“Hunter Patrol”

Review: “Hunter Patrol”, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1959.

Piper and McGuire wrote this, their last published collaboration, sometime in 1954 or earlier. Their friendship ended that year, and it wasn’t until the May 1959 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories it saw print. Significantly, it was the only story Piper didn’t list in his story log, but he did find McGuire’s new address to send him his share of the sale.

John F. Carr, in H. Beam Piper: A Biography, says that McGuire would go on to publish four more stories of his own, that are “much more grim and realistic than anything he wrote with Piper”. Still, this story has its grim elements too and, as we’ll see, I suspect it draws on some elements of McGuire’s World War Two experiences as an OSS operative.

The story opens in Armenia shortly after 1977, the year that Captain Frank Benson of Benson’s Butchers, was drafted. They are conducting an operation behind enemy lines with Turkish partisans. Its purpose is to convince the Pan-Soviet forces (the USSR, India, and China) that they are under attack by paratroopers. The Soviets are advancing, and this is to be Benson’s last combat mission before he is discharged. 

Trying to return to the United Nations lines, he enters a ravine covered with vines and immediately feels unease. Then he realizes he is smelling petrol, petrol from an enemy tank hidden by those vines. Its machine guns open fire on him, but he’s too low for its machine guns to hit. He is about to throw a grenade but then he realizes he used his last one at an enemy supply dump.

Then a strange blue mist with flickering light appears. The next thing Benson senses is that he is on his back in a comfortable bed. He presumes he’s been captured and the brainwashing is to begin. It’s a well-lit room with simple machines of unknown function and five men and a woman dressed in strange clothes. Surprisingly, he is still in uniform and still has his knife and holstered pistol. 

He hears the people talking. They are disappointed they have yet another man who can’t talk. He’ll have to be sent back just like the others. Another voice, belonging to a Gregory, says he won’t give up. 

When Benson asks who they are and where he is, they are delighted. Benson has questions delivered “in a voice he reserved for sergeants and first lieutenants”. They are delighted he not only speaks but remembers where he was. The woman, Paula, is delighted her theory that memories are unimpaired filing a “time-jump” is validated. 

Benson has an impression of the people in the room: 

With the exception of the two who had just spoken, there was the indefinable mark of the fanatic upon all of them— people fanatical about different things, united for different reasons in a single purpose. 

Benson is told he is 50 years past the day of his death. The place is the “Word Capitol, St. Louis”. Benson jokingly asks if the Cardinals conquered the world. We’re not a theocracy, replies Gregory. But since the Guide “keeps on insisting only beautiful things are good” and only he gets to define beauty, the government is headed that way. Since none of them got his joke about the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, Benson is convinced he is in the future. 

Anthony tells him baseball, like all competitive sports, is banned by the Guide. The group tries to briefly explain the mechanics of the time machine they’ve build, but a man in black cuts them short and says that, while they are arguing, “thousands are being converted to the godlessness of The Guide” and thousands of other are dying in a state of sin. Benson tells them that he was a high school chemistry teacher and wouldn’t understand the physics of time travel. He’ll ask the questions now. (This section of the story I strongly suspect is Piper’s given it’s told almost entirely in dialogue.)

Who won the war? The UN, says Anthony. It was the least exhausted side when the war stopped.  The Soviet Bloc – “India, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Russia, the Ukraine, and all the Satellite States” – broke apart. Most of them became dictatorships like Latin America did after winning their freedom from Spain. A “cadaverous man”, identified as Carl, chimes in and says he means “capitalistic dictatorships”. Anthony tells him to stop with the “class-struggle stuff”. Walter tells Benson that the UN runs the world, and the UN is run by one man. 

Benson is incredulous. In his day, the UN couldn’t manage a war much less run the world.  (Perhaps the authors were thinking of the Korean War.) It seems the UN’s charter was changed after Benson’s death. The man known as the Guide bribed his way in to the organization. After the UN’s buildings in New York City were bombed flat in the war, the Guide donated a large tract of land in St. Louis for the new UN headquarters. They are talking, in fact, in the basement of one such building in that complex. 

A man, dressed in “black-and-white-bands”, attributes the Guide’s success to sorcery. The Guide was voted into his position. He convinced every one of his “altruism, integrity and wisdom”.

Benson asks what the Guide has done with his power. Does he rule wisely? Gregory explains that there hasn’t been much censorship in his field of physics. 

