Authors: Mark Clifton
He looked at the projectiles again, and this time calculatingly, with detachment. Let them send out their feelers; he didn't know how to answer. In the long run they'd find they should have tried other ways to reach him. Let them strike, let them dominate, let them take control of Earth. In the long run they'd have to come to him. Because you can't control the actions of men unless you control their minds.
They'd have to come to him in the end.
He chuckled sardonically, and made an upward stabbing motion with his middle finger.
"And that's just where I'll give it to them.” He laughed loudly at the wit of his coarse pun.
Every conqueror in the past had found out the same thing: You can't control a country without help from the people, some people, of that country. So when these conquerors tried to take over and work through the men already established, they'd find out something. Something Harvey Strickland already knew: That when a man sells his independence of thought for money or status, without realizing it he also sells his capacity for independence of thought; and, like the worn-out columnists and commentators, he must play the same old record over and over, because he has no capacity for taking a fresh point of view. Through the years the record gets scratchier and scratchier and more and more out of tune with the times; until finally the pay-off, the man himself, realizes that way back there when he sold out, he really sold out.
All through the whole structure there were men who had sold out to him; and when these conquerors tried to use those men, because they'd known that a man who will sell himself to one will equally sell himself to another, they'd have to turn to him.
Yes, whoever was back of these projectiles would have to come to him in the end. He looked up at them, still hovering above. He laughed loudly again, and in his triumph, already tasted, he smashed his right hand against the cement top of the garden wall. He looked at his hand in surprise when the pain seeped through the layers of fat. He glared at the offending wall, and wished it were human. It had been a long time since a human had dared give him pain.
He gently rested his bruised hand in the pocket of his robe and waddled back through the French doors which opened out upon his garden from the office. At his desk he sat down heavily, picked up the phone, and grinned in visioning the instant apprehension of the man on the switchboard down in the bowels of the building.
"Got that call through yet?” he demanded.
"N-n-no, s-sir,” the man stammered.
"Well, goddam it, if you'd stop sitting there playing with yourself and get going..."
"I mean, sir, I'm not sure, I don't know..."
"Quit chittering. Why haven't you got Higgins?"
"Well, sir, his staff says that since he is Senate Majority Leader he is in a big meeting at the White House, with the general staff, and they won't..."
"Oh, shut up. Gimme the Washington operator. I'll do it, myself."
And then he told the woman operator who responded from Washington,
"Gimme the White House."
"Sorry, sir,” the woman said automatically. “All circuits are busy. The projectiles..."
"Oh, crap!” he said. “Gimme your supervisor. Let me talk to somebody with sense. Gimme your manager."
"Supervisor,” another voice said almost instantly.
"This is Harvey Strickland,” he said. “Break a circuit and put me through to the White House."
There was a short delay, a very short one. Only long enough for her to report the name and request to the manager and ask for instruction.
"Yes, Mr. Strickland.” She came back on the line with the words. “Right away."
Almost immediately the White House switchboard answered.
"This is Harvey Strickland,” he said again. “Get Senator Higgins on the phone for me."
"He is in a meeting with the President, the Cabinet, the General Staff, and the Heads of the Department of Extraterrestrial Psychology...” she began.
"I said this was Harvey Strickland,” he enunciated slowly, ominously. “If you'd clean out your ears you could hear what I'm saying."
"Yes, sir. I know who you are, sir,” she said. Then doubtfully, “I'll see, sir."
While he waited, he jabbed the circuit button on his phone to signal his own operator.
"Yes, sir,” the young man answered.
"You see, I got through without any trouble at all. I don't know why it is, goddam it, that I gotta do everything for myself..."
"This is Tom Higgins, Harvey,” a voice interrupted his tirade.
"Wait a minute, Tom,” he commanded. Then to his operator. “Get off the line, goddam it. Who the hell told you that you could listen in on my private calls?"
There was a click as his operator broke the circuit without answering.
"Well, how about it?” Strickland demanded.
"No decision yet, Harvey,” the Senate Majority Leader answered apologetically.
"What! Why, goddam it, what're you guys doing down there? You go back to that meeting and tell them to use an H-Bomb on those projectiles and no more nonsense about it. Damn it, Higgins, you hear me?"
