The Final Figure

by Sam Merwin

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Was it a wild talent that MacReedy had, or was it just prophetic genius that led him to figure out new, improved ordnance weapons and make models of them--before the armed forces had them? Whichever it was, MacReedy was both valuable and dangerous--and when the general saw MacReedy's final figure, the weapons following the mobile rocket A-missile launcher....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The General was in mufti. He stood briefly within the entrance of Models and Miniatures, Inc., feeling a mild envy of the civilians who brushed past him, coming and going. They looked so easy, so relaxed, so casual in posture and dress. He was wistfully aware of the West Point ramrod that was his spine, the razor-edged bandbox neatness of his banker’s grey suit, the Herbert Hoover four-squareness of his homburg, the stiff-symmetry of his dark-blue fore-in-hand.

He found compensation in visualizing some of these casual civilians in uniform--then shuddered, and moved on into the shop, poise and assurance restored.

Save for the display-counters and wall-cases, the shop was softly lighted. And although it was well filled with customers and lookers of all ages there was about it the hushed quality of a library--or a chapel. Even the children talked softly as they pointed at and discussed this 100-gauge English locomotive or that working jet-model of a Vought-Chance Cutlass. They were well-aware of being in sight of wish and dream-fulfillment.

He moved slowly toward the rear of the shop, past the glass counters that displayed gaily-painted models of carriages, coaches and early automobiles; past the fire-engines in red and gold; past the railroads; past the planes and past the tiny ships--from Phoenician galleys and Viking vessels with gaudily-decorative sails and shields to the latest bizarre-decked atomic aircraft carrier.

He stood in front of the miniature soldiers and, for a happy moment, recaptured the glamour of parades and gay uniforms that had beckoned him into a career whose color and band-music had long since been worn off by the nerve-wracking tragedy of battle and the endless ulcerating paper-work of peace.

Busman’s holiday, he thought. Sailors in a rowboat in Central Park. And he was glad he had not worn his uniform.

Each miniature-soldier manufacturer had a glass shelf to his own wares, labeled with a white-cardboard rectangle upon which his name had been neatly brushed with India ink. Here were the comparatively rude Britains, mass-produced, work-horses of toy armies throughout the Western World since before his own boyhood.

Here were the heavy and magnificent Courtleys, specializing in medieval knights and men-at-arms, beautifully caparisoned in all the colors of the rainbow. Here were the Barker Napoleonics, the one-inch Staddens, the incredible half-inch Emery Penninsulars--each a costly little work of art that defied the enlarging of a magnifying glass. Here were Comets in khaki and grey, perfect models of the guns, tanks and trucks of America, England and Soviet Russia.

To his left along the counter a chunky blond citizen, with wide cheekbones and a faint Slavic accent, was discussing a sale with the clerk. The general was only subconsciously aware of him as he moved in that direction, marveling a little at the painstaking craftsmanship, the endless hours of eye-destroying labor that had produced such microscopic perfection--as well as at some of the follies with which men had attired themselves in the name of martial glory.

He recalled having read of an order, issued at the time of the Mexican War, that the collars of all officers in the United States Army should rise to the tips of the ears. It was scarcely surprising, he thought, that the Seminoles--clad virtually in nothing at all--should have been able to stalemate an army thus uniformed in the steaming swamps of Florida.

“They’re great, aren’t they?”

The voice came from a lower level, and the General looked down to meet the excited blue eyes of a curly-haired male moppet who could scarcely have been more than twelve. There was an aura of friendliness about the leather-jacketed-and-corduroyed youngster, a sharing of manifest interest, that pierced the hide of the old soldier.

He smiled back and said, “Quite wonderful,” and was briefly afraid his words had been too condescending. But the quick answering smile on the youngster’s face revealed that he had said the right thing.

He followed the lad’s rapt gaze to a shelf he had not yet studied. The name on its cardboard label read MacReedy and as soon as he saw the tiny figures it supported, his interest became focused upon it to the exclusion of all other shelves and their fascinating displays.

