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Missile Smasher

The night air was warm and almost still, the only sound the faint lapping of the lake, far below, against the rocks. Long after sundown, the parapet atop the tower still felt warm. Richard Verner, crouched beside it, looked across the water at the dark, tree-lined shore, then down at the shadowy buildings below the tower. Nowhere could he see a guard.

The faint moonlight, diffused through high clouds, lit the stone floor that formed the top of the tower, to show a small metal table bearing several empty glasses, an ashtray and a half-empty bottle of suntan oil. Nearby, on the floor, was a thin mattress covered with a large beach towel. Beyond that was a dark bulky shape that in daylight could be seen to be a gaily-striped tent, like a tent at the beach where people might change their clothes.

In the faint moonlight, Verner quietly crossed the stone floor, to very gently draw open the rough canvas flap of the tent.

Inside, it was pitch dark. A current of heated air drifted out past him. Then, as he carefully moved inside, he touched something hard and round, angled up from the stone floor toward the interior of the tent. In that instant, he knew that what he was here for was real, and not a fantasy after all.

The general who had brought the problem to him the week before had warned him it would seem unreal. Straight and spare, with a craggy face and tarnished pilot’s wings above a triple row of ribbons, the general had said, “Mr. Verner, I understand you’re a heuristician—that it’s your business to help solve problems other experts alone can’t handle. I suppose you must have seen many strange problems. But I doubt that you’ve ever seen one as strange as mine. I’d like you to look at this photograph, and then listen to me very carefully.”

Verner took the slightly foggy color photo, and saw a gray stone tower, rising above thick green forest against a deep-blue sky. Atop the tower was a nearly flat-roofed tent, gaily striped. Just visible through the opening of the tent was a thing that looked like the end of a large telescope.

The general said, “My problem, Mr. Verner, involves our newest rocket-launching facility. Of the first six important launches from this site, one was successful, three went off-course so wildly that they had to be destroyed, and two were satellites that went into very unsatisfactory orbits. This is a record of one success and five failures. The trouble has been traced to a fantastically rapid build-up of heat at the base of the rocket. We are convinced that we have had, among other things, exceptional erosion of the nozzle through which the exhaust gases pass. These rockets are very carefully checked before launch. Nothing has been found wrong with them. Yet without something wrong, this heat buildup is impossible. The only explanation of these failures is sabotage after the rocket is launched.”

Verner sat back, eyes narrowed in concentration, the photograph in his hands.

The general said tensely, “We are at a crucial point in space research. These continued failures could give our adversaries a lead we might never overcome. They have every reason to sabotage our rockets. But how? How could they possibly sabotage a rocket after it is launched?

Verner listened intently. The general’s urgency gave his words added weight as he said, “There seems to be only one possible way. Some years ago, a method of forming light into a very intensely coherent beam was invented. This device was called the ‘laser.’ Since then, much highly-classified work has been done on it, here and abroad. We are satisfied that very intense bursts of coherent light, focused on our rockets as they reached a given altitude, could create the very heat effects that have caused us so much trouble.”

“And this photograph?”

“That was taken by accident from a handling tower by one of our technicians. He didn’t think anything of it till he noticed the thing inside the tent.”

“What looks like a telescope?”

“Yes. But why mount a telescope inside a tent? One technician thought it was a telephoto camera lens. We think it’s the end of a highly advanced projector of intense bursts of laser light. This is the exact kind of thing, Mr. Verner, that we would have laughed at a few years ago. But a few years ago, we would have laughed at the idea of sending a man to the moon. We don’t laugh at these things any more.”

“Wouldn’t a beam of light be seen?”

“The unsuccessful launches were carried out in full daylight, and the rocket, of course, makes a very dazzling glare by itself. The laser light would be focused in short intense bursts at the base of the rocket. In these circumstances, I doubt that we would see anything at all, except the final results of the heat buildup.”

Verner thought about it in silence, his eyes half-closed, and then said, “The problem isn’t just to stop the sabotage, is it?”

The general smiled. “I can see you’re the man we need. No, we could end this sabotage in a number of ways. But think what would happen. To begin with, these saboteurs have set the device up in this tower, built years ago by a rich man who wanted his own castle, and started it on an island near what is now our launching site. His money ran out, but he got the tower finished, and it has walls several feet thick. The grounds there are so overgrown they’re almost a jungle. The men who operate this device must expect us to rush out there, as soon as we discover it. They will methodically destroy the device, put their hands up, and get ready for eventual trial and prison sentence. They have already cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage, but that’s only the beginning.

“During the trial, this laser beam, which has worked only on a slowly-rising rocket lifting off from a fixed location, will be magnified into a new communist superweapon, to create an international scare. Next, we will be accused of Gestapo methods in capturing these people. They’ve undoubtedly got it all figured out, our move, then their move. We’ve considered every move we can make, and there isn’t one that really pays us back for the damage they’ve already done the country. But we’ve studied some of the work you’ve done, and we’re convinced you can find a way to hit them where they don’t expect it, without our being directly involved, and throw them off balance.”

Verner said, “You realize I often have to call on experts of every conceivable kind, for facts and for the use of their special skills?”

The general nodded. “Get whoever you need. We’ll help, too.”

