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It was a small room, with an uneven floor, exposed, hand-hewn ceiling beams, a rough fieldstone fireplace. There was furniture: a narrow bunk, a table, a bookcase, straight-backed chairs, all meticulously dusted. A pot of sickly snow-flowers stood in the center of the table. A thick quartz window in a vacuum-tight alloy frame was set in the south wall—a salvaged DV port from a deep-space liner. The view through the window was of black night, whirling snowflakes, a moonlit mountain peak thrusting up towards the sprawling configuration of the constellation Angina Doloris.

Beside the window, a compact Navy issue WFP transmitter was set up on a small gray-metal desk. The man standing before it was tall, wide-shouldered, with graying hair, still straight-backed, but thickening through the body now. He studied the half-dozen instrument faces, then seated himself, began noting their readings in a worn notebook. As he worked, the teen-aged boy who stood beside him watched intently.

"I've been working on my Blue codes, Lieutenant Carnaby," the lad was saying. "I'll bet I could pass the Academy exam now." His eager tone changed. "You s'pose I'll ever get the chance, Lieutenant?"

"Sure, Terry," Carnaby said. His voice was deep, husky. "A Navy ship's bound to call here, any time now."

The boy stood by as Carnaby depressed the tape key which would send the recorded call letters of the one-man station flashing outward as a shaped wavefront, propagated at the square of the speed of light.

"Lieutenant," the boy said, "every night you send out your call. How come you never get an answer?"

Carnaby shook his head. "I don't know, Terry. Maybe they're too busy fighting the Djann to check in with every little JN beacon station on the Outline."

"You said after five years they were supposed to come back and pick you up," the boy persisted. "Why—"

There was a sharp, wavering tone from the round, wiremesh covered speaker. A dull red light winked on, blinked in a rapid flutter, settled down to a steady glow. The audio signal firmed to a raucous buzz.

"Lieutenant!" Terry blurted. "Something's coming in!"

Swiftly, Carnaby thumbed the big S-R key to RECEIVE, flipped the selector lever to UNSC, snapped a switch tagged RCD.

" . . . riority, to all stations," a voice faint with distance whispered through a rasp and crackle of star-static. "Cincsec One-two-oh to . . . Cincfleet Nine . . . serial one-oh-four . . . stations copy . . . Terem Aldo . . . Terem . . . pha . . . this . . . message . . . two . . . Part One . . ." 

"What is it, Lieutenant?" The boy's voice broke with excitement.

"A Fleet Action signal," Carnaby said tensely. "An all-station, recorded. I'm taping it; if they repeat it a couple of times, I'll get it all."

They listened, heads close to the speaker grille; the voice faded and swelled. It reached the end of the message, began again: "Red priority . . . tions . . . incsec One-two . . ." 

The message repeated five times; then the voice ceased. The wavering carrier hum went on another five seconds, cut off. The red light winked out. Carnaby flipped over the SEND key, twisted the selector to VOC-SQ.

"JN 37 Ace Trey to Cincsec One-two-oh," he transmitted in a tense voice. "Acknowledging receipt Fleet TX 104. Request clarification."

Then he waited, his face taut, for a reply to his transmission, which had been automatically taped, condensed to a one-microsecond squawk, and repeated ten times at one-second intervals.

"No good," Carnaby shook his head after a silent minute had passed. "From the sound of the Fleet beam, Cincsec One-two-oh must be a long way from here."

"Try again, Lieutenant! Tell 'em you're here, tell 'em it's time they came back for you! Tell 'em—"

"They can't hear me, Terry." Carnaby's face was tight. "I haven't got the power to punch across that kind of distance." He keyed the playback. The filtered composite signal came through clearly now:

Red priority to all stations. Cincsec One-two-oh to Rim HQ via Cincfleet Nine-two. All Fleet stations copy. Pass to Terem Aldo Cerise, Terem Alpha Two, and ancillaries. This message in two parts. Part one: CTF Forty-one reports breakthrough of Djann armed tender on standard vector three-three-seven, mark; three-oh-five, mark; oh-four-two. This is a Category One Alert. Code G applies. Class Four through Nine stations stand by on Status Green. Part Two. Inner Warning Line units divert all traffic lanes three-four through seven-one. Outer Beacon Line stations activate main beacon, pulsing code schedule gamma eight. Message ends. All stations acknowledge."

"What's all that mean, Lieutenant?" Terry's eyes seemed to bulge with excitement.

"It means I'm going to get some exercise, Terry."

"Exercise how?"

Carnaby took out a handkerchief and wiped it across his forehead. "That was a general order from Sector Command. Looks like they've got a rogue bogie on the loose. I've got to put the beacon on the air."

He turned to look out through the window toward the towering ramparts of the nine-thousand-foot volcanic peak gleaming white in the light of the small, brilliant moon. Terry followed Carnaby's glance.

"Gosh, Lieutenant—you mean you got to climb old Thunderhead?"

"That's where I set the beacon up, Terry," Carnaby said mildly. "On the highest ground around."

"Sure—but your flitter was working then!"

"It's not such a tough climb, Terry. I've made it a few times, just to check on things." He was studying the rugged contour of the moonlit steep, which resembled nothing so much as a mass of snowy cumulus. There was snow on the high ledges, but the wind would have scoured the east face clear.

"Not in the last five years, you haven't, Lieutenant!" Terry sounded agitated.

"I haven't had a Category One Alert, either," Carnaby smiled.

"Maybe they didn't mean you," Terry said.

"They called for Outer Beacon Line stations. That's me."

"They don't expect you to do it on foot," Terry protested. "Not this time o' year!"

Carnaby looked at the boy, smiling slightly. "I guess maybe they do, Terry."

"Then they're wrong!" Terry's thin face looked pale. "Don't go, Lieutenant!"

"It's my job, Terry. It's what I'm here for. You know that."

"What if you never got the message?" Terry countered. "What if the radio went on the blink, like all the rest of the stuff you brought in here with you—the flitter, and the food unit, and the scooter? Then nobody'd expect you to get yourself killed—"

"But it didn't," Carnaby reminded him gently.

Terry stared at the older man; his mouth worked as though he wanted to speak, but couldn't find the words. "I'll go with you," he said.

Carnaby shook his head. "Thanks, Terry. But you're just a boy. I need a man along on this trip."

Terry's narrow face tightened. "Boy, hell," he said defiantly. "I'm seventeen!"

"I didn't mean anything, Terry. Just that I need a man who's had some trail experience."

"How'm I going to get any trail experience, Lieutenant, if I don't start sometime?"

"Better to start with an easier climb than Thunderhead," Carnaby said gently. "You better go along home now, Terry. Your uncle will be getting worried."

"When . . . when you leaving, Lieutenant?"

"Early. I'll need all the daylight I can get to make Halliday's Roost by sundown."




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