MacReedy was very evidently a specialist. His subject was American soldiery, with its chief emphasis on artillery--from early Colonial times to the present. As one of the highest-ranking officers in the Ordnance Department of the United States Army, the General’s critical interest was aroused.

Here were the demi-culverins of the Manhattan Dutch, the brass field-pieces and mortars of the French wars and the Revolution, the light horse artillery cannon of the Mexican and Civil Wars, along with pear-shaped Dahlgren and Parrot siege-guns, each piece with its crew of aimers, loaders, rammers and ammunition bearers.

Here were the crowbar-like dynamite guns that protected New York and Boston and Baltimore against threatened British invasion during the Newfoundland fisheries disputes, back in the 1880’s; and the complex disappearing cannon that followed them. Here was the old standard three-inch fieldpiece on which the General had cut his own eyeteeth; here the French 75 and 155, long and short, and the mammoth railway guns of World War One. Here was even a model of the postwar American 75--the ill-fated cannon that had proved so accurate on the firing-range, and so utterly useless after a half-mile over a bumpy road.

Here were the weapons of World War Two, from M-7 105 self-propelled howitzer to the 240-millimetre tractor-borne cannon. And here were more recent weapons, the 120-millimetre radar-aimed anti-aircraft cannon; its newer automatic 75-millimetre cousin; the new 90-millimetre turret-mount for the Walker Bulldog, the 105-gpf in the turret of its new heavy tank.


The General felt a stir of alarm. There had been a leak somewhere; release on this model was not scheduled for another month. He would have to report it, of course. Then he shrugged, inwardly. Leak or not there was small cause for alarm; They must long-since have managed to scrounge test-run photographs, if not copies of the blueprints themselves.

Still, a leak was bad business with the country so precariously balanced in a combustible world-situation. He looked at the next weapon, the last in the line.

And froze...

Here was the XT-101, with its rear-mounted turret and twin dual-purpose automatic 75-millimetre cannon. Here was a weapon, complete, that had not been completed in actuality--there was trouble with the turret, of course, there always was...

It couldn’t be--but it was. The General discovered that his mouth had slackened in surprise; he closed it firmly. He eyed the turret of the miniature, noted how the automatic range-finding devices, that were causing trouble at Aberdeen, were incorporated into the turret itself, in a neat armored sheath.

He thought, Lord! I wonder if that’s the answer... Then he thought that, if it were, the whole world would soon know it.

“A honey, isn’t it?” said the curly-headed lad. He added, wistfully, “It costs twelve dollars and eighty-six cents, with tax.”

“It’s a honey, all right,” said the General automatically. Actually, he was appalled--a possibly decisive weapon on sale to all and sundry for twelve dollars and eighty-six cents! Of course the intricate inner workings weren’t there. But They knew enough about radar and automatic cannon to be able to figure it out from the model.

The General took direct action. He went to the clerk and said, “How many have you?” pointing to the subject of his question.

“Neat--perfect workmanship,” said the clerk, donning his selling clothes.

“How many?” the General repeated.

“Only the one in the case left,” the clerk replied. “I just sold the last one in stock a moment ago. We’ve only had four delivered so far.”

“I’ll take it,” said the General in a fever of impatience. He had to get it out of public view at once--although he had a sick sensation of already being too late. He recalled the Slavic appearance, the accent of the man who had made the last purchase.

When the clerk had wrapped it up, and he had paid for it, the General asked to see the manager, who proved to be a pleasantly tweedy individual. He produced his card and said, “I’m afraid this man MacReedy has violated security-regulations. Where else is his stuff marketed?”

The manager’s expression was not friendly. He said, “Mr. MacReedy’s miniatures are marketed nowhere else; he has an exclusive contract with us.” He evidently resented the General’s gruff approach as much as the General resented not being addressed by title.

