Read an Excerpt
Cadet George Hanlon stood stiffly at attention. But as the long, long minutes dragged on and on, he found his hands, his spine and his forehead cold with the sweat of fear. He tried manfully to keep his eyes fixed steadily on that emotionless face before him, but found it almost impossible to do so.
Tension grew and grew and grew in the room until it seemed the very walls must bulge, or the windows burst to relieve the pressure. The cadet felt he could not stand another minute of it without screaming. Why didn't that monster say something? What kind of torture was this, anyway? And why was he here in the first place? He couldn't think of a single reg he had broken--yet why else would he be called before Admiral Rogers, the dread Commandant of Cadets?
In spite of his utmost efforts to stand eye to eye with the commandant, Hanlon couldn't keep his gaze steadily on that feared visage. His eyes insisted on straying, time after time, although he always forced them back. He caught glimpses of the dozens of communicator studs and plates on the huge metal desk. He saw the bit of scenery showing through the window. He noted the pictures of great Corps heroes that adorned the walls. In fact, he had to look at anything except those boring, impassive eyes fixed so steadily on his own face. If only he could gain such perfect control of his nerves. If only he knew what this was all about!
By the big wall chronom he saw he had already been standing there at rigid attention a full five minutes. The second hand crept around again. Six minutes! It dragged slowly around once again. Seven minutes.
Then the unbearable silence was mercifully broken by the admiral's voice.
"In someways, Mister, you're quite a stupid young man," he said. "I'm inclined to be disappointed in you."
Hanlon gave a start of surprise, and forced himself to scrutinize more carefully that enigmatic face.
"What ... what do you mean, sir?"
The stern eyes were still boring into his. But now the cadet thought he could detect a trace of secret amusement behind them.
"Why do you torture yourself like this? You know how to find out what it's all about."
There was a sinking feeling in George Hanlon's mind. Did that mean what he was afraid it meant?
He sent out a tentative feeler of thought toward the mind behind that expressionless face. He expected to find it difficult to do, because of long disuse of the faculty. But he was amazed both at the ease with which the technique returned to him, and with the feeling of warm friendliness he found in that mind--almost like a sort of fatherly pride.
He probed a bit deeper, and was aware of assurance that he had done nothing to merit punishment. Indeed, it seemed he could catch exactly the opposite feeling.
He must have shown his relief, for the commandant's stern face relaxed into a broad smile, and he lounged back in his big chair.
"That's better. At ease, and sit down."
Slowly, disbelieving the sudden change, the astonished young cadet gingerly sank onto the front edge of a chair. He had to, his legs were suddenly rubbery.
"I ... I don't understand at all, sir."
The admiral leaned forward and spoke impressively. "Do you think, Cadet Hanlon, that we would let any man get to within weeks of graduation without knowing all about him?"
The young man's eyes widened, and his hands clutched at his knees in an effort to keep them from shaking.
"Oh, yes, we know all about you, George Spencer Newton Hanlon," and the cadet's eyes opened even wider at that name. "We know about your talent for mind-reading as a child, and how you suppressed it as you grew older and found how it got you into trouble. We know all about your father's disgrace and disappearance; your mother's death; your running away, and your adoption by the Hanlons, whose last name you assumed."
"How ... how'd you learn all that, sir?"
"The Corps has its ways. And that's why you're here now. Oh, all the Fifth Year Cadets will be interviewed by myself or my assistants this coming week, to determine their first assignment after graduation. But I called you in today for a very, very special reason. And your ability to read minds is part of it."
The cadet drew himself up stiffly. "I'm through with all that, sir, definitely!"
The commandant regarded him enigmatically for a moment. "Just what do you expect to do in the Corps, Mister?"
"Why, whatever I'm assigned to do, I suppose, sir. Or whatever I can do."
"And just how far will you go for the Corps?" The admiral leaned forward and eyed him critically.
"All the way, sir, of course."
"Don't you believe a Corpsman should use all his abilities in his service?" The question was barked at him.
"Certainly, sir." But his eyes showed he realized he had been trapped by that admission.
"You're one of the few persons known who have ever actually been able to read another's mind. That's important--very important--to the Corps. It must be used!"
Hanlon's eyes were still stormy, but he kept his lips tightly closed.
The commandant's face grew kindly again. "We know how it got you into trouble when you were a boy, because the other children resented it, and avoided or abused you for using it on them. But now it will be a great assistance to you--and to the Corps. We know you will use that talent wisely, for it has been proven time and again, by test after test, that you are scrupulously honest. You've lost your allowance several times in card games, when you could have read what cards your opponents held, and so won. You have let yourself fail on examination questions you did not know, when you could have read the answers in your instructor's mind."
"No, not that, sir," Hanlon shook his head. "I never could read from a mind such specific information as answers to questions or to problems."
"I imagine that will come when you start using your talent maturely," Admiral Rogers shrugged indifferently. "But at the moment I want to talk very seriously about your assignment. First, however, I must have your most solemn oath never to reveal what I am about to tell you, for it is our most carefully-guarded secret."
"I swear by my mother's memory, sir, never to reveal anything I am told to keep confidential."
"Very well. I have been delegated by the High Command to ask you to join the Secret Service of the Inter-stellar Corps."
