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Problem of Command

Colonel Martin Grainger read the top-secret document through slowly in the privacy of his office, shook his head gloomily, slapped the papers down on his desk, and walked over to look out the window. All he saw of the outside was a blurred image of sky, ground, and building. The blurring, he was vaguely conscious, came from an unworthy weakness; the tear ducts in his eyes were preparing for that release from unbearable stress granted to women and small children. The tightness in his throat came from the same source. As this knowledge touched the edge of his mind, he stiffened, dismissed the idea before it had a chance to become fully conscious, and grimly faced the fact that now not even a lifetime's work would ever be crowned with the only reward that meant anything to him.

There was a friendly rap at the door. It was the rap of an ally, in a competition where allies were necessities, whether Grainger liked it or not.

"Come in," he called, and he was relieved that his voice was clear and unemotional, as always.

The door opened, and a trim man of about sixty, the two stars of a major general on his jacket, stepped into the room, nodded and smiled.

Two hours ago, Grainger could have smiled back naturally. Now he forced a smile.

"Good afternoon, sir."

The older man smiled at him.

"Think you can handle it, Mart?"

Grainger kept his face blank.

"I'll do my best, sir."

"I know you will." He sat on the edge of Grainger's desk. "Don't be ill at ease, Mart. I wouldn't have picked just anyone to do this job." He rapped out a cigarette, automatically started to offer the pack to Grainger, laughed and said, "I forgot; you don't use them." He snapped the lighter, paused and looked at Grainger quizzically, "You don't object?"

"Of course not, sir."

"Don't be so formal, Mart. I'm Al, remember?"

"Yes . . . Al."

"That's better." He blew out a cloud of smoke. "What do you think of the plan?"

Grainger reminded himself that he desperately needed this man's friendship.

"It's a very logical plan . . . Al."

"I'm glad you say so." He stood up, still friendly and apparently unconscious of the gap of rank between them. "You'll be charged with the actual execution of Phase I. I've already talked the plan over with Lyell Berenger, and he's agreed that the best moment for the attack is the 30th, at 0300—Moscow time. Our preparations should be complete by then. If we wait, there is no assurance we'll retain the advantage. It could be the atomic monopoly, all over again."

"Yes, sir."

The general stubbed his cigarette out in the clean, unused ashtray on Grainger's desk. He crossed the room and, scowling, studied Grainger, who came to attention. When the general spoke, his voice was sharp, with an undertone of sympathetic concern.

"What is this, Mart? You're capable of this job. I picked you, remember? Out of the herd. There were brighter ones, and there sure were smoother ones. But I'm not a fool, Mart, and I never would have picked you if I didn't know you could do the job. You've got the stuff. That's elementary. You also have a quality that is none too common these days, if it ever was common. You aren't easily swept along, and you don't bribe. I know that. Therefore, I can trust you. Don't panic on me." He paused a moment, then laughed. "I know what you're going through, Mart. I know how I felt with my first independent command. But I would never have given you this responsibility if I hadn't had complete faith in both you and the plan. You're going up there in a few minutes to see Lyell Berenger. What of it? He has three stars, sure." He studied Grainger's face. "Mart, what I'm trying to tell you is, you're at a ceiling, and you've got to get through it. You are three-star material. But you'll never get the first one, you'll fall farther and farther behind your class, you'll be passed over for promotion, you'll retire with the same rank you have now—if you go into that office scared. This is too important to entrust to a man who lacks confidence. Mart, what is it?"

Grainger drew a deep breath.

"Sir, the plan is wrong."

The general stepped back. He started to speak, changed his mind. He looked Grainger flatly in the eyes.

"If you tell that to Berenger, I'll see you retired on corporal's pay."

"If you can do it, that's your privilege." Grainger's voice carried an unintended rasp of hard defiance.

The general stared at Grainger, and for a moment his eyes seemed to mist over. He turned away. "I'll never trust another human being."

"Al." Grainger, who never relied on emotion, acted before he could stop himself. He caught the general's arm. "I'm not attacking you. But that plan won't work."

"That plan is my baby. You attack that plan and you attack me."

"I never saw it before yesterday. I'd have told you—"

"Who do you think you are? I didn't submit that plan for your approval. You were to familiarize yourself with it, and prepare to carry it out."

