Strain by L. Ron Hubbard

Published Categorised as Adventure, Science Fiction, Short Story
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
24 min read

The essence of military success is teamwork—the
essence of that is absolute reliability of every
man, every unit of the team, under any strain that
may be imposed. And the duty of a good general—?

It was unreasonable, he told himself, to feel no agony of apprehension. He was in the vortex of a time whirlwind and here all stood precariously upon the edge of disaster, but stood quietly, waiting and unbreathing.

No man who had survived a crash, survived bullets, survived the paralyzing rays of the guards, had a right to be calm. And it was not like him to be calm; his slender hands and even, delicate features were those of an aristocrat, those of a sensitive thoroughbred whose nerves coursed on the surface, whose health depended upon the quietness of those nerves.

They threw him into the domed room, and his space boots rang upon the metal floor, and the glare of savage lights bit into his skull scarcely less than the impact from the eyes of the enemy intelligence officer.

The identification papers were pushed across the desk by this guard and the intelligence officer scanned them. “Hm-m-m.” The brutish, Saturnian countenance lighted and became interested. The slitted eyes flicked with satisfaction from one to the other of the two captured officers.

“Captain Forrester de Wolf,” said the man behind the desk. “Which one of you?”

He looked steadily at the Saturnian and was a little amazed to find himself still calm. “I am he.”

“Ah! Then you are Flight Officer Morrison?”

The captain’s companion was sweating and his voice had a tremor in it. His youthful, not too bright face twitched. “You got no right to do anything to us. We are prisoners of war captured in uniform in line of combat duty! We treat Saturnians well enough when we grab them!”

This speech or perhaps its undertone of panic was of great satisfaction to the intelligence officer. He stood up with irony in his bearing and shook Captain de Wolf by the hand. Then, less politely but with more interest, bowed slightly to Flight Officer Morrison. The intelligence officer sat down.

“Ah, yes,” he said, looking at the papers. “Fortunes of war. You came down into range of the batteries and—well, you came down. You gentlemen don’t accuse the Saturnians of a lack in knowing the rules of war, I trust.” But there was false candor there. “We will give you every courtesy as captured officers: your pay until the end of the war, suitable quarters, servants, good food, access to entertainment and a right to look after your less fortunate enlisted captives.” There was no end to the statement. It hung there, waiting for an additional qualification. And then the intelligence officer looked at them quickly, falsely, and said, “Of course, that is contingent upon your willingness to give us certain information.”

Flight Officer Morrison licked overly dry lips. He was young. He had heard many stories about the treatment, even the torture, the Saturnians gave their prisoners. And he knew that as a staff officer the Saturnians would know his inadvertent possession of the battle plan so all-important to this campaign. Morrison flicked a scared glance at his captain and then tried to assume a blustering attitude.

Captain de Wolf spoke calmly—a little surprised at himself that he could be so calm in the knowledge that as aide to General Balantine he knew far more than was good to know.

“I am afraid,” said the captain quietly, “that we know nothing of any use to you.”

The intelligence officer smiled and read the papers again. “On the contrary, my dear captain, I think you know a great deal. It was not clever of you to wear that staff aiguillette on a reconnaissance patrol. It was not clever of you to suppose that merely because we had never succeeded in forcing down a G-434 such as yours that it could not be done. And it is not at all clever of you to suppose that we have no knowledge of a pending attack, a very broad attack. We have that knowledge. We must know more.” His smile was ingratiating. “And you, naturally, will tell us.”

“You go to hell!” said Flight Officer Morrison, hysteria lurking behind his eyes.

“Now, now, do not be so hasty, gentlemen,” said the intelligence officer. “Sit down and smoke a cigarette with me and settle this thing.”


Neither officer made a move toward the indicated chairs. Through Morrison’s mind coursed the crude atrocity stories which had been circulated among the troops of Earth, stories which concerned Earth soldiers lashed to ant hills and honey injected into their wounds, stories which dealt with a courier skinned alive, square inch by square inch, stories about a man staked out, eyelids cut away, to be let go mad in the blaze of Mercurian noon.

Captain de Wolf was detached in a dull and disinterested way, standing back some feet from himself and watching the clever young staff captain emotionlessly regard the sly Saturnian.

