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Victory



Victory







From: Victory

It seemed Earth was a rich, and undefended planet in a warring,
hating galaxy. Things can be deceptive though; children playing
can be quite rough--but that ain't war, friend!


I


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.




II


Senators were already filing through the Presidium as Edmonds of South
Africa came out of his office with Daugherty of the Foreign Office. The
youngest senator stopped beside the great bronze doors, studying the
situation. Then he sighed in relief. "It's all right," he told
Daugherty. "Premier Lesseur's presiding."

He hadn't been sure the premier's words were a full promise before. And
while he hadn't been too worried, it was good to see that the doubtful
vice-premier wouldn't be presiding.

"It better be all right," the diplomat said. "Otherwise, it's my neck.
Cathay's counting on Earth to help against the Kloomirians, and if
Director Flannery ever finds I committed us--"

Edmonds studied the seats that were filling, and nodded with more
confidence as he saw that most of the senators on whom he counted were
there. "I've got enough votes, as I told you. And with Lesseur
presiding, the opposition won't get far with parliamentary tricks
against me. This time, Earth's going to act."

Daugherty grunted, obviously still worried, and headed up the steps to
the reserved Visitors' Gallery, while Edmonds moved to his seat in the
assembly room. Today he didn't even mind the fact that it was back in
the section reserved for the newest members--the unknowns and
unimportants, from the way the press treated them. He would be neither
unknown nor unimportant, once his bill was passed, and his brief
experience would only add to the miracle he was working.

Looking back on his efforts, he found the results something of a
miracle to himself. It had taken two years of vote-swapping, of careful
propaganda, and of compromise with his principles. That business of
voting for the combined Throm-Meloa Aid Bill had been a bitter thing;
but old Harding was scared sick of antagonizing the aliens by seeming
partiality, and Edmonds' switch was the step needed to start the
softening up.

At that, he'd been lucky. In spite of what he'd learned of the
manipulation of sociological relationships, in spite of the long
preparation in advertising dynamics and affective psychology, he
couldn't have made it if Cathay hadn't been a human colony!

Now, though, Lesseur was calling the chamber to order. The senators
quieted quickly, and there was almost complete silence as the old man
picked up the paper before him.

"The Senate will consider Resolution 1843 today," Lesseur said quietly.
"A Resolution that Earth shall grant assistance to the Colony of
Cathay in the event of any aggressive alien act, proposed by Sir
Alfred Edmonds. Since the required time for deliberation has elapsed,
the chair will admit discussion on this resolution. Senator Edmonds!"

Edmonds was on his feet, and every face turned to him. The spotlight
came down on him, blinding him to the others. He picked up the
microphone, polishing the words in his mind. The vote might already be
decided, but the papers would still print what he said now! And those
words could mean his chance to work his way up through the Committee of
Foreign Affairs and perhaps on to becoming Earth's youngest premier.

It might even mean more. Once Earth shook off her lethargy and moved to
her rightful position of power and strength among the humanoid worlds,
anything could happen. There was the Outer Federation being formed
among the frontier worlds and the nucleus of close relations with
hundreds of planets. Some day there might be the position of premier of
a true Interstellar Congress!

* * * * *

Edmonds began quietly, listening to his voice roll smoothly from the
speakers, giving the long history of Earth and her rise to a position
as the richest and most respected of planets. He retold the story of
how she had been the first to discover the interstellar drive, and how
it had inevitably spread. He touched on the envy of the alien worlds,
and the friendship of the humanoid planets that had enabled Earth to
found her dozen distant colonies. He couldn't wisely discuss her
cowardice and timidity in avoiding her responsibilities to help her
friends; but there was another approach.

"In the forefront of every battle against alien aggression," he
declaimed proudly, "have been men from Earth. Millions of our young men
have fought gloriously and died gladly to protect the human--and
humanoid--civilizations from whatever forms of life have menaced them.
Djamboula led the forces of Hera against Clovis, just as Captain
O'Neill so recently directed the final battle that saved Meloa from the
hordes of Throm. In our own ranks, we have a man who spent eight long
and perilous years in such a gallant struggle to save a world for
humanoid decency. Senator Harding--"

From the darkened sea of faces, a voice suddenly sounded. "Will the
senator yield?" It was the deep baritone of Harding.

Edmonds frowned in irritation, but nodded. A few words of confirmation
on his point from Harding couldn't hurt. "I yield to the senator from
Dixie," he answered.

The spotlight shifted as Harding got slowly to his feet, making a white
halo of his hair. He did not look at Edmonds, but turned to face
Lesseur.

"Mr. Chairman," he said, "I move that Resolution 1843 be tabled!"

"Second!" The light shifted to another man, but Edmonds had no time to
see who it was as he stood staring open-mouthed at Harding.

He shouted for the chair's attention, but Lesseur brought the gavel
down sharply once, and his voice rang over the speakers. "It has been
moved and seconded that Resolution 1843 be tabled. The senators will
now vote."

Edmonds stood frozen as the voting began. Then he dropped back hastily
to press the button that would turn the square bearing his number a
negative red. He saw his light flash on, while other squares were
lighting. When the voting was finished, there were three such red
squares in a nearly solid panel of green.

"The resolution is tabled," Lesseur announced needlessly.

Harding stood up and began moving towards the rear where Edmonds sat.
The junior senator was too stunned for thought. Dimly he heard
something about regrets and explanations, but the words had no meaning.
He felt Harding help him to his feet and begin to guide him toward the
door, where someone had already brought a shocked, white-faced
Daugherty.

