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From: The Highest ... Treason

"I don't understand it," said General Polan Tallis worriedly. "Where
are they coming from? How are they doing it? What's happened?"

MacMaine and the four Kerothi officers were sitting in the small dining
room that doubled as a recreation room between meals. The nervous
strain of the past few months was beginning to tell on all of them.

"Six months ago," Tallis continued jerkily, "we had them beaten. One
planet after another was reduced in turn. Then, out of nowhere, comes a
fleet of ships we didn't even know existed, and they've smashed us at
every turn."

"If they are ships," said Loopat, the youngest officer of the
Shudos staff. "Who ever heard of a battleship that was undetectable
at a distance of less than half a million miles? It's impossible!"

"Then we're being torn to pieces by the impossible!" Hokotan snapped.
"Before we even know they are anywhere around, they are blasting us
with everything they've got! Not even the strategic genius of General
MacMaine can help us if we have no time to plot strategy!"

The Kerothi had been avoiding MacMaine's eyes, but now, at the mention
of his name, they all looked at him as if their collective gaze had
been drawn to him by some unknown attractive force.

"It's like fighting ghosts," MacMaine said in a hushed voice. For the
first time, he felt a feeling of awe that was almost akin to fear. What
had he done?

In another sense, that same question was in the mind of the Kerothi.

"Have you any notion at all what they are doing or how they are doing
it?" asked Tallis gently.

"None," MacMaine answered truthfully. "None at all, I swear to you."

"They don't even behave like Earthmen," said the fourth Kerothi, a
thick-necked officer named Ossif. "They not only outfight us, they
outthink us at every turn. Is it possible, General MacMaine, that the
Earthmen have allies of another race, a race of intelligent beings that
we don't know of?" He left unsaid the added implication: "And that
you have neglected to tell us about?"

"Again," said MacMaine, "I swear to you that I know nothing of any
third intelligent race in the galaxy."

"If there were such allies," Tallis said, "isn't it odd that they
should wait so long to aid their friends?"

"No odder than that the Earthmen should suddenly develop superweapons
that we cannot understand, much less fight against," Hokotan said, with
a touch of anger.

"Not 'superweapons'," MacMaine corrected almost absently. "All they
have is a method of making their biggest ships indetectable until
they're so close that it doesn't matter. When they do register on our
detectors, it's too late. But the weapons they strike with are the same
type as they've always used, I believe."

"All right, then," Hokotan said, his voice showing more anger. "One
weapon or whatever you want to call it. Practical invisibility. But
that's enough. An invisible man with a knife is more deadly than a
dozen ordinary men with modern armament. Are you sure you know nothing
of this, General MacMaine?"

Before MacMaine could answer, Tallis said, "Don't be ridiculous,
Hokotan! If he had known that such a weapon existed, would he have been
fool enough to leave his people? With that secret, they stand a good
chance of beating us in less than half the time it took us to wipe out
their fleet--or, rather, to wipe out as much of it as we did."

"They got a new fleet somewhere," said young Loopat, almost to himself.

* * * * *

Tallis ignored him. "If MacMaine deserted his former allegiance,
knowing that they had a method of rendering the action of a space drive
indetectable, then he was and is a blithering idiot. And we know he
isn't."

"All right, all right! I concede that," snapped Hokotan. "He knows
nothing. I don't say that I fully trust him, even now, but I'll admit
that I cannot see how he is to blame for the reversals of the past few
months.

"If the Earthmen had somehow been informed of our activities, or if we
had invented a superweapon and they found out about it, I would be
inclined to put the blame squarely on MacMaine. But----"

"How would he get such information out?" Tallis cut in sharply. "He has
been watched every minute of every day. We know he couldn't send any
information to Earth. How could he?"

"Telepathy, for all I know!" Hokotan retorted. "But that's beside the
point! I don't trust him any farther than I can see him, and not
completely, even then. But I concede that there is no possible
connection between this new menace and anything MacMaine might have
done.

"This is no time to worry about that sort of thing; we've got to find
some way of getting our hands on one of those ghost ships!"

"I do suggest," put in the thick-necked Ossif, "that we keep a closer
watch on General MacMaine. Now that the Earth animals are making a
comeback, he might decide to turn his coat now, even if he has been
innocent of any acts against Keroth so far."

Hokotan's laugh was a short, hard bark. "Oh, we'll watch him, all
right, Ossif. But, as Tallis has pointed out, MacMaine is not a fool,
and he would certainly be a fool to return to Earth if his leaving it
was a genuine act of desertion. The last planet we captured, before
this invisibility thing came up to stop us, was plastered all over with
notices that the Earth fleet was concentrating on the capture of the
arch-traitor MacMaine.

"The price on his head, as a corpse, is enough to allow an Earthman to
retire in luxury for life. The man who brings him back alive gets ten
times that amount.

"Of course, it's possible that the whole thing is a put-up job--a smoke
screen for our benefit. That's why we must and will keep a closer
watch. But only a few of the Earth's higher-up would know that it was a
smoke screen; the rest believe it, whether it is true or not. MacMaine
would have to be very careful not to let the wrong people get their
hands on him if he returned."

"It's no smoke screen," MacMaine said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I
assure you that I have no intention of returning to Earth. If Keroth
loses this war, then I will die--either fighting for the Kerothi or by
execution at the hands of Earthmen if I am captured. Or," he added
musingly, "perhaps even at the hands of the Kerothi, if someone decides
that a scapegoat is needed to atone for the loss of the war."

"If you are guilty of treason," Hokotan barked, "you will die as a
traitor! If you are not, there is no need for your death. The Kerothi
do not need scapegoats!"

"Talk, talk, talk!" Tallis said with a sudden bellow. "We have agreed
that MacMaine has done nothing that could even remotely be regarded as
suspicious! He has fought hard and loyally; he has been more ruthless
than any of us in destroying the enemy. Very well, we will guard him
more closely. We can put him in irons if that's necessary.

"But let's quit yapping and start thinking! We've been acting like
frightened children, not knowing what it is we fear, and venting our
fear-caused anger on the most handy target!

"Let's act like men--not like children!"

After a moment, Hokotan said: "I agree." His voice was firm, but calm.
"Our job will be to get our hands on one of those new Earth ships.
Anyone have any suggestions?"

They had all kinds of suggestions, one after another. The detectors,
however, worked because they detected the distortion of space which was
as necessary for the drive of a ship as the distortion of air was
necessary for the movement of a propeller-driven aircraft. None of them
could see how a ship could avoid making that distortion, and none of
them could figure out how to go about capturing a ship that no one
could even detect until it was too late to set a trap.

The discussion went on for days. And it was continued the next day and
the next. And the days dragged out into weeks.

* * * * *

Communications with Keroth broke down. The Fleet-to-Headquarters
courier ships, small in size, without armament, and practically solidly
packed with drive mechanism, could presumably outrun anything but
another unarmed courier. An armed ship of the same size would have to
use some of the space for her weapons, which meant that the drive would
have to be smaller; if the drive remained the same size, then the
armament would make the ship larger. In either case, the speed would be
cut down. A smaller ship might outrun a standard courier, but if they
got much smaller, there wouldn't be room inside for the pilot.

Nonetheless, courier after courier never arrived at its destination.

And the Kerothi Fleet was being decimated by the hit-and-run tactics of
the Earth's ghost ships. And Earth never lost a ship; by the time the
Kerothi ships knew their enemy was in the vicinity, the enemy had hit
and vanished again. The Kerothi never had a chance to ready their
weapons.

In the long run, they never had a chance at all.

MacMaine waited with almost fatalistic complacence for the inevitable
to happen. When it did happen, he was ready for it.