On Grainger's desk, the phone rang imperatively.

The general scooped it up. His entire bearing and personality changed instantly. His voice conveyed friendliness and respect, with a warmth that it seemed impossible to counterfeit.

"Sure, Lyell," he said, with a laugh at some question Grainger couldn't hear. "A little buck fever, maybe. He'll be right up."

He hung up, and looked at Grainger. "No one gets to my position without the capacity to forget. You can still have that first star, Mart."

Grainger nodded, but couldn't bring himself to speak. He picked up the plan from the desktop, slid it into a flat tan case, turned, and feeling the general's gaze in the center of his back, left the room.

Lieutenant General Lyell Berenger was a strongly-built man, engaged, when Grainger came in, in an argument with his daughter. The relationship was obvious at first glance in the girl's jaw, nose, regularity of features, and bearing. She was handsome rather than pretty, and though she was attractive, she was also formidable.

"Yes," she was saying exasperatedly, "but as far as I'm concerned, he's got as much backbone as a bowl of mush. I'll grant you, he's got brains, tact, education, tact, upbringing, tact, culture, tact, a good build, tact, and everything else a man needs except a backbone. He's never said anything but just the right thing since I've met him. I can't bear him."

"But, Babs," said Berenger, "somebody's got to give."

"How did he get you to start in on me? I'll bet he was very tactful."

"Not at all; I just wondered."

"I'll bet."

"You can't stay single forever, Babs. If your mother were alive, she'd tell you—"

"Now just how do you know what Mother would tell me? Are you going to try to convince me you can think like a woman?"

Berenger changed color. "No, but the trouble with you is, you think like a man!"

"What's that got to do with it? That's neither here nor there. You said if Mother were alive she'd tell me—"

"She would."

"And I want to know," said the girl remorselessly, "how do you know what she'd tell me? Can you think like a woman? You just admitted you can't. Therefore you can't possibly know what Mother would tell me!"

Father and daughter glared at each other.

"Get out of here," said Berenger. "A man can stand only so much in one day."

"I stepped in because you asked me to," said the girl, unintimidated.

"Well," said Berenger, "that was my mistake." He spotted Grainger, who had been listening in fascination to the argument. "Just what are you doing in here, Colonel?"

"Sir, I thought you wanted me to come straight up. The outer office was empty and this door open. I was preoccupied, and I'm afraid I stepped in without thinking."

"You could have had the decency to step out again."

Grainger briefly shut his eyes. Downstairs, "Al" was at this moment calculating where to sink the knife in, and now, before the plan itself was even brought into the conversation, he had succeeded in offending the one man whose opinion of it was vital. For just a moment, he felt the anguish of a lost dream.

For the better part of his life, Grainger had wanted that one star more than he had wanted anything else. Women, liquor, and dice didn't tempt him. He had never married, and he wasn't interested in anything but soldiering. That had gotten him through O.C.S. and lifted him from one rank to another not too far behind competitors who had gone to the Point. But the closer he came to the center of power, the slower it lifted him, and now he could see that he would never make that first star. The silver eagle would be the zenith of his career, and he didn't think he would remain at the zenith long. And if he couldn't have the star, the hell with it. He might just as well get it over with.

"Colonel," Berenger was saying evenly, "I'd appreciate an apology."

"Sir," said Grainger, "I've come straight from a fight with one general, and I might as well have a fight with another."

The girl, just opening the door to go out, turned around again.

Berenger blinked, "Al didn't say anything."

"I don't disagree with him, sir. I do disagree with the plan."

"It's his plan."

"I don't think it's going to work."

"Have you discussed this matter—"

"Sir, I just finished discussing it with him. That's what the argument was about."

Berenger glanced at his daughter, his face expressionless.

"Get out of here, young lady. And I mean right now."

This time, she went out.

Berenger picked up the phone, changed his mind, and put it down again. He looked at Grainger.

"Do you realize what you're doing?"

"I realize that this plan calls for a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, using a completely new scientific device. The aim is to hamstring Russian nuclear-delivery capability, immobilize Russian armor in Eastern Europe, and by progressive stages sabotage all Russian heavy industry, transport, light, power, and means of communication. That is Phase I."

"And you don't think it will work?"

"No, sir."

