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Battle for the Stars: The Space Opera Classic [MultiFormat]
eBook by Edmond Hamilton

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: "A most impressive example of understatement--in science fiction ... keeps the major components of the story within the bounds of the human. Quite an accomplishment in view of the cosmic nature of the plot!" that's how Galaxy Magazine describes the dazzling cosmic science fiction of pulp master Edmond Hamilton. A husband and wife find themselves at odds with each other when they become the center of a whirlpool of galactic intrigue in this top-of-form and very adroit novel containing Hamilton's classic blend of pulp space opera and adult romance. For two hundred years Earth's power and prestige as the center of galactic government has been increasingly eclipsed by that of her growing colonies in far distant star clusters. Now the weakened mother world, celebrating the anniversary of the first space flight, has become a helpless pawn in a struggle between the scheming Orion cluster and the other clusters it hopes to conquer. Enter Jay Birrel, captain of a squadron of space ships in from the cluster Lyra for the celebration, and his brilliant wife Lyllin, whose exotic looks betray her birth on distant Vega. Jay is of Terrestrial descent, and a visit to the ancient family homestead earns him friends and stirs a sense of belonging to the mother world he never knew he possessed. Jay might even want to live here. But the neighbors aren't as quick to cotton to the alien looking Lyllin, and the pair soon find themselves at odds over their feelings about the old homestead and the old home planet. Then Orion strikes, and before he can work things out with Lyllin, Jay finds himself called to duty, with only hours to prepare for an epic battle between his own cluster and the aggressor--with the independence of Terra as the prize. Here is a masterful space epic with a human heart and sensibility such as only Jules Verne Prize winner Edmond Hamilton could write. "Roistering adventure. Beautiful heroines. Color and imagery. A final world-smashing slug-fest. Good fun!"--Analog/Astounding

eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2006


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CHAPTER 1

It was no place for a man to be.

Men were tissue, blood, bone, nerve. This place was not made for them. It was made for fire and force and radiation. Go home, men.

But I can't, thought Jay Birrel. Not yet. My feet ache. I didn't sleep well. I want to see my wife, but I can't go home. I have to go on into this place where a human being looks as pathetic as an insect in a furnace.

Such thoughts made Birrel uneasy. He disliked imaginative thinking and imaginative people, he regarded himself as a tough, practical man. They had a job to do and that was all there was to it, and he might as well quit mooning about it. He straightened up a little more. He was always doing that, trying to gain a little height, so that when he gave an order to a man he would not have to look up to him. It seemed a little foolish to do it, but he could not quite get over the nagging consciousness that his height was only average.

He said, "Radar?"

Joe Garstang, beside him, answered without turning. "Nothing has been monitored yet. Not yet."

Garstang was a younger man than Birrel, but he was so big and broad and slow-speaking that he made you think of a rock. The rock could worry, though. Birrel sensed the worry now and thought, He doesn't like this job ... And he doesn't like having me aboard. No captain likes to be outranked on his own ship, especially on a mission like this one. Well, that is too bad, I do not like it either, but we are going ahead into that mess anyway.

He concealed his own profound distaste at the prospect they were watching. It was comparatively quiet here in the bridge, with only a muted chattering from the calc-room just aft. The place was almost like a metal-and-plastic shrine, with the broad control-banks as its mechanical altar, Venner and the two technicians their silent ministrants, and he and Garstang watching the screens like anxious supplicants.

The screens were not really windows. They were the final sensitive parts of a chain of incredibly complicated mechanisms that took hold of some of the faster-than-light radar information flowing into the ship, and translated it into visual images. But they looked like windows--windows through which smashed the light of a thousand thousand suns.

This place was cluster N-356-44, in the Standard Atlas. It was also hellfire made manifest before them. It was a hive of swarming suns, pale-green and violet, white and yellow-gold and smoky red, blazing so fiercely that the eye was robbed of perspective, and these stars seemed to crowd and rub and jostle each other. Up against the black backdrop of the firmament, they burned, pouring forth the torrents of their life-energy to whirl in cosmic belts and maelstroms of radiation. Merchant ships would recoil aghast from the navigational perils here. Unfortunately, this was not a merchant ship.

There was a rift in the cluster, a narrow cleft between cliffs of stars, which was roofed by the flame-shot glow of a vast, sprawling nebula. It was the only possible way into the heart of the cluster, this channel. Had others gone in this way? Were they still in here? That was for them to find out.

