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Seller's Market

Captain Nathaniel Corder, of Cryos Expedition, lay in the deep cold snow under the tracksled. He shone his light on the rapidly spinning drive-shaft, then shone the light carefully back along the shaft to the universal joint. He saw that it was spinning, too.

From the darkness beside the sled, Corder heard the Sergeant's low voice. "Sir, I found some heavy wire. If the universal's broken, maybe we can fix it."

Corder blew out a cloud of frozen breath. "It's not the universal. It's another broken axle."

There was a moment of silence, then Corder said, "Divide the men up, and put them in the other sled."

"Sir, the tracksleds are overloaded already."

"That may be, but we can't leave anyone here."

There was the sound of a tailgate dropping, and Corder heard a muffled order. From the bed of the tracksled over Corder's head came a slow dragging scuffle of feet. Corder began to worm his way out from under the sled.

Now that the problem of the tracksled was no longer on his mind, Corder became conscious of his own sensations. His hands and feet were numb. His face felt deadened and chilled. The bridge of his nose ached with the cold, and he had a dull pain over the eyes. His heavy overcoat bound him without giving a feeling of warmth. When he wanted to move, he found that it took a concentrated effort to make his body perform.

Corder rolled carefully free of the sled, and got to his feet. All around him was darkness, with here and there the dim glow of a moving flashlight. The only sounds around him were the low mutter of tracksled engines, and the rustle of steadily falling snow.

One of the flashlights wavered toward him, and the Sergeant's voice said, "I got them all in, sir. But I hope we don't hit any more of those burrows."

"How badly are the men crowded?"

"Three deep."

Corder and the Sergeant waded through the snow in silence. Corder was trying to think what to do if yet another tracksled broke an axle.

The Sergeant caught his arm. "Watch it, sir. There's a burrow about here."

Corder waded cautiously forward. His boot hit a hard slippery surface and slid ahead. Corder took an awkward hasty step to recover his balance. The Sergeant stumbled and lunged forward. Corder caught him. They stepped around the dark hood of a tracksled, and Corder shone his flashlight on the door. The Sergeant pulled it open, set one foot carefully on the step, reached up, grabbed the doorframe with both hands, and clumsily heaved himself in. Corder wondered if the Sergeant's feet were as cold as his own, which felt like loosely hinged blocks of wood. He reached up, hauled himself in, and shut the door.

The Sergeant leaned forward over a faintly-humming box mounted between himself and the driver. A bluish glow from the box lit his face like a mask. "Swing a little north," he growled.

"O.K.," said the driver.

The engine speeded up, there was a smell like hot rubber and the tracksled began to creep forward. Corder pushed back the sleeve of his coat to glance at his watch. The glowing dial told him that it was already 0550. The attack was to start at 0630, and the tracksleds were proving so defective that Corder wondered if they'd make it.

The Sergeant cupped his hands to blow on them. Corder worked off his mittens, undid a coat button with numb fingers, and slid his hands inside his coat under his arms. The tracksled crept through the darkness, and the snow pattered as it blew against the windshield. Corder's mind drifted back to the first day of the expedition, when he'd listened as the Colonel described the situation on Cryos.

* * *

The officers were gathered in the ship's maproom, and the Colonel, straight and spare, was standing before them.

"The background of the situation," said the Colonel, "is that we have our fleets spread thin all over the universe. We're strong nowhere, so the Outs can hit us anywhere. In their last fanatical attack, they stabbed through the region we're now approaching. During the advance, they dropped a small landing-party on Cryos, an unimportant planet of an out-of-the-way sun. A scout ship of ours was caught in the path of this Out penetration and saw the landing.

"The Outs could easily have destroyed this scout ship, but they let it get away. Since then, they have made three showy attempts to supply this little force on Cryos, and all three have been turned back without a genuine struggle."

