A Question of Courage

by Jesse F. Bone

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: I smelled the trouble the moment I stepped on the lift and took the long ride up the side of the "Lachesis." There was something wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it but

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

five years in the Navy gives a man a feeling for these things. From the outside the ship was beautiful, a gleaming shaft of duralloy, polished until she shone. Her paint and brightwork glistened. The antiradiation shields on the gun turrets and launchers were folded back exactly according to regulations. The shore uniform of the liftman was spotless and he stood at his station precisely as he should. As the lift moved slowly up past no-man’s country to the life section, I noted a work party hanging precariously from a scaffolding smoothing out meteorite pits in the gleaming hull, while on the catwalk of the gantry standing beside the main cargo hatch a steady stream of supplies disappeared into the ship’s belly.

I returned the crisp salutes of the white-gloved sideboys, saluted the colors, and shook hands with an immaculate ensign with an O.D. badge on his tunic.

“Glad to have you aboard, sir,” the ensign said.

“I’m Marsden,” I said. “Lieutenant Thomas Marsden. I have orders posting me to this ship as Executive.”

“Yes, sir. We have been expecting you. I’m Ensign Halloran.”

“Glad to meet you, Halloran.”

“Skipper’s orders, sir. You are to report to him as soon as you come aboard.”

Then I got it. Everything was SOP. The ship wasn’t taut, she was tight! And she wasn’t happy. There was none of the devil-may-care spirit that marks crews in the Scouting Force and separates them from the stodgy mass of the Line. Every face I saw on my trip to the skipper’s cabin was blank, hard-eyed, and unsmiling. There was none of the human noise that normally echoes through a ship, no laughter, no clatter of equipment, no deviations from the order and precision so dear to admirals’ hearts. This crew was G.I. right down to the last seam tab on their uniforms. Whoever the skipper was, he was either bucking for another cluster or a cold-feeling automaton to whom the Navy Code was father, mother, and Bible.


The O.D. stopped before the closed door, executed a mechanical right face, knocked the prescribed three times and opened the door smartly on the heels of the word “Come” that erupted from the inside. I stepped in followed by the O.D.

“Commander Chase,” the O.D. said. “Lieutenant Marsden.”

Chase! Not Cautious Charley Chase! I could hardly look at the man behind the command desk. But look I did--and my heart did a ninety degree dive straight to the thick soles of my space boots. No wonder this ship was sour. What else could happen with Lieutenant Commander Charles Augustus Chase in command! He was three classes up on me, but even though he was a First Classman at the time I crawled out of Beast Barracks, I knew him well. Every Midshipman in the Academy knew him--Rule-Book Charley--By-The-Numbers Chase--his nicknames were legion and not one of them was friendly. “Lieutenant Thomas Marsden reporting for duty,” I said.

He looked at the O.D. “That’ll be all, Mr. Halloran,” he said.

“Aye, sir,” Halloran said woodenly. He stepped backward, saluted, executed a precise about face and closed the hatch softly behind him.

“Sit down, Marsden,” Chase said. “Have a cigarette.”

He didn’t say, “Glad to have you aboard.” But other than that he was Navy right down to the last parenthesis. His voice was the same dry schoolmaster’s voice I remembered from the Academy. And his face was the same dry gray with the same fishy blue eyes and rat trap jaw. His hair was thinner, but other than that he hadn’t changed. Neither the war nor the responsibilities of command appeared to have left their mark upon him. He was still the same lean, undersized square-shouldered blob of nastiness.

I took the cigarette, sat down, puffed it into a glow, and looked around the drab 6 x 8 foot cubicle called the Captain’s cabin by ship designers who must have laughed as they laid out the plans. It had about the room of a good-sized coffin. A copy of the Navy Code was lying on the desk. Chase had obviously been reading his bible.

“You are three minutes late, Marsden,” Chase said. “Your orders direct you to report at 0900. Do you have any explanation?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“Don’t let it happen again. On this ship we are prompt.”

“Aye, sir,” I muttered.

He smiled, a thin quirk of thin lips. “Now let me outline your duties, Marsden. You are posted to my ship as Executive Officer. An Executive Officer is the Captain’s right hand.”

“So I have heard,” I said drily.