He looked at the looming, overtopping cliffs of stars that went up to the glowing nebula above and down to a fiery shoal of suns below. He thought of Lyllin, waiting for him in the quiet house back at Vega. He thought that he had no business having a wife.

"Radar?" he asked again.

Garstang looked at the tell-tales and said, "Still nothing." He turned, his heavy brows drawn together into a frown, and said doggedly, "It still seems to me that if they're in here, we should have come in with the whole squadron."

Birrel shook his head. He had his own doubts riding him, but, once you started showing doubt, you were through. He had made his decision, he had committed them, and now he had to look confident about it no matter how lonely and exposed he felt.

"That could be exactly what Solleremos wants. With the right kind of ambush, a whole squadron could be clobbered in this mess. Then Lyra would be wide open. No. One ship is enough to risk."

"Yes, sir," said Garstang.

"The hell with you, Joe," said Birrel. "Say what you're thinking."

"I am thinking that it was not my lucky day when you picked the Starsong for your flagship. That's all."

The ship moved onward through the fiery channel, toward the pair of red binary stars that marked its end. The binaries hardly seemed to change size, the swarm of stars on either side of them seemed to creep back with infinite slowness, even though the ship moved at very many times the speed of light. Once, thought Birrel, such velocities had been thought flatly impossible. Then the light-speed barrier had been cracked by the ultradrive which altered the basic mass-speed ratio by bleeding off mass as energy and storing it, then automatically reconverting it into mass when a ship decelerated. At such velocities, Birrel felt that it was ridiculous for him to be chafing at their slowness. He always felt that, and he always chafed.

Looking at the upper screen that showed the flaring, billowing belly of the nebula above them, like the underside of a burning ocean, Birrel said to Garstang, "Does it seem to you that the pace is speeding up? I mean, this jockeying for power between the Sectors has gone on a long time, ever since Earth lost real authority. But it seems different lately, somehow. More incidents, more feeling of something driving ahead toward a definite goal, a plan and a pattern you can't quite see. You know what I mean?"

Garstang nodded. "I know."

The computer banks back in the calc-room clicked and chattered. Relays kicked, compensating course, compensating tides of gravitic force quite capable of breaking a ship apart like a piece of flawed glass. The two red binaries gave them a final glare of malice and were gone. They were out of the channel.

A star the color of a peacock's breast lay dead ahead.

Venner, the anxious and alert young officer who stood not far from Garstang, said, "That's the nearest star with E-type worlds, sir. We've plotted five others farther in."

Garstang looked at Birrel.

Birrel shrugged. "If they're based in here, it'd be on an E-type. Take them one by one."

Garstang gave his orders. Birrel watched the blaze of peacock-blue grow swiftly. No ambush in the channel, so now what? Ambush on the world of the blue star? Or nothing? Time and money wasted and maybe it was all just a feint on Solleremos' part, trying to draw the Fifth here while a move was made somewhere else.

Suddenly Birrel felt old and tired. He had been in the squadron for almost twenty years, ever since he was seventeen, and in all these years the great game of stars, the strain, the worry, had never let up.

It must have been nice in a way, Birrel thought, in the old days a couple of centuries ago when the United Worlds still governed in fact from Earth, and all the star-squadrons were part of one galactic fleet whose struggles were only with the natural perils of the galaxy itself. But that had not lasted long.

The trouble was that it had got too big, too fast. It should have taken millennia to expand so widely. But the fact that on scores of E-type starworlds they had found peoples completely human in every respect, had upset all calculations. The anthropologists were still arguing whether that was because original germinal spores of life, seeding worlds of similar type, had produced identical chains of evolution, or whether there had been a long-ago spread of some human stock through all these worlds. Opinion inclined to the latter theory, but it didn't really matter. What mattered was that finding all these star-peoples, some of them semi-barbaric but others almost up to the technical level of Earth, had accelerated the expected slow expansion into a human explosion across the vast areas of the galaxy.

Too big, too fast. The United Worlds that had been set up back on Earth had handled it for a while, but it could not govern that vast sprawl of stars at anything like a local level. That was when the Sectors had been set up, the subdivisions of the UW. And that, thought Birrel, was when things had taken a different path.

There were five great Sectors, and there were five governors, who headed the Sector Councils. Solleremos of Orion, Vorn of Cepheus, Gianea of Leo, Strowe of Perseus, Ferdias of Lyra-and all of them jealous of each other. Five great pro-consuls, paying only a lip-service allegiance to the shadowy UW far away on Earth, all of them hungry for space, hungry for power. Yes, even Ferdias, thought Birrel. Ferdias was the man he served, respected, and even loved in a craggy sort of way. But Ferdias, like the others, played a massive game of chess with men and suns, moving his squadrons here and his undercover operatives there, laboring ceaselessly to hold on to what he had and perhaps enlarge his Sector just a little, a small star-system here and a minor cluster there...

And the game went on, and this mission was part of it. Ferdias wanted to know if Orion ships were secretly basing in here where they had no business to be. This cluster was no-man s-land, part of the buffer zones that were supposed to reduce friction between the Sectors. Actually, stellar wildernesses like this one were the scenes of frequent, nameless little struggles that were never reported at all. Birrel hoped, not too strongly, that he was not about to start another such.

"We're getting close," said Garstang.

Birrel shook himself and got down to business. There followed a few minutes of activity on split-second timing, and then the Starsong was shuddering to the vibration of her mass-reconverters as she plunged toward a bright world almost dangerously close to her. There was still no sign of any enemy, and the communicators remained silent.

An hour later by ship's chrono they had located the one port of entry listed for the planet and they had set the Starsong down in the middle of a large piece of natural desert that served well enough for what little space traffic ever came here.

It was night on this side of the planet. There was no moon, but, on a cluster world, a moon is a useless luxury. The sky blazes with a million stars, so that day is replaced not by darkness, but by light of another sort, soft and many-colored, full of strange glimmers and flitting shadows. By this eerie star-glow, through the now unshuttered ports, a town of sorts was visible about a mile away.

Otherwise there was nothing. No ships, no base, no legions from Orion Sector.

"The ships could be hidden somewhere," Garstang said pessimistically. "Maybe halfway around the planet, but waiting to jump us as soon as they get word."

Birrel admitted that that was possible. He had put on his best dress coverall of blue-and-silver, and now he stuffed a portable communicator into one pocket. Garstang watched him dourly.

"How many men will you want?" he asked.

"None. I'm better alone on this one."

Garstang's eyes widened a trifle. "I won't come right out and say you're crazy.

"Look, I know what I'm doing," Birrel said impatiently. "I was here once before, years ago, when old Volland commanded the Fifth, and I know these people. They're what you might call poor, but proud. They have a lot of traditions about long-ago splendor, how their kings once ruled the whole cluster and so on. They detest strangers, and won't let more than one in at a time."

"Fine," said Garstang. "But what if you run into trouble in there?"

"That's the reason I'm taking the porto." Birrel frowned, trying to plan ahead. "Exactly thirty minutes after I enter the town I'll contact you, and I'll continue to call at thirty-minute intervals. If I'm so much as a minute late, take off and buzz hell out of the place. It'll give me a bargaining point, anyway."

They went down to the airlock, which was open now and filled with a dry, stinging wind. Birrel paused, looking toward the distant town that was a lonely blot of darkness between the star-blazing sky and the gleaming sand. Here and there in it lights burned, but they were few and somehow not welcoming.

Garstang said, "A lot can happen in thirty minutes. Suppose you're not able to bargain?"

"Then you're on your own. But don't get yourself trapped--if it looks hopeless, you take her away."

Garstang snorted. "I'd get a fine reception from Ferdias if I went back and told him I left you here."

"Don't fool yourself," Birrel said roughly. "Ferdias would rather lose a commander than a ship, anytime. Just remember that."

He went down the ladder to the sand and began to walk.

He looked up at the incredible sky as he walked, and he thought of how wonderful that had seemed to him when he had first come here. But that had been a long time ago. He had been young and eager then and bursting with pride that he belonged to the Fifth, feeling somehow that space and stars were all his personal property.

What's changed me? Birrel wondered. I'm older, I'm thirty-seven, I'm a little tired, but it's more than that. I look at things differently now. Maybe it's the weight of command, or maybe being married, or it might be that this is something that happens to every man as he goes along, that the excitement goes out of things and, you have seen so much happen, that you glimpse the shape of possible disaster long before it ever reaches you. The devil with it, he thought, this is no time for brooding, I had better be on my toes.

The town took shape as he approached it. The stonebuilt houses, mostly round or octagonal, were scattered about with no particular plan. Under the red and gold and diamond-colored stars that burned above them as bright as moons, they looked curiously remote and evil, like old wizards in peaked hats, peering with winking eyes. The dry wind blew, laden with alien scents, and, apart from the wind, there was no sound at all.

