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The Decision

From: The Highest ... Treason

Colonel Sebastian MacMaine didn't feel, that morning, as though this
day were different from any other. The sun, faintly veiled by a few
wisps of cloud, shone as it always had; the guards at the doors of the
Space Force Administration Building saluted him as usual; his brother
officers nodded politely, as they always did; his aide greeted him with
the usual "Good morning, sir."

The duty list lay on his desk, as it had every morning for years.
Sebastian MacMaine felt tense and a little irritated with himself, but
he felt nothing that could be called a premonition.

When he read the first item on the duty list, his irritation became a
little stronger.

"Interrogate Kerothi general."

The interrogation duty had swung round to him again. He didn't want to
talk to General Tallis. There was something about the alien that
bothered him, and he couldn't place exactly what it was.

Earth had been lucky to capture the alien officer. In a space war,
there's usually very little left to capture after a battle--especially
if your side lost the battle.

On the other hand, the Kerothi general wasn't so lucky. The food that
had been captured with him would run out in less than six months, and
it was doubtful that he would survive on Earth food. It was equally
doubtful that any more Kerothi food would be captured.

For two years, Earth had been fighting the Kerothi, and for two years
Earth had been winning a few minor skirmishes and losing the major
battles. The Kerothi hadn't hit any of the major colonies yet, but they
had swallowed up outpost after outpost, and Earth's space fleet was
losing ships faster than her factories could turn them out. The hell of
it was that nobody on Earth seemed to be very much concerned about it
at all.

MacMaine wondered why he let it concern him. If no one else was
worried, why did he let it bother him? He pushed the thought from his
mind and picked up the questionnaire form that had been made out for
that morning's session with the Kerothi general. Might as well get it
over with.

He glanced down the list of further duties for the day. It looked as
though the routine interrogation of the Kerothi general was likely to
provide most of the interest in the day's work at that.

He took the dropchute down to the basement of the building, to the
small prison section where the alien officer was being held. The guards
saluted nonchalantly as he went in. The routine questioning sessions
were nothing new to them.

MacMaine turned the lock on the prisoner's cell door and went in. Then
he came to attention and saluted the Kerothi general. He was probably
the only officer in the place who did that, he knew; the others treated
the alien general as though he were a criminal. Worse, they treated him
as though he were a petty thief or a common pickpocket--criminal, yes,
but of a definitely inferior type.

General Tallis, as always, stood and returned the salute. "Cut mawnik,
Cunnel MacMaine," he said. The Kerothi language lacked many of the
voiced consonants of English and Russian, and, as a result, Tallis' use
of B, D, G, J, V, and Z made them come out as P,
T, K, CH, F, and S. The English R, as it is
pronounced in run or rat, eluded him entirely, and he pronounced
it only when he could give it the guttural pronunciation of the German
R. The terminal NG always came out as NK. The nasal M and
N were a little more drawn out than in English, but they were easily

* * * * *

"Good morning, General Tallis," MacMaine said. "Sit down. How do you
feel this morning?"

The general sat again on the hard bunk that, aside from the single
chair, was the only furniture in the small cell. "Ass well ass coot pe
expectet. I ket ferry little exercisse. I ... how iss it set? ... I
pecome soft? Soft? Iss correct?"

"Correct. You've learned our language very well for so short a time."

The general shrugged off the compliment. "Wen it iss a matteh of learrn
in orrter to surfife, one learrnss."

"You think, then, that your survival has depended on your learning our

The general's orange face contrived a wry smile. "Opfiously. Your
people fill not learn Kerothic. If I cannot answerr questionss, I am
uff no use. Ass lonk ass I am uff use, I will liff. Not?"

MacMaine decided he might as well spring his bomb on the Kerothi
officer now as later. "I am not so certain but that you might have
stretched out your time longer if you had forced us to learn Kerothic,
general," he said in Kerothic. He knew his Kerothic was bad, since it
had been learned from the Kerothi spaceman who had been captured with
the general, and the man had been badly wounded and had survived only
two weeks. But that little bit of basic instruction, plus the work he
had done on the books and tapes from the ruined Kerothi ship, had
helped him.