It’s different in other fields. For instance, all research in sonics has been arbitrarily stopped. So has a great deal of work in organic and synthetic chemistry. Psychology is a madhouse of… what was the old word, licentiousness? No, lysenkoism. Medicine and surgery— well, there’s a huge program of compulsory sterilization, and another one of eugenic marriage-control. And infants who don’t conform to certain physical standards don’t survive. Neither do people who have disfiguring accidents beyond the power of plastic surgery.

Paula, whose field is child welfare, says only beautiful children are allowed to survive and shows a film of a ceremony in India with a child being burned alive. Europeans and Americans prefer gas chambers “even Hitler would have envied”. Anthony, a composer, says musical composition is even more strictly controlled. He’s also old enough where he will be forced to go to “one of the Havens”. Allegedly, they are beautiful beyond belief. Weirdly, their population is always steady, and they get few supplies. Samuel, the man in the black and white clothes, regards the Guide as the Antichrist. Carl says every man in North American belongs in the “Union of unions” – all controlled by the Guide. Walter says that’s good since he owns a company and doesn’t want to pay more in labor. Benson remarks the latter seems a good thing since labor and management didn’t get along in 1977. 

Benson is a smart man and guesses what the group wants: they want him to kill the Guide.  Anthony explains none of them can. Everybody has been conditioned, somehow, against violence – and euthanasia and killing the ugly isn’t considered violence. Paula knows that the Guide has something to do with music. Everywhere has music playing constantly. The room they are in was specially and secretly built to be sound-proof. 

Gregory explains they’ve been snatching soldiers about to die off historical battlefields (a French officer from Waterloo, an English knight from Agincourt, a US cavalryman from the Battle of the Little Bighorn) but none of them were psychologically resilient when they arrived. They had to choose men about to die to avoid a temporal paradox. At hearing this, a “warning buzzer” goes off in Benson’s head. 

Benson says he’s opposed to dictators and doesn’t have qualms about killing, but what’s in it for him? Not much. If he succeeds, he’ll be sent back to that battlefield in Armenia. If he refuses, he’ll go to the same place and time. This confirms a suspicion of Benson, but he accepts the job because, while there’s life, there’s hope. 

Carl (tone deaf so less affected by the sonic conditioning) explains the plan as the others sicken at even the mention of violence. Benson will be sent about a kilometer away and five seconds into the future and into the Guide’s office. He’ll have 45 seconds to kill the Guide before the time field collapses. Benson is given a grenade, a product used in mining. The Guide will be alone with no guards. Benson is given a drug to keep him conscious after the jump. Benson still has his pistol. 

After the jump, Benson sees a white-haired and bearded man sitting at a huge desk. He shoots him twice within five seconds. At 15 seconds, he goes to the desk and shoots the man’s head at point blank range. Even with his mutilated skull, the man looks familiar to Benson. With the instincts of an intelligence officer always looking for information, Benson grabs a box off the desk and an envelope marked “Top Secret! For the Guide Only!” and puts them in his coat.

Back on the battlefield, Benson is again facing the Pan-Soviet tank. He tosses a grenade at it, oddly lighter than the usual ones. It explodes, unexpectedly reducing the tank to molten metal.

Going back to his own lines as a scheduled artillery barrage starts, Benson contemplates some stuff. He was sure he used his last grenade at a supply depot. Where did the one he threw come from? He stops these thoughts about the mystery as Pan-Soviet troops, driven back by artillery fire, begin retreating towards him, and he finds a place to hide. Benson shoots a few soldiers and takes others prisoners before meeting advancing UN forces and goes back to a dressing-station. 

Benson is given some metals for his unit’s performance. A medical check says he’s “dangerously close to the edge of combat fatigue”. (McGuire’s own children said he seemed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,) He says nothing because he’s noted his watch is now mysteriously fast and he has a mysterious box and papers in his coat. 

Back in New York at Dwight Eisenhower High, he goes back to teaching chemistry. Talking to the school’s psychologist, Bill Myers (a veteran of the Madras Beachhead), about war souvenirs they brought back, Benson shows him that box and papers and says he can’t remember how he got them. Benson has been having some nasty dreams lately and wants the mystery solved. 

