The Defiant Agents
No windows broke any of the four plain walls of the office; there was no focus of outer-world sunlight on the desk there. Yet the five disks set out on its surface appeared to glow--perhaps the heat of the mischief they could cause ... had caused ... blazed in them.
But fanciful imaginings did not cushion or veil cold, hard fact. Dr. Gordon Ashe, one of the four men peering unhappily at the display, shook his head slightly as if to free his mind of such cobwebs.
His neighbor to the right, Colonel Kelgarries, leaned forward to ask harshly: “No chance of a mistake?”
“You saw the detector.” The thin gray string of a man behind the desk answered with chill precision. “No, no possible mistake. These five have definitely been snooped.”
“And two choices among them,” Ashe murmured. That was the important point now.
“I thought these were under maximum security,” Kelgarries challenged the gray man.
Florian Waldour’s remote expression did not change. “Every possible precaution was in force. There was a sleeper--a hidden agent--planted--”
“Who?” Kelgarries demanded.
Ashe glanced around at his three companions--Kelgarries, colonel in command of one sector of Project Star, Florian Waldour, the security head on the station, Dr. James Ruthven...
“Camdon!” he said, hardly able to believe this answer to which logic had led him.
For the first time since he had known and worked with Kelgarries Ashe saw him display open astonishment.
“Camdon? But he was sent us by--” The colonel’s eyes narrowed. “He must have been sent ... There were too many cross checks to fake that!”
“Oh, he was sent, all right.” For the first time there was a note of emotion in Waldour’s voice. “He was a sleeper, a very deep sleeper. They must have planted him a full twenty-five or thirty years ago. He’s been just what he claimed to be as long as that.”
“Well, he certainly was worth their time and trouble, wasn’t he?” James Ruthven’s voice was a growling rumble. He sucked in thick lips, continuing to stare at the disks. “How long ago were these snooped?”
Ashe’s thoughts turned swiftly from the enormity of the betrayal to that important point. The time element--that was the primary concern now that the damage was done, and they knew it.
“That’s one thing we don’t know.” Waldour’s reply came slowly as if he hated the admission.
“We’ll be safer, then, if we presume the very earliest period.” Ruthven’s statement was as ruthless in its implications as the shock they had had when Waldour announced the disaster.
“Eighteen months ago?” Ashe protested.
But Ruthven was nodding. “Camdon was in on this from the very first. We’ve had the tapes in and out for study all that time, and the new detector against snooping was not put in service until two weeks ago. This case came up on the first checking round, didn’t it?” he asked Waldour.
“First check,” the security man agreed. “Camdon left the base six days ago. But he has been in and out on his liaison duties from the first.”
“He had to go through those search points every time,” Kelgarries protested. “Thought nothing could get through those.” The colonel brightened. “Maybe he got his snooper films and then couldn’t take them off base. Have his quarters been turned out?”
Waldour’s lips lifted in a grimace of exasperation. “Please, Colonel,” he said wearily, “this is not a kindergarten exercise. In confirmation of his success, listen...” He touched a button on his desk and out of the air came the emotionless chant of a newscaster.
“Fears for the safety of Lassiter Camdon, space expediter for the Western Conference Space Council, have been confirmed by the discovery of burned wreckage in the mountains. Mr. Camdon was returning from a mission to the Star Laboratory when his plane lost contact with Ragnor Field. Reports of a storm in that vicinity immediately raised concern--” Waldour snapped off the voice.
“True--or a cover for his escape?” Kelgarries wondered aloud.
“Could be either. They may have deliberately written him off when they had all they wanted,” Waldour acknowledged. “But to get back to our troubles--Dr. Ruthven is right to assume the worst. I believe we can only insure the recovery of our project by thinking that these tapes were snooped anywhere from eighteen months ago to last week. And we must work accordingly!”
There was silence in the room as they all considered that. Ashe slipped down in his chair, his thoughts enmeshed in memories. First there had been Operation Retrograde, when specially trained “time agents” had shuttled back and forth in history, striving to locate and track down the mysterious source of alien knowledge which the eastern Communistic nations had suddenly begun to use.
Ashe himself and a younger partner, Ross Murdock, had been part of the final action which had solved the mystery, having traced that source of knowledge not to an earlier and forgotten Terran civilization but to wrecked spaceships from an eon-old galactic empire--an empire which had flourished when glacial ice covered most of Europe and northern America and Terrans were cave-dwelling primitives. Murdock, trapped by the Reds in one of those wrecked ships, had inadvertently summoned its original owners, who had descended to trace--through the Russian time stations--the looters of their wrecks, destroying the whole Red time-travel system.
But the aliens had not chanced on the parallel western system. And a year later that had been put into Project Folsom One. Again Ashe, Murdock, and a newcomer, the Apache Travis Fox, had gone back into time to the Arizona of the Folsom hunters, discovering what they wanted--two ships, one wrecked, the other intact. And when the full efforts of the project had been centered on bringing the intact ship back into the present, chance had triggered controls set by the dead alien commander. A party of four, Ashe, Murdock, Fox, and a technician, had then made an involuntary voyage into space, touching three worlds on which the galactic civilization of the far past was now marked only by ruins.