"Why not?"

"For two reasons, sir. First, it's an attack without a real reconnaissance. Second, it's an attack without a defense."

"You don't claim to know more about this device than the scientists, I hope."

"I don't claim to understand the modus operandi of the device at all. How it works is beyond me. But a man doesn't have to understand how an internal-combustion engine works to be able to use it. I know what this device is supposed to do, and on that basis I know that this plan is dangerous."

"Are you sure you really do understand it?" said Berenger. "How long have you had to study it?"

"Yesterday and today. It takes a certain length of time to cut through the technical phraseology. It's only in the last two hours or so that I've been able to see it clearly enough to realize what's wrong."

Berenger frowned. "This has a peculiar sound, Colonel. Men with far greater experience and technical knowledge have concluded that the plan was sound."

"It wasn't up to them to actually carry it out. The parts look right but the whole is no good."

"All right," said Berenger. "If there's something wrong with this plan, now is the time to find it out." He frowned a moment at Grainger, who was still standing, and glanced around. "Pull up a chair, Colonel. The one by the door is comfortable."

"Thank you, sir." Grainger turned to get it, and the door, which was open a crack, moved slightly, as if in a slight breeze. Grainger picked up the chair, set it down, and saw Berenger studying the door. As Grainger sat down, Berenger stood up, looking past Grainger, and said, "Perhaps if you'll move the chair a little to your right, there'll be less glare."

Grainger did as he was told, but there was no glare worth mentioning in either place. The only sunlight was slanting in to one side of both of them, and Grainger's back was turned slightly toward it.

Berenger opened up a drawer of his desk, leaned back as if to rest his feet on it, changed his mind, and swung his chair in the other direction.

"Suppose," said Berenger, "that you start with a brief description of the device itself."

"It's known as a 'displacement device.' It consists of three parts: circuit 1, circuit 2, and the sending coil. When an object is placed in the focus of the sending coil, and a current is passed through the two circuits simultaneously, the object in the sending coil will be 'displaced.' That is, it will be transported through something called 'Zeta space,' and will reappear in normal space in a different location. At the same moment, if the light in the new location is intense enough, the light will overcome what is called 'barrier potential,' be displaced in the reverse direction, and appear as a flicker in the sending coil. This flicker can be resolved to give a visible image of the new location. The device causes a slight structural rearrangement in the objects sent, but this is only harmful in the case of the higher animals, which suffer nervous damage, and die quickly."

Berenger nodded approval. "Now, tell me, what if there is a physical object already in the space to which another object is sent by the displacement device?"

"Liquids or gases are moved aside, just as a stone thrown through the air or into a pool will move liquids or gases out of its way. But if a solid already occupies part of the space, only so much of the object in the coil will be sent as will emerge in space not already occupied by a solid object. It seems to me there must be borderline cases, but I don't know enough to say anything about that."

Berenger nodded, frowning. "Now just give a brief résumé of the plan itself."

"The plan is very simple. It involves sabotage on a massive scale. For the purpose, there are batteries of SFD units; that means, 'Spotter-Flasher-Displacement' units. Now, again, I haven't been given the technical details. All I know is that a 'spotter' unit is one that uses the flicker in the coil to detect an object and 'lock onto' it. The 'flasher' provides the extra light needed to overcome the so-called barrier potential, so that the spotter unit can work. Meanwhile, the 'displacer' unit is programmed to displace a metal slug that will block a fuel line, or a quantity of special glue that will bond moving parts together, or whatever else seems suitable to cause the greatest disablement in the shortest possible time. Each one of the SFD combinations can be programmed to handle a particular type of target.

"Now," Grainger went on, "the first step is sabotage of Russian missiles. Closely following that is sabotage of the Russian bomber force. Next, the immobilization of their Eastern European armored forces—such of the Russian armor, that is, as might try a strike against Western Europe. Next follows sabotage against Russian industry, transport, light, power, and communication. That is Phase I."

"Don't you think it will work?"

"Sir, I was laid up in a hospital one time, and all I had for entertainment was a book that made a comparison between war and chess. It told how you should go about a winning a game of chess strategically. I think I remember enough to give you an idea. First, you isolate one wing of your opponent's forces. Second, you bring the bulk of your power to bear against the isolated wing, maintaining only enough power on the other flank to hold off the enemy. Third, you crush the opponent's isolated forces with your superior concentration of power. Fourth, you wheel your mobile forces into the conquered battleground, and strike your diminished enemy with overwhelming force from the flank. Fifth, you grind up any remaining pockets of resistance piecemeal."

