He checked his appearance, stepped before the scanner, and nodded to Communications to turn it on. "All hands," he said, then waited for attention.
The small monitor screens showed a motley sampling of intent faces. He permitted himself a tight smile. "You know I have orders to surrender the Fleet." He paused for effect. "Those are the orders of the Council of Four, and to disobey the Council would be unthinkable.
"Yet it is also unthinkable that a single ship of the Fleet should surrender under any circumstances, at any time; therefore I am faced with a dilemma in which tradition must be broken.
"The Council of Four has lost courage, and so, perhaps, have many of the people of Sennech. We have ways of knowing that the people of Coar, far more than our own, clamor at their government for any sort of peace.
"Coar's fleets are smashed and the remnants have fled from space.
"Clearly, courage has all but vanished from the Solar System; yet there is one place where courage has not wavered. That place is in the Fleet of Sennech.
"At this moment we are the only strength left in the Solar System. We dominate the System!
"Would we have history record that the Fleet won its fight gloriously, then cravenly shrank back from the very brink of victory?
"We left Sennech fully armed, though our orders were directly opposite. I need not tell you that I have made the decision any man of the Fleet would make.
"This is our final campaign. Within a short time we shall orbit Coar herself and force her surrender. That is all."
There was a moment so quiet that the hum of the circuits grew loud, then the monitors shook with a mighty cheer.
Later, alone, Jezef congratulated him amusedly. "They are certainly with you a hundred percent now, if there was any doubt before. Yet there was one argument you didn't even hint at; the strongest argument of all."
"What was that?"
"Why, you're offering them a chance at life and freedom, where they might be going to imprisonment or execution."
That irritated Tulan. "I'm sure you're not so cynical about Fleet loyalty and tradition as you pretend," he said stiffly. "I wouldn't affront the men by using that kind of an argument."
Jezef grinned more widely. "Did it even occur to you to use it?"
Tulan flushed. "No," he admitted.
Teyr and her moon Luhin, both in quarter-phase from here, moved steadily apart in the viewers.
Group One's screen of light craft probed ahead, jamming enemy radar, and discovering occasional roboscouts which were promptly vaporized. Far behind, Group Two showed as a small luminescence. It would never be visible to Luhin as anything else, and then only when Tulan was ready.
They reversed drives, matched speeds neatly, and went into forced orbit around Luhin. On the flagship's first pass over the beleaguered oval of ground held by Sennech's forces--unsupported and unreinforced since the home planet's defection--Tulan sent a message squirting down. "Tulan commanding. Is Admiral Galu commanding there? Report situation."
The next time around a long reply came up to them. "This is Captain Rhu commanding. Galu killed. Twenty percent personnel losses. Six Lights destroyed; moderate damage to several Mediums and one Heavy. Ground lines under heavy pressure. Ships' crews involved in fighting at perimeter. Food critical, other supplies low. Several thousand wounded. Combat data follows." There was a good assessment of the struggle, with some enemy positions that were known.
The Fleet Force that had escorted nearly one hundred thousand ground troops included five Heavies and other craft in proportion, besides the transports and supply ships. Alone, they'd been pinned down by superior enemy ground forces and by a sizable fleet holed up all around the satellite. With Tulan's support they could be taken off.
Tulan composed orders. "Withdraw ships' crews from lines and prepare to lift. Get wounded aboard transports and prepare to evacuate troops. Set up fire control network to direct our ground support."
The tedious job of shrinking the perimeter, a short stretch at a time, began, harassed by the quickly adapting enemy.
During the first twenty hours the hostile fire was all from ground projectors, the enemy ships not risking detection by joining in. By that time one section of the front had pulled back to where several ships, sheltered in a crater, would have to lift.
Lines of men and equipment converged on the ships and jammed aboard. The actual lift was preceded by a diversion a few miles away, which succeeded in pulling considerable enemy fire. The ships got off in unison, slanting back across friendly territory and drawing only light missiles which the defenses handled easily.
Then, suddenly, a salvo of heavy stuff came crashing in, too unexpected and too well planned to stop. One of the lifting ships, a transport, vanished in a great flash.
Tulan yelled into his communicator. "Plot! Where did that come from?"
"I'm sorting, sir. Here! A roboscout got a straight five-second plot before they downed it!"
"Intelligence!" Tulan snapped. "Get the co-ordinates and bring me photos!"
There were already pictures of the area where the salvo must have originated, and one of them showed a cave-like opening in a crater wall. "That's it!" Tulan jabbed a pencil at it. "You could hide a dozen ships in there. Let's get a strike organized!"
The strike group included four Heavies besides the flagship, with twelve Mediums and twenty Lights. They slanted down in a jerky evasive course while pictures flashed on screens to be compared with the actual terrain.
Ground fire, chemically propelled missiles, erupted ahead of them and the small craft went to work intercepting it. They were down to a hundred miles, then fifty, streaking along the jagged surface so close they seemed to scrape it. This was point-blank range; as the computers raced with the chaos of fire and counter-fire, human senses could only register a few impressions--the bruising jerks, the shudder of concussions, white streaks of rocket-trails, gushers of dirt from the surface, winking flashes of mid-air interception.
