The Mercenaries - Cover

The Mercenaries

by H. Beam Piper

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Once, wars were won by maneuvering hired fighting men; now wars are different--and the hired experts are different. But the human problems remain!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Duncan MacLeod hung up the suit he had taken off, and sealed his shirt, socks and underwear in a laundry envelope bearing his name and identity-number, tossing this into one of the wire baskets provided for the purpose. Then, naked except for the plastic identity disk around his neck, he went over to the desk, turned in his locker key, and passed into the big room beyond.

Four or five young men, probably soldiers on their way to town, were coming through from the other side. Like MacLeod, they wore only the plastic disks they had received in exchange for the metal ones they wore inside the reservation, and they were being searched by attendants who combed through their hair, probed into ears and nostrils, peered into mouths with tiny searchlights, and employed a variety of magnetic and electronic detectors.

To this search MacLeod submitted wearily. He had become quite a connoisseur of security measures in fifteen years’ research and development work for a dozen different nations, but the Tonto Basin Research Establishment of the Philadelphia Project exceeded anything he had seen before. There were gray-haired veterans of the old Manhattan Project here, men who had worked with Fermi at Chicago, or with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, twenty years before, and they swore in amused exasperation when they thought of how the relatively mild regulations of those days had irked them. And yet, the very existence of the Manhattan Project had been kept a secret from all but those engaged in it, and its purpose from most of them. Today, in 1965, there might have been a few wandering tribesmen in Somaliland or the Kirghiz Steppes who had never heard of the Western Union’s Philadelphia Project, or of the Fourth Komintern’s Red Triumph Five-Year Plan, or of the Islamic Kaliphate’s Al-Borak Undertaking, or of the Ibero-American Confederation’s Cavor Project, but every literate person in the world knew that the four great power-blocs were racing desperately to launch the first spaceship to reach the Moon and build the Lunar fortress that would insure world supremacy.

He turned in the nonmagnetic identity disk at the desk on the other side of the search room, receiving the metal one he wore inside the reservation, and with it the key to his inside locker. He put on the clothes he had left behind when he had passed out, and filled his pockets with the miscellany of small articles he had not been allowed to carry off the reservation. He knotted the garish necktie affected by the civilian workers and in particular by members of the MacLeod Research Team to advertise their nonmilitary status, lit his pipe, and walked out into the open gallery beyond.

Karen Hilquist was waiting for him there, reclining in one of the metal chairs. She looked cool in the belted white coveralls, with the white turban bound around her yellow hair, and very beautiful, and when he saw her, his heart gave a little bump, like a geiger responding to an ionizing particle. It always did that, although they had been together for twelve years, and married for ten. Then she saw him and smiled, and he came over, fanning himself with his sun helmet, and dropped into a chair beside her.

“Did you call our center for a jeep?” he asked. When she nodded, he continued: “I thought you would, so I didn’t bother.”

For a while, they sat silent, looking with bored distaste at the swarm of steel-helmeted Army riflemen and tommy-gunners guarding the transfer platforms and the vehicles gate. A string of trucks had been passed under heavy guard into the clearance compound: they were now unloading supplies onto a platform, at the other side of which other trucks were backed waiting to receive the shipment. A hundred feet of bare concrete and fifty armed soldiers separated these from the men and trucks from the outside, preventing contact.

“And still they can’t stop leaks,” Karen said softly. “And we get blamed for it.”

MacLeod nodded and started to say something, when his attention was drawn by a commotion on the driveway. A big Tucker limousine with an O.D. paint job and the single-starred flag of a brigadier general was approaching, horning impatiently. In the back seat MacLeod could see a heavy-shouldered figure with the face of a bad-tempered great Dane--General Daniel Nayland, the military commander of Tonto Basin. The inside guards jumped to attention and saluted; the barrier shot up as though rocket-propelled, and the car slid through; the barrier slammed down behind it. On the other side, the guards were hurling themselves into a frenzy of saluting. Karen made a face after the receding car and muttered something in Hindustani. She probably didn’t know the literal meaning of what she had called General Nayland, but she understood that it was a term of extreme opprobrium.

Her husband contributed: “His idea of Heaven would be a huge research establishment, where he’d be a five-star general, and Galileo, Newton, Priestley, Dalton, Maxwell, Planck and Einstein would be tech sergeants.”

“And Marie Curie and Lise Meitner would be Wac corporals,” Karen added. “He really hates all of us, doesn’t he?”

“He hates our Team,” MacLeod replied. “In the first place, we’re a lot of civilians, who aren’t subject to his regulations and don’t have to salute him. We’re working under contract with the Western Union, not with the United States Government, and as the United States participates in the Western Union on a treaty basis, our contract has the force of a treaty obligation. It gives us what amounts to extraterritoriality, like Europeans in China during the Nineteenth Century. So we have our own transport, for which he must furnish petrol, and our own armed guard, and we fly our own flag over Team Center, and that gripes him as much as anything else. That and the fact that we’re foreigners. So wouldn’t he love to make this espionage rap stick on us!”

“And our contract specifically gives the United States the right to take action against us in case we endanger the national security,” Karen added. She stuffed her cigarette into the not-too-recently-emptied receiver beside her chair, her blue eyes troubled. “You know, some of us could get shot over this, if we’re not careful. Dunc, does it really have to be one of our own people who--?”

“I don’t see how it could be anybody else,” MacLeod said. “I don’t like the idea any more than you do, but there it is.”

“Well, what are we going to do? Is there nobody whom we can trust?”

“Among the technicians and guards, yes. I could think of a score who are absolutely loyal. But among the Team itself--the top researchers--there’s nobody I’d take a chance on but Kato Sugihara.”

“Can you even be sure of him? I’d hate to think of him as a traitor, but--”

“I have a couple of reasons for eliminating Kato,” MacLeod said. “In the first place, outside nucleonic and binding-force physics, there are only three things he’s interested in. Jitterbugging, hand-painted neckties, and Southern-style cooking. If he went over to the Komintern, he wouldn’t be able to get any of those. Then, he only spends about half his share of the Team’s profits, and turns the rest back into the Team Fund. He has a credit of about a hundred thousand dollars, which he’d lose by leaving us. And then, there’s another thing. Kato’s father was killed on Guadalcanal, in 1942, when he was only five. After that he was brought up in the teachings of Bushido by his grandfather, an old-time samurai. Bushido is open to some criticism, but nobody can show where double-crossing your own gang is good Bushido. And today, Japan is allied with the Western Union, and in any case, he wouldn’t help the Komintern. The Japs’ll forgive Russia for that Mussolini back-stab in 1945 after the Irish start building monuments to Cromwell.”

A light-blue jeep, lettered MacLeod Research Team in cherry-red, was approaching across the wide concrete apron. MacLeod grinned.

“Here it comes. Fasten your safety belt when you get in; that’s Ahmed driving.”

Karen looked at her watch. “And it’s almost time for dinner. You know, I dread the thought of sitting at the table with the others, and wondering which of them is betraying us.”

“Only nine of us, instead of thirteen, and still one is a Judas,” MacLeod said. “I suppose there’s always a place for Judas, at any table.”

The MacLeod Team dined together, apart from their assistants and technicians and students. This was no snobbish attempt at class-distinction: matters of Team policy were often discussed at the big round table, and the more confidential details of their work. People who have only their knowledge and their ideas to sell are wary about bandying either loosely, and the six men and three women who faced each other across the twelve-foot diameter of the teakwood table had no other stock-in-trade.

They were nine people of nine different nationalities, or they were nine people of the common extra-nationality of science. That Duncan MacLeod, their leader, had grown up in the Transvaal and his wife had been born in the Swedish university town of Upsala was typical not only of their own group but of the hundreds of independent research-teams that had sprung up after the Second World War. The scientist-adventurer may have been born of the relentless struggle for scientific armament supremacy among nations and the competition for improved techniques among industrial corporations during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, but he had been begotten when two masses of uranium came together at the top of a steel tower in New Mexico in 1945. And, because scientific research is pre-eminently a matter of pooling brains and efforts, the independent scientists had banded together into teams whose leaders acquired power greater than that of any condottiere captain of Renaissance Italy.

Duncan MacLeod, sitting outwardly relaxed and merry and secretly watchful and bitterly sad, was such a free-captain of science. One by one, the others had rallied around him, not because he was a greater physicist than they, but because he was a bolder, more clever, less scrupulous adventurer, better able to guide them through the maze of international power-politics and the no less ruthless if less nakedly violent world of Big Industry.