The Shudos, tiny flagship of what had once been a mighty armada and
was now only a tattered remnant, was floating in orbit, along with the
other remaining ships of the fleet, around a bloated red-giant sun.
With their drives off, there was no way of detecting them at any
distance, and the chance of their being found by accident was
microscopically small. But they could not wait forever. Water could be
recirculated, and energy could be tapped from the nearby sun, but food
was gone once it was eaten.

Hokotan's decision was inevitable, and, under the circumstances, the
only possible one. He simple told them what they had already
known--that he was a Headquarters Staff officer.

"We haven't heard from Headquarters in weeks," he said at last. "The
Earth fleet may already be well inside our periphery. We'll have to go
home." He produced a document which he had obviously been holding in
reserve for another purpose and handed it to Tallis. "Headquarters
Staff Orders, Tallis. It empowers me to take command of the Fleet in
the event of an emergency, and the decision as to what constitutes an
emergency was left up to my discretion. I must admit that this is not
the emergency any of us at Headquarters anticipated."

Tallis read through the document. "I see that it isn't," he said dryly.
"According to this, MacMaine and I are to be placed under immediate
arrest as soon as you find it necessary to act."

"Yes," said Hokotan bitterly. "So you can both consider yourselves
under arrest. Don't bother to lock yourselves up--there's no point in
it. General MacMaine, I see no reason to inform the rest of the Fleet
of this, so we will go on as usual. The orders I have to give are
simple: The Fleet will head for home by the most direct possible
geodesic. Since we cannot fight, we will simply ignore attacks and keep
going as long as we last. We can do nothing else." He paused
thoughtfully.

"And, General MacMaine, in case we do not live through this, I would
like to extend my apologies. I do not like you; I don't think I could
ever learn to like an anim ... to like a non-Kerothi. But I know when
to admit an error in judgment. You have fought bravely and
well--better, I know, than I could have done myself. You have shown
yourself to be loyal to your adopted planet; you are a Kerothi in every
sense of the word except the physical. My apologies for having wronged
you."

He extended his hands and MacMaine took them. A choking sensation
constricted the Earthman's throat for a moment, then he got the words
out--the words he had to say. "Believe me, General Hokotan, there is no
need for an apology. No need whatever."

"Thank you," said Hokotan. Then he turned and left the room.

"All right, Tallis," MacMaine said hurriedly, "let's get moving."

* * * * *

The orders were given to the remnants of the Fleet, and they cut in
their drives to head homeward. And the instant they did, there was
chaos. Earth's fleet of "ghost ships" had been patrolling the area for
weeks, knowing that the Kerothi fleet had last been detected somewhere
in the vicinity. As soon as the spatial distortions of the Kerothi
drives flashed on the Earth ships' detectors, the Earth fleet, widely
scattered over the whole circumambient volume of space, coalesced
toward the center of the spatial disturbance like a cloud of bees all
heading for the same flower.

Where there had been only the dull red light of the giant star, there
suddenly appeared the blinding, blue-white brilliance of disintegrating
matter, blossoming like cruel, deadly, beautiful flowers in the midst
of the Kerothi ships, then fading slowly as each expanding cloud of
plasma cooled.

Sebastian MacMaine might have died with the others except that the
Shudos, as the flagship, was to trail behind the fleet, so her drive
had not yet been activated. The Shudos was still in orbit, moving at
only a few miles per second when the Earth fleet struck.

Her drive never did go on. A bomb, only a short distance away as the
distance from atomic disintegration is measured, sent the Shudos
spinning away, end over end, like a discarded cigar butt flipped toward
a gutter, one side caved in near the rear, as if it had been kicked in
by a giant foot.

There was still air in the ship, MacMaine realized groggily as he awoke
from the unconsciousness that had been thrust upon him. He tried to
stand up, but he found himself staggering toward one crazily-slanted
wall. The stagger was partly due to his grogginess, and partly due to
the Coriolis forces acting within the spinning ship. The artificial
gravity was gone, which meant that the interstellar drive engines had
been smashed. He wondered if the emergency rocket drive was still
working--not that it would take him anywhere worth going to in less
than a few centuries. But, then, Sebastian MacMaine had nowhere to go,
anyhow.

