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´╗┐Title: Decision
Author: Robinson, Frank M., 1926-
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Decision" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



DECISION

BY FRANK M. ROBINSON

ILLUSTRATED BY H. R. SMITH


    The captain had learned to hate. It was his profession--and his
    personal reason for going on. But even hatred has to be channeled
    for its maximum use, and no truths exist forever.


The battle alarm caught him in the middle of a dream, a dream that took
place in a white house in a small town in Ohio, when both he and Alice
had been very young and the grown adults he now called his children had
really been little more than babies.

He rolled out of his bed immediately on hearing the gong, as any good
sailor would, and slipped into his pants and shoes and felt around the
bulkhead for his life jacket. He slipped into it and tightened the
buckles, then put on his cap with the captain's insignia.

He opened the hatch and stepped out into the passageway, blinking for a
moment in the unaccustomed light and trying to shake away the remnants
of his dream. Officers were boiling up the passageway and up the ladder,
some eager ensigns dressed only in their shorts and their life jackets.
It was more wise than funny, he thought slowly. Ships had gone down in a
matter of seconds and anybody who spent precious moments looking for his
pants or his wallet never got out.

Harry Davis, the Exec, a portly man in his fifties, burst out of his
stateroom, still trying to shake the sleep from gummy lids.

The Captain shook his head, trying to alert his mind to the point where
it could make sensible evaluations, and started up the corridor.

"Any idea what it is, Harry?"

Davis shook his head. "Not unless it's what we've been expecting."

What we've been expecting. The Captain grasped the iron piping that
served for railings and jogged up the ladder. Fifty miles north, lolling
in the North Sea and holding maneuvers, was the _Josef Dzugashvili_, a
hundred thousand tons of the finest aircraft carrier the Asiatic Combine
had produced, carrying close to a hundred Mig-72's and perhaps half a
dozen light bombers.

The _Josef_ had been operating there for nearly a week. The _Oahu_ had
been detached from the Atlantic Fleet only a few days ago, to combat the
possible threat. Maybe the ships were only acting as stake-outs for the
politicians, the Captain thought slowly. The tinder waiting for the
spark. And it wouldn't take much.

A curious pilot who might venture too close, a gunner with a nervous
temperament ...

And now, maybe, this was it. It had to come some day. You couldn't turn
the other cheek forever. And he, for one, was glad. He had spent almost
all his life waiting for this. A chance to get even ...

Davis opened the hatch to the wheelhouse and the Captain slipped in,
closing it tight behind him. It was pitch black and it took his eyes a
few moments to adjust to it. When they had, he could make out the
shadowed forms of the OD, the first class quartermaster at the wheel,
and the radarman hunched over the repeater, the scope a phosphorescent
blur in the darkness.

The ports were open in violation of GQ--it was a hot summer night--and
the slight breeze that blew off the swelling sea smelled clean and cool.
It was the only kind of air for a man to breathe, the Captain mused
abstractly.

He glanced sharply through the ports. There was nothing that bulked on
the dark horizon, and so far as he could tell, all the stars were
fixed--there were none of the tell-tale flashes of jet exhausts.

He walked over to where the OD stood by the radar scope, seemingly
fascinated by the picture on it. McCandless had the watch, a young
lieutenant of not more than twenty-five but one with good sense and
sound judgment nonetheless. A man who wasn't prone to panic, the Captain
thought.

"What's the situation, Lieutenant?"

McCandless' voice was nervous. "I'm not exactly sure, sir. Not ... yet."

A brief regret at an interrupted dream of Ohio flickered in the back of
the Captain's mind.

"What do you mean, you're not sure?" His voice was a little sharper
than he intended, a little more querulous than he had meant it to be. It
was, he thought, the voice of an old man, annoyed at having his sleep
disturbed.

[Illustration]

The younger man wasn't disturbed by the sharpness and the Captain's
estimation of McCandless went up another notch.

"Ten minutes ago CIC reported an object approaching us from the south at
an altitude of fifty miles."

Approaching from the south, the Captain thought. So it couldn't have
been from the _Josef_. And fifty ... miles ... up. That was two hundred
and fifty thousand feet. A guided missile, perhaps? But whose? There
were only friendly countries to the south.

"It's passed directly overhead," McCandless continued, consciously
trying to make his voice sound factual, "and continued in the direction
of _Josef_. It settled towards sea level, then stopped a mile up."

"Stopped, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir. It's hovering over the _Josef_ now." McCandless paused. When
he started again, his voice was shaking. It was funny he hadn't noticed
it before, the Captain thought. You could almost smell the fear in the
wheelhouse. "CIC estimated its speed overhead as being in excess of a
thousand miles an hour and its size about that of the _Josef_ itself."

