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From the next deck above came a burst of hearty singing by men shamefully off-key. Admiral "Captain" Duke O'neill grinned in spite of the dark thoughts that had flooded his mind for fourteen years.

Duke stopped clipping his heavy black beard and cocked an ear to listen. It had been such a long time since he'd heard voices so rich raised in such a burst of joyful sound – well, it had been longer than the time since he'd last had a bath or seen a woman to take a bath for. This had never been the singing type of war to start with, and then it had gotten much worse. Yet now he plainly heard even the high tenor of old Teroini, he who lay on a pad with neither legs nor arms left, his voice was joyfully mixed into the chorus. They felt they had good reason to sing. They were coming home, they were the only victors left, from a long, brutal, savage war.

As if to confirm Duke's first thoughts, Captain Burke Thompson hobbled past the cabin, stopping only just long enough to shout. "Admiral, we're home! The pilot says they have sighted Meloa!"

"Thanks, Captain Thompson" Duke called cheerfully after him, but Burke was already hobbling out of sight, so eager was he to share the good news with crew.

"I have gone through fourteen years of brutal war," Duke thought as he dragged out his hoarded bottle of water to prepare his face for a shave. "I have endured fourteen LONG years of war," he corrected his bitter thoughts to behave.

Every minute had seemed like an hour as he stalked among the stars to see the enemy first. While his crew and enemy were reeling in shock Duke's mind had always been clicking away, studying every facet, every angle, every shadow and where victory was out of the question occasionally, escape never was because of the way he attacked.

When the war had been most terrifying, his fleet was out-numbered three to one. As a captain, Captain O'Neill had been brought home to Meloa for rest and relaxation. With Ronda's support he had been wined and dined for two exhilarating weeks of rest, and relaxation, then suddenly he had been promoted to admiral. He became Admiral O'Neill -- so responsibility for the inevitable defeat could at least be laid squarely at Airth's feet. No, no, they had not said that, not even behind his back. "But, isn't that true?" he wondered.

Five bitter years of butchery had passed Admiral O'Neill since that moment of undeserved glory. His fleet had not had a chance, so he had made one Now the horrors of war were supposed to be behind them. But Duke's thoughts were still murderous. Airth could have saved us, and Airth had run away instead.

Duke shuddered at the intensity of his thoughts. The darkness dragged him down until his "I" was a little boy hunched into a corner and waiting for his drunken father's boot to kick him again and again -- and again until Duke's blood ran cold upon the floor. "No, NO!" His "I" stood up with red eyes gleaming as he shoved the darkness out. "You are NOT my father. You're just another one of my mother's drunken mates for the night that has stayed here a little longer! You can knock me down. You can stomp me in the ground because you're big enough -- but you can never, ever make me give in -- or give up."

The darkness dissolved and slowly Duke began to see the reality around him once more. His cabin was unlived in, and it was dirty, and it was shabby, but it was real. The door to his quarters had sprung off the hinges in some battle long past and now it would close only half way. But it was real and he could see it, touch it -- even laugh about it. "Here I am, the mighty admiral of the iron fist and my door won't shut."

It was side-splittingly funny, it was hilarious when you looked at how cock-eyed it was, and the little boy Duke could laugh about it. The darkness might gather thick enough to close him into another corner, but it could never, EVER win.

His fists relaxed; the haze was gone. Fully in control again, Duke glanced around the cubby-hold he had lived in for the moment, and scowled. "I may have won a war, but I haven't come that far out of my corner, have I?"

Duke laughed. And it was funny to hear it rattle against all four walls. Crew swore that his gift of seeing the comical in his situations could always score a technical knock out. "We are the lucky ones. We can still breathe, and we can still laugh."

Crew was supposed to be lucky.

The survivors even told themselves that they were lucky.

When the battles had been filled with hazardous shadows Duke had heard crew whisper mantras morn and night of just how lucky they were to have a warrior like him to lead them – then they had butchered any captives that tumbled into their hands. It had been a long time since Duke could tell where the luck ended and the butchery began. He glanced at his own hands, both of them, and wondered how much blood was on his own hands. "Was there some way I could have secured a faster victory, saved more of the ships entrusted to me? NO, when you wage war, some blood must splatter in strange places."

