Back | Next



Truce by Boomerang

Truce Supervisor B. H. Perkins lay hugging the dust as the barrage thundered overhead. The ground trembled beneath him. There was a taste of grit in his mouth and a bone-weariness in his limbs. From somewhere in the distance, a thin cheer reached him. Perkins raised his head and looked out from behind the shattered stub of a tree.

The glare on the sandy earth was blinding, but he saw it. A long column of sand-colored trucks was rumbling forward half-a-mile away. Further off he could see low clouds of dust churned up by advancing tanks.

Perkins turned his head and saw young Assistant Truce Supervisor Macklin studying the moving column with an expression of bitterness.

Perkins glanced around. Their jeep was fifteen feet away, where they'd left it when the bombardment opened up. Then the shells had dropped practically down their necks. Now the barrage had lifted and moved forward. Perkins still had his life, if not his truce.

Macklin came to his feet and brushed himself off. "Now what do we do, sir?" he said angrily. "Should we go back and plead with them to take back their bombardment? Or do we go sit in the outer office and beg to be let in for an explanation?"

"That," said Perkins, "is all up to the Secretary General." He got in the jeep. Macklin sat down behind the wheel. They started back toward their headquarters.

On the way, they passed three columns of trucks loaded with troops. They were jeered twice, cheered ironically once. Passing the last column, a spray of bullets went over their heads.

Macklin stared straight ahead. "To do this job right," he said, "a man needs armored skin and the disposition of an angel."

Perkins grunted noncommittally. The trouble, he kept telling himself, was that he had nothing to offer but the status quo, and no one here wanted the status quo. Call the combatants A and B. Even assuming the two sides could be content with their present borders, how did A know that B would be peaceful five years from now? And how did B know that A would be peaceful twenty years from now? The status quo involved mutual distrust, and that prolonged mutual distrust was what neither side could stand. Neither wanted to live with a bomb at his ear, ticking now loud, now soft, now with a threatening boom and rattle, so neither could ever settle down and look ahead with any assurance.

Perkins' cheeks puffed out as he exhaled sharply. He just didn't see how it could ever be done. To guarantee peace, he needed to intimidate both sides, so that each knew the other would hesitate long before making trouble. And to do that properly, he needed the armed might of one or the other of the two great world powers. Yet, if either of those two powers moved in here, the other would be uneasy to the point where Perkins would need a seventy-two hour day just to keep them at peace.

Macklin leaned forward and squinted as the headquarters caravan came into view. Angrily, he said, "As if we didn't have trouble enough already, there's that So-and-So again."

Perkins shifted his position in the bouncing jeep. "Who?"

"I don't know. A correspondent, probably. Some unprepossessing-looking individual who thinks he has the answer to everything and wants to see you."

Perkins scowled. "He's been here before?"

"Several times. I've given orders that he's to be kept out, but he gets in, somehow."

Perkins leaned forward. As they came closer, he could make out a slight man sitting sidewise in a jeep, with a tarpaulin-covered trailer hooked on behind. Perkins cleared his throat. "I'm going to be busy for the next few hours, as you know. But I want you to send that man in to me at three-thirty."

"Sir, at best he's a correspondent with a bad case of swollen head. At worst, he's a crank."

"You said he thinks he has the answer to everything?"

"Oh, he thinks so."

"Then he's a straw," said Perkins, "and in the position we're in, we can't be above grasping at straws."

The day advanced discouragingly. It got hotter and dustier. The rumbling thunder in the distance grew loud and fell away, but never ceased. Heavy bombers roared low overhead. The reports coming in added to the proof that the attack wasn't cumulative, built up out of exasperations that burst loose here and there and spread from place-to-place. It was a fully co-ordinated offensive; the only discordant note, that set Perkins back in his chair, was a series of unexpected reports from a supposedly quiet sector of the boundary. Here, the other side had attacked at nearly the same moment, and with such force and effect that this, too, was clearly planned in advance.

Now the question was, who was the aggressor?

