A Question of Courage
by Jesse Franklin Bone
This etext was produced from Amazing Stories December
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed.
By J. F. BONE
Illustrated by FINLAY
I smelled the trouble the moment I stepped on
the lift and took the long ride up the side of
the Lachesis. There was something wrong. I
couldn't put my finger on it but
five years in the Navy gives a man a feeling for these things. From
the outside the ship was beautiful, a gleaming shaft of duralloy,
polished until she shone. Her paint and brightwork glistened. The
antiradiation shields on the gun turrets and launchers were folded back
exactly according to regulations. The shore uniform of the liftman was
spotless and he stood at his station precisely as he should. As the
lift moved slowly up past no-man's country to the life section, I noted
a work party hanging precariously from a scaffolding smoothing out
meteorite pits in the gleaming hull, while on the catwalk of the gantry
standing beside the main cargo hatch a steady stream of supplies
disappeared into the ship's belly.
I returned the crisp salutes of the white-gloved sideboys, saluted
the colors, and shook hands with an immaculate ensign with an O.D.
badge on his tunic.
Glad to have you aboard, sir, the ensign said.
I'm Marsden, I said. Lieutenant Thomas Marsden. I have orders
posting me to this ship as Executive.
Yes, sir. We have been expecting you. I'm Ensign Halloran.
Glad to meet you, Halloran.
Skipper's orders, sir. You are to report to him as soon as you come
Then I got it. Everything was SOP. The ship wasn't taut, she was
tight! And she wasn't happy. There was none of the devil-may-care
spirit that marks crews in the Scouting Force and separates them from
the stodgy mass of the Line. Every face I saw on my trip to the
skipper's cabin was blank, hard-eyed, and unsmiling. There was none of
the human noise that normally echoes through a ship, no laughter, no
clatter of equipment, no deviations from the order and precision so
dear to admirals' hearts. This crew was G.I. right down to the last
seam tab on their uniforms. Whoever the skipper was, he was either
bucking for another cluster or a cold-feeling automaton to whom the
Navy Code was father, mother, and Bible.
The O.D. stopped before the closed door, executed a mechanical right
face, knocked the prescribed three times and opened the door smartly on
the heels of the word Come that erupted from the inside. I stepped in
followed by the O.D.
Commander Chase, the O.D. said. Lieutenant Marsden.
Chase! Not Cautious Charley Chase! I could hardly look at the man
behind the command desk. But look I didand my heart did a ninety
degree dive straight to the thick soles of my space boots. No wonder
this ship was sour. What else could happen with Lieutenant Commander
Charles Augustus Chase in command! He was three classes up on me, but
even though he was a First Classman at the time I crawled out of Beast
Barracks, I knew him well. Every Midshipman in the Academy knew
himRule-Book CharleyBy-The-Numbers Chasehis nicknames were legion
and not one of them was friendly. Lieutenant Thomas Marsden reporting
for duty, I said.
He looked at the O.D. That'll be all, Mr. Halloran, he said.
Aye, sir, Halloran said woodenly. He stepped backward, saluted,
executed a precise about face and closed the hatch softly behind him.
* * * * *
Sit down, Marsden, Chase said. Have a cigarette.
He didn't say, Glad to have you aboard. But other than that he was
Navy right down to the last parenthesis. His voice was the same dry
schoolmaster's voice I remembered from the Academy. And his face was
the same dry gray with the same fishy blue eyes and rat trap jaw. His
hair was thinner, but other than that he hadn't changed. Neither the
war nor the responsibilities of command appeared to have left their
mark upon him. He was still the same lean, undersized square-shouldered
blob of nastiness.
I took the cigarette, sat down, puffed it into a glow, and looked
around the drab 6 x 8 foot cubicle called the Captain's cabin by ship
designers who must have laughed as they laid out the plans. It had
about the room of a good-sized coffin. A copy of the Navy Code was
lying on the desk. Chase had obviously been reading his bible.
You are three minutes late, Marsden, Chase said. Your orders
direct you to report at 0900. Do you have any explanation?
No, sir, I said.
Don't let it happen again. On this ship we are prompt.
Aye, sir, I muttered.
He smiled, a thin quirk of thin lips. Now let me outline your
duties, Marsden. You are posted to my ship as Executive Officer. An
Executive Officer is the Captain's right hand.
So I have heard, I said drily.
Belay that, Mr. Marsden. I do not appreciate humor during duty
You wouldn't, I thought.
As I was saying, Marsden, Executive Officer, you will be
responsible for He went on and on, covering the Codechapter, book
and verse on the duties of an Executive Officer. It made no difference
that I had been Exec under Andy Royce, the skipper of the Clotho, the
ship with the biggest confirmed kill in the entire Fleet Scouting
Force. I was still a new Exec, and the book said I must be briefed on
my duties. So briefed I wasfor a solid hour.
Feeling angry and tired, I finally managed to get away from Rule
Book Charley and find my quarters which I shared with the Engineer. I
knew him casually, a glum reservist named Allyn. I had wondered why he
always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. Now I knew.
