Reading note: There were five Mens Magna stories, starting with "Deus Ex Machina" (1950), with the book "Tomorrow Sometimes Comes" (1951) which was favoured by Olaf Stabledon and Patrick Moore and then others in the series- The Peacemaker (1952), Ephemeral This City (1955), Adjustment Period (1960),
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
“'I don’t much like what I find,” Peter said. “ Add my responsibility to that, and you’ll see why I’m uneasy.”
He walked jerkily round the polished desk. His predecessor’s excellent taste was shown by everything in the office- real wood furniture, luxurious carpet, even the chosen view. On Earth, such things would not mean much. But here on Umbra forty-seven light years from the solar system, they counted .
Peter stopped at the window. When the ship had brought him, four days ago, his first glimpse of the planet had confirmed that it should be a successful colony. Once a tiny, unexpected shadow on an exploring ship’s screens, Umbra was enough like Earth to be a ready-made home. For twenty years it had been exactly that : a sinecure.
Peter’s brows met momentarily. His long nose twitched. He had a hard face, was just the build to pass without second glance in any crowd, until the ceaseless enquiry of his active, clear grey eyes was noticed.
“ Things in this office aren’t all they seem,” he said quietly. He heard Macallister rise from his chair. “ You’re not starting a witch hunt over Dillard’s grave, Peter ?”
“ I don’t think so. Dillard had been here over ten years. In that time Umbra prospered. He was a good administrator. He had brains, tact, courage. He was just fifty when he died. He should have been here another five years at least, and retired to an easy, respected post on Earth.”
“ Instead of which- he was found dead on the concrete down there,” Macallister put in.
Peter nodded. His mobile eyes scanned the narrow parking strip which met the building four storeys below the office window. “ Do you believe he slipped ?”
"The records say so. "
Peter turned his back to the window. Ian Macallister was leafing through papers on the corner of the desk. Wide of shoulder, long of arm, Macallister had been a year on Umbra.
"You don’t believe he slipped," Peter stated quietly.
“ I don’t.” Upright, Macallister was tall. “ Dillard wasn’t that type. Only a fool would fall from his own office window. Everything you said about him was true. I thought he was the best administrator Umbra could ever have. You’ve a lot to live up to.”
A smile twinkled momentarily in Peter’s mobile eyes. Ian and he had spent a good many years as cadets together. That was a long time ago, but the friendship had remained and Ian had never been noted for his tact.
Peter nodded pensively. “ I’ll do my best. If we discount accidents, that leaves murder or suicide., Murder is out. A few people saw him falling. Within seconds others were in his office here, and it was empty.” He studied Ian Macallister’s brown, friendly face. “ Could the Bernies have driven him to it ”
“ I don’t think so. They’re less pleasant than they sound, but Dillard was ready to negotiate or fight. He was no coward, as you said, and Umbra wasn’t undefended. There have been more frequent threatening flights by Bernie ships. But we’ve also stepped up our defences. Most important of all, there is the Mens Magna extension, coupled to Earth, and completed the day Dillard died. That virtually relieved Dillard of the responsibility of major policy decisions.”
“ I’m glad it does,” Peter agreed. “ Local administration is trouble enough, without trying to integrate it with the wishes of committees back on Earth, who can’t send a report or recommendation without writing ten thousand words.” He made a mental note that he must obtain the Mens Magna’s opinion on Dillard’s death. “ So you think Dillard should have been anticipating relatively easy times, not trouble ?”
“ In general.” Macallister gestured with a long, powerful arm. “ He’d licked a good many problems in his time here.”
At present, they were forced to leave it at that, Peter thought. No one could gather all the threads in four days.
The evening sky was high and clear. In another hour the stars would begin to show, and Peter breathed deeply of the cool air as he walked quickly from the administration building. On a distant high tower, a spidery metal lattice against the sky, radar equipment scanned the heavens. Bernie ships sometimes made threatening sweeps at evening, causing panic, then speeding on. Peter wondered why men and Bernies must be enemies- the old story, he supposed, mainly resentment because men had come out to this system. But if Bernies had reached Umbra before mankind, they had left no settlement or indication of such prior contact.
His official car, once Dillard’s, was parked under cover at the end of the line. Peter drove slowly. In the four days since he had arrived there had been two threatening runs by Bernie ships. Records showed that was about the usual frequency. The Bernies ignored all signals or warnings to keep away, but so far had made no actual attack. With weapons ready, Dillard had waited. As if with guns cocked, fingers on the trigger, each race watched the other.
The extension of the Mens Magna was a high, rectangular building sharply drawn against the sky. At its top were the aerials providing a sub-radio link with the Mens Magna forty-seven light years away on Earth. There, immediately available in its ferrox memory cells, references and indices, was tabulated and integrated the whole knowledge of mankind.
Peter experienced a feeling of awe as he walked from his parked car into the building. Back on Earth, when a student with some difficult problem, the sensation had first come upon him. It had never died.
Parts of the building were not yet ready, but question cubicles were open for priority users. Peter hesitated, opened one, and went in. The door closed with an almost inaudible swish. Tubes scanned his face. A complex waveform sped to Earth, was analysed and compared, its matching pattern found, and a signal returned to an aerial above the building.
" You are recognised, Petermont Foreland,” the Mens Magna said.
Peter reddened. His full name always had that effect. He sat abruptly, facing the scanners.
“ There are several problems concerning my administration of this planet,” he said heavily.
" It is to help solve them, that my extension was placed in this building,” the metallic voice said.
“ Very well.” Peter scratched his long nose. “ I do not believe Dillard died through an accident.”
A slight pause. “ The recorded data confirm he did.”
“ It’s not in keeping with his character that he die that way.”
“ Perhaps not,” the Mens Magna agreed. “ But it is recorded as accidental. The workings of chance are without regard to the type of person concerned.”
Peter leaned forward. “ Then you say it was an accident?”
“ From the information provided that was deduced.”
“ I see.” Peter wondered if he would get far this time. The Mens Magna was a machine of immense complexity, but could not lie. If the result it produced was wrong, that could only arise because the data from which it arrived at its decision was somehow in error. His gaze strayed over the electronic eyes.
“ You dismiss suicide because there is no reason why Dillard should take his own life ?” [[Peter said]].
“ I do. His personality records show him as reliable, balanced, courageous. No circumstances forcing him to take his own life were present; Facts doubtless already known to you exclude any second person.”
“ Could the threat from the Bernie ships have been responsible ?”
The brief negative startled Peter. He felt that if any one thing could have worried Dillard, it would be the threat to the planet from the Bernie ships.
He shook his head quickly. “ You’re wrong there ! Everyone here is gravely worried-”
" That is so. But Dillard had information they, or you, do not possess. The day before his death I informed him that a new means of defence was to be provided. The information was not for general release because it might cause a prior attack."
Peter nodded slowly. The presence of spies was unlikely- but one never knew.
“ Am I to know details of this- this new means of defence ?”
“ As you are planetary administrator, yes. Work has been progressing with the utmost speed under my direction.” A screen level with Peter’s chest came alive. “ Sixty-three days ago an engineer of the Hopwood Corporation filed provisional calculations on a device he had made,” the Mens Magna said.
“ It was intended for specific engineering applications, notably avoidance of stamping mill impact shocks, but analysis of its theory revealed it had much wider applications.”
The screen showed an enormous press cold-stamping thick alloy plates. The whole mechanism appeared to rest on four hydraulic plungers.
“ Details need not concern us at the moment,” the Mens Magna said. “ I will confine myself to a repetition of the information given Dillard. This press rests on shock recorders which would normally indicate several hundred tons at the moment of impact. They register zero.” A close-up showed dials perfectly steady. “ This was the total of the engineer’s application. However, the press is based upon an equipment which produces a force which is wholly immovable-”
Peter started in his seat. “ Impossible !” It was involuntary. “Nothing can be so completely immovable that it cannot be shifted, given sufficient power.”
“ So it was believed. But detailed examination of the device, and mathematical analysis, reveals that the force shield produced is indeed theoretically immovable. It was designed merely to place under such stamping presses, to avoid the shocks transmitted to the building, and possibly to other sensitive equipment.”
Peter’s gaze flickered from the illuminated screen to the loudspeaker grille above it. “ And your application?”
“ As a means to protect your cities against any possible attack. In this device, lines of force are produced, and radiate in such a way as to provide a screen which can be locked to any continuum, and is immovable. The screen shape can readily be adjusted. It is therefore possible to enclose your cities under convex screens locked to Umbra’s continuum. These will be purely defensive, yet wholly effective.”
The screen grew dim. This was indeed news which should have solved any problem Dillard had, Peter thought. “ When will these- these screens be in use?” he asked tensely.
“ Almost immediately. They are readily produced.”
Peter stretched. “ Then it will be the most important single step made here!” he said enthusiastically. A momentary doubt came. “ Do these- screens, exclude light ?”
“ No. The field itself is invisible, and opposes only solids, liquids and gases. A very large number of possible applications exist.”
Peter rose from the chair. He felt as if a weight had been taken from his shoulders- the responsibility, as administrator, of keeping the cities of Umbra intact !