It was then he thought of Cathay, and what his ambition and Earth's
ultimate deceit and cowardice would mean to the millions there.






III


A week of the dust-filled air of Meloa had left its mark on Captain
Duke O'Neill. It had spread filth over his uniform, added another year
to his face, and made waking each morning a dry-throated torture. Now
he stopped at the entrance to the ship where he had been reassigned a
berth for the night shift. An attendant handed him a small bottle,
three biscuits, and a magazine. He tasted the chemically purified water
sickly, stuffed the three ersatz biscuits into his pocket, and moved
down the ramp, staring at the magazine.

It was from Earth, of course, since no printing was being done yet on
Meloa. It must have come in on one of the three big Earth freighters
he'd heard land during the night. Tucked into it was another of the
brief notes he'd been receiving: "Director Flannery will be pleased to
call on Captain O'Neill at the captain's convenience."

He shredded the note as he went across the field; he started to do the
same with the news magazine, until the headlines caught his attention.

Most of the news meant nothing to him. But he skimmed the article on
the eleventh planet to join the Outer Federation; the writer was
obviously biased against the organization, but Duke nodded approvingly.
At least someone was doing something. He saw that Cathay was in for
trouble. Earth was living up to her old form! Then he shoved the
magazine into his pocket and trudged on toward the veteran's
reassignment headquarters.

Machinery was being moved from the Earth freighters, and Duke swore
again. Five billion Earthmen would read of their "generosity" to Meloa,
and any guilt they felt for their desertion would vanish in a smug
satisfaction at their charity. Smugness was easy in a world without
dust or carrion smell or craters that had been factories.

There were only a few Meloans in the crude tent that served as their
headquarters. Duke went back toward the cubbyhole where a thin, haggard
man sat on a broken block behind a makeshift desk.

The hairless blue head shook slowly while the man's eyes dropped
hungrily to the paper in Duke's pocket and away again guiltily. "No
work, Captain O'Neill. Unless you can operate some of those Earth
machines we're getting?"

Duke grimaced, passing the magazine over to hands that trembled as they
took it. His education was in ultra-literary creative writing, his
experience in war. And here, where there was the whole task of
rebuilding a planet to be done, the ruin of tools and power made what
could be done too little for even the few who were left. There was no
grain to reap or wood to cut after the killing gas from Throm had
ruined vegetation; there were no workable mines where all had been
blasted closed. Transportation was gone. And the economy had passed
beyond hand tools, leaving too few of those. Even whole men were idle,
and his artificial hand could never replace a real one for carrying
rubble.

"Director Flannery has been asking for you again," the man told him.

Duke ignored it. "What about my wife?"

The Meloan frowned, reaching for a soiled scrap of paper. "We may have
something. One of her former friends thinks she was near this address.
We'll send someone out to investigate, if you wish, captain; but it's
still pretty uncertain."

"I'll go myself," Duke said harshly. He picked up the paper,
recognizing the location as one that had been in the outskirts.

The man behind the desk shook his head doubtfully. Then he shrugged,
and reached behind him for a small automatic. "Better take this--and
watch your step! There are two bullets left."

Duke nodded his thanks and turned away, dropping the gun into his
pocket. Behind him he heard a long sigh and the rustle of a magazine
being opened quickly.

* * * * *

It was a long walk. At first, he traced his way through streets that
had been partially blasted clear. After the first mile, however, he was
forced to hunt around or over the litter and wreckage, picking the way
from high spot to high spot. There were people about, rooting through
the debris, or patrolling in groups. He drew the automatic and carried
it in his hand, in plain sight. Some stared at him and some ignored
him, but none came too close.

Once he heard shouting and a group ran across his path, chasing a small
rodent. He heard a wild tumult begin, minutes later. When he passed the
spot where they had stopped, a fight was going on, apparently over the
kill.

At noon he stopped to drink sparingly of his water and eat one of the
incredibly bad biscuits. What food there was available or which could
be received from the Earth freighters was being mixed into them, but it
wasn't enough. The workers got a little more, and occasionally someone
found a few cans under the rubble. The penalty for not turning such
food in was revocation of all food allotment, but there was a small
black market where unidentified cans could be bought for five Earth
dollars, and some found its way there. The same black market sold the
few remaining cigarettes at twice that amount each.

It was beginning to thunder to the north as he stood up and went
wearily on, and the haze was thickening. He tried to hurry, uncertain
of how dark it would get. If he got caught now, he'd never be able to
return before night. He stumbled on a broken street sign, decoding what
was left of it, and considered. Then he sighed in relief. As he
remembered it, he was almost there.

The buildings had been lower here, and the rubble was thinner. There
seemed to be more people about, judging by the traces of smoke that
drifted out of holes or through glassless windows. He saw none outside,
however.

He was considering trying one of the places from which smoke was coming
when he saw the little boy five hundred feet ahead. He started forward,
but the kid popped into what must have been a cellar once. Duke
stopped, calling quietly.

This time it was a girl of about sixteen who appeared. She sidled
closer, her eyes fixed on his hair. Her voice piped out suddenly,
scared and desperate. "You lonesome, Earthman?" Under the fright, it
was a grotesque attempt at coquetry. She edged nearer, staring at him.
"I won't roll you, honest!"

"All I want is information," he told her thickly. "I'm looking for a
woman named Ronda--Ronda O'Neill. She was my wife."

