Authors: John T. Phillifent
Trooper Davis stared at the high-wire fence and yawned, glanced at the luminous dial of his wristwatch, yawned again and smothered a groan. Only twelve-thirty and already he felt as if he bad been awake for half the night. It was a nice night, and warm, but all the same he would rather have been in the sack. He marched a pace or two, felt the butt of his slung rifle beating gently against his rump, heard the crunch of gravel under his own feet, and smiled at himself. This tour of duty was a snap. He grumbled purely as reflex. There were worse places to be. Vietnam, for instance.
All the same, who wants to be awake and alert when everyone else is snoring? And for what? He glanced enviously at the guard shack, then let his gaze travel back to the dark blockhouses back there. A Research Center. He mouthed it with faint scorn. Had it been missiles, now, or nuclear energy stuff, something like that—but who in his right mind was going to break into a place like this? To steal radio spares? From what little he knew of radio hams, they were the least likely people to be militant. He had half-turned away with a shrug when just the flicker of a fugitive light caught the corner of his eye.
He froze, then slowly turned to stare fixedly, not daring to look away in case he missed the flash again. Imagination? No, damn it, there it went again, a flitting spot from a tight beam. And it was where no light ought to be, on the inside of one of those dark windows. All his scorn gone in a breath, Davis shrugged his rifle from his shoulder into his ready hands and ran to the guard shack. The sergeant of the guard came awake with a grunt. Two snorts later he was on his feet.
"Intruders in Block B. I saw a light."
"Get back out there and stay with it!" The sergeant hit the light switch and raised his voice harshly. "Guard detail up! On your feet! Come on, snap it up!" Without waiting for responses he plunged out of the shack and ran to join the sentry. "Where? Show me!"
There was no need for words. As Davis pointed the light twinkled again, moving, at the window this time.
"They're on the way out," the sergeant growled, then raised his voice again. "Halt! Stand fast or we fire!"
As fast as an echo came the spit and crack of a shot. Davis heard his sergeant go down with a gasping grunt. He dropped to a knee, aimed and fired at the dancing light—one—two—three times, and the crash of his fusillade put wings to the feet of the hastening guard detail. Light flared, to reveal two dark-clad figures sprinting crazily for the far corner of the fence, where they went headlong through a hole already prepared, and disappeared. The sentry ran heavily, cursing as he heard a car engine start up, fired twice more in despair, and then halted at the fence as he heard an engine revving into speed and then dwindling away fast.
Seconds later he heard the guard jeep stutter into life and go snarling past in pursuit, with three men on the jump to get aboard.
Voices broke out in bitter questions. Davis turned away and ran, then halted as he heard yet another engine break into a roar and go away. That one sounded like a motor cycle. He shrugged and ran on to where the wounded man was struggling to sit up, cursing savagely. Brass-bound authority infiltrated the scene. Questions and more questions. Medical aid for the sergeant, hit badly but with a good chance of survival. There was the open window to be checked, then the interior. Within half an hour civilian experts had been rousted from their beds and were on the spot examining the outrage. Fifteen minutes later saw the return of the guard-jeep with a grim story. They had given the runaway a hard chase. Knowing that the sergeant was hit they had not hesitated to use whatever weapons they had to incite the fugitives to halt. In the end they had forced the fleeing car off the road, over a high cutbank, and it was now lying at the foot of a rocky gorge some ten miles away, blazing furiously.
The driver-corporal reported: "I posted one man to stand by so that we could get back here fast, report, and get help. Not a prayer of getting the bodies out of that car. It's a total write-off, but anyway, we stopped 'em!"
The sentry now reported the second noise he had heard—of the motorcycle—and the civilian experts looked savage.
"Window forced clean, alarms cut, fence cut. They knew what they were after and they got them. A whole gross of units, and one man could stuff them in a pocket easily. That's the second time in a year! God only knows what they want those units for, but they've got them!"
And so the matter moved into the spheres of higher authority.
Alexander Waverly was peevish. It was not unusual for Number One, Section One, of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, to show irritation on occasion, or even a dash of mild wrath, but this was different. He was being openly irritable in the presence of guests. Both Napoleon Solo and Illya Nikovetch Kuryakin knew the old man's habits well enough to be able to discern this novelty immediately. They found seats and stood by while Waverly made introductions, wondering just what was biting the old man.
"General Hagen is head of the army's technical research committee. Sergeant Alison Rowland is his aide. And this is Dr. Luther de Wet, the Director of Research at Fort Westaway. Now—it really is astonishing that in an organization such as ours, dedicated to efficiency in all directions, it is apparently impossible to obtain a respectable cup of coffee. Please accept my apologies." Waverly made a gesture to his guests. "One can only presume that the qualifications for exercising control over crime do not coincide with an ability to cook. The canteen service is deplorable!"
"I'm sure, sir," Solo murmured, "you haven't brought these distinguished people here just to discuss food!"
"That's all right!" General Hagen patted the air with a pacifying hand. "We've had a lot worse lunches than that, Waverly. You should have to live on army grub sometime. I take it you want me to put these men in the picture?"
"And myself," Waverly said. "I've only the outline sketch so far."
"All right. I can give you facts, things that have happened. I can't give you reasons, because I don't have them. This whole business is cockeyed. Show them the sample, Alison."
