Out Of The Dark Nebula
by Milton Coe
Five thousand green space-cadets, manning
the mighty Albion on their shake-down cruise,
heard the grim message from HQ:
"War with Xantu! Return immediately to Terra Base!"
Which posed a problem ... for lurking in the starry battleground, somewhere between Earth and them, was half the Xantu fleet!
The bulkheads of the mighty battleship rocked with the song welling from five thousand throats. As the young, eager voices swelled into the chorus of "The Spaceman's Hymn," Vice-Admiral Jack Harrigan felt a lump grow in his own throat. Captain Mike O'Brien, short, muscular and definitely Irish, joined the admiral at the balcony hatch; together they looked down upon the huge ship's auditorium.
"It's a long, long way to the Milky Way ..." the chorus rose, fell, faded and died.
Harrigan nodded to O'Brien and the two men matched strides down the passageway.
"Something on your mind, Jack?" O'Brien asked.
"Oh, I don't know, Mike. I just got to thinking about the old days, I guess, hearing those kids singing. The Force is all glory to them; color, ceremony, power, flitting around the Galaxy like this. Cream of the crop, they are, and every last one of them fought to get in the Force. But I wonder how they'd face up to the other side of this business?"
"Combat?" O'Brien screwed up his face.
"Yeh boy. Combat like we saw, with our backs to the wall and nine-tenths of the Galaxy howling for our heart's blood. Wonder if they'd change their minds about the force—" he jerked his thumb back towards the auditorium—"if it came again?"
"Dunno." Mike shrugged. "Maybe old Fitzsimmons wondered about us the same way when we went on our shake-down cruise. We were a sad bunch, I'll admit. But we didn't pan out too bad, did we Jack?"
The two officers had reached the observation deck. The Milky Way stretched a hazy filament across the heavens. Harrigan drew a long breath, hooked his thumbs in his belt and smiled.
"No, Mike, not bad at all, if I do say so. It was rugged while we were going through it, I suppose. But things have been quiet for so long now ... damn it, we did have fun, didn't we Mike?"
Mike grinned crookedly. "Fun is right. Remember the time Shorty Michaels caught those two Xantu ships flat-footed behind the Coal Sack?"
"Yeah. Blew 'em to Hell and back and found out later they were the two strongest ships in the Xantu fleet. If they had seen him first ... brother, he shook for a week after they told him."
Mike roared with laughter. "Battle wagons, and Shorty with a destroyer."
"And how about that time the gang of Zith stinkers ambushed us on Sirius V.... Were they surprised when their water-pistols didn't kill us! They didn't know that water isn't quite as fatal to a Terran as it is to a Zith."
"Yeah," O'Brien said; "and I'll never forget the smile on Cap Martin's face as he sprayed 'em with the ship's fire hose."
"Well," the admiral said, sobering, "if you'd seen the pitiful remains in their slave camps on Sirius VII, the way Cap and I did...." He shook his head slowly. "We should have bounced a couple Duodec bombs off their home planet. And on Xantu too. Finished the job right."
The captain gazed down at his shoes. "We might get the chance yet. Any news lately?"
"Not much. Just the usual rumblings from the Dark Nebulas. But I agree with HQ that the Xantu are at the bottom of it, without a doubt. You never know when those varmints are going to start trouble. That's the reason for all this hush-up preparation; we're going to be ready at the drop of a helmet if anybody wants to rassle."
"Smart move by HQ for once," Mike said. "Never hurt to be ready for...."
A communications orderly saluted smartly.
"Pardon, Sir. HQ Double urgent."
Harrigan took the flimsy from the orderly and scanned it quickly. His face went slack. "Good Lord, O'Brien! Hear this: 'Dark Nebula forces simultaneously attacked Rigel patrol post and Capella II settlement 1400 hours. Personnel annihilated. Fleet headed by Xantu elements headed Sector I. Return to Base Immediately'."
"Sector I. Sol—Alpha Centauri—Sirius sector!" Mike whistled and shook his head. "They'll cut us off before we can reach Terra."
