Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living. Underhill was furious as he closed the door behind himself. It didn’t make much sense to wear a uniform and look like a soldier if people didn’t appreciate what you did.
He sat down in his chair, laid his head back in the headrest and pulled the helmet down over his forehead.
As he waited for the pin-set to warm up, he remembered the girl in the outer corridor. She had looked at it, then looked at him scornfully.
“Meow.” That was all she had said. Yet it had cut him like a knife.
What did she think he was--a fool, a loafer, a uniformed nonentity? Didn’t she know that for every half hour of pinlighting, he got a minimum of two months’ recuperation in the hospital?
By now the set was warm. He felt the squares of space around him, sensed himself at the middle of an immense grid, a cubic grid, full of nothing. Out in that nothingness, he could sense the hollow aching horror of space itself and could feel the terrible anxiety which his mind encountered whenever it met the faintest trace of inert dust.
As he relaxed, the comforting solidity of the Sun, the clock-work of the familiar planets and the Moon rang in on him. Our own solar system was as charming and as simple as an ancient cuckoo clock filled with familiar ticking and with reassuring noises. The odd little moons of Mars swung around their planet like frantic mice, yet their regularity was itself an assurance that all was well. Far above the plane of the ecliptic, he could feel half a ton of dust more or less drifting outside the lanes of human travel.
Here there was nothing to fight, nothing to challenge the mind, to tear the living soul out of a body with its roots dripping in effluvium as tangible as blood.
Nothing ever moved in on the Solar System. He could wear the pin-set forever and be nothing more than a sort of telepathic astronomer, a man who could feel the hot, warm protection of the Sun throbbing and burning against his living mind.
Woodley came in.
“Same old ticking world,” said Underhill. “Nothing to report. No wonder they didn’t develop the pin-set until they began to planoform. Down here with the hot Sun around us, it feels so good and so quiet. You can feel everything spinning and turning. It’s nice and sharp and compact. It’s sort of like sitting around home.”
Woodley grunted. He was not much given to flights of fantasy.
Undeterred, Underhill went on, “It must have been pretty good to have been an Ancient Man. I wonder why they burned up their world with war. They didn’t have to planoform. They didn’t have to go out to earn their livings among the stars. They didn’t have to dodge the Rats or play the Game. They couldn’t have invented pinlighting because they didn’t have any need of it, did they, Woodley?”
Woodley grunted, “Uh-huh.” Woodley was twenty-six years old and due to retire in one more year. He already had a farm picked out. He had gotten through ten years of hard work pinlighting with the best of them. He had kept his sanity by not thinking very much about his job, meeting the strains of the task whenever he had to meet them and thinking nothing more about his duties until the next emergency arose.
Woodley never made a point of getting popular among the Partners. None of the Partners liked him very much. Some of them even resented him. He was suspected of thinking ugly thoughts of the Partners on occasion, but since none of the Partners ever thought a complaint in articulate form, the other pinlighters and the Chiefs of the Instrumentality left him alone.
Underhill was still full of the wonder of their job. Happily he babbled on, “What does happen to us when we planoform? Do you think it’s sort of like dying? Did you ever see anybody who had his soul pulled out?”
“Pulling souls is just a way of talking about it,” said Woodley. “After all these years, nobody knows whether we have souls or not.”
“But I saw one once. I saw what Dogwood looked like when he came apart. There was something funny. It looked wet and sort of sticky as if it were bleeding and it went out of him--and you know what they did to Dogwood? They took him away, up in that part of the hospital where you and I never go--way up at the top part where the others are, where the others always have to go if they are alive after the Rats of the Up-and-Out have gotten them.”
Woodley sat down and lit an ancient pipe. He was burning something called tobacco in it. It was a dirty sort of habit, but it made him look very dashing and adventurous.
“Look here, youngster. You don’t have to worry about that stuff. Pinlighting is getting better all the time. The Partners are getting better. I’ve seen them pinlight two Rats forty-six million miles apart in one and a half milliseconds. As long as people had to try to work the pin-sets themselves, there was always the chance that with a minimum of four hundred milliseconds for the human mind to set a pinlight, we wouldn’t light the Rats up fast enough to protect our planoforming ships. The Partners have changed all that. Once they get going, they’re faster than Rats. And they always will be. I know it’s not easy, letting a Partner share your mind--”
“It’s not easy for them, either,” said Underhill.