Berenger grinned. "What's wrong with that?"

"Not a thing. But what's the other side doing all this time?"

"And your objection to this present plan?"

"The same thing. This plan assumes they're as helpless as a cow in a slaughterhouse. All it tells us is how to slice up the corpse. It's all very logical, so far as it goes. The fine details are excellent. But what if the corpse fights back? The basic assumption throughout is that we now have a monopoly of the displacement device. But how do we know? We could find out by using the SFD units in a reconnaissance sweep just before the attack."

"Haven't you read the reasons for not doing that, in the plan itself?"

"Yes, sir. To maintain secrecy until the last moment. 'Premature use of the device would reveal our intent.' It certainly would create a sensation. But all that would be visible would be the dazzling burst from the flasher units—so many beams of brilliant light displaced through Zeta space to provide illumination for the spotter units. Certainly, if it were done long before the preparations were complete, it would serve as a warning. But the point is that it wouldn't be done before preparations were completed. It would, therefore, serve only as a shock and surprise, unless they have the device themselves. In which case, sir, we'd be a lot better off if we found it out."

Berenger said, "You mentioned another objection?"

Grainger frowned for a moment. Why, he asked himself, was the general so apparently unconcerned? If what had been said so far was true, the plan was badly at fault. Grainger knew it. Certainly Berenger, with his far greater experience, must also see it.

"Go on, Colonel," Berenger prompted.

"Yes, sir. The first objection is that we are striking without a proper reconnaissance, when there is no real reason why we shouldn't make such a reconnaissance. The second objection is worse yet. We're striking without having a real defense. Sir, under Paragraph 17, of the second section of these plans, there is mention of the 'necessity for exerting maximum force in the early stages of the attack.' The argument is that by doing so, we will knock out the enemy missile and bomber forces, and thus be safe from counterattack. But again, this assumes that the enemy has no developed defenses using the new device. How do we know this? We can't know it unless we carry out a reconnaissance."

"You've been all over this," said Berenger.

"Yes, sir, but not from this particular viewpoint: What happens if the enemy has a few dozen nuclear bombs or warheads ready to throw at us, from each of the several displacement installations we haven't located because we didn't look? Then what? This device removes an object from ordinary space, displaces it through Zeta space, and returns it to ordinary space at a location depending on the setting of variable circuit elements in circuits 1 and 2, the amount of energy available, and so on. And when this object reappears, it is already in the target area. It doesn't follow a trajectory so that you can try to hit it on the way down. It's already there. There's nothing to prevent it from going off instantaneously on arrival. The trajectory has been through Zeta space, and it's clear from the plan that there is no way to follow it through that."

"I think," said Berenger, "that you made some mention of Paragraph 17, in the second section?"

"Yes, sir. This paragraph is in explanation of the need for absorbing our own nuclear strike force displacers into the SFD units at the height of that attack. Sir, this is precisely when we'd need them."

"You're speaking of the displacement devices we now have assigned to our nuclear-delivery units."

"Yes, sir. If we convert these displacers for use with SFD units, merely for sabotage purposes, what do we do in the event of an enemy threat to counterattack using his own hidden displacement devices? What do we do in the event of an actual enemy attack?"

"As you said yourself, Colonel, there's no defense against that. What can we do in case of an attack anyway?"

Grainger stared at the general dizzily. He hadn't heard of this device till yesterday, and he hadn't unwound the complexities of it till a couple of hours ago, and now he had to explain it.

"Sir," he said patiently, "I admit, if they attack with everything at once, I don't see what we can do. But there are two objections to converting the nuclear displacers to SFD units. In the first place, they might . . . the Russians, I mean . . . might deliver a limited nuclear blow in reprisal for our sabotage. If we then responded with a limited nuclear attack in an unimportant region, they would see we were prepared to strike back, and we both might be able to work our way out of the mess. But if we can't strike back except by more sabotage—if our only choice is to either go on as we had been going, or else quit—they could work us into a corner in no time. They might even decide to end the trouble permanently. That's one of the things that's wrong with breaking up our own nuclear displacement units in order to strengthen the attack."