"They will if we don't get a move on," the admiral snapped, "and, we can't fight with a green crew. Gotta get these kids back to Terra."
Harrigan leaped to the audio. His orders were short and sharp.
"Drive room: Joe, full speed home, boy. The bubble's busted wide open.
"Quartermaster: Wilson, prepare to issue battle suits.
"Central: Give me the system. Thanks." He cleared his throat. "All hands hear this. A state of war exists between the Solar Federation and the Dark Nebula League. We will attempt to reach Terra base before being cut off by the enemy fleet. However, just in case, we will be ready. Battle stations!"
The next few hours were hectic ones, especially for the few seasoned officers aboard the battleship Albion. The Albion was a fairly new ship. She was fast, heavily armored, and carried the latest guns, three facts which Harrigan hoped would save them from disaster. He realized that HQ had had to break radio silence to notify them of the sudden outbreak of hostilities, but he also knew that the enemy had undoubtedly intercepted the message, plotted the Albion course, and sent a half-dozen of their fastest ships in hot pursuit. That's the way the Dark Nebula League liked to fight: six to one. Harrigan figured that he just might be able to outrun them; but if the League ships did manage to cut them off from Terra ... well, he hated the idea of fighting that bunch of cut-throats with a crew of green kids. Ordinarily, new spacemen were distributed among crews of seasoned men at a ratio of about one in ten. To be in top fighting condition, the Albion should carry four thousand regulars and four hundred greenies. There were five thousand men on board; one hundred and fifty old line officers, fifty newly commissioned officers, and forty-eight hundred Terran youngsters fresh out of ground school.
The officers had done their best to whip the crew into the semblance of a fighting unit. If a fracas did develop, they might squeeze through if the kids could follow orders. But in battle things happened almost too fast to be covered by orders. A man had to think for himself.
Harrigan found himself staring through the forward screen, wishing that three or four thousand hardened space-Marines would suddenly materialize out of thin air. O'Brien came steaming up. He sat down beside the admiral, lit a cigarette and said "Phwooee."
"Right you are," Harrigan answered. "Things sure popped, didn't they?"
"And how. Think we ought to prowl?"
"Guess so. We're going to watch things mighty damned close till we hit base. Better check the gun-banks. And by the way, Mike, who had the controls when that order came in?"
"Young chap named McDaniels."
"And his navigator?"
"Have them report to me when they come off. They're to be congratulated for getting us away fast and right. If the rest of the crew picks up as fast as those two, we'll make out O.K. Let's have a look at those banks."
The Albion's eight gun-banks spangled the ship from nose to tubes like stripes on a watermelon. Each bank was divided into A, B and C sections, fore, aft and center. Forty-eight men and two officers manned each section. The atomic cannon in the nose were fired only by the ship's Master gunner, a sardonic expert named Irvington.
At number six gun-bank, Harrigan and O'Brien entered section C hatch. O'Brien's mouth fell open. Along the catwalk behind the gun emplacements proper, men lounged and leaned. One slept. Several were smoking and most of them had thrown back their helmets. Of the forty-eight, three had their eyes on the finder screens.
"Attention," Harrigan roared, and fifty men jerked erect like puppets on a string. "Get your helmets up and your eyes on those screens. And keep them there until you're ordered off. This isn't a shake-down any longer; this is war!" He turned to O'Brien. "Who's in charge here?"
"Leave the Ensign in charge and have Sanderson report to the bridge at once." Harrigan stooped through the hatch. "And Mike, see that the word is passed along to the remaining gun-crews. Damned if I'll see a repeat of this!"
"Yes, sir," Mike answered, and turned toward the nervous lieutenant. "Report to the bridge, Mister, and prepare to be chewed."
Sanderson managed a weak "Yes, sir."
Harrigan was pacing the bridge when McDaniels and Rose came in, stood at attention and saluted crisply.