"Ah?" The general blinked in surprise. Then he smiled. "Your accent,"
he said in Kerothic, "is atrocious, but certainly no worse than mine
when I speak your Inklitch. I suppose you intend to question me in
Kerothic now, eh? In the hope that I may reveal more in my own tongue?"

"Possibly you may," MacMaine said with a grin, "but I learned it for my
own information."

"For your own what? Oh. I see. Interesting. I know no others of your
race who would do such a thing. Anything which is difficult is beneath

"Not so, general. I'm not unique. There are many of us who don't think
that way."

The general shrugged. "I do not deny it. I merely say that I have met
none. Certainly they do not tend to go into military service. Possibly
that is because you are not a race of fighters. It takes a fighter to
tackle the difficult just because it is difficult."

MacMaine gave him a short, hard laugh. "Don't you think getting
information out of you is difficult? And yet, we tackle that."

"Not the same thing at all. Routine. You have used no pressure. No
threats, no promises, no torture, no stress."

MacMaine wasn't quite sure of his translation of the last two negative
phrases. "You mean the application of physical pain? That's barbaric."

"I won't pursue the subject," the general said with sudden irony.

"I can understand that. But you can rest assured that we would never do
such a thing. It isn't civilized. Our civil police do use certain drugs
to obtain information, but we have so little knowledge of Kerothi body
chemistry that we hesitate to use drugs on you."

"The application of stress, you say, is not civilized. Not, perhaps,
according to your definition of"--he used the English word--"cifiliced.
No. Not cifiliced--but it works." Again he smiled. "I said that I have
become soft since I have been here, but I fear that your civilization
is even softer."

"A man can lie, even if his arms are pulled off or his feet crushed,"
MacMaine said stiffly.

The Kerothi looked startled. When he spoke again, it was in English. "I
will say no morr. If you haff questionss to ask, ko ahet. I will not
take up time with furtherr talkink."

A little angry with himself and with the general, MacMaine spent the
rest of the hour asking routine questions and getting nowhere, filling
up the tape in his minicorder with the same old answers that others had

He left, giving the general a brisk salute and turning before the
general had time to return it.

Back in his office, he filed the tape dutifully and started on Item Two
of the duty list: Strategy Analysis of Battle Reports.

Strategy analysis always irritated and upset him. He knew that if he'd
just go about it in the approved way, there would be no
irritation--only boredom. But he was constitutionally incapable of
working that way. In spite of himself, he always played a little game
with himself and with the General Strategy Computer.

The only battle of significance in the past week had been the defense
of an Earth outpost called Bennington IV. Theoretically, MacMaine was
supposed to check over the entire report, find out where the losing
side had erred, and feed correctional information into the Computer.
But he couldn't resist stopping after he had read the first section:
Information Known to Earth Commander at Moment of Initial Contact.

Then he would stop and consider how he, personally, would have handled
the situation if he had been the Earth commander. So many ships in
such-and-such places. Enemy fleet approaching at such-and-such
velocities. Battle array of enemy thus-and-so.

Now what?

MacMaine thought over the information on the defense of Bennington IV
and devised a battle plan. There was a weak point in the enemy's
attack, but it was rather obvious. MacMaine searched until he found
another weak point, much less obvious than the first. He knew it would
be there. It was.

Then he proceeded to ignore both weak points and concentrate on what he
would do if he were the enemy commander. The weak points were traps;
the computer could see them and avoid them. Which was just exactly what
was wrong with the computer's logic. In avoiding the traps, it also
avoided the best way to hit the enemy. A weak point is weak, no
matter how well it may be booby-trapped. In baiting a rat trap, you
have to use real cheese because an imitation won't work.

Of course, MacMaine thought to himself, you can always poison the
cheese, but let's not carry the analogy too far.

All right, then. How to hit the traps?

* * * * *

It took him half an hour to devise a completely wacky and unorthodox
way of hitting the holes in the enemy advance. He checked the time
carefully, because there's no point in devising a strategy if the
battle is too far gone to use it by the time you've figured it out.

Then he went ahead and read the rest of the report. Earth had lost the
outpost. And, worse, MacMaine's strategy would have won the battle if
it had been used. He fed it through his small office computer to make
sure. The odds were good.

And that was the thing that made MacMaine hate Strategy Analysis. Too
often, he won; too often, Earth lost. A computer was fine for working
out the logical outcome of a battle if it was given the proper
strategy, but it couldn't devise anything new.

Colonel MacMaine had tried to get himself transferred to space duty,
but without success. The Commanding Staff didn't want him out there.

The trouble was that they didn't believe MacMaine actually devised his
strategy before he read the complete report. How could anyone out-think
a computer?

He'd offered to prove it. "Give me a problem," he'd told his immediate
superior, General Matsukuo. "Give me the Initial Contact information of
a battle I haven't seen before, and I'll show you."

And Matsukuo had said, testily: "Colonel, I will not permit a member of
my staff to make a fool of himself in front of the Commanding Staff.
Setting yourself up as someone superior to the Strategy Board is the
most antisocial type of egocentrism imaginable. You were given the same
education at the Academy as every other officer; what makes you think
you are better than they? As time goes on, your automatic promotions
will put you in a position to vote on such matters--provided you don't
prejudice the Promotion Board against you by antisocial behavior. I
hold you in the highest regard, colonel, and I will say nothing to the
Promotion Board about this, but if you persist I will have to do my
duty. Now, I don't want to hear any more about it. Is that clear?"

It was.

All MacMaine had to do was wait, and he'd automatically be promoted to
the Commanding Staff, where he would have an equal vote with the others
of his rank. One unit vote to begin with and an additional unit for
every year thereafter.

It's a great system for running a peacetime social club, maybe,
MacMaine thought, but it's no way to run a fighting force.

Maybe the Kerothi general was right. Maybe homo sapiens just wasn't
a race of fighters.

They had been once. Mankind had fought its way to domination of Earth
by battling every other form of life on the planet, from the smallest
virus to the biggest carnivore. The fight against disease was still
going on, as a matter of fact, and Man was still fighting the elemental
fury of Earth's climate.

But Man no longer fought with Man. Was that a bad thing? The discovery
of atomic energy, two centuries before, had literally made war
impossible, if the race was to survive. Small struggles bred bigger
struggles--or so the reasoning went. Therefore, the society had
unconsciously sought to eliminate the reasons for struggle.

What bred the hatreds and jealousies among men? What caused one group
to fight another?

Society had decided that intolerance and hatred were caused by
inequality. The jealousy of the inferior toward his superior; the scorn
of the superior toward his inferior. The Have-not envies the Have, and
the Have looks down upon the Have-not.

Then let us eliminate the Have-not. Let us make sure that everyone is a

Raise the standard of living. Make sure that every human being has the
necessities of life--food, clothing, shelter, proper medical care, and
proper education. More, give them the luxuries, too--let no man be
without anything that is poorer in quality or less in quantity than the
possessions of any other. There was no longer any middle class simply
because there were no other classes for it to be in the middle of.

"The poor you will have always with you," Jesus of Nazareth had said.
But, in a material sense, that was no longer true. The poor were
gone--and so were the rich.

But the poor in mind and the poor in spirit were still there--in
ever-increasing numbers.

Material wealth could be evenly distributed, but it could not remain
that way unless Society made sure that the man who was more clever than
the rest could not increase his wealth at the expense of his less
fortunate brethren.

Make it a social stigma to show more ability than the average. Be kind
to your fellow man; don't show him up as a stupid clod, no matter how
cloddish he may be.

All men are created equal, and let's make sure they stay that way!

* * * * *

There could be no such thing as a classless society, of course. That
was easily seen. No human being could do everything, learn everything,
be everything. There had to be doctors and lawyers and policemen and
bartenders and soldiers and machinists and laborers and actors and
writers and criminals and bums.

But let's make sure that the differentiation between classes is
horizontal, not vertical. As long as a person does his job the best he
can, he's as good as anybody else. A doctor is as good as a lawyer,
isn't he? Then a garbage collector is just as good as a nuclear
physicist, and an astronomer is no better than a street sweeper.

And what of the loafer, the bum, the man who's too lazy or weak-willed
to put out any more effort than is absolutely necessary to stay alive?
Well, my goodness, the poor chap can't help it, can he? It isn't
his fault, is it? He has to be helped. There is always something he
is both capable of doing and willing to do. Does he like to sit around
all day and do nothing but watch television? Then give him a sheet of
paper with all the programs on it and two little boxes marked Yes and
No, and he can put an X in one or the other to indicate whether he
likes the program or not. Useful? Certainly. All these sheets can be
tallied up in order to find out what sort of program the public likes
to see. After all, his vote is just as good as anyone else's, isn't it?

And a Program Analyst is just as good, just as important, and just as
well cared-for as anyone else.

And what about the criminal? Well, what is a criminal? A person who
thinks he's superior to others. A thief steals because he thinks he has
more right to something than its real owner. A man kills because he has
an idea that he has a better right to live than someone else. In short,
a man breaks the law because he feels superior, because he thinks he
can outsmart Society and The Law. Or, simply, because he thinks he can
outsmart the policeman on the beat.

Obviously, that sort of antisocial behavior can't be allowed. The poor
fellow who thinks he's better than anyone else has to be segregated
from normal society and treated for his aberrations. But not punished!
Heavens no! His erratic behavior isn't his fault, is it?

It was axiomatic that there had to be some sort of vertical structure
to society, naturally. A child can't do the work of an adult, and a
beginner can't be as good as an old hand. Aside from the fact that it
was actually impossible to force everyone into a common mold, it was
recognized that there had to be some incentive for staying with a job.
What to do?

The labor unions had solved that problem two hundred years before.
Promotion by seniority. Stick with a job long enough, and you'll
automatically rise to the top. That way, everyone had as good a chance
as everyone else.

Promotion tables for individual jobs were worked out on the basis of
longevity tables, so that by the time a man reached the automatic
retirement age he was automatically at the highest position he could
hold. No fuss, no bother, no trouble. Just keep your nose clean and
live as long as possible.

It eliminated struggle. It eliminated the petty jockeying for position
that undermined efficiency in an organization. Everybody deserves an
equal chance in life, so make sure everybody gets it.

Colonel Sebastian MacMaine had been born and reared in that society. He
could see many of its faults, but he didn't have the orientation to see
all of them. As he'd grown older, he'd seen that, regardless of the
position a man held according to seniority, a smart man could exercise
more power than those above him if he did it carefully.

A man is a slave if he is held rigidly in a pattern and not permitted
to step out of that pattern. In ancient times, a slave was born at the
bottom of the social ladder, and he remained there all his life. Only
rarely did a slave of exceptional merit manage to rise above his
assigned position.

But a man who is forced to remain on the bottom step of a stationary
stairway is no more a slave than a man who is forced to remain on a
given step of an escalator, and no less so.

Slavery, however, has two advantages--one for the individual, and one
which, in the long run, can be good for the race. For the individual,
it offers security, and that is the goal which by far the greater
majority of mankind seeks.

The second advantage is more difficult to see. It operates only in
favor of the exceptional individual. There are always individuals who
aspire to greater heights than the one they occupy at any given moment,
but in a slave society, they are slapped back into place if they act
hastily. Just as the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind can be
king if he taps the ground with a cane, so the gifted individual can
gain his ends in a slave society--provided he thinks out the
consequences of any act in advance.

The Law of Gravity is a universal edict which enslaves, in a sense,
every particle of matter in the cosmos. The man who attempts to defy
the "injustice" of that law by ignoring the consequences of its
enforcement will find himself punished rather severely. It may be
unjust that a bird can fly under its own muscle power, but a man who
tries to correct that injustice by leaping out of a skyscraper window
and flapping his arms vigorously will find that overt defiance of the
Law of Gravity brings very serious penalties indeed. The wise man seeks
the loopholes in the law, and loopholes are caused by other laws which
counteract--not defy!--the given law. A balloon full of hydrogen
"falls up" in obedience to the Law of Gravity. A contradiction? A
paradox? No. It is the Law of Gravity which causes the density and
pressure of a planet's atmosphere to decrease with altitude, and that
decrease in pressure forces the balloon upwards until the balance point
between atmospheric density and the internal density of the balloon is

The illustration may seem obvious and elementary to the modern man, but
it seems so only because he understands, at least to some extent, the
laws involved. It was not obvious to even the most learned man of, say,
the Thirteenth Century.

* * * * *

Slavery, too, has its laws, and it is as dangerous to defy the laws of
a society as it is to defy those of nature, and the only way to escape
the punishment resulting from those laws is to find the loopholes. One
of the most basic laws of any society is so basic that it is never,
ever written down.

And that law, like all basic laws, is so simple in expression and so
obvious in application that any man above the moron level has an
intuitive grasp of it. It is the first law one learns as a child.

Thou shall not suffer thyself to be caught.

The unthinking man believes that this basic law can be applied by
breaking the laws of his society in secret. What he fails to see is
that such lawbreaking requires such a fantastic network of lies,
subterfuges, evasions, and chicanery that the structure itself
eventually breaks down and his guilt is obvious to all. The very steps
he has taken to keep from getting caught eventually become signposts
that point unerringly at the lawbreaker himself.

Like the loopholes in the law of gravity, the loopholes in the laws of
society can not entail a defiance of the law. Only compliance with
those laws will be ultimately successful.

The wise man works within the framework of the law--not only the
written, but the unwritten law--of his society. In a slave society, any
slave who openly rebels will find that he gets squashed pretty quickly.
But many a slave-owner has danced willingly to the tune of a slave who
was wiser and cleverer than he, without ever knowing that the tune
played was not his own.

And that is the second advantage of slavery. It teaches the exceptional
individual to think.

When a wise, intelligent individual openly and violently breaks the
laws of his society, there are two things which are almost certain:
One: he knows that there is no other way to do the thing he feels must
be done, and--

Two: he knows that he will pay the penalty for his crime in one way or

Sebastian MacMaine knew the operations of those laws. As a member of a
self-enslaved society, he knew that to betray any sign of intelligence
was dangerous. A slight slip could bring the scorn of the slaves around
him; a major offense could mean death. The war with Keroth had thrown
him slightly off balance, but after his one experience with General
Matsukuo, he had quickly regained his equilibrium.

At the end of his work day, MacMaine closed his desk and left his
office precisely on time, as usual. Working overtime, except in the
gravest emergencies, was looked upon as antisocialism. The offender was
suspected of having Ambition--obviously a Bad Thing.

* * * * *

It was during his meal at the Officers' Mess that Colonel Sebastian
MacMaine heard the statement that triggered the decision in his mind.

There were three other officers seated with MacMaine around one of the
four-place tables in the big room. MacMaine only paid enough attention
to the table conversation to be able to make the appropriate noises at
the proper times. He had long since learned to do his thinking under
cover of general banalities.

Colonel VanDeusen was a man who would never have made Private First
Class in an army that operated on a strict merit system. His thinking
was muddy, and his conversation betrayed it. All he felt comfortable in
talking about was just exactly what he had been taught. Slogans,
banalities, and bromides. He knew his catechism, and he knew it was

"What I mean is, we got nothing to worry about. We all stick together,
and we can do anything. As long as we don't rock the boat, we'll come
through O.K."

"Sure," said Major Brock, looking up from his plate in blank-faced
surprise. "I mean, who says different?"

"Guy on my research team," said VanDeusen, plying his fork
industriously. "A wise-guy second looie. One of them."

"Oh," said the major knowingly. "One of them." He went back to his

"What'd he say?" MacMaine asked, just to keep his oar in.

"Ahhh, nothing serious, I guess," said VanDeusen, around a mouthful of
steak. "Said we were all clogged up with paper work, makin' reports on
tests, things like that. Said, why don't we figure out something to pop
those Carrot-skins outa the sky. So I said to him, 'Look, Lootenant,' I
said, 'you got your job to do, I got mine. If the paper work's pilin'
up,' I said, 'it's because somebody isn't pulling his share. And it
better not be you,' I said." He chuckled and speared another cube of
steak with his fork. "That settled him down. He's all right, though.
Young yet, you know. Soon's he gets the hang of how the Space Force
operates, he'll be O.K."

Since VanDeusen was the senior officer at the table, the others
listened respectfully as he talked, only inserting a word now and then
to show that they were listening.

MacMaine was thinking deeply about something else entirely, but
VanDeusen's influence intruded a little. MacMaine was wondering what it
was that bothered him about General Tallis, the Kerothi prisoner.

The alien was pleasant enough, in spite of his position. He seemed to
accept his imprisonment as one of the fortunes of war. He didn't
threaten or bluster, although he tended to maintain an air of
superiority that would have been unbearable in an Earthman.

Was that the reason for his uneasiness in the general's presence? No.
MacMaine could accept the reason for that attitude; the general's
background was different from that of an Earthman, and therefore he
could not be judged by Terrestrial standards. Besides, MacMaine could
acknowledge to himself that Tallis was superior to the norm--not only
the norm of Keroth, but that of Earth. MacMaine wasn't sure he could
have acknowledged superiority in another Earthman, in spite of the fact
that he knew that there must be men who were his superiors in one way
or another.

Because of his social background, he knew that he would probably form
an intense and instant dislike for any Earthman who talked the way
Tallis did, but he found that he actually liked the alien officer.

It came as a slight shock when the realization hit MacMaine that his
liking for the general was exactly why he was uncomfortable around him.
Dammit, a man isn't supposed to like his enemy--and most especially
when that enemy does and says things that one would despise in a

Come to think of it, though, did he, MacMaine, actually have any
friends? He looked around him, suddenly clearly conscious of the other
men in the room. He searched through his memory, thinking of all his
acquaintances and relatives.

It was an even greater shock to realize that he would not be more than
faintly touched emotionally if any or all of them were to die at that
instant. Even his parents, both of whom were now dead, were only dim
figures in his memory. He had mourned them when an aircraft accident
had taken both of them when he was only eleven, but he found himself
wondering if it had been the loss of loved ones that had caused his
emotional upset or simply the abrupt vanishing of a kind of security he
had taken for granted.

And yet, he felt that the death of General Polan Tallis would leave an
empty place in his life.

Colonel VanDeusen was still holding forth.

"... So I told him. I said, 'Look, Lootenant,' I said, 'don't rock the
boat. You're a kid yet, you know,' I said. 'You got equal rights with
everybody else,' I said, 'but if you rock the boat, you aren't gonna
get along so well.'

"'You just behave yourself,' I said, 'and pull your share of the load
and do your job right and keep your nose clean, and you'll come out all

"'Time I get to be on the General Staff,' I told him, 'why, you'll be
takin' over my job, maybe. That's the way it works,' I said.

"He's a good kid. I mean, he's a fresh young punk, that's all. He'll
learn, O.K. He'll climb right up, once he's got the right attitude.
Why, when I was----"

But MacMaine was no longer listening. It was astonishing to realize
that what VanDeusen had said was perfectly true. A blockhead like
VanDeusen would simply be lifted to a position of higher authority,
only to be replaced by another blockhead. There would be no essential
change in the status quo.

The Kerothi were winning steadily, and the people of Earth and her
colonies were making no changes whatever in their way of living. The
majority of people were too blind to be able to see what was happening,
and the rest were afraid to admit the danger, even to themselves. It
required no great understanding of strategy to see what the inevitable
outcome must be.

At some point in the last few centuries, human civilization had taken
the wrong path--a path that led only to oblivion.

It was at that moment that Colonel Sebastian MacMaine made his

Next: The Escape

Previous: The Prisoner

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