The girl considered, shaking her head. Her eyes grew wider as he pulled
out a green Earth bill, but she didn't move. Then, as he added the two
remaining biscuits, she nodded quickly, motioning him forward. "Mom
might know," she said.

She ran ahead, and soon an older woman shuffled up the broken steps. In
her arms was a baby, dead or in a coma, and she rocked it slowly,
moaning softly as she listened to his questions. She grunted finally,
and reached out for the reward. Shuffling ahead of him, she went up the
rubble-littered street and around a corner, to point. "Go in," she
said. "Ronda'll be back."

Duke shoved the crude door back and stepped into what was left of a
foyer in a cheap apartment house. The back had been blasted away, but
the falling building had sealed over one corner, covering it from most
of the weather. Light came from the shattered window, showing a scrap
of blanket laid out on the floor near a few possessions. At first,
nothing identified the resident in any way, and he wondered if it were
a trap. Then he bent over a broken bracelet, and his breath caught
sharply. The catch still worked, and a faded miniature of him was
inside the little holder. Ronda's!

Duke dropped onto the blanket, trying to imagine what Ronda would be
like, and to picture the reunion. But the present circumstances
wouldn't fit into anything he could imagine. He could only remember the
bravely smiling girl who had seen him off five years before.

He heard a babble of voices outside, but he didn't look out. The walk
had exhausted him. Hard as the bed was, it was better than standing up.
Anyhow, if Ronda came back, he was pretty sure she would be warned of
his presence.

He slept fitfully, awakened by the smells and sounds from outside. Once
he thought someone looked in, but he couldn't be sure. He turned over,
almost decided to investigate, and dozed off again.

It was the hoarse sound of breathing and a soft shuffle that wakened
him that time. His senses jarred out of slumber with a feeling of
wrongness that reacted in instant caution. He let his eyes slit open,
relieved to find there was still light.

Between him and the door, a figure was creeping up on hands and knees.
The rags of clothes indicated it was a woman and the knife in one hand
spelled murder!

Duke snapped himself upright to a sitting position, his hand darting
for the gun in his pocket. A low shriek came from the woman, and she
lunged forward, the knife rising. There was no time for the gun. He
caught her wrist, twisting savagely. She scratched and writhed, but the
knife spun from her grasp. With a moan, she collapsed across his knees.

He turned her face up, staring at it unbelievingly. "Ronda!"

Bloated and stained, lined with fear, it still bore a faint resemblance
to the girl he had known. Now a fleeting look of cunning crossed her
face briefly, to be replaced with an attempt at dawning recognition.
"Duke!" She gasped it, then made a sound that might have been meant for
joy. She stumbled to her knees, reaching out to him. But her eyes
swiveled briefly toward the knife. "Duke, it's you!"

He pushed her back and reached for the knife. He was sure she'd known
who it was--had probably been the one who awakened him by looking in
through the broken window. "Why'd you try to kill me, Ronda? You saw
who it was. If you needed money, you know I'd give you anything I had.
Why?"

"Not for money." She twisted from him and slumped limply against a
broken wall. Tears came into her eyes. This time the catch in her voice
was real. "I know ... I know, Duke. And I wanted to see you, to talk to
you, too." She shook her head slowly. "What can I do with money? I
wanted to wake you up like old times. But Mrs. Kalaufa--she led you
here--she said--"

He waited, but she didn't finish. She traced a pattern on the dust of
the floor, before looking up again. "You've never been really hungry!
Not that hungry! You wouldn't understand."

"Even with the dole, you can't starve that much in the time since
Kordule was bombed," he protested. He gagged as he thought of the
meaning he'd guessed from her words, expecting her to deny it.

* * * * *

She shrugged. "In ten years, you can do anything. Oh, sure, you came
back on leave and we lived high. Everything was fine here, wasn't it?
Sure it was, for you. They briefed me on where I should take you, so
there'd be good food ready. They kept a few places going for the men
who came back on leave. We couldn't ruin your morale!"

She laughed weakly, and let the sound die away slowly. "How do you
think we sent out the food and supplies for the fleet the last three
years, after the blockade on our supplies from friendly worlds? Why do
you think there was no more leave for you? Because they didn't think
you brave soldiers could stand just seeing how the rest of us lived!
And you think you had it tough! Watch the sky for the enemy while your
stomach hopes for the sound that might be a rat. Hide three cans of
food you'll be shot for hoarding--because there is nothing else
important in the world. And then have a man steal them from you when
the raids come! What does a soldier know of war?"

The sickness inside him grew into a knot, but he still couldn't fully
believe what she was saying. "But cannibalism--"

"No." She shook her head with a faint trace of his own disgust. "No,
Duke. Mrs. Kalaufa told me ... you're not really the same race--Not as
close as you are to an Earth animal, and you don't call that
cannibalism. Nobody on Meloa has ever been a cannibal--yet! How much
money do you have, Duke?"

He took it out and handed it to her. She counted it mechanically and
handed it back. "Not enough. You can't take me away when you leave
here."

"I'm not leaving," he told her. He dropped the money back on the
blanket beside her.

She stared at him for a moment and then pulled herself up to her feet,
moving toward the door. "Good-by, Duke. And get off Meloa. You can't
help us any more. And I don't want you here when I get desperate enough
to remember you might take me back. I like you too much for that, even
now."

He took a step toward her, and she ducked.