Now, inside the dark canvas tent atop the tower, Verner carefully felt of the massive pipe-shaped brace, and cautiously ran his hand along the cool metal, to where the brace joined a second and a third brace. He could feel at the center a kind of heavy metal platform around a vertical pin, but the actual laser-device was not there. Next he ran his hand along the metal to the floor, felt the hollow where the heavy pipe of the brace was bolted to a flattened metal bar cemented into the floor. He straightened, and examined the rest of the tent.

To one side was a large dark blot on the stone floor, and he knelt beside it to find a hole leading down into the tower, the trapdoor opened back against the parapet. Several minutes of careful exploration disclosed, directly above the hole, a frame of heavy lumber supporting a large pulley, whose rope was coiled up in a corner of the tent.

Somewhere down in the tower was the laser device. When the time came, it would be hoisted on the rope and mounted. For now, it was out of reach.

Verner stepped out of the tent, and looked up at the large silent shadow, drifting overhead. He aimed a tiny shielded flashlight upward, blinked it twice, then twice again.

A smaller shadow detached itself from the larger, dropped down onto the tower, and turned uncertainly.

Verner reached out, took the soft cloth of the camouflage suit, and tugged gently. The shadow became a man of middle height, breathing a trifle hard from exertion and excitement. In a quiet whisper, Verner described the situation. The man nodded, and slipped into the tent.

Uneasily, Verner waited. Down on the ground below the tower, two large dim forms slipped in and out of the shrubbery and the deep shadows of the trees. Dogs, searching for any intruder.

From the tent came an occasional faint glint of light, too dim to reflect down into the tower, but bright enough so that Verner carefully drew the tent flap shut.

Overhead, the dark shadow moved a little aside, then back, and once a dim reflection showed for an instant a long line curving away toward higher ground in the distance, and a bar-taut line and dangling release-cord leading down to the tower.

Then there was a quiet rustle of cloth, and a murmur. “It’s done.”

Again, Verner flashed his light upward, and this time a long knotted rope swung across the tower. He caught it, waited till the other man climbed awkwardly up, then followed. As he pulled himself into the man-carrying basket of the balloon, it was the tower that took on a look of shadowy unreality. Then it was drifting away into the night, and Verner knew that they had either won or lost, but they wouldn’t know the answer till the next day.

Early the next morning, the general stood beside Verner, watching the tower through binoculars.

“I don’t see,” he said, “how you will even know when that laser device is in place, much less hope to put them out of action. Remember, the mere sound of a helicopter will warn them, and then they’ll destroy the laser.”

In the binoculars, the striped tent stood out sharp and clear atop the tower—and suddenly blurred in a puff of dirty yellow smoke that billowed out from beneath it, burst out in a cloud past the flap—and then two men staggered out, the yellow cloud swirling around them.

From one side, fast and low, a helicopter shot across the treetops, whirled over the tower, climbed sharply, and the canvas tent, caught in a trailing net embedded with hooks, ripped up and off its frame, showing a thick stubby cylinder looming through the yellow smoke.

Already, a second helicopter was streaking in, to pause for an instant as a man wearing a gas mask dropped to the flat top of the tower, threw a bundle down the hole, bent intently at the cylinder, then lifted it and a cone fixed beside it, put them in a large net lowered from the helicopter, caught a rope and swung up.

The helicopter lifted, gained speed, and was gone.

Verner said, “Several cameras have already taken pictures of that device, from long distance, and from the helicopters. The man who took it from its base is an expert at defusing bombs and detecting booby traps. The large bundle he dropped into the tower was a little something extra—part payment for the damage these people have done. It may persuade them to be cooperative. Who knows?”

The general smiled. “Now we will proceed with the launch.”


The rocket was a tiny dot high in the sky, and the engineers were grinning at each other, when the general said, “How did you manage to gas them from long distance, and how did you know when they had the laser in place?”

“We got a specialist in there who laid down a thin transparent insulating film where the laser was to rest, and who then, as I understand it, sprayed a thin circuit on the film. As soon as the laser was in place, it changed the electrical characteristics of the circuit. That activated a relay that touched off small gas cartridges packed into the hollow legs of the support.”

“And what was that bundle that was dropped into the tower?” the general asked.

“To even up the damage the saboteurs have done, we have to do more than get the laser. Our own research people may already have a similar device. So the saboteurs need to be cooperative and answer a few questions.”

The general smiled. “How did you propose to manage that? These men are tough.”

Verner nodded. “The trouble at the top of the tower would be pretty sure to bring the others up in a hurry. And those on top would go down as soon as possible. It follows that both sets of them would pass through the room directly below the top of the tower.”

A phone began to ring, and as someone reached for it, the general frowned and said, “How—”

“That room,” said Verner, “is where the bundle went.”

The technician holding the phone turned in astonishment to the general. “Sir, some self-confessed saboteurs are out at the gate. They want medical aid.”

The general blinked. “What for?”

“Among other things they claim to have been attacked by swarms of hornets and a number of scorpions. But their main difficulty seems to be that they got unexpectedly tangled up with half-a-dozen rattlesnakes.”

Verner said quietly, “There’s an ambulance truck standing by with everything they’ll need. But it would be ordinary courtesy for those saboteurs to answer a few questions first.”

The general gave a low whistle.

“That,” said Verner gravely, “should solve the problem.”

The general grinned suddenly and turned to the technician.

“Send them in.”

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