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Shock absorber, p.1
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       Shock Absorber, p.1

           E. G. Von Wald
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Shock Absorber

  Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at



  Illustrated by van Dongen

  [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding ScienceFiction June 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence thatthe U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

  _A man acts on what he believes the facts are, not on the facts. He lives or dies by what the facts are. Now sometimes you don't have time to correct a man's beliefs, yet he must act correctly...._

  The aging little psychologist looked down at the captain's insignia onhis sleeve and scowled.

  "I know it's a lousy, fouled-up situation, commander," he said withevident irony. "You speak of discipline. Well, it's bad enough here onMars, where a junior officer like you feels free to argue with a fullcaptain like me, but out there with the fleet, discipline is nowvirtually nonexistent."

  He looked up again and quickly added, "Oh, of course there is adiscipline of a sort, and in its own way it is quite effective. Strict,too, as you will find. But it has few of the marks of the militaryacademy, of which the regular officers were so fond. Perhaps that wasthe reason why they let the situation get away from them, and why we arein charge of it now."

  "I still think--" the commander started, but he was interrupted again.

  "I know what you think, commander. You can forget it. It's wishfulthinking and we cannot permit such daydreaming in our precariouscondition. Face the facts as they exist in the present. After we kickthe aliens out of our solar system, maybe we can go back to the oldideas again. Maybe. I'm not even very sure of that. But as for now, thecharacteristic of despair is the lowest common denominator among thecombat patrols, and we therefore have mutinies, disobedience of orders,defections of every variety. That is a real situation, and it willpersist until we can induce the men to accept tactical leadership thatcan cope with the enemy.

  "Actually, it is not very remarkable that this situation developed.Strategy is still a rational computable quantity, but the actual tacticsof fighting is something else entirely. The aliens have an intellectualresponse that is in full truth alien to us. It simply cannot becomprehended rationally by a human being, although they manage to guesspretty well the responses of our own fighters. Naturally, the result hasbeen that in the past our losses were almost ninety per cent whenever apatrol actually engaged in a firefight with the enemy.

  "Fortunately, the aliens are much too far from their home to possessanything like the number of personnel and other resources that we have.Otherwise, they would have beaten us long ago. Completely wiped us out.And all because an ordinary, intelligent human being cannot learn anypatterns by which the aliens operate, and by which he can fight themsuccessfully."

  "I know that," the commander muttered. "I spent plenty of time out therebefore I got tapped for this new branch of service." He rubbed the moistpalms of his hands together nervously.

  "Certainly you did," the captain acknowledged absently. Then hecontinued his explanation. "Fortunately, there was a small body ofinformation on extra-rational mental faculties that had been developedover the past century, and as soon as we expanded it sufficiently, wewere able to form this new branch of service you now belong to. Butunfortunately, some idiot in the Information Service released apopularization of the data on the new branch. That was ill-advised. Theveterans who had survived so far had their own way of accounting fortheir survival, and that did not include what that silly descriptionalluded to as 'blind guessing' by commanders of 'exceptional psychicgifts.'

  "Like most popularizations, the description was grossly inaccurate, andwas promptly withdrawn; but the damage had already been done. The damagewas completed by another idiot who named the new branch the Psi Corps,merely because the basic capacity for extra-rational mental faculties istechnically signified by the Greek letter 'psi.' The name was slightlymispronounced by the men, and that automatically produced that nastylittle nickname, which has stuck, and which expresses very well theattitude of the men toward the new service.

  "As I say, fleet discipline is very bad, and the men simply would notaccept orders from such officers. There are numerous cases on recordwhere they killed them when there was no other way out.

  "Now, as far as discipline itself is concerned, the best procedure wouldbe to pull an entire fleet out of the defense perimeter and retrainthem, because the newly trained recruits can be made to accept Psi Corpsofficers as commanders. But our situation is far too desperate to permitanything like that. Therefore, we must use whatever devices we can thinkof to do the job.

  "The ship you are going to is staffed by veterans. They were incrediblylucky. From the outset, they had a CO who was a man highly gifted in psiwithout he or anyone else knowing about it until a few months ago whenwe ran a quiet little survey. But he got killed in a recent encounter,along with their executive officer, so we are now sending them a newcaptain and a new exec as well. But those men simply will not acceptorders from a Psi Corps officer. Furthermore, they have heard therumors--soundly based--that the Psi Corps, as a result of itsopposition, has gone underground, so to speak. They know that itspersonnel has been largely disguised by giving them special commissionsin the regular Space Combat Service. As a result, they will mostcertainly suspect any new commanding officer no matter what insignia hewears.