"Get out!" She screamed it at him. "Do you think I can stand looking at
you without drooling any longer? Do you want me to call Mrs. Kalaufa
for help?"

Through the open door, he saw Mrs. Kalaufa across the street, still
cradling the child. As the door slammed shut behind him, the woman
screamed, either as a summons or from fear that he'd seek revenge on
her. He saw other heads appear, with frantic eyes that stared sullenly
at the gun he carried. He stumbled down the street, where rain was
beginning to fall, conscious that it would be night before he got back
to the port. He no longer cared.

There was no place for him here, he now saw. He was still an Earthman,
and Earthmen were always treated as a race apart somehow. He didn't
belong. Nor could he go back to a life on Earth. But there were still
the recruiting stations there; so long as war existed, there had to be
such stations. He headed for the fat ships of Earth that squatted
complacently on the wrecked port.




IV


Prince Queeth of Sugfarth had left the royal belt behind, and only a
plain band encircled his round little body as he trotted along, his
four legs making almost no sound. His double pair of thin arms and the
bird-like head on his long neck bobbled excitedly in time to his steps.
Once he stopped to glance across the black stone buildings of the city
as they shone in the dull red of the sun, toward the hill where his
father's palace was lighted brightly for the benefit of his Earth
guests. Queeth touched his ears together ceremoniously and then trotted
on, until he came to the back door of his group's gymnasium. He
whistled the code word and the door opened automatically.

The whole group was assembled, though it was past sleep week for most
of them. Their ears clicked together, but they waited silently as he
curled himself up in the official box. Then Krhal, the merchant
viscount, whistled questioningly. "This will have to be important,
Queeth."

The prince bobbed his ears emphatically. "It is. My father's guests
have all the news, and I learned everything. It won't be as long as we
thought." He paused, before delivering the big news. "The bipeds of
Kloomiria are going to attack Cathay. There'll be official war there
within two weeks!"

He saw them exchanging hasty signals, but again it was Krhal who voiced
their question. "And you think that is important, Queeth? What does it
offer us? Cathay is a human colony. Earth will have to declare war with
her. And with Earth's wealth, it will be over before we could arrive."

"Earth has already passed a resolution that neutrality will apply to
colonies as well as to other planets!"

This time the whistles were sharper. Krhal had difficulty believing it
at first. "So Earth really is afraid to fight? That must mean those
rumors that she has no fleet are true. Our ancestors thought so, and
even planned to attack her, before the humanoids defeated us. The
ancestor king believed that even a single ship fully armed might
conquer her."

"It could be," Queeth admitted. "But do you agree that this is the news
for which we've waited so long?"

There was a quick flutter of cars. "It's our duty," Krhal agreed. "In a
war between Cathay and Kloomiria, we can't remain neutral if we're ever
to serve our friends. Well, the ship is ready!"

That came as a surprise to Queeth. He knew the plans were well along,
but not that they were completed. As merchant viscount, and
second-degree adult, Krhal was entitled to a tenth of his father's
interests. He'd chosen the biggest freighter and the balance in fluid
assets, to the pleasure of his father--who believed he was planning an
honorable career of exploring.

"The conversion completed?" Queeth asked. "But the planet bombs--!"

"Earth supplied them on the last shipment. I explained on the order
that I was going to search uninhabited planets for minerals."

Queeth counted the group again, and was satisfied. There were enough.
With a ship of that size, fully staffed and armed, they would be a
welcome addition to any fleet. They might be enough to tip the balance
for victory, in fact. And while Cathay and Kloomiria lay a long way on
the other side of Earth's system, the drives were fast enough to cover
it in two weeks.

"Does your father know?" Krhal asked.

Queeth smirked. "Would you tell him? He still believes along with the
Earth ambassador that the warrior strain was ruined among our people
when we lost the war with the humanoids."

"Maybe it was," Krhal said doubtfully. "In four generations, it could
evolve again. And there are the books and traditions from which we
trained. If even a timid race such as those of Earth can produce
warriors like O'Neill--a mere poet--why can't the Sugfarth do better?
Particularly when Earth rebuilt factories for us to start our
shipbuilding anew."

"Then we join the war," the prince decided.

There was a series of assent signals from the group.

"Tonight," he suggested, and again there was only assent.

Krhal stood up, setting the course for the others. When the last had
risen, Queeth uncurled himself and rose from the box. "We'll have to
pass near Earth," he suggested as they filed out toward the hangars
where Krhal kept his ship. "Maybe we should show our intentions there!"

There was a sudden whistle of surprise. Then the assent was mounting
wildly. Queeth trotted ahead toward the warship, making his attack
plans over again as he realized he was a born leader who could command
such enthusiasm. He had been doubtful before, in spite of his study of
elementary statistical treatment of relationships.

The lights in the palace showed that the Earth guests were still
celebrating as the great, heavily-laden warship blasted up and headed
toward Earth.




V


Duke O'Neill found a corner of the lounge where no Earthman was near
and dropped down with the magazine and papers, trying to catch up on
the currents of the universe as they affected the six hundred connected
worlds. Most of the articles related to Earth alone, and he skipped
them. He found one on the set-up of the Outer Federation finally. The
humanoid planets there were in a pocket of alien worlds, and union had
been almost automatic. It was still loose, but it seemed to have sound
enough a basis.

If Earth had been willing to come out of its shell and risk some of its
fat trading profits, there could have been an even stronger union that
would have driven war-like thoughts out of the minds of all the aliens.