He was lying in his shock-couch as I came in. Welcome, sucker, he
greeted me. Glad to have you aboard.
The feeling's not mutual, I snapped.
What's the matter? Has the Lieutenant Commander been rolling you
out on the red carpet?
You could call it that, I said. I've just been told the duties of
an Exec. Funnyno?
He shook his head. Not funny. I feel for you. He told me how to be
an engineer six months ago. Allyn's thin face looked glummer than
Did I ever tell you about our skipcaptain? Allyn went on. Or do
I have to tell you? I see you're wearing an Academy ring.
You can't tell me much I haven't already heard, I said coldly. I
don't like wardroom gossips as a matter of policy. A few disgruntled
men on a ship can shoot morale to hell, and on a ship this size the
Exec is the morale officer. But I was torn between two desires. I
wanted Allyn to go on, but I didn't want to hear what Allyn had to say.
I was like the proverbial hungry mule standing halfway between two
haystacks of equal size and attractiveness. And like the mule I would
stand there turning my head one way and the other until I starved to
But Allyn solved my problem for me. You haven't heard this,
he said bitterly. The whole crew applied for transfer when we came
back to base after our last cruise. Of course, they didn't get it, but
you get the idea. Us reservists and draftees get about the same
consideration as the Admiral's dogNo! dammit!Less than the dog.
They wouldn't let a mangy cur ship out with Gutless Gus.
Gutless Gus! that was a new one. I wondered how Chase had managed to
acquire that sobriquet.
* * * * *
It was on our last patrol, Allyn went on, answering my question
before I asked it. We were out at maximum radius when the detectors
showed a disturbance in normal space. Chase ordered us down from Cth
for a quick lookand so help me, God, we broke out right in the middle
of a Rebel supply convoybig, fat, sitting ducks all around us. We got
off about twenty Mark VII torpedoes before Chase passed the word to
change over. We scooted back into Cth so fast we hardly knew we were
gone. And then he raises hell with Detector section for not identifying
every class of ship in that convoy!
And when Bancroft, that's the Exec whom you've relieved, asked for
a quick check to confirm our kills, Chase sat on him like a ton of
brick. 'I'm not interested in how many poor devils we blew apart back
there,' our Captain says. 'Our mission is to scout, to obtain
information about enemy movements and get that information back to
Base. We cannot transmit information from a vaporized ship, and that
convoy had a naval escort. Our mission cannot be jeopardized merely to
satisfy morbid curiosity. Request denied. And, Mr. Bancroft, have
Communications contact Fleet. This information should be in as soon as
possible.' And then he turned away leaving Bancroft biting his
fingernails. He wouldn't even push out a probescooted right back into
the blue where we'd be safe!
You know, we haven't had one confirmed kill posted on the list
since we've been in space. It's getting so we don't want to come in any
more. Like the timethe 'Atropos' came in just after we touched down.
She was batteredlooked like she'd been through a meat grinder, but
she had ten confirmed and six probable, and four of them were escorts!
Hell! Our boys couldn't hold their heads up. The 'Lachesis' didn't have
a mark on her and all we had was a few possible hits. You know how it
goessomeone asks where you're from. You say the 'Lachesis' and they
say 'Oh, yes, the cruise ship.' And that's that. It's so true you don't
even feel like resenting it.
I didn't like the bitter note in Allyn's voice. He was a reservist,
which made it all the worse. Reservists have ten times the outside
contacts we regulars do. In general when a regular and reservist
tangle, the Academy men close ranks like musk-oxen and meet the
challenge with an unbroken ring of horns. But somehow I didn't feel
like ringing up.
I kept hoping there was another side to the story. I'd check around
and find out as soon as I got settled. And if there was another side, I
was going to take Allyn apart as a malicious trouble-maker. I felt sick
to my stomach.
* * * * *
We spent the next three days taking on stores and munitions, and I
was too busy supervising the stowage and checking manifests to bother
about running down Allyn's story. I met the other officersLt. Pollard
the gunnery officer, Ensign Esterhazy the astrogator, and Ensign
Blakiston. Nice enough guys, but all wearing that cowed, frustrated
look that seemed to be a Lachesis trademark. Chase, meanwhile, was up
in Flag Officer's Country picking up the dope on our next mission. I
hoped that Allyn was wrong but the evidence all seemed to be in his
favor. Even more than the officers, the crew was a mess underneath
their clean uniforms. From Communications Chief CPO Haskins to Spaceman
Zelinski there was about as much spirit in them as you'd find in a
punishment detail polishing brightwork in Base Headquarters. I'm a
cheerful soul, and usually I find no trouble getting along with a new
command, but this one was different. They were efficient enough, but
one could see that their hearts weren't in their work. Most crews
preparing to go out are nervous and high tempered. There was none of
that here. The men went through the motions with a mechanical
indifference that was frightening. I had the feeling that they didn't
give a damn whether they went or notor came back or not. The
indifference was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Yet there was
nothing you could put your hand on. You can't touch people who don't
Four hours after Chase came back, we lifted gravs from Earth. Chase
was sitting in the control chair, and to give him credit, we lifted as
smooth as a silk scarf slipping through the fingers of a pretty woman.
We hypered at eight miles and swept up through the monochromes of Cth
until we hit middle blue, when Chase slipped off the helmet, unfastened
his webbing, and stood up.
Take over, Mr. Marsden, he said. Lay a course for Parth.
Aye, sir, I replied, slipping into the chair and fastening the
web. I slipped the helmet on my head and instantly I was a part of the
ship. It's a strange feeling, this synthesis of man and metal that
makes a fighting ship the metallic extension of the Commander's will. I
was conscious of every man on duty. What they saw I saw, what they
heard I heard, through the magic of modern electronics. The only thing
missing was that I couldn't feel what they felt, which perhaps was a
mercy considering the condition of the crew. Using the sensor circuits
in the command helmet, I let my perception roam through the ship,
checking the engines, the gun crews, the navigation board, the
galleyall the manifold stations of a fighting ship. Everything was
secure, the ship was clean and trimmed, the generators were producing
their megawatts of power without a hitch, and the converters were
humming contentedly, keeping us in the blue as our speed built to
I checked the course, noted it was true, set the controls on standby
and relaxed, half dozing in the chair as Lume after Lume dropped astern
with monotonous regularity.
An hour passed and Halloran came up to relieve me. With a sigh of
relief I surrendered the chair and headset. The unconscious strain of
being in rapport with ship and crew didn't hit me until I was out of
the chair. But when it did, I felt like something was crushing me flat.
Not that I didn't expect it, but the Lachesis was worse than the
Clotho had ever been.
I had barely hit my couch when General Quarters sounded. I smothered
a curse as I pounded up the companionway to my station at the bridge.
Chase was there, stopwatch in hand, counting the seconds.
Set! Halloran barked.
Fourteen seconds, Chase said. Not bad. Tell the crew well done.
He put the watch in his pocket and walked away.
I picked up the annunciator mike and pushed the button. Skipper
says well done, I said.
He got ten seconds out of us once last trip, Halloran said. And
he's been trying to repeat that fluke ever since. Bet you a munit to an
'F' ration that he'll be down with the section chief trying to shave
off another second or two. Hey!what's thatoh ... He looked at me.
Disturbance in Cth yellow, straight downshall we go?
Stop ship, I ordered. Sound general quarters. There was no
deceleration. We merely swapped ends as the alarm sounded, applied full
power and stopped. That was the advantage of Cthno inertia. We
backtracked for three seconds and held in middle blue.
* * * * *
What's going on? Chase demanded as he came up from below. His eyes
raked the instruments. Why are we stopped?
Disturbance in Cth yellow, sir, I said. We're positioned above
Very good, Mr. Marsden. He took the spare helmet from the Exec's
chair, clapped it on, fiddled with the controls for a moment, nodded,
and took the helmet off. Secure and resume course, he said. That's
the 'Amphitrite'fleet supply and maintenance. One of our people.
You sure, sir? I asked, and then looked at the smug grin on
Halloran's face and wished I hadn't asked.
Of course, Chase said. She's a three converter job running at
full output. Since the Rebels have no three converter ships, she has to
be one of ours. And since she's running at full output and only in Cth
yellow, it means she's big, heavy, and awkwardwhich means a
maintenance or an ammunition supply ship. There's an off phase beat in
her number two converter that gives a twenty cycle pulse to her
pattern. And the only heavy ship in the fleet with this pattern is
'Amphitrite.' You see?
I sawwith respect. You know all the heavies like that, sir? I
Not all of thembut I'd like to. It's as much a part of a
scoutship commander's work to know our own ships as those of the
Could that trace be a Rebel ruse?
Not likelytravelling in the yellow. A ship would be cold meat
this far inside our perimeter. And besides, there's no Rebel alive who
can tune a converter like a Navy mechanic.
You sure? I persisted.
I'm sure. But take her down if you wish.
I did. And it was the Amphitrite.
I served on her for six months, Chase said drily as we went back
through the components. I understood his certainty now. A man has a
feeling for ships if he's a good officer. But it was a trait I'd never
expected in Chase. I gave the orders and we resumed our band and speed.
Chase looked at me.
You acted correctly, Mr. Marsden, he said. Something I would
hardly expect, but something I was glad to see.
I served under Andy Royce, I reminded him.
I know, Chase replied. That's why I'm surprised. He turned away
before I could think of an answer that would combine insolence and
respect for his rank. Keep her on course, Mr. Halloran, he tossed
over his shoulder as he went out.
We kept on coursehigh and hard despite a couple of disturbances
that lumbered by underneath us. Once I made a motion to stop ship and
check, but Halloran shook his head.
Don't do it, sir, he warned.
You heard the Captain's orders. He's a heller for having them
obeyed. Besides, they might be Rebsand we might get hurt shooting at
them. We'll just report their position and approximate courseand keep
on travelling. Haskins is on the Dirac right now. Halloran's voice was
I didn't like the sound of it, and said so.
Well, sirwe won't lose them entirely, Halloran said
comfortingly. Some cruiser will investigate them. Chances are they're
ours anywayand if they aren't there's no sense in us risking our nice
shiny skin stopping themeven though we could take them like Lundy
took Koromaja. Since the book doesn't say we have to investigate, we
won't. His voice was bitter again.
At 0840 hours on the fourth day out, my annunciator buzzed. Sir,
the talker's voice came over the intercom, Lieutenants Marsden and
Allyn are wanted in the Captain's quarters.
* * * * *
Chase was theretoying with the seals of a thin, brown envelope. I
have to open this in the presence of at least two officers, he said
nodding at Allyn who came in behind me. You two are senior on the ship
and have the first right to know. He slid a finger through the flap.
Effective 12, Eightmonth, GY2964, he read, USN 'Lachesis' will
proceed on offensive mission against enemy vessels as part of advance
covering screen Fleet Four for major effort against enemy via sectors
YD 274, YD 275, and YD 276. Entire Scouting Force IV quadrant will be
grouped as Fleet Four Screen Unit under command Rear Admiral SIMMS.
Initial station 'Lachesis' coordinates X 06042 Y 1327 Betelgeuse-Rigel
baseline. ETA Rendezvous point 0830 plus or minus 30, 13/8/64.
A. Evars, Fleet Admiral USN Commanding.
There it was! I could see Allyn stiffen as a peculiar sick look
crossed Chase's dry face. And suddenly I heard all the ugly little
nicknamesSubspace Chase, Gutless Gus, Cautious Charleyand the dozen
others. For Chase was afraid. It was so obvious that not even the gray
mask of his face could cover it.
Yet his voice when he spoke was the same dry, pedantic voice of old.
You have the rendezvous point, Mr. Marsden. Have Mr. Esterhazy set the
course and speed to arrive on time. He dismissed us with the
traditional That's all, gentlemen, and we went out separate ways. I
didn't want to look at the triumphant smile on Allyn's face.
We hit rendezvous at 0850, picked up a message from the Admiral at
0853, and at 0855 were on our way. We were part of a broad
hemispherical screen surrounding the Cruiser Force which englobed the
Line and supply trainthe heavies that are the backbone of any fleet.
We were headed roughly in the direction of the Rebel's fourth sector,
the one top-heavy with metals industries. Our exact course was known
only to the brass and the computers that planned our interlock. But
where we were headed wasn't important. The Lachesis was finally going
to war! I could feel the change in the crew, the nervousness, the
anticipation, the adrenal responses of fear and excitement. After a
year in the doldrums, Fleet was going to try to smash the Rebels again.
We hadn't done so well last time, getting ambushed in the Fifty Suns
group and damn near losing our shirts before we managed to get out. The
Rebs weren't as good as we were, but they were trickier, and they could
fight. After all, why shouldn't they be able to? They were human, just
as we were, and any one of a dozen extinct intelligent races could
testify to our fighting ability, as could others not-quite-extinct. Man
ruled this section of the galaxy, and someday if he didn't kill himself
off in the process he'd rule all of it. He wasn't the smartest race but
he was the hungriest, the fiercest, the most adaptable, and the most
unrelenting. Qualities which, by the way, were exactly the ones needed
to conquer a hostile universe.
But mankind was slow to learn the greatest lesson, that they had
to cooperate if they were to go further. We were already living on
borrowed time. Before the War, ten of eleven exploration ships sent
into the galactic center had disappeared without a trace. Somewhere,
buried deep in the billions of stars that formed the galactic hub, was
a race that was as tough and tricky as we weremaybe even tougher.
This was common knowledge, for the eleventh ship had returned with the
news of the aliens, a story of hairbreadth escape from destruction, and
a pattern of their culture which was enough like ours to frighten any
thinking man. The worlds near the center of humanity's sphere realized
the situation at once and quickly traded their independence for a
Federal Union to pool their strength against the threat that might come
But as the Union Space Navy began to take shape on the dockyards of
Earth and a hundred other worlds, the independent worlds of the
periphery began to eye the Union with suspicion. They had never
believed the exploration report and didn't want to unite with the
worlds of the center. They thought that the Union was a trick to
deprive them of their fiercely cherished independence, and when the
Union sent embassies to invite them into the common effort, they
rejected them. And when we suggested that in the interests of racial
safety they abandon their haphazard colonization efforts that resulted
in an uncontrolled series of jumps into the dark, punctuated by minor
wars and clashes when colonists from separate origins landed, more or
less simultaneously, on a promising planet, they were certain we were
up to no good.
Although we explained and showed them copies of the exploration
ship's report, they were not convinced. Demagogues among them screamed
about manifest destiny, independence, interference in internal affairs,
and a thousand other things that made the diplomatic climate between
Center and Periphery unbearably hot. And their colonists kept moving
Of course the Union was not about to cooperate in this potential
race suicide. We simply couldn't allow them to give that other race
knowledge of our whereabouts until we were ready for them. So we
informed each of the outer worlds that we would consider any further
efforts at colonizing an unfriendly act, and would take steps to
That did it.
* * * * *
We halted a few colonizing ships and sent them home under guard. We
uprooted a few advance groups and returned them to their homeworlds. We
established a series of observation posts to check further
expansionand six months later we were at war.
The outer worlds formed what they called a defensive league and with
characteristic human rationality promptly attacked us. Naturally, they
didn't get far. We had a bigger and better fleet and we were organized
while they were not. And so they were utterly defeated at the Battle of
It was then that we had two choices. We could either move in and
take over their defenseless worlds, or we could let them rebuild and
get strong, and with their strength acquire a knowledge of
cooperationand take the chance that they would ultimately beat us.
Knowing this, we wisely chose the second course and set about teaching
our fellow men a lesson that was now fifteen years along and not ended
By applying pressure at the right places we turned their attention
inward to us rather than to the outside, and by making carefully timed
sorties here and there about the periphery we forced them through sheer
military necessity to gradually tighten their loosely organized League
into tightly centralized authority, with the power to demand and
obtainto meet our force with counterforce. By desperate measures and
straining of all their youthful resources they managed to hold us off.
And with every strain they were welded more tightly together. And
slowly they were learning through war what we could not teach through
Curiously enough, they wouldn't believe our aims even when captured
crews told them. They thought it was some sort of tricky mental
conditioning designed to frustrate their lie detectors. Even while they
tightened their organization and built new fleets, they would not
believe that we were forcing them into the paths they must travel to
avoid future annihilation.
It was one of the ironies of this war that it was fought and would
be fought with the best of intentions. For it was obvious now that we
could never winnor could they. The Rebels, as we called them, were
every whit as strong as we, and while we enjoyed the advantages of
superior position and technology they had the advantage of superior
numbers. It was stalemate,the longest, fiercest stalemate in man's
bloody history. But it was stalemate with a purpose. It was a crazy
wara period of constant hostilities mingled with sporadic offensive
actions like the one we were now engaged inbut to us, at least, it
was war with a purposethe best and noblest of human purposesthe
preservation of the race.
The day was coming, not too many years away, when the first of the
aliens would strike the Outer worlds. Then we would uniteon the
League's terms if need beto crush the invaders and establish mankind
as the supreme race in the galaxy.
But this wasn't important right now. Right now I was the Executive
Officer of a scout ship commanded by a man I didn't trust. He smelled
too much like a stinking coward. I shook my head. Having Chase running
the ship was like putting a moron in a jet car on one of the
superhighwaysand then sabotaging the automatics. Just one fearful
mistake and a whole squadron could be loused up. But Chase was the
commanderthe ultimate authority on this ship. All I could do was pray
that things were going to come out all right.
We moved out in the lower red. Battles weren't fought in Cth. There
was no way to locate a unit at firing range in that monochromatic
madness. Normal physical laws simply didn't apply. A ship had to come
out into threespace to do any damage. All Cth was was a convenient road
to the battlefront.
With one exception.
By hanging in the infra band, on the ragged edge of threespace, a
scout ship could remain concealed until a critical moment, breakout
into threespacedischarge her weaponsand flick back into Cth before
an enemy could get a fix on her. Scouts, with their high capacity
converters, could perform this maneuver, but the ponderous battlewagons
and cruisers with their tremendous weight of armor, screens, and
munitions couldn't maneuver like this. They simply didn't have the
agility. Yet only they had the ability to penetrate defensive screens
and kill the Rebel heavies. So space battle was conducted on the
classic patternthe Lines slugging it out at medium range while the
screen of scouts buzzed around and through the battle trying to add
their weight of metal against some overstrained enemy and ensure his
destruction. A major battle could go on for daysand it often did. In
the Fifty Suns action the battle had lasted nearly two weeks subjective
before we withdrew to lick our wounds.
* * * * *
For nearly a day we ran into nothing, and such are the distances
that separate units of a fleet, we had the impression that we were
alone. We moved quietly, detectors out, scanning the area for a
light-day around as we moved forward at less than one Lume through Cth.
More would have been fatal for had we been forced to resort to a quick
breakout to avoid enemy action, and if we were travelling above one
Lume when we hit threespace, we'd simply disappear, leaving a small
spatial vortex in our wake.
On the morning of the third day the ships at the apex of Quadrant
One ran into a flight of Rebel scouts. There was a brief flurry of
action, the Rebels were englobed, a couple of cruisers drove in,
latched onto the helplessly straining Rebel scouts and dragged them
into threespace. The Rebs kept broadcasting right up to the endafter
which they surrendered before the cruisers could annihilate them. Smart
But the Rebels were warned. We couldn't catch all their scouts and
the disturbance our Line was making in Cth would register on any
detector within twenty parsecs. So they would be waiting to meet us.
But that was to be expected. There is no such thing as surprise in a
We went on until we began to run into major opposition. Half a dozen
scouts were caught in englobements at half a dozen different places
along the periphery as they came in contact with the Rebels' covering
forces. And that was that. The advance halted waiting for the Line to
come up, and a host of small actions took place as the forward
screening forces collided. Chase was in the control chair, hanging in
the blackness of the infra band on the edge of normal space. But we
weren't flicking in and out of threespace like some of the others. We
had a probe out and the main buffeting was taken by the duralloy tube
with its tiny converter at its bulbous tip. With consummate pilotage
Chase was holding us in infra. It was a queasy sensation, hanging
halfway between normalcy and chaos, and I had to admire his skill. The
infra band was black as ink and hot as the hinges of helland since
the edges of threespace and Cth are not as knife sharp as they are
further up in the Cth components, we bucked and shuddered on the
border, but avoided the bone-crushing slams and gut-wrenching twists
that less skillful skippers were giving their ships as they flicked
back and forth between threespace and Cth. Our scouting line must have
been a peculiar sight to a threespace observer with the thousand or so
scouts flickering in and out of sight across a huge hemisphere of
And then we saw them. Our probe picked up the flicker of enemy
Action imminent, Chase said drily. Stand by.
I clapped the other control helmet over my head and dropped into the
Exec's chair. A quick check showed the crew at their stations, the
torpedo hatches clear, the antiradiation shields up and the ship in
fighting trim. I stole a quick glance at Chase. Sweat stood out on his
gray forehead. His lips were drawn back into a thin line, showing his
teeth. His face was tense, but whether with fear or excitement I didn't
Stand by, he said, and then we hit threespace, just as the
enormous cone of the Rebel Line flicked into sight. The enemy line had
taken the field, and under the comparatively slow speeds of threespace
was rushing forward to meet our Line which had emerged a few minutes
ago. Our launchers flamed as we sent a salvo of torpedoes whistling
toward the Rebel fleet marking perhaps the opening shots of the main
battle. We twisted back into Cth as one of the scanner men doubled over
with agony, heaving his guts out into a disposal cone. I felt sorry for
him. The tension, the racking agony of our motion, and the fact that he
was probably in his first major battle had all combined to take him for
the count. He grinned greenly at me and turned back to his dials and
instruments. Good man!
Targetrange one eight zero four, azimuth two four oh, elevation
one oh seven, the rangefinder reported. Mass four. Mass four:a
Stand by, Chase said. All turrets prepare to fire. And he took
us down. We slammed into threespace and our turrets flamed. To our left
rear and above hung the mass of an enemy cruiser, her screens glowing
on standby as she drove forward to her place in the line. We had caught
her by surprise, a thousand to one shot, and our torpedoes were on
their way before her detectors spotted us. We didn't stay to see what
happened, but the probe showed an enormous fireball which blazed
briefly in the blackness, shooting out globs of scintillating molten
metal that cooled and disappeared as we watched.
Scratch one cruiser, someone in fire control yelped.
* * * * *
The effect on morale was electric. In that instant all doubts of
Chase's ability disappeared. All except mine. One lucky shot isn't a
battle, and I guess Chase figured the same way because his hands were
shaking as he jockeyed us along on the edge of Cth. He looked like he
wanted to vomit.
Take it easy, skipper, I said.
Mind your own business, Marsdenand I'll mind mine, Chase
snapped. Stand by, he ordered, and we dove into threespace
againloosed another salvo at another Reb, and flicked out of sight.
And that was the way it went for hour after hour until we pulled out,
our last torpedo fired and the crew on the ragged edge of exhaustion.
Somehow, by some miracle compounded of luck and good pilotage, we were
unmarked. And Chase, despite his twitching face and shaking hands, was
one hell of a combat skipper! I didn't wonder about him any more. He
had the guts all right. But it was a different sort of courage from the
icy contempt for danger that marked Andy Royce. Even so, I couldn't
help thinking that I was glad to be riding with Chase. We drove to the
rear, heading for the supply train, our ammunition expended, while
behind us the battlewagons and cruisers were hammering each other to
In the quiet of the rear area it was hardly believable that a major
battle was going on ahead of us. We raised the Amphitrite, identified
ourselves, and put in a request for supply.
Lay aboard, Amphitrite signalled back. How's the war going?
Don't know. We've been too busy, our signalman replied.
I'll betyou're 'Lachesis,' aren't you?
How'd you lose your ammo? Jettison it?
Stow that, you unprintable obscenity, Haskins replied. We're a
Amphitrite chuckled nastily. That I'll believe when I see it!
Communications, Chase snapped. This isn't a social call. Get our
heading and approach instructions. He sounded as schoolmasterish as
ever, but there was a sickly smile on his face, and the gray-green look
Morale seems a little better, doesn't it, Marsden? he said to me
as the Amphitrite flicked out into threespace and we followed.
I nodded. Yes, sir, I agreed. Quite a little.
Our cargo hatches snapped open and we cuddled up against
Amphitrite's bulging belly while our crew and the supply echelon
worked like demons to transfer ammunition. We had fifty torpedoes
aboard when the I.F.F. detector shrilled alarm.
Three hundred feet above us the Amphitrite's main battery let
loose a salvo at three Rebel scouts that had flickered into being less
than fifty miles away. Their launchers flared with a glow that lighted
the blackness of space.
Stand by! Chase yelled as he threw the converter on.
Hatches! I screamed as we shimmered and vanished.