The intelligence officer looked from one to the other. He was a good intelligence officer. He knew faces, could feel emotions telepathically, and he knew exactly what information he must get. The flight officer could be broken. It might take several hours and several persuasive instruments, but he could be broken. The staff captain could not be broken, but because he was an intelligent, sensitive man he could be driven to the brink of madness, his mind could be warped and the information could thus be extracted. It was too bad to have to resort to these expedients. It was not exactly a gentlemanly way of conducting a war. But there were necessities which knew no rules, and there was a Saturnian general staff which did not now believe in anything resembling humanity.

“Gentlemen,” said the intelligence officer, looking at his cigarette and then at his long, sharp nails, “we have no wish to break your bodies, wreck your minds and discard you. That is useless. You are already beaten. The extraction of information is, with us, a science. I do not threaten. But unless we learn what we wish to learn we must proceed. Now, why don’t you tell me all about it here and now and save us this uncomfortable and regrettable necessity?” He knew men. He knew Earthmen. He knew the temper of an officer of the United States of Earth, and he did not expect them to do anything but what they did—stiffen up, become hostile and angry. But this was the first step. This was the implanting of the seed of concern. He knew just how far he could go. He smiled at them.

“You,” he continued, “are young. Women doubtless love you. Your lives lay far ahead of you. It is not so bad to be an honored prisoner, truly. Why court the possibility of broken bodies, broken minds, warped and twisted spirits? There is nothing worth that. Your loyalty lies to yourselves, primarily. A state does not own a man. Now, what have you to say?”

Flight Officer Morrison glanced at his captain. He looked back at the intelligence officer. “Go to hell,” he said.


There were no blankets or bunks in the cell and there was no light save when the guard came, and then there was a blinding torrent of it. The walls sloped toward the center and there was no flat floor but a rounded continuation of the walls. The entire place was built of especially heat-conductive metal and the two prisoners had been stripped of all their clothes.

Captain de Wolf sat in the freezing ink and tried to keep as much of himself as possible from contacting the metal. For some hours a water drop had been falling somewhere on something tinny, and it did not fall with regularity; sometimes there were three splashes in rapid succession and then none for ten seconds, twenty seconds or even for a minute. The body would build itself up to the next drop, would relax only when it had fallen, would build up for the expected interval and then wait, wait, wait and finally slack down in the thought that it would come no longer. Suddenly the drop would fall—a very small sound to react so shatteringly upon the nerves.

The captain was trying to keep his thoughts in a logical, regulation pattern despite the weariness which assailed him, despite the shock of chill which racked him every time he forgot and relaxed against the metal. How hot was this foul air! How cold was this wall!


The walls were icy; the air was baking-hot and Sahara-dry and foul. They waited—waited for Saturn’s inquisitioners—


“Forrester,” groped Morrison’s voice.

“Hello”—startling himself with the loudness of his tone.

“Do—Is it possible they’ll keep us here forever?”

“I don’t think so,” said the captain. “After all, our information won’t be any good in any length of time. If you are hoping for action, I think you’ll get it.”

“Is … is this good sense to hold out?”

“Listen to me,” said the captain. “You’ve been in the service long enough to know that if one man fails he is liable to take the regiment along with him. If we fail, we’ll take the entire army. Remember that. We can’t let General Balantine down. We can’t let our brother officers down. We can’t let the troops down. And we can’t let ourselves down. Make up your mind to keep your mouth shut and you’ll feel better.”

It sounded, thought the captain, horribly melodramatic. But he continued: “You haven’t had the grind of West Point. A company, a regiment or an army has no thought of the individual. It cannot have any thought, and the individual, therefore, cannot fail, being a vital part of the larger body. If either of us break now, it would be like a man’s heart stopping. We’re unlucky enough to be that heart at the moment.”

“I’ve heard,” said Morrison in a gruesome attempt at jocularity, “that getting gutted is comfortable compared to some of the things these Saturnians can think up.”

The captain wished he could believe fully the trite remark he must offer here. “Anything they can do to us won’t be half of what we’d feel in ourselves if we did talk.”

“Sure,” agreed Morrison. “Sure, I see that.” But he had agreed too swiftly.


The shock of the light was physical and even the captain cowered away from it and threw a hand across his eyes. There was a clatter and a slither and a tray lay in the middle of the cell, having come from an unseen hand at the bottom of the door.

Morrison squinted at it with a glad grin. There were several little dishes sitting around a big metal cover of the type used to keep food warm. Morrison snatched at the cover and whipped it off. And then, cover still raised, he stared.

On the platter a cat was lying, agony and appeal in its eyes, crucified to a wooden slab with forks through its paws, cockroaches crawling and eating at its skinned side.

