I opened a door bearing the sign BY APPOINTMENT ONLY and entered an empty reception room, from there went through a side door marked KNOCK BEFORE ENTERING and into a conference room full of moldering mobilization plans. Here I ran into a problem - there were two doors. One said NO ADMITTANCE, the other CLOSED.
After some deliberation I decided on the second door - the correct choice as it turned out, since this was the office of General Kashenblade himself, the Commander in Chief. I walked in, and the officer who was on duty at the time led me to the Chief without asking any questions.
A powerful, bald old man, Kashenblade stirred his coffee. His head was perched upon the collar of his uniform; the bristling, many-folded jowls covered the galactic insignia and stripes like a bib. The desk was cluttered with phones and surrounded by computer consoles, speakers, buttons, and in the center was a row of labeled glass jars - specimens, apparently, though I couldn't see a thing in them apart from the alcohol. Kashenblade, the veins bulging on his shiny pate, was busy pushing buttons to silence the phones as soon as they began to ring. When several rang together, he rammed his fist into the whole bank of buttons. Then he noticed me. In the silence that followed there was only the grim tapping of his teaspoon.
"So there you are!" he snapped. It was a powerful voice.
"Yes," I answered.
"Wait, don't tell me, I have a good memory," he growled, watching me from under those bushy eyebrows. "X-27 contrastellar to Cygnus Eps, right?"
"No," I said.
"No? No! Well then. Morbilantrix B-KuK 81 dash Operation Nail? B as in Bipropodal?"
"No," I said, trying to maneuver my pass before his eyes. He waved it aside impatiently.
"No?" He looked hurt. Then he looked pensive. He stirred his coffee. The phone rang-his hand came down on the button like a lion's paw.
"Plastic?" he shot at me.
"Plastic?" I said. "Well, hardly... I'm just an ordinary -" Kashenblade stilled the rising din of phones with one quick slap and looked me over once more.
"Operation Cyclogastrosaur... Ento-mo... pentacla," he kept trying, unwilling to admit to any gap in his infallibility. When I failed to respond, he suddenly leaned forward and roared:
"Out!!" And it really looked as if he himself were ready to throw me out bodily. But I was too determined - also too much a civilian - to obey that order. I held my ground and kept the pass under his nose. At last Kashenblade reluctantly took it and-without even examining it-tossed it into a drawer of some machine, which immediately began to hum and whisper. Kashenblade listened to the machine; his face clouded over and his eyes glittered. He gave me a furtive glance and started pressing buttons. The phones rang out together like a brass band. He silenced them and pressed other buttons: now the speakers drowned one another out with numbers and cryptonyms. He stood there and listened with a scowl, his eyelid twitching. But I could see the storm had passed.
"All right, hand over your scrap of paper!" he barked.
"I already did. . ."
"To you, sir."
"Just a moment ago, and you threw -" I began, then bit my tongue.
Kashenblade glared at me and opened the drawer of that machine: it was empty, my pass had disappeared. Not that I believed for a moment that this was an accident; in fact, I had suspected for some time now that the Cosmic Command, obviously no longer able to supervise every assignment on an individual basis when there were literally trillions of matters in its charge, had switched over to a random system. The assumption would be that every document, circulating endlessly from desk to desk, must eventually hit upon the right one. A time-consuming procedure, perhaps, but one that would never fail. The Universe itself operated on the same principle. And for an institution as everlasting as the Universe - certainly our Building was such an institution - the speed at which these meanderings and perturbations took place was of no consequence.
At any rate, my pass was gone. Kashenblade slammed the drawer shut and observed me for a while, blinking. I stood there, my hands at my side, uncomfortably aware of their emptiness. His blinking became more insistent as I stood there, then positively fierce. I blinked back. That seemed to pacify him.
"Okay," he muttered, pushing a few buttons. Computers churned, multicolored tapes snaked out onto the desk. He tore them off bit by bit, read them, absentmindedly set other machines going, machines that made copies and destroyed originals. Finally a white folder emerged with INSTRUCTIONS B-66-PAPRA-LABL in letters so large I could read them from across the desk.