The Colonel frowned. "Cryos, to the best of our knowledge, has no value either to the Outs or to us. Its ore deposits aren't exceptional, and it is located away from any sizable communications route. The axis of Cryos is sharply tilted, and its climate runs to violent extremes. The highest known form of life on the planet is a hardy burrowing omnivore. This creature looks like a huge caterpillar, has an oversize appetite, and kept our first exploratory team in a constant state of emergency by burrowing into the stocks of supplies. Gravity and atmosphere on Cryos are bearable, but these are the only known points in the planet's favor.

"So," said the Colonel, "the Outs dropped a landing party on this place, and, ever since, they've been advertising it to us." The Colonel glanced narrow-eyed at a Manila folder lying on a table nearby. He took hold of the folder, and held it up. It was stamped in big block letters, "Top Secret."

"This," said the Colonel, "is the General Staff's answer to the problem. As you may have noticed, gentlemen, in the past three years there have been some peculiar changes in the manner of thinking of the General Staff. To begin with, they dispersed our strength on the frontiers. The Outs have punched through twice, and show every sign that they are getting ready for a new and bigger attack. When we try to warn of this, we find that we might as well try to talk through a dogged-down spacedoor. We aren't heard. The worst part of it is, if we send someone back to hammer things out with them, he vanishes into the Capitol, and comes out after a few days convinced everything is fine. I came back myself about fifteen months ago and tried to sell some kind of gibberish called 'elastic counterdefensive.' Whoever goes back to the Capitol comes out with the idea. After a few days, the sense of certainty evaporates, and it's possible to see that it's all doubletalk. It won't work. But the General Staff keeps handing down stuff on the same level, and now we come to the plan for Cryos.

"Anyone," said the Colonel, "ought to be able to see the possibility that the Outs are laying a trap. But the plan specifically prepared by the General Staff makes no mention of the possibility of a trap. It says instead, that we have taken no prisoners, and therefore this collection of Outs offers a splendid opportunity for study. We are supposed to go down and capture this Out expedition. We're supposed to bring them back alive and in good shape. Let me read just one paragraph:

" 'The objective of Operation Coldfeet is the capture, alive and well, of all enemy troops on the planet Cryos. To this end, the initial landing will be made at Point Q, precisely forty miles southwest of the enemy base on Able Hill. The expeditionary force will form three separate columns of attack, advance under cover of darkness and total silence along diverging routes of march, turn at predesignated points and converge upon Able Hill in a three-pronged pincer movement. This advance will be so timed that the three columns strike the hill simultaneously from the south, west, and east. The troops will immediately deploy, and halt ready to advance up the hill. The Expedition Commander will then contact the enemy and demand his immediate surrender.'"

The Colonel put the manila folder on the table nearby and pushed it away. The room was dead quiet. The Colonel said, "Anyone who can land a ship precisely forty miles southwest of a given point on the winter hemisphere of a strange planet, and throw troops out into the night in three different directions at three different rates of march through deep snow, assemble them again simultaneously at a place forty miles away, where they have never been before, and do it without benefit of any signal the enemy might pick up—anyone who can do this has earned the right to go out and try to make his enemies give up without firing a shot. But," said the Colonel, "with all due respect to the people who framed this order, I think we had better go at it a little differently."

* * *

Corder felt a heavy jounce and a crash. He was sitting in the tracksled. The tracksled hesitated a moment, then crept forward.

"Amen," said the Sergeant.

"Keep praying," said the driver. "There's generally a bunch of burrows together."

The tracksled tilted again, climbed, and came down with a smash. There was a moment's pause, then the sled crawled sluggishly ahead.

Corder leaned forward and scraped a layer of frost from the windshield. Outside the night was fading to a dark gray, and Corder seemed to see a darker bulk far ahead and slightly to his left. He visualized the map the Colonel had shown them, with its long narrow hill in the center. The Outs had been sighted on the hill, and the Colonel had decided to land to the east, then advance toward the long east face of the hill in parallel columns of tracksleds. Each column of sleds would help the other if they were attacked en route. If not, the plan was to hit the hill to the north of its center, split the Outs into two parts, and crush each in turn.

Only, Corder thought, if that dark bulk to the left was the hill, he was too far to the north.

"Sergeant," he said.


"Take a look out there."

The Sergeant leaned forward. The tracksled crawled up and crashed down. The Sergeant steadied himself, turned his head away, then looked back. "Sir," he said, "it looks like the hill to the southwest there. But it's too dark to be sure." He looked ahead, then squinted off toward the north. Then he turned and looked back to the southwest. "I don't know. It could just be heavy clouds in that direction."

Corder leaned forward and peered into the gloom. If he looked straight ahead, it seemed noticeably darker to the left. If he looked to the left, he could see nothing there at all.

Now, Corder thought, if that is the hill, I am off the course and will get carried right straight out of the battle entirely; and then only part of our force will hit the Outs, and we will lose. Or, on the other hand, if that isn't the hill, and I do swing southwest, we will probably hit the center column going west, and cause such a mess—including the possibility that they will mistake us for Outs and open fire—that again we will lose the battle.

The Sergeant leaned forward tensely and wiped off the windshield.

"Damned if I can tell," he said.

To Corder, the dark blot seemed to be gradually falling to the side as they moved ahead.

"Swing southwest," said Corder. "And if you see anything that looks like a tracksled swing west again."

"Yes, sir."

They peered ahead into the grayness and the tracksled now began a rolling motion, rising up at the right in front, then pitching forward so the left rear was up. Corder glanced at his watch. He had less than twenty minutes to get into position.

They rode for a while in silence, trying to see ahead. The sky was growing lighter, but they still couldn't be sure.

To the south, a bright white glare lit the sky. A series of orange flashes puffed out like long fingers and faded away. Then they could see the hill, tall and white, and much closer than it had seemed.

Corder felt his muscles tense. For a moment, he didn't breathe.

Then the hill was swinging close, looming high above them.

* * *

In the gray light of dawn, Corder could see nothing on the hill save a smooth slope of snow.

The tracksled tilted as it began to crawl up the first slope of the hill.

"Sir," said the driver, "do you want to go up here, or farther south?"

Corder was thinking that if they went up the hill here, they would be north of the place where they should have been, but if they went south, the whole column would trail along the base of the hill, offering an excellent target, and they might still be out of action when they were needed most. But, if they could get up the hill here, while the Outs' attention was distracted by the attack to the south—

"Go up here," said Corder.

The tracksled tilted more steeply, and churned its way soggily up the slope. As the sled climbed, the slope steepened and the engine labored.

Something ticked lightly on the roof of the cab.

The engine was racing, and the tracksled was moving more and more slowly. There was a stench of burning rubber.

"Sir," said the driver, "I think this is about as far as we're going to go."

Outside, it was growing steadily lighter, and had stopped snowing.

The windshield in front of the driver starred but didn't break.

Corder reached down to a shelf under the dash, and took out a small hand comset. Then he studied the hillside. In the growing light he could see nothing but a rising sweep of smooth snow. There were no irregularities save an occasional ripple in the snow, running straight up the side of the hill and fading out of sight.

Something bounced off the hood and starred the upper edge of the windshield directly in front of Corder. The tracksled crept to a dead stop.

Corder opened the door and jumped out. His feet landed on crusted snow that broke with a crunch. He took a step, and the crusted snow at first supported his weight, then gave way, so that his foot came down with a jolt, hit another layer or crust about eight inches lower, broke through that, and jammed into a third layer that caught his heel. The crust was hard, so that when he came to take another step he had to pull his foot straight up to get it free. Corder walked in this spine-and-joint-jarring way about half the distance from the cab door to the rear of the tracksled. Then he stopped, the comset raised to his mouth to give the order, and saw in his mind just what would happen if his men started up the hill through this stuff.

The air overhead and to one side was now growing thick with things that went Whick! Whick! Whick! as they passed. Corder looked around for some kind of cover, and saw, thrust up here and there through the crust, what looked like the naked top branch of a tree. The stems thrust up a yard or two at an angle, and were too thin to hide a cat.

It was very plain to Corder that if he gave the order he was supposed to at this point, his men would be shot to pieces or pinned down in isolated snowholes in no time at all. The Outs would have a little brisk early-morning target practice, and that would be the end of it.

