Copyright © 1991
In the darkness of space two ships fought against a dozen. The two were cruisers—one of the Fleet, one a Khalian pirate—captained by two old enemies: Commander Sales and Captain Goodheart. Both had finally found a foe greater than their own hatred—the Merchants, they who had suborned the barbarian Khalia, armed them with modern weapons, and given them spaceships for chariots. Now, the Khalian pirates fought with savage glee, able at last to strike at the humans who had betrayed their kind—and the human Fleet ship fought, with the zeal reserved for traitors to their species.
But in the midst of all that zeal, a cold stab of reason came through to the Fleet signalman, who realized that this was his final battle, that there was almost no chance of his surviving. Though he could think of no finer way to die, he knew with an even more desperate longing that the people on the Terran planets must learn of the Syndicate nest they’d blundered into, and the merciless, instant tactics of the Merchants. So, even as he routed signals between ships, he opened a transmission channel, locked a dish to stay pointed toward Target no matter how the ship maneuvered, and stabbed a tachyon beam at the forward base, carrying the ship-to-ship signals, audio and video, on both Fleet and Khalian frequencies. If he had known the Merchants’ band, he would have fed their signals through, too—but the Fleet, as yet, could not even hear their enemies. He even redirected a few precious launches to send message torps speeding off in reserve.
Then a Syndicate torpedo holed her defenses, and Goodheart’s ship became an expanding globe of light. Minutes later, Sales’s Fleet cruiser exploded, scattering debris thousands of miles around a globe of plasma, sending a furious wash of energy over the tachyon channel to Terra.
One piece of that debris was a cigar-shaped cocoon, two meters long and a meter wide. It shot spinning end over end for a thousand miles and more, and surely would have convulsed its lone inhabitant with nausea, if needles had not stabbed into him just before the explosion, releasing chemicals that slowed his metabolism and sent him into the deepest of sleeps as a cryogenic unit froze him in seconds. Onward the pod floated, into darkness, bearing a wounded crewman who had been slapped into a freezing pod by the medics, to be thawed out when a hospital ship picked him up. But he was far from Terra now, far from the routes of Fleet ships, where none but Merchantmen came. His pod sailed on through the unending night, alone, unknown, unknowing.
* * *
On the station orbiting Target, a bored signalman sipped coffee and eyed the girlie cube that was waiting for the end of his shift. Nothing ever happened in an automated station. Why did they bother having a human on duty?
The alarm sang.
The signalman jarred upright in his chair, searching his banks of monitors and tallies. There—red flashing on Vertical Four! The system didn’t know what to do with a rogue signal, whether to waste permanent memory on it or not. The signalman hacked at his keyboard, finished the sequence, and pressed “execute” just before the buffer filled. The jewel on the tally glowed, showing that it was cutting, just in time. The signalman heaved a sigh of relief and settled back, keying in a stepped-down relay of the signal, and turned to his monitor to see just what kind of tachyon “fish” his energy net had caught.
“Cannon Three is out!”
“Cut life-support to minimum and route power to screens!”
Behind all the Terran words were the shrilling whistles of Khalian speech, but the signalman couldn’t comprehend them. He could understand, though, the huge explosion of light as the screen flickered to scale down sensitivity to cope with the glare—and he saw the silhouette of a corvette in front of the light ball. The signalman didn’t need a book to know it was a shape he’d never seen before, ever—and he didn’t need a translator to tell him what it meant when the Weasel whistles cut off as the light globe exploded. For a moment reverence for a gallant enemy touched his heart, shoving aside the hatred of Khalians brought by generations of war—then a pang of loss as he realized that whoever was fighting those Khalians was also fighting the Fleet ship that was sending the images.
“Commander Sales!” a voice yelled from the screen, “they got Goodheart!”
“Get them,” a deeper voice snarled.
“Torpedo away!” a nasal voice snapped.
The signalman hung on to the edge of his chair, watching, waiting, forgetting that this signal was at least hours, probably days, old, and the battle long ended.
Then the silhouette of the corvette blew apart into debris, and the expanding light ball dimmed where it had been, while shouts of victory rattled around it.
Then the whole screen erupted in a wash of light, dimmed instantly but cut by a hash of snow, and white noise roared with it.
The signalman realized he was dripping with sweat. He watched the tally on the cube cutter, the jewel on Vertical Four…
Both were out.
The signalman sat back with a sigh. Whatever it was, it was over—and two gallant ships had died. He sat still for a moment in silent respect.
Then he leaned forward, keyed the signal for HQ on Target, and said, “This is Station Two. Emergency. Route me to the adjutant.”
* * *
Another sentry received the signal, another sensor operator on a lonely vigil—but this one had fur and sharp teeth and was planetbound, on Barataria, the Khalian pirates’ nest. He was a Khalian communications operator, who knew which buttons to push but very little of what happened inside his console. He only knew that an unscheduled signal triggered the alarm, so he did as his detail prescribed—keyed in the recorder. As the light beam engraved the signal on the cube, the operator frowned at its trace on his screen, at the warble-and-hash it made on his speaker. He pressed the call button for the officer of the watch and said, “Alert. Unscheduled transmission being received. It is scrambled—encoded with an unknown cipher. What shall I do?”
“It is what?” the officer barked, astonished.
“Scrambled. Shall I continue to record?”
“Of course!” his superior snapped. “If it is scrambled, it is very likely to contain important information! Be sure it records completely...”
A huge burst of static rasped through the speakers. The operator’s ears fairly rang with it—then seemed to echo in the sudden silence. “Transmission complete,” he informed the watch officer. “Procedure?”
“Take the cube to the new Bards,” the watch officer said immediately. “They should have it on the screen within the hour.”
But they didn’t—not for many an hour to come.
“It is Sales’s cipher,” the Intelligence officer informed Throb, the Castellan—the ranking Khalian officer in Captain Goodheart’s absence. “We recognize its progressions—but we have not yet been able to assign it meanings.”
“Not yet!” Throb screeched, exasperated. “That parasite has been plaguing us for two years! Why can you never break his code?”
“We have, several times—but though he keeps the same encoding of the signal, he is continually changing the meaning assigned to any given wave form. By the time we break one, he has shifted to another. And in this instance, the majority of the signal is video—we cannot even say with certainty which mathematical structures are for scanning, and which for color vectors. He keeps shifting video systems.”
“Then isolate the audio portion and break that code! But I must know what he spoke of, and quickly!”
“We shall do it as promptly as we may, Lieutenant.”
* * *
But the Alliance did it quicker. They already knew Sales’s code, of course—they had the computer-enhanced image on the screen in minutes. The adjutant listened and watched for ninety seconds, then woke up the admiral. The admiral watched the whole recording, and woke up the CEO on Terra, sending the whole sequence as a squeezed signal. The CEO watched it, then called in the Cabinet, who watched in awed silence.
The final burst of white noise accompanied the flare; the screen went dark, and the CEO turned to them all, seeking out each one’s gaze, one by one, as the impact of what they had seen diminished.
“It will have to be edited down, of course,” ‘the minister of internal policy said at last. “The broadcast nets will cut it themselves, if we don’t.”
“No, they won’t,” the minister of communications said softly. “I’ll invoke the Public Safety Clause. They’ll show it intact. I think they would, anyway.”
The CEO nodded. “Show it just the way it is. It speaks for itself.”
The commentators couldn’t allow that, of course—but they did keep the introduction brief. Everyone who was watching the news that night, on all the Terran and Khalian planets, sat silent in awe, feeling grief well up, as they watched the gallant Terran and Khalian ships, enemies turning against a greater enemy, fighting to the last without the slightest inclination to flee from a foe who fought in deadly silence, with no warning, no demand for surrender, no slightest offer of mercy. They watched, and saw a human come to the aid of a Khalian, fighting other humans…
The screen went blank, then lit again with the image of the two commentators.
“But they were enemies, Dave!” said Chester. “Sworn enemies! Captain Goodheart, sworn to destroy every Terran ship he could—and Commander Sales, sworn to destroy Goodheart!”
“They died forsworn.” Chester nodded, frowning. “In the end, they realized who the real enemy was—and humans and Khalians joined forces against him.”
* * *
“It is a lie!” Throb leaped up, naked claws poised over the man’s image on the screen. “All humans are enemies to all Khalians! The Merchants swore to aid us, and betrayed us! The Fleet slew us wholesale, gutted our planets!”
“You have heard for yourself,” Serum said. He was older, beginning to gray around the muzzle. “We all heard the captain’s voice. The Merchants are the true enemy.”
“It was altered!” Throb lifted his head as an even better explanation hit, widening his eyes. “It was a complete fabrication! It never happened, none of it! The captain still lives! It is only that the Terrans wish to make us think he is dead!”
“What is, is.” Serum’s sorrow deepened to sternness. “Do not seek to deny what is real, or you will lead yourself and all your warriors into disaster.”
“I deny nothing but a lie! I state only what is true, what must be true! Must it not, Globin?... Globin!”
The pirate colony’s only human sat immobile, back bent, shoulders sagging, hands between his legs, head bowed.
“Globin!” Throb shrilled. “Are you senseless? Do you not hear? Tell them it is a lie!”
Slowly Globin lifted his head. His eyes were red; his face was gray; tears streamed down his cheeks.
Throb stared at him as though he were seeing a ghost.
“Let him be,” Serum said softly. “His god is dead.”
Globin—torso long, legs short and bowed, head two sizes too large for his ill-proportioned body. Eyes too huge through his bottle-glass spectacles, face a doughy mass, hair a black thatch, mouth almost lipless. Globin, the genius.
Globin, the outcast.
His fellow humans had heard his new name, given him by Goodheart’s Khalian pirates, and had twisted it to express their new hate. To them, he became—
Goblin, the traitor.
A traitor to all his race, to all that is right and good, for he helped the Khalian pirates prey upon human ships, helped the bloody Weasels shoot down Fleet ships.
Georgie Desrick, the outcast.
His playmates mocked his ugliness, his schoolmates parodied his clumsiness. His classmates scorned him for his bookishness, hated him for his exalting of the mind and complete disregard of the body.
But what friends could he have, except books? When none would teach him the use of his body, because it was too great an effort for so slow a learner?
“I swear, Georgie Desrick, I don’t know what you bother living for!”
“Why don’t you just drop dead, Georgie Desrick?”
The question was well asked—and its only answer was faith. Faith in his God, faith in humankind. Georgie Desrick clung to life by religion.
Finally, his fellow junior officers, in spite and hatred, manufactured excuses, made him a scapegoat, and set him adrift in a lifeboat.
And in the darkness and despair, faith at last wore out, and Georgie Desrick cursed both his race and his God.
Then Goodheart saved him—Goodheart, seeking to cultivate a human traitor, though Globin couldn’t know that until it no longer mattered—for Goodheart was his friend, Goodheart was his teacher, Goodheart was his protector.
Goodheart was his god.
Saved by Goodheart, nurtured by Goodheart, given a name by Goodheart, accepted by the pirates on Goodheart’s orders, Globin lived by Goodheart and for Goodheart, all for Goodheart…
And Goodheart was dead.
“No, Globin, no!”
It was a furred paw that caught his hand, clawed fingers that twisted the knife from his grasp, a Khalian medic that pressed the anesthetic spray against his arm...
No, not Khalian, he thought with groggy insight as he sank down into the depths of sedation. Not Khalian. Pirate. Goodheart’s pirate...
“What use, Throb? The captain is dead! How can you aid his revenge?”
“By finding his slayers!” Throb snarled as he stepped into the shuttle. “I cannot sit idle when my captain is dead, and his killers boasting in their guilt! You are Castellan in my absence, Serum!” And he slammed the hatch shut.
Serum watched the little shuttle lift off; his spirit ascending to the battlecruiser with Throb, knowing well how intolerable it was to sit and do nothing when every cell of his being cried out for vengeance.
Light-years away Throb’s ship broke out of hyperspace and began to snoop, lying quietly while its sensors scanned the whole area and searched for stars that moved. When it found none, and no signals other than the background static of stars, it winked into hyperspace again and was gone, to emerge a few light-years farther along the course, moving steadily in toward that part of the sky from which the final transmission had come. Again it scanned the sky, lying still for an hour and receiving—nothing. So it jumped again, and again...
“It will take us months,” the helmsman estimated.
“The top cruising speed of the captain’s ship, multiplied by the time elapsed since he left port.”
Throb nodded. “Then months it will be.”
But it was only a day. Finally, when they broke out, there was radiation—the sub-light transmission of ships in conflict. Throb listened and recognized the battle as the one he had already watched, too many times. “Laggard light speed only now carries word of his doom! How long since the transmission was received on Barataria?”
“Five days, Lieutenant.”
“Then we are five light-days from the scene of the ambush, or less! Helm—”
“Object in movement!” cried the sensor operator.
Throb swung to the screen, staring. A pinpoint of light moved, only a little, but moved. “Bearing!”
“Toward us—two degrees to starboard. Velocity is half Tau!”
“Half of light speed? It will approach us in minutes! Match velocity! Ready an intercept!”
Throb himself longed to be suited and jetting, but it was two lesser crewmen who drifted in space, waiting as the silvery pod approached them. It swam beneath them slowly; they dropped down to it and attached the grapple. “Haul in!”
The winch sang, and the mile-long cable began to pull in, bringing the pod with it.
“It is not a lifeboat,” the crewman reported to Throb. “Can it be a coffin?”
“Perhaps; the Fleet honor their—”
Throb spun about. On the display a spot of light moved where none had been before. “Battle stations! It cannot be a friend!”
It was not. It approached rapidly, dot swelling to a discernible oblong. Magnification showed them a foreshortened view of...
“The same silhouette as the murderer of our captain! Attack!”
“The cable will snap, Captain. We will lose the pod.”
Throb cursed, then said, “We must wait for our enemy to come to us—but fire as soon as they are within range.”
Fire blossomed from the Merchantman’s nose.
“Shields up!” Throb shrilled. “Can you crank that winch no faster?”
“It comes at top speed, Lieutenant.”
“So does the Merchant! Forward batteries! Fire!”
The screen went lurid as their own shields drank up the attacker’s energy bolt. It cleared, to show the enemy adazzle as the Khalian bolt struck their defenses—but the next bolt did not strike at them, but a little to the side.
“He shoots at the pod!” Throb screamed. “It must be of vast importance! Toward it, maximum thrust!”
Their ship surged to the side; the screen went scarlet as Throb shielded the pod with his own ship. Then he felt a slight shudder, and a crewman shouted, “Pod aboard! Expedition recovered!”
The sensor op howled, “Two more ships appear! They accelerate toward us!”
“The coward has called for help!” Throb spat. “But we shall not leave without wounding him, at the least! Evasive action! All batteries fire when clear! Torpedoes away—fire one! Fire two! Fire three!”
The ship rocked, shot forward, dived, rolled, shot on again, leaving a trail of energy bolts speeding toward the Merchantman. His screens glowed red, then orange, yellow, white...
A new star lit the night.
“He is dead!” Throb crowed. “My captain, savor this first sip of the draft of vengeance!”
“We must live to bear him a full cup,” the helmsman snapped.
“Jump!” Throb shouted. “Set course for Barataria!”
The whole ship seemed to turn itself inside out, then right side in. The crew sagged in their seats, the pitch of battle ebbing.
Then Throb loosed his webbing and rose, turning toward the aft hatch. “Let us see what fish we have caught.”
The medic stood by, hypos ready, as the mechanics cracked the seal. Air hissed into vacuum, and they lifted the top half of the pod. Motors hummed as hidden machinery began to revive the occupant.
“A human!” Throb spat.
“With the uniform of the Fleet,” the doctor reminded him. “He is badly wounded.”
“Heal him then! He must talk!”
The medic bent over the pod, striving to recall what little he knew of human medicine.
Throb waited, the minutes dragging, cursing the slowness of revival.
Finally, the human’s eyelids fluttered, then opened. He looked around him, frowning, not understanding...
Then his eyes widened in recognition, and he screamed.
The doctor jammed the hypo bulb against the inside of his elbow and squeezed. The sedative shot into his bloodstream, and his eyes closed, returning to sleep.
“When he wakes,” Throb hissed, “assure him he is among friends. Nay, we will even swear to return him to his own kind—for he is a survivor of the ship that fought against our captain’s enemy. And call me—I shall want to ask him questions. With warmth, with respect—but with insistence.”
* * *
The voice pulled him up from the depths of nonexistence; a strong grip hauled him out of the dear darkness he longed for. “The Council has need of your knowledge. You must meet with them, Globin.”
“Why?” he muttered through a mouth that felt as though it were made of cotton. “Why should I?”
“For Goodheart’s sake.”
The lieutenants looked up, six of them, as Globin came in, ashen-faced, glary-eyed, leaning on a cane and the doctor’s arm. They were six.
Globin made seven.
“What need have we of this intruder?” Hemo said with a contemptuous twist of his head.
“Well asked,” Globin croaked, glowering. “What need? Why pull me out of the death I crave?”
Even Hemo stared, shocked.
It was Throb, strangely, who spoke to him gently. “Our captain is dead, Globin. You must help us find the slime-sheet who slew him.”
“To what purpose?” Globin looked up, almost indignant. “Why must I? For what?”
“Why,” said Hemo contemptuously, “to slay them, of course.”
“Revenge?” Globin sat bolt-still, eyes widening. “Do you speak of revenge?”
“Of course!” Hemo spat. “Is your species so bovine that I must speak it aloud for you? Certainly, revenge!”
And the cause burst white-hot within Globin, bringing him upright in his chair, returning a beat to his heart and heat to his blood. He would not die, but live—for revenge!
They told him the way of it—their signalmen had broken Sales’s code, and Throb had been wrong—the Alliance had broadcast the entire event, even as it had happened, as much of it as they had seen. Still, Throb had not believed. He had demanded Goodheart’s last known course, had saturated that sector with calls to his captain—encoded, of course, and relayed through the network of satellite repeaters that Globin had designed to prevent any Fleet ship from tracing Barataria by its emissions. Failing to receive answer, he had dredged the vector of Sales’s transmission from the signal records and filled space with calls to his captain—but there had been no answer. Even then, unsatisfied, he had taken a ship and gone to search—
“No answer?” Globin exclaimed. “To so much effort? How long have I been unconscious then?”
“Two days, Globin,” Throb said softly.
“Two days!” Globin bowed his head. “Two days I lazed in that soft darkness while my captain’s killers escaped!”
“Two days while I wasted time proving the signal’s truth,” Throb corrected. “But I found a medical pod, with a crewman of the Fleet who had been wounded, and frozen until he could come to hospital. We could not save him, but he lived long enough to tell us the truth of what he saw. I am convinced. The captain is dead, Globin.”
Globin bowed his head, grief upwelling again.
“He is dead.” Then Throb hissed his indictment: “But you are alive. Globin, find me his killers.”
“You must come, Globin.”
Globin didn’t even take his eyes from the display. “Leave me. I have almost determined where the captain met his... his last enemy.”
The crewman was silent a moment out of respect, then pressed, “I greatly dislike to intrude on so vital a moment—but if you do not come, there may be another death. Many.”
Globin sat still, eyes on the display.
Then, slowly, he turned. “Whose ship is at hazard?”
“Hemo’s,” said the courier. “Come quickly, Lieutenant.”
Globin came into the central communications hall one pace behind the courier. He saw Throb, Serum, and the other three gathered around the main display screen, gazing up at the image of Hemo.
“I will not!” the giant face raged. “If his killers will come anywhere, they will come here!”
“The captain would not have wished…”
“The captain would wish to be avenged! Globin cannot tell me where his slayers lie. You cannot tell me where they lie! Here I stay, until they come, or death does!”
Globin stepped up behind Throb. “How has he done this?”
Throb whirled, and there was the faintest ghost of relief in his eyes before pride masked it. But he did not say, “Thank the gods,” or “You have come!”—all he said was, “He is a captain, and one of the lieutenants of Barataria. Who could say him nay if he took his own ship and sped? The captain is gone.”
Globin could have said something about the Council, but it would have been worthless—the Khalia were fiercely independent; only their personal loyalty to Goodheart had kept them disciplined. They were feudal; the liegeman’s bond was everything. Without it, there was no cohesion.
So Globin said none of that; he only asked, “Where is he?”
“On a line between Khalia and the coordinates from which the captain’s death signal came.” Throb took a breath, then said, “I have persuaded, I have worked upon his fellow-feelings, his duty to his crew, to us! He will not be moved.”
Globin nodded. “You have appealed to his emotions. You wish me to appeal to his reason.”
“Yes, such of it as he has left! Globin, make him see his folly!”
Globin frowned, and moved slightly to the side, into the video’s pickup field. “Why, Hemo?”
Aboard the pirate ship Hemo saw Globin’s form behind Throb’s, and his lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. “You ask me this, human? You, whose race slew my captain?”
“I denounce them as cowards,” Globin said without hesitation. “Hemo, why?”
The Khalian glared at him, then growled, “There were Merchant agents among the Khalia, were there not? And ships must have come to bring new ones among them, to contact them, to take them away for reassignment.”
“True. But they are gone. The Merchants called all their agents back when Khalia fell.”
“Fool!” Hemo raged. “Can you truly believe that? Can you think that the vile traitors did not leave a few of their kind behind, to infiltrate your own bloody Fleet and suborn whom they could?”
Globin was still, eyes glazing in that look Hemo knew so well, the look of sudden, total concentration on an idea. He nearly spat with contempt—any warrior who let his mind wander so would die in an instant.
Throb saw that, too. On the screen he urged, “It is nonsense, Globin. How could they hope to succeed?”
“By deception,” the human answered slowly. “In this much, Hemo makes sense.”
Hemo felt a surge of glee that Globin supported his idea—and hated himself for it.
But the human was stepping closer to the camera, frowning. “Yet those who would have stayed would have been volunteers for death. They would have known that their Merchant leaders could not come to fetch them—it would be death, with the Fleet convoy around Khalia. Hemo, the idea is well founded, and we will find a way to lead the Fleet to examine their own, to discover the traitors—but the Merchants will not come again to Khalia. You waste time, you waste fuel and air. Come back.”
“You would deter me from our only chance at revenge?” Hemo screamed. “Do not speak to me, traitor! Do not seek to weaken the resolve of a…”
Off the screen an alarm hooted.
Hemo whirled about. His sentry was pointing at the display and shrilling, “Enemies! They come!”
“Accelerate toward them! Battle stations, all! Prepare to launch torpedoes, prepare laser cannon!” Then Hemo turned to the signalman. “Route all sensor output into the transmission link to Barataria!”
The signalman hesitated. “The enemy will trace us by them, Lieutenant—and Barataria with us.”
“They cannot—we have the new communications system that the Merchants cannot detect!” The signalman still hesitated, so Hemo said it though it galled him: “Globin made it! Signals, use it!”
In Barataria the screen suddenly divided into quarters, one showing the view of space as seen from Hemo’s bridge, one showing a polar projection of the area of space comprising the enemy ships and his own, a third showing an ecliptic projection, all four ships edge-on—and the largest showing Hemo’s gloating face, spinning to grin at them. “Look and see! They will not come, will they? Wastrel, am I? Now comes revenge!” With a savage gesture he turned to howl commands. “Torpedoes, fire when we near maximum range! Battery one, fire at medium range!”
“There are three of them,” the sentry reported.
On the screen Globin and Throb saw the single blip of the Merchantman divide into three. The space view jumped, and jumped again, until the ships were visible across the kilometers, reflecting starlight. The view jumped again, singling out one enemy as it sheered to the side, momentarily in profile…
“It is the same!” Hemo crowed. “Their silhouette, it is the same as that of the ships that slew the captain! They are Merchantmen indeed!”
“Record,” Throb snapped to the signalman, suddenly remembering the values of propaganda.
“Recording already, since the alarm,” the technician answered.
“They’re surrounding him,” Globin said, voice low and tense.
On the screen, two of the Merchantmen had shot out to the side. Disregarding them, Hemo hurtled head-on toward the central ship—and the other two pulled in behind and to either side.
“They surround you, Hemo!” Throb shouted.
“Battery one, fire at the nearest!” Hemo sang. “Battery two, fire to starboard!”
Beams of ruby light stabbed out from each side of the pirate ship, to coruscate against the Merchantmen’s shields. A yellow ray lanced out from its nose, toward the central Merchant ship—yellow, to show a torpedo. But a red pencil from the central ship touched the yellow line, and fire burst where the two lines intersected.
“Torpedo destroyed,” reported the forward fire control.
“Fire two!” Hemo answered.
Then the ruby beam from the forward ship lanced out past the explosion, to lick wildfire across Hemo’s forward screens. Scarlet rays shot out from each of the flanking ships, englobing the pirate.
“Hemo, no!” Throb moaned. “They will overload your screens, they will roast you!”
But the pirate ship shot to the side, then upward, and the ruby beams winked out, for fear of hitting one another. They realigned instantly, catching Hemo again—then winked out again as he moved, then began to blink as the pirate ship danced in a wild and unpredictable dervish whirl, now here, now there—and always, always, lancing back at its enemies with fire and torpedo. Golden bursts showered the enemy’s screens; lances of fire kept them glowing.
“He will explode his reactor, he will empty his batteries!” Throb groaned. “For he cannot keep up this mad dance forever! He will empty his arsenal, he will be void of torpedoes! He must withdraw!”
“He cannot,” Serum said simply.
And the Merchantmen were beginning to close in. Closer and closer they came, tightening the circle in which Hemo’s ship danced, desperate and maddening. The ruby beams became shorter, shorter…
But their screens glowed more brightly, for each of Hemo’s bolts loaded them more heavily.
