They went back to the house. Shera was sitting on the step.
"I've made up my mind," she said dully.
"I'll do it."
She got up and walked away. When Morgan tried to follow, she turned and flicked out the barb at him, then laughed coldly. Shivering, he turned away.
That night the dogs treed a panther, and Hanson died. It happened while he was climbing with pole and rope, angling to get a noose on the lithe beast while Morgan waited with another rope below. The lantern was hung from a branch while Hanson inched out on the limb. When he thrust the noose forward, the panther brushed it aside with a quick slap. It leaped. Hanson lost his balance and crashed to the ground with a howl. The panther slapped a dog spinning and darted away in the night with three dogs following.
Morgan knelt quickly beside the old man. His back was broken.
"Please, suh--don't move me. The Lo'd's a-comin' fo' old Han."
"Hush, fellow," Morgan murmured.
"Suh, that painter's a she. And they's cubs somewheres."
"Yes, suh. She's spooky-like. Cubs. You stay with my dawgs. Take care of 'em, suh."
"You lemme be now, suh. Lemme be alone." His voice was a faint whisper. "I gotta die by myself. Man oughtn't to have company then."
Morgan hesitated. He sighed and climbed slowly to his feet. He stumbled away, leaving the lantern hanging overhead. He sat a hundred yards away in the shadow of a gaunt cypress, listening to the baying of the hounds, the moaning of the old man, and the croaking of the swamp. When he returned, the oldster was dead.
Morgan returned to the shanty at dawn, carrying a pair of whimpering panther cubs and the skin of the mother. He exchanged a dark glance with Shera at the door. She took them silently and fondled them for a moment.
She nodded gravely. "Soon there'll be no one but Oren."
They went inside and sat facing one another. His eyes moved over the dark slope of her shoulders, the proud set of her breasts, and back to the sweetly sullen face with its narrow eyes.
"I'm going to join you," he said.
The eyes widened a little. She shook her head quickly. "In a liaison of two? No. It might spread, get linked up with Oren."
"Not if it's through these." He stroked one of the cubs. It snarled.
"It's a chance."
"We'll take it." He leaned forward to kiss her....
A year had passed since the night of Hanson's death. A freight train dragged southward in the twilight, wending its way through pine forest and scrubland. Oren was its crew. It crossed a trestle and moved through a patch of jungle. A sudden shadow flitted from the brush, leaped the ditch, and sprinted along beside the rails. Another followed it, and another. The low-flying shadows slowly overtook the engine. The leader sprang, clung for a moment by its forepaws, and pulled itself aboard. Brakes howled on the rails as Oren stopped the train. Two man-figures leaped from the cab--and into the jaws of a killer-cat.
Another cat scrambled upon the tender, leaped to the top of a box-car and sped backward along the train to seek the rest of the crew. The bodies were left in the ditches.
When it was over, the cats collected in a group on the road-bed. They sat licking their forepaws while a dozen shabbily dressed guerrillas moved out of the jungle in a disorderly band.
"Joe, have your bunch unload the dynamite!" bawled a burly leader. "We'll take the tank-car. Emmert, get the packs on those carts."
"I wonder," said a voice to a comrade, "who's controlling those animals. You'd think they were Oren. Why don't they sting?"
"Stingers ripped out, chum. Why ask questions? They're on our side. And we'll win, eventually--if this keeps up."
As a group, the panthers looked at the two men as they passed. One of them shuddered.
"Lordy! I'd swear those cats were grinning!"
By C. C. MacAPP
To disobey the orders of the Council of Four was unthinkable to a Space Admiral of the old school. But the trouble was, the school system had changed. A man, a fighter, an Admiral had to think for himself now, if his people were to live.
While facing the Council of Four his restraint had not slipped; but afterward, shaking with fury, the Admiral of the Fleets of Sennech slammed halfway down the long flight of stone steps before he realized someone was at his elbow. He slowed. "Forgive me, Jezef. They made me so mad I forgot you were waiting."
Jezef (adjutant through most of Tulan's career, and for some years brother-in-law as well) was shorter and less harshly carved than his superior. "So they wouldn't listen to you. Not even Grefen?"