* * * *
CHAPTER 2

The quiet was only what Birrel had expected. Not a soul in this place could have remained unaware of the coming of the ship, but, with cold hostility, they were ignoring it. Nobody came out to meet him, no one moved against the scattered lights ahead. Birrel tramped on, wondering how many eyes watched him come.

Three men met him at the edge of the town. They wore pale cloaks and carried long staffs or wands of office that were tipped with horn. They were all of seven feet tall. They wore their hair high on their beads to accentuate this height, and they were slender and graceful as reeds, moving with a light, dancing step as though the wind blew them. But their faces in the starglow were smooth and secret, their eyes as expressionless as bits of shiny glass.

"What does the man from outside desire?" asked one of them, speaking in Basic.

Birrel said, "He desires to speak with your lord about the others who have come here from outside."

But they were not going to make it that easy for him. Their faces remained impassive, and the one who had spoken said coolly, "Others?"

Birrel retained his patience. The Sector held a great many worlds, and their different peoples varied widely in psychology, and anyone who got impatient would not get far with them. That was all the more true here in the no-man's-land of the cluster.

"Yes. The others," he said, and then just stood stolidly, waiting.

Finally the tall man shrugged delicately and said, "Our lord has wisdom in all matters. Perhaps he will understand your words."

They fell in around Birrel and moved with him into the wide, sandy space that went between the wandering houses. The nerves tightened up in his belly, and his back felt cold. He looked at his wrist chrono, carefully. Garstang would be watching with the 'scope, but once he was in among the houses he could no longer be seen.

That was almost at once. The tall men walked on with their light, swaying stride, so that he had to move at an undignified trot to keep up with them. The stone houses with their high roofs closed in behind him, and there were only shadowy walls and sandy ways and a few dusty, leafless shrubs. Birrel had heard of the strange, underground cultivation these people maintained in great caverns, but had never seen that.

He thought that this dark, poor, town ill accorded with old tales of cluster-kings. Yet many of the human peoples at far-separated stars had such legends--the persistence of the legend, indeed, was one reason for the theory that all these various human stocks in the galaxy, so completely human that they could and did interbreed, had been seeded through the star-worlds by a space-conquering people in the remote and forgotten past.

Tall figures back in the shadows watched Birrel pass.

They said nothing, but their silence was in itself hostile. Soon, when they were close to the center of the town, his guide stopped beside a round, stone structure from whose open door came light.

"Will the man from outside enter the dwelling of our lord?"

Birrel breathed a little more easily as he went through the door. Apparently he had guessed wrong, and he stopped.

He had not guessed wrong at all.

The odd, square, crystal lamps in the big, bare stone room did not really light it as much as did the soft starglow pouring in through the high windows. There was quite enough light to show him the four men here. They were not the tall natives of this world. They were men dressed much like himself and all but one of them had sonic shockers at their belts and wore upon their shoulders the insignia of Orion Sector.

The one exception, who wore only a plain coverall, stood directly in front of Birrel, a lean, dark iron-faced man with very alert eyes, and the easy, dangerous manner of one who enjoys his work because he is so admirably well fitted for it, as a cat enjoys hunting. He smiled at Birrel and said, "My name is Tauncer.

Birrel had never seen the man before, but the name was enough to tell him the full depth of this disaster. On more than one world he had heard this name and had seen the work of this man, the most famous of Solleremos' agents.

He said, "I should feel flattered, shouldn't I?"

Tauncer shrugged. "We all do what we can, Commander. Each in his own way. Please sit down."

Birrel sat down in one of the carven stone chairs. His feet barely touched the floor, making him feel ridiculously like a child in an adult's chair. He looked toward the door, but none of the tall natives had come in after leading him neatly right into this.

He wanted to glance at his chrono, but he did not dare. Tauncer was watching him, and he did not think that those insolent, amused, black eyes missed much. The other men lounged, not watching him, not doing anything, but Birrel was sure their weapons would come out in a burry if he grabbed for his porto. He would have to stall as long as he could.

"Just as a matter of curiosity," he said, "how did you set it up with these people? They're famously hostile to strangers."

Tauncer nodded. "That's right. Only I'm not exactly a stranger. We all, in these days, have mixed ancestry from many worlds--you have it, I have it, everyone. Well, I happen to have a trace of this people's blood. Not much, but enough."