"Your assignment... a Mission, a Special Mission," General Kashenblade said with tremendous gravity. "Deep penetration, subversion - were you ever there?" he asked with a blink.
"There." He lifted his head; once again the eyelids fluttered. I didn't know what to answer.
"And this is an agent," he said with disgust. "An agent ... a modern agent. . ." He grew morose. The word "agent" was stretched out of shape and became a taunt, it whistled through his teeth, every consonant and vowel was chewed and slowly tortured. Then he exploded: "Everything has to be spelled out, eh? Don't you read the papers? Stars, for example - tell me about the stars! What do they do? Well?!"
"They shine," I said doubtfully.
"They shine, he says! All right, how? How do they shine? Tell me how!"
And he pointed to his eyelids.
"Uh, they twinkle-they blink-they-wink," I answered in an involuntary whisper.
"How clever he is! At last! They wink! Yes, they wink! But when do they wink? Do you know when? I bet you don't! And that's the kind of material I have to work with around here! At night! They wink, they cower under cover of night!!"
He roared like a lion. I stood at attention, straight as an arrow, waiting for the storm to pass. But it was not passing. Kashenblade, puffed up and purple to the top of his bald head, shook the room with his bellow, shook the Building itself.
"And the spiral nebulae?! Well?! Don't tell me you don't know what that means! SPY-ral!! And the expanding universe, the retreating galaxies! Where are they going? What are they running from? And the Doppler shift to the red!! Highly suspicious-no, more! A clear admission of guilt!!"
He gave me a withering look, sat back and said in a voice cold with contempt:
"Now just a minute-" I flared up.
"What? What was that?! Just a minute -? Ah yes, the password! Good, good. Just a minute... the password, yes, that's better . . ."
And he attacked the buttons - the machines rattled like rain on a tin roof, green and gold ribbons spun out and coiled on the desk. The old man read them avidly.
"Good!" he concluded, clutching them in his fists. "Your Mission. Conduct an on-the-spot investigation. Verify. Search. Destroy. Incite. Inform. Over and out. On the nth day nth hour sector n subsector n rendezvous with N. Stop. Salary group under cryptonym Bareback. Voucher for unlimited oxygen. Payment by weight for denunciations, and sporadic. Report regularly. Your contact is Pyra-LiP, your cover Lyra-PiP. When you fall in action, posthumous decoration with the Order of the Top Secret, full honors, salutes, memorial plaque, and a written recommendation in your dossier. Any questions?"
"But if I don't fall in action?" I asked.
An indulgent smile spread across the general's face.
"A wise guy," he said. "I had to get a wise guy. Very funny. Okay, so much for the jokes. You have your Mission now. Do you know, do you understand what that is?" His lofty brow unwrinkled, the golden medals on his chest gleamed. "A Mission-it's a wonderful thing! And Special -a Special Mission! Words fail me! Go, go my boy, God be with you, and keep on your toes!"
"I'll do my best," I said. "But what exactly is the assignment?"
He pressed several buttons, phones rang, he silenced them. The purple pate slowly turned pink. He eyed me benevolently, like a father.
"Oh," he said, "extremely hazardous. But remember, it is not for me! I am not sending you! The Country! The Common Good! Yes, yes... you, I know... it'll be hard, no picnic, a tough nut to crack. . . You'll see! Tough, but it must be done, because... because. . ."
"Our Duty," I prompted.
He beamed. He rose. The medals on his chest swayed and jingled like bells, a hush fell over the machines, the phones grew silent and the lights dimmed. He approached me, he gave me his powerful, hairy hand, the hand of an old soldier. His eyes bored right through me, the bushy brows knitted in a solemn squint. Thus we stood, united by a handshake, the Commander in Chief and the secret agent.
"Our Duty!" were his words. "Well said, my boy! Our Duty! Take care!"
I saluted, about-faced, exited, hearing on the way out how he sipped his cold coffee. Kashenblade - now there was a man.
Translated by Michael Kandel. Copyright 1971. Courtesy of Harcourt, Inc.