The one thing that consistently allowed my employer to triumph over his adversaries was their utter inability to escape their preconceived notions. In business, this ability to “think out of the box” was at least given lip service, although a true innovator often met more obstacles than rewards. But in the Space Legion, especially among the officer corps, any notion that hadn’t been held by generations upon generations of legionnaires was suspect. So the reaction of a typical Legion officer to one of my employer’s schemes was completely predictable.
I am informed that within military circles this inflexibility is considered an asset. Perhaps it is just as well that I was never tempted to follow that career myself. It was all I could stomach to watch the operation of the military mind at a safe and comfortable distance…preferably several kilometers away.
“Major, we have a mutiny on our hands,” said Lieutenant Snipe, bursting into the command center.
“Mutiny?” Botchup snarled. “These damned incompetents couldn’t organize a barroom brawl, let alone a mutiny.” Then he frowned. “What are you doing away from your post?”
“The supply sergeant sent out a message, and he wouldn’t let me look at it first!”
“Huh, I just got that damned message,” said the major. He handed Snipe a printout. “What the hell do you make of this?”
Snipe squinted at the printout for a moment, then said, “I don’t understand. This says that all full members of the Church of the New Revelation are to report to the supply shed at once, orders of Captain Jester. What in the world does he want with them in the middle of an attack?”
“Uh, that’ll be me,” said the legionnaire behind the console.
“You’ll stay right where you are,” Major Botchup grunted. He turned to Snipe and said, “I want to know what he’s doing sending the supply sergeant to transmit the message when he ought to be bringing it here in person. Maybe you’re right. We just might be looking at a conspiracy, Snipe.”
Snipe rubbed his jaw, thinking fiercely. “That makes sense, Major, he might be trying to open a door to the very invaders we’re digging in to repel. What other motive could he have for pulling essential personnel out of our defensive lines?”
“Exactly,” said Botchup. “It looks as if our friend Jester is about to sell us out to the very enemy he was sent here to suppress. I’m not surprised that he’s doing it, but it is a bit of a shock that he’d be fool enough to put it on record. This’ll be all the grounds we need to expel him from the Legion-and clap him into prison for a good long term, as well.”
“It’ll serve him right!” agreed Snipe. “In fact, I wish they’d…What’s that?”
“It’s the distant motion detector alarm, sir,” said the legionnaire at the command console. “Something really big seems to be approaching the perimeter.”
“Seems to be?” said Botchup. “Seems to be? Is it approaching, or isn’t it?”
“I dunno, sir,” said the legionnaire, pouting. “Whyn’t you take a look if you think you can tell any more than I can?”
“I’ll do just that,” snarled Botchup, and he elbowed the legionnaire out of the seat and slid in. The legionnaire said nothing but began sidling toward the exit.
Botchup fiddled with a control, muttered something foul-sounding under his breath, switched to a different control, hit a couple of buttons, cursed under his breath, fiddled some more, and then fell silent. Gradually his mouth began to fall open, and his hands began trembling. After a long silence, he gave a low whistle and said, “Great Ghu, how can anything that big not show up on visual?”
“I don’t know,” said Snipe. “But it sure is moving fast-“
“Told you so,” said the legionnaire, smirking, just before he dodged out the door. But Major Botchup sat staring at the console, not even noticing the young man’s departure. That was when Snipe really began to worry.
“What’s the story, C. H.?” Rev looked at the supply sergeant, then at the group of legionnaires, all with variations on the same face, the sideburned, full-upped face with the Grecian nose that he himself wore. By his quick calculation, every member of the Church of the New Revelation-the Church of the King, as it was also known-was here by the supply shed in response to the cryptic message calling them all together at this tense moment.
“I’m just the dude carryin’ the message, Rev,” said Chocolate Harry. “The cap’n’s the only one knows the whole story, and he said he’d be here to fill y’all in as soon as he got one other bit of work taken care of. So be cool, and I reckon he’ll be along when whatever’s happenin’ is ready to happen.”
“I can wait, sure ’nuff,” said Rev. “Only thing that worries me is, I don’t see where the major’s signed off on whatever we’re doing. That could get mighty touchy if the major decides we’re away from our posts in the middle of an emergency-“
“Let me worry about that,” said a familiar voice.
“Cap’n!” said Chocolate Harry. “Glad you’re here. Looks like we got everybody you asked for-“
“That’s right,” said Rev. “Every single one of my flock is here, waitin’ t’ hear what you’ve got in mind.”
