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Talents, Incorporated
by William Fitzgerald Jenkins
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Then thunder rolled, and huge shapes plunged in their turn toward the heavens. The space-fleet of Kandar left its native world. It departed in the formation used for space maneuvering, much like the tactical disposition of a column of marching soldiers in doubtful territory. There was a "point" in advance of all the rest, to be the first to detect or be fired on by an enemy. Then flankers reached straight out, and to the right and left, and then an advance-guard, and then the main force with a rear-guard behind it.

The take-off area became invisible under a monstrous, roiling mountain of smoke, from which threads of vapor reached to emptiness. It became impossible to hear oneself talk; it was unlikely that one could have heard a shot, as the heavy ships took off. But presently there were only lesser clamors and then mere roarings after them, and the last of the rocket-boomings died away. The smoke remained, rolling very slowly aside. Then there were unexpected detonations. As the rocket-fume mist dissolved, the detonations were explained. Every building in the fleet's home area, the sunken fuel-tanks, the giant rolling gantries—every bit of ground equipment for the servicing of the fleet was methodically and carefully being blown to bits. The fleet was not expected back.

The ships rose above the atmosphere, and rose still higher, and the planet Kandar became a gigantic ball which filled an enormous part of the firmament. Then there were cracklings of communicators, and orders flittered through emptiness in scrambled and re-scrambled broadcasts of gibberish which came out as lucid commands in the control-rooms of the ships. Then, first, the point, then the advanced flankers, and then the main fleet, line by line and rank by rank—every ship drove on outward under top-speed solar-system drive.

The last of the four chartered space-liners, come to take refugees away before the Mekinese arrived, saw the disappearance of the ships in the rear of the fleet's formation. The liner was lowered to the ground by the landing-grid. It reported what it had seen. Those who were entitled to depart on it crowded aboard. With the fleet gone, panic began.

Morgan had to spend lavishly to get copies of the news reports that the liner had brought along as a matter of course. He took them back to the Sylva, where a frowning man with rings on his fingers read them with dark suspicion. Presently, triumphantly, he dictated predictions of dirty tricks from indications in the news.

Morgan returned to what he'd called the family room of the yacht. He relaxed. Gwenlyn tried to read. She did not succeed. She was excessively nervous.

Bors was not. The fleet re-formed itself well out from Kandar. It made for a rendezvous over a pole of the gas-giant planet which was the fourth planet from Kandar's sun. It was almost, but not quite in line with that yellow star toward the base, from which the Mekinese flotilla would come. The fleet went into a polar orbit around that gigantic planet, which was useless to mankind because its atmosphere was partly gaseous ammonia and partly methane.

The cosmos paid no attention. An unstable sol-type star in Cygnus collapsed abruptly and a number of otherwise promising planets became unfit for human exploitation. In Andromeda, a super-nova flared. The light of its explosion would not reach Kandar for very many thousands of years. The largest comet in the galaxy reached perihelion, and practically outshone the sun it circled. Nobody saw it, because nobody lived there. On a dreary, red-sky planet in Mousset, a thing squirmed heavily out of a stagnant sea and blinked stupidly at the remarkable above-water cosmos it had discovered. Suns flamed and spouted flares. Small dark stars became an infinitesimal fraction of a degree colder. There was a magnetic storm in the photosphere of a sun which was not supposed to have such things.

The war-fleet of Kandar, in very fine formation, flowed in its polar orbit around the fourth planet out from Kandar's sun. In carefully scrambled and re-scrambled communications, certain ships were authorized to modify the settings of Mark 13 missiles in this exact fashion, to remove their warheads, and to diverge in pairs from the fleet proper. They were to familiarize themselves with the results of making the acceleration of such missiles variable during flight. They would use the supplied data-tables to compute firing constants for given ranges and relative speeds. They would, of course, return to formation to permit other ships the same practice with the new method of missile handling.

Bors read the letter from Talents, Incorporated. It gave an exact time for the breakout of the Mekinese fleet. The rest consisted mostly of specific warnings from the Talents, Incorporated Department for Predicting Dirty Tricks. It listed certain things to be looked for among the ships of the fleet. The information was like the news of an enemy ship aground on Kandar; it was self-evidently plausible once one thought of it. Mekin was ruled and its military practices governed by men with the instincts of conspirators, using other men with the psychopathological impulses which make for spies. They thought of devices neither statesmen nor fighting men would have invented. But a paranoid Talent could think of them, and know that they were true.

As a result of the warnings, the flagship was found to have been somehow equipped, by Mekin, with a tiny, special microwave transmitter which used a frequency not usual on Kandar. It was, in effect, a radio beacon on which enemy missiles could home. Also, the lead ship of a cruiser-squadron had been mysteriously geared to reveal its exact position, course and speed while in space. There were other concealed devices. Some would make the controls of predetermined ships useless when beams of specific frequency and form were trained upon them.

Once the basic idea was discovered, it was possible to make sure that all such enemy-supplied equipment was out of operation. The fleet was still in no promising situation, with a ten-to-one disadvantage. But it could not have put up even the beginning of a fight, had these spy-installed devices remained undiscovered.

Bors said carefully, by scrambled and re-scrambled communicator, "Majesty, I'm beginning to be less than despairing. If they expect our ships either to have been destroyed aground, or to be made helpless the instant combat begins, we may give them a shock. We hoped to smash them ship for ship. Finding out their tricks in advance may give us that! And if our missiles work as they've promised, we may get two for one!"

King Humphrey's voice was dogged. "I will settle for anything but surrender! From an honorable enemy I would take severe terms rather than see my spacemen die. But I would do nobody any good by yielding to Mekin!"

Bors clicked off. He looked at a clock. The prediction from Talents, Incorporated was that the Mekinese fleet would break out of overdrive at 11.19 hours astronomical time.

He went over his ship. His crew was by no means depressed. There had been a terrific lift in spirits when dummy-warheaded missiles made theoretic hits, though fifteen interceptors tried to stop them. The crewmen now tended elaborately to explain the process. A part of the trick was the curved path along which the re-set missiles flashed. Such courses alone could never be computed by an unwarned enemy under battle conditions. But the all-important thing was that the missiles changed their acceleration as they drove. That couldn't be solved and the solution put into practice during one fleet-action. Once the enemy had experienced it, they could later duplicate it without doubt, but it would still be impossible to counter.

So Bors's men were cheerful to the point of gaiety. They would fight magnificently because they were thinking of what they would do to the enemy instead of what the enemy might do to them. If enemy crews had been assured that the fleet was half defeated before the fight began, to find the fleet not crippled by spy-set devices would be startling. To find them fighting like fiends would be alarming. And if—Bors grimly repeated to himself, if—the modified missiles worked as well in battle as in target practice....

He turned in and, despite his tensions, fell asleep immediately and slept soundly. When he awoke he felt curiously relaxed. It took him a moment to realize he had dreamed about Gwenlyn. He couldn't remember what he had dreamed, but he knew it was comfortable and good. He wouldn't let himself dwell on it, however. There was work to be done.

It was singularly like morning on a planet. The ship was spotless, immaculate. There was the fresh smell of growing things in the air. To save tanked oxygen the air-room used vegetation to absorb CO{2} and excess moisture from the breathing of the crew. There was room to spare everywhere, because unlike aircraft and surface ships, the size of a space-ship made no difference in its speed. There was no resistance due to size. Only the mass counted. So there was spaciousness and freshness and something close to elation on Bors's ship on the day it was to fight for the high satisfaction of getting killed.

Bors saw to it that his men breakfasted heartily.

"We've got a party ahead," he told the watch at mess. "Eat plenty but give the other watch a chance to fill up, too."

Somebody said cheerfully, "The condemned men ate a hearty breakfast, sir?"

Bors grinned.

"The breakfast we can be sure of. The condemned part—we'll have something to say about that. Some Mekinese wouldn't have good appetites if they knew what's ahead of them. One word! Don't waste missiles! There are a lot of Mekin ships. We've got to make each missile count!"

There was laughter. He went to the control room. He checked with the clock. Shortly after the other watch was back at its stations he calculated carefully. The enemy fleet would break out of overdrive short of Kandar, of course. It would have broken out once before, to correct its line and estimate the distance to its destination. It would have assembled itself at that breakout point, but it would still arrive in a disorderly mob. One's point of arrival could not be too closely figured at the high speeds of overdrive. So when the Mekinese came, they would not be in formation.

Bors called the flagship, when the gas-giant planet was in line and a barrier against the radio waves. King Humphrey's voice came from the speaker by Bors's side.

"Bors? What?"

"Majesty," said Bors. "Talents, Incorporated says the enemy fleet will break out of overdrive in just about ten minutes. We're out here waiting for it, instead of aground as they'll expect. They'll break out in complete confusion. Even with great luck, they'll lose time assembling into combat formation. Being out here, we may be able to hit them before they're organized."

A pause.

"I've been discussing tactics with the high command," said the king's voice. "There's some dispute. The classic tactic is to try for englobement."

"I want to point out, Majesty," Bors interrupted urgently, "that when we cross the north pole again, we're apt to detect the fleet signalling frantically to itself, sorting itself out, trying to get into some sort of order. It'll be stirred up as if with a spoon. But if we come around the planet's pole—and they don't expect us to be out here waiting for them—we'll be in combat-ready formation. We may be able to tear into them as an organized unit before they can begin to co-operate with each other."

A longer pause. Then King Humphrey said grimly;

"There is one weak point in your proposal, Bors. Only one. It is that Talents, Incorporated may be wrong about the time of breakout. The more I think, the less I believe in what they have done, or even what I saw! But we'll be prepared, however unlikely your idea. We'll be ready."

He clicked off. Only minutes later, the combat-alert order came through. In the next ten minutes, Bors's ship hummed for five, was quiet for three, and then, two minutes early, all inner compartment doors closed quietly and there was that muffled stillness which meant that everybody was ready for anything that might happen.

In the control room, Bors watched out of a direct-vision port, giving occasional glances to the screens. There were flecks of light from innumerable stars. Then the shining cloud-bank of the gas-giant planet went black. Screens showed all of the fleet—each blip with a nimbus about it which identified it as a friend, not a foe. There was the blip of the leading ship, the "point" of the formation. There were the flanking ships and all the martial array of the fleet.

Then the screens sparkled with seemingly hundreds of blips which seemed to swirl and spin and whirl again in total and disordered confusion.

Gongs clanged. A voice said, "Co-o-ntact! Enemy fleet ahead. Wide dispersion. They're milling about like gnats on a sunny day!"

A curt and authoritative and well-recognized voice snapped, "All ships keep formation on flagship. Course coordinates...." The voice gave them. "There's a clump of enemy ships beginning to organize! We hit them!"

The fleet of Kandar came around the gas-giant world and flung itself at the fleet of Mekin. It seemed that everything was subject to intolerable delay. For long, sweating, unbearable minutes nothing happened except that the fleet of Kandar went hurtling through space with no sensation or direct evidence of motion. The gas-giant planet dwindled, but not very fast. The bright specks on the screens which were enemy ships seemed to separate as they drew nearer. But all happened with infinite and infuriating deliberation.

It was worth waiting for. There was truly a clumping of enemy ships ahead. Some of them were less than ten miles apart. In a two-hundred-mile sphere there were forty ships. They'd been moving to consolidate themselves into a mutually assisting group. What they accomplished was the provision of a fine accumulation of targets. Before they could organize themselves, the Kandarian fleet swept through them. It vastly outnumbered them in this area.

It smashed them. Bombs flashed in emptiness. There were gas-clouds and smoke-clouds which stayed behind in space as the fleet went on.

"New coordinates," said the familiar authoritative voice. It gave them. "There's another enemy condensation. We hit it!"

The fleet swung in space. It drove on and on and on. Interminable time passed. Then there were flashes brighter than the stars. A Kandar cruiser blew up soundlessly. But far, far away other things detonated, and what had been proud structures of steel and beryllium, armed and manned, became mere incandescent vapor.

A third clumping of Mekinese ships. The Kandarian fleet overwhelmed it; overrode it; used exactly the tactics the Mekinese might have used. It ruthlessly made use of its local, concentrated strength. It was outnumbered in the whole battle area by not less than ten to one. But the Mekinese fleet was scattered. Where it struck, the Kandarian fleet was four and five, and sometimes twenty, ships to one.

It was a smaller fleet in every class of ships, but it was compact and controlled and it made slashing plunges through the dispersed and confused enemy. With ordinary missiles three ships could always destroy two, and four could destroy three. But in the battle of the gas-giant planet, where there was fighting the Kandarians were never less than two to one. They were surrounded by enemies, but when those enemies tried to gather together for strength, the mass of murderously-fighting ships of Kandar swung upon the incipient group and blasted it.

Nearly half the Mekinese fleet was out of action before Bors's ship fired a single missile. He'd sat in the skipper's chair, and from time to time, the course of all the fleet was changed, and he saw that his ship kept its place rigidly in formation. But he had given not one order out of routine before the enemy strength was half gone. Then the communicator said coldly:

"All ships attention! With old-style missiles we could do everything we've accomplished so far. But the Mekinese are refusing battle now. They'll begin to slip away in overdrive if we keep chopping them down in groups. We have to give them a chance or they'll run away. The new missile system works perfectly. All ships break formation. Find your own Mekinese. Blast them!"

Bors said in a conversational voice, "There are three Mekin ships yonder. They look like they're willing to start something. We'll take them on."

He pointed carefully to a spot on the screen. His small ship swung away from the rest of the fleet. It plunged toward a battleship and two heavy cruisers who had joined forces and appeared to attempt to rally the still-stronger-than-Kandar invaders.

They became objects rather than specks upon the screens. They were visible things on the direct-vision ports. Something flashed, and rushed toward the little Kandarian space-can.

"Fire one, two, three," Bors ordered.

Things hurtled on before him. A screen showed that the missiles first fired by the enemy went off-course, chasing the later-fired missiles from the Isis. The Mekinese shots had automatically become interceptors when Kandarian missiles attacked their parent ships. But they couldn't anticipate a curved course and their built-in computers weren't designed to handle a rate of change of acceleration. The three Mekinese ships ceased to exist.

"Let's head yonder," said Bors.

He pointed again, on the screen. Within the radar's range there were hundreds of tiny blips. Some were marked with a nimbus apiece. They were friends. Many, many more were not.

The Mekinese fleet, too, could determine its own numbers in comparison to the defending fleet. Pride and rage swept through Mekinese commanders, as they saw the Kandarians deliberately break up their formation to get their ships down to the level of the enemy. It was unthinkable for a Mekinese ship to refuse single combat! And when two and three could combine against a single ship of Kandar....

The invaders had reason to fight, rather than slip into overdrive. They still outnumbered the ships from Kandar. And for a Mekinese commander to flee the battle area without having engaged or fired on an antagonist would be treason. No man who fled without fighting would stay alive. There had to be a recording of battle offered or accepted, or the especially merciless court-martial system of Mekin would take over.

There was one problem, however, for the Mekinese skippers. When they engaged a ship from Kandar, they died. Still, no ship left the scene of the battle to report defeat.

It was absolute and complete. It was not only a defeat. It was annihilation. The Mekinese fleet was destroyed to the last ship, even to the armed transports carrying bureaucrats and police to set up a new government on Kandar. Those ships which dared not run away without a token fight, discovered the fleet of Kandar wasn't fighting a token battle. It had started out to be just that, but somehow the plans had changed when the fighting started. For the aggressors, it was disaster.

When his fleet reassembled, King Humphrey issued a general order to all ships. He read it in person, his voice strained and dead and hopeless.

"I have to express my admiration for the men of my fleet," he said drearily. "An unexampled victory over unexampled odds is not only in keeping with the best traditions of the armed forces of Kandar, but raises those traditions to the highest possible level of valor and devotion. If it were not that in winning this victory we have doomed our home world to destruction, I would be as happy as I am, reluctantly, proud...."



Part Two



Chapter 5

Nobody had ever found any use for the Glamis solar system. There was a sun of highly irregular variability. There were two planets, of which the one farther out might have been useful for colonization except that it was subject to extreme changes of climate as its undependable sun burned brightly or dimly. The nearer planet was so close to its primary that it had long ceased to rotate. One hemisphere, forever in sunshine, remained in a low, red heat. Its night hemisphere, in perpetual darkness, had radiated away its heat until there were mountains of frozen atmosphere piled above what should have been a mineral surface. It was a matter of record that a hundred standard years before, a ship had landed there and mined oxygen-containing snow, which its air apparatus was able to refine so the crew could breathe while they finished some rather improbable repairs and could go on to more hospitable worlds.

The farther-out planet was sometimes a place of green vegetation and sprawling seas, and sometimes of humid jungles with most of its oceans turned to a cloud-bank of impenetrable thickness. Also, sometimes, it was frozen waste from pole to pole. The vegetation of that planet had been studied with interest, but the world itself was simply of no use to anybody. Even the sun of the Glamis system was regarded with suspicion.

The fleet of Kandar made rendezvous at the galactic-north pole of the second planet. On arrival the massed cruisers and battleships went into orbit. The smaller craft went on a scouting mission, verifying that there was no new colony planted, that there was no man-made radiation anywhere in the system, that there was no likelihood of the fleet's presence—or for that matter its continued existence—becoming known to anybody not of its ship-crews.

The scout-ships came back, reporting all clear. The great ships drew close to one another and small space-boats shuttled back and forth, taking commanders and captains and vice-admirals to the ship, which, by convention, was commanded by King Humphrey VIII of Kandar.

Captain Bors got to the conference late. There were some grave faces about the conference room, but there were also some whose expressions were unregenerate and grimly satisfied. As he entered the room the king was speaking.

"I don't deny that it was a splendid victory, but I'm saying that our victory was a catastrophe! To begin with, we happened to hit the Mekinese fleet when it was dispersed and disorganized. That was great good fortune—if we'd wanted a victory. The enemy was scattered over light-minutes of space. His ships could not act as a massed, maneuverable force. They were simply a mob of fighting ships who had to fight as individuals against our combat formation."

"Yes, Majesty," said the gray vice-admiral, "but even when we broke formation—"

"Again," said the king, more fretfully still, "I do not deny that the fighting ability of our ships was multiplied by the new way of using missiles. What I do say is that if we'd come upon the Mekinese fleet in combat formation instead of dispersed; if we'd attacked them when they were ready for us, it would be doubtful that we'd have been so disastrously successful! Say that the new missile settings gave each of our ships fire-power as effective as two or three or five of the enemy. The enemy was ten to one! If we hadn't hit them when they were in confusion, we'd have been wiped out. And if we'd hit their fleet anyhow, we'd be dead. We did not hit the main fleet. We annihilated a division of it, a small part. We are still hopelessly inferior to the vast Mekinese fleet."

Bors took a seat at the rear of the room.

A stout rear-admiral said somberly, "We hope we annihilated it, Majesty. There's no report of any ship fleeing in overdrive. But if any did escape, its report would lead to an immediate discovery of the exact improvement in our missiles. I am saying, Majesty, that if one enemy ship escaped that battle, we can look for all the enemy ships to be equipped with revised missiles like ours."

Bors raised his voice. "May I speak?"

"Ah," said the king. "Bors. By all means."

"I make two points," said Bors with reserve. "One is that the Mekinese are as likely to think our missiles captured theirs as that they were uncomputable. Missile designers have been trying for years to create interceptors which capture enemy missiles. The Mekinese may decide we've accomplished something they've failed at, but they're not likely to think we've accomplished something they never even thought of!"

Voices babbled. A pompous voice said firmly that nobody would be so absurd. Several others said urgently that it was very likely. All defense departments had research in progress, working on the capture of enemy missiles. If it were accomplished, ships could be destroyed as a matter of routine.

Bors waited until the king thumped on the table for silence.

"The second thing I have to say, Majesty, is that there can be no plans made until we know what we have to do. And that depends on what Mekin thinks has happened. Maybe no enemy ship got home. Maybe some ships took back inaccurate reports. It would be very uncomfortable for them to report the truth. Maybe they said we had some new and marvellous weapon which no fleet could resist. In that case, we are in a very fine position."

The king said gloomily, "You think of abominably clever things, Captain. But I am afraid we've been too clever. If Mekin masses its entire fleet to destroy us, they can do it, new missile-system or no new missile-system! We have somehow to keep them from resolving to do just that!"

"Which," said Bors, "may mean negotiation. But there's no point in negotiating unless you know what your enemy thinks you've got. We could have Mekin scared!"

There was a murmur, which could not be said to be either agreement or disagreement. The king looked about him.

"We cannot continue to fight!" he said sternly, "not unless we can defend Kandar—which we can't as against the Mekinese main fleet. We were prepared to sacrifice our lives to earn respect for our world, and to leave a tradition behind us. We must still be prepared to sacrifice even our vanity."

The vice-admiral said, "But one sacrifices, Majesty, to achieve. Do you believe that Mekin will honor any treaty one second after it ceases to be profitable to Mekin?"

"That," said the king, "has to be thought about. But Bors is right on one point. We should come to no final conclusion without information—"

"Majesty," Bors interrupted. His words came slowly, as if an idea were forming as he spoke. "The enemy may have no news at all. They may know they've been defeated, but they'd never expect our freedom from loss. Why couldn't a single Kandarian ship turn up at some port where its appearance would surely be reported to Mekin? It could pose as the sole survivor of our fleet, which would indicate that the rest of us were wiped out in the battle. If we had all been wiped out, there'd be no point in their fusion-bombing Kandar. Certainly they expected us to be destroyed. One surviving ship can prove that we have been!"

The king's expression brightened.

"Ah! And we can go and intern ourselves—"

There was a growl. The pompous voice said, "We would gain time, Majesty. Our fear is that Mekin may feel it must avenge a defeat. But if one ship claims to be the sole survivor of our fleet, it announces a Mekinese victory. That is a highly desirable thing!"

The king nodded.

"Yes-s-s.... We were unwise to survive the battle. We can hide our unwisdom. Captain Bors, I will give you orders presently. As of now, I will accept reports on battle-damage given and received." As Bors saluted and turned to the door, the king added, "I will be with the Pretender presently."

It was an order and Bors obeyed it. He went to find his uncle. He found the former monarch in the king's cabin of this, the largest ship of the fleet. The Pretender greeted Bors unhappily.

"A very bad business," he observed.

"Bad," agreed Bors. "But for the two of us, a defeat for Mekin is not bad news."

"For us and Tralee," the old man said reprovingly, "there is some pleasure. But it is still bad. Every ship we destroyed must be replaced. Like every other subject planet, Tralee will be required to build—how many ships? Ten? Twenty? We have increased the burden Mekin lays on Tralee. And worse—much worse—"

"There's such a thing," protested Bors, "as using a microscope on troubles! We did something we badly wanted to! If we can keep it up—"

The Pretender said, "How is the food-supply on your ship? How long can you feed your crew without supplies from some base?"

Bors swore. The question had the impact of a blow. His Isis, like the rest of the fleet, had taken off from Kandar to fight and be destroyed. There were emergency rations on board, of course. But the food-storage compartments hadn't been filled. The fleet did not expect to go on living, so it did not prepare to go on eating. It would have been absurd to carry stores for months when they expected to live only hours. It simply hadn't occurred to anyone to load provisions for a long operation away from base.

"That's what the king is worrying about," said the Pretender. "We've some thousands of men who will be hungry presently. If we reveal that we survived the battle, Mekin's tributaries will begin to think. They might even hope—which Mekin would have to stop immediately. If we do not reveal that we still exist, what can be done about starving ship-crews? It is a bad business. It would have been much better if the fleet had been destroyed, as we expected, in a gesture of pure fury over its own helplessness."

Bors said sardonically, "We can all commit suicide, of course!"

The Pretender did not answer. His nephew sank into a chair and glowered at the wall. The situation was contrary to all the illusions cherished by the human race. To act decently and with honor is somehow fitting to a man and consistent with the nature of the universe, so that decency and honor may prosper. But recent events denied it. Men who were willing to die for their countrymen only injured them by the attempt. And now the conduct which honor would approve turned upon them to bring the consequences of treason and villainy.

A long time passed. Bors sat with clenched hands. It was the barbaric insistence of Mekin upon conquest that was at fault, of course. But this happens everywhere, as it has throughout all history. There are, really, three kinds of people in every community, as there have always been. There are the barbarians, and there are the tribesmen, and there are the civilized. This was true when men lived on only one planet, and doubtless was true when the first village was built. There were civilized men even then. If there was progress, they brought it about. And in every village there were, and are, tribesmen, men who placidly accept the circumstances into which they are born, and who wish no change at all. And everywhere and at all times there are barbarians. They seek personal triumphs. They thrive on high emotional victories. And at no time will barbarians ever leave either civilized men or tribesmen alone. They crave triumphs over them and each other, and they create disaster everywhere, until they are crushed.

Bors said evenly, "If the king's planning to surrender the fleet to Mekin as ransom for Kandar, it won't work."

"He's considering it," said his uncle. "It will be a way of giving them the victory we cheated them of, though we didn't intend to win."

"It won't work," repeated Bors. "It won't do a bit of good. They'll want to punish Kandar because it wasn't beaten. They feed on destruction and brutality. They're barbarians. The economic interpretation of history doesn't apply here! The Mekinese who run things want to be evil. They will be until they're crushed."

"Crushed?" asked the Pretender bitterly. "Is there a chance of that?"

Bors considered gravely. Then he said, "I think so."

The door opened and the king came in. Bors rose and the king nodded. He spoke to the Pretender.

"Somebody raised the question of food," he said. "There isn't any to speak of, of course. You'd think grown men would face facts! There's not a man willing to accept what is, and work from that! Lunatics!"

He flung himself into a chair.

"Suggested," he continued, "that a part of the fleet go to Norden to buy food and bring it back. Of course Mekin wouldn't hear about it, wouldn't guess at the survival of the fleet because food was bought in such quantities! Suggested, that a part of the fleet go to some uncolonized planet and hunt meat. Try to imagine success in that venture! Suggested, that we travel a long distance, pick out a relatively small world, land and seize its spaceport and facilities and equip ourselves to bomb Mekin to extinction. And do it in a surprise attack! Suggested—"

The king shook his head angrily. He did not look royal. He did not look confident. He looked embittered and even helpless. But he still looked like a very honest man trying to make up for his admitted deficiencies.

"Majesty," said Bors.

The king turned his eyes.

"You're going to send me off for news," said Bors. "I suggested earlier that my ship pretend to be the sole survivor of the fleet. I suggest now that the ship add the wild and desperate boast that since there's no longer a world which will sponsor it, it's turned pirate. It will take vengeance on its own. It defies the might of Mekin and it dares the Mekinese fleet to do something about it."

"Why?" asked the king.

"Pirates," Bors answered, controlling his enthusiasm, "have to be hunted down. It takes many ships to hunt down a pirate. I should be able to keep a good-sized slice of the Mekinese navy busy simply lying in wait for me here and there."

"And?"

"There are tribute-ships which carry food from the subject worlds to Mekin. Hating Mekin as befits the sole survivor of this fleet, Majesty, it would be natural for me to capture such ships, even if I could do nothing better with them than send them out to space to be wasted. They wouldn't be wasted, naturally. They'd come here."

The king said, "But you couldn't supply the fleet indefinitely!"

Bors nodded agreement. But he waited.

"You may try," said the king querulously. "Have you something else up your sleeve?"

Bors nodded in his turn.

"Don't tell me what it is," said the king. "So long as the fleet gets some food and its existence isn't known.... If I knew what you're up to, I might feel I had to object."

"I think not, Majesty," Bors said, showing a rare smile. "I'll need some extra men. If I do capture food-ships, they'll be useful."

"I can't imagine that anything would be useful," said the king bitterly. "Tell the admiral to give them to you."

Bors saluted and left the room. He went directly to the admiral who in theory was second in command only while the king was aboard. He explained his mission and some of his intentions. The admiral listened stonily.

"I'll give you fifty men," he said. "I think you'll be killed, of course. But if you live long enough to convince them that the fleet's been destroyed, you'll be of service."

"What," Bors asked, with a trace of humor, "can possibly be done about the fact that we wiped out a Mekinese fleet instead of letting it exterminate us?"

"The matter," the admiral answered seriously, "is under consideration."

Bors shrugged and went to his own ship, the Isis. He was excessively uncomfortable. He'd said to his uncle, and implied to the king, that he had some plan in mind. He did, but it angered him to know that he counted on assistance; that, in theory, he could not possibly accomplish it alone. It was irritating to realize that he expected Gwenlyn and her father to turn up, with their Talents, when absolutely nobody outside of the fleet could possibly imagine where the fleet had gone. On Kandar it must be assumed, by now, that it was dead.

His ship's boat clanked into position in the lifeboat blister. The valves closed on it. A moment later there was a whistling murmur, and the boat's vision-ports clouded over outside and then cleared. He stepped out into the ship's atmosphere. His second-in-command greeted him in the control-room.

"I was trying to reach you at the flagship, sir," he said. "The yacht Sylva is lying a few miles off. Her owner has forwarded news reports to the flagship. He asks that you receive him when you can, sir."

Bors's apparent lack of surprise was real. He wasn't surprised. But he was annoyed with himself for expecting something so impossible as the Sylva tracing the fleet through an overdrive voyage of days to a most unlikely destination like Glamis.

"Tell him to come aboard," he commanded.

He went to talk to the mess officer, reflecting that he would ask the Morgans how the Sylva had known where to come, and they'd tell him, and it would be extremely unlikely, and he would accept the explanation. The mess-officer looked harassed at the news of fifty additional crewmen to be fed.

"Principles of prudence and common sense," said Bors, "don't apply any more. We'll feed them somehow."

He went back to the control-room. When Morgan appeared, beaming expansively, Bors was again unsurprised to see Gwenlyn with him. Logan, the Mathematics Talent, followed in their wake, looking indifferently about him.

"We wiped out the fleet headed for Kandar," Bors observed. "I don't suppose that's news, to you?"

Morgan cheerfully shook his head.

"And we're in considerably more trouble than before. Is that news?"

"No," admitted Morgan. "It's reasonable for you to be."

"Then, damnit, I'm going off on a pirating-news-gathering-food-raiding cruise alone," said Bors. "Is that news?"

"We brought Logan," said Morgan, "to go with you. He'll be useful. That's Talents—"

"—Incorporated information and I can depend on it," said Bors dourly. "In plain common sense the odds are rather high against my accomplishing anything, such as coming back."

Morgan looked at his daughter. He grinned.

"We heard gloom from him the other day before a certain space-battle, didn't we?" He turned back to Bors. "Look, Captain. Our Talents don't prophesy. Precognition simply says that when there are so many thousand ways an event in the future can happen, then, in one of those several thousand ways, it will. Precognition doesn't say which way. It doesn't say how. Especially, it doesn't say why. But we have a very firm precognition by a very reliable Talent that you'll be alive and doing something very specific a year from now. So we assume you won't be permanently killed in the meantime."

"But anything else can happen?"

"More or less," admitted Morgan.

"What will happen?"

"We don't know!" said Morgan again. "Someday I may take you aside and explain the facts of precognition and other talents as I understand them. I'm probably quite wrong. But I do know better than to try to pry certain kinds of information from my Talents. Right now—"

"I'm going to try to capture a, what you might call a tribute-ship, loaded with food for Mekin."

"Tralee," said Morgan with finality. "You'll try there."

"Will I capture a food-ship there?" asked Bors.

"How the devil would I know?" Morgan snapped.

"You asked the wrong question," said Gwenlyn cheerfully. "If you asked if there's a cargo-ship down on Tralee, loading foodstuffs for Mekin, there can be an answer to that."

"Is there?"

"At the moment, yes," Morgan answered. "So the dowsing Talent says."

"Then I'll go there," said Bors.

"I thought you might," said Morgan. He looked at his daughter.

"May I come along?" asked Gwenlyn. "With an assortment of Talents? My father's going to have long conferences with the king. He'll need some Talents here to work out things. But I could go along on your ship with a few of the others. We could help a lot."

"No!" said Bors grimly.

"I thought not," said Morgan. "Very well. Logan, you'll help Captain Bors, I'm sure."

The math Talent said offhandedly;

"Any calculations he needs, of course."

He looked about him with a confident, modestly complacent air.

Bors walked with Morgan and his daughter to the airlock. He turned to Gwenlyn. "I don't mean to be ungallant, refusing to let you run risks."

"I'm flattered but annoyed," Gwenlyn answered. "It means I'll have to take drastic measures. Luck!"

She and her father went into the Sylva's space-boat. The blister doors closed. Bors went back to the control room. He began to set up the computations for astrogation from the sun of Glamis to the sun of Tralee. He shortly heard the sound of arrivals via the Isis's airlock. Presently, his second-in-command reported fifty additional hands aboard. They included astrogators, drive-engineers and assorted specialists.

After clearance with the flagship, the little warship aimed with painstaking exactitude at Tralee's sun, making due allowance for its proper motion, Glamis's proper motion, the length of time the light he aimed by had been on its way, the distance, and the Isis's travel-rate in overdrive.

Presently Bors said, "Overdrive coming!" and counted down. After "one" he pressed a button. There was the singularly unpleasant sensation of going into overdrive. Then the small fighting ship was alone in its cocoon of warped and twisted space. Until it came out again, there was no possible way by which any message could reach it or its existence be detected or proved. Theory said, in fact, that the cosmos could explode and a ship in overdrive would be unaware of the fact so long as it stayed in overdrive.

But Bors's light cruiser came out where the sun of Tralee was a disk of intolerable brilliance, and all the stars in every direction looked exactly as usual.



Chapter 6

The Isis approached Tralee from the night side, and at a time when the planet's spaceport faced the sun. Tralee was not a base for Mekinese war-craft. To the contrary, it was strictly a conquered world. It was desirable for Mekinese ships to be able to appear as if magically and without warning in its skies. There would be no far-ranging radars on the planet except at its solitary spaceport. Mekinese ships could come out of overdrive, time a solar-system-drive approach to arrive at Tralee's atmosphere in darkness, and be hovering menacingly overhead when dawn broke. Such an appearance had strong psychological effects upon the population.

Bors used the same device with modifications.

His ship plunged out of the sunrise and across half a continent, descending as it flew. When it reached the planet's capital city, there had been less than a minute between the first notification by radar and its naked-eye visibility. When it came into sight at the spaceport it was less than four thousand feet high and it went sweeping for the landing-grid at something over mach one. Its emergency-rockets roared. It decelerated smoothly and crossed the upper rim of the great, lacy metal structure with less than a hundred feet to spare. In fractions of an additional minute it was precisely aground some fifty yards from the spaceport office. Steam and smoke rose furiously from where its rocket-flames had played.

Lock-doors opened. Briskly moving landing-parties trotted across the ground toward the grid-control building. There were two ships already in the spaceport. One was a Mekinese guard-ship of approximately the armament of the Isis. Weapons trained swiftly upon it. Missiles roared across the half-mile of distance. They detonated, chemical explosives only. The Mekinese guard-ship flew apart. What remained was not truly identifiable as a former ship. It was fragments.

Bors asked curtly, "Grid office?"

The landing-party was inside. A small tumult came out of a speaker. A voice said:

"All secure in the grid office, sir."

"Hook in to planetary broadcast, declare a first-priority emergency, and run your tape," commanded Bors.

He said over the ship's speakers, "Everything going well so far. Prize crew, take the cargo-ship. Keep the crew aboard. Then report."

Ten men poured out of the grounded light cruiser's starboard port and trotted on the double toward the other ship aground. The weapons on Bors's ship did not bear upon it.

The sun shone. Clouds drifted tranquilly across the sky. Masses of smoke from the demolition-missiles that had smashed the guard-ship rose, curled and very slowly dissipated. Ten men entered the bulbous cargo-ship.

Up to now the entire affair had consumed not more than five minutes, from the appearance of a blip on a spaceport radar screen, to the beginning of a full-volume broadcast. Bors turned on the receiver and listened to the harsh voice—especially chosen from among the crew—which now came out of every operating broadcast receiver on the planet.

"Notice to the people of Tralee! There is aground on Tralee a ship with no home planet nor any loyalty except to its hatred of Mekin. We were part of the fleet of Kandar until that fleet was destroyed. Now we fight Mekin alone! We are pirates. We are outcasts. But we still have arms to defend ourselves with! We demand...."

A voice said curtly in Bors's ear, "Cargo-ship secured, sir."

"Take off on rockets and maneuver as ordered," said Bors. "Then rendezvous as arranged."

He returned his attention to the broadcast. It was a deliberately savage, painstakingly desperate, carefully terrifying message to the people of Tralee. It demanded supplies and arms on threat of destroying the city around it. A single one of its combat-missiles, as a matter of fact, could have done a good job of destruction on this metropolis.

The broadcast would be a shattering experience to men who had reconciled themselves to subjugation by the rulers of Mekin. The planet Tralee was now governed for the benefit of Mekin by the kind of men who would do such work. They knew that they could stay in office only so long as Mekin upheld them. To hear their protectors denounced if only by a single voice....

There was a monstrous roaring outside. The cargo-ship took off for the skies. It was a thousand feet high before the weapons on the Isis stirred. It seemed to those below that the pirate crew was taken unawares by the cargo-ship's escape. That was part of Bors's plan.

A weapon of the grounded Isis roared. A missile hurtled after the fugitive, and missed. It went on past its apparent target and did not even detonate at nearest proximity, as it should have done. It vanished, and the cargo-ship continued to rise in seemingly panicky fashion. It slanted from its headlong lift, and curved away and darted for emptiness at its maximum acceleration. A second missile from the fighting-ship missed. The cargo-ship dwindled, and dwindled, and now the Isis appeared to take deliberate measurements of the distance and acceleration of its target. It might be assumed that its radars needed to be readjusted from the long-range-finding required in space, to the shorter-range measurements called for now.

Something plunged after the fleeing cargo-boat, by now merely a pin-point in the blue. The rising object moved so swiftly that it was invisible. Then it detonated, and the fumes of the explosion blotted out the fugitive. When they cleared, the sky was empty.

There had now been a lapse of less than ten minutes from the first sighting of the Isis screaming toward the spaceport. The guard-ship had been destroyed and the cargo-ship which seemed to flee had apparently been destroyed. When someone had leisure to think, it would appear that the cargo-boat's crew had overcome the armed party which entered it and then taken the foolish course of flight.

Bors waited, listening absently. A voice:

"All clear on board the prize, sir. The cargo seems to be mostly foodstuffs, sir. Proceeding to rendezvous as ordered. Off."

Bors nodded automatically and resumed listening to the broadcast. Matters were going well. Everything had gone through with the precision of clockwork, which meant simply that Bors had planned in detail something that had never been anticipated and so had not been counter-planned. Before anyone on Tralee realized that anything had happened, everything had happened—the Isis aground, the guard-ship demolished, the grid taken over, and a fleeing cargo-ship apparently destroyed in the upper atmosphere. And a harsh voice now rasped out of loudspeakers everywhere, uttering threats, cursing Mekin—few could believe their ears—and rousing hopes which Bors knew regretfully were bound to be disappointed.

The rasping broadcast cut off in the middle of a syllable. Somebody had come to believe that he really heard what he thought he heard. Now there would be reaction. At the sunrise-line on Tralee only a handful of people were awake. They were dumbfounded. Where people breakfasted, the intentionally savage voice made food seem unimportant. Where it was midday, waves of violent emotion swept over the land.

"Call the defense forces," Bors commanded the grid office, by transmitter. "They'll be Mekinese—Mekinese-officered, anyhow. We don't want them to get ideas of attacking us, so identify us as the pirate ship Isis and order all police and garrison troops to stay exactly where they are. Say we've got all our fusion-bombs armed to go off in case of an artillery-fire hit."

This was the most valid of all possible threats against the most probable form of attack. Fusion-bombs could be used against enemies in space, or for the annihilation of a population, but they could not be used in police operations against a subject people. To coerce people one must avoid destroying them. So while a ship the size of the Isis could—and did—carry enough confined hellfire in its missile warheads to destroy an area hundreds of miles across, the occupation troops of Mekin could not use such weapons. They needed blast-rifles for minor threats and artillery for selective destruction. In any case no sane man would try to destroy the Isis aground after an announcement that its bombs were armed, and that they were fused to explode.

"Now repeat the demand for stores," ordered Bors. "We might as well stock up. Speed is essential. We can't use stores they've time to booby-trap or poison. Give them twenty minutes to start the stuff arriving. Demand fuel, extra rocket-fuel especially. Remind them about our bombs."

He waited. Speakers beside him could inform him of any action anywhere outside or inside the ship. The landing-party in the spaceport building reported as it went through the spaceport records, picking up such information concerning Mekinese commercial regulations, identification-calls and anticipated ship-movements as might prove useful elsewhere. The rasping voice began to broadcast again. It went on for fifteen seconds and cut off.

"Tell the government broadcasting system that if they stop relaying our broadcast," said Bors, "we'll heave a bomb into the police barracks and the supply-depots."

He heard the threat issued and very soon thereafter an agitated voice announced to the people of Tralee that a pirate ship was in possession of the planet's spaceport and that it insisted upon broadcasting to the planet's people. It was considered unwise to refuse. Therefore the broadcast would continue, but of course citizens could turn off their sets.

There came a roar of anger and the harsh-voiced broadcaster returned to the air. His taped broadcast had run out. Now he bellowed such subversive profanity directed at the officials of Tralee-under-Mekin that Bors smiled sourly. It was not good for Mekinese prestige to have a subject people know that one ship could defy the empire, even for minutes. It was still less desirable to have the members of the puppet government described as dogs of particularly described breeds, of particularly described characteristics, and particular lack of legitimacy. Bors had chosen for his broadcast a man of vivid imagination and large vocabulary. He did not want the Isis to appear under discipline, lest it seem to act under orders. He wanted to create the impression of men turned pirates because everything they lived for had been destroyed, and who now were running amok among the planets Mekin had subjugated.

The broadcast was not incitement to revolt, because Bors's ship was posing as the only survivor of a planet's fleet. But it conveyed such contempt and derision and hatred of all things Mekinese that for months to come men would whisper jokes based on what an Isis crewman had said on Tralee's air. The respect the planet's officials craved would drop below its former low level.

Time passed. Bors, of course, could not send a landing-party anywhere, lest it be sniped. He had actually accomplished the purpose for which he'd landed, the getting of a shipload of food out to space, the announcement of the destruction of Kandar's fleet and the spreading of contempt and derision for Mekin in Tralee. Now he had to keep anyone from suspecting the importance of the cargo-ship. The demand for stores was a cover-up for things already done. But that cover-up had to be completed.

Vehicles appeared at the edge of the landing-grid. Figures advanced individually, waving white flags. Bors sent men out with small arms to get their messages. These were the supplies he'd demanded. Food. Rocket-fuel. More food.

The vehicles trundled into the open and stopped. Men from the Isis waved away the drivers and took over the trucks. They brought most of them to the ship's side. A petty-officer came into the control room and saluted.

"Sir," he said briskly. "One of the drivers told me his load of grub had time-bombs in it. The secret police use time-bombs and booby-traps here, sir, to keep the people terrified. He says the bombs will go off after we're out in space, sir."

"What did you do?" asked Bors.

"I pretended the truck stalled and I couldn't start it. Two other drivers tipped off our men. We left those trucks and some others out on the field, so the drivers wouldn't be suspected of alerting us."

"Good work," said Bors. "Better put detectors on all parcels from all trucks before bringing them aboard."

"Booby-traps can be made very tricky indeed, but when they are used by secret police...." Bors allowed himself to rage for a moment only, at the idea of that kind of terrorism practiced by a government on its supposed citizens. It would be intended to enforce the totalitarian idea that what is not commanded for the ordinary citizen to do is forbidden to him. But secret-police booby-traps and time-bombs would be standardized. He hadn't allowed time for complex, detection-proof devices to be made. Detectors would pick out any ordinary trickery.

The harsh-voiced broadcaster continued to harangue the population of Tralee, of which the least of his words was high treason. They enjoyed the broadcast very much.

Presently Bors began to fidget. The Isis had been aground for thirty-five minutes. He had sat in the control room that whole time, supervising a smoothly-running operation. He had had to supervise it. Nobody else could have planned and carried it out. But it was not heroic. He had the line officer's inherent scorn for administrative officers, who are necessary but not glamorous or admired. He was stuck with just that kind of duty now. But he fretted. The local officials were given time to get over their panic. They ought to be planning some counter-measure by this time.

He called the spaceport office.

"There should be a map of the city somewhere about," he said crisply. "Send it along special. Bring a communicator call-book. If you find any news-reports, new or old, we want them."

"Yes, sir," said a brisk voice. "The broadcast's right, sir?"

"It is," said Bors. "You're mining the grid set-up. We'll blow it before we leave. There's no point in letting Mekin set down transports loaded with troops to punish innocent people because they heard the Mekinese accurately described. Make 'em land on rockets and there won't be so many landing."

"Yes, sir. Will do, sir."

A click. Bors heard heavy materials being loaded aboard. Each object was being examined by a detector. The loading process stopped. Bors pressed a button.

"What happened?" he demanded.

"Looks like a booby-trapped box, sir," said a voice. "Among the supplies, sir."

"Take it off a hundred yards and riddle it," ordered Bors. "This may settle a problem for us."

"Yes, sir."

Bors fidgeted again. A messenger from the grid-control building arrived. He had a map of the capital city of Tralee.

There was an explosion. A violent one. Bors looked out a port and saw where the suspected parcel had been set up as a target a hundred yards from the ship. It had been riddled with blast-rifle bolts, and had exploded. It might not have destroyed the Isis if it had exploded in space, but it would not have done it any good.

Bors pushed the button for the loading-port compartment.

"Throw out all the stuff loaded so far," he commanded. "Some of it may be booby-trapped like that last one. We won't take a chance. Heave it all out again."

"Yes, sir."

Bors gave other orders. The harsh-voiced broadcast stopped. Bors's own voice went out on the air, steely-hard.

"Captain Bors, pirate ship Isis speaking," he said coldly. "We demanded supplies. They were sent us—government-supplied. We have found one booby-trap included. In retaliation for this attempted assassination, we are going to lob chemical-explosive missiles into the principal government buildings of this city. We give three minutes' leeway for clerks and other persons to get clear of those buildings. The three minutes start now!"

The sun shone tranquilly on the planet Tralee. White clouds floated with infinite leisureliness across the blue sky. There was no motion of any sort within the wide, open area of the landing-grid. Over a large part of this world's surface all activity had stopped while men listened to a broadcast.

"Fifteen seconds gone," said Bors icily.

He wrote out an order and passed it for execution.

"Thirty seconds gone."

From twenty giant buildings in the city, a black tide of running figures began to pour. When they reached the street, they went on running. They wanted to get as far as possible from the buildings Bors had said would be destroyed.

"Forty-five seconds gone," said Bors implacably.

A voice spoke from the grid-control building, where men were now placing explosives with precisely calculated effects. The voice came on microwaves to the ship.

"Sir," said the voice, "landing-grid reporting. Space-yacht Sylva reports breakout from overdrive and asks coordinates for landing. Purpose of visit, pleasure-travel."

Bors swore, then smiled to himself. Gwenlyn had threatened to do something drastic!

"Say landing's forbidden," he commanded an instant later. "Advise immediate departure."

He pressed a button and said evenly:

"One minute gone! In two minutes more we send our bombs and take off."

Streets outside the government buildings were filled from building-wall to building-wall by clerks drafted to staff the incredible, arbitrary government set up on its tributary worlds by Mekin. Bors scribbled a list of buildings to be ranged on. The map from the spaceport office would help. He marked the Ministry of Police, which would contain the records essential to the operation of the planet-wide police system. Anything that happened to those records would be so much good fortune for Tralee, and so much bad for the master race and its quislings. He marked the Ministry of the Interior, which would house the machinery for requisitions of tribute to Mekin. The Ministry of Public Order would be the headquarters of the secret and the political police. It ran the forced-labor camps. It filed all anonymous accusations. It kept records on all persons suspected of the crime of patriotism. If anything happened to those records, it would be all to the good.

"Two minutes gone," said Bors.

The voice from the spaceport control building said briskly:

"Demolition charges placed, sir. Ready to evacuate and fire. Sir, the space-yacht Sylva sends a message to the captain of the pirate ship. It says they'll wait."

Bors said, "Damn! All right." Then into the broadcast-microphone, "Two-and-a-half minutes. There will be no further count-down. In thirty seconds we fire missiles into government buildings, in retaliation for an attempt to assassinate us with time-bombs. The next sound you hear will be our missiles arriving." He cut back to the grid-control building. "Fire all charges and report to the ship."

Almost instantly curt, crisp reports sounded nearby. The landing-party came smartly back to the airlock, while explosions continued in the building they'd left.

"Launcher-tubes train on targets," Bors commanded. He pressed another button. "Rocket-room, make ready for lift." Back to the launcher-tube communicator. "Fire missiles one, two, three, four, five, six."

There were boomings, which rose to bellowings as devastation tore away from the Isis's launching-tubes. Bors said irritably to the rocket-room:

"Take her up!"

And then the ship lifted on her rockets—they were not solely for emergency use, as on cargo-ships—and rushed toward the sky. As the ship mounted on its column of writhing smoke, other smoky columns spouted up. Six of them. But they were limited. They went up two thousand feet and then tended to mushroom. Bits of debris went higher and spread more widely, and for a time there were fragments of buildings and their contents flying wildly about.

But the ship went straight upward. The city and the open country beyond it shrank swiftly. The spouted smokes of explosions in the city were left behind. Mountains appeared at one horizon and a sea at another. Then the vast expanse of the planet suddenly acquired a curved edge, and the ship again went up and up—while the sky turned dark and some stars appeared in futile competition with the sun—and the surface of Tralee became visibly the near side of an enormous globe.

Then the planet became plainly what it was, a great ball floating in space, one-half of it brilliant in the sunshine and one part of it bathed in night.

Bors put on the solar-system drive and changed course. A voice came through:

"Calling pirate ship ... calling pirate ship.... Space yacht Sylva calling pirate ship...."

Bors growled into a microphone, "What the devil are you doing in this place. What's happened?"

Gwenlyn's voice, bland and amused. "Nothing happened. But we've got some news for you. Make rendezvous at the fourth planet?"

Bors swore again. That was where he was to meet the cargo-ship captured and sent aloft, supposedly destroyed on Tralee. But he drove on out, around and away from Tralee.

He was reasonably satisfied with his landing on Tralee. With some luck, the news of the landing of a lone survivor of the Kandarian fleet might reach Mekin before it was aware of what had happened to its occupation force. With a little more luck, the attention of Mekin would be devoted more to a ship which dared to turn pirate than to Kandar itself. With unlimited favorable fortune, Mekin might actually send ships to hunt the Isis instead of asking questions on Kandar.

But Bors made a mental note. The more time that passed before Mekin knew what had happened, the better. So a ship or two or three might be detached from the fleet and sent back to hang off Kandar. If a single ship came inquiringly, it might be sniped and the news of Kandar suppressed for a while longer. And it was conceivable that Mekin might come to worry more about other matters than the success or failure of a routine expansion of its empire.

The fourth planet loomed up on schedule. Bors was irritated, as often before, by the relatively slow solar-system drive. Overdrive was sometimes not fast enough—but solar-system drive was infuriatingly slow. Yet one couldn't use overdrive in a solar system. Approaching a planet on overdrive would be like trying to garage a ground-car at sixty miles an hour. One couldn't stop where one wanted to. He wondered vaguely if Logan, the math Talent, could handle such a problem, and dismissed the idea. One could break a circuit with an accuracy of microseconds, but that wouldn't be close enough for overdrive. It wouldn't be practical.

Then the ice-sheet of Tralee's nearest neighbor planet spread out in the vision-port's range of view. Bors called for the cargo-ship. It answered almost immediately. It was standard practice, of course, that the site of a meeting planned at a given planet would be wherever its poles pointed nearest to galactic north. The cargo-ship had just arrived. It barely responded before the Sylva began to call again.

The three ships, then, joined their orbits and went swinging about the glacier-world beneath them while they conferred.

The report from the cargo-ship was unexpectedly satisfactory. It had been almost completely loaded, and its cargo was largely foodstuffs intended for Mekin. Kandar's fleet-in-hiding was already subsisting on emergency rations. This cargo of assorted frozen foods would be welcome. Bors gave orders for it to head for Glamis immediately, in overdrive.

Communication had been three-way, and Gwenlyn said quickly;

"Just a moment! Did you pick up any news-reports on Tralee?"

"Hm. Yes. I'd better send them—"

"You'd better?" echoed Gwenlyn, scolding. "My father stayed with the fleet to try to explain what Talents, Incorporated can do! He kept most of the Talents with him, for demonstrations! The Department for Predicting Dirty Tricks is there! Don't you remember what that Department works on? Of course you've got to send those news-reports!"

Bors ordered a space-boat to come from the cargo-ship for the reports.

"Would you like to come to dinner on the yacht?" asked Gwenlyn. "You're all living on emergency rations. Nobody asked us to divide our supplies with the fleet. I can give you a nice meal."

"Better not," said Bors curtly, and mumbled thanks.

He ordered the cargo-ship to send as much of its stores as the space-boat could conveniently carry.

"Then how about some cigars?" asked Gwenlyn. She seemed at once amused and approving, because Bors would not indulge himself in a really satisfying meal while his crew lived on far from appetizing emergency foodstuffs.

"No," said Bors. "No cigars either. You said you had some news for me. What is it?"

"I brought along our ship-arrival Talent," said Gwenlyn blandly. "He can only tell when a ship will arrive at the solar system where he is, so he had to come here to precognize."

Bors felt again that stubborn incredulity which Talents, Incorporated would always rouse in a mind like his.

"There'll be a ship arriving here in two days, four hours, sixteen minutes from now," said Gwenlyn matter-of-factly. "He thinks it's a fighting ship, though he can't be sure. It could be a cruiser or something like that doing mail duty, coming to deliver orders and receive reports. You can't run an empire without a regular news system, and Mekin wouldn't depend on commercial ships for government business."

"Good!" said Bors. "Thanks!"

There was a pause.

"What will you do now?"

"Try to raise the devil somewhere else," said Bors. "Try to pick up another food-ship, probably. Maybe I ought to let this ship alone, to carry news of the pirate ship Isis back to Mekin, but— No. They use booby-traps as police devices!"

It was not reasonable, but Bors could not think of missing a Mekinese warship. The idea of a government using booby-traps to enforce its orders somehow put it beyond forgiveness, and with the government all those who served it willingly.

"You'll go to Garen then?" asked Gwenlyn.

Bors felt a sharp sting of annoyance. He had carefully kept secret the choice of Garen Three as the next planet to be invaded by the pseudo-pirate ship. It was upsetting to find that Gwenlyn knew about it. Blast Talents, Incorporated!

"The dowsing Talent," said Gwenlyn, "says there's a battleship aground there. There've been some riots. The people of Garen don't like Mekin, either. Strange? The battleship is to overawe them."

"How do you know that?" demanded Bors.

"The Department for Predicting Dirty Tricks was reading old news-reports," she told him. "We're leaving now. 'Bye."

"Goodbye," said Bors, and sighed, not knowing whether he felt regret or relief.

The space-yacht Sylva flicked out of sight. It had gone into overdrive. Bors realized that he hadn't noticed which way it pointed. He should have taken note. But he shook his head. He gave the cargo-ship detailed orders, receiving its space-boat and what food it had been able to bring. He sent it off to meet his fleet at Glamis.

He stayed in orbit around the fourth planet to wait for a Mekinese fighting-ship. He began, too, to make long-range plans.



Part Three



Chapter 7

The Mekinese ship was a cruiser, and it broke out of overdrive within the Tralee solar system just two days, four hours, and some odd minutes after Gwenlyn predicted its coming. Presumably, it had made the customary earlier breakout to correct its course and measure the distance remaining to be run. In overdrive there was not as yet a way to know accurately one's actual speed, and at astronomical distances small errors piled up. Correction of line was important, too, because a course that was even a second off arc could mount up to hundreds of thousands of miles. But even with that usual previous breakout, the Mekinese cruiser did not turn up conveniently close to its destination. It needed a long solar-system drive to make its planetfall.

Bors's long-range radar picked it up before it was near enough to notify its arrival to the planet—if it intended to notify at all. Most likely its program was simply and frighteningly to appear overhead and arrogantly demand the services of the landing-grid to lower it to the ground.

Bors's radar detected the cruiser and instantly cut itself off. The cry of "Co-o-ntact!" went through the ship and all inner doors closed, sealing the ship into sections. Bors was already at the board in the control room. He did not accept the predictions of Talents, Incorporated as absolute truth. It bothered him that such irrational means of securing information should be so accurate. So he compromised in his own mind to the point where, when Talents, Incorporated gave specific information, it was possible; no more. Then, having admitted so much, he acted on the mere possibility, and pretended to be surprised when it turned out to be a fact.

That was the case now. A ship had appeared in this solar system at the time the ship-arrival Talent on the Sylva predicted. Bors scowled, and swung the Isis in line between Tralee and the new arrival. He turned, then, and drove steadily out toward it. The other ship's screens would show a large blip which was the planet, and in direct line a very much smaller blip which was the Isis. The small blip might not be noticed because it was in line with the larger. If it were noticed, it would be confusing, because such things should not happen. But the cruisers of Mekin were not apt to be easily alarmed. They represented a great empire, all of whose landing-grids were safely controlled, and though there was disaffection everywhere there was no reason to suspect rebellion at operations in space.

For a long time nothing happened. The Isis drove to meet the cruiser. The two vessels should be approaching each other at a rate which was the total of their speeds. Bors punched computer-keys and got the gravitational factor at this distance from Tralee's sun. He set the Isis's solar-system drive to that exact quantity. He waited.

His own radar was now non-operative. Its first discovery-pulse would have been observed by the Mekinese duty-officer. The fact that it did not repeat would be abnormal. The duty-officer would wonder why it didn't come again.

The astrogation-radar cut off. Then a single strong pulse came. It would be a ranging-pulse. Cargo-ship radars sacrificed high accuracy for wide and deep coverage. But war-vessels carried pulse instruments which could measure distances within feet up to thousands of miles, and by phase-scrambling among the echoes even get some information about the size and shape of the object examined. Not much, but some.

Bors relaxed. Things were going well. When four other ranging-pulses arrived at second intervals, he nodded to himself. This was a warship's reaction. It could be nothing else. That officer knew that something was coming out from Tralee. It was on approximately a collision course. But a ship traveling under power should gain velocity as long as its drive was on. When traveling outward from the sun and not under power, it should lose velocity by so many feet per second to the sun's gravitational pull. Bors's ship did neither. It displayed the remarkably unlikely characteristic of absolutely steady motion. It was not normal. It was not possible. It could not have any reasonable explanation, in the mind of a Mekinese.

Which was its purpose. It would arouse professional curiosity on the cruiser, which would then waste some precious time attempting to identify it. There wouldn't be suspicion because it didn't act suspiciously. Still, it couldn't be dismissed, because it didn't behave in any recognizable fashion. The cruiser would want to know more about it; it shouldn't move at a steady velocity going outward from a sun.

In consequence, Bors got in the first shot.

He said, "Fire one!" when the Mekinese would be just about planning to turn their electron-telescope upon it. A missile leaped away from the Isis. It went off at an angle, and it curved madly, and the instrumentation of the cruiser could spot it as now there, now here, now nearer, and now nearer still. But the computers could not handle an object which not only changed velocity but changed the rate at which its velocity changed.

Missiles came pouring out of the Mekinese ship. They were infinitesimal, bright specks on the radar-screen. They curved violently in flight trying to intercept the Isis's missile. They failed.

There was a flash of sun-bright flame very, very far away. There was a little cloud of vapor which dissipated swiftly. Then there was nothing but two or three specks moving at random, their target lost, their purpose forgotten. The fact of victory was an anticlimax.

"All clear," said Bors grimly.

The inner-compartment doors opened. The normal sounds of the ship were heard again. Bors began to calculate the data needed for the journey to Garen. There was the angle and the distance and the proper motions and the time elapsed.... He found it difficult to think in such terms. He was discontented. He'd ambushed a Mekinese cruiser. True, he'd let his own ship be seen, and the Mekinese had warning enough to launch missiles in their own defense. It was not even faintly like the ambush of a cruiser on the bottom of a Kandarian sea, waiting to assassinate a fleet when its complement went on board. But Bors didn't like what he'd just done.

The figures wouldn't come out right. Impatiently, he sent for Logan. The mathematical Talent came into the control room.

"Will you calculate this for me?" Bors asked irritably.

Logan glanced casually at the figures and wrote down the answer. Instantly. Without thought or reflection. Instantly!

Bors couldn't quite believe it. The distance between the two stars was a rounded-off number, of course. The relative proper motion of the two stars had a large plus-or-minus bugger factor. The time-lapse due to distance had a presumed correction and there was a considerable probable error in the speed of translation of the ship during overdrive. It was a moderately complicated equation, and the computation of the probable error was especially tricky. Bors stared at it, and then stared at Logan.

"That's the answer to what you have written there," said Logan condescendingly, "but your figures are off. I've been talking to your computer men. They've given me the log figures on past overdrive jumps and the observed errors on arrival. They're systematic. I noticed it at once."

Bors said, "What?"

"There's a source of consistent error," Logan said patiently. "I found the values to correct it, then I found the source. It's in your overdrive speed."

Bors blinked. Speed in overdrive could not be computed exactly. The approximation was very close—within a fraction of a tenth of one per cent—but when the distance traveled was light-years the uncertainty piled up.

"If you use these figures," said Logan complacently—and he scribbled figures swiftly—"you'll get it really accurate."

Having finished writing the equation, he wrote the solution. Bors asked suspicious questions. Logan answered absently. He knew nothing about overdrive. He didn't understand anything but numbers and he didn't know how he did what he did with them. But he'd worked backward from observed errors in calculation and found a way to keep them out of the answer. And he'd done it all in his head. It was unbelievable—yet Bors believed.

"I'll try your figures," he said. "Thanks."

Logan went proudly away, past an orderly bringing cups of coffee to the control room. Bors aimed the ship according to the calculation Logan had given him, scrupulously setting the breakout timer to the exact figure listed.

He was still uncomfortable about the destruction of the Mekinese cruiser when he said curtly, "Overdrive coming!" He'd have preferred a more sportsmanlike type of warfare. He faced the old, deplorable fact that fighting men had had to adjust to throughout the ages; one can fight an honorable enemy honorably, but against some men scruples count as handicaps.

"Swine!" growled Bors. "They'll make us like them!" Then into the microphone he said, "Five, four, three, two, one...."

He pressed the overdrive button. The sensation of going into overdrive was acutely uncomfortable, as always. Bors swallowed squeamishly and took his cup of coffee.

The Isis, then, lay wrapped in a cocoon of stressed space. Its properties included the fact that its particular type of stress could travel much more swiftly than the stresses involved in the propagation of radiation, of magnetism, or gravity. And this state of stress—this overdrive field—did not have a position. It was a position. The ship inside it could not be said to be in the real cosmos at all, but when the field collapsed it would be somewhere, and the way it pointed, and how long before collapse, determined in what particular somewhere it would be when it came out. But travel in overdrive was tedious.

As civilization increases man's control of the cosmos, it takes the fun out of it. In prehistoric days a man who had to hunt animals or go hungry may often have gone hungry, but he was never bored by the sameness of his meals. A man who traveled on horseback often got to his destination late, but he was not troubled with ennui on the way. In overdrive, Bors's ship traveled almost with the speed of thought, but there was absolutely nothing to think about while journeying. Not about the journey, anyhow.

While the ship drove on, however, the cargo-ship seized on Tralee made its way toward Glamis and a meeting with the fleet, then gloomily sweeping in orbit around Glamis Two. The food it carried would raise men's spirits a little, but it would not solve the problem of what the fleet was to do. Morgan, on the flagship, expounded the ability of his Talents to perform the incredible, but nobody could find any application of the incredible to the fix the fleet was in. On Kandar, the population knew that there had been a battle off the gas-giant planet, but they did not know the result. The Mekinese fleet had not come. The fleet of Kandar had not returned. The caretaker government met in council and desperately made guesses. It arrived at no hopeful conclusion whatever. The most probable—because most hopeless—conviction seemed to be that the fleet of Mekin had been met and fought, but that it was victorious, and in retaliation for resistance it had gone away to send back swarms of grisly bomb-carriers which would drop atomic bombs in such quantity that for a thousand years to come there would be no life on Kandar.

The light cruiser, the Isis, was unaware of these frustrations. It remained in overdrive, where absolutely nothing happened.

Bors reviewed his actions and could not but approve of them tepidly. He'd sent food to the fleet, he'd destroyed two enemy fighting ships and he'd done what he could to harm the Mekinese puppets on Tralee. He'd had them publicly humiliated with well-chosen epithets. He'd destroyed the records and archives of the secret political police.... Many people on Tralee already blessed him, without knowing who he was. There might yet be hope of better days.

But all things end, even journeys at excessively great multiples of the speed of light. The overdrive timer rang warning bells. Taped breakout notifications sounded from speakers throughout the ship. There was a count-down of seconds, and the abominably unpleasant sensation of breakout, and the ship was in normal space again.

There was the sun of Garen, burning peacefully in a vast void with millions of minute, unwinking lights in the firmament all about it. There was a gas-giant planet, a mere fifteen million miles away. Further out there were the smaller, frozen worlds. Nearer the sun, on the far side of its orbit, there was the planet Garen.

The Isis drove for that planet, while Bors tried to decide whether the remarkable accuracy of this breakout was due to accident or to Logan's computations.

Logan appeared as Bors was gloomily contemplating the days needed to reach Garen on solar system drive, because overdrive was too fast. Logan looked offhand and elaborately casual, but he fairly glowed with triumph.

"I found out the fact behind the bugger factor, Captain," he said condescendingly. "The speed of a ship in overdrive varies as the change in mass to the minus fourth. Your computers couldn't tell that! Here's a table for calculating the speed of a ship in overdrive according to its mass and the strength of the overdrive field."

"Fine," said Bors without enthusiasm.

"And to go with it," said Logan, his voice indifferent, but his eyes shining proudly, "just for my own amusement, I computed a complete table of overdrive speeds for this particular ship, with different strengths of field. They run from one point five light-speeds up to the maximum your equipment will give. You have to correct for changes of mass, of course."

Bors was not quite capable of enthusiasm over the computation of tables of complex figures. He simply could not share Logan's thrill of achievement in the results of the neat rows of numerals. Nor had he struggled unduly to grasp the implication of Logan's explanation.

Instead, he said politely, "Very nice. Thank you very much."

Logan's eyes ceased to shine. His wounded pride made him defiant.

"Nobody else anywhere could have worked out that table!" he said stridently. "Nobody! Morgan said you'd appreciate my work! He said you needed my talent! But what good do you see in it? You think I'm a freak!"

Bors realized that he'd been tactless. Logan's experiences before Talents, Incorporated had made him unduly sensitive. He'd done something of which he was proud, but Bors didn't appreciate its magnitude. Logan reacted to the frustration of his vanity.

"Hold it!" said Bors. "I'm not unappreciative. I'm stupid and worried about something. You just figured an overdrive jump for me that's the most accurate I ever heard of! But I'm desperate for time and we've got to spend two days in solar-system drive because we can't make an overdrive hop of less than light-days! So we're losing forty-eight hours or more."

Logan said as stridently as before:

"But I just showed you you don't have to! Cut the field-strength according to that table."

Bors was jolted. It was suddenly self-evident. Logan had said he'd figured a table of overdrive fields for the Isis which would work for anything between one point five light-speeds to maximum. One point five light-speeds!

It was one of those absurdities in technology that so often go so long before they are noticed. During the development of overdrive, it had been the effort of every technician to get the fastest possible drive. It was known that with a given mass and a given field-strength, one could get an effective speed of an unbelievable figure. Men had spent their lives trying to increase that figure. But nobody'd ever tried to find out how slowly one could travel in overdrive, because solar-system drive took care of short distances!

"Wait a minute!" said Bors, staring. "Do you really mean I can drive this ship under two light-speeds in overdrive?"

"Look at the table!" said Logan, trembling with anger. "Look at it! You'll find the figures right there!"

Bors looked. Then he stood up quickly. He left the ship in the care of his second-in-command and plunged into a highly technical discussion with its engineers.

He ran into violent objections. The whole purpose of overdrive was high speed between stars. The engineers insisted that one had to use the strongest possible field. If the field were made feeble, it would become unstable. Everybody knew that the field had to be of maximum strength.

"We'll try minimum," said Bors coldly. "Now let's get to work!"

He had to do much of the labor himself, because the engineers found it necessary to stop at each stage of the effort to explain why it should not be done. He had almost to battle to get an auxiliary circuit paralleling the main overdrive unit, with a transformer to bring down voltage, and a complete new power-supply unit to be cut into the overdrive line while leaving the standard ready for use without delay.

He went back to the control room. He took a distance-reading on the huge planet off to port. He threw on the new, low-power overdrive field. He held it for seconds and broke out. It was still in sight.

The speed of the Isis, with the adjusted overdrive, was one point seven lights.

Now, instead of spending days in solar-system drive for planetary approach, Bors went into the new-speed drive and broke out in eleven minutes twenty seconds, and was within a hundred thousand miles of Garen. He'd saved two days and secured the promise of many more such valuable feats.

As soon as the Isis broke to normal space near Garen, there was a call on the communicator. A familiar voice;

"Calling Isis! Calling Isis! Sylva calling Isis!"

Bors said softly, "Damnation! For the second time, what are you doing in this place?"

Gwenlyn's voice laughed.

"Traveling for pleasure, Captain Bors! I've news for you. We were allowed to land and then told to leave again. There's a warship down below. I told you about it before. It's still there. There's a huge cargo-ship, too, and there are riots because it's almost finished loading with requisitioned foodstuffs for Mekin. Mekin is—would you believe it?—unpopular on Garen!"

"Very well," said Bors. "I'll see what can be done. Will you carry a message for me?"

"Happy to oblige, Captain!"

"Tell them that—" Then Bors stopped short. It was not probable that the fleet wave-form and frequency were known to Mekinese ships. But the possibility of low-speed overdrive travel was much too important a military secret to risk under any circumstances. He said, "I'll be along very shortly with some highly encouraging news."

"Who do I tell this to?"

"I name no names on microwaves," he told her. "Get going, will you?"

"To hear," said Gwenlyn cheerfully, "is to obey."

Her communicator clicked off. The Sylva showed on a radar-screen, but had not been near enough to be sighted direct. The blip shot out from the planet.

Bors growled to himself. The Isis floated a hundred thousand miles off Garen. There was no challenge. There was no query from the planet. But Gwenlyn said that there were riots down below. They could be serious enough to absorb the attention usually given to routine. But there was another reason for this inattention. Garen was a part of the Mekinese empire which was not encouraged to trade off-planet except through Mekin. Very few non-Mekinese ships would ever land there, and therefore wouldn't be watched for. It was unlikely that a long-range radar habitually swept space off Garen. The battleship should be more alert, but again there was no danger of space-borne rebellion, and the affair of Kandar might not have been bruited so far away.

But the spaceport would respond to calls, certainly. Bors considered these circumstances. A large cargo-ship loaded with foodstuffs requisitioned to be sent to Mekin. A population which had been rebellious before—witness the battleship aground to overawe resistance—and now was rioting.

Bors called for the extra members of his crew. He uncomfortably outlined the action he had in mind. There was one part that he disliked. He had to stay on board ship. The important action, as he saw it, would take place elsewhere. It was so obviously painful for him to outline a course of action in which other men must take risks he couldn't share, that his men regarded him with pleased affection which he did not guess at. In the end he asked for twenty volunteers, and got fifty.

He swung the Isis around to the night side of the planet. Its two port blisters opened and two boats floated free in the orbit Bors had established. The ship moved on ahead.

Just at sunup where the spaceport stood, a voice growled down from outer space.

"Calling ground!" it said contemptuously. "Calling ground! This is the last ship left of the fleet of Kandar. We're pirates now and we're looking for trouble! There's a battleship down there. Come up and fight or we blast you in your spaceport! Just to prove we can do it—watch!"

Bors said, "Fire one," and a missile went off toward the planet. It was fused to detonate at the very tip of the fringes of the planet's atmosphere.

It did. There was light more brilliant than a thousand suns. The long low shadows of sunrise vanished. The new-rising sun turned dim by comparison.

The voice from space spoke with intolerable levity. "Come up with your missiles ready! We'll give you ten thousand miles of height. And if you try to duck out in overdrive...."

The voice was explicit about what it would do to the Mekinese-occupied areas of Garen if the battleship fled.

It came up to fight. It could do nothing else.



Chapter 8

The trick, of course, was in the timing, and the secret was that Bors knew what he was doing, while those who opposed him did not. Bors had declared himself a pirate on Tralee, and here off Garen he'd claimed the same status. But no Mekinese, as yet, knew why he'd outlawed himself, nor his purpose in challenging a line battleship to fight. It seemed like the raving, hysterical hatred of men with no motive but hate. But it wasn't. The Isis could have sent down a missile with a limited-yield warhead if its only purpose had been to kill or to destroy. He could have blasted the warship without warning and it was unlikely that it was alert enough to send up counter-missiles in its own defense. But he'd have had to smash everything else in the spaceport at the same time.

Therefore he'd left his two space-boats in low orbit on the night side of the planet. In thirty minutes or so they'd arrive near the spaceport, where there was a large cargo-ship loaded with foodstuffs, for Mekin. Bors wanted that cargo.

So when the Mekinese battlewagon came lumbering up to space, with her missile-tubes armed and bristling, Bors withdrew the Isis. It was not flight. It was a move designed to make sure that when the fight began there would be no stray missiles falling on the planet.

* * * * *

Unseen, the Isis's space-boats floated in darkness. They carried ten men each, equipped with small arms and light bombs. They listened to such bits of broadcast information as came from the night beneath them. Boat Number One picked up a news broadcast, and when it was finished, the petty officer in command pulled free the tape that had recorded it and tucked it in his pocket. There were items of interest on it.

* * * * *

The Isis came to a stop in space. The battleship rose and rose. It did not drive toward the Isis. There was a maximum distance beyond which space-combat was impractical; beyond which missiles became mere blind projectiles moving almost at random and destroying each other without regard to planetary loyalties. There was also a minimum distance, below which missiles were again mere projectiles and could not greatly modify the courses on which they were launched.

But there was a wide area in between, in which combat was practical. The Mekinese battleship reached a height where it could maneuver on solar-system drive without rockets. It might, of course, flick into overdrive and be gone thousands of millions of miles within seconds. But that would be flight. It would not return accurately to the scene of the fight. So overdrive could not be used as a battle tactic. It could be used only for escape.

* * * * *

Near the planet, where the two space-boats floated, the dawnline appeared at the world's edge. The space-boats swung about, facing backward, and applied power for deceleration. They dropped into the atmosphere and bounced out again, and in again—more deeply—and then swung once more to face along their course. They began a long, shallow, screaming descent from the farthest limits of the planet's atmosphere.

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