The cover dropped with a clatter and was then snatched up. The heavy edge of it came down on the skull of the cat, and with a sound between a sigh and a scream it relaxed, dead.

Gray-faced Morrison put the cover back on the dish. The captain looked at the flight officer and tried to keep his attention upon Morrison’s reaction and thus avoid the illness which fought upward within him.

The light went out and they could feel each other staring into the dark, could feel each other’s thoughts. From the captain came the compulsion to silence; from Morrison, a struggling but unspoken panic.

One sentence ran through Captain de Wolf’s mind, over and over. “He is going to break at the first chance he has. He is going to break at the first chance he has. He is going to break at the first chance he has. He is—”

Angrily he broke the chain. How could he tell this man what it would mean. Himself a Point officer, it was hard for him to reach out and understand the reaction of one who had been until recently a civilian pilot. How could he harden in an hour or a day the resolution to loyalty?

It was a step ahead, a tribute to De Wolf’s understanding that he realized the difference between them. He knew how carefully belief in service had been built within himself and he knew how vital was that belief. But how could he make Morrison know that fifty thousand Earthmen, his friends, the hope of Earth, might die if the time and plan of the attack were disclosed?

Futilely he wished that they had not been at the council which had decided it, that knowledge of it had been necessary for them to do a complete scout of the situation for General Balantine. If no word of this came to the Saturnians, then this planet might be wholly cleared of the enemy with one lightning blow by space and land.

Suddenly De Wolf discovered that he had been wondering for a long time about his daughter, who had been reported by his wife as having a case of measles. Angrily he yanked his mind from such a fatal course. He could not allow himself to be human, to know that people would sorrow if he went. He was part of an army and as part of that army he had no right to personality or self. He was here, he could not fail, he could not let Morrison fail!

If only that drop would stop falling!

It was both relief and agony when the light went on once more. The captain had no conception of the amount of time which had passed, was only conscious of the misery of his body and the determination not to fail.

The door swung open and a dark-hooded Saturnian infantryman stood there. An officer beyond him beckoned and said, “We want a word with Morrison, the flight officer, if you please.”


Not until Morrison had been gone an hour or more did Captain de Wolf begin to crumble within. The irregular, loud drop, the continued shocks of a body sweating in the hot air and then touching the icy metal, the fact that Morrison—

The man was not a regular; he was a civilian less than a year in the service. Unlike Captain de Wolf, he was not a personality molded into a military machine, and a civilian, having earned a personality of his own through the necessity to seek for self, could not be drawn too far down the road of agony without breaking.

Captain de Wolf, sick with physical and nervous discomfort, was ground down further by his fear that Morrison would crack. And as time went by and Morrison was not returned, De Wolf became convinced.

Surging up at last, he battered at the door. No answer came to him; the lock was steadfast. Wildly he turned and beat at the plates of the cell, and not until pain reached his consciousness from his bloodied fists did he realize the danger in which he stood. He himself was cracking. He stilled the will to scream at the dropping water. He carefully took himself in hand and felt the light die in his eyes.

He had no hope of escape. The Saturnians would be too clever for that. But he could no longer trust himself to wait, and he used his time by examining the whole of this cell. The walls were huge, unyielding plates and there was no window; but, passing back and forth, he repeatedly felt the roughness of a grate underfoot. This he finally investigated, a gesture more than a hope. For this served as the room’s only plumbing and was foul and odorous and could lead nowhere save into a sewage pipe.

For the space of several loud and shattering drops De Wolf stood crouched, loose grate in hand, filled with disbelief. For there was a faint ray of light reflected from somewhere below, and in that light it could be seen that there was room enough to pass through!

Suddenly crafty, he listened at the door. Then, with quick, sure motions, slid into the foul hole and pulled the grate into place over his head. The light, not yet seen, was beckoning to him at the end of a tunnel in which he could just crouch.

He crawled in the muck for two hundred feet before he came to the light, and here he stopped, staring upward. The hope in him flickered, waned and nearly vanished in a tidal wave of despair. For the light came from an upper grate fourteen feet above the floor of the tunnel, far out of reach upon a slimy, unflawed wall. He tried to leap for it and fell back, slipping and cruelly banging his head as he dropped.

Again he took solid hold of himself. He forced his trained mind to think, forced his trained body to obey. He stood a long way back from himself and critically observed his actions and impulses as though he was something besides a man and the man was on parade.