If A and B stand glaring at each other, growling mutual threats and insults, then A hits B on the jaw at the same instant B punches A in the stomach, who started it?

Perkins groaned and looked up to see Macklin, his face pale and gloomy, at the door.

"It's three-thirty, sir," said Macklin.

Perkins frowned, then remembered. "Send him in," he said.

Macklin stepped outside.

A thin, gray-haired man came in and looked at Perkins. After a moment, he said, "I got some stuff for you."

Perkins scowled.

The stranger said, "You want to end the war, don't you?"

"Of course," said Perkins, "but—"

"You'd better give a hand. Some of it's pretty heavy."

Perkins hesitated, then got up and followed his guest outside. It took twenty minutes to bring in the crates and boxes from the trailer. When they were all stacked up in Perkins' office, the stranger said, "O.K., now leave me alone. I got to put this stuff together."

Perkins, perspiring freely, stood outside the door.

"Sir," said Macklin, looking on. "I'm not sure I understand this at all. Why don't we just have this fellow escorted back to his starting place?"

Perkins looked at Macklin with a faint smile. "There's a great deal of wisdom in old sayings, my boy."


"Beggars can't be choosers. Position is everything in life. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A drowning man grasps at straws."

Macklin looked a little dazed.

" . . . All containing a great deal of truth," Perkins went on. "Our purpose here was to prevent fighting. We had a certain moral capital to expend in that direction. Ideally, we would have added to that capital, so that we would have been living, as it were, on the interest. The situation was such that we couldn't do it. We had to live on the principal. Now the principal is very nearly all consumed. I won't say that we're beggars, Macklin, but in this respect we're very close to it. Our position is precarious. Now this gentleman comes to us and asserts that he has the solution. He approaches the problem as a repairman might approach a television receiver that has gone out of order."

"The man's a lunatic," said Macklin.

"Quite possible," said Perkins sadly. "But he's a bird in the hand. And at least he's a sign that we have some moral capital left. He came to us, you see."

Macklin frowned and stated to speak.

Overhead, a jet roared, its heavy rumble making them both glance up apprehensively, then look at each other.

The door of Perkins' office opened.

"O.K.," said the slight, gray-haired visitor. "It's ready. You can come in now. No," he waved Macklin back. "Just you." Perkins came in.

Macklin stepped back angrily. Perkins closed the door, then turned around.

At first glance, Perkins was inclined to agree with Macklin that the man was a lunatic.

There seemed to be two large television sets face-to-face across the room. There were a number of smaller sets with blank faces ranked on Perkins' desk and chair and set on the floor nearby.

The gray-haired man looked at the apparatus gloomily. "Eight hundred and forty-two tests it took us to find out the thing isn't commercially feasible," he said.

"What is this?" Perkins demanded.

The man looked at him. "You've heard of the telephone?" he said sourly.

"Of course," said Perkins scowling.

"Well," said his guest, "some bright guy got the idea if we could send a voice over the wires, we could do it through empty space, using a carrier wave instead of a wire."

"Radio," frowned Perkins.

"Yeah. Radio. It worked. It turned into big business. And some guy sent printing over wires—teletype. And pictures—telephoto. And then, the idea was, send pictures without wires. Television. What a big business that turned into." He looked sourly at the assemblage in the room. "It was only natural somebody would think of this."

"I don't doubt it," said Perkins. "That's all very true. But what is this?"

"Matter transceiver," said his guest sourly.

"Matter transceiver?"

"That's right. Now, let me show you. London and New York are practically the same height above the center of the earth. No work has to be done against gravity to raise a package from New York to London. If a frictionless surface stretched from one to the other we could give a hard push at one end, the package would slide across the Atlantic and deliver up the hard push when it hit London on the other side."

Perkins goggled. "See here—"

His guest waved him silent. "Nearly all the trouble getting across the Atlantic comes from what amounts to so much friction. Shoving a ship through water is work. Millions of tons of water move to the right and the left and then back again as the ship goes by. You've got a track of turbulence and waste thousands of miles long. With an airplane, you've got the added work of holding the plane up against gravity all that time. You see what I mean? It's wasteful."

