gave him the prepared story automatically; it rolled out but I wasn’t thinking about it. He’d given me my first real surprise; I’d thought Hollerith had been killed at Andrew’s Farm, and, as far as I knew, so did the Government. Instead, here he was, alive and kicking, doing a pretty good job of working with a guerrilla gang. I wondered who Huey would turn out to be, but it didn’t seem like the time to ask.

The story, of course, was a good one. Naturally it wasn’t proof of anything, or even susceptible of proof right then and there; it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t expect them to buy it sight unseen, but I’d planned it to give me some time until I could start the next step.

James Carson, I told Hollerith, was a reasonably big wheel around Ancarta. He wasn’t in sympathy with the Government, but he hadn’t fought in the revolutionary armies or been active in any overt way.

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