Voyage tape fed into the controls of the ship had taken the men, and, when rewound, had--by a miracle--returned them to Terra with a cargo of similar tapes found in a building on a world which might have been the central capital for a government comprised not of countries or of worlds but of solar systems. Tapes--each one the key to another planet.
And that ancient galactic knowledge was treasure such as the Terrans had never dreamed of possessing, though there were the attendant fears that such discoveries could be weapons in enemy hands. There had been an enforced sharing with other nations of tapes chosen at random at a great drawing. And each nation secretly remained convinced that, in spite of the untold riches it might hold as a result of chance, its rivals had done better. Right at this moment, Ashe did not in the least doubt, there were agents of his own party intent on accomplishing at the Red project just what Camdon had done there. However, that did not help in solving their present dilemma concerning Operation Cochise, one part of their project, but perhaps the most important now.
Some of the tapes were duds, either too damaged to be useful, or set for worlds hostile to Terrans lacking the equipment the earlier star-traveling race had had at its command. Of the five tapes they now knew had been snooped, three would be useless to the enemy.
But one of the remaining two ... Ashe frowned. One was the goal toward which they had been working feverishly for a full twelve months. To plant a colony across the gulf of space--a successful colony--later to be used as a steppingstone to other worlds...
“So we have to move faster.” Ruthven’s comment reached Ashe through his stream of memories.
“I thought you required at least three more months to conclude personnel training,” Waldour observed.
Ruthven lifted a fat hand, running the nail of a broad thumb back and forth across his lower lip in a habitual gesture Ashe had learned to mistrust. As the latter stiffened, bracing for a battle of wills, he saw Kelgarries come alert too. At least the colonel more often than not was ready to counter Ruthven’s demands.
“We test and we test,” said the fat man. “Always we test. We move like turtles when it would be better to race like greyhounds. There is such a thing as overcaution, as I have said from the first. One would think”--his accusing glance included Ashe and Kelgarries--”that there had never been any improvising in this project, that all had always been done by the book. I say that this is the time we must take the big gamble, or else we may find we have been outbid for space entirely. Let those others discover even one alien installation they can master and--” his thumb shifted from his lip, grinding down on the desk top as if it were crushing some venturesome but entirely unimportant insect--”and we are finished before we really begin.”
There were a number of men in the project who would agree with that, Ashe knew. And a greater number in the country and conference at large. The public was used to reckless gambles which paid off, and there had been enough of those in the past to give an impressive argument for that point of view. But Ashe, himself, could not agree to a speed-up. He had been out among the stars, shaved disaster too closely because the proper training had not been given.
“I shall report that I advise a take-off within a week,” Ruthven was continuing. “To the council I shall say that--”
“And I do not agree!” Ashe cut in. He glanced at Kelgarries for the quick backing he expected, but instead there was a lengthening moment of silence. Then the colonel spread out his hands and said sullenly:
“I don’t agree either, but I don’t have the final say-so. Ashe, what would be needed to speed up any take-off?”
It was Ruthven who replied. “We can use the Redax, as I have said from the start.”
Ashe straightened, his mouth tight, his eyes hard and angry.
“And I’ll protest that ... to the council! Man, we’re dealing with human beings--selected volunteers, men who trust us--not with laboratory animals!”
Ruthven’s thick lips pouted into what was close to a smile of derision. “Always the sentimentalists, you experts in the past! Tell me, Dr. Ashe, were you always so thoughtful of your men when you sent agents back into time? And certainly a voyage into space is less a risk than time travel. These volunteers know what they have signed for. They will be ready--”
“Then you propose telling them about the use of Redax--what it does to a man’s mind?” countered Ashe.
“Certainly. They will receive all necessary instructions.”
Ashe was not satisfied and he would have spoken again, but Kelgarries interrupted:
“If it comes to that, none of us here has any right to make final decisions. Waldour has already sent in his report about the snoop. We’ll have to await orders from the council.”
Ruthven levered himself out of his chair, his solid bulk stretching his uniform coveralls. “That is correct, Colonel. In the meantime I would suggest we all check to see what can be done to speed up each one’s portion of labor.” Without another word, he tramped to the door.
Waldour eyed the other two with mounting impatience. It was plain he had work to do and wanted them to leave. But Ashe was reluctant. He had a feeling that matters were slipping out of his control, that he was about to face a crisis which was somehow worse than just a major security leak. Was the enemy always on the other side of the world? Or could he wear the same uniform, even share the same goals?
In the outer corridor he still hesitated, and Kelgarries, a step or so in advance, looked back over his shoulder impatiently.
“There’s no use fighting--our hands are tied.” His words were slurred, almost as if he wanted to disown them.
“Then you’ll agree to use the Redax?” For the second time within the hour Ashe felt as if he had taken a step only to have firm earth turn into slippery, shifting sand underfoot.
“It isn’t a matter of my agreeing. It may be a matter of getting through or not getting through--now. If they’ve had eighteen months, or even twelve... !” The colonel’s fingers balled into a fist. “And they won’t be delayed by any humanitarian reasoning--”
“Then you believe Ruthven will win the council’s approval?”