Is it not so? Why, so it is.

Duke chuckled. The timbers moaned overhead from a sharp course change. They were riding home on the battered old wreck that had been his flagship and Duke didn't feel the least bit lucky when it gasped and shuddered, but crew knew they were lucky to have it because it was designated as the best ship of all that was left of the fleet. Best of all, they were less than a conscious hour from home base. No wonder they felt to sing. Meloa had been sighted. They were soon to be dined and feted to the high heavens as the laurels of victory settled around their heads!

The other 22 surviving ships of the original fleet of eight hundred were said to be limping along behind, no telling how far as they were no longer his to command reports from. Duke found the situation so hard to believe. Only 23 ships were left out of a fleet of eight hundred proud ships, and Meloa was calling him a hero? – What a price they had had to pay, and – crew were cheering because they had won? Yes, and they were going home, to peace! They had put their lives on the line for Meloa and given her the total victory, such as it was. Why, they were heroes; YES, they had survived.

Safely gleaming, far, far away, Solarus and Airth could now rest in its unearned safety for yet another while. Duke grimaced bitterly. It was no time to think of Solarus now, Duke ordered his battle-squished brain.

With fresh new zeal Duke shucked off his patched and filthy clothes and reached for the dress grays he had laid out in advance; at least they were still in good condition, almost unused, in fact, although they seemed to have stretched a good deal when he actually put them on. War Is A Whole Lot Of HELL!

Duke dressed slowly, savoring the luxury of feeling clean clothes rustle against the imaginary filth that felt as if it were still adhering to his body.

The buttons gave him trouble because his left hand still had not learned who was the boss! It might look and behave exactly like a human hand, but in the three years since he had acquired it, there had been no chance to actually sit down and help it learn how to handle antique buttons.

Then suddenly he mastered the trick. It wasn't the battle-scarred hand that had needed training. Quickly he finished the lot of them and stepped back to study the final results. With a critical grin he studied his face and military posture. "You know, I don't look bad. Maybe a little gaunt and in need of a good haircut. But my face hasn't aged as much as I was afraid it had."

The worst part was the pasty white left behind where his beard had covered his face, but a few days of lying on the beach beneath Meloa's blue sun would fix that. Maybe he would spend a month with Ronda at a beach before settling down. He still had most of his salary – he grinned when he thought of the nearly three million Meloan credits he had accrued!

He stared at his few possessions for just a few seconds, then shrugged and left them for the inevitable pack of souvenir hunters. He didn't need them, he could buy more any time now that peace was here. Duke headed up the officers' lift toward the control room, where he would be able to see Meloa swim into view and later soak his eyes in a vision of his homeport of Kordule as they landed.

The pilot and navigator had been sent out to bring the old ship home safely, and their faces showed none of the jubilation stirring up the crew. They nodded at him as he entered, staring toward the screens without expression. Aside from the blueness of their skins and the complete absence of hair, they looked almost human, and Duke had long since stopped thinking of them as anything else.

"How much longer will it be?" he asked.

The pilot shrugged. "Half an hour, Admiral. You are too low on fuel for us to wait for clearance. Of course that does not matter since control is not working anyway. Don't worry. There will be plenty of time for you to catch the next ship home to Solarus."

"Airth?" Duke glowered at him, suspecting a mean-spirited joke, but there was no humor on the blue face. More softly, he finished with, "I am not going back!"

Then he frowned as his mind mined out a strange fact. Noting strange facts was one of the seven pillars of Wisdom that had kept him out of death traps. "What is an Airth ship doing here on Meloa?"

The navigator exchanged a surprised look with the pilot as if they had never thought it strange. The pilot's voice was as devoid of expression as his face. "Solarus resumed communications with us the very day Your truce was signed," he answered. He paused, studying Duke. "They brought us some bull dozers and they are giving free passage back to Airth to all Solarian veterans, Admiral."