Outside, the night sky showed many stars. A vertical sodium light beacon almost a mile away marked the landing pad which was a main terminal in the planet’s commerce with Earth. East, a scattered glow and moving searchlight beams indicated where the wide river estuary joined the sea. Umbra was new, with immense untapped mineral resources.
Peter headed towards the administration buildings, now quiet with only an attenuated night staff. He had not yet been through everything Dillard had left.
His private office was locked and dark. He decided to spend about another hour picking up the threads of administration. He was scarcely seated when the desk communicator buzzed. He pushed the button.
“ Administrator here.”
“ I thought I saw you come in, Mr. Foreland.” It was a feminine voice Peter recognised. “ I’d like to see you if you’re free.”
He released the button, wondering why Mary had waited for him. Normally, she would have been gone at this hour. But normally, so would he, he reflected.
He pondered a few moments, then rose, anticipating her knock. She smiled slightly as she entered, her cool blue eyes examining his face.
"I waited, thinking you might be back, Mr. Foreland," she said.
He closed the door, indicating a chair by the desk. Mary Gail was a neat, slender young woman. He had known her exactly four days, and in that time come to respect her judgment. He sat on a corner of the desk.
“There’s something you didn’t want to leave until morning?”
She nodded. “ A compensation claim I’ve been working on for several weeks. I was keeping Mr. Dillard personally informed.”
Peter frowned, scratching his long nose. His gaze flickered over the folder she carried, and her intent features.
“ I knew there were some such claims,” he admitted. “ But I’ve not yet studied the details, or in fact given them much attention at all. They seemed rather- unimportant.”
“ This one isn’t.” She opened the folder on the desk. “ It’s against the administration- and for fifteen million pounds.”
Peter jerked erect. “ Incredible !”
Her cool blue eyes studied him momentarily, then her gaze returned to the folder. “ I see you’ve not got round to this yet, Mr. Foreland. I’ll sketch it in for you.”
She smoothed open the pages, and Peter saw that the folder was headed Fanto Claim.
“ The man lodging this claim is Julius Ellerton.” She was partly reading, partly filling in with explanations. “ He heads a big industrial concern.” She looked up briefly. “ They’re mainly interested in personal profit. He had a mining camp on the slopes of the Fanto hills, inland along the estuary. He claims a Bernie ship destroyed this camp, with all its equipment.”
Peter gave an exclamation. “ I understood no Bernie ship had actually attacked us !”
“ Not officially, Mr. Foreland. Perhaps not at all. Ellerton gives the date and hour, and leaves us to decide if it was a missile, or some accident such as the release of a defective fuel tank from the Bernie ship. He does not attach any importance to the exact cause, but only claims that the administration has failed to provide sufficient protection, or safeguards.”
“ I see.” Peter walked jerkily round the desk. “ But the sum- it’s enormous.”
“ It was no ordinary camp.” She turned over photos showing rows of pre-fabricated buildings, refining equipment, derricks, fuel containers large as a nest of gasometers.
Peter looked through them slowly. They were impressive.
“ These were taken afterwards, Mr. Foreland.”
The enlargements were of such destruction that no individual building could be distinguished. Peter restored them to the folder.
"What did Dillard think of this claim ?"
" I’m not sure. He said little about it."
"I see." Peter wondered exactly what Mary Gail thought of Dillard’s accident. “ You’d been with him quite a long time ?”
“Over two years.”
“ You think a claim of this magnitude would worry him ?"
“ No.” Her cool gaze met his. “ He would have resisted it, if faked. If proved, meeting it would not have been his personal liability.”
Peter nodded slowly. “ Did you ever know him open that window and stand by it ?”
Her gaze did not waver. “ Never.”
“ There have been other claims ?”
“ Occasionally. The official administration indemnifies commercial enterprises. It has to- regular insurers couldn’t take the risk, except at premiums no one would accept. The sums were quite small. I remember one case of damage by flood. Apparently it could happen about once in a hundred years- but we were supposed to know.”
A note Peter had not heard before edged her voice. He sat in his chair, watching her over the desk.
"You feel this Fanto hills claim is a bit steep ?"
“ Perhaps.” She was suddenly guarded. “ I’ve not found enough damaged equipment to substantiate Ellerton’s claim. He takes the attitude that the type of bomb or fuel dropped accounts for this. It was on this point I called- I’d like you to look for yourself, as soon as possible.”
“ I will.” It could be hard to prove, Peter thought. An idea occurred to him. “ There must have been a large death roll- workmen, staff in general. Does that substantiate his claim ?”
“ No.” Mary Gail rose with unconscious grace. “ It was a general weekend holiday. The camp and plant were deserted. Julius Ellerton and several of his men were the main witnesses. Ellerton was driving there, with the men in a truck following, to check that all was ready to start work with new equipment on the Monday. Back here in town all we saw was a flash, and red glow.”
“ Bernie ships had been over?”
“ One had cleared us only a few moments before. ”
When she had gone Peter reviewed what he had learned. It all sounded convincing- but Mary was not convinced. As a result, nor was he.
He began to study files not yet examined. Many were kept in other parts of the building, and only indexed in the large room adjoining the administrator’s office. Detailed reports of threatening flights by the Bernies, of abortive attempts to contact them. Vast lists of expenditures, trade activity, improvements and developments. Records of personnel. Copies of first requests for a radio linked extension of the Mens Magna, so that its advice could be sought on problems of administration. Data on local conditions, seasons, minerals, exploration. All were tabulated so that any necessary information could be located easily. Peter felt admiration for Dillard’s efficiency, as shown by the way he had organised his staff.
He had spent a busy but interesting hour when he reached records of previous claims. Most were relatively small, but there was one of quite significant value from a name Peter recognised- Julius Ellerton. It was for equipment damaged by flood, and the loss of flooded workings.
Peter returned to his chair, spreading the papers on his desk. The mine shaft had been flooded, then it collapsed. No one but Ellerton could say what equipment lay below. The list upon which the claim was based was very detailed. The claim had been paid promptly.
A heavy knock vibrated the door. Peter started, glanced at the clock, and was surprised it was so late.
“ Come in !”
The door admitted two men. One was a big man with an ugly face ; the mark of an old cut under his left eye lent him a permanent smirk. The other man was better dressed, taller, slight, yet giving an impression of strength.
Peter frowned. “ I don’t know you-”
The tall man’s lean face developed a frosty smile. “You’ve heard of me.” He withdrew a hand from his pocket, indicating the desk. “ I am Julius Ellerton.”
Peter lay back in his chair, examining Ellerton, instinctively antagonistic. “ It is after midnight,” he pointed out.
Ellerton sat down, apparently at home and sure of his own strength. “ I suit my hours of business to the needs of the moment. You seem to do the same. It is perhaps more convenient that way.”
Peter sensed that Ellerton was trying to evaluate him. He scratched his nose, poker-faced.
“ If it’s business, I assume it is the Fanto hills claim. That will be dealt with in due course in the usual way.”
Ellerton smiled. “ It will be paid, of course ?”
“It is being considered.” Peter felt wary, trying to catch undertones of meaning below the smooth phrases. “ You will be informed.”
“ Soon ?” .
“ That I cannot say.”
Ellerton leaned forward. “ It is a large sum. The loss is crippling. I represent several very important concerns here. We wish the claim to be settled very soon indeed.”
Genuine concern : yet somehow a veiled threat, Peter thought. Elbows on chair arms, he pyramided his hands under his chin, silent. The interval grew, became obvious, charged with tension. The ugly man chewing his lips. Ellerton seemed to stiffen, but his face showed nothing.
“ Dillard would readily let the claim go through,” he said finally.
Peter experienced a flash as of increased awareness and understanding. Suppose Dillard had paid the flood claim too readily Suppose, later, Ellerton had shown that claim was false. Was Dillard to admit he had paid the claim without complete' investigation ; or was he to keep silent, thereby placing himself in Ellerton’s hands ? It was guessing, yet so far the only explanation covering all known facts.
Peter smiled, his mobile eyes wary. “ My predecessor's motives and methods may not be mine, Mr. Ellerton. A change of administration often brings a change of policy too.”
The other’s eyes grew like ice. “ You won’t underestimate the importance I attach to this claim-?”
The words hung. Peter felt his guess was true. “ Naturally not,” he said easily. No one would underestimate the importance of fifteen million.”
Ellerton rose, and the ugly man moved nearer to him as if it were an unconscious, reflex action.
“ I am a man of considerable experience,” Ellerton said levelly. “ Dillard often found it wise to follow my advice.” He paused significantly. "I shall be calling again quite soon!"
“ Do.” Peter rose and showed them out. The door closed, he consciously relaxed, aware now that more tension had mounted during the brief interview than he had supposed. He wondered to what exact degree Ellerton had dictated Dillard’s policy. At least an interesting theory to sleep on, Peter thought.
Two days passed. Mary Gail went with an assistant to re-investigate the Fanto hills claim. An official directive arrived from Earth, requesting that full use be regularly made of the advice and recommendations of the Mens Magna. Ian Macallister continued efforts to achieve some kind of contact with the Bernie ships, but reported no success. The vessels usually arrived from the direction of a compact system called the Bernis Cluster, nearly twelve light-years away from Umbra. They preserved radio silence, or had no such means of communication.