There was his wife, Karen Hilquist, the young metallurgist who, before she was twenty-five, had perfected a new hardening process for SKF and an incredibly tough gun-steel for the Bofors works. In the few minutes since they had returned to Team Center, she had managed to change her coveralls for a skirt and blouse, and do something intriguing with her hair.

And there was Kato Sugihara, looking younger than his twenty-eight years, who had begun to demonstrate the existence of whole orders of structure below the level of nuclear particles.

There was Suzanne Maillard, her gray hair upswept from a face that had never been beautiful but which was alive with something rarer than mere beauty: she possessed, at the brink of fifty, a charm and smartness that many women half her age might have envied, and she knew more about cosmic rays than any other person living.

And Adam Lowiewski, his black mustache contrasting so oddly with his silver hair, frantically scribbling equations on his doodling-pad, as though his racing fingers could never keep pace with his brain, and explaining them, with obvious condescension, to the boyish-looking Japanese beside him. He was one of the greatest of living mathematicians by anybody’s reckoning--the greatest, by his own.

And Sir Neville Lawton, the electronics expert, with thinning red-gray hair and meticulously-clipped mustache, who always gave the impression of being in evening clothes, even when, as now, he was dressed in faded khaki.

And Heym ben-Hillel, the Israeli quantum and wave-mechanics man, his heaping dinner plate an affront to the Laws of Moses, his white hair a fluffy, tangled chaos, laughing at an impassively-delivered joke the English knight had made.

And Rudolf von Heldenfeld, with a thin-lipped killer’s mouth and a frozen face that never betrayed its owner’s thoughts--he was the specialist in magnetic currents and electromagnetic fields.

And Farida Khouroglu, the Turkish girl whom MacLeod and Karen had found begging in the streets of Istanbul, ten years ago, and who had grown up following the fortunes of the MacLeod Team on every continent and in a score of nations. It was doubtful if she had ever had a day’s formal schooling in her life, but now she was secretary of the Team, with a grasp of physics that would have shamed many a professor. She had grown up a beauty, too, with the large dark eyes and jet-black hair and paper-white skin of her race. She and Kato Sugihara were very much in love.

A good team; the best physics-research team in a power-mad, knowledge-hungry world. MacLeod thought, toying with the stem of his wineglass, of some of their triumphs: The West Australia Atomic Power Plant. The Segovia Plutonium Works, which had got them all titled as Grandees of the restored Spanish Monarchy. The sea-water chemical extraction plant in Puerto Rico, where they had worked for Associated Enterprises, whose president, Blake Hartley, had later become President of the United States. The hard-won victory over a seemingly insoluble problem in the Belgian Congo uranium mines--He thought, too, of the dangers they had faced together, in a world where soldiers must use the weapons of science and scientists must learn the arts of violence. Of the treachery of the Islamic Kaliphate, for whom they had once worked; of the intrigues and plots which had surrounded them in Spain; of the many attempted kidnappings and assassinations; of the time in Basra when they had fought with pistols and tommy guns and snatched-up clubs and flasks of acid to defend their laboratories.

A good team--before the rot of treason had touched it. He could almost smell the putrid stench of it, and yet, as he glanced from face to face, he could not guess the traitor. And he had so little time--

Kato Sugihara’s voice rose to dominate the murmur of conversation around the table.

“I think I am getting somewhere on my photon-neutrino-electron interchange-cycle,” he announced. “And I think it can be correlated to the collapsed-matter research.”

“So?” von Heldenfeld looked up in interest. “And not with the problem of what goes on in the ‘hot layer’ surrounding the Earth?”

“No, Suzanne talked me out of that idea,” the Japanese replied. “That’s just a secondary effect of the effect of cosmic rays and solar radiations on the order of particles existing at that level. But I think that I have the key to the problem of collapsing matter to plate the hull of the spaceship.”

“That’s interesting,” Sir Neville Lawton commented. “How so?”

