Talents, Incorporated
by William Fitzgerald Jenkins
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

[Cover Illustration]

Bors felt as if he'd been hit over the head. This was ridiculous! He'd planned and carried out the destruction of that warship because the information of its existence and location was verified by a magnetometer.

But, if he'd known how the information had been obtained—if he'd known it had been guessed at by a discharged spaceport employee, and a paranoid personality, and a man who used a hazel twig or something similar—if he'd known that, he'd never have dreamed of accepting it. He'd have dismissed it flatly!

* * * * *

Aficionados of science fiction recognize and respect MURRAY LEINSTER as a writer of rare talent. His ingenuity of plot, his technical know-how and flight of imagination in TALENTS, INCORPORATED will go far to increase his stature and popularity as an exciting and thought-provoking storyteller.

AVON BOOK DIVISION The Hearst Corporation 572 Madison Avenue—New York 22, N.Y.


Murray Leinster

Copyright, (C), 1962, by Murray Leinster. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with the author. Printed in the U.S.A.

Transcriber's Note:

Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note. Subscript characters are shown within {braces}.


Part One

Chapter 1

Young Captain Bors—who impatiently refused to be called anything else—was strangely occupied when the communicator buzzed. He'd ripped away the cord about a thick parcel of documents and heaved them into the fireplace of the office of the Minister for Diplomatic Affairs. A fire burned there, and already there were many ashes. The carpet and the chairs of the cabinet officer's sanctum were coated with fine white dust. As the communicator buzzed again, Captain Bors took a fireplace tool and stirred the close-packed papers to looseness. They caught and burned instead of only smouldering.

The communicator buzzed yet again. He brushed off his hands and pressed the answer-stud.

He said bleakly: "Diplomatic Affairs. Bors speaking."

The communicator relayed a voice from somewhere else with an astonishing fidelity of tone.

"Spaceport, sir. A ship just broke out of overdrive. We don't identify its type. One ship only, sir."

Bors said grimly;

"You'd recognize a liner. If it's a ship from the Mekinese fleet and stays alone, it could be coming to receive our surrender. In that case play for time and notify me."

"Yes, sir.—One moment! It's calling, sir! Here it is—."

There was a clicking, and then there came a voice which had the curious quality of a loudspeaker sound picked up and relayed through another loudspeaker.

"Calling ground! Calling ground! Space-yacht Sylva reports arrival and asks coordinates for landing. Our mass is two hundred tons standard. Purpose of visit, pleasure-travel."

A pause. The voice from the spaceport:


Captain Bors said impatiently, "Oh, let him down and see if he knows anything about the Mekinese. Then advise him to go away at once. Tell him why."

"Yes, sir."

A click. Young Captain Bors returned to his task of burning papers. These were the confidential records of the Ministry for Diplomatic Affairs. Captain Bors wore the full-dress uniform of the space navy of the planet Kandar. It was still neatly pressed but was now smudged with soot and smeared with ashes. He had burned a great many papers today. Elsewhere in the Ministry other men were burning other documents. The other papers were important enough; they were confidential reports from volunteer- and paid-agents on twenty planets. In the hands of ill-disposed persons, they could bring about disaster and confusion and interplanetary tension. But the ones Captain Bors made sure of were deadly.

He burned papers telling of conditions on Mekin itself. The authors of such memoranda would be savagely punished if they were found out. Then there were papers telling of events on Tralee. If it could be said that he were more painstakingly destructive than average about anything, Captain Bors was about them. He saw to it that they burned to ashes. He crushed the ashes. He stirred them. It would be unthinkable that such morsels could ever be pieced together and their contents even guessed at.

He went on with the work. His jaunty uniform became more smeared and smudged. He gave himself no rest. There were papers from other planets now under the hegemony of Mekin. Some were memoranda from citizens of this planet, who had traveled upon the worlds which Mekin dominated as it was about to dominate Kandar. They, especially had to be pulverized. Every confidential document in the Ministry for Diplomatic Affairs was in the process of destruction, but Captain Bors in person destroyed those which would cause most suffering if read by the wrong persons.

In other ministries and other places similar holocausts were under way. There was practically nothing going on on Kandar which was not related to the disaster for which the people of that world waited. The feel of bitterness and despair was everywhere. Broadcasting stations stayed on the air only to report monotonously that the tragic event had not yet happened. The small space-navy of Kandar waited, aground, to take the king and some other persons on board at the last moment. When the Mekinese navy arrived—or as much of it as was needed to make resistance hopeless—the end for Kandar would have come. That was the impending disaster. If it came too soon, Bors's task of destruction couldn't be completed as was wished. In such a case this Ministry and all the others would hastily be doused with incendiary material and fired, and it would desperately be hoped that all the planet's records went up in the flames.

Captain Bors flung more and more papers on the blaze. He came to an end of them.

The communicator buzzed, again. He answered once more.

"Sir, the space-yacht Sylva is landed. It comes from Norden and has no direct information about the Mekinese. But there's a man named Morgan with a very important letter for the Minister for Diplomatic Affairs. It's from the Minister for Diplomatic Affairs on Norden."

Bors said sardonically, "Maybe he should wait a few days or hours and give it to the Mekinese! Send him over if he wants to take the chance, but warn him not to let anybody from his yacht leave the spaceport!"

"Yes, sir."

Bors made a quick circuit of the Ministry building to make sure the rest of the destruction was thoroughly carried out. He glanced out of a window and saw the other ministries. From their chimneys thick smoke poured out—the criminal records were being incinerated in the Ministry of Police. Tax records were burning in the Ministry of Finance. Educational information about Kandarian citizens flamed and smoked in the Ministry of Education. Even voting and vehicle-registry lists were being wiped out of existence by flames and the crushing of ashes at appropriate agencies. The planet's banks were completing the distribution of coin and currency, with promissory notes to those depositors they could not pay in full, and the real-estate registers were open so individuals could remove and hide or destroy their titles to property. The stockholders' books of corporations were being burned. Small ships parted with their wares and took promises of payment in return. The planet Kandar, in fact, made ready to receive its conquerors.

It was not conquered yet, but there could be no hope.

Bors was in the act of brushing off his hands again, in a sort of symbolic gesture of completion, when a ground-car stopped before the Ministry. A stout man got out. A rather startlingly pretty girl followed. They advanced to the door of the Ministry.

Presently, Captain Bors received the two visitors. His once-jaunty uniform looked like a dustman's. He was much more grim than anybody his age should ever be.

"Your name is Morgan," he said formidably to the stout man. "You have a letter for the Minister. He's not here. He's gathering up his family. If anyone's in charge, I am."

The stout man cheerfully handed over a very official envelope.

Bors said caustically, "I don't ask you to sit down because everything's covered with ash-dust. Excuse me."

He tore open the envelope and read its contents. His impatience increased.

"In normal times," he said, "I'm sure this would be most interesting. But these are not normal times. I'm afraid—"

"I know! I know!" said the stout man exuberantly. "If times were normal I wouldn't be here! I'm president and executive director of Talents, Incorporated. From that letter you'll see that we've done very remarkable things for different governments and businesses. I'd like to talk to someone with the authority to make a policy decision. I want to show what we can do for you."

"It's too late to do anything for us," said Bors. "Much too late. We expect the Mekinese fleet at any instant. You'd better go back to the spaceport and take off in your yacht. They're going to take over this planet after a slight tumult we expect to arrange. You won't want to be here when they come."

Morgan waved a hand negligently.

"They won't arrive for four days," he said confidently. "That's Talents, Incorporated information. You can depend on it! There's plenty of time to prepare before they get here!" He smiled, as if at a joke.

Young Captain Bors was not impressed. He and all the other officers of the Kandarian defense forces had searched desperately for something that could be done to avert the catastrophe before them. They'd failed to find even the promise of a hope. He couldn't be encouraged by the confidence of a total stranger,—and a civilian to boot. He'd taken refuge in anger.

The pretty girl said suddenly, "Captain, at least we can reassure you on one thing. Your government chartered four big liners to remove government officials and citizens who'll be on the Mekinese black list. You're worried for fear they won't get here in time. But my father—"

The stout man looked at his watch.

"Ah, yes! You don't want the fleet cluttered up with civilians when it takes to space! I'm happy to tell you it won't be. The first of your four liners will break out of overdrive in—hm—three minutes, twenty seconds. Two others will arrive tomorrow, one at ten minutes after noon, the other three hours later. The last will arrive the day after, at about sunrise here."

Bors went a trifle pale.

"I doubt it. It's supposed to be a military secret that such ships are on the way. Since you know it, I assume that the Mekinese do, too. In effect, you seem to be a Mekinese spy. But you can hardly do any more harm! I advise you to go back to your yacht and leave Kandar immediately. If our citizens find out you are spies, they will literally tear you to pieces."

He looked at them icily. The stout man grinned.

