"Look, skipper," I said. "How about letting me do it?" I could have kicked myself a moment later, but the words were out before I could stop them. He had me acting n.o.ble, and that trait isn't one of my strong suits.
He smiled. "You know, Marsden," he said, "I was expecting that." His voice was oddly soft. "Thanks." Then it became dry and impersonal.
"Request denied," he said. "This is my party."
I shivered inside. While I'm no coward, I didn't relish the thought of slamming around at the end of a duralloy cable stretching into a nowhere where there was no inertia. A hair too heavy a hand on the throttle in Cth would crush the man on the end to a pulp. But he shouldn't go either. It was his responsibility to command the ship.
"Who else is qualified?" Chase said answering the look on my face. "I know more about maneuver than any man aboard, and I'll be controlling the ship until the last moment. Once I order the attack I'll cut free, and you can pick me up later."
"You won't have time," I protested.
"Just in case I don't make it," Chase continued, making the understatement of the war with a perfectly straight face, "take care of the crew. They're a good bunch--just a bit too eager for the _real_ Navy--but good. I've tried to make them into s.p.a.cemen and they've resented me for it. I've tried to protect them and they've hated me--"
"They won't now--" I interrupted.
"I've tried to make them a unit." He went on as though I hadn't said a thing. "Maybe I've tried too hard, but I'm responsible for every life aboard this ship." He picked up his helmet. "Take command of the ship, Mr. Marsden," he said, and strode out of the room. The "Lachesis"
shuddered to the recoil from the port turrets. Eighteen torpedoes left, I thought.
We lowered Chase a full hundred feet on the thin strand of duralloy. He dangled under the ship, using his converter to keep the line taut.
"You hear me, skipper?" I asked.
"Four-four. Hang on now--we're going up." I eased the "Lachesis" into Cth and hung like glue to the border. "How's it going, skipper?"
"A bit rough but otherwise all right. Now steer right--easy now--aagh!"
"Okay, Marsden. You nearly pulled me in half--that's all. You did fine.
We're in good position in relation to 'Amphitrite.' Now let's get our signals straight. Front is the way we're going now--base all my directions on that--got it?"
"Good, Marsden, throttle back and hang on your converters."
I did as I was told.
"Ah--there she is--bear left a little. Hmm--she's looking for us--looks suspicious. Now she's turning toward 'Amphitrite.' Guess she figures we are gone. She's in position preparing to fire. _Now!_ Drop out and fire--elevation zero, azimuth three sixty--_Move!_"
I moved. The "Lachesis" dropped like a stone. Chase was dead now.
Nothing made of flesh could survive that punishment but we--we came out right on top of them, just like Chase had done to the other--except that we fired before we collided. And as with the other Rebel we gained complete surprise. Our eighteen torpedoes crashed home, her magazines exploded, and into that h.e.l.l of molten and vaporized metal that had once been a Rebel scout we crashed a split second later. Two thousand miles per second relative is too fast for even an explosion to hurt much if there isn't any solid material in the way, and we pa.s.sed through only the outer edges of the blast, but even so, the vaporized metal scoured our starboard plating down to the insulation. It was like a giant emery wheel had pa.s.sed across our flank. The shock slammed us out of control and we went tumbling in crazy gyrations across s.p.a.ce for several minutes before I could flip the "Lachesis" into Cth, check the speed and motion, and get back into threes.p.a.ce.
Chase was gone--and "Lachesis" was done. A week in drydock and she'd be as good as new, but she was no longer a fighting ship. She was a wreck.
For us the battle was over--but somehow it didn't make me happy. The "Amphitrite" hung off our port bow, a tiny silver dot in the distance, and as I watched two more silver dots winked into being beside her.
Haskins reported the I.F.F. readings.
"They're ours," he said. "A couple of cruisers."
"They should have been here ten minutes ago," I replied bitterly. I couldn't see very well. You can't when emotion clogs your tubes.
Chase--coward?--not him. He was man clear through--a better one than I'd ever be even if I lived out my two hundred years. I wondered if the crew knew what sort of man their skipper was. I turned up the command helmet.
"Men--" I began, but I didn't finish.
"We know," the blended thoughts and voices came back at me. Sure they knew! Chase had been on command circuit too. It was enough to make you cry--the mixture of pride, sadness and shame that rang through the helmet. It seemed to echo and reecho for a long time before I shut it off.
I sat there, thinking. I wasn't mad at the Rebels. I wasn't anything.
All I could think was that we were paying a pretty grim price for survival. Those aliens had better show up pretty soon--and they'd better be as nasty as their reputation. There was a score--a big score--and I wanted to be there when it was added up and settled.
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