Death Quotient and Other Stories
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by John D. MacDonald
Category: Science Fiction/Mystery/Crime
Description: Martin Rhode, a distinguished soldier of one of Earth's warring states, has been unwittingly captured by aliens after innocently exploring a hole caused by what was perceived to be enemy warfare. As it turns out, the aliens are being pursued by natives of an enemy planet and they have sought refuge on Earth. They do not plan on staying long, however, but actually intend to lure their rivals in so that they may all be destroyed along with everyone else on the planet, by a special weapon they are at that moment creating. Martin Rhode appeals to the aliens, and they allow him to send a warning to all Earth people that it will soon be the end of the world. At first disbelieving, warring states and individuals afterwards realize their mistakes and immediately reconcile with each other, and make plans on solving the imminent problem that they face--that of expelling the alien presence in their midst! Also includes the stories: ALL OUR YESTERDAYS, DELUSION DRIVE, THE GREAT STONE DEATH, MINION OF CHAOS, COMMON DENOMINATOR, THE MINIATURE
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: February 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [211 KB]
Reading time: 126-177 min.
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Second Lieutenant Martin Rhode stood well back from the cave mouth and watched the slow dusk settle over the Chemung valley. By force of habit, he kept his hand cupped around the glow of his cigarette, though there was no chance that it could be seen from aloft.
Far down the slanting throat of the cave a shaft of light glowed, and Rhode turned, angrily warned the man who had carelessly parted the blackout curtains.
"Sorry, Martin," the man said as he came up. Martin recognized the voice of Guy Deressa, the civilian responsible for convoy loading.
They stood together, looking toward the silver-grey shape of the river a quarter-mile away.
"Anything new?" Martin asked Deressa.
"Same old picture. Enemy patrols penetrated our lines at several points during last night. Main lines still static. Our rockets were mostly intercepted, but a few got through and did unknown damage to enemy shore installations. As usual, the camera rocket failed to get through interception."
Martin yawned. "This was the 'twenty-minute' war," he said.
There was no mirth in Guy Deressa's answering laugh. "Twenty minutes or twenty years. Somewhere in between. Are you going to see Alice this trip?"
"If she can get away from the station hospital. But only for a few minutes. We'll have to turn around, and get back here before daylight. How many vehicles? They told me there'd be twenty."
"Only eighteen could pass inspection. The load is small arms and small arms ammunition. High-velocity stuff."
There was a lean, dark alertness about Martin Rhode. During the three long years of invasion, he had learned to relax in his idle moments. He had learned how to seek cover, how to kill, how to harden himself to the death of those who were close to him.
The atomic bomb had proven to be an almost perfect weapon during the first two weeks of the war. Millions had died. But human courage and resource had rendered obsolete the vast, white flare, the mushroom cloud.
In the first weeks of war, every center of industrial production in the United States had been wiped out, along with an estimated forty-five million people. But from the secret launching stations that were undamaged, the retaliatory rockets had smashed the vast resources of the potential invader.
There followed a lull of almost a year, while each participant licked wounds, decentralized, made a national inventory of tools and resources, and established new production facilities in deep places in the earth.
Having suffered the least damage, the invader was able to equip a fleet and, after almost crippling losses, establish a beachhead on the New England coast. Six months later the expanded beachhead reached to within eighteen miles of where the city of Albany had once stood. It reached south to Atlantic City, and north to the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.
And for a year and a half the lines had remained practically static. It was vicious war, without principle, without mercy. Due to the decentralization of facilities and the use of vast underground defensive networks, the usefulness of the atomic bomb had become much like that of a sledge hammer for driving a tack. In the Second World War, no sane artillery commander would have tried to kill a single man on a distant hill by the use of a 240 mm. howitzer.
The parallel of trying to smash a small outpost with an atomic bomb was a close one. The production of each bomb was a serious drain on the resources of the weakened nations. There had been a return to guided missiles with high-explosive warheads. A dead-center hit with such a rocket would do as much damage to the personnel involved as would the far greater and more wasteful power of the atom.
The nations of the world had, for all practical purposes, given up the symbols of independent nations. There were merely "we" and "they."