Somehow we got most of them closed, losing only the crew on number
two port turret which was still buttoning up as we slipped over into
the infra band. I ordered the turret sealed. Cth had already ruined the
unshielded sighting mechanisms and I had already seen what happened to
men caught in Cth unprotected. I had no desire to see it againor let
our crew see it if it could be avoided. A human body turned inside out
isn't the most wholesome of sights.
How did they get through? Chase muttered as we put out our
I don't knowmaybe someone wasn't looking.
What's it like down there? Chase asked. See anything?
'Amphitrite's' still there, I said.
Still there, I repeated. And she's in trouble.
She's big. She can take itbut
Here, you look, I said, flipping the probe switch.
My God! Chase mutteredas he took one look at the supply ship
lying dead in space, her protective batteries flaming. She had gotten
one of the Rebel scouts but the other two had her bracketed and were
pouring fire against her dim screens.
She can't keep this up, I said. She's been hulledand it looks
like her power's taken it.
Action imminent, Chase ordered, and the rangefinder took up his
We came storming out of Cth right on top of one of the Rebel scouts.
A violent shock raced through the ship, slamming me against my web. The
rebound sent us a good two miles away before our starboard battery
flamed. The enemy scout, disabled by the shock, stunned and unable to
maneuver took the entire salvo amidships and disappeared in a puff of
The second Rebel disappeared and we did too. She was back in Cth
looking for a better chance at the Amphitrite. The big ship was
wallowing like a wounded whale, half of one section torn away, her
armor dented, and her tubes firing erratically.
We took one long look and jumped back into Cth. But not before
Haskins beamed a message to the supply ship. Now you've seen it, you
damned storekeeper, he gloated. What do you think? Amphitrite
Probe out, Chase ordered, neglecting, I noticed, to comment on the
* * * * *
I pushed the proper buttons but nothing happened. I pushed again and
then turned on the scanners. The one aft of the probe was half covered
with a twisted mass of metal tubing that had once been our probe. We
must have smashed it when we rammed. Quickly I shifted to the auxiliary
probe, but the crumpled mass had jammed the hatch. It wouldn't open.
No probes, sir, I announced.
Damn, Chase said. Well, we'll have to do without them. Hold
tight, we're going down.
We flicked into threespace just in time to see a volcano of fire
erupt from Amphitrite's side and the metallic flick of the Rebel
scout slipping back into Cth.
What's your situation, 'Amphitrite'? our signal asked.
Not good, the faint answer came back. They've got us in the power
room and our accumulators aren't going to stand this load very long.
That last salvo went through our screens, but our armor stopped it. But
if the screens go down
Our batteries flared at the Rebel as he again came into sight. He
didn't wait, but flicked right back into Cth without firing a shot.
Pollard was on the ball.
Brave lad, that Reb, Chase said. There was a sneer in his voice.
For the moment it was stalemate. The Reb wasn't going to come into
close range with a warship of equal power to his own adding her metal
to the Amphitrite's, but he could play cat and mouse with us, drawing
our fire until we had used up our torpedoes, and then come in to finish
the supply ship. Or he could harass us with long range fire. Or he
could go away.
It was certain he wouldn't do the last, and he'd be a fool if he did
the second. Amphitrite could set up a mine screen that would take
care of any long range stuff,and we could dodge it. His probe was
still working and he had undoubtedly seen ours crushed against our
hull. If he hadn't he was blindand that wasn't a Rebel
characteristic. We could hyper, of course, but we were blind up there
in Cth. His best was to keep needling us, and take the chance that we'd
run out of torps.
What's our munition? Chase asked almost as an echo to my thought.
I switched over to Pollard.
Thirty mark sevens, Pollard said, and a little small arms.
One good salvo, Chase said, thoughtfully.
The Rebel flashed in and out again, and we let go a burst.
Twenty, now, I said.
Chase didn't hear me. He was busy talking to Allyn on damage
control. You can't cut it, hey?All rightdisengage the converter on
the auxiliary probe and break out that roll of duralloy cable in the
storesPollard! don't fire over one torp at a time when that lad shows
up. Load the other launchers with blanks. Make him think we're
shooting. We have to keep him hopping. Now listen to meYes, Allyn, I
mean you. Fasten that converter onto the cable and stand by. We're
going to make a probe. Chase turned to me.
You were Exec with Royce, he said. You should know how to fight a
What are you planning to do? I asked.
We can't hold that Rebel off. Maybe with ammunition we could, but
there's less than a salvo aboard and he has the advantage of position.
We can't be sure he won't try to take us in spite of 'Amphitrite's'
support and if he does finish us, 'Amphitrite's' a dead duck. The
Lachesis quivered as the port turrets belched flame. That leaves
nineteen torpedoes, he said. In Cth we're safe enough but we're
helpless without a probe. Yet we can only get into attack position from
Cth. That leaves us only one thing to doimprovise a probe.
And how do you do that? I asked.
Put a man out on a linewith the converter from the auxiliary.
Give him a command helmet and have him talk the ship in.
But that's suicide!
No, Marsden, not suicidejust something necessary. A necessary
sacrifice, like this whole damned war! I don't believe in killing men.