Then the Heavies were on target. The flagship jumped as the massive salvo leaped away--not chemical missiles, but huge space torpedoes propelled by Pulsor units like the ships' drives, directing their own flocks of smaller defensive missiles by an intricate network of controls. The small stuff, augmented by fire from the lighter ships, formed momentarily a visible tube down which the big stuff streaked untouched.
The whole crater seemed to burst upward, reaching out angry fingers of shattered rock as they ripped by, rocking and bucking with the blasts. Tulan's viewer swivelled aft to hold the scene. Secondary blasts went off like strings of giant firecrackers. Great black-and-orange fungi-like clouds swirled upward, dissipating fast in the thin atmosphere. Then Tulan spotted what he was looking for: three small ships flashing over the area, to get damage-assessment pictures. There was still a lot of ground-fire from farther out, and it caught one of the three, which wobbled crazily then disappeared in a flash which blanked out the viewscreen.
"Intelligence!" Tulan shouted. "Casualties?"
Intelligence was listening to his earphones and punching buttons. "Two Lights lost, sir. Slight damage to seven more and to one Medium."
"All right. Get a telecopy of those pictures as soon as you can; we certainly hit something. Maybe a Heavy or two." He relaxed, aching, and reflected that he was getting a little mature for actual combat.
The pull-back went on, drawing only the local ground-fire now that the enemy had been taught his lesson. Groups of ships lifted almost constantly. The final position was an oval forty by sixty miles, held almost entirely from the sky. The last evacuees straggled in like weary ants, and when the radio reported no more of them the last fifty ships lifted together and ran the gauntlet with slight losses.
Tulan pulled the Force away for rest and repair. Group Two was idling at extreme radar range, making a convincing blip, and he designed some false messages to be beamed toward it with the expectation of interception. The impression he wanted to give was that Group Two was the Force that had been bombarding Coar, coming in now to join him. Actually, the latter fleet was farther away, hidden in the sun and, he hoped, unsuspected.
Things were going according to plan except for one puzzling item: there was no message from Sennech's small garrison on Teyr. All he could get from the planet was a steady radar scan, which might mean that Sennech's colony had been conquered by Coar's.
He'd been hoping to get certain supplies from Teyr, and now he took a strong detachment in close to the planet to find out what was wrong. The threat finally raised an answer. "This is the Chief of Council. What is it that you want?"
"Chief of Council? What are you talking about? I want the Garrison Commander."
"I suppose you're Admiral Tulan. There's been a change here, Tulan; Teyr is now an independent planet. Your garrison, with Coar's, comprise our defense forces."
Tulan stared at the planet's image. "You're at war with Coar!"
"Not any more, we aren't." There was a chuckle. "Don't sound so shocked, Admiral; we understand you're in mutiny yourself."
Tulan slapped the microphone onto its hangar. He sat, angry and bewildered, until he remembered something, then buzzed Communications. "Get me that connection again. Hello? Listen. I have sixty thousand troops in transports, with almost no food. I intend to land them."
"They're welcome as noncombatants, Admiral. They'll have to land disarmed, in areas we designate, and live off the country. We've already got more refugees than we can handle."
"Refugees from where?"
"Haven't you been in contact with Sennech at all?"
"Oh." There was a thoughtful pause. "Then you don't know. There's bad radiation in the atmosphere and we're hauling as many away as we can. We can use your ships if you're finished playing soldier."
Tulan broke the connection again and turned, fuming, to Jezef. "We'll blast our way in and take over!"
Jezef raised his eyebrows. "What good would that do?" he asked.
"Why; they--for one thing, we've got to think of those troops! We can't land them unarmed and let them be slaughtered by the savages!"
Jezef grinned. "I doubt if they'll refuse to let them have enough small arms to defend themselves. They can't stay where they are."
"But they're military men, and loyal!"
"Are they? The war's over for them, anyway. Why not let them vote on it?"
Tulan jumped up and strode around the command room, while Jezef and the staff watched him silently. Gradually, the logic of it forced itself upon him. "All right," he said wearily, "We'll let them vote."
A few hours later he studied the results gloomily. "Well, after all, they're not Fleet. They don't have the tradition."
Jezef smiled, then lingered, embarrassed.
"Well?" Tulan asked.
"Sir," (that hadn't come out, in private, for years) "I'd like to be relieved."
It was a blow, but Tulan found he wasn't really surprised. He stared at his brother-in-law, feeling as if he faced an amputation. "You think I'm wrong about this whole thing, don't you?"
"I'm not going to judge that, but Sennech's in trouble far worse than any question of politics, including your own family."
"But if we turn back now Coar will recover! It's only going to take us a few more hours!"
"How long does it take people to die?"
Tulan looked at the deck for a while. "All right. I'll detach every ship I can spare, and put you in charge. You'll have the transports too, as soon as they're unloaded." He stared after Jezef, wanting to call out to him to be sure to send word about Anatu and the boys, but somehow feeling he didn't have the right.
He took the fighting ships away from Teyr, to where Group Two could join up without being unmasked, then started sunward as if he were crossing to intercept Coar. A few miles in, where they'd be hidden in the sun, he left a few scouts.
As he saw it, the enemy commander on the satellite, noting the armada's course and finding himself apparently clear, would have no choice but to lift his ships and start around the sun by some other path to help his planet.
That other path to Coar could be intercepted, and as soon as Tulan was lost near the sun he went into heavy drive to change direction. He drifted across the sun, waiting for word from his scouts. At about the time he'd expected, they reported ships leaving the satellite.
He looked across the room toward Plot. "Plot! Feed that data to Communications as it comes in, will you?" And to Communications: "Can we beam Group Three from here?"
"Not quite, sir; but I can relay through the scouts."
"All right; but make sure it's not intercepted. I want Group Three under maximum acceleration for Luhin, and I want them to get running reports on the enemy."
Tulan was in the position he wanted, not needing to use his own radar, but able to pick up that of Coar's fleet at extreme range, too far to give them a bounce. He'd know their course, speed, and acceleration fairly well, without even being suspected himself.
He held that position until the enemy was close enough to get a bounce, then went into drive on an intercepting course.
One of the basic tenets of space maneuver was this: if two fleets were drawing together, with radar contact, neither (barring interference from factors such as the sun or planets) could escape the other; for if one applied acceleration in any direction the other could simply match it (human endurance being the limitation) and maintain the original relative closing speed.
When the enemy commander discovered Tulan's armada loafing ahead of him, he'd been accelerating for about ten hours and had a velocity of a million miles per hour, while Tulan was going the same direction but at half the speed. The quarry began decelerating immediately, knowing it could get back to Luhin with time enough to land.
Tulan didn't quite match the deceleration, preferring to waste a few hours and lessen the strain on his crews. He let the gap close slowly.
He could tell almost the precise instant when the other jaw of his trap was discovered, for Plot, Communications, and Intelligence all jerked up their heads and looked at him. He grinned at them. What they'd picked up would be an enemy beam from Luhin, recklessly sweeping space to find the Coar fleet and warn it of the onrushing Group Three.
The enemy commander reacted fast. It was obvious he'd never beat Group Three to Luhin, and he made no futile attempts at dodging, but reversed drives and accelerated toward the nearest enemy, which was Tulan. Tulan was not surprised at that either, for though Coar's fleets had bungled the war miserably, when cornered they'd always fought and died like men.
He matched their acceleration to hold down the relative speeds. The swift passing clash would be brief at best. He formed his forces into an arrangement he'd schemed up long ago but never used: a flat disc of lighter ships out in front, masking a doughnut-shaped mass behind. He maneuvered laterally to keep the doughnut centered on the line of approach.
Roboscouts appeared and blossomed briefly as they died. The fuzzy patch of light on the screens swelled, then began to resolve into individual points. The first missiles arrived. Intricate patterns of incandescence formed and vanished as fire-control systems locked wits.
A sudden, brilliantly planned salvo came streaking in, saturating the defenses along its path. Ships in Tulan's secondary formation swerved frantically, but one darting, corkscrewing missile homed on a Heavy, and for an instant there were two suns.
Tulan, missing Jezef's smooth help, was caught up in the daze and strain of battle now. He punched buttons and shouted orders as he played the fleet to match the enemy's subtle swerving. Another heavy salvo came in, but the computers had its sources pinpointed now, and it was contained. These first few seconds favored the enemy, who was only fighting the light shield in front of Tulan's formation.
Now the swelling mass of blips streaked apart in the viewers and space lit up with the fire and interception. Two ships met head on; at such velocities it was like a nuclear blast.
Then Coar's ships crashed through the shield and into the center of the doughnut. Ringed, outgunned, outpredicted, they hit such a concentration of missiles that it might as well have been a solid wall. Ships disintegrated as if on a common fuse; the ones that didn't take direct hits needed none, in that debris-filled stretch of hell.
Tulan's flagship rocked in the wave of expanding hot gasses. There was a jolt as some piece of junk hit her; if she hadn't already been under crushing acceleration away from the inferno she'd have been holed.
From a safer distance the path of destruction was a bright slash across space, growing into the distance with its momentum. It was annihilation, too awful for triumph; there was only horror in it. Tulan knew that with this overwhelming tactic he'd written a new text-book for action against an inferior fleet. He hoped it would never be printed. Sweating and weak, he slumped in his straps and was ill.
While brief repairs and re-arming were under way, he sent scouts spiraling out to pick up any radio beams from Sennech or Teyr. There were none. The telescopes showed Sennech's albedo down to a fraction of normal; that, he supposed, would indicate smoke in the atmosphere. He wavered, wondering whether he should detach more ships to send out there. Reason and training told him to stick to the key objective, which was Coar's surrender. He waited only for Group Three to achieve a converging course, then started around the sun again.
They didn't encounter even a roboscout. He crossed the sun, curved into Coar's orbit, matched speeds, and coasted along a million miles ahead of the planet, sending light sorties in to feel out any ambushes. Still there was no sign of fight, so he went in closer where the enemy could get a good look at his strength. Finally he took a small group in boldly over the fourth planet's Capitol and sent a challenge.