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Safe to Sea

Even in the first instants they knew that something had gone wrong. The transit that should have jumped them a quarter light year had hung the thirty-four of them as a ragged constellation among totally unfamiliar stars.

"Hey, my drive's going out!"

"Where the cop are we and how—"

"Johnnie, hang on. Perk and I'll get you out but you gotta hold your spin—"

Individually they were forty-foot daggers, maneuvered by solid-fuel rockets but flung between stars by the transit element amidships. Half each vessel's length was a weapons bay, its only reason for existence. They were neither armored nor fitted with damper fields to choke off incoming nuclear weapons, and while their hulls were studded and meshed with a score of sensor inputs that gave them the airflow of a cookie cutter, the sheeting was utterly opaque and left the pilots blind if the power failed. But nobody had ever pretended that an attack ship could last long in an engagement; only that it could last long enough.

A little sun flared as Corcoran's radiation-poisoned star drive failed catastrophically. The chatter ended, frozen by cold-voiced orders and replies as Attack Squadron 18 sorted itself out. Three of the tiny warships snatched at the tumbling one with their docking tractors, killing all motion relative to the sun below. The ship's medicomp went to work on Calvados, the pilot, his senses junked by the wild centrifuging.

Bernstein, Captain in Command—and the thought of how far his command now reached ate at the edges of his mind—lay rigidly suited in the center of his instruments and display screens. He could move his body six inches at most in any direction. His arms had a nearly full sweep, but each centimeter of their circuit took them to control switches of invisible but memorized significance.

"Heavy in IR," Lacie's voice was rumbling, "but visible spectrum too. The planet itself has fairly regular contours, but we'd want the high ground, the low spot's muck, pure muck. Haven't got the trace readout yet, but we oughta be fine with just breathers."

"Not after you redpill the field," Bernstein stated flatly.

"Aw. . . ." Lacie was six-four, a hugely fat man who began to itch the moment he suited up.

"Sorry, Corporal, but we've got major maintenance to pull and I don't want things creeping up on us while we pull it. Slag it."

"Roger." The commo transmitted the clunk of a fusion weapon leaving the scout ship's bay. "No sign of chicks, sir. No sign of people either, of course, just a lot of jungle."

Individually in section order, most of AS 18 dropped toward the mesa on the pale blue rods of their belly jets. Calvados was an exception, still unconscious and laid down by the straining motors of the ships that had caught his. Herb Wester's craft had been spiked by shrapnel in the instant of transit.

"Look, I can bring her in alone."

"Not until your metering controls get patched up, and we can't do that till you're down."

"Look, sir, it's one hellova lot safer for me to go in alone than with you and the el-tee locked—"

"Shut it off, Wester, I'm through talking about it. You're going in between Lt. Hsi-men and myself and that's all."

Damaged craft locked between the two officers, the trio began dropping toward the surface. Fog or yellow clouds boiled about them. Visibility in the optical ranges was generally nil, but occasional serpents of turbulence gaped unexpectedly. At 8300 meters, Wester's jets surged. All three ships tumbled. Bernstein failed to hit his own motors swiftly enough and the tractor snapped. The jowly captain fought his controls to stasis before tracking the green dots of Hsi-men and Wester on his volume display.

"Cut me, Chen!"

"No no, we'll get you—"

"Goddam slanteye I can't fight this bitch and you! Cut me!"

The dots separated.

Wester dropped his ship alone with the two officers paralleling him at a thousand meters. When an asymmetric surge rippled the damaged vessel, Wester expertly brought it back with a short burst from all motors, then freefell nearly two kays. As the craft dropped below 3400, its green dot blipped out on the other screens. The shock wave of the exploding craft reached Bernstein and Hsi-men a few seconds later. They followed the remainder of the squadron down to the landing site.

"I don't say we're out of the woods yet," the CinC's voice rasped through the suit commo. "At the moment, none of us know where we are."