“Belay that, Mr. Marsden. I do not appreciate humor during duty hours.”

You wouldn’t, I thought.

“As I was saying, Marsden, Executive Officer, you will be responsible for--” He went on and on, covering the Code--chapter, book and verse on the duties of an Executive Officer. It made no difference that I had been Exec under Andy Royce, the skipper of the “Clotho,” the ship with the biggest confirmed kill in the entire Fleet Scouting Force. I was still a new Exec, and the book said I must be briefed on my duties. So “briefed” I was--for a solid hour.

Feeling angry and tired, I finally managed to get away from Rule Book Charley and find my quarters which I shared with the Engineer. I knew him casually, a glum reservist named Allyn. I had wondered why he always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. Now I knew.

He was lying in his shock-couch as I came in. “Welcome, sucker,” he greeted me. “Glad to have you aboard.”

“The feeling’s not mutual,” I snapped.

“What’s the matter? Has the Lieutenant Commander been rolling you out on the red carpet?”

“You could call it that,” I said. “I’ve just been told the duties of an Exec. Funny--no?”

He shook his head. “Not funny. I feel for you. He told me how to be an engineer six months ago.” Allyn’s thin face looked glummer than usual.

“Did I ever tell you about our skip--captain?” Allyn went on. “Or do I have to tell you? I see you’re wearing an Academy ring.”

“You can’t tell me much I haven’t already heard,” I said coldly. I don’t like wardroom gossips as a matter of policy. A few disgruntled men on a ship can shoot morale to hell, and on a ship this size the Exec is the morale officer. But I was torn between two desires. I wanted Allyn to go on, but I didn’t want to hear what Allyn had to say. I was like the proverbial hungry mule standing halfway between two haystacks of equal size and attractiveness. And like the mule I would stand there turning my head one way and the other until I starved to death.

But Allyn solved my problem for me. “You haven’t heard this,” he said bitterly. “The whole crew applied for transfer when we came back to base after our last cruise. Of course, they didn’t get it, but you get the idea. Us reservists and draftees get about the same consideration as the Admiral’s dog--No! dammit!--Less than the dog. They wouldn’t let a mangy cur ship out with Gutless Gus.”

Gutless Gus! that was a new one. I wondered how Chase had managed to acquire that sobriquet.

“It was on our last patrol,” Allyn went on, answering my question before I asked it. “We were out at maximum radius when the detectors showed a disturbance in normal space. Chase ordered us down from Cth for a quick look--and so help me, God, we broke out right in the middle of a Rebel supply convoy--big, fat, sitting ducks all around us. We got off about twenty Mark VII torpedoes before Chase passed the word to change over. We scooted back into Cth so fast we hardly knew we were gone. And then he raises hell with Detector section for not identifying every class of ship in that convoy!

“And when Bancroft, that’s the Exec whom you’ve relieved, asked for a quick check to confirm our kills, Chase sat on him like a ton of brick. ‘I’m not interested in how many poor devils we blew apart back there,’ our Captain says. ‘Our mission is to scout, to obtain information about enemy movements and get that information back to Base. We cannot transmit information from a vaporized ship, and that convoy had a naval escort. Our mission cannot be jeopardized merely to satisfy morbid curiosity. Request denied. And, Mr. Bancroft, have Communications contact Fleet. This information should be in as soon as possible.’ And then he turned away leaving Bancroft biting his fingernails. He wouldn’t even push out a probe--scooted right back into the blue where we’d be safe!

“You know, we haven’t had one confirmed kill posted on the list since we’ve been in space. It’s getting so we don’t want to come in any more. Like the time--the ‘Atropos’ came in just after we touched down. She was battered--looked like she’d been through a meat grinder, but she had ten confirmed and six probable, and four of them were escorts! Hell! Our boys couldn’t hold their heads up. The ‘Lachesis’ didn’t have a mark on her and all we had was a few possible hits. You know how it goes--someone asks where you’re from. You say the ‘Lachesis’ and they say ‘Oh, yes, the cruise ship.’ And that’s that. It’s so true you don’t even feel like resenting it.”

I didn’t like the bitter note in Allyn’s voice. He was a reservist, which made it all the worse. Reservists have ten times the outside contacts we regulars do. In general when a regular and reservist tangle, the Academy men close ranks like musk-oxen and meet the challenge with an unbroken ring of horns. But somehow I didn’t feel like ringing up.

I kept hoping there was another side to the story. I’d check around and find out as soon as I got settled. And if there was another side, I was going to take Allyn apart as a malicious trouble-maker. I felt sick to my stomach.

We spent the next three days taking on stores and munitions, and I was too busy supervising the stowage and checking manifests to bother about running down Allyn’s story. I met the other officers--Lt. Pollard the gunnery officer, Ensign Esterhazy the astrogator, and Ensign Blakiston. Nice enough guys, but all wearing that cowed, frustrated look that seemed to be a “Lachesis” trademark. Chase, meanwhile, was up in Flag Officer’s Country picking up the dope on our next mission. I hoped that Allyn was wrong but the evidence all seemed to be in his favor. Even more than the officers, the crew was a mess underneath their clean uniforms. From Communications Chief CPO Haskins to Spaceman Zelinski there was about as much spirit in them as you’d find in a punishment detail polishing brightwork in Base Headquarters. I’m a cheerful soul, and usually I find no trouble getting along with a new command, but this one was different. They were efficient enough, but one could see that their hearts weren’t in their work. Most crews preparing to go out are nervous and high tempered. There was none of that here. The men went through the motions with a mechanical indifference that was frightening. I had the feeling that they didn’t give a damn whether they went or not--or came back or not. The indifference was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Yet there was nothing you could put your hand on. You can’t touch people who don’t care.

Four hours after Chase came back, we lifted gravs from Earth. Chase was sitting in the control chair, and to give him credit, we lifted as smooth as a silk scarf slipping through the fingers of a pretty woman. We hypered at eight miles and swept up through the monochromes of Cth until we hit middle blue, when Chase slipped off the helmet, unfastened his webbing, and stood up.

“Take over, Mr. Marsden,” he said. “Lay a course for Parth.”

“Aye, sir,” I replied, slipping into the chair and fastening the web. I slipped the helmet on my head and instantly I was a part of the ship. It’s a strange feeling, this synthesis of man and metal that makes a fighting ship the metallic extension of the Commander’s will. I was conscious of every man on duty. What they saw I saw, what they heard I heard, through the magic of modern electronics. The only thing missing was that I couldn’t feel what they felt, which perhaps was a mercy considering the condition of the crew. Using the sensor circuits in the command helmet, I let my perception roam through the ship, checking the engines, the gun crews, the navigation board, the galley--all the manifold stations of a fighting ship. Everything was secure, the ship was clean and trimmed, the generators were producing their megawatts of power without a hitch, and the converters were humming contentedly, keeping us in the blue as our speed built to fantastic levels.

I checked the course, noted it was true, set the controls on standby and relaxed, half dozing in the chair as Lume after Lume dropped astern with monotonous regularity.

An hour passed and Halloran came up to relieve me. With a sigh of relief I surrendered the chair and headset. The unconscious strain of being in rapport with ship and crew didn’t hit me until I was out of the chair. But when it did, I felt like something was crushing me flat. Not that I didn’t expect it, but the “Lachesis” was worse than the “Clotho” had ever been.

I had barely hit my couch when General Quarters sounded. I smothered a curse as I pounded up the companionway to my station at the bridge. Chase was there, stopwatch in hand, counting the seconds.

“Set!” Halloran barked.

“Fourteen seconds,” Chase said. “Not bad. Tell the crew well done.” He put the watch in his pocket and walked away.

I picked up the annunciator mike and pushed the button. “Skipper says well done,” I said.

“He got ten seconds out of us once last trip,” Halloran said. “And he’s been trying to repeat that fluke ever since. Bet you a munit to an ‘F’ ration that he’ll be down with the section chief trying to shave off another second or two. Hey!--what’s that--oh...” He looked at me. “Disturbance in Cth yellow, straight down--shall we go?”

“Stop ship,” I ordered. “Sound general quarters.” There was no deceleration. We merely swapped ends as the alarm sounded, applied full power and stopped. That was the advantage of Cth--no inertia. We backtracked for three seconds and held in middle blue.

