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The Ghost Fleet

Colonel William Beller kept a tight rein on his emotions as he waited in the General's anteroom. The General's feelings toward him were plainly shown by the fact that Beller had waited in this anteroom for two-and-a-half hours while men of lesser rank came and went freely.

Beller became aware that the sergeant at the desk was, for the third time, looking him over coldly. Beller had ignored this twice, out of deference to the ribbons on the sergeant's chest. But now he turned to look the sergeant flatly in the eyes.

For a brief instant, it seemed that a message flowed back and forth between them.

The sergeant's eyes said, "You... you're the chicken-livered, yellow-bellied, dirt-eater that turned and ran at Little Orion. You lost us a cluster of stars we'll never take back."

The answering message of Beller's eyes was simpler: "When I command, you obey. It has to be. Right, wrong or indifferent, when I command, you obey."

After a moment of the unequal contest, the sergeant looked away. A faint expression of puzzlement crossed his face, then he shrugged slightly, and leaned forward as the intercom buzzed.

A small voice reached Beller, which showed that the General in the other room had not bothered to snap up the quiet-switch. "Send Beller in," said the General's voice.

The sergeant glanced at Beller and said, "You can go in now."

Beller looked at the sergeant, and with single-minded concentration willed him to complete the sentence. Save to turn his head slightly, Beller didn't move.

"...Sir," said the sergeant unwillingly.

Beller got up, walked through the open door, and down a short hall, to pause at the door of the inner office.

The General, a former classmate and close friend of Beller's, watched him coldly as Beller paused at the doorway. Then the General nodded slightly. Beller stepped in, saluted and formally reported his presence. The General returned the salute, then looked Beller over as if studying him for unpolished shoes and flecks of dust on his trouser legs. Beller stood at attention, waiting, his gaze fixed on the wall above the General's head.

At length, the General said, "I don't suppose there would by any point in asking questions."

Beller said evenly, "Questions about what, sir?" He knew perfectly well what the General meant. But if the General would not state the question plainly, Beller would not answer it.

The General said, slowly and distinctly, "It is generally considered that you lost your nerve at Little Orion."

"Is it?" said Beller, keeping his voice toneless and his eyes fixed on the wall.

The General leaned back, and put his hands behind his head, studying Beller curiously. "I thought you might have something to say."

Beller said flatly, "You have my report, sir."

The General sat up and snorted. "A new weapon used by the enemy. Your ships being destroyed before the enemy came in range. Every green lieutenant thinks the same thing."

"The difference, sir," said Beller coolly, "is that I am not a green lieutenant."

"That's the obvious point," said the General. "You are supposed to know better."

"I am supposed to use my judgment, sir," said Beller. "And if I decide that it is best to retreat, I will so order."

"Regardless of cost, eh?"

"To have stayed where I was would have cost my command, for no purpose. That would have been simple plain stupidity."

"And you prefer cowardice to stupidity?"

For the first time, Beller lowered his gaze to look hard into the General's eyes. "Do you call me a coward, sir?"

Once again, a series of messages seemed to flow back and forth. At last, the General shook his head, leaned back, and made a gesture of disgust. "No, I don't call you a coward, Beller. But if you aren't, you must be a fool."

"You're entitled to your opinion, sir."

The General looked irritated. "Don't be so damned stiff. You know you're going to end up in a general court-martial. Is that going to be your defense—that the enemy had a secret weapon?"

"My defense," said Beller coldly, " is something I haven't thought about. But I will tell the truth, and the truth is that my ships were being destroyed beyond effective range of my own or known enemy weapons. My command was perfectly useless in the situation, and I withdrew to save it."

"And lost us the whole star cluster."

"Would you prefer to have lost the star cluster plus the defending fleet?"

The General waved a hand beside his face, as if to brush away gathering confusion. He leaned forward and said harshly, "In a month, Beller, you may be dead. Shot by a firing squad for cowardice. You'll die with your insignia of rank ripped off. You'll have been provided with a ceremonial sword, which will have been snapped in half, as the troops stand by with rifles reversed—"

* * *

Beller suddenly could contain himself no longer. He whirled, shut the door to the hall, and snapped the lock. In an instant, he was back at the desk, and pinned the General's hand to the desktop as it reached for the intercom. "You fool," said Beller, his voice intense but hardly louder than a whisper, "do you think if you put stars on the shoulders of

a jackass, it will make him fit to command a fleet?"