Civilians! the General thought. The damned fools don’t understand--they haven’t the slightest idea...

Aloud he said, “Where can I find Mr. MacReedy? I’m afraid I’m going to have to talk to him.”

“Uncle Angus? He lives next door. I’m going home now--I can show you.”

The General had forgotten the male moppet. He looked down in surprise, then up at the manager, who said, “It’s quite true. This is Toby. He helps Mr. MacReedy; he’s a collector himself in a small way.”

The General took Toby back with him to the hotel. He knew he should be burning up the wires to Washington with news of his horrendous discovery, but somehow he wanted to see it through himself--as far as he was able. Besides, there were certain puzzling facets that would scarcely look plausible in the dehydrated prose of an official report to Security.

It smacked almost of the supernatural. Eyeing his small guest, who was happily and rather messily devouring a piece of French pastry, accompanied by a bottle of ginger-ale--sent up by room service--the General suppressed a chill that rose from his coccyx to his cervical vertebrae.

Like most veteran men of action, the General did not decry the supernatural--such decrying was the property of armchair logicians. In the course of his long career he had seen too many things that defied logic or logical explanation. He said, “Ready to take off, Toby?”

“Yes, sir,” said the lad. He was properly impressed with the General’s rank--revealed to him by the assistant manager in the lobby. Then, with a sudden shadow of anxiety, “You aren’t going to arrest Uncle Angus, are you, sir?”

The General managed a chuckle. No sense in getting the lad scared. “No, I just want to talk to him.”

“I’ll go with you,” the lad offered. “Most grownups have a hard time talking to Uncle Angus. Even dad...” Whatever was his father’s problem with the prophetic model-maker remained unstated, as Toby managed to wrap lips and teeth around a large final piece of pastry. He then went to the bathroom to wash his hands before they went downstairs, to where the General’s car was waiting.

2

The sight of the huge olive-drab Cadillac limousine with its two-starred flag and white trimmed and be-fourragered sergeant-chauffeur seemed to awe Toby, who lapsed into mere occasional monosyllables during the drive through the late afternoon to his Long Island home. It was as if, since the General was in mufti, the lad had not quite been able to believe in his reality--until official car and chauffeur offered proof.

This was quite all right with the General, who was desperately trying to rearrange the chaos of his thoughts into some sort of order. He knew he was being dangerously imaginative for a man in his position. But what if this MacReedy actually could foresee the future, at least in its military manifestations?

Granting this impossibility, how could the man be used? The General shuddered at the thought of “selling” anyone with such a gift to the Combined Chiefs of Staff--those quiet-eyed, low-voiced, strictly pragmatic men on whom, perhaps, the future of country and world depended. Even if they by some wild chance accepted the impossibility, he knew full well what would be the tenor of their thoughts--and therefore of their questions.

One of them would be sure to say, “Very well, General, but if we put our planning in the hands of this man--seeking a short route to decisive superiority of armament--how do we know he won’t make a mistake, or lead us up the garden path? How do we know he hasn’t been planted for this very purpose?”

How did he know? The General decided he didn’t. Yet how could any man with such a private power be permitted to exercise his rights of free citizenship? He damned MacReedy, the enemy, the world and himself, and got resettled in his corner of the soft rear seat.

They had left the sun behind them, setting in a dust-pink mist behind the soft-edged towers of Manhattan. By the time they reached Flushing it had begun to snow--big soft flakes whose crystalline dissimilarities were almost visible to the naked eye as they settled against the car windows into wet evanescence. Up ahead the twin windshield-wipers ground them silently and methodically into wet-rimmed circle segments.

“I hope it lasts,” said Toby from his window. “I got a sled for Christmas. I haven’t been able to use it.”

“You’ll get your chance,” said the General. Damn it, he wondered, what kind of man was Angus MacReedy--if he was a man. Somehow the silent snow, the waning traffic, the oncoming twilight, combined into a sense of ominous portent. It was as if the car were standing still, while a perilous future rushed toward it.