It makes me sick. But I kill if I have to, and sacrifice if I must.
His face twisted and the gray-green look came back. There are over a
thousand men on the 'Amphitrite,' and a vital cargo of munitions. One
life, I think, is fair trade for a thousand, just as a few hundred
thousand is fair trade for a race. The words were schoolmasterish and
would have been dead wrong coming from anyone except Chase. But he gave
them an air of reasonable inevitability. And for a moment I forgot that
he was cold-bloodedly planning someone's death. For a moment I felt the
spirit of sacrifice that made heroes out of ordinary people.
* * * * *
Look, skipper, I said. How about letting me do it? I could have
kicked myself a moment later, but the words were out before I could
stop them. He had me acting noble, and that trait isn't one of my
He smiled. You know, Marsden, he said, I was expecting that. His
voice was oddly soft. Thanks. Then it became dry and impersonal.
Request denied, he said. This is my party.
I shivered inside. While I'm no coward, I didn't relish the thought
of slamming around at the end of a duralloy cable stretching into a
nowhere where there was no inertia. A hair too heavy a hand on the
throttle in Cth would crush the man on the end to a pulp. But he
shouldn't go either. It was his responsibility to command the ship.
Who else is qualified? Chase said answering the look on my face.
I know more about maneuver than any man aboard, and I'll be
controlling the ship until the last moment. Once I order the attack
I'll cut free, and you can pick me up later.
You won't have time, I protested.
Just in case I don't make it, Chase continued, making the
understatement of the war with a perfectly straight face, take care of
the crew. They're a good bunchjust a bit too eager for the real
Navybut good. I've tried to make them into spacemen and they've
resented me for it. I've tried to protect them and they've hated me
They won't now I interrupted.
I've tried to make them a unit. He went on as though I hadn't said
a thing. Maybe I've tried too hard, but I'm responsible for every life
aboard this ship. He picked up his helmet. Take command of the ship,
Mr. Marsden, he said, and strode out of the room. The Lachesis
shuddered to the recoil from the port turrets. Eighteen torpedoes left,
We lowered Chase a full hundred feet on the thin strand of duralloy.
He dangled under the ship, using his converter to keep the line taut.
You hear me, skipper? I asked.
Four-four. Hang on nowwe're going up. I eased the Lachesis
into Cth and hung like glue to the border. How's it going, skipper?
A bit rough but otherwise all right. Now steer righteasy
Okay, Marsden. You nearly pulled me in halfthat's all. You did
fine. We're in good position in relation to 'Amphitrite.' Now let's get
our signals straight. Front is the way we're going nowbase all my
directions on thatgot it?
Good, Marsden, throttle back and hang on your converters.
I did as I was told.
Ahthere she isbear left a little. Hmmshe's looking for
uslooks suspicious. Now she's turning toward 'Amphitrite.' Guess she
figures we are gone. She's in position preparing to fire. Now!
Drop out and fireelevation zero, azimuth three sixtyMove!
I moved. The Lachesis dropped like a stone. Chase was dead now.
Nothing made of flesh could survive that punishment but wewe came out
right on top of them, just like Chase had done to the otherexcept
that we fired before we collided. And as with the other Rebel we gained
complete surprise. Our eighteen torpedoes crashed home, her magazines
exploded, and into that hell of molten and vaporized metal that had
once been a Rebel scout we crashed a split second later. Two thousand
miles per second relative is too fast for even an explosion to hurt
much if there isn't any solid material in the way, and we passed
through only the outer edges of the blast, but even so, the vaporized
metal scoured our starboard plating down to the insulation. It was like
a giant emery wheel had passed across our flank. The shock slammed us
out of control and we went tumbling in crazy gyrations across space for
several minutes before I could flip the Lachesis into Cth, check the
speed and motion, and get back into threespace.
* * * * *
Chase was goneand Lachesis was done. A week in drydock and she'd
be as good as new, but she was no longer a fighting ship. She was a
wreck. For us the battle was overbut somehow it didn't make me happy.
The Amphitrite hung off our port bow, a tiny silver dot in the
distance, and as I watched two more silver dots winked into being
beside her. Haskins reported the I.F.F. readings.
They're ours, he said. A couple of cruisers.
They should have been here ten minutes ago, I replied bitterly. I
couldn't see very well. You can't when emotion clogs your tubes.
Chasecoward?not him. He was man clear througha better one than
I'd ever be even if I lived out my two hundred years. I wondered if the
crew knew what sort of man their skipper was. I turned up the command
helmet. Men I began, but I didn't finish.
We know, the blended thoughts and voices came back at me. Sure
they knew! Chase had been on command circuit too. It was enough to make
you crythe mixture of pride, sadness and shame that rang through the
helmet. It seemed to echo and reecho for a long time before I shut it
I sat there, thinking. I wasn't mad at the Rebels. I wasn't
anything. All I could think was that we were paying a pretty grim price
for survival. Those aliens had better show up pretty soonand they'd
better be as nasty as their reputation. There was a scorea big
scoreand I wanted to be there when it was added up and settled.