By KEITH LAUMER
The murmur of conversation around the conference table died as the World
Secretary entered the room and took his place at the head of the table.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said. “I’ll not
detain you with formalities today. The representative of the Navy
Department is waiting outside to present the case for his proposal. You
all know something of the scheme; it has been heard and passed as
feasible by the Advisory Group. It will now be our responsibility to
make the decision. I ask that each of you in forming a conclusion
remember that our present situation can only be described as desperate,
and that desperate measures may be in order.”
The Secretary turned and nodded to a braided admiral seated near the
door who left the room and returned a moment later with a young
gray-haired Naval Officer.
“Members of the Council,” said the admiral, “this is
Lieutenant Commander Greylorn.” All eyes followed the officer as
he walked the length of the room to take the empty seat at the end of
“Please proceed, Commander,” said the Secretary.
“Thank you, Mr. Secretary.” The Commander’s voice was
unhurried and low, yet it carried clearly and held authority. He began
“When the World Government dispatched the Scouting Forces
forty-three years ago, an effort was made to contact each of the
twenty-five worlds to which this government had sent Colonization
parties during the Colonial
Era of the middle Twentieth Centuries. With the return of the last of
the scouts early this year, we were forced to realize that no assistance
would be forthcoming from that source.”
The Commander turned his eyes to the world map covering the wall. With
the exception of North America and a narrow strip of coastal waters, the
entire map was tinted an unhealthy pink.
“The latest figures compiled by the Department of the Navy
indicate that we are losing area at the rate of one square mile every
twenty-one hours. The organism’s faculty for developing resistance
to our chemical and biological measures appears to be evolving rapidly.
Analyses of atmospheric samples indicate the level of noxious content
rising at a steady rate. In other words, in spite of our best efforts,
we are not holding our own against the Red Tide.”
A mutter ran around the table, as Members shifted uncomfortably in their
“A great deal of thought has been applied to the problem of
increasing our offensive ability. This in the end is still a question of
manpower and raw resources. We do not have enough. Our small
improvements in effectiveness have been progressively offset by
increasing casualties and loss of territory. In the end, alone, we must
The Commander paused, as the murmur rose and died again. “There is
however, one possibility still unexplored,” he said. “And
recent work done at the Polar Research Station places the possibility
well within the scope of feasibility. At the time the attempt was made
to establish contact with the colonies, one was omitted. It alone now
remains to be sought out. I refer to the Omega Colony.”
A portly Member leaned forward and burst out, “The location of the
colony is unknown!”
The Secretary intervened. “Please permit the Commander to complete
his remarks. There will be ample opportunity for discussion when he has
“This contact was not attempted for two reasons,” the
Commander continued. “First, the precise location was not known;
second, the distance was at least twice that of the earlier colonies. At
the time, there was a feeling of optimism which seemed to make the
attempt superfluous. Now the situation has changed. The possibility of
contacting Omega Colony now assumes paramount importance.
“The development of which I spoke is a new application of drive
principle which has given to us a greatly improved effective velocity
for space propulsion. Forty years ago, the minimum elapsed time of
return travel to the presumed sector within which the Omega World should
lie was about a century. Today we have the techniques to construct a
small scouting vessel capable of making the transit in
just over five years. We cannot hold out here for a century, perhaps;
but we can manage a decade.
“As for location, we know the initial target point toward which
Omega was launched. The plan was of course that a precise target should
be selected by the crew after approaching the star group closely enough
to permit telescopic planetary resolution and study. There is no reason
why the crew of a scout could not make the same study and examination of
possible targets, and with luck find the colony.
“Omega was the last colonial venture undertaken by our people, two
centuries after the others. It was the best equipped and largest
expedition of them all. It was not limited to one destination, little
known, but had a presumably large selection of potentials from which to
choose; and her planetary study facilities were extremely advanced. I
have full confidence that Omega made a successful planetfall and has by
now established a vigorous new society.
“Honorable Members of the Council, I submit that all the resources
of this Government should be at once placed at the disposal of a task
force with the assigned duty of constructing a fifty-thousand-ton
scouting vessel, and conducting an exhaustive survey of a volume of
space of one thousand A.U.’s centered on the so-called Omega
The World Secretary interrupted the babble which arose with the
completion of the officer’s presentation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, time is of the essence of our problem.
Let’s proceed at once to orderly interrogation. Mr. Klayle, lead
The portly Councillor glared at the Commander. “The undertaking
you propose, sir, will require a massive diversion of our capacities
from defense. That means losing ground at an increasing rate to the
obscenity crawling over our planet. That same potential applied to
direct offensive measures may yet turn the balance in our favor. Against
this, the possibility of a scouting party stumbling over the remains of
a colony the location of which is almost completely problematical, and
which by analogy with all of the earlier colonial attempts has at best
managed to survive as a marginal foothold, is so fantastically remote as
to be inconsiderable.”
The Commander listened coolly, seriously. “Mr. Councillor,”
he replied, “as to our defensive measures, we have passed the
point of diminishing returns. We have more knowledge now than we are
capable of employing against the plague. Had we not neglected the
physical sciences as we have for the last two centuries, we might have
developed adequate measures before we had been so far reduced in numbers
and area as to be unable to produce and employ the new weapons our
belatedly developed. Now we must be realistic; there is no hope in that
“As to the location of the Omega World, our plan is based on the
fact that the selection was not made at random. Our scout will proceed
along the Omega course line as known to us from the observations which
were carried on for almost three years after its departure. We propose
to continue on that line, carrying out systematic observation of each
potential sun in turn. As we detect planets, we will alter course only
as necessary to satisfy ourselves as to the possibility of suitability
of the planet. We can safely assume that Omega will not have bypassed
any likely target. If we should have more than one prospect under
consideration at any time, we shall examine them in turn. If the Omega
World has developed successfully, ample evidence should be discernible
at a distance.”
Klayle muttered “Madness,” and subsided. The angular member
on his left spoke gently, “Mr. Greylorn, why, if this colonial
venture has met with the success you assume, has its government not
reestablished contact with the mother world during the last two
“On that score, Mr. Councillor, we can only conjecture,” the
Commander said. “The outward voyage may have required as much as
fifty or sixty years. After that, there must have followed a lengthy
period of development and expansion in building the new world. It is not
to be expected that the pioneers would be ready to expend resources in
expeditionary ventures for some time.”
“I do not completely understand your apparent confidence in the
ability of the hypothetical Omega culture to supply massive aid to us,
even if its people should be so inclined,” said a straight-backed
woman member. “The time seems very short for the mastery of an
“The population development plan, Madam, provided for an increase
from the original 10,000 colonists to approximately 40,000 within twenty
years, after which the rate of increase would of course rapidly grow.
Assuming sixty years for planetfall, the population should now number
over one hundred sixty millions. Given population, all else
Two hours later, the World Secretary summed up. “Ladies and
gentlemen, we have the facts before us. There still exist differences in
interpretation, which however will not be resolved by continued
repetition. I now call for a vote on the resolution proposed by the
Military Member and presented by Commander Greylorn.”
There was silence in the Council Chamber as the votes were recorded and
tabulated. Then the World Secretary sighed softly.
“Commander,” he said, “the Council has approved the
resolution. I’m sure that there will be general agreement that you
will be placed at the head of the project, since you were director of
the team which developed the new drive and are also the author of the
plan. I wish you the best of luck.” He rose and extended his hand.
The first keel plate of the Armed Courier Vessel Galahad was laid
thirty-two hours later.
I expected trouble when I left the bridge. The tension that had been
building for many weeks was ready for release in violence. The ship was
silent as I moved along the passageway. Oddly silent, I thought;
something was brewing.
I stopped before the door of my cabin, listening; then I put my ear to
the wall. I caught the faintest of sounds from within; a muffled click,
voices. Someone was inside, someone attempting to be very quiet. I was
not overly surprised. Sooner or later the trouble had had to come into
the open. I looked up the passage, dim in the green glow of the
nightlights. There was no one in sight.
I listened. There were three voices, too faint to identify. The clever
thing for me to do now would be to walk back up to the bridge, and order
the Provost Marshall to clear my cabin, but I had an intuitive feeling
that that was not the way to handle the situation. It would make things
much simpler all around if I could push through this with as little
commotion as possible.
There was no point in waiting. I took out my key and placed it
soundlessly in the slot. As the door slid back I stepped briskly into
the room. Kramer, the Medical Officer, and Joyce, Assistant
Communications Officer, stood awkwardly, surprised. Fine, the Supply
Officer, was sprawled on my bunk. He sat up quickly.
They were a choice selection. Two of them were wearing sidearms. I
wondered if they were ready to use them, or if they knew just how far
they were prepared to go. My task would be to keep them from finding
I avoided looking surprised. “Good evening, gentlemen,” I
said cheerfully. I stepped to the liquor cabinet, opened it, poured
Scotch into a glass. “Join me in a drink?” I said.
None of them answered. I sat down. I had to move just a little faster
than they did, and by holding the initiative, keep them off balance.
They had counted on hearing my approach, having a few moments to get
set, and using my surprise against me. I had reversed their play and
taken the advantage. How long I could keep it depended on how well I
played my few cards. I plunged ahead, as I saw Kramer take a breath and
wrinkle his brow, about to make his pitch.
“The men need a change, a break in the monotony,” I said.
“I’ve been considering a number of possibilities.” I
fixed my eyes on Fine as I talked. He sat stiffly on the edge of my
bunk. Already he was regretting his boldness in presuming to rumple the
“It might be a good bit of drill to set up a few live missile runs
on random targets,” I said. “There’s also the
possibility of setting up a small arms range and qualifying all
hands.” I switched my eyes to Kramer. Fine was sorry he’d
come, and Joyce wouldn’t take the initiative; Kramer was my
problem. “I see you have your Mark 9, Major,” I said,
holding out my hand. “May I see it?” I smiled pleasantly.
I hoped I had hit him quickly and smoothly enough, before he had had
time to adjust to the situation. Even for a hard operator like Kramer,
it took mental preparation to openly defy his Commander, particularly in
casual conversation. But possession of the weapon was more than
I looked at him, smiling, my hand held out. He wasn’t ready; he
pulled the pistol from its case, handed it to me.
I flipped the chamber open, glanced at the charge indicator, checked the
action. “Nice weapon,” I said. I laid it on the open bar at
Joyce opened his mouth to speak. I cut in in the same firm snappy tone I
use on the bridge. “Let me see yours, Lieutenant.”
He flushed, looked at Kramer, then passed the pistol over without a
word. I took it, turned it over thoughtfully, and then rose, holding it
negligently by the grip.
“Now, if you gentlemen don’t mind, I have a few things to
attend to.” I was not smiling. I looked at Kramer with
expressionless eyes. “I think we’d better keep our little
chat confidential for the present. I think I can promise you action in
the near future, though.”
They filed out, looking as foolish as three preachers caught in a raid
on a brothel. I stood without moving until the door closed. Then I let
my breath out. I sat down and finished off the Scotch in one drag.
“You were lucky, boy,” I said aloud. “Three gutless
I looked at the Mark 9’s on the table. A blast from one of those
would have burned all four of us in that enclosed room. I dumped them
into a drawer and loaded my Browning 2mm. The trouble wasn’t over
yet, I knew. After this farce, Kramer would have to make another move to
regain his prestige. I unlocked the door, and left it slightly ajar.
Then I threw the main switch and stretched out on my bunk. I put the
Browning needler on the little shelf near my right hand.
Perhaps I had made a mistake, I reflected, in eliminating formal
discipline as far as possible in the shipboard routine. It had seemed
the best course for a long cruise under the present conditions.
But now I had a morale situation that could explode in mutiny at the
first blunder on my part.
I knew that Kramer was the focal point of the trouble. He was my senior
staff officer, and carried a great deal of weight in the Officer’s
Mess. As a medic, he knew most of the crew better than I. I thought I
knew Kramer’s driving motive, too. He had always been a great
success with the women. When he had volunteered for the mission he had
doubtless pictured himself as quite a romantic hero, off on a noble but
hopeless quest. Now, after four years in deep space, he was beginning to
realize that he was getting no younger, and that at best he would have
spent a decade of his prime in monastic seclusion. He wanted to go back
now, and salvage what he could.
It was incredible to me that this movement could have gathered
followers, but I had to face the fact; my crew almost to a man had given
up the search before it was well begun. I had heard the first rumors
only a few weeks before, but the idea had spread through the crew like
wildfire. Now, I couldn’t afford drastic action, or risk forcing a
blowup by arresting ringleaders. I had to baby the situation along with
an easy hand and hope for good news from the Survey Section. A likely
find now would save us.
There was still every reason to hope for success in our search. To date
all had gone according to plan. We had followed the route of Omega as
far as it had been charted, and then gone on, studying the stars ahead
for evidence of planets. We had made our first finds early in the fourth
year of the voyage. It had been a long tedious time since then of study
and observation, eliminating one world after another as too massive, too
cold, too close to a blazing primary, too small to hold an atmosphere.
In all we had discovered twelve planets, of four suns. Only one had
looked good enough for close observation. We had moved in to televideo
range before realizing it was an all-sea world.
Now we had five new main-sequence suns ahead within six months’
range. I hoped for a confirmation on a planet at any time. To turn back
now to a world that had pinned its last hopes on our success was
unthinkable, yet this was Kramer’s plan, and that of his
followers. They would not prevail while I lived. Still it was not my
plan to be a party to our failure through martyrdom. I intended to stay
alive and carry through to success. I dozed lightly and waited.
I awoke when they tried the door. It had swung open a few inches at the
touch of the one who had tried it, not expecting it to be unlatched. It
stood ajar now, the pale light from the hall shining on the floor. No
one entered. Kramer was still fumbling,
unsure of himself. At every surprise with which I presented him, he was
paralyzed, expecting a trap. Several minutes passed in tense silence;
then the door swung wider.
“I’ll be forced to kill the first man who enters this
room,” I said in a steady voice. I hadn’t picked up the gun.
I heard urgent whispers in the hall. Then a hand reached in behind the
shelter of the door and flipped the light switch. Nothing happened,
since I had opened the main switch. It was only a small discomfiture,
but it had the effect of interfering with their plan of action, such as
it was. These men were being pushed along by Kramer, without a clearly
thought out plan. They hardly knew how to go about defying lawful
I called out, “I suggest you call this nonsense off now, and go
back to your quarters, men. I don’t know who is involved in this,
yet. You can get away clean if you leave quietly, now, before
you’ve made a serious mistake.”
I hoped it would work. This little adventure, abortive though it was,
might serve to let off steam. The men would have something to talk about
for a few precious days. I picked up the needler and waited. If the
bluff failed, I would have to kill someone.
Distantly I heard a metallic clatter. Moments later a tremor rattled the
objects on the shelf, followed a few seconds later by a heavy
shuddering. Papers slid from my desk, fluttered across the floor. The
whiskey bottle toppled, rolled to the far wall. I felt dizzy, as my bunk
seemed to tilt under me. I reached for the intercom key and flipped it.
“Taylor,” I said, “this is the Captain. What’s
There was a momentary delay before the answer came. “Captain,
we’ve taken a meteor strike aft, apparently a metallic body. It
must have hit us a tremendous wallop because it’s set up a
rotation. I’ve called out Damage Control.”
“Good work, Taylor,” I said. I keyed for Stores; the object
must have hit about there. “This is the Captain,” I said.
“Any damage there?”
I got a hum of background noise, then a too-close transmission.
“Uh, Cap’n, we got a hole in the aft bulkhead here. I
slapped a seat pad over it. Man, that coulda killed somebody.”
I flipped off the intercom and started aft at a run. My visitors had
evaporated. In the passage men stood, milled, called questions. I keyed
my mike as I ran. “Taylor, order all hands to emergency
It was difficult running, since the floors had assumed an apparent tilt.
Loose gear was rolling and sliding along underfoot, propelled forward by
centrifugal force. Aft of Stores, I heard the whistle of escaping air
and high pressure gasses from ruptured lines. Vapor clouds fogged the
air. I called for floodlights for the whole sector.
Clay appeared out of the fog with his damage control crew.
“Sir,” he said, “it’s punctured inner and outer
shells in two places, and fragments have riddled the whole sector. There
are at least three men dead, and two hurt.”
“Taylor,” I called, “let’s have another damage
control crew back here on the triple. Get the medics back here,
too.” Clay and his men put on masks and moved off. I borrowed one
from a man standing by and followed. The large exit puncture was in the
forward cargo lock. The room was sealed off, limiting the air loss.
“Clay,” I said, “pass this up for the moment and get
that entry puncture sealed. I’ll put the extra crew in suits to
I moved back into clear air and called for reports from all sections.
The worst of the damage was in the auxiliary power control room, where
communication and power lines were slashed and the panel cut up. The
danger of serious damage to essential equipment had been very close, but
we had been lucky. This was the first instance I had heard encountering an object at hyper light speed.
It was astonishing how this threat to our safety cleared the air. The
men went about their duties more cheerfully than they had for months,
and Kramer was conspicuous by his subdued air. The emergency had
reestablished at least for the time the normal discipline; the men still
relied on the Captain in trouble.
Damage control crews worked steadily for the next seventy-two hours,
replacing wiring, welding, and testing. Power Section jockeyed
endlessly, correcting air motions. Meanwhile, I checked almost hourly
with Survey Section, hoping for good news to consolidate the improved
It was on Sunday morning, just after dawn relief that Lt. Taylor came up
to the bridge looking sick.
“Sir,” he said, “we took more damage than we knew with
that meteor strike.” He stopped and swallowed hard.
“What have you got, Lieutenant?” I said.
“We missed a piece. It must have gone off on a tangent through
stores into the cooler. Clipped the line, and let warm air in. All the fresh
frozen stuff is contaminated and rotten.” He gagged. “I got
a whiff of it, sir. Excuse me.” He rushed away.
This was calamity.
We didn’t carry much in the way of fresh natural food; but what we
had was vital. It was a bulky, delicate cargo to handle, but the
chemists hadn’t yet come up with synthetics to fill all the
dietary needs of man. We could get by fine for a long time on vitamin
tablets and concentrates; but there were nutritional
elements that you couldn’t get that way. Hydroponics didn’t
help; we had to have a few ounces of fresh meat and vegetables grown in
sunlight every week, or start to die within months.
I knew that Kramer wouldn’t let this chance pass. As Medical
Officer he would be well within his rights in calling to my attention
the fact that our health would soon begin to suffer. I felt sure he
would do so as loudly and publicly as possible at the first opportunity.
My best move was to beat him to the punch by making a general
announcement, giving the facts in the best possible light. That might
take some of the sting out of anything Kramer said later.
I gave it to them, short and to the point. “Men, we’ve just
suffered a serious loss. All the fresh frozen stores are gone. That
doesn’t mean we’ll be going on short rations; there are
plenty of concentrates and vitamins aboard. But it does mean we’re
going to be suffering from deficiencies in our diet.
“We didn’t come out here on a pleasure cruise; we’re
on a mission that leaves no room for failure. This is just one more fact
for us to face. Now let’s get on with the job.”
I walked into the wardroom, drew a cup of near-coffee, and sat down. The
screen showed a beach with booming surf. The sound track picked up the
crash and hiss of the breakers. Considering the red plague that now
covered the scene, I thought it was a poor choice. I dialed for a high
view of rolling farmland.
Mannion sat at a table across the room with Kirschenbaum. They were
hunched over their cups, not talking. I wondered where they stood.
Mannion, Communications Officer, was neurotic, but an old Armed Force
man. Discipline meant a lot to him. Kirschenbaum, Power Chief, was a
joker, with cold eyes, and smarter than he seemed. The question was
whether he was smart enough to idealize the stupidity of retreat now.
Kramer walked in, not wasting any time. He saw me and came over. He
stopped a few feet from the table, and said loudly, “Captain,
I’d like to know your plans, now that the possibility of
continuing is out.”
I sipped my near-coffee and looked at the rolling farmland. I
didn’t answer him. If I could get him mad, I could take him at his
Kramer turned red. He didn’t like being ignored. The two at the
other table were watching.
“Captain,” Kramer said loudly. “As Medical Officer I
have to know what measures you’re taking to protect the health of
This was a little better. He was on the defensive now; explaining why he
had a right to question his Commander. I wanted him a little hotter
I looked up at him. “Kramer,”
I said in a clear, not too loud voice, “you’re on watch. I
don’t want to find you hanging around the wardroom making light
chit-chat until you’re properly relieved from duty.” I went
back to my near-coffee and the farmland. A river was in view now, and
beyond it distant mountains.
Kramer was furious. “Joyce has relieved me, Captain,” he
said, controlling his voice with an effort. “I felt I’d
better take this matter up with you as soon as possible, since it
affects the health of every man aboard.” He was trying to keep
cool, in command of himself.
“I haven’t authorized any changes in the duty roster,
Major,” I said mildly. “Report to your post.” I was
riding the habit of discipline now, as far as it would carry me. I hoped
that disobedience to a direct order, solidly based on regulations, was a
little too big a jump for Kramer at the moment. Tomorrow it might be
different. But it was essential that I break up the scene he was
He wilted. “I’ll see you at 1700 in the chart room,
Kramer,” I said as he turned away. Mannion and looked at each other, then
finished their near-coffee hurriedly and left. I hoped their version of
the incident would help deflate Kramer’s standing among the
I left the wardroom and took the lift up to the bridge and checked with
Clay and his survey team.
“I think I’ve spotted a slight perturbation in Delta 3,
Captain,” Clay said. “I’m not sure, we’re still
pretty far out.”
“All right, Clay,” I said. “Stay with it.”
Clay was one of my more dependable men, dedicated to his work.
Unfortunately, he was no man of action. He would have little influence
in a show-down.
I was at the Schmidt when I heard the lift open. I turned; Kramer, Fine,
Taylor, and a half a dozen enlisted crew chiefs crowded out, bunched
together. They were all wearing needlers. At least they’d learned
that much, I thought.
Kramer moved forward. “We feel that the question of the
men’s welfare has to be dealt with right away, Captain,” he
I looked at him coldly, glanced at the rest of his crew. I said nothing.
“What we’re faced with is pretty grim, even if we turn back
now. I can’t be responsible for the results if there’s any
delay,” Kramer said. He spoke in an arrogant tone. I looked them
over, let the silence build.
“You’re in charge of this menagerie?” I said, looking
at Kramer. “If so, you’ve got thirty seconds to send them
back to their kennels. We’ll go into the matter of unauthorized
personnel on the bridge later. As for you, Major, you can consider
yourself under arrest in quarters. Now Move.”
Kramer was ready to stare me
down, but Fine gave me a break by tugging at his sleeve. Kramer shook
him loose, snarling. At that the crew chiefs faded back into the lift.
Fine and Taylor hesitated, then joined them. Kramer started to shout
after them, then got hold of himself. The lift moved down.
Kramer thought about going for his needler. I looked at him through
narrowed eyes. He decided to rely on his mouth, as usual. He licked his
lips. “All right, I’m under arrest,” he said.
“But as Medical Officer of this vessel it’s my duty to
remind you that you can’t live without a certain minimum of fresh
organic food. We’ve got to start back now.” He was pale, but
determined. He couldn’t bear the thought of getting bald and
toothless from dietary deficiency. The girls would never give him
“We’re going on, Kramer,” I said. “As long as we
have a man aboard still able to move. Teeth or no teeth.”
“Deficiency disease is no joke, Captain,” Kramer said.
“You can get all the symptoms of leprosy, cancer and just by skipping a few necessary
elements in your diet. And we’re missing most of them.”
“Giving me your opinions is one thing, Kramer,” I said.
“Mutiny is another.”
Clay stood beside the main screen, wide-eyed. I couldn’t send
Kramer down under his guard. “Let’s go, Kramer,” I
said. “I’m locking you up myself.”
We rode down in the lift. The men who had been with Kramer stood
awkwardly, silent as we stepped out into the passage. I spotted two
chronic trouble-makers among them. I thought I might as well call them
now as later. “Williams and Nagle,” I said, “this
officer is under arrest. Escort him to his quarters and lock him
in.” As they stepped forward hesitantly, Kramer said, “Keep
your filthy hooks off me.” He started down the passage.
If I could get Kramer put away before anybody else started trouble, I
might be able to bluff it through. I followed him and his two sheepish
guards down past the power section, and the mess. I hoped there would be
no crowd there to see their hero Kramer under guard.
I was out of luck. Apparently word had gone out of Kramer’s
arrest, and the corridor was clogged with men. They stood unmoving as we
approached. Kramer stopped.
“Clear this passage, you men,” I said.
Slowly they began to move back, giving ground reluctantly.
Suddenly Kramer shouted. “That’s right, you whiners and
complainers, clear the way so the Captain can take me back to the
missile deck and shoot me. You just want to talk about home; you
haven’t got the guts to do anything about it.”
The moving mass halted, milled. Someone shouted, “Who’s he
think he is, anyway.”
Kramer whirled toward me. “He thinks he’s the man
who’s going to let you all rot alive, to save his record.”
“Williams, Nagle,” I said loudly, “clear this
Williams started half-heartedly to shove at the men nearest him. A fist
flashed out and snapped his head back. That was a mistake; Williams
pulled his needler, and fired a down the passage.
“’Bout twelve a you yellow-bellies git outa my way,”
he yelled. “I’m comin’ through.”
Nagle moved close to Williams, and shouted something to him. The noise
drowned it. Kramer swung back to me, frantic to regain his sway over the
“Once I’m out of the way, there’ll be a general
purge,” he roared. The hubbub faded, as men turned to hear him.
“You’re all marked men. He’s gone mad. He won’t
let one of you live.” Kramer had their eyes now. “Take him
now,” he shouted, and seized my arm to begin the action.
He’d rushed it a little. I hit him across the face with the back
of my hand. No one jumped to his assistance. I drew my 2mm. “If
you ever lay a hand on your Commanding Officer again, I’ll burn
you where you stand, Kramer.”
Then a voice came from behind me. “You’re not killing
anybody without a trial, Captain.” Joyce stood there with two of
the crew chiefs, needler in hand. Fine and Taylor were not in sight.
I pushed Kramer out of my way and walked up to Joyce.
“Hand me that weapon, Junior, butt first,” I said. I looked
him in the eye with all the glare I had. He stepped back a pace.
“Why don’t you jump him,” he called to the crowd.
The wall annunciator hummed and spoke.
“Captain Greylorn, please report to the bridge. Unidentified body
on main scope.”
Every man stopped in his tracks, listening. The annunciator continued.
“Looks like it’s decelerating, Captain.”
I holstered my pistol, pushed past Joyce, and trotted for the lift. The
mob behind me broke up, talking, as men under long habit ran for action
Clay was operating calmly under pressure. He sat at the main screen, and
studied the blip, making tiny crayon marks.
“She’s too far out for a reliable scanner track,
Captain,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure she’s
If that were true, this might be the break we’d been living for.
Only manned or controlled bodies decelerated in deep space.
“How did you spot it, Clay?” I asked. Picking up a tiny mass
like this was a delicate job, even when you knew its coordinates.
“Just happened to catch my eye, Captain,” he said. “I
always make a general check every watch of the whole forward quadrant. I
noticed a blip where
I didn’t remember seeing one before.”
“You have quite an eye, Clay,” I said. “How about
getting this object in the beam.”
“We’re trying now, Captain,” he said.
“That’s a mighty small field, though.”
Joyce called from the radar board, “I think I’m getting an
echo at 15,000, sir. It’s pretty weak.”
Miller, quiet and meticulous, delicately tuned the beam control.
“Give me your fix, Joyce,” he said. “I can’t
Joyce called out his figures, in seconds of arc to three places.
“You’re right on it, Joyce,” Miller called a minute
later. “I got it. Now pray it don’t get away when I boost
Clay stepped over behind Miller. “Take it a few mags at a
time,” he said calmly.
I watched Miller’s screen. A tiny point near the center of the
screen swelled to a spec, and jumped nearly off the screen to the left.
Miller centered it again, and switched to a higher power. This time it
jumped less, and resolved into two tiny dots.
Step by step the magnification was increased as ring after ring of the
lens antenna was thrown into play. Each time the centering operation was
more delicate. The image grew until it filled a quarter of the screen.
We stared at it in fascination.
It showed up in stark silhouette, in the electronic “light”
of the radar scope. Two perfect discs, joined by a fine filament. As we
watched, their relative positions slowly shifted, one moving across,
half occluding the other.
As the image drifted, Miller worked with infinite care at his console to
hold it on center, in sharp focus.
“Wish you’d give me an orbit on this thing, Joyce,” he
said, “so I could lock onto it.”
“It ain’t got no orbit, man,” Joyce said.
“I’m trackin’ it, but I don’t understand it.
That rock is on a closing curve with us, and slowin’ down
“What’s the velocity, Joyce?” I asked.
“Averagin’ about 1,000 relative, Captain, but slowin’
“All right, we’ll hold our course,” I said.
I keyed for a general announcement.
“This is the Captain,” I said. “General Quarters. Man
action stations and prepare for possible contact within one hour.”
“Missile Section. Arm No. 1 Battery and stand by.”
Then I added, “We don’t know what we’ve got here, but
it’s not a natural body. Could be anything from a torpedo on
I went back to the Beam screen. The image was clear, but without detail.
The two discs slowly drew apart, then closed again.
“I’d guess that movement is due to rotation of two spheres
around a common center,” Clay said.
“I agree with you,” I said.
“Try to get me a reading on the mass of the object.”
I wondered whether Kramer had been locked up as I had ordered, but at
this moment it seemed unimportant. If this was, as I hoped, a contact
with our colony, all our troubles were over.
The object (I hesitated to call it a ship) approached steadily, still
decelerating. Now Clay picked it up on the televideo, as it paralleled
our course forty-five hundred miles out.
“Captain, it’s my guess the body will match speeds with us
at about 200 miles, at his present rate of deceleration,” Clay
“Hold everything you’ve got on him, and watch closely for
anything that might be a missile,” I said.
Clay worked steadily over his chart table. Finally he turned to me.
“Captain, I get a figure of over a hundred million tons mass; and
calibrating the scope images gives us a length of nearly two
I let that sink in. I had a strong and very empty feeling that this
ship, if ship it were, was not an envoy from any human colony.
The annunciator hummed and spoke. “Captain, I’m getting a
very short wave transmission from a point out on the starboard bow. Does
that sound like your torpedo?” It was Mannion.
“That’s it, Mannion,” I said. “Can you make
anything of it?”
“No, sir,” he answered. “I’m taping it, so I can
go to work on it.”
Mannion was our language and code man. I hoped he was good.
“What does it sound like,” I asked. “Tune me
After a moment a high hum came from the speaker. Through it I could hear
harsh chopping consonants, a whining intonation. I doubted that Mannion
would be able to make anything of that gargle.
Our Bogie closed steadily. At four hundred twenty-five miles he reversed
relative directions, and began matching our speed, moving closer to our
course. There was no doubt he planned to parallel us.
I made a brief announcement to all hands describing the status of the
action. Clay worked over his televideo, trying to clear the image. I
watched as the blob on the screen swelled and flickered. Suddenly it
flashed into clear stark definition. Against a background of sparkling
black, the twin spheres gleamed faintly in reflected starlight.
There were no visible surface features; the iodine-colored forms and
their connecting shaft had an ancient and alien look.
We held our course steadily, watching the stranger maneuver. Even at
this distance it looked huge.
“Captain,” Clay said, “I’ve been making a few
rough calculations. The two spheres are about 800 yards in diameter, and
at the rate the structure is rotating it’s pulling about six
That settled the question of human origin of the ship. No human crew
would choose to work under six gee’s.
Now, paralleling us at just over two hundred miles, the giant ship spun
along, at rest relative to us. It was visible now through the direct
observation panel, without magnification.
I left Clay in charge on the bridge, and I went down to the Com Section.
Joyce sat at his board, reading instruments and keying controls. So he
was back on the job. Mannion sat, head bent, monitoring his recorder.
The room was filled with the keening of the alien transmission.
“Getting anything on video?” I asked. Joyce shook his head.
“Nothing, Captain. I’ve checked the whole spectrum, and this
is all I get. It’s coming in on about a dozen different
frequencies; no FM.”
“Any progress, Mannion?” I said.
He took off his headset. “It’s the same thing, repeated over
and over, just a short phrase. I’d have better luck if
they’d vary it a little.”
“Try sending,” I said.
Joyce tuned the clatter down to a faint clicking, and switched his
transmitter on. “You’re on, Captain,” he said.
“This is Captain Greylorn, UNACV Galahad; kindly identify
yourself.” I repeated this slowly, half a dozen times. It occurred
to me that this was the first known time in history a human being had
addressed a non-human intelligence. The last was a guess, but I
couldn’t interpret our guest’s purposeful maneuverings as
other than intelligent.
I checked with the bridge; no change. Suddenly the clatter stopped,
leaving only the carrier hum.
“Can’t you tune that whine out, Joyce?” I asked.
“No, sir,” he replied. “That’s a very noisy
transmission. Sounds like maybe their equipment is on the blink.”
We listened to the hum, waiting. Then the clatter began again.
“This is different,” Mannion said. “It’s
I went back to the bridge, and waited for the next move from the
stranger, or for word from Mannion. Every half hour I transmitted a call
identifying us, followed by a sample of our language. I gave them
English, Russian, and Standard Interlingua. I didn’t know why, but
somehow I had a faint hope they might understand some of it.
I stayed on the bridge when the watch changed. I had some food sent up,
and slept a few hours on the OD’s bunk.
Fine replaced Kramer on his watch when it rolled around. Apparently
Kramer was out of circulation. At this point I did not feel inclined to
pursue the point.
We had been at General Quarters
for twenty-one hours when the wall annunciator hummed.
“Captain, this is Mannion. I’ve busted it....”
“I’ll be right there,” I said, and left at a run.
Mannion was writing as I entered ComSection. He stopped his recorder and
offered me a sheet. “This is what I’ve got so far,
Captain,” he said.
I read: INVADER; THE MANCJI PRESENCE OPENS COMMUNICATIONS.