The Captain felt the sweat gather on his temples and ran his hand half
angrily over his forehead and through his thinning silver hair. He was
too old a man to let fear affect him any more and he was too tired a man
to waste his energy mopping his forehead every few minutes in a gesture
that would show his feelings to the crew. Maybe it was only vanity, he
thought, but when your muscles went soft and started pushing back
against your belt and your hair turned gray and started a strategic
retreat, you tended to take more care of your reputation. It wasn't as
fragile as the rest of you, it didn't tarnish with the gold of your
braid or sag with your muscles. And he had enjoyed a reputation as a
fearless man of sound judgment.

"Did you order up a drone plane?"

McCandless nodded in the dark. "It went up a few minutes ago, sir. The
television picture should be coming in any moment."

It would be an infra-red picture, the Captain thought. It wouldn't show
too much, provided the plane could get close enough to get anything at
all, but it would show something.

"Have you made any evaluations, Lieutenant?"

He could feel the tenseness build up again in the compartment. Everybody
was listening intently, waiting for the first semi-official hint of what
had gotten them up in the middle of the night.

Then McCandless voiced what the Captain had already taken to be a
foregone conclusion.

"I think it's a spaceship, sir." McCandless waved at the stars beyond
the port. "From some place out there."

       *       *       *       *       *

The picture started coming in at oh three hundred. The Captain and Davis
and McCandless clustered about the infra-red screen, watching the
shadowy picture build up.

It wasn't much of a picture, the Captain thought. It was vague and
indistinct and the drone plane was shooting the scene from too far away.
But he could make out the _Dzugashvili_, a gloomy shape that bulked huge
in the water, the planes clustered on its deck like small, black flies.
But that wasn't what interested him. He had seen restricted photographs
and complete descriptions and evaluations of the _Josef_'s fighting
capabilities before. What was of vastly more importance was the huge
structure that hovered above the _Josef_, a mile overhead. A structure
that blocked out the stars over a roughly rectangular area the same size
as the _Josef_ itself.

McCandless and Davis were still straining their eyes for details of the
alien ship by the time the Captain had glanced away and was formulating
policy. The picture was too vague, he thought. There was nothing that
could be seen that would tell you much about the ship. And if they were
correct in thinking it was a ... his mind hesitated at the thought ...
spaceship, then it would be impossible to tell whether certain features
were armament or not. And it would be futile to speculate on the
capabilities of that armament.

McCandless and Davis finished with their inspection of the screen and
turned to the Captain, waiting for orders.

"Recall the plane," the Captain said. "Send it out again at dawn. And
send a message to Radio Washington, giving them complete details. You
may relax GQ but keep the gunners at their posts and the pilots standing
by." The fantastic became far more real when you dealt with it
matter-of-factly, he thought.

He started for the hatch. "I'll expect you down for breakfast," he said
to Davis. "You, too, Lieutenant. You've been in on this from the start,
you know more than the rest of us."

Which was quite enough flattery for a young lieutenant in one day, he
thought. It was far more than he had ever received when he had been a
lieutenant.

Back in his stateroom, the Captain went directly to the small lavatory,
filled the washbowl, and plunged his face into the cold water. He was
getting old, he thought for the hundredth time that morning. Creeping
old age where you still awoke readily enough but found it more and more
difficult to keep awake. You couldn't rid yourself of the temptation of
going back to bed and dreaming again--dreaming, perhaps, of an Ohio town
that his own imagination had gilded and varnished and adorned until
sometimes he thought it existed only in his imagination and not in
reality at all.

He scrubbed at his face until a tingle of alertness came to it, then
went back to the main compartment. The steward had laid out the silver,
and Davis and McCandless were already there. Davis completely relaxed in
the atmosphere that could only exist between an Executive Officer and a
Captain. The Exec, as both he and the Captain well knew, was the only
man on board with whom the Captain could maintain a relationship that
was something other than professional. Not necessarily friendly but ...
more relaxed.

McCandless sat in the leather upholstered chair by the table, stiff and
self-conscious. The hope of the nation, the Captain thought. Provided
that they learned how to hate and to keep that hate alive as long as he
had kept his.

His own boy had been about McCandless' age, he thought suddenly.

"Well, what are you going to do?" Davis asked.

The Captain sat down at the table. The coffee was hot and he could smell
the eggs that the steward was frying in the small galley. He tucked in a
napkin at his neck. It was old-fashioned but practical, he thought. You
dribbled down the front, you didn't spill things in your lap.

