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Of Enemies And Allies

Yklon 138(3), Commander of the Wij-Wij War Horde, glanced moodily around his headquarters, and tried to estimate the likelihood that, somewhere in this latest message from the hostages, there was some element of usable truth. Yklon had just finished an unusually bad evening meal, and his disposition was suffering with his digestion. Sourly, he listened to the message machine emit its recorded whistles and squeaks, to give a weirdly phrased account only partly clarified by the interpreters who huddled around the machine and mentally passed on their edited version:

"From Agbar 221(1) in the enemy-presumed-was neutral-is ally-would-be armed forces headquarters, to Yklon 138(3), Commander of the War Horde. The communication referenced in your request for information is, I repeat, is true. I and three members of my unit were captured, rendered unconscious, and deprived of all suicide-weapons. We are still being held hostage, along with others, in the presumed-enemy headquarters.

"The presumed-enemy has provided us with food, water, and the chance to rest. He has refused us the means to carry out the defeat-penalty, and explained that he is not at war with us, and so we are in fact not defeated, but only detained for purposes of communication, and of enforcement of non-war by causing us severe discomfort and pain, and hence creating by mental transference the non-approach of the War Horde.

"We realize this may be somewhat difficult to understand, but it is nonetheless entirely true.

"This presumed-enemy, you argue, is in fact a unit of large size and great destructive capability belonging to the traditional Enemy of our race, who recently attacked out territory. Hence you command us to use every means of destruction and, if unable to overcome or escape the enemy, to immolate ourselves as a penalty for defeat, and to prevent the enemy gaining information from us.

"The presumed-enemy, however, insists that the attack on our territory was not made by him, but that he was pursuing the Enemy, entered our territory by mistake while trying to get at the Enemy, and was attacked by our forces in error. He has pointed out convincing differences in his equipment and devices from those used by the Enemy, and moreover creates at close range none of the perception-gap typical of the Enemy.

"In short, revered Yklon, this presumed-enemy is, regardless of superficial appearances, of a different race entirely, and identifies itself as 'human'—a name we know from intelligence operations to be applied by the Enemy to one of their most formidable opponents.

"This represents, not as you seem to argue, a problem, but an almost unbelievable opportunity.

"I again urgently request that you recognize the clear facts, cease your antagonistic posturings, and form common cause with the enemy-presumed-was neutral-is ally-would-be so that the very clear advantages of this realignment of forces can be realized, and the destruction or neutralization of our true Enemy can be brought about.

"Agbar 221(1)
"Head of Clan"


Yklon, particularly irked by the expression, "antagonistic posturings," swallowed hard as the queasiness from supper merged with his reaction to the message. He grappled with the wording "enemy-presumed-was neutral-is alley-would-be" and scowled at the Chief Interpreter as he thought: "That's the best you can do?"

The Chief Interpreter's integument, under his sparse bristles, was a dull gray, and he avoided looking at Yklon as he thought, "Sir, we had trouble even to detect this audio replay. The enemy—if they are enemy—took us for a possible raiding party and hit Agbar and the captives on the digits to cause pain and warn us off. It wasn't remotely lethal; it was just a little warning; but we had no idea what might come next. And neither did Agbar and his people, and all their fear and dread came across, too. And our electronics units are way behind the enemy's—if they are enemies—so not only did we have to get close, but our reception was horrible even then. And, sir, you wanted the message quick, so we haven't had any chance to rest, and—"

"Yes, yes," snarled Yklon mentally. "Now summarize the whole message, and strain out all the self-pity, both Agbar's and yours."

"Sir," thought the Chief Interpreter. "Agbar, highest ranking of the captives held by, apparently, the 'humans' he claims we've been fighting since the Enemy retreated through our region—this Agbar, Head of Clan 221, reports that the humans who captured him are distinct from our traditional Enemy, and are not inimical to us. Agbar urges us to make common cause with them, and argues that they cannot be a faction of our Enemy, regardless of their physical resemblance, because their equipment is different, and they do not have the Enemy's unmistakable psychological characteristics. Agbar warns that, as he and the other captives are being held by a non-enemy, neither he nor they may validly be ordered to commit suicide."

"H'm," thought Yklon. "Well, there is some sense in it, after all. That is a good comprehensible summary, Chief Interpreter—much better than the original."

"Thank you, sir. This Agbar must be under a lot of strain, sir."

"Yes. No doubt. But there was something about his message... let's see... Run through that part near the end again."

He scowled as the message came through: "I and the rest of us would remind you that suicide... is not required in the face of a non-enemy, however formidable, and the attempt to force it is in plain defiance of the Code of Proper Action, and punishable as such."

