decision now, Jason. What I want you to do is to draw some of your back pay from the accountant, take the train over to Moon City and have a little amusement. Give yourself time to think. Report back in twenty-four hours, with your decision.”

Jason saluted and went off.

“Better start looking for another volunteer,” Hayes told Dickenson ironically.

“Why so?” the other asked.

“You know the chances of getting back from this little expedition are about twenty to one against, and Jason has worked out the odds already. He spotted all the difficulties immediately and he’s sane and balanced, not a suicidal fanatic. You must look for someone less intelligent and more fanatical, Admiral.”

Admiral Dickenson scowled. “Sure the boy’s intelligent. This is no job for brute force or ignorance or fanaticism. Not only is he intelligent, but he’s calm, level-headed. Did you notice how still he stood—no twiddling his fingers or puffing nervously at cigarettes? He’s got no complexes; he’s polite all right, but not over-anxious to win my approve. No false humility either, no protesting he’s unfit for the job.”

“All of which seems to add up to just what I said. He’s intelligent, he’s no fanatic, he’s got no complexes— he’ll turn the job down.”

Next day, precisely twenty-four hours later, Jason reported to Admiral Dickenson and agreed to undertake the job. Dickenson looked at the fair-haired youngster, the sensitive features, the slender hands and thin fingers. The ancient warrior nearly burst into tears.

“Very well, Jason,” he said gruffly. “Any comments on the scheme as a whole?”

“Yes, sir. I’d like to have that dummy D-ray removed and one of the genuine articles fitted instead. I understand that with a bit of luck one may survive a short squirt of radiation and a short squirt might be just the one thing necessary to insure my safe return home.”

“Very well, Jason. I’ll get Hayes to fix it.”

Even in these modern times, and even though the United Nations had been managing human affairs for several hundred years, human nature was still human nature; Italians, Russians, Germans, Spaniards, Americans and even Eskimos each considered themselves to be finer, braver, handsomer, more intelligent, or perhaps merely cleaner than other races. This oddity of human thinking had its consequences even out at Advanced Fighter Base, where the squadrons of one-man scouts were organized on a national basis. The Spanish Squadron was captained by a large individual named Louis Alvarez—or Lucho to his friends—and was entirely Spanish speaking, although only one member besides Alvarez was actually Spanish. There were two Peruvians with traces of Indian blood in them, a Mexican, a Chilean and a character called Don Miguel MacDonald, whose existence was due to the Scotsman’s prospensity for leaving his native land, settling down elsewhere, and marrying a local girl.

The Spanish Squadron monopolized one corner of the mess hall where it habitually talked Spanish with much gesticulation. It had recently been ordered to stand by to undertake a special and particularly difficult task; it thought it quite proper to be given the most difficult and dangerous work, but this opinion did not hinder its members from grumbling and complaining about the matter.

They were so much occupied with this job of grumbling that they scarcely noticed a newcomer who came into the mess. He asked a question of someone near the door, then drifted over in their direction. Captain Alvarez gave him a cold and haughty look, and went on talking. The newcomer went to sit down in the empty chair. Alvarez put out a large hand to restrain him.

“Your pardon, hijo,” he said, “here we are all Spaniards together; this corner is exclusive to us. And in addition, that seat is reserved for one whom we expect here presently.”

The newcomer did not make any objection to being called sonny. He said in an extremely casual sort of way: “Sorry, pal, I hadn’t the slightest intention of intruding. What’s the name of the man you’re keeping the chair for?”

Alvaez paused dramatically, gesticulating hand still in midair. He gave an imitation of a man interrupted in some serious business by an ill-mannered child. He looked the questioner up and down.

“Boy,” he said, “you are new here so I excuse you. When you have been with this group for some time, and if we think well of you, we may then invite you among us, but for the present you do not interest us.”

“This’ll surprise you,” the other told him calmly. “I’m the fellow you’re expecting. My name’s Jason—I’ve just got here. We’re to carry out an operation together.” He twitched the chair round and sat down on it, smiling round the group.

Alvarez recovered himself swiftly. “But, senor,” he exclaimed, “A thousand apologies. For this project we expected a seasoned fighter, some grandfather of forty with a hundred kills to his credit. I do you no insult when I say you are almost a child.”

“Don’t blame me, Captain,” Jason smiled. “I was asked to do this job and said yes. That’s the whole story from my end.”

They looked at him—young, fair-headed, boyish, smiling. Alvarez was forty; MacDonald just a little younger. The youngest of the Spanish Squadron was twenty-eight. Jason was twenty-two and looked eighteen.

Alvarez swore rapidly in Spanish, and muttered his opinion of Headquarters, who chose to send children on dangerous tasks.

“No doubt Headquarters knows its business,” he said, “and one does not of course question your courage,, or determination. But, have you encountered these Jackoes before, senor?

Jason told him. They settled down to discuss the maneuver which they had to perform together.

Jason went out several times during the next week with the squadron to rehearse. After a number of trials, Alvarez asked to have two additional men attached to his squadron.

“I see it like this,” he explained. “The Jackoes know we operate in squadrons of seven. If they see less than this number, they will begin to be suspicious. Therefore we will have seven operating together, plus two in hiding. We will engage a Jacko squadron, we will allow ourselves to be split up, and we will turn and run. Out of seven it is certain that one of us will have a Jacko on his tail. Let the Jacko think his guns are jammed, or what he will. In any event, our man runs, the Jacko pursues. Our man makes for the rocks. Nothing surprising in this. Quite usual under the circumstances. Behind one rock there is lurking,” he paused and looked round the group, “… there is lurking our two additional ships, and Senor Jason also. As our man approaches the hiding place he signals ‘I come.’ He sweeps behind the rock—following him comes the Jacko—the two in ambush leap upon him. Before he can turn, before he can signal his companions, pam!—he is gone. Then a moment later, an apparent Jacko ship emerges from cover and joins his companions—our job is done.”

Alvarez was an able and determined commander. Using another squadron to take the place of Jackoes, the maneuver he had described was rehearsed again and again until they felt themselves ready to try it in earnest.

Five days later the maneuver went off without a hitch. Behind a screen of rock Jason saw a Jacko ship pounced on by those two ancient and skillful killers, Alvarez and MacDonald, and destroyed in an instant. Immediately, he fired his jets and slid out into the open. The Jacko Squadron had been scattered by the engagement, but as it began to reform he moved in and took position in it.

The Jacko ships accepted him without question. They turned and headed—outwards.

Alvarez sent off a signal which in due course reached Dickenson and Hayes at Moon Base.

“Well,” the old warrior sighed, “the boy’s on his way. Good hick to him. Now let’s make sure they’re getting a screen of ships out to pick up his television broadcast when he sends it, and I think we’ll have some patrols well forward in case he comes back with a hoard of Jackoes swarming on his heels.”

“D’you really think he’ll get back?”

“There are times when I think his chances are good. He hasn’t been spotted at the start, so why should he be spotted later? He need only keep along with them, spend ten or fifteen minutes filming, then blast for home, and his ship’s faster than theirs. Nevertheless, playing war is not like playing chess. Unknown factors invariably crop up—plans begin to go wrong and get out of hand.”

The Jacko squadron decelerated hard for half an hour, then cut its jets. The ships lay about half a mile apart. Though their actual speed relative to the sun was now several thousands of miles an hour they appeared to be quite motionless. Jason’s ship had a radio receiver and for a little while he was able to hear his strange companions communicating with each other in their rattling, chattering tongue. No doubt they made attempts to call him, but to

Вы читаете The Single Ship
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату