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Decision, Page 1

Frank M. Robinson

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  The captain had learned to hate. It was his profession--and his personal reason for going on. But even hatred has to be channeled for its maximum use, and no truths exist forever.

  The battle alarm caught him in the middle of a dream, a dream that tookplace in a white house in a small town in Ohio, when both he and Alicehad been very young and the grown adults he now called his children hadreally been little more than babies.

  He rolled out of his bed immediately on hearing the gong, as any goodsailor would, and slipped into his pants and shoes and felt around thebulkhead for his life jacket. He slipped into it and tightened thebuckles, then put on his cap with the captain's insignia.

  He opened the hatch and stepped out into the passageway, blinking for amoment in the unaccustomed light and trying to shake away the remnantsof his dream. Officers were boiling up the passageway and up the ladder,some eager ensigns dressed only in their shorts and their life jackets.It was more wise than funny, he thought slowly. Ships had gone down in amatter of seconds and anybody who spent precious moments looking for hispants or his wallet never got out.

  Harry Davis, the Exec, a portly man in his fifties, burst out of hisstateroom, still trying to shake the sleep from gummy lids.

  The Captain shook his head, trying to alert his mind to the point whereit could make sensible evaluations, and started up the corridor.

  "Any idea what it is, Harry?"

  Davis shook his head. "Not unless it's what we've been expecting."

  What we've been expecting. The Captain grasped the iron piping thatserved for railings and jogged up the ladder. Fifty miles north, lollingin the North Sea and holding maneuvers, was the _Josef Dzugashvili_, ahundred thousand tons of the finest aircraft carrier the Asiatic Combinehad produced, carrying close to a hundred Mig-72's and perhaps half adozen light bombers.

  The _Josef_ had been operating there for nearly a week. The _Oahu_ hadbeen detached from the Atlantic Fleet only a few days ago, to combat thepossible threat. Maybe the ships were only acting as stake-outs for thepoliticians, the Captain thought slowly. The tinder waiting for thespark. And it wouldn't take much.

  A curious pilot who might venture too close, a gunner with a nervoustemperament ...

  And now, maybe, this was it. It had to come some day. You couldn't turnthe other cheek forever. And he, for one, was glad. He had spent almostall his life waiting for this. A chance to get even ...

  Davis opened the hatch to the wheelhouse and the Captain slipped in,closing it tight behind him. It was pitch black and it took his eyes afew moments to adjust to it. When they had, he could make out theshadowed forms of the OD, the first class quartermaster at the wheel,and the radarman hunched over the repeater, the scope a phosphorescentblur in the darkness.

  The ports were open in violation of GQ--it was a hot summer night--andthe slight breeze that blew off the swelling sea smelled clean and cool.It was the only kind of air for a man to breathe, the Captain musedabstractly.

  He glanced sharply through the ports. There was nothing that bulked onthe dark horizon, and so far as he could tell, all the stars werefixed--there were none of the tell-tale flashes of jet exhausts.

  He walked over to where the OD stood by the radar scope, seeminglyfascinated by the picture on it. McCandless had the watch, a younglieutenant of not more than twenty-five but one with good sense andsound judgment nonetheless. A man who wasn't prone to panic, the Captainthought.

  "What's the situation, Lieutenant?"

  McCandless' voice was nervous. "I'm not exactly sure, sir. Not ... yet."

  A brief regret at an interrupted dream of Ohio flickered in the back ofthe Captain's mind.

  "What do you mean, you're not sure?" His voice was a little sharperthan he intended, a little more querulous than he had meant it to be. Itwas, he thought, the voice of an old man, annoyed at having his sleepdisturbed.

  The younger man wasn't disturbed by the sharpness and the Captain'sestimation of McCandless went up another notch.

  "Ten minutes ago CIC reported an object approaching us from the south atan altitude of fifty miles."

  Approaching from the south, the Captain thought. So it couldn't havebeen from the _Josef_. And fifty ... miles ... up. That was two hundredand fifty thousand feet. A guided missile, perhaps? But whose? Therewere only friendly countries to the south.

  "It's passed directly overhead," McCandless continued, consciouslytrying to make his voice sound factual, "and continued in the directionof _Josef_. It settled towards sea level, then stopped a mile up."

  "Stopped, Lieutenant?"

  "Yes, sir. It's hovering over the _Josef_ now." McCandless paused. Whenhe started again, his voice was shaking. It was funny he hadn't noticedit before, the Captain thought. You could almost smell the fear in thewheelhouse. "CIC estimated its speed overhead as being in excess of athousand miles an hour and its size about that of the _Josef_ itself."

  The Captain felt the sweat gather on his temples and ran his hand halfangrily over his forehead and through his thinning silver hair. He wastoo old a man to let fear affect him any more and he was too tired a manto waste his energy mopping his forehead every few minutes in a gesturethat would show his feelings to the crew. Maybe it was only vanity, hethought, but when your muscles went soft and started pushing backagainst your belt and your hair turned gray and started a strategicretreat, you tended to take more care of your reputation. It wasn't asfragile as the rest of you, it didn't tarnish with the gold of yourbraid or sag with your muscles. And he had enjoyed a reputation as afearless man of sound judgment.

  "Did you order up a drone plane?"

  McCandless nodded in the dark. "It went up a few minutes ago, sir. Thetelevision picture should be coming in any moment."

  It would be an infra-red picture, the Captain thought. It wouldn't showtoo much, provided the plane could get close enough to get anything atall, but it would show something.

  "Have you made any evaluations, Lieutenant?"

  He could feel the tenseness build up again in the compartment. Everybodywas listening intently, waiting for the first semi-official hint of whathad gotten them up in the middle of the night.

  Then McCandless voiced what the Captain had already taken to be aforegone conclusion.

  "I think it's a spaceship, sir." McCandless waved at the stars beyondthe port. "From some place out there."

  * * * * *

  The picture started coming in at oh three hundred. The Captain and Davisand McCandless clustered about the infra-red screen, watching theshadowy picture build up.

  It wasn't much of a picture, the Captain thought. It was vague andindistinct and the drone plane was shooting the scene from too far away.But he could make out the _Dzugashvili_, a gloomy shape that bulked hugein the water, the planes clustered on its deck like small, black flies.But that wasn't what interested him. He had seen restricted photographsand complete descriptions and evaluations of the _Josef_'s fightingcapabilities before. What was of vastly more importance was the hugestructure that hovered above the _Josef_, a mile overhead. A structurethat blocked out the stars over a roughly rectangular area the same sizeas the _Josef_ itself.

  McCandless and Davis were still straining their eyes for details of thealien ship by the time the Captain had glanced away and was formulatingpolicy. The picture was too vague, he thought. There was nothing thatcould be seen that would tell you much about the ship. And if they werecorrect in thinking it was a ... his mind hesitated at the thought ...spaceship, then it would be impossible to tell whether certain featureswere armament or no
t. And it would be futile to speculate on thecapabilities of that armament.

  McCandless and Davis finished with their inspection of the screen andturned to the Captain, waiting for orders.

  "Recall the plane," the Captain said. "Send it out again at dawn. Andsend a message to Radio Washington, giving them complete details. Youmay relax GQ but keep the gunners at their posts and the pilots standingby." The fantastic became far more real when you dealt with itmatter-of-factly, he thought.

  He started for the hatch. "I'll expect you down for breakfast," he saidto Davis. "You, too, Lieutenant. You've been in on this from the start,you know more than the rest of us."

  Which was quite enough flattery for a young lieutenant in one day, hethought. It was far more than he had ever received when he had been alieutenant.

  Back in his stateroom, the