  "Of course, now and then you will find one of the old hands who willaccept the Psi Corps, so long as it isn't jammed down his throat. Justpray that you have somebody like that aboard your new ship, although Imust admit, it isn't very likely."

  * * * * *

  "All right, all right," the commander growled with irritation."But--with your permission, sir--I still think my particular method ofassignment is a lousy approach and I don't like it. I still think itwill make for very bad discipline."

  "Whether you like it or not, commander, that is the way it will have tobe accomplished. We are simply recognizing a real situation for what itis, and compromising with it."

  "But couldn't this change in command personnel be postponed until--"

  "If it could be postponed," the captain replied acidly, "you may restassured we would not be employing disagreeable--and somewhatquestionable--devices to speed it up. Unfortunately, our outlyingdetectors have identified the approach of a fleet of starships. They canonly be reinforcements for the aliens, about equal to what they alreadyhave here, and they will arrive in two years. If those two forces canjoin each other, there will be no need to worry further about disciplineamong the humans. There will shortly be no humans left. So we arepreparing a full-scale assault against those aliens now within oursystem in the very near future. And we simply must have all tacticalcombat devices commanded by men with extra-rational mental abilities inorder to deal with them effectively."

  "Effectively?" the commander snorted. "Thirty-two per cent effective,according to the figures they gave us in the Psi school."

  "That is considerably better than twelve per cent, which is thestatistical likelihood of survival in combat without it," the captainretorted.

  Nervously, the commander scratched the back of his thin neck, grimmacedand nodded.

  "The first and most important problem for you is to gain the confidenceof your crew. They will be worse than useless to you without it, and itwill be a very difficult job, even with all the advice and help our mencan give you. And you will have to be careful--don't forget what I saidabout assassinations. The way we are going about it, that you find sodisagreeable, should minimize that danger, but you can't ever tell whatwill happen."

  He held up his hand to forestall a co
mment from the other and continuedon. "There are conditions for everything, commander. Men react accordingto certain patterns, given the proper circumstances. It ischaracteristic of the sort of men you will encounter on your new shipthat they are unlikely to take the initiative in such matters, partlyfrom their early training and partly from their association with a COwho pretty well dominated them. However, they will readily condone it ifsomebody else does take the initiative in their behalf. Particularly, ifthat man has some official authority over them, and there is alwayssomebody like that. They will not only condone the action, they willpositively be happy about it, because it will tend to bolster theirsense of security--such as it is. You know the sort of thing--fatherhunger. Somebody to take care of them the way their old CO did."

  The captain sighed. "So you see, commander, you are going into adouble-edged situation. Everything in it that can accrue to youradvantage, could also get you promptly killed."

  "I see. First I fight with my men," the commander said bitterly. "And ifI win that battle, I will be permitted to fight the aliens with athirty-two per cent possibility of living through the first encounter ofthat."

  "It's always been that way to some extent," the captain repliedsympathetically, "in every command situation since the world began. Onlyright now is a little worse than anyone can remember."

  * * * * *

  The commander departed. But about a month later, ensuing circumstancesbrought one Lieutenant Maise to the same office building. He was not, ofcourse, ushered into the august presence of the captain, who was seeingmore important people than lieutenants that day.

  Maise had been there for several hours every day for the previous three,and he went immediately to the desk of the Special Reports Officer. TheSR Officer was a lieutenant also, a combination of psychologist andwriter, whose business it was to make sure that Special Reports onmorale matters were presented in the properly dramatic fashion so thatthat indefinable aura of reality, customarily omitted from officialhistorical documents, could be included. The Evaluation Division, backon Earth, was very fussy about that "aura."

  "Ah, good afternoon sir," the SR Officer greeted him. "Glad to see youagain."

  Maise nodded curtly and took a seat beside the desk.

  "I think we are pretty well finished now--"

  "We better be," Maise interrupted. "My ship is pulling out in fourhours."

  "Right on the button, eh?" said the SR Officer. He fumbled in a deskdrawer and withdrew a bulky folder, from which he extracted a smallermanuscript, and handed it to Maise. "I think you will find it completeand suitably expressive, now, sir."

  Maise scowled as he accepted the document. "It makes no difference tome. I didn't want to get involved with the report in the first place."

  "I know," the SR Officer nodded agreeably. "But don't worry. Nobody isgoing to prefer any charges against anybody in any case. What they wantback on Earth is all the information they can get on morale problems, sothat they can more effectively implement their planning. You know how itis."

