By Charles V. DeVet
"You must kill Koski," the leader said.
"But I'll be dead before I get there," Buckmaster replied.
"What's that got to do with it?" the leader wanted to know.
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, May 1952.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The sense of taste was always first to go. For a week Buckmaster hadignored the fact that everything he ate tasted like flavorless gruel.He tried to make himself believe that it was some minor disorder ofhis glandular system. But the eighth day his second sense—that offeeling—left him and he staggered to his telephone in blind panic.There was no doubt now but that he had the dread Plague. He was gladhe had taken the precaution of isolating himself from his family. Heknew there was no hope for him now.
They sent the black wagon for him.
In the hospital he found himself herded with several hundred othersinto a ward designed to hold less than a hundred. The beds were crowdedtogether and he could have reached to either side of him and touchedanother ravaged victim of the Plague.
Next to go would be his sense of sight. Hope was a dead thing withinhim. Even to think of hoping made him realize how futile it would be.
He screamed when the walls of darkness began to close in around him. Itwas the middle of the afternoon and a shaft of sunlight fell across thegrimy blankets on his bed. The sunlight paled, then darkened and wasgone. He screamed again. And again.
He heard them move him to the death ward then, but he could not evenfeel their hands upon him.
Three days later his tongue refused to form words. He fought a namelessterror as he strove with all the power of his will to speak. If hecould say only one word, he felt, the encroaching disease would have toretreat and he would be safe. But the one word would not come.
Four horrible days later the sounds around him—the screams and themuttering—became fainter, and he faced the beginning of the end.
At last it was all over. He knew he was still alive because he thought.But that was all. He could not see, hear, speak, feel, or taste.Nothing was left except thought; stark, terrible, useless thought!
Strangely the awful horror faded then and his mind experienced agrateful release. At first he suspected the outlet of his emotions hadsomehow become atrophied as had his senses, and that he was peacefulonly because his real feelings could not break through the numbness.
However, some subtle compulsion within him—some power struggling inits birth-throes—was beginning to breed its own energy and he sensedthat it was the strength of that compulsion that had subdued the terror.
He was at peace now, as he had never been at peace before. For atime, he did not question—was entirely content to lie there andsavor the wonderful feeling. He had lost even the definition of fear.No terror now from the slow closing of the five doors; no regrets;no forebodings. Only a vast happiness as he seemingly viewed life,suffering, and death as a man standing on a cliff looking out over agreat misty valley.
But soon came wonder and analysis. He looked backward and thought:It was a world, but not my world. These are memories but not mymemories. I lived them and knew them—yet none of them belongs to me.Strange—this soul-fiber with which I think—the last function left tome—is not a soul-fiber I have ever known before.
And he knew.
I have never existed before this moment.
He could not prove it nor explain it there in the dark house of histhinking. But he knew it was true.
He wondered if he had taken over the body and mind—complete with allthe mental trappings—of some other being. Or whether he had been justnow conceived, full-blown and with memories of a synthetic past perhapsimplanted also in the minds of those with whom he was supposed to havecome in contact. He did not know. He was only sure that, before thismoment, he had not been.
With the realization came the certainty that he would not die. Theforce he felt within him—he was not certain whether it was a part ofhimself, or the evidence of an outside control—was too powerful.
The inner spontaneity gathered strength until it became a striving,persistent vital force, a will of imperious purpose. It moved him andhe moved his tongue and spoke. "I will not die!" he shouted.
Some time later he grew aware that his sense of hearing had returned.He heard a voice say, "He was in the last stages about an hour ago,before he spoke. I thought I'd better call you."
"You did right," a second voice answered. "What's his name?"
They're talking about me, he thought. Like a burst of glory, sightreturned. He looked up and saw two men standing beside his bed. Theolder man wore a plain black suit. The younger was dressed in the whiteuniform of a doctor.
"He can see now," the older man said. His was a voice Buckmasterdisliked.
"It looks as if he's going to recover," the doctor said. "That's neverhappened before. Do you want me to leave him here with the dying ones?"
"No. Wheel him into your office. And leave us alone there. My name isJames Wagner. You have, of course, heard of me. I am the Director ofSecurity."
Buckmaster still rested in his hospital bed. They had screwed up theback until he sat almost straight. In his mouth there was a slight tangand knew the sense of taste returned. When he was able to feel again hewould be entirely well. Yes, he'd heard of Wagner before. He nodded.
"And I know who you are," Wagner said. "You are one of the Undergroundthat is trying to overthrow the General. That is correct, is it not?"
Almost with surprise Buckmaster felt Wagner's words register in hismind. His implanted memories were still strange to him. But he recalledthem quickly.
Twenty years before, in 1979, the great Atomic War had ended. In thebeginning the two giants faced each other across the separating oceans.No one was certain who sent the first bomb across in its controlledrocket; each side blamed the other.
The methods of each were terrible in their efficiency. The greatmanufacturing cities were the first to go. After them went the vitaltransportation centers.
Striving mightily for an early advantage each country forced landingarmies on the enemy's shores. The armies invaded with their hundreds ofthousands of men—and the bombings continued.
The colossus of the western hemisphere had set up autonomous launchingstations, so that if and when their major cities had all been bombed,their ruling bodies decimated and scattered—even if there were nolonger any vestiges of a central authority—the launchings wouldcontinue.
The autonomous units had been a stroke of master planning, so ingeniousthat it was logical the giant of Eurasia had devised a similar plan.
By the time the bombs had all been used, or their stations renderedincapable of functioning, the major cities were blackened, gutted,inoperative masses of destruction. Soon the invading armies no longerreceived orders, or supplies of rations and arms. When this happenedthey knew governments they represented had ceased to exist. They wereforced to live by the ingenuity of their commanders and their abilityto forage. They could not even capitulate; there was no one to whomthey could surrender.
Those armies with weak commanders fell apart and one by one their mendied at the hands of hostile natives, or hunger.
The armies under strong commanders, like General Andrei Koski, of theEurasian command, carved themselves a place in their new environment.
Koski had landed with a force of seventy thousand on the east coast ofold Mexico. His army was different from the other invaders only in asecret weapon which they brought with them. The weapon's appearance wassimple but it carried the potentiality of destruction for a world.
Acting under previous orders from his government, Koski began movingnorthward, and was soon cutting a swath a hundred miles wide up thewest bank of the Mississippi. By the time he reached the southernborder of Minnesota he realized from what he saw on all sides, that forall practical purposes the war was over. His only choice now was tofind a means of survival for himself and his men.
When Koski reached Duluth he circled the city. Almost miraculouslyit had escaped the bombs. Its population was only a little over twohundred thousand, and Koski still retained nearly fifty thousandhardened fighting men.
However, Duluth, Koski found, was governed by Earl Olson, anex-brigadier and a man equally as strong as himself. The city wasfortified, and garrisoned by a force of well trained civilians whowould fight to their death to defend their city and families. And theywere well led by Olson.
Koski knew he could capture the city if he decided to, but the pricewould be too dear. He moved on along the lakeshore and took over thecity of Superior. Here he entrenched himself solidly and set up anefficient military government.
By law every woman in the city still capable of bearing children wasforced to take two husbands, at least one of which must be a Ruskie, asthe invaders were called by the natives. In this way Koski insured aplentiful supply of children, most of whom would be loyal to him.
A bonus of ten thousand dollars was offered to any woman from theoutlying districts who would move to Superior and take two of itscitizens in marriage. After the first hesitation, the girls and youngwomen and widows flocked in from their barren farms and hamlets.
By the end of twenty years the city had grown to near one hundred fiftythousand.
Duluth in the meantime grew to three hundred thousand. Earl Olson ruledabsolutely, but wisely and well. Between the two cities an alert truceheld through the years and mutually advantageous trade flourished.
Koski, in his city, held all authority in his own tight grip,administered by his former officers and backed by the undeviatingloyalty of his soldiers. His rule was stern and when necessary, bloody.It might have been bloodier except for the threat of intervention byOlson.
There are always men who fret under the hand of tyranny and theUnderground had gradually risen until it grew into a powerfulorganization. Its demands were for a representative government chosenby vote of the people. This, of course, Koski refused. As a consequencethe Underground formed an active resistance, with the avowed purposeof killing Koski. A retaliatory blood bath was prevented only bythe threat of intervention by Olson, who had many friends in theUnderground, especially his brother-in-law, Lester Oliver.
But right now none of this seemed very important to Buckmaster. Notimportant enough for him to bother answering.
"Answer when you're spoken to!" Wagner roared.
For a moment Buckmaster deliberated not replying. Just how unusualwas the difference he had discovered in himself? Could he be hurt bysomeone like Wagner? He decided to wait until later to put it to thetest.
"What do you want me to say?" he asked.
"I'm going to lay my cards on the table," Wagner said. "I want you tocome over to our side."
Still not very interested, Buckmaster asked, "Why should I?"
"I think I can give you some very good reasons. In fact, unless you'rea bigger fool than I think you are, I can convince you that it is theonly wise thing to do. Because of your relatively smaller numbers, thePlague has caused havoc in your Underground."
"Yes," Buckmaster answered. "But we will have a vaccine before long."He knew this was purely bluff.
"Possibly." Wagner pulled his cheeks up but his eyes remained chilledand cold. He had the trick of smiling mirthlessly. "But even if Iwere to grant you that, we estimate that already nearly half of yourorganization is dead from the Plague. There will be more before you cando anything. The rest we can hunt down at our leisure. So you see, evenif we let you live, you'd soon be a man without a party."
"We could start all over again if we had to." The first signs offeeling came back with a twinge of pain at the tip of the little fingeron his