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Non sibi sed omnibus
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"I SUPPOSE," said the flight commander, "that your officers are the replacements I asked for."
Then he thought to himself: "Why in hell does War College insist on sending these punks up to the front? The poor kids are just babies. Fresh and eager, with no idea in the world of what they're getting in for. They probably think war in space is a glorious adventure."
For a moment the tall, lean-muscled flight commander stood silently behind his desk, his tired gray eyes moving in restless appraisal over the four uniformed young men standing at rigid attention before him. With a gesture of infinite weariness, he rubbed a strong brown hand across the bronzed and hardened lines of his still youthful features.
"I suppose, too, that your instructors at War College recommended you all very highly."
Noticing the flush of embarrassment that crossed the faces of the young officers, the flight commander softened his tone.
"There was no contempt intended in my statement, gentlemen. I was merely thinking of my own days in War College. That wasn't so long ago, y'know."
Again the flight commander thought to himself:
"No, that wasn't so long ago. Just ten years. I was a punk then, too. The Fourth World War* was in its fortieth year, then. Now it's been going on for fifty years. I'm only thirty years old, and I feel like a hundred."
[* The Fourth World War started in the year 2500—the 26th century—with the United States against the Mongol hordes, who had conquered all the the world except this country. In their onward sweep of conquest, the yellow legions had seized the interplanetary colonies of all nations, except Space Base 10, a U.S. possession, where the action of this story takes place. The Asiatic hordes are being led by Kama Khan, a direct descendant of his famous forerunner, Genghis Khan. —Ed.]
Suddenly the flight commander broke off his thoughts abruptly. For the first time, he noticed that there were only four of the young replacement officers standing before him.
"Where is your other fellow officer?" he asked a blond, smooth-cheeked lad standing nearest to him. "There were supposed to be five replacements, not four."
The pink-skinned youth spoke promptly.
"Commander Walters detained him, sir. He is to join us shortly."
The flight commander nodded. "I see. Well, let's get down to introductions, gentlemen. As you all know, my name is Starke, Flight Commander Craig Starke. I'll be in charge while we're all together." He paused. "Sound off your own names, gentlemen."
"Chanes, Sir," said the young officer who had spoken a moment before. Then, in succession, the other three junior officers gave their names, eagerly and with pride.
Flight Commander Starke smiled for the first time since the replacements stepped into his office.
"Very well, gentlemen. I'm more than certain we'll get along splendidly. Return to your quarters. I'll expect you all out at assembly in the morning. Never forget, we're fighting a war!"
The replacements were pushing out through the door when Craig Starke spoke again.
"By the way, Chanes, what is the name of the fifth officer?"
Chanes appeared slightly embarrassed.
"Lieutenant Dick Starke, sir. Your brother!" Then he was gone.
Craig Starke sank slowly back in his swivel-chair, an expression of mingled anger, amazement and shock crossing his features. He ran his hand through his lank black hair, and the line of his jaw slowly hardened, set.
For fully five minutes he remained as he was, staring at the door. His brother, Dick. He hadn't seen Dick in ten years; no, twelve. Dick was a young, blond, smiling kid, gray-eyed and stocky—almost the opposite of his elder brother—when he'd seen him last. Dick was going to be a doctor. Had said so, dedicated his youth to it.
Craig Starke, pleased that the kid wasn't going to carry on the family's hidebound Army tradition, had financed that medical education. Four times a year, for the past eleven years, Dick had written him, had spoken eagerly of his medical training. But instead, he had gone to War College—and was now assigned to Space Base 10 under his elder brother's command.
Burning rage replaced all other of Craig Starke's emotions, and his big brown hands squeezed hard on the edge of his desk. Dick, the kid he'd been so blastedly proud of, had betrayed him!
Several moments must have passed before Flight Commander Starke heard the knocking on his door. Setting his jaw grimly, he forced himself to keep his voice steady.
"Come in," he barked.
And Lieutenant Dick Starke stepped into the room.
"Craig!" There was joy as well as embarrassment in the younger officer's voice. "Dammit, it's grand to see you, Craig!"
Craig Starke stared frostily at his brother, unconsciously noting the changes in the kid. He was a little taller now, still shorter than Craig though, and was even wider, more muscular than before. His hair hadn't darkened. In fact it was almost a white-blond now. The grin that had jumped so eagerly to his face was now sliding sickly away as Dick noted the expression in his brother's eyes.
"You're sore, Craig. Sore as hell. But I can expl—"
"Lieutenant Starke?" His brother's voice broke in sharply, giving the other no time to finish. "Lieutenant Starke," he repeated, letting the icy formality of the tone sink in, "you are with the new replacement officers, I believe."
"Look, Craig," his younger brother started again, a sort of desperation in his voice.
"It is customary, Lieutenant Starke," the other went on, "to address your superior officers by title." His voice became heavy with sarcasm. "I suppose your instructors at War College taught you as much."
Lieutenant Dick Starke snapped rigidly to attention, his eyes the only remaining indication of the emotion that filled him.
"As I was saying," Craig Starke grated, "you are with the new replacement officers. All of you are new to the front, new to war of any sort other than the bosh they hand you in school. This is space war, Lieutenant. In case you're not aware of it—it's sheer unadulterated hell up here. The invaders play for keeps, and kill to stay killed."
He paused, seemingly calmer, but his big hands still gripped the edges of his desk fiercely.
"You are also a bit worn out by your journey from Earth, I presume. Go to the quarters I have assigned the others. That's all!"
Lieutenant Dick Starke seemed to hesitate for a moment, debating against the rage of his brother and the futility of his own explanations. Then he did a smart about-face, after saluting, and was gone.
FOR endless seconds after his brother had left him, Craig Starke sat leaning back in his swivel-chair, staring blankly at the paneled pattern of the ceiling. At last, aloud, he said:
"So he wants to play soldier, eh? Wants to kill rather than heal. Well, dammit, he won't play soldier under my command! I'll get him out of here faster than a rocket charge!"
Once more in his role of flight commander, Starke leaned forward, flicking the switch on the televisor box that sat on his desk. There was a static spluttering, then the white screen glowed orange, finally pale gray, rugged features taking form on it.
Craig Starke looked at the face of the Base senior officer, old "Iron" Walters. The venerable Army officer's profile was seamed with the brown ruts that only space war can sear into a man, and his thick, white, drooping mustache bobbed as he spoke. "Well, Starke?"
"Wanted to talk to you, sir," Starke replied. "It's about my brother, just arrived with the new replacements. I want him transferred out of here, immediately!"
"Why?" There was amazement in the senior officer's voice, on his stony features.
"He doesn't belong here," Craig Starke insisted. "It's not right that he should serve under me. The other officers will think—"
"To hell with what the other officers think! They shan't have a chance to think of anything. I was the one who had your brother Richard assigned here. Thought it would surprise and please you, don't y'know."
The older officer's face beamed pontifically out of the televisor box.
"Didn't suspect he was at War College, eh?" Senior Officer Walters winked slyly. "Knew it would please you, however. Both my daughter and I were sure that it would be stupid for a Starke to become a sawbones. Not in the breed. Too many Starkes have been damned fine soldiers to have one go to pot as a medico. Knew he belonged in the Army. We convinced him, daughter and I. See you at mess."
The box spluttered once again, then paled, the vision of the venerable officer's face fading away.
Flight Commander Craig Starke rose to his feet, cursing. So that was the way the wind blew! The damned meddling old fossil had been the cause of Dick's deserting the medical profession. Commander Walters was so filled with the Army he couldn't see anything else. And his daught—
Starke stopped short. That was it. She was the cause of it! Old Iron Walters would never have lured Dick away from medicine, but his pretty daughter, Bea, could wrap Dick around her little finger.
Craig Starke suddenly remembered at least ten mentions of the girl's name in his brother's letters to him. So Dick had fallen for Bea, and she had talked him into the change. And Bea Walters, daughter of the Base commander, was here with her father. It all added up perfectly!
Flight Commander Craig Starke seized his uniform cap, slammed it on the back of his head, and stalked out of his office. He knew, as he strode angrily past the space ship hangars and on through the officers' dining room, toward Officers' Row, that he was going to have it out with Miss Bea Walters.
WHEN Lieutenant Dick Starke arrived at Officers' Quarters, he found that his room had already been arranged for by young Chanes. The two of them were to share the same place. Chanes was sprawled comfortably out on the cot by the window, smoking a cigarette and turning his head occasionally to watch the mechanics working over the space-combat ships at the far end of the hangars.
Wordlessly, Dick threw his luggage beneath his own cot and proceeded to remove his military dress tunic. Then he sat down on the cot occupied by Chanes, letting his head rest in his hands.
"Didn't work out so well, eh, Dick?" Chanes observed sympathetically. "Five will get you ten that he wouldn't even let you explain."
"No," the younger Starke said dismally. "He wouldn't give me the chance to say a word."
Chanes was thoughtful, rubbing his jaw in mute contemplation.
"If you don't mind my saying so, he's a helluva tough baby—even for a flight commander."
Dick shrugged. "He's been up here ten years, don't forget."
"Yeah," Chanes replied. "I guess ten years at the front can process any given material into steel." He proffered a pack of smokes to Dick. "Have one."
There was a minute of silence, as young Starke lighted his cigarette, broken at length by Chanes' next remark.
"Seen Bea Walters yet?"
At the mention of the name, Dick Starke seemed to brighten perceptibly.
"No," he answered. "But I'll get a chance to see her after mess this evening."
Chanes smiled. "I envy you, fella. Not only have you got one of the swellest-looking femmes in the cosmos, but you're lucky enough to have her as the daughter of an Army commander, living with her daddy at the same Base you're stationed at."
Dick Starke disregarded the levity in his companion's tones, frowning as he answered, "I don't know, Chanes. Bea's being up here at the front with her dad worries me. I don't like it. Supposing the invaders get wind of the Base location and come over to sprinkle their radium bombs on us. This isn't exactly a safe place for a woman."
"Old Iron Walters isn't going to let his daughter stay around, if there's even the remotest chance that such a thing might happen," Chanes assured him. "No, I imagine we're pretty damned safe from the invaders. It'll be a long time before they locate this base. We're so well hidden that—"
Chanes broke off abruptly. His gesturing hand paused in mid-air, and he looked sharply, quizzically at his new room-mate.
"What's that?" he demanded.
Dick Starke stared at him. "What's what?"
Chanes' forehead was wrinkled, and excitement tinged his face.
"Listen," he repeated. "Can't you hear it? Atomic motors overhead! Lots of them, from the sound. I think—"
The rest of his sentence was drowned in the wail of raid sirens, dismally screeching out their warnings of death and danger above. Chanes and Dick Starke were on their feet instantly, grabbing tunics and dashing for the door.
"An attack!" Dick shouted. "The invaders are above the Base!"
"Wow!" shouted Chanes. "Action at last!"
THE two young officers were already dashing down the long barracks corridor. Other doors along the hall were flying open, and more figures emerged in hurried excitement. There was an increasing babble of voices, and through the same amplifier that had sounded the siren warnings there came the staccato piping of a bugle.
"Assembly, before the hangars," Chanes gasped into Dick's ear. "Hot damn, we're going up after 'em!"
Most of the flight officers were already lined up before the spac- ship hangars when Dick and Chanes arrived. Dick saw that his brother was already on the scene, moving quietly up and down the line, issuing orders to men and mechanics. Hangar turrets were rolling up, and bullet-nosed, sleek-lined space combat-ships were being rolled forth.
As Flight Commander Craig Starke went down the line of officers, speaking to all in turn, each man fell out of line and made for the combat rocket assigned to him. Dick and Chanes had joined the line at the far end. Finally, however, Starke was before them. He was calm, cool, and might have been lecturing a student group for all his manner.
"Chanes," he said softly. "You'll report to the commandant's office with Starke and the other replacements who arrived today. I'm not sending any of you up on this flight. You haven't had time to adjust yourselves to our conditions yet."
Enthusiasm drained from the faces of the two younger officers like water from a leaky bucket. Disappointment was clearly written in their every expression.
Dully then the pair fell out of line and began trotting in the direction of the commandant's office. Neither spoke, each was too full of his own bitterness. They were lost to the furor around them.
Then the first radium bomb fell.
It came with a singing, screaming, tearing impact, landing far to the left of the hangars. The detonation was terrific, hurling both Dick and Chanes to the ground, spreading orange flame in every direction.
Dick's ears rang deafeningly, and blood trickled slowly from the corners of his nose and mouth. Somewhere, the scream of a man in horrible agony drifted past. The raid siren was wailing once more. An Emergency Squad Unit passed by, ten men bearing stretchers and apparatus. Chanes was on his feet again, and Dick regained his.
Now the atomic motors of the Base's own combat ships were sputtering angrily, and the reverberations of their engines smashed the air as they climbed spaceward. One after another, the sleek combat space-ships left the ground; streaks that zipped, became dwarfed, then vanished into the fog of the upper strata.
Dick and Chanes were running again, heedless of the confusion and terror surrounding them. By now four more radium bombs had scored hits somewhere on the Base. Most of the combat ships, however, were off the ground by now. Not many more bombs would land before the huge space battleships of the invaders would be driven off.
At last the two young officers were before the quarters of old Iron Walters. Dick was up the steps in a bound, through the door, with Chanes at his heels. The room they entered was half-filled with wives and children of other officers. In charge were the other three replacement officers who had arrived that day. Wildly Dick's eyes searched the room for a sign of Bea Walters.
Then he saw her. She was in the far corner of the spacious room, her back turned to him. Several of the officers' wives were grouped around her, and Dick saw that she was crying, for her slim shoulders shook with sobs and her lovely blond head was bent.
He was across the room in an instant and at her side.
"Bea," he found his voice sounding strange in his ears, husky. "Bea, darling. What's wrong?"
A short plump woman, one of the officers' wives, turned to him soberly.
"Her father," she said. "Commander Walters was killed by one of the first bombs."
Dick's features hardened as he mentally cursed the terror of the invaders, then softened as he looked at Bea.
"Brace up, honey," he half whispered. "The old fellow was a soldier. No tears. He wouldn't have wanted to go any other way than in battle."
Bea Walters' sobbing quieted, and she wiped away the tears from her large brown eyes.
"Sorry, Dick. I didn't think of it that way. I suppose you're right. I shouldn't carry on like this."
Dick gripped her arm warmly. "That's the way," he encouraged.
Then he looked about the large room. There were others, from the sound of things, who had lost much in the fury of the invaders' attack.
"Maybe we can be of some use to the rest," he added.
And at that moment Dick realized that the sound of steady bomb explosions had ceased as abruptly as the raid had begun. But for the faint, far-off whine of the ships in space above them, all was now deathly quiet.
Chanes had followed on Dick's heels.
"The invaders," he said. "They've been driven off."
A uniformed dispatch carrier worked his way through the throng. His eyes searched the group, looking for an officer. He spied Dick and was beside him in a moment.
"A message," he blurted. "The strata-telegrapher picked it up on his space band three minutes ago. He said to relay it to an officer immediately, sir."
Dick nodded automatically, taking the message. The dispatch carrier saluted and was gone. While Bea and Chanes crowded close, Dick unfolded the communication. Simultaneously, an exclamation of startled horror broke from their lips. For the message read:
NEW YORK HAS FALLEN BENEATH A CONCERTED MONGOL DRIVE. KAMA KHAN'S HORDES SWEEPING WESTWARD ACROSS U.S., MEETING SLIGHT RESISTANCE. BATTLE WAGING FURIOUSLY ALONG ROCKY MOUNTAIN FRONT. PREPARE TO ABANDON SPACE BASE 10, OBJECT OF INVADERS' NEXT DRIVE.—GENERAL S.K. BLAINE, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF U.S. ARMY FORCES ON EARTH.
"Good God," Dick muttered. "It looks like the end of things, if Blaine and his forces can't stop the Mongols at the Rockies."
"New York must have been attacked less than a week after we left War College to come up here," Chanes muttered incredulously.
Bea was white, lips tensed, saying nothing. Her lovely face portrayed mixed emotions of fear and rage. She was trembling slightly, from the shock of the past minutes.
"Abandon Space Base 10," Dick said bitterly. "For what? If Khan's forces sweep the United States, the last territory on Earth to hold out against the Mongols, where can we go? Space Base 10 is the only refuge we have here in the cosmos. Khan and his Mongol hordes have already conquered the other planets."
His jaw tightened, and he faced Bea and Chanes.
"Don't let word of this get out," he commanded. "It can't do any good, and might do irreparable harm. I'll give the message to Craig as soon as the combat squadron comes back."
FLIGHT COMMANDER Craig Starke sat at his desk, one hand wrapped around a pony of brandy, the other absent-mindedly loosening the collar of his military tunic. A cigarette hung almost forgotten from the corner of his handsome, somewhat cynical mouth. Starke was trying, as he had tried many times during the past ten years, to forget the memory of another afternoon's combat in space.
"Six more gone," he thought bitterly. "All of them pals. Burned to cinders in space. One of them might have been my brother."
And then, to drown the rage and futility that swelled in his throat, he gulped the remainder of his brandy in a swift gesture.
A moment later. Lieutenant Dick Starke stepped into the room.
"Well," Flight Commander Starke spat angrily. "You might knock. Lieutenant."
He glared at his brother, watching the youngster's eyes flick quickly, accusingly, to the glass he held in his hand.
"A message," Dick said quickly, "came in over the stratagraph less than fifteen minutes ago."
He held out a paper in his hand. And while his brother unfolded the white sheet, Dick added, "I also wanted to tell you that one of the invaders' bombs got Commander Walters. He's dead."
Starke looked up sharply, for an instant fighting against emotion. Then he was calm, apparently.
"I—I'm sorry." He ran a hand across his brow. "He was a great soldier, a gallant commander." Then his voice hardened. "But that's war, Lieutenant, the 'glamorous', 'glorious' adventure you've found for yourself." Then he turned his attention to the message.
As his brother read the message from General Blaine, Dick saw his face pale beneath its tan. Then the muscles of the lean jaw went tight, into hard small knots. At length he looked up.
"You've read this?" he asked.
Dick merely nodded. Starke went on, "With Walters dead, that means that I'm shouldered with command of the entire Base. There was one thing Blaine didn't know when he sent this message—the Mongol invaders have already drawn a steel ring around Space Base 10. We found that out this afternoon, when we went up to drive their bombers away from the strata-lines. We've no chance of breaking through them. Not now—inasmuch as we're unable to get help from Earth any longer."
"But, New York—I never thought they'd take New York," Dick blurted.
"No. None of us imagined they would. But they have. And now we're ringed in up here. It looks like the end."
There was an awkward silence. "Isn't there a chance of breaking through?" Dick flushed at his brother's hard stare. "I mean, can't some of us—volunteers, for example—take a crack at breaking through the ring around Base 10?"
"Your ideas," Craig Starke observed acidly, "are as foolish as they are melodramatic, Lieutenant. Tactical plans lie in my authority, not the authority of a junior officer. Please remember that. Good day, Lieutenant!"
Crimson, Dick wheeled and stamped out of the room. There was a strange light in his brother's eyes as he watched him leave, a light that betrayed something of grudging admiration.
AN orderly entered a moment later.
"This letter, sir," he said, "was addressed to you by Commander Walters. He ordered it delivered to you—in case anything happened to him."
He saluted and closed the door. Starke opened the letter.
If you receive this message, it will be because I am no longer with you. As my second in command, you will have taken over responsibility for the Base. There were certain letters from the War Department, which you will find in my wall safe, that you never knew about. They concern emergency orders issued to me less than six months ago—vital information that I was not permitted to pass on even to you. If it becomes necessary to rely on these emergency instructions, for God's sake do so.
It was signed simply "Walters."
Starke rose, buttoning the throat of his tunic. He'd have to get those instructions.
Bea Walters met him at the door of the late commander's quarters. She was dressed in a dark dress that accentuated the lovely blondness of her hair, the delicate lines of her oval features. Her eyes showed she had been crying.
"Come in, Craig."
For a moment he stood awkwardly in the hallway, twisting his uniform cap in his hands, wishing that he could properly phrase the words that he felt inside him. The best he could do was, "Sorry, Bea. Sorry as the devil. We all are. You know that."
"Yes, Craig," she said simply. "I—I understand."
Then he told her of her father's message, of the papers he was supposed to take from the safe. She nodded in acquiescence and he followed her through the living room.
In the study where her father had kept most of his effects, Bea closed the door and walked to a picture on the wall. She pushed this back, revealing a safe. After a moment she had opened it.
"Take whatever is necessary, Craig," she said.
He found the envelopes, big and bulky, with the official stamp of the War Department on them.
"These are all I'll be needing, Bea."
She closed the safe then, and the two of them walked in silence back to the living room.
"Wait, Craig." Bea spoke the words softly, yet quickly. He turned to face her.
"I wanted to talk to you," Bea went on, "about Dick." Her eyes indicated that she was aware of the sudden mask that slipped over his features. "Please, Craig," she said. "You must listen to me."
"Well?" Starke spoke brusquely, huskily.
"I asked him to quit his medical studies, Craig. I had father get him assigned to this Base."
"I'd figured as much," Starke told her.
"I'm sorry now, Craig," Bea said softly. "I never knew what I was getting him into until today."
Starke said sharply, "It doesn't really matter any longer. Good day."
Then he was trotting briskly down the steps of the house, and out onto the hangar field. Darkness was closing in on Base 10 by the time he reached his office once more. Entering, he snapped on the light, slid the catch to the door, and walked over to his desk.
Methodically, he slit open the envelopes he'd taken from the wall safe, arranging them on his desk. He moved across to his cabinet, returned with a decanter of brandy, cigarettes and a small glass. Then he loosened the collar on his tunic and got down to intensive study. These were Craig Starke's emergency instructions. And the emergency was now at hand.
FIVE hours later, Starke was still in his office. The papers from the War Department had long since been digested, and were now reposing once more in the breast pocket of his tunic. The decanter of brandy was half empty, and the cigarette-tray on his desk was heaped with stubs.
He pondered Commander Walters' instructions about the shipment that had come from Earth six weeks before—a War Department consignment, the labels on the boxes had said.
They were still in the old arsenal, those crates, guarded day and night—though Walters had been the only man who knew what they contained. And now it was Starke's job to bring those crates forth and order their contents assembled. For those crates contained space ships.
Moving in sudden decision, Starke strode over to his desk, snapped on the televisor box. In a moment the face of the communications orderly focused on the screen.
"Yes, sir?" said the orderly, hastily turning his head to face his superior, stuffing a news bulletin out of sight.
"Tell all flight officers, junior and senior, to report here in my office immediately," Starke directed.
HALF an hour later, facing the assembled flight officers of Base 10, Craig Starke said:
"I called you men to my office to inform you officially that I have taken over the command vacated by the death of Commander Walters."
Someone coughed nervously in the silence that followed.
"Also," Starke continued, fingers restlessly toying with the letter opener on his desk, "I have several important matters to discuss with you gentlemen. The first being," he reached into his drawer to produce the message his brother had given him earlier in the day, "a stratagraph message from General Blaine, ordering the immediate evacuation of Space Base 10."
Starke paused to light a cigarette.
"You men who went up with me this afternoon, to drive off the bombing attack of our enemy, are all aware that Base 10 has been thoroughly surrounded by enemy squadrons." There was a murmur among the officers.
"I sent scout patrols out into space immediately after we drove off the bombers. These patrols returned with information concerning the strength and position of the enemy."
Starke nodded at a stocky, red-haired little officer.
"Captain Shay, here, has the report of the scouting patrol. Please read it, Captain."
Shay cleared his throat self-consciously, unfolding a chart which he'd been holding in his hand.
"Base 10, as far as can be ascertained," he began, "is completely surrounded by four enemy space squadrons. These squadrons comprise four flotillas totalling eight space battleships, which are patrolling our first Base defense line. In addition, the enemy has a roving squadron of ten cruiser-type space boats, three space-ship carriers, and an aggregate of twenty of the smaller combat-type space-ships.
This is a total unit strength of forty-one ships capable of independent battle action. The range patrolled by the enemy is the equivalent of our entire border area."
There was a moment of suspended silence.
"That," Craig Starke remarked dryly, "is the situation which we face, gentlemen. Briefly, it amounts to this: With our fighting strength at present status, the odds of our combat ships breaking through the ring are roughly—five hundred to one."
He stared for a moment at the tensed faces of his men. Then he went on.
"We have enough supplies on Base 10 to last us for several months. As it stands, the invaders haven't enough strength to take the Base from us. We can hold them off until our supplies run out. But after that—" He broke off, spreading his hands in an expressive gesture.
Looking speculatively across the faces of his officers, Starke debated swiftly the best manner of approaching the reason for this meeting. He caught his brother, in the rear of the group, whispering excitedly to the rosy-cheeked Chanes, who stood beside him. That gave Starke his cue. He said,
"One of our recently arrived replacement officers made a suggestion this afternoon—a suggestion that carried more weight than he imagined. He made mention of a volunteer squadron. That, gentlemen, is precisely what we shall have to count on to break the ring that encircles us."
"But at five hundred to one!" Captain Shay had stepped forward again. "It's madness to think of such a venture, Commander!"
Starke smiled, but without humor. "Five hundred to one, yes. But those are odds based on our present combat fighting equipment. I am speaking of equipment which you men know nothing about. Equipment which arrived at the Base here secretly less than six weeks ago, and which is now stored in the old arsenal."
There was a gasp of surprise from the officers assembled. Starke held up his hand for silence.
"Yes, that's correct. The War Department, expecting some such emergency, sent a special shipment of five hundred large crates—supposedly extra parts for our present space-ships—which contain forty unassembled 'mystery' space-ships. They are a type that have never been used in this war before. In the Government's files they are referred to as 'suicide ships.' They are single-seater space fighters."
The first gasp of astonishment was nothing compared to the comment aroused by Commander Starke's last sentence. Chanes spoke the amazement of all when he repeated incredulously:
Starke nodded briskly. "That's right. Forty-five of them, to repeat myself. All of them are equipped for one single purpose—to wreak havoc among enemy squadrons. And—they weren't constructed to return after their work was completed!"
An officer, at least twenty years Starke's senior in service, stepped forward. His rugged features were perplexed.
"Commander Starke, might I remind you that you haven't given any reason, as yet, for such an attempt? What is to prevent us from asking aid from Earth? Surely, the most sensible strategy would be to wait for help!"
Starke answered him calmly enough.
"You're quite within your rights in asking that question, Major Casey. But here is your answer. I was forced to hold this information back until now. New York has fallen before the forces of Kama Khan, and our armies have been driven back to the Rocky Mountain front!"
Above the excited bedlam of voices, Starke pounded his fist on the desk. For fully four minutes, however, the turmoil went on unabated. At length the room quieted, and he could be heard again.
"There, gentlemen, is the situation we must face. I needn't add that I'm counting on each one of you to stand by. If we play our hand closely, there's a chance that the majority of us will come out with whole skins. Report at the hangars directly after assembly tomorrow morning. I'll have had the mechanics working on the new ships by then, and all of you will have to become thoroughly acquainted with them. That's all. Dismissed!"
AS he watched the last of his subalterns file out of his office and into the darkness of the parade ground, Craig Starke felt suddenly, sickeningly weary. The responsibility of leadership, carried for ten years of ceaseless effort at the front, had been doubled within the past twenty-four hours. And he felt this responsibility pressing down upon him mercilessly, relentlessly.
"I hope," he muttered with eyes half shut, "that I won't let old Walters down. I can't let any of them down. Whatever happens from now on is directly up to me!"
He walked dejectedly back to his desk, slumping down in his worn leather chair. Then he picked up a pen, scratched rapidly for a few moments, signed his name, and leaned back. In the morning, assembling of the suicide ships would get under way.
EXCITEMENT ran high on Base 10 the next morning. The news of their plight was received by both Army and civilian residents of the Base with an attitude of quiet determination. Walking from Officers' Mess, Chanes commented on this to Dick Starke.
"Their chins are still up, thank God," Chanes said. "That's half the battle."
"If it weren't for the circumstances, you'd think that a holiday spirit had taken hold of the Base, eh?" Dick answered.
Chanes nodded. "They're all hanging around the arsenal, evidently waiting for the first of the new ships to be carted out."
"Single-seaters," Dick observed, half to himself. "I still don't get it. What chance in hell will such ships have against the enormous battlecraft of Kama Khan?"
"That," Chanes replied, "is what we have to find out. Let's get over there." The pair turned their steps toward the hangars.
Mechanics were assembling the new fighters before an interested audience of officers, privates and civilians when they arrived on the field. The first of the new ships was almost assembled, and Dick and Chanes had to elbow their way through the crowd before they could study the craft.
"Well, I'll be damned," Chanes gasped. "Look at that baby!"
Dick's jaw, too, had dropped open in surprise. The single-seater rocket fighter was incredibly small, approximately twelve feet in length, shaped almost like a space torpedo. The pilot's cockpit was just barely large enough to permit movement. Mounted at the nose of the craft were twin atomic mortar-guns. On the sleek, steel stomach of the space fighter, there were releases for as many as six space-bomb discharges.
The nose of the single-seater was what held Dick Starke's attention. It had been constructed to hold something inside its metal turret, but whatever that something was, it hadn't been installed as yet. Dick commented on this to Chanes.
"What do you suppose is going into the nose?"
Chanes looked at him sharply. "Didn't you know?" Then, smiling wryly, "Nitroglycerin compression fluid!"
"Huh!" Dick was jolted. "The damned thing not only carries every conceivable type of space weapon—it's a veritable bomb in itself!"
They fell silent then, watching mechanics rapidly assemble the bomb-carriages on the stomach of the tiny space fighter.
"It's funny," Chanes said softly. "Here we are, standing around watching the construction of our own coffins."
"Not necessarily," Dick said. "We don't know who's going to be assigned to them."
"Why," Chanes spread his hands, "it will be a question of volunteers, of course. What else?"
There was a strange sensation in the pit of Dick Starke's stomach. His hands felt moist, his throat dry. He wasn't afraid of death. And he knew, beyond all certainty, that he would be one of the first to volunteer. He knew, in other words, that his remaining hours of life were numbered. And, being young, he didn't want to die.
He looked instinctively at Chanes.
From the expression in the other's eyes, Dick saw that Chanes, too, was thinking along much the same lines. Dick grinned. Chanes smiled and squeezed his room-mate's arm in mutual sympathy.
They turned then, these two young officers, and sauntered away from the hangars. Both of them were silent, each with his own thoughts. They didn't hear the first shout.
"Dick!" It was a girl's voice. "Dick!" They turned, to see Bea Walters running up behind them. She was still dressed in her somber black costume, but she was smiling now, and the blond loveliness of her hair crowned the perfection of her features.
"I heard," she said, "that there's going to be an attempt made to break through Kama Khan's squadron blockade."
The two young officers nodded mutely.
"This might be the turning point in the war," Bea went on. "Oh, I do hope that this new plan is successful. I understand that the invaders have the most important sections of their space squadrons waiting in the first strata. I—" She broke off abruptly at the expression in Dick's eyes, the expression he couldn't hide. "Why, Dick, what's wrong?"
"Nothing, honey," Dick said quickly, slipping an arm about her waist. Then he saw the look on Chanes' face. It said, plainly, "Better tell her, fella. She'll know sooner or later."
Dick bit his underlip. "I have to talk to you alone, Bea. There's something you ought to know." Then, to Chanes: "Do you mind?"
"Not a bit," his companion nodded. "I'll run on along; some things to attend to, anyway."
Wordlessly, Dick led Bea over to the deserted side of an old hangar.
"Dick," Bea said anxiously. "What is it? What's wrong? What's happened?"
"I might as well tell you, honey. It's about the flight, the attack that's planned to break the invaders' blockade around Base 10."
Pain came suddenly into the girl's eyes. "I know, Dick," she said. "It's going to be terribly dangerous. Space war always is. I ought to know. After all, father—"
She stopped, then went on quickly. "I know, at any rate, that the situation is more than most of us realize. I was only trying to be cheerful for your sake—to make you think that I was able to keep my chin up."
Suddenly hot little tears were running down the girl's cheeks. "Oh, Dick, Dick, I can't bear it any longer! It's all my fault. I brought you up here, through father, and now—" She buried her face against his chest.
Dick fought for control of himself, iron control that would enable him to tell her the truth. In a strained, husky voice, he heard himself saying, "It isn't just war, this time. It's more than that, honey. I've got to tell you. You've got to know."
Bea had raised her head, and was looking at him from tear-stained eyes. Dick hated himself for what he must say next.
"This is going to be a suicide attack, darling. No one has been chosen. Volunteers will be called for. Naturally, I'll have to be one of those volunteers. None of us is expected to return."
He continued grimly, explaining in detail the nature of the new fighter craft that was to be used in the attack. Suddenly he stopped, his voice catching in his throat.
Bea had gone limp in his arms, fainted.... Dick carried her home, grim-faced.
BACK in his quarters, he walked slowly into his room, found Chanes already there, characteristically stretched out on his cot, smoking a cigarette.
Dick didn't speak, and Chanes merely said, "You told her?"
Dick nodded, slumping down on his bunk, head in hands.
Chanes' voice came to him. "What the hell, Dick. I understand...." There was embarrassment, tempered with unspoken comradeship. Then Chanes was going on, haltingly.
"I had a girl like Bea, once. She was—she died—four years ago, when the Mongols took Berlin." His voice suddenly hardened. "So it's easier for me. There's no one left to give a damn."
Dick jumped up and grabbed his roommate by the shoulder. He shook Chanes until the other's teeth chattered.
"Don't say that!" he rasped between set teeth. "Don't ever say that again. You've been like a brother to me, and you know it."
And then Dick Starke blushed like a schoolboy, and Chanes punched him softly in the jaw.
THEY met that evening in the old arsenal. Sixty flight officers and some twenty mechanics, and no one was smiling. Flight Commander Craig Starke, looking more worn and haggard then before, faced them silently for several moments.
"Gentlemen," Starke began, his voice husky, "we are all aware of the reason for this assembly. All of you have had an opportunity to acquaint yourselves with the nature of our new combat ships this afternoon. Last night, I informed you as to the nature of the attack that we had planned. I told you frankly that the officers who man these space fighters are not expected to return."
Standing beside Dick, somewhere in the rear of the assembly, Chanes nudged him sharply.
"Here's the pitch," he whispered.
"There are forty-five of these ships," Starke went on. "We shall need the same number of men for our patrol." He looked meaningly at the ranks of men before him. "I've checked the roster of our squadrons, eliminating ten of the senior officers. They will not be permitted to sacrifice themselves, for obvious reasons stated in War Department instructions." He paused. "That leaves fifty men from whom I must draw my volunteers."
The silence was intense.
"I want all of you to understand that no one is obliged to offer himself for duty in this attack.... That's about all, gentlemen. Now I must ask for all who would volunteer to step forward."
The ranks of flight officers moved forward to a man.
Craig Starke smiled, rubbing his hand across his eyes.
"I expected as much," he said quietly. "But I can't use you all. We'll need men to remain at the Base. I'll check our roster, select those of you I need."
His eyes picked out his younger brother's face from the ranks.
"Dismissed, men," he said. But he was still looking at his kid brother.
SHORTLY before midnight an orderly knocked on the door of the room occupied by Dick Starke and Chanes. Dick, who had been sitting sleeplessly on the edge of his bunk, crossed the room in a stride and threw the door open.
"Lieutenants Starke and Chanes?" the orderly inquired.
"That's right." Dick's heart was pounding.
"Commander's compliments, sir," the orderly went on, handing two envelopes to Dick. "Instructions for the morning, sir."
Chanes hadn't been asleep, and now was up beside Dick, reaching for the envelope addressed to him.
"This is it!" he said excitedly.
Then they were reading the instructions entailed in each message. The orderly's heels could be heard clicking off down the hall.
"At six a.m.," Dick was reading aloud, "report at the hangar line for attack duty. Additional instructions will be issued there."
"Mine," said Chanes, "reads exactly the same. Well, fella, it looks as though we've been elected...."
BEFORE the sun rose on the following morning, Chanes was out of his bunk, quietly slipping on his clothes. When he had finished dressing he tiptoed cautiously across to where Dick lay sleeping, listened for a moment beside him. Then, satisfied that the other still slept, he crossed to the door. He opened it cautiously, listening again for a moment. Carefully he shut the door and moved off down the corridor.
Once outside Officers' Hall, Chanes turned toward the Strata Communications Building, some three hundred yards across the parade ground. Still moving carefully, he made his way across the field, climbed the steps to the Communications Building.
At the top of the steps he stood for a moment beside the door. Then he rapped softly, three short knocks followed by one heavy rap. After what seemed an eternity, the door opened and Chanes faced a rotund little man dressed in the uniform of a dispatch officer.
Chanes stepped into the lighted room, and the rotund little dispatch officer closed the door quickly behind him. The fat little fellow turned angrily.
"Are you a fool," he snarled, "coming here at this hour?"
"Take it easy," Chanes hissed. "I just wanted to check with you. The attack is planned, as you know by now, for sometime after six this morning. That gives you two hours in which to warn the ships lying outside the strata line of defense. They can spread the word to the others."
"Yes, yes," the little man snapped. "I'll take care of those details. You handle your end of it, and I'll carry out mine."
"Don't worry about me," Chanes scoffed. "When I get finished with the regular combat ships, there won't be one
of them that can reach the strata line."
The other's eyes widened. "The regular combat ships are to convoy the new suicide rockets to the strata line?"
Chanes smiled. "That's the idea. Then the combat ships are to aid the suicide squadron in the attack. You did your work well. The High Command will be pleased, if you don't muff the last of it. These fools here are certain that New York has been taken. That phony message from General Blaine did exactly what Intelligence expected it to do. Now they've revealed their suicide fleet, and it can be destroyed with the utmost simplicity. Then, possibly, our commandant, the Great Khan, will actually take New York—once he has Base 10 under control."
The rotund little dispatch officer smiled hastily.
"Fine. Excellent. I'll warn the Red Fleet, then, as soon as you leave."
Chanes was at the door. "Good enough. And I'll handle those combat convoys. Don't forget, tell the Red Fleet commanders that each of the new craft is equipped with high explosive in the nose. Careful marksmanship, with guns trained on that explosive, will eliminate the suicide fleet before they can do any damage."
Then Chanes was outside once more, slipping softly along in the shadows, moving toward the hangar line....
SHARPLY, the bugler's blasts woke the garrison of Base 10, two hours later. Lights flickered on in Officers' Hall, and men began to pour across the field. Mechanics threw open hangar doors, rolling out the space fighter ships. Moments passed. Mingled voices, hushed with excitement, rose and fell as men moved about.
Then the sudden ear-splitting din of the rockets, splatting to a crescendo, as mechanics warmed the ships. Orange spurts, a long line of them, flashed through the half-darkness of the morning.
Flight Commander Craig Starke stood in the center of the parade ground, before him a row of flight officers.
He was peering upward, studying the sky, which was a quilting of clouds scattered across gray splotches that would turn into blue with the coming of the sun. The cloud strata behind those splotches was thick, yet ragged enough to give Starke some idea of the conditions in the world behind the gray cotton—a world wherein the invaders' flotilla lay in wait, like a tiger about to pounce.
Dick Starke, standing beside Chanes, shivered slightly in the cold of the morning, shivered too from the excitement that held the field in an electric static.
An officer was moving along the line in which they stood, handing out paper disks, upon which numbers were stamped. He gave the disks to Dick and Chanes.
"What are these for?" Dick muttered to his companion.
"The number on the disk designates the single-seater to which you're assigned," Chanes replied, his eyes following the progress of the rotund little dispatch officer who moved along handing out more disks.
The banging of the rockets had been subdued. Subdued enough for Craig Starke's voice to carry to the men who stood before him.
"Gentlemen, you will be escorted by regular combat ships. There have been only thirty-five of you assigned to the suicide fleet. In the nose of each suicide ship is enough explosive to blow a full-sized space dreadnought to smithereens. This explosive is the last measure which you will be called upon to employ.
"The use is obvious. But don't forget, dive for the enemy only after all your other ammunition has been exhausted. There are radio control panels in each of the new single-seaters. Through means of this, I shall keep in touch with the suicide fleet. Good luck, gentlemen!"
Then Dick was gripping Chanes' hand, hard. His voice was husky.
"Good luck, fellow."
Chanes looked at him for a moment, wordlessly. A look as of pain crossed his face. His voice, when he replied, was unsteady.
"So long, youngster. Tough it had to turn out like this...."
DICK had been assigned single-seater 8. Chanes was slated for number 7. They walked together silently for perhaps thirty yards before arriving at their crafts.
Looking down the line, Dick saw that his brother was climbing into one of the combat space fighters, with two other officers and a gunner. Something came into his throat then.
He, Dick Starke, was going to die. He was a soldier, and death was a soldier's lot. But Craig—Craig hadn't even spoken to him—
The young officer wheeled, to face Bea Walters. She was standing misty-eyed before him, but her chin was firm, her head upraised.
"Bea!" The name came brokenly from him, and he stepped forward, folding the girl in his arms. "Bea," darling," he murmured. "I wish you hadn't come. It makes it harder for me to leave you."
"I'm not here to stop you, Dick," Bea said, her voice quivering. "It's just to say"—her voice broke—"good-by!"
"Good-by, darling." Somehow Dick had managed to say it. And then he was pushing her from him, climbing into the tiny single-seater space ship. It was easier that way, quicker.
A mechanic was rolling the glass turret across the cockpit, a turret that permitted almost complete visibility on all sides. But the gauges in front of Dick Starke were a blur, and he wiped a hand fiercely across his eyes.
Then, from the radiophone panel, he heard the voice of his brother, issuing the first command.
"Combat-ships are to go up first. They will wait for the regular combat squadron to follow, just inside the strata-line."
The noise that had been deafening a moment before increased to incredible proportions now as the full blast of the combat-rockets was turned on. A series of swishing, silver streaks, disappearing beyond the gray of the sky, marked the take-off of the first space fighters.
Then Dick was gunning the rockets of his own tiny ship, ears ringing to the clamor of the other suicide fighters on the line as they too prepared to scream upward.
In the moments before he released full throttle force, Dick inspected the bomb releases, and the forward gun mechanisms. All was in order. Then his hand sought the throttle, pulled back. A moment later, and the tiny ship was hurtling upward into space.
DICK STARKE was through the first overlayer, making for the strata-line, when he took his first look about him. On all sides, flying combat formation, were the other single-seaters. Dick wondered vaguely where Chanes had taken position. Then, for a sickening instant, he remembered the nitroglycerin that was stored in the nose of the craft. He would never land again.
Last flight! The words beat over and over again in his brain until at last, by sheer power of will, he drove them out. He felt better then. He was a space-fighter out on patrol. Nothing more. Forget the rest. Didn't help to think of it, anyway....
Minutes later the mystery ship attackers sighted their combat convoy. Ten ships, motors idling, rockets silent, waited their arrival. Dick managed to pick out the ship in which his brother was riding. Craig Starke hadn't said "so long," hadn't made the slightest gesture in his direction. To hell with it, Dick thought bitterly. I'm a space-fighter, that's all. A human bomb.
The combat-ships, on sighting the single-seaters, came to life, rocket splashes spitting orange from their tails, and moved up to meet the convoyed suicide squadron.
Dick cut the throttle, and the light tn his radiophone panel glowed. Then Craig Starke's voice came in.
"Follow closely on the tails of your convoy. According to estimates, we encounter the enemy inside of fifteen minutes." Then: "To Lieutenant Dick Starke. Good luck, kid!"
A lump came swiftly to Dick's throat. That had been Craig! Craig! He'd not forgotten him. Dick swallowed hard, grinned a funny half grin. Hell—it wasn't so bad, now. Not nearly so bad!
Five minutes later the panel light glowed again. Flight Commander Starke's voice came in this time with calmness, steel written in every inflection.
"Single-seater 7," he said. "Single-seater 7. You have been under observation ever since arrival at Base 10. You were closely watched several hours ago."
Dick frowned in perplexity. "What the devil—Why, that's Chanes' number!"
His brother's voice went on harshly. "The messages sent to the enemy were permitted to go through, Lieutenant Chanes, because we wanted it that way. The ships you tampered with this morning were repaired before flight—even the ship in which you now are, the single-seater from which you removed the explosives—hoping to save your own hide.
"The nose of your ship is loaded, Chanes, loaded with explosives. Your scheme boomeranged a hundred percent, Chanes. Now you've got to pay the penalty."
Dick was thunderstruck. Explosives? Chanes had removed the nitro from his own ship? Impossible! Absolutely insane....
"Yes, Chanes," Dick heard his brother's relentless voice. "You didn't get away with it. We're safely in space now, Chanes. You can't reach the enemy. And you're cooked. Through. Washed up!"
There was a static interruption, then Starke's voice flooded through, clearly.
"To all men in the suicide squadron! It is only now that I am able to announce that there is no explosive in the nose of any single-seater! It was a necessary ruse, gentlemen, to thwart spies within our ranks. You are not a suicide group, men. You're a fighting unit—and I'll expect some hell-for-leather combat from the bunch of you! Stay clear of ship 7, piloted by Chanes. His ship carries high explosives!"
Dick's head was swimming with a thousand unanswered questions. Chanes a spy? Had this all been a trick to delude the enemy into acting on false information? The realization came with considerable of a shock, the more so because he had grown fond of his erstwhile room-mate.
THEN, swiftly, Dick saw a silver streak shoot out in front of their formation, throttle wide open, fast disappearing. It was Chanes! Chanes, heading for his Mongol comrades, trying to arrive before the Earth fleet engaged the hordes of Kama Khan. Craig Starke barked through the radiophone, "There's our spy! After him! He'll take us straight to the enemy!"
Dick gunned forward full throttle. But the formation, bound by military flight lines, couldn't hope to catch Chanes. Ten minutes passed without a sight of him. Then they saw his ship—and the huge space dreadnoughts of the Red Fleet. They had contacted the enemy!
A thrill raced down Dick's spine as he saw his brother's combat space-ship kick over in a wheeling arc, signal for the attack.
Chanes had been trying to signal, warn the Mongol fleet; but Dick, as he drew closer, saw instantly what had happened. The invaders, mistaking him for an enemy, had driven him off with a vicious burst of fire!
For a split second Dick felt a surge of pity for the young spy. Then his brother's voice, barking combat commands, came through.
"Single-seaters bear down on the largest of the space battleships! Combat craft, engage the dreadnought group. All space craft, stay clear of Chanes. He's still dangerous, with that explosive. If you get the chance, fire on him from long range—and aim for the nose of his fighter! He's the only 'suicide fighter' in this man's outfit!"
Dick barely heard the last. Dick didn't hear anything for the next few minutes, because he suddenly found himself in a fight that he'd never forget if he lived to be a hundred.
For as he dived, in formation with three single-seaters, the huge sides of the Mongol space battleships came whipping up at him through the gun-sights of his forward detonon mortar. He pulled the trips savagely, releasing shell after shell at the red side of the nearest enemy craft.
He could see men running pellmell along the decks of the vessel in crazy panic. The guns of the huge dreadnought swiveled helplessly, trying to line on the Earth ship. Then he was past the craft with a final burst of shell-fire.
Wheeling in a fast arc, Dick was about to return to attack when the last shell his detonon gun had projected burrowed into the dreadnought's vitals. There was a mushroom of white flame followed by a terrific explosion. Dick held on for dear life as his little pursuit fighter was tossed about like a cork in a gale.
When he had regained control, he peered out through the glass turret over the cockpit. He ducked his head instinctively, as a rain of fragments showered down. Score Number 1 for the Earth fleet!
Then Dick found himself in the midst of a milling, spitting vortex in which Earth pilot and Mongol killer fought viciously for supremacy. He felt his ship shake, jerked his head around and found a Mongol fighter hard on his tail.
Shouting his defiance, Dick made his century's version of an Immelmann turn and was blasting away at his opponent's rear in a matter of seconds. There was a sudden puff! and the Mongol simply disintegrated.
DICK pulled up and took a hurried inventory. All over the sky Mongol dreadnoughts were being engaged by the speedy little hornets which Craig Starke had unleashed upon them. The protective guard of Mongol pursuit-ships circled helplessly about, unable to compete in such swift maneuvering. Every few seconds there was another explosion as a Mongol battlecraft blew up.
Suddenly Dick found himself on the outskirts of the battle, about to circle back into the fray. He scanned the skies for any lurking Mongol fighter—and caught a lone scout streaking heavenward in an Earth ship.
Chanes! Teeth grimly locked, Dick screamed in pursuit. In three minutes he was within range. But Chanes' ship was just as fast. Like two angry wasps, Mongol and Earthman buzzed about each other.
Dick never knew whether he or Chanes was the better pilot. He only knew that his ex-room-mate was loaded up with nitroglycerin and was in much the more dangerous position. He only knew that suddenly he was streaking broadside at Chanes, and that all at once the spy's frantic face loomed behind the closed-in glass turret.
Chanes made frantic gestures, and abruptly Dick understood. If he fired at the spy, the resulting detonation from the nitroglycerin would blow both to kingdom come. He could afford only to shoot at the ship from long range.
And that, Dick couldn't force himself to do. "I'm a space pilot, not a butcher," he told himself fiercely. "That—that smells too much of boxing a rat in a trap."
Further strain on his conscience was relieved when Chanes suddenly unholstered a revolver-like ray gun he'd evidently concealed on his person. Chanes gestured then, motioned for Dick to make tracks. And Dick understood.
The spy was going to shoot through the fuselage of his ship, toward the nose. He, Chanes, had failed in his mission. He was disgraced. For an Oriental, there was no other way out.
Tears came to Dick's eyes, angry tears. So Chanes was giving him a chance to escape—because the resulting concussion at such short range would mean double annihilation. Chanes—spy, Mongol, deadly enemy to his race—was a man after all!
Dick edged closer to the spy. "Go back!" he shouted over the interspace radiophone whose mouthpiece was set in place in his helmet. "I'll take you prisoner! Land!"
And through his headphones came back, "Sorry, fella. But they shoot spies, you know. And even your influence couldn't get me off. It's better this way, Dick. After all, I'm a disgraced man. I failed in my mission. Turn off your headphones, son....."
There was a whistling streak through the sky, and Chanes screamed away in a widening arc. For a moment Dick sat rigid, holding his breath. Then quickly he switched off his headphones, in the nick of time. With a tremendous detonation Chanes blew himself into oblivion. The explosion was so great that even at this distance, thousands of feet away, Dick's pursuit craft tossed about madly. If he had left the headphones on, that last blast through Chanes' radiophone would have torn his eardrums right out of his head.
Shaking the tears from his eyes, Dick barged back into the battle. But there was no more battle. Every single Mongol dreadnought had been blown asunder. Off toward the horizon were flashing streaks, remnants of the Mongols' pursuit-ship convoy, streaking for home for their very lives.
AN hour later, the victorious youngsters of Space Base 10 gathered in the office of Flight Commander Craig Starke. Each instinctively counted noses. Ten men were missing. Others among them showed the grueling strain of the battle, in bruised heads knocked against cockpit coamings, stiff limbs, eyes still narrow with the horror that had raged.
"Gentlemen!" Craig Starke rose from his chair. "Gentlemen, my congratulations. You have done well today—very well indeed. As a result of your successful flight, the Mongol hordes have been dangerously weakened. They have lost some of their most powerful space battlecraft. Gentlemen, I believe this flight today marks the turning point in the war."
The pilots of Space Base 10 looked at one another, and there were fervent murmurs of approval.
A girl stood up then, as Starke beckoned to her. A girl with glorious blond hair, who had been sitting next to the commander's desk. A girl whom everyone knew as Bea Walters, daughter of their late senior officer.
"Gentlemen," Starke said vibrantly, "we have this young lady to thank for the lives of all of us. It was she who discovered that Chanes was a Mongol spy."
"How?" came the chorus from a score of husky, amazed voices.
Starke smiled at their eagerness. "Miss Walters is—ah—a woman," he said. "And being a true member of her sex, she was struck intuitively with the fact that when the invaders bombed us in that vicious raid, Chanes seemed to be less shocked, less indignant than any of us.
The more she thought about it, the stranger it loomed in her mind. So one evening at mess, when all the officers were out, she slipped into Officers' Hall and went through Chanes' outfit with a fine-tooth comb. And she found—this."
Dramatically he took a small object from his desk and held it up to view. It was a gold circlet attached to a linked gold chain. The circlet pictured a rising sun, with little diamond satellites on the horizon.
"Chanes wore that next to his heart," Starke explained. "He'd been up for a physical examination that afternoon, so he'd left it tucked away in his suitcase. After Miss Walters turned it up, we had him watched every second."
Dick Starke flushed and blurted out, "And you knew that all the time—when he was right in the same room with me!"
Flight Commander Starke smiled tolerantly. "You never would have believed me," he said softly. "You might have—er—spilled the beans to Chanes, and then we would have lost that much ground. After all, he was like a second brother to you—wasn't he, Starke?"
Craig Starke's nearest of kin blushed furiously. The rest of the pilots took the cue and trooped quietly out of the room, grinning broadly. Bea walked over to Dick's side and put her arm through his.
"It's just one of those things, Dick," she murmured.
Flight Commander Starke rubbed his chin. "I'm afraid the little lady's right, Dick," he said, in a smile that was anything but official.
The youngster's head jerked up. He saw that smile.
"Oh! So you weren't sore at me! You—"
"Sure I was sore at you—still am. I want you to be a doctor, not a space-gunner. Hell, Dick, you ought to know that a fellow can't show favoritism in this man's air force. Bad for morale, discipline—"
DICK strode forward and made a pass at his brother. Starke ducked, caught him about the middle and dragged him to a bench, kicking furiously. He laid him out over his knee, flexed his big hard palm and brought it down hard and often. Dick howled: "Craig, I'll bust every bone in your body! I'll—I'll—Ouch! Hey, cut it out! That hurts!"
"Give the password, son," Starke barked, whaling away, "or murder it gives!"
"Uncle!" Dick shouted desperately. "Uncle!"
Starke gave him one more whack that raised dust and blisters, and then let up. Dick stumbled to his feet, very red in the face and very sheepish.
Craig Starke got up and caught him by the ear. He led the protesting young space pilot over to where Bea Walters was standing, enjoying every minute of it.
"If you think war is hell," Starke grinned, "try marriage!" And he gave the youngster a shove which sent him straight into the girl's arms. Then he slammed out the door....
"I suppose this is romance," Dick said ruefully as he wrapped one arm around the girl and rubbed his breeches tenderly with the other hand.
"Well," said Bea Walters coyly, looking into his eyes, "you've got to learn the ropes sometime!"
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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