"Even Grefen." That vote had stabbed deepest of all.
Jezef took it with the detachment that still irritated Tulan. "The end of a hundred years of dreams; and we go back under the yoke. Well, they've always been soft masters."
They reached the ground cars. Before getting into his own Tulan said coldly, "Since you're so philosophical about it, you'll be a good one to bear the sight of men saying good-bye to their families. We're to take full crews to Coar and surrender them with the ships. Requisition what help you need and get everybody aboard by noon tomorrow."
Jezef saluted with a hint of amused irony, and left.
Whipping through the dark icy streets, Tulan smiled sourly, thinking how Sennech's scientists had reversed themselves on the theory of hyperspace now that Coar had demonstrated its existence. Maybe the Council was right in mistrusting their current notions. As for himself, he saw only two things to consider: that with Coar swinging behind the sun, the accuracy of her new weapon had gone to pot; and that before she was clear again he could pound her into surrender.
His swift campaigns had already smashed her flabby fleets and driven the remnants from space, but the Council, faced with the destruction and casualties from just a few days of the weird surprise bombardment, was cowed.
He'd spent the previous night at home, but wasn't going back now, having decided to make his farewell by visiphone. It was the thing he dreaded most, or most immediately, so as soon as he reached the flagship he went to his quarters to get it over with.
Anatu's eyes--the same eyes as Jezef's--looked at him out of the screen, filling him with the familiar awkward worship. "You've heard?" he asked finally.
"Yes. You won't be home before you go?"
"No; I ..." He abandoned the lie he'd prepared. "I just didn't feel up to it."
She accepted that. "I'll wake the boys."
"No! It's--" Something happened to his throat.
She watched him for a moment. "You won't be back from Coar. You've got to speak to them."
He nodded. This wasn't going according to plan; he'd intended it to be brief and controlled. Damn it, he told himself, I'm Admiral of the Fleets; I've no right to feelings like this. He straightened, and knew he looked right when the two sleepy stares occupied the screen.
Their hair was stiff and stubborn like his own, so that they wore it cropped in the same military cut. It could have stood a brush right now. They were quiet, knowing enough of what was wrong to be frightened.
He spoke carefully. "I'm going to Coar to talk to them about stopping the war. I want you to look after things while I'm away. All right?"
"All right, Dad." The older one was putting on a brave front for the benefit of the younger and his mother, but the tears showed.
As Tulan cut the connection he saw that Anatu's eyes were moist too, and realized with surprise that he'd never before, in all the years, seen her cry. He watched the last faint images fade from the screen.
Sometime near dawn he gave up trying to sleep, dressed, and began composing orders. Presently Jezef came in with cups of steaming amber liquid. They sipped in silence for a while, then Jezef asked "You've heard about Grefen?"
Tulan felt something knot inside him. He shook his head, dreading what he knew was coming.
"He killed himself last night," Jezef said.
Tulan remembered the agony in the old Minister of War's eyes when he'd voted for surrender. Grefen had been Admiral in his day; the prototype of integrity and a swift sledgehammer in a fight; and Tulan's first combat had been under him. A symbol of the Fleet, Tulan reflected; and his death, yes, that too was a symbol--what was there but shame in surrender, for a man or a fleet or a world?
His hand clenched, crumpling the paper it was resting on. He smoothed the paper and re-read the order he'd been writing. He visualized the proud ranks of his crewmen, reduced to ragged lines shuffling toward prison or execution.
It seemed impossible, against the laws of nature, that men should strive mightily and win, then be awarded the loser's prize. His anger began to return. "I've a mind to defy the Government and only take skeleton crews," he said. "Leave the married men, at least."
Jezef shrugged. "They'd only be bundled into transports and sent after us."
"Yes. Damn it, I won't be a party to it! All they did was carry out their orders, and superbly, at that!"
Jezef watched him with something like curiosity. "You'd disobey the Council? You?"
Tulan felt himself flush. "I've told you before, discipline's a necessity to me, not a religion!" Nevertheless, Jezef's question wasn't unfair; up to now it really hadn't occurred to him that he might disobey.