“What’s going on?” Chase demanded as he came up from below. His eyes raked the instruments. “Why are we stopped?”

“Disturbance in Cth yellow, sir,” I said. “We’re positioned above it.”

“Very good, Mr. Marsden.” He took the spare helmet from the Exec’s chair, clapped it on, fiddled with the controls for a moment, nodded, and took the helmet off. “Secure and resume course,” he said. “That’s the ‘Amphitrite’--fleet supply and maintenance. One of our people.”

“You sure, sir?” I asked, and then looked at the smug grin on Halloran’s face and wished I hadn’t asked.

“Of course,” Chase said. “She’s a three converter job running at full output. Since the Rebels have no three converter ships, she has to be one of ours. And since she’s running at full output and only in Cth yellow, it means she’s big, heavy, and awkward--which means a maintenance or an ammunition supply ship. There’s an off phase beat in her number two converter that gives a twenty cycle pulse to her pattern. And the only heavy ship in the fleet with this pattern is ‘Amphitrite.’ You see?”

I saw--with respect. “You know all the heavies like that, sir?” I asked.

“Not all of them--but I’d like to. It’s as much a part of a scoutship commander’s work to know our own ships as those of the enemy.”

“Could that trace be a Rebel ruse?”

“Not likely--travelling in the yellow. A ship would be cold meat this far inside our perimeter. And besides, there’s no Rebel alive who can tune a converter like a Navy mechanic.”

“You sure?” I persisted.

“I’m sure. But take her down if you wish.”

I did. And it was the “Amphitrite.”

“I served on her for six months,” Chase said drily as we went back through the components. I understood his certainty now. A man has a feeling for ships if he’s a good officer. But it was a trait I’d never expected in Chase. I gave the orders and we resumed our band and speed. Chase looked at me.

“You acted correctly, Mr. Marsden,” he said. “Something I would hardly expect, but something I was glad to see.”

“I served under Andy Royce,” I reminded him.

“I know,” Chase replied. “That’s why I’m surprised.” He turned away before I could think of an answer that would combine insolence and respect for his rank. “Keep her on course, Mr. Halloran,” he tossed over his shoulder as he went out.

We kept on course--high and hard despite a couple of disturbances that lumbered by underneath us. Once I made a motion to stop ship and check, but Halloran shook his head.

“Don’t do it, sir,” he warned.

“Why not?”

“You heard the Captain’s orders. He’s a heller for having them obeyed. Besides, they might be Rebs--and we might get hurt shooting at them. We’ll just report their position and approximate course--and keep on travelling. Haskins is on the Dirac right now.” Halloran’s voice was sarcastic.

I didn’t like the sound of it, and said so.

“Well, sir--we won’t lose them entirely,” Halloran said comfortingly. “Some cruiser will investigate them. Chances are they’re ours anyway--and if they aren’t there’s no sense in us risking our nice shiny skin stopping them--even though we could take them like Lundy took Koromaja. Since the book doesn’t say we have to investigate, we won’t.” His voice was bitter again.

At 0840 hours on the fourth day out, my annunciator buzzed. “Sir,” the talker’s voice came over the intercom, “Lieutenants Marsden and Allyn are wanted in the Captain’s quarters.”

Chase was there--toying with the seals of a thin, brown envelope. “I have to open this in the presence of at least two officers,” he said nodding at Allyn who came in behind me. “You two are senior on the ship and have the first right to know.” He slid a finger through the flap.

“Effective 12, Eightmonth, GY2964,” he read, “USN ‘Lachesis’ will proceed on offensive mission against enemy vessels as part of advance covering screen Fleet Four for major effort against enemy via sectors YD 274, YD 275, and YD 276. Entire Scouting Force IV quadrant will be grouped as Fleet Four Screen Unit under command Rear Admiral SIMMS. Initial station ‘Lachesis’ coordinates X 06042 Y 1327 Betelgeuse-Rigel baseline. ETA Rendezvous point 0830 plus or minus 30, 13/8/64.

“A. Evars, Fleet Admiral USN Commanding.”

There it was! I could see Allyn stiffen as a peculiar sick look crossed Chase’s dry face. And suddenly I heard all the ugly little nicknames--Subspace Chase, Gutless Gus, Cautious Charley--and the dozen others. For Chase was afraid. It was so obvious that not even the gray mask of his face could cover it.