Yklon's irritation led him to momentarily forget that representatives of possibly half the Clans were doubtless listening in, and could readily share his more intense thoughts. That piece of amnesia, in turn, led him to express his reaction in a clear and unmistakable way:

"Surely a gross exaggeration," he thought.

"Not so," came an instant answering thought. "This is Onson 230(4), Assistant Head of the Tribunal of Custom Enforcement. That statement of Revered Agbar, Head of Clan, is quite true, my dear Yklon. And should we receive from Agbar a request for enforcement, the Tribunal will bring this matter before an Assembly-in-Thought of the Clans United. This, Revered Commander of the War Horde, is no light matter, and it is certainly not 'gross exaggeration.'"

Yklon winced, and this time suppressed his response. With some officials, his position as Commander of the Horde could rouse an automatic antagonism, a form of jealousy praised by historical scholars as a defense against any single individual seizing the overlordship of the State. Yklon, any lust for power glutted by the problems of leading the Horde, was unimpressed by the argument; but he was stuck with its practical application.

Above a general background mumble of half-articulated thought, Yklon now heard another sharp mental voice:

"Etkal 320(19) speaking. As a Chartered Consultant on Customs, I am, of course, thoroughly conversant with this subject. I am therefore shocked, revered Onson 230(4). Are you speaking for the whole Tribunal? Or just for yourself? Do you know this is their view? Have you actually asked them? And, above all, have you—or they—researched the question? If so, are you actually unaware of the well known case of Irlop, Head of Clan, vs. the Tribunal at the turn of the present aeon? Not only was that case quite similar, revered Onson, but it ultimately resulted in a Reversal of Verdict, no small humiliation for the entire Tribunal. So, if I were you, I would approach this matter with some discretion.

"And, to the revered Commander of our War Horde, let me say that I and my Consultant Group will be honored to place ourselves at your service, to turn any such difficulties as this to the embarrassment and cost of your foes. All that is needed is to simply agree now to our very reasonable fees, and we can begin work at once. What say you, Revered Commander Yklon?"

As other thoughts clamored in the background, Yklon experienced a cold shudder. All he needed, on top of his other miseries, was a breach-of-custom suit before an Assembly-in-Thought of the Clans. The usual duration of such a suit was 'nearly forever.' It would lead naturally to the enrichment of Etkal, his heirs, assigns, and associates, and the impoverishment of everyone else bogged down in it.

Yklon suppressed his natural reaction, and strained to keep his detectable response cool and courteous:

"Many thanks, Revered Consultant Etkal. But, at the moment, I would prefer not to complicate the execution of our war plans by personal matters. The safety of the State is and must remain paramount. For all of us."

This came out sounding a little more superior and condescending than Yklon intended. And the dead silence following it could mean anything. He wasted no time to get things moving in the right direction:

"Regardless of personal feelings, what matters is that the request of Agbar be dealt with fairly and speedily."

But, damn it, thought Yklon, damping his thought down to a level hopefully undetectable by anyone outside his immediate presence, Is it really possible there is something to Agbar's picture of this shambles? And—Worse yet?—What if he's right? Forcefully, he thought, "Chief of Signals—"


"At once, by electromagnetic communication, inform Agbar, Head of Clan 221, that the command to remove himself from the enemy's control by suicide is rescinded. I repeat, the self-immolation order is canceled. Inform Agbar that we will give his request the most immediately useful response: Let him at once invite the head of the hopefully-to-be-allied power to join us in discussing actions we may both take to embarrass—fatally, if possible—our mutual Enemy."

A background murmur of approval swelled to the level of applause, causing Yklon to cling tightly to the awareness that this situation could be catastrophic if Agbar turned out to be wrong. All he, Yklon, had to do to get swept over the edge of disaster was to be drawn into resonating synchrony with that enthusiastic mental applause. He would then forget what he had to remember:

The whole miserable situation with these hostages could be a trap.

* * *

As Yklon examined this from the Wij-Wij viewpoint, the human commander, Supreme Interstellar Marshal John von Eckberg Lindt, was staring at a thing about the size of a very large footlocker stood on end. He looked up to say to his technical chief, James Edison Martell, "If you're serious that that footlocker-sized box is its replacement, maybe you'd better explain how this—" He gestured to the room-filling monster known as Combat Forces Master Integration Computer—"got shrunk down and compressed into something a reasonably strong individual could drag around in a duffel bag."

Martell said dryly, "You put someone not too bright in charge of our headquarters and you'll be surprised how much damage he can do. Let someone brilliant, who is deliberately sabotaging us, have the chance to put his foot in our affairs, and it will be worse yet."