"It isn't exactly up to me, Harry. It's up to Washington." He poured out
three cups of coffee and handed one to Davis and one to McCandless. The
Lieutenant clutched the cup in a deathlike grip, as if the ship were
doing forty-degree rolls and he might lose it any minute. "I asked you
up to breakfast to get your ideas on it. I have my own but on something
like this, anybody's ideas are as good as mine. Maybe better."

Davis frowned and rubbed the tip of his nose thoughtfully. "Well, it
looks to me, Bill, as if we have a situation here where an unknown ship
from somewhere--I'm not saying where--has investigated two ships on
maneuvers and finally chosen to hover over one, for what reasons we
don't know. To me it looks like the only things we can do is notify
Washington and stand by for orders."

Great God, the Captain thought, disgusted, there was nothing worse than
a Commander bucking for four stripes. A more cautious man didn't exist
on the face of the Earth nor, possibly, a more fearful one. Fear that
whatever decision you made would be the wrong one and the Promotion
Board would pass you by. So you carefully avoided making any decisions
at all. He had been the same way himself. You salved your lack of guts
with the knowledge that once you made captain, things would be different
and you could assert yourself, be the man you had always considered
yourself to be. Only once you became a captain things didn't change a
bit, because then you were trying to get the Promotion Board to
recommend you for Admiral. The only men in the Navy who had any guts
were the young men who didn't know any better and the old bastards who
had made Admiral and no longer had any ambition as far as rank went.

       *       *       *       *       *

He turned to McCandless. "You, Lieutenant?"

McCandless licked dry lips.

"I think it's from out in space, sir. Maybe it's an exploration party,
but more than likely it's an armed scouting party."

"What makes you say that?"

McCandless leaned forward, his concern over his cup of coffee
momentarily forgotten. "I think if it was an exploration party they
would have stopped at some point of civilization first. In all
likelihood a city, a big city. But we've received no reports of any ship
landing near a city. At least, not yet." He paused, a little
self-consciously. "It wouldn't be difficult to tell that we're part of
the fighting forces of this planet, and I think it's just luck that it
chose the _Josef_ instead of us. I think the alien ship is investigating
the _Josef_. Or will shortly."

Davis lit a cigarette, a half amused smile on his face. "For what
purpose?"

"To test the armament. See how good we are on the defensive."

"What do you think they want?" the Captain asked curiously.

McCandless hesitated, then blurted it out.

"The whole world, sir!"

       *       *       *       *       *

At oh five hundred the sun was just breaking over the horizon, coating
the heavy green seas with a soft covering of pink gold. It was going to
be another hot day, the Captain thought, one where the heat stood off
the water in little waves and the sweat ran down your back and soaked
your khakis. And with GQ, the rubber life jackets would make it about
ten times as bad.

He stood on the bridge for a moment, admiring the sunrise and smelling
the brisk salt air, then walked into the wheelhouse.

The drone plane had been up for half an hour. By this time it should
have a clearer picture of the object that hovered over the _Josef_.

It did. The object was dun colored, the color of storm clouds on a cold
winter's day. Big, easily as big as the _Josef_, and tubular shaped,
slightly flattened on the bottom. There was nothing that could be
identified as gun ports but they probably didn't use guns. He wondered
just what their armament was.

He turned to the radarman on watch.

"Has the _Josef_ moved any?"

The man nodded. "Yes, sir. About oh four hundred they steamed ten miles
north at top speed."

"The object kept up with them?"

"Yes, sir. It's never left them, sir. Same position directly overhead at
all times."

The captain of the _Josef_ must have realized that he couldn't get away
from his overhead observer and probably froze in position, afraid of
what would happen if he continued to run for it. He'd probably stay
there until the alien ship made some hostile move or he got instructions
from home.

The Captain walked back to the bridge. The ship was strangely silent.
There were no jets warming up on the flight deck, there were no sounds
of chipping hammers. Except for the planes overhead, it was a quiet
summer day, one of those days when a perfectly smooth sea looks like a
sheet of plate glass.

He glanced down at the sides of the _Oahu_. Tiny figures were huddled by
the anti-aircraft guns, their helmets glinting in the sun. A tight ship,
he thought, a ship that was ready for anything.

McCandless came out on the bridge, his eyes red-rimmed from lack of
sleep. He stood a respectful distance from the Captain, a little to the
right and just behind.

"Beautiful day, isn't it, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir. It is, sir. Very fine day."

Sir. That was the one reason why he tolerated Davis, the Captain
thought. Just to hear somebody call him by his first name and treat him
as something other than a symbol of rank.

"If your theory is correct, Lieutenant," he mused aloud, "then the alien
ship should be opening fire--if that's what you would call it--any
minute now."