Instead, she seemed to be equally interested in building up her
potential enemies and ruining her friends. Duke had watched a showing
of new films on the work being done on Throm the night before, and he
was still sick from it. Throm had lost the war, but by a military
defeat, not by thirty-one unprotected raids on all her surface. She
still had landing fields equipped for Earth ships, and the big
freighters were dropping down regularly, spewing out foods, equipment
and even heavy machinery for her rebuilding. Throm was already on the
road back. Meloa had to wait until she could pull herself up enough to
build fields.

Duke turned his eyes to the port. The ship had stopped at Clovis on the
way back to Earth. From where he sat, he could see almost Earth-like
skyscrapers stretching up in a great city. The landing field was huge,
and there were rows on rows of factories building more of the
freighters that stubbed the field.

It seemed impossible, when he remembered that only forty years had
passed since Djamboula's suicide raid had finally defeated the fungoid
creatures of the planet and since the survivors' vows to repay all
Earthmen for their defeat. They were a prolific race, of course--but
without help from Earth, the factories would be shacks and the rockets
and high-drive ships would be only memories.

He wondered how many were cursing their ancestors for making the
mistake of attacking a neighboring humanoid planet instead of Earth,
only two days away on high drive. By now, they knew that Earth was
defenseless. And yet, they seemed content to go on with their vows
forgotten. Duke couldn't believe it. Down underground, beyond Earth
inspection, they could have vast stockpiles of weapons, ready to
install in their ships within days.

How could Earth risk it, unless she had her own stock of hidden ships
and weapons? Yet if she did, he was sure that it would have been
impossible not to use them in defense of the colony of Cathay.

He stared out, watching the crewmen mixing with the repulsive alien
natives, laughing as they worked side by side. There must be some
factor he didn't understand, but he'd never found it--nor did he know
anyone who had guessed it.

He stirred, uncomfortable with his own thoughts. But it wasn't fear for
Earth that bothered him. It was simply that sooner or later some alien
race would risk whatever unknown power the others feared. If the aliens
won, the vast potential power of Earth would then be turned against all
the humanoid races of the universe. Humanity could be driven from the
galaxy.

He turned the pages, idly glancing at the headlines. It was hard to
realize that the paper wasn't right off the presses of Earth; it must
have been brought out to Clovis on the latest ship. He checked the
date, and frowned in surprise. According to the rough calendar he'd
kept, it was the current date. Somewhere he must have lost track of two
days. How much else had he lost sight of during the long years of war?

A diagram caught his attention almost at once as he turned to another
magazine. It was of a behemoth ship, bigger than any he had ever seen,
and built like the dream of a battleship, though it was listed as a
freighter. He scanned it, mentally converting it. With a few like that,
Meloa could have won during the first year.

Then he swore as he saw it was part of an article on the progress of
some alien world known as Sugfarth--by the article, a world of former
warriors, once dedicated to the complete elimination of humanoids!

* * * * *

He saw Flannery coming along the deck at that moment, and he picked up
the magazine, heading for his cabin. He'd ignored previous summons on
the thin excuse of not feeling well. He had no desire to talk with
Earthmen. It was bad enough to take their charity back to Earth and to
have to stay on the planet until he could sign on with the Outer
Federation. His memories were ugly enough, without having them
refreshed.

But Flannery caught him as he was opening the door to his cabin. The
director was huge, with heavy, strong features and a body that looked
too robust for the white hair and the age that showed around his eyes.
His voice was tired, however, showing his years more plainly than his
looks.

"Captain O'Neill," he said quickly. "Stop jousting with windmills. It's
time you grew up. Besides, I've got a job for you."

"Does my charity passage demand an interview, director?" Duke asked.

The other showed no offense, unfortunately. He smiled wryly. "If I
choose, it does. I'm in command of this ship, as well as head of the
Foreign Office. May I come in?"

"I can't keep you out," Duke admitted. He dropped onto the couch,
sprawling out, while the other found the single chair.

Flannery picked up the magazine and glanced through it. "So you're
interested in the Outer Federation?" he asked. "Don't be. It doesn't
have a chance. In a week or so, you'll see it shot. And I don't mean
we'll wreck it. They've picked their own doom, against all the advice
we could give them. Care to have a drink sent down while we talk?"

Duke shook his head. "I'd rather cut it short."

"Hotheads," Flannery told the walls thoughtfully, "make the best men
obtainable, once they're tamed. Nothing beats an idealist who can face

facts. And the intelligent ones usually grow up. Captain, I've studied
your strategy against Throm on that last drive after Dayole was killed.
Brilliant! I need a good man, and I can pay for one. If you give me a
chance, I can also show you why you should take it. Know anything about
how Earth got started on its present course?"

"Dumb luck and cowardice, as far as I can see," Duke answered.

When Earth discovered the first inefficient version of the high drive,
she had found herself in a deserted section of the universe, with the
nearest inhabited star system months away. The secret of the drive
couldn't be kept, of course, but the races who used it to build war
fleets found it easier to fight with each other than with distant
Earth. Later, when faster drives were developed, Earth was protected by
the buffer worlds she had rebuilt.

Flannery grinned. "Luck--and experience. We learned something from our
early nuclear-technological wars. We learned more from the interstellar
wars of others. We decided that any planet ruined by such war wouldn't
fight again--the women and children who lived through that hell would
see to it--unless new hatreds grew up during the struggle back. So we
practically pauperized ourselves at first to see that they recovered
too quickly for hate and fear. We also began digging into the science
of how to manipulate relationships--Earth's greatest discovery--to set
up a system that would work. It paid off for us in the long run."