The invader had a bridgehead of equivalent size in Brazil, and the third focus of combat was along the Salween River, where an industrialized India had joined forces with Burma and Siam to halt the invader in the heart of the malarial country.
For a year and a half it had been a war of knife and pistol and bare hands. As the rockets became more accurate, so did the interceptor rockets. As the powerful vortex stations increased the fury and height of their invisible aimed cyclones, the crewed bombers flew ever higher. As pestilence struck, the inoculations became more effective, and bacteria distribution had been abandoned as an effective weapon.
In the end, both sides had learned that the weapon which would win would be brave men, armed with portable weapons, who could kill other brave men at close quarters.
Martin Rhode lifted the cigarette to his lips with an awkward gesture. Each week the stiffened shoulder became more limber. Soon, he knew, he would be returned from detached service to his original unit, and would once more head up his trained and experienced patrol on their nightly forays into invader territory. As he thought of it, fear was a cold, wet substance in his guts. Combat had been a hell of a lot different than he had expected. He had been eleven years old when he saw the movies of the Jap surrender in Tokyo Bay. At that time he had lived in a dream world where he was a staunch Marine running cursing up some sandy beach, hurling grenades, thrusting with the bayonet.
He mashed the cigarette out against the rock wall of the cave, followed Guy in through the blackout curtains. Eighteen huge trucks, loaded, with the tarps tied down, stood nose to tail on the quasi-level floor of the cave. The drivers stood in a small group, laughing and talking.
Since the roads had been pretty well smashed, the trucks were semi-tracked vehicles with drive on the front wheels as well, diesel-powered, weighing twelve tons empty.
"Okay," Martin shouted. "Ready to Roll."
The group split up and the men sauntered to their trucks, clambered up into the high cabs. The driver of the lead truck was already behind the wheel, wearing a black blindfold so that his night vision would be at peak as soon as they rolled out the tunnel entrance.
On handy brackets in each cab were the lightweight Galton guns, with their full drum load of two thousand of the tiny twelve-caliber slugs, ready to fire at muzzle velocity of 6000 feet per second, a cycle of fire of 1500. No man had ever survived who had been hit in any part of his body by a Galton slug within a half-mile range. The impact of the slug produced hydrostatic shot, exploding the heart. Very little talent was needed to fire a Galton gun effectively, as the drop was only an inch and a half at six hundred yards.
The massive trucks were loaded with more Galtons and tremendous loads of ammunition.
When they were ready, the tunnel lights snapped out. The driver of the lead truck took off his blindfold and as the curtains drew back, they could see ahead the pale oval of the tunnel entrance.
The starters whined and the motors caught, roared. The lead truck lurched into motion, crawling out through the tunnel entrance, turning left to reach the junction of what had once been Route 17. The destination was near the relatively undamaged town of Oneonta, a division supply point some nine miles beyond the town where camouflaged elevators would take the huge trucks, one at a time, down to the third level for unloading. Division vehicles would distribute the supplies from there.
The invader bomb that had smashed Binghampton had been exploded at a height of nine hundred feet. The radiation from the jumbled debris had long since dropped below the danger point. The vast patch of vitrified earth made maximum night speed possible.
As the hours stretched out, Martin Rhode slouched in the seat and thought of Alice. He remembered how wan and tired she had been the last time he had seen her. Her resistance was low, and in a forward area, she was in more danger than he. He found himself wishing that the woman's draft had qualified her for factory work in some safe place far behind the lines, rather than in a forward hospital where there was constant danger of being overrun by an enemy patrol.
She too, had seen a lot of death. The moments they had together were precious beyond description, and his heart ached when he thought of the way her slim shoulders trembled when his arms were tight around her. The world was giving the two of them a damn poor break. The war was sapping their youth. Should she die, there would be little point in any of the rest of it. He knew that she felt the same way too.
Brogan had felt that way. Brogan and his girl. They had stolen supplies and a light plane and headed for the Canadian wilds. He smiled wryly in the darkness. Brogan had picked what he thought was wild and empty country, and had landed directly above one of the biggest synthetic food plants in the country.