“That’s a highly inflected version of early Interlingua,
Captain,” Mannion said. “After I taped it, I compensated it
to take out the rise-and-fall tone, and then filtered out the static.
There were a few sound substitutions to figure out, but I finally caught
on. It still doesn’t make much sense, but that’s what it
“I wonder what we’re invading,” I said. “And
what is the “Mancji Presence’?”
“They just repeat that over and over,” Mannion said.
“They don’t answer our call.”
“Try translating into old Interlingua, adding their sound changes,
and then feeding their own rise-and-fall routine to it,” I said.
“Maybe that will get a response.”
I waited while Mannion worked out the message, then taped it on top of
their whining tone pattern. “Put plenty of horse-power behind
it,” I said. “If their receivers are as shaky as their
transmitter, they might not be hearing us.”
We sent for five minutes, then tuned them back in and waited. There was
a long silence from their side, then they came back with a long
Mannion worked over it for several minutes. .ldThey must have understood
us, here’s what I get,” he said:
THAT WHICH SWIMS IN THE MANCJI SEA; WE ARE AWARE THAT YOU HAVE THIS
TRADE TONGUE. YOU RANGE FAR. IT IS OUR WHIM TO INDULGE YOU; WE ARE
AMUSED THAT YOU PRESUME HERE; WE ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR INSOLENT DEMANDS.
“It looks like we’re in somebody’s back yard,” I
said. “They acknowledge our insolent demands, but they don’t
answer them.” I thought a moment. “Send this,” I said.
“We’ll out-strut them:”
THE MIGHTY WARSHIP GALAHAD REJECTS YOUR JURISDICTION.
TELL US THE NATURE OF YOUR DISTRESS AND WE MAY CHOOSE TO OFFER AID.
Mannion raised an eyebrow. “That ought to rock them,” he
“They were eager to talk to us,” I said. “That means
they want something, in my opinion. And all the big talk sounds like a
bluff of our own is our best line.”
“Why do you want to antagonize
them, Captain?” Joyce asked. “That ship is over a thousand
times the size of this can.”
“Joyce, I suggest you let me forget you’re around,” I
The Mancji whine was added to my message, and it went out. Moments later
this came back:
MANCJI HONOR DICTATES YOUR SAFE-CONDUCT; TALK IS WEARYING; WE FIND
IT CONVENIENT TO SOLICIT A TRANSFER OF ELECTROSTATIC FORCE.
“What the devil does that mean?” I said. “Tell them to
loosen up and explain themselves.”
Mannion wrote out a straight query, and sent it. Again we waited for a
It came, in a long windy paragraph stating that the Mancji found
electro-static baths amusing, and that “” had drained their
tanks. They wanted a flow of electrons from us to replenish their
“This sounds like simple electric current they’re talking
about, Captain,” Mannion said. “They want a battery
“They seem to have power to burn,” I said. “Why
don’t they generate their own juice? Ask them; and find out where
they learned Interlingua.”
Mannion sent again; the reply was slow in coming back. Finally we got
THE MANCJI DO NOT EMPLOY MASSIVE GENERATION-PIECE WHERE
ACCUMULATOR-PIECE IS SUFFICIENT. THIS SIMPLE TRADE SPEECH IS OF OLD
KNOWLEDGE. WE SELECT IT FROM SYMBOLS WE ARE PLEASED TO SENSE
EMPATTERNED ON YOUR HULL.
That made some sort of sense, but I was intrigued by the reference to
Interlingua as a trade language. I wanted to know where they had learned
it. I couldn’t help the hope I started building on the idea that
this giant knew our colony, in spite of the fact that they were using an
antique version of the language, predating Omega by several centuries.
I sent another query, but the reply was abrupt and told nothing except
that Interlingua was of “old knowledge.”
Then Mannion entered a long technical exchange, getting the details of
the kind of electric power they wanted.
“We can give them what they want, no sweat, Captain,” he
said after half an hour’s talk. “They want DC; 100 volt, 50
amp will do.”
“Ask them to describe themselves,” I directed. I was
beginning to get an idea.
Mannion sent, got his reply. “They’re molluscoid,
Captain,” he said. He looked shocked. “They weigh about two
“Ask them what they eat,” I said.
I turned to Joyce as Mannion worked over the message. “Get
Kramer up here, on the double,” I said.
Kramer came in five minutes later, looking drawn and rumpled. He stared
at me sullenly.
“I’m releasing you from arrest temporarily on your own
parole, Major,” I said. “I want you to study the reply to
our last transmission, and tell me what you can about it.”
“Why me?” Kramer said. “I don’t know
what’s going on.” I didn’t answer him.
There was a long tense half hour wait before Mannion copied out the
reply that came in a stuttering nasal. He handed it to me.
As I had hoped, the message, after a preliminary recital of the
indifference of the Mancji to biological processes of ingestion, recited
a list of standard biochemical symbols.
“Can we eat this stuff?” I asked Kramer, handing him the
He studied it, and some of his accustomed swagger began to return.
“I don’t know what the flowery phrases are all about, but
the symbols refer to common proteins, lipins, carbohydrates, vitamins,
and biomins,” he said. “What is this, a game?”
“All right, Mannion,” I said. I was trying to hold back the
excitement. “Ask them if they have fresh sources of these
The reply was quick; they did.
“Tell them we will exchange electric power for a supply of these
foods. Tell them we want samples of half a dozen of the natural
Again Mannion coded and sent, received and translated, sent again.
“They agree, Captain,” he said at last. “They want us
to fire a power lead out about a mile; they’ll come in close and
shoot us a specimen case with a flare on it. Then we can each check the
“All right,” I said. “We can use a ground-service
cable; rig a pilot light on it, and kick it out, as soon as they get in
“We’ll have to splice a couple of extra lengths to
it,” Mannion said.
“Go to it, Mannion,” I said. “And send two of your men
out to make the pick-up.” This wasn’t a communications job,
but I wanted a reliable man handling it.
I returned to the bridge and keyed for Bourdon, directed him to arm two
of his penetration missiles, lock them onto the stranger, and switch
over to my control. With the firing key in my hand, I stood at the
televideo screen and watched for any signs of treachery. The ship moved
in, came to rest filling the screen.
Mannion’s men reported out. I saw the red dot of our power lead
move away, then a yellow point glowed on the side of the vast
iodine-colored wall looming across the screen.
Nothing else emerged from the alien ship. The red pilot drifted across
the face of the sphere. Mannion reported six
thousand feet of cable out before the pilot disappeared abruptly.
“Captain,” Mannion reported, “they’re drawing
“O.K.,” I said. “Let them have a sample, then shut
I waited, watching carefully, until Mannion reported the cannister
“Kramer,” I said. “Run me a fast check on the samples
in that container.”
Kramer was recovering his swagger. “You’ll have to be a
little more specific,” he said. “Just what kind of analysis
do you have in mind? Do you want a full....”
“I just want to know one thing, Kramer,” I said. “Can
we assimilate these substances, yes or no. If you don’t feel like
co-operating, I’ll have you lashed to your bunk, and injected with
them. You claim you’re a medical officer; let’s see you act
like one.” I turned my back to him.
Mannion called. “They say the juice we fed them was
‘amusing,’ Captain. I guess that means it’s
“I’ll let you know in a few minutes how their samples pan
out,” I said.
Kramer took half an hour before reporting back. “I ran a simple
check such as I normally use in a routine mess inspection,” he
began. He couldn’t help trying to take the center of the stage to
go into his Wise Doctor and Helpless Patient routine.
“Yes or no,” I said.
“Yes, we can assimilate most of it,” he said angrily.
“There were six samples. Two were gelatinous substances,
non-nutritive. Three were vegetable-like, bulky and fibrous, one with a
high iodine content; the other was a very normal meaty specimen.”
“Which should we take?” I said. “Remember your teeth
when you answer.”
“The high protein, the meaty one,” he said. “Marked
I keyed for Mannion. “Tell them that in return for 1,000 KWH we
require 3,000 kilos of sample six,” I said.
Mannion reported back. “They agreed in a hurry, Captain. They seem
to feel pretty good about the deal. They want to chat, now that
they’ve got a bargain. I’m still taping a long
“Good,” I said. “Better get ready to send about six
men with an auxiliary pusher to bring home the bacon. You can start
feeding them the juice again.”
I turned to Kramer. He was staring at the video image. “Report
yourself back to arrest in quarters, Kramer,” I said.
“I’ll take your services today into account at your
Kramer looked up, with a nasty grin. “I don’t know what kind
of talking oysters you’re trafficking with, but I’d laugh
like hell if they vaporized your precious tub as soon as they’re
through with you.” He walked out.
Mannion called in again from ComSection. “Here’s their last,
Captain,” he said. “They say
we’re lucky they had a good supply of this protein aboard.
It’s one of their most amusing foods. It’s a creature they
discovered in the wild state and it’s very rare. The wild ones
have died out, and only their domesticated herds exist.”
“O.K., we’re lucky,” I said. “It better be good
or we’ll step up the amperage and burn their batteries for
“Here’s more,” Mannion said. “They say it will
take a few hours to prepare the cargo. They want us to be amused.”
I didn’t like the delay, but it would take us about 10 hours to
deliver the juice to them at the trickle rate they wanted. Since the
sample was O.K., I was assuming the rest would be too. We settled down
I left Clay in charge on the bridge and made a tour of the ship. The
meeting with the alien had apparently driven the mood of mutiny into the
background. The men were quiet and busy. I went to my cabin and slept
for a few hours.
I was awakened by a call from Clay telling me that the alien had
released his cargo for us. Mannion’s crew was out making the
pick-up. Before they had maneuvered the bulky cylinder to the cargo
hatch, the alien released our power lead.
I called Kramer and told him to meet the incoming crew and open and
inspect the cargo. If it was the same as the sample, I thought, we had
made a terrific trade. Discipline would recover if the men felt we still
had our luck.
Then Mannion called again. “Captain,” he said excitedly,
“I think there may be trouble coming. Will you come down,
“I’ll go to the bridge, Mannion,” I said. “Keep
I tuned my speaker down low and listened to Mannion as I ran for the
“They tell us to watch for a little display of Mancji power. They
ran out some kind of antenna. I’m getting a loud static at the top
of my short wave receptivity.”
I ran the lift up and as I stepped onto the bridge I said, “Clay,
stand by to fire.”
As soon as the pick-up crew was reported in, I keyed course corrections
to curve us off sharply from the alien. I didn’t know what he had,
but I liked the idea of putting space between us. My P-Missiles were
still armed and locked.
Mannion called, “Captain, they say our fright is amusing, and
I watched the televideo screen for the first sign of an attack. Suddenly
the entire screen went white, then blanked. Miller, who had been at the
scanner searching over the alien ship at close range, reeled out of his
seat, clutching at his eyes. “My God, I’m blinded,” he
Mannion called, “Captain, my receivers blew. I think every tube in
the shack exploded!”
I jumped to the direct viewer.
The alien hung there, turning away from us in a leisurely curve. There
was no sign of whatever had blown us off the air. I held my key, but
didn’t press it. I told Clay to take Miller down to Medic. He was
moaning and in severe pain.
Kramer reported in from the cargo deck. The cannister was inside now,
coating up with frost. I told him to wait, then sent Chilcote, my
demolition man, in to open it. Maybe it was booby-trapped. I stood by at
the DVP and waited for other signs of Mancjo power to hit us. The
general feeling was tense.
Apparently they were satisfied with one blast of whatever it was; they
were dwindling away with no further signs of life.
After half an hour of tense alertness, I ordered the missiles disarmed.