Tallis lay against one wall, looking very limp. MacMaine half staggered
over to him and knelt down. Tallis was still alive.

The centrifugal force caused by the spinning ship gave an effective
pull of less than one Earth gravity, but the weird twists caused by the
Coriolis forces made motion and orientation difficult. Besides, the
ship was spinning slightly on her long axis as well as turning
end-for-end.

MacMaine stood there for a moment, trying to think. He had expected to
die. Death was something he had known was inevitable from the moment he
made his decision to leave Earth. He had not known how or when it would
come, but he had known that it would come soon. He had known that he
would never live to collect the reward he had demanded of the Kerothi
for "faithful service." Traitor he might be, but he was still honest
enough with himself to know that he would never take payment for
services he had not rendered.

Now death was very near, and Sebastian MacMaine almost welcomed it. He
had no desire to fight it. Tallis might want to stand and fight death
to the end, but Tallis was not carrying the monstrous weight of guilt
that would stay with Sebastian MacMaine until his death, no matter how
much he tried to justify his actions.

On the other hand, if he had to go, he might as well do a good job of
it. Since he still had a short time left, he might as well wrap the
whole thing up in a neat package. How?

Again, his intuitive ability to see pattern gave him the answer long
before he could have reasoned it out.

They will know, he thought, but they will never be sure they know. I
will be immortal. And my name will live forever, although no Earthman
will ever again use the surname MacMaine or the given name Sebastian.

He shook his head to clear it. No use thinking like that now. There
were things to be done.

* * * * *

Tallis first. MacMaine made his way over to one of the emergency
medical kits that he knew were kept in every compartment of every ship.
One of the doors of a wall locker hung open, and the blue-green medical
symbol used by the Kerothi showed darkly in the dim light that came
from the three unshattered glow plates in the ceiling. He opened the
kit, hoping that it contained something equivalent to adhesive tape. He
had never inspected a Kerothi medical kit before. Fortunately, he could
read Kerothi. If a military government was good for nothing else, at
least it was capable of enforcing a simplified phonetic orthography so
that words were pronounced as they were spelled. And--

He forced his wandering mind back to his work. The blow on the head,
plus the crazy effect the spinning was having on his inner ears, plus
the cockeyed gravitational orientation that made his eyes feel as
though they were seeing things at two different angles, all combined to
make for more than a little mental confusion.

There was adhesive tape, all right. Wound on its little spool, it
looked almost homey. He spent several minutes winding the sticky
plastic ribbon around Tallis' wrists and ankles.

Then he took the gun from the Kerothi general's sleeve holster--he had
never been allowed one of his own--and, holding it firmly in his right
hand, he went on a tour of the ship.

It was hard to move around. The centrifugal force varied from point to
point throughout the ship, and the corridors were cluttered with debris
that seemed to move with a life of its own as each piece shifted slowly
under the effects of the various forces working on it. And, as the
various masses moved about, the rate of spin of the ship changed as the
law of conservation of angular momentum operated. The ship was full of
sliding, clattering, jangling noises as the stuff tried to find a final
resting place and bring the ship to equilibrium.

He found the door to Ossif's cabin open and the room empty. He found
Ossif in Loopat's cabin, trying to get the younger officer to his feet.

Ossif saw MacMaine at the door and said: "You're alive! Good! Help
me----" Then he saw the gun in MacMaine's hand and stopped. It was the
last thing he saw before MacMaine shot him neatly between the eyes.

Loopat, only half conscious, never even knew he was in danger, and the
blast that drilled through his brain prevented him from ever knowing
anything again in this life.

Like a man in a dream, MacMaine went on to Hokotan's cabin, his weapon

at the ready. He was rather pleased to find that the HQ general was
already quite dead, his neck broken as cleanly as if it had been done
by a hangman. Hardly an hour before, MacMaine would cheerfully have
shot Hokotan where it would hurt the most and watch him die slowly. But
the memory of Hokotan's honest apology made the Earthman very glad that
he did not have to shoot the general at all.

There remained only the five-man crew, the NCO technician and his gang,
who actually ran the ship. They would be at the tail of the ship, in
the engine compartment. To get there, he had to cross the center of
spin of the ship, and the change of gravity from one direction to
another, decreasing toward zero, passing the null point, and rising
again on the other side, made him nauseous. He felt better after his
stomach had emptied itself.

Cautiously, he opened the door to the drive compartment and then
slammed it hard in sudden fear when he saw what had happened. The
shielding had been torn away from one of the energy converters and
exposed the room to high-energy radiation. The crewmen were quite dead.

The fear went away as quickly as it had come. So maybe he'd dosed
himself with a few hundred Roentgens--so what? A little radiation never
hurt a dead man.

But he knew now that there was no possibility of escape. The drive was
wrecked, and the only other means of escape, the one-man courier boat
that every blaster-boat carried, had been sent out weeks ago and had
never returned.

If only the courier boat were still in its cradle--

MacMaine shook his head. No. It was better this way. Much better.

He turned and went back to the dining cabin where Tallis was trussed
up. This time, passing the null-gee point didn't bother him much at
all.

* * * * *

Tallis was moaning a little and his eyelids were fluttering by the time
MacMaine got back. The Earthman opened the medical kit again and looked
for some kind of stimulant. He had no knowledge of medical or chemical
terms in Kerothic, but there was a box of glass ampoules bearing
instructions to "crush and allow patient to inhale fumes." That sounded
right.

The stuff smelled like a mixture of spirits of ammonia and butyl
mercaptan, but it did the job. Tallis coughed convulsively, turned his
head away, coughed again, and opened his eyes. MacMaine tossed the
stinking ampoule out into the corridor as Tallis tried to focus his
eyes.

"How do you feel?" MacMaine asked. His voice sounded oddly thick in his
own ears.

"All right. I'm all right. What happened?" He looked wonderingly
around. "Near miss? Must be. Anyone hurt?"

"They're all dead but you and me," MacMaine said.

"Dead? Then we'd better----" He tried to move and then realized that he
was bound hand and foot. The sudden realization of his position seemed
to clear his brain completely. "Sepastian, what's going on here? Why am
I tied up?"

"I had to tie you," MacMaine explained carefully, as though to a child.
"There are some things I have to do yet, and I wouldn't want you to
stop me. Maybe I should have just shot you while you were unconscious.
That would have been kinder to both of us, I think. But ... but,
Tallis, I had to tell somebody. Someone else has to know. Someone else
has to judge. Or maybe I just want to unload it on someone else,
someone who will carry the burden with me for just a little while. I
don't know."

"Sepastian, what are you talking about?" The Kerothi's face shone dully
orange in the dim light, his bright green eyes looked steadily at the
Earthman, and his voice was oddly gentle.

"I'm talking about treason," said MacMaine. "Do you want to listen?"

"I don't have much choice, do I?" Tallis said. "Tell me one thing
first: Are we going to die?"

"You are, Tallis. But I won't. I'm going to be immortal."

Tallis looked at him for a long moment. Then, "All right, Sepastian.
I'm no psych man, but I know you're not well. I'll listen to whatever
you have to say. But first, untie my hands and feet."

"I can't do that, Tallis. Sorry. But if our positions were reversed, I
know what I would do to you when I heard the story. And I can't let you
kill me, because there's something more that has to be done."

Tallis knew at that moment that he was looking at the face of Death.
And he also knew that there was nothing whatever he could do about it.
Except talk. And listen.

"Very well, Sepastian," he said levelly. "Go ahead. Treason, you say?
How? Against whom?"

"I'm not quite sure," said Sebastian MacMaine. "I thought maybe you
could tell me."





Next: The Reason

Previous: The Strategy



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