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-and Epilogue

From: The Highest ... Treason

"Hold it!" The voice bellowed thunderingly from the loud-speakers of
the six Earth ships that had boxed in the derelict. "Hold it! Don't
bomb that ship! I'll personally have the head of any man who damages
that ship!"

In five of the ships, the commanders simply held off the bombardment
that would have vaporized the derelict. In the sixth, Major Thornton,
the Group Commander, snapped off the microphone. His voice was shaky as
he said: "That was close! Another second, and we'd have lost that ship

Captain Verenski's Oriental features had a half-startled, half-puzzled
look. "I don't get it. You grabbed that mike control as if you'd been
bitten. I know that she's only a derelict. After that burst of
fifty-gee acceleration for fifteen minutes, there couldn't be anyone
left alive on her. But there must have been a reason for using atomic
rockets instead of their antiacceleration fields. What makes you think
she's not dangerous?"

"I didn't say she wasn't dangerous," the major snapped. "She may be.
Probably is. But we're going to capture her if we can. Look!" He
pointed at the image of the ship in the screen.

She wasn't spinning now, or looping end-over-end. After fifteen minutes
of high acceleration, her atomic rockets had cut out, and now she moved
serenely at constant velocity, looking as dead as a battered tin can.

"I don't see anything," Captain Verenski said.

"The Kerothic symbols on the side. Palatal unvoiced sibilant, rounded----"

"I don't read Kerothic, major," said the captain. "I----" Then he
blinked and said, "Shudos!"

"That's it. The Shudos of Keroth. The flagship of the Kerothi Fleet."

The look in the major's eyes was the same look of hatred that had come
into the captain's.

"Even if its armament is still functioning, we have to take the chance,"
Major Thornton said. "Even if they're all dead, we have to try to get
The Butcher's body." He picked up the microphone again.

"Attention, Group. Listen carefully and don't get itchy trigger fingers.
That ship is the Shudos. The Butcher's ship. It's a ten-man ship, and
the most she could have aboard would be thirty, even if they jammed her
full to the hull. I don't know of any way that anyone could be alive on
her after fifteen minutes at fifty gees of atomic drive, but remember
that they don't have any idea of how our counteraction generators damp
out spatial distortion either. Remember what Dr. Pendric said: 'No man
is superior to any other in all ways. Every man is superior to every
other in some way.' We may have the counteraction generator, but they
may have something else that we don't know about. So stay alert.

"I am going to take a landing-party aboard. There's a reward out for
The Butcher, and that reward will be split proportionately among us.
It's big enough for us all to enjoy it, and we'll probably get
citations if we bring him in.

"I want ten men from each ship. I'm not asking for volunteers; I want
each ship commander to pick the ten men he thinks will be least likely
to lose their heads in an emergency. I don't want anyone to panic and
shoot when he should be thinking. I don't want anyone who had any
relatives on Houston's World. Sorry, but I can't allow vengeance yet.

"We're a thousand miles from the Shudos now; close in slowly until
we're within a hundred yards. The boarding parties will don armor and
prepare to board while we're closing in. At a hundred yards, we stop
and the boarding parties will land on the hull. I'll give further
orders then.

"One more thing. I don't think her A-A generators could possibly be
functioning, judging from that dent in her hull, but we can't be sure.
If she tries to go into A-A drive, she is to be bombed--no matter who
is aboard. It is better that sixty men die than that The Butcher

"All right, let's go. Move in."

* * * * *

Half an hour later, Major Thornton stood on the hull of the Shudos,
surrounded by the sixty men of the boarding party. "Anybody see
anything through those windows?" he asked.

Several of the men had peered through the direct-vision ports, playing
spotlight beams through them.

"Nothing alive," said a sergeant, a remark which was followed by a
chorus of agreement.

"Pretty much of a mess in there," said another sergeant. "That fifty
gees mashed everything to the floor. Why'd anyone want to use
acceleration like that?"

"Let's go in and find out," said Major Thornton.

The outer door to the air lock was closed, but not locked. It swung
open easily to disclose the room between the outer and inner doors. Ten
men went in with the major, the others stayed outside with orders to
cut through the hull if anything went wrong.

"If he's still alive," the major said, "we don't want to kill him by
blowing the air. Sergeant, start the airlock cycle."

There was barely room for ten men in the air lock. It had been built
big enough for the full crew to use it at one time, but it was only
just big enough.

When the inner door opened, they went in cautiously. They spread out
and searched cautiously. The caution was unnecessary, as it turned out.
There wasn't a living thing aboard.

"Three officers shot through the head, sir," said the sergeant. "One of
'em looks like he died of a broken neck, but it's hard to tell after
that fifty gees mashed 'em. Crewmen in the engine room--five of 'em.
Mashed up, but I'd say they died of radiation, since the shielding on
one of the generators was ruptured by the blast that made that dent in
the hull."

"Nine bodies," the major said musingly. "All Kerothi. And all of them
probably dead before the fifty-gee acceleration. Keep looking,
sergeant. We've got to find the tenth man."

Another twenty-minute search gave them all the information they were
ever to get.

* * * * *

"No Earth food aboard," said the major. "One spacesuit missing.
Handweapons missing. Two emergency survival kits and two medical kits
missing. And--most important of all--the courier boat is missing." He
bit at his lower lip for a moment, then went on. "Outer air lock door
left unlocked. Three Kerothi shot--after the explosion that ruined
the A-A drive, and before the fifty-gee acceleration." He looked at
the sergeant. "What do you think happened?"

"He got away," the tough-looking noncom said grimly. "Took the courier
boat and scooted away from here."

"Why did he set the timer on the drive, then? What was the purpose of
that fifty-gee blast?"

"To distract us, I'd say, sir. While we were chasing this thing, he
hightailed it out."

"He might have, at that," the major said musingly. "A one-man courier
could have gotten away. Our new detection equipment isn't perfect
yet. But----"

At that moment, one of the troopers pushed himself down the corridor
toward them. "Look, sir! I found this in the pocket of the Carrot-skin
who was taped up in there!" He was holding a piece of paper.

The major took it, read it, then read it aloud. "Greetings, fellow
Earthmen: When you read this, I will be safe from any power you may
think you have to arrest or punish me. But don't think you are safe
from me. There are other intelligent races in the galaxy, and I'll be
around for a long time to come. You haven't heard the last of me. With
love--Sebastian MacMaine."

The silence that followed was almost deadly.

"He did get away!" snarled the sergeant at last.

"Maybe," said the major. "But it doesn't make sense." He sounded
agitated. "Look. In the first place, how do we know the courier boat
was even aboard? They've been trying frantically to get word back to
Keroth; does it make sense that they'd save this boat? And why all the
fanfare? Suppose he did have a boat? Why would he attract our attention
with that fifty-gee flare? Just so he could leave us a note?"

"What do you think happened, sir?" the sergeant asked.

"I don't think he had a boat. If he did, he'd want us to think he was
dead, not the other way around. I think he set the drive timer on this
ship, went outside with his supplies, crawled up a drive tube and
waited until that atomic rocket blast blew him into plasma. He was
probably badly wounded and didn't want us to know that we'd won. That
way, we'd never find him."

There was no belief on the faces of the men around him.

"Why'd he want to do that, sir?" asked the sergeant.

"Because as long as we don't know, he'll haunt us. He'll be like
Hitler or Jack the Ripper. He'll be an immortal menace instead of a
dead villain who could be forgotten."

"Maybe so, sir," said the sergeant, but there was an utter lack of
conviction in his voice. "But we'd still better comb this area and keep
our detectors hot. We'll know what he was up to when we catch him."

"But if we don't find him," the major said softly, "we'll never
know. That's the beauty of it, sergeant. If we don't find him, then
he's won. In his own fiendish, twisted way, he's won."

"If we don't find him," said the sergeant stolidly, "I think we better
keep a sharp eye out for the next intelligent race we meet. He might
find 'em first."

"Maybe," said the major very softly, "that's just what he wanted. I
wish I knew why."

Next: In Case Of Fire

Previous: The Reason

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