by C.C. MacApp

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: To disobey the orders of the Council of Four was unthinkable to a Space Admiral of the old school. But the trouble was, the school system had changed. A man, a fighter, an Admiral had to think for himself now, if his people were to live.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

While facing the Council of Four his restraint had not slipped; but afterward, shaking with fury, the Admiral of the Fleets of Sennech slammed halfway down the long flight of stone steps before he realized someone was at his elbow. He slowed. “Forgive me, Jezef. They made me so mad I forgot you were waiting.”

Jezef (adjutant through most of Tulan’s career, and for some years brother-in-law as well) was shorter and less harshly carved than his superior. “So they wouldn’t listen to you. Not even Grefen?”

“Even Grefen.” That vote had stabbed deepest of all.

Jezef took it with the detachment that still irritated Tulan. “The end of a hundred years of dreams; and we go back under the yoke. Well, they’ve always been soft masters.”

They reached the ground cars. Before getting into his own Tulan said coldly, “Since you’re so philosophical about it, you’ll be a good one to bear the sight of men saying good-bye to their families. We’re to take full crews to Coar and surrender them with the ships. Requisition what help you need and get everybody aboard by noon tomorrow.”

Jezef saluted with a hint of amused irony, and left.

Whipping through the dark icy streets, Tulan smiled sourly, thinking how Sennech’s scientists had reversed themselves on the theory of hyperspace now that Coar had demonstrated its existence. Maybe the Council was right in mistrusting their current notions. As for himself, he saw only two things to consider: that with Coar swinging behind the sun, the accuracy of her new weapon had gone to pot; and that before she was clear again he could pound her into surrender.

His swift campaigns had already smashed her flabby fleets and driven the remnants from space, but the Council, faced with the destruction and casualties from just a few days of the weird surprise bombardment, was cowed.

He’d spent the previous night at home, but wasn’t going back now, having decided to make his farewell by visiphone. It was the thing he dreaded most, or most immediately, so as soon as he reached the flagship he went to his quarters to get it over with.

Anatu’s eyes--the same eyes as Jezef’s--looked at him out of the screen, filling him with the familiar awkward worship. “You’ve heard?” he asked finally.

“Yes. You won’t be home before you go?”

“No; I...” He abandoned the lie he’d prepared. “I just didn’t feel up to it.”

She accepted that. “I’ll wake the boys.”

“No! It’s--” Something happened to his throat.

She watched him for a moment. “You won’t be back from Coar. You’ve got to speak to them.”

He nodded. This wasn’t going according to plan; he’d intended it to be brief and controlled. Damn it, he told himself, I’m Admiral of the Fleets; I’ve no right to feelings like this. He straightened, and knew he looked right when the two sleepy stares occupied the screen.

Their hair was stiff and stubborn like his own, so that they wore it cropped in the same military cut. It could have stood a brush right now. They were quiet, knowing enough of what was wrong to be frightened.

He spoke carefully. “I’m going to Coar to talk to them about stopping the war. I want you to look after things while I’m away. All right?”

“All right, Dad.” The older one was putting on a brave front for the benefit of the younger and his mother, but the tears showed.

As Tulan cut the connection he saw that Anatu’s eyes were moist too, and realized with surprise that he’d never before, in all the years, seen her cry. He watched the last faint images fade from the screen.

Sometime near dawn he gave up trying to sleep, dressed, and began composing orders. Presently Jezef came in with cups of steaming amber liquid. They sipped in silence for a while, then Jezef asked “You’ve heard about Grefen?”

Tulan felt something knot inside him. He shook his head, dreading what he knew was coming.

“He killed himself last night,” Jezef said.

Tulan remembered the agony in the old Minister of War’s eyes when he’d voted for surrender. Grefen had been Admiral in his day; the prototype of integrity and a swift sledgehammer in a fight; and Tulan’s first combat had been under him. A symbol of the Fleet, Tulan reflected; and his death, yes, that too was a symbol--what was there but shame in surrender, for a man or a fleet or a world?

His hand clenched, crumpling the paper it was resting on. He smoothed the paper and re-read the order he’d been writing. He visualized the proud ranks of his crewmen, reduced to ragged lines shuffling toward prison or execution.