I keyed for General. “Men, this is the Captain,” I said.
“It looks as though our first contact with an alien race has been
successfully completed. He is now at a distance of three hundred and
moving off fast. Our screens are blown, but there’s no real
damage. And we have a supply of fresh food aboard; now let’s get
back to business. That colony can’t be far off.”
That may have been rushing it some, but if the food supply we’d
gotten was a dud, we were finished anyway.
We watched the direct-view screen till the ship was lost; then followed
“It’s moving right along, Captain,” Joyce said,
“accelerating at about two gee’s.”
“Good riddance,” Clay said. “I don’t like
dealing with armed maniacs.”
“They were screwballs all right,” I said, “but they
couldn’t have happened along at a better time. I only wish we had
been in a position to squeeze a few answers out of them.”
“Yes, sir,” Clay said. “Now that the whole
thing’s over, I’m beginning to think of a lot of questions
The annunciator hummed. I heard what sounded like hoarse breathing. I
glanced at the indicator light. It was the cargo deck mike that was
I keyed. “If you have a report, Chilcote, go ahead,” I said.
Suddenly someone was shouting into the mike, incoherently. I caught
words, cursing. Then Chilcote’s voice, “Captain,” he
said. “Captain, please come quick.” There was a loud
clatter, noise, then only the hum of the mike.
“Take over, Clay,” I said, and started back to the cargo
deck at a dead run.
Men crowded the corridor, asking questions, milling. I forced my way
through, found Kramer surrounded by men, shouting.
“Break this up,” I shouted. ”Kramer, what’s your
Chilcote walked past me, pale as chalk. I pushed through to Kramer.
“Get hold of yourself, and
make your report, Kramer,” I said. “What started this
Kramer stopped shouting, and stood looking at me, panting. The crowded
men fell silent.
“I gave you a job to do, Major,” I said; “opening a
cargo can. Now you take it from there.”
“Yeah, Captain,” he said. “We got it open. No wires,
no traps. We hauled the load out of the can on to the floor. It was one
big frozen mass, wrapped up in some kind of netting. Then we pulled the
“All right, go ahead,” I said.
“That load of fresh meat your star-born pals gave us consists of
about six families of human beings; men, women, and children.”
Kramer was talking for the crowd now, shouting. “Those last should
be pretty tender when you ration out our ounce a week, Captain.”
The men milled, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, as I thrust through to the
cargo lock. The door stood ajar and wisps of white vapor curled out into
I stepped through the door. It was bitter cold in the lock. Near the
outer hatch the bulky cannister, rimed with white frost, lay in a pool
of melting ice. Before it lay the half shrouded bulk that it had
contained. I walked closer.
They were frozen together into one solid mass. Kramer was right. They
were as human as I. Human corpses, stripped, packed together, frozen. I
pulled back the lightly frosted covering, and studied the glazed white
Kramer called suddenly from the door. “You found your colonists,
Captain. Now that your curiosity is satisfied, we can go back where we
belong. Out here man is a tame variety of cattle. We’re lucky they
didn’t know we were the same variety, or we’d be in their
food lockers now ourselves. Now let’s get started back. The men
won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
I leaned closer, studying the corpses. “Come here, Kramer,”
I called. “I want to show you something.”
“I’ve seen all there is to see in there,” Kramer said.
“We don’t want to waste time; we want to change course now,
I walked back to the door, and as Kramer stepped back to let me precede
him out the door, I hit him in the mouth with all my strength. His head
snapped back against the frosted wall. Then he fell out into the
I stepped over him. “Pick this up and put it in the brig,” I
said. The men in the corridor fell back, muttering. As they hauled
Kramer upright I stepped through them and kept going, not running but
wasting no time, toward the bridge. One wrong move on my part now and
all their misery and fear would break loose in a riot the first act of
which would be to tear me limb from limb.
I travelled ahead of the shock. Kramer had provided the diversion
I had needed. Now I heard the sound of gathering violence growing
I was none too quick. A needler flashed at the end of the corridor just
as the lift door closed. I heard the tiny projectile off the lift shaft.
I rode up, stepped onto the bridge and locked the lift. I keyed for
Bourdon, and to my relief got a quick response. The panic hadn’t
penetrated to Missile Section yet.
“Bourdon, arm all batteries and lock onto that Mancji ship,”
I ordered. “On the triple.”
I turned to Clay. “I’ll take over, Clay,” I said.
“Alter course to intercept our late companion at two and one-half
Clay looked startled, but said only, “Aye, sir.”
I keyed for a general announcement. “This is the Captain,” I
said. “Action station, all hands in loose acceleration harness.
We’re going after Big Brother. You’re in action against the
enemy now, and from this point on I’m remembering. You men have
been having a big time letting off steam; that’s over now. All
One by one the sections reported in, all but Med. and Admin. Well, I
could spare them for the present. The pressure was building now, as we
blasted around in a hairpin curve, our acceleration picking up fast.
I ordered Joyce to lock his radar on , and switch over to autopilot control. Then
I called Power Section.
“I’m taking over all power control from the bridge,” I
said. “All personnel out of the power chamber and control
The men were still under control, but that might not last long. I had to
have the entire disposition of the ship’s power, control, and
armament under my personal direction for a few hours at least.
Missile Section reported all missiles armed and locked on target. I
acknowledged and ordered the section evacuated. Then I turned to Clay
and Joyce. Both were plenty nervous now; they didn’t know what was
“Lieutenant Clay,” I said. “Report to your quarters;
Joyce, you too. I want to congratulate both of you on a soldierly
performance these last few hours.”
They left without protest. I was aware that they didn’t want to be
too closely identified with the Captain when things broke loose.
I keyed for a video check of the interior of the lift as it started back
up. It was empty. I locked it up.
Now we were steady on course, and had reached our full two and a half
gees. I could hardly stand under that acceleration, but I had one more
job to do before I could take a break.
Feet dragging, I unlocked the lift and rode it down. I was braced for
violence as I opened the lift door, but I was lucky. There was no one in
I could hear shouts in the distance. I dragged myself along to Power
Section and pushed inside. A quick check of control settings showed
everything as I had ordered it. Back in the passage, I slammed the
leaded vault door to and threw in the combination lock. Now only I could
open it without blasting.
Control Section was next. It, too, was empty, all in order. I locked it,
and started across to Missiles. Two men appeared at the end of the
passage, having as hard a time as I was. I entered the cross corridor
just in time to escape a volley of needler shots. The mutiny was in the
open now, for sure.
I kept going, hearing more shouting. I was sure the men I had seen were
heading for Power and Control. They’d get a surprise. I hoped I
could beat them to the draw at Missiles, too.
As I came out in B corridor, twenty feet from Missiles, I saw that I had
cut it a bit fine. Three men, crawling, were frantically striving
against the multi-gee field to reach the door before me. Their faces
were running with sweat, purple with exertion.
I had a slight lead; it was too late to make a check inside before
locking up. The best I could hope for was to lock the door before they
I drew my Browning and started for the door. They saw me and one reached
for his needler.
“Don’t try it,” I called. I concentrated on the door,
reached it, swung it closed, and as I threw in the lock a needler
cracked. I whirled and fired. The man in the rear had stopped and aimed
as the other two came on. He folded. The other two kept coming.
I was tired. I wanted a rest. “You’re too late,” I
said. “No one but the Captain goes in there now.” I stopped
talking, panting. I had to rest. The two came on. I wondered why they
struggled so desperately after they were beaten. My thinking was slowing
I suddenly realized they might be holding me for the crowd to arrive. I
shuffled backwards towards the cross corridor. I barely made it. Two men
on a shuttle cart whirled around the corner a hundred feet aft. I
lurched into my shelter in a hail of needler fire. One of the tiny slugs
stung through my calf and ricocheted down the passage.
I called to the two I had raced; “Tell your boys if they ever want
to open that door, just see the Captain.”
I hesitated, considering whether or not to make a general statement.
“What the hell,” I decided. “They all know
there’s a mutiny now. It won’t hurt to get in a little
I keyed my mike. “This is the Captain,” I said. “This
ship is now in a state of mutiny. I call on all loyal members of the
Armed Forces to resist the mutineers
actively, and to support their Commander. Your ship is in action
against an armed enemy. I assure you this mutiny will fail, and those
who took part in it will be treated as traitors to their Service, their
homes, and their own families who now rely on them.
“We are accelerating at two and one-half gravities, locked on a
collision course with the Mancji ship. The mutineers cannot enter the
Bridge, Power, Control, or Missiles Sections since only I have the
combination. Thus they’re doomed to failure.
“I am now returning to the Bridge to direct the attack and
destruction of the enemy. If I fail to reach the Bridge, we will collide
with the enemy in less than three hours, and our batteries will
Now my problem was to make good my remark about returning to the Bridge.
The shuttle had not followed me, presumably fearing ambush. I took
advantage of their hesitation to cross back to corridor A at my best
speed. I paused once to send a hail of needles down the corridor behind me, and
I heard a yelp from around the corner. Those needles had a fantastic
velocity, and bounced around a long time before stopping.
At the corridor, I lay down on the floor for a rest and risked a quick
look. A group of three men were bunched around the Control Section door,
packing smashite in the hairline crack around it. That wouldn’t do
them any good, but it did occupy their attention.
I faded back into the cross passage, and keyed the mike. I had to give
them a chance.
“This is the Captain,” I said. “All personnel not at
their action stations are warned for the last time to report there
immediately. Any man found away from his post from this point on is in
open mutiny and can expect the death penalty. This is the last
The men in the corridor had heard, but a glance showed they paid no
attention to what they considered an idle threat. They didn’t know
how near I was.
I drew my needler, set it for continuous fire, pushed into the corridor,
aimed, and fired. I shot to kill. All three sprawled away from the door,
riddled, as the metal walls rang with the cloud of needles.
I looked both ways, then rose, with effort, and went to the bodies. I
recognized them as members of Kirschenbaum’s Power Section crew. I
keyed again as I moved on toward the lift at the end of the corridor,
glancing back as I went.
“Corley, Mac Williams, and Reardon have been shot for mutiny in
the face of the enemy,” I said. “Let’s hope
they’re the last to insist on my enforcing the death
Behind me, at the far end of the corridor, men appeared
again. I flattened myself in a doorway, sprayed needles toward them,
and hoped for the best. I heard the singing of a swarm past me, but felt
no hits. The mutineers offered a bigger target, and I thought I saw
someone fall. As they all moved back out of sight, I made another break
for the lift.
I was grateful they hadn’t had time to organize. I kept an eye to
the rear, and sent a hail of needles back every time a man showed
himself. They ducked out to fire every few seconds, but not very
effectively. I had an advantage over them; I was fighting for the
success of the mission and for my life, with no one to look to for help;
they were each one of a mob, none eager to be a target, each willing to
let the other man take the risk.
I was getting pretty tired. I was grateful for the extra stamina and
wind that daily calisthenics in a high-gee field had given me; without
that I would have collapsed before now; but I was almost ready to drop.
I had my eyes fixed on the lift door; each step, inch by inch, was an
almost unbearable effort. With only a few feet to go, my knees gave; I
went down on all fours. Another batch of needles sang around me, and
vivid pain seared my left arm. It helped. The pain cleared my head,
spurred me. I rose and stumbled against the door.
Now the combination. I fought a numbing desire to faint as I pressed the
lock control; three, five, two, five ...
I twisted around as I heard a sound. The shuttle was coming toward me,
men lying flat on it, protected by the bumper plate. I leaned against
the lift door, and loosed a stream of needles against the side of the
corridor, banking them toward the shuttle. Two men rolled off the
shuttle in a spatter of blood. Another screamed, and a hand waved above
the bumper. I needled it.
I wondered how many were on the shuttle. It kept coming. The closer it
came, the more effective my bank shots were. I wondered why it failed to
return my fire. Then a hand rose in an arc and a choke bomb dropped in a
short curve to the floor. It rolled to my feet, just starting to spew. I
kicked it back. The shuttle stopped, backed away from the bomb. A jet of
brown gas was playing from it now. I aimed my needler, and sent it
spinning back farther. Then I turned to my lock.
Now a clank of metal against metal sounded behind me; from the side
passage a figure in radiation armor moved out. The suit was self-powered
and needle proof. I sent a concentrated blast at the head, as the figure
awkwardly tottered toward me, ungainly in the multi-gee field. The
needles hit, snapped the head back. The suited figure hesitated, arms
spread, stepped back and fell with a thunderous
crash. I had managed to knock him off balance, maybe stun him.
I struggled to remember where I was in the code sequence; I went on,
keyed the rest. I pushed; nothing. I must have lost count. I started
I heard the armored man coming on again. The needler trick
wouldn’t work twice. I kept working. I had almost completed the
sequence when I felt the powered grip of the suited man on my arm. I
twisted, jammed the needler against his hand, and fired. The arm flew
back, and even through the suit I heard his wrist snap. My own hand was
numb from the recoil. The other arm of the suit swept down and struck my
wounded arm. I staggered away from the door, dazed with the pain.
I side-stepped in time to miss another ponderous blow. Under two and a
half gees, the man in the suit was having a hard time, even with power
assisted controls. I felt that I was fighting a machine instead of a
As he stepped toward me again, I aimed at his foot. A concentrated
stream of needles hit, like a metallic fire hose, knocked the foot
aside, toppled the man again. I staggered back to my door.
But now I realized I couldn’t risk opening it; even if I got in, I
couldn’t keep my suited assailant from crowding in with me.
Already he was up, lurching toward me. I had to draw him away from the
The shuttle sat unmoving. The mob kept its distance. I wondered why no
one was shooting; I guessed they had realized that if I were killed
there would be no way to enter the vital control areas of the ship; they
had to take me alive.
I made it past the clumsy armored man and started down the corridor
toward the shuttle. I moved as slowly as I could while still eluding
him. He lumbered after me. I reached the shuttle; a glance showed no one
alive there. Two men lay across it. I pulled myself onto it and threw in
the forward lever. The shuttle rolled smoothly past the armored man,
striking him a glancing blow that sent him down again. Those falls, in
the multi-gee field, were bone crushing. He didn’t get up.
I reached the door again, rolled off the shuttle, and reached for the
combination. I wished now I’d used a shorter one. I started again;
heard a noise behind me. As I turned, a heavy weight crushed me against
I was held rigid, my chest against the combination key. The pressure was
cracking my ribs and still it increased. I twisted my head, gasping. The
shuttle held me pinned to the door. The man I had assumed out of action
was alive enough to hold the lever down with savage strength. I tried to
shout, to remind him that without me to open the doors, they were
powerless to save the ship. I couldn’t
speak. I tasted blood in my mouth, and tried to breathe. I
couldn’t. I passed out.
I emerged into consciousness to find the pressure gone, but a red haze
of pain remained. I lay on my back and saw men sitting on the floor
A blow from somewhere made my head ring. I tried to sit up. I
couldn’t make it. Then Kramer was beside me, slipping a needle
into my arm. He looked pretty bad himself. His face was bandaged
heavily, and one eye was purple. He spoke in a muffled voice through
stiff jaws. His tone was deliberate.
“This will keep you conscious enough to answer a few
questions,” he said. “Now you’re going to give me the
combinations to the locks so we can call off this suicide run; then
maybe I’ll doctor you up.”
I didn’t answer.
“The time for clamming up is over, you stupid braggard,”
Kramer said. He raised his fist and drove a hard punch into my chest. I
guess it was his shot that kept me conscious. I couldn’t breathe
for a while, until Kramer gave me a few whiffs of oxygen. I wondered if
he was fool enough to think I might give up my ship.
After a while my head cleared a little. I tried to say something. I got
out a couple of croaks, and then found my voice.
“Kramer,” I said.
He leaned over me. “I’m listening,” he said.
“Take me to the lift. Leave me there alone. That’s your only
chance.” It seemed to me like a long speech, but nothing happened.
Kramer went away, came back. He showed me a large scalpel from his
medical kit. “I’m going to start operating on your face.
I’ll make you into a museum freak. Maybe if you start talking soon
enough I’ll change my mind.”
I could see the watch on his wrist. My mind worked very slowly. I had
trouble getting any air into my lungs. We would intercept in one hour
and ten minutes.
It seemed simple to me. I had to get back to the Bridge before we hit. I
tried again. “We only have an hour,” I said.
Kramer lost control. He jabbed the knife at my face, screeching through
gritted teeth. I jerked my head aside far enough that the scalpel grated
along my cheekbone instead of slashing my mouth. I hardly felt it.
“We’re not dying because you were a fool,” Kramer
yelled. “I’ve taken over; I’ve relieved you as unfit
for command. Now open up this ship or I’ll slice you to
ribbons.” He held the scalpel under my nose in a fist trembling
with fury. The chrome plated blade had a thin film of pink on it.
I got my voice going again. “I’m going to destroy the Mancji
ship,” I said. “Take me to the
lift and leave me there.” I tried to add a few words, but had to
stop and work on breathing again for a while. Kramer disappeared.
I realized I was not fully in command of my senses. I was clamped in a
padded claw. I wanted to roll over. I tried hard, and made it. I could
hear Kramer talking, others answering, but it seemed too great an effort
to listen to the words.
I was lying on my face now, head almost against the wall. There was a
black line in front of me, a door. My head cleared a bit. It must have
been Kramer’s shot working on me. I turned my head and saw Kramer
standing now with half a dozen others, all talking at once. Apparently
Kramer’s display of uncontrolled temper had the others worried.
They wanted me alive. Kramer didn’t like anyone criticizing him.
The argument was pretty violent. There was scuffling—and shouts.
I saw that I lay about twenty feet from the lift; too far. The door
before me, if I remembered the ship’s layout, was a utility room,
small and containing nothing but a waste disposal hopper. But it did
have a bolt on the inside, like every other room on the ship.
I didn’t stop to think about it; I started trying to get up. If
I’d thought I would have known that at the first move from me all
seven of them would land on me at once. I concentrated on getting my
hands under me, to push up. I heard a shout, and turning my head, saw
Kramer swinging at someone. I went on with my project.
Hands under my chest, I raised myself a little, and got a knee up. I
felt broken rib ends grating, but felt no pain, just the padded claw.
Then I was weaving on all fours. I looked up, spotted the latch on the
door, and put everything I had into lunging at it. My finger hit it, the
door swung in, and I fell on my face; but I was half in. Another lunge
and I was past the door, kicking it shut as I lay on the floor, reaching
for the lock control. Just as I flipped it with an extended finger,
someone hit the door from outside, a second too late.
It was dark, and I lay on my back on the floor, and felt strange
short-circuited stabs of what would have been agonizing pain running
through my chest and arm. I had a few minutes to rest now, before they
blasted the door open.
I hated to lose like this, not because we were beaten, but because we
were giving up. My poor world, no longer fair and green, had found the
strength to send us out as her last hope. But somewhere out here in the
loneliness and distance we had lost our courage. Success was at our
fingertips, if we could have found it; instead, in panic and madness, we
were destroying ourselves.
My mind wandered; I imagined
myself on the Bridge, half-believed I was there. I was resting on the
OD bunk, and Clay was standing beside me. A long time seemed to pass....
Then I remembered I was on the floor, bleeding internally, in a tiny
room that would soon lose its door. But there was someone standing
I didn’t feel too disappointed at being beaten; I hadn’t
hoped for much more than a breather, anyway. I wondered why this fellow
had abandoned his action station to hide there. The door was still shut.
He must have been there all along, but I hadn’t seen him when I
came in. He stood over me, wearing greasy overalls, and grinned down at
me. He raised his hand. I was getting pretty indifferent to blows; I
couldn’t feel them.
The hand went up, the man straightened and held a fairly snappy salute.
“Sir,” he said. “Space’n first class
I didn’t feel like laughing or cheering or anything else; I just
took it as it came.
“At ease, Thomas,” I managed to say. “Why aren’t
you at your duty station?” I went spinning off somewhere after
Thomas was squatting beside me now. “Cap’n, you’re
hurt, ain’t you? I was wonderin’ why you was down here layin
down in my ’Sposal station.”
“A scratch,” I said. I thought about it for a while. Thomas
was doing something about my chest. This was Thomas’ disposal
station. Thomas owned it. I wondered if a fellow could make a living
with such a small place way out here, with just an occasional tourist
coming by. I wondered why I didn’t send one of them for help; I
needed help for some reason....
“Cap’n, I been overhaulin’ my converter units, I jist
come in. How long you been in here, Cap’n?” Thomas was
worried about something.
I tried hard to think. I hadn’t been here very long; just a few
minutes. I had come here to rest.... Then suddenly I was thinking
Whatever Thomas was, he was apparently on my side, or at least neutral.
He didn’t seem to be aware of the mutiny. I realized that he had
bound my chest tightly with strips of shirt; it felt better.
“What are you doing in here, Thomas?” I asked.
“Don’t you know we’re in action against a hostile
Thomas looked surprised. “This here’s my action station,
Cap’n,” he said. “I’m a Waste Recovery
Technician, First Class, I keep the recovery system
“You just stay in here?” I asked.
“No, sir,” Thomas said. “I check through the whole
system. We got three main disposal points and lots a little ones,
an’ I have to keep everything operatin’. Otherwise this ship
would be in a bad way, Cap’n.”
“How did you get in here?” I
asked. I looked around the small room. There was only one door, and the
gray bulk of the converter unit which broke down wastes into their
component elements for re-use nearly filled the tiny space.
“I come in through the duct, Cap’n,” Thomas said.
“I check the ducts every day. You know, Cap’n,” he
said shaking his head, “they’s some bad laid-out
ductin’ in this here system. If I didn’t keep after it,
you’d be gettin’ clogged ducts all the time. So I jist go
through the system and keep her clear.”
From somewhere, hope began again. “Where do these ducts
lead?” I asked. I wondered how the man could ignore the mutiny
going on around him.
“Well, sir, one leads to the mess; that’s the big one. One
leads to the wardroom, and the other one leads up to the Bridge.”
My God, I thought, the Bridge.
“How big are they?” I asked. “Could I get through
“Oh, sure, Cap’n,” Thomas said. “You can get
through ’em easy. But are you sure you feel like inspectin’
with them busted ribs?”
I was beginning to realize that Thomas was not precisely a genius.
“I can make it,” I said.
“Cap’n,” Thomas said diffidently, “it
ain’t none a my business, but don’t you think maybe I better
get the doctor for ya?”
“Thomas,” I said, “maybe you don’t know;
there’s a mutiny under way aboard this ship. The doctor is leading
it. I want to get to the Bridge in the worst way. Let’s get
Thomas looked very shocked. “Cap’n, you mean you was hurt by
somebody? I mean you didn’t have a fall or nothin’, you was
beat up?” He stared at me with an expression of incredulous
“That’s about the size of it,” I said. I managed to
sit up. Thomas jumped forward and helped me to my feet. Then I saw that
he was crying.
“You can count on me, Cap’n,” he said. “Jist
lemme know who done it, an’ I’ll feed ’em into my
I stood leaning against the wall, waiting for my head to stop spinning.
Breathing was difficult, but if I kept it shallow, I could manage.
Thomas was opening a panel on the side of the converter unit.
“It’s O.K. to go in Cap’n,” he said. “She
The pull of the two and a half gees seemed to bother him very little. I
could barely stand under it, holding on. Thomas saw my wavering step and
jumped to help me. He boosted me into the chamber of the converter and
pointed out an opening near the top, about twelve by twenty-four inches.
“That there one is to the Bridge, Cap’n,” he said.
“If you’ll start in there, sir, I’ll follow up.”
I thrust head and shoulders
into the opening. Inside it was smooth metal, with no handholds. I
clawed at it trying to get farther in. The pain stabbed at my chest.
“Cap’n, they’re workin’ on the door,”
Thomas said. “They already been at it for a little while. We
better get goin’.”
“You’d better give me a push, Thomas,” I said. My
voice echoed hollowly down the duct.
Thomas crowded into the chamber behind me then, lifting my legs and
pushing. I eased into the duct. The pain was not so bad now.
“Cap’n, you gotta use a special kinda crawl to get through
these here ducts,” Thomas said. “You grip your hands
together out in front of ya, and then bend your elbows. When your elbows
jam against the side of the duct, you pull forward.”
I tried it; it was slow, but it worked.
“Cap’n,” Thomas said behind me. “We got about
seven minutes now to get up there. I set the control on the converter to
start up in ten minutes. I think we can make it O.K., and ain’t
nobody else comin’ this way with the converter goin’. I
locked the control panel so they can’t shut her down.”
That news spurred me on. With the converter in operation, the first step
in the cycle was the evacuation of the ducts to a near-perfect vacuum.
When that happened, we would die instantly with ruptured lungs; then our
dead bodies would be sucked into the chamber and broken down into useful
raw materials. I hurried.
I tried to orient myself. The duct paralleled the corridor. It would
continue in that direction for about fifteen feet, and would then turn
upward, since the Bridge was some fifteen feet above this level. I
hitched along, and felt the duct begin to trend upward.
“You’ll have to get on your back here, Cap’n,”
Thomas said. “She widens out on the turn.”
I managed to twist over. Thomas was helping me by pushing at my feet. As
I reached a near-vertical position, I felt a metal rod under my hand.
That was a relief; I had been expecting to have to go up the last
stretch the way a mountain climber does a rock chimney, back against one
wall and feet against the other.
I hauled at the rod, and found another with my other hand. Below, Thomas
boosted me. I groped up and got another, then another. The remaining
slight slant of the duct helped. Finally my feet were on the rods. I
clung, panting. The heat in the duct was terrific. Then I went on up.
That was some shot Kramer had given me.
Above I could see the end of the duct faintly in the light coming up
through the open chamber door from the utility room. I remembered the
location of the disposal slot on the Bridge now; it had been installed
in the small
apartment containing a bunk and a tiny galley for the use of the Duty
Officer during long watches on the Bridge.
I reached the top of the duct and pushed against the slot cover. It
swung out easily. I could see the end of the chart table, and beyond,
the dead radar screen. I reached through and heaved myself partly out. I
nearly fainted at the stab from my ribs as my weight went on my chest.
My head sang. The light from below suddenly went out. I heard a muffled
clank; then a hum began, echoing up the duct.
“She’s closed and started cyclin’ the air out,
Cap’n,” Thomas said calmly. “We got about half a
I clamped my teeth together and heaved again. Below me Thomas waited
quietly. He couldn’t help me now. I got my hands flat against the
bulkhead and thrust. The air was whistling around my face. Papers began
to swirl off the chart table. I twisted my body frantically, kicking
loose from the grip of the slot, fighting the sucking pull of air. I
fell to the floor inside the room, the slot cover slamming behind me. I
staggered to my feet. I pried at the cover, but I couldn’t open it
against the vacuum. Then it budged, and Thomas’ hand came through.
The metal edge cut into it, blood started, but the cover was held open
half an inch. I reached the chart table, almost falling over my leaden
feet, seized a short permal T-square, and levered the cover up. Once
started, it went up easily. Thomas face appeared, drawn and pale, eyes
closed against the dust being whirled into his face. He got his arms
through, heaved himself a little higher. I seized his arm and pulled. He
I knocked the T-square out of the way and the cover snapped down. Then I
slid to the floor, not exactly out, but needing a break pretty bad.
Thomas brought bedding from the OD bunk and made me comfortable on the
“Thomas,” I said, “when I think of what the security
inspectors who approved the plans for this arrangement are going to say
when I call this little back door to their attention, it almost makes it
worth the trouble.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. He sprawled on the deck and looked
around the Bridge, staring at the unfamiliar screens, indicator dials,
From where I lay, I could see the direct vision screen. I wasn’t
sure, but I thought the small bright object in the center of it might be
our target. Thomas looked at the dead radar screen, then said,
“Cap’n, that there radarscope out of action?”
“It sure is, Thomas,” I said. “Our unknown friends
blew the works before they left us.” I was surprised that he
recognized a radarscope.
“Mind if I take a look at it, Cap’n?” he said.
“Go ahead,” I replied. I tried to explain the situation to
Thomas. The elapsed time since we had started our pursuit was two hours
and ten minutes; I wanted to close to no more than a twenty mile gap
before launching my missiles; and I had better alert my interceptor
missiles in case the Mancji hit first.
Thomas had the cover off the radar panel and was probing around. He
pulled a blackened card out of the interior of the panel.
“Looks like they overloaded the fuse,” Thomas said.
“Got any spares, Cap’n?”
“Right beside you in the cabinet,” I said. “How do you
know your way around a radar set, Thomas?”
Thomas grinned. “I useta be a radar technician third before I got
inta waste disposal,” he said. “I had to change specialities
to sign on for this cruise.”
I had an idea there’d be an opening for Thomas a little higher up
when this was over.
I asked him to take a look at the televideo, too. I was beginning to
realize that Thomas was not really simple; he was merely uncomplicated.
“Tubes blowed here, Cap’n,” he reported. “Like
as if you was to set her up to high mag right near a sun; she was
overloaded. I can fix her easy if we got the spares.”
I didn’t take time to try to figure that one out. I could feel the
dizziness coming on again.
“Thomas,” I called, “let me know when we’re at
twenty miles from target.” I wanted to tell him more, but I could
feel consciousness draining away. “Then ...” I managed,
“first aid kit ... shot....”
I could still hear Thomas. I was flying away, whirling, but I could hear
his voice. “Cap’n, I could fire your missiles now, if you
was to want me to,” he was saying. I struggled to speak.
“No. Wait.” I hoped he heard me.
I floated a long time in a strange state between coma and consciousness.
The stuff Kramer had given me was potent. It kept my mind fairly clear
even when my senses were out of action. I thought about the situation
aboard my ship.
I wondered what Kramer and his men were planning now, how they felt
about having let me slip through their fingers. The only thing they
could try now was blasting their way into the Bridge. They’d never
make it. The designers of these ships were not unaware of the hazards of
space life; the Bridge was an unassailable fortress. They couldn’t
possibly get to it.
I guessed that Kramer was having a pretty rough time of it now. He had
convinced the men that we were rushing headlong to sure destruction at
the hands of the all-powerful Mancji, and that their Captain was a fool.
Now he was trapped with them in the panic he had helped to create. I
thought that in all
probability they had torn him apart.
I wavered in and out of consciousness. It was just as well; I needed the
rest. Then I heard Thomas calling me. “We’re closin’
now, Cap’n,” he said. “Wake up, Cap’n, only
twenty-three miles now.”
“Okay,” I said. My body had been preparing itself for this,
now it was ready again. I felt the needle in my arm. That helped, too.
“Hand me the intercom, Thomas,” I said. He placed the mike
in my hand. I keyed for a general announcement.
“This is the Captain,” I said. I tried to keep my voice as
steady as possible. “We are now at a distance of twenty-one miles
from the enemy. Stand by for missile launching and possible evasive
action. Damage control crews on the alert.” I paused for breath.
“Now we’re going to take out the Mancji ship, men,” I
said. “All two miles of it.”
I dropped the mike and groped for the firing key. Thomas handed it to
“Cap’n,” he said, bending over me. “I notice you
got the selector set for your chemical warheads. You wouldn’t want
me to set up pluto heads for ya, would ya, Cap’n?”
“No, thanks, Thomas,” I said. “Chemical is what I
want. Stand by to observe.” I pressed the firing key.
Thomas was at the radarscope. “Missiles away, Cap’n.
Trackin’ O.K. Looks like they’ll take out the left half a
I found the mike again. “Missiles homing on target,” I said.
“Strike in thirty-five seconds. You’ll be interested to know
we’re employing chemical warheads. So far there is no sign of
offense or defense from the enemy.” I figured the news would shock
a few mutineers. David wasn’t even using his slingshot on Goliath.
He was going after him bare-handed. I wanted to scare some kind of
response out of them. I needed a few clues as to what was going on
I got it. Joyce’s voice came from the wall annunciator.
“Captain, this is Lt. Joyce reporting.” He sounded scared
all the way through, and desperate. “Sir, the mutiny has been
successfully suppressed by the loyal members of the crew. Major Kramer
is under arrest. We’re prepared to go on with the search for the
Omega Colony. But Sir ...” he paused, gulping. “We ask you
to change course now before launching any effective attack. We still
have a chance. Maybe they won’t bother with us when those
firecrackers go off ...”
I watched the direct vision screen. Zero second closed in. And on the
screen the face of the left hand disk of the Mancji ship was lit
momentarily by a brilliant spark of yellow, then another. A
discoloration showed dimly against the dark metallic surface. It spread,
and a faint vapor formed over it. Now tiny
specs could be seen moving away from the ship. The disk elongated, with
infinite leisure, widening.
“What’s happenin’? Cap’n?” Thomas asked.
He was staring at the scope in fascination. “They launchin’
scouts, or what?”
“Take a look here, Thomas,” I said. “The ship is
The disk was an impossibly long ellipse now, surrounded by a vast array
of smaller bodies, fragments and contents of the ship. Now the stricken
globe moved completely free of its companion. It rotated, presenting a
crescent toward us, then wheeled farther as it receded from its twin,
showing its elongation. The sphere had split wide open. Now the
shattered half itself separated into two halves, and these in turn
crumbled, strewing debris in a widening spiral.
“My God, Cap’n,” Thomas said in awe.
“That’s the greatest display I ever seen. And all it took to
set her off was 200 kilos a PBL. Now that’s
I keyed the mike again. “This is the Captain,” I said.
“I want ten four-man patrols ready to go out in fifteen minutes.
The enemy ship has been put out of action and is now in a derelict
condition. I want only one thing from her; one live prisoner. All
Section chiefs report to me on the Bridge on the triple.”
“Thomas,” I said, “go down in the lift and open up for
the Chiefs. Here’s the release key for the combination; you know
how to operate it?”
“Sure, Cap’n; but are you sure you want to let them boys in
here after the way they jumped you an’ all?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but he beat me to it. “Fergit I asked
ya that, Cap’n, pleasir. You ain’t been wrong yet.”
“It’s O.K., Thomas,” I said. “There won’t
be any more trouble.”
On the eve of the twentieth of
Reunion Day, a throng of well-heeled celebrants filled the dining room
and overflowed onto the terraces of the Star Tower Dining Room, from
whose 5,700 foot height above the beaches, the Florida Keys, a hundred
miles to the south, were visible on clear days.