The drumhead trial had lasted forty minutes. They had shot Brogan's wife first. Then him. Desertion in time of war.
He felt sleepy, but knew he should remain alert. If the invader's aircraft, so high as to be invisible and almost inaudible, appeared over them, only the delicate radar would give them warning.
When it happened the driver, startled, braked the truck too fast and the jagged sound of crashes from the rear told that he had piled up the convoy. Martin Rhode was hurled, cursing, against the windshield.
All Martin could think of was a perfectly straight bolt of lightning, thicker than any lightning flash he had ever seen, driving straight down from the cloudless heavens to bury itself in the earth with a thick, chunking noise that seemed to shake the road.
"Sorry, sir," the driver said in a high nervous voice. "I was startled and I couldn't--"
"It's done now," he said shortly. He climbed down to take a look. All the other drivers were out of their trucks, looking over the damage.
Of the eighteen trucks, only three were so disabled as to be unable to continue. The driver of one of the disabled trucks was a competent-looking sergeant. Martin said, "Get in the lead truck, sergeant. You know the destination. Take the trucks on through. Whatever that thing was, it seems to have made a hell of a hole up ahead. I'm going to stay and find out what it is. Give that hole a wide circle. You two men, you'll stay with me. Pick us up on your way back, sergeant."
It took ten minutes to get the trucks in running condition untangled from the disabled trucks. The two drivers stood near Martin Rhode and watched the convoy lumber off, turning sharply across country to avoid the huge hole made by whatever it was that had flashed down out of the night sky. When he shut his eyes, Martin could still see the after-image of the blue-white line drawn from sky to earth.
The two men who had remained behind were obviously nervous.
Martin tested his flashlight against the palm of his hand, said, "You two men stay well back while I take a look. Go on back to that crest and get on the far side of it so that if it should blow up, some kind of a report will get back. I'll take a hand set and tell you what I see."
The starlight was bright enough to show him the dimensions of the vast hole. He gasped as he saw it, estimating its diameter at a hundred and eighty feet. The aged concrete of the highway had been sliced as cleanly as though by a sharp knife.
He said, "The hole seems to be close to two hundred feet in diameter, and it is very regular. Seems to be made by a cylindrical object much larger than any rocket known to be in use. I'm approaching it on the concrete. Now I'm on my stomach looking down over the edge. I'm shining my light down into the hole. It's beginning to clear a little. Dust from the broken concrete is still broiling around down there, so I can't see very well. It's beginning to clear a little. Now I can just vaguely see the bottom. It appears to be about six hundred feet deep. It's hard to estimate it. From here it looks as though the object took a curved path after it entered the ground. The concrete here on the edge is still warm to the touch from the pressure and friction. I can't hear anything or smell anything."
He stood up and walked back, saying into the hand mike, "One of you men come over here to the trucks."
They found one truck which was in good enough working order to get over to the rim of the hole. Its winch carried two hundred feet of fine wire cable. By robbing the winches of the other two trucks, Martin was able to link up a cable six hundred feet long. In forty minutes he was ready, and with his feet in a loop at the end of the cable, his good arm wrapped around the cable itself, the mike close to his lips, he gave the details of his descent to the second man whom he had posted a good quarter-mile from the edge of the hole.
"The walls seem to be smooth. The object penetrated the topsoil and then crashed through various strata of rock without appearing to change its shape or size. Now the side walls are granite. There is considerable seepage of water. Now I can plainly see that the hole curves. Yes, it is a sharp curve. From here, it looks as though it might be a full ninety-degree turn. I can feel an odd throbbing in the air around me ... Now the curve is so sharp that I'm scraping against the far side of the hole from the side where the truck is parked. After I slide down a bit further, the slant will be shallow enough that I can climb down."
In a few seconds he shouted up the shaft, "Hold it right there. Don't haul up until I give the order."
Leaving the loop resting against the rock slope, he gave one quick glance up at the bright stars, then walked clown to where the side became the floor of what seemed to be a mammoth tunnel stretching away into the gloom.