Martell paused, glanced around, then went on. "What we have here is a combination of two effects: First, the rapid progress in computers; second, getting rid of the Out saboteur, who managed to get it established at Headquarters that only full-sized vacuum tubes—the bigger the better—are reliable enough for military purposes. This replacement here uses miniaturized tubes and transistors, which both are very much smaller."

Lindt started to ask a question, considered the technical nature of the reply he would get, and gave a noncommittal grunt. "Well, let's try the thing and see what it can do."

There was a sharp rap on the door, and Lindt glanced up.

"Come in."

A sergeant came in, bearing a length of yellow message paper. "Sir, this is a translated copy of a message from Wij-Wij headquarters to the captured commander of Wij-Wij prisoners here, who wants to talk to you."

Lindt read the message.

"So, they finally agree to recognize the facts? Tell the Provost Marshal I'll be right down. Tell him to let the commander of the Wij-Wij prisoners know I'm coming."

"Yes, sir."

Martell waited till the door closed, then glanced at Lindt. "Good news?"

"The Wij-Wij want to parley."

"That is good."

"Maybe. It could also be pure confusion—or a trap. After all, their territory is completely surrounded by Out territory. These big inchworm look-alikes may be some kind of tributaries of the Outs."

"Well," said Martell, "the Wij-Wij are certainly bullheaded and pugnacious. Still, if the Outs wanted a conference, I'd be nervous. But these overgrown caterpillars don't seem very tricky to me."

"Don't forget, they're telepaths. And telepaths of a different race. 'Talking' with them is an experience. There's plenty of opportunity there for 'misunderstandings.'"

"Yes, true. Well, good luck, anyway."


* * *

Yklon 138(3), Commander of the War Horde, feeling better after a night's rest and a day contending with nothing worse than the known problems of preparing for a conference, was surprised at his own reactions as he faced Supreme Interstellar Marshal Lindt across the conference table. The human, seated upright in a chair, looked like the Enemy, but instead of looking frightening or evil, he seemed as enigmatic as a block of granite. Yklon, reclining on his wide leather-padded board that had one end on the floor and the other clamped to the edge of the table, tried to sense some kind of mental response from the Marshal, found nothing, then glanced around. Interpreters and other experts of both races packed the room.

Yklon, both arms bent and stubby hands casually gripping the edges of his board, murmured to the Chief Interpreter by his side, "This fellow across from us—Do you get anything from him at all? Don't answer with a thought. Vocalize."

The Chief Interpreter made a low throat-clearing noise. His voice sounded rusty. "Nothing. No thoughts. And no perceptions, true or false."

"What do these people call the Enemy?"

"Externals, I think. No. 'Outs.'"

"You remember that captured Out we questioned? He radiated visual effects. Every time we asked a tough question, reality would seem to waver, start to fit what must have been some false picture he was trying to project, then snap back to what it really was. He apparently couldn't synchronize his power of illusion with our nervous system. Do you get any of that with this fellow?"

"Nothing as yet, sir. He seems to have the illusive talent of a sack of gravel. You remember, Agbar claimed there was none of it in his experience, either."

"But it could be exceptional mental control."

"True, sir. Very exceptional."

"Yes. Exactly."

"How would we check—"

"Say to him now, vocally, through the interpreters, that we agree in principle to take part in the attack on the Enemy."

"Sir, that will surprise him and everyone else. We haven't led up to it yet."

"I want to surprise him. Let's jolt him. Let's see if he drops his mask, for so much as an instant."

The Chief Interpreter emitted a series of sharp squeaks and whistles. There was an audible stir in the room. The other side, clustered around a large black overgrown box with wires and cables that snaked under a table and all around their side of the room to other pieces of apparatus, looked up wide-eyed, then translated to the Interstellar Marshal, who, despite his unexpressive face, somehow looked interested, and at once gave a series of mumbling growls that appeared to be the human method of vocal communication.

The Chief Interpreter translated the Marshal's answer:

"I'm glad to hear it. Let's waste no time. Our main forces are already in action."

Yklon growled, his voice low, "Well, there's no perception-gap at all. But what he says doesn't fit our picture of their forces." He thought intensely, "Command Council, what is your view of the present 'human' war activity?"

There was a murmuring mumble that quickly faded to one strong mental voice:

"Ygban 210(2), Head of Council, speaking. The bulk of these people are disengaged and evidently refitting, we aren't sure in what way. But by no means are their main forces grappling with the Enemy."

"So. We've exchanged one meaningful comment, and already they are lying to us. What is the Council's suggestion?"

"String them along and let's see what other stench they emit."

"Has anyone noted any visual falsification of reality?"

There was a mental murmur and mumble, followed by, "Nothing yet. But the whole crew look physically like the Enemy."

"Do you detect any telepathic thought?"

"Nothing so far."

"Perhaps then these are 'human.' And humans are liars." Yklon growled to the Chief Translator, "Say vocally, 'We admire your warlike energy and tenacity. How goes the battle with the foe?'"

This produced visible confusion amongst the human interpreters—assuming they were humans, not Enemy. The Interstellar Marshal, however, appeared to brush aside the suggestions of his crowding assistants, to look directly at Yklon, and snarl out a string of rasping noises that produced a corresponding uproar amongst Yklon's interpreters.

"Now what?" said Yklon aloud.

His Chief Interpreter spoke with a tremor, signifying shock. "The Interstellar Marshal said:

'If you want us to fight on your side, spare us the sarcasm. I repeat, our main forces are in action against the enemy. If your Intelligence operations are so faulty you think our local forces are our main forces, that is your fault, not ours.'"

Yklon, jolted, considered this response, and abruptly noted that now he was picking up some kind of faint mental radiation—it seemed like impatience—from the human across the table.

The Interstellar Marshal now gave more snarls and growls. Yklon's interpreters consulted, then the Chief Interpreter translated:

"Let's not waste any more time. While we doodle around here, the Enemy has produced a form of mass illusion so powerful as to confuse our observers at a distance from the action. Are you familiar with this?"

Yklon gripped his board hard with both hands.

A strongly articulated thought came from the Command Council:

"Ygban 210(2) speaking. We resent the human's attitude. Our suggestion is to deny his question. It is obviously a probe for information."

Yklon thought, "Yes, but why?" Aloud, he said to the Chief Interpreter, "Say we are familiar with that Enemy tactic, but have run into it only once—when we penetrated deep into Enemy home territory."

The Interstellar Marshal said: "Do you have a way to counter it?"

"Yes," said Yklon. "Withdraw."

"We don't intend to withdraw."

"Then you will fight at a disadvantage. If you withdraw, the Enemy in our view will not use this weapon in following you. It is our belief that the weapon requires a very wide-based installation to produce its effect, and for some reason the Enemy does not reproduce the installation outside his home system. We have no idea why."

Yklon could sense the disapproval of the Command Council, apparently because he revealed this information readily, and contrary to their advice.

There was a growl from across the table. The Chief Interpreter translated: "The Interstellar Marshal says: 'In your opinion, we have penetrated to their home system?'"

Yklon said, "Yes. I may be mistaken. They may have reproduced that effect elsewhere. But I doubt it."

"We have a question you may not care to answer: Why is your territory embedded in the Enemy territory? Are you under their protection in some way?"

Yklon noted wryly that this question stopped the thoughts of the Command Council. Their growling disapproval of him seemed stunned into silence by the probing audacity of the human.

Yklon, however, could feel a surge of admiration and the beginnings almost of trust. Instead of slogging around endlessly through a swamp of false answers, half-truths, and mutual deception, the Marshal was striking directly at the uncertainties.

Yklon said, "Far from it. They would eliminate us if they could. But our nervous systems are so different from theirs that they cannot effectively mislead our perceptions—though they can, apparently with ease, disrupt many of our electronic devices. There is one aspect of this that I personally did not understand until recently, assuming I do understand it now."

"What is that?"

"They seem to be especially hampered upon entering any territory we hold in large numbers. We thought this resulted from a cumulative reaction to our nervous systems. But we have found it is technological. A line-of-sight communications device of ours, in itself none too satisfactory, but very widely used, evidently temporarily damages their capacity to inflict illusions when, by accident or design, we focus it on them."

This statement roused the council from its silence. A strong thought reached Yklon: "That was a military secret. You have the right to decide what to say, but you are revealing too much. Remember you are our representative, not our ruler. You command at our pleasure. Pay attention to our advice."

Yklon at once replied mentally, "If you want to replace me, do it. Just remember, you chose me for a reason. I will not contentedly murgle and slodge in this confusion we've been stuck in since the Enemy retreated through our territory—apparently in flight before these Humans. If I see a chance to strike at the Enemy, I will seize it. Our guest here has the clear desire to end this mess. Now either remove me, or trust me. But keep watching."

The Interstellar Marshal was saying, "We appreciate your frankness."

"Then reciprocate it. Can you penetrate our mental communications?"

"Possibly some of us can. If so, they haven't told us. So far as I can answer the question: No, we cannot."

"And—if you will excuse the question—is that a strictly truthful answer, or a wording to avoid the need to give a strictly truthful answer?"

Yklon could sense the Command Council's dismay; but the Marshal didn't hesitate:

"Sure, I'll excuse the question. That is a strictly truthful answer."

Yklon grappled with a very brief impression—he didn't know if it came by telepathy, or by some fleeting expression on the human's face—of amusement. Yklon went on:

"How did you know that our congratulations on your progress against the Enemy was sarcasm?"

This question produced, in Yklon's mental background, a gasp of shock, as at a serious social misstep. But again there was no hesitation or disapproval in the Marshal's response:

"First, in translation, it sounded sarcastic. Second, in your Chief Interpreter's voice, there was a special tone, which our interpreters have identified as indicating 'lack of sincerity, possibly sarcasm or insult.'"

"How did you know this? Are you receiving mental summaries from your translators as we talk?"

"No. We have explained in the past that we are not normally telepathic. Certainly we are not routinely telepathic, as you seem to be. But I need to understand the translations, and had already talked all this over with our interpreters. And are you receiving mental summaries from your specialists?"

"Constantly," said Yklon. "Except when they are too shocked to think by my disregard for the proprieties."

There was a peculiar sound as of some breathing difficulty on the part of the human. Yklon thought intently, "Chief of Alien Physiology, what is the significance of that strangling noise of the human leader?"

"We cannot explain it, sir. Possibly it adjusts to some minor change in atmospheric pressure."

The Marshal, shaking and with his head bowed, straightened up, took a fresh breath, and spoke aloud. Yklon's interpreters translated: "I have similar difficulties, myself."

"May we ask," said Yklon, creating another impression of shock from his superiors, "what is the reason for your enmity with the 'Outs'? We do not get along with them. But, in our view, they have a strong resemblance to you; one might expect you to be allies, not enemies."

The beginnings of a warning thought, "Yklon—" reached him, but faded away at the enormity of this intrusion.

The Marshal, however, said thoughtfully, "I suppose, if things had happened differently—" Then he started over. "To begin with, the Outs moved into territory we planned to settle. There was a clash, and a freak individual dogfight led to the capture of one of them, severely wounded. At this time, we had no clear idea of their power of illusion, or of how rapidly they could recuperate; so the 'body' of this supposedly dead enemy was shipped to our Capital for examination, and ended up at our military headquarters."

Yklon winced. "And this captive—supposedly dead—"

"Supposedly dead, but really alive, with great powers of deception, and for practical purposes indistinguishable from us, was now in our headquarters. From that time on, unwise decisions, and disastrous orders, came down to us. Any emissary sent to protest came back convinced the orders were correct. We began to lose the war, and the losses were becoming more extreme, when there was a change of control at the Capital; external records indicate that one of our new leaders found that this Out captive had infiltrated the command structure, and was using his power of suggestion to sabotage us. Before the Out could stop him, this new official ordered down the reserve fleet and destroyed the Capital—and the saboteur. Since then, we've done a little better in the war."

There was a murmur from the Command Council, apparently as surprised as Yklon, who began to speak, then realized he did not know what to say. Then the Marshal said, "Well, what do you say we get down to specifics on how to wreck the Outs?"

Yklon didn't hesitate. "Yes. But do we, even combined, have the force to do it?"

"If you and we combine, we will together make a striking force we believe the Outs cannot cancel out."

"Are you certain that if we attack with you, we will not be leaving our territory wide open to Enemy attack?"

"There are very few certainties in war. But we have this portion of space electronically saturated with warships and signal devices, and we see no sign of the Outs anywhere beyond their territory. And, in their territory, our main forces have them by the throat."

"You are using detached units here?"

"Yes. Sometimes individual warships."

"In large numbers overall?"


"We have evidently not detected some of them."

"Good. We are doing our best to conceal them."

"Unlike you, who operate in widely separated cooperating units, we do best in one united fleet. I have the authority to join in a concentrated attack, as you suggest, but it would be best if our full command structure agrees. For this, we need to know if we have been misled as to human strength and numbers."

"You have been, to the best of our ability."

"We have?"

"Of course."


"Your attacks were disrupting our war with the Outs. We felt we had sufficient strength to defeat the Outs while a fraction of our forces independently held off your attacks. But we didn't know if you were somehow allied with the Outs, so we had to mislead you."

"Are you misleading us now?"

"Not to my knowledge. Have you used your communications device on us—the one that hampers the Outs' illusions?"

"Certainly. We thought you were part of the Enemy. And our device works against you; although, where it merely blocks the Enemy's illusion-making power, it renders you unconscious. That, together with baffling intelligence reports, only cleared up when we realized you might be a completely different race."

"We're glad that's settled."

"There is another question here. We have captured documents indicating that you personally control the main force of humans."

A fresh upheaval in the background of Yklon's thought told him what the Command Council thought of this revelation.

The Interstellar Marshal said, "We have deliberately planted misleading information. I control possibly twenty percent of our forces against the Outs."

"Twenty percent?"


"But you are the Supreme Commander?"

"Only here. The overall Supreme Commander is a general by the name of Hauser. My job is just to prevent your interrupting our attack against the Outs."

"But this is the wrong use of force against them! You should not divide your strength!"

"Theoretically, you're right. But we had the Outs on the run. We didn't want to break off our attack on them; but we were unable to make peace with you, apparently because when we entered your territory, you took that for an attack. You weren't the real enemy, so we left just enough force to—hopefully—keep you out of the main battle against the Outs."

The astonishment of the Command Council came across to Yklon, who said to the Marshal:

"In that case, our united strength—yours and ours—would heavily increase the attack on the Enemy. And do you indicate that that fight is now in balance, not favoring either side?"

"No. We still have the edge. But this new trick of theirs slows us down."

"As your twenty percent roughly balances our strength, we, also, must have a relative force of about twenty percent. Your twenty plus our twenty equals forty. As the current human force in actual action against the Enemy equals one hundred percent minus your twenty, and the Enemy is losing, then the Enemy has perhaps seventy-five percent, while you have eighty percent in action against him and twenty percent watching us. The arrival of your and our united strength in combat should change that balance from—say—eighty vs. seventy-five to one hundred twenty vs. seventy-five. That could be decisive."

"Yes, but relative force can be deceptive. We need to make the most of this advantage."

"Yes. Let us not try to crush out a victory by force alone and end up bled dry. The Enemy is in his own territory. He may resist desperately. Let's first unhinge him by striking in a direction where he is weak. And he must not know ahead of time that we are coming."

Yklon could sense a faint telepathic radiation from the human commander. It seemed to be approval combined with the beginnings of enthusiasm.

The Marshal leaned forward and spoke directly to Yklon:

"There are signs the Outs intercept some of our communications. So while we hit their weak point by surprise with everything we've got, it might not be too bad an idea to have a heavy traffic in messages to tell nonexistent units where to hit next. We want to give the Outs every chance to make mistakes."

As this comment reached the Command Council, Yklon suddenly received their mental response: "Ygban, Head of Council. We like this fellow's style, Yklon! If you agree, join with him! Now is the chance to end these cursed illusionists."

Yklon opened and closed his grip on the edges of his board. "Yes. Yes!"

The Marshal said, "We're agreed?"

"We're agreed. Now let's work out the details. If we scant the details, they might still wreck us."

* * *

The battlespace was huge, comprising the enormous distances between the stars and the planetary systems, in which floated the detached space fortresses, the individual scout ships, manned or automated, and the warning devices whose main function was to tell of the approach of an enemy, the whole knit together into a defensible unit by the formidable fleets, the solar beams, and the communications net that carried the information on the actions of the opposing forces, and the orders to the defenders.

Supreme Interstellar Marshal Lindt, in the Combined Forces Command Ship, studied the greatly condensed visual image of the battlespace—which appeared to hang suspended as Lindt moved the controls, causing the image to turn in the air before them, then lift slightly and roll over and backwards. Then he paused. From this angle, the tiny lights, of various colors and degrees of brightness, representing the location of the defenses of the Enemy, seemed spread out and faint.

Yklon growled through his Chief Interpreter, "Let us strike them hard from this angle."

Lindt said, "They should have some difficulty to reply. If they have anything left but strictly local reserves, we haven't found them. They are almost totally committed."

"And our simulated fleet?"

Lindt shrank the image to a yet smaller representation, which showed the combined real fleets swinging up from "below," while a ghostly force of blurs came down from "above."

"Our communications ships," said Lindt, "can make enough noise to seem like an armada coming in to hit them from another angle."

Yklon stretched out a stubby hand to take the control box, and played back the past images, noting the changes which had led to the present position. He then progressed to the coming changes, to note the most probable positions, and gave a low murmur of gratification.

"If our past experience is still a reliable guide," said Yklon, expanding the representation to its normal size, and handing the control back to Lindt, "their detectors should pick us up very soon. And then they should pick up the deception fleet."

* * *

The Enemy's forces, though already stretched to the limit, suddenly seemed to multiply visibly, becoming enormous in their total numbers, as huge beams of searing light swung through the battlespace, and images of human ships exploded before Lindt's eyes.

Yklon said, "This is their deception device. This is why we withdrew."

Lindt said, "It's all visual. There are audible signals from the display when a ship or unit of ours is actually destroyed. There are no such signals now, regardless how it looks."

"We know this. But it is hard to function effectively when deceived by our own detection apparatus. Normally, we can brush their illusions aside. This is much more forceful."

Abruptly the distorted effects were gone, and the display showed the Outs turning toward the deception force.

Lindt watched the movement of the now superior human and Wij-Wij forces. Then for an instant the display again showed Out forces that were massively superior crushing puny human and Wij-Wij fleets. A moment later, the display showed the enemy being beaten by powerful fleets converging on his ships and strong points. Then the display showed new forces of the enemy intervening, and the attacking fleets being annihilated.

From the background, a voice said, "Marshal Lindt, we have a message from General Hauser: 'Continue attack using computer control and non-visual signals. The enemy is rotating this sham from one of our units to another. He can't keep it up.'"

Lindt said, "Send to Hauser: 'It's what we're doing already. Do you believe this effect can get any worse than it is now?'"

Briefly, the actual scene on the display showed him the Outs in a terrible situation, being destroyed wholesale.

Yklon said, "That, too, is inaccurate. It is too sudden. It exaggerates the effect of our attack."

For an instant, the entire scene before Lindt went black, showing nothing—neither the display, their own ship, the interpreters, nor anything else. Lindt realized that either all power to the lights had been cut off, or his vision itself.

Then abruptly, the display was there before him, and the scene on it showed the Outs at a severe disadvantage. The interpreters of both races, and Yklon himself, were all there, looking, despite their differences in appearance, badly shaken.

Yklon said, "This is something else they can do. This is why we withdrew. Will you persist, or withdraw?"

"Aside from making illusions, I don't think there's anything they can actually do. But if we try to withdraw now, we'll make mistakes and we may get whipped."

"I am in contact with my unit commanders," said Yklon. "When this happened to us before, all of our units were affected at once. This time, there are breaks in the illusion from one unit to another. It is possible to form a consistent picture of what is actually happening, though the sources vary from moment to moment. I think you are right."

Their surroundings again went black. Then there was a whirl of light in the blackness. In this, black shapes began to form. There came to Lindt a sense of dread and horror that was beginning to move out from the shapes in the center of the blackness. With an effort, he looked away. The sense of foreboding grew and strengthened.

Lindt felt a surge of anger. He focused his gaze directly at the white swirl with its foreboding shapes. Exactly what he thought or did was not clear to him, but the shapes abruptly vanished, as if in response. Then there was again the blackness there had been before; then it disappeared, again showing the inside of the ship.

A voice spoke from the background, "Marshal Lindt, General Hauser has answered your message. He says: 'It evidently can get worse. But they aren't letting up every few seconds because they want to. They're overloaded.'"

The display now showed the Out warships nearest Lindt's and Yklon's combined fleets falling back, severely damaged. As the Outs were driven back, a very large, apparently artificial space installation of some kind was attempting to withdraw with them, but was too slow. The fire of the attacking fleets began to register on this installation.

Again, there was blackness. Then, after a brief delay, the display was visible in front of them. A series of dazzling flashes, from the place where the installation had been, showed briefly the results of the heavy fire of the approaching fleets.

Lindt waited, the afterimages of the brilliant flashes still visible, expecting the blackness to blot out the display, but trying to see the part farthest from his and Yklon's attack. If this display was accurate, the Outs were suffering heavily. Where Lindt and Yklon had hit, the enemy was all but wiped out, and the effects were ripping the battlespace into two huge separated parts. On the far side of the display, a scatter of Out warships was enjoying a brief victory, as the human deception fleet, made up mostly of communications ships, having done what they were supposed to, fled the combat.

Looking over the display, surprised that it was still visible, Lindt could see no way the enemy could make sense of his own dispositions. And there was no way the Outs could know in which direction Lindt and Yklon might turn next, while the immense size of their attacking force guaranteed ruin for any of the ragged defenders who should try to stop them.

Lindt turned to Yklon.

"The system in the center of this display is their home system?"

"That is our belief. We may be wrong."

"But that system well to the 'right,' in the display, has the only really solid looking defense."

"Yes, but it would not be able to hold against our attack."

"Unless everything beyond it moved in to reinforce it."


"So let's head for their home system instead."

As the combined fleets of Lindt and Yklon swung at high speed toward the distant system that seemed to contain the home planet of their enemy, the enemy struggled to disengage from Hauser's attack, to reinforce their home system as best they could. But then the aim of the attackers changed, to attack another target entirely—one that could have given serious trouble if it had received the reinforcements.

The overwhelming attacks continued, with no repetition of the Out interference that had caused Yklon to suggest withdrawal. Remorselessly, the Out positions were overwhelmed, and collapsed. And then, the attack against their home planet and its fellow planets and their star was resumed, smashing through complex sets of mutually reinforcing roboticized space fortresses, to seize the satellites of several outer planets. With bases established on these satellites, with a number of the space fortresses under their control, a steady supply of Wij-Wij troops, workers, and industrial equipment began to move in, methodically seizing more and more of the Out home system. At a clearer and clearer disadvantage, the enemy fought on, making increasingly desperate, and more and more futile, counterattacks. The possibility of the total destruction of the Outs began to seem a reasonably likely end of the war.

Lindt was examining wreckage from the space installation destroyed shortly before the last use of the Out's special device when a message came from Hauser:

"The Outs are asking for peace terms. They apparently begin to see where this could end."

Lindt replied, "How do we make peace with a bunch of illusionists? They can fool us without half trying."

"They can fool us. They normally can't fool the Wij-Wij."

"They want peace now. Wait until they've had it for a while. They'll get rested up. They'll recuperate. They'll realize that they, the proper masters of the universe, have given in to a bunch of weak minds with no illusion-making powers and their inchworm/caterpillar allies. This will be offensive to them. Revenge will be called for. They'll harangue each other. They'll make a plan. The next thing you know, they'll figure out how to stab the Wij-Wij in the back, recover the basis of their former power, and erupt out at us."

"What do you suggest?"

"I can only think of two suggestions. First, if we can manage it, wipe them out completely."

"That's apparently possible, but it won't be quick or easy. We've bypassed part of their territory. We'll have to go back and take care of that. And individuals and small groups could still exist in places we regard as ruined. It could take us a thousand years to finish them off completely. And centuries more to make sure of it."

"Yes," said Lindt, "and the whole process would be horrible. But it might still be worth it."

"What's your other suggestion?"

"The Wij-Wij can knock us unconscious with a device of theirs. This device, used against the Outs, temporarily stuns the Outs' ability to create illusions. I have this from Yklon himself; but we need to know a lot more about it. If we can develop this, we might severely limit the Outs' special threat."

"This device is what makes that 'Wij-Wij-Wij' noise we hear when they attack?"

"As I understand it."

"Okay. You check on that. Be sure we have the right information. And see what Yklon thinks. If you can, get a sample of the device. If you can't, let me know, and we'll go at it on a higher level. Meanwhile, we'll offer the Outs a temporary truce while we work out the details for them to pull back from their more advanced territory, which threatens our own and Wij-Wij territory. If that device is workable, and if it hits the Outs anywhere near as hard as it hits us, it should help solve this mess."

Lindt said uneasily, "Look, I know I just suggested this myself. But it strikes me as too easy; you know, germs become immune to medicines; new weapons beget new defenses. We don't want to go through all this again a hundred years from now."

"We don't intend to rely on this and nothing else. But if you'll just figure the cost to us of continuing this war on an extermination basis, which incidentally will hold back our own exploration and settlement in space, then a strictly fair peace looks a lot better."

"I agree. But making a fair peace with the Outs might strike them as just weakness on our part. And some of our own people think if there's no threat staring you in the face, you should disarm completely and save a lot of money."

Hauser gave a short bark of a laugh. "There's a point you may be overlooking. On the far side of the Outs' territory, there's a bunch of aliens called the 'Stath.' Not far from them, there's the 'Ursoids.' You've been in another part of our territory, with other neighbors. Don't worry about there being no threat staring us in the face. Anyone who wants to disarm just hasn't looked around yet. Wait till they get a good look at the Stath and the Ursoids."

"I think," said Lindt, "I have heard of them, in some briefing or other. But it was all a long distance away and just background when I heard it. What are they like?"

"Well, the Stath are a lot like overgrown weasels. They'd slit your throat for the entertainment value. But if they make an agreement, they will honor it—so long as they respect you. And the Ursoids are the kind of people the Stath respect. The Ursoids will bash your brains in if they think you've gone back on a deal. And they're both the same in one respect: They only want all the territory that adjoins theirs. If you see what I mean, nobody can happily disarm with them next door."

Lindt thought it over, and suddenly smiled. "So—From another angle, we aren't the Outs' only worry, then?"

"Oh, no. We're just the one most susceptible to their power of illusion, and outwardly the most like them."

"Supposing we should completely wipe out the Outs, then these other beauties would move in?"

"To the best of their ability, you bet they'd move in. Our intelligence reports suggest they'd do it now, only that might drive us to join forces with the Outs, and then they'd be in deep trouble. They're leery of taking either of us on without a big advantage. And, of course, they don't really trust each other, for good reasons."

"Somehow," said Lindt, looking thoughtful, "I suppose we aren't the perfect neighbor, either, looking at it from their viewpoints."

"No, and while our beating the Outs will increase their respect for us, our ruthlessly exterminating the Outs might drive them into each others' arms."

"Yes." Lindt could feel the situation mentally rearrange itself. "Maybe we could reasonably make peace with the Outs, after all. Provided we keep our eyes open."

"I think so," said Hauser. He paused, then added, "There's more than one side to having interstellar neighbors, especially if they're all a little less less than perfect."

Lindt nodded ruefully. "Knowing the details about the others makes each of us look better."

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