The Complete Stories (Page 190)

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"Can’t say, Mullen. They’ll undoubtedly be avoiding the usual trade routes and they’ll be making more Jumps through hyper-space than usual to throw off possible pursuit. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took as long as a week. Why do you ask? I presume you have a very practical and logical reason?"

"Why, yes. Certainly." He seemed quite shellbacked to sarcasm. He said, "It occurred to me that it might be wise to ration the rations, so to speak."

"We’ve got enough food and water for a month. I checked on that first thing."

"I see. In that case, I will finish the can." He did, using the all-purpose utensil daintily and patting a handkerchief against his unstained lips from time to time.

Polyorketes struggled to his feet some two hours later. He swayed a bit, looking like the Spirit of Hangover. He did not try to come closer to Stuart, but spoke from where he stood.

He said, "You stinking greenie spy, you watch yourself."

"You heard what I said before, Polyorketes."

"I heard. But I also heard what you said about Aristides. I won’t bother

with you, because you’re a bag of nothing but noisy air. But wait, someday you’ll blow your air in one face too many and it will be let out of you."

"I’ll wait," said Stuart.

Windham hobbled over, leaning heavily on his cane. "Now, now," he called with a wheezing joviality that overkid his sweating anxiety so thinly as to emphasize it. "We’re all Earthmen, dash it. Got to remember that; keep it as a glowing light of inspiration. Never let down before the blasted Kloros. We’ve got to forget private feuds and remember only that we are Earthmen united against alien blighters."

Stuart’s comment was unprintable.

Porter was right behind Windham. He had been in a close conference with the shaven-headed colonel for an hour, and now he said with indignation, "It doesn’t help to be a wiseguy, Stuart. You listen to the colonel. We’ve been doing some hard thinking about the situation."

He had washed some of the grease off his face, wet his hair and slicked it back. It did not remove the little tic on his right cheek just at the point where his lips ended, or make his hangnail hands more attractive in appearance.

"All right, Colonel," said Stuart. "What’s on your mind?"

Windham said, "I’d prefer to have all the men together."

"Okay, call them."

Leblanc hurried over; Mullen approached with greater deliberation.

Stuart said, "You want that fellow?" He jerked his head at Polyorketes.

"Why, yes. Mr. Polyorketes, may we have you, old fella?"

"Ah, leave me alone."

"Go ahead," said Stuart, "leave him alone. I don’t want him."

"No, no," said Windham. "This is a matter for all Earthmen. Mr. Polyorketes, we must have you."

Polyorketes rolled off one side of his cot. "I’m close enough, I can hear you."

Windham said to Stuart, "Would they-the Kloros, I mean-have this room wired?"

"No," said Stuart. "Why should they?"

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I’m sure. They didn’t know what happened when Polyorketes jumped me. They just heard the thumping when it started rattling the ship."

"Maybe they were trying to give us the impression the room wasn’t wired."

"Listen, Colonel, I’ve never known a Kloro to tell a deliberate lie-"

Polyorketes interrupted calmly, "That lump of noise just loves the Kloros."

Windham said hastily, "Let’s not begin that. Look, Stuart, Porter and I

have been discussing matters and we have decided that you know the Kloros well enough to think of some way of getting us back to Earth."

"It happens that you’re wrong. I can’t think of any way."

"Maybe there is some way we can take the ship back from the blasted green fellas," suggested Windham. "Some weakness they may have. Dash it, you know what I mean."

"Tell me, Colonel, what are you after? Your own skin or Earth’s welfare?"

"I resent that question. I’ll have you know that while I’m as careful of my own life as anyone has a right to be, I’m thinking of Earth primarily. And I think that’s true of all of us."

"Damn right," said Porter, instantly. Leblanc looked anxious, Polyorketes resentful; and Mullen had no expression at all.

"Good," said Stuart. "Of course, I don’t think we can take the ship. They’re armed and we aren’t. But there’s this. You know why the Kloros took this ship intact. It’s because they need ships. They may be better chemists than Earthmen are, but Earthmen are better astronautical engineers. We have bigger, better and more ships. In fact, if our crew had had a proper respect for military axioms in the first place, they would have blown the ship up as soon as it looked as though the Kloros were going to board."

Leblanc looked horrified. "And kill the passengers?"

"Why not? You heard what the good colonel said. Every one of us puts his own lousy little life after Earth’s interests. What good are we to Earth alive right now? None at all. What harm will this ship do in Kloro hands? A hell of a lot, probably."

"Just why," asked Mullen, "did our men refuse to blow up the ship? They must have had a reason."

"They did. It’s the firmest tradition of Earth’s military men that there must never be an unfavorable ratio of casualties. If we had blown ourselves up, twenty fighting men and seven civilians of Earth would be dead as compared with an enemy casualty total of zero. So what happens? We let them board, kill twenty-eight-I’m sure we killed at least that many-and let them have the ship."

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