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Colonel Wade Daniels, newly-appointed chief of the diplomatic mission on the planet Knackruth, stood on the snow-covered ledge in the shadows of the evergreens, and looked down on the yellow cannon-flashes and rolling smoke in the valley below.

Mattison, long the mission's communications officer, stood beside Daniels. "Well," he said, "there go the mines. It was a fool setup to leave them to local protection."

Daniels blew out a cloud of breath that slowly drifted away. "The Gurt may still win."

"No, sir. They're caught off-base. Their idea was to hold at that river, bring up supplies and reinforcements, and fight later at better odds. But the river's frozen a month too soon. Now the Ghisrans don't have to bridge the river, or come over in boats, under Gurt fire. Now they can walk across. And the Gurt aren't ready for that."

Daniels frowned. His orders stated: "Your primary mission is to secure the safety of the quadrite mines on Knackruth. To this end, you are authorized to treat with any of the local powers—"

The trouble was, only one of these local powers at a time had the mines. But they were always either fighting, preparing to right, or recovering from a fight. Eventually, the mines were bound to change hands. And while dealing with Gurt was bad enough, the Ghisrans were bound to be worse yet.

"Damn it," said Daniels, "if those mines are overrun a lot of automatic machines, that can't be replaced, are going to get smashed."

"Yes, sir. The Ghisrans will enjoy that. But at least you got the machine operator out."

Daniels grunted and ignored that comment. "Meanwhile, the quadrite supply from here will be cut off, and as I heard it, this is the last developed source in the sector. But our ships have got to have quadrite. As a result of losing these mines, we could lose the whole sector."

Mattison nodded. "The mines should have been fortified. We've got weapons that would scare the Gurt and Ghisrans combined out of a hundred years' growth. But no, someone figured that we could save the effort it would take to fortify the mines, and apply that effort elsewhere, by leaving the Gurt technically in control, and paying them for the ore. That way, we wouldn't waste effort. The trouble is, that means we're leaving it up to a weaker power to see that our breath doesn't get shut off."

Somewhere behind them, there was a faint thud, and a fainter grating sound.

Mattison glanced around, then said, "It's only Sarge." He turned back to Daniels. "Sir, I'd better go in and see if there's been any reply to your message."

"Go ahead."

Mattison saluted and left, hurrying to the communications cabin.

A bulky, furry form approached Daniels from the right rear, outlined fuzzily for a moment against a moonlit section of the sheer cliff wall that rose out of sight at the back of the ledge. The furry form raised a mittened hand. Daniels returned the salute.

"Sir," said Sergeant Malinowski, "there's a bunch of Ghisrans down on that rock shelf. It's only a matter of time till they find the handholds."

"You lowered the rock into place. They can't get past that."

"They may go up overhead and drop grenades on us." The sergeant's voice held a note of reproach, as if he blamed Daniels that they'd been discovered.

Daniels said dryly, "You think you could have done a better job bringing that mining-machine operator in?"

"Well, sir... there must have been tracks—"

Daniels snorted. "Instead of landing her airsled inside the box canyon, so she wouldn't be seen from outside, she came down out on the flats, and taxied in. She taxied almost to the big tree where I was waiting, then she jumped out, and fainted. Sure there are tracks. My tracks, from here to that tree, where she was supposed to land. Her tracks, all across the flats and into the canyon, to that tree."

The sergeant blew his breath out wearily. "She must be as fouled up as everything else on this planet."

"And then some," growled Daniels. He took a last look at the moonlit valley, and headed back toward the communications cabin. The sergeant followed.

Underfoot, the snow gritted and squeaked as they walked. Daniels studied the tall trees and the cliff wall, his practiced gaze picking out the camouflaged cylinder that was the rebuilt, dual-drive reaction-and-gravitor derelict they called "The Bucket." This looming weaponless hulk was their only way to get home if the situation on the planet broke up completely, and Daniels was thinking that one good shell hit would finish it. And, if there were Ghisran troops down on that rock shelf—"There aren't any grenades here, I suppose?"

"No, sir. Nothing but sidearms."

Daniels nodded. They reached the cabin, and Daniels opened the door on another form of trouble.

* * *

Two men, the communications officer and a young civilian doctor, were standing inside, their brows moist with perspiration, their faces twisted in eager attentiveness. Before them, seated in the cabin's one comfortable chair, was a well-curved woman in her middle twenties, wearing dark slacks and slippers, and a tight black sweater that clung to her as if it had been sprayed on.