“Good work, both of you,” said Phule. “Now, here’s what I want all of you to do…”
“What are we going to do, sir?” Snipe peered over Major Botchup’s shoulder at the command center’s combat situation screen. “What are we going to do?” The screen showed a large, amorphous blip sitting in the desert immediately outside the camp. But reports from the lookouts on that section of the perimeter reported nothing unusual.
“I still can’t believe that none of those idiots can see anything out there,” muttered Botchup. “Instruments don’t lie, damn it.” The major sat, staring at the screen and rubbing his chin a moment, then turned and looked at his adjutant. “Snipe,” he said.
“Yes, sir?” said the adjutant. Then he saw Botchup’s expression and said, “No, sir! You can’t be thinking-“
“Don’t you let me down, too, Snipe,” said Botchup, a growl in his voice. “There’s something fishy going on here, and I don’t dare take any chances. Either these moronic Omega Company clowns are even more grossly incompetent than they’ve been up to now, or Jester’s talked them into deliberately refusing to report a hostile incursion. I need somebody out there, Snipe, and you’re the only one I’ve got.”
“Sir,” said Snipe resignedly. “What do you want me to do.
Botchup put a hand on Snipe’s shoulder. “Get out to the perimeter in Blue Sector,” he rumbled. “That’s where the trouble seems to be-and tell me what’s going on. And be ready for anything, Snipe, anything. When in doubt, assume the worst. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” said Snipe, his face a mask of discontent. He patted his hip, where a side arm rested in its holster. “I’ll be ready, sir.” He came to attention and saluted smartly, then turned and headed for the door. It would have been a very smart exit had he not misjudged his step and tripped over a heavy power cable on the floor. He landed flat on his face and lay there a second, then pulled himself up, saluted again, and headed for the door.
He almost made it this time, except for colliding with a legionnaire coming in as he went out. The legionnaire managed to get an arm around Snipe and prevent him from falling again. “Sorry, Lieutenant,” she said. “Ah’ll be mo’ careful next time.”
Snipe stared at her-an oval face with thick dark hair in a high pompadour, with locks combed into sideburns. Her thick lips had an expression somewhere between a sneer and a pout. “Didn’t you just leave?” he said. He stared at her name tag, which read “Tupelo.”
“No, suh, ah’m just at the start of mah shift,” said Tupelo. “That must’ve been Private Sandbag.”
“Oh, yes, I guess you’re right,” said Snipe. “Well, sir, I’m off.” He turned abruptly and made a dash for the door, and this time he managed to find the way out.
It took Lieutenant Snipe a moment to get his bearings in the dark; too late, he remembered that he had a pair of night vision goggles back in the Comm Center. But the major was in a hurry for answers; no time to get the goggles now. His eyes would just have to adjust.
Now, which way was Blue Sector? Snipe remembered that the incursion had reportedly begun somewhere near the supply depot, which was to the…to the left of the exit he’d taken from the MBC? Yes, that must be right. He’d looked at the screen before leaving the command center but wasn’t sure just how it was oriented in relation to his present position. Well, the encampment wasn’t that large. He’d find it soon enough.
He jumped as a voice behind him said, “Excuse me, sir, can I help you?”
He turned to see a legionnaire with a dark pompadour, sideburns, and night vision goggles hanging around the neck. “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty in the command center?” he asked.
The legionnaire grinned. “No, I wish I was. Working there’s got to be a lot more fun than running around in these stupid drills.”
From the voice, Snipe realized that this one was a male. Obviously not the same as the one he’d just seen…except the face was uncannily close. Snipe shivered, then said, “I need to inspect the perimeter in Blue Sector. And don’t assume it’s a drill, either. This is a war zone, you know.”
“Uh-yeah,” said the legionnaire, whose nameplate Snipe couldn’t make out in the dark. “Blue is over that way, sir”-he gestured to the left just past the supply depot, if you know where that is. I’d take you there, but I’ve got to get to my post.”
“That’s good enough,” said Snipe, and he set off in the direction indicated. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark. Above him, the desert sky was full of brilliant stars in unfamiliar constellations-not quite enough light to see by, but perhaps enough to help him avoid crashing into objects the size of a hoverjeep. He made his way gingerly, wondering just what he was supposed to be looking for.