Tom Higgins’ voice drifted to him then, old and weary.
"Yeah, Harvey, I hear you."
"Well then, get back in there and goose them pinhead generals off their fat duffs!"
"There are a lot of angles to this thing, Harvey.” Higgins’ voice seemed to grow stronger. “We've got a couple of experts on extraterrestrial psychology testifying. A Dr. Kibbie and a Dr. Ralph Kennedy. Kibbie doesn't know anything, he's just a promoter. But Kennedy talks some sense. He says there's something odd and peculiar about the behavior pattern. I don't know, he says a lot of things, but he does point out one thing you can't get around, Harvey. They haven't hurt us yet. That's an angle, you know."
Strickland picked up a solid-silver ash tray and hurled it across the office. It crashed against a far wall, gouged a hole in one of the heraldic symbols carved into the wall.
"Angles!” he shouted. His voice was high and shrill. “Don't give me any stuff about angles. Don't give me any of that professor talk about peculiar patterns of behavior. I know what the goddam angle is. I know what they're waiting for. They're waiting to hear from me. That's what this is all about. And I'm gonna give ‘em an answer. The answer is gonna be the H-Bomb. They're gonna find out I got a little trick or so of my own. Drop that goddam H-Bomb on them. That's all I want."
"Look, Harvey,” Higgins tried to reason with him. “The discs are over big cities. A whole city would be wiped out—a million people or more."
"Well, now, Harvey ... public opinion..."
"Public opinion? For Chrissake, who you think tells the public what its opinion is? Goddam it, Tom, gimme a week with my newspapers and my television and radio stations—and you've got any kind of public opinion you want to ask for. You know that. You know how you've been elected all those terms. And if the President has forgotten..."
"But all those innocent people...” Higgins said, almost with a groan.
"All those innocent people,” Strickland mimicked. “So what'll happen? Hell. You know what it'll do, well as me. It always does it, any kind of trouble. It sends ‘em back to their beds to breed faster, to make even more people than was lost. Far as opinion goes, them that don't get hit will shrug it off. They weren't hurt, so why squawk. Them that do get hit won't matter. Look, Tom, you gotta take the broad view of these things. You tell them generals to stop shilly-shallying around, listening to college professors, and get back to doing what they're suppose to do. Drop that H-Bomb, and stop arguing."
"Okay, Harvey,” Higgins answered faintly. “I'll tell them. I'll tell them how you feel."
"Whoa! Back up! It doesn't make any difference how I feel. See? I'm just a newspaperman. I just print the news. I don't make it. I got to tell you this again? Something you learned thirty years ago?"
"But, Harvey! Something as big as this. They won't drop the H-Bomb on my say-so. Something big as this, Harvey, maybe you've got to come out into the open..."
"And if I do, how'm I going to mold public opinion? I'd be an interested party. And if I can't mold public opinion, you'll all go down the drain."
"Maybe we should, Harvey. Maybe we should."
"Now you look here, Tom.” Harvey Strickland took a negotiating tone. “This is not your decision to make. You're not a military man. You're not trained to make the kind of decisions a military man has to make. So it won't be your decision. It'll be their decision. All you have to do is remind them they're military men.
"Remind them to go back and pick up on their West Point training, and places like that. Remind them to stop thinking about people and start thinking about troops and forces. Troops and forces don't bleed, you know. They're just tactical problems on blackboards.
"Remind them about those conversations they used to have; where they used to speculate on whether the lower orders actually had any nerves and feelings. And the lower orders being anybody who didn't go to West Point, or the like. If they've developed weak stomachs, tell them to start thinking about maps and forces and calculated risks, the way they were trained. Hell, they're trained to be killers, so what's stopping them?
"You understand me, Tom?"
"I'll tell them, Harvey.” The voice sounded sick.
"Yeah,” Strickland said contemptuously. “I thought you would."
He put down the receiver and rubbed his hands together. He didn't resent having to blow some steam into his men once in a while. It was a reminder of what they would be without him.
They wouldn't decide to use New York as the test city, of course. Because he was in New York.
