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Sixth Column

Robert A. Heinlein

  By the Author





  Copyright 1949 by Robert A. Heinlein

  Copyright 1941 by Street and Smith Publications, Inc.

  All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission, except for brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.




  John S. Arwine


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter One

  “What the hell goes on here?” Whitey Ardmore demanded.

  They ignored his remark as they had ignored his arrival. The man at the television receiver said, “Shut up. We’re listening,” and turned up the volume. The announcer’s voice blared out: “—Washington destroyed completely before the government could escape. With Manhattan in ruins, that leaves no—”

  There was a click as the receiver was turned off. “That’s that,” said the man near it. “The United States is washed up.” Then he added, “Anybody got a cigarette?”

  Getting no answer, he pushed his way out of the small circle gathered around the receiver and felt through the pockets of a dozen figures collapsed by a table. It was not too easy, as rigor mortis had set in, but he finally located a half-empty pack, from which he removed a cigarette and lighted it.

  “Somebody answer me!” commanded Ardmore. “What’s happened here?”

  The man with the cigarette looked him over for the first time. “Who are you?”

  “Ardmore, major, intelligence. Who are you?”

  “Calhoun, colonel in research.”

  “Very well, Colonel—I have an urgent message for your commanding officer. Will you please have someone tell him that I am here and see to it that I am taken to him?” He spoke with poorly controlled exasperation.

  Calhoun shook his head. “Can’t do it. He’s dead.” He seemed to derive some sort of twisted pleasure from the announcement.


  “That’s right—dead. They’re all dead, all the rest. You see before you, my dear Major, all that are left of the personnel of the Citadel—perhaps I should say of the emergency research laboratory, department of defense, this being in the nature of an official report.” He smiled with half his face, while his eye took in the handful of living men in the room.

  Ardmore took a moment to comprehend the statement, then inquired, “The PanAsians?”

  “No. No, not the PanAsians. So far as I know, the enemy does not suspect the existence of the Citadel. No, we did it ourselves—an experiment that worked too well. Dr. Ledbetter was engaged in research in an attempt to discover a means of—”

  “Never mind that, Colonel. Whom does command revert to? I’ve got to carry out my orders.”

  “Command? Military command? Good Lord, man, we haven’t had time to think about that—yet. Wait a moment.” His eye roved around the room, counting noses. “Hm-m-m—I’m senior to everyone here—and they are all here. I suppose that makes me commanding officer.”

  “No line officers present?”

  “No. All special commissions. That leaves me it. Go ahead with your report.”

  Ardmore looked about at the faces of the half a dozen men in the room. They were following the conversation with apathetic interest. Ardmore worried to himself before replying over how to phrase the message. The situation had changed; perhaps he should not deliver it at all—

  “I was ordered,” he said, picking his words, “to inform your general that he was released from superior command. He was to operate independently and prosecute the war against the invader according to his own judgment. You see,” he went on, “when I left Washington twelve hours ago we knew they had us. This concentration of brain power in the Citadel was about the only remaining possible military asset.”

  Calhoun nodded. “I see. A defunct government sends orders to a defunct laboratory. Zero plus zero equals zero. It’s all very funny if one only knew when to laugh.”



  “They are your orders now. What do you propose to do with them?”

  “Do with them? What the hell is there to do? Six men against four hundred million. I suppose,” he added “to make everything nice and tidy for the military mind I should write out a discharge from the United States army for everybody left and kiss ’em good-by. I don’t know where that leaves me—hara-kiri, perhaps. Maybe you don’t get it. This is all the United States there is left. And it’s left because the PanAsians haven’t found it.”

  Ardmore wet his lips. “Apparently I did not clearly convey the order. The order was to take charge, and prosecute the war!”

  “With what?”

  He measured Calhoun before answering. “It is not actually your responsibility. Under the changed situation, in accordance with the articles of war, as senior line officer present I am assuming command of this detachment of the United States army!”

  It hung in the balance for twenty heartbeats. At last Calhoun stood up and attempted to square his stooped shoulders. “You are perfectly correct, sir. What are your orders?”

  “What are your orders?” he asked himself. Think fast, Ardmore, you big lunk, you’ve shot off your face—now where are you? Calhoun was right when he asked “With what?”—yet he could not stand still and see the remnant of military organization fall to pieces.

  You’ve got to tell ’em something, and it’s got to be good; at least good enough to hold ’em until you think of something better. Stall, brother, stall! “I think we had best examine the new situation here, first. Colonel, will you oblige me by having the remaining personnel gather around—say around that big table? That will be convenient.”

  “Certainly, sir.” The others, having heard the order, moved toward the table. “Graham! And you—what’s your name? Thomas, isn’t it? You two remove Captain MacAllister’s body to some other place. Put him in the corridor for now.”

  The commotion of getting one of the ubiquitous corpses out of the way and getting the living settled around a table broke the air of unreality and brought things into focus. Ardmore felt more self-confidence when he turned again to Calhoun. “You had better introduce me to those here present. I want to know what they do and something about them, as well as their names.”

  It was a corporal’s guard, a forlorn remnant. He had expected to find, hidden here safely and secretly away under an unmarked spot in the Rocky Mountains, the most magnificent aggregation of research brains ever gathered together for one purpose. Even in the face of complete military disaster to the regular forces of the United States, there remained a reasonable outside chance that two hundred-odd keen scientific brains, secreted in a hide-away whose very existence was unsuspected by the enemy and equipped with every modern facility for research, might conceivably perfect and operate some weapon that would eventually drive out the PanAsians.

  For that purpose he had been sent to tell the commanding general that he was on his own, no longer responsible to higher authority. But what could half a dozen men do in any case?

  For it was a scant half a dozen. There was Dr. Lowell Calhoun, mathematician, jerked out of university life by the exigencies of war and called a colonel. There was Dr. Randall Brooks, biologist and bio-chemist, with a special commission of major. Ardmore like
d his looks; he was quiet and mild, but gave the impression of an untroubled strength of character superior to that of a more extroverted man—he would do, and his advice would be useful.

  Ardmore mentally dubbed Robert Wilkie a “punk kid.” He was young and looked younger, having an overgrown collie-dog clumsiness, and hair that would not stay in place. His field, it developed, was radiation, and the attendant branches of physics too esoteric for a layman to understand. Ardmore had not the slightest way of judging whether or not he was any good in his specialty. He might be a genius, but his appearance did not encourage the idea.

  No other scientist remained. There were three enlisted men: Herman Scheer, technical sergeant. He had been a mechanic, a die maker, a tool maker. When the army picked him up he had been making precision instruments for the laboratories of the Edison Trust. His brown, square hands and lean fingers backed up his account of himself. His lined, set face and heavy jaw muscles made Ardmore judge him to be a good man to have at his back in a tight place. He would do.

  There remained Edward Graham, private first-class, specialist rating officers’ cook. Total war had turned him from his profession as an artist and interior decorator to his one other talent, cooking. Ardmore was unable to see how he could fit into the job, except, of course, that somebody had to cook.

  The last man was Graham’s helper, Jeff Thomas, private—background: none. “He wandered in here one day,” explained Calhoun. “We had to enlist him and keep him here to protect the secret of the place.”

  Acquainting Ardmore with the individuals of his “command” had used up several minutes during which he had thought furiously with half his mind about what he should say next. He knew what he had to accomplish, some sort of a shot in the arm that would restore the morale of this badly demoralized group, some of the old hokum that men live by. He believed in hokum, being a publicity man by trade and an army man only by necessity. That brought to mind another worry—should he let them know that he was no more a professional than they, even though he happened to hold a line commission? No, that would not be very bright; they needed just now to regard him with the faith that the layman usually holds for the professional.

  Thomas was the end of the list: Calhoun had stopped talking. Here’s your chance, son, better not muff it!

  Then he had it—fortunately it would take only a short build-up. “It will be necessary for us to continue our task assignment independently for an indefinite period. I want to remind you that we derive our obligations not from our superior officers who were killed in Washington, but from the people of the United States, through their Constitution. That Constitution is neither captured nor destroyed—it cannot, for it is not a piece of paper, but the joint contract of the American people. Only the American people can release us from it.”

  Was he right? He was no lawyer, and he didn’t know—but he did know that they needed to believe it. He turned to Calhoun. “Colonel Calhoun, will you now swear me in as commanding officer of this detachment of the United States army?” Then he added, as an apparent afterthought, “I think it would be well for us all to renew our oaths at the same time.”

  It was a chanted chorus that echoed through the nearly empty room. “‘I do solemnly swear—to carry out the duties of my office—and to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States—against all of its enemies, domestic and foreign!’

  “So help me God.”

  “‘So help me God!’”

  Ardmore was surprised to discover that the show he had staged brought tears to his own cheeks. Then he noticed them in Calhoun’s eyes. Maybe there was more to it than he had thought.

  “Colonel Calhoun, you, of course, become director of research. You are second in command, but I will carry out the duties of executive officer myself in order to leave you free to pursue your scientific inquiries. Major Brooks and Captain Wilkie are assigned to you. Scheer!”

  “Yes, sir!”

  “You work for Colonel Calhoun. If he does not need all of your service, I will assign additional duties later. Graham!”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “You will continue your present duties. You are also mess sergeant, mess officer, supply officer—in fact, you are the whole commissary department. Bring me a report later today estimating the number of rations available and the condition of perishables. Thomas works for you, but is subject to call by any member of the scientific staff any time they want him. That may delay meals, but it can’t be helped.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “You and I and Thomas will perform all duties among us that do not directly apply to research, and will assist the scientists in any way and at any time that they need us. That specifically includes myself. Colonel,” he emphasized, turning to Calhoun, “if another pair of untrained hands is useful at any point, you are directed to call on me.”

  “Very well, Major.”

  “Graham, you and Thomas will have to clear out the bodies around the place before they get too high—say by tomorrow night. Put them in an unused room and hermetically seal it. Scheer will show you how.” He glanced at his wrist. “Two o’clock. When did you have lunch?”

  “There…uh…was none today.”

  “Very well. Graham, serve coffee and sandwiches here in twenty minutes.”

  “Very good, sir. Come along, Jeff.”


  As they left, Ardmore turned back to Calhoun. “In the meantime, Colonel, let’s go to the laboratory where the catastrophe originated. I still want to find out what happened here!”

  The other two scientists and Scheer hesitated; he picked them up with a nod, and the little party filed out.

  “You say nothing in particular happened, no explosion, no gas—yet they died?” They were standing around Dr. Ledbetter’s last set-up. The martyred scientist’s body still lay where it had fallen, a helpless, disorganized heap. Ardmore took his eyes from it and tried to make out the meaning of the set-up apparatus. It looked simple, but called no familiar picture to mind.

  “No, nothing but a little blue flame that persisted momentarily. Ledbetter had just closed this switch.” Calhoun pointed to it without touching it. It was open now, a self-opening, spring-loaded type. “I felt suddenly dizzy. When my head cleared, I saw that Ledbetter had fallen and went to him, but there was nothing that I could do for him. He was dead—without a mark on him.”

  “It knocked me out,” offered Wilkie. “I might not have made it if Scheer hadn’t given me artificial respiration.”

  “You were here?” Ardmore asked.

  “No, I was in the radiation laboratory over at the other end of the plant. It killed my chief.”

  Ardmore frowned and pulled a chair out from the wall. As he started to sit down there was a scurrying sound, a small gray shape flashed across the floor and out the open door. A rat, he thought, and dismissed the matter. But Dr. Brooks stared at it in amazement, and ran out the door himself, calling out behind him: “Wait a minute—right back!”

  “I wonder what’s gotten into him?” Ardmore inquired of no one in particular. The thought flashed through his mind that the strain of events had finally been too much for the mild little biologist.

  They had less than a minute to wait in order to find out. Brooks returned as precipitately as he had left. The exertion caused him to pant and interfered with articulation. “Major Ardmore! Dr. Calhoun! Gentlemen!” He paused and caught his breath. “My white mice are alive!”

  “Huh? What of it?”

  “Don’t you see? It’s an important datum, perhaps a crucially important datum. None of the animals in the biological laboratory was hurt! Don’t you see?”

  “Yes, but—Oh! Perhaps I do—the rat was alive and your mice weren’t killed, yet men were killed all around them.”

  “Of course! Of course!” Brooks beamed at Ardmore.

  “Hm-m-m. An action that kills a couple of hundred men through rock walls and metal, with no fuss and no excitement, yet passes by mice and the like. I’ve neve
r before heard of anything that would kill a man but not a mouse.” He nodded toward the apparatus. “It looks as if we had big medicine in that little gadget, Calhoun.”

  “So it does,” Calhoun agreed, “if we can learn to control it.”

  “Any doubt in your mind?”

  “Well—we don’t know why it killed, and we don’t know why it spared six of us, and we don’t know why it doesn’t harm animals.”

  “So—Well, that seems to be the problem.” He stared again at the simple-appearing enigma. “Doctor, I don’t like to interfere with your work right from scratch, but I would rather you did not close that switch without notifying me in advance.” His gaze dropped to Ledbetter’s still figure and hurriedly shifted.

  Over the coffee and sandwiches he pried further into the situation. “Then no one really knows what Ledbetter was up to?”

  “You could put it that way,” agreed Calhoun. “I helped him with the mathematical considerations, but he was a genius and somewhat impatient with lesser minds. If Einstein were alive, they might have talked as equals, but with the rest of us he discussed only the portions he wanted assistance on, or details he wished to turn over to assistants.”

  “Then you don’t know what he was getting at?”

  “Well, yes and no. Are you familiar with general field theory?”

  “Criminy, no!”

  “Well—that makes it rather hard to talk, Major Ardmore. Dr. Ledbetter was investigating the theoretically possible additional spectra—”

  “Additional spectra?”

  “Yes. You see, most of the progress in physics in the last century and a half has been in dealing with the electromagnetic spectrum, light, radio, X-ray—”

  “Yes, yes, I know that, but how about these additional spectra?”

  “That’s what I am trying to tell you,” answered Calhoun with a slight note of annoyance. “General field theory predicts the possibility of at least three more entire spectra. You see, there are three types of energy fields known to exist in space: electric, magnetic, and gravitic or gravitational. Light, X-rays, all such radiations, are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Theory indicates the possibility of analogous spectra between magnetic and gravitic, between electric and gravitic, and finally, a three-phase type between electric-magnetic-gravitic fields. Each type would constitute a complete new spectrum, a total of three new fields of learning.