“ It’s like using deaf and dumb sign language to converse with a blind Chinaman in the dark,” Macallister grumbled when making a routine report, “ Their actions show they know we’re here, and probably don’t like it. That’s all.” Peter nodded. “ You know this force shield affair is to be ready tomorrow ?”
“ Everyone knows, now. You believe it actually works ?”
" I believe it. I’ve never known the Mens Magna to be wrong. The Mens Magna never makes mistakes- it can’t. And the shield has been tried elsewhere. When it’s put on over this city we shall be invulnerable from above."
Macallister looked impressed. “ You know how it works ?”
“ Only sketchily. The Mens Magna gave me a summary. Immovable lines of force latch on to the planet’s space-time continuum lattice. Nothing can change their position. Theoretically, no material object can penetrate that screen. I understand practical tests bear that out--”
“ I’d like to see one.”
“ You may. I understand the screen will be demonstrated after it has been switched on. The Mens Magna calculates people will feel reassured, I suppose.”
“ It’ll be nice to know.” Macallister drew in his cheeks and folded his long arms. What happens if the Bernies get hold of it too ?”
“ How could they ?”
“ I’m not sure,” Macallister said pensively. “ But we do know they’re watching us. A logical guess is that they’d send spies.” He raised a hand quickly. “ I’m not saying there are spies- only that there might be ! Suppose they got hold of this screen business ? Could they use it against us ?”
Peter considered the point. “ I don’t think so. They might protect their own cities. As we don’t know where they come from, that wouldn’t matter much.”
“ Could they use it with a ship, so that the ship was invulnerable ?”
“ I don’t think so. As the equipment stands, the immovable lines of force have to latch up with a planet’s spatial continuum. I don’t know how, but the Mens Magna does.” A ship would be immovable, relative to the planet, he thought. Nothing would be able to get in or out, if the vessel were surrounded. He ran a finger down his long nose. “ Too many long chances, Ian. The Bernies may not use spies. If they do, they’ve got to find out how the screen projectors work- and the equipment isn’t exactly standing unguarded at every cross-roads. If they get the information, they’ve got to copy our techniques, if they can. And where does that get them- the thing’s purely defensive.”
Later that day a large Earth cruiser dropped into orbit round the planet. Heavy brass waiting to see if the screen did all expected of it, Peter thought. He exchanged brief, formal messages with her commander.
Towards evening Mary Gail came in, looking tired as if from a long day.
“ Anything new on the Fanto hills claim ?” Peter asked curiously.
Her cool blue eyes evaluated him. “ You don’t believe Mr. Ellerton, do You ?”
He smiled. “ Let’s say I’m reserving judgment.”
She sat briefly on a chair arm. “ I’ve been all over those hills on foot- with a specialist photographer from our investigation department. In a day or two I may have things to show you which will help make up your mind,”
“ I see.” He noted the ring in her voice, and in the cool eyes danced a spark of high excitement; He stroked his nose slowly. “Perhaps you never believed Julius Ellerton yourself ?”
“ Perhaps. Mr. Dillard seemed satisfied, however that cramped my style-” A question lay in the words, but Peter had to let it pass "I’ll be very interested indeed in what you have to show me,"; he said.
When she had gone he sat on the desk pondering an idea suggested by Ian Macallister’s words. The original inventor of the force field technique had seen in it a means for avoiding the vibration of heavy machinery. The Mens Magna and Earth administration had developed it for use as a means of defence. And Macallister had wondered if it could be more . . .
Peter locked his office and went down to the car park. He had just turned in to the road when a siren wailed, abrupt and intense. Workmen in a group at the end of the building began to run, sometimes looking at the sky. Bernie ships, Peter thought. He had not yet been caught like this in the open.
He shot the car back under the protective walls of the building, jumped out, and felt curiosity impel him to the nearby corner, from which he could see most of the sky.
A shrill whine blended with the fading note of the siren. It grew, painfully loud, echoing as a bedlam of sound off the concrete walls. A long steel blue ship, devoid of features at bow or stern, but with three ugly, blunt fins projecting each side, screamed over. It was into view, looming hugely, then gone, all in space of a pulsebeat. Silence came, grew in length, and men began to appear again from doorways. One of the workmen was cursing : “ Are we b--rabbits-”
Peter got back into his car and drove rapidly to the building housing the Mens Magna extension. Men wearing the distinctive green uniform of the computer’s technicians were everywhere, checking the numerous question booths and completing reports.
Peter found a vacant cubicle. Its door closed smoothly and the dim silvery fluorescence of the scanners illuminated his face.
“ You are recognised, Petermont Foreland,” the metallic voice stated.
Peter scratched his nose, twitching, and sat down. “ I believe the protective screen will be tried tomorrow ?”
“ It will. Information provided shows preparations are almost complete, and will be finished by dawn.”
“ The screen will be left on permanently, after then ?”
“ No. It will be brought into use immediately Bernie ships approach. There is sufficient radar warning. If permanently maintained, it would prevent use of our spaceport. There are also minor disadvantages, such as greatly reducing air movement over the city, and shielding local vegetation permanently against rainfall.”
“I see.” Logical enough, Peter thought. “ Exactly how immovable is this screen ?”
“ The term is used in its absolute sense. It is unconditional, complete.”
“ I always understood the term immovable to be figurative.”
“ Originally, yes. Objects were considered immovable merely because insufficient force to disturb them was available. That no longer applies.”
Peter let that sink in. Given a fulcrum and a lever long enough, I will move the world, he thought. The man who had said that was true no more.
Peter rubbed his knees with his hands. "A friend’s remark suggests the technique might be used on a ship," he said at last.
The grille was temporarily silent, as if many exchanges of information were made with references on Earth. “ A ship making such use of the system would be immovably locked in its position relative to the planet,” the Mens Magna pointed out finally.
Peter leaned forwards. “ Perhaps not !” This was the salient point which had been growing in his mind. “ Suppose the field could be locked to a local continuum individual to the ship? If not, suppose a progression of such fields could be provided. Each would be slightly displaced from the other, and one would be collapsed as the next were generated. The ship could then move about !”
The pause was even longer this time. “ From evaluation of known facts, it appears the equipment could be used in this way,” the Mens Magna said at last.
Peter felt triumph. “ Then all the factors which apply to the screen as a protective device would apply to the ship around which this mobile screen was produced ?”
“ It would seem so.”
Peter imagined the vessel, thus protected- indestructible, irresistible. And with those terms as absolutes.
“ You will have experiments made ?” he asked quickly.
“ I have already issued instructions to that effect,” there was a barely perceptible pause, “ exactly seventy-one seconds ago, when the merits of your idea were first analysed.”
Peter sat back. He had momentarily forgotten that the machine could conduct hundreds of interviews simultaneously, and call into distant cubicles its own technicians. “May the first ships so equipped be used here?” he suggested.
“ It is logical to expect so. This planet is threatened by an unknown enemy. Therefore it has priority.”
That night Peter slept with a vision of a huge ship, wholly irresistible and completely invincible, speeding between the stars. When young cadets, Ian and he had dreamed of exactly that.
The morning was clear, with scattered high cloud. Peter went with a group of officials to the spaceport. The Earth cruiser was already in position, a silver almond above the feathery cirrus. Several smaller ships stood on the spaceport landing pads, grounded until the screen tests were finished.
An irregular fringe of staff cars edged one side of the field. Men stood near them, or talked in groups. Some studied the heavens with binoculars. A radio truck was at the end of the line and an aide stood near its open back. Peter waited by his car. Messages were being passed into the truck, but there was an air of preparedness and expectancy.
“All as planned ?” a brisk voice enquired.
Peter glanced round briefly. Macallister’s round, open, honest face was turned towards the sky and carried an expression temporarily robbing it of fifteen of its forty years. Peter smiled.
“ I believe so, Ian. According to information sent me, and my watch, they begin any minute.”
“ Then the screen is already up ?”
“ It is. Seems strange we can’t see it. They’re dropping the first bombs out here in case there’s a hitch.”
“ Bombs ?”
Peter saw his friend’s startled look, and nodded. “Don’t worry ! Smoke markers first, then explosives- then the worst they can do.”
Officers round the radio truck were staring heavenwards. A dust-like speck of gold detached itself from the silver almond and sped downwards. Peter raised his binoculars from their lanyard. The golden speck jumped into view as a bronzed, finned missile. It grew. Then abruptly, a mile above their heads, it blossomed into a doughnut of smoke.
“ First hit !” Ian said.
A scatter of golden flecks followed. They exploded almost together and for several seconds their smoke outlined part of a high, slightly curved surface, invisible itself but forming a barrier so that no smoke could mingle with the clear air below.
There was a delay, then a larger mote, silvery steel this time, descended. Its blossoming was with a brilliant flash, and little smoke. After a disproportionately long time the rumble of an explosion came in at ground level.
“ Sound is a molecular movement, and had to go round the screen,” Peter said briefly.