"So what's all that got to do with me?" Duke asked. He'd heard of the
great science of Earth and her ability to manipulate all kinds of
relationships before, spoken of in hush-hush terms when he was still in
college. But he'd quit believing in fairy tales even before then. Now
he was even sicker of Earth's self-justification.

Flannery frowned, and then shrugged. "It's no secret I need a good man
on Throm, and you're the logical candidate, if I can pound some facts
into your head. I've found that sending an Earthman they know as a
competent enemy works wonders. Not at first--there's hostility for a
while--but in the long run it gives them a new slant on us."

"Then you'd better get an Earthman," Duke snapped. "You're talking to a
citizen of Meloa! By choice!"

"I hadn't finished my explanation," Flannery reminded.

Duke snorted. "I was brought up on explanations. I heard men spouting
about taming the aliens when I first learned to talk--as if they were
wild animals. I read articles on how the Clovisem and those things from
Sugfarth needed kindness. It's the same guff I heard about how to
handle lions. But the men doing the talking weren't in the ring; and I
noticed the ringmaster carried a whip and gun. He knew the beasts. I
know the aliens of Throm."

"From fighting them? From hating them? Or from being more afraid of
them than you think Earth is, captain? I've talked to more aliens than
you've ever seen."

"And the Roman diplomats laughed at the soldiers who told them the
Goths were getting ready to sack Rome."

Flannery stared at him in sudden amusement. "We aren't in an Empire
period, O'Neill. But you might look up what the Romans did to conquered
people during the Republic, when Rome was still growing. Captain, I'm
not underrating the aliens!"

"Tame aliens! Or ones faking tameness. You've seen them smiling, maybe.
I saw the other side."

The old man sighed heavily and reached for his shirt. He began
unbuttoning it and pulling it over his head. "You've got a nice
prosthetic hand," he said. "Now take a look at some real handiwork!"

There was a strap affair around his shoulders, with a set of
complicated electronic controls slipped into the muscle fibers. From
them, both arms hung loose, unattached at the shoulder blades. Further
down, another affair of webbing went around his waist.

"Only one leg is false," he explained, "but the decorations are real.
They came from a highly skilled torturer. I've had my experience with
aliens. Clovisem, if you're curious. I was the second in command on
Djamboula's volunteer raid, forty years ago."

Duke dropped his eyes from the scars. For a second, he groped for words
of apology. Then the cold, frozen section of his brain swallowed the
emotions. "I've seen a woman with a prosthetic soul," he said bitterly.
"Only she didn't turn yellow because of what the aliens did!"

Red spots shot onto Flannery's cheeks and one of the artificial arms
jerked back as savagely as a real one. He hesitated, then reached for
his shirt. "O.K., squawman!"

The word had no meaning for Duke, though he knew it was an insult. But
he couldn't respond to it. He fumbled through his memories, trying to
place it. Something about Indians--

Flannery began buttoning his pants over the shirt. "I'm out of bounds,
captain," he said more quietly. "I hope you don't know the prejudices
behind that crack. But you win. If you ever want the rest of the
explanation, look me up."

He closed the door behind him softly and went striding evenly up the
passage.

Duke frowned after him. The talk had gotten under his skin. If there
were things he didn't know--

Then he swore at himself. There was plenty he didn't know. But the
carefully developed indoctrination propaganda of the top Earth
psychologists wasn't the answer he wanted.

He'd have to make his stay on Earth shorter than he'd planned. If they
could get to a man who had served under Djamboula and convince him that
Clovisem were nice house pets, it was little wonder they could wrap the
rest of Earth around their psychological fingers.

Too bad their psychology wasn't adjusted to aliens!




VI


Barth Nevesh was nearly seven feet tall, and his cat-shaped ears stuck
up another four inches above his head. Even among the people of Kel he
was a big man, but to the representatives of the other humanoid worlds
of the Federation, he seemed a giant. The thick furs he wore against
the heavy chill of the room added to his apparent size, and the horns
growing from his shoulders lifted his robes until he seemed to have no
neck.

Now he stood up, driving his heavy fist down against the big wooden
table. "The question is, do we have the answer or not?" he roared. "You
say we do. Logic says we do. Then let's act on it!"

The elfin figure of Lemillulot straightened up at the other end of the
table. "Not so fast, commander. Nobody questions the power of your
fleet. Nobody doubts that we have the only possible answer to the
aliens that Earth is helping to take over our universe--strength
through unity. But is it as good as it can be?"

"How better?" Barth roared again. "Every world in this alien pocket has
been building its strength since the Earthmen's ships first reached
here and showed us space travel was possible. We've seen the stinking
aliens get the same ships. But now we've got something they can't
resist--a Federation, in spite of all Earth could do to stop us. If all
our fleets strike at once, no alien world can resist--and we can stop
merely holding them back. Wipe them out, one by one, I say! The only
good alien is a dead alien!"

There was a lot of talk--more than Barth usually heard or contributed
in a month. Lemillulot was the focus of most of it. The little man
would never be satisfied. He wanted all the humanoid worlds organized,
and by now it was plain that Earth's influence would be too strong
outside of their own section.

Their accomplishments were already enough. United as they were, the
Federation was clearly invincible. Their fleets were at full size and
the crews were thoroughly trained. No other time would be better.