"What's the other?"

"They might know we'd done it without having to test us by a nuclear blow. They'd know by spying on our displacement units, using their devices."

"I can assure you," said Berenger, "we've had no word of any such use of their devices—if they have them. You remember, they can only use the device for spying purposes with an auxiliary light source. We keep the light in our displacement installations well below the intensity needed to enable them to spy. And we would immediately detect any auxiliary light source."

"Sir, this is an age of automation and miniaturization. I don't claim to have the technical knowledge to know whether small electronic devices would suffer from the same rearrangement of structure that damages the nervous system of a living creature when it's displaced. It seems to me that a proportion of such devices would be undamaged and usable. In that case, spy devices could be placed in our displacement installations without any flash of light. They could be put in more or less blindly, disguised as other things—lab tools, cigarette butts, whatever seemed most suitable, and in whatever place seemed best from study of the architecture of the outside of the building. The spy devices would then provide the information needed, perhaps by relaying it through other units outside."

Berenger nodded slowly. "Do you have any further objections to your superior's plans, Colonel Grainger?"

Grainger winced. "I have others, sir, but I think these are sufficient."

Berenger reached for the phone, then paused. "What would you do, if you were making the plan?"

"Multiply our SFD units further, do everything possible to find out if the Russians do or do not have the device, plant disguised spy devices wherever there appears to be such an installation, and do everything possible to find a defense against the displacement device. The present plan looks good when you read it off, Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2, Paragraph 3. But, sir, the nature of the device described is such that the plan won't stand up to analysis."

"And yet, you claim no great specialized knowledge of displacement devices?"

"Sir, I don't need specialized knowledge of cars to know that if I push on the accelerator the thing will go faster. I don't know the first thing about the chemical reactions that take place in a muscle, but that doesn't keep me from using it."

Berenger nodded. "All right, Colonel. I've listened to you. Now, if you wish to retract your statement, and if you will agree to go along with the plan as stated, I won't call your superior officer and describe the gist of this conversation to him. If you refuse, I will have to do it." He reached for the phone.

Grainger stared, "I'll resign my commission before I'll go along with this plan."

Berenger picked up the phone.

The outer door opened up, and the general's daughter stepped in. Her eyes were slightly widened as she looked at her father.

Berenger pressed down the bar in the phone's cradle, and said, "Just where were you?"

"In a chair right outside the door of this office. I heard the whole thing." Her eyes flashed. "You can't order me. If you go through with this, I'll see that it reaches every newspaper in the country."

Berenger glanced from his daughter to Grainger.

Grainger was looking at the girl in admiration. As she glared at her father, her fine, regular features, and the slight flush of emotion, gave her beauty. And there was no questioning the fact that she had a good figure. True, that look of iron will-power—or self-will, whichever it was—was enough to scare off almost any man. On the other hand, she was a challenge, far different from any of the girls Grainger had known. And there was no questioning the fact that she had a mind—albeit a highly independent one.

"Hm-m-m," thought Grainger, studying her.

A flicker of hope passed across Berenger's face, then vanished as he spoke into the phone.

"Hello, Al? Your protégé is up here, and he's just torn your plan to shreds. Moreover, he refuses to go along with any part of it." Berenger smiled. "Quite a stab in the back, isn't it? . . . Yes . . . Yes . . . No, nothing personal, he just doesn't like the plan, that's all . . . I'd come up if I were you. Sure, we can arrange it . . . Yes, come up and help me plan the court-martial. Maybe we can nail him for direct disobedience to orders, insubordination and"—he glanced at his daughter—"divulging confidential information to unauthorized persons . . . All right, Al." Berenger put the phone in its cradle.

His daughter was watching him in puzzlement. She started to speak, then changed her mind.

Grainger was watching the interesting play of emotions across her face.

Berenger said, "Out, Babs."

She didn't move, but stood watching him in puzzlement, her mind obviously sorting things over.

Berenger glanced at Grainger, "Colonel Grainger, would you remove this intruder before she wrecks the routine completely. Watch out for her. She knows judo."

Grainger got up. "That's all right. I know judo, savate, karate, aikido, yawara, ate-waza, and Shanghai Municipal Police close-combat."