After a short distance, he made out a vague shape ahead of him: the supply depot, he assumed. He moved purposefully toward it, but barely had he covered half the distance when a hulking figure loomed in front of him and said softly, “Who goes there?”
Snipe drew back a pace, noting even in the dark that his challenger was aiming a large weapon toward him. “Point that thing the other way,” he said. “It’s Lieutenant Snipe, on orders from the major.”
“Oh, sorry, sir,” said the legionnaire. A small red light appeared in his hand, briefly illuminating Snipe’s face-and his own. Snipe got a momentary glimpse of a dark pompadour, long sideburns…
“I thought you had to go the other way,” said Snipe, beginning to wonder if this legionnaire was following him for some reason.
“No, sir, this is my post,” said the legionnaire, just loud enough to be heard. Then he drew closer and whispered, “Say, if you don’t mind telling me, sir, are we going to see action tonight? Seems awful long for a drill.”
“I’m damned if I know what’s going on anymore,” said Snipe. “That’s why I’m out here. Have you seen any sign of action?”
“No, sir,” said the legionnaire. “Quiet as a mouse, right here. You’re the first person I’ve seen.”
“I see,” said Snipe. “Wait a minute. I hear something over there!” He pointed toward the dark shadow he assumed was the supply depot.
Before they could react, a group of dark figures dashed up to them. Snipe felt what had to be the muzzle of a weapon pressed against his midsection. “What are you doing here?” growled a low voice.
“L-l-lieutenant Snipe,” he managed to stammer. “M-major’s orders.”
“Snipe? Not bloody likely,” said one of the newcomers. “He’s probably sitting in his soft bunk while the real legionnaires run the show. Give me a light, here.”
Again a soft red light gleamed, and in its brief flare Snipe saw the legionnaires around him. After the first instant of shocked recognition, he gave a terrified shriek and fainted dead away.
Major Botchup paced, stopping occasionally to look at the Command Center console over the shoulder of the legionnaire on duty. What was taking Snipe so long? The approaching…entity that showed, now larger than the Legion camp itself, on the Command Center’s screens, surely must be visible from the defensive perimeter. Even Snipe must be able to see it.
He’d tried paging the lieutenant on the communicator, but the interference that had plagued communications ever since he’d arrived on this planet had suddenly increased again. He suspected sabotage. It had to be sabotage. Not even Omega Company could rise to this level of incompetence. The camp was in a state of siege, the enemy was gathering its strength for a final assault, and now the enemies were boring from within.
“Try him again,” he snapped.
Obediently, the legionnaire at the console went through the routine of trying to hail Botchup’s adjutant, but the speakers kept up an unrelenting rumble and rattle of white noise. Or was it noise? Botchup could swear there were patterns in it, but the cryptological analysis devices in the company’s arsenal could detect no meaning in them. Either the code was subtler than anyone expected, or…He didn’t want to think about what the alternatives might be.
Suddenly the door to the outside burst open. He turned to glare at the intruder. But his heart sank when he saw Captain Jester come through the door along with Lieutenant Armstrong. Supported between them was the limp, pale form of Lieutenant Snipe.
“What the hell?” said Botchup, as Jester and Armstrong maneuvered the unconscious Snipe to a seat.
“Stand back, sir, let him have some air,” said Armstrong. He stepped over to the water cooler and filled a disposable cup and brought it back to Snipe. “We think he’ll be all right, but he’s got to get a few moments to breathe.”
“Yes, yes, but what the hell happened?”
“He appears to have passed out,” said Phule. At least now he was in proper uniform, Botchup noted absently. “He was found on the ground out in Blue Sector. It could have been the heat, or it could have been sheer terror…”
“Terror?” Botchup asked, his brows going upward at least an inch. “Terror? The man’s a Legion officer. What in the world could have frightened him?”
“There’s something uncanny going on out there,” said Phule. “Something’s lurking just beyond the perimeter. Look at your readouts! It’s there, all right, but nobody can see it. It’s the reason the Zenobians called us here.”
“I don’t believe one word of it,” said Botchup, jaw firmly clenched. “Invisible menaces are the stuff of bad holodramas-something to scare babies with. Whatever’s out there-“
“He’s waking up,” said Armstrong, hovering near Lieutenant Snipe. “Here, try to drink some of this water,” he urged, holding out the cup he’d filled.
“Good, maybe now we can get some sense out of him,” said Botchup. He walked over to Snipe and barked, “Wake up, man! What did you see out there?”