“We turn left at the next traffic light, sir,” said Toby.

They turned. They skirted a thinly-settled swampy area on a narrow road, against a background of scrubby pines. The sprawling metropolis might have been on some other continent, some other planet. They met only one car--a long black sedan, that slithered past them on the skiddy road-surface, missing them by inches.

The house where they pulled to a halt at Toby’s direction was not large. It had been put up early in the century, and its motif was that of the high-gabled Swiss chalet. Mercifully the snow gave it a touch of quaintness, almost of rightness, despite the absence of lowering alps. Toby pointed to a similar structure about a hundred yards further down the road. “That’s where I live,” he said.


MacReedy answered the door. He was a tall, angular man with a long, angular face--from which small blue eyes peered alertly. He wore a grey glen-plaid reefer that was buttoned wrong, a dark blue-flannel shirt and covert slacks that needed a press. He said, “Hello, Toby--you’ve brought company, I see.”

“This is General Wales,” said the lad very politely. “General--Uncle Angus.”

The General had a ridiculous fugitive memory--”Alice, mutton--mutton, Alice.” He shook hands with the model-maker.

“Honored, General,” said MacReedy. He ushered them into a living room, whose desk and tables and mantel were literally covered with miniature American soldiery. He said, “Sorry the place is such a mess”--picking up the morning paper from the carpet beside a worn but comfortable-looking easy-chair--”but I wasn’t expecting callers. I just had to boot out some sort of a mad Russian.”

What!“ The general didn’t mean to bark but couldn’t help it.

MacReedy grinned quietly and said, “This fellow said he was assistant military attache, or something. Offered me all kinds of money to do some work for him.”

“What did he look like?” the General asked.

MacReedy, filling a corn-cob pipe that appeared to be near the close of its short life, paused to say, “Like nothing special--not nearly as distinguished as you, General. Blond, chunky fellow with a bit of accent. Not a lot, but enough.”

The General exchanged glances with Toby. He knew, without asking, that the boy was thinking the same as himself; it was the man who had bought the XT-101 model in the shop earlier that afternoon.

MacReedy got his pipe going and said through a small blue cloud of smoke, “How does the exhibit look, Toby? Have they got it right?”

“Pretty good, Uncle Angus,” said the lad seriously. “They got the Mexican and Black Hawk War units mixed up, but I guess we can’t blame them for that.”

“I guess we can’t,” said MacReedy. He turned to the General, added,

“Now, sir, what can I do for you? Or need I ask?”

“I have a hunch you know pretty well what I’m after,” said the General.

“My predecessor must have given you some idea.”

“I’ve been afraid of this,” said MacReedy with a sigh. “It’s what I deserve for trying to show off to Toby.”

“I don’t understand,” said the General.

“I was trying to show Toby how good I was,” he said, ruffling the boy’s curly hair. “Then, when I got that seventy-five AA-gun doped out ahead of time--and it proved correct--I had to go one step further. I should never have let the model out of the house.”

“I’d like to see your workshop,” said the General.

Angus MacReedy removed his pipe and said, “Come along.”


The basement ran the length and width of the house. Although furnace and fuel-storage were walled off in a separate room at one end it still provided a sizable workroom, enough for three long wooden tables. On one of them MacReedy carved his tiny figures and cannon and vehicle parts from solid chunks of lead. Another was used for painting, a third for drying.

On this third table were a half-dozen more of the XT-101’s--along with a group of Confederate cannoneers and their field-pieces, some Indians, a small group of knights in armor, and what appeared to be Roman Legionaries.

The General pointed to these and said, “I didn’t know you went in for them. I thought you were strictly an American specialist.”

MacReedy puffed at his pipe, then said, “I’m doing these for Toby--in return for his services as delivery boy and all-around helper. I’m trying to teach him history in reverse.”

“Odd concept,” said the General.