The General's face changed color, but when he spoke, there was only a desperate urgency in his voice, which was also hardly more than a whisper. "You ran. You turned tail and ran."

"Of course I ran. You'd run too with a bear half-a-jump behind you and no gun in sight. Can you think of a better thing to do?"

"You lost us the cluster."

"And saved us the fleet. Try and get it through your thick skull that there was a new weapon used. Where do you get the idea it's impossible? Don't you know this whole war is a war of weapons?"

"You got excited—"

"Hogwash. Do you think you can judge a thing like that better than I can? We know each other. Did you ever beat me at chess? Did you ever outrun me? Are you a better pistol shot? In that field problem, the last year at school—"

The General grinned suddenly and pulled his hand loose. "Spare me," he said. He started to laugh, then choked it off. "All the same," he said, "you're in one hell of a spot."

"So will we all be when they get that thing in general use."

"I've got the technical boys working on it." The General scowled. "When I read your report, it seemed... I don't know... familiar."

"It was unfamiliar to me."

The General shrugged. "Well, they'll find it if there's anything to it." He scowled. "But meanwhile, we've got you to think of."

Beller straightened up and shrugged. "If they want to court-martial me, they'll court-martial me."

"The only reason they haven't already is that they haven't been able to get enough rank together. You realize, they're going to make an example of you."

"If they'd open their minds and listen to me, it would save them a great deal of trouble."

"They won't." The General frowned. "I wouldn't myself, but I know you. The trouble is, this thing fits a standard pattern."

Beller shrugged, "If they shoot me, I'll be no deader than I was bound to be sooner or later anyway. But if they go through that mumbo jumbo with the ceremonial sword and rifles upside-down, they'd better not show it live on 3-V. Have them film it. I'm not sure I can keep from laughing."

The General shook his head. "You've been out of school all these years, and what have you learned? Don't you know raw ability will never take you to the top?"

"I'd rather be myself than be at the top," said Beller. "I like to know what I think when I go to bed at night."

"With a little more tact, you could be on top. Then you could do what you want. Let the others change their opinions to suit you."

Beller shook his head. "We've been all over this before. I don't say the system's wrong, or that all considered, it could be done better another way. I don't know. But it seems to me that there are certain solid realities, and the rest is window-dressing. The window-dressing changes, but the reality remains. I want to stick by the reality."

The General nodded. He leaned back, and a look of calculation crossed his face. He got up, and opened a file drawer. "Some of this stuff is silly," he growled, "but it's all almost too secret even to think about. Ah, here we are." He pulled out a bulky folder, sat down, and leafed through it.

Beller stood with feet apart, and hands clasped behind his back, waiting.

The General cleared his throat and leaned forward. "How would you like a suicide mission?"

Beller grinned. The General had spoken as if he were offering a present.

Realizing this, the General said, "I don't mean that quite the way it sounds. In the court-martial, you won't stand a chance. But if you go out on this mission, and come back alive, they won't be able to touch you. The charge is cowardice, and they'll have had it stuffed back down their throats. This is a very dangerous mission. Dangerous enough to be called a suicide mission. But in a thing like this, there's nearly always some chance. A lot more than in the court-martial."

"Can you send me on it? I haven't been able to make out whether I'm under arrest or not."

The General nodded. "I can send you on it. We're short of men who could do this job, and you're qualified. I can send you on it and wave priorities and classified documents in their faces, and refer to Plan X, and they'll be only too glad to drop the whole thing." He added shrewdly. "There are advantages to understanding human nature."

Beller smiled and nodded. "What's the mission?"

"Well," said the General, watching Beller's face as if nervous about his possible reaction. "Our big trouble right now, you know, is a double one. We're short of ships, for one thing. Since Hauser took over, we've straightened out the imbecilic distribution of forces we had before. But we're still suffering from past losses, and the production program hasn't caught up yet. Then there's this chronic trouble about fuel for the drive-units. We've got to have quadrite for combat ships. But the sources we have to rely on are awkwardly situated. For instance, there's the third planet of Ostrago—a place called Knackruth—that supplies us with a great deal of quadrite. We can't afford to lose that source. If we lose it, we'll have to tranship quadrite from halfway across the system. A few months back, Bannister put up a finish fight to stop an Out advance that would have cut off Knackruth. He stopped it. But they wore him so thin in the process that he'll never stop them a second time."