Nice of them, Duke thought. Airth was now willing to let the men who'd survived come back. Well, why not? They hadn't forbidden anyone to go running off to war, had they? Oh, this was very nice of them, indeed.

Well, Solarus could keep their worlds -- and all the other planets full of cowards like them! When the humanoid world of Meloa had been attacked by the insectile monsters from Throm, Airth could have ended the invasion in a year, as those with eyes to see had urged her to do. But Airth had chosen not to do so. Instead, she had stepped back to her throne of neutrality, and let the Throm aliens do as they liked.

This wasn't the first time Solarus had sidestepped conflicts and claimed neutrality. With more than half of the inhabited planets occupied by various kinds of vicious enemies, it seemed obvious that the humanoid planets had to make a common stand. If Meloa fell, it would become an alien stepping stone that could lead back eventually to Airth itself. And once Airth's enemies realized that Airth was unwilling to fight, her vast resources would no longer scare them -- she'd be only another rich plum, ripe for the plucking.

Duke had been one of the first to volunteer to go rushing off to save Meloa, he had never dreamed Airth could flat out refuse to join the battle. He had believed in Airth and the commonality of humanity beings taught so faithfully in the schools back then. He'd waited through all the grim days when it seemed Throm must win. But there had been no help from the Solar Confederation (Solarus). Airth's neutrality remained unshaken.

And now, after serving through fourteen years in battle hell, helping to fight off a three-planet system of monsters that might have swarmed against all the humanoid races if they had been left unchecked, Airth was willing to forgive him and take him back to the shame of his birthright? HA!

"I'm staying," he said flatly. "Unless you Meloans want to kick me out now?"

The pilot swung around, dropping a quick blue hand on Duke's shoulder. "Admiral O'Neill," he said in absolute reverence, "that is not something to joke about. We will not EVER forget that there would be no Meloa today without you, and men like you. But we can not ask you to stay. Things have changed at home -- insanely. The news we sent to the fleet was pure propaganda!"

"We wondered about that," Duke told him. "How many Throm ships did actually penetrate our shield?"

"Seven full scale raids," the navigator said woodenly. "Five of them were thoroughly devastating raids! You will see the full extent of that damage soon enough."

"Seven battleships got through? What in the seven blue shades of hades happened to our home fleet?"

There was a long, tense moment then tears, silver tears from emotions too deep to swim in, sprang from the pilot's eyes.

"It replaced the fleet you thought you were going back to command, five years ago. We broke up our home fleet and sent it out with you, as a token straw of our faith in you. But you turned our piece of straw into a jagged javelin and began ripping holes through a horde that outnumbered you five to one. You carried the war to them, then danced out of harm's way, turning about to strike again, and again, knocking out ships and you turned the blue tide of death into a rousing roar of victory," the pilot gasped for breath through lips tightened in an effort to keep the volume of his words reined in. "Meloa backed you in desperation with our last chunk of hourus credit. Admiral, we cheered with every battle you won, even when we knew that you couldn't possibly keep that winning streak going and that each time you went in would be the last time Meloa could ever score."

Duke swallowed the idea slowly. He couldn't picture a planet giving up its last plate of protection to him for a desperate effort to end the war on his purely offensive drive. Three billion people must have watched that home fleet take off, knowing the skies were being left open for all the hell that a savage enemy could send!

And Solarus had never raised its hand to help! Their Senate had not permitted the building of even one battleship to send to them, for fear of reprisal from Throm. Duke swung to face the ports, avoiding the almost piteous expression on the faces of the two Meloans. "Why, that explains their reticence,” he thought! They must feel it is an honor to be the ones chosen to bring us home."

Duke chuckled to himself. It might be an honor, but they were risking their lives to ride with him in THIS ship? Almost on cue, the ship lurched to prove the point, and Duke staggered a bit. By golly, they must be entering the atmosphere already. His flag ship was staggering down on jets that mis-fired and gyros that wobbled on worn out shafts. "Flag ship? of what?" Duke suddenly saw the humor behind the thought; he threw his head back, and laughed so hard his wind broke. He gasped and laughed again until he could finally choke down the need to go on laughing. When at last he could see again Duke saw the pilot trying to wipe a grin off his face.

