Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Shell Game

Philip K. Dick


  Philip K. Dick


  Shell Game

  About the Author

  About the Series


  About the Publisher

  Shell Game

  A sound awoke O’Keefe instantly. He threw back his covers, slid from the cot, grabbed his B-pistol from the wall and, with his foot, smashed the alarm box. High frequency waves tripped emergency bells throughout the camp. As O’Keefe burst from his house, lights already flickered on every side.

  “Where?” Fisher demanded shrilly. He appeared beside O’Keefe, still in his pajamas, grubby-faced with sleep.

  “Over to the right.” O’Keefe leaped aside for a massive cannon being rolled from its underground storage-chambers. Soldiers were appearing among the night-clad figures. To the right lay the black bog of mists and obese foliage, ferns and pulpy onions, sunk in the half-liquid ooze that made up the surface of Betelgeuse II. Nocturnal phosphorescence danced and flitted over the bog, ghostly yellow lights snapped in the thick darkness.

  “I figure,” Horstokowski said, “they came in close to the road, but not actually on it. There’s a shoulder fifty feet on each side, where the bog has piled up. That’s why our radar’s silent.”

  An immense mechanical fusing “bug” was eating its way into the mud and shifting water of the bog, leaving behind a trail of hard, smoked surface. The vegetation and the rotting roots and dead leaves were sucked up and efficiently cleared away.

  “What did you see?” Portbane asked O’Keefe.

  “I didn’t see anything. I was sound asleep. But I heard them.”

  “Doing what?’

  “They were getting ready to pump nerve gas into my house. I heard them unreeling the hose from portable drums and uncapping the pressure tanks. But, by God, I was out of the house before they could get the joints leak-tight!”

  Daniels hurried up. “You say it’s a gas attack?” He fumbled for the gas mask at his belt. “Don’t stand there—get your masks on!”

  “They didn’t get their equipment going,” Silberman said. “O’Keefe gave the alarm in time. They retreated back to the bog.”

  “You’re sure?” Daniels demanded.

  “You don’t smell anything, do you?”

  “No,” Daniels admitted. “But the odorless type is the most deadly. And you don’t know you’ve been gassed till it’s too late.” He put on his gas mask, just to be sure.

  A few women appeared by the rows of houses—slim, large-eyed shapes in the flickering glare of the emergency searchlights. Some children crept cautiously after them.

  Silberman and Horstokowski moved over in the shadows by the heavy cannon.

  “Interesting,” Horstokowski said. “Third gas attack this month. Plus two tries to wire bomb terminals within the camp site. They’re stepping it up.”

  “You have it all figured out, don’t you?”

  “I don’t have to wait for the composite to see we’re getting it heavier all the time.” Horstokowski peered warily around, then pulled Silberman close. “Maybe there’s a reason why the radar screen didn’t react. It’s supposed to get everything, even knocker-bats.”

  “But if they came in along the shoulder, like you said—”

  “I just said that as a plant. There’s somebody waving them in, setting up interference for the radar.”

  “You mean one of us?”

  Horstokowski was intently watching Fisher through the moist night gloom. Fisher had moved carefully to the edge of the road, where the hard surface ended and the slimy, scorched bog began. He was squatting down and rooting in the ooze.

  “What’s he doing?” Horstokowski demanded.

  “Picking up something,” Silberman said indifferently. “Why not? He’s supposed to be looking around, isn’t he?”

  “Watch,” Horstokowski warned. “When he comes back, he’s going to pretend nothing happened.”

  Presently, Fisher returned, walking rapidly and rubbing the muck from his hands.

  Horstokowski intercepted him. “What’d you find?”

  “Me?” Fisher blinked. “I didn’t find anything.”

  “Don’t kid me! You were down on your hands and knees, grubbing in the bog.”

  “I—thought I saw something metal, that’s all.”

  A vast inner excitement radiated through Horstokowski. He had been right.