There had already been a stir of ship-building on the alien worlds,
since the first word of the Federation had somehow leaked out. The
Federation position was as good as it would ever be--and with eleven
fleets working together, nothing better was needed.

"Knock them down with the long shells, haze them to base with
interceptors, and then rip their worlds with planet bombs," Barth
repeated his plans. "We can do it in six hours for a planet--we can
start at the strongest, Neflis, and work down through the weakest, to
make up for our losses. And if the Earth forces start moving in to
rebuild them--well, I've been thinking the Federation could use a
little more wealth and power!"

"Humanoids don't attack humanoids," Lemillulot protested.

The snarling, dog face of Sra from Chumkt opened in a grin, and his sly
voice held a hint of a chuckle. "Or so Earth keeps preaching. But
Earthmen aren't humanoids. They're humans!"

He laughed softly at his own wit. There were rumbles of uncertainty,
but Barth saw that the seed had taken root. If they kept working
together, he and Sra could force it to ripen soon enough.

"That can wait," Barth decided. "The question is, do we attack Neflis,
and when? I say now!"

* * * * *

It took an hour more for the decision. But there would be only one
answer, and the final vote was unanimous. The fleets would take off
from their home worlds and rendezvous near the barren sun; from there,
they would proceed in a group, under the control of Barth, toward the
alien world of Neflis.

The commander checked his chronometer as the delegates went to send
their coded reports to their home worlds. He had the longest distance
to lead his fleet, and there was no time for delay.

Outside, the harsh snow crackled under his feet, and a layer of storm
clouds cut off the wan heat of Kel's sun. He drew in a deep breath,
watching the swirl of white as he exhaled. It was a good world--a world
to build men. It was the world from which a leader should come.

The fleet would be all his within a day. And for a time, it would be
busy at the work of wiping out the nearby aliens. After that--well,
there were other aliens further out toward the last frontiers of
exploration. With care, the fleet could be kept busy for years.

Barth was remembering his histories, and the armies that had been swept
together. In a few years, fighting men began to think of themselves as
a people apart, and loyalty to their birthplace gave way to loyalty to
their leader. Five years should be enough. Then there could be more
than a Federation; there could be the empire among the worlds that had
been his lifelong dream.

But first, there was Earth. He snorted to himself as he reached the
ships of his fleet. Missionaries! Spreading their soft fear through the
universe. In five years, his fleet should be ready for ten times the
power of any single planet--including Earth.

Sra would be the only problem in his way. But that could be met later.
For the moment, the man from Chumkt was useful.

Barth strode up the ramp of his flagship, shouting out to his men as he
went. There was no need of signals. They had been primed and waiting
for days, ready to follow him up.

He dropped to the control seat, staring at the little lights that would
tell him of their progress. "Up ship!" he shouted, and from the metal
halls and caverns of the ship other voices echoed his cry.

The Wind Dragon leaped upwards sharply. Behind, as the red lights
showed, four hundred others charged into the sky and the open space
beyond. Barth sat at the great screen, watching as they drew on
steadily toward the rendezvous, mulling over his plans.

They were three hours out from Kel when he turned the control over to
his lieutenant and went below, where his table was laden with the
smoking cheer of good green meat and ale. With a sigh of contentment,
he threw back his outer robe and prepared to forget everything until he
had dined.

He was humming hoarsely to himself as he cut a piece of the meat and
stuck it on his left shoulder horn, within reach of his teeth. Maybe a
little of the baked fish would blend well--

The emergency drum blasted through the ship as he lifted the knife.
Swearing and tearing at the flesh near his mouth, he leaped up and
forward toward the control room. He heard voices shouting, something
about a fleet. Then he was at the screens where he could see for
himself.

Five million miles ahead, another fleet was assembled, where none
should be from any of the Federation worlds! His eyes swept sideways
across the screen, estimating the number. It was impossible. There
weren't a quarter of that number in the fleet of any world, humanoid or
alien!

Barth flipped on the microresolver, twisting the wheel that sent it
racing across the path of the fleet ahead. His eyes confirmed what his
mind had already recognized.

The aliens had their own federation. There were ships of every type
there, grouped in units. Thirteen alien worlds were combined against
the Outer Federation.

For a breath he hesitated, ready to turn back and defend Kel while
there was time. But it would never work. One fleet would never be
enough to defend the planet against the combined aliens.

"Cluster!" he barked into the communicator. "Out rams and up speed.
Prepare for breakthrough!"

If they could hit the aliens at full drive and cut through the weaker
center, they could still rendezvous with the other fleets. The combined
strength might be enough. And the gods help Kel if the aliens refused
to follow him!

Earth, he thought; Earth again, coddling and protecting aliens, forming
them into a conspiracy against the humanoid worlds. If Kel or any part
of the Federation survived, that debt would be paid!




VII


Earth lay fat and smug under the sun, seemingly unchanged since Duke
had left it. For generations the populace had complained that they were
draining themselves dry to rebuild other worlds, but they had grown
rich on the investment. It was the only planet where men worked shorter
and shorter hours to give them more leisure in which to continue a
frantic effort to escape boredom. It was also the only world where the
mention of aliens made men think of their order books instead of their
weapons.

Duke walked steadily away from the grotesquely elaborate landing field.
He had less than thirty cents in his pocket, but his breakfast aboard
had left him satisfied for the moment. He turned onto a wider street,
heading the long distance across the city toward the most probable
location of the recruiting stations.