“It works--doesn’t it, Toby?” MacReedy said to the lad.

“Uncle Angus says it will help me when I take history in college,” Toby said stoutly. “This is King Henry the Fifth at Agincourt--just like Sir Lawrence Olivier in the movie. And this is Genghis Khan. And here is Tamerlaine, and Charles Martel, and Caesar...”

“I see,” said the General. He was a little overwhelmed at so much evidence of one man’s individual craftsmanship and industry. He eyed the XT-101’s with malevolent interest, then studied a nearly-finished weapon on the carving table. It looked like...

It was! One of the just-conceived, self-reloading rocket-launchers on armored mobile carriage with amphibious tractor-treads. He said, his voice dry and tight, “Where’d you get this, MacReedy?”

MacReedy wandered over to stand beside him. He said, “I didn’t get it anywhere; it just seems like the logical next step in ordnance, General. I’ve had pretty good luck in the past, figuring things out this way. I had the Sherman tank plotted back in nineteen-forty--just before I was drafted. I hadn’t dared trust my hunches till I saw my first one two years later at Pine Camp.”

“You were in the Army?”

“Six years,” said MacReedy. “Two years here in camp and Officer’s Candidate School, then two abroad--Sicily, Anzio and the Rhone Valley. I stopped a piece of shell near Lyon, and put in the rest of my time in hospital.”

“Rough,” said the General though he had neither the time nor the interest for sympathy. “Tell me how you ‘figure’ these things out. The Sherman tank, if you wish.”

MacReedy wagged his head modestly. “It wasn’t too difficult, once I’d seen the General Grant. That one obviously wouldn’t do; it was too high, needed a full-pivot turret. Yet the basic design was there--anyone who’d thought about it could have done the same. But it was a pleasant shock to learn I’d been right.”

“I see,” said the General. “And you did the others by the same process--and you’re always right?”

“Not always,” replied MacReedy. “I fluffed badly on the atomic cannon. I expected a longer barrel for greater muzzle-velocity and range; here, I’ll show you.” He led the way to a dusty wall shelf where imperfect and broken models crowded together. There was the A-cannon--not as it had appeared, but as the General knew it was going to look in two years, when certain needed changes were made.

He said, “An understandable error. Unfortunately, mobility had to be considered.” He paused, looked MacReedy straight in the eye. “I hope you didn’t show any of this to your--previous visitor.”

MacReedy laughed. “Hardly,” he replied. “I’m American, never fear. I’m just one of the lucky few who has been able to make a good living out of my hobby; I have no axes to grind.”

“We may have an axe to grind with you,” said the General with a hint of grimness. The rocket-launcher and the improved A-gun were like the one-two punch of a good heavyweight-hitter. He went back to the XT-101, said, “About this twin-mount tank--how’d you figure we’d mount the automatic machinery outside the turret?”

“That wasn’t too difficult--if I’m right; and I gather I am,” said MacReedy. “There’s simply too much stuff to put inside a tank-turret; you’ve got to mount it outside. And that means plenty of protection, which means an extra armored sleeve. So...”

3

The General said, “MacReedy, why are you showing me this? I could be an imposter, a spy.”

“With that official limousine?” the model-maker countered. “I doubt it. Besides, Toby vouches for you.”

“Risky,” said the General.

“Besides,” said MacReedy with the suggestion of a smile, “I’ve seen your picture in Life magazine.” He paused, added, “After all, in my humble way I’m a bit of an ordnance nut myself.”

“I don’t believe you,” said the General flatly--”I mean about working these things out through logic and guesses. But however you do it, surely you can appreciate that you’re much too dangerous to be walking around loose. Especially since They know about you. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you back with me.”

“Nothing doing,” said MacReedy. “I can take care of myself. Besides, this is my home. I like it here.”

“You’re being close to treasonable,” said the General.

“Not I--you are,” came the incredible reply. “You, not I, are attempting to deny a citizen his rights under the Constitution.”