  “Come on!” he shouted. “What’d you find?”

  “I thought it was a gas pipe,” Fisher muttered. “But it was only a root. A big, wet root.”

  There was a tense silence.

  “Search him,” Portbane ordered.

  Two soldiers grabbed Fisher. Silberman and Daniels quickly searched him.

  They spilled out his belt pistol, knife, emergency whistle, automatic relay checker, Geiger counter, pulse tab, medical kit and identification papers. There was nothing else.

  The soldiers let him go, disappointed, and Fisher sullenly collected his things.

  “No, he didn’t find anything,” Portbane stated. “Sorry, Fisher. We have to be careful. We have to watch all the time, as long as they’re out there, plotting and conspiring against us.”

  Silberman and Horstokowski exchanged glances, then moved quietly away.

  “I think I get it,” Silberman said softly.

  “Sure,” Horstokowski answered. “He hid something. We’ll dig up that section of bog he was poking around in. I think maybe well find something interesting.” He. hunched his shoulders combatively. “I knew somebody was working for them, here in the camp. A spy for Terra.”

  Silberman started. “Terra? Is that who’s attacking us?”

  “Of course that’s who.”

  There was a puzzled look on Silberman’s face.

  “Seemed to me we’re fighting somebody else.”

  Horstokowski was outraged.

  “For instance?”

  Silberman shook his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t think about who so much as what to do about it. I guess I just took it for granted they were aliens.”

  “And what do you think those Terran monkey men are?” Horstokowski challenged.

  The weekly Pattern Conference brought together the nine leaders of the camp in their reinforced underground conference chamber. Armed guards protected the entrance, which was sealed tight as soon as the last leader had been examined, checked over and finally passed.

  Domgraf-Schwach, the conference chairman, sat attentively in his deep chair, one hand on the pattern composite, the other on the switch that could instantly catapult him from the room and into a special compartment, safe from attack. Portbane was making his routine inspection of the chamber, examining each chair and desk for scanning eyes. Daniels sat with eyes fixed on his Geiger counter. Silberman was completely encased in an elaborate steel and plastic suit, configured with wiring, from which continual whirrings came.

  “What in God’s name is that suit of armor?” Domgraf-Schwach asked angrily. ‘Take it off so we can see you.”

  “Nuts to you,” Silberman snapped, his voice muted by his intricate hull. “I’m wearing this from now on. Last night, somebody tried to jab me with bacteria-impregnated needles.”

  Lanoir, who was half-dozing at his place, came alive. “Bacteria-impregnated needles?” He leaped up and hurried over to Silberman. “Let me ask you if—”

  “Keep away from me!” Silberman shouted. “If you come any closer, I’ll electrocute you!”

  “The attempt I reported last week,” Lanoir panted excitedly, “when they tried to poison the water supply with metallic salts. It occu
rred to me their next method would be bacterial wastes, filterable virus we couldn’t detect until actual outbreak of disease.” From his pocket, he yanked a bottle and shook out a handful of white capsules. One after another, he popped the capsules into his mouth.

  Every man in the room was protected in some fashion. Each chose whatever apparatus conformed to his individual experience. But the totality of defense-systems was integrated in the general pattern planning. The only man who didn’t seem busy with a device was Tate. He sat pale and tense, but otherwise unoccupied.

  Domgraf-Schwach made a mental note—Tate’s confidence-level was unusually high. It suggested he somehow felt safe from attack.

  “No talking,” Domgraf-Schwach said. “Time to start.”

  He had been chosen as chairman by the turn of a wheel. There was no possibility of subversion under such a system. In an isolated, autonomous colony of sixty men and fifty women, such a random method was necessary.

  “Daniels will read the week’s pattern composite,” Domgraf-Schwach ordered.

  “Why?” Portbane demanded bluntly. “We were the ones who put it together. We all know what’s in it.”

  “For the same reason it’s always read,” Silberman answered. “So we’ll know it wasn’t tampered with.”