Miss Rowland unzipped a neat leather case and produced a small clear plastic bag which she handed first to Waverly.
"We call that a module-pair," Hagen went on. "Tell 'em what it's for, Alison."
Miss Rowland sat again, composed herself, and said:
"The two objects you see are a perfect match for each other. They are solid-state modules which are, in themselves, complete radio-circuits. Attached to suitable amplifying equipment, they serve as two-way radio-communication units of very small size. The only remarkable thing about them in practice, apart from the small size, is that they are extremely critical on frequency. The pair will resonate in harmony with each other, but not to any other wavelength except the precise one they are tuned to. In use, one module is mounted in a multiple control unit, the other in a trooper's equipment. He usually has it taped to his jaw, or behind the ear, leaving his hands free. The result is that one field commander in the field can talk to any one of a squad of up to twenty men and hear replies. Or the commander can talk to all and hear all, of course, although that is not usually done."
Solo looked at the tiny objects before passing the bag to Kuryakin, who peered closely and saw two small silvery objects, each half an inch long and the size of a pencil-lead in thickness.
"A technical advance," the Russian agent said, "but hardly a matter for high-ranking military concern, surely?"
'I warned you it was cockeyed," Hagen said. "Luther, you tell 'em how much those things are worth, will you?"
Dr. de Wet cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses and smiled, but with bewilderment rather than mirth. "The modules are extremely difficult to make. They require vacuum diffusion and zone-melting techniques and a critical standard of performance. We discard about fifty per cent as below standard. So, in that sense, they are valuable. Were it not a military project, the enterprise would not be worth while. But in themselves the modules are useless for anything but the intended purpose. It has been suggested that they might be sold to ham-radio people, but that is not a workable notion. One module is useless without the other or with some circuit precisely tuned to it. It would be like trying to sell a gross of keys, each of which will fit only one lock!"
"They aren't tunable?" Kuryakin asked, and the expert shook his head.
"Not at all. They are difficult to make, hard to replace, but of virtually no value. Why would anyone steal them?"
"That's where I take over." Hagen sat back and crossed one knee over the other. "About a year ago Westaway was broken into. Get the picture right, gentlemen. Fort Westaway is not exactly top security. Radio Research isn't like that. The raiders did more damage than anything else. They stole a few items, among which was a package containing a score, ten pairs, of those modules. As I say, they aren't secret, or precious, just of nuisance value to replace. Maybe a few soldiers will get killed who need not have done, and who cares about that?" Hagen's voice was bitter. "Of course, since the break-in we have posted a guard. For a year! And then, three days ago, repeat. Only this time the intruders knew exactly what to go for, and to get. And we think they got away. They took two packages this time. Nothing else, just two-score units, twenty matched pairs. The thieves were chased. They shot and almost killed the guard sergeant, so the troopers in pursuit weren't exactly tender. They ran a car off the road and the occupants were killed. The fire left practically nothing we could identify, except that we can say there were two people in the car—and a third who got clean away on a motorcycle. We might as well assume while we're at it that the third man got away with the modules. And there you have the crop. You have my word that nobody will break into Westaway again, but that's the well known stable door routine. What we want to know is who, and why. Military Security is working on it, of course, but to be frank with you, it doesn't make sense. If this is the work of a foreign power or an enemy, we can't see it. I think it sounds like something in your line."
Half an hour later, after some questions had been asked and answered, the distinguished guests were conducted safely away, leaving Solo and Kuryakin to sit thoughtfully opposite Waverly.
"It's after the style of Thrush," Kuryakin said thoughtfully. "But I can't see what use those modules would be to anyone. I mean, they would make beautiful walkie-talkie outfits, but why break into a military establishment to steal them when you can make a fair substitute from any radio supplier? Unless there's something we have not been told?"
Waverly sighed. As a rule his appearance was that of an untidy and impractical scholar, a pedagogue setting his students some abstruse problem in delicate reasoning. Now he looked his age, a grim old man.
"We can set in motion the routine enquiries," he said, almost as if talking to himself. "We can increase the surveillance of Thrush laboratories and places of research in the hope that we will get some clue as to what they may intend to do with those modules."
"You're assuming it is Thrush, sir?"
"I am, Mr. Solo, and I will tell you why. But this is a matter to concern only the three of us, for the moment." That simple statement put a chill into the atmosphere of the room. A matter to be kept private to Waverly and his two top agents alone was something quite new in Solo's experience. He exchanged a glance with his colleague and saw the same tense expression of wonder reflected there.
"Allow me what may seem a digression, gentlemen." Waverly touched a switch and spun his chair so that he faced a screen. A picture came crisply into focus, a picture that made the two agents stare in amazement. In glorious color, it was a scene of rugged mountains raising their grey tips out of a mantle of olive green, with here and there scattered patches of a paler green, obviously walnut groves. Coastal cliffs edged the picture and a vivid blue sea sparkled in the foreground. But their eyes were drawn irresistibly to the fantastic stone pile that snuggled against those green slopes. The picture zoomed in suddenly, aiming at the building, and they saw that it was a palace, a towered and spired structure, colonnaded and battlemented, all in white stone and pink woodwork trim. It might have come direct from a Disney production.