He added casually, "By the way, Commander, you might as well look at your chrono, if you want to. I can see that you want to very much."

His white teeth showed, and Birrel felt a rising anger. Tauncer was enjoying himself. He was good at this, very good, and he was going to have fun with the honest clod he had trapped. Well, perhaps that fun could be spoiled.

He did look at his chrono, saying, "Of course, you know that I wouldn't walk in here with my eyes shut. My men have their instructions."

Tauncer's tone was almost soothing. "I'm sure they have. And don't feel too badly about this, Commander. This was all set up on a minute study of your psychology and past record. It would have been almost impossible for you to act other than you have. All we had to do was wait."

It confirmed, for Birrel, what he had already guessed. The rumor about Orion ships basing in this cluster had been purposely leaked so that he would walk right into Tauncer's hands. He cursed himself for his bad judgment. Garstang had been right, he should have brought the squadron in.

"I suppose," he said, "that all of this is for some good reason.

"Naturally," said Tauncer. I just want the answer to one simple question."

He walked closer and stood in front of Birrel and looked at him keenly. He asked his question.

"What is Ferdias planning to do about Earth?"

There was a long moment of complete silence, during which Birrel simply stared at Tauncer, and Tauncer probed him with a gaze like a scalpel.

On Birrel's part, it was a silence of sheer astonishment. No question could have taken him so unexpectedly. He had been prepared to be grilled about squadron dispositions, forces in being, bases, all the things that the men of Orion would like to know about Lyra. But this--

It didn't make sense. Earth was not part of the present-day star struggle. That old planet, so far back in the galaxy that Birrel had never been within parsecs of it--it was history, nothing more. It had had its day, its sons long ago had spread out to the stars and their blood ran in the veins of men on many worlds, in Birrel himself. But its great day had long been done, and the Sector governors, who played the cosmic chess-game for suns, paid it no heed at all. No, Birrel decided swiftly, the question was merely a fake, a cover-up for something else, some other line of attack.

"I'll repeat," said Tauncer. "What's Ferdias planning to do about Earth?"

"I haven't," said Birrel, "the faintest idea what you're talking about."

"Possibly," said Tauncer. "But I've been given the job of making the inquiry, and I'll need more than your word and an expression of innocence. Where's Karsh?"

He shot out the last question so suddenly that it almost caught Birrel off guard, but he maintained his blank look.

"Karsh?"

Tauncer sighed. "Well, these formalities are just delaying us. Dow!"

One of the other men came forward. Tauncer spoke to him in a low voice and he nodded and went into another room. Birrel's pulse began to pound heavily. No more than fifteen minutes had elapsed since he entered the town. There was plenty of time left for mischief. Yet he said flatly to Tauncer, "You must know that you don't have much time."

"All the time in the world, Commander. Your men aren't coming in after you."

"You're pretty sure."

"Yes, I'm sure. Can't you hurry that up, Dow?"

"All ready." Dow came back carrying a light tripod with a projector mounted on top of it. And now Birrel had a leaden feeling. He had seen that particular type of projector before. It was called a vera-probe and it beamed electric wave-impulses in a carefully controlled range that absolutely stunned and demoralized a man's name, and a half-forgotten one at that. Why should Earth occupy his mind? Why, Tauncer?

How long is thirty minutes? How long does it take three cruisers to come from Point X to Target Zero? How long does it take for a man to realize he's through at last?

Tauncer seemed to know his thoughts. "Time almost run out, Commander? I'm afraid that's not going to help you. Ready, Dow?"

Dow said again, "All ready.

Tauncer nodded. Dow touched a stud on the projector.

As though that touch had done it, a dull and mighty roaring echoed from out in the desert--the full-throated cry of a heavy cruiser taking off.

The men looked, startled, toward the open doorway. Desperately, Birrel tugged free of their hold, out of the unseen force that was already battering at the edges of his mind.

"You out there!" he shouted at the doorway. "The men from outside will destroy you unless I go free! Call your lord--"

Then Tauncer's men caught up to him and one of them hit him hard on the side of the jaw. Birrel shut up, hanging with blind determination to his consciousness. Forethought had provided this one chance. He would not get another.

The cruiser came low over the town. Dust sifted out of the cracks of the stone walls. The men fell to their knees, covering their heads with their hands. The floor rocked under them, beaten by the rolling hammers of concussion, as the shock wave hit them.


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