The admiral returned the salute. "Relax, gentlemen. I called you here to commend you both personally for your fast, clear thinking under the stress of emergency. Cool-headedness under strain is taken as a matter of course in the Space Forces, but in this case your actions served as an example to an inexperienced crew and are therefore doubly appreciated by the officers of this ship. Sit down."
The two men took seats and Harrigan relaxed behind his own massive desk. "I was with your father at Cadet school, McDaniels, and later at the Battle of Canopus. Where is the Commander now?"
McDaniels, short and pudgy, answered proudly. "He took command of Polaris Base I just before we left on the cruise, sir."
The kid doesn't know yet, Harrigan thought. If the Force can't stem the League attack damned quick, old McDaniels and his men will be the expendables in this scrap. But the kid sitting before him was so eager and obviously proud of his father that the admiral hadn't the heart to tell him the true score.
"Sir," Rose piped up, "are you the same officer Harrigan that Dad mentioned during the First Campaign? He was Master Navigator on the old 'Cometeer.'"
"I certainly am." Harrigan smiled broadly. "'Red' Rose was the best navigator I ever had. He could plot you half way around the Galaxy and land you in your barracks just in time for supper. How long has it been now, six years, seven?"
Rose looked at the floor. "Seven, sir. He was hunting Kalabs on Callisto when the landslide caught him."
"I'm sorry, deeply sorry."
Footsteps sounded in the passageway and the lieutenant, Sanderson, came in, followed closely by O'Brien. The lieutenant tucked his cap under his elbow, smoothed back his thick hair and saluted.
Harrigan gazed at the man for a long moment.
"Lieutenant, perhaps the seriousness of our circumstances has not impressed you fully. But the Albion, carrying this inexperienced crew, stands in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the League fleet, or at best, being cut off from Terran base. Therefore I think it.... Oops!" Harrigan had knocked his water pitcher to the floor. The plastic didn't break, but water splashed. Sanderson jumped back convulsively, his face white. O'Brien motioned an orderly to mop up the mess, and the admiral went on. "You are a seasoned junior officer, Sanderson. Your record is excellent, otherwise some form of punishment would be in order. I shouldn't need to repeat that it is your duty to keep your crew on the alert until we are out of danger. Dismissed."
The lieutenant saluted and turned to leave.
"Oh, Sanderson, one more thing." Harrigan rose and walked around the desk.
The admiral faced the lieutenant and, before the dumbfounded eyes of Rose, McDaniels and the orderly, very deliberately drew his service blaster and shot Sanderson dead center between the eyes.
McDaniels gulped. Rose jumped up trembling. The orderly let his mop fall with a clatter. O'Brien winked at Harrigan.
"Great hell, you've killed him." Rose found his voice.
"That I have. That, gentlemen ..." Harrigan pointed to the corpse, "is a Zith."
An immediate babble of "why's" and "how do you know's" filled the air.
"Look," the admiral motioned and the men gathered around the corpse. Harrigan stooped, ran his fingers through the thick black hair and came up with two fleshy, antenna-like appendages about four inches in length, which sprouted from the skull an inch or so above the hair-line. "On the Zith home planet, their religion requires that the head be cleanly shaven, and these antennae are a source of pride. But when a Zith wishes to pass for a Terran, he allows his hair to grow, and as long as the antennae are kept flat, he has a fair chance of going undetected. It's one of the oddities of the Universe that the Zith and Terran, so unlike in temperament, are, to the eye, unlike only in this small way. But, in Terran company, most Ziths acquire the nervous habit of continually running their hands over their hair, to make sure that the antennae are well hidden."
"But a lot of Terrans have the habit of smoothing down their hair," Rose objected. "Isn't that pretty thin evidence to shoot a man by, if you're not sure?"
"Right," O'Brien broke in, "but you notice that the admiral said the antennae were the only difference noticeable to the eye. There's another, more important difference. The chemical make-up of the Zith body is such that water reacts violently on contact with it, producing what corresponds to severe burns, usually resulting in death. The admiral and I both noticed Sanderson's nervous habit down in the gun-bank a while ago. The pitcher incident a few minutes ago proved to us that Sanderson was not a Terran. You men noticed how he shook and paled when the water splashed near him."