It seemed impossible, against the laws of nature, that men should strive mightily and win, then be awarded the loser’s prize. His anger began to return. “I’ve a mind to defy the Government and only take skeleton crews,” he said. “Leave the married men, at least.”

Jezef shrugged. “They’d only be bundled into transports and sent after us.”

“Yes. Damn it, I won’t be a party to it! All they did was carry out their orders, and superbly, at that!”

Jezef watched him with something like curiosity. “You’d disobey the Council? You?”

Tulan felt himself flush. “I’ve told you before, discipline’s a necessity to me, not a religion!” Nevertheless, Jezef’s question wasn’t unfair; up to now it really hadn’t occurred to him that he might disobey.

His inward struggle was brief. He grabbed the whole pad of orders and ripped them across. “What’s the Council, with Grefen gone, but three trembling old men? Get some guns manned, in case they get suspicious and try to interfere.”

Blood began to surge faster in his veins; he felt a vast relief. How could he have ever seen it differently? He jabbed at a button. “All ships’ Duty Officers; scramble communication circuits. This is the Admiral. Top Secret Orders...”

Shortly before noon the four-hundred-odd ships lifted out of Sennech’s frosty atmosphere, still ignoring the furious demands from the radio. Fully armed, they couldn’t be stopped.

Tulan’s viewer gave a vivid picture of the receding fifth planet. The white mantle of ice and snow was a backdrop for blue artificial lakes and the dark green of forest-strips (hardy conifers from Teyr) alternated with the lighter shades of surface farms. The ice had been almost unbroken until men came, bringing more heat than Sennech had ever received from a far-off sun.

That had been before the First Solar War, when Teyr (the race of Aum had originated there) ruled. That awful struggle had bludgeoned the home planet back to savagery, and left Coar and Sennech little better off.

With recovery, Coar had taken over and prospered immensely. Teyr stayed wild except for small colonies planted there by the other two planets, and Sennech lagged for a while.

Within Tulan’s lifetime his world had found itself ready to rise against the lax but profit-taking rule of Coar, and that rebellion had grown into the present situation.

Sennech’s wounds were plainly visible in the viewscreen; great man-made craters spewing incandescent destruction blindly over farm, city, or virgin ice. The planet was in three-quarters phase from here, and Tulan could see the flecks of fire in the darkness beyond the twilight zone. Near the edge of that darkness he made out the dimmer, diffused glow of Capitol City, where Anatu would be giving two small boys their supper.

He checked altitude, found they were free of the atmosphere, and ordered an acceleration that would take them halfway to the sun in fifty hours. It was uncomfortable now, with Sennech’s gravity added, but that would fall off fast.

Jezef hauled himself in and dropped to a pad. “I wish I had your build,” he said. “Do you really think we can pull this off?”

Tulan, in a good mood, grinned at him. “Have I ever led you into defeat yet, pessimist?”

“No; and more than once I’d have bet ten to one against us. That’s why the Fleet fights so well for you; we have the feeling we’re following a half-god. Gods, however, achieve defeats as terrible as their victories.”

Tulan laughed and sat down beside Jezef with some charts. “I think I’ll appoint you Fleet Poet. Here’s the plan. No one knows what I intend; we could be on our way around the sun to overtake Coar and either fight or surrender, or we might be diving into the sun in a mass suicide. That’s why I broke off the siege and pulled all units away from Coar; the fact that they’re coming back around to meet us will suggest something like that.”

“Are they going to join up?”

“No; I want them on this side of the sun but behind us. I have a use for them later that depends on their staying hidden. Incidentally, I’m designating them Group Three.

“In a few hours we’re going to turn hard, this side of the sun, and intercept Teyr. I want to evacuate our forces from the moon, then decoy whatever the enemy has there into space where we can get at them. That’s their last fleet capable of a sortie, and with that gone we can combine our whole strength and go around to Coar. She’ll probably give up immediately, on the spot.”

Jezef thought it over. “Will they be foolish enough to leave the moon? As long as they’re safely grounded there, they constitute a fleet-in-being and demand attention.”

“We’ll give them a reason to move, then ambush them. Right now we’ve a lot of reorganizing to do, and I want you to get it started. We’re splitting this Force into Groups One and Two. Here’s what I want.”