“Well, you know what happens when a photon comes in contact with the atomic structure of matter,” Kato said. “There may be an elastic collision, in which the photon merely bounces off. Macroscopically, that’s the effect we call reflection of light. Or there may be an inelastic collision, when the photon hits an atom and knocks out an electron--the old photoelectric effect. Or, the photon may be retained for a while and emitted again relatively unchanged--the effect observed in luminous paint. Or, the photon may penetrate, undergo a change to a neutrino, and either remain in the nucleus of the atom or pass through it, depending upon a number of factors. All this, of course, is old stuff; even the photon-neutrino interchange has been known since the mid-’50s, when the Gamow neutrino-counter was developed. But now we come to what you have been so good as to christen the Sugihara Effect--the neutrino picking up a negative charge and, in effect, turning into an electron, and then losing its charge, turning back into a neutrino, and then, as in the case of metal heated to incandescence, being emitted again as a photon.

“At first, we thought this had no connection with the spaceship insulation problem we are under contract to work out, and we agreed to keep this effect a Team secret until we could find out if it had commercial possibilities. But now, I find that it has a direct connection with the collapsed-matter problem. When the electron loses its negative charge and reverts to a neutrino, there is a definite accretion of interatomic binding-force, and the molecule, or the crystalline lattice or whatever tends to contract, and when the neutrino becomes a photon, the nucleus of the atom contracts.”

Heym ben-Hillel was sitting oblivious to everything but his young colleague’s words, a slice of the flesh of the unclean beast impaled on his fork and halfway to his mouth.

“Yes! Certainly!” he exclaimed. “That would explain so many things I have wondered about: And of course, there are other forces at work which, in the course of nature, balance that effect--”

“But can the process be controlled?” Suzanne Maillard wanted to know. “Can you convert electrons to neutrinos and then to photons in sufficient numbers, and eliminate other effects that would cause compensating atomic and molecular expansion?”

Kato grinned, like a tomcat contemplating the bones of a fish he has just eaten.

“Yes, I can. I have.” He turned to MacLeod. “Remember those bullets I got from you?” he asked.

MacLeod nodded. He handloaded for his .38-special, and like all advanced cases of handloading-fever, he was religiously fanatical about uniformity of bullet weights and dimensions. Unlike most handloaders, he had available the instruments to secure such uniformity.

“Those bullets are as nearly alike as different objects can be,” Kato said. “They weigh 158 grains, and that means one-five-eight-point-zero-zero-zero-practically-nothing. The diameter is .35903 inches. All right; I’ve been subjecting those bullets to different radiation-bombardments, and the best results have given me a bullet with a diameter of .35892 inches, and the weight is unchanged. In other words, there’s been no loss of mass, but the mass had contracted. And that’s only been the first test.”

“Well, write up everything you have on it, and we’ll lay out further experimental work,” MacLeod said. He glanced around the table. “So far, we can’t be entirely sure. The shrinkage may be all in the crystalline lattice: the atomic structure may be unchanged. What we need is matter that is really collapsed.”

“I’ll do that,” Kato said. “Barida, I’ll have all my data available for you before noon tomorrow: you can make up copies for all Team members.”

“Make mine on microfilm, for projection,” von Heldenfeld said.

“Mine, too,” Sir Neville Lawton added.

“Better make microfilm copies for everybody,” Heym ben-Hillel suggested. “They’re handier than type-script.”

MacLeod rose silently and tiptoed around behind his wife and Rudolf von Heldenfeld, to touch Kato Sugihara on the shoulder.

“Come on outside, Kato,” he whispered. “I want to talk to you.”

The Japanese nodded and rose, following him outside onto the roof above the laboratories. They walked over to the edge and stopped at the balustrade.

“Kato, when you write up your stuff, I want you to falsify everything you can. Put it in such form that the data will be absolutely worthless, but also in such form that nobody, not even Team members, will know it has been falsified. Can you do that?”

Kato’s almond-shaped eyes widened. “Of course I can, Dunc,” he replied. “But why--?”

“I hate to say this, but we have a traitor in the Team. One of those people back in the dining room is selling us out to the Fourth Komintern. I know it’s not Karen, and I know it’s not you, and that’s as much as I do know, now.”

The Japanese sucked in his breath in a sharp hiss. “You wouldn’t say that unless you were sure, Dunc,” he said.