"Then this isn't Sanderson at all?" McDaniels asked, his dark eyes wide with wonder.
"Our records indicate that a Lieutenant Vern Sanderson left Aldebaran II about three months ago to assist on the Albion shake-down cruise. My guess is that the real Sanderson met with foul play somewhere along the way and this ... thing ... was substituted. The League knew that war was coming. They also knew that the Federation has lately installed the new Dyer gun and is in the process of installing the Bergesson Hyper-drive in its capital ships. This critter was probably one of many sent to get those secrets. With them, victory for the League would be assured."
"But why kill him? Why didn't you take him prisoner and find out what he knew?"
"For just one damned good reason," Harrigan answered. "These boys are telepathic over short distances—the antennae have something to do with that. If I hadn't taken him by complete surprise, he would have notified his pals, if any, on this ship. And, if there should happen to be a dozen or a hundred of these babies on board, we really would be in for it. O'Brien, arrange a watch on the mess hall. Have all hands who do not take water with their meals reported. You and chief Scott will have to call them in one at a time and give them the acid test."
O'Brien went off to arrange the mess hall watch and Harrigan sat down, heaving a great sigh, behind his desk. "Well, gentlemen," he said, "you have seen the enemy. Or at least half the enemy."
"Yes, sir," Rose responded, "but what about the Xantus, sir? I—we've never seen one of them."
The admiral shuddered inwardly. "I hope you never do," he confessed. All the wretched memories of two galactic campaigns swept over him again. "A Xantu looks like nothing more nor less than a beer barrel on skids, with a cauliflower for a head. Eight independently focussing eyes, one for each of the tentacles that sprout from the middle of the chest. Get one of those monkeys behind a gun bank and you'll swear you have a platoon facing you." Harrigan lit a cigarette, forked smoke from his nostrils.
"The Xantus don't do too much of the actual fighting, though. Back in the early days of space conquest, they teamed up with the Ziths ... I imagine because the Xantus have a terrific technical culture but are few in number, relatively speaking, and the Ziths aren't great on technology but have the manpower. And too, their home systems are only a few light-years apart. So far, the partnership has worked out very well for the Dark Nebula League; the Xantus providing the brains, and the Ziths the muscle. They are both ancient races, and very probably their plans for the conquest of this end of the Universe would have gone nicely if they hadn't run up against the Solar Federation, led by Terra. We stand smack across their path. It has come to the point now where it's us or them, absolutely...."
After the Sanderson episode was settled, Harrigan suddenly felt drained and exhausted, and retired to his quarters. While he slept, O'Brien, Chief Scott and his men rounded up four more Zith spies who were immediately executed and unceremoniously dumped into the rocket chambers. On the double-check, a fifth was discovered cowering in the captain's life boat and he soon followed his brothers. The great ship plowed through the ink of space, and the only sounds were the muffled throbbing from the rocket banks, the steady hum of the chronometer and the clicking of the audio relay.
At 0500 hours the alarm gong clanged raucously. Harrigan was struggling into his trousers as O'Brien stuck his head in the door and shouted, "Jack! They've cut us off!"
The captain explained the situation hurriedly as they sprinted toward the bridge. "Port watch just spotted 'em. Three o'clock, low, in an arc. There's only seven of them, but apparently they've taken Polaris Base and cut us off from Sector I."
A series of muffled thuds was heard, and suddenly a succession of electric, blue-white flashes from outside the ports turned the dimness of the passageway into intense, eye-straining brilliance.
"Hot hell! We must have got us one," Harrigan roared, and the two men broke into a run.
In the powerful bridge screens they could see the great cloud of smoke hanging in the void, where the League ship had been hit, and, coming through it, several more of the grim pursuers. Occasionally a beam of ripping, ravaging energy would lick out towards the Albion, but the slim fingers of death fell shorter of their goal by the minute.