Yet his voice when he spoke was the same dry, pedantic voice of old. “You have the rendezvous point, Mr. Marsden. Have Mr. Esterhazy set the course and speed to arrive on time.” He dismissed us with the traditional “That’s all, gentlemen,” and we went out separate ways. I didn’t want to look at the triumphant smile on Allyn’s face.

We hit rendezvous at 0850, picked up a message from the Admiral at 0853, and at 0855 were on our way. We were part of a broad hemispherical screen surrounding the Cruiser Force which englobed the Line and supply train--the heavies that are the backbone of any fleet. We were headed roughly in the direction of the Rebel’s fourth sector, the one top-heavy with metals industries. Our exact course was known only to the brass and the computers that planned our interlock. But where we were headed wasn’t important. The “Lachesis” was finally going to war! I could feel the change in the crew, the nervousness, the anticipation, the adrenal responses of fear and excitement. After a year in the doldrums, Fleet was going to try to smash the Rebels again. We hadn’t done so well last time, getting ambushed in the Fifty Suns group and damn near losing our shirts before we managed to get out. The Rebs weren’t as good as we were, but they were trickier, and they could fight. After all, why shouldn’t they be able to? They were human, just as we were, and any one of a dozen extinct intelligent races could testify to our fighting ability, as could others not-quite-extinct. Man ruled this section of the galaxy, and someday if he didn’t kill himself off in the process he’d rule all of it. He wasn’t the smartest race but he was the hungriest, the fiercest, the most adaptable, and the most unrelenting. Qualities which, by the way, were exactly the ones needed to conquer a hostile universe.

But mankind was slow to learn the greatest lesson, that they had to cooperate if they were to go further. We were already living on borrowed time. Before the War, ten of eleven exploration ships sent into the galactic center had disappeared without a trace. Somewhere, buried deep in the billions of stars that formed the galactic hub, was a race that was as tough and tricky as we were--maybe even tougher. This was common knowledge, for the eleventh ship had returned with the news of the aliens, a story of hairbreadth escape from destruction, and a pattern of their culture which was enough like ours to frighten any thinking man. The worlds near the center of humanity’s sphere realized the situation at once and quickly traded their independence for a Federal Union to pool their strength against the threat that might come any day.

But as the Union Space Navy began to take shape on the dockyards of Earth and a hundred other worlds, the independent worlds of the periphery began to eye the Union with suspicion. They had never believed the exploration report and didn’t want to unite with the worlds of the center. They thought that the Union was a trick to deprive them of their fiercely cherished independence, and when the Union sent embassies to invite them into the common effort, they rejected them. And when we suggested that in the interests of racial safety they abandon their haphazard colonization efforts that resulted in an uncontrolled series of jumps into the dark, punctuated by minor wars and clashes when colonists from separate origins landed, more or less simultaneously, on a promising planet, they were certain we were up to no good.

Although we explained and showed them copies of the exploration ship’s report, they were not convinced. Demagogues among them screamed about manifest destiny, independence, interference in internal affairs, and a thousand other things that made the diplomatic climate between Center and Periphery unbearably hot. And their colonists kept moving outward.

Of course the Union was not about to cooperate in this potential race suicide. We simply couldn’t allow them to give that other race knowledge of our whereabouts until we were ready for them. So we informed each of the outer worlds that we would consider any further efforts at colonizing an unfriendly act, and would take steps to discourage it.

That did it.

We halted a few colonizing ships and sent them home under guard. We uprooted a few advance groups and returned them to their homeworlds. We established a series of observation posts to check further expansion--and six months later we were at war.

The outer worlds formed what they called a defensive league and with characteristic human rationality promptly attacked us. Naturally, they didn’t get far. We had a bigger and better fleet and we were organized while they were not. And so they were utterly defeated at the Battle of Ophiuchus.

It was then that we had two choices. We could either move in and take over their defenseless worlds, or we could let them rebuild and get strong, and with their strength acquire a knowledge of cooperation--and take the chance that they would ultimately beat us. Knowing this, we wisely chose the second course and set about teaching our fellow men a lesson that was now fifteen years along and not ended yet.

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