Another delay, then a bomb pattern detached itself from the cruiser. When the missiles struck the screen the glare hurt the eyes. The rumble, when it came, was repetitive thunder.
“ Any atomics ?” Macallister asked.
Peter released his breath, instinctively held. “ One, probably chosen to avoid dosing us all with radiation, or blinding us.” in the binocular’s field a slender finned object detached itself from a dark aperture in the cruiser. “ It’s on its way !”
The result was impressive, The dull, purple glow lasted several seconds, while smoke spread at fantastic speed, outlining a considerable segment of the protective field. A tornado swirled upwards from the point of impact, and the noise was a cannon shot in the eardrums.
“ It’s immovable !” Macallister said with awe, when the echo had gone. “ A better way to keep the Bernies away ye'll never find !”
“ I’m glad you’re enthusiastic,” Peter said, amused.
“ Am I not, mon-” Macallister slapped his side with one long arm, opened his mouth, closed it abruptly, and grew slightly red. He cleared his throat. “ I was forgetting my dignity."
“ Don’t apologise. I’ve not seen you that pleased since you knocked out our boxing sergeant- you were eighteen, he was ten years older and four stone heavier--”
The screen was used once during the day, when a warning of approaching Bernie ships flashed through. Two vessels came in low, but some device aboard apparently indicated the presence of the screen, and they climbed steeply, just avoiding it. From what Peter had seen he knew that a collision between ships and screen would be inevitably fatal to vessels and crews. Towards evening his communicator buzzed with an external call. He pressed the button.
“ Administrator here.”
“ This is Mary Gail.” She sounded far off, agitated. “ I’ve got information on the Fanto hills claim which Ellerton will never explain away-”
“ You mean proof it’s faked?”
“ Exactly that !” Her voice fluctuated, and instinctively Peter knew she was turning away from the phone, perhaps watching someone- or to see if she was being watched.
“ Tell me in brief,” he suggested crisply.
“ I’ve got photographs taken just before the disaster. They were taken by chance by a man called Herbert Millington, who’s made himself a specialist in Umbra bird life. One shows two workmen carrying a convincing looking machine which would weigh all of five tons-”
“ You mean a lot of the equipment was hollow models ?”
“ That, or wood.” Her voice faded, came back. “ I think I’m being watched. I’ve got enlargements of these pictures, and Julius Ellerton himself won’t be able to explain them away.”
“ Then bring them- and Millington,” Peter snapped.
“ That’s why I’m contacting you now.” She was breathless “ I can’t bring Millington. He was killed an hour ago.”
Peter bit a lip. “ I see. Bring the evidence you’ve got, then and quickly-”
“ The negatives have gone. A rock killed Millington when he was watching a hill-eagle’s nest. That was just after he’d left me. I’m sure it was no accident. I went back to his camp hut. Someone had been there before- and taken every scrap of him and every negative. They’re destroyed by now.”
“ Then the enlargements you hold are all you have ?”
“ Yes. Some men saw me talking to Millington. I’m sure one is watching me. I'm in the box where the main road crosses the hills tracks-”
Peter remembered it- isolated, used by men who had weeded out selected timber from the forest that end of the hills.
“ Stay there, and I’l1 get help to you !”
He pressed a button, hoping Macallister was in his office. Ian’s voice came at once. Peter felt relief. He gave quick instructions, glad he had to repeat nothing.
“ Get out there in a fast car and bring her back here !” he concluded.
"I’m on my way ."
Ian Macallister’s line went dead. Returning to the other line, Peter was disappointed to find that silent also. Apparently Mary had ended her call in the interval.
Peter scratched his nose. One set of enlargements, now irreplaceable, had suddenly become worth fifteen million. Herbert Millington’s testimony might have counted, but had been eliminated. A tricky situation, Peter thought.
He contacted the office switchboard. “ Give me the spaceport.”
Within moments a crisp, official voice replied. Peter planned quickly. “ How far out is the Earth cruiser which assisted in the screen test this morning?”
There was a delay, murmuring voices. “ A little over ten thousand miles, sir.”
“ You’ve a small ship available which could take off almost at once, to carry one of my assistants, and a tug which could ferry her to the cruiser ?”
“ I’ll see, sir.”
In the interval Peter tried the line to the hill road call box, but it was dead. At length the spaceport official’s voice came again.
“ We have the Starfall, sir, a medium ship, but I’m not sure she can be used-”
“ Not used ?” Peter judged it would take Ian at least thirty minutes to reach Mary, and get back to the spaceport. “ Is there no other ship ?”
“ None at all, sir.”
“ Then you’ll have to use the Starfall ! What’s against taking her up ?”
“ The tests ordered by the Mens Magna, sir.” The official sounded uneasy. “ Apparently it was suggested by yourself, sir.”
“ By me ?” Peter snapped.
“ Yes, sir. We received a directive that the same equipment used to provide the protective screen could be used in a ship, with only slight modification. The technicalities are not my department, sir, but I understand the idea was to make a ship invulnerable or irresistible-”
“ Exactly ! But how does this apply to the Starfall ?”
“ The modified equipment has been fitted to her and ganged with her drive, sir. I understand a progression of similar fields is involved, so that the ship can move-”
“ I know.” Peter felt irritated. “ I have been into all that. Did the Mens Magna recommend the system as practicable?”
“ Yes, sir.”
“ And the changes are complete, so that the ship can be used ?”
“ Yes, sir- it was not difficult-”
“ Then you must use the vessel to take my assistant out to the cruiser!”
“ If you insist, sir.” The man sounded doubtful.
“ I have to- it is extremely important.”
“ Very well, sir.”
Peter gave brief instructions. The Starfall would be ready to take Mary and the enlargements away from Umbra. Once on the Earth cruiser, they would be safe even from Julius Ellerton.
Minutes ticked by. Peter waited for the communicator, wondering if Ian would steal a moment to call from the hill box. The call did not come. Peter waited, uneasy. He confirmed that the Starfall was virtually ready for take off, and carried a space tug. A message was beamed to the cruiser, alerting her to take in the tug. Fifteen million, Peter thought. The stakes had been so high that already two men’s lives had been forfeit.
It was ten minutes later than he had estimated, when a big saloon skidded to a halt in the parking space below. Peter thumbed the communicator, left on the line to the spaceport.
“ Stand by for your passenger !”
He ran, careless of dignity, and met Ian and Mary at the building entrance door. Mary had a bruised cheek, and Macallister’s coat was torn up the side.
“ The man got tired of waiting, and tried to get her out of the box !” Macallister said hotly. “I got there just in time to take him on.” He clenched a fist, knuckles raw. “ I landed one behind his ear, and he went down like a log-”
Peter pushed them towards their car. “ You’ve still got the photographs ?”
Mary indicated a briefcase with broken handle. “ The man got it off me, but Ian got it back-”
“ Then I’ll be happier when it’s aboard the Earth cruiser !"
He pushed them in, and got behind the wheel. “ These prints are probably worth fifteen million to Ellerton.” He accelerated out of the park. “ The Starfall is waiting to take you, and the prints, out to the cruiser, Mary.”
She seemed to object, but nodded. “ Perhaps that’s wise.”
Peter drove fast, eyes often on the mirror. He half expected pursuit, but there was none.
“ What did you do with the man, Ian ?” he asked, as the field came into view.
“ Left him lying. I always did have a strong right. Remember ?”
“ I remember.”
Peter drove to the lift cradle. The Starfall was of medium size, and nothing showed that the new equipment, so recently devised, had been installed. There was no sign of bustle behind, no attempt to prevent Mary entering the ship, with case in her hands. Peter felt slightly uneasy. Ellerton was either unaware of developments, or giving up too readily.
As the lift latched on to the ship’s port, Peter waved. “ I’ll be contacting you, and the cruiser !”
She waved briefly, entering. Peter got back into the car with Macallister, and drove to the control building at the edge of the landing pads. All he wanted, now, was to see the Starfall take off on her short journey.
She took off vertically, gaining speed like a child’s sky-rocket. The sky was clear blue, high as infinity. It would be a short, uneventful flight, Peter thought--
A quick wail cut across his ears, stunning by its abruptness. His mind refused to register it, would not register it .
“ A warning the Bernies are coming over !” Ian grated.
The danger to the Starfall struck Peter with physical impact. The warning and protective shield were linked !
He ran towards the nearest office building, knowing it was too late even as he strained every muscle. The Starfall was still ascending, gaining speed, oblivious of the danger. She was moving very fast, nearly at the level where the billowing smoke had rested on the invisible, immovable protective wall of energy.
He was ten paces from the building when the Starfall struck, One moment she was at high velocity, gaining speed. The next, her bow seemed to halt with an impossible abruptness; and the whole of her hull follow, so that she was without length, then gone. A grating, fearful sound like an express striking a gasometer echoed down.
Peter was sobbing for breath. It was hard, now, to estimate the exact spot where the Starfall had impacted against the screen. He dragged out his binoculars, frantically searching for something which would show that part of the ship, at least, had escaped.
There was nothing. If shards and fragments large enough to see existed, they had been Hung clear with such velocity that they were beyond his field of vision.
