From above came the sound of men singing. Captain Duke O’Neill stopped clipping his heavy black beard to listen. It had been a long time since he’d heard such a sound--longer than the time since he’d last had a bath or seen a woman. It had never been the singing type of war. Yet now even the high tenor of old Teroini, who lay on a pad with neither legs nor arms, was mixed into the chorus. It could mean only one thing!
As if to confirm his thoughts, Burke Thompson hobbled past the cabin, stopping just long enough to shout. “Duke, we’re home! They’ve sighted Meloa!”
“Thanks,” Duke called after him, but the man was hobbling out of sight, eager to carry the good news to others.
Fourteen years, Duke thought as he dragged out his hoarded bottle of water and began shaving. Five since he’d seen Ronda on his last leave. Now the battered old wreck that was left of the flagship was less than an hour from home base, and the two other survivors of the original fleet of eight hundred were limping along behind. Three out of eight hundred--but they’d won! Meloa had her victory.
And far away, Earth could rest in unearned safety for a while.
Duke grimaced bitterly. It was no time to think of Earth now. He shucked off his patched and filthy clothes and reached for the dress grays he had laid out in advance; at least they were still in good condition, almost unused. He dressed slowly, savoring the luxury of clean clothes. The buttons gave him trouble; his left hand looked and behaved almost like a real one, but in the three years since he got it, there had been no chance to handle buttons.
Then he mastered the trick and stepped back to study the final results. He didn’t look bad. Maybe a little gaunt and in need of a good haircut. But his face hadn’t aged as much as he had thought. The worst part was the pasty white where his beard had covered his face, but a few days under Meloa’s sun would fix that. Maybe he could spend a month with Ronda at a beach. He still had most of his share of his salary--nearly a quarter million Meloan credits; even if the rumors of inflation were true, that should be enough.
He stared at his few possessions, then shrugged and left them. He headed up the officers’ lift toward the control room, where he could see Meloa swim into view and later see the homeport of Kordule as they landed.
The pilot and navigator were replacements, sent out to bring the old ship home, and their faces showed none of the jubilation of the crew. They nodded at him as he entered, staring toward the screens without expression. Aside from the blueness of their skins and the complete absence of hair, they looked almost human, and Duke had long since stopped thinking of them as anything else.
“How long?” he asked.
The pilot shrugged. “Half an hour, captain. We’re too low on fuel to wait for clearance, even if control is working. Don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of time to catch the next ship to Earth.”
“Earth?” Duke glowered at him, suspecting a joke, but there was no humor on the blue face. “I’m not going back!” Then he frowned. “What’s an Earth ship doing on Meloa?”
The navigator exchanged a surprised look with the pilot, and nodded as if some signal had passed between them. His voice was as devoid of expression as his face. “Earth resumed communication with us the day the truce was signed,” he answered. He paused, studying Duke. “They’re giving free passage back to Earth to all terran veterans, captain.”
Nice of them, Duke thought. They were willing to let the men who’d survived come back, just as they hadn’t forbidden anyone to go. Very nice! They could keep their world--and all the other coward planets like them! When the humanoid world of Meloa had been attacked by the insectile monsters from Throm, Earth could have ended the invasion in a year, as those with eyes to see had urged her. But she hadn’t chosen to do so. Instead, she had stepped back on her high retreat of neutrality, and let the Throm aliens do as they liked. It wasn’t the first time she’d acted like that, either.
With more than half of the inhabited planets occupied by various monsters, it seemed obvious that the humanoid planets had to make a common stand. If Meloa fell, it would be an alien stepping stone that could lead back eventually to Earth itself. And once the monsters realized that Earth was unwilling to fight, her vast resources would no longer scare them--she’d be only a rich plum, ripe for the plucking.
When Duke had been one of the first to volunteer for Meloa, he had never realized his home world could refuse to join the battle. He’d believed in Earth and humanity then. He’d waited through all the grim days when it seemed Throm must win--when the absence of replacements proved the communiques from Meloa to be nothing but hopeful lies. But there had been no help. Earth’s neutrality remained unshaken.
And now, after fourteen years in battle hell, helping to fight off a three-planet system of monsters that might have swarmed against all the humanoid races, Earth was willing to forgive him and take him back to the shame of his birthright!
“I’m staying,” he said flatly. “Unless you Meloans want to kick me out now?”
The pilot swung around, dropping a quick hand on his shoulder. “Captain,” he said, “that isn’t something to joke about. We won’t forget that there would be no Meloa today without men like you. But we can’t ask you to stay. Things have changed--insanely. The news we sent to the fleet was pure propaganda!”
“We guessed that,” Duke told him. “We knew the Throm ships. And when the dispatches reported all those raids without any getting through, we stopped reading them. How many did penetrate, anyhow?”
“Thirty-one full raids,” the navigator said woodenly. “Thirty-one in the last four months!”
“Thirty-one! What happened to the home fleet?”
“We broke it up and sent it out for your replacements,” the pilot answered dully. “It was the only chance we had to win.”
Duke swallowed the idea slowly. He couldn’t picture a planet giving up its last protection for a desperate effort to end the war on purely offensive drive. Three billion people watching the home fleet take off, knowing the skies were open for all the hell that a savage enemy could send! On Earth, the World Senate hadn’t permitted the building of one battleship, for fear of reprisal.
He swung to face the ports, avoiding the expression on the faces of the two Meloans. He’d felt something of the same on his own face when he’d first inspected Throm. But it couldn’t be that bad on Meloa; she’d won her hard-earned victory!
They were entering the atmosphere now, staggering down on misfiring jets. The whole planet seemed to be covered with a gray-yellow haze that spoke of countless tons of blast dust in the air. From below, Duke heard the men beginning to move toward the big entrance lock, unable to wait for the landing. But they were no longer his responsibility. He’d given up his command before embarking.
The ship came down, threatening to tilt every second, and the pilot was sweating and swearing. The haze began to clear as they neared the ground, but the ports were too high for Duke to see anything but the underside of the thick clouds. He stood up and headed for the lift, bracing himself as the ship pitched.
Suddenly there was a sickening jar and the blast cut off. The ship groaned and seemed to twist, then was still. It was the worst landing Duke had known, but they were obviously down. A second later he heard the port screech open and the thump of the landing ramp.
The singing of the men had picked up into a rough marching beat. Now abruptly it wavered. For a moment, a few voices continued, and then died away, like a record running down. There was a mutter of voices, followed by shouts that must have been the relief officers, taking over. Duke was nearly to the port before he heard the slow, doubtful sound of steps moving down the ramp. By the time he reached it, the last of the men was just leaving. He stopped, staring at the great port city of Kordule.
Most of the port was gone. Where the hangars and repair docks had been, a crater bored into the earth, still smoking faintly. A lone girder projected above it, to mark the former great control building, and a Meloan skeleton was transfixed on it near the top. It shattered to pieces as he looked and began dropping, probably from the delayed tremor of their landing.
Even the section their ship stood on was part of the crater, he saw, with an Earth bulldozer working on it. There was room for no more than ten ships now. Two of the berths were occupied by fat Earth ships, sleek and well kept. Three others held the pitted, warped hulks of Meloan battleships. There were no native freighters, and no sign of tending equipment or hangars.
The pilot had come up behind him, following his gaze. Now the man nodded. “That’s it, captain. Most cities are worse. Kordule escaped the blasts until our rocket cannon failed. Got any script on you?” At Duke’s nod, he pointed. “Better exchange it at the booth, before the rate gets worse. Take Earth dollars. Our silver’s no good.”
He held out a hand, and Duke shook it. “Good luck, captain,” he said, and swung back into the ship.
Mercifully, most of Kordule was blanketed by the dust fog. There was the beginning of a series of monstrous craters where men had begun rebuilding underground, the ruined landing field, and a section of what had been the great business district. Now it was only a field of rubble, with bits of windowless walls leading up to a crazy tangle of twisted girders. Only memory could locate where the major streets had been. Over everything lay the green wash of incandite, and the wind carried the smell of a charnel house. There was no sign of the apartment where he and Ronda had lived.
He started down the ramp at last, seeing for the first time the motley crew that had come out to meet the heroes of the battle of Throm. They had spotted him already, however, and some were deserting the men at the sight of his officer’s uniform. Their cries mingled into an insane, whining babble in his ears.
“ ... Just a scrap for an old man, general ... three children at home starving ... fought under Jones, captain ... cigarette?”
It was a sea of clutching hands, ragged bodies with scrawny arms and bloated stomachs, trembling and writhing in its eagerness to get to him first. Then as one of the temporary officers swung back with a couple of field attendants, it broke apart to let him pass, its gaze riveted on him as he stumbled between the lines.
He spotted a billboard one man was wearing, and his eyes focused sharply on it. “Honest Feroiya,” it announced. “Credit exchange. Best rates in all Kordule.” Below that, chalked into a black square, was the important part: “2,345 credits the dollar.”
Duke shook his head but the sign did not change. A quarter million credits for a hundred dollars. And he’d thought--
“Help a poor old widow.” A trembling hand plucked at his sleeve, and he swung to face a woman in worse rags than the others, her eyes dull and unfocused, her lips mouthing the words only by habit. “Help the widow of General Dayole!”
He gasped as he recognized her. Five years before, he’d danced with her at a party given by Dayole--danced and agreed that the war was ruining them and that it couldn’t get worse.
He reached into his pocket, before remembering the worthlessness of his bills. But there was half a pack of the wretched cigarettes issued the men. He tossed them to her and fled, while the other beggars scrambled toward her.
He walked woodenly across the leprous field, skirting away from the Earth ships, toward a collection of tents and tin huts that had swallowed the other veterans. Then he stopped and cursed to himself as a motorcycle sprang into life near the Earth freighters and came toward him. Naturally, they’d spotted his hair and skin color.
The well-fed, smooth-faced young man swung the machine beside him. “Captain O’Neill?” he asked, but his voice indicated that he was already certain. “Hop in, sir. Director Flannery has been looking forward to meeting you!”
Duke went steadily on, not varying his steps. The machine paced him uncertainly. “Director Flannery of Earth Foreign Office, Captain O’Neill. He requests your presence,” he shouted over the purr of his machine. He started to swing ahead of the marching man.
Duke kept his eyes on his goal. When his steady steps almost brought him against the cycle, it roared out of his way. He could hear it behind him as he walked, but it faded.
There was only the sight and smell of Kordule ahead of him.