Benson finally opens the sealed envelope. The documents inside clearly aren’t Pan-Soviet. They have chemical formula and test results, seemingly for a “carbonated soft-drink”. The box has a sealed jug of “dark reddish-brown syrup”. Using the school’s excellent chemistry equipment, the two analyze the syrup. It has a couple of long-chain molecules, Ingredients Alpha and Beta, that are combined. They test the syrup on a guinea pig with no ill effects though the papers do talk about “heightened psycho-physiological effects”. Finally, they mix it with carbonated water and try it out. It is “delicious— sweet, dry, tart, sour, all of these in alternating waves of pleasure.” They think, given the youth market for soft drinks, they’re on to something big. 

Over long hours in the lab, Benson playing his guitar on breaks, they figure out how to synthesize the ingredients. Deciding for the central location of St. Louis for distribution purposes, their product, Evri-Flave, does earn them a lot of money. Gregarious Myers gets himself a luxury apartment there, and Benson buys up some land in the city. 

After putting out Evri-Flavre, Benson’s dreams of war have eased. Now they are replaced with a vison of an old man in a room and soldier. Sometimes he identifies himself with the soldier, sometimes the old man. Myers, when told about the dreams, can only tell Benson to relax and that he may be suffering from delayed combat fatigue. 

The war ended three years before Evri-Flavre was introduced, and the peacetime economy has picked up. On Benson’s land,

The estate at Carondelet was finished— a beautiful place, surrounded with gardens, fragrant with flowers, full of the songs of birds and soft music from concealed record-players. It made him forget the ugliness of the war, and kept the dreams from returning so frequently. All the world ought to be like that, he thought; beautiful and quiet and peaceful. People surrounded with such beauty couldn’t think about war. All the world could be like that, if only.…  

The UN moves its headquarters to St. Louis. Myers is worried about the state of the world. He says he could almost as much money practicing psychology given certain recent crazy incidents.  A Wagnerian concert in Munich ends in “an insane orgy of mass suicide” and just after Evri-Flavre was introduced in Germany. The two men suddenly wonder about those “pyscho-physiological effects”. There was that baseball riot in Baltimore, Milwaukeeans tearing each other’s clothes off, a sex-orgy in New Orleans. All after Evri-Flavre was introduced in those markets. Myers says they have to pull Evri-Flavre off the market. They can’t do that, says Benson, there’s already two months of supplies in distribution. 

It doesn’t take long for the two, doing further research, to conclude Evir-Flavre is at fault. In Munich, the only people who didn’t go crazy were those who hadn’t drank Evri-Flavre. It takes another month to figure out what’s in Evri-Flavre causing all this. Ingredient Beta greatly increases auditory sensitivity. But it also enhances and alters the perception of sound. Drinking Evri-Flavre allows musical chords to profoundly affect the emotions of the hearer. Once influenced by the music, the listener is also “extremely open to verbal suggestions by a suitable musical background.” 

Benson ponders the implications: 

The Munich thing was the result of all that Götterdämmerung music. There was a band at the baseball park in Baltimore. The New Orleans Orgy started while a local radio station was broadcasting some of this new dance-music. Look, these tone-clusters, here, have a definite sex-excitation effect. This series of six chords, which occur in some of the Wagnerian stuff; effect, a combined feeling of godlike isolation and despair. And these consecutive fifths— a sense of danger, anger, combativeness. You know, we could work out a whole range of emotional stimuli to fit the effects of Ingredient Beta.… 

Myers isn’t agreeing to that. They should find a substitute formulation. Benson says he has some people working on that. But Benson still presses for using Evri-Flavre for good. 

You and I both see, for instance, that a powerful world-wide supra-national sovereignty is the only guarantee of world peace. If we could use something like this to help overcome antiquated verbal prejudices and nationalistic emotional attachments.…

It’s 1984, says Myers. Remember Orwell’s novel of that title? That’s the world Benson would create no matter his intentions. Myers will fight Benson with all his resources if he tries to use Evri-Flavre to build such a society. Echoing those people in that basement room at the beginning, Benson sees a “fanatical, almost murderous” look in Myers’ eyes. 

Three weeks later Benson kills Myers. He dopes a cocktail with Ingredient B and plays a “queer phonograph record”. Myers shoots himself.

The decision had cost Benson a battle with his conscience from which he had emerged the sole survivor. The conscience was buried along with Bill Myers, and all that remained was a purpose. 

He is going to make the world a beautiful place like his garden. Benson’s dreams are even more frequent now, and he misses Myers, but he continues. 

The World Sovereignty Party defeats the American Nationalists in a campaign blitz with lots of music and lots of Evri-Flavre. Only

a few backwoods precincts in the Rockies and the Southern Appalachians and one county in Alaska, where there had been no distribution of Evri-Flave

don’t vote for the UN.

Benson buys up a large part of St. Louis and has the architects who designed his estate, build some buildings and donates them to the UN. He meets with many dignitaries, always with soft music playing in his office. On the UN’s estate, he lives in a small house. The UN’s Security Council makes him its perpetual chairman. He grows a beard and mustache. He keeps a close eye on developments in sonic technology. Sonic weapons gradually replace lethal weapons for police and military use. And Benson’s research keeps coming up with the musical chords that can play on every emotion and instinct. The world becomes pacified. Benson takes to carrying a sonic-gun on him as well as always having the notebook with his research notes with him. 

At age 78, he still thinks he has 20 more years of work ahead to completely realize his vision.  He has a medical staff dedicated to extending his life. 

(Spoilers ahead)

One day, reading notes on the latest, improved version of Evri-Flavre, a man appears in his office. Benson has been carrying his sonic pistol for years – and practicing with it. He shoots the man instantly. His younger self drops to the floor. Benson picks up the captain’s automatic pistol.

And then the Guide is in Armenia looking at something the world hasn’t seen in almost half a century – a Soviet tank bearing down on him. Two bullets strike him and he dies.

Then the scene changes to Captain Benson’s viewpoint cursing

the sextet of sanctimonious double-crossers eight thousand miles and fifty years away in space-time. 

Something distracts the Soviet tank, and it begins to fire at another target. Benson tosses the strangely light grenade and destroys the tank.  Going to see what distracted the tank, Benson finds the body of an old man dressed in strange clothes. Why he’d almost look like Benson’s father if you took away the beard and mustache. He wonders how the man got his 9.5 Colt automatic. (I wonder if this is firearms enthusiast Piper’s improvement on the popular 9 mm caliber.) The man also has a strange pistol of his own. He pockets the pistol and a notebook in the man’s coat (full of chemical formula and information on sonic technology) to look at later when he has time and privacy.

The scheduled 550 barrage starts though, oddly, Benson’s watch says 726. As the UN troops approach, Benson looks at the notebook. He can figure out the formula are about a soft-drink and long-chain molecules. 

The story ends enigmatically with the retreating Pan-Soviet troops approaching: “Benson put away the notebook, picked up his carbine, and cuddled the stock to his cheek.…”. 

So what are we to make of the ending? Given Benson survived the first retreat of the Soviets, it’s likely he will survive this one, so it seems future history will repeat itself though maybe without the involvement of Myers. Underlying all the story is the question of Benson’s character. Has war and its stress made him into a would-be tyrant (for the best reasons, of course)? Or was there always an innate craftiness and self-centeredness about him? History has already changed once with the Guide shooting Benson. So is the Guide’s tyranny inevitable?

While I like this story and wish Piper and McGuire would have written more together, it does have at least one problem: how much knowledge Benson carries back through time. It seems to vary. In the last scene, Benson remembers enough about those “sanctimonious double-crossers” to curse them. By why doesn’t remember he remember more details about the future?  Of course, nothing those rebels in the future told him reveals the secret of the Guide’s power, Evri-Flavre. Will he eventually realize, given that he’s seen the Guide’s dead body and noted the resemblance to his father, that the Guide is him? If he does, will that stop him? It’s definitely not a story that wraps things up nicely.

Another variation is that the second iteration of Benson is that he has a different mix of items from the future. He doesn’t have the sample of Evri-Flavre, but he does have a sonic pistol now.

There is also the question of how durable the Guide’s state will be. He doesn’t seem to have shared its two scientific underpinnings Evri-Flavre and sonic control with anyone else. Will he indeed live 20 more years, the time he estimates is needed to consolidate his state? Or will it unravel after his death?

Of course, Piper wrote many time travel stories, and this story exhibits his understandable anxiety about nuclear war – or, here at least, World War III. As with his Terro-Human Future History, a world government emerges from such a war. But this story seems more skeptical of how effective or desirable a global government would be than his other stories with that theme.

There seems, to me, to be a bit of satire on the Free World (as dubbed in the 1950s) with ubiquitous soft drinks being a means of social control.

I wonder, besides the “combat fatigue” and details of Army operations, if McGuire contributed the central paradox of the story: a hero fighting Soviet tyranny and the struggle shaping him to design an even worse, more extensive, one. I also suspect McGuire, who operated behind enemy lines, may have contributed most of the beginning of the story too.

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