He turned his light down the tunnel. His voice was tense as he said into the mike, "I can see a shining object that reflects my light. It's only about a hundred feet from where I stand. And ... Wait! Yes, I can seem to detect some sort of move--"
Twenty minutes later, hearing no further sound, the listener, one Corporal Denty, came cautiously to the edge of the hole. He whispered to Pfc. Chase, "Not a peep out of him for nearly a half-hour."
They both looked down into the darkness. Denty was the one who unhooked the spotlight, spliced wires so they could shine it down. They saw the empty loop of the cable far below.
"Cave-in maybe?" Chase asked. "No, it couldn't be. I would have heard it. What the hell happened!"
"You want to go down and look!"
"Not me, brother!"
"Let's get out of here!"
"Suppose he's okay and wants to be hauled up?"
"If he was okay we would have heard something. This makes me nervous. Let's get the hell out. Come on!"
Before dawn, after the empty vehicles had returned to the Chemung Valley cave, a distant tower radioed a report in code to the Commanding General of Advance Section Three. The general's name was Walter Argo, and he was a very tired and very apprehensive man. But he was also very familiar with the odd tricks that imagination can play in time of war.
He passed the report on to his G-2, who in turn gave it to the Staff Ordnance Officer who passed it on to Colonel Rudley Wing, the Rocket Disposal Officer, who assigned it to Captain Jakob Van Meer, who, shortly before noon, picked up the necessary equipment and a squad of nine technicians. and two disposal trucks and headed back for the rear area of Advance Section Three to the spot indicated in the radio.
Jakob Van Meer was a doughty little officer with a fat slack face, sleepy eyes and enough raw courage for a dozen men.
He whistled softly as he saw the size of the hole. Even in the autumn sunlight it looked ominous.
He deposited his radio truck a good six miles away after he saw the hole, and made very certain that each broadcast word was being inscribed on the metal tape. If this was a new weapon, Jakob Van Meer would give future disposal experts plenty to go on, when he himself went up in bits at the heart of a mighty blast.
One trustworthy man stayed on the brink with the special winch equipment. Before Van Meer went down the hole, he listened to the verbal account of Corporal Denty, then put what seemed to be a gigantic stethoscope flat against the ground and bent over to listen.
He frowned. "Damn! I can hear something down there. But there's no regularity to it. Just some miscellaneous thumping. Well, go ahead; lower away."
Colonel Rudley Wing, a lean and sallow man, felt a thickness in his throat as he read the report which was, in effect, the obituary of Jakob Van Meer. He shut his jaw hard and walked down the dimly-lighted corridor to the offices of General Argo. Argo saw him at once, had him sit down and held a match for his cigarette.
Wing's voice sounded odd in his own ears as he said, "That oversized rocket, sir. One of my ... No. My best officer investigated. He got halfway down when it all went wrong."
"No. This is pretty odd. The man on the brink went off his nut. Then a man posted three hundred yards back felt panic and extreme exhaustion. He said he was being forced somehow to desert his post and run like hell. Even the men six miles back felt very depressed. After a time, the feeling of depression lifted. They went cautiously back to the hole. The one who had gone mad was dead. So was Van Meer when they hauled him up. His face was contorted. The examining doctor said there was serious damage to the inner ear. He also said that the cause of death was the generation of internal heat in the bodies of the two men. You know the answer to that one, sir."
"Hypersonics!" the general gasped, his face white.
"Yes, but more effective than anything we've heard of before. Panic within hundreds of yards. Black depression six miles away."
Argo picked up a pencil and tapped the point gently against the steel surface of his desk. "The projectile was what generated this hypersonic wave?"
"There's no other answer."
"Then that must be its purpose. I can't see how we can rightly anticipate a dual function there."
"What are your orders, sir?"
"Take one of Joe Branford's engineer units and seal the hole up for good."
Wing was relieved not to be asked to send another man. He knew that he would go himself rather than send another of his officers. And he did not relish the thought of hypersonic death.
Two hours after dusk the explosives blasted and hundreds of tons of crumbled rock and dirt filled the vast cavity. All civilians living within five miles of the edge of the hole were ordered to evacuate the area, and military roads were diverted to alternate routes.