For an instant, the sudden sight of this femininity struck Daniels with the impact of a warm cozy cabin after the long chill of the outdoors. Then he heard her voice:

" then I punch a 617 on the Master, trip the override release, and the new matrix test-sorts the bounce-back. If it's O.K., that knocks the 'DIG' light on, and I lock the board. If the 'BALK' lights up, then I punch out a 618 or a 620, and try that."

"Wonderful," said Mattison, his voice oozing sincerity.

"Fascinating," said the doctor, his voice low, intense, and vibrant. "What do you do then, Robyn?"

Daniels glanced at the sergeant, who was staring at the woman glassy-eyed.

"Well," she said, putting one finger to the corner of her mouth, "then I usually heat up a cup of hot chocolate—not too much, you know—on account of the figure—and watch the hypnox till the ready-bell goes off again. Then—"

Daniels glanced around. To his left, the tight-beam communicator lit up with flashing lights.

"Mattison!" snapped Daniels.

The communications officer looked around glassily.

"Get that message!"

Mattison sprang across the room.

At Mattison's abrupt departure, the woman blinked, and one hand flew to her lips. Her eyes grew large. She held her other hand out to the doctor, who readily took it. Holding her hand, he looked to Daniels like someone who has taken hold of one of the grips of an electrical demonstration machine, and now can't let go.

The sergeant gave a grunt of disgust.

Daniels cleared his throat. The doctor's face registered such a state of ecstatic pain that it seemed unthinkable to intrude. But with an effort, he said, "Doctor."

There was no response.


The man's eyes came to a focus. Daniels said, "Did you see the local ruler before you came back?"

"Yes. Yes, I saw him."

"How did he seem?"

"Medically, or socially?"

Daniels felt a spasm of irritation. "They're two parts of the same thing. Naturally, I want to know both."

The doctor absently let go of the woman's hand. She drew herself together, and sat large-eyed and tense, as if she might explode into a scream at any moment.

The sergeant walked across the room to pick up a folded blanket on the lower half of one of the cabin's two sets of double bunks, walked back from a direction out of range of the doctor's vision, and offered a blanket to the woman. She blinked at him, smiled nervously, and the sergeant smiled back winningly. She accepted the blanket. He helped tuck it around her.

Daniels, momentarily distracted by this maneuver, heard the doctor say "...surprisingly well, considering the stress he's been exposed to lately. But the premature freeze seems to have thrown the Gurt military into disorder."

"Their plan was still the same?"

The doctor nodded. "Of course, the freeze wrecked the plans. They'd expected to hold the Ghisrans at the river for a month, and now the river's frozen. When I left, the new plan just seemed to be to fall back as slowly as possible."

Daniels nodded thoughtfully. "If the weather should suddenly turn warm again, the Ghisrans might find themselves with a flowing river between themselves and their supply dumps."

The doctor nodded vaguely, his interest obviously wandering away. He smiled and glanced down fondly at the woman. Her back was turned to him. She and the sergeant were talking to each other, their voices low, their heads about six inches apart.

Daniels was watching the play of emotions across the doctor's face when the sudden tearing of paper announced that the message, whatever it might be, had come to an end.

"Sir," said Mattison, his face pale, "here it is."

* * *

Daniels tensely took the yellow sheet of paper, skipped the heading, and read:

"Your request for aid has reached us as our resources are stretched to the limit.

"The only ships close enough to reach the planet in time are the superdrive ore-freighter and its tenders. These are all unarmed, and the freighter itself cannot operate within the planet's atmosphere.

"You state that the national forces of Gurt, on which we have relied to defend the quadrite mines, have suffered a series of disasters which have brought a coalition of their enemies within striking distance of the mines. You have not been able to deal with the coalition, or to bring about a truce. You remind us that due to the original agreement with Gurt, your only ship is unarmed, and your mission is without effective weapons.

"In reply, let me repeat that loss of the Gurt mines would be catastrophic.

"Quadrite is essential to fuel our combat ships' drive-units. It is also rare. Loss of these mines would interrupt the flow of quadrite in a large region of space. We are working on a narrow margin. Any interruption in the flow of quadrite will operate on our defensive posture like a cataleptic seizure.

"I do not need to mention that whoever is in charge on the planet, if this happens, will be held directly responsible, and punished with the severity ordinarily reserved for acts of cowardice in the face of the enemy."

Daniels looked up.

From the valley outside came the reverberating crash of artillery. In his mind's eye, Daniels could see the numerically superior Ghisrans driving the Gurt troops away from the river and back from the mines. What, he asked himself, could he do about it? He had three men, plus a female mine-machine operator subject to hysterics—and no weapons but sidearms.

The absence of conversation in the room caught his attention, and he glanced around.

The doctor had his hand on the woman's wrist, and was glancing at his watch. She had a thermometer in her mouth, and was looking up at him worshipfully.

The sergeant was disgustedly shrugging into his fur coat. Mattison, heavily bundled up and nervous, was just going out the door.

Daniels looked back at the message:

"I cannot offer you reinforcements, or even any specific suggestions. However, I will give you a piece of advice that I have found useful:

"Do not operate on the assumption that the situation is hopeless. Earnestly seek a solution.

"Remember that our minds normally do not think in terms of reality, but of symbols. The mind selects a few outstanding characteristics of an object, combines them into a symbol, and mentally manipulates symbols to determine what will happen when the corresponding objects act in reality.

"But the symbol is not the object. The mind, in forming the symbol, originally selected certain outstanding characteristics, combined them, and henceforth takes the symbol as a reliable representation of the object. But what was originally a minor characteristic may, in a different situation, become important. Because of this inaccuracy of symbols, an apparently hopeless situation may contain an unseen solution.

"Don't give up. Break the situation down into its component parts, and examine each part in detail. Picture the way the parts fit together as clearly as possible. Imagine this or that element to be changed. Picture a favorable situation related to the present unfavorable situation. What change would bring about—"

Outside, there was a reverberating crash of artillery.

Daniels crushed the message and swore savagely.

Across the room, the woman put her hand to her mouth.

The doctor glared at Daniels, and gestured imperiously for silence.

The door flew open, and the sergeant came on in a whirl of snow.

"Sir, the communications officer wants hot water."

"Then get it." Daniels frowned. "Wait a minute. What for?"

"To unfreeze the hatch of The Bucket. He says we better get ready to clear out."

"All right. And while you're at it, set the internal temperature up from maintenance minimum to standby."

"Yes, sir," the sergeant answered.

"But nobody had better touch those controls."

"No, sir."

"Did you hear anything from that shelf below the ledge?"

"I listened. There wasn't a peep."

Daniels nodded.

The sergeant took a large container of hot water from the big iron stove and went out.

The doctor bent over the woman's chair to murmur soothingly.

Daniels sat down near the communicator, and finished reading the message. Then he dutifully analyzed the situation. The trouble was, the river had frozen, and the Ghisrans could now cross to drive back the outnumbered Gurt. To deal with the problem, he had a communications officer, a master sergeant, a civilian doctor, an hysterical woman, an unarmed escape ship, several handguns, a hideout that the Ghisrans had located, and the highly-specialized mining machines. Which of these things had some quality that he had overlooked?

He turned the problem over in his mind.

Outside, there was a heavy, jarring thud.

* * *

Daniels went to the door, and looked out.

Light snow was drifting down through the moonlight. Everything looked the same as before, but the artillery fire had again died away, bringing comparative quiet.

From somewhere came a faint rushing sound.

Daniels reached back, pulled the door shut behind him, and glanced around.

Something large and vague blurred down through the moonlight past the edge of the ledge.

From below came a heavy thud, and a rolling, smashing sound.

A shower of small objects flashed past, and a moment later there was a clatter from below.

Daniels sucked in his breath and glanced up.

From somewhere overhead came a low voice, followed by the gritting of metal on rock.

The hatch of The Bucket came open, and the voice of the communications officer floated out:

"...just a little artillery fire down there. Nothing to worry about yet."

Daniels called up, "Sergeant!"

"Sir?" came a muffled voice.

"Unlock the control panel. Throw both master switches into the 'on' position. Can you hear me?"

"Yes, sir. Unlock the control panel. Throw both master switches 'on'."

Daniels opened the cabin door.

The doctor was closing a little bag, and saying something to the woman, who was smiling back adoringly.

Daniels said, "Throw a coat on and get out here fast. Both of you."

From overhead came a grating noise, then a heavy rumble.

The communications officer ducked past Daniels, rushed into the cabin, seized hold of a square brown handle on the tight-beam communicator, pulled out a section about six inches by eight in cross section, and bolted past with it.

The doctor's brows came together.

"Shut that door, you fool. You'll chill her!"

From somewhere overhead, came a crushing, grating noise.

Daniels said, "Get her out and into the ship. We're leaving."

"Impossible. She can't be moved."

"Then stay and get crushed."

Daniels crossed through the shadows to the cylindrical base of The Bucket, took hold of the handgrips, and started to climb. He was about halfway to the hatch when some impulse caused him to look up.

Through the light, gentle, moonlit snow, something dark and big plummeted down, straight for the ledge.

Daniels froze.

The boulder struck a projecting bulge of rock, bounded off, and its main mass crashed through the trees beside the ship, taking one of them with it and leaving the ship in full moonlight. A smaller chunk of rock droned past on the other side, to rip away a remnant of the camouflage net that had hidden the ship. Smaller rock fragments clattered down the cliff face to land all over the ledge. From further below came a splintering crash and explosive cracking sounds as the boulder smashed through the forest.

Daniels climbed fast up the side of the ship and in through the hatch.

From below came the doctor's voice.


Daniels swore, and looked out the hatch. Down below, the doctor was hurrying the planet's solitary Earth female across the ledge toward the ship. As they came, he protectively bundled a heavy coat around her.

"Sir," said the sergeant urgently from the control room, "we're all set to lift off."

Daniels said angrily, "Go get a rope."

The sergeant swore.

* * *

Down below, the doctor had reached the base of the ship, and was now pointing out the handholds. His voice was a loving, protective murmur. Daniels smiled sourly.

A feminine voice drifted up from below.

"I won't. I can't do it."

"You can. Just take hold—"

"No. No, I can't."

"Robyn... please, dear. Look, put your hand like this, then—"

She jerked back.

Daniels looked up at the cliff face.

The snow drifted steadily down in the moonlight. The cliff loomed vaguely up out of sight.

From somewhere up there came the gritting of metal against rock.

The sergeant leaned through the inner air-lock door and pressed something into Daniels' mittened hand.

"Sir, the rope."

Daniels stripped off his mittens, and quickly tied one end to a brace over the door. He leaned out.

Down below, the woman suddenly broke away, and ran for the cabin. The doctor ran after her, caught her, and pulled her back toward the ship.

Daniels said, "Sergeant, get to the controls and get us out of here the instant I say 'Lift'."

"Yes, sir."

Daniels leaned out the hatch and looked down at the whirling knot of arms and legs. The doctor's voice told of shifting feelings as he and the woman flailed around from the ship to the cliff edge and back again.

"Please, Robyn! Robyn, look, dear... Hey! WATCH OUT! We're right on the edge—Robyn!—Ouch!—You fool, stop it!"

A burst of ferocious profanity accompanied a second escape from double suicide, and Daniels, after a hasty upward glance, concluded that the psychological moment had arrived. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted, "Knock her out! We'll haul her up on a rope!"

There was a sold thud and grunt.

Daniels heaved out the rope.


"Yes, sir."

"Help me here!"

Mattison squeezed into the air lock, and the two men took hold of the rope. Down below, the doctor straightened and called up tensely, "All right. I'll steady the... I'll steady her."

Daniels and Mattison pulled on the rope.

From somewhere up above came a grinding crushing noise, a thud, a continuous heavy grinding rolling sound, the clatter of small rocks and gravel falling, a second heavier thud, and then silence.

"Hang on!" yelled Daniels. He turned to shout over his shoulder. "Gravitors only! LIFT!"

There was a whine, and a surge of thrust that all but buckled his knees. The rope cut into his hands. Then the cliff was falling away. From somewhere came a heavy solid crash, then a noise like an avalanche.

The whine was rapidly climbing to a scream.

"Sir," yelled the sergeant, "gravitors won't hold the overload!"

Daniels shouted over his shoulder, "Balance on the center engine!"

There was a roar, and a reddish glare lit the snowflakes.

They got the inert form on the rope up over the hatch edge, and the doctor, his face scratched and bleeding, climbed in.

"Sir," shouted the sergeant. "What course?"

Daniels turned to Mattison, "Get that hatch shut, and make sure she doesn't come to and go berserk in here." He stepped through the inner hatchway into the control room.

The sergeant said, "There's no place to go down there, sir. We'll have to take her up, and fast."

Daniels glanced at the outside viewscreen. The screen showed the scene below, the moonlit snow-covered plain, crisscrossed by the tracks of animal-drawn carts and sledges, and alight with the flash of cannon. Through the drifting powder smoke, the river, which cut the battlefield in two, was shown by the sharp black shadow of its bank on the snow-covered ice. In the distance, off to the south, the defending Gurt troops still clung to their positions on the river bank. But below, the Ghisrans were across in force, with the Gurt line driven back toward the foothills, the Gurt troops further north almost cut off, and fresh attackers streaming across where the banks were low, almost directly below the ship.

To land anywhere nearby would mean coming down in a place that might be overrun before the next day was out. Daniels turned to tell the sergeant to take the ship up; then a phrase from the message spoke reproachfully in his ear:

"...acts of cowardice in the face of the enemy."

"I'll take it," said Daniels, suddenly determined to take the ship up himself, so there could be no slightest doubt who was responsible.

Another section of the message rose in Daniels' mind:

"Any interruption in the flow of quadrite will operate on our defensive posture like a cataleptic seizure."

The sergeant stood aside.

Daniels thought savagely, "What can I do? The situation is hopeless."

"Do not operate on the assumption that the situation is hopeless. Earnestly seek a solution."

"I have no weapons, no authority on the planet, no troops to command!"

"Remember that our minds normally do not think in terms of reality, but of symbols... what was originally a minor characteristic may, in a different situation, become important..."

"They're all generalities. I've got about two seconds to decide and then I've got to act."

He slid into the control seat, feeling its surface conform to him, to brace him against the impact of any sudden acceleration.

Regretfully, he reached for the controls.

Another section of the message recurred to him as he gripped the controls:

"Picture a favorable situation related to the present unfavorable situation. What change would bring about—"

Daniels glanced at the outside viewscreen, and was suddenly struck by something obvious, something he could never have overlooked, except that his mind thought in terms of symbols, not realities.

"Sir," said the sergeant urgently.

Daniels gripped the controls savagely, and set the ship swooping to the north, and down, toward the frozen planet.

The communications officer blurted, "You can't set down! They'll get us anywhere down there!"

"He's going after the Ghisrans!" shouted the sergeant. "Sir, you can't get enough of them to count! Beyond the river, they'll take cover in trenches and gullies. On this side, you'll burn the Gurt, too!"

As if to demonstrate the sergeant's warning, the thick clots and masses of troops across the river dispersed, to vanish into numerous trenches and bunkers.

"Sir," cried the sergeant, "you'll never get them. There isn't fuel enough to—"

Daniels centered the ship directly over the river, eased off slightly on the gravitors, and balanced on the rockets.

Whirling clouds of steam and ice-crystals enveloped the ship. The glare from the screen grew dazzling. Then the ice abruptly seemed to turn black, and clouds of fog boiled up.

The communications officer stared.

The sergeant swore in sudden admiration.

Daniels guided the ship steadily down-river, on and on, leaving behind a strip of water that trailed clouds of fog in the moonlight. Then he cut the gravitors in strongly, rose to pass over the Gurt lines, and hovered briefly to look back.

The viewscreen showed the Ghisran troops on the near side of the river, inside a rough arc of Gurt soldiers, with the flowing river at their back. On the far side, the cut-off reinforcements cautiously rose from cover, to find deep water in front of them.

Suddenly perceiving what had happened, knots of Gurt troops began to run forward. Outnumbered by the Ghisrans as a whole, they in turn outnumbered the enemy on the near side of the river.

"They're cut off!" said the communications officer. "By the time it freezes again, they'll be finished. And they won't dare push across there next time, because, the same thing may happen again!"

The doctor stared from Daniels to the screen, and vigorously mopped his brow.

Daniels set the ship down gently, well behind the Gurt lines that were now moving forward.

A mental voice repeated to him another piece of the message:

"Because of the inaccuracy of symbols, an apparently hopeless situation may contain an unseen solution."

In his mind, Daniels had seen the ship only as a means of escape. Only at the last moment, had it dawned on him that the ship was incidentally an enormous torch.

Daniels drew a long shuddering breath, and silently thanked God.

Then he looked around the control room, with its delicate instruments and complex controls, and abruptly another thought occurred to him.

Mentally, he spoke to whatever it was that under stress had found the solution:

"Don't go away. There's another little problem coming along."

Across the control room, nicely shaped in the slacks and sweater, eyes blinking with incipient hysteria, and surrounded by a general air of solid unreason, their lone female passenger struggled weakly to sit up.

The sergeant relievedly wiped his brow, and felt around for some place to sit down.

The communications officer leaned back and relaxed.

The doctor let his breath out in a sigh and slumped in relief. "That's it. It's all over."

Daniels got up from the control seat and braced himself to move fast.

Robyn screamed.

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