"Well," Mike breathed in relief, "we can outrun them. But what now?"
"Better set a course for Antares IV," Harrigan advised. "The maintenance depot there can install the Hyper-drive in a few days and we can make it back to Terra then regardless of what the League holds."
As soon as the Albion was safely out of range of the League ships, the two officers were joined on the bridge by Master Gunner Cliff Irvington. They discussed the narrow squeak for a few minutes. At length Irvington punched out his cigar and confessed, "I could stand a drink."
Ten minutes later they were seated in Harrigan's Spartan quarters over a bottle of good Terran Irish whiskey and a flagon of Jovian Blongah. Irvington downed an heroic shot of the Jovian mixture, shivered, howled and grabbed for the pitcher of water which the orderly had placed on the small table.
"Of all the chicken drinkers," O'Brien chaffed. "One little swig and he's halfway under the table. Watch this, son, and learn from a master of the aht." Whereupon the Captain poured a water glass full of the volatile brew and swallowed it without batting an eye.
"Nuts," Cliff grunted. "I have to stay off the stuff for months at a time. You birds on the bridge can swill from one side of the galaxy to the other, but I've got to watch my nerves. And how about that night in Venusport when I had you two guys reeling, the night before we got our commissions?"
Harrigan stifled a belch. "Only an idiot could drink that ook and stay on his pins. What was it now? Oh yes, Thunderbolt cocktail. Two parts Terran vodka, one part Irish whiskey, gin, three raw eggs, nutmeg and a jolt of Martian faylee. Cosmos! They say it made good rocket fuel in a pinch."
O'Brien sat up, glass in hand. "Why don't we mix a batch right now?"
"Don't see why not." Harrigan flipped the audio switch. "Stores. Hanson? Send a man up with formula thirteen, will you?"
When the supplies arrived a few minutes later, the three men indulged in an orgy of mixing and much testing, and, when the contents of the huge bowl met their rigid specifications, sat around it and reminisced about the early days in the Force.
The three might easily have personified the Solar Federation Space Force. Harrigan, the organizer par excellence, tall, lean and tanned by the radiation of a thousand suns. O'Brien, the admiral's life-long friend, squat and muscular—the fatherly but deadly Irishman who had hated the League with all his powerful heart since the day, dim in time but not in memory, that the Xantus had murdered his parents on Sirius III in the First Campaign. And Irvington, one of the truly fabulous characters in the Federation. The man who could reputedly hit a black basketball at three million miles with an energy gun, who flunked out of pilot's school and turned gunner, and who, annually, spent his leave mining in the Solar asteroid belt and had become the richest man in the Force.
These men led the Albion on its questionable course into the future. Human, and therefore prone to human failings, to be sure. But wise in the ways of space they were too, and aware of its terrible dangers.
At long last, when the ship's clock stood at 1100 hours, the party broke up. Ash-trays were piled high, the magnificent punchbowl was empty. Irvington and O'Brien left together, and Harrigan collapsed on his bunk.
In his dreams he roamed the narrow streets of Mars Center, watched the pale, reed-like dancing girls sway their sensuous bodies before the open-mouthed Federation Cadets, and heard the far-off, haunting desert music. He walked through the fairy cities of Zithobar where the fragile, ethereal architecture belied the sadistic temperament of the inhabitants. And he cruised the tainted stratosphere of the Xantu planet, that dark and sinister world whose peoples enjoyed nothing more than heaving Terran prisoners, one by one, into the mouths of roaring volcanoes.
Anaton, the Federation base on Antares IV, was six days at full blast without Hyper-drive. After the round of hectic activity surrounding their escape from Sector I, officers and crew alike found the uneventful trip restful but boring. O'Brien played endless games of solitaire; Irvington slept; and Harrigan planned. Anaton was the biggest Federation base in Sector II, and the Hyper-drive was there. He just hoped that the base itself was there yet. At 0300 hours on the sixth day, Antares shone like a great red eye and they were three hours out of base. Antares III swung slowly past and Harrigan alerted the crew.