"Listen, your h— Captain, listen to me! The first liner will report inside of five minutes. That'll be a test. Here's another. There's a Mekinese heavy cruiser aground on Kandar right now! It's on the sea bottom fifty fathoms down, five miles magnetic north-north-east from Cape Farnell! You can check that! The cruiser's down there to lob a fusion bomb into your space-fleet when it starts to take off for the flight you're planning—to get all the important men on Kandar in one smash! That's Talents, Incorporated information! It's a free sample. You can verify it without it costing you anything, and when you want more and better information—why—we'll be at the spaceport ready to give it to you. And you will want to call on us! That's Talents, Incorporated information, too!"

He turned and marched confidently—almost grandly—out of the room. The girl smiled faintly at Bors.

"He left out something, Captain. That cruiser— It could hardly act without information on when to act. So there's a pair of spies in a little shack on the cape. They've got an underwater cable going under the sand beach and out and down to the space-cruiser. They're watching the fleet on the ground with telescopes. When they see activity around it, they'll tell the cruiser what to do." Then she smiled more broadly. "Honestly, it's true! And don't forget about the liner!"

She followed her father out of the room. Outside, as they got into the waiting ground-car, she said to her father, "If he smiled, I think I'd like him."

But Bors did not know that at the time. He would probably not have paid any attention if he had. Kandar was about to be taken over by the Mekinese, as his own Tralee had been ten years before, and other planets before that. Mekin was making an empire after an ancient tradition, which scorned the idea of incorporating other worlds into its own governmental system—which was appalling—but merely made them subjects and satellites and tributaries.

Bors had been born on Tralee, which he remembered as a tranquil world of glamor and happiness. But he was on Kandar now. He served in its space-navy, and he foresaw Kandar becoming what Tralee had become. He felt such hatred and rebellion toward Mekin, that he could not notice a pretty girl. He was getting ready for the savage last battle of the space-fleet of Kandar, which would fight in the great void until it was annihilated. There was nothing else to do if one was not to submit to the arrogant tyranny that already lorded it over twenty-two subject planets and might extend itself indefinitely throughout the galaxy.

He moved to verify again the complete pulverizing of the ashes in the fireplace.

The communicator buzzed. He pressed the answer button. A voice said, "Sir, the space-liner Vestis reports breakout from overdrive. Now driving for port. Message ends."

Bors's eyes popped wide. He'd heard exactly that only minutes ago! It could be coincidence, but it was a very remarkable one. The man Morgan had come to him to tell him that. If he'd come for some other reason, and merely made a guess, it could be coincidence. But he'd come only to tell Bors that he could be useful! And it was impossible, at a destination-port, to know when a ship would break out of overdrive! Einstein's data on the anomalies of time at speeds near that of light naturally did not apply to overdrive speeds above it. Nobody could conceivably predict when a ship from many light-years away would arrive! But Morgan had! It was impossible!

He'd said something else that was impossible, too. He'd said there was a Mekinese cruiser on the sea-floor of Kandar, where it could blast all the local fleet—which was ready to fight but vulnerable to a single fusion-bomb. If such a thing happened, the impending disaster would be worse than intolerable. To Bors it would mean dying without a chance to strike even the most futile of blows at the enemy.

He hesitated a long minute. Morgan's errand had been to make a prediction and give a warning, to gain credence for what he could do later. The prediction was fulfilled. But the warning....

An enemy cruiser in ambush on Kandar was a possibility that simply hadn't been considered—hadn't even occurred to anyone. But once it was mentioned it seemed horribly likely. There was no time for a search at random, but if Morgan had been right about one thing he might have some way to know about another.

Bors gave curt orders to his subordinates in the work of record-destruction. He went out of the building to the greensward mall that lay between the ministries of the government, and headed for the palace at its end. The government of Kandar was not one of great pomp and display. There was a king, to be sure, but nobody could imagine the perspiringly earnest King Humphrey the Eighth as a tyrant. There were titles, it was true, but they were life appointments to the planet's legislative Upper House. Kandar was a tranquil, quaint, and very happy world. There were few industries, and those were small. Nobody was unduly rich, and most of its people were contented. It was a world with no history of bloodshed—until now.

Bors brushed absently at his uniform as he walked the two hundred yards to the palace. He abstractedly acknowledged the sentries' salutes as he entered. Much of the palace guard had been sent away, and most of the palace's small staff would hide from the Mekinese. The aggressors had a nasty habit of imposing special humiliations upon citizens who'd been prominent before they were conquered.

He went unannounced into King Humphrey's study, where the monarch conferred dispiritedly with Captain Bors's uncle, the exiled Pretender of Tralee, who listened with interest. The king was talking doggedly to his old friend.

"No. You're mistaken. You'll have my written order to distribute the bullion in the Treasury to all the cities, to be shared as evenly as possible by all the people. The Mekinese can't blame you for obeying an order of your lawful king before they unlawfully seize the kingdom!"

Captain Bors said curtly, "Majesty, the first of the four liners is in. Two more will arrive tomorrow and the last at sunrise the day after. The Mekinese will be here two days later."

King Humphrey and Captain Bors's uncle stared at him.

"And," said Bors, "the same source of information says there's a Mekinese cruiser waiting underwater off Cape Farnell to lob a fusion bomb at the fleet as it's ready to lift."

King Humphrey said, "But nobody can possibly know that two liners will come tomorrow! One hopes so, of course. But one can't know! As for a cruiser, submerged, there's been no report of it."

"The information," said Captain Bors, "came from Talents, Incorporated. It's sample information, given free. The first item has checked. He came with a letter from a cabinet minister on Norden."

Bors handed it to the Pretender of Tralee.

"Mmmm," he said thoughtfully. "I've heard of this Talents, Incorporated. And on Norden, too! Phillip of Norden mentioned it to me. A man named Morgan had told him that Talents, Incorporated had secured information that an atom bomb—a fission bomb as I remember, and quite small—had been set to assassinate him as he laid a cornerstone. The information turned out to be correct. Phillip of Norden and some thousands of his subjects would have been killed. The assassins were really going to extremes. As I remember, Morgan wouldn't accept money for the warning. He did accept a medal."

"I think," said Bors, "I think I shall investigate what he said about a Mekinese ship in hiding. You've no objection, Majesty?"

King Humphrey the Eighth looked at the Pretender. One was remarkably unlike the other. The King was short and stocky and resolute, as if to overcome his own shortcomings. The pretender was lean and gray, with the mild look of a man who has schooled himself to patience under frustration. He nodded. King Humphrey shook his head.

"Very well," said Bors. "I'll borrow a flier and see about it."

He left the palace. There was already disorganization everywhere. The planetary government was in process of destroying all the machinery by which Kandar had been governed, as if to make the Mekinese improvise a government anew. They would make many blunders, of course, which would be resented by their new subjects. There would be much fumbling, which would keep the victims of their conquest from regarding them with respect. And there would be the small tumult Bors had said was in preparation. The king and the Kandarian fleet would fight, quite hopelessly and to their own annihilation, when the Mekinese fleet appeared. It would be something Kandar would always remember. It was likely that she would not be the most docile of the worlds conquered by Mekin. The Mekinese would always and everywhere be resented. But on Kandar they would also be despised.

Bors found the ground-cars which waited to carry the king and those who would accompany him, to the fleet when the time came. He commandeered a ground-car and a driver. He ordered himself driven to the atmosphere-flier base of the fleet.

On the way the driver spoke apologetically. "Captain, sir, I'd like to say something."

"Say it," said Bors.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I've got a wife and children. Even for their sakes, sir. I mean, if it wasn't for them I'd—I'd be going with the fleet. I—wanted to explain—"

"Why you're staying alive?" asked Bors. "You shouldn't feel apologetic. Getting killed in the fleet ought to follow at least the killing of a few Mekinese. There should be some satisfaction in that! But if you stay here your troubles still won't be over, and there'll be very little satisfaction in what you'll go through. What the fleet will do will be dramatic. What you'll do won't. You'll have the less satisfying role. I think the fleet is taking the easy way out."

The driver was silent for a long time as he drove along the strangely unfrequented highways. Just before the ground-car reached the air base, he said awkwardly, "Thank you, sir."

When he brought the car to a stop, he got out quickly to offer a very stiff military salute.

Bors went inside. He found men with burning eyes conferring feverishly. An air force colonel said urgently, "Sir, please advise us! We have our orders, but there's nearly a mutiny. We don't want to turn anything over to the Mekinese—after all, no matter what the king has commanded, once the fleet had lifted off, there can be no punishment if we destroy our planes and blast our equipment! Will you give us an unofficial—"

Bors broke in quickly.

"I may be able to give you a chance at a Mekinese cruiser. Can you lend me a plane with civilian markings and a pilot who's a good photographer? I'll need a magnetometer to trail, too. There's a rather urgent situation coming up."

The men stared at him.

He explained the possibility of a Mekinese space-cruiser lying in fifty fathoms off Cape Farnell. He did not say where the information came from. Even to men as desperate as these, Talents, Incorporated information would not seem credible without painstaking explanation. Bors was by no means sure that he believed it himself, but he wanted to so fiercely that he sounded as if some Mekinese spy or traitor had confessed it.

The feeling of tenseness multiplied, but voices grew very quiet. No man spoke an unnecessary word. In minutes they had made complete arrangements.

When the atmosphere-flier took off down the runway, wholly deceptive explanations were already being made. It was said that the atmosphere-fliers were to load bombs for demolition because the king was being asked for permission to bomb all mines and bridges and railways and docks that would make Kandar a valuable addition to the Mekinese empire. Everything was to be destroyed before the conquerors came to ground. The destruction would bring hardship to the citizens—so the story admitted—but the Mekinese would bring that anyhow. And they shouldn't profit by what Kandar's people had built for themselves.

The point was, of course, to get bombloads aboard planes with no chance of suspicion by spy or traitor of the actual use intended for them. Meanwhile, Bors flew in an atmosphere-flier which looked like a private ship and explained his intentions to the pilot, so that the small plane did not go directly to the spot five miles offshore that the mysterious visitors had mentioned, to make an examination of the sea bottom. Instead, it flew southward. It did not swing out to sea for nearly fifty miles. It went out until it was on a line between a certain small island where many well-to-do people had homes, and the airport of the planet's capital city. Then it headed for that airport.

It flew slowly, as civilian planes do. By the time the sandy beaches of a cape appeared, it was quite convincingly a private plane bringing someone from a residential island to the airport of Kandar City. If a small object trailed below it, barely above the waves, suspended by the thinnest of wires, it was invisible. If the plane happened to be on a course that would pass above a spot north-northeast from the tip of the cape, a spot calculated from information given by Talents, Incorporated, it seemed entirely coincidental. Nobody could have suspected anything unusual; certainly nothing likely to upset the plans of a murderous totalitarian enemy. One small and insignificant civilian plane shouldn't be able to prevent the murder of a space-fleet, a king and the most resolute members of a planet's population!

Captain Bors flew the ship. The official pilot used an electron camera, giving a complete and overlapping series of pictures of the shore five miles away with incredible magnification and detail.

The magnetometer-needle flicked over. Its findings were recorded. As the plane went on it returned to a normal reading for fifty fathoms of seawater.

Half an hour later the seemingly private plane landed at the capital airport. Another half-hour, and its record and pictures were back at the air base, being examined and computed by hungry-eyed men.

Just as the pretty Morgan girl had said, there was a shack on the very tip of the cape. It was occupied by two men. They loafed. And only an electron camera could have used enough magnification to show one man laughing, as if at something the other had said. The camera proved—from five miles away—that there was no sadness afflicting them. One man laughed uproariously. But the rest of the planet was in no mood for laughter.

The magnetometer recording showed that a very large mass of magnetic material lay on the ocean bottom, fifty fathoms down. Minute modifications of the magnetic-intensity curve showed that there was electronic machinery in operation down below.

Bors made no report to the palace. King Humphrey was a conscientious and doggedly resolute monarch, but he was not an imaginative one. He would want to hold a cabinet meeting before he issued orders for the destruction of a space-ship that was only technically and not actually an enemy. Kandar had received an ultimatum from Mekin. An answer was required when a Mekinese fleet arrived off Kandar. Until that moment there was, in theory, no war. But, in fact, Kandar was already conquered in every respect except the landing of Mekinese on its surface. King Humphrey, however, would want to observe all the rules. And there might not be time.

The air force agreed with Bors. So squadron after squadron took off from the airfield, on courses which had certain things in common. None of them would pass over a fisherman's shack on Cape Farnell. None could pass over a spot five miles north-north-east magnetic from that cape's tip, where the bottom was fifty fathoms down and a suspicious magnetic condition obtained. One more thing unified the flying squadrons: At a given instant, all of them could turn and dive toward that fifty-fathom depth at sea, and they would arrive in swift and orderly succession. This last arrangement was a brilliant piece of staff-work. Men had worked with impassioned dedication to bring it about.

But only these men knew. There was no sign anywhere of anything more remarkable than winged squadrons sweeping in a seemingly routine exercise about the heavens. Even so they were not visible from the cape. The horizon hid them.

For a long time there was only blueness overhead, and the salt smell of the sea, and now and again flights of small birds which had no memory of the flight of their ancestors from ancient Earth. The planet Kandar rolled grandly in space, awaiting its destiny. The sun shone, the sun set; in another place it was midnight and at still another it was early dawn.

But from the high blue sky near the planet's capital, there came a stuttering as of a motor going bad. If anyone looked, a most minute angular dot could be seen to be fighting to get back over the land from where it had first appeared, far out at sea. There were moments when the stuttering ceased, and the engine ran with a smooth hum. Then another stutter.

The plane lost altitude. It was clear that its pilot fought to make solid ground before it crashed. Twice it seemed definitely lost. But each time, at the last instant, the motor purred—and popped—and the plane rose valiantly.

Then there was a detonation. The plane staggered. Its pilot fought and fought, but his craft had no power at all. It came down fluttering, with the pilot gaining every imaginable inch toward the sandy shore. It seemed certain that he would come down on the white beach unharmed, a good half-mile from the fisherman's shack on the cape. But—perhaps it was a gust of wind. It may have been something more premeditated. One wing flew wildly up. The flier seemed to plunge crazily groundward. At the last fraction of a second, the plane reeled again and crashed into the fisherman's shack before which, from a distance of five miles, a man had been photographed, laughing.

Timbers splintered. Glass broke musically. Then there were thuds as men leaped swiftly from the plane and dived under the still-falling roof-beams. There were three, four, half a dozen men in fleet uniforms, with blasters in their hands. They used the weapons ruthlessly upon a civilian who flung himself at an incongruously brand-new signalling apparatus in a corner of the shattered house. A second man snarled and savagely lunged at his attackers; he was also blasted as he tried to reach the same device.

There was no pause. Over the low ground to the west a flight of bombers appeared, bellowing. In mass formation they rushed out above the sea. Far to the right and high up, a second formation of man-made birds appeared suddenly. It dived steeply from invisibility toward the water. Over the horizon to the left there came V's of bomber-planes, one after another, by dozens and by hundreds. More planes roared above the shattered shack. They came in columns. They came in masses. From the heavens above and over the ground below and from the horizon that rimmed the world, the planes came. Planes from one direction crossed a certain patch of sea.

They were not wholly clear of it when planes from another part of the horizon swept over the same area, barely wave-tip high. Planes from the west raced over this one delimited space, and planes from the north almost shouldered them aside, and then planes from the east covered that same mile-square patch of sea, and then more planes from the south....

They followed each other in incredible procession, incredibly precise. The water on that mile-square space developed white dots, which always vanished but never ceased. Spume-spoutings leaped up three feet, or ten, or twenty and disappeared, and then there were others which spouted up one yard, or two, or ten. There were innumerable temporary whitecaps. The surface became pale from the constant churning of new foam-patches before the old foam died.

Then, with absolute abruptness, the planes flew away from the one square mile of sea. The late-comers climbed steeply. Abruptly, behind them, there were warning booms. Then monstrous masses of spray and bubbles and blue water leaped up three hundred feet, four hundred feet, five....

A square mile of ocean erupted as the planes climbed up and away from it. There were bombs in the ocean—some had sunk down deep. Others followed in close succession. Many, many burdens of bombs had been dropped into the sea as plane-fleet after plane-fleet went by.

The sea exploded in monstrous columns. Ton, half-ton and two-ton bombs began to detonate, fifty fathoms down. The Mekinese duty-officer below had just learned that the spies' signalling device was cut off, when a detonation lifted the hull of the Mekinese cruiser and shook it violently. Another twisted its tail and crushed it. A bomb hit sea bottom a quarter-mile away. More bombs exploded still nearer, in close contact with the giant hull. A two-ton bomb clanked into contact with its metal plating and burst.

The cruiser's duty-officer, cowering, thrust over the emergency-lever which would put the ship through pre-recorded commands faster than orders could be spoken.

Rockets flared, deep under water. But the flames set off bombs and the rocket-nozzles cracked and were useless. A midship compartment was flooding. A forward compartment's wall caved in, and still bombs burst.... The skipper of the assassin cruiser screamed an order to fire all missiles. They were already set on target. They were pre-set for the spot where the space-navy of Kandar waited to rise.

They did not. One missile was blasted as the cover of its launcher-tube opened. Another was blown in half when partly out of its tube and a third actually rammed a sinking bomb and vanished with it when it exploded.

The huge thing under the sea heaved itself up blindly. It reached the surface. But it was shattered and rent and dying, and planes dived vengefully upon it and blasted apart whatever could be seen in the roaring foam. So the blinded, suffering thing of metal only emptied itself of air and went down to the bottom again, where more bombs ripped and tore it.

The atmosphere-fliers of Kandar swung in a gigantic, ballooning circle about the spot where they had dropped a good fraction of a ton of bombs to the square yard. But nothing stirred there any more. Still, the planes flew in a great, deadly band about it until a flitterboat came out from shore and lowered a camera and a light by long, long cords.

There was no space-cruiser at the bottom of the sea. There was evidence of one, yes. There were patches of plating, and there were naked, twisted girders. The dangling underwater camera faithfully reported what it saw by the light that was lowered with it. But there was no space-cruiser. There were only the rather small fragments of what had been one a little while before.

Captain Bors went back to the palace. He was savagely pleased. He and the air-fleet men had done something. They'd had some satisfaction. They'd killed some Mekinese and ruined a plan to assassinate the Kandar fleet. But they'd only gotten an immediate satisfaction. Kandar was still to be conquered. Nothing important had changed.

Bors made his way to the king's study. He entered. King Humphrey the Eighth and the Pretender of Tralee were listening doubtfully to a stout man. The man was Morgan.

He stopped talking and blinked at Captain Bors. The captain ignored royal etiquette and spoke to him without first greeting the king.

"The ship was there, as you said. We smashed it. Thank you. Is there any more information you can give us?"

Chapter 2

At the spaceport, carefully selected persons filed onto the space-liner Vestis. It was not officially believed that the other three great chartered ships would arrive before the Mekinese fleet. It was, in fact, rather likely that none of the information given by Talents, Incorporated was ever believed until the event confirmed the prediction. In the case of the first liner, those who went on board had been chosen by a strict principle of priority. Men who would merely be imprisoned when Mekin took over had no privilege of escape. Not yet. Those who were destined for execution as soon as a quisling government was formed, were also not entitled to depart on the liner. But those who had conspicuously supported King Humphrey in his resistance to intimidation; those who had encouraged others to object to concessions which could only be forerunners of other concessions; those who had spoken and written and labored to spread information about the facts of life under Mekin, would not merely be imprisoned or executed. They would be tortured. So they were entitled to first chance at escape.

The space-liner blasted off some six hours after its arrival. It vanished blessedly into overdrive where it could not be intercepted. It headed for the far-away world of Trent, where its passengers would be allowed to land as refugees and where, doubtless, they would speak bitterly about Mekin for all the rest of their lives. But the government of Mekin would not care.

Mekin was a phenomenon so improbable that only those who were students of past civilizations could really believe it. There were innumerable references to such regimes in the histories of ancient Earth. There was, for example, Napoleon, said people informed about such matters. With a fraction of a fraction of one per cent of the French people actively cooperating, he overawed the rest and then took over a nation which was not even his own. Then he took over other nations where less than a fraction of a fraction of one per cent concurred. Then he took soldiers from those second-order conquests to make third-order conquests, and then soldiers from the third to make fourth.

There was Mussolini, said the learned men. He had organized a group of rowdies and gangsters, and began by levying protection-money on gambling-houses and even less reputable resorts, and with the money increased his following. He had murdered those who opposed him and presently he collected protection money from even the great business corporations of his country, financing more political gangsterism until he ruled his nation for himself and his confederates.

And there was Hitler, said the historically-minded. In the beginning his followers never dared show themselves in the uniforms they adopted, because their fellow-countrymen hated everything they stood for. But before the end came they worshipped him. They murdered millions at his command, but they died because of him, too.

There was Lenin, and there was Stalin. Specialists in history could talk very learnedly about the developments on Mekin which paralleled the cabals headed by Lenin, and later, Stalin. Theirs was a much more durable organization than those of Napoleon and Mussolini and Hitler.

The ruling clique on Mekin had begun in this manner.

Mekin had once had a cause to which all its officials paid lip-service and some possibly believed in. Because of this cause it was the organization and not the individual who was apotheosized. Therefore, there could be fierce battles among members of the ruling class. There could be conspiracies. The last three dictators of Mekin had been murdered in palace revolutions, and the current dictator was more elaborately protected from his confreres than any mere hereditary tyrant ever needed to be. But Mekin remained a strong and dynamic world, engaged in the endless subjugation of other worlds for a purpose nobody really remembered any more.

Against such a society, a planet like Kandar was helpless. Mekin could not be placated nor satisfied with less than the subjugation and the ruin of its neighbors. For a time, Kandar had tried to arm for its own defense. It had a space-fleet which in quality was probably equal to Mekin's, but in quantity was hopelessly less. Also it had a defensive policy. It did not dream of any but a defensive war. And no war was ever won by mere defense. There could be no defense against the building-up of tensions, the contriving of incidents, the invention of insults. It had been proved often enough. Eventually there was an ultimatum, and there was surrender, and then the installation of a puppet government and the ruthless bleeding of another captured planet for the benefit of the rulers of Mekin.

The process was implacable. There was nothing to be done but submit, flee or die. Various parts of Kandar's population chose one or another course. Four great liners would carry away those who could be helped to flee. The mass of the people must submit, the fighting forces savagely made ready to die.

But in the cabinet meeting after the destruction of the hidden enemy cruiser, the tone was set by highly practical men. Bors was present at the meeting. He'd destroyed the cruiser. He was to be questioned about it. He had Morgan standing by to explain the part of Talents, Incorporated if required.

King Humphrey said heavily, "This is probably the last cabinet meeting before the coming of the Mekinese. I do not think oratory is called for. I put the situation as it stands. A fleet will come from Mekin for our answer to their ultimatum. Our space-fleet will not surrender. Our air force is openly mutinous at the idea of submission. It has been said that if we fight, our planet will be bombed from space until all its air is poison, so that every living creature here will die. If this is true, I do not think that even we who plan to fight have the right to bring such a bombing about. But I doubt if that is true. There has been one incident. Whether one likes it or not, it has happened. Captain Bors has reason to hope that the space-fleet, by fighting to the death, can actually benefit the rest of our people."

Bors spoke, excitement coloring his words.

"It's perfectly simple. There are only two kinds of people, slaves and free men. Slaves can be tortured and killed without concern. With free men a bargain has always to be struck. If there is no resistance to the Mekinese, they will despise us. We will be worse off than if we fight. Because if we fight, at least our people will be respected. They may be oppressed because they are conquered, but they won't be treated with the contempt and doubled oppression given to slaves."

A bearded man said querulously, "That's theory. It's psychology. It even smacks of idealism! Let us be realistic! As a practical man, I am concerned with getting the best possible terms for our population. After all, the dictator of Mekin must be a reasonable man! He must be a practical man! I believe that we should negotiate until the very last instant."

Bors said indignantly, "Negotiate? You haven't anything to negotiate with! I am not a citizen of Kandar, though I serve in its fleet. I am still a national of Tralee. But I have talked to the officers of the fleet. They won't surrender. You can't negotiate for them to do so. You can't negotiate for them to go quietly away and pretend that nothing has happened and that there never was a fleet. When the Mekinese arrive, the fleet will fight. It doesn't hope to win; it doesn't expect anything—except getting killed honorably when its enemy would like to have it grovel. But it's going to fight!"

King Humphrey said doggedly, "My influence does not extend to the disgrace of our fighting forces. The fleet will fight. I believe it unwise. But since it will fight I shall be in the flagship and it will not surrender."

There was a pause. The bearded man said peevishly, "But it should fight on its own! It should not compromise Kandar!"

There was a murmur. King Humphrey looked about him from under lowered brows.

"That can be arranged," he said heavily. "I will constitute a caretaker government by royal proclamation. I will appoint you," he looked steadily at the bearded man, "to be head of it and make such terms as you can. If you like, when the Mekinese come you can warn them that the fleet has mutinied under me, its king, and may offer battle, but that you are ready to lead the people of Kandar in—"

"In licking the boots of all Mekinese," said Bors in an icy tone.

There was a small rumble of protest. Bors stood up.

"I'd better leave," he said coldly. "I'm not entitled to speak. If you want me, I can be reached."

He strode from the council-chamber. As the door closed behind him, he ground his teeth. The stout man, Morgan, of the space-yacht Sylva, paced up and down the room where he waited to be called. His daughter sat tranquilly in a chair. She smiled pleasantly at Bors when he came in. Morgan turned to face him.

"Here's some Talents, Incorporated information," he said zestfully. "The cabinet is scared. A few are willing to fight, but most are already trying to think how they can make terms with the Mekinese."

Bors opened his mouth to swear, then checked himself.

"Gwenlyn," said Morgan, "will pardon an expression of honest indignation. It's a dirty shame, eh?"

"If I were a native of Kandar," said Bors bitterly, "I'd be even more ashamed than I am as a native of Tralee. The people of Tralee surrendered, but they didn't realize what they were getting into. These men do!"

The girl Gwenlyn said quietly, "I'm sorry for King Humphrey."

"He's miscast," said Morgan briskly. "He should be king of a calm and peaceful world in calm and peaceful times. You're going to have trouble with him, Captain Bors!" Then he said; "Perhaps we can work out a plan or two, eh? While you're waiting for the cabinet to call you back?"

"I've no authority," said Bors. "My uncle's the Pretender of Tralee, and I was originally commissioned in the fleet as a sort of courtesy to him. I can't speak for anybody but myself."

"You can speak for common sense," said Gwenlyn. "After all, you know what the people really want. You could try to arrange things so that the fleet can fight well."

"It'll fight well," said Bors curtly. "It'll give a good account of itself! But that won't do any good!"

Morgan struck an attitude, beaming.

"Ah! But you've got Talents, Incorporated on your side! You don't realize yet, Captain, what a difference that can make! While there's life and Talents, Incorporated, there's hope!"

Bors shrugged. Suddenly he found that he, too, drearily accepted defeat. There was no more hope of accomplishment. There was nothing to be achieved. He would serve no purpose by straining against the impossible.

He said tiredly, "I'll agree that Talents, Incorporated cost the Mekinese one cruiser."

"A trifle," said Morgan, waving his hand, "mere soupcon of accomplishment. We're prepared to do vastly more."

It occurred to Bors to be curious.

"Why? You're risking your life and your daughter's by staying here. If Mekin ever finds out about its cruiser on the sea bottom and your share in that affair, you'll be in a fix! And certainly you can't expect to make a profit here? We couldn't even pay you for what you've already done!"

"I'm right now," said Morgan placidly, "quite as rich as I want to be. I've another ambition—but let's not go into that. I want to show you what Talents, Incorporated can do in the four days—" he looked at his watch—"three hours and some odd minutes that remain before the Mekinese fleet turns up. You've checked up on Talents, Incorporated?"

"My uncle says," Bors told him, "that you kept Phillip of Norden from being assassinated by a fission-bomb at a cornerstone laying. He also says you wouldn't accept a reward, only a medal."

"I collect them," said Morgan modestly. "You'd be surprised how many orders and decorations a man can acquire by industry and organization—and Talents, Incorporated."

Gwenlyn said, "Four days, three hours and some odd minutes—"

"True," said Morgan. "Let's get at it. Captain Bors, have you ever heard of a lightning calculator—a person who can do complicated sums in his head as fast as he can hear or read the numbers involved?"

"Yes," said Bors. "It's quite phenomenal, I believe."

"It's a form of genius," said Morgan. "Only I call it a talent because it tends to make itself useless. Have you ever heard of a dowser?"

"If you mean a man who finds places for wells, and locates mines by means of a hazel twig—"

"The hazel twig is immaterial," Morgan told him. "The point is that you've heard of them, and you know that they can actually do such things. Right?"

Bors frowned. "It's not proven," he said. "At least I think it isn't considered proven because it isn't understood. But I believe it's conceded that such things are done. I believe, in fact, that dowsing has been done on photographs and maps, in an office, and not on the spot at all. I admit that that seems impossible. But I'm told it happens."

Morgan nodded rapidly, very well pleased.

"One more. Have you heard of precognition?"

Bors nodded. Then he shrugged.

"I have a Talent," said Morgan. "I have a man in my employ with a talent for precognizing when ships are going to arrive. His gift is strictly limited. He used to work in a spaceport office. He always knew when a ship was coming in. He didn't know how he knew. He doesn't know now. But he always knows when a ship will arrive at the planet where he is."

"Interesting," said Bors, only half listening.

"He was discharged," Morgan went on, "because he allowed a maintenance crew to disassemble, for repair, a vital relay in a landing-grid on the very day when three space-ships were scheduled for arrival. There was pandemonium, of course, because nothing could have landed there. So when my Talent let the relay be dismantled, with three ships expected.... But one ship was one day late, another two days, and the third, four. He knew it. He didn't know how, but he knew! He was discharged anyway."

Bors did not answer. The cabinet meeting in the other room went on.

"He told me," said Morgan, matter-of-factly, "that four ships would arrive on Kandar, and when. One of them has arrived. The others will come as predicted. He knows that a fleet will get here two days after the last of the four. One can guess it will be the Mekinese fleet."

Bors frowned. He was interested now.

"I've another Talent," pursued Morgan. "He ought to be a paranoiac. He has all the tendencies to suspicion that a paranoid personality has. But his suspicions happen to be true. He'll read an item in a newspaper or walk past, oh, say a bank. Darkly and suspiciously, he guesses that the newspaper item will suggest a crime to someone. Or that someone will attempt to rob the bank in this fashion or that, at such-and-such a time. And someone does!"

"He'd be an uncomfortable companion," Bors observed wryly.

"I found him in jail," said Morgan cheerfully. "He'd been warning the police of crimes to come. They happened. So the police jailed him and demanded that he name his accomplices so they could break up the criminal gang whose feats he knew in advance. I got him out of jail and hired him as a Talent in Talents, Incorporated."

Bors blinked.

"Before we landed here," said Morgan, "I'd told him about the political situation, the events you expect. He immediately suspected that the Mekinese would have a ship down somewhere, to blast the fleet of Kandar if it should dare to resist. In fact, he said positively that such a cruiser was waiting word to fire fusion-bombs."

Bors blinked again.

"And I spread out maps," said Morgan, "and my dowser went over them—not with a hazel twig, but something equally unscientific—his instinct—and he assured me that the cruiser was under water five miles north-north-east magnetic from Cape Farnell. The map said the depth there was fifty fathoms. Then my paranoid Talent observed that there'd be spies on shore with means to signal to the submerged cruiser. My dowser then found a small shack on the map where a communicator to the ship would be. With the information about the arrival of the liners, and the facts about the cruiser—and I had other information too—I went to the Ministry for Diplomatic Affairs and told you. As you know, the information I gave you was accurate."

Bors felt as if he'd been hit over the head. This was ridiculous! He'd hunted for the space-cruiser under the sea because the prediction of the liner's arrival was so uncannily correct. He'd helped plan and carry out the destruction of that warship because its existence and location were verified by a magnetometer. But if he'd known how the information was obtained, if he'd known it was guessed at by a discharged spaceport employee, and a paranoid personality, and a man who used a hazel twig or something similar.... If he'd known that, he'd never have dreamed of accepting it. He'd have flatly dismissed the ship-arrival prediction!

But, if he hadn't trusted the information enough to check on it, why, the small space-fleet of Kandar would vanish in atomic flame when it tried to take off to fight. With it would vanish Bors, and his uncle, and the king and many resolute haters of Mekin.

Gwenlyn said, "You're perfectly right, Captain."

"What's that?" asked Bors, numbly.

"It is stark-raving lunacy," said Gwenlyn pleasantly. "Just like it would have seemed stark-raving lunacy, once upon a time, to think of people talking to each other when they were a thousand miles apart. Like it seemed insane to talk about flying machines. And again when they said there could be a space-drive in which the reaction would be at a right angle to the action, and especially when somebody said that a way would be found to drive ships faster than light. It's lunacy, just like those things!"

"Y-yes," agreed Bors, his thoughts crowding one another. "It's all of that!"

Morgan nodded his head rapidly.

"I felt that way about it," he observed, "when I first got the idea of finding and organizing Talents for practical purposes. But I said to myself, 'Lots of great fortunes have been made by people assuming that other people are idiots.' In some ways they are, you know. And then I said to myself, 'Possibly a fortune can be made by somebody assuming that he is an idiot.' So I assumed it was idiotic to doubt something that visibly happened, merely because I couldn't understand it. And Talents, Incorporated was born. It's done quite well."

Bors shook his head as if to clear it.

"It seems to have worked," he admitted. "But if I'd known—" He spread out his hands. "I'll play along! What more can you do for us?"

"I've no idea," said Morgan placidly. "Such things have to work themselves out, with a little prodding, of course. But one of my Talents says the lightning-calculator Talent is the one who'll do you the most good soonest. I'd suggest—"

There was a murmur of voices from the cabinet room. The door opened and King Humphrey came out. He looked baffled, which was not unusual. But he looked enraged, which was.

"Bors!" he said thickly. "I've always thought I was a practical man! But if being practical means what some members of my cabinet think, I would rather be a poet! Bors, do something before my cabinet dethrones me and tricks the fleet into disbanding!"

He stumbled across the room, not noticing Morgan or Gwenlyn. Bors came to attention.

"Majesty," he said, not knowing whether he spoke in irony or bewilderment, "I take that as an order."

The king did not answer. When the door on the other side of the room closed behind his unregal figure, Bors turned to Morgan.

"I think I've been given authority," he said in a sort of baffled calm. "Suppose we go, Mr. Morgan, and find out what your lightning calculator can do in the way of mental arithmetic, to change the situation of the kingdom?"

"Fine!" said Morgan cheerfully. "D'you know, Captain Bors, he can solve a three-body problem in his head? He hasn't the least idea how he does it, but the answer always comes out right!" Then he said exuberantly, "He'll tell you something useful, though! That's Talents, Incorporated information!"

Chapter 3

There was a fleet on the way to Kandar. It could not be said to be traveling in space, of course. If there had been an observer somewhere, he could not conceivably have detected the ships. There would be no occultations of stars; no blotting out of any of the hundreds and thousands of millions of bright specks which filled all the firmament. There would be no drive-radiation which even the most sensitive of instruments could pick up. The fleet might be at one place to an observer's right—where it was imperceptible—and then it might be at a place to the observer's left—where it was undetectable—and nobody could have told the difference.

Actually, each ship of the Mekinese fleet was in overdrive, which meant that each had stressed the space immediately around it so that it was like a cocoon of other-space; as if it were out of this cosmos altogether and in another. In sober fact, of course, nothing of the sort had happened. An overdrive field changed the physical constants of space. The capacity of a condenser in an overdrive field was different from that of a condenser out of it. The self-induction of a coil in an overdrive field was not the same as in normal space. Magnetic and gravitational fields also did not follow the same laws in stressed space as in unstressed extension. The speed of light was different. Inertia was different. In short, a ship could drive at many hundreds of times the velocity of light and the laws of Einstein did not apply, because his laws referred to space that men had not tampered with.

But though ships in overdrive had to be considered as in motion, and though their speed had to be considered as beyond the astronomical, there were such incredible distances to be covered that time piled up. Aside from double stars, there were no suns yet discovered which were less than light-years apart. The time required for travel between inhabited planets was still comparable to the time needed for surface-travel between continents on a world. So the fleet of Mekin, journeying faster than the mind could imagine, nevertheless drove and drove and drove in the blackness and darkness and isolation of each ship's overdrive field. They had so driven for days. They would continue to do so for days to come.

When Captain Bors burned the documents in the Ministry for Diplomatic Affairs, the enemy fleet might have been said to be at one place. When a submerged space-cruiser, planning assassination, was itself blown to bits with no chance to strike back, the Mekinese fleet was approximately somewhere else. When a cabinet meeting disheartened King Humphrey, the fleet was much nearer to Kandar. But days of highly-tedious eventlessness were still ahead of the war-fleet.

So Bors and Gwenlyn and Morgan got a ground-car and were driven to Kandar's commercial spaceport. There they found the Sylva. It was far larger than the usual space-yachts. There were commercial space-craft which were no larger. But it was a workmanlike sort of ship, at that. It had two lifeboat blisters, and there were emergency rockets for landings where no landing-grids existed. The armored bands of overdrive-coil shielding were massive. The Sylva, in fact, looked more like a service ship than either a commercial vessel or a yacht. It was obviously unarmed, but it had the look of a craft that could go very nearly anywhere.

"You'll find the Talents a bit odd," said Gwenlyn, as they drove up under the hull's wide bulge. "When they meet new people they like to show off. Most of them were pretty well frustrated before Father found a use for them. But they're quite pleasant people if you don't treat them like freaks. They're not, you know."

Bors had nothing to say. Until he was fifteen he'd lived on Tralee, which was then a quiet, pacific world, as Kandar had been. As the nephew of a monarch at least as resolutely constitutional as King Humphrey, he'd been raised in a very matter-of-fact fashion. The atmosphere had been that of a comfortable, realistic adjustment to facts. He was taught a great respect for certain facts without being made fanatically opposed to anything else. He'd been trained to require reasonable evidence without demanding that all proofs come out of test tubes and electronic apparatus. He was specifically taught that arithmetic cannot be proved by experimental evidence, but that sound experimental evidence agrees with arithmetic. So he was probably better qualified than most to deal with something like Talents, Incorporated. But it was not easy for him.

The ground-car stopped. An exit-port in the space yacht opened and an extension-stair came down. The three of them mounted it. The inner lock-door opened and they entered the Sylva.

An incredibly fat woman regarded Bors with warm and sentimental eyes. A man no older than Bors, but with prematurely gray hair, nodded at him. A man in a chair lifted a hand in highly dignified greeting. Everyone seemed to know who he was. There was a blonde woman who might be in her late thirties, a short, scowling man with several jewelled rings on his fingers, and a gangling, skinny adolescent. There were still others.

Morgan addressed them with enthusiasm. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I present Captain Bors! He's come to arrange to use your talents in the gravest of all possible situations for his world!"

There were nods. There were bows. The dignified man in the chair said confidently, "The ship was where I specified."

"Exactly!" said Morgan, beaming. "Exactly! A magnificent piece of work! Which is what I expected of you!"

He made individual introductions all around. Bors did not begin to catch the names. This was so-and-so, said Morgan, "our Telepath." Still another, "our ship-arrival Precognizer—he predicted the coming of the liner, you remember." He came to the scowling man with rings. "Captain Bors, this is our Talent for Predicting Dirty Tricks. You've reason to thank him for disclosing that Mekinese cruiser underwater."

Bors followed the lead given him.

"There are many of us," he said, "with reason to thank you for a most satisfying operation. We smashed that cruiser!"

The scowling man nodded portentously. The introductions went on. The skinny adolescent was "our Talent for Locating Individuals." The enormously fat woman: "our Talent for Propaganda."

Bors was confused. He had to steel himself not to decide flatly that all this was nonsense. Morgan and Gwenlyn took him away from what appeared like a sort of social hall for these externally commonplace persons.

They arrived at a smaller compartment. It was a much more personal sort of place. Morgan waved his hand.

"Gwenlyn and I live here," he observed. "Our cabins are yonder and you might call this our family room. Gwenlyn finds the undiluted society of Talents a bit wearing. Of course, handling them is my profession, though I have some plans for retirement. We'll see our Mathematics Talent in a minute or two. He knows it's expected that he'll be the most useful of all our Talents at the moment. He will make an entrance."

Gwenlyn sat down. She regarded Bors with amusement.

"I think the Captain's halfway unconvinced again, Father."

"I'm not unconvinced," said Bors grimly. "I'm desperate. It's not easy either to ignore what's happened or to believe that it will continue. And I—well—if the Mekinese fleet does arrive, I don't want to miss going with our fleet to meet it."

"You won't miss anything, Captain," said Morgan happily. "Have a cigar. Gwenlyn, do you think I should—"

"Let me," said Gwenlyn. "I know how the Captain feels. I'm an outsider, too. I haven't any talent—fortunately! Sit down, Captain."

Bors seated himself. Morgan offered a cigar. He seemed too impatient and much too pleased to be able to sit down himself. Bors lighted the cigar; at the first puff he removed it and looked at it respectfully. Such cigars were not easy to come by.

"I think," said Gwenlyn amiably, "that Father himself has a talent, which makes him not too easy to get along with. But it has had some good results. I hope it will have more here. The whole business is unbelievable, though, unless you think of some very special facts."

Bors nodded. He puffed again and waited.

"He told you some of it," said Gwenlyn. "About the ship arrival Talent and the dowser. There've always been such people with gifts that nobody's ever understood, but that are real. Only they've always been considered freaks. They feel that they're remarkable—and they are—and they want people to recognize this. But they've never had a function in society. They've been denied all function. Take the Mathematical Talent! He can do any sort of mathematics in his head. Any sort! He used to hire out to work computers, and he always got discharged because he did the computations in his head instead of using the machines. He was always right, and he was proud of his ability. He wanted to use it! But nobody'd let him. He was a miserable misfit until Father found him and hired him."

Bors nodded again, but his forehead wrinkled.

"Talents, Incorporated is merely an organization, created by my father, to make use of people who can do things ordinarily impossible, and probably unexplainable, but which exist nevertheless. There are more talents than Father has gathered, of course. But what good are their gifts to them? No good at all! They're considered freaks. So Father gathered them together as he found them. First, of course, he needed capital. So he used them to make money. Then he began to do useful things with them, since nobody else did. Now he's brought them here to help."

Bors said painfully, "They don't all have the same gift."

"No," agreed Gwenlyn.

"And there are limits to their talents?"


Morgan broke in, amused. "Gwenlyn insists that I have the talent of finding and using talents."

"A mild talent, Father," said Gwenlyn. "Not enough to make you revolting. But—"

A door opened. A tweedy man with a small mustache stood in the doorway.

"I believe I'm wanted?" he said offhandedly.

Morgan introduced him. His name was Logan. He was the lightning calculator, the mathematical talent of Talents, Incorporated. Bors shook his hand. The tweedy man sat down. He drew out a pipe and began to fill it with conscious exactitude. He looked remarkably like a professor of mathematics who modestly pretended to be just another commuter. He dressed the part: slightly untidy hair; bulldog pipe; casual, expensive sports shoes.