They cut drives and drifted in free fall while supplies were transferred between ships, then Tulan held an inspection and found crews and equipment proudly shipshape. Despite the proliferating rumors, morale was excellent.

A few hours later the realignment began. Space was full of the disc-shapes; thin, delicate-looking Lights with their projecting external gear, and thicker, smoothly armored Mediums and Heavies. He had twenty-three of the latter in Group One, with twice as many Mediums and a swarm of smaller craft.

Group Two, composed of the supply ships and a small escort, was already formed and diverging away. That was a vital part of his plan. From a distance they’d look to telescope or radar like a full combat fleet.

He was almost ready to swerve toward the third planet and its moon, but first he had a speech to make. It was time to squash all the rumors and doubts with a dramatic fighting announcement.

He checked his appearance, stepped before the scanner, and nodded to Communications to turn it on. “All hands,” he said, then waited for attention.

The small monitor screens showed a motley sampling of intent faces. He permitted himself a tight smile. “You know I have orders to surrender the Fleet.” He paused for effect. “Those are the orders of the Council of Four, and to disobey the Council would be unthinkable.

“Yet it is also unthinkable that a single ship of the Fleet should surrender under any circumstances, at any time; therefore I am faced with a dilemma in which tradition must be broken.

“The Council of Four has lost courage, and so, perhaps, have many of the people of Sennech. We have ways of knowing that the people of Coar, far more than our own, clamor at their government for any sort of peace.

“Coar’s fleets are smashed and the remnants have fled from space.

“Clearly, courage has all but vanished from the Solar System; yet there is one place where courage has not wavered. That place is in the Fleet of Sennech.

“At this moment we are the only strength left in the Solar System. We dominate the System!

“Would we have history record that the Fleet won its fight gloriously, then cravenly shrank back from the very brink of victory?

“We left Sennech fully armed, though our orders were directly opposite. I need not tell you that I have made the decision any man of the Fleet would make.

“This is our final campaign. Within a short time we shall orbit Coar herself and force her surrender. That is all.”

There was a moment so quiet that the hum of the circuits grew loud, then the monitors shook with a mighty cheer.

Later, alone, Jezef congratulated him amusedly. “They are certainly with you a hundred percent now, if there was any doubt before. Yet there was one argument you didn’t even hint at; the strongest argument of all.”

“What was that?”

“Why, you’re offering them a chance at life and freedom, where they might be going to imprisonment or execution.”

That irritated Tulan. “I’m sure you’re not so cynical about Fleet loyalty and tradition as you pretend,” he said stiffly. “I wouldn’t affront the men by using that kind of an argument.”

Jezef grinned more widely. “Did it even occur to you to use it?”

Tulan flushed. “No,” he admitted.

Teyr and her moon Luhin, both in quarter-phase from here, moved steadily apart in the viewers.

Group One’s screen of light craft probed ahead, jamming enemy radar, and discovering occasional roboscouts which were promptly vaporized. Far behind, Group Two showed as a small luminescence. It would never be visible to Luhin as anything else, and then only when Tulan was ready.

They reversed drives, matched speeds neatly, and went into forced orbit around Luhin. On the flagship’s first pass over the beleaguered oval of ground held by Sennech’s forces--unsupported and unreinforced since the home planet’s defection--Tulan sent a message squirting down. “Tulan commanding. Is Admiral Galu commanding there? Report situation.”

The next time around a long reply came up to them. “This is Captain Rhu commanding. Galu killed. Twenty percent personnel losses. Six Lights destroyed; moderate damage to several Mediums and one Heavy. Ground lines under heavy pressure. Ships’ crews involved in fighting at perimeter. Food critical, other supplies low. Several thousand wounded. Combat data follows.” There was a good assessment of the struggle, with some enemy positions that were known.

The Fleet Force that had escorted nearly one hundred thousand ground troops included five Heavies and other craft in proportion, besides the transports and supply ships. Alone, they’d been pinned down by superior enemy ground forces and by a sizable fleet holed up all around the satellite. With Tulan’s support they could be taken off.

Tulan composed orders. “Withdraw ships’ crews from lines and prepare to lift. Get wounded aboard transports and prepare to evacuate troops. Set up fire control network to direct our ground support.”

The tedious job of shrinking the perimeter, a short stretch at a time, began, harassed by the quickly adapting enemy.

During the first twenty hours the hostile fire was all from ground projectors, the enemy ships not risking detection by joining in. By that time one section of the front had pulled back to where several ships, sheltered in a crater, would have to lift.

Lines of men and equipment converged on the ships and jammed aboard. The actual lift was preceded by a diversion a few miles away, which succeeded in pulling considerable enemy fire. The ships got off in unison, slanting back across friendly territory and drawing only light missiles which the defenses handled easily.

Then, suddenly, a salvo of heavy stuff came crashing in, too unexpected and too well planned to stop. One of the lifting ships, a transport, vanished in a great flash.

Tulan yelled into his communicator. “Plot! Where did that come from?”

“I’m sorting, sir. Here! A roboscout got a straight five-second plot before they downed it!”

“Intelligence!” Tulan snapped. “Get the co-ordinates and bring me photos!”

There were already pictures of the area where the salvo must have originated, and one of them showed a cave-like opening in a crater wall. “That’s it!” Tulan jabbed a pencil at it. “You could hide a dozen ships in there. Let’s get a strike organized!”

The strike group included four Heavies besides the flagship, with twelve Mediums and twenty Lights. They slanted down in a jerky evasive course while pictures flashed on screens to be compared with the actual terrain.

Ground fire, chemically propelled missiles, erupted ahead of them and the small craft went to work intercepting it. They were down to a hundred miles, then fifty, streaking along the jagged surface so close they seemed to scrape it. This was point-blank range; as the computers raced with the chaos of fire and counter-fire, human senses could only register a few impressions--the bruising jerks, the shudder of concussions, white streaks of rocket-trails, gushers of dirt from the surface, winking flashes of mid-air interception.

Then the Heavies were on target. The flagship jumped as the massive salvo leaped away--not chemical missiles, but huge space torpedoes propelled by Pulsor units like the ships’ drives, directing their own flocks of smaller defensive missiles by an intricate network of controls. The small stuff, augmented by fire from the lighter ships, formed momentarily a visible tube down which the big stuff streaked untouched.

The whole crater seemed to burst upward, reaching out angry fingers of shattered rock as they ripped by, rocking and bucking with the blasts. Tulan’s viewer swivelled aft to hold the scene. Secondary blasts went off like strings of giant firecrackers. Great black-and-orange fungi-like clouds swirled upward, dissipating fast in the thin atmosphere. Then Tulan spotted what he was looking for: three small ships flashing over the area, to get damage-assessment pictures. There was still a lot of ground-fire from farther out, and it caught one of the three, which wobbled crazily then disappeared in a flash which blanked out the viewscreen.

“Intelligence!” Tulan shouted. “Casualties?”

Intelligence was listening to his earphones and punching buttons. “Two Lights lost, sir. Slight damage to seven more and to one Medium.”

“All right. Get a telecopy of those pictures as soon as you can; we certainly hit something. Maybe a Heavy or two.” He relaxed, aching, and reflected that he was getting a little mature for actual combat.

The pull-back went on, drawing only the local ground-fire now that the enemy had been taught his lesson. Groups of ships lifted almost constantly. The final position was an oval forty by sixty miles, held almost entirely from the sky. The last evacuees straggled in like weary ants, and when the radio reported no more of them the last fifty ships lifted together and ran the gauntlet with slight losses.

Tulan pulled the Force away for rest and repair. Group Two was idling at extreme radar range, making a convincing blip, and he designed some false messages to be beamed toward it with the expectation of interception. The impression he wanted to give was that Group Two was the Force that had been bombarding Coar, coming in now to join him. Actually, the latter fleet was farther away, hidden in the sun and, he hoped, unsuspected.

Things were going according to plan except for one puzzling item: there was no message from Sennech’s small garrison on Teyr. All he could get from the planet was a steady radar scan, which might mean that Sennech’s colony had been conquered by Coar’s.

He’d been hoping to get certain supplies from Teyr, and now he took a strong detachment in close to the planet to find out what was wrong. The threat finally raised an answer. “This is the Chief of Council. What is it that you want?”

“Chief of Council? What are you talking about? I want the Garrison Commander.”

“I suppose you’re Admiral Tulan. There’s been a change here, Tulan; Teyr is now an independent planet. Your garrison, with Coar’s, comprise our defense forces.”

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