"Yes, sir." McCandless brushed his mouth with his hand--probably
surreptitiously removing a wad of gum, the Captain thought. "I was
wondering what you would do, sir, if the alien ship opens fire on the
_Josef_."

"If it wasn't against regulations, I'd issue a couple of cans of beer
per man."

McCandless gaped. "I--I don't understand you, sir."

"If they finish off the _Josef_, Lieutenant, it'll save us the trouble.
For my money, I'd be tickled pink if the Combine sent reinforcements and
it really developed into a fracas."

McCandless turned slightly so the Captain could no longer read his face.
The Captain wondered if it was intentional.

"I ... I guess I just took it for granted that we'd join forces against
the aliens, sir. It seemed like the natural thing to do."

So McCandless had thought they'd go to the rescue of the _Josef_, the
Captain thought slowly. To the rescue. The phrase had a funny sound to
it when you coupled it with the Combine, an almost obscene sound.

"Lieutenant," the Captain said slowly, "history has been full of
possible turning points that the United States has almost always failed
to take advantage of. I think this time, just for once, we ought to play
it smart. The Combine has been a threat for as long as I can remember.
We've had opportunities before when we could have let two systems cancel
each other out. We didn't take advantage of it then and we've regretted
it ever since."

McCandless didn't reply immediately and the Captain thought to himself,
why not be more honest? Why don't you tell him that all your life you've
fought the Combine and the conflict has been the only thing that has
lent meaning to living? You hate for thirty years and you become a slave
to that hatred--you don't forget it with a snap of the fingers and go
charging to the rescue like a knight in shining armor.

"The aliens are ... alien, sir," McCandless suddenly said. "The men on
the _Josef_ are ... human beings."

"Are they, Mister?" The Captain hated the lecturing attitude but he
couldn't help it. "They're the representatives of the Combine, aren't
they? And I suppose the Combine acted like human beings during the
Berlin war? I suppose the slave labor camps and the purges and the
forced confessions were the products of ordinary human beings? No,
Lieutenant, if the aliens have six arms and two heads they couldn't be
less inhuman than the Combine has been!"

"My father was in the Pacific in the Second World War," the Lieutenant
said tightly. "There were times when we ... didn't take prisoners. And I
remember my Dad saying that some of the men went home with ear
necklaces."

"Hearsay," the Captain said gruffly. "And that was in a declared war."
And then he wondered just how valid the distinction was. There were, he
supposed, sadists on both sides. And then it came down to who committed
the first cruelty and just how should you rank them? Was intentional
torture for the few any the worse than the dispassionate act of dropping
a bomb that produced quite the same, if not worse, results for the many?

"Just what would you do, Mister McCandless?"

The Lieutenant's face was flushed. "I'm not sure, sir. But I think I
would look at it from a strategic viewpoint. There are two ships here,
both instruments of war. If the aliens attack the one, and the other
doesn't go to the rescue, then it would be obvious that we are a divided
world. We would be a tempting ... prize."

"And if we went to the aid of the _Josef_, then you think we might beat
the alien ship off?"

McCandless shrugged. "I don't know, sir. We might."

The Captain turned back to look at the now swelling sea. The air off the
water was cool and brisk and the deck of his ship moved comfortably
under his feet; a solid thing in a liquid world.

"It doesn't make a great deal of difference what we think, Lieutenant,"
the Captain said, a little of his good humor restored. "In the long run,
we'll do whatever Washington says."

There was a sudden, flashing glow just over the horizon. McCandless
blanched and the Captain clutched the rail, his knuckles turning white
with the force of his grip. There was another flash and the OD popped
out of the hatch of the wheelhouse like a cork out of a bottle.
"Captain! the ..."

The Captain was already brushing past him, heading into the pilothouse
for the television screen and the picture that the drone plane was
transmitting.

The picture on the screen wavered and blurred with the shock of the
action. From what he could see, the Captain knew that whatever action he
took, if any, he would have to take it within a relative few minutes.
The forward half of the superstructure of the _Josef_ was a smoking
ruin, the metal a cherry red.

Half the planes on the flight deck were charred and being frantically
pushed overboard by small tractors so the remainder of the planes could
be airborne. A mile overhead, in the glazing blue sky, the few planes
the _Josef_ had managed to launch buzzed futilely about the alien ship,
discharging rockets that scintillated and flamed off the dull gray sides
and, so far as the Captain could tell, were causing no damage at all.

"Message for you, sir."

He felt the clip board being pushed into his hand, then glanced down. It
was difficult to read without his glasses but he could make it out.

_Unusual ... do nothing rash ... your discretion ..._

Some cautious pen pusher behind a desk, he thought chaotically. Somebody
for whom miles had lent safety and detachment.