The Era reporter stood beside the vast glass entry way surveying the
crowd, searching for celebrities from whom he might elicit bits of color
to spice the day’s transmission.
At the far side of the room, surrounded by chattering admirers, stood
the Ambassador from the New Terran Federation; a portly, graying, jolly
ex-Naval officer. A minor actress passed at close range, looking the
other way. A cabinet member stood at the bar talking earnestly to a ball
player, ignoring a group of hopeful reporters and fans.
The Era stringer, an experienced
hand, passed over the hard pressed VIP’s near the center of the
room and started a face-by-face check of the less gregarious diners
seated at obscure tables along the sides of the room.
He was in luck; the straight-backed gray-haired figure in the dark
civilian suit, sitting alone at a tiny table in an alcove, caught his
eye. He moved closer, straining for a clear glimpse through the crowd.
Then he was sure. He had the biggest possible catch of the day in his
sights; Admiral of Fleets Frederick Greylorn.
The reporter hesitated; he was well aware of the Admiral’s
reputation for near-absolute silence on the subject of his already
legendary cruise, the fabulous voyage of the Galahad. He
couldn’t just barge in on the Admiral and demand answers, as was
usual with publicity-hungry politicians and show people. He could score
the biggest story of the century today; but he had to hit him right.
You couldn’t hope to snow a man like the Admiral; he wasn’t
somebody you could push around. You could sense the solid iron of him
Nobody else had noticed the solitary diner. The Era man drifted
closer, moving unhurriedly, thinking furiously. It was no good trying
some tricky approach; his best bet was the straight-from-the-shoulder
bit. No point in hesitating. He stopped beside the table.
The Admiral was looking out across the Gulf. He turned and glanced up at
The news man looked him squarely in the eye. “I’m a
reporter, Admiral,” he said. “Will you talk to me?”
The Admiral nodded to the seat across from him. “Sit down,”
he said. He glanced around the room.
The reporter caught the look. “I’ll keep it light,
sir,” he said. “I don’t want company either.”
That was being frank.
“You want the answers to some questions, don’t you?”
the Admiral said.
“Why, yes, sir,” the reporter said. He started to
inconspicuously key his pocket recorder, but caught himself. “May
I record your remarks, Admiral?” he said. Frankness all the way.
“Go ahead,” said the Admiral.
“Now, Admiral,” the reporter began, “the Terran public
has of course ...”
“Never mind the patter, son,” the Admiral said mildly.
“I know what the questions are. I’ve read all the memoirs of
the crew. They’ve been coming out at the rate of about two a year
for some time now. I had my own reasons for not wanting to add anything
to my official statement.”
The Admiral poured wine into his glass. “Excuse me,” he
said. “Will you join me?” He signalled the waiter.
“Another wine glass, please,” he said. He looked at the
wine in the glass, held it up to the light. “You know, the
Florida wines are as good as any in the world,” he said.
“That’s not to say the California and Ohio wines
aren’t good. But this Flora Pinellas is a genuine original, not an
imitation Rhine; and it compares favorably with the best of the old
vintages, particularly the ’87.”
The glass arrived and the waiter poured. The reporter had the wit to
“The first question is usually, how did I know I could take the
Mancji ship. After all, it was big, vast. It loomed over us like a
mountain. The Mancji themselves weighed almost two tons each; they liked
six gee gravity. They blasted our communication off the air, just for
practice. They talked big, too. We were invaders in their territory.
They were amused by us. So where did I get the notion that our attack
would be anything more than a joke to them? That’s the big
question.” The Admiral shook his head.
“The answer is quite simple. In the first place, they were pulling
six gees by using a primitive dumbbell configuration. The only reason
for that type of layout, as students of early space vessel design can
tell you, is to simplify setting up a gee field effect using centrifugal
force. So they obviously had no gravity field generators.
“Then their transmission was crude. All they had was simple
old-fashioned short-range radio, and even that was noisy and erratic.
And their reception was as bad. We had to use a kilowatt before they
could pick it up at 200 miles. We didn’t know then it was all
organically generated; that they had no equipment.”
The Admiral sipped his wine, frowning at the recollection. “I was
pretty sure they were bluffing when I changed course and started after
them. I had to hold our acceleration down to two and a half gees because
I had to be able to move around the ship. And at that acceleration we
gained on them. They couldn’t beat us. And it wasn’t because
they couldn’t take high gees; they liked six for comfort, you
remember. No, they just didn’t have the power.”
The Admiral looked out the window.
“Add to that the fact that they apparently couldn’t generate
ordinary electric current. I admit that none of this was conclusive, but
after all, if I was wrong we were sunk anyway. When Thomas told me the
nature of the damage to our radar and communications systems, that was
another hint. Their big display of Mancji power was just a blast of
radiation right across the communication spectrum; it burned tubes and
blew fuses; nothing else. We were back in operation an hour after our
“The evidence was there to see, but there’s something about
giant size that gets people rattled. Size alone doesn’t mean a
thing. It’s rather like the bluff the Soviets ran on the rest of
the world for a couple of decades back in the war era, just because they
sprawled across half the globe. They were a giant, though it was mostly
frozen desert. When the showdown came they didn’t have it. They
were a pushover.
“All right, the next question is why did I choose H. E. instead of
going in with everything I had? That’s easy, too. What I wanted
was information, not revenge. I still had the heavy stuff in reserve and
ready to go if I needed it, but first I had to try to take them alive.
Vaporizing them wouldn’t have helped our position. And I was
lucky; it worked.
“The, ah, confusion below evaporated as soon as the Section chiefs
got a look at the screens and realized that we had actually knocked out
the Mancji. We matched speeds with the wreckage and the patrols went out
to look for a piece of ship with a survivor in it. If we’d had no
luck we would have tackled the other half of the ship, which was still
intact and moving off fast. But we got quite a shock when we found the
nature of the wreckage.” The Admiral grinned.
“Of course today everybody knows all about the Mancji hive
intelligence, and their evolutionary history. But we were pretty
startled to find that the only wreckage consisted of the Mancji
themselves, each two-ton slug in his own hard chitin shell. Of course, a
lot of the cells were ruptured by the explosions, but most of them had
simply disassociated from the hive mass as it broke up. So there was no
ship; just a cluster of cells like a giant bee hive, and mixed up among
the slugs, the damnedest collection of loot you can imagine. The odds
and ends they’d stolen and tucked away in the hive during a couple
hundred years of camp-following.
“The patrols brought a couple of cells alongside, and Mannion went
out to try to establish contact. Sure enough, he got a very faint
transmission, on the same bands as before. The cells were talking to
each other in their own language. They ignored Mannion even though his
transmission must have blanketed everything within several hundred
miles. We eventually brought one of them into the cargo lock and started
trying different wave-lengths on it. Then Kramer had the idea of
planting a couple of electrodes and shooting a little juice to it. Of
course, it loved the DC, but as soon as we tried AC, it gave up. So we
had a long talk with it and found out everything we needed to know.
“It was a four-week run to the nearest outpost planet of the New
Terran Federation, and they took me on to New Terra aboard one of their
vessels. The rest you know. We, the home planet, were as lost to the
New Terrans as they were to us. They greeted us as though we were their
own ancestors come back to visit them.
“Most of my crew, for personal reasons, were released from duty
there, and settled down to stay.
“The clean-up job here on Earth was a minor operation to their
Navy. As I recall, the trip back was made in a little over five months,
and the Red Tide was killed within four weeks of the day the task force
arrived. I don’t think they wasted a motion. One explosive charge
per cell, of just sufficient size to disrupt the nucleus. When the
critical number of cells had been killed, the rest died overnight.
“It was quite a different Earth that emerged from under the
plague, though. You know it had taken over all of the land area except
North America and a strip of Western Europe, and all of the sea it
wanted. It was particularly concentrated over what had been the jungle
areas of South America, Africa, and Asia. You must realize that in the
days before the Tide, those areas were almost completely uninhabitable.
You have no idea what the term Jungle really implied. When the Tide
died, it disintegrated into its component molecules; and the result was
that all those vast fertile Jungle lands were now beautifully levelled
and completely cleared areas covered with up to twenty feet of the
richest topsoil imaginable. That was what made it possible for old Terra
to become what she is today; the Federation’s truck farm, and the
sole source of those genuine original Terran foods that all the rest of
the worlds pay such fabulous prices for.
“Strange how quickly we forget. Few people today remember how we
loathed and feared the Tide when we were fighting it. Now it’s
dismissed as a blessing in disguise.”
The Admiral paused. “Well,” he said, “I think that
answers the questions and gives you a bit of homespun philosophy to go
“Admiral,” said the reporter, “you’ve given the
public some facts it’s waited a long time to hear. Coming from
you, sir, this is the greatest story that could have come out of this
Reunion Day celebration. But there is one question more, if I may ask
it. Can you tell me, Admiral, just how it was that you rejected what
seemed to be prima facie proof of the story the Mancji told; that they
were the lords of creation out there, and that humanity was nothing but
a tame food animal to them?”
The Admiral sighed. “I guess it’s a good question,” he
said. “But there was nothing supernatural about my figuring that
one. I didn’t suspect the full truth, of course. It never occurred
to me that we were the victims of the now well-known
but still inexplicable sense of humor of the Mancji, or that they were
nothing but scavengers around the edges of the Federation. The original
Omega ship had met them and seen right through them.
“Well, when this hive spotted us coming in, they knew enough about
New Terra to realize at once that we were strangers, coming from outside
the area. It appealed to their sense of humor to have the gall to strut
right out in front of us and try to put over a swindle. What a laugh for
the oyster kingdom if they could sell Terrans on the idea that they were
the master race. It never occurred to them that we might be anything but
Terrans; Terrans who didn’t know the Mancji. And they were canny
enough to use an old form of Interlingua; somewhere they’d met men
“Then we needed food. They knew what we ate, and that was where
they went too far. They had, among the flotsam in their hive, a few
human bodies they had picked up from some wreck they’d come across
in their travels. They had them stashed away like everything else they
could lay a pseudopod on. So they stacked them the way they’d seen
Terran frozen foods shipped in the past, and sent them over. Another of
their little jokes.
“I suppose if you’re already overwrought and eager to quit,
and you’ve been badly scared by the size of an alien ship,
it’s pretty understandable that the sight of human bodies, along
with the story that they’re just a convenient food supply, might
seem pretty convincing. But I was already pretty dubious about the
genuineness of our pals, and when I saw those bodies it was pretty plain
that we were hot on the trail of Omega Colony. There was no other place
humans could have come from out there. We had to find out the location
from the Mancji.”
“But, Admiral,” said the reporter, “true enough they
were humans, and presumably had some connection with the colony, but
they were naked corpses stacked like cordwood. The Mancji had stated
that these were slaves, or rather domesticated animals; they
wouldn’t have done you any good.”
“Well, you see, I didn’t believe that,” the Admiral
said. “Because it was an obvious lie. I tried to show some of the
officers, but I’m afraid they weren’t being too rational
“I went into the locker and examined those bodies; if Kramer had
looked closely, he would have seen what I did. These were no tame
animals. They were civilized men.”
“How could you be sure, Admiral? They had no clothing, no
identifying marks, nothing. Why didn’t you believe they were
“Because,” said the Admiral, “all the men had nice
Transcriber’s Note This etext was produced from “Amazing Science Fiction
Stories” April 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any
evidence that the U. S. copyright on this publication was renewed.