His inward struggle was brief. He grabbed the whole pad of orders and ripped them across. "What's the Council, with Grefen gone, but three trembling old men? Get some guns manned, in case they get suspicious and try to interfere."
Blood began to surge faster in his veins; he felt a vast relief. How could he have ever seen it differently? He jabbed at a button. "All ships' Duty Officers; scramble communication circuits. This is the Admiral. Top Secret Orders...."
Shortly before noon the four-hundred-odd ships lifted out of Sennech's frosty atmosphere, still ignoring the furious demands from the radio. Fully armed, they couldn't be stopped.
Tulan's viewer gave a vivid picture of the receding fifth planet. The white mantle of ice and snow was a backdrop for blue artificial lakes and the dark green of forest-strips (hardy conifers from Teyr) alternated with the lighter shades of surface farms. The ice had been almost unbroken until men came, bringing more heat than Sennech had ever received from a far-off sun.
That had been before the First Solar War, when Teyr (the race of Aum had originated there) ruled. That awful struggle had bludgeoned the home planet back to savagery, and left Coar and Sennech little better off.
With recovery, Coar had taken over and prospered immensely. Teyr stayed wild except for small colonies planted there by the other two planets, and Sennech lagged for a while.
Within Tulan's lifetime his world had found itself ready to rise against the lax but profit-taking rule of Coar, and that rebellion had grown into the present situation.
Sennech's wounds were plainly visible in the viewscreen; great man-made craters spewing incandescent destruction blindly over farm, city, or virgin ice. The planet was in three-quarters phase from here, and Tulan could see the flecks of fire in the darkness beyond the twilight zone. Near the edge of that darkness he made out the dimmer, diffused glow of Capitol City, where Anatu would be giving two small boys their supper.
He checked altitude, found they were free of the atmosphere, and ordered an acceleration that would take them halfway to the sun in fifty hours. It was uncomfortable now, with Sennech's gravity added, but that would fall off fast.
Jezef hauled himself in and dropped to a pad. "I wish I had your build," he said. "Do you really think we can pull this off?"
Tulan, in a good mood, grinned at him. "Have I ever led you into defeat yet, pessimist?"
"No; and more than once I'd have bet ten to one against us. That's why the Fleet fights so well for you; we have the feeling we're following a half-god. Gods, however, achieve defeats as terrible as their victories."
Tulan laughed and sat down beside Jezef with some charts. "I think I'll appoint you Fleet Poet. Here's the plan. No one knows what I intend; we could be on our way around the sun to overtake Coar and either fight or surrender, or we might be diving into the sun in a mass suicide. That's why I broke off the siege and pulled all units away from Coar; the fact that they're coming back around to meet us will suggest something like that."
"Are they going to join up?"
"No; I want them on this side of the sun but behind us. I have a use for them later that depends on their staying hidden. Incidentally, I'm designating them Group Three.
"In a few hours we're going to turn hard, this side of the sun, and intercept Teyr. I want to evacuate our forces from the moon, then decoy whatever the enemy has there into space where we can get at them. That's their last fleet capable of a sortie, and with that gone we can combine our whole strength and go around to Coar. She'll probably give up immediately, on the spot."
Jezef thought it over. "Will they be foolish enough to leave the moon? As long as they're safely grounded there, they constitute a fleet-in-being and demand attention."
"We'll give them a reason to move, then ambush them. Right now we've a lot of reorganizing to do, and I want you to get it started. We're splitting this Force into Groups One and Two. Here's what I want."
They cut drives and drifted in free fall while supplies were transferred between ships, then Tulan held an inspection and found crews and equipment proudly shipshape. Despite the proliferating rumors, morale was excellent.
A few hours later the realignment began. Space was full of the disc-shapes; thin, delicate-looking Lights with their projecting external gear, and thicker, smoothly armored Mediums and Heavies. He had twenty-three of the latter in Group One, with twice as many Mediums and a swarm of smaller craft.
Group Two, composed of the supply ships and a small escort, was already formed and diverging away. That was a vital part of his plan. From a distance they'd look to telescope or radar like a full combat fleet.
He was almost ready to swerve toward the third planet and its moon, but first he had a speech to make. It was time to squash all the rumors and doubts with a dramatic fighting announcement.