“Dark,” muttered Snipe, his eyelids half-open. “Dark. That face…looking at me…”
“Face?” said Botchup. “What’s he talking about?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” said Phule. “Or perhaps…No, that can’t be. It’s just a native superstition.”
“What native superstition?” growled Botchup. “Out with it, man! There may be lives at stake.”
“Captain Clown!” The door burst open again, and a diminutive lizardlike creature came scrambling in, dressed in what was obviously a uniform. It stopped when it noticed the major and made a complex gesture-a salute, apparently. “Major Snafu! It is my onerous duty to report to you!”
“Who the hell is this?” said Botchup.
“It’s our native liaison, Flight Leftenant Qual of the Zenobian military,” said Phule. “He’ll know what’s going on, if anyone does. What’s happening, Qual? Our instruments show something out there, but nobody can see anything.”
“Ah-hhh,” the Zenobian hissed. “It is as I feared, Captain Clown. The Hidden Ones come, and we shall be powerless against them.”
“Powerless?” Major Botchup smirked. “You underestimate us, Flight Leftenant. A Space Legion company is nothing to sneeze at, and even considering the sorry shape they were in when I came on board, I fancy I’ve got these fellows in pretty decent fighting trim by now.”
“With all respectability, it is not so effortless, Major Snafu,” said Qual. “The Hidden Ones appear to be where one can strike at them, but when one strikes, the effect is as of nothing. I have seen it. We Zenobians have concentrated the fire of an entire Swamplurkers battalion on them, without consequence except the expenditure of munitions. And when they become agitated, they begin to play tricks on the mind.”
“Tricks on the mind?” Botchup scoffed. “Now you’re really telling fairy tales. Invisible bogeymen that you can’t shoot and that play tricks on the mind when you annoy ’em-go tell it to the Regular Army!”
“It is quite true,” insisted Qual. “They cause the victim to become unable to distinguish between persons. It is as if everyone in the world were hatched from the same egg.”
Botchup laughed, a harsh braying laugh that conveyed no warmth. “Pardon my Vegan, Flight Leftenant, but that’s bullshit, plain and simple. If I had a plot of tomatoes to fertilize I might buy some, but until then, I’ll pass.”
“Hey, it looks as if I’ve found the party,” came a jaunty voice from the doorway. It was Phule, dressed for a night on the town, with a half-full martini glass in one hand.
Major Botchup turned and stared. “You!” he snarled. Then his eyes flicked back to Phule, standing there in Legion uniform, cool and correct as a recruiting poster, and a sudden doubt crossed his face. “Two of you?”
“Excuse me, Major?” said the Phule in uniform, with a carefully neutral expression.
“We could use a few babes to liven things up,” said the Phule in the tuxedo. “I know the answer to that. It’s ladies’ night in the hotel disco. How about we go down there and check out the action?” He whirled and was out the door before anyone could stop him.
Oblivious to the entire episode, Armstrong had been helping Lieutenant Snipe get down a glass of water. Now at last Snipe managed to sit up straight and to look around. “How did I get back inside?” he said. “Thank goodness for the light-and for a friendly face. I was beginning to think-“
“Easy, now,” said Armstrong. “Why don’t you tell the major what happened?”
“Excuse me, Major, we’ve got somethin’ new on the screen,” said the legionnaire sitting at the console. He swung around to look over his shoulder.
In that instant Snipe saw his face. “Oh my God!” he screamed. “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!” His eyes rolled up into his head, and he fell back unconscious yet again.
There were four officers in the command center, now. Major Botchup, Phule, Lieutenant Armstrong, and Flight Leftenant Qual. Snipe was back in his own quarters, under sedation, with a large, sympathetic legionnaire outside the door to make certain nobody disturbed him. Externally, Botchup remained calm; but he kept casting a suspicious eye toward the other three officers, as if expecting them to metamorphose into identical triplets.
“The Hidden Ones are upon us,” said Qual mournfully. “It remains to be seen whether we can escape utter madness.”
“I know what you mean. Damn it, my adjutant’s already close to the edge,” said Botchup. “For a while there, I was beginning to think I was seeing things myself.”
“Well, sir, it’s a good thing that didn’t happen,” said Armstrong. “We need a sound mind at the helm, if you’ll pardon a naval metaphor, sir.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Botchup glumly. He turned to Qual and asked, “The thing is, if these, uh, Hidden Ones, keep up the pressure, how long can we, uh, hold out against them?”