  “Just the summation!” Horstokowski said loudly. “I don’t want to stay down here in this vault any longer than I have to.”

  “Afraid somebody’ll fill up the passage?” Daniels jeered. “There are half a dozen emergency escape exits. You ought to know—you insisted on every one of them.”

  “Read the summation,” Lanoir demanded.

  Daniels cleared his throat. “During the last seven days, there were eleven overt attacks in all. The main attack was on our new class-A bridge network, which was sabotaged and wrecked. The struts were weakened and the plastic mix that served as base material was diluted, so that when the very first convoy of trucks passed over it, the whole thing collapsed.”

  “We know that,” Portbane said gloomily.

  “Loss consisted of six lives and considerable equipment. Troops scoured the area for a whole day, but the saboteurs managed to escape. Shortly after this attack, it was discovered that the water supply was poisoned with metallic salts. The wells were therefore filled and new ones drilled. Now all our water passes through filter and analysis systems.”

  “I boil mine,” Lanoir added feelingly.

  “It’s agreed by everyone that the frequency and severity of attacks have been stepped up.” Daniels indicated the massive wall charts and graphs. “Without our bomb-proof screen and our constant direction network, we’d be overwhelmed tonight. The real question is—who are our attackers?”

  “Terrans,” Horstokowski said.

  Tate shook his head. “Terrans, hell! What would monkey men be doing out this far?”

  “We’re out this far, aren’t we?” Lanoir retorted. “And we were Terrans once.”

  “Never!” Fisher shouted. “Maybe we lived on Terra, but we aren’t Terrans. We’re a superior mutant race.”

  “Then who are they?” Horstokowski insisted.

  “They’re other survivors from the ship,” Tate said.

  “How do you know?” asked Silberman. “Have you ever seen them?’

  “We salvaged no lifeboats, remember? They must have blasted off in them.”

  “If they were isolated survivors,” O’Keefe objected, “they wouldn’t have the equipment and weapons and machines they’re using. They’re a trained, integrated force. We haven’t been able to defeat them or even kill any of them in five years. That certainly shows their strength.”

  “We haven’t tried to defeat them,” Fisher said. “We’ve only tried to defend ourselves.”

  A sudden tense silence fell over the nine men.

  “You mean the ship,” Horstokowski said.

  “It’ll be up out of the bog soon,” Tate replied. “And then we’ll have something to show them—something they’ll remember.”

  “Good God!” Lanoir exclaimed, disgusted. “The ship’s a wreck—the meteor completely smashed it. What happens when we do get it up? We can’t operate it unless we can completely rebuild it.”

  “If the monkey men could build the thing,” Portbane said, “we can repair it. We have the tools and machinery.”

  “And we’ve finally located the control cabin,” O’Keefe pointed out. “I see no reason why we can’t raise it.”

  There was an abrupt change of expression on Lanoir’s face. “All right, I withdraw my objections. Let’s get it up.”

  “What’s your motive?” Daniels yelled excitedly. “You’re trying to put something over on us!”

  “He’s planning something,” Fisher furiously agreed. “Don’t listen to him. Leave the damn thing down there!”

  “Too late for that,” O’Keefe said. “It’s been rising for weeks.”

  “You’re in with him!” Daniels screeched. “Something’s being put over on us.”

  The ship was a dripping, corroded ruin. Slime poured from it as the magnetic grapples dragged it from the bog and onto the hard surface that the fusing bugs had laid down.

  The bugs burned a hard track through the bog, out to the control cabin. While the lift suspended the cabin, heavy reinforced plastic beams were slid under it. Tangled weeds, matted like ancient hair, covered the globular cabin in the midday sun, the first light that had struck it in five years.

  “In you go,” Domgraf-Schwach said eagerly.

  Portbane and Lanoir advanced over the fused surface to the moored control cabin. Their hand-lights flashed ominously yellow around the steaming walls and encrusted controls. Livid eels twisted and convulsed in the thick pools underfoot. The cabin was a smashed, twisted ruin. Lanoir, who was first, motioned Portbane impatiently after him.

  “You look at these controls—you’re the engineer.”

  Portbane set down his light on a sloping heap of rusted metal and sloshed through the knee-deep rubbish to the demolished control panel. It was a maze of fused, buckled machinery. He squatted down in front of it and began tearing away the pitted guard-plates.

  Lanoir pushed open a supply closet and brought down metal-packed audio and video tapes. He eagerly spilled open a can of the video and held a handful of frames to the flickering light. “Here’s the ship’s data. Now I’ll be able to prove there was nobody but us aboard.”

  O’Keefe appeared at the jagged doorway. “How’s it coming?”

  Lanoir elbowed past him and out on the support boards. He deposited a load of tape-cans and returned to the drenched cabin. “Find anything on the controls?” he asked Portbane.

  “Strange,” Portbane murmured.

  “What’s the matter?” Tate demanded. ‘Too badly wrecked?”

  “There are lots of wires and relays. Plenty of meters and power circuits and switches. But no controls to operate them.”

  Lanoir hurried over. “There must be!”

  “For repairs, you have to remove all these plates—practically dismantle the works to even see them. Nobody could sit here and control the ship. There’s nothing but a smooth, sealed shell.”

  “Maybe this wasn’t the control cabin,” Fisher offered.

  “This is the steering mechanism—no doubt about that.” Portbane pulled out a heap of charred wiring. “But all this was self-contained. They’re robot controls. Automatic.”

  They looked at each other.

  ‘Then we were prisoners,” Tate said, dazed.

  “Whose?” Fisher asked baffledly.

  “The Terrans!” Lanoir said.

  “I don’t get it,” Fisher muttered vaguely. “We planned the whole flight—didn’t we? We broke out of Ganymede and got away.”

  “Get the tapes going,” Portbane said to Lanoir. “Let’s see what’s in them.”

  Daniels snapped t
he vidtape scanner off and raised the light.

  “Well,” he said, “you saw for yourselves this was a hospital ship. It carried no crew. It was directed from a central guide-beam at Jupiter. The beam carried it from the Sol System here, where, because of a mechanical error, a meteor penetrated the protection screen and the ship crashed.”

  “And if it hadn’t crashed?” Domgraf-Schwach asked faintly.

  ‘Then we would have been taken to the main hospital at Fomalhaut IV.”

  “Play the last tape again,” Tate urged.

  The wall-speaker spluttered and then said smoothly: “The distinction between paranoids and paranoiac syndromes in other psychotic personality disorders must be borne in mind when dealing with these patients. The paranoid retains his general personality structure unimpaired. Outside of the region of his complex, he is logical, rational, even brilliant. He can be talked to—he can discuss himself—he is aware of his surroundings.

  “The paranoid differs from other psychotics in that he remains actively oriented to the outside world. He differs from so-called normal personality types in that he has a set of fixed ideas, false postulates from which he has relentlessly constructed an elaborate system of beliefs, logical and consistent with these false postulates.”

  Shakily, Daniels interrupted the tape. “These tapes were for the hospital authorities on Fomalhaut IV. Locked in a supply closet in the control cabin. The control cabin itself was sealed off from the rest of the ship. None of us was able to enter it.”

  “The paranoid is totally rigid,” the calm voice of the Terran doctor continued. “His fixed ideas cannot be shaken. They dominate his life. He logically weaves all events, all persons, all chance remarks and happenings, into his system. He is convinced the world is plotting against him—that he is a person of unusual importance and ability against whom endless machinations are directed. To thwart these plots, the paranoid goes to infinite lengths to protect himself. He repeatedly vidtapes the authorities, constantly moves from place to place and, in the dangerous final phases, may even become—”

  Silberman snapped it off savagely and the chamber was silent. The nine leaders of the camp sat unmoving in their places.