Jobbins stood on the perimeter, cradling a fat-nosed missile from his ship's defensive cluster; and a damn poor weapon it was for a man on foot. Even if the cannibalized power supply kicked off the motor, the backblast would probably fry him alive; and the high explosive charge in the nose was contact fuzed, making it suicide just to drop the coppy thing. Then for back-up, all he had was a meter's length of chrome-van tubing cut from Calvados' ship. Calvados' two 15cm power guns had been dismounted onto jury-rigged tripods as well, but only his. With available tools you had to butcher a ship to disarm it, so only the hopeless wreck was being stripped. Besides, the guns were designed for use in vacuum; fired in the thick, scattering atmosphere of this planet they weren't going to last a dozen shots.

"But we have a good chance—a damned good chance—to find out. It'll take another jump. That means more time in suits, I know."

Jobbins' suit made him ache all over, trying to walk in it. Coppy things weren't made for gravity use. But who the hell thought the chicks could slip an intruder into the center of the 1st Fleet undetected? The squadron was lucky at that. If their tender had been going to boost them an instant later instead of precisely when it vaporized, AS 18 wouldn't be around to wonder where the incredible surge of energy had flung them.

"We're picking up heavy diffusion in transit space from a location within ninety minutes' hop of here. Lt. Reikart and I are working together to calibrate for it, and by the time AS 18 is set to move, we'll have a location to move to."

Jobbins fingered the tube. Both ends had been severed at 45 degrees, and he wasn't sure whether he was meant to use it as a spear or a club. Clumsy either way. But even through his IR converters, there was nothing to be seen here but glass and pressure cracks spreading out from ground zero.

"We'll all move together. The signal source may be hostile, may be the chicks themselves. No one stays behind here, and every ship has to be as close to battle-ready as we can make it without shipyards."

Or even the tender's half-assed support, Jobbins thought without humor. Sudden realization of their position hit him, black gut-level knowledge that they would never get back. Nobody even knew they were spending their lives wandering out here instead of already being a gas cloud in space off Rigel XII.

There was movement in the shadowy fringes of Jobbins' vision. Dust devils or the like? But the ground was shaking. "Movement," he called in excitedly. "Ah, Jobbins, position, ah, two-seventy degrees."

"What sort of movement, flyer?"

"Second section, stand by."

"Jeez, it's big. Oh Jesus God my rocket won't fire! This coppy rocket won't fire! Get me some support!"

"Three-sixty, move toward him. Face out, everybody, we'll need—"

"Captain, my volume display's got it, it's like a mountain. . . . Get aloft, for God's sake, it's coming in!"

With the panicked flyer's voice echoing in his mind, Jobbins backed two steps. His left arm clamped the missile, dangerous to himself if not the intruder. His converters weren't running right, he couldn't see anything but a huge blur in front of him. Something snaked out of the fog and rippled past. He jabbed with the tube, feeling tough muscle rip under the point. The power guns opened up simultaneously, on infrared a blinking crisscross aimed high in the air.

The member he had stabbed lashed toward Jobbins cat swift, coiled around his waist and flung him upwards. Even through the suit's rigidity, he felt his ribs groan. The tubing skittered through a separate trajectory as Jobbins fell toward the circular blur. It was too large to possibly be alive. The impact shook him. It didn't shake him so badly that he couldn't see the ring above him like a crater's mouth, feel the fleshy wavelets that washed him farther downward.

"Cop!" he shouted angrily as he aimed his missile down the maw and jabbed in vain at the jerry-built igniter. Still screaming meaninglessly, Jobbins grabbed the base of the missile with both hands and leaped.

Fluids and bits of flesh rained down on the squadron for several minutes. Nothing was ever recovered of Jobbins' body.

They were in communication, at least. Of a sort. Rodenhizer spoke a pretty fair grade of Interspeech, and the beings running the trading station dirtside knew a little of it. Or, filtered through a thousand tongues, a score of races, two languages linked by a few hundred words in common were being spoken.

So far as Rodenhizer could tell, the traders knew nothing about either other humans or the chicks.

"Well," Bernstein said to his officers on the command channel, "I don't see there's any choice. They must have some sort of charts down there. Star atlases look pretty much the same whoever draws them."

The lock channels didn't carry visuals, but there was no mistaking Lt. Reikart's quick tenor blurting, "Kyle, we've got three other sources now—"

"We can't—"

"No no no—"

"We can't hop around to every goddam transit user in the goddam universe!" Hsi-men snarled. "We need charts, and this is the nearest place to get a look at some."

"Well, it's dangerous to split up the force."

"Only for me, Mr. Reikart," the CinC said heavily.

"Look, take Murray down too. He's got some Interspeech, and with him and Juan sardined into one ship. . . ."

Murray dropped his ship in first. Nobody said it, but there was a good chance that with Calvados lying on top of him he'd miss a call. No point in having another ship beneath his then. AS 18 hadn't left anything behind on the nameless fog-world except two irreparably damaged vessels and Jobbins' thinly scattered remains. Murray hadn't complained about the passenger.

The CinC's craft shrieked in beside Murray's seconds later. The field was rammed earth, partly vitrified by something with less tendency to gouge and spatter than the Terran belly jets. About the field rose the massive walls of the compound, built more like a circular fortress than a warehouse. Maybe it was a fortress—the world had to be inhabited to have a trading station. At any rate, the structure had been easy to locate from space.

Murray and Calvados were already unsuiting when Bernstein locked back his hatch. He said nothing. The worst environmental threat was the high air temperature and a sky full of actinics from the blue-white sun. As for the fact resuiting in a crunch would mean several minutes' delay—well, the men knew that. The CinC kept his own armor on, even the faceplate.

"A vehicle's picked them up," Lacie reported from orbit, his high-resolution sensors trained on the landing field.

"Captain?" Reikart requested. "Captain?" switching frequencies up and down the scale. "Coppy thing's shielded, we've got no contact."

"So they shield trucks in the landing—"

"Lieutenant! The towers're opening. They've got missile batteries there, three and. . . . eighteen unmasked!"

Liquid Interspeech rustled on the commo.

"Ransom," Rodenhizer translated. "Somebody's supposed to land . . . they're hostile—they'll kill, attack—"

"Lacie, Where'd the vehicle go?" Hsi-men demanded.

"North tower, just before—"

"Kranski, put an R-60 into the south tower. Combat pass."

"Hey, hold up!"

"Lieutenant, shut your face. I'm senior and I'm giving orders until we get the CinC back. And that's just what—"

Hsi-men paused as the atmosphere lit up with the attack ship's passage in its star drive envelope. The effect of the penetrator missile that Kranski's computer spat out during a microsecond phase break was shrouded by the flaring pyrotechnics of its delivery. The southern quarter of the huge compound bulged, then crumbled at the explosion within it. All six missiles streaked from the eastern tower. They exploded barely their own length over the launching troughs.

"Bozeman, take out the west tower."

"Air car leaving the north tower, big, it's—" "They're gabbling, they've dropped Inter—" The second explosion was easily visible. "You coppy son of a bitch, I didn't tell you to nuke it!" "Crater radius one-three-ought-ought, depth at—" "Oh, Jesus, the captain, oh Jesus I didn't—" "Car is down, bearing two-two-ought from crater center, range—"

Kranski, perhaps unaware that he was speaking aloud, said it for all of them. "Well, they wasn't chicks. Not with no better dee-fense'n that."

There were forty-one bodies in the shock-flattened wreckage of the air car. None of them were human. The aliens' ropy limbs belied their endoskeletons, though only Doc Bordway, the ex-zoologist, cared much about that. Or the fact that most of the bodies were female and young. One of the few adult males found was clutching a blue case packed with documents. With no one left to translate the multi-colored squiggles, they were valueless to the squadron.

Eighty percent of the horizon was a hell of glass in a thousand dazzling forms: needles and vast, smooth clearings, iridescence and inkiness, sheets smeared vertically when a nearby pair of weapons had detonated simultaneously and conspired to create while destroying.

The three iron-gray towers dwarfed the attack ships huddled in their shadow.

"What're they doing here?" Ceriani asked, bending down to touch helmets with Hsi-men. "Broadcasting like this on all bands, transit space and normal; shut in behind a screen that's only open in the visible and that at damned low intensity—something's going on in there."

The stocky officer, suited against the vacuum and expected radiation—ground sensors showed the surface count was well below that of Colorado soil, but visual evidence to the contrary was all around—stared up the full length of a tower without answering. He had seen more impressive objects in his life, the coruscating ball of this world hanging in space among them; but the towers had a grim majesty he found unsettling.

"Somebody built to last," he said, helmet to helmet. All radio was drowned by the city's enormous output. "That isn't proof they lasted."

"But the signals—"

"Listen to the damn things, listen to them. A nine-word group, over and over, the same on every channel. You don't have to translate a bit of it to know exactly what it's asking. And if these poor damned machines were getting an answer, well, they'd say something else, wouldn't they?"

He snapped off a shard projecting from the ground, hurled it toward the nearest tower. The glass shattered a foot from his hand. "Something got through to them. Maybe age did. It's sure as death that AS 18 isn't going to, though. There's nothing here for us, nothing for men."

"I wish I knew one thing," the gangling, brown-eyed sergeant said morosely.


"I wish I knew that whoever was fighting them back then was gone too."

Ignoring the hairless "squirrels," Roland turned over to set the sores on his back to the muted sunlight. There could be no true bedsores in freefall, but the constant abrasion by suit irregularities had welted every man in AS 18 during the seventy-nine days since they had suited up on their tender.

Seventy-nine days.

"Could've stayed where the CinC bought it," Lacie muttered from his nearby leaf pallet. "Wasn't so bad there. This jumping from one coppy place to another, before we can take our suits off. . . ."

A breeze riffled the overhanging leaves, a little too yellow for a Terran summer but close enough for men who had shipped on three years in the past. Little beads like scarlet oak galls spattered a number of the prominent veins, brightening the dappled shade.

"What's the matter with here?" Then, "Wish I had a place this nice back home. It's worth waiting for."

"Hellova long drag."

"There were gooks the other place. Here there ain't. Everything here but women. . . ."

That night, Lacie began screaming. Roland used a damp wad of cushion to try to bring his friend around and lower his fever. It wasn't until Bordway wandered over, curious as usual, that anybody realized Lacie was dying.

"Suit up—everybody suit up and get under your medicomps," Bordway ordered. As he spoke, he was dragging Lacie's armor over the big man's swollen limbs. Part of the diagnostic and injection apparatus was built into the suits, since normally at least the tender's medical facilities would be available any time a flyer was out of his armor.

"What's the matter, Doc?" Hsi-men, squat and unperturbed, held the scout's leg without being asked.

"We're in trouble. Lacie's caught something here."

"Hey, even I know that's cop. You can't catch sick from a non-Earth disease. Everybody—"

"Not everybody's stupid enough to believe that," Bordway snapped. "A protein's a protein, and this place has raised one that's pretty damned compatible with ours. . . ."

Lacie screamed in delirium. Hsi-men pinioned his arms. "He caught a virus from the squirrels? God."

"Not the squirrels." Bordway gestured, his crooked index finger circling one of the abrasion sores on Lacie's chest. Ringing it now were a score of tiny scarlet beads. "The leaves."

He paused a moment, ran a hand through black hair months unshorn and glistening with natural oil. In the glare of the landing light rigged on a convex reflector for illumination, Hsi-men could see the wen on Bordway's elbow was beaded too.

Bordway was the second of the seven victims to die in space as Terran anti-virals proved worthless and supportive treatment insufficient.

Lacie. Bordway. Roland, who screamed to everyone around him as they scrambled into their suits, saying that Lacie was fine, he just had nightmares, that was all. Hamid. Jones, a thin, short man from somewhere in Britain, one of the few in AS 18 who liked the thought of killing. He had never been happier than the day at the Meadows of Altair when he had ripped open three Ch'koto transports with bursts from his power guns. Reikart took three days to die. There was no cut-off on the command channels, and Hsi-men's fingers crept to the weapons delivery console a dozen times during the hours of uninterrupted raving. Volomir.