  "How would _I_ know?"

  The SR Officer snapped, "I can understand your sentiments, but don'tblame me. Remember, I'm just a lieutenant, and I just work here inMorale."

  "Sure," Maise said, cracking a grin on his stiff lips. "Sorry. I know itisn't your fault."

  He opened the report, and commenced reading.

  * * * * *


  SPECIAL CONFIDENTIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL REPORT, prepared in collaboration with Lieutenant E. G. von Wald, Special Reports Officer, Mars XLV Base.


  COMMANDING OFFICER Psychological Study and Evaluation District Central Command Authority Unified Human Defense Forces


  LIEUTENANT ALTON A. B. MAISE Executive Officer Space Combat Device LMB-43534 Seventh Space Fleet


  ATTEMPTED BACTERIOLOGICAL POISONING OF COMMANDER THOMAS L. FRENDON, recently assigned captain of above-mentioned Combat Device. As per Special Order PSIC334349, dated 23 July 2013.

  On 17 October 2015, Space Combat Device LMB-43534 was detached from theSeventh Fleet and returned to the Martian XLV Docks for generaloverhauling and refitting with new equipment. This period extended fortwo months, and was followed by a seven-day course of rechecking by thecrew.

  I was assigned to the ship as Executive Officer on 21 November followingdetachment, and was in command of the ship during most of theabove-mentioned operations. The men were extremely hostile toward me,owing to their fear that I was a Psi Corps officer acting under aspecial commission in the SCS, but no overt signs of mutiny took place,perhaps because we were still in port. Needless to say, I was very gladwhen the message arrived informing us of the assignment of CommanderFrendon as captain, inasmuch as the situation made clearly evident thatI could not expect to be able to assume tactical command of the shipmyself when it was returned to combat, the attitude of the crew beingwhat it was.

  Almost immediately upon receipt of the message, some of the animositytoward me lifted, but hardly enough for me to consider myself acceptedas a member of the crew, although there was a good deal more work doneafter that.

  * * * * *

  Six days before our scheduled departure date, Commander Frendon arrived.I was in the control cabin with Lieutenant Spender, Third Officer, whenLieutenant Harding, the Astrogator entered. He limped around the littleroom a couple of times and then slumped dejectedly into a chair. "Well,"he said, "we've had it, boys."

  Spender looked around at him quickly, saying, "What's that?"

  "I said we've had it. I just saw the new CO, walking over from theOperations office."

  "What about it?" I asked sharply.

  Harding shook his heavy, balding head, staring at the floor. "It'swritten all over him," he said bitterly.

  "No!" muttered Spender.

  "Yep," Harding growled. "Just wait until you lay eyes on him."

  He stood up and faced me, his expression bleak and cold. "A sickman, Mr.Exec," he snarled. "Just as sure as death."

  As previously noted, discipline was very lax, but I had been trying torestore it as much as possible. So I said, "I don't know whether thenew CO is a member of the Psi Corps or not, Harding, but cut out thisnickname of 'sick.'"

  Harding mumbled: "That's what everybody calls them. I didn't invent thename. But I think it is plenty appropriate."

  "Well cut it out."

  Harding glared at me. "I suppose you're glad to have one of theguess-kids running this ship."

  "Nobody wants to be involved in any guessing games, but we're notrunning the war here, so stow it."

  Spender broke in then with his customary cold, quiet speech. "A sickman,eh? Then we have approximately one chance in three of living through ourfirst encounter with the enemy when we leave here. That is according tothe statistics, I believe. But to the best of my recollection, ourprevious captain brought us through eighty-eight skirmishes beforeanyone got hurt." He shook his head and thoughtfully contemplated thebig, raw knuckles of his hand.

  As is perfectly obvious from the above, the situation was ill-suited fora new officer to take command of the ship. I would have liked to settlethe matter a little more before he got there, but there was nothing Icould do about it then. Besides, it wasn't my worry any more, I realizedgratefully. The problem of loyalty and confidence was now the businessof the new CO. I did not envy him his job, but it had to be done.

  * * * * *

  At the very first glance, you could see what Harding had been talkingabout. Commander Frendon was the absolute epitome of every popularphysiological cliche associated with people of unusual psi endowment forthe past century that it has been known. At least ten years younger thanany of the rest of us, he was of medium height, extremely skinny andnervous, his eyes glancing about with a restless uncertainty. It seemedalmost too obvious on him,
I thought, and wondered who had beenresponsible for assigning him to anything at all in the armed forces.

  He grinned slightly at us when he came in, dearly unsure of himself, andmade a valiant but artificial-sounding effort. "Hello men," he said. "Myname is Frendon. I'm the new CO."

  "Yeah," muttered Harding, "we see that you are."

  "What's that lieutenant?" Frendon's voice was suddenly sharp, and thewavering grin had vanished.

  "I said, yes sir," Harding replied sullenly. "Welcome aboard."

  Frendon nodded curtly, and glanced around at the rest of us, at no timelooking anyone directly in the eyes. I stood up and held out my hand."Maise, here," I said. "Your Exec." And naturally I added thetraditional welcome.

  Spender introduced himself, and as he was speaking, the remaining crewman walked in to find out what was up. He took one look at Frendon,understood, and turned to leave again.

  "And the man in the lead-lined tunic is Lieutenant Korsakov," I saidquickly. "He's your engineer."

  Korsakov sullenly said hello and waited. And Frendon also waited, allthe time standing stiff and sensitive. One got the impression that hewas in a nervous agony, but unable to help himself or to receive helpfrom anybody else. When the introductions were long since completed,Frendon still stood uncertainly, and an unpleasant silence developed.

  "Sit down, captain," I suggested. "How about some coffee?"

  Frendon nodded and jerkily moved to the seat I had vacated. The eyes ofthe other men followed him, studying his uniform. Although it was clearby now that he was wearing the ordinary insignia of the SCS, nobody wasparticularly reassured, because we had all heard of the new arrangementunder which the Psi Corps operated.

  So Frendon sat. The silence continued. Everybody stared at him, and helooked helplessly around. I worked up what I felt was a friendly grin,and his gaze finally found itself on me and stayed there, almostpleading.

  "You'll have to forgive us, captain," I told him. "We're an old bunch ofmangy veterans, and it's going to be a little strange for a while havinga bright new captain."

  "Certainly," Frendon said, his voice hardly above a whisper. "Iunderstand." He hesitated and then added in a quick defensive rush ofwords, "But, of course, you must understand that this isn't the firstship I've commanded, and I've been in combat before too, and so I don'tsee why I should be so doggone strange."

  That's what he said. Doggone.

  "Well," I murmured and cleared my throat. "Of course, captain."

  * * * * *

  Harding broke off his steady, hostile glare, and fumbled in his pocketfor a cigarette.

  "Captain," he started, a little uncertainly, which was unusual forHarding, "can I ask you a frank question?"

  "Huh?" Frendon looked at the Astrogator blankly. "Why ... why, er,certainly, lieutenant. Harding you say your name is? Certainly, Harding,go right ahead."

  Lieutenant Harding carefully lighted his cigarette. Then he said,"Captain, will you tell us whether or not you are a sickman--I mean aPsi Corps officer?"

  "Why?" Frendon leaned forward tensely, then relaxed self-consciously."Why do you ask that, Harding? Aren't you familiar with the insignia ofyour own branch of service?"

  "Yes, sir," Harding replied blandly, "but there have been a number ofreports that they were going to assign a sick ... I mean a Psi Corpsofficer to the command of all new Combat Devices, only they would bewearing SCS insignia. Since we have been outfitted fresh and all, weprobably come under the heading of new Devices."

  "What if I were a Psi Corps officer?" Frendon demanded truculently, hislong, skinny frame taut with excitement.

  Harding considered that question, or rather statement, and puffedthoughtfully on his cigarette. Finally he shrugged. He reached over andmeticulously crushed out the cigarette in an ash tray.

  "For the benefit of you, lieutenant"--Frendon's bitter gaze swept theentire room--"and the rest of you, I am not now nor have I ever been amember of the Psi Corps. Does that satisfy you?"

  "Yes, sir," I said quickly. Nobody else said anything.

  Frendon stood up and stalked tensely to the door. There he spun aroundand said, "But there is a branch of the military service designated asthe Psi Corps, and if you wish to discuss it in the future, kindly referto it by its official title or abbreviation, and not by that atrociousnickname of 'sick.' I am sure the Central Command Authority knows whatit is doing, and if they did intend to assign such personnel they musthave very good reasons for it. Understand?"

  There was a general nodding of heads and a scattered, sullen, "Yes,sir."

  "Now then, you may call out the ship's company, Mr. Maise," Frendon saidto me.

  "Well, captain," I replied, "we're all here." Then sure enough, Frendonmade us all stand at attention while he read his orders to us, just likeit says in the book at the academy. After which, happily, he went to hiscabin, and let us go back to our work.

