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One Step Ahead



So the newscast machines roared that morning. Many added grimly: SKANDER WAR IMMINENT!

To well-informed citizens of Ridzin it came as no surprise. For fifteen years, the Programmed Corps, the mightiest war-machine ever known, had been developing on their world, lending Ridzin a significance unique in the Terrestrial League. Second-rate in most respects, Ridzin had been a logical base for the formation of the Corps. No one doubted that the League Central Government on Great Xal would have preferred the Corps to be assembled under its immediate supervision. But the jealousy of other powerful League worlds made it impossible—the Corps simply would not have come into being as a joint effort of the League if Great Xal had insisted on the point. On the other hand, the central government wouldn't have permitted its establishment on worlds like Hannaret or Lorcia, for example, worlds not too inferior to Great Xal in military strength and perennially on the verge of open rebellion. The Programmed Corps—its awesome manpower and appalling technical equipment drawn from all fourteen League worlds—must bring about, it was agreed by those in the know, in one direction or another a decisive shift in the balance of power in the League.

As it would also bring about a decisive shift in the balance of power between the Terrestrial League and that despised, remote, alien race called the Skanders. That, as all League citizens understood—having been told it regularly during the past fifteen years—was the basic and vital reason for the Programmed Corps' existence. And because its personnel were conditioned to absolute unquestioning obedience to whomever knew the commands by which to direct them, the Corps could be brought into being only on a world like Ridzin, a world which by no stretch of the imagination could be regarded as a menace to anyone else..

And now the Programmed Corps—completed only after fifteen years of sustained effort, armed, trained, single-minded, irresistable-was shipping out!

* * *

"The fellow," visiting Inspector General Mark Treffry of Great Xal remarked in a tone of absorbed interest, as he peered through a window into the compound several stories below, "is magnificent!"

Dexter Monte, Treffry's Technical Advisor, standing a prudent dozen steps farther back in the room, cleared his throat.

"You really," the Inspector General went on, "should come over here and watch him! What incredible reaction speed!"

"I prefer," Dexter Monte said firmly, "not to expose myself at a window while a Programmed assassin is in the area. If I might suggest—"

Treffry chuckled.

"Don't you trust your own precautions?" he inquired. "The shields, the fields, the what-not? They've functioned perfectly so far."

"So far!" Monte repeated meaningfully.

Treffry grunted.

"Thinking of poor Ulbrand, I suppose?"

"Yes. "

"Ah, well," said Treffry. "Ulbrand was no doubt a rather better than average Technical Advisor. But let's face it, Monte . . .  he simply was not in your class! I'm not surprised they got him—whoever it is doesn't want us on Ridzin." He paused, added smugly, "And we have pretty fair idea of who that is, don't we?"

"Yes," Monte said.

"Now as for you," Treffry went on, "I have complete confidence in your devices. That fellow down there is in a trap. But he's certainly handling himself well while we close it! On the average how many do we lose in these attacks?"

"Seventeen-point-two men."

"Well, our present would-be assassin seems to have accounted for at least two dozen by now. And—good heavens!" Treffry went silent a moment, staring down through the window.

"What's going on?" Dexter Monte inquired in an uneasy tone.

"I'm sure I don't know!" Treffry told him. "There were some odd glitters of extremely bright light. Almost like the scintillation of a diamond as you turn it."

"Ah!" Monte said. "The assassin was near it?"

"He was near it. He's nowhere now. What was it?"

Joining Treffry at the window, Monte said in great relief, "An adaptation of the Welban Vortex. I wasn't sure it would work on a Programmed mind."

"It worked," Treffry assured him. He gave the Advisor a sidelong glance full of admiration. "This is the sixteenth or seventeenth such attack we've undergone, isn't it?"

"The twenty-first," Monte said.

"And always by Programmed Soldiery. They're unbelievable! I'll trust your traps while only one of them is involved. But when the entire Programmed Corps goes into action—" The Inspector General shook his head.

"Yes," Dexter Monte said slowly. "A fearful thought."

"Clearly, somebody else—somebody not at all authorized—knows at least a few of the key commands to their minds," Treffry said. "Well, we'll be rid of these problems soon enough. When is the first carrier scheduled to lift?"

Dexter Monte glanced at his watch. "In sixteen hours, thirty-two minutes and ten seconds."

He looked at Treffry, added, "If you want to hear Governor Vinocur's official announcement of the Programmed Corps' departure from the Planet of Ridzin, he's about to go on the air."

"By all means," said Treffry. "I think I'll really enjoy hearing our good and loyal friend Vinocur explain the situation to the public."

Planetary Governor Frank Vinocur was an old-time politician; while his speech, to which most of the adult population of Ridzin was tuned that morning, was a review of facts with which his listeners had been familiar for over a dozen years, he made them sound like news. There were friction points between the Terrestrial League and the alien Skanders. Though widely separated in space, they had overlapping spheres of influence—overlapping only slightly so far; but the situation was bound to become more serious as time went on. Unlike other spacefaring aliens men had encountered, the Skanders did not prudently withdraw when confronted by the mighty race of Terra—had, in fact, been known on occasion to attack first. They were savage and treacherous enemies, and showed, in addition, repulsively amebic physical characteristics.

Space, Governor Vinocur declared, was not large enough for the Terrestrial League and such as the Skanders! An eventual showdown with the creatures was inevitable . . .  and, as all knew, it was for this showdown that the Programmed Corps had been created. Ridzin could proudly say in this hour of parting that it had earned its place in history as the home of the Corps. By the wise planning of the Central Government on Great Xal, the time to strike at the Skander vermin—strike first, strike hard!—had arrived. The Programmed Corps was prepared . . .  and victory was certain!

The speech went over well—since Ridzin clearly would be remote from the battle zones. Throughout the day patriotic anti-Skander fervors grew in the population, reaching a high pitch when Governor Vinocur's press attaches let it become known that at the official leave-taking banquet that evening the Governor would be publicly appointed a Programmed Corps General by the Inspector General from Great Xal, Mark Treffry, who had been on Ridzin for the past year to arrange for the Corps' transfer. And when the last of the automatic transspace carriers lifted from the planet during the night hours, General Frank Vinocur would leave with it in the company of the Inspector General, to represent Ridzin and its people at the front in this stirring period of history.

That afternoon cheering crowds lined the routes along which the Programmed Corps convoys rolled toward the planet's three Transspace Stations. They surrounded the stations themselves where giant carriers, all bearing the insignia of Great Xal, lay in dense rows like vast steel sausages. Into them marched the Programmed Corps. Eighteen thousand men with full equipment were assigned to each carrier; the men would lie in rigid, frozen sleep during the long spaceflight to Great Xal. One by one, the carriers were loaded and closed their locks . . . 

Some of Ridzin's citizens, noting that only the central government appeared to be involved in the operation, speculated that they might be witnessing a dramatic new turn in the Terrestrial League's internal politics. But no public mention was made of such possibilities and by the time the official banquet began the planet was in a festive mood, almost as if the war against the Skanders were already won. Governor Vinocur was duly appointed a General of the Programmed Corps while Ridzin followed the event on their tri-di screens; laudatory speeches were exchanged between him and the Inspector General; toasts and countertoasts were offered . . .  Dexter Monte, the Inspector General's Technical Advisor, created a minor diplomatic flurry when, in full view of the entire planet, he refused to empty his glass in Ridzin's honor, explaining that he was not a drinking man, that alcohol had deleterious effects on his metabolism. However, he was quickly coaxed into it by Mark Treffry and Governor Vinocur, and thereafter drank dutifully, if sourly, to every toast proposed.

* * *

Then the official rituals were over, except for the final scene on the steel loading dock within the maw of the last giant carrier left on the planet, where Governor Vinocur bade Ridzin farewell. Inspector General Treffry stood smiling at his side, Dexter Monte standing a few feet behind the two, belching every few seconds and generally showing the effects of having been forced into participating in the toasts. Vinocur spoke briefly into the tri-di cameras, concluded with a formal salute; then camera crews withdrew, glancing with silent awe at the huge bulkheads to either side of the dock behind which eighteen thousand men lay frozen in sleep. As the last of them left the carrier the loading locks slid shut with a heavy steel boom. The three men standing on the dock were alone. There was a dim humming in the air as the ship computers readied the engines for lift-off and the long flight during which there would be no waking human being to guide them. Treffry looked at his watch.

"Still half an hour," he said. "But we might as well get to our tanks at once. Feeling any better, Monte?"

"No," Dexter Monte muttered. "Worse! I'll be more than happy to settle into that tank. I'm beginning to have some difficulty holding myself together, I can tell you!"

Treffry and Vinocur glanced at each other and laughed, more loudly than the remark called for, almost as if each were enjoying a private joke; Monte blinked in brief, bleary surprise at them as he turned to follow them off to the sleep tanks.

Five minutes later, Inspector General Mark Treffry heard the sharp click with which his sleeping tank sealed itself above him. He switched on the intercom connecting the three tanks. With no attendants left awake in the carrier, it was essential that he and his companions monitor one another through the steps required to ensure that they would awaken safely after the trip. Governor Vinocur acknowledged at once, and some seconds later, Dexter Monte also replied. The preparations were carried out, checked, and then Treffry settled back comfortably. He already felt a faint, not unpleasant numbness in legs and arms, which was the anesthetic's first effect. By the time the sleepcold touched him, he would not feel anything at all. But his mind was still awake and active; and the private joke which had made him laugh aloud a short while ago seemed too good now to keep to himself.

"Vinocur?" he said to the intercom.

"Yes, Treffry?" Vinocur's voice responded.

"Before we drop off," Treffry said, "I thought I'd thank you for a highly enjoyable experience." He could hardly refrain from laughing again.

"You're referring to your stay on Ridzin?" Vinocur asked politely. "We tried to make it as pleasant as possible, of course."

"I'm sure you did!" And now Treffry did laugh, huffing and snorting helplessly for almost a minute before he was able to stop. He dabbed at his eyes, and sensed that the sleep-heaviness had begun to edge into his hands.

"Why do you laugh, Treffry?" Vinocur's voice asked.

That almost set Treffrey off again. But he choked the laughter down. If he kept giving way to it, he would be asleep before he made sure that whatever dreams came to Frank Vinocur during the long trip would not be pleasant ones. He said, "Let me tell you—"

While the Programmed Corps was being forged into a magnificent, automatically functioning weapon on Ridzin, it became obvious that its completion was awaited with as much anxiety as eagerness by a number of the worlds of the Terrestrial League. The question, of course, was who in the end would control it.

"We didn't try to stop the plotting and bargaining that went on," Treffry said. "And we didn't become involved in it. We merely took measures to ensure that the central government and Great Xal would remain always one step ahead of the conspirators."

"Conspirators?" Vinocur's voice repeated carefully over the intercom.

"Hannaret and Lorcia from the beginning, naturally!" Treffry told him. "Then, during the past two years, the governing body of Ridzin. We did our intelligence work thoroughly. Great Xal held the margin of power, so nothing else was needed. We could let the thing ripen.

"My dear fellow, that was what has made the final stages of this game so amusing! The ingenuity! The intricate patterns of deception! War fleets from Lorcia and Hannaret combining suddenly for 'joint maneuvers' in an open threat to Great Xal—and on Ridzin, in apparent desperation, ineffectual gestures at sabotage, including a series of attempted assassinations by mysteriously malfunctioning Programmed soldiers! They were not intended to succeed, of course; murdering me could not have held up the transfer of the Corps by a day. I imagine poor Ulbrand got killed by accident—or, more correctly, by the ineptness of his defenses.

"And to what end? Why, to divert our attention. Nothing more. To draw us away from the one plan which did, in fact, have a chance to succeed. But that plan has failed, too, Vinocur!"

Treffry paused a moment. When the intercom remained silent, he went on complacently. "The Hannaret warships which were to intercept and halt our carriers on their way to Great Xal have been allowed to take up position midway on our course. But they will be joined a few days from now by twice their number of central government ships. There will be no interception, Vinocur!

"And now, with the Programmed Corps to enforce its orders, Great Xal deals once and for all with the malcontent worlds! The Terrestrial League will be hammered into a unit. That is the corps' only urgent and immediate task. Time enough later to turn to settling our score with the Skanders. Why we owe those obscene aliens some gratitude, as a matter of fact—if they hadn't been such a visible threat to the League it would have been impossible to bring the Corps into existence. So now, as I bid you good-night, `General' Vinocur, I shall leave it to you to picture for yourself the warm reception awaiting you on Great Xal!"

There was silence again for a moment. Then Vinocur said, "Treffry?"

"Yes?" Treffry said, pleased. He had not really expected Vinocur to reply,

"You omitted mentioning one of our diversion attempts," the intercom told him.

"I did?" Treffry said. "What was that?"

"The interception of the carriers, of course. Too many people knew of that plan. It was almost inevitable that your intelligence would get wind of it."

Treffry started to speak, checked himself, suddenly chilled.

"To stay one step ahead in this game," Vinocur's voice told him blandly, "that, as you've indicated, was the great necessity here. To bedazzle, mislead, confuse with a variety of elaborate schemes and dodges—when, all the time, only some very simple plan, one known to the fewest possible planners, could be successful. And that plan has succeeded, Treffry! To this moment only four men have known about it. You will now be the fifth.

"The Programmed Corps is not on its way to Great Xal, you see. Instead, the course of the carriers will take them to transspace stations on Hannaret."

Impossible, Treffry thought in instant, scornful relief. What was the fellow attempting to accomplish with such a lie? Only Ulbrand and Monte—

"Ulbrand's death," Vinocur's voice was continuing, "was no accident. He and Dexter Monte controlled the master programs of the carrier fleet's computers. We had to get Ulbrand out of the way."

"Ridiculous!" Treffry realized he had shouted, his voice thick and distorted, wondered briefly whether it was the anesthetic which made his mouth feel numb and stiffened now-or fear. "Monte!" he shouted again at the intercom.

Some seconds passed silently—as Vinocur, too, waited for Dexter Monte to respond.

* * *

"Monte!" Treffry bellowed once more. Slurred, mumbling noises issued from the speaker then, followed by a heavy belch.

"I couldn't answer at once," Dexter Monte explained in a weak, complaining voice. "I had to pull myself together. I don't feel at all well! If you two hadn't made me swallow those atrocious alcoholic concoctions—" He muttered indistinctly, added, "What is it?"

"You heard what that fool was saying?" Treffry demanded.

"You needn't speak so loudly!" Monte protested. "Yes, I heard him."


"Oh, I agreed almost a year ago to program the carriers to go to Hannaret when the time came. Is that what you want to know? It's true enough. They guaranteed me wealth, power, influence. The usual approach. Including direct blackmail, I must say! Ulbrand, incidentally, wasn't so stupid. I had to loosen his defenses to let the assassin get to him." Dexter Monte belched explosively, groaned in polite dismay. "Excuse me, gentlemen! Your infernal alcohol . . ."

Vinocur was laughing now. Treffry's thoughts seemed to whirl in confusion. Then he remembered something. He snorted.

"Monte, you're a miserable coward and a monstrous liar!" he stated. "I can believe they blackmailed you into agreeing to do what they wanted. But you're safe from them now, so you can give up the pretense! Because of course you didn't go through with it."

Vinocur abruptly stopped laughing. "He went through with it," he growled.

Treffry chuckled. "He couldn't, Vinocur! He simply couldn't! Monte, like every other key man brought to Ridzin, was put through secret security tests once a month—and I supervised that operation—always. So Monte couldn't have harbored any real intentions to betray us: No human mind can deceive the testing machines . . .  eh, Monte?"

Monte wearily mumbled a sentence or two.

"What did you say, Monte? Speak up!"

"I said I agree with you." Dexter Monte's voice was distinct again but quite faint. He sighed. "No human mind can deceive the testing machines."

Treffry swallowed with difficulty. The anesthetic definitely was affecting his tongue and throat now. "Are you listening, Vinocur?" he demanded. "So the Programmed Corps isn't going to Hannaret, is it, Monte?"

"No," Monte said. He added peevishly, "But you gentlemen must excuse me now! I really can't keep myself together any longer."

"Treffry—" Vinocur's voice had thickened, sounded heavily slurred.


"Ask him—ask him whether the Programmed Corps is . . .  going to Great Xal."


"We . . .  had him on . . .  testing machines, too, Treffry!"

A monstrous thought swam up slowly in Treffry's mind.

"Monte!" he cried. "Monte!"

Odd watery whistling noises responded for some seconds from the intercom. Nothing else.

Could it be? Could the most awesome weapon ever devised, the irresistable Programmed Corps, be hurtling now, not toward Great Xal but, out of control, toward some immensely distant point in space? From which it presently would return, under new instructions, to wipe out the race which had created it?

"Monte!" This time, only Treffry's mind formed the word. The sound that came from his mouth was a heavy groan—the cold-sleep process was moving along its irreversible course. Moaning noises in the intercom indicated Vinocur was experiencing similar difficulties. Treffry's thoughts began to swirl in slow and awful confusion, revolving about one fact repeatedly mentioned in the speeches that day: the Skanders' repulsive amebic quality, their ability to force themselves out of their basic shape into another of their choosing and to maintain it for an indefinite period . . . 

Perhaps for as long as fifteen or twenty years? Long enough to—

That thought, all thought, faded. The moaning in the intercom went on for almost another minute. Then it, too, stopped. In a silence which would remain unbroken for many months the great carrier fleet rushed toward its destination.


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