_His_ discretion ...

It was his responsibility.

       *       *       *       *       *

Commander Davis was at his elbow. "The _Josef_'s starting to list,
Captain."

"I can see that!" he half snarled.

He wouldn't feel pity if the _Josef_ went down, he thought fiercely. It
would be good riddance, one less carrier that they would have to worry
about at some future date.

If there was some future date, a nagging thought intruded.

He throttled it. The _Josef_ stood for everything that he despised, a
way of life that had made a mockery of everything he had been taught to
believe in. The menace that had eaten at the world's vitals like a
cancer, the menace whose existence had been enough to drive some men to
hysteria and others to the brink of suicide. His own wife ...

Now a ship from Outside was attacking that power and what emotions
should he feel? Elation? Well, why not? What other emotions should he
feel? Certainly not sadness, not regret, not pity.

The _Josef_ would be sunk and maybe the aliens would be tempted to do
more than just attack the _Josef_; they might attack the entire Combine
as well. And if the Combine was beat, did it matter who did it?

Except, the thought crept back, there was no reason for him to believe
that the aliens would differentiate between the _Josef_ and the _Oahu_,
between the Combine and the United States.

"The planes!" McCandless said, incredulous. "Look at the planes!"

The Captain glanced down at the screen again. An orangish glow was
suffusing the alien ship. A jet slipped in for a rocket shot. The glow
pulsed, expanded, touched the jet, and the plane vanished into a rain of
wreckage that sped towards the ocean below.

"God!" Davis breathed. "Did you see that?"

The Captain only half heard him. So they were aliens. What did that
mean? Beings of different background, different beliefs, different
physical structure? He had been one of the first into Berlin after the
massacre was over and the Combine had laid the blame on their Berlin
Commandant, though it was painfully obvious that he had only followed
out instructions. And the shambles he had seen there couldn't have been
done by human beings. Four thousand soldiers and close to a hundred
thousand civilians killed. Would you call the people who had been
responsible for that human beings or ... aliens? Which name fit best?

The Berlin war ...

A dozen different outbreaks, starting with Korea so long ago ...

And then you were supposed to admit that they were blood brothers after
all, and that in the face of a mutual threat you should forget your
differences and pool your resources against the common enemy.

"There goes another one!"

So in fifteen minutes the _Josef_ would go down. And from him it would
bring only cheers, not tears.

But you didn't make decisions on a personal basis, he thought slowly.
You had to look at it from the viewpoint of a thousand years. You had to
develop a certain detachment, even though one man's lifetime was far too
short a period to develop it in.

"Message for you, Captain."

It was a voice message that had been picked up in CIC. It was brief and
to the point.

    _Attention Captain United States Vessel_ Oahu:

    _Help urgently requested. If aid not granted immediately, all is
    lost._

   _Constantin Simenovich,
   Captain, People's Warship_ Josef Dzugashvili.

He had a brief mental picture of a young man lying in the shambles of
Berlin calling out the same words. And what had he received?

He buried the thought.

The detached viewpoint. Political systems evolved, he thought, they
never remained the same. The French Revolution had spawned a thousand
human monsters and the blood had run in the streets. But out of it all
had come a democratic nation. And a thousand years from now, what would
the Combine be? A turn of the wheel and perhaps it would be a
peace-loving democracy while the United States would be the abattoir of
human hopes. Who could tell? A thousand years from now the present
bloodbaths and tortures and mass deaths would be history.

But if the aliens won you ran the chance of there being no history at
all.

The wheelhouse was silent. The Captain could feel a dozen pairs of eyes
watching him, waiting for his decision. Outside the ports, on the far
horizon, there came a steady, golden pulsing.

He looked up at McCandless and Davis. McCandless was young, too
inexperienced to realize that situations where today's enemies are
tomorrow's friends are the order of the day and not the exception. You
adjusted to it or you became bitter. Davis, the gutless bastard, had
adjusted to it. He was probably already to make the switch, to go back
to drinking toasts in vodka.

The detached viewpoint.

"Send up the jets," the Captain said slowly. "And send a message to the
Captain of the _Josef_, telling him we'll render all the assistance that
we can."

The wheelhouse broke into a flurry of activity and a moment later he
could hear the sounds of the jets taking off the flight deck. He walked
out on the bridge deck and leaned on the railing, staring at the horizon
where the alien ship and the _Josef_ were fighting it out. And where
planes from the _Oahu_ would shortly be helping the _Josef_.

_But I still hate them_, he thought. _I hate their goddamned souls!_



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Space Science Fiction_ September 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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