"Yes," said Perkins. "I'll concede that. But what does that have to do with us, here?"

Perkins' thin, gray-haired visitor looked sourly at the apparatus. "The idea was to transmit electromagnetically. 'There's no friction in radio waves,' as the boys used to say." He looked sharply at Perkins. "Do you think you could yell loud enough to be heard across the Atlantic?"

"Certainly not," said Perkins, startled.

"But you could yell into a microphone, have the pattern of your voice carried across the Atlantic as a radio wave, and your yell will come out a receiver on the other side before it could travel across the room under its own power. All right, the idea was to do the same thing with objects." He grew a little excited. "Think of the possibilities! The market would be world-wide. Shipping delays and spoilage cut to almost nothing." The gloom returned to his face.

Perkins, studying him with a frown, glanced at the apparatus curiously. "Hm-m-m," he said. He looked back at his guest. "Didn't it work?"

"Oh, after a fashion. We sent a block of lead two hundred miles and back and thought we had it licked. All we had to do was iron out the bugs. While we were doing that, someone even figured out a way to send and receive from the same instrument, to anywhere else in range. Meanwhile, we had refined the apparatus, and re-refined it, and refined it again, and it finally dawned on us that the bugs were built-in." He walked over to the nearest set and snapped it on.

Perkins blinked.

The desert stared out of the screen, bright and hot. Miniature tanks were grinding forward in a haze of dust and smoke. Their guns flared, and the roar of the explosions came as from a distance into the room. The picture was clear and detailed, and did not flicker at all. It was like looking through a hole into the desert itself.

"Incredible," said Perkins.

"Oh, it's great," said his guest sourly. "Now just try and smell that dust and smoke." He adjusted the set till the roar was deafening, and the muzzle of a hammering gun seemed less than ten feet away. Then he quickly readjusted it to a distant view, wiped his forehead, and looked up. "Smell anything?"

"I—No. I couldn't be sure, but I don't think so. The illusion was very convincing, other than that."

"Sure. It looks good. It sounds good. But there's a skin effect. Here. Put your hand in."

"I'll break the screen."

"No, you won't."

Perkins scowled, and reached cautiously toward the face of the receiver. Where he expected to touch the screen, he felt nothing but warmth. Frowning, he reached farther. There was a faint elastic resistance, and he pressed carefully against it. His arm went farther and farther into the set, feeling the warmth and the sunlight, and a sensation like that of a hand pressed into the side of a large, partially inflated balloon. Now, he expected to feel the back of the set. He moved forward, and suddenly he saw the other side of the set, and his arm wasn't there. He jumped back.

Now his arm was all right.

"Look here," he said. "What happened?"

"You reached through, into that space shown on the 'screen.' Or almost through. There's that skin effect I told you about."

"Do you mean, I could reach in there and drop something, and it would land in the desert?"

"No. It would be held right next to your hand when you tried to drop it. And when you pulled your hand back, it would fall out in the room here. The skin effect."

"I could feel the heat of the sun plainly."

"Sure, radiations go through all right. But not even anything as small as molecules can get through that skin unless they have high enough velocities and a long enough mean free path. That's why no odors get through."

"I don't follow."

"You can't drop a bullet through. But if you aimed a gun in there, you could shoot it through. You have to break through that skin or what you're trying to put through comes right back out again."

"Oh, I see. That was why you couldn't use it for . . . ah . . . matter transference?"

"That's half of it. We'd have had to pack the goods in artillery shells and shoot them through. But there's something worse yet."

"What's that?"

"There's a random distortion brought about by the circuit itself. We thought it was defective equipment, but we finally traced it back to the uncertainty principle. There isn't much we can do about that. If you send a watch through, it may or may not run when you take it out the other side. If you send cheese, it may have a slight off-flavor. A solid piece of lead, say, will change its shape slightly." He looked closely at Perkins. "Of course, if it's a bullet, that won't matter much."

Perkins looked back uneasily. "All this is of interest, no doubt, but what does it have to do with what's going on outside? And why are you here? Your interests, I judge, are purely mercantile."

His guest smiled and shook his head. "This is how you can end what's going on outside. As for what I'm doing here—I was sent. Somebody had to get it to you, and we wanted to try it out on the spot."


"To make sure it worked. We want to end this war. Wars can spread, you know. And you can't do business in a crater."

"Fine, but—Look here. We have no need for this splendid equipment." Perkins gestured toward the machine. "Observation. This would be wonderful for observation. But, we're beyond that, don't you see?"

"You don't get it?" said his guest sadly. "I explained to you this is a transceiver." He walked resignedly to the set, adjusted it slightly, and said, "Go over there where you can't see it. Back there. Get in back of it." When Perkins had followed instructions, his guest got down on the floor, reached up cautiously, and moved one of the controls. The thunder of big guns grew loud in the room, was joined by the mutter and cough of engines, and the whine of bullets. There was a burst from a machine gun, then another.

Abruptly, a line of holes appeared in the door and one wall of the room.

The thunder and crash receded.

Perkins stared at the holes.

"I told you," said his guest. "Skin effect. This is a transceiver. It makes a two-way connection and those bullets were coming in the right direction fast enough to get through."

Perkins wiped his forehead. He felt the glimmering of an idea starting to form. He glanced at the two big sets face-to-face.

His guest nodded approvingly.

Perkins thought, what each side needed was positive assurance the other side wouldn't start anything now or several years from now. Assurance that it would be deadly to start anything. In that way, each could relax; in time, good feeling might even have a chance to develop. In time—But how

His guest walked over and spun around one of the big sets. He flicked it on and practically the same picture appeared as on the small set. He swung it back and locked it in place.

"The way it usually works out," he said, "soldiers don't start wars. Dictators start them. Cabinets start them. There's pressure of some kind and the war comes for emotional or political reasons. War is horrible today. That generally comes home as soon as anyone realizes he might have to fight the war. Then we get an inrush of cold common sense. The idea is, how to bring this common sense to the dictator, or the cabinet, so they don't see the war as an abstract symbol, but as solid bullets that may hit them any time."

He snapped on a second set, and there stood a famous figure studying a map. The famous man moved his hand here, and here. Assistants were rearranging pins on the map as he talked rapidly and earnestly with subordinates. The subordinates nodded. Orders were urgently repeated over phones. On the map, symbols moved, showing the general direction of massive forces approaching the battle area. A complex problem with many parts to be co-ordinated.

On the other set, tanks were burning. A man lying on the ground nearby was turning over in pain, his hand clenched over his face.

Perkins glanced from one scene to the other. The calm planner. The soldier in agony. "Horrible," he said.

"Isn't it? And for the time being, all that violence and suffering is just a symbol to the first man."

"Will this screen project an image directly into that one? Could we make him see the suffering?"

"Yes. We could."

"Still," said Perkins hesitantly, "people can become immune to the sufferings of others."

"If they're around it all the time, sure. If it flashes on them suddenly in normal surroundings, then disappears and comes back unexpectedly, that's different. But there's a more direct way—"

"What's that?" said Perkins.

His guest motioned him to the back of the room. He carefully readjusted the screens and stepped aside. He dove for the floor. The roar of guns and the whine of bullets filled the room. Bright flashes lit the far wall. Abruptly the roar was cut back, and Perkins hurried to look in the screens.

In one was the flash of a far-off battle.

In the other stood the famous figure, surrounded by frozen aides; the upper section of the wall nearby was pitted with holes sifting dust and plaster onto the floor.

Perkins whispered to his guest, "Is this two-way reception now?"

"Not on that screen. That's just receiving. But I can fix it."

"What will he see if you do?"

"Just as much as you see of him now, but not framed in a receiving set. It will be as if these two rooms were connected by a hole. Light and sound can pass through. You could even shake hands as if through an invisible rubber sheet."

On the screen, the famous figure was beginning to turn slowly. His aides moved their heads as if on rigid vertical pivots.

"Fix it," whispered Perkins.

The famous man's Adam's apple moved up and down. He stiffened his jaw and slowly turned farther around.

Perkins looked at him sternly.

Their eyes met.

"You broke the truce," said Perkins accusingly.

The face opposite him blinked, moved cautiously this way and that, as if trying to get things into focus.

"You must," said Perkins, his eyes narrowed, "withdraw your troops back of the boundary. Precise details will be settled in a radiogram I shall send you shortly. But the fighting must be completely ended by midnight tonight. Do you understand that?"

The well-known figure turned slowly and looked up at the wall behind him. As he watched, a piece of plaster near the ceiling gradually sagged and fell to the floor. Something embedded in the wall glinted dully, and he turned back toward Perkins.

Perkins looked at him coldly and unblinkingly and said nothing.

At length, the famous man cleared his throat. His voice a hoarse level whisper, he said, "All right. But see that they do the same."

Perkins inclined his head slightly. The scene vanished. Perkins looked at his guest and suddenly felt himself grinning. "And now," he said, "for the other side."

"Right." His guest was bent over the controls and looked up. "The angle of contact adjustments have to be made carefully. A martyr at this stage could cause trouble."

Perkins nodded and watched him make the adjustments.

This time there was speedy agreement, a halting flood of questions, and a faint baffled look of craft and determination. When it was over, Perkins said, "Now what?"

"Now after I get more equipment, I teach you how to operate this stuff. You can use it as transmitter, receiver, transceiver, and you have to know where to use which. And it's important to know how to make the settings quickly."

"I wonder if this will all work according to schedule," said Perkins thoughtfully. "There was a faint look of craft on the face of one of our principals."

"Oh, there's no predicting," said his guest. "In this age, people are likely to react fast to miracles. Maybe by tomorrow they'll have the nominal authority divided up into sixteen buck-passing committees. But in war, the authority has to center somewhere, and that is where to use this.

"At worst, things will get so complicated for them that they'll have to call off the war or go crazy. There are better ways for a man to spend his energy than planning on fighting a war. We just have to make that clearer."

Perkins looked at the apparatus. "What if there's a raid to capture this?"

"With practice, you can use them to put up an effective defense." He scowled. "But don't worry, we're covering you from a distance. We have a great many more of these defective apparatuses."

Perkins held out his hand. "I don't know how to thank you; I'll do the best I can."

"I'll bring you more of these. You've got to get men you can trust to operate them."

"I'll get them"

"Good. Eventually, we'll solve our original problem, and that should finally bring men close enough together so we'll have an end to these troubles." He turned to leave.

"I wish you luck," said Perkins.

His visitor turned and smiled for the first time. "Oh, we're making some progress. We've got a light-duty model of a new design going. It takes too much energy, but it has possibilities." He opened the door and strode out.

Macklin and two others were standing blank-faced outside the door.

"I'm sorry," said Macklin. "We heard the noise and came running. It was quiet when we got here. Rather than burst in, we looked through these bullet holes. And . . . well . . . we just stayed here."

"That's all right," said Perkins. "It'll make it easier for me to brief you." He stood for a moment watching his guest drive off in the jeep.

"I still don't see," said Macklin, "how that fellow got in here. I gave strict orders he was to be kept out."

"Well," said Perkins, turning away, "don't worry about it. We have work to do. And he has work to do. Perhaps some day he'll discover how to make his matter transmitter and then possibly everyone will be too busy to make trouble, and we'll be out of a job."

"No need to worry about that—" began Macklin, and cut off abruptly.

Perkins spun around, frowning.

In the distance, the jeep was stopped. The hood came down as Perkins watched, and a faint clang reached him. He and Macklin glanced at each other. There was the faint silvery flash of what looked like a brightly polished wire cable tossed into the trailer. The far-off roar of the engine reached them. The jeep started forward.

Perkins and Macklin blinked their eyes.

The jeep was gone.

Perkins grabbed Macklin by the arm.

"Let's get to work," he said.


Back | Next