"I understand," he said negligently, "that you want some calculations made."

"I'm told I do," said Bors, harassedly. "But I don't know what they are."

"Then how can I make them?" asked Logan with lifted eyebrows.

"Naturally," said Morgan, "you'll find out the kind of calculations he needs, that he can't get anywhere else. That'll be the kind he needs from you."

"Hm," said Logan. He blew a smoke-ring, thoughtfully. "Where do you use calculations in space-travel?"

"Everywhere," said Bors. "But we've computers for it. And they're quite adequate."

Logan shrugged. "Then what do you need me for?"

"You tell me!" said Bors, nettled. "Certainly we don't need calculations for space-travel. We've no long journey in mind. We're simply going to go out and do some fighting when the Mekinese fleet gets here."

Logan blew another smoke-ring.

"What calculations do you use in space-fighting?"

"Courses and distances," said Bors. He could see no sense in this, but he went on. "Allowing for acceleration and deceleration in setting our missiles on targets. Allowing for the motion of the targets. Again we have computers for this. In practice they're too good! If we send a missile at a Mekinese ship, they set a computer on it, and it computes a course for a counter-missile which explodes and destroys our missile when it's within a certain distance of it."

"Then your missile doesn't hit," said Logan.

"All too often, it doesn't," admitted Bors.

"Then their missiles don't hit either."

"If they send a hundred missiles at us, they're cancelled out if we send a hundred to destroy them. Unfortunately, if they send more than we can counter, we get wiped out."

Bors found his throat going dry. This, of course, was what he'd desperately been denying to himself. It was the fundamental reason for a total lack of hope. The history of warfare is the history of rivalry between attack and defense. In the matter of missiles in space, there was a stalemate. One missile fired in attack could always be destroyed by another fired in defense. It was an arithmetic balance. But it meant that three ships could always destroy two, and four ships three. In the space-fight ahead, there would be at least ten Mekinese ships to every one from Kandar. The sally of Kandar's fleet would not be a rush into battle, but an advance into annihilation. "What we need," said Bors desperately, "is a means to compute courses for our missiles so they'll hit, and that the enemy can't counter-compute—so that his missiles can't compute how to change course in order to cancel ours out."

He was astonished as the words left his mouth. This was what was needed, of course. But then he realized that it couldn't be done.

Logan blew a smoke-ring.

"Mechanical computers," he said, "have limits. They're designed to calculate a trajectory with constant acceleration or no acceleration. But that's all."

Bors frowned. "What else could there be?"

"Changing acceleration," said Logan condescendingly. "A mechanical computer can't compute that. But I can."

Bors continued to frown. One part of his mind assured him that the statement that mechanical computers could not calculate trajectories of missiles with changing acceleration was incorrect. But the rest of his mind tried to imagine such a trajectory. He couldn't. In practice, men do not have to handle the results of variable acceleration as cumulative effects.

"I think," said Bors carefully, "that if you can do that—"

Logan blew a smoke-ring more perfect than any that had gone before.

"I'll calculate some tables," he said modestly. "You can use them on your computer-results. Then if you arrange your missiles to change their acceleration as they go, the Mekinese missiles can't intercept them."

He waved his hand with the grand air of someone assuring a grammar-grade pupil that multiplication tables were quite reliable and could be used with confidence. But his eyes fixed themselves on Bors's face. As the Captain realized the implications of his statement, the eyes of the Mathematical Talent of Talents, Incorporated shone with gratified vanity.

"We'll go out in a couple of tin cans," said Bors fiercely, "and try this out with dummy warheads!"

Gwenlyn said quickly, "Marvelous! Marvelous, Logan!"

"It's nothing," said Logan modestly.

But it was a very great deal. Bors, impatient to try it out, nevertheless realized that Logan hadn't made the suggestion out of a brilliant perception of a solution to a problem in ballistics, but because he thought in terms of mathematical processes. He didn't think of a new missile operation, but a new kind of computation. And he reveled in the fact that he had showed off his brilliance.

In the ground-car on the way to the fleet, Bors said helplessly to Gwenlyn, "I'm not the right man to be the liaison with you people. But this might make us a pretty costly conquest for Mekin! With luck, we may trade them ship for ship! They won't miss the ships they lose, but it'll be a lot of satisfaction to us!"

"You expect to be killed," Gwenlyn said flatly.

"My uncle," explained Bors, "considers that he should have gotten killed when Mekin took over Tralee. It would have set a good example. Since we didn't do it for Tralee, we'll do it for Kandar. The king's going along too. After all, that's one of the things kings are for."

"To get killed?"

"When necessary," Bors told her. "Kandar shouldn't surrender even though there will be at least ten Mekinese to one Kandarian."

She smiled at him, very oddly.

"I suspect," she said, "that not everybody on the fleet will be killed. I'm sure of it. In fact, as my father would say, that's Talents, Incorporated information!"

Bors frowned worriedly.

The fleet of Mekin continued in overdrive, heading for Kandar. Each second it traversed a distance equal to the span of a solar system, out to its remotest planet. A heartbeat that would begin where a pulsing Cepheid, had it been possible to see, would have seemed at its greatest brilliance, and would end where the light from that same giant star seemed dimmed almost to extinction. Of course no such observation could be made from any ship in overdrive. Each one of the many, many ugly war-machines was sealed in its own cocoon of overdrive-stressed space. Even in the armed transports that carried officials and bureaucrats and experienced police organizers to set up a puppet government on Kandar, there was not the faintest hint of anything that happened outside the individual ship. But, what might be termed the position of the fleet, changed with remarkable swiftness. It traveled light-hours between breaths. Light-days between sentences. Light-months and light-years....

But it would not arrive on Kandar for a long while yet. Not for three whole days.

Chapter 4

The small fighting ship lifted swiftly from the surface of Kandar. As it rose, the sky turned dark and the sun's brilliant disk, far too bright to be looked at with unshielded eyes, became a blazing furnace that could roast unshielded flesh. Stars appeared, shining myriads despite the sun, with every one vivid against a background of black. The planet's surface became a half-ball, of which a part lay in darkness.

"Co-o-ntact!" said a voice through many speakers placed throughout the fighting ship's hull.

There was the rushing sound of compartment doors closing. Then a cushioned silence everywhere, save for the faint, standby scratching sounds that loudspeakers always emit.

Screens lighted. A speck moved among the stars.

"Prepare counter-missiles," said the voice. "Proximity and track. Fire only as missiles appear."

The moving speck flamed and was again only a moving speck. It ejected something which hurtled toward the ship just up from Kandar.

"Intercept one away!" said a confident voice.

The last-launched missile fled toward the first moving speck, diminishing as it went. It swung suddenly, off course.

"Fire two!" snapped somebody somewhere.

Another object hurtled away toward the stars.

"Fire three! Fire four!"

Far away, something came plunging toward the ship. It did not travel in a straight line. It curved. It was not reasonable for a missile to travel in a curved line. The interceptor missiles had to detect it, swing to intercept, to accelerate furiously. The first interceptor missed. Worse, it had lost its target. It went wandering vaguely among the stars and was gone.

The second missed. The voice in the speaker seemed to crack.

"Fire all missiles! They're turning too late! Pull 'em up ahead of the damned thing!"

The deadly contrivances plunged away and further away into emptiness. The third interceptor missed. The fourth. Tiny specks moved gracefully on the radar screen. There was something coming toward the ship that had risen from Kandar. The tracer-trails of missiles appeared against the stars. They made very pretty parabolas. That was all. The thing that was coming left a tracer-trail too. It curved preposterously. The just-risen ship furiously flung missiles at it. It did not dodge. But none of the tracer-trails intersected its own. All of them passed to its rear.

For the fraction of a second it was visible as an object instead of a speck. That object swelled.

It went by. Bors's voice, relayed, said,

"Coup! You're out of action. Right?"

The skipper of the ship just up from Kandar said grudgingly, "Hell, yes! We threw fifteen missiles at it, and missed with every one! This is magic! Can we all have this before the Mekinese get here?"

"I hope so," said Bors's voice. "We're trying hard, anyhow. Will you report to ground?"

"Right," said the speakers in the ship which had just fired fifteen missiles without a hit or interception. "Off."

And then the compartment doors opened again and the normal sounds of a small fighting ship in space began again.

An hour later, aground, Bors said impatiently, "Half a dozen ships have checked out with me. I sent a single dummy-warhead missile at each one. They knew I was trying something new. They tried interceptors. Not one worked. Worse, my missiles drew the interceptors off-course so they lost their original aim on the Isis. Missiles set for variable acceleration not only can't be intercepted but they draw interceptors off-course and are super-interceptors themselves. I fired one dummy warhead at each target-ship. I got six hits with six missiles. They fired an average of twelve missiles against each of mine. They got no intercepts or hits with seventy-two tries! This appears to me a very gratifying development for the situation we're in."