They didn't have long to wait. O'Brien had just stacked his cards away when the starboard watch howled and three Xantu ships screamed across the Albion bow, almost on collision course. Harrigan's brow wrinkled as the tail ship dropped back to engage the Albion and the other two fled. These were not the usual Xantu tactics. Irvington coolly got the black craft between his sights, there was a whoosh and a blinding blast and four billion square miles of space flashed into daylight. The Albion quickly overtook the two remaining ships and gun-banks three, four and five riddled one of them. It slowed, spun and became a lifeless, drifting shell.
A blinding blast, and four billion square miles of space flashed into daylight....
But the pilot of ship three was no fool. He suddenly swiveled his ship, boomed off at a tangent, and, as the Albion whipped by, his gunner caught her full in the tubes with a full charge from the stern guns. Now it was the Albion's turn to spin end for end. But as the Xantu craft spun into his sights for a fraction of a second, Irvington tripped the atomic cannon again. The bolt ricochetted off the Xantu's bow and the ship slowly split down the center like an over-ripe melon. From the bridge, Harrigan counted three life boats deserting the mother ship and he watched the gunners vainly try to pick them off. But they were too small a target, and they quickly merged into the sanctuary of darkness.
He buzzed O'Brien. "Let's get down to Drive, quick. They got that Xantu blast dead center."
The drive section was a shambles. Men in weird asbestos suits and masks staggered through the smoke and fumes with the broken bodies of the rocket crew that had been caught in the explosion. Harrigan brushed at angry tears as they carried Joe Merrick—the officer in charge—past them and laid the charred body beside the others. Merrick had been with him through both campaigns, and now the bitterness within Harrigan turned to grim resolution. At length, thirty-seven men were counted out of action permanently. The admiral turned solemnly away.
"Think we'd better set her down on III?" O'Brien asked quietly.
"Guess so, Mike. We can take her down on anti-grav and maneuver with the bow jets." And then, slowly, "This puts us out of the war, you realize that...."
"Yeah. And we can't even holler for help or they'll swarm in on us like a pack of harpies."
"I don't know about that, Mike. Those boats that got away will probably alert other elements of the League fleet as to our location. It's only a matter of time anyway. So we might as well break radio silence and try to get some Federation ships here first. It'll be a race, but it's the only chance we've got."
Radio room sent the S.O.S. and rang back the bridge almost immediately. "Message away, sir, but our receiver was knocked out by the blast. We get no acknowledgment on S.O.S."
"Oh great," Harrigan groaned, "that's all we needed."
"Maybe we could make Anaton on the bow jets," O'Brien offered.
"Doubtful. Besides, we don't want to chance being caught in space with the Albion in this shape. If my guess is any good, those three ships were part of a fleet which has just attacked Anaton and by now the base is probably a smoking hole in the ground. No point in going to something like that."
It took superhuman maneuvering and quite a bit of luck, but at last the scarred battleship came to rest, in partial hiding, at the foot of a cliff wall on the rugged, boulder-strewn surface of Antares III. Space Directory termed the planet "Earth-type; diam. 9,300; atmosphere breathable for Terrans for a period not to exceed twelve hours."
Harrigan had the portable Dyer guns arranged in a semi-circle at advantageous spots behind boulders up to one mile from the Albion, in case the survivors of the League ships might set their boats down nearby and attempt a coup over land. The Albion's own boats carried out patrols in the hope of locating the enemy before the enemy located them.
For sixteen hours after the landing, everything was absolutely quiet. And then, as relief gun-crews slogged out the main hatch to take their positions at the portables, all Hell broke loose.
A short range, explosive rocket shell arched perfectly into the hatch and exploded with a deafening roar, scattering the relief crews like ten pins and slamming the two-ton hatch cover clean off its swivel pins. The three League boats, with devastating surprise, zoomed in low and fast over the outlying gun positions, spraying a trail of Reezi powder which was ignited by their rockets. The countryside went up in a swirl and a flash. Another explosive rocket struck the Albion amidships before the crews got the more cumbersome fixed guns into firing position.