Ian Macallister's face was like chalk. “ Another few seconds, and she would have been clear,” he said, and his voice had a catch.
Stunned, Peter kept the glasses to his eyes, aware that his hands shook. He bit his lower lip, and tasted salt.
“ Those damned Bernie ships-”
A shocked silence hung over the field. Macallister’s mouth twitched.
“ I’ve not seen any Bernie ships, yet,” he said thinly. Peter took down the binoculars. His mind was only slowly accepting the fact that the whole ship, and everyone on it, had perished.
“ No,” Macallister stated. “ And they’d have been over by now.”
Peter walked for the building, focussing his attention on it, refusing to think of other things, for the moment. Inside, he walked the corridor like a blind man, pushed open a door, and reached an office with phone and communicator. His lean face was like stone.
" Give me the warning system headquarters "
The girl sounded frightened. Peter stood frozen, devoid of expression, refusing to think. The tone of the man who answered revealed news of the disaster had not yet reached him.
“ Where did that warning originate ?” Peter snapped, aware that his voice had a rasp.
“ From a call box along the hills, sir. A man said two Bernie ships were coming in low.”
“ There was no radar confirmation ‘?”
“ No, sir.” The man sounded uneasy. “ We had no time to check, but switched on the warning and screen, just in case-"
“ And let a ship blasting off destroy herself against it!" Peter snapped.
He released the button, not trusting himself to say more; turned, and saw Ian in the doorway. He licked his lips, cold to his heart.
“ Julius Ellerton will pay for this, Ian! I was a fool to think he would give up so easily. A warning from a call box along the hills !” Macallister nodded slowly. "And no Bernie ships-”
The instant when the Starfall had struck remained vividly in Peter's mind. From her course, and the position and angle of the screen, it seemed possible that debris would have been scattered in the wide estuary far beyond the spaceport, and he ordered a detailed search for fragments. A hard, cold, enveloping fury against Ellerton smouldered in his grey eyes as he prowled his office.
It was two hours later when his desk communicator buzzed. He jabbed the reproducer into life.
“ This is the administrator !”
“ Just a moment, sir.” A slight delay. Then a new voice: “ This is the police, sir, central office. Is Mr. Ian Macallister with you ?”
For some unknown reason Peter felt on his guard. “No. Why?"
“ We wish to see him. When he comes in perhaps you will inform us.”
“ Why?” Peter snapped. The request seemed without purpose. “ Are you wasting my time through some error-”
“ No, sir. A man has been found dead by the hills wood road. His neck was fractured. Information has been given us that Macallister was seen fighting with him.”
Peter’s lips grew thin. Ian and his punch that could fell an ox !
“ There must be some mistake !” he said curtly.
“ No, sir. There are two witnesses.”
Julius Ellerton’s men, Peter thought bitterly. Briefed, doubtless ready to testify Ian had struck the man down unfairly. With Mary gone, Ian had no witness.
“ You will realise this is an extremely serious matter,” the officer stated firmly.
"Very well. "
Peter released the button. Ian would face a capital charge ! And the boxing instructor sergeant had once warned him against that punch, Peter remembered.
He went to Ian’s room, but it was empty. So far there was no hue and cry. But if Ian was not soon found, all the complex police network of the city would come into action.
Back in his own office, Peter saw a police radio car slip inconspicuously into line with the vehicles below. It held two men, who watched the building and road.
The communicator buzzed. He answered quickly, wondering if it were Ian.
“ This is Hepwell, sir.”
The man he had detailed to conduct a search of the estuary Peter recalled.
“ Men in two of my boats have located metal fragments, sir. We are getting a magnetic grapnel over the spots indicated by the detector.”
Peter scratched his nose. “ Let me know when you have anything definite.”
“ That should not be long, sir. I'm on the harbour grapnel ship. We expect to make a first attempt to raise some of the fragments in a few minutes.”
“ Very well. I’ll leave the line open.”
Peter locked the communicator for reception on that circuit. Metal debris in the estuary, he thought bleakly. It seemed conclusive.
Five minutes passed before the communicator awoke again. "Hepwell here, sir, on the grapnel ship.”
“ Yes.” Peter’s throat felt dry.
“ We’ve raised the first fragment, sir, and have it aboard. It’s new. My assistant states the kind of metal could be that used in the Starfall. The fragment is too small, broken and distorted to be recognised. We will send you a fuller report as soon as possible, sir.”
Peter turned the switch with a cold finger. He paced round his desk, his long nose twitching, his clear, active eyes hurt. He felt personally responsible for the loss of ship, crew, and Mary. He swore long and bitter1y,but it did not help. From the window he stared out over the city, aware that it was from here that Dillard had found his easy way out.
“ You look mightily furious,” a quiet voice said.
Peter turned, recognising the tone. Ian Macallister stood just inside the door.
“ Where have you been, Ian ?”
“ Browsing through claim records in the file room. Does it signify ?”
Peter looked from the window. The radio car was still there, its occupants’ attention divided between road and building.
“ Tell me about the man you hit on the hills road.” Ian glanced at his knuckles and shrugged his enormous shoulders. “ A big chap with an ugly face and a cut under one eye. He’d just ripped the briefcase away from Mary. I dotted him one-”
“ And killed him,” Peter put in quietly.
Astonishment crossed the wide face, then indifference. “ Could be. Does that matter ? They’d already killed Millington. Rocks don’t fall so neatly by luck.”
“ It matters,” Peter interrupted. “ Two men are making it sound like murder. The way they tell it, there’ll be no girl, no fight. The police are believing them- they’ve strong evidence. A body.”
Ian Macallister growled something unintelligible. “ And to think we’ve still got capital punishment-”
“ And two policemen outside.”
Peter raised a hand, keeping Ian from the window. The search would be developing, speeding up. One officer had got out of the car. He bent by the vehicle window, saying some-thing, then started towards the building.
Peter took Ian’s arm, guiding him towards the door. “ Get back in that file room, and keep quiet. I’ll see it’s locked.”
Ears closed against protests, he pushed Ian down the corridor. A detailed search of the building was unlikely at this stage, and the locked file room should pass without comment.
Peter was behind his desk when the officer entered. He did not ask the man to sit, but explained briefly that Macallister had not been in the building. The officer seemed satisfied, and left. Alone again, Peter wondered how long the pretence could be kept up. Probably not long. It was unfortunate that colonisation had brought out the worst in criminal man, and that execution had existed, as a deterrent, for many years.
The officer left the building, joining his companion, to wait. Peter stood by his desk, eyes veiled with concentration. Since the disaster of the Stadall an odd association of ideas had been nudging his mind. Their outcome was uncertain, though their impact had been considerable.
He left the office suddenly, locking it ; saw Ian momentarily, warning him to hide, then went out. The officers watched him drive from the park, but remained in their car.
He did not hurry, but strove to clarify his thought, only part of his attention on the road. He stopped the car automatically, locked it without awareness of the action, and walked up the two steps into the Mens Magna building.
“ You are recognised, Petermont Foreland,” the machine said, as the door sprung shut.
He sat down, elbows on the chair arms. “Details of the loss of the Starfall have been filed by the spaceport officials ?”
“ They have.”
“ Please convey them briefly.”
There was a moment’s delay. “ The warning of Bernie ships was given by an unknown person, who cannot now be located. He used a call box. There was insufficient time to check his warning. It was not confirmed by radar, but the officer in charge supposed that might arise from the ships being below the horizon afforded by the hills. When he brought warning and screen into use, he had no knowledge of the fact that the Starfall would take off, or had just done so.”
There was no slip here to betray Ellerton, Peter thought. He had expected none.
“ You had the modified equipment installed in the Starfall ?” He leaned forwards. “ It was actually completed ?”
“ It was installed, and completed,” the Mens Magna stated. “ I had informed Earth of the possibility, and as no hindering factor could be deduced, had instructed the equipment be placed in the ship.”
Peter scratched his nose, tense. “ The equipment worked on the system I outlined?”
“ Approximately. Instead of the static field used to protect the city, fields were projected progressively ahead of each other, each collapsing as the other arose. With two units, electronic switching. and an integrating control device, the field could be moved about at will. It was so interconnected with the ship’s drive and steering, as to follow all movements of the vessel.” “ Then the Starfall effectively had all the attributes of the fixed screen, but was mobile ?” Peter demanded.
“ Of course.”
Peter sat back. Tiny beads of perspiration were on his brow. "In such circumstances, the ship would have been irresistible?”
“ Of course. The field I have described would advance progressively with the ship’s motion, and be indestructible.”
“ Then it’s impossible !”
Silence followed his statement. He knew that scanners were sweeping his features, relaying his expression, integrating it with filed data of his tone of voice, character, reliability. Signals passed and re-passed from Umbra to Earth, and the grille awoke.
“ Records show you are not given to random statements,” the voice said evenly. “Explain.”
Peter’s eyes glowed. The Mens Magna was immeasurably huge, had on file the whole existing knowledge of Mankind- yet seemed to have made an error !
“ If the ship was irresistible, the screen could not be immovable," he said quietly. “ Or, if the screen was immovable, the ship could not be irresistible. It is completely impossible that two such contradictory statements exist side by side !”
A momentary silence. “ The logic underlying your statement would appear to be correct,” the Mens Magna admitted.
“ Of course it’s correct !” Peter snapped. “ It’s an elementary fact. You can’t have both an irresistible force and an immovable object. They’re contradictory.” He paused. “Therefore your original deductions upon the system employed must be defective.”
He said it nastily, though the sarcasm would not register. It had seemed too much to hope: complete, impenetrable immobility, giving a screen nothing could destroy or move; and absolute, theoretically infinite irresistibility, giving a ship nothing could halt.
The grille hummed. Peter guessed that many channels between this extension and Earth were being cleared, and that the vast integrating electronic mechanisms of the Mens Magna was re-checking data of such proportions and complexity that unaided scientists would find it the work of a lifetime.
“ There are no errors in my original deductions,” the machine stated at last. “ The calculations contain no mistake. The screen, as electronically erected over this city, was completely impenetrable and immovable.”
“ Not completely !” Peter hissed. “ Let us use terms in their absolute, literal sense-”
“ I am doing so. It was absolutely, unconditionally impenetrable.”
Peter wiped his brow. “ Then your error was in the changed equipment for the ship ! That did not result in an absolutely irresistible vessel- only one comparatively so.”
He waited. The question cubicle seemed airless, despite its forced ventilation.
“ There was no error,” the Mens Magna stated at last. “ The system, as employed in the Starfall, would result in the ship being irresistible. I use that term in its complete sense.”
“ Then where is the error ?” Peter rasped. “ The situation is an absurdity ! It is impossible that an irresistible ship, and an immovable, impenetrable screen, both exist. The Starfall flew against the screen. Therefore one of these terms must have ceased to exist. Either the ship was no longer irresistible, or the screen was not impenetrable and immovable.”
The screens glowed back at him. “ Your reasoning seems correct. I can locate no error in it-”
"Of course you can't- there is none!"
"So I agree.”
Silence again. Peter felt sweat on his hands. “ Then what happened?” he demanded. “Which was the weaker- screen or ship ?”
A delay, then : “ Neither. Due to the way in which the fields operate, it is impossible that either could have broken down, as I have explained.”
Peter felt an odd tension in his head, an ache as of stressed awareness or reason. “ The ship could not be stopped ?”
“ And the screen could not be penetrated or moved ?”
“ In no circumstance,” agreed the Mens Magna again.
Peter licked his lips, speaking slowly, deliberately : “ Then what happened to the Starfall?”
The delay was longer than any he had ever experienced with the Mens Magna. “ I am unable to deduce what happened to her,” the machine stated at last. “ I compute from known data. I admit your premises. I do, in fact, know them to be true. It was totally impossible for the ship to be stopped. It was also completely impossible that anything penetrate the screen, or move it. That the existence of an irresistible force and immovable object constitutes a logical absurdity I agree. But from the information available, I am unable to deduce any outcome. Theoretically, something must break, in the situation you describe. Yet, theoretically, nothing can break.”
“ Can you account for the disappearance of the ship ?”
“ No. The field making her irresistible also made her indestructible. Nothing could penetrate her field. It was moving rapidly, but just as effective as the fixed field protecting the city.”
“ Then you believe there is a fallacy in our arguments ?”
“ No,” the machine said evenly. “ They have been checked, as I stated, and are completely true. I can add nothing further.”
Peter nodded slowly. He had gained his point- had put into words the idea which had been created by the Starfall’s loss. He rose.
“ One thing more- will you have similar equipment fitted in another ship as soon as possible ?”
“ Of course. Experiments were to have been made with the Starfall. A similar vessel is due in from routine flights this evening, and I have already requested the spaceport to make her available for tests.”
Peter left the building slowly, unaware that darkness had come since he had entered, or that the many lights of the city glowed warmly against the night sky.
On the way back Peter stopped to buy wrapped food for Ian. Most vehicles had left the parking strip, but the police car was still there, and occupied. Peter placed the snacks in an inside pocket, got out, and went to the police car.
“ Seen Macallister come in yet ?” he asked.
One officer looked up at him through the open window. “ No, sir. Have you any idea where he could be ?”
Peter scratched his nose pensively. “ Home, at this hour, I’d say.”
“ No, sir, he’s not there.”
“ Oh.” Peter shrugged indifferently. “ I’l1 let you know if I hear anything."
He went in, not looking back. The building was quiet except for the usual scanty night staff. Nothing indicated anyone had tried to enter the file room. He unlocked it, fastening it again at his back. Macallister was on one of the adjustable swivel stools and appeared bored. His face brightened at sight of the food.
“ At this moment that’s worth a lot, Peter !”
Peter drew a noiselessly castored stool across. “ We can’t keep this up very long, Ian. It’s probable someone will want to come in here tomorrow. They’l1 begin enquiring for the key.”
“ I know it.” He screwed up an empty pie carton and deposited it in the litter basket. “ I feel like going to the police and telling them the truth.”
“ Which they may not believe,” Peter pointed out. “ It’s likely there was only one witness, as if there’d been more they’d have tried to get the case off you. But by now there are at least two men prepared to testify you killed that man. You haven’t even got a bruise or black eye to show it was a straight fight.”
Macallister brushed crumbs from his trousers. “ I didn’t plan to let him hit me-”
“ Of course not. But with two witnesses against you, the whole thing looks pretty black.”
Peter went to the door, and peered out. The corridor was empty. If he had heard footfalls, the person had merely gone quickly past. He locked the door again, nibbling his lips.
“ How many criminals get away, these days, Ian ?”
“ Few or none, that I know of.”
Peter nodded somberly. “ And we’re amateurs at hiding from the police. In a few days, at the most, your picture will be on every entertainment screen and news screen, with a better description of every characteristic than your mother could have given. Scientific criminal tracing has become a fine art. What’s more, they’ll begin to shadow your acquaintances- and that includes me.”
Ian Macallister clenched a huge hand. “ There’s one man I’d like to have to myself for just five minutes, Peter !”
“ Maybe. But Ellerton will see you don’t get the chance." Peter sat on the stool again. “ You don’t know your own strength, Ian. You never did.”
He briefly related his interview with the Mens Magna. Macallister listened with keen attention, interjecting occasional questions. Finally, he nodded.
“ I see your point, Peter. If you’ve got an irresistible ship, she’d pass through everything, including the screen. Or she’d move it. But if you have an impenetrable, immovable screen, nothing can get through, or budge it, including the ship. They’re mutually contradictory.”
“ Yet both true.”
When Peter left the file room he locked it, but knew that Ian could not be hidden there indefinitely- or indeed for much longer. He felt very uneasy. From his office window he could distinguish only one officer in the parked car. It could be a trick of the road lighting, or perhaps a single man had replaced the pair.
Of the matters demanding early attention, Ian’s danger seemed most urgent. It was a tricky problem.
A tap came on the door. Peter started, as if caught in an unlawful act.
"Come in !”
One of the officers entered, closing the door. “ We’re just checking up that you’ve no news of Mr. Macallister,” he said.
Peter’s active grey eyes searched his face. “ He’s certainly not tried to contact me- or come in, far as I know.”
“ I didn’t mean that, sir.” The man seemed a trifle uneasy. “ We’ve received information that he may be in the building.”
Peter raised his brows, hiding his shock. “ Here ?”
“ Yes, sir.”
“ I see.” Peter wondered if it were a guess, or if Ellerton had judged this a hint that could be fruitful. He frowned. “ It doesn’t seem very likely.” He hoped his doubt was convincing.
“ Probably not, sir. But I’d like a look round.”
One man, at this hour, Peter thought. Only a token search, but one which would lead to others. He knew shrewd eyes were watching him.
“ If you wish,” he agreed evenly.
“ Thank you, sir.” .
The man let himself out. Peter moved round his desk, looking from the window. A second police car had halted near the other corner of the building. Apparently the hint that Ian might be inside had been pretty strong.
Fifteen minutes passed. Peter spread papers on his desk, to make it seem he had been working. Five minutes later, the officer returned.
“ There’s a door locked just down the corridor, sir,” he said Peter had half expected it. He rose. “ Is that so ?”
“ Yes, sir. I’1l show you.”
Amazed at his own coolness, Peter followed him. They halted at the tile room. The officer tried the knob. Peter copied him.
“You know where the key is kept, sir?” the officer suggested.
Peter scratched his nose, feigning thought. “ Probably one of the day staff has it. It’s unfortunate. You want to go in now ?”
The man gazed at the door. His nostrils twitched like a hound scenting prey. He almost spoke, shrugged, then shook his head.
“ I don’t think it matters at this moment, sir. But you’ll have the key for us early tomorrow ?”
“ Of course,” Peter agreed easily.
With a last look at the door, the officer wished him good-night and went. Peter put his hands deep in his pockets, and felt the key. Judging it unsafe to go in to Ian yet, he returned to his office. He had scarcely closed the door when his communicator buzzed.
It was an exterior line. Hepwell, who was in charge of the search at the estuary.
“ We’ve brought up several fragments, sir.” His voice was tired. “ Judging from their appearance, they’ve only been in the water a matter of hours or days. The metal is being analysed. Shall you be coming along to see them, sir ?” Peter thought of Ian. “ I’m very busy this evening. Perhaps early tomorrow.”
“ Very well, sir.”
Hepwell sounded mildly surprised, but a little relieved. Peter released the communicator button. Several fragments. That looked final.
He walked heavily along the corridor to its farthest corner, listened, and returned to the file room, letting himself in. Ian occupied the same stool, but his face showed more strain.
“ You and someone outside just now ?” he asked.
“ A police officer. They want the door opened tomorrow. I can’t pretend there’s no key then. Everyone on the staff knows duplicates are kept in the watchman’s office. If I stole that one the police would be suspicious and break down the door.”
Macallister made a face. “ Then they’ve as good as got me already.”
“ I don’t know.” Peter studied the room. There was no concealment for a man. “ I came to tell you Hepwell’s found a lot of fragments he thinks are from the Starfall.”
They looked at each other. “ It’s Ellerton who should be facing a charge of murder, not me,” Macallister said at last. “ He alerted the screen to stop the ship, and is as guilty as if he’d put a gun to their heads and pulled trigger.”
Peter nodded. That was true. But it could never be proved. He patted Macallister’s shoulder briefly.
“ I’ve got to lock the door, Ian. Don’t give up hope.”
Outside, the door again fastened, he listened. The corridor and building were quiet.
He moved pensively to his office door. As Ian said, it looked grim. Disaster was mere hours away, Peter thought. He opened the door slowly, stepping through-and became aware that a man stood by the desk. Tall and slight, yet with a singular impression of power. Peter flinched involuntarily, seeing him.
“ How the devil did you get here ?” he snapped.
Julius Ellerton seated himself gracefully on the edge of the desk. “ I said I should be looking in again.” He smiled bleakly. “ I took the opportunity of waiting.”
“ I have nothing to discuss with you.” Peter wondered if anyone passing would have heard his quiet exchanges with Ian.
Ellerton did not move. “I have several things. First, I believe the police have not found Macallister yet.”
Tense, but not showing it, Peter shrugged. “ Your information about that is probably as good as mine,” he said acidly.
“ Probably. You know capital crimes are dealt with in, capital- and quite final- ways ? It is unfortunate there are at least two men ready to testify on oath that Macallister struck his victim down from behind.”
Peter wondered if Ellerton had come to bait him. Ellerton stood up slowly.
“ It is also unfortunate the Fanto hills claim seems to be no nearer settlement,” he said evenly. “ I had hoped to receive my compensation soon, and return to Earth. I like Earth.”
His eyes were like green stones. Peter sensed the implication of the words.
“ You think your claim will be met, Ellerton?” he snapped.
“ I hope so. Some of my men would be coming back to Earth with me, you see. They would not wish to remain here, witnesses in a murder case. With my claim settled, I’m sure they would find they made a mistake. They were some distance away- could easily have been in error when they identified Macallister. I am sure they would change their testimony, when they realise that.”
Peter’s lips were a thin line. Give me fifteen million, Ellerton was saying, and Macallister can go free. There was a fateful similarity about the present situation, and the one Dillard had withdrawn from . . .
“ Perhaps you have not realised your own position,” Ellerton added smoothly in the silence. “ If it were found that you had helped Macallister, that would be very grave. At the least, you could expect complete loss of position, and ten years in prison. At worst you might accompany Macallister. Or perhaps you might prefer that. I understand present methods are quite humane-”
Peter’s mobile eyes speared hate at his visitor. “ Are you blackmailing me- Macallister’s life against your claim ?”
Julius Ellerton looked shocked. “ Gracious, no. But I am of course anxious about my compensation.”
As anxious as hell, Peter thought. The runs by the Bernie ships were just another feature to utilise, from Ellerton’s point of view. Claim they did damage- get compensation. Don’t worry if that pretence that a bomb which might have been dropped should start a war between human and Bernie races !
Peter nodded slowly. “ How did you simulate that explosion, Ellerton ? Was it mostly fuel, or dynamite as well? Or wasn’t it so difficult after all, considering how easily wooden machinery burns?”
Ellerton shrugged, as if to end the interview, but Peter moved quickly, standing in his path.
“ Thinking up a clever way of getting fifteen million is more important than starting a shooting match between us and the Bernies, I suppose! If your claim is met, it’ll go on the records that the Bernies caused the damage, perhaps with a bomb. Every administrator on every planet we control will believe that. Every cruiser’s captain will remember it. Some day there’ll be a tricky situation. Somewhere, a man will pull a trigger, thinking he had to, to save himself. Bernies and men will be enemies, not friends. We know they come from the Bemis Cluster, but that’s all. They may outnumber us, or only be our equals. Ships lost, outposts erased, planets fought for, lost, perhaps won again with human blood.” Peter paused, breathing quickly. “ And all because you want to fake a claim .”
Ellerton’s eyes were slits. “ So you will resist my claim ?" he asked, an edge to his voice.
"With everything I’ve got !"
“ As you wish.” Ellerton moved circuitously to the door “ You overlook you can only delay me. You would have no part in dictating policy to Umbra’s next administrator.” He paused significantly. “ Bear that in mind.”
Alone, Peter swore. Ellerton would maintain his terrible lie that a Bernie ship had erased the Fanto hills camp. Ellerton refused to realise, or did not care, that this set upon the Bernies the stigma of having already fired the first shot. Inevitably, some day, a touchy captain or administrator would remember the lie, and plunge mankind into conflict.
Time was so short, Peter thought angrily. He contacted the building switchboard operator, and left instructions that Hepwell was to expect him as soon as it was light. He then unlocked the file room briefly, told Macallister to sleep, and went down to his parked car.
The police were watching. He deliberately drew to a halt level with them, leaning to the window.
“ Any news of Macallister, officer ?”
“ No.” The man moved without apparent intention, but to such a position that he could glance into the back of the car. He gestured. “We’re checking every vehicle that goes out, sir.”
Peter let in the clutch, turning towards the spaceport road. It was never dark round the administration buildings, and suspended sodium lights were long shining chains ahead.
One sector of the field was illuminated. Spotlights shone on a vertical hull, and for one fantastic moment Peter thought the Starfall had by some miracle returned. But one high beam picked out her name-- the Stella, a sister ship. Men stood near two trucks at her base and the cage was descending.
Peter got out. “ This is the ship you’re installing the new equipment in ?”
An overalled engineer nodded. “ Yes, sir."
"You did the Starfall ?"
The man’s face clouded. “ Yes, sir.” He raised his head, looking up at the Stella, strong side lighting making his face seem hard. “ We hope this one will have a better chance, sir.” Peter’s nose twitched. His gaze flickered from the descending cage to the engineer, and back to the ship.
“ You’ve finished ?”
"Just about, sir."
Peter had doubted the modifications could be made so easily. The cage touched down, and four men alighted.
“ It only takes a few hours to fit the equipment, sir,” the engineer said.
“ Good !” Peter nodded. “ I want her to be ready for a trial flight very early tomorrow morning. I’ll leave instructions before I go. You’ll confirm the modifications are finished ?”
Peter returned to his car. For a moment he looked up at the Stella, high, shining, and now a duplicate in all respects of the unlucky Starfall.
As he drove from the field he noted that in another hour or so the first dim light would begin to presage dawn. The nights were seasonably short, the dawns early. There should be time to visit the estuary.
He stopped at the building of the Mens Magna, and hurried into a cubicle. The soundproof door closed. The scanners reflected a dim blue light on his face.
“ You are recognised, Petermont Foreland.”
Peter sat. “ You have re-checked the data which were the subject of our last discussion ?”
“ I have,” the Mens Magna agreed. “ It was logical to do so. There are no errors. The screen is immovable and impenetrable, and the ship irresistible.”
Peter leaned forward. “ Then something else must give way !”
Moments of silence, as of cogitation. “ You mean a third element may exist, so that the two mutually antagonistic premises can be reconciled ?”
"It seems possible !”
“ Logically, yes,” the Mens Magna admitted. “ But no information covering the situation is available.”
“ Then you can’t confirm my guess ?” Peter asked disappointed.
" Apparently not. I deduce from known data. Nowhere in the field of the whole of human knowledge are there factors covering this subject.”
Peter sat back, his lips twitching. Everything known was recorded within the huge memory banks of the machine. The Mens Magna could produce information as required ; could integrate apparently isolated items, thereby creating new processes or data. But the machine was incapable of truly creative thought- that leap ahead in the dark of the human mind. Now, the machine could merely confirm the anomaly of the simultaneous existence of an irresistible force and an immovable object, and admit that an unknown solution might be present.
“ Has it occurred to you that the Bernies may be friendly?" he asked abruptly.
“ Of course. Except for one possible incident, their conduct has been neutral, such as may be expected from the cautious first contact of alien races.”
“ That one incident is the destruction of the Fanto hills camp ?” Peter asked.
“ Yes. It is illogical that an accident could have so exactly destroyed the camp.”
Peter got up. “ As you say. And before I go, I’ll mention something which has not yet been suggested to you. Suppose that claim was faked, for personal gain ?”
He left. The machine would now integrate his remark with everything ever known about Julius Ellerton, and would review the whole of the subject in the new light that might throw.
Outside, the sky was just light enough to show the outlines of buildings. Peter drove to the estuary, and the small jetty where Hepwell had brought his search boats to anchor. Lights burned in waterfront buildings nearby and a man in river patrol uniform was talking at an open door.
Peter looked in. “ Who’s in charge here ?"
A man in thigh-length rubbers sat by a trestle table, smoking. "Mr. Hepwell, sir- he’s been here all night.”
"Good! I want to see him, and the fragments."
"I’ll tell him, sir "
He disappeared into an inner room, returning within moments, with Hepwell, a youngish man, sparsely built, and now visibly tired, Peter thought.
"I’ll have the pieces brought in here,” Hepwell said briefly
The sky was a trifle lighter. Peter wondered at just how early an hour the police would begin their full search.
Hepwell came back with two men, carrying something in canvas. They lifted two metal shards to the trestle table, leaving the last and larger piece on the floor. Peter ran a finger over the metal. It was new, without scale or corrosion which would indicate long immersion in sea water. Hepwell pointed where small pieces had been removed at the edges.
“ We took samples for the metallurgist,” he said briefly. “He reported they’re the same high tensile alloy as the Starfall's hull.”
Peter examined the fragments. They were shapeless as pieces from a ruined lead soldier, and totally without any identifying feature.
“ Were they found together ?” he asked quietly.
“ Within about a hundred yards, sir. It’s some way out, and we have a large area to cover.” Peter nodded. The tidal estuary totalled many scores of square miles.
"I want you to take me out and show me the spot,” he said
The small ship rose and fell evenly. Peter stood near the wheelhouse, while Hepwell checked bearings with his navigation officer. The light had grown, and the rim where land and estuary waters joined could just be distinguished now. The low throb of the ship’s engine stopped.
“ This is where the larger fragment was, sir,” Hepwell said, coming from the wheelhouse. “There’s around fifteen fathoms of water just here, according to the tide.”
Peter turned slowly in full circle. In his mind’s eye was the image of the protective screen, as momentarily outlined by the smoke from the explosive bombs. He had hoped to prove that the fragments were not debris scattered from the inside of the screen, but the battered pieces of something which had impacted upon it from above. Now, he was not sure.
The light grew. Peter decided that he could learn no more. After a last glance round, he asked to be taken back to the jetty. The fragments could be from the Starfall.
It was almost fully light, but still very early, When Peter reached the administration building. Replacement officers watched him enter. He ascended in the lift and passed quickly along the corridor. It would be an hour before the earliest of the day staff arrived, but the building was never deserted.
He checked that his office was empty. From the window he saw that one officer was getting out of the police car. They weren’t wasting time, Peter thought.
He unlocked the file room, beckoning urgently, almost propelling Macallister into the office. “ Keep away from the window, and out of sight.”
Quickly he locked the file room door, following, but leaving his office door slightly open. He took out paper, and began to write rapidly, intent on jotting down notes on how Ellerton put personal gain before the relationship between Bemies and humanity. He had scarcely begun when the officer appeared in the corridor. He left his desk, taking his papers to the open door.
"You’re early, officer,” he said easily
The man seemed disappointed. “ We’d like to make a full search as soon as possible.”
"Of course,” Peter agreed
The man looked back down the corridor. “ There was a locked room, I understand-”
Peter noted the significant tone. “ I believe there was, now you mention it.” He scratched his long nose, simulating deep thought. “ The watchman has duplicate keys, and you could use his.”
"I will, sir ."
The officer disappeared, walking quickly. Peter returned to his desk, writing as he manipulated the communicator. The line to the spaceport was open.
“ This is the administrators office. Is the Stella ready for testing ?”
"Yes, sir. "
"Good. We’l1 be along shortly ."
Macallister, his back flat against the wall, gave a quiet exclamation as Peter released the button.
“ You’re mad if you plan to run for it, Peter ! We’ll never reach the Stella. And suppose we do- we’ll be hounded by every patrol ship and cruiser the police can rake up. You’ll be finished-- probably executed as an accomplice-”
Peter scribbled on. “ There’s more in this than just you and me, Ian. There could be the whole future relationship between Bernies and men.” He folded the sheets, put them in an envelope, and marked it for the files of the Mens Magna. It disappeared down the posting slot by his desk.
From his open door he saw the officer unlock the filing room, moving rather as if he expected a caged tiger to spring out. The man went in.
“ We need about two minutes clear start, Ian,” Peter said quietly.
Macallister looked glum. “ Then what ? Suppose we get away in the ship ? There’1ll be half a dozen police vessels after us within ten minutes. Within the hour every ship and every planet will be looking for us.”
Peter indicated silence. The officer had come from the file room carrying something. Peter saw that it was an empty food carton. A relic of Ian’s scanty supper !
“ We need your punch now, Ian,” Peter said quietly. “ It’s too late for explanations. But don’t be as rough as you were with Ellerton’s man.”
The officer had a keen, expectant expression. He carried the carton tenderly.
“ I think this should be explained, sir. And there are crumbs.”
Peter nodded; “ How strange. Come in-”
Ian’s punch was exactly judged, clean behind the ear. Peter jabbed the communicator switchboard line into activity. The night operator answered.
“ Get someone to send the other officer up here at once,” Peter snapped. “ We’ve found something!”
He watched from the window. An assistant ran out, spoke briefly through the car window, and the officer hastened to the building.
They treated him like his companion, placed the pair side by side near the desk, and locked the office door on the outside.
“ Just two minutes’ clear space !” Peter breathed.
They ran down, and to his car. He pushed Macallister into the back, making him crouch, and shot out on to the spaceport road. The second police car, now at the adjoining corner, watched him speed by. As the field drew near Peter looked back. So far there was no chase, but it would come soon.
“ They’re expecting me, Ian,” he said as he drove. “ Climb over in the front here, and don’t look so ready for battle. If anyone at the field knows you’re wanted, I’ll tell them the police have seen you to ask a few questions, and that it’s unimportant.”
Macallister grunted. “ When they eventually catch up with the Stella you won’t find a cell as comfortable as Dillard made his office.”
The plan worked well. There were the inevitable delays, but Peter’s position, and their air of quiet authority, proved useful. Five minutes passed, and another five, before they were in the Stella. From her viewport Peter had a last glimpse of the edge of the field, and two radio cars that came racing along the road, and spilled uniformed men immediately they halted at the control buildings.
Peter quietly manipulated the ship’s radiophone, used for local communication.
"Give me the defence warning headquarters ."
He was put through within seconds. So far, the police had not been able to clamp down on him, or block communications from the ship.
“ This is planetary administrator Foreland,” Peter snapped. “ I am at the estuary. Two Bernie ships are approaching under radar cover of the headland. Will you energise the city’s screen at once.”
Peter released the button. His authority still carried weight. Macallister’s fingers bit into his arm.
“ Mon, are ye crazy ?” He jerked a finger towards the sky. " You’ve got that screen up there, now, before we’re away !"
“ I have.” Peter moved to the controls which would feed power into the ship’s drive. “I’ve been curious about one thing in particular- what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object ! The Mens Magna couldn’t tell me.”
“ But the fragments in the estuary?” Macallister pointed out thickly.
Peter’s face clouded. “ I’m hoping they were fragments from the bombs dropped on top of the screen, Ian. I’d have liked more time to investigate that angle, but couldn’t get it.”
The Stella rose smoothly, with a feeling of immense power. With her course set, she could virtually fly herself. The field and buildings fell away rapidly, dwindling.
The impact between ship and screen was as nearly indescribable as anything Peter had ever experienced. The Stella did not seem to tremble or hesitate- yet there was a sensation as of extreme stress, as if her motion against the immovable field protecting the city was tearing something fundamental to the whole being of the universe. One moment the field was below, tiny figures running in the cold dawn light. Then the shock, the feeling of something snapping- the field was still there, but extended, in sunshine. Other ships were rising or landing, and some had the ugly, finned outlines of Bernie vessels.
"So something -broke,” Peter whispered.
Ian Macallister stood astonished at the port. “I don’t understand all this ! We should be dead men !”
“ No,” Peter said. “The Mens Magna said the screen would never budge, and the ship never stop, and it’s always right. Something had to snap- time ! The weaker factor where the irresistible force met the immovable object !” He looked from the port. “ Judging by what I see, we’re a few years ahead. I’d say that the Bernies are trading peacefully with mankind. I expect the Mens Magna worked on my notes, or deduced the way things would go.”
He stopped the Stella’s drive, coding into the autopilot instructions which would bring the ship round above the city, then down. Several ships were in view, but his gaze flickered eagerly from one to the other. He scratched his long nose.
"This is what should have happened to the Starfall,” he said.
"It has !”
He followed Ian’s finger. Their sister ship was approaching in a long curve, so that her course would join with their own. Below, the city had an appearance of prosperity, expansion. Peter smiled, and his grey eyes glinted as he followed the Starfall’s sweeping course.
Francis G. Rayer.
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