He looked farther along the tunnel and fumbled his way away from the light. He was sure he would have another outlet presented to him by fate. He could not be led this far without some recompense. And he felt in the top of the tunnel for a grate which might lead out through an empty cell. The tunnel curved and then a new sound made him fumble before he took another step. There was a drop there, an emptiness which might extend ten feet or a hundred. He had to return or chance it.

The water which sluggishly gurgled about his ankles spilled over the soft lip of the hole and dropped soundlessly. Suddenly he was filled with sickness and panic and premonition. This foul trap into which he had ventured hemmed him close, imprisoned him, would embrace him for some awesome purpose and never give him up.

He forced himself into line. He froze his terror. He dropped blindly over the lip of the hole.

He was not shaken, for he had dropped less than six feet and the bottom was soft. He crouched, his emotions clashing, disgust and relief. And then when he looked about him again he felt the mad surge of hope, for there was light ahead!


Floundering and splashing and steadying himself against the walls, he gained the bend and saw the blinding force of daylight. For some little while he could not look directly at it nor could his wits embrace the whole of the promise that light offered. But at last, when his pupils were contracted to normal and his realization distilled into reason, he went forward and looked down. Once more his hope died. Here was a sheer drop of nearly a hundred feet, a cliff face which offered no slightest hold, greased by the sewage and worn smooth by the water.

Clinging forlornly to the edge, he scanned the great dome of the military base a mile overhead, scanned the cluster of metal huts on the plain before him, watched far-off dots which were soldiers. There was a roar overhead and he drew back lest he be seen by the small scout plane which cruised beneath the dome. When its sound had faded he again ventured a glance out, looking up to make sure he was not seen from above. And once more hope flared.

For the wall above this opening offered grips in the form of projecting stones, and the climb was less than twenty feet!

It was difficult to swing out of the opening and grab the first rock. It took courage to so expose himself to the sentries who, though two thousand yards away, could pick him easily off the wall if they noticed him.

The rock he grabbed came loose in his hand and he nearly hurtled down the cliff. He crouched, panting, denied, wearied beyond endurance with the sudden shock of it. And then he stood off from himself again and snarled a command to go on and up.

The next rock he trusted held, and in a moment he was glued to the face of the sheer wall, making weary muscles respond to orders. Why he was tired he did not understand, for he had done no great amount of physical exertion. But rock by rock, as he went up, his energy flooded from him and left him in a hazed realm of semiconsciousness which threatened uncaring surrender. He rested for longer and longer intervals between lifts, and what had been twenty feet seemed to stretch to a tortured infinity.

He could not believe that he had come within two feet of the top; but, staring up, he saw that he should believe it. A savage will took hold of him and he reached out for the next handhold. It did not exist.

He fumbled and groped across the smooth face above him. He stretched to reach the lip so near him. And then he realized that, near as he was, he could not go farther. Already his bleeding hands refused to hold beyond the next few seconds. A foot slipped and in sweating terror he wildly clawed for his hold.

His right hand slipped loose. A red haze of strain covered his vision. One foot came free and the tendons of his right arm were stretched to the snapping point. He knew he was going, knew that he would fall, knew that Morrison would sell an army to the gods of slaughter—His right hand numbed and lost its grip and he started to fall.


There was a wrench which tore muscles and nerves, and something was around his wrist. He was not falling. He was dangling over emptiness and something had him from above!

They pulled him up over the edge and dropped him in an exhausted, broken huddle upon the gravel of the small plateau. And at last, when he opened his eyes, it was to see the grinning face of the intelligence officer and the stolid guards.

“Usually,” said the intelligence officer, in an offhand voice, “they make it up and over by tearing a grip out of the cliff with their fingernails. You, however, are of a much more delicate nervous structure, it seems. I rather thought you’d fail where you did. One gets to know these things after some practice.”

Captain de Wolf lay where they had dropped him. A dull haze of beaten anger clouded his sight and then dropped away from him and left him naked, filthy and alone among his country’s enemies.

Diffidently the guards picked him up and lugged him toward the small buildings. They took him down a corridor and into a large, strange room. Glad to be quit of this, they put him in a chair and strapped his wrists down. Captain de Wolf made no resistance. He did not look up.

The intelligence officer walked gracefully back and forth, slowly touring the room. He stopped and lighted a cigarette. “It was really quite useless, that escape of yours,” he said. “Your friend Morrison talked to the limit of his knowledge. He gave us troops, divisions to be used, state of equipment, general battle plan, in fact everything but two small facts which he did not know.” He came nearer to De Wolf. “He was not able to recall the time of the attack or the assembly point after it had succeeded—if it did succeed. You are to give us that data, for, as a staff officer, you, of course, know. Brauls! Make ready with No. 4!”

