19 "That's correct, sir," Pryor said crisply. "I haven't picked up any comeback on my pulse, but I'll definitely identify the echo as coming from a JN type installation."Commodore Broadly nodded curtly. "However, inasmuch as your instruments indicate that this station is not linked in with a net capable of setting up a defensive field, it's of no use to us." The commodore looked at Pryor, waiting."I think perhaps there's a way, sir," Pryor said. "The Djann are known to have strong tribal feelings. They'd never pass up what they thought was an SOS from one of their own. Now, suppose we signal this JN station to switch over to the Djann frequencies and beam one of their own signal patterns at them. They just might stop to take a look . . .""By God," Broadly looked at the signal lieutenant, "if he doesn't, he's not human!""You like the idea, sir?" Pryor grinned."A little rough on the beacon station if they reach it before we do, eh, Lieutenant? I imagine our friends the Djann will be a trifle upset when they learn they've been duped.""Oh . . ." Pryor looked blank. "I guess I hadn't thought of that, sir.""Never mind," Broadly said briskly, "the loss of a minor installation such as this is a reasonable exchange for an armed vessel of the enemy.""Well . . .""Lieutenant, if I had a few more officers aboard who employed their energies in something other than assembling statistics proving we're beaten, this cruise might have made a record for itself—" Broadly cut himself off, remembering the degree of aloofness due very junior officers—even juniors who may have raked some very hot chestnuts out of the fire."Carry on, Lieutenant," he said. "If this works out, I think I can promise you a very favorable endorsement on your next ER."As Pryor's pleased grin winked off the screen, the commodore flipped up the red line key, snapped a brusque request at the bored log room yeoman."This will make Old Carbuncle sing another tune," he remarked almost gaily to the exec, standing by with a harassed expression."Maybe you'd better go slow, Ned," the latter cautioned, gauging his senior's mood. "It might be as well to get a definite confirmation on this installation's capabilities before we go on record—"Broadly turned abruptly to the screen as it chimed. "Admiral, as I reported, I've picked up one of our forward beacon towers," Broadly's hearty voice addressed the screen from which the grim visage of the task force commander eyed him. "I'm taking steps to complete the intercept; steps which are, if I may say so, rather ingenious—""It's my understanding the target is receding on an I curve, Broadly," the admiral said flatly. "I've been anticipating a code thirty-three from you.""Break off action?" Broadly's jaw dropped. "Now, Tom—""It's a little irregular to use a capital ship of the line to chase a ten-thousand-ton yacht," the task force commander ignored the interruption. "I can understand your desire to break the monotony with a little activity; good exercise for the crew, too. But at the rate the signal is attenuating, it's apparent you've lost her." His voice hardened. "I'm beginning to wonder if you've forgotten that your assignment is the containment of enemy forces supposedly pinned down under tight quarantine!""This yacht, as you put it, Admiral, blew two of my detached units out of space!" Broadly came back hotly. "In addition, he planted a missile squarely in my fore lazaret—""I'm not concerned with the details of your operation at this moment, Commodore," the other bit off the words like bullets. "I'm more interested in maintaining the degree of surveillance over my assigned quadrant that Concordiat Security requires. Accordingly—""Just a minute, Tom, before you commit yourself," Broadly's florid face was pale around the ears. "Perhaps you failed to catch my first remark: I have a forward station directly in the enemy's line of retreat. The intercept is in the bag—unless you countermand me.""You're talking nonsense. The target's well beyond the Inner Line—""He's not beyond the Outer Line!"The admiral frowned. His tight, well-chiseled face was still youthful under the mask of authority. "The system was never extended into the region under discussion," he said harshly. "I suggest you recheck your instruments. In the interim, I want to see an advice of a course correction for station in the length of time it takes you to give the necessary orders to your navigation section."Broadly drew a breath, hesitated. If Old Carbuncle was right—if that infernal signal lieutenant had made a mistake—but the boy seemed definite enough about it. He clamped his jaw. He'd risked his career on a wild throw; maybe he'd acted a little too fast, maybe he'd been a little too eager to grab a chance at some favorable notice, but the die was cast now. If he turned back empty-handed, the entire affair would go into the record as a major fiasco. But if this scheme worked out . . . "Unless the admiral wishes to make that a direct order," he heard himself saying firmly, "I intend to hold my course and close with the enemy. It's my feeling that neither the Admiralty nor the general public will enjoy hearing of casualties inflicted by a supposedly neutralized enemy who was then permitted to go his way unhindered." He returned the other's stare, feeling a glow of pride at his own decisiveness, and a simultaneous sinking sensation at the enormity of the insubordination.The vice admiral looked back at him through narrowed eyes. "I'll leave that decision to you, Commodore," he said tightly. "I think you're as aware as I of what's at stake here."Broadly stiffened at what was almost an open threat."Instruct your signal officer to pass full information on this supposed station to me immediately," the senior concluded curtly, and disappeared from the screen.Broadly turned away, feeling all eyes on him. "Tell Pryor to copy his report to G at once," he said in a harsh voice. His eyes strayed to the exec's. "And if this idea of his doesn't work out, God help him." And all of us, he added under his breath.20 As Carnaby reached for the door to start the long climb down, a sharp beep! sounded from the panel behind him. He looked back, puzzled. The bleat repeated, urgent, commanding. He swung the pack down, went to the console, flipped down the REC key." . . . 37 Ace Trey," an excited voice came through loud and clear. "I repeat, cut your beacon immediately! JN 37 Ace Trey, Cincsec One-two-oh to JN 37 Ace Trey. Shut down beacon soonest! This is an Operational Urgent! JN 37 Ace Trey, cut beacon and stand by for further operational Urgent instructions . . ." 21 On the Fleet Command Deck aboard the flagship Vice Admiral Thomas Carnaby, otherwise known as Old Carbuncle, studied the sector triagram as his communications chief pointed out the positions of the flagship Malthusa, the Djann refugee, and the reported JN beacon station."I've researched the call letters, sir," the gray-haired signal major said. "They're not shown on any listing as an active station. In fact, the entire series of which this station would be a part is coded null; never reported in commission.""So someone appears to be playing pranks, is that your conclusion, Henry?"The signal officer pulled at his lower lip. "No, sir, not that, precisely. I've done a full analytical on the recorded signal that young Pryor first intercepted. It's plainly directed to Cincsec in response to their alert; and the ID is confirmed. Now, as I say, this series was dropped from the register; but at one time, such a designation was assigned en bloc to a proposed link in the Out Line. However, the planned installations never came to fruition due to changes in the strategic position."The vice admiral frowned. "What changes were those?""The task force charged with the establishment of the link encountered heavy enemy pressure. In fact, the cruiser detailed to carry out the actual placement of the units was lost in action with all hands. Before the program could be reinitiated, a withdrawal from the sector was ordered. The new link was never completed, and the series was retired, unused.""So?""So . . . just possibly, sir, one of those old stations was erected before Redoubt was lost—""What's that?" The admiral rounded on the startled officer. "Did you say . . . Redoubt?" His voice was a hiss between set teeth."Y . . . yessir!""Redoubt was lost with all hands before she planted her first station!""I know that's what we've always thought, Admiral—"The admiral snatched the paper from the major's hand. "JN 37 Ace Trey," he read aloud. "Why the hell didn't you say so sooner?" He whirled to his chief of staff. "What's Broadly got in mind?" he snapped the question.The startled officer began a description of the plan to decoy the Djann vessel into range of Malthusa's batteries."Decoy?" the vice admiral snarled. The exec took a step backward, shocked at the expression on his superior's face. The latter spun to face his battle officer, standing by on the bridge."General, rig out an Epsilon series interceptor and get my pressure gear into it! I want it on the line ready for launch in ten minutes! Assign your best torchman as co-pilot!""Yessir!" The general spoke quickly into a lapel mike. The admiral flicked a key beside the hot-line screen."Get Broadly," he said in a voice like doom impending. 22 In the Djann ship, the One-Who-Commands stirred and extended a contact to his crew members. "Tune keenly in the scarlet regions of the spectrum," he communicated. "And tell me whether the Spinners weave a new thread in the tapestry of our fates.""I sensed it but now, and felt recognition stir within me!" the One-Who-Records thrummed a mighty euphony. "A Voice of the Djann, sore beset, telling of mortal need!""I detect a strangeness," the One-Who-Refutes indicated. "This is not the familiar voice of They-Who-Summon . . .""After the passage of ninety cycles, it is not surprising that new chords have been added to the Voice, and others withdrawn," the One-Who-Anticipates pointed out. "If the link cousins are in distress, our path is clear!""Shall I then bend our fate line to meet the new Voice?" the One-Who-Commands called for a weighing. "The pursuers press us closely.""The Voice calls; we will pervert our saga by shunning it?""This is a snare of the water beings, calculated to abort our destinies!" the One-Who-Refutes warned. "Our vital energies are drained to the point of incipient coma by the Weapon-Which-Feeds-On-Life! If we turn aside now, we place ourselves in the jaws of the destroyer!""Though the Voice lies, the symmetry of our existence demands that we answer its appeal," the One-Who-Anticipates declared.The One-Who-Records sounded a booming arpeggio, combining triumph and defeat. "Let the Djann flame burn brightest in its hour of extinction!""I accede," the One-Who-Commands announced. "Though only the Great Emptiness may celebrate our immolation." 23 "By God, they've fallen for it!" Commodore Broadly smacked his fist into his hand and beamed at the young signal lieutenant. He rocked back on his heels, studying the position chart the pilot officer had set up for him on the message deck. "We'll make the intercept about here." His finger stabbed at a point a fractional light from the calculated position of the newfound OL station.He broke off as an excited voice burst from the intercom screen."Commodore Broadly, sir! Urgent from Task—" the yeoman's face disappeared from the screen to be replaced by the fierce visage of the vice admiral."Broadly, sheer off and take up course for station, and then report yourself under arrest! Commodore Baskov will take command. I've countermanded your damned-fool orders to the OL station! I'm on my way out there now to see what I can salvage—and when I get back, I'm preferring charges against you that will put you on the beach for the rest of your miserable life!" 24 In the beacon station atop the height of ground known as Thunderhead, Carnaby waited before the silent screen. The modifications to the circuitry had taken half an hour; setting up the new code sequences, another fifteen minutes. Then another half hour had passed, while the converted beacon beamed out the alien signal.He'd waited long enough. It had been twenty minutes now since the last curt order to stand by; and in the hut a thousand feet below, Terry had been waiting now for nearly five hours, every breath he drew a torture of strangulation. The order had been to put the signal on the air, attempt to delay the enemy ship. Either it had worked, or it hadn't. If Fleet had any more instructions for him, they'd have to damn well deliver them in person. He'd done what was required. Now he had to see the boy. Carnaby rose, again donned the backpack. Outside, he squinted up at the sky, a dazzle of mist-gray. Maybe the snow squall was headed back this way. That would be bad luck; it would be close enough as it was.A bright point of light caught his eye, winking from high above, almost at zenith. Carnaby felt his heart take a leap in his chest that almost choked off his breath. For a moment he stood, staring up at it; then he whirled
ack through the door." . . . termand previous instructions!" A new voice was rasping from the speaker. "Terminate all transmission immediately! JN 37, shut down power and vacate station! Repeat, an armed enemy vessel is believed to be vectored in on your signal! This is, repeat, a hostile vessel! You are to cease transmission and abandon station immediately—"Carnaby's hand slapped the big master lever. Lights died on the panel; underfoot, the minute vibration jelled into immobility. Sudden silence pressed in like a tangible force—a silence broken by a rising mutter from above."Like that, eh?" Carnaby said to himself through clenched teeth. "Abandon station, eh?" He took three steps to a wall locker, yanked the door open wide, took out a short, massive power rifle, still encased in its plastic protective cover. He stripped the oily sheath away, checked the charge indicator; it rested on FULL.There were foot-square windows set on each side of the twenty-foot room. Carnaby went to one, by putting his face flat against the armorplast panel, was able to see the ship, now a flaring fireball dropping in along a wide approach curve. As it descended swiftly, the dark body of the vessel took shape above the glare of the drive. It was a small, blunt-ended ovoid of unfamiliar design, a metallic black in color, decorated fore and aft with the scarlet blazons of a Djann war vessel.The ship was close now, maneuvering to a position directly overhead. A small landing craft detached itself from the parked ship, plummeted downward like a stone, with a shrill whistling of high-speed rotors settled in across the expanse of broken rock in a cloud of pale dust. The black plastic bubble atop the landing sled split like a clam shell; a shape came into view, clambered over the cockpit rim and stood, a cylindrical bronze-black body, slung by leathery mesenteries from the paired U-frames that were its ambulatory members, two pair of grasping limbs folded above.A second Djann emerged, a third, a fourth. They stood together, immobile, silent, while a minute ticked past. Sweat trickled down the side of Carnaby's face. He breathed shallowly, rapidly, feeling the almost painful thudding of his heart.One of the Djann moved suddenly, its strange, jointless limbs moving with twinkling grace and speed. It flowed across to a point from which it could look down across the plain, then angled to the left and reconnoitered the entire circumference of the mountaintop. Carnaby moved from window to window to watch it. It rejoined the other three; briefly, they seemed to confer. Then one of the creatures, whether the same one or another Carnaby wasn't sure, started across toward the hut.Carnaby moved back to a position in the lee of a switch gear cabinet. A moment later the Djann appeared at the door. At a distance of fifteen feet, Carnaby saw the lean limbs, like a leather-covered metal, the heavy body, the immense faceted eyes that caught the light and sent back fiery glints. For thirty seconds, the creature scanned the interior of the structure. Then it withdrew. Carnaby let out a long, shaky breath, watched it lope back to rejoin its companions. Again, the Djann conferred; then one turned to the landing craft . . . For a long moment, Carnaby hesitated: he could stay where he was, do nothing, and the Djann would reboard their vessel and go their way; and in a few hours, a Fleet unit would heave into view off Longone, and he'd be home safe. But the orders had been to delay the enemy . . . He centered the sights of the power gun on the alien's body, just behind the forelegs, and pushed the firing stud.A shaft of purple fire blew the window from its frame, lanced out to smash the up-rearing alien against the side of the sled, send it skidding in a splatter of molten rock and metal. Carnaby swung the rifle, fired at a second Djann as the group scattered; the stricken creature went down, rolled, came up, stumbling on three limbs. He fired again, knocked the creature spinning, dark fluid spattering from a gaping wound in the barrel-like body. Carnaby swung to cover a third Djann, streaking for the plateau's edge; his shot sent a shower of molten slag arcing high from the spot where it disappeared.He lowered the gun, stepped outside, ran to the corner of the building. The fourth Djann was crouched in the open, thirty feet away; Carnaby saw the glitter of a weapon gripped in the hand-like members springing from its back. He brought the gun up, fired in the same instant that light etched the rocks, and a hammer-blow struck him crushingly in the side, knocked him back against the wall. He tasted dust in his mouth, was aware of a high humming sound that seemed to blank out his hearing, his vision, his thoughts . . . He came to, lying on his side against the wall. Forty feet away, the Djann sprawled, its stiff limbs out-thrust at awkward angles. Carnaby looked down at his side. The Djann particle gun had torn a gaping rent in his suit, through which he could see bright crimson beads of frozen blood. He groped, found the rifle, dragged it to him. He shook his head to clear away the mist that seemed to obscure his vision. At every move, a terrible pain stabbed outward from his chest. Ribs broken, he thought. Something smashed inside, too. It was hard for him to breathe. The cold stone on which he lay seemed to suck the heat from his body.Across the hundred-foot stretch of frost-shattered rock, a soot-black scar marked the spot where the escaping Djann had gone over the edge. Painfully, Carnaby propped the weapon to cover the direction from which attack might come. Then he slumped, his face against the icy rock, watching down the length of the rifle barrel for the next move from the enemy. 25 "Another four hours to shift, Admiral," General Drew, the battle commander acting as co-pilot aboard the racing interceptor said. "That's if we don't blow our linings before then.""Bandit still holding position?" The admiral's voice was a grate as of metal against metal.Drew spoke into his lip mike, frowned at the reply. "Yes, sir, Malthusa says he's still stationary. Whether his locus is identical with the LN beacon's fix or not, he isn't sure at that range.""He could be standing by off-planet, looking over the ground," the admiral muttered half to himself."Not likely, Admiral. He knows we're on his tail.""I know it's not likely, damn it!" the admiral snarled. "But if he isn't, we haven't got a chance . . .""I suppose the Djann conception of honor requires these beggars to demolish the beacon and hunt down the station personnel, even if it means letting us overhaul them," Drew said. "A piece of damn foolishness on their part, but fortunate for us.""Fortunate, General? I take it you mean for yourself and me, not the poor devil that's down there alone with them.""Just the one man? Well, we'll get off more cheaply than I imagined then." The general glanced sideways at the admiral, intent over the controls. "After all, he's Navy. This is his job, what he signed on for.""Kick that converter again, General," Admiral Carnaby said between his teeth. "Right now you can earn your pay by squeezing another quarterlight out of this bucket." 26 Crouched in a shallow crevice below the rim of the mesa where the house of the water beings stood, the One-Who-Records quivered under the appalling impact of the death emanations of his link brothers."Now it lies with you alone," the fading thought came from the One-Who-Commands. "But the water being, too, is alone, and in this . . . there is . . . a certain euphony . . ." The last fragile tendril of communication faded.The One-Who-Records expelled a gust of the planet's noxious atmosphere from his ventral orifice-array, with an effort freed his intellect of the shattering extinction-resonances it had absorbed. Cautiously, he probed outward, sensing the strange, fiery mind-glow of the alien . . . Ah, he too was injured! The One-Who-Records shifted his weight from his scalded forelimb, constricted further the flow of vital fluids through the damaged section of his epidermal system. He was weakened by the searing blast that had scored his flank, but still capable of action; and up above, the wounded water being waited.Deftly, the Djann extracted the hand weapon from the sheath strapped to his side, holding it in a two-handed grip, its broad base resting on his dorsal ridge, its ring lenses aligned along his body. He wished briefly that he had spent more li periods in the gestalt tanks, impressing the weapon's use syndromes on his reflex system; but feckless regrets made poor scansion. Now indeed the display podium of existence narrowed down to a single confrontation: a brief and final act in a century-old drama, with the fate of the mighty epic of the Djann resting thereon. The One-Who-Records sounded a single, trumpet-like resonance of exultation, and moved forward to fulfill his destiny. 27 At the faint bleat of sound, Carnaby raised his head. How long had he lain here, waiting for the alien to make its move? Maybe an hour, maybe longer. He had passed out at least twice, possibly for no more than a second or two; but it could have been longer. The Djann might even have gotten past him—or crawled along below the ridge, ready now to jump him from a new angle . . . He thought of Terry Sickle, waiting for him, counting on him. Poor kid. Time was running out for him. The sun was dropping low, and the shadows would be closing in. It would be icy cold inside the hut and down there in the dark the boy was slowly strangling, maybe calling for him . . . He couldn't wait any longer. To hell with the alien. He'd held him long enough. Painfully, using the wall as a support, Carnaby got to his hands and knees. His side felt as though it had been opened and packed with red-hot stones—or were they ice-cold? His hands and feet were numb. His face ached. Frostbite. He'd look fine with a frozen ear. Funny, how vanity survived as long as life itself . . . He got to his feet, leaned against the building, worked on breathing. The sky swam past him, fading and brightening. His feet felt like blocks of wood; that wasn't good. He had a long way to go. But the activity would warm him, get the blood flowing, except where the hot stones were. He would be lighter if he could leave them here. His hands moved at his side, groping over torn polyon, the sharp ends of broken wires . . . He brought his mind back to clarity with an effort. Wouldn't do to start wandering now. The gun caught his eye, lying at his feet. Better pick it up; but to hell with it, too much trouble. Navy property. But can't leave it here for the enemy to find. Enemy. Funny dream about a walking oxy tank, and—He was looking at the dead Djann, lying awkward, impossible, thirty feet away. No dream. The damn thing was real. He was here, alone, on top of Thunderhead—But he couldn't be. Flitter was broken down. Have to get another message off via the next tramp steamer that made planetfall. Hadn't been one for . . . how long . . . ?Something moved, a hundred feet away, among the tumble of broken rock. Carnaby ducked, came up with the blast rifle, fired in a half-crouch from the hip, saw a big dark shape scramble up and over the edge, saw the wink of yellow light, fired again, cursing the weakness that made the gun buck and yaw in his hands, the darkness that closed over his vision. With hands that were stiff, clumsy, he fired a third time at the swift-darting shape that charged toward him; and then he was falling, falling . . .