“When you are dealing with frightened men, you’re talking to ears closed to anything but what they want to hear. After all, we can’t prove that the Redax will be harmful.”
“But we’ve only used it under rigidly controlled conditions. To speed up the process would mean a total disregard of those controls. Snapping a party of men and women back into their racial past and holding them there for too long a period...” Ashe shook his head.
“You have been in Operation Retrograde from the start, and we’ve been remarkably successful--”
“Operating in a different way, educating picked men to return to certain points in history where their particular temperaments and characteristics fitted the roles they were selected to play, yes. And even then we had our percentage of failures. But to try this--returning people not physically into time, but mentally and emotionally into prototypes of their ancestors--that’s something else again. The Apaches have volunteered, and they’ve been passed by the psychologists and the testers. But they’re Americans of today, not tribal nomads of two or three hundred years ago. If you break down some barriers, you might just end up breaking them all.”
Kelgarries was scowling. “You mean--they might revert utterly, have no contact with the present at all?”
“That’s just what I do mean. Education and training, yes, but full awakening of racial memories, no. The two branches of conditioning should go slowly and hand in hand, otherwise--real trouble!”
“Only we no longer have the time to go slow. I’m certain Ruthven will be able to push this through--with Waldour’s report to back him.”
“Then we’ll have to warn Fox and the rest. They must be given a choice in the matter.”
“Ruthven said that would be done.” The colonel did not sound convinced of that.
Ashe snorted. “If I hear him telling them, I’ll believe it!”
“I wonder whether we can...”
Ashe half turned and frowned at the colonel. “What do you mean?”
“You said yourself that we had our failures in time travel. We expected those, accepted them, even when they hurt. When we asked for volunteers for this project we had to make them understand that there was a heavy element of risk involved. Three teams of recruits--the Eskimos from Point Barren, the Apaches, and the Islanders--all picked because their people had a high survival rating in the past, to be colonists on widely different types of planets. Well, the Eskimos and the Islanders aren’t matched to any of the worlds on those snooped tapes, but Topaz is waiting for the Apaches. And we may have to move them in there in a hurry. It’s a rotten gamble any way you see it!”
“I’ll appeal directly to the council.”
Kelgarries shrugged. “All right. You have my backing.”
“But you believe such an effort hopeless?”
“You know the red-tape merchants. You’ll have to move fast if you want to beat Ruthven. He’s probably on a straight line now to Stanton, Reese, and Margate. This is what he has been waiting for!”
“There are the news syndicates; public opinion would back us--”
“You don’t mean that, of course.” Kelgarries was suddenly coldly remote.
Ashe flushed under the heavy brown which overlay his regular features. To threaten a silence break was near blasphemy here. He ran both hands down the fabric covering his thighs as if to rub away some soil on his palms.
“No,” he replied heavily, his voice dull. “I guess I don’t. I’ll contact Hough and hope for the best.”
“Meanwhile,” Kelgarries spoke briskly, “we’ll do what we can to speed up the program as it now stands. I suggest you take off for New York within the hour--”
“Me? Why?” Ashe asked with a trace of suspicion.
“Because I can’t leave without acting directly against orders, and that would put us wrong immediately. You see Hough and talk to him personally--put it to him straight. He’ll have to have all the facts if he’s going to counter any move from Stanton before the council. You know every argument we can use and all the proof on our side, and you’re authority enough to make it count.”
“If I can do all that, I will.” Ashe was alert and eager. The colonel, seeing his change of expression, felt easier.
But Kelgarries stood a moment watching Ashe as he hurried down a side corridor, before he moved on slowly to his own box of office. Once inside he sat for a long unhappy time staring at the wall and seeing nothing but the pictures produced by his thoughts. Then he pressed a button and read off the symbols which flashed on a small visa-screen set in his desk. Another button pushed, and he picked up a hand mike to relay an order which might postpone trouble for a while. Ashe was far too valuable a man to lose, and his emotions could boil him straight into disaster over this.
“Bidwell--reschedule Team A. They are to go to the Hypno-Lab instead of the reserve in ten minutes.”
Releasing the mike, he again stared at the wall. No one dared interrupt a hypno-training period, and this one would last three hours. Ashe could not possibly see the trainees before he left for New York. And that would remove one temptation from his path--he would not talk at the wrong time.
Kelgarries’ mouth twisted sourly. He had no pride in what he was doing. And he was perfectly certain that Ruthven would win and that Ashe’s fears of Redax were well founded. It all came back to the old basic tenet of the service: the end justified the means. They must use every method and man under their control to make sure that Topaz would remain a western possession, even though that strange planet now swung far beyond the sky which covered both the western and eastern alliances on Terra. Time had run out too fast; they were being forced to play what cards they held, even though those might be very low ones. Ashe would be back, but not, Kelgarries hoped, until this had been decided one way or another. Not until this was finished.
Finished! Kelgarries blinked at the wall. Perhaps they were finished, too. No one would know until the transport ship landed on that other world which appeared on the direction tape symbolized by a jewellike disk of gold-brown which had given it the code name of Topaz.