"Admiral, until now I have never believed the reports of how your laugh could save the day. But it is easy to believe it now!"

Duke had to laugh at the earnestness in the pilot's voice. "I am no hero," he protested. He was astonished to see the pilot and co-pilot throw their head back, and laugh as if they had never heard anything that ridiculous before in their life.

A gray-yellow haze rose to greet them, obscuring the planet. It pointed out countless tons of blast dust particulates in the air. From below decks, Duke heard the men beginning to move toward the big entrance lock, unable to wait for the landing. He caught himself just as he leaned over to order them back to their bunks. They were no longer his responsibility. He'd given up his command for emeritus status before embarking for Meloa.

The ship came down by lurches, threatening to tilt over the tea kettle every second while the gyroscopes fought to remain inside their joints. The pilot was sweating and swearing. The haze began to clear as they neared the ground, but the ports were too high for Duke to see anything except the underside of the thick clouds. He stood up and headed for the lift, bracing himself as the ship pitched one last time.

Suddenly there was a sickening jar. The timbers moaned and twisted as the blast cut off. The ship seemed to manage one last twist on its axis timbers, then it was still. It was the worst landing Duke had ever known, but they were obviously down.

A second later he heard the port screech open and the thump of the landing ramp run up. The singing of the men had picked up into a proud, rough, robust marching beat that made Duke proud. Now, abruptly the sound wavered. For one moment more, a few voices continued, but then they died away also. There was a mutter of hoarse voices, followed by even hoarser shouts that must have been the relief officers, taking over.

Duke was nearly to the port before he heard the slow, doubtful sound of steps moving down the ramp. By the time he reached it, the last men were just leaving. He stopped where they had stopped, staring in incredulity at what was left of the great port city of Kordule.

Most of that port was gone, the rest was a tangle of ruptured metal. Where the mountain of hangars and repair docks had once been a harbor of frenetic galactic commerce, one crater now stabbed deep into the airth. It was still smoking faintly. A lone girder projected above it, to mark the former great control building, and a Meloan skeleton was transfixed on it near the top. It shattered to pieces as he looked and it began dropping, probably from the delayed tremor of their landing.

Even the section of concrete their ship stood on was cantilever part of the crater. He saw a bright yellow Solarian bulldozer working furiously to shore it up. There was room for no more than ten ships now. Two of those berths were occupied by fat Airth ships, so sleek and well kept they glistened. Three others held the pitted, warped hulks of what had once been proud Meloan battleships. There were no native freighters, and no sign of tending equipment or hangars for them.

The pilot had come up behind him, following his gaze. Then the man nodded. "That is it, Admiral. Most cities are worse. Kordule escaped the blasts until our h2o2 cannon failed. We might be wiped out, but thanks to you, we are still alive and we aren't beaten. Airth has delivered those bulldozers yesterday."

The pilot nodded at the tiny crowd of greeters. "That is all the band we could come up with. Please do not think for a moment this is any kind of disrespect. This planet reveres you. But this is all we have. Please forgive us.”

He turned his head slightly as if with a sudden thought. "Do you have any script on you, sir?"

Duke turned away to hide his tears. He nodded.

The pilot pointed. "You had better exchange it at the booth, before the rate gets any worse. I think it would be be best to take the Solarian ¥uan while you can. Our own government has quit honoring our hourus, and the silver is not silver any more, some worthless compound that no off-lander will redeem."

He held out a hand, and when Duke shook it he said, "Good luck, Admiral. We love you." and swung back into the ship as if his entire duty in life was done.

Mercifully, most of Kordule was blanketed by the dust fog. There was the beginning of a series of monstrous craters where men had begun rebuilding underground, the ruined landing field, and a section of what had been the great business district. Now it was only a field of rubble, with bits of windowless walls leading up to a crazy tangle of twisted girders. Only memory could locate where the major streets had been because the earth had belched beneath them. Over everything lay the green wash of incandite. But worst of all was the smell of a charnel house the wind carried. There was no sign of the high-rise multi-tiered apartment building where he and Ronda had lived.