  * * * * *

  That was the introduction of Commander Frendon to the crew. He made adistinct impression. Entirely bad. Veteran small-ship personnel in thiswar have shown themselves to be extremely clannish, at best, derivingtheir principal sense of security not from the strength of the fleetwhich they never see and rarely contact, but from their familiarity withand confidence in each other's capabilities. Now these men had a new COwho was not only a stranger, but one who they felt sure was a member ofthe feared and mistrusted Psi Corps, a sickman, a man whose battletactics were reputedly nothing but a bunch of blind, wild guesses.Previously, I had been the unwanted and suspected stranger, so I knewhow Frendon would feel.

  The situation developed rapidly, probably because we had only six daysbefore our scheduled departure into the combat zone. That afternoon,Korsakov and Harding were supposed to be checking the wiring offire-control circuits. Base mechanics had installed the gear and testedit, but it is standard operating procedure for the ship's crew to dotheir own checking afterwards, the quality of the work by electronicsmechanics on planetary assignment being what it is these days.

  I found them sitting on the deck, engaged in a desultory, low-voicedconversation. They had stripped the conduit ducts of plating, but therewas no sign that they had done anything further.

  "All right, you guys," I said. "Get up and finish that check. We mayhave to use those missiles one day soon, and I'd like to be sure they gowhere they are sent."

  Korsakov looked up at me, his broad, thick mouth spread in an unpleasanttoothy grin and his bushy eyebrows raised. "What difference will itmake, my friend?"

  "None," supplied Harding. Then he added, "As a matter of fact, it mighteven be better to leave them scrambled. If we strike an alien, our newcaptain is going to close his eyes and punch buttons at random,probably. Why shouldn't we leave the fire controls at random, too?"

  "They might," Korsakov said, still grinning inanely, "even cancel outhis error."

  "Cut it out," I said. "You know better than that."

  "Maybe you do, Maise." Harding replied, "but we don't."

  My face must have telegraphed my mood, because he lurched to his feetand quickly added, "Now wait a minute, Maise. Don't get excited. You'renot in command any more, so you don't have to stick to that authorityline now. Oh sure, I know you're the Exec, but what the hell, Maise."

  I stared at him for a moment, then said quietly, "Come on Kors. On yourfeet, too. Get that work done."

  "Ha," said Korsakov, but he stood up.

  * * * * *

  Harding moved closer to me. "Confidentially, Maise," he said, "what doyou really think?"

  "About what?"

  "You know--Frendon."

  I shrugged. "What am I supposed to think?"

  "You know as well as I do that he's a sickman."

  "I told you not to use that nickname around me," I replied withannoyance. "Naturally you're going to mistrust them if you tie them upin your mind with a name like that."

  "Do you trust them?"

>   I suddenly wasn't sure myself, so I evaded by saying, "Frendon told ushe wasn't one, anyway."

  "Did you expect him to tell the truth?" Korsakov sneered. "After goingto the trouble of getting an auxiliary commission in the SCS? He knowswhat we think."

  "Sickman," Harding repeated, watching me carefully. "And I'm plenty sickof having the brass hats handing us junk like that. It used to be thatthe worst we'd get would be fouled up equipment that we'd have to checkand rewire ourselves, like these fire controls. Now they give us afouled-up captain."

  "Look," I said. "I want you to cut that talk out, Harding. That's anorder. And if you think I can't pour it on you guys, just try me once."

  Korsakov, who had been staring morosely into the wiring duct, turnedaround to face me. He had that nasty grin on his face again.

  The best thing I could think of to do at that moment was to pretend Iassumed that they would obey and go on back to the control room. I knewthey wouldn't pay much attention to the order, but the stand had to betaken. I was still pretty much a stranger myself, but I wasn't going tolet them think they could sell me their friendship at the cost of thecaptain's authority.

  One thing I did accomplish, however, was the completion of thefire-control checkout. There was a lot of rewiring to do, but they hadit finished in two hours, and everything was perfect.

  Frendon went off to the city that evening, and didn't show up the nextday except for about an hour. Apparently, he had been talking to aPsychological Advice officer or somebody like that, and now proceeded tointerview each of us in private, quite obviously trying to gain somekind of rapport with us. It didn't work. Even if it hadn't been soobviously what it was, it wouldn't have worked. The men couldn't standsimply having him around, and their conviction that he was a Psi Corpsofficer merely grew stronger.

  When he left for the day, it was a relief. You couldn't like the guy,but you
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