The foliage below was bluer than the seas and starred with crystalline cities. There was no sign of highways—or aircraft, for that matter. But words crackled from the commo, loud and static-free: " 'Peace, welcome.' "

"You can get it clear, Rodie?"

"Yeah, this is pretty good. Hey, maybe we're back into the trade sphere?"

"Cop, I can't get any of the stars. Wish that little prick Reikart hadn't died just before he was good for something."

Slowly, tentatively, negotiations went on. The flat-faced Chinese officer was no diplomat, but he knew enough Interspeech to keep Rodenhizer from overmodifying his replies.

"We are distressed beings searching for our home."

"All beings are one in peace. Land, remain until your home is in peace."

"Rodie! They must know us if they know about the war. Baby, we're on the way!"

"Can you direct us to our home? We ask nothing but your instruction."

It was very hard to tell from the alien tones and syntax, but Rodenhizer suspected that after a brief pause a new voice came on. It blurred the labials of Interspeech slightly, but carried, even in its strangeness, a surprising dignity. "We here are beings of peace. We would have you wait with us in peace. While your home is at war, we cannot guide you to war."

Rodenhizer didn't have a command set. When he translated the statement on an open channel, the whole squadron exploded.

"What sorta cop is that? Look—"

"Wait a minute, wait, he can't have—"

Hsi-men let them run for a minute or more. Then he hit the override and ordered, "That's enough. Shut it off." They could hear his breathing alone for the next several seconds. Then, "Tell them we're going home now. We don't mean to hurt them, but they're not going to keep us away from home."

The ex-trader fitted his tongue to the syllables carefully. The answer was liquid, vibrant; uncompromising.

"Sir, he says they won't help us fight the chicks. We can stay or go our own way, but they won't guide us back to the war."

"Tell'em they can start giving us the data we need right now, or I'll give'em a war right here in their backyard."

"Sir, we can't! They've got all sorts of knowledge here, just incredible to have even heard of us and the chicks. We can't just smash them up because they got morals."

"Wanna bet? This is AS 18 and it's going home. You just tell them what I said."


"Tell'em or by God I'll blast a couple cities without it! Tell them!"

The answer was even shorter than the demand. Hsi-men didn't wait for the translation that was stuck in Rodenhizer's throat. "Kranski, pick yourself one of those cities and slag it." He knew the men pretty well. Kranski had already programmed his computer, hoping against hope, and his index finger was poised over the execute switch. A few milliseconds later the fireball bloomed through the false aurora of passage. A crystal glitter rode the edge of the shock wave like palings before a tsunami.

"Say it again, Rodie," Hsi-men thundered. "I've got bombs for a hundred more like that if they've got the cities."

"Dear God how could you do it? They'll guide . . . they'll guide us away, just give some time to match computer language. The whole city—we could have talked, have convinced them, maybe. . . ."

As the data was piped into the navigation units, Mizelle spoke his first words since they had lifted from the fog-world. That was the day Juan Calvados chose to share Murray's ship instead of Mizelle's. "They may be sending us into the center of a star," he said. If there was an emotion in his voice, it was not fear.

"Then they got better guidance systems than us by a long ways. My readout says we'll be jumping for about the next three days, and I'll sure be surprised if we hit anything as small as a star. . . ."

"And if we don't," Kranski purred in a husky whisper, "we know the way back."

On the battleship Rahab, the crews felt cramped by the enormous commo and guidance requirements of the flagship of the 3d Fleet; but the Rahab held only eight hundred men in a volume seven thousand times that of an attack ship. Vice-Admiral Ceriani stepped with a martinet's precision down the double row of monitors, each an expert overseeing the fraction of the ship's commo load routed to him. Only in the rarest of circumstances would a human override the computer's automatic response. Even more rarely, the datum or question would be forwarded directly to an officer.

As the admiral watched, his third monitor in the righthand section threw the knife switch on top of his panel, setting the ship on battle alert and clearing a circuit to every officer of staff rank in the fleet. Rather than take the replay, the admiral cut in on the monitor line.

"—main fleet. There's forty-eight blips of thirty kilotonne or over, assorted light craft. And their dampers are down, all down. If those mealy-mouthed peace-lovers hadn't dropped us damn near on top of the chicks, it can't be three minutes, we'd never have known there were any in twelve hours time. God they run clean! But they've got the damper screens down too, so they're wide open to nukes."

"Lieutenant," the Grand Marshal's labored voice queried, "what is your strength?"

"Umm, eighteen Omega-class attack ships, one Epsilon-class command," replied the other voice. They must be nearly at the limits of intelligible transmission, one hell of a long way still. More than far enough for the Ch'koto to catch the broad wake of the oncoming 3d Fleet and activate their dampers for a knock-down, drag-out fight. By now they could afford to lose surprise once. "Mizelle hit his destruct as we came out of transit, I swear to God, and that pansy bastard Rodenhizer took himself off the pattern the second day out, so he's gone too. . . ."


"God! Sir, I'm sorry; I'm—what do you want us to do?"

"Lieutenant, we are advancing on your plot." The admiral could feel the truth of that, he realized, from the deck's squirreliness; the Rahab must be transiting at minimum interval, less than ten seconds. "We need—we must have a strike within the next fourteen minutes, before we enter the chicks' detection range."

"Sir, we . . . sir, we have no support."

"Neither do we, Lieutenant. Since last Saturday, we are the only fleet the Terran Federation has in space or is able to put there. Do you understand?"

"Roger. Will do."

Nineteen slivers of electronics and thin alloy, the admiral thought, razoring along some three minutes from destruction. Don't think about the men, there were twenty-one thousand of those in the 3d Fleet and nine billion more on Earth if you had that kind of mind. "Get me into the intership channels for AS 18," he ordered brusquely into his right lapel.

"Sir, we'll have to squelch pretty tight above and below the orals, and there'll still be a lot of background."

"Don't talk—do it."

Hissing sharpened abruptly into words: "—appear on your screens in red."



"Team Nine; Kael, Ceriani, lead and backup. Your four targets appear on your screens in red."



"And they thought one nuke was enough for a command ship. Well, that big mother in the center may not be their flag, but it's sure worth a redpill. Last questions?"

"Sir, we don't have a reserve."

"Hell, we don't have forty-eight battlewagons, either. Bobby, we don't knock'em down on the first time through, you can write off any reserve along with the rest of us.

"OK, boys, let's take them out."

Hissing silence stalked the battle-lit commo room of the Rahab. "Kranski, not so short. Slide in at a flat angle or you'll blow us all."

"Two ready."

"Seven ready."

"El-tee, this is five. We're blocked from our targets unless we do a one-twenty around the whole coppy fleet. Got some alternates?"

"Roger, watch your screens. Clear?"

"Roger, that's fine."

"El-tee, I can zap the others with penetrators. Just run my pass on through—"

"Shut it off, Kranski. You'll reform with the rest of us after your pass. If you're lucky."

Seen in plane, the Ch'koto fleet was a roughly flattened zig-zag. The chicks were as disorderly in maneuver as they seemed to be as technicians, draping the gangways of their warships with festoons of wire and bare ranks of printed circuitry. But their sloppy formations reacted like bear traps in an engagement, and chick ships had cleaner drivers and better detection gear than the Terran Federation's. Their only technical problem, near enough, was their noisy, clumsy nuclear damper that took upwards of four minutes to build from zero to a level that would squelch a 50-KT bomb.

The volume display danced with beads of four colors: white for the enemy, red for the four targets spotted to Team Three, Womack and Bozeman; green for the rest of AS 18, brilliant sapphire for Womack's own ship as it slid toward a tight knot of red beads and white. At present closing velocity, the chicks were a minute and a quarter away. At maximum thrust—


Womack's stubby right forefinger smashed down. His vision blurred with a rush of sweat from his forehead before the suit dried him with a blast of hot air. Thirty-five seconds at full thrust. And the chicks weren't going to miss nineteen rooster-tails in transit space.

"Six, Chen; we're getting an IFF signal from a destroyer-leader—orange tracer."

"Give'em a random return, Cooper pop them if—"

Womack's volume display overloaded in a blue flare as bolts from the quad 80.3 turret of a chick battleship ripped past his vessel. The chicks were too tightly formed to spray seeker missiles, but big power guns wouldn't leave much if they hit. Womack was screamingly blind for second on second, knowing somewhere nearby an enemy computer was feeding corrections to the guns—

With a treble thump, the redpills unloaded from his weapons bay.

Still blind but able now to react, Womack hurled his ship into a tight helix away from his delivery approach. The display flickered wanly. The sapphire and its trailing green companion winked suddenly into view, diving toward a single red-coded hostile. Another near miss and the cube sagged and crackled in the blue flame.

"Coppy bastards!" the flyer shouted. Without hesitation, he tapped pre-eject, stripping off two square meters of hull above him. He was so close that the battleship hung above him bright as the sun seen from Jupiter. "Boze!" Womack called, "for God's sake get the bastard!"

The Ch'koto flashed again. Womack's body strained in the salvo's viscous drag. "Bozeman!"

"Oh Jesus Captain oh Jesus I didn't—"

The next salvo hit both ships of Team Three squarely.

"Team Seven?"

"Farloe, but I've been pushing max too long." "Team Eight?" Silence. "Nobody? Team Nine?" "Kael bought it, I'm OK. Lost some sheeting's all." "El-tee, those bastards're coming up on us and my drive, she just won't hang together much longer."

"OK, on the count we all come around. This isn't over yet." "Sir, there's seven of us! We can't—" "We can't take out a dozen chick wagons with HE? Well, we sure as death can't run away from'em in the shape these boats are. On the count, boys. Three, two, one, hit'em!"

A wash of static laced the channel. Then, very faintly, "Follow me home, you silly mothers, this squadron's going home."

In the red-lighted commo room of the Rahab, a monitor glanced sidelong from under his helmet. You didn't often get to see an admiral cry.

End note to Safe to Sea

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods there be:
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The Garden of Proserpine, A. C. Swinburne


I wrote this story in 1973, starting it shortly after I'd sold "Contact!" (my sixth sale) through my new agent, Kirby McCauley. Kirby liked the story a lot—Kirby's enthusiasm for whatever was in front of him is a major reason for his success as an agent—but he couldn't sell it.

"Safe to Sea" had been an experiment; well, everything I wrote at the time was an experiment. I'd been trying to address larger themes than I had in the past. I did that, but to do properly it required a broader canvas than I was capable of using at the time. I basically forgot about the story and went on to other things (which also didn't sell for some while, but that's another matter).

In 1987 Marty Greenberg asked me if I had a story for Space-Fighters, an anthology Joe Haldeman would be headlining. I regretted that I didn't, as much because I like Marty as because I needed another hundred bucks. (I'm always happy to find money in the street, but it wasn't going to pay the mortgage.) Kirby then told me that he'd sold "Safe to Sea" to Marty.

My initial reaction wasn't entirely positive. I didn't need the money, and I wasn't sure after fifteen years that the story was really of publishable quality. I allowed the sale after I'd reread the piece, though. If I were writing the story today, I'd use at least twice the wordage—but the ellipses work surprisingly well, and there's a lot of good stuff in the parts which I didn't leave out. Enough good stuff that I'm reprinting the piece here.

I once did a short-short about the abduction of the boy who becomes St Patrick. I wrote it in the desperate hope that perhaps I could sell something to a Roman Catholic magazine when I couldn't sell to anybody else. I failed, and I forgot about the story.

Maybe I should've sent it to Kirby.


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