Then, suddenly, the central Merchantman shot forward in a ramming rush. At the same moment the two side ships stabbed simultaneous lances of light.
“Up!” Hemo barked. “Rotate!”
The cruiser spun end for end, and the ecliptic display showed it suddenly high above the plane in which the three Merchantmen tightened their noose—
And on the polar display, two ruby lances found each other.
“Well done!” Throb cried. “Oh, well done! He maneuvered them so that they were in line, and knew it not! Oh, well done!”
“How brave,” Globin whispered. “How valiant.” He felt humbled by Hemo’s daring, his contempt of death—almost, his yearning for it.
Then scarlet spat from the remaining ship, scoring Hemo’s vessel.
Pandemonium broke loose, shrills and screeches as two dozen Khalians all gave the alarm at once.
“Be still!” Hemo howled. “Batteries, fire at will! Keep him away! Damage control, what news?”
“Tail gone,” the damage control officer snapped. “All leads and tubes blocked, and atmosphere is contained, but the rocket drive is gone.”
“He cannot maneuver,” Throb moaned.
On the screen Hemo’s face composed itself into a mask of determination. “We will die, then—but we will take our enemy with us if we can. Batteries, at the slightest chance—fire!”
“He will not give them that chance,” Serum breathed.
And it seemed the Merchantman would not. He fishtailed slowly about the disabled pirate in a long arc, always moving, never predictable, but taking his time, choosing the most vulnerable spot for his next, and final, bite. Even as he did, he spat torpedoes, compelling Hemo’s cannoneers to use up energy licking at them with their lasers—and the Merchantman’s own cannon streaked out, heating the weakened screens white-hot, breaking through to score Hemo’s ship, to nibble at its hide.
“Can you not help him, Globin?” Throb demanded.
But Globin stood as though in a trance, eyes gazing far away, mind working. He knew that even though they could not receive the Merchant’s signals, there was every chance that he could hear them. After all, it was the Merchants who had given the Khalia their communications apparatus—and might already have broken Globin’s new transmission mode and deciphered his new code. They might be listening to every word the pirates said. He had to tell Hemo what to do, but in such a way that the Merchant would not understand...
“Hemo,” Globin snapped, “jump! Half-degree cube!”
There was silence for a second; then Hemo shrilled, “Navigation! Jump! Half a degree, cubed!”
Globin stared at the screen, holding his breath, while Throb demanded, “What does he mean?”
Then the Merchantman spat its full charge, a column of red—but where it lanced, there was nothing but empty space. Hemo was gone.
“He cannot jump into hyperspace!” Throb realized what had happened. “Not for such a short distance! It is so hazardous as to be fatal!”
But Hemo’s ship had already appeared at the edge of the screen, behind the Merchantman but in range. “Fire all!” Hemo screamed, and ruby light lanced out, seemingly from every inch of the pirate’s hull, the yellow streaks of torpedoes among them. The Merchant turned ruddy, then orange, as his screens overloaded. Two feeble beams reached out toward the pirate, but winked out as, inside the yellow bubble, the Merchantman began to turn, to bring a broadside to bear on the pirate, but the globe of overloaded shield was growing lighter and lighter, hotter and hotter, almost white…
White, pure white, expanding, fountaining, an incredible skyrocket, silent in the endless night.
Then it faded, and Hemo’s ship alone drifted in the screen.
Its crew cheered. They howled. They sang.
Hemo screamed with triumph, as loudly as any of them. Then he spun to the screen, eyes alight, caroling, “Thank you, Globin! I never thought to say it to you—but, thank you! My rockets were disabled, but not my FTL drive! I jumped half a degree toward the Merchantman, and half a degree to the side, half a degree up—half a degree, cubed! I might have died, but I was doomed if I did not! Yet I lived, we all lived—and he is dead! You are truly one of us, truly of the captain’s men! You are a noble pirate indeed!”
“Not so noble as yourself,” Globin returned, eyes aglow. “Your valor humbles me, Hemo. We cannot lose you. Endure, until we have sent a ship to bring you home!”
“I shall endure! For my captain is avenged!”
“Yes, we have drunk of revenge.” Throb’s paw was firm on Globin’s shoulder. “Is the taste sweet, Globin my friend? Does it satisfy your thirst?”
“It is a beginning,” Globin answered.
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