Captain de Wolf tried to rally. He tried to feel rage against Morrison. He tried to realize that an army would perish because of this day’s work. He could not think, could not feel. They were rolling some kind of machine toward him, and the wriggly thing called Brauls was adjusting something on it. “I won’t tell you anything,” said De Wolf leadenly.

A dog was pulled out of a cage and placed on a table where it was strapped down. It whimpered and tried to lick at the hand of the soldier who did the work. Brauls, face hidden in a hood, worked expertly with a little track. On this was a small car having two high sides and neither back nor front; it ran on a little track which had been widened to accommodate the width of the dog.

Brauls touched a button and from jets on either side of the car small streams shot forth with sudden ferocity. These jets sprayed water under tremendous hydraulic pressure, jets which would cut wood faster than any saw and which hissed hungrily as they began to roll toward the dog.

Captain de Wolf tried to drop his eyes. He could not. The little car crept up on the dog and then the jets began to carve away, a fraction of an inch at a time—De Wolf managed to look away. The shrieks of agony which came from the dog carved through De Wolf.

“I won’t tell you anything,” he said.


They stretched out his arm and fixed the track on either side of it. They started the car toward his outstretched hand. Fixedly he watched it coming.

To the persuasive drawl of the intelligence officer he said, “I won’t tell you anything.”


A few hours later the intelligence officer was making out his report. He stopped after he had written the caption and the date and gazed at his long, sharp fingernails stained with nicotine. Then he sighed and resumed his writing.

Base 34D Mercury
Adsama 452

Today interrogated two officers captured from Earth reconnaissance plane, Captain Forrester de Wolf and Flight Officer Morrison.

Captain de Wolf, under procedure twenty-three escape tactic, revealed nothing. Later he was given procedures forty-five, ninety-seven, twenty-one and six. He died without talking.

Flight Officer Morrison was taken from the cell to the chamber. He was very combative. Procedures forty-five, ninety-seven and six were employed. Despite state of subject he was able to get at the automatic of a guard in a moment of carelessness and succeeded in retaining it even after he was shot. Rather than risk the divulgence of data, Flight Officer Morrison blew out his brains. The guard is under arrest.

From this attempt and the stubbornness of the enemy I conclude that there may be some attack in the making but, as our own scouts have discovered nothing, I do not expect it in this quarter for some time.

Drau Shadma
Captain, Saturnian Imperials


At headquarters of the Third Space Army, United States of Earth, General Balantine sat massively at his field desk impatiently going through a sheaf of reports.

“Belts!” he brayed at an aide. “Tell Colonel Strawn that whether he thinks regulation hold-down belts are useless or not his troops will wear them and parade with them!”

“Yessir,” said the aide timidly. He had a report in his hand and was not very anxious to give it.

“Well?” said General Balantine sharply. “What have you there?”

“It’s a report, sir. Captain de Wolf and Flight Officer Morrison are missing on reconnaissance. They are unreported for a day and a half.”

“Morrison? De Wolf? Oh, yes, De Wolf.” General Balantine was perfectly silent for a moment. Then, in an altered tone: “Morrison … Morrison. I don’t know the man. I … don’t … know—” He was silent again, so that his abrupt return to activity was the more startling.

“Post an order for a council of officers. And have another aide appointed to me. Dammit, that was a neat plan of attack, too.”

“You’re changing the plan, sir?”

General Balantine snorted. “They’ll wear those hold-down safety belts. I’ll change that plan of attack. I don’t know—can’t know—what the Saturnians found out. I don’t think De Wolf … but it makes no difference. I’d have to know and that’s impossible. There’s time to change. Post that notice.”

About the Author

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (March 13, 1911 – January 24, 1986) was an American author of science fiction and fantasy stories, and the founder of the Church of Scientology. In 1950, Hubbard authored Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and established a series of organizations to promote Dianetics. In 1952, Hubbard lost the rights to Dianetics in bankruptcy proceedings, and he subsequently founded Scientology. Thereafter Hubbard oversaw the growth of the Church of Scientology into a worldwide organization.

[Excerpt from Wikipedia (, retrieved March 5th, 2020]

About this Edition

This ebook was produced from Astounding Science-Fiction April 1942. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.