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The Escape







From: The Highest ... Treason

"Are you sure you understand, Tallis?" MacMaine asked in Kerothic.

The alien general nodded emphatically. "Perfectly. Your Kerothic is not
so bad that I could misunderstand your instructions. I still don't
understand why you are doing this. Oh I know the reasons you've given
me, but I don't completely believe them. However, I'll go along with
you. The worst that could happen would be for me to be killed, and I
would sooner face death in trying to escape than in waiting for your
executioners. If this is some sort of trap, some sort of weird way your
race's twisted idea of kindness has evolved to dispose of me, then I'll
accept your sentence. It's better than starving to death or facing a
firing squad."

"Not a firing squad," MacMaine said. "That wouldn't be kind. An
odorless, but quite deadly gas would be pumped into this cell while you
slept."

"That's worse. When death comes, I want to face it and fight it off as
long as possible, not have it sneaking up on me in my sleep. I think
I'd rather starve."

"You would," said MacMaine. "The food that was captured with you has
nearly run out, and we haven't been able to capture any more. But
rather than let you suffer, they would have killed you painlessly." He
glanced at the watch on his instrument cuff. "Almost time."

MacMaine looked the alien over once more. Tallis was dressed in the
uniform of Earth's Space Force, and the insignia of a full general
gleamed on his collar. His face and hands had been sprayed with an
opaque, pink-tan film, and his hairless head was covered with a black
wig. He wouldn't pass a close inspection, but MacMaine fervently hoped
that he wouldn't need to.

Think it out, be sure you're right, then go ahead. Sebastian MacMaine
had done just that. For three months, he had worked over the details of
his plan, making sure that they were as perfect as he was capable of
making them. Even so, there was a great deal of risk involved, and
there were too many details that required luck for MacMaine to be
perfectly happy about the plan.

But time was running out. As the general's food supply dwindled, his
execution date neared, and now it was only two days away. There was no
point in waiting until the last minute; it was now or never.

There were no spying TV cameras in the general's cell, no hidden
microphones to report and record what went on. No one had ever escaped
from the Space Force's prison, therefore, no one ever would.

MacMaine glanced again at his watch. It was time. He reached inside his
blouse and took out a fully loaded handgun.

For an instant, the alien officer's eyes widened, and he stiffened as
if he were ready to die in an attempt to disarm the Earthman. Then he
saw that MacMaine wasn't holding it by the butt; his hand was clasped
around the middle of the weapon.

"This is a chance I have to take," MacMaine said evenly. "With this
gun, you can shoot me down right here and try to escape alone. I've
told you every detail of our course of action, and, with luck, you
might make it alone." He held out his hand, with the weapon resting on
his open palm.

General Tallis eyed the Earthman for a long second. Then, without
haste, he took the gun and inspected it with a professional eye.

"Do you know how to operate it?" MacMaine asked, forcing calmness into
his voice.

"Yes. We've captured plenty of them." Tallis thumbed the stud that
allowed the magazine to slide out of the butt and into his hand. Then
he checked the mechanism and the power cartridges. Finally, he replaced
the magazine and put the weapon into the empty sleeve holster that
MacMaine had given him.

MacMaine let his breath out slowly. "All right," he said. "Let's go."

* * * * *

He opened the door of the cell, and both men stepped out into the
corridor. At the far end of the corridor, some thirty yards away, stood
the two armed guards who kept watch over the prisoner. At that
distance, it was impossible to tell that Tallis was not what he
appeared to be.

The guard had been changed while MacMaine was in the prisoner's cell,
and he was relying on the lax discipline of the soldiers to get him and
Tallis out of the cell block. With luck, the guards would have failed
to listen too closely to what they had been told by the men they
replaced; with even greater luck, the previous guardsmen would have
failed to be too explicit about who was in the prisoner's cell. With no
luck at all, MacMaine would be forced to shoot to kill.

MacMaine walked casually up to the two men, who came to an easy
attention.

"I want you two men to come with me. Something odd has happened, and
General Quinby and I want two witnesses as to what went on."

"What happened, sir?" one of them asked.

"Don't know for sure," MacMaine said in a puzzled voice. "The general
and I were talking to the prisoner, when all of a sudden he fell over.
I think he's dead. I couldn't find a heartbeat. I want you to take a
look at him so that you can testify that we didn't shoot him or
anything."

Obediently, the two guards headed for the cell, and MacMaine fell in
behind them. "You couldn't of shot him, sir," said the second guard
confidently. "We would of heard the shot."

"Besides," said the other, "it don't matter much. He was going to be
gassed day after tomorrow."

As the trio approached the cell, Tallis pulled the door open a little
wider and, in doing so, contrived to put himself behind it so that his
face couldn't be seen. The young guards weren't too awed by a full
general; after all, they'd be generals themselves someday. They were
much more interested in seeing the dead alien.

As the guards reached the cell door, MacMaine unholstered his pistol
from his sleeve and brought it down hard on the head of the nearest
youth. At the same time, Tallis stepped from behind the door and
clouted the other.

Quickly, MacMaine disarmed the fallen men and dragged them into the
open cell. He came out again and locked the door securely. Their guns
were tossed into an empty cell nearby.

"They won't be missed until the next change of watch, in four hours,"
MacMaine said. "By then, it won't matter, one way or another."

Getting out of the huge building that housed the administrative offices
of the Space Force was relatively easy. A lift chute brought the pair
to the main floor, and, this late in the evening, there weren't many
people on that floor. The officers and men who had night duty were
working on the upper floors. Several times, Tallis had to take a
handkerchief from his pocket and pretend to blow his nose in order to
conceal his alien features from someone who came too close, but no one
appeared to notice anything out of the ordinary.

As they walked out boldly through the main door, fifteen minutes later,
the guards merely came to attention and relaxed as a tall colonel and a
somewhat shorter general strode out. The general appeared to be having
a fit of sneezing, and the colonel was heard to say: "That's quite a
cold you've picked up, sir. Better get over to the dispensary and take
an anti-coryza shot."

"Mmmf," said the general. "Ha-CHOO!"

Getting to the spaceport was no problem at all. MacMaine had an
official car waiting, and the two sergeants in the front seat didn't
pay any attention to the general getting in the back seat because
Colonel MacMaine was talking to them. "We're ready to roll, sergeant,"
he said to the driver. "General Quinby wants to go straight to the
Manila, so let's get there as fast as possible. Take-off is scheduled
in ten minutes." Then he got into the back seat himself. The one-way
glass partition that separated the back seat from the front prevented
either of the two men from looking back at their passengers.

Seven minutes later, the staff car was rolling unquestioned through the
main gate of Waikiki Spaceport.

It was all so incredibly easy, MacMaine thought. Nobody questioned an
official car. Nobody checked anything too closely. Nobody wanted to
risk his lifelong security by doing or saying something that might be
considered antisocial by a busy general. Besides, it never entered
anyone's mind that there could be anything wrong. If there was a war
on, apparently no one had been told about it yet.

MacMaine thought, Was I ever that stubbornly blind? Not quite, I
guess, or I'd never have seen what is happening. But he knew he hadn't
been too much more perceptive than those around him. Even to an
intelligent man, the mask of stupidity can become a barrier to the
outside world as well as a concealment from it.

* * * * *

The Interstellar Ship Manila was a small, fast, ten-man blaster-boat,
designed to get in to the thick of a battle quickly, strike hard, and
get away. Unlike the bigger, more powerful battle cruisers, she could
be landed directly on any planet with less than a two-gee pull at the
surface. The really big babies had to be parked in an orbit and loaded
by shuttle; they'd break up of their own weight if they tried to set
down on anything bigger than a good-sized planetoid. As long as their
antiacceleration fields were on, they could take unimaginable thrusts
along their axes, but the A-A fields were the cause of those thrusts as
well as the protection against them. The ships couldn't stand still
while they were operating, so they were no protection at all against a
planet's gravity. But a blaster-boat was small enough and compact
enough to take the strain.

It had taken careful preparation to get the Manila ready to go just
exactly when MacMaine needed it. Papers had to be forged and put into
the chain of command communication at precisely the right times; others
had had to be taken out and replaced with harmless near-duplicates so
that the Commanding Staff wouldn't discover the deception. He had had
to build up the fictional identity of a "General Lucius Quinby" in such
a way that it would take a thorough check to discover that the officer
who had been put in command of the Manila was nonexistent.

It was two minutes until take-off time when the staff car pulled up at
the foot of the ramp that led up to the main air lock of the ISS
Manila. A young-looking captain was standing nervously at the foot of
it, obviously afraid that his new commander might be late for the
take-off and wondering what sort of decision he would have to make if
the general wasn't there at take-off time. MacMaine could imagine his
feelings.

"General Quinby" developed another sneezing fit as he stepped out of
the car. This was the touchiest part of MacMaine's plan, the weakest
link in the whole chain of action. For a space of perhaps a minute, the
disguised Kerothi general would have to stand so close to the young
captain that the crudity of his makeup job would be detectable. He had
to keep that handkerchief over his face, and yet do it in such a way
that it would seem natural.

As Tallis climbed out of the car, chuffing windily into the kerchief,
MacMaine snapped an order to the sergeant behind the wheel. "That's
all. We're taking off almost immediately, so get that car out of here."

Then he walked rapidly over to the captain, who had snapped to
attention. There was a definite look of relief on his face, now that he
knew his commander was on time.

"All ready for take-off, captain? Everything checked out? Ammunition?
Energy packs all filled to capacity? All the crew aboard? Full rations
and stores stowed away?"

The captain kept his eyes on MacMaine's face as he answered "Yes, sir;
yes, sir; yes, sir," to the rapid fire of questions. He had no time to
shift his gaze to the face of his new C.O., who was snuffling his way
toward the foot of the landing ramp. MacMaine kept firing questions
until Tallis was halfway up the ramp.

Then he said: "Oh, by the way, captain--was the large package
containing General Quinby's personal gear brought aboard?"

"The big package? Yes, sir. About fifteen minutes ago."

"Good," said MacMaine. He looked up the ramp. "Are there any special
orders at this time, sir?" he asked.

"No," said Tallis, without turning. "Carry on, colonel." He went on up
to the air lock. It had taken Tallis hours of practice to say that
phrase properly, but the training had been worth it.

* * * * *

After Tallis was well inside the air lock, MacMaine whispered to the
young captain, "As you can see, the general has got a rather bad cold.
He'll want to remain in his cabin until he's over it. See that
anti-coryza shots are sent up from the dispensary as soon as we are out
of the Solar System. Now, let's go; we have less than a minute till
take-off."

MacMaine went up the ramp with the captain scrambling up behind him.

Tallis was just stepping into the commander's cabin as the two men
entered the air lock. MacMaine didn't see him again until the ship was
twelve minutes on her way--nearly five billion miles from Earth and
still accelerating.

He identified himself at the door and Tallis opened it cautiously.

"I brought your anti-coryza shot, sir," he said. In a small ship like
the Manila, the captain and the seven crew members could hear any
conversation in the companionways. He stepped inside and closed the
door. Then he practically collapsed on the nearest chair and had a good
case of the shakes.

"So-so f-f-far, s-so good," he said.

General Tallis grasped his shoulder with a firm hand. "Brace up,
Sepastian," he said gently in Kerothic. "You've done a beautiful job. I
still can't believe it, but I'll have to admit that if this is an act
it's a beautiful one." He gestured toward the small desk in one corner
of the room and the big package that was sitting on it. "The food is
all there. I'll have to eat sparingly, but I can make it. Now, what's
the rest of the plan?"

MacMaine took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. His shakes
subsided to a faint, almost imperceptible quiver. "The captain doesn't
know our destination. He was told that he would receive secret
instructions from you." His voice, he noticed thankfully, was almost
normal. He reached into his uniform jacket and took out an
official-looking sealed envelope. "These are the orders. We are going
out to arrange a special truce with the Kerothi."

"What?"

"That's what it says here. You'll have to get on the subradio and do
some plain and fancy talking. Fortunately, not a man jack aboard this
ship knows a word of your language, so they'll think you're arranging
truce terms.

"They'll be sitting ducks when your warship pulls up alongside and
sends in a boarding party. By the time they realize what has happened,
it will be too late."

"You're giving us the ship, too?" Tallis looked at him wonderingly.
"And eight prisoners?"

"Nine," said MacMaine. "I'll hand over my sidearm to you just before
your men come through the air lock."

General Tallis sat down in the other small chair, his eyes still on the
Earthman. "I can't help but feel that this is some sort of trick, but
if it is, I can't see through it. Why are you doing this, Sepastian?"

"You may not understand this, Tallis," MacMaine said evenly, "but I am
fighting for freedom. The freedom to think."





Next: The Traitor

Previous: The Decision



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