Beller nodded. "Now they're getting ready to try again?"

"We have every reason to think so. They know now there's something valuable to us close at hand, otherwise we'd have been more flexible. What we expect is that they'll go on the defensive elsewhere, switch their heavy forces opposite Knackruth, and smash through Bannister like a rock through tissue paper."

Beller nodded, waiting.

"Ordinarily," said the General, "we'd wait till we thought they had their arrangements about two thirds ready, then we'd hit them hard in another sector, fall back where they advanced, and try to get in behind their main attack. But we can't do that now. We can't afford to lose Knackruth. We don't have the strength for a serious attack. We have to try a hoax."

The General glanced at Beller uneasily, looked down for a moment at the folder from the file, stiffened his jaw, and said, "The name of this plan is 'Operation Ghost.' The force to be used consists of three fleets, each consisting of twelve simulated Class-A battleships, forty simulated Class-A and 1A cruisers, and one hundred and twenty-six simulated smaller ships. Your flagship will be an R-Class dreadnought—unsimulated, with new communications and detector equipment."

Beller winced. Mentally he groped back through remembered lists of specifications. "R-Class" How far back in antiquity was that? He grinned suddenly.

The General, watching his face, relaxed a little. "Your mission is to attack the main enemy force head-on. You will move through Bannister's defensive screen as if you intended to crush the Out attacking force by the sheer power of numbers. The main thing is to act like a man with half a thousand ships at his back."

"You figure if I tried a feint attack elsewhere, this simulated fleet could never make it through their defenses?"

The General nodded. "Ordinarily we'd spare you enough real ships to get through their outer shell, but we can't afford it now. What we hope to do is to disjoint their forces opposite Knackruth. When they see this fleet coming, they'll start multiplying their defenses. They'll pull back their own main forces, either to back up their defenses or attack elsewhere in the hope of throwing us off-balance. In either case, they'll scream for help from other sectors, and that will mean a great many of their ships pulled out of action all around the perimeter."

Beller nodded, then said thoughtfully, "How do we know this hoax will fool them? What if they just decide we couldn't spare such a force, and therefore it can't be real?"

"You have to consider their frame of mind. We know now that they operated for many years with a saboteur planted in our capital. We know that they have extraordinary powers of mental suggestion. For years, they got by with this, because we ordinarily just won't believe such a thing is possible. The last messages out of the capital show that during a change of administration the new Defense Secretary uncovered the whole thing. Before the saboteur could get to him, the Secretary brought down Hauser and the general reserve and blew the capital to bits.

"Once a new team took over at the auxiliary capital, it dawned on them that all our arrangements were wrong. Defenses were rigid and badly organized. Warship design was antiquated. Supplies were routed so as to take the longest possible time in shipment. Contracts were let to the most inefficient contractors. The worst available equipment was procured, with incessant halts in production to change this or that insignificant detail. The whole thing was a mess.

"In spite of this," said the General, "they hadn't beaten us. We had a terrible time in their next attack, but before it was over we hit them so hard they were glad to get out with a whole skin. Since then, they can't predict us. We've made the most of our remaining resources, and if they have any sense at all, they know what's being gotten ready for them. If it comes out at them five months before they expected it, that just proves they miscalculated again."

Beller nodded thoughtfully. "It might work, at that."

"It's worth a try," said the General. He added dryly, "Do you wish to volunteer for this assignment?"

Beller and the General smiled at each other. Then a question occurred to Beller, but he was afraid to ask it:

Where could the General have dug up a crew qualified to run the ancient dreadnought?

* * *

Beller boarded the dreadnought carrying a newssheet that had been spat at him out of a printer during breakfast in the lunar commissary. This sheet contained optimistic interpretations of the news from all sectors, plus a number of features and columns. Part of one of these columns had interested Beller personally:

"And then there's an ugly little item from out Little Orion way. It seems the local brasshat defending a vital cluster lost his nerve when the Outs arrived, turned tail and ran, dragging his fleet behind him. The story has it that he didn't stop till he reached Aux Cap and had the general reserve to hide behind, and then he let out a yell that the enemy had a secret weapon. Their only weapon is ordinary courage, but it took this brasshat by surprise.

"Cowardice is an ugly word. It's an ugly charge to brand a man with. But we'll brand this man with it, gladly. He's already branded himself. With the future of the race hanging in peril, the only treatment for this sort of rat is the firing squad or the rope, and we'll keep right after the Space Force till they give it to him. We'll have more details on this later...

"Now a note for you showbirds. Sheila Wister, who performed so beautifully in 'Sellout,' is back again—"

Beller shut the lock of the little courier boat behind him, and stepped away as the hydraulic lifts raised and slid the boat sidewise to lock it tight in its cradle.

He glanced around, puzzled by the general atmosphere of the ship. Everything seemed in unusually good order. That the air purifiers were functioning perfectly was evident from the forestlike freshness of the air. Deck and bulkheads were neatly painted, with no sign of rust anywhere. The brass handle of the inner air-lock hatch was polished and coated with a protective film. Beside the hatch stood a very elderly man in the uniform of a major of the Space Force Reserve. He saluted stiffly, and Beller returned the salute.

"Bovak, sir," said the major, in a rusty voice. "I'm your executive officer."

Beller said, "Glad to meet you, major." He glanced around at the excellent condition of what he had seen so far, scowled and cleared his throat. "Could you tell me where this ship has been kept? I wasn't aware we had any of this class in reserve."

"We didn't, sir," said Bovak dryly. "This ship was Exhibit C in the Arts and Sciences Museum on Landor II. Across the fairgrounds in the crystal dome back of the pool."

Beller felt as if a case of ammunition had been dropped on him. The major, who had looked elderly before, suddenly appeared two-hundred years old to Beller. He didn't like to say what he said next, but he had to know how things stood.

"And you, Major?" said Beller gently.

"I, sir, was chief of the maintenance crew that cared for the ship." The major said it with pride. "My crew, sir, is now your crew."

"Ah," said Beller, trying to appear appreciative. It dawned on him that he was going into space against the Outs in a museum exhibit manned by janitors, with a dummy fleet behind him, while he himself was a pariah on temporary leave from a general court-martial. "Operation Ghost" was well-named.

"Well," said Beller, "let's look the ship over."

"Yes, sir," said Bovak.

* * *

The tour of inspection showed Beller the massive lines on which the ship was built, along with the excellent condition in which it had been kept. At intervals, he was introduced to an elderly reserve captain or lieutenant, who turned out to be his gunnery officer or drive-unit engineer. There was not an enlisted man on board. It was only after he'd reached the control room that it occurred to Beller to wonder if these ranks were real or simulated. He had forgotten that he himself had been made—for the purpose of commanding the simulated fleet—a simulated lieutenant-general.

Well, there was nothing to do now but hope and pray.

He turned to the eighty-five-year-old pilot, and said, "Let's go, captain."

The pilot smiled faintly, and reached out past a little placard reading: "Control Board: At this panel are grouped the master controls for flying and fighting the ship. Many of the secondary controls are completely automatic.—Exhibit C, Science and Industry."

There was a very faint vibration as the giant engines came to life. Lights winked on the instrument panel in a fashion strange to Beller.

The museum piece turned its nose in the direction of the enemy and began to move.

* * *

The days fled past as the huge insubstantial fleet hurtled toward Knackruth, the quadrite-rich planet of the sun Ostrago. The fleet was halfway there when word came through that Bannister, blocking the way to Knackruth, was under heavy attack. A little later, Bannister himself was on the screen. Beller knew that all Bannister had been told was that a "force of considerable size" was approaching, and would attempt to pass out through his defenses on a certain day.

On the screen, Bannister eyed Beller's uniform, and his eyes widened. A lieutenant-general ordinarily commanded very considerable forces.

"Sir," said Bannister, "I'm sorry to trouble you, but my orders said I might get in touch with you if necessary. I'm under heavy attack here, and I don't think I can hold." He added sharply, "I'll do my best. But I'd be a liar if I said anything else."

Beller nodded. "What do the Outs have?"

"Counting only large ships, there's a dozen battleships, and eighty big cruisers. They have smaller ships in proportion." Bannister hesitated, then said, "I can't hold them. I've tried everything I can think of, and they've just got too much of everything."

Beller nodded coolly.

Bannister's eyes moved slightly back and forth, searching Beller's face and noting the total lack of surprise or excitement. Suddenly Bannister looked at Beller's insignia again, glanced at what few details of the ship could be seen through the short-focus screen, and said, "I don't mean to presume, sir... but if you will forgive my asking... what force do you have, sir?"

Beller had been afraid of this. The latest information, however, was that the enemy was intercepting just such conversations as this. Beller reminded himself to act like a man with "half a thousand ships at his back."

He scowled, and said coolly, "As a matter of fact, Bannister, you do presume. But I know you've been under a great deal of strain lately."

"Yes, sir," said Bannister stiffly. "Sorry, sir."

"Therefore," said Beller, "I will freely forgive you."

"Thank you, sir." Bannister squinted at him curiously. "I asked, sir, so that I might know whether to place my remnants under your command as we pull back."

"I wasn't intending to pull back."

Bannister blinked. He opened his mouth, and hesitated.

Beller said, "As a matter of fact, I doubt that this will make any change in our plans whatever."

"But, sir... twelve battleships and eighty cruisers... plus auxiliaries—"

"They make no more difference to me than one battleship and half-a-dozen cruisers." This, Beller thought, was literally true. One properly handled cruiser could blow up the whole fleet, with the possible exception of the dreadnought. But Bannister plainly put a different interpretation on it.

"Sir, you don't mean—"

"I mean nothing. However, Bovak—" Beller turned to his executive officer, out of reach of the screen. "Take a detector sweep of the first division and transmit it to General Bannister."

"Yes, sir," rasped Bovak, reaching for the coupling switches.

Bannister blinked, and turned from the screen. A muffled exclamation burst from him as the traces appeared on his auxiliary screen. He whirled to stare at Beller, who said dryly, "Sweep the second division, Bovak."

"Yes, sir."

Bannister returned to the screen. "We'll chop them to mincemeat. They've got some kind of funny weapon, and we may have to look out for it, sir. But they can't stand up to this."

Beller felt like a traitor, but he smiled and said, "We'll do our best."

Bannister, obviously lifted into a state of exaltation, saluted with glowing eyes.

Beller returned the salute, and the screen blanked.

The ghost fleet swept on.

* * *

They were a little beyond Ostrago when the first trace of the enemy fleet showed up on the long-range detectors. Seriously cut up, Bannister was still hanging onto a sun-system at their flank and rear, hoping to hit the enemy remnants as they fled.

Beller said, "Form plane on axis of attack."

Bovak, doubling as Beller's division commanders, manipulated three levers on a control box. The dummy ships, their large light volume driven by light engines, moved slowly apart, like a giant metal flower blossoming from its bud.

Immediately the enemy traces on the long-range detector screen did the same.

The two fleets opened up, forming giant lattices only one layer thick. In this position, each ship would be best situated to bring its maximum power to bear on the enemy.

The two fleets continued to open up, each trying to reach out further than the other, lest the other be able to send an unopposed detachment forward to curl over the thin edge of the opposing formation and wither it with an overpowering concentration of fire.

Now, Beller saw, the distant Out fleet had reached its utmost extension, and was adjusting the positions of its ships to best advantage.

The ghost fleet, however, continued to open up.

Watching the symbolic representation of the positions develop on the battle screen, Beller was amazed that the enemy fleet refused to pull back or slow its pace. The two fleets had fallen into a perfectly standard pattern, which, if the ships of each had been equal, would have meant the total ruin of the enemy. Of course, there was still time. It could be that the enemy commander was trying a test of wills. The communicator buzzed, and Beller snapped it on. Bannister, looking fatigued and utterly hopeless, was watching him sorrowfully. "I've had a chance to evaluate all my battle reports, sir."

Beller nodded.

"Sir," said Bannister, "there's no doubt of it. We've had chance reports before and now there's proof. The enemy's using a secret weapon."

Beller nodded dryly. "There have been reports of a new weapon."

"Well, the reports are true. This Out fleet hardly had to really exert itself to finish us. But they're being clever. They mask the effect. All the same, this thing, whatever it is, just touches the ship, and—blooey—it blows apart."

"What do you mean 'touches'?"

"I don't know, sir. Let's say, they merely aim it. It operates beyond our effective range. They merely aim this thing, pull the trigger, and by what process I don't know, we're finished. The ship blows apart."

"How is it, then, that any of your force is left?"

"I'm small fish. If they slaughtered me, you'd withdraw. To fool us, they only mauled me, and used the weapon at less than maximum range, and they used it cleverly. When an ultrafast missile was just starting out from one of our ships, they'd hit the missile. The explosion of the missile would wreck the ship, and we'd take it for a strike by one of their missiles. But on correlation of all the data, we find that we were destroyed by something that set off our own weapons, save for one or two cases where we got too close, and they used the thing direct."

"Hm-m-m," said Beller, nodding. "You'll report this as soon as possible"

Bannister's eyes widened. "Yes, sir. But I assumed you'd pull back."

Beller nodded. Unfortunately, he was counted on to create a diversion. If he pulled back, he would have slowed the Out fleet by only the delay it cost them to maul Bannister rather than evaporate him. He couldn't split his ghost fleet into fragments moving in all directions to confuse pursuit, because the whole thing was centrally controlled from the dreadnought. Any maneuver that merely delayed contact would provide that much more time for the enemy fleet to discover the nature of the hoax. However, Beller thought, there was still the possibility that the enemy might intercept this conversation. Cause for future hesitation and uneasiness might still be given them.

Beller said, "There have been rumors of a new weapon. Now we'll test it and see."

Bannister blinked. "But... sir... they'll destroy the fleet."

"That may be. But, believe me, Bannister, when I say that this fleet represents a very minor fraction of the production power that is now coming into play. We'll see what this new weapon can do. And then we'll see what hits them when they get in a little farther."

Bannister swallowed. His expression wavered between dread and hope. Finally, he said "Yes, sir," and saluted. The screen blanked.

The battle screen showed Beller that the ghost fleet had now reached its fullest extension. As the two fleets began to close, Beller said, "Increase acceleration to fleet


"Yes, sir," said Bovak.

The battle screen showed the two fleets, rushing together.

* * *

They were still beyond the ordinary maximum range when Bovak said, "Strike. Battleship in the first division. Strike—Second division 1A-cruiser. Strike. Three A-cruisers, third division. Battleship, second division. Cruiser, first division. Three cruisers, second division—"

Beller watched the battle screen, where the symbols winked out like checkers picked up and tossed off the board in mid-play. This was what Beller had experienced at Little Orion, save that here there was nothing to gain by withdrawal. As he watched, great holes began to appear in the ghost fleet.

Somewhere in the rear of the old dreadnought, there was a warbling sound that rose, and died away.

Beller glanced at Bovak, who looked blank. Bovak had given up relating the losses, as it was impossible to keep up with them. Almost a third of the fleet was gone.

Beller said, "Decrease acceleration of the center."

On the battle screen, the outermost ships began to draw ahead, as if to overlap the edge of the enemy formation. This bid vanished along with the outermost ships.

The ships were not yet in range, but Beller thought it unnatural for a fleet in this position not to try something, however disorganized.

"Dreadnought hold fire. Fire all weapons on simulated ships only."

In the rear of the dreadnought, the warbling began again. It rose to a peak, then died away again.

On the battle screen, the lines reached out, as the ghost fleet fired its scatter of puny weapons. Beller felt gratified. This had the look of discipline breaking down, with here and there a controller losing his nerve and letting off a weapon at hopeless range.

The warble started up again, low this time, and died away.

Now two thirds of the fleet was gone. Only now were they starting to come into range.

The warbling began, died away, rose, died away, rose to a peak of twanging that seemed to vibrate the whole ship, died away, rose again.

Bovak was talking to the engine room. He glanced at Beller, puzzled. "Nothing wrong there, sir. I don't know what makes that noise."

The dreadnought was now alone on the battle screen, coming into conventional range of the enemy fleet. Beller was struck by the situation that had come about. The dreadnought was approaching the enemy fleet like a dart flying at a huge target. At any moment this target might erupt in a concentration of destructive energy that would vaporize the dreadnought in a fraction of a second.

Bovak pulled down a large red lever. "Controllers, select targets."

The dreadnought was now within maximum range. Nothing happened.

Then dazzling lines reached out from the dreadnought, to converge on an Out battleship. The battleship vanished.

From a different set of batteries, another set of dazzling lines reached out. The controllers, Beller realized, were coolly conserving the ship's energy at this range. He saw the lines converge. Another Out battleship vanished.

Still there was no return fire.

But all around Beller, the twanging was so continuous that it seemed almost solid.

A third Out battleship vanished under the power of the dreadnought's weapons.

Beller, partly dazed by the continuous noise around him, stared at the battle screen. The situation added up to nothing he could understand. Unless—

Beller stepped up beside Bovak, and took another glance at the battle screen. The Out fleet still did nothing but rush on. It retained its formation, extending it slowly as the dreadnought approached. The formation was like a disk with an almost perfect circular rim. Beller said to Bovak, "Fire on the ship in the geometric center of that formation."

Bovak relayed the order to the controllers.

Again the dazzling lines reached out, to converge on a large cruiser at the center of the enemy formation. The cruiser vanished.

Abruptly, the twanging sound was gone.

The other enemy ships continued on their courses, unaffected, dumbly.

Another Out battleship followed its predecessors.

Beller said, "Cease fire. Decelerate."

Bovak shoved up the red lever.

The two men stared at each other.

* * *

The General said wonderingly, "A second ghost fleet?"

Beller nodded. He was back in the office where the General had first unfolded the plan. But the difference between this visit and the last was enormous. Symbolic of the difference was the attitude of the sergeant in the anteroom who had looked at Beller with something approaching awe.

The story had, of course, been told over the communication web, but the General wanted it first hand.

"So" said the General, smiling, with a look of calculation, "at the end, it was just your ship versus the whole Out fleet?"

"Yes, sir."

"You didn't run. You didn't crab sidewise to get out of there. You didn't scream for help. You just went straight for them, head-on."

"The inertia of the ship, sir," said Beller dryly, "would have thrown me into their lap sidewise or backwards, regardless what I'd tried to do."

"Oh, I know; but I'm thinking how it's going to sound if they go through with that court-martial. Well, then, next you figured the action of the Out fleet was peculiar."

"It dawned on me," said Beller, "that they were acting exactly as I had acted a little earlier. Then I remembered Bannister saying that they'd hardly exerted themselves to beat him. Of course, it would seem that way if he was up against dummy ships with only a few real, remote-controlled weapons for deception purposes. Next it dawned on me that the Outs might be stretched to the limit, too. Naturally, they want to finish us before the tide turns too strongly against them—and we've been coming up lately. The obvious place for the control-ship, if this was another ghost fleet, was in or near the center. We blew it up, and the rest just drifted on. It was then that we started to hunt for whatever had made that terrific twanging noise."

Beller handed the General a small placard, such as is used in museums to explain exhibits:


Disrupter Countervail


The disrupter countervail was used during the period of the Early Space Wars to counteract by split-phased resonance the action of the nuclear disrupter. The nuclear disrupter was in this period used to unbalance the binding forces of the atoms, causing a rapid collapse of the structure of the attacked ship. The disrupter, however, required the use of such large and complex equipment, and its action was so easily countered, that it soon fell out of use. For many generations, the countervail was carried on ships as a matter of routine precaution, though the disrupter itself has seldom ever been used since the early space wars.—Exhibit C, Science and Industry.


The General looked up.

"Orders from the capital removed all remaining countervails on the older ships several years ago, to save space and weight. No one raised a question. We'd never had any use for the things. When the trouble you mentioned started, first it fit the standard pattern of... excuse me... a frightened man making an alibi for himself, and then it looked as if it might possibly fit the standard pattern of a brand-new weapon. It never occurred to us it might be an old weapon revived. We were victimized by too much reliance on standard patterns."

"When you think about it," said Beller, "that's something we're up against all the time, isn't it?"

"How do you mean?"

"We're likely to end up confronted with one solid fact—a real truth—at the center of a huge formation of conjecture, opinion, and all manner of things, dependent on that one central thing that's real. The sheer size and volume of the total may seem overwhelming."

"Yes," said the General, "but if you can avoid being dominated by it, and deal with the real fact—"

Beller nodded.

"Then," he said, "you've got a chance to knock out a Ghost Fleet."

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