“No. At about 1000 this morning, Dr. Weissberg, the civilian director, called me to his office. I found him very much upset. He told me that General Nayland is accusing us--by which he meant this Team--of furnishing secret information on our subproject to Komintern agents. He said that British Intelligence agents at Smolensk had learned that the Red Triumph laboratories there were working along lines of research originated at MacLeod Team Center here. They relayed the information to Western Union Central Intelligence, and WU passed it on to United States Central Intelligence, and now Counter Espionage is riding Nayland about it, and he’s trying to make us the goat.”

“He would love to get some of us shot,” Kato said. “And that could happen. They took a long time getting tough about espionage in this country, but when Americans get tough about something, they get tough right. But look here; we handed in our progress-reports to Felix Weissberg, and he passed them on to Nayland. Couldn’t the leak be right in Nayland’s own HQ?”

“That’s what I thought, at first,” MacLeod replied. “Just wishful thinking, though. Fact is, I went up to Nayland’s HQ and had it out with him; accused him of just that. I think I threw enough of a scare into him to hold him for a couple of days. I wanted to know just what it was the Komintern was supposed to have got from us, but he wouldn’t tell me. That, of course, was classified-stuff.”


“Well then, Karen and I got our digestive tracts emptied and went in to town, where I could use a phone that didn’t go through a military switch-board, and I put through a call to Allan Hartley, President Hartley’s son. He owes us a break, after the work we did in Puerto Rico. I told him all I wanted was some information to help clear ourselves, and he told me to wait a half an hour and then call Counter Espionage Office in Washington and talk to General Hammond.”

“Ha! If Allan Hartley’s for us, what are we worried about?” Kato asked. “I always knew he was the power back of Associated Enterprises and his father was the front-man: I’ll bet it’s the same with the Government.”

“Allan Hartley’s for us as long as our nose is clean. If we let it get dirty, we get it bloodied, too. We have to clean it ourselves,” MacLeod told him. “But here’s what Hammond gave me: The Komintern knows all about our collapsed-matter experiments with zinc, titanium and nickel. They know about our theoretical work on cosmic rays, including Suzanne’s work up to about a month ago. They know about that effect Sir Neville and Heym discovered two months ago.” He paused. “And they know about the photon-neutrino-electron interchange.”

Kato responded to this with a gruesome double-take that gave his face the fleeting appearance of an ancient samurai war mask.

“That wasn’t included in any report we ever made,” he said. “You’re right: the leak comes from inside the Team. It must be Sir Neville, or Suzanne, or Heym ben-Hillel, or Adam Lowiewski, or Rudolf von Heldenfeld, or--No! No, I can’t believe it could be Farida!” He looked at MacLeod pleadingly. “You don’t think she could have--?”

“No, Kato. The Team’s her whole life, even more than it is mine. She came with us when she was only twelve, and grew up with us. She doesn’t know any other life than this, and wouldn’t want any other. It has to be one of the other five.”

“Well, there’s Suzanne,” Kato began. “She had to clear out of France because of political activities, after the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the establishment of the Rightist Directoire in ‘57. And she worked with Joliot-Curie, and she was at the University of Louvain in the early ‘50s, when that place was crawling with Commies.”

“And that brings us to Sir Neville,” MacLeod added. “He dabbles in spiritualism; he and Suzanne do planchette-seances. A planchette can be manipulated. Maybe Suzanne produced a communication advising Sir Neville to help the Komintern.”

“Could be. Then, how about Lowiewski? He’s a Pole who can’t go back to Poland, and Poland’s a Komintern country.” Kato pointed out. “Maybe he’d sell us out for amnesty, though why he’d want to go back there, the way things are now--?”

“His vanity. You know, missionary-school native going back to the village wearing real pants, to show off to the savages. Used to be a standing joke, down where I came from.” MacLeod thought for a moment. “And Rudolf: he’s always had a poor view of the democratic system of government. He might feel more at home with the Komintern. Of course, the Ruskis killed his parents in 1945--”

“So what?” Kato retorted. “The Americans killed my father in 1942, but I’m not making an issue out of it. That was another war; Japan’s a Western Union country, now. So’s Germany--How about Heym, by the way? Remember when the Komintern wanted us to come to Russia and do the same work we’re doing here?”

“I remember that after we turned them down, somebody tried to kidnap Karen,” MacLeod said grimly. “I remember a couple of Russians got rather suddenly dead trying it, too.”

“I wasn’t thinking of that. I was thinking of our round-table argument when the proposition was considered. Heym was in favor of accepting. Now that, I would say, indicates either Communist sympathies or an overtrusting nature,” Kato submitted. “And a lot of grade-A traitors have been made out of people with trusting natures.”

MacLeod got out his pipe and lit it. For a long time, he stared out across the mountain-ringed vista of sagebrush, dotted at wide intervals with the bulks of research-centers and the red roofs of the villages.

“Kato, I think I know how we’re going to find out which one it is,” he said. “First of all, you write up your data, and falsify it so that it won’t do any damage if it gets into Komintern hands. And then--”

The next day started in an atmosphere of suppressed excitement and anxiety, which, beginning with MacLeod and Karen and Kato Sugihara, seemed to communicate itself by contagion to everybody in the MacLeod Team’s laboratories. The top researchers and their immediate assistants and students were the first to catch it; they ascribed the tension under which their leader and his wife and the Japanese labored to the recent developments in the collapsed-matter problem. Then, there were about a dozen implicitly-trusted technicians and guards, who had been secretly gathered in MacLeod’s office the night before and informed of the crisis that had arisen. Their associates could not miss the fact that they were preoccupied with something unusual.

They were a variegated crew; men who had been added to the Team in every corner of the world. There was Ahmed Abd-el-Rahman, the Arab jeep-driver who had joined them in Basra. There was the wiry little Greek whom everybody called Alex Unpronounceable. There was an Italian, and two Chinese, and a cashiered French Air Force officer, and a Malay, and the son of an English earl who insisted that his name was Bertie Wooster. They had sworn themselves to secrecy, had heard MacLeod’s story with a polylingual burst of pious or blasphemous exclamations, and then they had scattered, each to the work assigned him.

MacLeod had risen early and submitted to the ordeal of the search to leave the reservation and go to town again, this time for a conference at the shabby back-street cigar store that concealed a Counter Espionage center. He had returned just as Farida Khouroglu was finishing the microfilm copies of Kato’s ingeniously-concocted pseudo-data. These copies were distributed at noon, while the Team was lunching, along with carbons of the original type-script.

He was the first to leave the table, going directly to the basement, where Alex Unpronounceable and the man who had got his alias from the works of P. G. Wodehouse were listening in on the telephone calls going in and out through the Team-center switch-board, and making recordings. For two hours, MacLeod remained with them. He heard Suzanne Maillard and some woman who was talking from a number in the Army married-officers’ settlement making arrangements about a party. He heard Rudolf von Heldenfeld make a date with some girl. He listened to a violent altercation between the Team chef and somebody at Army Quartermaster’s HQ about the quality of a lot of dressed chicken. He listened to a call that came in for Adam Lowiewski, the mathematician.

“This is Joe,” the caller said. “I’ve got to go to town late this afternoon, but I was wondering if you’d have time to meet me at the Recreation House at Oppenheimer Village for a game of chess. I’m calling from there, now.”

“Fine; I can make it,” Lowiewski’s voice replied. “I’m in the middle of a devil’s own mathematical problem; maybe a game of chess would clear my head. I have a new queen’s-knight gambit I want to try on you, anyhow.”

Bertie Wooster looked up sharply. “Now there; that may be what we’re--”

The telephone beside MacLeod rang. He scooped it up; named himself into it.

It was Ahmed Abd-el-Rahman. “Look, chief; I tail this guy to Oppenheimer Village,” the Arab, who had learned English from American movies, answered. “He goes into the rec-joint. I slide in after him, an’ he ain’t in sight. I’m lookin’ around for him, see, when he comes bargin’ outa the Don Ameche box. Then he grabs a table an’ a beer. What next?”

“Stay there; keep an eye on him,” MacLeod told him. “If I want you, I’ll call.”

MacLeod hung up and straightened, feeling under his packet for his .38-special.

“That’s it, boys,” he said. “Lowiewski. Come on.”

“Hah!” Alex Unpronounceable had his gun out and was checking the cylinder. He spoke briefly in description of the Polish mathematician’s ancestry, physical characteristics, and probable post-mortem destination. Then he put the gun away, and the three men left the basement.

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