“Damn it, man!” the General backpedaled quickly. “Can’t you understand? Suppose They got hold of you--They’d have you dishing up our innermost secrets to them ahead of time. I don’t need to tell you what that could mean in the present world situation.”

“You don’t, General,” said MacReedy. “But I don’t think They’d get much out of me--much that was useful, I mean. I can’t think clearly under drugs or torture; I’d be more of a menace than a help. I explained that to my visitor before you came. He seemed to believe me.”

“Maybe he did,” said the baffled General, “but don’t bet on his superiors. You’ve been an Army officer, MacReedy; I can have you called back into service.”

“With a permanent medical discharge?” MacReedy countered.

The General sighed. He knew when he was beaten. He said, “You’ll have to stand for a guard then--twenty-four hours. We’ll keep them out of sight as much as possible.” He wished the whole business were rationally explicable to his own superiors. As it was he knew his hands were tied when it came to drastic action.

“I suppose it’s necessary,” said MacReedy sadly, but not defiantly; “I should never have tried to show off.”

“It’s too late for that sort of thing,” said the General. “I’m going to have to take some of your models with me--it’s too late to do much about the new tank, but I’ll have to have the rocket-launcher and the A-gun. And I’ll want your promise not to indulge in any more such experiments except as I request.”

“That I am glad to give you,” said MacReedy and there was no doubting the sincerity of his words.

“I’ll pay you for them,” offered the General.

“Of course,” replied the model-maker; “my name isn’t MacReedy for nothing.”

As he handed over a couple of hundred dollars the General found himself almost liking the man. Damn these screwballs, he thought. He wondered when he was going to wake up and find it hadn’t happened. It couldn’t be happening, any of it. But the perilously-perfect models, of weapons that were yet to be, felt terribly real to his touch.

He said, “Toby, run upstairs and tell Sergeant Riley to come down here and take some stuff out to the car.” And, when the boy was gone,

“MacReedy, will you do some work for us?”

“Of course,” said the other. “A man gets feeling a bit useless making toy soldiers in times like these.”

“The pay won’t be much...” the General began.

“I can afford it,” said MacReedy with the unexpected generosity of the true Scotsman. “What do you want me to do?”

They have a new weapon building,” said the General. “All we’ve got are a few spy-photographs--not very good, I’m afraid.”

“What sort of weapon?” the model-maker asked.

“That’s just it--we don’t know,” replied the General. “I’m going to send you what we have on it tomorrow; I’m hoping you can give us a line on its purpose.” He paused, added grimly, “As it is we don’t know how to meet it. We haven’t an inkling. It’s given the Chief a whole new patch of grey hairs.”

“I’ll do what I can,” said MacReedy. “But don’t expect the moon.”

“All I want is the nature and purpose of that weapon--if it is a weapon,” was the General’s reply. Then Toby and Sergeant Riley came clumping down the stairs and the conference was at an end.

Before he left the General gave Toby five dollars. “That’s for bringing me here,” he told the lad. “You’ll be seeing me again.”

“Yes, sir,” said Toby. He didn’t sound at all surprised.


When he got back In the car alone, the general counted the models on the seat beside him--one rocket-launcher, one A-gun. He said, “Riley, how are we fixed for gas?”

“Pretty good, sir,” came the reply. “We can make the city okay, sir.”

“Fill up before you get there,” the General told him. “We’re going right on through to Washington tonight.”

“But, sir, I haven’t notified the motor pool at Governor’s Island,” the Sergeant protested.

“Damn the motor pool!” the General exploded. “I’ll take care of them. Now get going; we’ve got a long drive ahead.”

The big car gathered speed through the thickening night snow.

The General slept most of the way, after he and the Sergeant stopped for dinner at a Howard Johnson restaurant on Route One, just north of New Brunswick. After a shower, a change into uniform and breakfast, he was in sound operating shape when he reached his office at the Pentagon the next morning.

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