And they wouldn't decide to use Washington, because they were in Washington.
It would be some place like St. Louis, maybe. There'd been a strong, unaccountable anti vote in St. Louis last election. Maybe he'd better give some more thought to replacing some editors and station managers out there. Then he chuckled. He was forgetting. There wouldn't be any to replace after a few minutes. If they decided on St. Louis. Maybe he'd better call Tom and tell him to use St. Louis. No, better not. Let them make the decision.
He touched a button beside one of the jeweled lights along the ledge of his desk; and knew it was like touching a raw nerve to make the man at the other end jump out of his chair and start running to the elevator. All these buttons were nerve endings, the nerves reaching down through the executive offices from penthouse to basement, even down to the subbasement where giant presses thundered day and night to grind out read-and-repeat public opinion.
Precisely in the number of seconds it would take for his secretary to rush from his office, give the special signal to the elevator reserved for express trips to the penthouse, and the operator to make the pickup and full speed to the top, the elevator door in one wall of his office opened. From the door there stepped a gray, gaunt man who walked resolutely across the wide expanse of floor between the elevator and the desk.
This was Miller, Strickland's personal secretary. Forty years ago, Miller had been a college hero, the most popular man on the campus, the president of the senior class, the president of the united-fraternity council. That class had also contained one Harvey Strickland, not a college hero, virtually unknown on the campus, and president of nothing.
Miller had been the man voted most likely to succeed. Strickland had received one vote—his own. But he had known, even then, that his vote counted more than all the rest.
The friendless hours of Strickland's college years were not lonely. He was busy accumulating information about each of his classmates, their families, their friends, the business contacts upon whom they expected to trade when they got out of school, the pranks they played, the remarks they made when, hot for idealism, they said incautious things.
The dossiers grew thick with facts and notes. They contained the essence of every chance contact he made. They contained records of invitations not issued to him, and the refusals of his. They contained details of the contemptuous refusals of girls. They contained every honor each classmate had received. And every honor which he, himself, had not received was an insult to be revenged—someday.
The dossier of Miller was thickest of them all.
Oh, that senior class scattered after graduation, like a flock of giddy butterflies. He could not keep track of them all, and in later years it had cost him a fortune in detective agency fees to trace them all. A fortune well spent.
He had had one advantage over them. They'd ridden, sheltered and in comfort, on society's protection-of-youth train. They expected to go on riding, in equal shelter and comfort. They knew nothing else. But he had had to slog it out, step by weary step, all the way. He knew the score, and began to cash in on it long before they began to get the hint that there even was a score. And that it wasn't added up the way their professors thought.
Lost in the melee of living in an adult world, fully realized only by him, was a certain statistic. For some odd reason, only one man in that senior class had succeeded in life. For everyone else, after the first few years of promising bright success, everything seemed to go wrong. Whatever they grasped seemed somehow to turn into dust in their fingers. They never knew why.
Other men, lesser men, might have been tempted to let them know the prime mover behind the scenes, remind them of the cuts and slights and indifference, remind them they had backed the wrong horse; ignored the right one. This was not the Strickland way. This was the most delicious part of his triumph; that they never knew why. To believe that their failure was their own inadequacy was the deeper satisfaction; for if they had known their failure was not their own doing, their self-respect might have been preserved.
This was the real power of secret rule through secret dossier, established as governmental and industrial policy a hundred years before. This was the source of his indescribable pleasure indefinitely prolonged; to take the place of wife, children, home, friendship.
He looked now at Miller, gaunt and gray, over sixty, standing there before him, a clerk-servant, patiently waiting to be instructed, apparently beaten and resigned. The man should be happy to have this job at all. It was the first one he had been able to hold for more than a few months in all those forty years since school. He should be glad to have found a haven at last, where he could get the same paternal protection on which he had grown dependent in those years in a psycho ward; where the psychiatrists had finally convinced him to accept and adjust to the idea that he simply didn't have the stuff of success within him. That being a college hero had been only a fluke of adolescent misjudgment, based in nothing more than a handsome face, a charming personality, and the backing of once-wealthy parents. Parents who unaccountably lost all their money, their position, even their social acceptability—and never knew why.