The bearded man who'd plumped for negotiation, earlier, now spoke indignantly in the War Council.

"Why wasn't this revealed earlier? We could have made a demonstration and Mekin would have been wary of issuing an ultimatum! Why was this concealed until it was too late to use in negotiations with them?"

"It wasn't available until today," Bors answered. "It was tried, and it worked."

An admiral said slowly, "As I understand it, this is a proposal of the—hm—Talents, Incorporated people."

"No," said Bors. "We got the idea but couldn't do the math. Talents, Incorporated did the computations to make the missiles hit."

"Why? Why let them do the math? There may be a counter to this device. Perhaps Talents, Incorporated, was sent to us to get us to adopt this freakish trick."

"Talents, Incorporated," said Bors, "enabled us to smash a submerged Mekinese cruiser. In giving us the necessary information, Talents, Incorporated kept the Mekinese from wiping out our space-fleet. Talents, Incorporated— Oh, the devil!"

The admiral gazed about him.

"This—device," he said precisely, "is not a tried and standard weapon. On the other hand, the sally of our fleet is not war. Because of our civilian population we cannot make war on Mekin! The defiance of our fleet will be a gesture only—a splendid gesture, but no more. It should be a dignified gesture. It would be most inappropriate for our fleet to take to space, ostensibly to say that it prefers death to surrender, and for it then to unveil a new and eccentric device which would say that the fleet was foolish enough to hope that a gadget would save it from dying and Kandar from conquest. The fleet action should be fought with scorn of odds. It should end its existence in a manner worthy of its traditions!"

Bors exploded, "Damnit—"

King Humphrey held up his hand and said fretfully, "As I remember it, Admiral, you have been assigned to hold together the defense forces—those who either did not insist on going with the fleet, or for whom there was no room—who have to be surrendered. You talk of gestures. But the young men who will go out in the fleet are not going there to make gestures! They simply and furiously hate Mekin for what it is about to do. They are going out to kill as many Mekinese as they can before they, themselves, are killed. They would call your speech nonsense. And I would agree with them."

Bors said respectfully, "Yes, Majesty. It may also be said that copies of the first Talents, Incorporated launching-data tables have already been distributed to the missile crews throughout the fleet. More are being distributed as fast as Logan calculates them. I don't think you can keep our ships from trying the new missiles when the fighting starts!"

Indignantly, the bearded man said, "I protest! This is a War Council! If the council is to be lectured by strangers and if its orders won't be obeyed, why hold it?"

"Why, indeed?" King Humphrey looked sternly about the council-table. Sternness did not become him, but dignity did. He said with dignity, "You who are to stay here have to think of dealing with a victorious Mekin. We who are to go have to think of making our defeat count. There is no point in further discussion. The fleet will take off immediately."

He rose from his seat. The bearded man protested, "But the Mekinese aren't here yet! They won't arrive until day after tomorrow!"

"You're using Talents, Incorporated information," objected Bors. "And it is wise for the fleet to move off-planet at once! You are reasonable men. Too reasonable! Nothing can destroy a nation so quickly as for it to fall into the hands of practical, hard-headed, reasonable men who act upon the best scientific data and the opinions of the best experts! That happened on Tralee, and my uncle and myself are exiles and Tralee is subjugated in consequence. But I am beginning to have hope for Kandar!"

He followed King Humphrey out of the council-room. Fleet admirals brought up the rear. The stodgy, dumpy figure of the king tramped onward. It became obvious that he was bound for the ground-cars that waited to take him and those who would follow him to the launching area of the fleet.

A lean, gray, vice-admiral fell into step beside Bors.

"You don't think things are hopeless, Captain?" he asked curiously. "I don't see the shred of a chance for us. But my whole life's been in the fleet. Under Mekin I'd be drafted to work in a factory or serve as an under-officer on a guard-ship, one or the other! I'd rather end in a good fight. How can you have hope?"

Bors said grimly, "I'm not sure that I have. But I can't believe that nations can be saved by reasonable, practical men. They aren't made by them! I've no hope except that acting foolishly may be wisdom. Sometimes it is."

"Ha!" The vice-admiral grinned wryly. "But fortunes are made by businessmen, and only history by heroes. No sensible man is ever a hero. But, like you, I don't like practical men."

They went out-of-doors. The king climbed sturdily into a ground-car. It hummed away. There was a sort of ordered confusion, and then other ground-cars began to stream away from the palace.

Morgan appeared and waved to Bors. He hesitated, and Morgan pointed to an unofficial vehicle. Inside, Gwenlyn was smiling cheerfully at Bors. He found himself returning the smile, and allowed himself to be guided to her. The ground-car rolled swiftly after the others.

"I've a little more Talents, Incorporated information," said Morgan. "It's written down for you to read when you get to wherever you're going. It's rather important. Please be sure to read it fairly soon, it may affect the fight."

"I'm headed for the fleet," said Bors. "Take me there, will you? I wanted to say something before I left, anyhow."

Morgan waved his hand.

"I can guess," he said blandly. "Deepest gratitude and all that, but the rush of events blocked any way to arrange a suitable recompense for what Talents, Incorporated has done."

Bors blinked. "That's the substance of what I meant to say," he admitted.

"We'll take it up later," Morgan told him. "We'll get in touch with you after the battle."

"I doubt it," said Bors. "I'm not likely to be around."

Gwenlyn laughed a little.

"What's so amusing?" asked Bors. "I don't mean to strike an attitude, but I do hate everything Mekin stands for, and I've a chance to throw a brick at it. The price may be high but throwing the brick is necessary!"

"We," said Gwenlyn, "have Talents, Incorporated information, some of which is in that letter Father gave you. Our Department for Predicting Dirty Tricks has been busy. You'll see. But we've other information, too."

Bors frowned at her. He put the letter away.

"More information—and you'll see me after the fight. You're not telling me you know the future?"

Morgan waved a cigar.

"Of course not! That's nonsense! If one knew the future, one could change it, and then it wouldn't be what one knew! You haven't had any prophecies from me! Prophecy's absurd! All we've told you is about events whose probability approaches unity."


"What Father means," Gwenlyn told him, "is that you can't be told beforehand about anything you can prevent, because if you can prevent it you can make your knowledge false. So it isn't knowledge. What we want to say, though, is that we aren't through."

"Why not?"

"I'm going to retire," said Morgan blandly. "But I want to do something first that I can gloat over later."

"He wants," added Gwenlyn, "to repose in the satisfaction of his vanity." She laughed again at her father's expression.

"Seriously, Captain, we wanted to give you the letter and to ask you not to be surprised if we turn up somewhere. There's a Talent," she added, "a young boy who can find people. He doesn't know how he does it, but.... We'll find you!"

The ground-car turned in at the fleet's take-off ground. The normal interstellar traffic of a planet, of course, was handled by a spaceport, with ships brought down to ground and lifted out to space again by the force-fields generated in a giant landing-grid. But a war-fleet could not depend solely on ground installations. The fighting ships of Kandar were allowed to use the planet's spaceport only for special reasons. Emergency rocket take-offs and landings were necessary training for war conditions anyhow. So the take-off ground was pitted and scarred with burnt-over circles, where no living thing grew and where very often the clay beneath the humus top-layer was vitrified by rocket-flames.

A guard at the gate brought the ground-car to a halt.

"War alert," said Bors. "Only known officers and men admitted here. It's not worth arguing about."

He got out of the car and shook hands.

"I still regret," he told Morgan, "that we've had no chance to do something in return for the information you've given us." To Gwenlyn he said obscurely, "I'm glad I didn't know you sooner."

He turned and walked briskly into the fenced-off area. Behind him, Morgan looked inquisitively at his daughter.

"What was that he just said?"

"He's glad he didn't know me sooner," said Gwenlyn. She looked smugly pleased. "Considering everything, it was a very nice thing to say. I like him even if he doesn't smile."

Morgan did not seem enlightened. "It doesn't make sense to me."

"That's because you are my father," said Gwenlyn. She stirred restlessly. She was no longer smiling. "I hope Talents, Incorporated information isn't wrong this time! Remember, we heard on Norden that the dictator of Mekin consults fortune-tellers!"

"Ah!" said her father. "But they're only fortune-tellers!"

"One could be a Talent," said Gwenlyn worriedly, "maybe without even knowing it."

There came a far-distant, roaring sound. Something silvery and glistening rose swiftly toward the sky. It dwindled to a speck. There were more roarings. Three more silvery, glistening objects flung themselves heavenward, leaving massive trails of seemingly solid smoke behind them. Then there were bellowings. Larger ships rose up. As the din of their rising began to diminish, there were louder, booming uproars and other silvery objects seemed to fling themselves toward the sky.

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse