Wasp, page 1
Eric Frank Russell
The war had been going for nearly a year. Earth had the better weapons, but the Sirian Empire had the advantage in personnel and equipment. Earth needed an edge, which was where James Mowry came in. Intensively trained and his appearance surgically altered, James is to be an irritant to the enemy.
by Eric Frank Russell
He ambled into the room, sat in the indicated chair and said nothing. The baffled expression had been on his face quite a time and he was getting a bit tired of wearing it.
The big fellow who had brought him all the way from Alaska now departed, silently closing the door and leaving him alone with the man contemplating him from behind the desk. A small plaque informed that this character’s name was William Wolf. It was inappropriate: he looked more like a bull moose.
Wolf said in hard, even tones, “Mr. Mowry, you are entitled to an explanation.” A pause, followed by, “You will get one.” Then he stared unblinkingly at his listener.
For a long-drawn minute James Mowry suffered the intent scrutiny before he asked, “When?”
With that, Wolf went on staring at him. The gaze was unpleasantly piercing, analytical, and the face around it was about as warm and expressive as a lump of hard rock.
“Mind standing up?”
Mowry stood up.
He rotated, looking bored.
“Walk to and fro across the room.”
“Tsk-tsk!” grunted Wolf in a way that indicated neither pleasure nor pain. “I assure you, Mr. Mowry, that I am quite serious when I ask you to oblige by walking bow-legged.”
Splaying his knees as much as possible, Mowry stumped around as if riding an invisible horse. Then he resumed his chair and said pointedly. “There’d better be money in this. I don’t come three thousand miles and make like a clown for nothing.”
“There’s no money in it, not a cent,” informed Wolf. “If lucky, there is life.”
“And if out of luck?”
“You’re damnably frank about it,” Mowry commented.
“In this job I have to be.” Wolf stared at him again, long and penetratingly. “You’ll do. Yes, I’m sure you’ll do.”
“Do for what?”
“I’ll tell you in a moment.” Opening a drawer, he extracted some papers, passed them across. “These will enable you better to understand the position. Read them through—they lead up to what follows.”
Mowry glanced at them. They were typescript copies of press reports. Settling back in his chair he perused them slowly and with care.
The first told of a prankster in Roumania. This fellow had done nothing more than stand in the road gazing fascinatedly at the sky, occasionally uttering ejaculations and loud phrases such as, “Blue flames!’ Curious people had joined him and gaped likewise. The group became a crowd, the crowd became a mob, and the bigger the mob the faster it grew.
Soon the audience blocked the street, overflowed into side-streets. Police tried to break it up, making matters worse. Some fool summoned the fire squads. Hysterics on the fringes swore they could see or had seen something weird above the clouds. Reporters and cameramen rushed to the scene. Rumours raced around. The government sent up the air force for a closer look. Panic spread over an area of two hundred square miles from which the original cause had judiciously disappeared.
“Amusing if nothing else,” remarked Mowry.
The second report concerned a daring escape from jail of two notorious killers. They had stolen a car, made six hundred miles before recapture. Their term of freedom had lasted exactly fourteen hours.
The third detailed an automobile accident. Three killed,. one seriously injured, the car a complete wreck, the sole survivor had died nine hours later.
Handing back the papers, Mowry said, “What’s all this to me?”
“We’ll take those reports in the order as read,” began Wolf. “They prove something of which we’ve long been aware but, maybe you haven’t realised yourself. For the first one, that Roumanian did nothing, positively nothing save stare at the sky and mumble. All the same, he persuaded a government to start jumping around like fleas on a hot griddle. It shows that in given conditions action and reaction can be hopelessly out of proportion. Also that by doing insignificant things in suitable circumstances one can obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort.”
“I’II give you that.” Mowry conceded.
“Now the lamsters, They didn’t do much either; climbed a wall, grabbed a car, drove like mad until the petrol ran out, got caught’ He leaned forward, continued with added emphasis, “But for most of fourteen hours they monopolised the attention of six planes, ten helicopters, one hundred and twenty patrol-cars, eighteen telephone exchanges, uncountable phone lines and radio link-ups, not to mention police, deputies, posses of volunteers, hunters, trackers, forest rangers and National. Guardsmen to a grand total of twenty-seven thousands scattered over three states.”
“Phew!” Mowry raised his eyebrows.
“Finally, let’s consider this auto smash. We know the cause; the survivor was able to tell us before he died. He said the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and started buzzing around his face.”
“It nearly happened to me once.”
Ignoring that, Wolf went on, “The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being its size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid, and in this case it didn’t even use it. Nevertheless it killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap.”
“I see the point,” agreed Mowry, “but where do I come in?”
“Right here,” said Wolf. “We want you to become a wasp”
Leaning back, Mowry eyed the other contemplatively, then commented, “The muscle-bound lug who brought me here was a Secret Service agent who had satisfied me as to the genuineness of his credentials. This is a government department. You’re a high-ranking official. But for those facts I’d say you’re crazy.”
“Maybe I am,” gave back Wolf, blank-faced, “but I don’t think so.”
“You want me to do something?”
“At risk of death?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“And for no reward?”
Mowry stood up, reached for his hat. “I’m not crazy either.”
“You will be,” said Wolf, in the same flat tones, “if you rest content to let the Sirians kick us out of existence.”
Letting go the hat, Mowry sat down again. “What d’you mean?”
“There’s a war on.”
“I know. Everybody knows.” He made a disparaging gesture. “We’ve been fighting the Sirian Combine for ten months. The newspapers say so. The radio says so. The video says so. The government says so. I am credulous enough to believe the lot of them.”
“Then perhaps you’re willing to stretch your credulity a bit further and swallow a few more items,” Wolf suggested.
“The Terran public is complacent because to date nothing has happened in this sector. They know that already the enemy has launched two determined attacks against our solar system and that both have been beaten off. The public has great confidence in Terran defences. That confidence is justified; no Sirian task force will ever penetrate this far.”
“Well, what have we to worry abou
“Wars must be won or lost and there’s no third alternative. We cannot win merely by keeping the foe at arm’s length. We can never gain victory solely by postponing defeat.” Suddenly and emphatically he slammed a heavy fist on his desk and made a pen leap two feet into the air. “We’ve got to do more than that. We’ve got to seize the initiative and get the enemy fiat on his back while we beat the bejazus out of him.”
“But we’ll get around to that in due course, won’t we?”
“Maybe,” said Wolf. “Or maybe not. It depends.”
“Depends upon what?”
“Whether we make full and intelligent use of our resources, especially people—meaning people such as you.”
“You could be more specific,” Mowry suggested.
“Look, in technical matters we are ahead of the Sirian Combine, a little ahead in some respects and far ahead in others. That gives us the advantage of, better weapons, more efficient armaments. But what the public does not know—because nobody has seen fit to tell them—is that the Sirians also have an advantage. They outnumber us by twelve to one and outweigh us by material in the same proportion.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Unfortunately it is, though our propagandists don’t bother to mention it. Our war-potential is superior qualitatively. The Sirians have superiority quantitatively. That’s a very serious handicap to us. We’ve got to counter it in the best way we know how. It won’t be done by playing for time while we make the effort to breed like flies.”
“I see.” Mowry gnawed his bottom lip, looked thoughtful.
“However,” Wolf went on, “the problem becomes less formidable than it looks if we bear in mind that one man can shake a government, two men temporarily can put down an army twenty-seven thousands strong, or one small wasp can slay four comparative giants and destroy their huge machine into the bargain.” He paused, watching the other for effect, continued, “Which means that by scrawling suitable words upon a wall, the right man in the right place at the right time might immobilise an armoured division with the aid of nothing more than a piece of chalk.”
“You’re concocting a pretty unorthodox form of warfare.”
“So much the better.”
“I am sufficiently perverse to like such methods. They appeal to me.”
“We know,” said Wolf. He took a file from his desk, thumbed through it. “Upon your fourteenth birthday You were fined one hundred Sirian guilders for expressing your opinion of an official, upon a wall, in letters twenty inches high. Your father apologised on your behalf and pleaded the impetuosity of youth. The Sirians were annoyed but let the matter drop.”
“Razaduth was a scheming, pot-bellied liar and I say it again.” Mowry eyed the file. “That my life-story you’ve got there?”
“Nosey lot, aren’t you?”
“We have to be. Regard it as part of the price to be paid for survival” Shoving the file to one side, Wolf informed, “We’ve a punched card for every Terran in existence. In no time worth mentioning we can sort out electronically all those who have false teeth, or wear size eleven shoes, or had red-haired mothers, or can be relied upon to try dodge the draft. Without trouble we can extract any specified type of sheep from the general mass of sheep and goats.”
“And I am a specified sheep?”
“Speaking metaphorically, of course. No insult is intend.”
His face gave a craggy twitch that was the nearest it could come to a smile. “We first dug out about sixteen thousand completely fluent speakers of the several Sirian dialects. Eliminating the females and children brought the number down to nine thousand. Then, step by step, we cut out the elderly, the infirm, the weak, the untrustworthy, the temperamentally unsuitable, those too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too stupid, too rash, too cautious, and so forth. We weren’t left with many among whom to seek for wasps.”
“What defines a wasp?”
“Several things—but mostly a shorty who can walk slightly bandy-legged with his ears pinned back and his face dyed purple. In other words, one who can play the part of a native-born Sirian and do it well enough to fool the Sirians.”
“Never!” exclaimed Mowry. “Never in a month of Sundays! I’m pink, I’ve got wisdom teeth and my ears stick out.”
“The surplus. teeth can be pulled. Surgical removal of a sliver of cartilage will fasten your ears back good and tight, leaving no visible evidence of the operation. Painless and easy, with complete healing in two weeks. That is medical evidence; so don’t argue it.” Again the craggy twitch. “As for the purple complexion, its nothing startling: There are some Terrans a good deal more purple-faced than any Sirian, they having acquired the colour via many gallons of booze. We can fix you up with a dye guaranteed firm for four months, also a retinting kit that will enable you to carry on as much longer as may be necessary.”
“Listen to me. You were born in Masham, capital city of Diracta which is the Sirian home planet. Your father was a trader there at the time. You lived on Diracta until age seventeen when you returned with your parents to Terra. Luckily you happen to be a half-pint of just about Sirian size and build. You are now twenty-six and still speak perfect Sirian with a decided Mashambi accent which, if anything, is an advantage. It lends plausibility. About fifty million Sirians speak with Mashambi accents. You’re a natural for the job we have in mind”
“What if I invite you to thrust the job right up the air-shaft?” asked Mowry, with great interest.
“I would regret it,” said Wolf, coldly, “because in time of war it is an old, well-founded adage that one volunteer is worth a thousand conscripts.”
“Meaning I’d get my call-up papers?” Mowry made a gesture of irritation. “Damn!—I’d rather walk into something of my own accord than be frog marched into it”
“So it says here,” informed Wolf, motioning toward the file. “James Mowry, twenty-six, restless and pigheaded—can be trusted to do anything at all—provided the alternative is worse.”
“Sounds like my father. Did he tell you that.”
“The Service does not reveal its sources of information.”
“Humph!” He pondered a little while, asked “Suppose I volunteer, what follows?”
“We’ll send you to a school. It runs a special course that is fast and tough— and takes six to eight weeks. ‘You’ll be crammed to the gills with everything likely to be useful to you: weapons, explosives, sabotage, psychological warfare, map reading, compass reading, camouflage, judo, radio techniques and maybe a dozen other subjects. By the time they’ve finished with you, you’ll be fully qualified to function as a complete and absolute pain-in-the-neck.”
“And after that?”
“You will be dropped surreptitiously upon a Sirian held planet and be left to make yourself as awkward as possible.”
There was a lengthy silence at the end of which Mowry gave begrudgingly, “Once when my father was thoroughly aggravated he said, “Son, you were born a fool and you’ll die a fool.” He let go a long, deep sigh. “The old man was dead right. I hereby volunteer.”
“We knew you would,” said Wolf, imperturbably.
He saw Wolf again, that being two days after he had finished the arduous course and passed with satisfactory marks. Wolf arrived at the school, visited him in his room.
“What was it like?”
“Sheer sadism,” said Mowry, pulling a face. “So almighty tough that I’m beaten up in mind and body. I feel like a half stunned cripple.”
You’ll have plenty of time to get over that. The journey will take long enough. You’re leaving Thursday.”
“Sorry, I can’t tell you. Your pilot carries sealed orders to be opened only on the last lap. In case of accident or successful interception he destroys them unread.”
“What’s the likelihood of us being grabbed on the way there?”
“Not great. Your ship will be. con
“My successor? raises a question nobody here seems to answer. you can tell me, huh?”
“What is it?”
“Will I be entirely on my own? Or will other Terrans be operating on the same planet? If there will be others how shall I make contact?”
“So far as you’re concerned you’ll be the only Terran for a hundred million miles around,” responded Wolf. “You will have no contacts. By the same token, you won’t be able to betray anyone to the Kaitempi. Nothing they can do will extract from you information that you don’t possess. Maybe you’ll sweat and scream and invent stuff to make them lay off, but it won’t be genuine information.”
“It would sound better if you didn’t smack your lips over the horrid prospect,” reproved Mowry. “Anyway, it would be some comfort and encouragement to know that other wasps are similarly active even if only one to a planet.”
“You didn’t go through this course all on your ownsome, did you? The others weren’t here merely to provide company for you.” Wolf held out a hand: “Good hunting, be a curse to the foe—and come back.”
“I shall return,” assured Mowry; “though the way be flinty and the road be long.”
That, he thought as Wolf departed, was more of a pious hope than a performable promise. To be dropped single-handed upon a hostile planet was to be plunged neck-deep into a genuinely menacing situation. Casualties could be expected sooner or later. Indeed, Wolf’s remark about ‘your successor’ showed that losses had been anticipated and steps taken to provide replacements…
It then occurred to him that perhaps his own status was that of somebody else’s successor. Maybe on the world to which he was going some unlucky character had been trapped and pulled apart very slowly. If so, it would be a world fore-warned and ready for him. Right now the Kaitempi would be watching the skies, licking their chops in anticipation of their next victim, a dope named James Mowry, twenty-six, restless and pigheaded.
by Eric Frank Russell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes