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Cargo For Colony 6

Colonel David Nevv watched the hands of the chronometer line up for the sixth break-point, and remembered General Lawson's warning as if he heard it anew.

"You've got twenty days to get there," said the general, "and for safety, you should make it in twelve. Red Base won't answer our signal, and the last incomplete report from Vanguard was that the Flats were sending a big 'friendship delegation' aboard. Now Blue Base tells us the Flats are making overtures," he looked at Nevv wryly, "to send down a geological expedition with its drill rigs and other heavy equipment. I've ordered Blue Base to refuse permission and to open fire if the Flats try to come down. Green Base and White Base are on full alert, so for the time being Colony 6 is safe."

"For twenty days?"

"If the Flats are cautious. In twenty days Green Base will be too far around in its orbit to give any cover. Blue Base won't come into position for another week. The Colony's only overhead protection will be Red Base, and there's every reason to think the Flats now own Red Base. You've got to get there before Green Base is out of range. We're giving you an AA dreadnought stripped for speed, and the best control-room crew you could possibly have. If you can get in there and get your cargo to Hunsinger before the Flats move in, the Colony's saved. If you don't make it, the Flats will sew it all up before we can get our fleets collected together from all the places that were supposed to be more dangerous. And once they get that far the Flats will cut off everything we're just starting to develop from the Colony outward. The reverberations will shake us for a hundred years."

"Sir, I never thought the Flats were allies, but—When did they turn into enemies?"

General Lawson exhaled sharply. "They aren't enemies, damn it."

Nevv said, "If they're attacking Colony 6—"

"They're calculators. As long as we were fighting the Outs, and getting our heads kicked in, the Flats saw us as no danger to them, while the Outs were a real danger. So the Flats stayed formally neutral, let us do the fighting, and helped us on the side. We took this for friendship. Colony 6 was a possible long-range problem, some day, because, despite its nearness to Flat territory, we were the ones to discover that nearby cluster of breakpoints into subspace, opening up promising routes for future colonization. Routinely, we set up the colony. It was a good routine move; but we should have seen it would make trouble, and been prepared."

"Yes, sir. I see that. But..."

"Try to see it from the Flats' viewpoint: Bad enough that they didn't find it first; now do they really want someone else to control it? But, in fact, as long as we were up against the Outs, we wouldn't be pouring warships and streams of colonists through there any time soon; so there was no big hurry about that problem. Well, we got rid of the Out saboteur; our overall plans now make some sense; our recruitment and training are going well; our production is way up. In that last fight, we outclassed the enemy. We are now beating the Outs. This changes all the calculations."

Nevv followed the reasoning, and the general went on, "The Flats figure they better take care of Colony 6 while they still can. They know we don't want to take on another war while we're entangled with the Outs. So the Flats are using every trick and subterfuge to avoid giving offense as they make believe they're still our buddies, and at the same time finish off Colony 6. It all makes sense from their viewpoint. But we can't let them get away with it. Colony 6 is the gateway to a big chunk of our future."

Nevv stood motionless, thinking. "Sir, if they're not actual enemies..."

"Colonel, they don't hate us, if that's what you mean. But if they squeeze the trigger, we're just as dead."

"But we don't have any backlog of enmity with them. Except for this one source of annoyance..."

"This one bucket of red-hot rivets down the backs of their necks."

"H'm... Yes..."

"I don't know what the devil you're trying to get at. We can judge how important it is to them by the fact that they're risking war with us by trying to take the colony."

"But you say they're trying at the same time to avoid an open break—by all kinds of subterfuge?"

"Yes. What of it?"

"Well, then, can't we expect a little hesitation—"

"I sure wouldn't count on it."

"But they don't want a war with us, do they?"

Lawson frowned. "No. But they don't want our colonization convoys passing through their back yard, either. The problem is very simple: Colony 6 is a big bone with a hungry dog on either end."

"They don't know what our present fleet strength may be, do they?"

"H'm'm... No... What do you have in mind?"

"I'm just trying to see what there is to work with."

"If you can get that cargo to Hunsinger before the Flats get control of Colony 6, they won't be able to get control. Hunsinger is one of the few to understand that cargo. That's our main chance. The rest of this stuff is just speculation. I think it's accurate. I hope it gives you a picture of what we're up against; but the main thing is to get that cargo to Colony 6 ahead of the opposition."

Nevv stood straighter. "Yes, sir. We'll do our best."

"All right," said the general, "but bear one thing more in mind. The Flats were supposed to be friendly, and our manpower in Planning is always limited. We have only a partial set of alternate routes to Colony 6. If the Flats got Red Base intact, they probably got the route maps, too. Every time you break out of subspace, expect a reception committee. If you can't get away, depress the switch for nose turret ten on the firing console. That will destroy the—cargo. We can't let that fall into their hands."

* * *

Nevv had saluted. The general had returned the salute and gripped Nevv by the hand. And now Nevv watched the chronometer and felt a tightening of his stomach muscles. He glanced to his left, and saw Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Hughes, his head invisible in the pilot globe, his hands steady on the manual controls. He glanced over his right shoulder and saw no sign of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Mannin, his astrogator. Nevv spoke into the microphone. "Phil, we've got just twenty-one seconds till break-point."

In Nevv's earphone, Mannin's voice said, "Coming. I was just looking over the cargo."

"Nineteen seconds," said Nevv in warning. He heard the metallic click of the latch as Mannin came in. Nevv turned and saw Mannin start to strap himself in his acceleration couch.

"Ready," said Nevv. "Fifteen seconds."

Hughes' voice said, "Ready, pilot." A moment later, Mannin said, "Ready, astrogator."

The narrow second hand swung up to join the minute and hour hands on the chronometer. For an instant, all three hands were in line. A bell chimed softly. A wash of colors swept away Nevv's view of the control room. He heard the heavy distant clang of the breakpoint gong down in the empty crew's quarters. He felt something cold and soft press on his shoulders, and realized that the command globe had settled in place. Abruptly he seemed to be alone in a blackness lit with brilliant pinpoints of white.

Hughes' voice said, "Here we go. One to the left foreground high. One to the left foreground low. One to the far left foreground high—"

As Hughes spoke, bright target disks showing detected spaceships began to spring into view, and gently-curving fine lines traced out to show the ideal potential tracks of projectiles to be hurled against them.

"To the far left background low," said Hughes. "To the far left background high—"

Mannin cut in to say, "Alternate courses." A green line, a yellow line, and a red line appeared as if hanging in space before Nevv's eyes. Each line represented a course to a new breakpoint into subspace, red being the longest course in normal space and green the shortest.

Mannin said, "Green course, eighty-three hours in subspace, minimum; yellow, eighty-six, minimum; red, forty-three minimum. Green, five alternates; yellow, four alternates; red, two alternates. Final breakpoint: green—"

Suddenly Hughes said, "Near right background high! Near right background low!"

Two glaring orange-red marker disks showed up close below to the ship's right rear and close above to the right rear.

"Sewed-up," growled Hughes.

A short purple line appeared directly in front of Nevv's eyes.

Mannin said, "Backtrack route for return to the last breakpoint. We might try another route from there."

Nevv said, "Don't move the ship at all." He swung his hand up and hit the trip-release at the bottom of the command globe. The globe spun up out of the way.

* * *

Directly in front of Nevv, the viewscreen flared and lit up, showing a remarkably broad-shouldered individual, with a wide head and wider neck, wearing a bright blue uniform with a yellow sash draped across his broad chest, with three tufts of red on the yellow sash, and a cluster of golden spikes on each shoulder. This officer had small triumphant eyes under bushy brows, and a head of short bristly hair that ran down his neck on either side and vanished under his collar. He watched Nevv like a cat with a bird in its paws and said nothing.

Nevv recognized the insignia of a Flat admiral, and immediately brought his arm up in a precise salute.

A faint frown crossed the Flat's face, and he returned the salute.

Nevv said, "Colonel David R. Nevv, commanding T. S. F. Dreadnought Prometheus, requests permission for T. S. F. Vengeance Fleet One to pass in column of dreadnoughts, shipwise."

The Flat's mouth opened slightly and shut again. His eyes darted once to either side of the viewscreen, as if hastily checking instruments, then returned to Nevv. His mouth began to move, and a moment later the translated version of what he said came though: "Colonel, I have received word of no such fleet. Where are the rest of your ships now?"

"Still in subspace, admiral. Prometheus is the lead ship in this column."

"May I ask—as the interested representative of a friendly power—what is your destination, and what is your mission?"

"Our ultimate destination is secret, sir," said Nevv. "As for our mission, there have been certain difficulties far out-world of our Colony 6. The flag has been insulted, sir. Low forms of life have attempted to take a mean and treacherous advantage of us. I am sorry, but I am not at liberty to give details. I can only say that our answer to the insult has been long planned and is being carried into effect with the utmost secrecy. Again, sir, I formally request you to give permission for T. S. F. Vengeance Fleet One to pass, in column of dreadnought, shipwise."

The admiral scowled, squinted, then blanked his face and gave a good imitation of earnest sympathy. "I am very sorry, colonel. This region is being used as a... er... practice mining exercise region, and we simply cannot allow your fleet to go through. If your supreme commander wishes to consult with me when he arrives—"

"Sir," said Nevv earnestly, "I, too, am very sorry. My instructions on this point were explicit. Perhaps I haven't explained myself fully and clearly. Our flag has been insulted. This is T. S. F. Vengeance Fleet One. The supreme commander is not with this fleet. This is a combined operation, admiral, timed to the second. If this fleet is out of timing, it will affect the operations of the others. We have spent too much time and material in preparation to allow this to happen. When the steel blades of the trap slide shut, admiral, they must all bite in at once; otherwise some of the vermin may get away. Admiral, this is an affair of honor. I must tell you, sir, we are going through. And now, admiral, again I ask your permission."

The Flat officer took a deep breath, looked directly at Nevv and said in a low hoarse voice, "I am very sorry, colonel, this is a practice mining region, and our ships here constitute, as it were, a region of our own territory. You can understand, colonel. Our own... ah... honor? Yes, our own honor is involved."

Nevv shook his head. "I'm very sorry, admiral. We've had such good relations with your people before. But we've spent too much time in preparation. We can't sacrifice the timing and the secrecy." He reached out and brought his hand down hard on the "Prepare" bar of the firing console. The battle-stations' gongs back in the empty crew's quarters let go with a tooth-jarring clatter that reverberated in the control room.

Nevv turned to Mannin. "Set up alternate Fleet course to avoid this obstacle." He glanced at Hughes. "Send signal fourteen, 'Sacrifice to avoid delay.'"

Hughes, his face the color of freshly-sliced unripe onions, hit the beam-signal keys twice, then twice again.

Mannin spoke up briskly. "Send Alternate 20-25-25 orange."

"Right," said Hughes. He struck the keys again.

Nevv flipped over the public address switch and pulled the microphone to him. "Men," he said firmly, and multiplied echoes of his voice boomed back to him. "Men, this is the C.O. speaking." His voice roared and reverberated in the empty ship. "Men, we have been slightly delayed, but we are going to blast out a diversion so the Fleet can go through unhindered. There are a number of ships to deal with, but remember, follow your saturation procedures carefully, and don't be overeager for the kill. We want to get the full benefit of these new weapons, and we don't want anybody hogging a target. This is all going down on film, so everyone can be sure he'll get full battle-credits for good square hits and methodical controlling. And lastly, men, remember, every ship burst neatly open here, every clean suckout, every well-placed sun-shot, will put us just that much closer to the real enemy. That's all, men. Listen for the signal, and no jumping the gun."

On the screen, the Flat admiral put a finger inside his collar, puffed out his cheeks, started to say something, and hesitated.

Nevv put his hand on the firing switch for nose turret ten. He turned to Hughes.

The Flat admiral, speaking rapidly, said, "One moment, colonel. I have just received special instructions from the high officer commanding in this region. You may proceed, but only along a specially marked route—to avoid the mines. One of our ships will mark the route—"

Nevv said courteously, "Thank you, sir, But if you do that, we will be late at our rendezvous. We'll just have to take our chances with the mines." He turned to Hughes. "Course red, colonel."

"Yes, sir," said Hughes. He pulled down the pilot globe. There was a roar and a trembling, and the big ship began to move.

On the screen, the Flat gave a weak smile, nodded with imitation briskness, and broke contact.

* * *

All the way to breakpoint into subspace, Nevv could feel a sensation like a faint cold wind across the back of his neck and shoulders.

When they were well on their course in subspace, Hughes ran his fingers over the automatics settings, then shoved up the pilot globe. He looked at Nevv, grinned feebly and said, "I used to think we should make these ships fully automatic. But what machine could have gotten us out of that mess."

"We aren't home yet," said Nevv dryly. He glanced at Mannin. "How many more breakpoints on this route?"

"Two in, three out," said Mannin.

Nevv considered that. If the Flats were planning a big seizure of space in this direction, and if—as now seemed clear—they had the route maps to Colony 6, no doubt the breakpoints ahead would swarm with warships. Messages would already be snapping back and forth through subspace, and even now, Flat technicians would be hastily setting up sensitive detectors by the thousands. Flat intelligence experts would be huddled over maps and grids, sending hurrying messengers with slips of paper to Flat calculating machines. Sooner or later, some Flat computer was going to flash its lights and unroll a string of symbols that boiled down to, "It's a bluff, probability such-and-such."

The thing to do, Nevv told himself, was to keep that probability from verging on certainty. He drew out a message form and wrote:

"T. S. F. Prometheus to T. S. F. V. F. I.: Breaking primary subradiation ban as per Directive Seven rpt Seven B rpt B. Obstacle passed. Advise not repeat not use Reserve Killer Groups this sector to cleanse obstacle-markers. Do repeat do suggest preparatory shift these groups in event unexpected exigency. Entire complement this ship volunteers bait duty at next mousehole.—D. R. Nevv, Colonel, Commanding."

Nevv handed the message to Hughes, and said, "Send it in the old code. If they've got Red Base, they've probably got the code books, too."

"What if they haven't?"

"We've got to take the chance. If we send it in clear, it will be an obvious fake."

Hughes nodded and went to get the old code book.

Mannin said, "I didn't want to trouble you with this before, but what do we have for a cargo?"

"About forty medium-sized crates. What's in them is none of our business."

Mannin scratched his head. "Well—Could you at least tell me if they were specially loaded on?"

"No, the same as usual. In a cargo web. Why do you ask?"

"Do you have a few minutes?"

Nevv scowled and studied his astrogator for a moment. He glanced at the chronometer and saw that he had three hours and twenty-seven minutes till the next breakpoint. "Sure. If it's important."

"It seems important. I don't know, but I think you ought to get a look at that cargo."

Hughes looked up from the code book, and Nevv told him where they were going.

* * *

The ship, aft of the control room, was a reminder of their desperate need for speed. The bulkheads had been cut out, leaving little but the structural frame of the ship. And in some places, where heavy internal loads had apparently been removed, only short thick stubs of beams remained.

Nevv, climbing down past the chopped-off beams, wondered uneasily if the ship had been pared a little too closely.

Mannin called back. "There. Take a look at that."

Nevv stopped and looked. Further to the rear, the cargo hung in its separate crates, each crate in its own net of strong ropework, each net held by ropes branching out like the spokes of a wheel to the heavy cables of the cargo web. The cargo web stretched across the axis of the ship from one side to the other, fastened by massive coiled springs to the ship's outermost structural frame. The idea was to cushion the effects of sudden shocks and shifts in acceleration. Nevv, holding to a heavy post, studied the cargo web from overhead. "Looks all right," he said.

Mannin shook his head. "Come closer," he called.

Nevv glanced at his watch, then climbed down ladders past a solitary spaceboat and several stripped-out floors of the ship till he stood beside Mannin on a little inspection platform near the empty center of the web. Then he saw it.

The web was bowed above them, like the arch of a low dome, or a sail stretching ahead in the wind.

Nevv glanced down at the platform. The ship's increasing forward motion held his feet against it. The web should be bowed slightly downward, toward the rear of the ship. Instead it arched upward toward the control room and the ship's nose.

"What have we got here?" said Mannin wryly. "Antigravity?"

Nevv shook his head. "I don't know. But I checked this after the first and third breakpoints. It was all right then."

"It isn't now."

Nevv dropped to his knees and opened a trapdoor in the floor of the platform. He climbed down a ladder with Mannin following closely, and walked out a narrow catwalk till it ended at the wall of the ship. He looked up. The massive coiled spring overhead was drawn well open.

Nevv looked at Mannin, and Mannin shrugged helplessly.

"Well," said Nevv, looking back up at the spring, "if we climb up there, maybe we can find out what's wrong." He turned to go up the steel ladder at the end of the catwalk, reached out for the first rung and stopped.

A track of sheared-off stubs ran up the wall where the ladder had been removed.

Nevv opened his mouth to say something, then cut himself off. He glanced at his watch. With a sensation of relief, he said, "I'm sorry, Phil. I've got to figure out what we're going to do when we hit the next breakpoint. I can't spare any more time for this."

Mannin shook his head. "I'm sorry, Dave. But as astrogator of this ship, I have to ask you to do something about it. It's throwing off my calculations."

Nevv stared up in frustration. "How long has it been like this?"

"This is the first I've seen it like this," said Mannin. "The last time I looked at it it was warped too far down. I had to go up, take a sight-fix, and reset the chronometer guide. Then when the Flats had us under their noses, the ship showed first a slight forward, then a slight backward movement, with no power applied. Next, we made the run through normal space in about four-fifths the time it should have taken us."

Nevv took out his handkerchief and passed it across his forehead. He was trying to think but he was aware that his mind was working as sluggishly as a ship that has gained headway in one direction, and now has to be slowed down, turned around, and started off on a new course. "Can't you take sight fixes and just feed in corrections to allow for this?"

"Yes," said Mannin dryly, "so long as this uncontrolled thrust happens to be applied along the ship's axis. But what am I supposed to do if it's suddenly applied at right angles? Or ... say ... circularly, to spin the ship? I don't have much experience plotting courses for a flying gyroscope."

Nevv stared up at the net for a moment, then looked at Mannin. "We've got to get up there somehow. Then maybe we can figure out what's wrong."

"That suits me," said Mannin. "How?"

"Follow me," growled Nevv.

* * *

They turned around and strode back along the catwalk till they reached the ladder to the inspection platform. From here, other catwalks branched out under the web.

Nevv glanced at Mannin. "You don't happen to have a flashlight, do you?"

"No," said Mannin.

"All right," said Nevv. "You take the first catwalk, and I'll take the second. If a ladder is still there at the end of yours, call out."

Mannin squinted down the catwalk, and shook his head in disgust. For the next five minutes, they strode up and down long branching catwalks that invariably ended in blank walls where ladders had been ripped out. They met at the center and peered around at the yet deeper gloom down below. Nevv shook his head, turned and climbed back up the inspection platform ladder with Mannin following close behind.

They climbed back up through several stripped levels, and Nevv made his way cautiously to the spaceboat, rotated it in its cradle, and glanced down. The boat was over a large empty cell in the cargo web. "Go relieve Hughes," said Nevv. "I think we can get down to the web in this thing, but Hughes is the best man to pilot it."

"You want me to stay in the control room?"

"Yes, just in case something else goes wrong."

Mannin climbed out of sight. Nevv leaned out with one hand on the spaceboat, and squinted down at the net. The net sprang down suddenly, and Nevv involuntarily rose on his toes with a feeling of lightness. He grabbed at the spaceboat, felt his weight come back and shoved hard away from the gap between flooring and boat.

The clang of a hatch overhead told of Hughes starting down the ladder.

Nevv told Hughes what he wanted, and the pilot glanced down at the net. "Well," he said, "these boats are built for maneuverability, but with the bulkheads out, we'll pollute the whole atmosphere down here." He glanced around. "It looks to me like they tore out most of the recirculators. This is practically stagnant air. If we pollute it, we'll have to put on spacesuits to work down here."

Nevv nodded thoughtfully and glanced down at the net. He crossed to the spaceboat and found in the emergency kit a big coil of half-inch rope, a flashlight, a claw hammer, and a hatchet. He handed hammer and hatchet to Hughes, who followed him down the ladder.

Nevv crawled out on a beam over the net. The beam crossed directly above one of the catwalks that branched out down under the net. Nevv lowered the rope down through the net, till it reached the catwalk. Then he made a series of hitches around the beam, tested the rope, gripped it with one hand, gripped the beam with the other, slid his feet down, and barely made it from the beam to the rope; then he slid slowly down in stages, the rope wound around one leg and clamped by his feet. When he reached the net, he crawled out onto a crate. He looked up and saw Hughes, pasty-faced, embracing the beam overhead. Nevv studied the crate, then called out, "Tie the hatchet and hammer on the other end of that rope and send them down. Be sure that rope doesn't slip."

Hughes lowered the rope, and Nevv chopped away part of the knotty net holding the crate. The crate itself turned out to be made of stiff splintery wood closely fitted together. Nevv pried at it uselessly with the hammer, then enlarged the gap in the net and chopped a hole in one edge of the crate. He pulled back the boards and shone the flashlight through the hole, stripped back a stiff wrapping, and saw a dark green, crackle-finished cylindrical surface. He pulled away more wrappings and saw on top part of what appeared to be a control panel. A corner of white caught his eye.

Mannin's voice echoed down from above. "I need Hughes up here. We've got to make a course correction."

Nevv twisted around to look up at Hughes.

"Go ahead. I think I've got everything I need."

* * *

Hughes inched cautiously back along the beam, and Nevv took hold of the white corner of paper and pulled it out. It was a thick instruction manual, stamped "Deadly Secret—P. M. Corp, Propulsion Unit."

Nevv looked at the manual with considerable awe. "Deadly Secret" was a classification he had never even heard of. He listened as Hughes started up the ladder, then knelt carefully on the crate. He suffered a brief pang of conscience for looking at such exalted material without proper clearance, then opened it up. He flipped through it with one hand, shining the flashlight over a large number of electronic diagrams and technically-worded descriptions. He paused on a page headed "Operating Instructions." He read:

"Due to the unconventional character of the equipment, considerable care and patience may be required before perfectly satisfactory results are obtained. It is advisable to carry out initial practice and testing using only Pilot Sub-Circuit A."

Overhead, a hatch slammed shut.

Nevv read on:

"This is highly important.

"Pilot Sub-Circuit A will reproduce perfectly the phenomena to be anticipated from activation of the Main Drive Circuits; but the average continuous energy release will be of the order of 10-9 that of the Main Drive Circuits.

"As the underlying nature of the phenomena involved is not perfectly understood, great care must be exercised until such time as the characteristic action produced by Pilot Sub-Circuit A is perfectly responsive and reliable."

Nevv frowned over the last sentence, flipped toward the back of the manual, and suddenly experienced pressure like that of a high-speed elevator starting upward. He jammed the manual in his pocket, grabbed for support, and felt the whole cargo web balloon under him, almost flinging him loose. The crate he clung to shifted around and strained up against the weakened net.

Nevv let go and grabbed his rope.

The crate abruptly yanked away, and the whole web snapped downward like the inside of a bowl.

The rope quivered and dropped about a foot, and Nevv suddenly became aware that what he had hold of was the relatively short length Hughes had lowered. Holding his breath, Nevv swung gently out, then back, and managed to grab and swing to the other rope. He looked down. The net suddenly ballooned up again, almost touching his feet. Then the net sprang down and up and fell part way again so it was flat.

Overhead, a hatch clanged open. Hughes' voice called down, "You O.K. down there, Dave?"

Nevv ran his tongue around the dry inside of his mouth, studied the motionless net for a moment, then slid quickly down the rope. He landed on the catwalk with the feeling that all his life would be anti-climax after this.

Then he remembered what was waiting for him at the next breakpoint.

"Dave!" called Hughes' voice. There was a clattering on the ladder.

Nevv took a deep breath, managed to clear his throat, then called out, "I'm O.K."

Then he felt in his pocket for the manual, and started up the ladder to the control room.

* * *

At the next breakpoint, Nevv found himself looking at an even more broad-shouldered individual, with an even wider head and neck, with four red tufts on his yellow sash, a head of grizzled hair, and small crafty eyes that looked at Nevv as if each and every little cell of Nevv's brain was wide-open to view. This officer fixed Nevv with his eyes, said nothing, and looked at Nevv with a perfectly expressionless, waiting face.

Nevv said, "T. S. F. Prometheus requests immediate permission to proceed."

The officer on the screen appeared to move his head the tiniest fraction of an inch.

"Thank you, sir," said Nevv courteously.

The officer made no reply.

Nevv put his hand on the firing switch for nose turret ten. Keeping his eyes focused on the Flat's eyes, he said, "Course green, colonel."

"Yes, sir," said Hughes.

The Flat officer kept his gaze unwaveringly on Nevv's eyes, and Nevv in turn kept his eyes focused hard on the Flat's eyes. It took nineteen minutes to reach the next breakpoint, and in this time neither Nevv nor the Flat blinked once. By the time the Flat vanished from the screen, Nevv felt as if his eyes were coated with dust.

Mannin cleared his throat.

Nevv, massaging his eyelids with his fingertips, turned to see Mannin pull his head out of the astrogator's globe. Mannin's face looked unusually sober and thoughtful.

"Did I miss something?" asked Nevv.

"Nothing worth thinking about," said Mannin.

"What?" said Nevv.

"When we came out, the foreground was loaded with red and orange markers."


"As we went on, the markers blinked out one-by-one. It looks to me as if they were sending a whole fleet into subspace to backcheck."

Nevv glanced at the chronometer. It showed twelve hours fifty-two minutes till the next breakpoint. He pulled out a message blank and wrote:

"T. S. F. Prometheus to T. S. F. V. F. I.: Per Directive Seven rpt Seven B rpt B. Second obstacle passed without incident. However, spacing of obstacles this route appears highly significant. Sending visual records this encounter via sub-sub code eight-bee-eight repeat eight-bee-eight. Phasing out one-zero-six repeat out one-zero-six. Request alternatives. Suggest reply spaced silences before phase in. —D. R. Nevv, Colonel, Commanding."

Hughes shoved up the pilot globe, and Nevv handed him the message. "Send it in the old code."

Hughes nodded.

"Oh," said Nevv, "one more thing. How does the ship seem to handle?"

"Fine," said Hughes. "I don't know whether it's because she's stripped-down or what. But I have the feeling I could pilot her into springing somersaults if I tried."

"That's nice," said Nevv. He turned to Mannin, who was looking sharply at Hughes, and said, "Let's go below for a minute."

Mannin stepped to the hatch, glanced at the pressure dial by the door, looked back hard at Hughes and went out.

* * *

They climbed down past stripped-out levels to the cargo web inspection platform. The web dipped slightly around them.

Mannin and Nevv looked at each other, then glanced up toward the control room. They waited.

Abruptly the web sprang up like a dome.

Nevv started back up the ladder with Mannin right behind him. They went into the control room.

Hughes was in the pilot globe, his hands on the manual controls.

Nevv and Mannin looked at each other, then climbed back down again. They looked up from the inspection platform.

The web was bowed far up overhead.

Nevv took a deep breath. "What will that do to your calculations?"

Mannin said heavily, "Well, it's along the ship's axis. I may have to take sight-readings till I'm blue in the face. But just as long as it's in line with the rest of the thrust." He glanced up toward the control room. "Just so long as the ship doesn't start—springing somersaults."

Nevv glanced at his watch. "Let's see what time you've got. Here, let's set them both the same. O.K."

"Now what?"

"Go up and pry Hughes out of the pilot globe. Ask him if he can try some trial accelerations and decelerations later on. And glance at your watch to see just when he comes out of the globe."

Mannin nodded and started back up the ladder.

Nevv looked soberly up at the ballooning net, pulled up the trapdoor and climbed down onto the catwalk. He strode to the end of the catwalk, and looked up at the massive spring. Its heavy coils were pulled considerably farther apart than before. Nevv walked back and started up the ladder. Part way to the platform, the net suddenly dropped back and hung with a shallow dip. At the same moment, Nevv felt lighter.

Nevv glanced at his watch.

The hatch clanged far above. There was a sound of shoes against metal, then a pause, more sounds, and another, lighter sound of the hatch.

The cargo net sprang upward. Nevv clenched his teeth, braced himself as his weight increased. He glanced again at his watch. He fished a pencil from his pocket, located a scrap of paper in his wallet, and marked down the times when the web had moved.

Overhead, the hatch shut. There was a faint scuff and rattle of descending feet. Mannin came down with a pencil stuck over one ear, and handed Nevv a message blank. "There's the time he got out from under the globe. I asked him if he could do some trial accelerations and decelerations. He said, 'Sure.' I started down, then sneaked back up and watched him settle the globe in place. That's the second figure."

Nevv compared these figures with his own. Within a margin of a few seconds, they coincided.

Nevv glanced at Mannin. "Can you work out a test series that won't throw us too much off schedule? One you can correct for easily?"

"I think so."

"Don't make it too drastic. I want to watch it from here, and I don't want to be thrown out through the hull."

Mannin nodded, looked hard at the net, and started up the ladder.

"Wait a minute," said Nevv suddenly. "Help me get that rope first."

The two of them retrieved the rope Nevv had climbed down on to the cargo net, then Mannin went on up to the control room. Nevv roped himself flat on his back on the inspection platform. He lay still, warily watching the cargo.

* * *

The web began to inch yet higher. Nevv felt himself pressed harder against the floor of the platform. The heavy cables of the cargo web creaked.

Abruptly the web dropped down. The platform fell away from Nevv's back and the ropes bit into his chest, midsection and thighs.

The web sprang up again. Nevv was pressed hard against the floor.

Nevv lay still and rose up, watching the web alternately spring high above, then fall far out of sight. Eventually the hatch clanged, and Mannin came down the ladder. He helped Nevv up. "Did you find out anything?"

"Just that we've got the first pilot in history to fly the ship by means of the cargo. How did the tests work out?"

"Well, the ship's initial acceleration was about thirty per cent above normal. The deceleration was fifty-one per cent above normal the first try, and inched up to about fifty-eight per cent above the last try."

Nevv frowned, glanced at the net, and started up the ladder. They entered the control room, shut the hatch, and looked at Hughes, his head in the pilot globe. Nevv got out the "Deadly Secret — P. M. Corp. Propulsion Unit" instruction manual. Nevv and Mannin huddled over it intently.

They went through it once rapidly, skimming quickly over bristling tracts of terminology, and pausing to study circuit diagrams and detailed drawings of the unit's exterior. Then they went back over it again and forced their way through the tougher parts like men chopping thick undergrowth with machetes. At the end, they looked at each other blankly.

"Well," said Nevv, "let's try it again." His mind swum with sentences like: "In the following Tentative Operating Instructions, a number at the beginning of a paragraph refers to a dashed arrow in figure III b at the top of page six herein, except where Experimental Models X-2a or X-2b are under consideration, in which case the aforesaid number refers to a dotted arrow in figure IVa at the bottom of page one of Supplemental Leaf 6a, unless otherwise stipulated elsewhere."

Mannin suddenly got up and said, "I've got to take a sight fix. You see what you can make of it."

* * *

Nevv looked up to see Mannin start across the room with an expression of relief. Nevv looked at the manual with exasperation, then began leafing through it slowly. When Mannin came back, Nevv was reading one part over and over.

"Find anything?" said Mannin hopefully.

"I don't know," said Nevv. "Look at this." Mannin bent beside him and they read:

"The controls of the Propulsion Unit are unusually simple, and, after sufficient skill has been acquired, may often be operated with a minimally light touch. It is highly important for the unpracticed operator to have clearly in mind a precise mental image of the action the Propulsion Unit is intended to perform. It is at first necessary that this correct mental picture be thoroughly understood and borne in mind to obtain the maximal level of performance consistent with the operator's skill and personal qualifications."

"Hm-m-m," said Mannin. He glanced over at Hughes with his head in the pilot globe. He looked down again at the manual. "'Minimally light touch,'" he quoted.

Nevv followed Mannin's gaze to Hughes, then thought of the cargo web alternately billowing up and sagging down as Hughes' mind concentrated on accelerating or decelerating the ship. "It's an uncanny idea," he said.

"It sure is," said Mannin.

"Still," said Nevv, certain possibilities beginning to occur to him, "if it does work that way—"

"Yeah," said Mannin, nodding agreement.

"Pry Hughes loose from that globe," said Nevv, and looked back at the manual. Again he read the paragraph.

Hughes came over and grinned. "What a ship. We should strip them all down."

Nevv and Mannin explained to him about the cargo, then Nevv said, "It seems to me that by the time we come out the next breakpoint, the Flats will have spent thousands of man-hours convincing themselves we've fooled them. They'll be in no mood to be bluffed all over again. What we need is something completely unexpected—"

Hughes, perspiring uneasily, said, "Wait a minute, Dave. Are you trying to tell me the ship goes even faster when I think it will go faster, and slows down more when I think it will slow down, just because I think it?"

"Well, in effect, with this cargo—"

"What happens if I can't convince myself? I mean, this whole idea is pretty fantastic, but just suppose—"

Nevv glanced up at the chronometer and felt a fine perspiration forming on his brow. He leaned back and forced a bleak smile.

Mannin said earnestly to Hughes, "You just did it. It should be no trouble at all to do it again." He added, "If we're going to get an edge on the Flats, you've got to do it again."

"Yeah," said Hughes, "I did it unconsciously. How do I know—"

"Look" said Mannin determinedly, "We've got to get this stuff through to the Colony. To say nothing of our own skins."

Nevv forcibly relaxed his suddenly tensed muscles and tried to ease his mind away from the problem for a moment.

Hughes said, "On faith, you want me to do it. O.K., I'll try—"

Nevv thought that now that it was too late he could see it plainly enough from Hughes' point of view. Show a man a twenty-foot hurdle over a pit of snakes and say to him, "If you believe, our device here will get you across safely. But if you don't believe—well... But, on the other hand, you must get across. You've got to, because—"

Hughes was starting to turn away. Nevv could see Mannin's tenseness, and a sort of angry resentment on Hughes' part.

Nevv said, "Wait a minute. I think we've got all the parts of the puzzle, but we're trying to jam a couple parts together that won't fit."

Hughes said, "I'll fly ... or try to fly ... any ship made that runs by controls. But you stick me in an empty cubicle and tell me to think I'm flying, and I don't promise you anything at all."

Mannin said, "We saw it. You've done it already! You can't say you can't do what you have done."

Nevv took a deep breath. "Well," he said quickly, "what we've got to remember, of course, is that what we're talking about is only the supplemental part of the thrust. The main drive of the ship, of course, supplies most of the thrust, and that isn't affected at all by what we're talking about."

"No?" said Hughes. "Suppose I should try for maximum thrust from the ship, and then it should occur to me to think about going slower? Then what?"

"Holy—" began Mannin, his voice grating.

Nevv could now clearly feel the perspiration on his forehead. He glanced unhappily at the chronometer, thought a fervent prayer, then launched back into the conversation. "Splendid! That would be wonderful! You'd cut the forward motion while the radiation from the drive units remained constant. The idea is to throw off the Flat gunnery computers. Practically any unpredictable action will do."

Hughes looked a little dazed. "Wait a minute—"

Mannin started to say something, then cut himself off.

"Now," said Nevv firmly, "the control factor you have to use at first is precise visualization—"

"How could that affect the cargo?" Hughes demanded.

Nevv looked surprised. "Through the resonant q-wave receiver in the unit's control circuit, of course. Didn't we explain that?"

"No, you didn't. What in space is a resonant q-wave receiver? And who thought that up?"

"It's all here," said Nevv, tossing across the manual. "You read that, and you'll know as much about it as we do."

Hughes scowled and picked up the manual. He started to read it, then flipped back through it slowly. His face began to relax. "Well," he said, handing the manual back to Nevv, "that looks scientific enough. What's all this business about doing it on faith?"

Mannin made a choking sound, and Nevv said quickly, "If we said that, we just expressed it badly. The correct procedure is the visualization, with the regenerative action of the pilot globe coupling the q-output to the q-wave receivers in the Propulsion Unit control circuit. You look at diagram VIII b, there, I think it is... about the middle of the book."

Hughes reached out, then yanked his hand back. "What do I want all that stuff for? I'm a pilot, not an electronics technician. What I want to know is, what do I do?"

"Well, you visualize the action desired. The q-waves, transmitted by the—"

"Hold on," said Hughes irritably. "I don't want to go through all that. All I do is to visualize it, is that right?"

"That's it," said Nevv.

"Then," said Hughes tentatively, "the q-radiations activate the control circuit. But I don't have to worry about that. All I have to do is visualize it. Correct?"

"Absolutely," said Nevv.

"O.K." Hughes looked thoughtful. "Listen, what if I visualize a sudden rotary motion?"

Nevv felt that he had to say something. "My understanding," he said, "is that the Propulsion Unit is perfectly multi-directional." He was about to add some vague qualification when Mannin cut in hotly.

"Listen," said Mannin, "I can plot a course for a spaceship, but I'm not checked out on spinning tops."

"Never mind about that," said Hughes. "You just wait till we come out in normal space, and lay down your course as usual. Leave the rest to me." He started back across the control room, then stopped. "I'm going to get in a little practice, then get some rest. You guys scared me for a minute. I thought I was supposed to work some kind of hoodoo."

"It's all right there in the manual," said Nevv, feeling a little weak.

* * *

Mannin, Nevv, and Hughes, all got at least a little fitful sleep before the next breakpoint arrived. When it did come, and Nevv's eyes adjusted to the blaze of white pinpoints against deep black, there was a space of perhaps two seconds when Nevv thought they might possibly have no trouble, this time, at least.

Then the glaring markers began to spring into place. Hughes' voice began to drone. "Near right background high, near right background low, near right foreground high—three of them, near right foreground low—"

A single green line hung in front of Nevv's eyes. Mannin said, "Just one route this time."

"...far left foreground high—two of them, far left foreground low, near left foreground high—one, two, three, four, five—" His voice cut off abruptly. "The place is full of them."

The short purple line marking the backtrack appeared before Nevv. He pushed up the command globe. Before him, the screen flared and lit to show a huge, broad-shouldered officer whose yellow sash bore tufts of red from one end to the other. In the clusters at his shoulders, each gold spike bore at its tip its own cluster of long shiny gold needles. Nevv's eyes rose from the tufted sash to the immense shoulders, broad neck and wide head. The officer was white-haired, with his eyes fixed thoughtfully on Nevv's, and something approaching a compassionate expression on his face. He shook his head ever so slightly as he watched Nevv. "Very clever, my boy," he said, "but of course you were bound to be stopped sooner or later. The odds were far too great. Don't move your ship now."

Nevv reached out for the firing console.

The Flat's pitying expression was having a worse effect on his morale than anything before, and he had a little trouble keeping his face expressionless.

The Flat said quietly, "Don't give us the Vengeance Fleet business, now. We know better."

Hughes hissed, "Shall I let him have it?"

Nevv said mechanically, "Sir, I am aware now that for some reason you doubt the word of a Terran officer. I am astonished."

The Flat smiled. "No doubt your 'honor' is touched. I must tell you, colonel, that our sense of boggleglobble is similarly affected by your whole story. Moreover, all this chasing around has had a bad effect on our budget."

"I am very sorry, sir," said Nevv, grimly holding to his story. "The apparent lack of belief of your subordinate officers has been conveyed to my superiors."

"Who are still in subspace?"

"I cannot disclose their whereabouts—"

"We can't find them anywhere."

"Sir, secrecy was one of the prime considerations when this force was readied for action."

"It must have been. How is it that you turn up again every time we look around?"

Nevv had a sensation of blood rushing to his head.

Hughes' voice said, "Ahh."

Nevv said quickly, "Sir, further secrecy on my part would be pointless. The mission of Prometheus has now become, first, to determine by your actions whether any collusion exists between your people and the miserable vermin who have insulted out flag." The whole foreground was acquiring a pinkish tinge. The Flat's huge form began blinking on-and-off on the screen. "And, second," said Nevv, "to warn you by primarily defensive maneuvers of exactly the sort of unknown factors you are now up against."

The whole ship sprang forward, ramming Nevv far back in the acceleration couch and choking the breath out of him. There was a high, squeaking screech, and his insides seemed to twist sidewise and up. A nauseous sense of being wrenched two ways at once gripped him, and he was swallowed in a rush of blackness. His last dwindling sensations were of a heavy crash and an abrupt silence.

* * *

Nevv came to with the impression that he was strapped to the arm of a big clock, and the arm was swinging around and around. He heard Hughes say, "This control room is just a trifle more off-center that I thought it was."

Mannin, speaking in gasps like an exhausted runner, said, "I've always had... good feeling towards you, Hughes... but just exactly what... did you do just then?"

"Spun the ship like a gyro," said Hughes proudly, "jammed on full forward acceleration, then gave her everything I had to jerk the tail sidewise and around in a new direction. She really jumped, and then I improvised a little." He chortled. "They never came near us."

Nevv opened his eyes painfully. His head was throbbing and he felt sick and weak. His mind went in feeble circles grappling with Hughes' maneuver: If the ship were spinning clockwise, and its long axis was suddenly swung in the arc of a circle—Well, the ship might be considered a uniform hollow cylinder—Wait, what about the armor belt? Consider the simplified case of a short cylinder—

Suddenly Nevv came wide awake. He spoke and heard only a hoarse whisper. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and managed to say, "Where are we?"

"Subspace," said Hughes triumphantly. "I whipped her back on course and slammed her though right at the breakpoint."

Mannin said, "Spinning?"

"Yes, pretty hard," said Hughes. "Why?"

"It seems to me"—Mannin paused, and Nevv heard him take a breath—"the spin would induce an electromagnetic field—What that would do in subspace, I don't know."

"Well," said Hughes, "anyway, we're here. Boy what a ship!"

"Sure," said Mannin feebly. "But where is here?"

Nevv unbuckled himself from the acceleration couch and looked dizzily around. "Phil," he said, "if you can manage it, take a sight fix, will you?" He turned to Hughes. "I haven't figured out what you did yet, but I'm glad we're still alive." He remembered hearing the crash, and wondered if anything had broken loose. "How's she handling?" he said.

"Beautiful," said Hughes.

Nevv decided he had better take a look anyway, and walked carefully to the hatch. He hauled back on it and nothing happened. Nevv thought that he must be weaker than he had imagined and gave a hard tug. The hatch remained as solid as a section of wall.

Mannin said sourly, "To be perfectly honest, I don't see anything here I can identify."

Nevv put one foot on the wall, both hands on the hatch handle, and heaved back with all his strength. His arms felt like they were pulling loose at the shoulder joints, but aside from that, nothing moved.

The communications receiver went ping, and Hughes said soberly, "I'll get it."

Mannin said, "If we stop right where we are and cast around, I think there's about a twenty per cent chance we can find out where we are. It may take us a week to do it."

Nevv gave a little yank on the hatch, then stepped back. His gaze chanced to fall on the air pressure gauge by the door. The black pointer of the pressure gauge was resting on its pin, its point at the zero mark.

Hughes said, "This message is in the old code."

Nevv growled, "Unscramble it." He whacked the pressure gauge with his hand. The pointer didn't move. He turned around, walked over and picked up the microphone. "Men," he said. No answering boom came from the direction of the crew's quarters. Nevv hit the "Prepare" bar on the firing console, felt a faint vibration in the deck underfoot, but heard none of the jarring clatter of the Battle Station's gong. Plainly, there was no air back there to conduct the sound. He walked back to the hatch and pushed the emergency air-lock button. A little warning light lit up red, there was a hiss, and Nevv waited for the light to turn green. The hiss ceased, but the light remained red.

Mannin said, "That just could be Sclythes VI over there, and if so, it will take us at least an hour-and-a-half to get back on course."

Hughes said in an unhappy voice, "I've got the message decoded."

"Let's hear it," said Nevv grimly.

"Supreme High Command to All Ships in Volume Twelve," read Hughes, "Relay the following: To Terran ship T. S. F. Dreadnought Prometheus: Kindly return to pick up upper segment your fuel feed mechanism, one Mark XII oversize coil spring, and large quantity unnamed small parts and pieces recovered by our salvage detectors. —Cordially, Sasram Vannaf, Supreme High Admiral, Commanding."

Mannin said, "On closer observation, that couldn't possibly be Sclythes VI."

Hughes started for the hatch. "If that really was the upper segment of the feed mechanism, we're in an awful mess."

Mannin pulled his head out of the astrogator's globe, snapped a little spool in the viewer, and said, "If it doesn't turn out to be Epinax or Castris, we might as well start saying the last rites now." After a moment, he added, "It isn't Castris."

Hughes tugged at the door.

"No use," said Nevv, "the air out there is gone. We've got atmospheric pressure at about one ton to the square foot on this side holding it shut."

Hughes stepped back, looked at the air-pressure gauge, whacked it a couple of times with this hand, then shook his head wearily.

Nevv said, "Send this in the old code. 'T. S. F.. Prometheus to T. S. F. V. F. I.: Your assumption correct. Will comply.—D. R. Nevv, Colonel, Commanding.'"

Hughes nodded.

Mannin said, "Well, maybe we'll make it yet. That's Epinax, and it's going to cost us a five-hour delay."

In a low voice, Hughes said, "If we've lost the upper segment of the fuel feed, we can't afford any delay. The only fuel we've got left in that feed is on the lower parts of the mechanism."

Nevv said, "What about the reserve?"

"We'd have to lock it in place manually. And I'm not sure the reserve fuel isn't one of the things they stripped out to save weight."

Nevv looked at the emergency air lock with a sudden unpleasant thought. "Did anyone happen to notice if we've still got the air lock here?"

Mannin said, "We've got the base and the hinges. I noticed that the last time I came in. The lock door itself is stripped out."

Nevv felt as if he had been hit in the pit of the stomach.

The communications receiver went ping.

Hughes trudged over to it. After a moment, he said, "This is in the new code."

"Decode it," said Nevv.

Mannin said, "Did somebody say something about the air being gone from the aft section?"

"Yes," said Nevv. "We apparently lost the upper segment of the fuel feed right through the outer wall the last time we got away from the Flats. With all the bulkheads stripped out, the air just went out through the hole."

"Oh... Oh," said Mannin. "Well, there's at least one spacesuit in the emergency locker there."

"That's good," said Nevv, "but the point is, this hatch opens in. There's no air pressure on the other side. On this side, there's normal pressure of about 14.6 pounds to the square inch. That's around a ton to the square foot. You'd need a man with an iron arm to haul that hatch open. Once it was open, the air in here would blow out into the aft section and diffuse into outer space. If we weren't in spacesuits, that would be the end of us. If we were in spacesuits, the air supply wouldn't last forever, to say nothing of trying to run the ship from the inside of one of those things."

Mannin exhaled sharply, turned around, opened a square cabinet and pulled out a thick volume.

Hughes said wearily, "I've got the message, Dave."

"Let's hear it."

"'Blue Base Colony six rpt Six to T. S. F. Prometheus: Under heavy attack. Need help badly. Your messages intercepted here. At first dismissed as Flat hoax, but that not

comprehensible. If you have force available as indicated, urgently request your aid. Please advise at once. Use latest code delivered by courier. Red Base is captured and

old code with it. - T. B. Smith, Lieut, col., Commanding.'" Hughes looked up. "That was all in the new code except the sentence, 'Use latest code delivered by courier.' That was in clear."

Nevv nodded slowly, and turned to Mannin. "Did you notice about the reserve fuel supply?"

Mannin looked up with one finger holding his place in the book, "I think it was there, Dave. When I was helping you get the rope hauled up, I noticed something bulky overhead in about the right place for it."

Nevv said to Hughes, "How long will the normal fuel supply last, exclusive of that in the upper segment?"

Hughes glanced at the chronometer. "It might just last to the next breakpoint—If we don't have to detour."

Mannin said, "We've got to detour."

"Is that," said Hughes, "actually going to take us five hours?"

"Yes, it is."

"We can't do it," said Hughes. "We just don't have enough fuel. Unless the Flat was bluffing."

"We can't assume he was bluffing," said Nevv. "I don't see how he could have guessed that the control room air lock had the door stripped off. And that's all that keeps us from just going back and checking." Nevv frowned. "Is there any way to get the reserve fuel to the feed mechanism?"

"Only by taking it out and locking it on manually. We can't do that without first getting out of the control room."

"Well—" Nevv turned to Mannin. "Is there an earth-type planet listed that we can reach from here?"

"Two," said Mannin. "If we break out of subspace in forty minutes, we can reach Blackwall III, an Earth-type planet with an aggressive alien mechanized culture. If we break out in a little over two hours, we can reach an unnamed Earth-type planet with a nomadic humanoid culture. And that's all there is, unless we want to wait half-a-day more."

"What's the humanoid planet like?"

"It was surveyed about a hundred and sixty years ago. Quite a load of exotic diseases, but I think we've got the shots for them in the emergency kit. The language of the most advanced race is on file in the General Hypnoculture Index. The planet's code is 'D'—suitable for emergency landing for minor repairs. It says here the local food is edible; but then a man can starve while he figures out whether the bark, bud, root, leaf, or fruit is what he's supposed to eat."

"I hope," said Nevv, "we don't stay there that long. All we want is to raise the air pressure in the aft part of the ship, get this air lock open, and put the reserve fuel in the feed mechanism."

"Well," said Mannin, "it looks like we ought to be able to do that, all right."

"Good, then plot a course to it." Nevv turned to Hughes. "Is there anything you know of that could delay us once we get that done?"

"No," said Hughes.

"All right." Nevv took a message blank and wrote:

"T. S. F. Prometheus to Blue Base Colony Six rpt Six: Am instructed to inform you Reserve Killer Group One rpt One, Reserve Killer Group Two rpt Two, Reserve Killer Group Three rpt Three now being detached to destroy enemy forces operating against you. Projected time of arrival: eighty-four hours following code-date this message. You are instructed hold out with all possible grip and tenacity. Vital situation hinges on you. —D. R. Nevv, Colonel, Commanding."

Hughes took the message, looked at it, swallowed, looked at Nevv and said, "What code?"

"The new code."

"Yes, sir." Hughes bent over the code book.

Mannin said, "I've got the course plotted. It'll take us one hour and fifty-seven minutes to get to breakpoint. Landing on the planet should be a perfectly routine matter. That leaves me personally nothing to do for over two hours. Just as a safety precaution, I wonder if I should go under hypnoculture and learn the local language."

"We'd both better," said Nevv.

Hughes looked up. "Shall I?"

"If you think you can trust the automatics."

Mannin said, "What about shots? We're bound to be exposed, and a good high fever could put the lot of us out of action for a week."

"We'll have to take the shots in turn," said Nevv. "I'll take them first so we can see what their effect is."

Mannin nodded, grinned suddenly, and hauled out the bulky medical emergency kit. As Nevv looked on, Mannin opened the kit, took out a thing like a needle-snouted machine pistol, went over and got the manual, glanced alternately at it and the kit, and began clipping small vials into a magazine that slid into the grip of the gun. As if to himself, he murmured, "Let's see, paratyphoid outvar. gamma six, contagious prothrombinopinex, graymold fever, toxic enteromycosis, chronic infectious hypoxemia, stumprot, nicterine hypsophobis, osnithosis outvar. beta three—" He stood up, holding the gun. In a businesslike manner, he said, "All right, remove your shirt." He gave a routine-looking smile. "This won't hurt a bit." He swabbed Nevv's arm, and swung up the bulky, needle-tipped pistol.

Nevv felt his arm go numb. He turned so that his eyes were straight ahead. "This is no time to start unfolding your latent talents," he said grimly.

"Stand still there," said Mannin. There was a thug sound, then another, and another, thug, thug, thug.

Nevv felt a wave of heat, a sudden chill, and an overpowering dizziness. He felt hands steady him, he tried to catch his balance, then everything went black.

Nevv gradually became aware of a lazy swirling dizziness, and a ringing in his ears. He drifted a little further awake, and realized that his mouth felt dry and his head felt hot. He tried to sit up, and felt so faint that he had to lie down again. He lay still for a long time. Eventually, he opened his eyes and looked up. It took him a moment to focus his eyes. Then, very carefully, he swung his feet to the floor and stood up.

Mannin and Hughes were both stretched out unconscious. The gun lay on the floor at Hughes' side.

Nevv stepped to the hatch and glanced at the pressure dial. It read "14.2" The pressure in the aft part of the ship was almost normal. Nevv walked back across the control room, and pulled down the command globe. A scene appeared of brown grassland, low distant hills, and small clumps of trees and brush. Far away, what looked like a wispy column of smoke drifted skyward.

Nevv pushed up the globe and glanced around the control room. The thought came to him that he could switch the reserve fuel to the fuel feed mechanism while Hughes and Mannin were still unconscious. But he wasn't sure just how the immunization injections would affect either of them, and he still felt weak himself. He decided to stay, get out the hypnoculture records and learn the local language.

Mannin came to before Hughes, and sat up with his brow knotted, his eyes tightly shut, and his lips drawn away from his teeth. He made a gagging sound, and Nevv said, "Water?"

"No, I'll be all right." Mannin opened his eyes, gradually uncrossed them, put a hand to his head and carefully got up. "How's Hughes?"

"Still out."

"I must have passed out on him. He gave me the shots, and I was going to give them to him. Did you see we'd landed?"

"Yeah. I've been learning the language. Not that we should ever need it."

Hughes groaned. Nevv turned around, and saw Hughes open his eyes and carefully sit up. "O.K.?" asked Nevv.

"Yeah, I think so," said Hughes. "Boy, I dreamt the Flats had me."

Mannin said, "Let's hope that doesn't happen."

Nevv walked to the hatch and back. He felt reasonably strong. "Have we tested the air?"

"The analysis equipment," said Hughes disgustedly, "was apparently stripped out."

Nevv turned to Mannin. "How was it a hundred and sixty years ago when the survey was made?"

"Fine. A trifle high on oxygen, but that's no problem." Mannin got to his feet, and walked carefully around the room, and Hughes did slow cautious knee-bends and gentle loosening-up exercises.

* * *

Nevv went to the hatch, and checked the pressure gauge. He pulled back on the hatch. The hatch opened, and Nevv felt as if a miracle had happened. He started down the ladder, with the others following. He paused at the level just above the cargo net and looked up. There, well out of reach and heavily braced in place, was a bulky, solid-looking case marked in red:




There might once have been some natural way to approach this case, but none was visible now.

Mannin growled, "A ship like this needs a crew of man-sized spiders to run it properly."

Nevv could think of nothing to say at all, and Hughes let out a snort of disgust. "Let's check the feed mechanism first."

* * *

They climbed down the ladder, paused at the inspection platform to look at the cargo web, sagging slightly out-of-shape, then climbed on down to the catwalk. In the wall to the side, above them, was torn a sizable hole, with the blue of the sky outside showing through.

"That," said Mannin, "looks like where the spring went through."

Nevv leaned over the side of the walk and stared into the gloom below. To one side was a very large, jagged-edged hole through which light shone onto the floor below. For a fleeting instant, it looked to Nevv as if the shape of the hole, and the light on the floor, shifted and changed. He blinked his eyes, and watched. Through the hole, he could see the brown of the grassland outside.

Hughes said, "There's a trapdoor in the floor here somewhere."

"Sure," said Mannin. "But is there still a ladder?"

There was a rusty creaking as the trapdoor came open, "Don't feel any—Wait. Yes, here it is."

"Be careful," said Mannin. "You can't tell. They may have sawed it off halfway down to save weight."

Nevv said, "Hold on a minute. Do we have a flashlight? Shut that trapdoor a minute."

Mannin said, "What's wrong?"

"I don't know if anything's wrong. But if we can get a strong flashlight, we can look down there first without having to go down. What happened to the one I had? Did I bring it up to the control room?"

"I don't know," said Mannin. "I'm surprised there was a flashlight on the ship."

Hughes said, "I don't mind going down, Dave. We might just as well find out since we're here."

Nevv's eyes were gradually becoming accustomed to the dark. It seemed to him he saw a faint movement on the floor at Hughes' feet. Nevv bent forward.

A vague shape, light and fast, swung up at Nevv's side. The catwalk swayed underfoot and Nevv's neck was clamped in a grip like a vise.

"Look out!" yelled Hughes.

There was a solid crunch, and a sudden silence.

A low, almost whispering voice spoke in Nevv's ear. "Glawarmish, Vilna." The words resolved themselves into, "Welcome, Friend." "Friend," was spoken in a cold, ironical tone.

From below came a soft voice. "Destra vilna sosso hottig." Nevv heard it partly as a foreign tongue, and partly as its meaning: "Bring the dear friends down here."

The next time the voice spoke from below, Nevv was scarcely aware at all of the unfamiliar words. This time the voice said, "Two of you sneak up there, and see if there are any more of them at the top."

There was a very faint sound on the ladder, going rapidly up. A second followed.

Nevv considered the chances if he were to bring his heel down hard on the instep of whoever had him from behind. There were already two up near the control room. But if he could get the spaceboat—

While Nevv was making his decision, a rope tightened around his hands, a cloth dropped over his head and yanked into his mouth, and a rope jammed hard around his ankles. He was upended and lowered head first over the catwalk.

He wanted to shout to Mannin or Hughes but he discovered that the gag so jammed his jaw and tongue, that it was impossible to make a meaningful sound. Then he felt the noose at his ankles starting to slip, and all his attention was drawn to bending his feet as sharply as possible to keep the rope from slipping loose and dropping him on his head.

A voice called down from far above. "No more of them up here."

"Good. Come on down, then."

* * *

Strong hands gripped Nevv by the shoulders, and a deep voice behind him said, "What did you have to lower him by the feet for? Suppose the rope let go?"

A hissing voice answered from above, "I would gladly have put the noose around the other end of him, but that isn't allowed yet."

A third voice spoke out of the gloom. "Enough of that. Put them all outside in the sun, where we can get a look at them."

Nevv was bundled out through the hole in the side of the ship, and lowered by a rope passed under his arms and across his chest. He was dropped on the brownish grass, and Hughes and Mannin were dumped beside him.

"Go get the Inspector," said someone, and Nevv involuntarily twisted around. The word "Inspector," had been spoken in Terran.

Now he was in daylight, Nevv could see his captors. They were muscular hairy sunburnt men, with furry skins tied about their waists. They had shrewd eyes and an erect bearing, and were looking from the ship to their prisoners thoughtfully.

Beside Nevv, Mannin groaned miserably and twisted around.

One of the fur-clad men shifted his short, thick club. "Lie still, you. You will get what you deserve."

Someone said, "Here comes the Inspector."

Nevv turned his head and saw a man with a white band at his forehead striding briskly forward, followed by two men carrying a box with long handles. "Where are the suspects?" asked the Inspector. "Suspects" was in Terran.

"Right over here."

The Inspector came over, folded his arms on his chest and studied Nevv, Mannin and Hughes. The Inspector frowned. "Roll them on their sides a minute. Hm-m-m. Stand them up. I see. Well—Turn them sideways. All right, now tilt them forward. Hm-m-m." The Inspector turned to the men carrying the box. "Get out the front view."

The two men set down the box, opened it up, and removed a large piece of thin grayish stone. Handling it carefully by the edges, they held it up. Drawn in white on the stone was an excellent likeness of a man with remarkably broad shoulders, a broad head and a broader neck, with small crafty eyes, bushy brows, and a head of bristly hair that ran down his neck on either side and vanished under his collar.

The Inspector looked from this drawing to Nevv, and back at the drawing again. A crowd gathered around, and followed the Inspector's example. The Inspector went over to the box and lifted out other thin slabs of stone, glancing first at them and then at Nevv, Hughes, and Mannin. Scowling, he disappeared into the crowd, and came out with a gnarled, white-haired man. "You took care of one when he was sick," said the Inspector. "See if these are the same."

The white-haired man put his ear against Nevv's chest, first on one side, then on the other. He put his ear against Nevv's midsection. He pushed Nevv's head over on one side and ran his hand down Nevv's neck.. He stepped around and looked at Nevv from several angles. He did the same for Hughes and Mannin, then shook his head decisively. "These are different."

A little murmur went up. The Inspector said, "Take the gags out of their mouths." He looked at Nevv and asked, "Where do you come from?"

"Up there," said Nevv, glancing at the sky.

The Inspector scowled, and nodded his head at the drawing. "These others said they came from up there, too. Are you, perhaps, related to them?"

Nevv hesitated an instant, then said firmly, "We are fighting with them."

The Inspector's eyes glinted. "Who's winning?"

"At the moment, they are. If we can fix something that went wrong with our"—he hesitated, groping for a word—"wagon there, we should be able to win."

The Inspector glanced at the ship. His gaze rested on the hole torn in one side. He turned around and snapped orders. "Go get Netsil and all his scientists." The word "scientists" was in Terran. "Go tell the king, and ask for two hundred sturdy laborers. Let them rush here like the wind. Send a signal to the missile-testing ground"—this

was in Terran—"and bring the Big Arm in case the others should come down before we're ready."

* * *

Men darted through the crowd, and from a distance there were shrill whistles. "Here, Boy! Come, Runner!"

An instant later, the ground trembled underfoot. A long brown blur shot into Nevv's field of view, swung around in a haze of dust and flying bits of turf, and streaked for the horizon.

The Inspector raised his arm and said solemnly, "The enemy of our enemy is our friend. Let the ropes holding our friends be cut and burnt in the fire. Let all men deal with our friends fairly."

A murmur of assent went up. The ropes were undone, a short piece was cut off of each and tossed on the ground. Someone dropped some sticks and began to arrange them. The Inspector came over and said, "I knew you were honest the instant I saw you, but we can't take chances." He glanced at the broad-chested drawing. "Those vermin came down in their sky-wagon, got sick and our cousins to the west cared for them like their own. When they got well, our cousins shared the great wonders of our science with them, and tried to convert them to our way of living. But they stuck to their... no offense... wizardry, and when they left, they carried off with them four of our most beautiful women, a newly-made suit of silver temple armor, two sacred gold incense burners, and sixteen haunches of fresh-cured swamp-ox."

Nevv shook his head. "Our experience with them has been much the same."

The Inspector looked up at the sky. "We'd help you fight them, but we don't have any way to get up there."

"Don't worry," said Nevv fervently, "you just let us get back to work and we'll take care of them."

Mannin said, "We'll shake them till their teeth rattle in their skulls."

The Inspector's face suffused with pleasure. He let out a bellow, and men came running. "Help our friends back into their wagon. If they want anything, get it. If you can't get it, tell me right away."

Nevv, Mannin, and Hughes were hoisted back up through the hole in the ship. They clambered in and stared at each other in the murky interior. Hughes let out a half-hysterical laugh. "Well," he said, "what did we come down here for, anyway?"

They went to look at the fuel feed mechanism.

* * *

The upper segment of the mechanism turned out to be completely torn away, and Nevv and Mannin climbed up for another look at the reserve fuel supply case. This case squatted with safelike massiveness well out of their reach and was solidly fixed in place. With the help of their new friends, Nevv and Mannin were hoisted and swung over to it, and by stages managed to get the reserve fuel down to Hughes, who at last locked it onto the feed mechanism.

Nevv again climbed down onto the cargo net, and very carefully examined several of the crates and their contents. Comparing with the manual, he looked over their controls carefully, then called to Mannin to come down. "Look here," he said, "when they packed these things, each wrapper apparently had a thick fold over the controls. When the cover was packed in place, it threw the switch. But look here. It was the switch to Pilot Sub-Circuit A."

Mannin stared. "Then what's the main circuit like?"

"I'm afraid to try it here," said Nevv. "Wait till we lift ship."

They climbed down.

By this time, successive shouts from outside told of new arrivals, and when Nevv and Mannin looked out, they saw at a distance heavy long tables and benches, a big fire with a glowing bed of coals. Another glance showed men swinging huge mauls to drive stakes into the ground around a massive square of logs. On the square rested a platform bearing a low upright framework with a large heavy case thrust out in front, and a series of things like short thick giant spoons thrust out behind. A man stepped forward and tugged on a rope. One of the spoons snapped up and around, and slammed against a padded beam. A streak shot out, and a swirling puff of dust climbed up about a hundred and fifty yards away.

"Look straight down," said Mannin.

Nevv looked down and saw men working on a scaffolding that was rising fast at the base of the ship.

Nevv's mouth opened and shut.

Down on the ground, a man with a mallet walked over and struck a big, yellow-metal gong. People began to run toward the tables.

The Inspector walked over and looked up. "The victory feast begins," he called. "We will celebrate your coming destruction of the thieves. You must sit at the head."

Nevv glanced desperately at his watch. "Our custom," he called down, "is to celebrate after the victory."

The Inspector looked shocked. "You might be dead then." He glanced down and said something that sounded like, "Why, that's barbarous!" He looked up again and loudly called out. "You must be our guests now, otherwise we will have NO FEAST!"

A silence fell over the hurrying people, who stopped and began looking first at the feast being carved from the spit, and then up at Nevv. There was a low, swelling mutter.

Nevv glanced up and saw several men by the log frame. They were walking slowly around it, pushing on a long pole. The frame with attached spoons was swinging slowly around.

Nevv did a fast mental calculation: Two hours in subspace to get back to where they were when they'd decided to come here. A five-hour detour to get on course. Twenty-seven to twenty-eight hours more till the last breakpoint. He glanced at his watch. Well, they had time left, but what if they needed it later on?

The muttering down below had turned into a waiting stillness.

Nevv looked at the big frame. He glanced inside at the fuel feed mechanism. He looked around the interior of the ship and saw some eight to ten muscular figures swinging down from overheard struts and beams. He let his breath out sharply and said to Mannin, "Have you got any ideas?"

"Not a one. I only hope this feast doesn't last all night."

Nevv suddenly remembered the Inspector's pronouncement about the ropes that held them being cut and thrown in the fire, and the prompt action to cut off just a small length and throw it in the fire.

Nevv leaned down and called out, "Let your custom be our custom. We will come down and join you at the feast."

A scattered cheer came up. The Inspector looked relieved. The rush for the tables picked up where it had left off.

* * *

Nevv had expected to escape from the feast after a comparatively short time. The feast, however, went on and on, darkness settled down, torches were lit, and as the copious gallons of drink poured out began to affect the revelers, they showed such a capacity for involved hair-splitting discussions that Nevv began to wish he had never heard the language. To Nevv's right, for instance, sat Netsil, the famous scientist. It was Netsil who had designed the Big Arm, which had just helped Nevv to decide whether or not to stay for the feast. Just beyond Netsil sat the Inspector, and beyond him sat Mansen, an elderly man, still considered a great scientist but now thought second to the younger Netsil. Mansen, Netsil, and the Inspector grilled the Terrans on all phases of their life, and uncovered countless inconsistencies.

The Inspector, swinging a big gourd full of liquor, finally said belligerently, "You wizards, why don't you come down to earth and live like honest people?" He took a drink. "No offense." He took another drink. "But what have you got? Oh, you whiz through the air by magic, appear and disappear, materialize huge huts of no earthly substance. But what does it all mean?" He jabbed out a finger. "Do you really know what you're doing?"

Netsil took a draught from his own gourd, and leaned forward. "We would like to know some more details," he said persuasively. "We don't get to talk with sorcerers very often. You know, I have a favorite theory. I think there's a solid substructure of science somewhere under your magic, even though you may not know it."

Nevv, exasperatedly trying to see his watch, growled, "Everything we do is science. That's what we've been trying to tell you."

"How," said Netsil gently, "can that be? A scientific process, you admit, is perfectly reproducible. Now, from what you've told us, many of your processes work, or don't work, unpredictably."

"That," boomed the Inspector, "is just what I say. They don't know what they're doing. No offense." He drained his gourd, and scooped it into a big bowl at the center of the table. He fixed Nevv with one eye while the other roamed around at random. He took another sip.

Nevv glanced at the ship and tried to calculate just what would happen if they quietly got up and headed for it. He didn't think the Inspector was quite drunk enough yet.

Mansen leaned forward. "I have my own theory. And perhaps Netsil and I can both learn more if you will concentrate on one scientific device of yours."

Netsil drained his gourd, got up, refilled it, and swaying slightly, came back. He bowed to Mansen, "Exactly what I was about to suggest, Professor." The word "Professor," was in Terran. Nevv considered that one hundred and sixty years ago the people on this planet were just nomads. Now they had "professors."

Netsil took a long sip from his gourd. Mansen and the Inspector were watching attentively. Netsil said, "One scientific device—let it be a practical one."

"Well—" said Nevv, and was suddenly brought up short by the thought of what his hypnotically conditioned vocabulary was likely to do when he came to unfamiliar scientific terms. He glanced at the Inspector, who was now waving his gourd like a baton, with only an occasional glance at Nevv and his companions.

"Well?" said Netsil. "Your practical device?"

* * *

It suddenly dawned on Nevv that "practical" was in Terran, too. Nevv wondered briefly just what frustrated Terran professor had gotten marooned on the planet some time in the dim past. He collected himself, thought for a moment, and said, "All right. Let's take the case of simple device we use to power light... er... carts, boats and so on."

"Can you," said Netsil, taking a sip from the gourd, "explain it so others could make one and use it? That's an important point."

"Yes. At least, I can explain it," said Nevv belligerently. "It's a simple gasoline engine. Basically—"

Netsil and Mansen looked at each other. Netsil cleared his throat. "Gasolinen djinn," he said.

"Basically," said Nevv, feeling himself redden slightly, "it's a cylinder ... a hole ... and a piston that moves up and down inside of it. Gasoline is squirted into it. The gasoline—"

"One moment," said Netsil, putting his hand gently on Nevv's arm. "The gasolinen djinn is a hoop, and a magic wand that flies up and down inside. A potion is sprinkled over it—"

"No, no," said Nevv exasperatedly. "It's all perfectly scientific. This gasoline isn't a potion. It's a liquid—like water. There's a flash—like a little bolt of lightning. It ignites the gasoline. The gasoline catches fire. There's an explosion. That is, a big bang, like thunder. It drives the piston down. This gives the power. The strength. Then we attach it to a... say," Nevv groped for a word, "a winch. It's the winch that does the work. There—" He mopped his brow. "It's all scientific."

"AH-h," said Netsil, rolling his eyes. "Ah, yes. Scientific. Let's see now. You have a hoop—"

"It's not a hoop. It's a hole. A space. An emptiness. The wand—I mean the piston. The piston fits tightly inside of it."

"Ah, hm-m-m. You have an emptiness, then. The wand fits tightly inside the emptiness. Water is sprinkled over it. Lightning flashes. The water—water, mind you!—bursts on fire. There's a roar like thunder. The wand flies down. This gives strength to the—did I hear you correctly?—to the witch. And you say it's the witch that does the work."

Nevv shook his head and groped for words.

Mansen said, "Now, my theory, Netsil, allows for this. These people, who we call 'wizards,' were scientific once. Observe the logical reasoning from point-to-point. It's the content that seems meaningless. Even here—"

"Gibberish," snapped Netsil, "hoops, wands, witches, thunder and lightning, burning water—"

"It may all have some meaning we don't understand," said Mansen insistently. "My theory is—partly, of course—that a science and perhaps a scientific people—like everything else, has a rise and a fall. A peak is reached, then, as it were, it bears fruitful offspring; these offspring grow—"

Netsil, red in the face, glared at Nevv and snapped, "This djinn of yours, does it... he... whatever it is... always work?"

"Always? Well, no. Not right away. Sometimes it takes a while. It takes a knack—"

"Aha! A knack. Some can do it better than others?"

"Well, yes."


"I don't know. Some people seem to have a way with them."

"Will it work for the same person at some times and not at others?"

"Yes, on cold days—"

"Aha!" growled Netsil, swinging around to glare at Mansen. "When the moon Skybird is over the moon Bright-One, and the night brings frost to the valley, dance three times around the toadstool and the thing will work. Otherwise—"

Nevv felt his ears get red. He started to interrupt, then saw the Inspector stretched out on the table, snoring.

"Science," said Netsil very firmly and finally, "Always works for anybody, and it always works anytime."

Nevv kicked Mannin under the table and jerked his head toward the ship.

"Science," said Mansen, "may be in different stages. Now a bowman practically always hits a fair target, Netsil—when he's grown up. As an infant or as an old man, however—or when not at his best—or with an unfamiliar bow—"

Nevv eased carefully away from the table.

"That," roared Netsil, "is an unscientific comparison, professor. For instance, the infant isn't a bowman till he's grown up!"

Nevv and Mannin cautiously got up. Hughes swung a leg carefully over the bench.

"Where," asked Mansen, "are you going to get bowmen, if you kill the infants, Professor?"

Nevv whispered, "Walk fast, but don't run."

Sounds of violent argument dwindled behind them as they wound past festive tables toward the ship.

They clambered rapidly up inside, checked to see they had no unexpected guest, then Nevv hastily explained his plan.

The take-off, once they managed it, was uneventful. Nevv, in the spaceboat, listened as Hughes and Mannin discussed matters in the control room.

"We might," said Hughes, "be able to speed things up when we go into subspace by trying a fast spin. After all, if it threw us off course—"

"Nothing doing," growled Mannin, "we'll just have time to get things done when we said we would if nothing else goes wrong."

Finally Hughes said, "Dave?"

"Yeah," said Nevv.

"We're free of the planet. If you want to try that now, I can cut the acceleration."

"O.K." said Nevv. "Open the space doors in the hull." Very cautiously, he began to work the spaceboat controls.

Hughes, up in the pilot room, swung open the ship's big space doors, and Nevv could look down and see the stars outside.

Slowly, the spaceboat began to move.

* * *

Once Nevv had brought the spaceboat back into the ship, and they were on their way through subspace, Nevv's mind began uneasily sorting things over. He mentally went through the steps of his plan, picturing his actions carefully and vividly, till he thought he could carry them out, if necessary, with hardly any conscious attention at all. The trouble was, he thought, that some thorny little detail might sift in unseen and ruin everything. He twisted around in his seat and spoke into his microphone. "Phil—"

Mannin's voice said, "Yes, Dave?"

"Are you sure you can bring us out near that asteroid belt?"

"Near," said Mannin, "but not at. If I try to bring us out at it, we're too likely to have a collision."

"O.K." said Nevv. He sat back and wondered, first, whether the Flats would detect and blast them the instant they came out; and second, if they didn't, whether Hughes' lightning bolt maneuvering would get them into the asteroid belt without at the same time ripping the ship to pieces.

A comparatively small amount of this speculation put Nevv in a frame of mind like that of a man on trial for murder, waiting while the jury deliberates.

It took a hard effort to put his mind on the problem of finding something he could think about till the ship came out at its last breakpoint. For a while, he thought about the argument between Netsil and Mansen, and Mansen's question: "Where are you going to get bowmen if you kill the infants?" Sleepily, Nevv thought, "Where are you going to get new sciences if you deny the first unexplainable facts?" His mind went around and around on the question, and his head slumped sidewise on the padded acceleration seat of the spaceboat.

Nevv dreamed that a giant with a great bow and a sheaf of arrows was crying out in pain, and when Nevv went close, the giant was just a little baby crying.

There was a din in Nevv's ears that started to shake him awake, and it seemed that he was standing side-by-side with a giant who drew back his bow and sent shafts of pure energy out into space.

"Dave," cried Hughes' voice, "it's breakpoint! Can you hear me?"

"What?" Nevv sat up. "It can't be."

There was the soft chime of a bell over the earphones, then a wash of colors. Then a violent slam back into the acceleration chair as the ship sprang forward, swung head-for-tail, then braked hard.

* * *

Nevv's hands went to work automatically. He swung the spaceboat carefully through the stripped frame of the ship, dipped down through a large empty cell in the cargo web, came gently up again, and watched the net grow slightly larger above him. He loosened the wide belts of the acceleration chair, and put on the bulky spacesuit.

Beside him, the big space doors of the ship swung slowly open.

The spaceboat pressed gently into the net, and began to spring back.

Nevv swung his arm forward, feeling clumsy in the suit, and pushed down the evacuator stud. He heard the chug of the spaceboat's compressor sucking air out of the cabin and passing it back into the tanks. The chug grew fainter as the pressure dropped.

Nevv glanced out, saw that the boat was starting to spring away from the net. He opened the hatch, checked to see that he had the rope, which he could hardly feel, in his hand, and pushed gently away from the spaceboat. He drifted to the cargo web, caught hold, and clumsily tied the rope to the web. Then he pushed off of the web toward the spaceboat, which was drifting slowly away.

Nevv tied the rope to a ring on the side of the spaceboat, got the hatchet, and pulled back on the rope toward the web. He made his way to the side of the web away from the space doors, and chopped the big cables free of the springs. The springs on the other side contracted, pulled the net toward the space doors.

A sudden intense white light lit the inside of the ship for a moment. Nevv glanced out through the doors and saw a distant asteroid glow white. The Flats were in action.

Nevv went carefully around the inside of the ship, till he had completely freed the web at the edges. He pulled himself back to the spaceboat, rechecked a small oxy-acetylene torch, went back, and cut free the ladder that passed down through the center of the net. He got back into the spaceboat, and very gently applied the power. He glanced back to see that the net was trailing, and swung out past the big doors.

In front of him, he could make out a cluster of dark slowly turning objects about twenty to forty feet thick. There was a wide empty space, then he thought he could see other, larger, objects turning in the distance. He had the impression of being rushed along in a giant stream of widely separated bits and pieces.

To one side, there was a brilliant flash of light, then another, and another.

Nevv crawled out the spaceboat hatch and pulled back along the rope to the web. Holding the torch and trailing the hatchet on a short length of rope, he glanced around for the two crates he had used to test with. He saw the web was hopelessly tangled, switched on the suit's headlamp and one after another carefully cut loose the two nearest crates he could reach. He ripped the crates open with the hatchet, managed to get the cylindrical drive units separated from the boards and wrappings. He concentrated on a mental picture of the two units swinging base to massive base.

Before him, the two units tipped slightly, and like two magnets, turned and swung together, base to base.

A brilliant wash of light lit them, and Hughes' tense voice whispered in the earphones. "Ready?"


Nevv pictured the drive units coming closer to him, then blanked his mind as completely as he could. He reached out, the suit-light shining on the control panels, switched off Pilot Sub-Circuit A, and switched on the Main Drive Circuits. Nevv pushed off gently for the web.

"O.K." he whispered.

* * *

The units spun as one, wavered, swung together in a narrow cone, then dove down at an angle away from the ship.

Nevv pulled along the rope and began to cut loose another crate.

Mannin's voice spoke in his ears.

"Attention all ships, Killer Group One: Bombardment Division: Fire by Salvos. Light Units Two and Three: Torpedoes ready. Prepare to close."

A brilliant blaze lit the cargo net. A burst of blue-white lines starred out and streaked past to his right.

He tugged at another crate, pushed the tangle of ropes and cable away from it, and began to chop at the edge of the case.

A thing like a long, oversize oil drum shot past him, paused, sprang away, hesitated, lit by the dying glow of an asteroid, sprang up, appeared hovering near the nose of the ship, shot down and out of sight.

Nevv glanced up again from the crate. Far in the distance, a brilliant point of light flared into view. Not far away, there was another bright flash. Then another.

The drum shot into view, paused by a brightly-glowing red asteroid fragment, dropped and vanished. Where the glow had been, was a narrow red streak, stretching out and away to a tiny red dot far-off.

A series of brilliant flashes lit up in the distance.

A half-hysterical garble sounded in Nevv's earphones. Mannin's voice said steadily, "No terms whatever. We don't want your surrender. Just get out. And you'd better make your peace before the Main Fleets get back."

Nevv took a deep breath of the stifling metal-and-rubber-smelling air in the suit, gagged, and began working the tangle of ropes back around the case. He tied them clumsily, started back toward the spaceboat, then stopped. He glanced toward the ship, formed a mental picture of the crates and net moving back toward the space doors, and felt the rope to the spaceboat tighten. He glanced back, looked ahead, and piloted the boat back into the ship by means of the cargo. As he passed through the big space doors, an elongated cylinder shape moved through behind him.

Hughes' voice, shaking with strain, said, "Put them back on the pilot circuit, Dave."

Nevv pushed away, caught hold of the cylinders, and carefully set their switches.

Prometheus began to move. Nevv got the spaceboat in its cradle. He let the air back into the boat, and with a sense of great relief, got out of the suit and took a deep breath. He glanced back and saw the cargo bunch itself in the center of the aft section of the ship. He stripped open an emergency food packet and settled down. He felt the ship swing forward fast, and sank back in the cushions. He was wondering uneasily just who had commanded the Flats outside.

Hughes said, "Where to?"

"Contact White Base and tell them we have a slightly damaged ship to bring down. Tell them our hull's punctured and our fuel feed's hurt, and ask if they can take care of us."

In a moment, Hughes said "Yes."

"White Base, then," said Nevv.

* * *

White Base had the look of a fortress that has had the upper works so pounded into rubble that they serve merely as a buffer to protect the parts underneath. But the bulk of the grimy men who greeted Nevv, Hughes, and Mannin could not have seemed much happier. Each wore a grin of fierce delight and went to work on the ship's hull as if possessed of supernatural strength.

The moment the hull and the feed mechanism were repaired, Nevv glanced at Hughes. "O.K., back to the asteroid belt."

Hughes had his head in the pilot globe. "By the drive," he said, "or by the cargo?"

Nevv stared at him. "By the drive."

The ship lifted, and Nevv said to Mannin, "Who was in charge of the Flats here?"

"Somebody with four tufts on his sash, a collar full of hair, and a gold cactus on each shoulder. I was so nervous that's about all I saw of him. I hope he thought I was mad."

Hughes said, "You want me to contact the colony?"

"Stay right where you are," said Nevv. "Phil, get in touch with the colony. Send 'Have cargo for you. Shall I bring it down?' Send it in the new code."

"Right," said Mannin.

Hughes said, "Do you have something in mind for me?"

"Yes. I'm going to reactivate those two drive units. Then I want you to get them outside."

"Wait," said Hughes. "I think I can do it myself by swinging one of the others down. I didn't think of it before." After a moment, he said, "O.K. You want them outside?"

"Yes, as soon as you can get them there."

There was a faint rumble, and a trembling underfoot as the space doors opened. "O.K." said Hughes.

Mannin said, "The Colony answers, 'Keep cargo. You're doing fine.'"

"Send 'Will keep cargo.'" Nevv glanced toward Hughes. "Did you have any trouble back there?"

"Just sheer nerves, that's all. I was afraid a chance hit might get us before we got into action. Then I though I might do something wrong."

"How was the aiming?"

"Not bad. The pressure of the two units locked them together. As the detectors spotted a target I lined the drive unit up on an asteroid, chunk, or fragment along a target track, then jammed on full acceleration. The drive units stood still, balanced. The drive played on the fragment in a narrow beam, kicked it forward, accelerated it, and I guess built it up to somewhere near the speed of light before it hit. The impact must have been terrific."

"Could you work better with another set of them?"

"No thanks. One's enough."

Mannin said, "Anything more for me to do?"

"Not just yet. Keep your eyes open and tell me if any Flats show up. Hughes will be too busy."

* * *

Hughes abruptly sucked in his breath. "Very far right foreground high. One ship."

Mannin sprang across the room.

Nevv stiffened and watched the viewscreen.

"Shall I hit him?" said Hughes.

"Not yet."

The screen flared. The white-haired Flat, his many-tufted sash drawn taut across his chest, looked at Nevv with his face cool and immobile.

Nevv looked back at him.

Finally the Flat said, "If this isn't a bluff, none of it makes sense."

"If it is a bluff," said Nevv, "it's a painful one. Do we have to bluff you again?"

"Where are your ships?"

"Not my ships, Admiral."

"You seem to be the spokesman."

Suddenly Mannin said, "Near right foreground high, low, dozens of them—"

Nevv said, "Fire at will."

Hughes' tense irregular breathing was the only sound Nevv could hear in the room. Then there was a light ping sound, such as a light fragment might make bouncing off the wall of the ship. Nevv kept his eyes on the white-haired Admiral. Abruptly, the Admiral said with his face slightly twisted and the corners of his mouth drawn down, "Enough."

Mannin said, "They're gone. All but one. Very far right foreground high. That's gone. Near right foreground high."

On the screen, the Admiral flickered off, then on.

Nevv snapped, "Hold fire, all Groups."

The Flat looked at him steadily. Then he vanished from the screen.

"Gone," said Mannin.

Nevv said, "If any Flat shows up again anywhere in range, obliterate it."

Hughes said, "Why not that last one?"

"I don't know," said Nevv, feeling his shirt cling to his chest and back.

Mannin said, "Why didn't he take us?"

"Again I don't know." Nevv took a deep breath. "Send to the Colony: 'Request suggestions for disposition of cargo.'"

A few moments later Mannin read: "Return cargo your base immediately." He looked at Nevv.

"That's the message."

Nevv, Mannin, and Hughes looked at each other.

"Plot a course," said Nevv dryly.

Hughes sucked in his breath and said, "You want the ... cargo back inside?"

"Yes," said Nevv, "as soon as the course is ready."

Hughes said in a tense voice, "Do you mind if I deactivate the Main Drive Circuits now?"

"Go ahead."

* * *

The trip back was so totally uneventful that when Nevv, Mannin and Hughes stood before General Lawson, none of them could think of anything to say about it.

"We just came back," said Nevv. "We caught up on some sleep, that was all."

The general said, "You'll each be advanced one grade in rank, with full seniority as of the date of your first encounter with the enemy. You'll each be given the highest decoration that we can bestow. Other than that, what you've done must pass totally unnoticed. We're trying even now to find out some way to maintain this secret that won't be unreasonably hard for you."

"Sir," said Nevv, "this must have been a hard secret to keep."

"It has been."

"Sir, why keep it? With this, our colonists could do anything."

The general smiled faintly and looked steadily back at Nevv.

Nevv stiffened suddenly, and felt very cold.

Mannin said, "Sir—" then abruptly cut himself off.

The general looked at Hughes. "What was your reaction to it, colonel?"

"After a few minutes of it," said Hughes, "I never wanted anything more to do with it. Suppose I should make a mistake?"

The general nodded and glanced at Nevv. "If that were the universal reaction, why, of course we needn't keep it secret. But consider the possibilities. The destructive power of new developments goes up and up, but where is the defense? Suppose one careless or ill-intentioned person should get hold of this?"

Mannin said, "And yet it could mean so much—"

"That's just it," said the general. "It could and perhaps some day it will. The race evolves. You three men, for instance. You took it out; you used it as best you knew how; you brought it back sheathed and safe." He cleared his throat. "We could trust you."

He raised his hand in a brief salute, and said:

"We'll share the secret, but heaven help us.

"Some things can't be shared till you can trust everyone."

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