* * * * *
Out where the sun of Garen was a disk of intolerable brilliance and heat, the battleship bumbled on its way. It would seem that its commander scornfully accepted the Isis's terms of combat and moved contemptuously to the position where his weapons would be most deadly. His ship's launching-tubes were at the ready. It should be able to pour out a cloud of missiles. In fact, a sardonic voice came from the battleship.
"Calling pirate," said the voice.
"Yes," said Bors.
"If you wish to surrender—"
"We don't," said Bors.
"I was about to say," said the sardonic voice, "that it is now too late."
The radar-screen showed tiny specks darting out from that larger speck which was the battleship. They came hurtling toward the Isis. Bors counted them. A ship of the Isis's class mounted eighteen launching-tubes. She should be able to fire eighteen missiles at a time. The Mekinese ship had fired nineteen. If the Isis opened fire, by all the previous rules of space-combat, she would need to use one missile to counter every one of the battleship's, there would still be one left over to destroy the Isis—unless she fired a second spread of missiles, which was virtually impossible before she would be hit.
It was mockery by the skipper of the battleship. He was doubtless much amused at the idea of toying with this small, insolent vessel. But Bors did not try to match him missile for missile. He said evenly,
"Fire one. Fire two. Fire three. Fire four."
He stopped at four. His four missiles went curving wildly, in the general direction, only, of the enemy.
* * * * *
On the planet Garen two shrieking objects came furiously to ground. Men leaped swiftly out of them and trotted toward a small town, a settlement, a group of houses hardly larger than a village. One man delayed by each grounded space-boat, and then ran to overtake the others. Local inhabitants appeared, to stare and to wonder. The two landing-parties, ten men in each, did not pause. They swarmed into the village's single street. There were ground-cars at the street-sides. The men of the landing-parties established themselves briskly. One of them seized a staring civilian by the arm.
"To hell with Mekin," he said conversationally. "Where's the communicator office?"
"To hell with Mekin," repeated the man from the Isis, impatiently. "Where's the communicator office?"
The civilian, trembling suddenly, pointed. Some of the landing-party rushed to it. Four went in. There were the reports of blast-rifles. Smoke and the smell of burnt insulation drifted out. Others of the magically arrived men went methodically down the street, examining each ground-car in turn. One of them cupped his hands and bellowed for the information of alarmed citizens:
"Attention, please! We're from the pirate ship Isis. You have nothing to fear from us. We're survivors of Mekin's invasion of Kandar. You will please co-operate with us, and no harm will come to you. Your ground-cars will be disabled so you can't report us. You will not be punished for this! Repeat: you will not be punished!"
He repeated the announcement. Others of the swiftly-moving landing-parties drove the chosen ground-cars away from the streets. The remaining cars received a blaster-bolt apiece. In seven minutes and thirty seconds from the landing of the small space-craft, a motley assortment of cars roared out of the village, heading for the capital city of Garen. As the last car cleared the houses, there was a monstrous explosion. One of the space-boats flew to bits. Before the cars had vanished, there was a second explosion. Another space-boat vanished in flame and debris. The landing-party had no way to return to space. The inhabitants of the village had no way to report their coming except in person and by traveling some considerable distance on foot. They were singularly slow in making that report. The men of the space-boats had said they were pirates. The people of Garen felt no animosity toward pirates. They only hated Mekinese.
* * * * *
Out in space, missiles hurtled away from the small ship Isis. They did not plunge directly at the battleship. They swung crazily in wide arcs. The already-launched Mekinese missiles swerved to intercept them. They failed. More missiles erupted from the battleship, aimed to intercept. They also failed. The battleship began to fling out every missile it possessed, in a frantic effort to knock out the Isis's erratic missiles, which neither instruments nor eyes were able to follow accurately enough to establish a pattern of destination.
* * * * *
Half a dozen ground-cars roared through the streets of the capital city of Garen. They did not seem to be crowded. One man or at most, two, could be seen in each car, but they drove as a unit, one close behind another, at a furious pace. When they needed a clear way, the first sounded its warning-note and the others joined in as a chorus. Half a dozen sirens blaring together have an authoritative, emergency sound. The way was cleared when that imperative clarion demanded it.
They swerved under the landing-grid. They raced and bounced across the clear surface which was the spaceport. There stood a giant, rotund cargo-ship, pointing skyward. There were ground-trucks still supplying cargo for its nearly filled-up holds.
The six ground-cars braked, making clouds of dust. And suddenly there was not one or two men in each, but an astonishing number. They knew exactly what they were about. Five of them plunged into the ship. Others drove off the ground-trucks. Uniformed men ran from the side of the spaceport toward the ship, yelling. One ground-car started up again, rushed to the control-building, swerved sharply as a crash into it seemed inevitable, and dumped something out on the ground. It raced back to the other cars about the cargo-ship. The hold-doors were closing.
The object dumped by the control-building went off. It was a chemical-explosive bomb, but its power was adequate. The wall of the building caved in. Flames leaped crazily out of the collapsed heap. The landing-field would be out of operation.
The last car skidded to a stop. The two men in it ran for the boarding-stair of the cargo-boat. There was nobody of their party outside now. The landing-stair withdrew after them.
Then monstrous, incredible masses of flame and steam burst from the bottom of the rotund space-ship. It lifted, slowly at first, but then more and more swiftly. It climbed to the sky. It became a speck, and then a mote at the crawling end of a trail of opaque white emergency-rocket fumes. Then it vanished.
* * * * *
Far out in space, there was an explosion brighter than the sun, and then a second and a third. There was a cloud of incandescent metal vapor. Presently a missile found its target-seeking microwaves reflected by the ionized metal steam. It plunged into collision with that glowing stuff. It exploded. Two or three more exploded, like the first. Others burned harmlessly.
A voice said, "Cargo-ship reporting. Clear of ground. Everything going well. No casualties."
"Report again when in clear space," said Bors.
He waited. Several long minutes later a second report came.
"Cargo-ship reporting. In clear space."
"Very good work!" said Bors. "You know where to go now. Go ahead!"
"Yes, sir," said the voice from space. Then it asked apologetically, "You got the battleship, sir?"
The voice from space sounded as if the man who spoke were grinning.
"We'll celebrate that, sir! Good to have served with you, sir."
Bors swung the Isis and drove on solar-system drive to get well away from Garen. He watched the blip which was the captured ship as it seemed to hesitate a very, very long time. It was aiming, of course, for Glamis, that totally useless solar system around a planet where the fleet of Kandar orbited in bitter frustration.
Bors got up from his seat to loosen his muscles. He had sat absolutely tense and effectively motionless for a very long time. He ached. But he felt a sour sort of satisfaction. For a ship of the Isis's class to have challenged a battleship to combat, to have deliberately and insultingly waited for it to choose its own battle-distance, and then to let it launch its missiles first.... It was no ambush! Bors did not feel ashamed of this fight. He'd acted according to the instincts of a fighting man who gives his enemy the chance to use what weapons the enemy has chosen, and then defeats him.
His second-in-command said, "Sir, the cargo-boat blip is gone. It should be in overdrive now, sir, heading for Glamis."
"Then we'll follow it," said Bors. Suddenly he realized how his second-in-command must feel. The landing-party'd seen action—for which Bors envied them—and he'd felt ashamed because he stayed in the ship in what he considered safety while they risked their lives. But his second-in-command had had no share in the achievement at all. Bors had handled all controls and given all orders, even the routine ones, since before Tralee.
"I think," said Bors, "I'll have a cup of coffee. Will you take over and head for Glamis?"
He left the control-room, to let his subordinate handle things for a time. He'd seated himself in the mess-room when the voice of his second-in-command came through the speakers.
"Going into overdrive," said the voice. "All steady. Five, four, three, two—"
Bors prepared to wince. He put down his coffee cup and held himself ready for the sickening sensation.
Suddenly there was the rasping, snaring crackling of a high-voltage spark. There were shouts. There were explosions and the reek of overheated metal and smoldering insulation. Then the compartment-doors closed.
When Bors had examined the damage, and the emergency-purifiers had taken the smoke and smell out of the air, his second-in-command looked suicidally gloomy.
"It's bad business," said Bors wryly. "Very bad business! But I should have mentioned it to you. I didn't think of it. I wouldn't have thought of it if I'd been doing the overdrive business myself."
The second-in-command said bitterly;
"But I knew you'd tried the new low-power overdrive! I knew it!"
"I left it switched in," said Bors, "because I thought we might use it in the fight with the battleship. But we didn't."
"I should have checked that it was off!" protested his second. "It's my fault!"
Bors shrugged. Deciding whose fault it was wouldn't repair the damage. There'd been a human error. Bors had approached Garen on the low-power overdrive that Logan had computed for him. There was a special switch to cut it in, instead of the standard overdrive. It should have been cut out when the standard overdrive was used. But somebody in the engine-room had simply thrown the main-drive switch when preparations for overdrive travel began. When the ship should have gone into overdrive, it didn't. The two parallel circuits amounted to an effective short-circuit. Generators, condensers—even the overdrive field coils in their armored mounts outside the hull—everything blew.
So the Isis was left with a solar-system drive and rockets and nothing else. If the drive used only in solar systems were put on full, and the Isis headed for Glamis, and if the food and water held out, it would arrive at that distant world in eighty-some years. It could reach Tralee in fifty. But there were emergency rations for a few weeks only. It was not conceivable that repairs could be made. This was no occasion calling for remarkable ingenuity to make some sort of jury-rigged drive. This was final.
"I've got to think," said Bors heavily.
He went to his own cabin.
Talents, Incorporated couldn't improvise or precognize or calculate an answer to this! And all previous plans had to be cancelled. Absolutely. He dismissed at once and for all time the idea that the Isis could be repaired short of months in a well-equipped space-yard on a friendly planet. She should be blown up, after adequate pains were taken to destroy any novelties in her make-up. There were the tables of Logan's calculation. Bors found himself thinking sardonically that Logan should be shot because he had no obligation of loyalty to Kandar, and could as readily satisfy his hunger for recognition in the Mekinese service as in Kandar's. The crew....
That was the heart of the situation. The Isis could not be salvaged. She should be destroyed. There was only one world within reach on which human beings could live. That world was Garen. The Isis could sit down on Garen, disembark her crew, and be blown up before Mekinese authorities could interfere. Perhaps—possibly—her crew could try to function on Garen as marooned pirates, as outlaws, as rebels against the puppet planetary government. But they knew too much. Every man aboard knew how the interceptor-proof missiles worked. Logan might be the only man who had ever calculated the tables for their use, but if any member of the Isis's crew were captured and made to talk, he could tell enough for Mekinese mathematicians to start work with. If Logan were captured he could tell more. He could re-compute not only the tables for the missiles, but the data for low-power overdrive which would make any fleet invincible.
And there was the Kandarian fleet. If its existence became known, it would mean the destruction of Kandar. Every soul of all its millions would die with every tree and blade of grass, every flower, beast and singing bird, even the plankton in its seas.
Bors had arrived at the grimmest decision of his life when his cabin speaker said curtly:
"Captain Bors, sir. Space-yacht Sylva calling. Asks for you."
"I'm here," said Bors.
Gwenlyn's voice came out of the speaker.
"Are you in trouble, Captain? One of our Talents insists that you are."
"I thought you'd gone on as you were supposed to do. Yes. There is trouble. It amounts to shipwreck. How many of my men can you take off?"
"We've lots of room!" said Gwenlyn. "My father kept most of the Talents with him. We're heading your way, Captain."
"Very good," said Bors. "Thank you." He was grateful, but help from a woman—from Gwenlyn!—galled him.
He heard her click off, and shivered.
Presently the Sylva was alongside. The transfer of the Isis's crew began. Bors went over the ship for the last time. The ship's log went aboard the Sylva, as did Logan's calculated tables for low-power overdrive. Bors made quite sure that nothing else could be recovered from the Isis. He looked strained and irritable when he finally went into one of the lifeboat blisters on the Isis left vacant by the sacrifice of two space-boats in the Garen cutting-out expedition. A boat from the Sylva was there to receive him.
"Technically," said Bors, "I should go down with my ship, or fly apart with it. But there's no point in being romantic!"
"I'm the one," said his second-in-command, "who will stand court-martial!"
"I doubt it very much," said Bors. "They can't court-martial you for partly accomplishing something they're in trouble for failing at. Into the boat with you!"
He threw a switch and entered the boat. The blister opened. The small space-boat floated free. Its drive hummed and it drove far and away from the seemingly unharmed but completely helpless Isis. Bors looked regretfully back at the abandoned light cruiser. Sunlight glinted on its hull. Somehow a slow rotary motion had been imparted to it during the process of abandoning ship. The little fighting ship pointed as though wistfully at all the stars about her, to none of which she would ever drive again.
The Sylva loomed up. The last space-boat nestled into its blister and the grapples clanked. The leaves closed. When the blister air-pressure showed normal and green lights flashed and flashed, Bors got out of the boat and went to the Sylva's control-room. Gwenlyn was there, quite casually controlling the operation of the yacht by giving suggestions to its official skipper. She turned and beamed at Bors.
"We'll pull off a way," she observed, "and make sure your time-bomb works. You wouldn't want her discovered and salvaged."
"No," said Bors.
He stood by a viewport as the Sylva drove away. The Isis ceased to be a shape and became the most minute of motes. Bors looked at his watch.
"Not far enough yet," he said depressedly. "Everything will go."
The yacht drove on. Fifteen—twenty minutes at steadily increasing solar-system speed.
"It's about due," said Bors.
Gwenlyn came and stood beside him. They looked together out at the stars. There were myriads upon myriads of them, of all the colors of the spectrum, of all degrees of brightness, in every possible asymmetric distribution.
There was a spark in remoteness. Instantly it was vastly more than a spark. It was a globe of deadly, blue-white incandescence. It flamed brilliantly as all the Isis's fuel and the warheads on all its unexpended missiles turned to pure energy in the hundred-millionth of a second. It was many times brighter than a sun. Then it was not. And the violence of the explosion was such that there was not even glowing metal-vapor where it had been. Every atom of the ship's substance had been volatilized and scattered through so many thousands of cubic miles of emptiness that it did not show even as a mist.
"A good ship," said Bors grimly. Then he growled. "I wonder if they saw that on Garen and what they thought about it!" He straightened himself. "How did you know we were in trouble?"
"There's a Talent," said Gwenlyn matter-of-factly, "who can always tell how people feel. She doesn't know what they think or why. But she can tell when they're uneasy and so on. Father uses her to tell him when people lie. When what they say doesn't match how they feel, they're lying."
"I think," said Bors, "that I'll stay away from her. But that won't do any good, will it?"
Gwenlyn smiled at him. It was a very nice smile.
"She could tell that things had gone wrong with the ship," she observed, "because of the way you felt. But I've forbidden her ever to tell when someone lies to me or anything like that. I don't want to know people's feelings when they want to hide them."
"Fine!" said Bors. "I feel better." Standing so close to Gwenlyn, he also felt light-headed.
She smiled at him again, as if she understood.
"We'll head for Glamis now," she said. "The situation there should have changed a great deal because of what you've done."
"It would be my kind of luck," said Bors half joking, "for it to have changed for the worse."
"The decision," said King Humphrey the Eighth, stubbornly, "is exactly what I have said. In full war council it has been agreed that the fleet, through a new use of missiles, is a stronger fighting force than ever before. This was evidenced in the late battle and no one questions it. But it is also agreed that we remain hopelessly outnumbered. We are in a position where we simply cannot fight! For us to have fought would probably have been forgiven if we had been wiped out in the recent battle—preferably with only slight loss to the Mekinese. We offered battle expecting exactly that. Unfortunately, we annihilated the fleet that was to have occupied Kandar. In consequence we have had to pretend that we were destroyed along with them. And if we are discovered to be alive, and certainly if we offer to fight, Kandar will be exterminated as a living world, to punish us and as a warning to future victims of the Mekinese."
"Yes, Majesty," Bors said through tight lips. "But may I point out—"
"I know what you want to point out," the king broke in irritably. "With the help of these Talents, Incorporated people, you've worked out a new battle tactic you want to put into practice. You've explained it to the War Council. The War Council has decided that it is too risky. We cannot gamble the lives of the people on Kandar. We have not the right to expose them to Mekinese vengeance!"
"I agree, Majesty," said Bors, "but at the same time—"
The king leaned back in his chair.
"I don't like it any better than you do," he said peevishly. "I expected to get killed in a space-battle—not very gloriously, but at least with self-respect. Unfortunately we had bad luck. We won the fight. I do not like what we have to do in consequence, but we have to do it!"
Bors bit his lips. He liked and respected King Humphrey, as he had respect and affection for his uncle, the Pretender of Tralee. Both were honest and able men who'd been forced to learn the disheartening lesson that some things are impossible. But Bors believed that King Humphrey had learned the lesson too well.
"You plan, Majesty," he said after a moment, "to send me out again to capture food-ships if I can."
"Obviously," said the king.
"The idea being," Bors went on, "that if I can get enough food for the fleet so it can make a journey of several hundreds of light-years—"
"It is necessary to go a long way," the king confirmed unhappily. "We need to take the fleet to where Mekin is only a name and Kandar not even that."
"Where you will disband the fleet—"
"And hope that Mekin will not take vengeance anyhow for the fight the fleet has already put up."
The king said heavily, "It will be a very long time before word drifts back that the fleet of Kandar did not die in battle. It may never come. If it does, it will come as a vague rumor, as an idle tale, as absurd gossip about a fleet whose home planet may not even be remembered when the tales are told. There will be trivial stories about a fleet which abandoned the world it should have defended, and fled so far that its enemies did not bother to follow it. If the tale reaches Mekin, it may not be believed. It may not ever be linked to Kandar. And if some day it is believed, by then Kandar will be long occupied. Perhaps it will be resigned to its status. It will be a valuable subject world. Mekin will not destroy it merely to punish scattered, forgotten men who will never know that they have been punished."
"And you want me," repeated Bors, "to find the stores of food that will let the fleet travel to—oblivion."
"Yes," said the king again. He looked very weary. "In a sense, of course, we will simply be doing what we set out to do—to throw away our lives. We intended to do that. We are doing no more now."
Bors said grimly, "I'm not sure. But I will obey orders, Majesty. Do you object if I pass out the details of the new device among some junior officers? I speak of the way to compute overdrive speed exactly and how to vary it. It could help the fleet to stay together, even in overdrive."
The king shrugged. "That would be desirable. I do not object."
"I'll do it then, Majesty," said Bors. "I'll be assigned a new ship. I'd like the same crew. I'll do my best, in a new part of the Mekinese empire, this time."
"Yes," said the king drearily. "Don't make a pattern of raids that would suggest that you have a base. You understand, it is impossible to use more than one ship...."
"Naturally," agreed Bors. "One more suggestion, Majesty. A ship could be sent back to Kandar—not to land but to watch. If a single Mekinese ship went there to ask questions, it could be destroyed, perhaps. Which would gain us time."
"I will think about it," said the king doubtfully. "Maybe it has occurred to someone else. I will see. Meantime you will go to the admiral for a new ship. And then do what you can to find provisions for the fleet. It is not good for us to merely stay here waiting for nothing. Even action toward our own disappearance is preferable."
Bors saluted. He went to the office of the admiral. The commander-in-chief of the Kandarian fleet was making an inspection, to maintain tight discipline in the absence of hope. A young vice-admiral was on duty in the admiral's stead. He regarded Bors with approval. He listened with attention, and agreed with most of what Bors had to say.
"I'll push the idea of a sentry over Kandar," he said confidentially. "I'll make it two ships or three and take command. I want to send some of my engineer officers to get the details of that low-power overdrive. A very pretty tactical idea! It should be spread throughout the fleet."
"It will help," Bors said with irony, "when we go so far away that we'll never be heard of any more."
"Eh?" The vice-admiral looked at him blankly. "Oh. Perhaps. You wouldn't be likely to pick up a cargo-ship loaded with Mekinese missiles, would you? We could adapt them to our use."
"If I did," Bors answered, "I suspect that somehow that ship would land itself on Mekin and blow up as it touched ground."
The vice-admiral raised his eyebrows. Bors saluted quickly and left.
Presently he was back on the Sylva. His new command would be supplied with extra missiles from other ships. Despite the fleet action against the Mekinese, there was not yet a shortage of such ammunition. When a missile could not be intercepted and itself did not try to intercept, the economy of missiles was great. In the battle of the gas-giant planet, the fleet had fired no more than three or four missiles for every enemy ship destroyed.
Morgan took Bors aside.
"I'm going to keep Logan here this trip. I'm working on the commanders. I need him. And our Talent for Detecting Lies,—she was the one who knew you were in trouble, Gwenlyn tells me—is very necessary. I was hampered by not having her while Gwenlyn was away. But she did a good job for you!"
Bors shrugged. He did not like depending upon Talents. He still wasn't inclined toward acceptance of what he considered the occult. Now he said, "I'm duly grateful, but it's just as well. My mind doesn't work in a way to understand these Talents of yours. I admit everything, but I'm afraid I don't really accept anything."
"It's perfectly reasonable," protested Morgan. "The facts fit together! I'm no hand at working out theories; I deal in facts. But the facts do make sense!"
Bors found himself looking at the door of the family room, where Morgan had taken him. He realized that he was waiting for Gwenlyn to enter. He turned back to Morgan.
"They don't make sense to me," he said dourly. "You have a precognizer, you say. He foresees the future. I admit that he has. But the future is uncertain. It can't be foreseen unless it's pre-ordained, and in that case we're only puppets imagining that we're free agents. But there would be no reason in such a state of things!"
Morgan settled himself luxuriously in a self-adjusting chair. He thrust a cigar on Bors and lighted up zestfully.
"I've been wanting to spout about that," he observed, "even if I'm no theoretician. Look here! What is true? What is truth? What's the difference between a false statement and a true one?"
Bors's eyes wandered to the door again. He drew them back.
"One's so and the other isn't," he said.
"No," said Morgan. "Truth is an accordance—an agreement—between an idea and a fact. If I toss a coin, I can make two statements. I can say it will come up heads, or I can say that it will come up tails. One sentence is true and one is false. A precognizer simply knows which statement is true. I don't, but he does."
"It's still prophecy," objected Bors.
"Oh, no!" protested Morgan. "A precognizer-talent doesn't prophesy! All he can do is recognize that an idea he has now matches an event that will happen presently. He can't extract ideas from the future! He can only judge the truth or falsity of ideas that occur to him. He has to think something before he can know it is true. He does not get information from the future! He can only know that the idea he has now matches something that will happen later. He can detect a matching—an agreement—perhaps it's a mental vibration of some sort. But that's all!"
"I asked if I would capture a cargo-ship on Tralee—"
"And I said I didn't know! Of course I said so! How could anybody know such a thing except by pure accident? A precognizer might think of nine hundred and ninety-nine ways in which you might try to capture that ship. They could all be wrong. He might say you wouldn't capture it. But you might try a thousandth way that he hadn't thought of! All he can know is that some idea he has concocted matches—some instinct stirs, and he knows it's true! That's why one man can precognize dirty tricks. His mind works that way! We've got a woman who knows, infallibly, who's going to marry whom! That's why the ship-arrival precognizer can say a ship's coming in. His mind works on such things, and he has a talent besides!"
"There are definite limits, then."
"What is there that's real and hasn't limits?" demanded Morgan.
The door opened and Gwenlyn came in. Bors rose, looking pleased.
"I'm telling him the facts of life about precognition," Morgan told her. "I think he understands now."
"I don't agree," said Bors.
Gwenlyn said amusedly, "Two of our Talents want to talk to you, Captain. You might say that they want to measure you for rumors."
"They what?" demanded Bors, startled.
"The Talent who predicts dirty tricks," said Gwenlyn, "is going to work with the woman who broadcasts daydreams. They'll be our Department of Propaganda."
Bors said uncertainly, "But there's no point in propaganda! It's determined."
"I know!" said Morgan complacently. "The high brass has made a decision. A perfectly logical decision, too, once you grant their premises. But they assume that Talents, Incorporated, given some co-operation, of course, lacks the ability to change the situation. In that they're mistaken."
"Father hopes," said Gwenlyn amiably, "to modify the situation so their assumptions will lead logically to a different conclusion. Apparently they're going to change their minds!"
Bors objected. "But you can't know the future!"
"Our precognizer—our Precognizer for Special Events," said Gwenlyn, "got the notion that a year from now King Humphrey should open parliament on Kandar, if everything is straightened out. The notion became a precognition. We don't know how it can come about, but it does seem to imply a change of plans somewhere!"
Bors found himself indomitably skeptical. But he said, "Ah! That's the precognition you mentioned on Kandar—that the fleet wouldn't be wiped out and everybody killed."
"No-o-o," said Gwenlyn. "That was another one. I'd rather not tell you about it. It might be—unpleasant. I'll tell you later."
"All right. You said I'm to be measured for rumors? Bring on your tape-measures!"
Morgan beamed at him. Gwenlyn went to the door and opened it. An enormously fat woman came in, moving somehow sinuously in spite of her bulk. She gave Bors a glance he could not fathom. It was sentimental, languishing and wholly and utterly approving. He felt a momentary appalled suspicion which he dismissed in something close to panic. It couldn't be that he was fated—
Then the arrogant man with rings came in. He'd been identified as the Talent for Predicting Dirty Tricks. Bors remembered that he had a paranoid personality, inclined toward infinite suspiciousness, and that he'd been in jail for predicting crimes that were later committed.
"Gwenlyn says propaganda," said Morgan, "but I prefer to think of these two Talents as our Department for Disseminating Truthful Seditious Rumors. You've met Harms." The man waved his hand, his rings glittering. "But I didn't tell you about Madame Porvis. She has the extraordinary talent of contagious fantasy. It is remarkably rare. She can daydream, and others contract her dreamings as if they were spread by germs."
The fat woman bridled. She still regarded Bors with a melting gaze. Again he felt startled unease.
"It's been a great trial to me," she said in a peculiarly childish voice. "I had such trouble, before I knew what it was!"
"Er—trial?" asked Bors apprehensively.
"When I was just an overweight adolescent," she told him archly, "I daydreamed about my school's best athlete. Presently I found that my shocked fellow-students were gossiping to each other that he'd acted as I daydreamed. Other girls wouldn't look at him because they said he was madly in love with me."
The arrogant man with the rings made a scornful sound.
"He hated me," said Madame Porvis, ruefully, "because the gossip made him ridiculous, and it was only people picking up my daydreams!"
She looked at Morgan. He nodded encouragement.
"Years later," she said to Bors, "I grew romantic about an actor. He was not at all talented, but I daydreamed that he was, and also brilliant and worshipped by millions. Soon everybody seemed to believe it was true! Because I daydreamed it! He was given tremendous contracts, and—then I dared to daydream that he met and was fascinated by me! Immediately there was gossip that it had happened! When he denied that he knew me,—and he didn't—and when he saw my picture and said he didn't want to, I was crushed. I wove beautifully tragic fantasies about myself as pining away and dying because of his cruelty,—and soon it was common gossip that I had!" She sighed. "He was considered a villain, because I daydreamed of him that way. His career was ruined. I've had to be very careful about my daydreams ever since."
"Madame Porvis's talent," Morgan said proudly, "is all the more remarkable because she realized herself that she had it. She lets ideas pop into her head and presently they pop into other people's heads and you have first-class rumors running madly about. When her fantasies contain elements of truth, so do the rumors. You see?"
"It's most interesting," admitted Bors. "But—"
"Now Harms," said Morgan, "reads news-reports. He's specialized on those brought back by Gwenlyn and by you. He guesses at the news behind the news—and he knows when he's hit it. He'll tell Madame Porvis the facts, she'll weave them into a fantasy and they'll spread like wildfire. Of course she can't plant new subjects in people's minds. But anybody who's ever heard of Mekin will pick up her fantasies about graft and inefficiency in its government. Riots against Mekin, and so on. However, one wants not only to spread seditious rumors about villains, but also about—say—pirates who go about fighting Mekin. Tell her stories about your men, if you like. Anything that's material for heroic defiance-fantasies against Mekin."
Bors found himself stubbornly resisting the idea. It might be that there was such a thing as precognition in the form Morgan had described. There might be such a thing as contagious fantasy. But on the other hand—
"I give up," he said. "I won't deny it and I can't believe it. I'll go about my business of piracy. But you, sir," he turned to Morgan, "you've got to keep Gwenlyn from taking risks!"
"True," said Morgan. "She could have some very unpleasant experiences. I'll be more stern with her."
Gwenlyn did not seem alarmed.
"One more thing," Bors added. "They say the dictator of Mekin is superstitious, that he patronizes fortune-tellers. Suppose one of them is a Talent? Suppose he gets precognized information?"
"I worry about that," admitted Morgan. "But I know that I have effective Talents. There's no evidence that he has."
"He might have a Talent whose talent is confusing our Talents," Bors said with some sarcasm.
Morgan grinned tolerantly.
"Talk to these two. We've got some firm precognitions that make things look bad for Mekin."
He left the room. Gwenlyn remained, listening with interest when the conversation began, and now and then saying something of no great importance. But her presence kept Bors from feeling altogether like a fool. Madame Porvis looked at him with languishing, sentimental eyes. Harms watched him accusingly.
Their questions were trivial. Bors told about the landings on Tralee and on Garen. The woman asked for details that would help her picture feats of derring-do. Bors hesitated, and did not quite tell her about the truck drivers on Tralee who volunteered the information that their loads were booby-trapped. But he did stress the fact that the populations of dominated planets were on the thin edge of revolt. The suspicious Talent asked very little. He listened, frowning.
When it was over and they'd gone—the fat woman again somehow managing a gait which could only be called sinuous—Bors said abruptly, "What's this event you know of, a year ahead?"
"King Humphrey opening parliament on Kandar," said Gwenlyn pleasantly.
"There's another," said Bors, "which implies specifically that I'll still be alive."
"That?" said Gwenlyn. "That's another one. I won't talk about it. It implies that my father's going to retire from Talents, Incorporated."
"I don't like this prediction business," he said. "It still seems to hint that we're not free agents. Tell me," he said apprehensively. "That precognition about me, it doesn't include Madame Porvis?"
Gwenlyn laughed. "No. Definitely no!"
Bors grunted. Then he managed to grin.
"In that case I'll go pilfer some provisions so the fleet will be prepared to do what you tell me it won't, but which it has to be prepared to do. I suppose I'll be back?"
"I hope so," said Gwenlyn, smiling.
She gave him her hand. He left. He shook his head as he made his way to the Sylva's space-boat blister. He had it immediately taken to his new ship. It was a light cruiser of the same class as the Isis. It would, of course, seem to be the same ship, and it had nearly the same crew aboard. No one of Morgan's freakish Talents was included this time, and Bors felt more than a little relieved. He inspected everything and made sure his drive-engineers were more tractable than they'd been on the Isis. He meant to build another low-power overdrive at once.
He cleared for departure with the flagship. He was swinging the ship toward his first destination when a call came from the Sylva. He was asked for. He went to a screen. He preferred to see Gwenlyn when he talked to her. She was there.
"I've a memo for you," she said briskly. "There are cargo-ships aground on Cassis and Dover. There is a sort of patrol-squadron of warships aground on Meriden. Nothing on Avino. Are you recording this?"
"I won't forget it," he said.
"Then here's the situation on each of the subject worlds so far as cargo-ships and fighting ships are concerned. Our dowser can tell about them. Remember, this doesn't apply to ships in overdrive! We can't precognize anything about them unless we're at the destination they're heading for, and then only the time of arrival. And the dowser's information is strictly as of this moment."
Bors nodded. Her tone was absolutely matter-of-fact. Bors was almost convinced.
She read off a list of statements with painstaking clarity. She'd evidently had the dowser go over the list of twenty-two dominated planets. Bors told himself that the events she reported were possibilities that might somehow be true.
"Most of the Mekinese grand fleet," she finished, "is aground on Mekin itself. It's probably there for inspection and review or some such ceremony. There's no way to tell. But it's there. And that's the latest Talents, Incorporated information. As my father says, you can depend on it."
"All right," said Bors. "Thanks." Then he added gruffly, "Take care of yourself."
She smiled at him and clicked off. Bors was confused because he couldn't quite believe that other matters could be predicted.
The new ship, the Horus, sped away in overdrive, leaving the fleet in orbit around the useless planet Glamis. Glamis was in a favorable state just now. It was a lush green almost from pole to pole, save where its seas showed a darker, muddy, bottom-color. It would look inviting to colonists. But at any time its sun could demonstrate its variability and turn it into a cloud-covered world of steaming prospective jungle, or in a slightly shorter time turn it to a glacier-world. The vegetation on Glamis was remarkable. The planet, though, was of no use to humanity because it was unpredictable.
The Horus ran in overdrive for two days while a low-power unit was built in its engine-room, to go in parallel to the normal overdrive. But there was a double-throw switch in the line, now. Either the standard, multiple light-speed overdrive could be used, or the newer and vastly slower one, but not both together. The ship came out of overdrive in absolute emptiness with no sun anywhere nearby. She was surrounded on every hand by uncountable distant stars. The new circuit was brazed in. It had a micro-timer included in its design. Within its certain, limited timing-capacity, it could establish or break a contact within the thousandth of a microsecond.
Bors made tests, target-practice of a sort. He let out a metal-foil balloon which inflated itself, making a sphere some forty feet in diameter. In the new low-speed overdrive he drew away from it for a limited number of microseconds. He measured the distance run. He made other runs, again measuring. From ten thousand miles away he made a return-hop to the target-balloon and came out within a mile of it.
He cheered up. This was remarkably accurate. He sent the ship into standard overdrive again. Twice more, however, he stopped between stars and practiced the trick of breaking out of the new overdrive—in which his ship was undetectable—at a predetermined point. The satisfaction of successful operation almost made up for the extremely disagreeable sensations involved.
But on the eighth ship-day out from Glamis, the Horus came back to unstressed space with a very, very bright star burning almost straight ahead. The spectroscope confirmed that it was the sun of Meriden.
Bors sounded the action alert. Gongs clanged. Compartment-doors hissed shut.
"You know," said Bors conversationally into the all-speaker microphone and in the cushioned stillness which obtained, "you all know what we're aiming at. A food-supply for the fleet. But we've got what looks like a very useful gadget for fighting purposes. We need to test it. There's a small squadron on Meriden, ahead, so we'll take them on. It is necessary that we get all of them, so they can't report anything to Mekin that Mekin doesn't already know. All hands ready for action!"
In twenty minutes by the ship's clocks the Horus was a bare thirty thousand miles off the planet Meriden. The new drive worked perfectly for planetary approach, at any rate. It even worked more perfectly than the twenty-minute interval implied. It had been off Meriden for five minutes then.
Mekinese fighting ships were boiling up from the atmosphere of Meriden and plunging out to space to offer battle. They were surprisingly ready, reacting like hair-triggered weapons. Bors hadn't completed his challenge before they were streaking toward Meriden's sky. They couldn't have been more prompt if, say, Meriden seethed with rumors about a pirate ship in space, which it was their obligation to fight.
According to the radar screens, there were not less than fifteen ships streaking out to destroy the Horus. Fifteen to one—interesting odds.
Bors sent the Horus roaring ahead to meet them.
The Mekinese did not display a sporting spirit. There were four heavy cruisers and eleven lighter ships of the Horus's size and armament. According to current theories of space-battle tactics, two of the light cruisers should have disposed of the Horus with ease and dispatch. It might have seemed sportsmanlike and certainly sufficient to give the Horus only two antagonists at a time, which would have been calculated to provide odds of six hundred to one against it. Two light cruisers would have fired eighteen missiles apiece per salvo, which would have demanded thirty-six missiles from the Horus to meet and destroy them. She couldn't put thirty-six missiles into space at one firing. She would have disappeared in atomic flame at the first exchange of fire. But the Mekinese were not so generous. They came up in full force loaded for bear. They obviously intended not a fight but an execution. Mekinese tactics depended heavily on fire-power of such superiority that any enemy was simply overwhelmed.
Their maneuvering proved that they intended to follow standard operation procedure. Light ships reached space and delayed until all were aloft. They formed themselves into a precise half-globe and plunged at top solar-system drive toward the Horus. This was strictly according to the book. If the Horus chose, of course, she could refuse battle by fleeing into overdrive—which would be expected to be the regulation many-times-faster-than-light variety. If she dared fight, the fifteen ships drove on. Mekinese ships never struck lightly. The fifteen of them could launch four hundred missiles per salvo. No single ship could counter such an attack. But even Mekinese would not use such stupendous numbers of missiles against one ship unless that ship was famous; unless rumors and reports said that it was invincible and dangerous and the hope of oppressed peoples under Mekin.
The Horus received very special attention.
Then she vanished. At one instant she was in full career toward the fleet of enemies. The next instant she had wrapped an overdrive field about herself and then no radar could detect her, nor could any missile penetrate her protection.
When she vanished, the speck which indicated her position disappeared from the Mekinese radar-screens. The hundredth of a second in overdrive as known to the Mekinese should have put her hundreds of millions of miles away. But something new had been added to the Horus. The hundredth of a second did not mean millions of miles of journeying. It meant something under three thousand, and a much more precise interval of time could be measured and used by her micro-timer.
Therefore, at one instant the Horus was some two thousand miles from the lip of the half-globe of enemy ships. Then she was not anywhere. Then, before the mind could grasp the fact of her vanishing, she was in the very center, the exact focus of the formation of Mekinese battle-craft. She was at the spot a Mekinese commander would most devoutly wish, because it was equidistant from all his ships, and all their missiles should arrive at the same instant when their overwhelming number could not conceivably be parried.
But it was more than an ideal position from a Mekinese standpoint. It was also a point which was ideal for the Horus, because all her missiles would arrive at the encircling ships at the same instant. Each Mekinese would separately learn—without information from any other—that those projectiles could not be intercepted. No Mekinese would have the advantage of watching the tactic practiced on a companion-ship, to guide his own actions.
The Horus appeared at that utterly vulnerable and wholly advantageous position. She showed on the Mekinese screens. They launched missiles. The Horus launched missiles.
The Horus disappeared.
She reappeared, beyond and behind the half-globe formation. Again she showed on the Mekinese screens. The Mekinese could not believe their instruments. A ship which fled in overdrive could not reappear like this! Having vanished and reappeared once, it could not duplicate the trick. Having duplicated it....
There was more, and worse. The Horus missiles were not being intercepted. Mekinese missiles were swerving crazily to try to anticipate and destroy the curving, impossibly-moving objects that went out from where the Horus had ceased to be. They failed. Clouds of new trajectiles appeared....
A flare like a temporary sun. Another. Another. Others....
Bors turned from the viewport and glanced at the radar-screens. There were thirteen vaporous glowings where ships had been. There were two distinct blips remaining. It could be guessed that some targets had been fired on by more than one launching-tube, leaving two ships unattacked by the Horus's missiles.
Both of those ships—one a heavy cruiser—now desperately flung the contents of their magazines at the Horus.
Bors heard his voice snapping coordinates.
"Launch all missiles at those two targets," he commanded. "Fire! Overdrive coming! Five, four, three, two...."
The intolerable discomfort of entry and immediate breakout from overdrive was ever present. But the Horus had shifted position five thousand miles. Bors saw one of his just-launched missiles—now a continent away—as it went off. It accounted for one of the two Mekinese survivors. The radar-blip which told of that ship's existence changed to the vaguely vaporous glow of incandescent gas. The other blip went out. No flare of a bomb. Nothing. It went out.
So the last Mekinese ship was gone in overdrive. It was safe! It could not possibly be overtaken or attacked. It had seen the Horus's missiles following an unpredictable course, which was duly recorded. It had seen the Horus go into overdrive and move only hundreds of miles instead of hundreds of millions. It had seen the Horus vanish from one place and appear at another in the same combat area, launch missiles and vanish again before it could even be ranged.
The last Mekinese ship certainly carried with it the Horus's tactics and actions recorded on tape. The technicians of Mekin would set to work instantly to duplicate them. Once they were considered possible—once they were recognized—they could be achieved. The combat efficiency of the Mekinese fleet would be increased as greatly as that of the fleet of Kandar had been,—and the overwhelming superiority of numbers would again become decisive. The hopeless situation of the Kandarian fleet would become a hundred times worse. And Mekinese counter-intelligence would make a search for the origin of such improvements. Since Kandar was to have been attacked and occupied, it would be a place of special search.
The only unsuspected source, of course, would be Talents, Incorporated.
For a full minute after the enemy ship's disappearance, Bors sat rigid, his hands clenched, facing the disaster the escape of the Mekinese constituted. Sweat appeared on his forehead.
Then he pressed the engine-room button and said evenly, "Prepare for standard overdrive, top speed possible."
He swung the ship. He lined it up with Mekin itself, which, of course, was the one place where it would be most fatal for a ship from Kandar to be discovered.
Very shortly thereafter, the Horus was in overdrive.
Traveling in such unthinkable haste, it is paradoxic that there is much time to spare. Bors had to occupy it. He prepared a careful and detailed account of exactly how the low-speed overdrive had worked, and its effectiveness as a combat tactic. He'd distributed instructions and Logan's tables on the subject before leaving Glamis. He would be, of course, most bitterly blamed for having taken on a whole squadron of enemy ships, with the result that one had gotten away. It could be the most decisive of catastrophes. But he made his report with precision.
For seven successive ship-days there was no event whatever on the Horus, as she drove toward Mekin. Undoubtedly the one survivor of the enemy squadron was fleeing for Mekin, too, to report to the highest possible authority what it had seen and experienced. It would not be much, if at all, slower than the Horus. It might be faster, and might reach the solar system of Mekin before the Horus broke out there. It had every advantage but one. It had solar-system drive, for use within a planetary group, and it had overdrive for use between the stars. But the Horus had an intermediate drive as well, which was faster than the enemy's slow speed and slower than the fast.
Bors depended on it for the continued existence of Kandar and the fleet. As the desperately tedious ship-days went by he began to have ideas—at which he consciously scoffed—concerning Tralee. But if anything as absurd as those ideas came to be, there were a score of other planets which would have to be considered too.
He sketched out in his own mind a course of action that would be possible to follow after breakout off Mekin. It did not follow the rules for sound planning, which always assume that if things can go wrong they will. Bors could only plan for what might be done if things went right. But he could not hope. Not really. Still, he considered every possibility, however far-fetched.
He came to first-breakout, a light-week short of Mekin. The yellow sun flamed dead ahead. He determined his distance from it with very great care. The Horus went back into overdrive and out again, and it was well within the system, though carefully not on the plane of its ecliptic.
Then the Horus waited. She was twenty millions of miles from the planet Mekin. Bors ordered that for intervals of up to five minutes no electronic apparatus on the ship should be in operation. In those periods of electronic silence, his radars swept all of space except Mekin. He had no desire to have Mekin pick up radar-pulses and wonder what they came from. The rest of the system, though, he mapped. He found two meteor-streams, and a clump of three planetoids in a nearly circular orbit, and he spotted a ship just lifted from Mekin by its landing-grid. It went out to five planetary diameters and flicked out of existence so far as radar was concerned.
It had gone into overdrive and away. Another ship came around Mekin, in orbit. It reached the spot from which the first ship had vanished. It began to descend; the landing-grid had locked onto it with projected force-fields and was drawing it down to ground.
Bors growled to himself. It was not likely that this ship was the one he'd pursued, sight unseen, since the end of the fight off Meriden. But it was a possibility. If it were true, then everything that mattered to Bors was lost forever.
Then a blip appeared. It was at the most extreme limit of the radar's range. A ship had come out of overdrive near the fourth planetary orbit of this solar system.
Bors and the yeoman computer-operator figured its distance to six places of decimals. Bors set the microsecond timer. The Horus went into low-speed overdrive and out again. Then the electron telescope revealed a stubby, rotund cargo-ship, about to land on Mekin.
Bors swore. It would be days before this tub reached Mekin on solar-system drive. But it must not report that an armed vessel had inspected it in remoteness.
"We haul alongside," said Bors angrily. "Boarding-parties ready in the space-boats."
Another wrenching flicker into overdrive and through breakout without pause. The cargo-boat was within ten miles.
"Calling cargo-boat!" rasped Bors, in what would be the arrogant tones of a Mekinese naval officer hailing a mere civilian ship. "Identify yourself!"
A voice answered apologetically, "Cargo-ship Empress, sir, bound from Loral to Mekin with frozen foods."
"Cut your drive," snapped Bors. "Stand by for inspection! Muster your crews. There's a criminal trying to get ashore on Mekin. We'll check your hands. Acknowledge!"
"Yes, sir," said the apologetic voice. "Obeying, sir."
Bors fretted. The space-boats left the Horus's side. One clamped onto the airlock of the rounded, bulging tramp-ship. The second lifeboat hovered nearby. The first boat broke contact and the second hooked on. The second boat broke contact. Both came back to the Horus.
The screen before Bors lighted up. One of his own crewmen nodded out of it.
"All clear, sir," said his voice briskly. "They behaved like lambs, sir. No arms. We've locked them in a cargo hold."
"You know what to do now," said Bors.
"Yes, sir. Off."
Ten miles away the cargo-boat swung itself about. Suddenly it was gone. It was on the way to Glamis and the fleet.
Another hour of watching. Another blip. It was another cargo-carrier like the first. As the other had done, it meekly permitted itself to be boarded by what it believed were mere naval ratings of the Mekinese space-fleet, searching for a criminal who might be on board. Like the first ship, it was soon undeceived. Again like the first, it vanished from emptiness, and it would be heading for the fleet in its monotonous circling of Glamis.
The third blip, though, was a light cruiser. The Horus appeared from nowhere close beside it and its communicator began to scream in gibberish. It would be an official report, scrambled and taped, to be transmitted to ground on the first instant there was hope of its reception.
"Fire one," said Bors. "The skipper there is on his toes."
He watched bleakly as the Horus's missile arched in its impossible trajectory, as the light cruiser flung everything that could be gotten out to try to stop it, while its transmitter shrieked gibberish to the stars.
There was a blinding flash of light. Then nothing.
"He got out maybe fifteen seconds of transmission," said Bors somberly, "which may or may not be picked up from this distance, and may or may not tell anything. He got a tape ready while he was in overdrive, with plenty of time for the job. My guess is that he'd take at least fifteen seconds to identify his ship, give her code number, her skipper, and such things. I hope so...."
But for minutes he was irresolute. He'd send his own minutely detailed report back to Glamis on the second captured ship. He did not need to return to report in person. He hadn't yet sent back provisions enough for the intended voyage of the fleet. The solar system of Mekin was an especially well-stocked hunting-ground for such marauders as Bors and his crew declared themselves to be—so long as word did not get to ground on Mekin.
But it did not get down. From time to time—at intervals of a few hours—specks appeared in emptiness. Mekin monopolized the off-planet trade of its satellite world. There would be many times the space-traffic here that would be found off any other planet in the Mekinese empire.
One ship got to ground unchallenged. By pure accident it came out of overdrive within half a million miles of Mekin. To have attacked it would have been noted. But he got two more cargo-ships. Then he found the Horus alongside a passenger-ship. But it couldn't be allowed to ground, to report that it had been stopped by an armed ship. A prize-crew took it off to Glamis.
Bors made a formal announcement to his crew. "I think," he told them over the all-speaker circuit, "that we got the ship which could have reported our action off Meriden. I'm sure we've sent four shiploads of food back to the fleet, besides the passenger-ship we'd rather have missed. But there's still something to be done. To confuse Mekin and keep it busy, and therefore off Kandar's neck, we have to start trouble elsewhere. From now on we are pirates pure and simple."
And he headed the Horus for the planet Cassis, which was another victim of the Mekinese. It was a rocky, mountainous world with many mines. Mekin depended on it for metal in vast quantities. The Horus hovered over it and sent down a sardonic challenge. One missile came up in defiance. But it was badly aimed and Bors ignored it. Then voices called to him, sharp with excitement. He heard shots and shouting and a voice said feverishly that rebels on Cassis, who had been fighting in the streets, had rushed a transmitter to welcome the enemies of Mekin.
Bors had one light cruiser and merely a minimum crew for it. He couldn't be of much help to insurrectionists. Then he heard artillery-fire over the communicator, and voices gasped that the Mekinese garrison was charging out of its highly-fortified encampment. Bors sent down a missile to break the back of the counter-attack. Then the communicator gave off the sound of gunfire and men in battle, and presently yells of triumph.
He took the Horus away. Its arrival and involvement in the revolt was pure accident. It was no part of any thought-out plan. But he was wryly relieved when he had convinced himself that Mekin needed the products of this world too much to exterminate its population with fusion-bombs.
More days of travel in overdrive tedium. Bors was astounded and appalled. Interference here would only make matters worse. The Horus went on.
There was a cargo-ship aground on Dover, and the Horus threatened bombs and a space-boat went down and brought it up. That ship also went away to Glamis where the fleet was accumulating an inconvenient number of prisoners. The fact that the capture of this ship only added to that number made Bors realize that King Humphrey would be especially disturbed about the passengers on the liner sent back from Mekin. Unless they were murdered, sooner or later they would reveal the facts about the Fleet. And King Humphrey was a highly conscientious man.
There was dissention even on Dover. The landing-party was cheered from the edge of the spaceport. Bors could not understand. He tried to guess what was going on in the Mekinese empire. He could not know whether or not disaster had yet struck Kandar. He could only hope that there were ships lurking near it, ready to use the recent technical combat improvements against any single Mekinese ship that might appear, so no report would be carried back. But it seemed to him that utter and complete catastrophe was inevitable.
He reflected unhappily about Tralee, and wondered what the Pretender, his uncle, really thought about his loosing of chemical-explosive missiles against puppet government buildings there. He found himself worrying again about the truck drivers who'd warned his men of booby-traps in the supplies they delivered. He hoped they hadn't been caught.
The Horus arrived at Deccan, and called down the savage message of challenge.
There came a tumultuous, roaring reply.
"Captain Bors!" cried a voice from the ground exultantly. "Land and welcome! We didn't hope you'd come here, but you're a thousand times welcome! We've smashed the garrison here, Captain! We rose days ago and we hold the planet! We'll join you! Come to ground, sir! We can supply you!"
Bors went tense all over. He'd been called by name! If he was known by name on this world—twenty light-years from Mekin and thirty-five from Kandar—then everything was lost.
"Can you send up a space-boat?" he asked in a voice he did not recognize. "I'd like to have your news."
It must be a trap. It was possible that there'd been revolt on Deccan; he'd found proof of rebellion elsewhere. There'd been claims of revolt on Cassis, but he hadn't been suspicious then. He'd sent down a missile to help the self-proclaimed rebels there. Now he wondered desperately if he'd been tricked there as, it was all too likely, he would be here. There'd been reported fighting on Avino. There was cheering for his men on Dover, and he might have landed there. But there were too many coincidences, far too many.
He waited, fifty thousand miles high, with the ship at combat-alert. He felt cold all over. Somehow, news had preceded him. It was garbled truth, but there was enough to make his spine feel like ice.
He spoke over the all-speaker hook-up, in a voice he could not keep steady by any effort of will.
"All hands attention," he said heavily. "I just called ground. We have had a reply calling me by name. You will see the implication. It looks like somehow the Mekinese have managed to send word ahead of us. They've found out that no one can stand against us. They know we have new and deadly weapons. Probably there have been orders given to lure us to ground by the pretense of a successful revolt. It would be hoped that we can be fooled to the point where we will land and our ship can be captured undestroyed.—That's the way it looks."
He swallowed, with difficulty.
"If that's so," he said after an instant, "you can guess what's been done about Kandar. The grand fleet was assembled on Mekin. It could have gone to Kandar...."
He swallowed again. Then he said savagely, "Well make sure first. If the worst has happened we'll take our fleet and head for Mekin and pour down every ounce of atomic explosive we've got. We may not be able to turn its air to poison, but if there are survivors, they won't celebrate what they did to Kandar!"
He clicked off. His fists clenched. He paced back and forth in the control room. He almost did not wait to make sure. Almost. But he had never seen a Mekinese fighting man face to face. He'd gone into exile with his uncle when that unhappily reasonable man let Tralee surrender rather than be bombed to depopulation. He'd served in the Kandarian navy without ever managing to be in any port when a Mekinese ship was in. He'd fought in the battle off Kandar, he'd destroyed a Mekinese cruiser off Tralee, another in the Mekinese system itself and a squadron off Meriden. But he had never seen a Mekinese fighting-man face to face. Filled with such hatred as he felt, he meant to do so now.
A space-boat came up from the ground. The Horus trained weapons on it. Bors painstakingly arranged for its occupants to board the Horus in space-suits, which could not conceal bombs.
There were six men in the space-boat. They came into the Horus's control room and he saw that they were young, almost boys. When they learned that he was Captain Bors, they looked at him with shining, admiring, worshipping eyes. It could not be a trick. It could not be a trap. He was incredulous.
The message from the ground was true.
The news as Bors got it from the men of Deccan was remarkable for two reasons: that so much of it was true, and that all of it was glamorized and romanticized and garbled. It was astonishing to find any relation at all between such fabulously romantic tales and the facts, because there was no way for news to travel between solar systems except on ships, and no ships had carried stories like these!
Here on Deccan, the shining-eyed young men knew that Bors had landed on Tralee and on Garen. They knew that there was a fleet in being which had fought and annihilated a Mekinese task-force many times its size.
To the Captain, their knowledge was undiluted catastrophe!
They admired Bors because they believed he commanded that fleet, which he now had in hiding while he flashed splendidly about the subjugated worlds, performing prodigious feats of valor and destruction, half pirate and half hero. The story had it that he'd been driven from his native Tralee by the invaders, and that now he fought Mekin in magnificent knight-errantry, and that it was he who'd set alight the flame of rebellion on so many worlds.
Bors listened, and was numbed. He heard references to the fight off Meriden, and the temporary escape of one of his enemies, and that he'd pursued it to the solar system of Mekin itself and there destroyed it while Mekin watched, helpless to interfere.
The distortion of facts was astounding. But the mere existence of facts at this distance was impossible! Then Bors found himself thinking that these tales sounded like fantasies or daydreams, and he went white. He knew what had happened.
Just before he'd left the fleet, he'd talked to a fat woman and a scowling man who, together, made up the Talents, Incorporated brand new Department for Disseminating Truthful Seditious Rumors, so that rumors of a high degree of detail got started, nobody knew how. If such rumors spread, and everybody heard them, nobody would doubt them. It was appallingly probable that the fighting on Cassis and Avino and Deccan had no greater justification in reason than that an enormously fat woman romantically pictured such things as resulting from the derring-do of one Captain Bors, of whom she thought sentimentally and glamorously and without much discrimination.
But she'd daydreamed about the fleet, too! And that it had destroyed a Mekinese squadron many times its size....
He heard the leader of the young men from Deccan speaking humorously. "Your revolt, sir," he told Bors, "is spreading everywhere! On Cela, sir, there are great space-ship yards, where they build craft for the Mekinese navy. Not long ago they finished one and it went out to space for a trial run. It didn't come back. Sabotage. Everybody knew it. The Mekinese raged. A little while later they finished another ship. But the Mekinese were smart! They sent it off for its trial run with only Celans on board. If there were sabotage this time, it wouldn't be Mekinese who died in space! But that ship didn't come back either! It touched down here, sir, three weeks ago, and we supplied it with food and missiles and some of us joined it. It went off to try to find you."
"I'd better—go after it," said Bors, dry-throated. "It could blunder into trouble. At best—"
The youthful leader of Deccan's revolt grinned widely.
"It's got plenty of missiles," he told Bors. "It can take care of itself! And it has plenty of food. We even gave them target-balloons to practice launching missiles on. We've been storing up missiles to lay an ambush for a Mekinese squadron if one comes by. A lot of us joined the ship, though."
"In any case," said Bors, with the feel of ashes in his throat, "I'll track it down so it can join the fleet."
He could not bring himself to tell these confident and admiring young men that there was no hope and never had been; that the tales of his achievements were only partly true and that they had popped into people's minds because a very fat woman far away indulged in daydreams and fantasies.
They wouldn't have understood. If they had, they wouldn't have believed. He found that he savagely resisted the conviction himself. But there was no other way for such garbled tales with such a substratum of fact to be spread among the stars. And whoever spread them knew of events up to the last news sent back by Bors, but nothing after that. Undoubtedly, Talents, Incorporated's Department for Disseminating Truthful Seditious Rumors had been at work on Mekin, but the damage done elsewhere was a thousand times greater than any benefit done there.
It was too late to repair the damage, here or anywhere else. This planet and all the rest were too far committed to rebellion ever to be forgiven by Mekin. Mekin would take revenge. It was not pleasant to think about.
So the Horus departed, and traveled in high-speed overdrive for ship-days seemingly without end, toward Glamis. It knew nothing that happened outside its own cocoon of overdrive field. It knew nothing of any of the thousands of myriads of stars, whose planetary systems offered unlimited room for humanity to live in freedom and without fear.
During the journey Bors only endured being alive. All this disaster was ultimately his fault. The fleet's survival was due to his work with Talents, Incorporated. The raids of a single ship—which now would have such disastrous results—were the fruits of his suggestion, the consequence of his actions.
Talents, Incorporated was involved, to be sure, but only because he'd allowed it to be. He should have realized that Madame Porvis would work havoc if her talent was as described. No mere romantic daydreamer would fashion fantasies with military secrecy in mind and security as a principle. Everything was betrayed. Everything was ruined. And if he, Bors, had only been properly skeptical, the fleet would have been destroyed and Kandar now occupied by the Mekinese—doomed to servitude but not necessarily to annihilation—and other worlds would also be safely servile. They'd still be resentful and they'd bitterly hate Mekin, but they would not have before them the monstrous vengeance now in store.
Bors, in fact, felt guilty because he was still alive.
There was only one small thing he could still try to set aright. He could insist that Morgan take Gwenlyn far away from the dangerous possibility that Mekin might somehow find her. He had to make Morgan see the need for it. If necessary, he would convince King Humphrey that a royal order must be issued to send the Sylva light-centuries away, before the Mekinese empire began to restore itself to devastated calm—if that process hadn't already begun.
Mekin had its grand fleet assembled and ready. If convincing and, unfortunately, truthful rumors ran about Mekin, as elsewhere, concerning the fleet and Bors's attempts to hide it, then their dictator need only give a single order and the grand fleet would lift off. When it found Kandar unoccupied it would leave Kandar dead. Then it would seek out the fleet, and destroy it, and then it would move from one to another of its rebellious tributaries and take revenge upon them....
And Bors could only hope to salvage the life of one girl from the wreckage of everything that human beings prefer to believe in. He could only hope to send Gwenlyn away—if he was not already too late.
The Horus broke out into normal space twelve days after leaving Deccan. The untrustworthy sun of Glamis still shone brightly. The inner planet revolved about it with one side glowing low red heat and the other side piled high with frozen atmosphere. The useless outer planet remained a lush green, save for its seas. And the fleet still circled it from pole to pole.
Bors had himself ferried to the flagship by space-boat, because what he had to report was too disheartening to be spoken where all the fleet might hear. Gwenlyn met him at the flagship's airlock. She looked very glad, as if she'd been uneasy about him.
"Call for a boat," Bors commanded her curtly, "to take you to the Sylva. Go on board with anybody else who belongs on it, your father, anybody. I'm going to ask the king to insist that the Sylva get away from here—fast! Before the Mekinese turn up."
Gwenlyn shook her head, her eyes searching his face.
"The Sylva's not here. It's gone to Kandar as a sort of dispatch-boat."
"Then I'll try to get another ship assigned to take you away," he said formidably. "Maybe one of the captured cargo-ships I sent back."
"No," said Gwenlyn. "They're going to be released. They'll go to Mekin, and we couldn't go there!"
Bors groaned again. Then he said savagely, "Wait here for me. I'll arrange something as soon as I've seen the king."
He strode down the corridor to King Humphrey's cabin. A sentry came to attention. Bors passed through a door. The king and half a dozen of the top-ranking officers of the fleet were listening apathetically to Morgan, at once vexed and positive and uncertain.
"But you can't ignore it!" protested Morgan. "I don't understand it either, but you'll agree that since my precognizer said no ship but Bors's is coming here—and he precognized every one of the prizes before they arrived—you'll concede that the Mekinese aren't coming here. So you're going out to meet them."
He saw Bors, and breathed an audible sigh of relief.
"Bors!" he said in a changed tone. "I'm glad you're back!"
Bors said grimly, "Majesty, I've very bad news."
King Humphrey shrugged. He spoke in a listless voice.
"I doubt it differs from ours. You captured a passenger-liner off Mekin, you will remember. You sent it here. When it arrived we found that all its passengers knew that Kandar was not occupied and that the fleet sent to capture it had not reported back."
"My news is worse," said Bors. "The continued existence of our fleet, and the fact that it defeated a Mekinese force, is common knowledge on at least five planets—all of them now in revolt against Mekin."
The king's expression had reached the limit of reaction to disaster. It did not change. He looked almost apathetic.
"Mekin," he said dully, "sent a second squadron to Kandar to investigate the rumors of defeat. We have a very tiny force there—three ships. Of course our ships won't attack the Mekinese, but they might as well. Knowing that we destroyed their first fleet and that we still live, Mekin will assuredly retaliate."
"And not only on Kandar," said Bors. "On Tralee and Garen and Cassis and Meriden—"
"Majesty! All this is more reason to listen to me! I've been telling you that all my Talents agree—"
King Humphrey interrupted tonelessly, "We've made our final arrangements, Bors. We are going to release the cargo-ships and the passenger-ship you sent us. We will use them as messengers. We are going to send a message of surrender, to Mekin."
Bors swallowed. His most dismal forebodings had produced nothing more hopeless than this moment.
"We have to sacrifice," said the king in a leaden voice, "not only our lives but our self-respect, to try to gain something less than the total annihilation of Kandar. We shall tell the Mekinese that we will return to Kandar and form up in space. If they send a small force to accept our surrender, they shall have it. If they prefer to destroy us, they can do that also. But we submit ourselves to punishment for having resisted the original fleet. We admit our guilt. And we beg Mekin not to avenge that resistance upon our people, who are not guilty."
Bors tried to speak, and could not. There was a sodden, utterly unresilient stillness in the room, as if all the high officers of the fleet were corpses and the king himself, though he spoke, was not less dead.
Then Morgan moved decisively. He moved away from the spot where he had been engaged in impassioned argument. He took Bors by the arm, and hustled him through the door.
"Come along!" he said urgently. "Something's got to be done! You have the knack of thinking of things to do! The king's intentions—"
The door closed behind him and he broke off. He wiped sweat from his forehead with one hand while he thrust Bors on with the other. They came to a cabin evidently assigned to him. Gwenlyn waited there.
"Craziness!" said Morgan bitterly. "Craziness! I get the finest group of Talents that ever existed! I teach them to think! I instruct them! And they can't think of what is going to happen. And everything depends on it! Everything!"
"When will the Sylva be back?" demanded Bors.
Morgan automatically looked at his watch. Gwenlyn opened her mouth to speak. Morgan shook his head impatiently. Gwenlyn was silent.
"My ship-arrival Talent's with the Sylva," said Morgan harassedly. "We sent him to Kandar to find out if the Mekinese fleet's coming there, and when. It isn't coming here. He said so."
"It'll go to Kandar," said Bors bitterly, "to destroy it. I imagine we'll go there too, to be destroyed."
"But it's insane!" protested Morgan. "Look! You captured a passenger-ship off Mekin. Right?"
"You sent it here with all its passengers. Right?"
"One of the passengers said he was a clairvoyant. Hah!" Morgan expressed the ultimate of disgust. "He was a fortune-teller! He didn't know there was anything better than that! A fortune-teller! But he's a Talent! He's a born charlatan, but he's an authentic Talent, and he doesn't know what that is! He thinks predictions as Madame Porvis thinks scandals! And they're just as crazy! But he is a Talent and they have to be right!"
Bors said, "You're going to take Gwenlyn away from here,—and fast!"
Morgan paid no attention. He was embittered, and agitated, and in particular, he was frustrated.
"It's all madness!" he protested almost hysterically. "Here we've got a firm precognition that King Humphrey's going to open parliament on Kandar next year, and there's another one—"
Gwenlyn said quickly, "Which you won't tell!"
"Which I won't tell. But something's got to happen! Something's got to be done! And this crazy Talent gives me a crazy precognition and looks proud because I can't make sense of it! What the hell can you make out of a precognition that Mekin will be defeated when an enemy fleet submits to destruction, lying still in space? There's no sense to it! My Talents wouldn't think of anything idiotic like that! They've got better sense! But when this lunatic said it, they could precognize it too! It's so! They couldn't think of it themselves, but when this Mekinese Talent does, they know it's true. But it can't be!"
Bors said coldly, "The fleet's going to be destroyed, certainly. If that will defeat Mekin. But Gwenlyn is not to stay aboard to be destroyed with it! How are you going to get her away?"
"The king's waiting for the Sylva to come back," Morgan said indignantly, "so he'll know—my ship-arrival Talent went to find out—if the Mekin fleet's going to Kandar, and when. He insists that if they know the fleet exists, they know where it is and will come here looking for it. But Madame Porvis couldn't have told that in her daydreaming. She didn't know what planet we're circling! She couldn't have spread that fact by contagion!"
"She spread plenty more!" said Bors. "Her daydreams were too damned true!"
Gwenlyn said, "It's a contradiction in terms for a fleet to win a battle by letting itself be destroyed. Perhaps the Captain—"
"It's also a contradiction in terms," said Bors bitterly, "for all our troubles to come because we won a victory. Now we regret that we weren't all killed. But it's madness for the king to propose to get us all slaughtered in hope of rousing the Mekinese better nature!"
"Maybe you can resolve it, Captain," said Gwenlyn thoughtfully. "Could it be that it isn't a contradiction but only a paradox?"
Bors spread his hands helplessly. Of all times and circumstances, this particular moment and situation seemed the least occasion for quibbling over words.
Then he said, "Yes.... It could be a paradox. If this prediction by that wild Talent is true, there is a way it could win a fight. I don't believe it, but I'm going to put something in motion. Nothing can make matters worse!"
He turned and strode back to the council room where King Humphrey and the high commanders of his fleet sat like dead men, waiting for the moment to be killed, to no purpose.
Bors got nowhere, of course. His proposal had all the ear-marks of lunacy of purest ray serene. He proposed urgently to equip all the ships of the fleet with the low-power overdrive fields. It could be done in days. Instructions were already distributed and would have been studied and understood. The fleet would then go to Kandar—if it appeared that the Mekinese grand fleet would go there—and set up a dummy fleet of target-globes in war array. This would be a fleet, but not of fighting ships. It would be a fleet of metal-foil inflated balloons.
One actual fighting ship, he stipulated, would form part of this illusory space-navy. He volunteered the Horus for it. That ship would signal to the Mekinese when they arrived. It would make the king's proposal to surrender, on the Mekinese promise to spare the civilian population of Kandar. If the enemy admiral agreed to these terms and the king believed him, then the true Kandarian fleet could appear and yield to its overwhelmingly-powerful enemy. If the admiral arrogantly refused to pledge safety to Kandar's population, then the dummy formation might be destroyed, but the fleet would fight. Hopelessly and uselessly—though the new low-power drive worked well in action—but it would fight.
The First Admiral said stonily, "If I were in the position of the Mekinese admiral, and I agreed to terms of capitulation, and if it were then shown to me that the basis of the terms was a deceit, I would not feel bound by my promise. When the actual fleet appeared, I would blast it for questioning my honor."
Bors looked at him with hot eyes. The king said drearily, "No, Bors. We must act in good faith. We cannot question the Mekinese good faith as you propose, and then expect them to believe in ours. The admiral is right. We can fight and bring destruction on our people, or we can place ourselves at the mercy of Mekin. There can be only one choice. We sacrifice ourselves, but we keep our honor."
"I deny," said Bors savagely, "that any man keeps his honor who enslaves his fellows, as you will do in surrendering. I resign my commission in your service, Majesty."
King Humphrey nodded wearily.
"Very well. You have served us admirably, Bors. I wish I thought you were right in this matter. I would rather follow your advice than my convictions. Your resignation is accepted."
An hour later, fuming, Bors paced back and forth across the floor of a cabin in the flagship. The Pretender of Tralee entered. The older man looked wryly amused.
"It was a most improper thing to do. You resigned your commission and then ordered the low-power fields built on all ships."
"To the contrary," said Bors, "I spread the news that I had resigned my commission because the low-power fields were not to be installed to give us a fighting chance!"
The Pretender sat down and regarded his nephew quizzically.
"But is it so important? To use tables of calculations instead of computers?"
"Yes," said Bors. "It is important. I should know. I've used the low-power fields in combat. Nobody else has."