The lightning-fast boats were too small and swift to be speared by anything save a lucky shot. Back and forth they raked the almost helpless battleship. The attack waned momentarily as one of the black boats was caught and instantly charred by cross-fire from the Albion one and four banks. The remaining two changed tactics, roaring in over the big ship, past the top of the cliff, only to spin back, hit and run.
Five of the Albion patrol boats skittered home only to be caught in the fray and immediately knocked down. Three more met the same fate and a fourth was dodging desperately for its life when Harrigan's eyes popped wide open with amazement. A pencil-like, silver destroyer escort, bearing the insignia of the Federation Forces, fell on the League boats from zenith position and in a screaming, twisting dive blasted one and rammed the other into flying rubbish.
The silver ship climbed a few miles vertically to see if the field had been properly cleared, flashed down and dusted to a stop beside the Albion. Harrigan stepped over the smoking bodies in the main hatchway and dropped to the ground. O'Brien sprinted to join him, but before they could reach the other ship, an officer leaped from a belly-lock and walked briskly towards them.
He snapped a salute. "Admiral Harrigan and the Albion?" he asked.
"Right, Lieutenant," Harrigan smiled wearily. "You're very welcome."
"Lieutenant Sanderson, sir, Third Fleet attack arm. I was supposed...."
"Sanderson," O'Brien roared.
"Yes, sir. I was assigned to the Albion, sir, but it took me ten weeks to walk halfway around Pluto from where the Ziths dumped me and catch a ship to Terra base. I take it they dubbed one of their beasties in for me?"
"They sure did," Harrigan answered, "but there wasn't much harm done. I killed you on the bridge, Lieutenant."
"Oh?" Sanderson looked puzzled for a brief moment, then smiled. "Oh, that's good."
"What's the score now?" O'Brien asked.
"Well, sir, the Third attack fleet is standing off Anton now. You have probably guessed that part of a League fleet attacked the base. We picked up a few survivors, but damned few. Then we picked up a weak distress signal from this area and Admiral Brands had us check on it."
"Good thing he did," Harrigan admitted. "And now, Lieutenant, if you will be so good as to radio for a tub to pick us up, I will be most happy to leave this planet."
"Yes, sir, at once." Sanderson saluted and ran for his ship.
Three hours and a few odd minutes later, the transport tub Avalon settled its ponderous bulk beside the Albion and the slow transfer of the living and the dead began. One hundred and fifty-five bodies were slated for burial on Terra; another sixty were missing, whiffed into gas by League guns.
Harrigan sank deeper into gloom as he removed the ship's log and helped O'Brien check the men off the Albion. At last the loading was completed; the Avalon hung for a moment on its anti-gravs, and Harrigan and Commander Johnson, in charge of the tub, looked down on the battered remains of the great craft.
"Better come to the bridge and sit," Johnson said softly.
On the bridge, he poured Harrigan a stiff drink and cautioned, "Swallow that, and get ready."
Harrigan complied, puzzled. No sooner had he placed his glass on the table than a small but virile mule kicked him in the stomach.
"Suffering ... what was that?" he gasped.
Johnson smiled. "Hyper-drive. Apparently Tech hasn't got the bugs worked out yet, but it's good enough for me. Only four hours to Terra."
"Well, well," Harrigan mused. He rose and looked at the swirling grayness outside the ports. "Same deal on the other end?"
"Yeah. A little wrench in the gut, but you get used to it."
Harrigan said, "Well, well," again and sat down.
"Admiral," Johnson hesitated, "no offense, now, you understand, but I have been wondering what the Albion was doing way out here on Antares III. I understood that you were coming into Terra from the other side of Sector I when the fracas started."
"We were. But when the League took Polaris Base and cut us off we had to...."
"Took Polaris Base! The League didn't take Polaris Base. They had a dozen or so cruisers in that area, but they didn't tackle the Base. Didn't even make a pass at it."
