-and Epilogue

: The Highest ... Treason

"Hold it!" The voice bellowed thunderingly from the loud-speakers of

the six Earth ships that had boxed in the derelict. "Hold it! Don't

bomb that ship! I'll personally have the head of any man who damages

that ship!"

In five of the ships, the commanders simply held off the bombardment

that would have vaporized the derelict. In the sixth, Major Thornton,

the Group Commander, snapped off the microphone. Hi
voice was shaky as

he said: "That was close! Another second, and we'd have lost that ship


Captain Verenski's Oriental features had a half-startled, half-puzzled

look. "I don't get it. You grabbed that mike control as if you'd been

bitten. I know that she's only a derelict. After that burst of

fifty-gee acceleration for fifteen minutes, there couldn't be anyone

left alive on her. But there must have been a reason for using atomic

rockets instead of their antiacceleration fields. What makes you think

she's not dangerous?"

"I didn't say she wasn't dangerous," the major snapped. "She may be.

Probably is. But we're going to capture her if we can. Look!" He

pointed at the image of the ship in the screen.

She wasn't spinning now, or looping end-over-end. After fifteen minutes

of high acceleration, her atomic rockets had cut out, and now she moved

serenely at constant velocity, looking as dead as a battered tin can.

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

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

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

blinked and said, "Shudos!"

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

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

into the captain's.

"Even if its armament is still functioning, we have to take the chance,"

Major Thornton said. "Even if they're all dead, we have to try to get

The Butcher's body." He picked up the microphone again.

"Attention, Group. Listen carefully and don't get itchy trigger fingers.

That ship is the Shudos. The Butcher's ship. It's a ten-man ship, and

the most she could have aboard would be thirty, even if they jammed her

full to the hull. I don't know of any way that anyone could be alive on

her after fifteen minutes at fifty gees of atomic drive, but remember

that they don't have any idea of how our counteraction generators damp

out spatial distortion either. Remember what Dr. Pendric said: 'No man

is superior to any other in all ways. Every man is superior to every

other in some way.' We may have the counteraction generator, but they

may have something else that we don't know about. So stay alert.

"I am going to take a landing-party aboard. There's a reward out for

The Butcher, and that reward will be split proportionately among us.

It's big enough for us all to enjoy it, and we'll probably get

citations if we bring him in.

"I want ten men from each ship. I'm not asking for volunteers; I want

each ship commander to pick the ten men he thinks will be least likely

to lose their heads in an emergency. I don't want anyone to panic and

shoot when he should be thinking. I don't want anyone who had any

relatives on Houston's World. Sorry, but I can't allow vengeance yet.

"We're a thousand miles from the Shudos now; close in slowly until

we're within a hundred yards. The boarding parties will don armor and

prepare to board while we're closing in. At a hundred yards, we stop

and the boarding parties will land on the hull. I'll give further

orders then.

"One more thing. I don't think her A-A generators could possibly be

functioning, judging from that dent in her hull, but we can't be sure.

If she tries to go into A-A drive, she is to be bombed--no matter who

is aboard. It is better that sixty men die than that The Butcher


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

* * * * *

Half an hour later, Major Thornton stood on the hull of the Shudos,

surrounded by the sixty men of the boarding party. "Anybody see

anything through those windows?" he asked.

Several of the men had peered through the direct-vision ports, playing

spotlight beams through them.

"Nothing alive," said a sergeant, a remark which was followed by a

chorus of agreement.

"Pretty much of a mess in there," said another sergeant. "That fifty

gees mashed everything to the floor. Why'd anyone want to use

acceleration like that?"

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

The outer door to the air lock was closed, but not locked. It swung

open easily to disclose the room between the outer and inner doors. Ten

men went in with the major, the others stayed outside with orders to

cut through the hull if anything went wrong.

"If he's still alive," the major said, "we don't want to kill him by

blowing the air. Sergeant, start the airlock cycle."

There was barely room for ten men in the air lock. It had been built

big enough for the full crew to use it at one time, but it was only

just big enough.

When the inner door opened, they went in cautiously. They spread out

and searched cautiously. The caution was unnecessary, as it turned out.

There wasn't a living thing aboard.

"Three officers shot through the head, sir," said the sergeant. "One of

'em looks like he died of a broken neck, but it's hard to tell after

that fifty gees mashed 'em. Crewmen in the engine room--five of 'em.

Mashed up, but I'd say they died of radiation, since the shielding on

one of the generators was ruptured by the blast that made that dent in

the hull."

"Nine bodies," the major said musingly. "All Kerothi. And all of them

probably dead before the fifty-gee acceleration. Keep looking,

sergeant. We've got to find the tenth man."

Another twenty-minute search gave them all the information they were

ever to get.

* * * * *

"No Earth food aboard," said the major. "One spacesuit missing.

Handweapons missing. Two emergency survival kits and two medical kits

missing. And--most important of all--the courier boat is missing." He

bit at his lower lip for a moment, then went on. "Outer air lock door

left unlocked. Three Kerothi shot--after the explosion that ruined

the A-A drive, and before the fifty-gee acceleration." He looked at

the sergeant. "What do you think happened?"

"He got away," the tough-looking noncom said grimly. "Took the courier

boat and scooted away from here."

"Why did he set the timer on the drive, then? What was the purpose of

that fifty-gee blast?"

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

hightailed it out."

"He might have, at that," the major said musingly. "A one-man courier

could have gotten away. Our new detection equipment isn't perfect

yet. But----"

At that moment, one of the troopers pushed himself down the corridor

toward them. "Look, sir! I found this in the pocket of the Carrot-skin

who was taped up in there!" He was holding a piece of paper.

The major took it, read it, then read it aloud. "Greetings, fellow

Earthmen: When you read this, I will be safe from any power you may

think you have to arrest or punish me. But don't think you are safe

from me. There are other intelligent races in the galaxy, and I'll be

around for a long time to come. You haven't heard the last of me. With

love--Sebastian MacMaine."

The silence that followed was almost deadly.

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

"Maybe," said the major. "But it doesn't make sense." He sounded

agitated. "Look. In the first place, how do we know the courier boat

was even aboard? They've been trying frantically to get word back to

Keroth; does it make sense that they'd save this boat? And why all the

fanfare? Suppose he did have a boat? Why would he attract our attention

with that fifty-gee flare? Just so he could leave us a note?"

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

"I don't think he had a boat. If he did, he'd want us to think he was

dead, not the other way around. I think he set the drive timer on this

ship, went outside with his supplies, crawled up a drive tube and

waited until that atomic rocket blast blew him into plasma. He was

probably badly wounded and didn't want us to know that we'd won. That

way, we'd never find him."

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

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

"Because as long as we don't know, he'll haunt us. He'll be like

Hitler or Jack the Ripper. He'll be an immortal menace instead of a

dead villain who could be forgotten."

"Maybe so, sir," said the sergeant, but there was an utter lack of

conviction in his voice. "But we'd still better comb this area and keep

our detectors hot. We'll know what he was up to when we catch him."

"But if we don't find him," the major said softly, "we'll never

know. That's the beauty of it, sergeant. If we don't find him, then

he's won. In his own fiendish, twisted way, he's won."

"If we don't find him," said the sergeant stolidly, "I think we better

keep a sharp eye out for the next intelligent race we meet. He might

find 'em first."

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

wish I knew why."