Cadet George Hanlon drew in a sharp, startled breath and half-rose from his chair. "The ... the Secret Service, sir? I didn't know there was one."
"I told you it was top secret," Admiral Rogers said impressively. "We believe no one knows anything about its existence outside of the membership of that service, and officers of the rank of Rear Admiral or above."
The young cadet sat silent, his eyes on the tips of his polished boots, as though to see reflected there the answer to this astounding new situation that had been slapped into his consciousness.
This was all so utterly unforeseen. He had dreamed of doing great deeds in the Corps, of course, but actually had never expected to be assigned to anything but routine work at first. His mind was a chaotic whirlpool of conjectures. How could he fit into such an organization? Why had he been selected? Surely, the fact that as a child he was supposed to have been a mind-reader wasn't enough ... or was it, from their standpoint?
After some time he looked up. "I don't know as I'd make a very good detective, sir."
Admiral Rogers threw back his head and laughed, breaking the tension. "I think, and so do the top men of the Secret Service, who have studied you thoroughly, that you will soon become one of its most useful members."
That was another shock, but out of it grew determination.
"Very well, sir, I'll try it."
"Good! But not 'try it,' Hanlon. Once you're in, it's for life. And there's one other thing I haven't told you yet. I couldn't, until after you had agreed to join. This may make you change your mind, which you are still at liberty to do."
The cadet's throat tightened, and he moistened his lips as he saw the admiral's face grow ominous.
"I want you to consider this very seriously," he said slowly, grimly, and Hanlon's probing mind caught the aura of importance in his manner. "Take your time, and figure carefully all the angles and connotations inherent in it, for it will not be an easy decision to make."
He paused impressively. "Here it is, cold! You'll have to be, apparently, dismissed from the Corps in disgrace. That is horribly harsh, we know," he added quickly, compassionately, as he saw the look of dismay that whitened the cadet's face. "But we have found over the years that it is the best way to make members of the SS most valuable to us. Every one of them has gone through the same thing, if that is any encouragement or consolation."
Young Hanlon's spirits sank to absolute nadir. "Not ... not even graduate?" he whispered, agonizedly.
"Not publicly, with your class, no. But you'll be given private graduation, for you'll still be a member of the Corps."
He was silent again to allow the young man to recover a bit, then continued in a fatherly voice. "We know it's a terrible price to ask any man to pay. It takes guts to withstand, publicly and willingly, the dishonor, the loss of friends and the good will of people who know you. It means life-long disgrace in the eyes of the public and those members of the Corps who have ever known you or will hear of you."
The blood drained from Hanlon's face, his breathing was quick and rasping. The admiral's heart went out to him in sympathy, but he had to keep on. Now, though, he tried to soften the blow.
"Yet there are rewards in honor from those who do know. There will come a deep satisfaction from the years of devoting your life and abilities to the tremendous service of maintaining peace and security for all mankind of the entire Federation of Planets. Actually, the SS does more to keep that peace than all the rest of the Corps. So these things are, in the estimation of those who have gone through it, well worth any pain and humiliation they have to suffer."
His tone was so kind that Hanlon found a measure of comfort in the looks and attitude of the officer before him, now suddenly not a dread ogre, and martinet, but a kindly, fatherly, understanding friend.
George Hanlon sat with downcast eyes, thinking swiftly but more cogently than he had ever done before. He had come into this room still a boy despite his twenty-two years. Now, abruptly, he was roughly forced into manhood.
As such an adult, then, he quickly realized this was the crucial point in his life to date--probably in all the years to come. But to lose the respect and friendship of everyone he knew--he shuddered. To be despised, an outcast!
Yet Admiral Rogers said all the SS men had gone through it, and now felt it worth all the pain and disgrace, to be able to do the work they were doing.
He had been trained all his life, and especially in Corps school, to scan all available data for and against each problem that arose, and then make a decision quickly and intelligently.
He rose to his feet and straightened determinedly. "I'll still take it on, sir, if you and the general staff think I'm worthy and will be useful."
The admiral rose swiftly and came around the desk to grasp the cadet's hands in both of his. "I'm proud of you, my boy. It took real strength of character to make that decision. I'm sure you will never regret it, though there'll be moments when it will hurt to the pit of your soul, especially the first few days."
The cadet's eyes clouded again, and he shivered convulsively. "That part's got me in a blue funk, no fooling. Do you suppose I can take it, and not give the show away?"
Again the commandant's hearty, friendly laugh boomed out, filling the office with merriment and honest pride. "By Snyder, you will, Son, like a thoroughbred!" He went back behind that great desk, and was suddenly once more the strict disciplinarian. "Cadet Hanlon, 'ten-shun!" he barked.
The young man stood rigid.
"Raise your right hand. Do you swear before the Infinite Essence to uphold, with all your abilities, the Inter-Stellar Corps, and the laws and decisions of the Federated Planets?"
"On my honor, sir, and with God's help, I pledge allegiance to the Inter-Stellar Corps and to the people and governments of all the Federated Planets!"
Hanlon came to a punctilious salute, which Admiral Rogers returned as precisely before resuming his seat.
"Senior Lieutenant George Hanlon, at ease."