Something whacked the front of the tracksled beside him, thumped on the roof at the rear, and fell in the snow at his feet. Corder picked up a little metal cylinder with small fins set on it at an angle. The point of the dart looked like the bent end of a pin, and was covered by a thick coating that had partly cracked off.

Corder glanced at the fabric covering over the rear of the tracksleds, and knew his men couldn't stay there, either. He brought the comset close to his mouth, studied for an instant the sled's ground clearance, then said slowly and clearly, "Get your men out and under the tracksleds. Let the first few men open fire from behind the tracks. Have the rest dig out under the sleds. As soon as you can, dig connecting trenches between the tracksleds."

Corder repeated his orders carefully, heard tailgates dropping along the line of tracksleds, and made his way bone-jarringly to the rear of his own tracksled, where the first men to hit the crust filled the air with outraged disbelief, then dove under the sled.

The air was now filled with whizzing darts, and an occasional something that made a droning buzz. From under the sleds came the first sharp reports as Corder's men began to return the fire. So far, it was possible to stay here. But already one of Corder's lieutenants had reported two men hit by darts and unable to move. Moreover the Outs could be expected to bring up heavier weapons as quickly as possible, and they might, Corder thought, have tunnels already dug for the purpose of doing it unseen. Corder crawled under the tracksled and studied the hillside in the growing light. He frowned at the low ripples in the snow, running up toward the top of the hill, then realized that they were probably burrows under the snow.

Corder traced the ripples up the hill, where they vanished completely. Probably, he thought, because the burrows ran deeper there under the snow. He looked down the hill, and saw the ripples fan out onto the snowfield. The tracks of the sleds showed where they had crossed them.

Corder traced the nearest of the ripples back, and saw that it passed under the third tracksled in the line.

The men from Corder's sled were digging steadily and silently. Corder glanced back at the hill and scowled thoughtfully at what looked like a vapor rising from the snow far up the hill. Then, when his sled was connected with the one behind it, he ducked through the slit trench, to the third tracksled back. The men here, in order to move freely beneath the sled, were chopping through the side of the burrow that ran under it. With the snow dug away, the burrow looked like a giant pipe about three feet thick.

From up the hill, a shout went up. Corder turned to look out through the sled's tracks. A heavy gray fog was rolling slowly down the hillside. Corder turned back to the burrow and saw that the men had chopped a large hole into it. He shone his light inside. The burrow stretched off in both directions farther than the light would reach. The whole inside wall was rippled like corrugated iron, and roughened as if it had been stippled by thousands of stiff tiny wires.

Corder crawled in, and ordered his men to follow in single file.

* * *

Corder crawled forward as rapidly as he could, and the men hurried after him. The burrow sloped more steeply, and the corrugations deepened. After a time the muscles of his whole body began to ache. He was repeatedly thrown off balance by his long overcoat. He was breathing hard, and his lungs hurt, as much from the constriction of his heavy clothing as from the effort. On the other hand, he was warm, for the first time since he had set foot on the planet. He thought of the possibility that a grinning Out was sitting at the other end of the burrow with a box of grenades, waiting till they got good and close before rolling the first one in. Corder told himself that he had only had so many choices since he had started out, and he had tried to pick the best ones he could.

Instead of making him feel better, the thought of the fewness of the choices made him feel frustrated and resentful. He yanked forward the heavy skirts of the overcoat and thrust them through the coat's belt. He crawled ahead fast and steadily, matching his motions to the harsh indrawing of his breath.

Behind him trailed the clatter, heavy breathing, and dogged cursing of his men, laden down with their equipment, and driven by the same frustration that drove him.

It was a long way to the top. Corder had to call a halt three times, and each halt was accompanied by a bumping and a piling-up that shortened tempers to the point where fights threatened to break out along the whole length of the line. At the third stop, Corder had to calm a soldier, somewhere in the blackness behind him, who had gotten banged in the face with a rifle butt twice and now furiously announced that he would kill everyone present if it happened again.

Each stretch of the burrow was worse than the one before, as the slope steepened and accidents and bad temper piled up. By the time the burrow had begun to level out, a new source of trouble became evident. The burrow roof was beginning to get lower. Corder hit his head twice, and from the dull burst of cursing behind him, he knew he wasn't the only one. The burrow tilted slightly downward, flattened out more and more, and the corrugations grew shallower, longer, but more sharply ridged, so that they bit into his knees, which were already sore and tender, while the roof forced him down so that he had to use his knees regardless.

Corder passed the word back to come ahead more slowly. Then he crawled forward as fast as he could to find out where the burrow led. As he crawled, the cross section of the tunnel progressively changed from a flattened circle, to an oval, to a flattened oval, to a kind of wide horizontal slit that forced him to lie perfectly flat and pull himself ahead by his fingernails. By this time, the burrow was wide enough for three men, and the concave corrugations in its floor were long and shallow, and edged almost like knives. The burrow slanted sharply downward, then sharply upward. Corder breathed a silent prayer, slid down, squeezed himself through, felt ahead, and his fingers closed around a lip of ice. He pulled himself up and came out in a dark place with a flat floor.

Corder released the safety on his service automatic, and came cautiously to his feet. He turned on his flashlight. The beam lit a pile of big, odd-looking tins, then shone on a wall of grainy snow. Corder swung the beam around, and it lit the six walls of a room about fifteen feet across. He shone the light up. The ceiling of the room slanted up from each wall to a round hole about two feet across and ten feet up from the floor. The hole extended up a little over a yard, and ended in what looked like a trapdoor. Hanging down the side of the hole, was the top end of a rope ladder. About two-and-a-half feet down from the trapdoor, the ladder ended, its ropes frayed as if they'd been cut off with a dull knife.

Corder studied the frayed rope, then shone his light on the pile of tins. The tins were about sixteen inches high, flat on both ends, and six-sided in cross section. Each one Corder picked up was roughly torn open along an edge.

Corder's men were now pulling themselves up out of the burrow. Corder had them move the tins to see if there was any other way out of the room. Behind the piles of empty cans, the men found the entrances of four more burrows. Some of the burrow entrances were deeply scratched, as if the big cans had been pulled down into them.

Corder turned around to see more of his men climbing into the room. In time, there would be about two hundred of them in here, jammed together like bullets in the clip of a gun. Corder stared up in exasperation at the trapdoor. Then he stepped to the mouth of the burrow and said, "Just one more man."

He had the men form a human pyramid under the hole. Then he climbed cautiously up, steadied himself with the rope ladder, and tried to raise the trapdoor. The trapdoor wouldn't move. Corder hit the edge sharply with a rifle butt. Then he raised it cautiously and looked out to see the backs of half-a-dozen fur-clad beings, each carrying a long slender gun. Trudging past them was a group of about fifty Earthmen, their faces blank and unseeing, their hands clasped above their heads. Corder peered cautiously around and in the other three directions saw only snow. He let the trapdoor back in place, bent down, and briefly explained the situation. "Don't move till I do," he warned, then he inched the trapdoor up.

* * *

He saw one of the Outs from the side, as the fur-clad figure bent to prod a finger into the side of a passing Earthman. The Out's face was like that of a man, but gray, and thin to the point of emaciation. His movements were very slow. Corder's sights swung into line on his head and he squeezed the trigger a little harder. The rifle jumped and the Out jerked and staggered forward.

Corder aimed deliberately at a second Out, and fired. The Out fell. For a moment, the other four stood frozen and still, then their long slender guns started to swing up as they turned. Corder fired deliberately a third time, then he heaved himself up out of the hole, sprinted hard to his left, and dove.

Whick! A dart flew over his head. Whick! One ticked his helmet as it passed.

Corder landed awkwardly faced in the snow, and had no time to change his position. He switched hands on the rifle, fired it left-handed and missed. He corrected his aim, took first pressure, then he couldn't move.

A solid rank of fur-clad Outs watched him over leveled guns. Their faces were pink and glowing with health and well-being. Their eyes were large and bright, peculiarly keen and sharp, and Corder felt a wave of unfitness that he should have attacked these superior beings. He felt ashamed to be human and eager to do whatever these master men might—


The line of Outs was gone, and a thin fur-clad figure tumbled forward. From the corner of his eye, Corder could see a bulky shape heave itself up from the trapdoor, sprint to the right, and dive.

A long slender gun spun to cover him. Corder took aim.

Corder's gun swung erratically, a tiredness and weakness making his hands too feeble to hold it, too weak after the long struggle, and the insufficient food, the lack of water, and now he was so tired. No one could blame him if—


One fur-clad figure was still standing, his long slender gun aiming toward the trapdoor where Corder could see in a swift glance that a man looked out with his eyes focused on the far distance, and his face trancelike and blank, and Corder's sights settled into line on the slender fur-clad figure, and as he squeezed the trigger his rifle bucked and his ears rang with the concussion.

The fur-clad figure bent at the knees, tipped and fell to one hand, looking at Corder with his brilliant eyes.

And Corder stumbled to his feet, half-sobbing, and ran forward to catch him, to give first aid, to—


The figure jerked and slammed down on the snow.

* * *

Corder stood stock-still, his lungs sucking in breaths of the bitter-cold air. He was looking around, the whole scene vividly clear as he saw the still-trudging procession of Earthmen, their hands clasped over their heads, and the six huddled figures on the snow. More of his own men were climbing out of the trapdoor now, and Corder turned to tell them to spread out and— He jerked around suddenly.

Out of the corner of his eye he had seen the first of the Outs start to roll slowly over. For an instant, Corder seemed to see two things at once. The Out was slowly coming to a sitting position, and the Out was lying flat on his face.

He couldn't have sat up, Corder realized, so it must be a trick of the sun on snow, there was nothing to worry about, nothing at all— But—

Corder sucked in a sharp breath, and jerked his rifle up. He fired and fired again.

The image lying in the snow was gone, and Corder saw the Out halfway to his feet, the long slender gun in his hand. The Out sat down backwards, and the gun flew out of his hand to lie on the snow.

Crack! Crack! The men were firing again at the Outs.

Corder strode to the Out he had just shot, and rolled him over on his face. In the back of the skull was a mark like a little mouth. Even as Corder watched this mark slowly smoothed out and grew fainter. Corder raised his gun and rolled the Out over. The clothing over the Out's chest had a neat round hole in it. There was no blood.

The Out's eyes slowly opened. They were peculiarly bright and keen eyes. Corder saw the Out's chest move to take in a deep breath. Corder brought the raised butt of his gun down hard. The bright eyes shut, then opened, and Corder knew he could never kill, never even harm, these beings who were of a superior race, far wiser, far stronger—

The Out's thin hand groped, and his eyes flickered for an instant. Corder brought the gun butt down hard, and rolled the Out over on his face. Corder looked up and saw a tense group of his men firing down into a patch of empty snow, while a spare fur-clad figure nearby slowly came to its knees, its brilliant eyes intent on the men. Corder brought his gun butt down again on the back of the head where the scar of the shot was almost gone.

Then he lay down by the Out, and taking the Out's gun, studied it a moment and rested it across the Out's back as he aimed. He squeezed the stud.

Whick! The gun jerked just a little in his hand.

He squeezed the stud again.

Whick! Whick!

The other Out fell over on his face, and Corder fired a dart from the weapon into the Out near him, who was starting again to move. After that, the Out lay still.

* * *

It took from the morning far into the afternoon before the Out position was completely under control. By then, Corder, the Colonel, and every man present in the whole expedition knew why the Outs had put this base temptingly far forward inside the human star system.

Before finally leaving Cryos, the Out position on Able Hill was thoroughly explored. There were dugouts in the snow that seemed to be barracks, headquarters dugouts, and dugouts that apparently served as recreation rooms. There were a large number of supply dugouts, and all of these had been burrowed into on a grand scale.

Corder, the Colonel, and a number of other officers and men, found themselves staring bemused at a huge pile of red-painted structural beams in the center of the Out camp. Each of these beams had holes about an inch across spaced along it at regular intervals. The beams were free of snow; several brooms were stuck in the snow at each end of the pile; and to one side was a stack of red hexagonal kegs, or drums, drifted over with snow.

"Granted," said the Colonel, "that they wanted to let us see plainly where they were, I can understand why they kept that pile of beams clear of snow. But I fail to see why they didn't make something useful out of it."

"Sir," said Corder, "we haven't found many tools here that they could have used. There are picks, shovels, and so on, but nothing in the way of mechanical tools."

A Major standing nearby spoke up. "Thank God. If they'd gotten their food supply up out of reach of the burrowers, we'd all be Out recruits by now."

The Colonel frowned at the stack of hexagonal kegs. "Sergeant, take a few men and break open one of those six-sided drums."

The Sergeant called to several men and waded through the snow toward the pile of kegs.

Corder shifted his grip on one of the Outs' long guns and looked around warily.

The Colonel smiled. "Uneasy, Captain?"

"Sir, I can't get rid of the feeling that there might be one we haven't caught."

The Major laughed boomingly. "God forbid."

The Colonel said in a quiet voice, "There is one we haven't caught."

Corder glanced sharply around. "Where?"

"In the Capitol."


"When I was sent back to the Capitol," said the Colonel, still in his quiet voice, "I had the same sensation I had here when the Outs took us over. I'd forgotten it, but the memory came back when it happened a second time. The sensation when I was convinced of the 'dynamic counterdefensive' was exactly the same as the sensation here; but it was much stronger than what happened here."

"Good God," burst out the Major, "then they've got a spy through to the top. That's why our orders are all cockeyed!"

The Colonel didn't turn his head. Dryly, he said, "It seems to be a possibility."

"Then," said the Major after a pause, "we've lost the war."

Corder opened his mouth angrily, then clamped it shut.

The Colonel turned his head to look at the Major.

"We might just as well," the Major was saying heatedly, "throw in the—" His eyes strayed to meet the Colonel's gaze. The Major's voice cut off, and for an instant his lips moved with no sound coming out.

The Colonel, looking at the Major, spoke in a flat toneless voice. "You're a good man in combat, but you'd better learn to control what thoughts make use of your tongue."

"Sorry, sir."

The Colonel looked away, and said broodingly, "Things are so connected together that it's impossible to tell what leverage any single event will have. But if we do our best, at least we have nothing to reproach ourselves for afterward." He turned to the Major, and said in a voice edged with anger, "Always remember, our own wounds and troubles are painfully close to us. The agonies of the enemy are too far away to appreciate. Just do your job and don't complain except when it will do some good."

"No, sir," said the Major miserably.

The Sergeant let out a shout. Corder turned to see that the Sergeant was holding up in one hand a wrench, and in the other a bolt with washers and a nut threaded on it. Corder squinted at the bolt and washers, glanced at the holes in the red beams.

The Colonel said, "Captain, do you see what I seem to see? Come on."

They waded through the snow.

The men were breaking open more of the six-sided drums.

"Sir," said the Sergeant, "they all seem to be the same size."

Corder took one of the bolts, and passed it—washers, nut and all—easily through the holes in the stacked beams. "Too small," he said. "But how did they ever make a mistake like that?"

"That wonderful convincing ability of theirs," said the Colonel. "If it's like any other ability, they have it in varying degrees. What happens, I wonder, if a lazy, high-convincing Out competes for a position with a conscientious, skilled, but not-so-convincing Out? And if there's mismanagement, how does it get rooted out, when the bungler can convince everyone in his mind that he's right?"

They stared at the pile of beams, and the Major blurted, "Well, I'll be da—" then cut himself off and bit his lip.

The Colonel glanced at the Major and smiled faintly. "It would be a little premature to give up, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, sir."


"They have their troubles, sir."

The Colonel nodded, and the Major looked like a boy who has gotten off the cracking ice onto hard ground, and resolves to stay there.

Corder looked at the piles of beams and stacks of bolts and shook his head.

Late that afternoon they took their captive Outs and blasted off.

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