“That alters according to the specific, Major Snafu,” said Qual. “They do tend to focus their attention on the leaders. But a strong-headed sophont such as you…There is no reason to believe you could not withstand it for hundreds of hours.” He flashed a toothy grimace and waved a foreclaw toward the console, which still showed the mysterious presence beyond the camp’s perimeter. “In any case, they are present, and we shall undoubtedly learn the answer.”
“Yes, I suppose we will,” said Botchup glumly.
“Yes, sir,” said Armstrong. “Omega Company is lucky to have a commander who’s willing to take these risks for his people.”
“Not as if I have much choice,” said Botchup. “The only way I have to get off-world is the landing shuttle. That’d get me up to orbit with some power to spare, but there’s no way to get me to an inhabited world. I’d starve waiting for another ship to come.”
“Oh, it is not so difficult as that,” said Qual. “You may not be aware-in this same system your Alliance has a large space station, easily reached in one of your landers. Lorelei, I believe your name is for it. But of course that does not signify, since you intend to stay and fight the Hidden Ones.”
Botchup raised his brows. “Lorelei? The resort station? You mean Zenobia is in the same system as Lorelei?”
“Yes, we were very surprised to learn that,” said Phule. “Of course, nobody had any notion this world was inhabited. It’s not one we’d have settled for ourselves. It wasn’t until after the Alliance signed a treaty with the Zenobians that we found out where their home world was located.”
“A sensible precaution, with the other party’s intentions unknown to us,” said Qual. “Of course, now we are allies together, and we trust you to know these things.”
“Lorelei,” mused Botchup. “You know, poor Snipe might need to be evacuated-“
“That’s a very humanitarian thought,” said Armstrong. “Of course, he couldn’t pilot the lander himself. Somebody would have to go with him. I’d be glad to-“
“Let me think about it,” said Botchup. “This isn’t the kind of decision that should be made on the spur of the moment. If Snipe recovers, it wouldn’t be necessary. On the other hand-“
The door opened and in came Phule, dressed in a tuxedo. “Just a reminder,” he said. “Free breakfast on the casino floor!” He waved his martini glass and ducked back out.
Botchup turned several shades paler. “You know, I think I have the most experience piloting that particular shuttle model. We really need to get Snipe to safety.”
“Sir, that’s a dangerous voyage,” said Armstrong. “Shouldn’t you let one of your subordinates take the risk?”
“Major, I think you should send the most expendable officer,” said Phule. “That’s obviously me…”
“Oh, no, you don’t!” said Botchup. “I happen to know that you own the biggest casino on Lorelei! You’ll run off and check into a luxury hotel suite and live the life of leisure. We’re wise to your tricks, Jester. You’re not taking that shuttle, not on your life.”
“Very well, Major, I’m sorry you trust me so little,” said Phule. “But if we’re going to evacuate poor Lieutenant Snipe, who’s to take him?”
The door opened to admit Chaplain Jordan Ayres, better known to Omega Company as Rev. “‘Scuse me, gen’lemen, I reckon we got to talk about the morale problem here…”
Major Botchup’s jaw dropped. He stared at Rev for fifteen seconds, then abruptly said, “Get Snipe ready to travel! And send a man to my quarters to pack up my personal belongings! I’m taking him to Lorelei myself!”
Armstrong said, “Sir, I admire your courage, but you need to designate someone to command in your absence-“
“Jester can do it,” snarled Botchup on his way out the door. “He’s half crazy already. Let the Hidden Ones have their way with him! I’m going to get off this crazy planet while I still have a few brain cells left!” He stormed out and left the other four staring at the doorway.
It was Flight Leftenant Qual who finally broke the silence. “It is a pity he was not more adamant. We did not even get to deploy our most interesting effects.”
“That’s all right,” said Armstrong. “We can save ’em in case General Blitzkrieg ever visits.”
But Rev stood there with a puzzled expression. “I guess y’all are gonna have to let me in on the secret sometime,” he said. “I could swear that feller took one look at me and jes’ flat-out lost his cool. I didn’t think there was anything that disturbin’ about my face.”
Phule grinned. “Rev, I’m not going to explain it until later, but I will say that I’ve never been gladder to see your face than right now.” Armstrong and Qual joined in the laughter.