“Don’t worry about them. They’re not human. Let them take care of themselves. I’ve seen more pinlighters go crazy from monkeying around with Partners than I have ever seen caught by the Rats. How many do you actually know of them that got grabbed by Rats?”
Underhill looked down at his fingers, which shone green and purple in the vivid light thrown by the tuned-in pin-set, and counted ships. The thumb for the Andromeda, lost with crew and passengers, the index finger and the middle finger for Release Ships 43 and 56, found with their pin-sets burned out and every man, woman, and child on board dead or insane. The ring finger, the little finger, and the thumb of the other hand were the first three battleships to be lost to the Rats--lost as people realized that there was something out there underneath space itself which was alive, capricious and malevolent.
Planoforming was sort of funny. It felt like like--
Like nothing much.
Like the twinge of a mild electric shock.
Like the ache of a sore tooth bitten on for the first time.
Like a slightly painful flash of light against the eyes.
Yet in that time, a forty-thousand-ton ship lifting free above Earth disappeared somehow or other into two dimensions and appeared half a light-year or fifty light-years off.
At one moment, he would be sitting in the Fighting Room, the pin-set ready and the familiar Solar System ticking around inside his head. For a second or a year (he could never tell how long it really was, subjectively), the funny little flash went through him and then he was loose in the Up-and-Out, the terrible open spaces between the stars, where the stars themselves felt like pimples on his telepathic mind and the planets were too far away to be sensed or read.
Somewhere in this outer space, a gruesome death awaited, death and horror of a kind which Man had never encountered until he reached out for inter-stellar space itself. Apparently the light of the suns kept the Dragons away.
Dragons. That was what people called them. To ordinary people, there was nothing, nothing except the shiver of planoforming and the hammer blow of sudden death or the dark spastic note of lunacy descending into their minds.
But to the telepaths, they were Dragons.
In the fraction of a second between the telepaths’ awareness of a hostile something out in the black, hollow nothingness of space and the impact of a ferocious, ruinous psychic blow against all living things within the ship, the telepaths had sensed entities something like the Dragons of ancient human lore, beasts more clever than beasts, demons more tangible than demons, hungry vortices of aliveness and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin tenuous matter between the stars.
It took a surviving ship to bring back the news--a ship in which, by sheer chance, a telepath had a light beam ready, turning it out at the innocent dust so that, within the panorama of his mind, the Dragon dissolved into nothing at all and the other passengers, themselves non-telepathic, went about their way not realizing that their own immediate deaths had been averted.
From then on, it was easy--almost.
Planoforming ships always carried telepaths. Telepaths had their sensitiveness enlarged to an immense range by the pin-sets, which were telepathic amplifiers adapted to the mammal mind. The pin-sets in turn were electronically geared into small dirigible light bombs. Light did it.
Light broke up the Dragons, allowed the ships to reform three-dimensionally, skip, skip, skip, as they moved from star to star.
The odds suddenly moved down from a hundred to one against mankind to sixty to forty in mankind’s favor.
This was not enough. The telepaths were trained to become ultrasensitive, trained to become aware of the Dragons in less than a millisecond.
But it was found that the Dragons could move a million miles in just under two milliseconds and that this was not enough for the human mind to activate the light beams.
Attempts had been made to sheath the ships in light at all times.
This defense wore out.
As mankind learned about the Dragons, so too, apparently, the Dragons learned about mankind. Somehow they flattened their own bulk and came in on extremely flat trajectories very quickly.
Intense light was needed, light of sunlike intensity. This could be provided only by light bombs. Pinlighting came into existence.
Pinlighting consisted of the detonation of ultra-vivid miniature photonuclear bombs, which converted a few ounces of a magnesium isotope into pure visible radiance.
The odds kept coming down in mankind’s favor, yet ships were being lost.
It became so bad that people didn’t even want to find the ships because the rescuers knew what they would see. It was sad to bring back to Earth three hundred bodies ready for burial and two hundred or three hundred lunatics, damaged beyond repair, to be wakened, and fed, and cleaned, and put to sleep, wakened and fed again until their lives were ended.
Telepaths tried to reach into the minds of the psychotics who had been damaged by the Dragons, but they found nothing there beyond vivid spouting columns of fiery terror bursting from the primordial id itself, the volcanic source of life.