He started down the ramp at last, seeing for the first time the motley crew that had come out to meet the heroes of the battle with Throm. They had spotted him already, however, and some were deserting the men at the sight of his Admiral's uniform. Their cries mingled into an insane babble that was whining in his ears for pity. "... Just give a scrap for an old man, Admiral ... “

Please, sir. I've got three children at home. They are starving ...

I fought under Jones, Admiral, would you happen to have a cigarette on you?"

The cheering had stopped. The band had disappeared. Reality came into sharp focus as a sea of clutching hands, ragged bodies with scrawny arms and bloated stomachs, trembling and writhing in its eagerness to get to him first. Then as one of the temporary officers swung back with a couple of field attendants, it broke apart to let him pass, but the gaze of the crowd riveted on him as he stumbled between the lines with tears blinding his eyes.

He spotted a billboard one man was wearing on his chest, and his eyes focused sharply on it. "Honest Feroiya," it announced. "Credit exchange. Best rates in all Kordule." Below that, chalked into a black square, was the important part: "2,345 hourus credits per ¥uan." Duke shook his head to clear his vision, but the numbers on the sign did not change a decimal point. “A quarter million credits for ¥100?” And he'd thought himself almost wealthy? – able to buy a small island in the mists? He laughed to the heavens and made clouds melt away to let the laughter pass through.

A trembling hand plucked at his sleeve, and he swung to face a woman in rags even worse than the others. "Help a poor old widow." her eyes dull and unfocused, her lips were mouthing the words only by habit. Duke was about to walk around her, but her next words stopped him. "Help the widow of General Dayole!"

He gasped as he recognized her. Five years before, just five years ago he had been proud to dance with her at a party given by General Dayole. He remembered that evening well, it had been meant to be gay, and extravagant, and it had fallen flat, even the MP2-3D music was flat and tasteless – but they had danced and agreed that the war was ruining the government but that it didn't dare to let the economy get any worse.

It couldn't get any worse. Dude reached generously into his pocket, before remembering the new found worthlessness of his currency. Not even the mist could be sold or the paper burned. However, there was that half a pack of wretched cigarettes issued to the veterans for the return trip. He tossed them to her and fled to keep from watching the other beggars scramble forward to rip them out of her hands.

He walked woodenly across the leprous field, skirting away from the Airth ships, toward the collection of tents and tin huts that had swallowed the other veterans he had led into battle. Then he stopped and muttered curses to himself as a motorcycle sprang into life near the Airth freighters and roared toward him. Naturally, they'd spotted his crop of tawny, mangy hair and pale skin color.

The well-fed, smooth-faced young Airthman swung the machine up beside him. "Admiral O'Neill?" he asked, but his voice indicated that he was already certain. "Hop on, sir. Director Flannery wants to meet you!"

Duke's eyes switched into battle mode, seeing everything, looking at nothing. He marched steadily forward, not varying the cadence of his steps. The machine paced him uncertainly. "I'm from the office of Director Flannery, Sir. The Commandant of the Airth Foreign Office, Admiral O'Neill. He wants to meet you.”

This produced no visible response. “He requests your presence, Sir!" he shouted over the purr of his machine. Foolishly, he tried to swing ahead of Duke as if to block his way!

Battle mode was still raging in his veins. Duke kept his eyes focused on his goal, but seeing everything in front of him. When his steady steps almost brought him against the cycle, he paused only long enough to kick the machine over, then he stepped over it. There was a loud cheer raised behind him. But the motorcycle roared to life, and scooted up beside him. The messenger peered into Duke's face, then he roared out of his way.

Duke could hear it behind him as he walked, but the sound faded.

Battle mode slipped out of his system and Duke cried openly in great shame. There was only the battered sight and fetid smell of Kordule ahead of him, around him, behind him.

The war was over, isn't that a shame? Heroes come home and for a mess of pottage they must sell their good name.

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