The Outer Federation station would be off the main section, since the
official line was disapproving of such a union. But he was sure there
would be one. The system of recruiting was a tradition too hard to
break. Earth used it as an escape valve for her troublemakers. And
since such volunteers made some of the best of all fighters, they had
already decided the outcome of more than one war. By carefully juggling
the attention given the stations, Earth could influence the battles
without seeming to do so.

The air was thick with the smell of late summer, and there was pleasure
in that, until Duke remembered the odor of Meloa, and its cause. Later
the cloying perfume of women mixed with the normal industrial odors of
the city, until his nose was overdriven to the point of cutoff. He saw
things in the shop windows that he had forgotten, but he had no desire
for them. And over everything came the incessant yammer of voices
saying nothing, radios blaring, television babbling, and vending
machines shouting.

He gave up at last and invested half his small fund in a subway. It was
equally noisy, but it took less time. Beside him, a fungoid creature
from Clovis was busy practicing silently on its speaking machine, but
nobody else seeemed to notice.

Duke's head was spinning when he reached the surface again. He stopped
to let it clear, wondering if he'd ever found this world home. It
wouldn't matter soon, though; once he was signed up at the recruiting
station, there would be no time to think.

He saw the sign, only a few blocks from where the recruiting posters
for Meloa had been so long ago. It was faded, but he could read the
lettering, and he headed for it. As he had expected, it was on a dirty
back street, where the buildings were a confusion of shipping concerns
and cheaper apartment houses.

He knew something was wrong when he was a block away. There was no
pitch being delivered by a barking machine, and no idle group watching
the recruiting efforts on the street. In fact, nobody was in front of
the vacant store that had been used, and the big posters were ripped
down.

He reached the entrance and stopped. The door was half open, but it
carried a notice that the place had been closed by order of the World
Foreign Office. Through the dirty glass, Duke could see a young man of
about twenty sitting slumped behind a battered desk.

He stepped in and the boy looked up apathetically. "You're too late,
captain. Neutrality went on hours ago when the first word came through.
Caught me just ready to ship out--after two lousy months recruiting
here, I have to be the one stranded."

"You're lucky," Duke told him mechanically, not sure whether he meant
it or not. Oddly, the idea of a kid like this mixed up in an
interplanetary war bothered him. He turned to go, then hesitated. "Got
a newspaper or a directory around that I could borrow?"

The boy fished a paper out of a wastebasket. "It's all yours, captain.
The whole place is yours. Slam the door when you go out. I'm going over
to the Cathay office."

"I'll go along," Duke offered. The address of that place was all he'd
wanted from the paper. He'd have preferred the Federation to joining up
with Earth colonists, but beggars never made good choosers.

The kid shook his head. He dragged open a drawer, found a slip of
paper, and handed it over. It was a notice that the legal maximum age
for recruiting had been reduced to thirty! "You'd never make it,
captain," he said.

Duke looked at the paper in his hands and at the dim reflection of his
face in a window. "No," he agreed. "I didn't make it."

He followed the boy to the door, staring out at the street, thick with
its noises and smells. He dropped to the doorsill and looked briefly up
at the sky where two ships were cutting out to space. Flannery had
known the regulation and hadn't told him. Yet it was his own fault; the
age limit was lower now, but there had always been a limit. He had
simply forgotten that he'd grown older.

He found it hard to realize he'd been no older than the kid when he'd
signed up for the war with Throm.

* * * * *

For a while he sat looking at the street, trying to realize what had
happened to him. It took time to face the facts. He listened with half
his attention as a small group of teen-age boys came from one of the
buildings and began exchanging angry insults with another group
apparently waiting for them on the corner. From their attitudes, some
of them were carrying weapons and were half-eager, half-afraid to use
them. It was hard to remember back to the time when such things had
seemed important to him. He considered putting a stop to the argument,
before it got out of hand, since no police were near; but adults had no
business in kid fights. He watched them retreat slowly back to an
alley, still shouting to work up their courage. Maybe he should be glad
that there was even this much fire left under the smug placidity of
Earth.

Finally, he picked up the newspaper from where he'd dropped it and
began turning back to the want ads. His needs were few, and there
should be dishwashing jobs, at least, somewhere in the city. He still
had to eat and find some place to sleep.

A headline glared up at him, catching his attention. He started to skim
the story, and then read it thoroughly. Things weren't going at all as
he'd expected in the Outer Worlds, if the account were true; and
usually, such battle reports weren't altered much.

The aliens had developed a union of their own--if anything, a stronger
one than the humanoids had. Apparently they'd chased the Federation
ships into some kind of a trap. Losses on both sides were huge. And
raids had begun on all the alien and humanoid planets.

He scowled as he came to the latest developments. One section of the
Federation fleet under Sra of Chumkt had pulled out, accusing the
faction headed by Barth Nevesh of leading the aliens to the humanoid
rendezvous. Kel's leader had gone after the deserters, fought it out
with them in the middle of the larger battle, killed Sra, and declared
himself the head of the whole Federation. It was madness that should
have led to complete annihilation; only the fumbling, uncooerdinated
leadership of the aliens had saved the humanoid fleets. And now the
Federation was coming apart at the seams, with Barth Nevesh frantically
scurrying around to catch up the pieces.

Duke read it through again, but with no added information. It was a
shock to know that the aliens had combined against the





Next: Monkey On His Back

Previous: The Return



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