She blinked at him, and suddenly smiled. She had a nice smile, "I'll go peacefully."

"Get her out of here," said Berenger. "Make sure she doesn't stay in the outer office. Put her on the elevator."

"Yes, sir."

Grainger walked her out into the hall.

She said, "Do you know what he's up to?"

"I don't have any idea. I'm completely lost. But I never heard of two generals getting together and arranging a court-martial that way, so I'm not going to give up yet."

"He's not angry with you at all. He's pleased with you. And there's something else, but I can't put my finger on just what he's trying to do." She glanced back. "I wish I had some way to know what happens. He'll delight in teasing me and not telling me a thing."

Grainger made a quick decision. A few minutes later, he was back in Berenger's office, with the two generals studying him quizzically. Assuming he got through this, he reminded himself, he had a date with Berenger's daughter.

"Sir," he said to his superior, "I'm sorry. But that displacement device just doesn't fit in with those plans."

He expected a rebuke, but got a smile instead. "It doesn't actually fit in with any war plans—yet."

"I don't understand, sir."

"We have such a device—with a few points of difference. And the Russians have it, too. Use of it creates a detectable disturbance, like the tremor and shock wave created by nuclear devices. The result is, we know they have it. And they know we have it."

Grainger frowned. "Sir, what are the points of difference?"

"Range is one. The curvature of normal space is too gradual to allow use of the device on the planet, or even in the way we'd like to use it, within the solar system. Whatever we send ends up too far out. In addition, there's a theoretically explainable, very slight random effect, negligible when considered over the enormous range of the device, but nevertheless measured in a great many Earth diameters. Incidentally, we estimate this error by the highly expensive process of boosting out an entire pre-packaged displacement installation, complete with self-contained power supply, and preset to send back a series of objects whose radiations we then struggle to detect. The scatter is impressive. If we tried to hit Moscow with this thing, we could kick up a fuss in the asteroid belt, and consider ourselves lucky, at that. About all the device is really good for right now is getting rid of radioactive waste. It's fine, for that purpose. And we're trying to develop it into a tool for space travel. But for warfare on Earth, it's as worthless as a 21-inch gun in close combat."

Grainger thought it over. "And the plan?"

"What we've just been speaking of is a device that operates outside of normal space. This present device doesn't happen to use the theoretical Zeta space mentioned in the plan. But how do we know the Zeta space mentioned in the plan doesn't actually exist? Or if not that, something equally capable of serving the purpose? A great many devices predicted long ago, and ridiculed for a generation or more, have now come into existence. We have atomic devices, rocketships, and heat rays. We begin to become wary. What's coming next? To be capable of higher command, a man seems to need the capacity of a sea captain. While the technological deck heaves and lunges under his feet, he has to stay upright."

Grainger nodded.

Berenger said, "Do you realize what it involves to try to keep up with this new technology? Despite the best technical training available, it's impossible for even the specialists in a given field to keep up with their own field. And all these fields can affect war. Do you see what that means? Until we have some means of multiplying the present rate of learning so that it can begin to keep up with the advances of technology, we have to expect new advances to be flung at us from time to time that we can't possibly understand as a scientist understands them. In the First World War, there were commanders who never did figure out the meaning of a machine gun. In the Second, we had teams of technicians and scientists going out to explain the devices. That's important. But now we have reached the point where it becomes glaringly obvious that one of the most important requirements of higher command is the ability to cut through technicalities, and quickly sense the possibilities of even the most fantastic new technological devices. And this will very likely have to be done under stress."

Grainger blinked. "So the plan was a test?"

Berenger nodded. "We put you under the highest stress we could manage, let you think you'd be ruining your career if you gave an honest answer, let you have a scene with your commanding officer, and after you'd won, we offered you a hole to crawl back into; but you came through anyway. We've had others fail."

Grainger felt himself pale as he realized how close a squeak this had been. All he would have had to do to disqualify himself was to think only of getting a promotion.

Berenger noted his expression, and grinned. He reached in a drawer and took out a pair of silver stars.

"Here, put these in your pocket. Al will want to pin them on, but I can give them to you. It may take a little while, but don't get impatient.

"The papers can come through fast when we find the right man these days."


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