Then came the Partners.
Man and Partner could do together what Man could not do alone. Men had the intellect. Partners had the speed.
The Partners rode their tiny craft, no larger than footballs, outside the spaceships. They planoformed with the ships. They rode beside them in their six-pound craft ready to attack.
The tiny ships of the Partners were swift. Each carried a dozen pinlights, bombs no bigger than thimbles.
The pinlighters threw the Partners--quite literally threw--by means of mind-to-firing relays direct at the Dragons.
What seemed to be Dragons to the human mind appeared in the form of gigantic Rats in the minds of the Partners.
Out in the pitiless nothingness of space, the Partners’ minds responded to an instinct as old as life. The Partners attacked, striking with a speed faster than Man’s, going from attack to attack until the Rats or themselves were destroyed. Almost all the time, it was the Partners who won.
With the safety of the inter-stellar skip, skip, skip of the ships, commerce increased immensely, the population of all the colonies went up, and the demand for trained Partners increased.
Underhill and Woodley were a part of the third generation of pinlighters and yet, to them, it seemed as though their craft had endured forever.
Gearing space into minds by means of the pin-set, adding the Partners to those minds, keying up the mind for the tension of a fight on which all depended--this was more than human synapses could stand for long. Underhill needed his two months’ rest after half an hour of fighting. Woodley needed his retirement after ten years of service. They were young. They were good. But they had limitations.
So much depended on the choice of Partners, so much on the sheer luck of who drew whom.
Father Moontree and the little girl named West entered the room. They were the other two pinlighters. The human complement of the Fighting Room was now complete.
Father Moontree was a red-faced man of forty-five who had lived the peaceful life of a farmer until he reached his fortieth year. Only then, belatedly, did the authorities find he was telepathic and agree to let him late in life enter upon the career of pinlighter. He did well at it, but he was fantastically old for this kind of business.
Father Moontree looked at the glum Woodley and the musing Underhill. “How’re the youngsters today? Ready for a good fight?”
“Father always wants a fight,” giggled the little girl named West. She was such a little little girl. Her giggle was high and childish. She looked like the last person in the world one would expect to find in the rough, sharp dueling of pinlighting.
Underhill had been amused one time when he found one of the most sluggish of the Partners coming away happy from contact with the mind of the girl named West.
Usually the Partners didn’t care much about the human minds with which they were paired for the journey. The Partners seemed to take the attitude that human minds were complex and fouled up beyond belief, anyhow. No Partner ever questioned the superiority of the human mind, though very few of the Partners were much impressed by that superiority.
The Partners liked people. They were willing to fight with them. They were even willing to die for them. But when a Partner liked an individual the way, for example, that Captain Wow or the Lady May liked Underhill, the liking had nothing to do with intellect. It was a matter of temperament, of feel.
Underhill knew perfectly well that Captain Wow regarded his, Underhill’s, brains as silly. What Captain Wow liked was Underhill’s friendly emotional structure, the cheerfulness and glint of wicked amusement that shot through Underhill’s unconscious thought patterns, and the gaiety with which Underhill faced danger. The words, the history books, the ideas, the science--Underhill could sense all that in his own mind, reflected back from Captain Wow’s mind, as so much rubbish.
Miss West looked at Underhill. “I bet you’ve put stickum on the stones.”
“I did not!”
Underhill felt his ears grow red with embarrassment. During his novitiate, he had tried to cheat in the lottery because he got particularly fond of a special Partner, a lovely young mother named Murr. It was so much easier to operate with Murr and she was so affectionate toward him that he forgot pinlighting was hard work and that he was not instructed to have a good time with his Partner. They were both designed and prepared to go into deadly battle together.
One cheating had been enough. They had found him out and he had been laughed at for years.
Father Moontree picked up the imitation-leather cup and shook the stone dice which assigned them their Partners for the trip. By senior rights, he took first draw.
He grimaced. He had drawn a greedy old character, a tough old male whose mind was full of slobbering thoughts of food, veritable oceans full of half-spoiled fish. Father Moontree had once said that he burped cod liver oil for weeks after drawing that particular glutton, so strongly had the telepathic image of fish impressed itself upon his mind. Yet the glutton was a glutton for danger as well as for fish. He had killed sixty-three Dragons, more than any other Partner in the service, and was quite literally worth his weight in gold.