Harrigan slowly dropped his head into his hands.
"Oh my God," he moaned, "and I lost two hundred men on a bad guess. I deserve to be broken to a Spaceman third class for this." He jumped up and paced the bridge. "Great guns, what a fool I am! Polaris intact and I risk a ship-load of green men on a bad guess. This washes me up in the Force, that's for damn sure."
"Oh, I don't think so, Admiral." Johnson smiled. "In fact I think that...."
"I don't give a damn what you think, Commander. The Force is no place for fools. I'm done." And Harrigan slammed off the bridge towards his quarters.
Johnson smiled faintly and poured himself a drink.
It was a tired and bedraggled admiral who stepped off the Avalon four hours later into the sunlit bustle of Terra Base I. He felt pride well up in him at the sight of the powerful base, the battlewagons and cruisers and squat tubs, some with their guts spread on the steel docks, waiting for the 'drive installation. Crane winches clanked and howled, welding torches flashed, and many-wheeled trailers sped about with ponderous equipment. But the activity was not frantic; it was efficient and orderly.
He turned for a word with O'Brien, who was now puffing down the gangway, when a bright young Spaceman First stepped up and saluted with a grin. "Admiral Garrison's regards to Admiral Harrigan and Captain O'Brien, and would they report to HQ at once."
"Well, here it comes, Mike."
"Guess so," Mike agreed gloomily. "Why are all these baboons so happy?" He indicated the clustered groups of Spacemen who regarded them smilingly as they passed and talked excitedly among themselves.
"Dunno. Maybe they like the thought of admirals and captains getting chewed down."
They paused briefly outside the door marked:
G.G. Port Admiral
O'Brien shrugged. "Here goes nothin'."
Inside, the tall, balding man behind the desk jumped to his feet with a grin. "Jack! Mike! Boy, you two guys certainly beat anything I ever saw. Talk about your heroes...."
"Cut it, George," Harrigan growled, "you don't have to rub it in."
"Rub what in? Great Caesar, hasn't anyone told you yet? You guys won the war, that's all!"
"Yeah. On the seat of our pants at Antares III," O'Brien muttered.
"But I'm telling you, damnit!" Garrison came around the desk and clapped them on the shoulders. "Those League ships you brought down were heading for home with the Hyper-drive secret. And you stopped them."
Slow and stunning realization dawned on the two officers. O'Brien gave a long, low whistle and sank in his chair. Harrigan broke into a slow grin.
"What a deal!" Garrison rubbed his hands. "What a deal. You guys will get promotions out of this or my name isn't George Garr...."
"But what the hell happened?" Harrigan demanded.
"Like this," Garrison explained. "Three League ships picked up spies just off Anaton. They had the Hyper-drive papers. Then they threw a Duodec bomb into the Base and high-tailed. The Albion was the only Federation ship of any size left in commission in the area. You got them. Just before the last League ship went down, it beamed a message to Zithobar, which we intercepted. So the Third attack arm swung over quick to see what the trouble was. Then we got your S.O.S. and went after you before the League could get back for a little of its well-known vengeance."
"Now, what the devil?" Harrigan rubbed his chin, grinning. "Is the war over, then?"
"Not altogether, but it's just a matter of mopping up now, and fixing Zithobar and the Xantu planet once and for all. The Third and Seventh attack arms are completely equipped with the 'drive and the Second is just about ready to roll. Brother, are those babies surprised when we pop out of nowhere into the middle of their formations and burn them down before they can aim a gun ... but if they had hooked onto the 'drive secret, it would have been all day for the Federation!" Garrison threw back his head and roared with laughter. "You birds ... with a green crew—" he held his sides—"with a tub full of greenies you win the war. And by accident yet. Oh Lordie ..." he sat down to catch his breath.
"Well ... I'll ... be ... a ..." Harrigan shook his head.
"Yeah. I'll be one too," O'Brien muttered.
End of Out Of The Dark Nebula by Milton Coe