Blake had waited a long time for his big chance. Finally the selection board called him in. This was it. He got his promotion, his captain's ticket and his first assignment. Vorgal was a tough planet but Blake was ready for it. He was the first spaceman to land on Vorgal without crashing. He was the first human being to see a Vorgalian and live. He was the first to learn the planet's deadly secret an come back alive.
But...when he went into landing orbit around Earth they fired on him. No one would believe that the impossible had happened. They thought Blake's body was being used by an alien, and unless he could convince them fast he would die. Without his secret knowledge of Vorgal, Earth would die too...
Release date: December 17, 2015
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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“You rang, Mister?” she asked.
“I rang, honey,” admitted Blake with a broad smile.
“Do you have an appointment?” asked the receptionist. Blake’s gaze travelled down over her ample curves appreciatively before he answered.
“Yes, I have an appointment,” he said at length.
The girl had resumed her place behind the cream plastic desk. She flicked open an electro-file and scanned it with a swift professional glance.
“Mr Brian Blake of Space Corps 29KQ?” she asked.
“I am what you accuse me of,” laughed Blake. The receptionist smiled; her bottle green eyes kept on smouldering. She closed the electro-file and replaced it below the desk.
“The Board are running precisely three-and-a-half minutes late this afternoon,” she said softly, glancing at a large wall-chron behind her desk.
“Their time is more important than mine,” grinned Brian. “I’ll wait.” He sat on the end of the nearest bench. The door with the translucent panel opened abruptly and a slim, dark man in his early thirties stepped into the waiting room. The gorgeous receptionist took out her electro-file again.
“Mr George Conroy?” she asked.
“That’s me,” said the newcomer. Blake looked up at him.
“Hi, Conroy! Long time no see!” he called. Conroy’s face creased into a frown of concentration.
“Do I know you?” he asked, sounding rather guilty. Suddenly his eyes lit up with recognition. They were dark, friendly eyes and they glowed with the warmth of genuine pleasure.
“Brian Blake!” exclaimed Conroy. “Damnit man I haven’t seen you since we were on that three-day jag in Marsport back in 2270.”
“Don’t remind me of my age,” laughed Blake. “After I hit 40, two years ago, I’ve been trying to count backwards!”
“What the hell are you doing here my old Spacedog type friend?” asked Conroy.
“I’m attempting the impossible,” answered Brian.
“Promotion Board interview?” queried Conroy.
“You’re a smart guesser,” agreed Blake.
Both men were in civilian dress. They looked at each other questioningly.
“I’m after my top lieutenancy,” said Conroy awkwardly. “How about you?”
“Got it three years back,” chuckled Blake. “I’m trying for the stars this time, literally and metaphorically!”
“Captain first class?” asked George in a rather awed whisper.
“If you don’t ask you don’t receive,” said Brian philosophically.
“True,” remarked Conroy rather thoughtfully, “very, very true.” The bell rang suddenly. The glamorous, statuesque receptionist beckoned to Blake. “The Board will see you now,” she announced pleasantly.
“Thanks,” said Blake. There were little flies of apprehension crawling round his jejunum, moths fluttered in his duodenum and ants were running riot in his oesophagus. It was two-way traffic at that. Brian Blake had faced most of the dangers which space could throw at a man in the course of twenty years on the Corps, but the prospect of facing the Promotion Board always rattled him. He squared stalwart shoulders and opened the communicating door determinedly. There was a short, rectangular-sectioned corridor outside. The corridor had a high lime-washed ceiling. An apparently continuous neon tube ran the length of the ceiling. The tube was concealed by diffuser-battens which threw off an opalescent pearly light. The illumination cast no shadows. It was a rather cold and forbidding corridor. There was an air of austerity about it which Brian Blake did not exactly enjoy.
He walked down the corridor with quick, bold, decisive steps. His heart was beating fast. This was it. This was the turning point of his career. Twenty years’ work hung in the balance. As far as the Corps were concerned the P.B. were the gods of life and death. They could make or break a man. The Board was a rocket drive thought Brian Blake. If it worked in the right direction you went a long way; if it worked in the wrong direction you stopped pretty quickly and if it didn’t work at all you drifted purposelessly forever and ever amen. Blake was determined to do all in his power to make it work in the right direction as far as he personally was concerned. It didn’t do to press on allegory too far, but if he used his rocket metaphor, he reckoned that if anybody stood a chance of working the Board he did. A Corps man learns a hell of a lot about rockets in twenty years. A man who doesn’t learn doesn’t usually last twenty years.
Rockets are temperamental things with a nasty habit of destroying the uninitiated. The destruction lurks in twin ambuscades. A greenhorn dies when a rocket explodes under him, or when it fails to ignite. The former end is usually quicker and more spectacular than the latter, except in the case of a failure in the braking rocket. When a ship nosedives at 40,000 miles an hour the results are interesting to say the least. Brian Blake had been with cleaning-up squads when all they had found of the crashed crews had been blobs of what looked like strawberry jam. Brian’s melancholy train of thought was interrupted by the door of the Boardroom itself at the far end of the corridor. Such a short passage could scarcely be said to have a far end, he thought. It was an odd, incongruous, little thought. It struck him as peculiar, but true, that men often experienced odd, incongruous, little thoughts at moments of great stress and anxiety. Strain shows itself in many unusual ways.
He passed a photo-electric beam. A sign flashed above the door “Enter.” Abandon hope all ye who enter here, thought Brian, arbeit macht frei and all that jazz. He opened the door resolutely and stepped boldly inside. He had deliberately entered boldly, but not too boldly. Everything, or almost everything, depended on a good first impression, he decided. Don’t show fear. But don’t look over-confident. Two equal and opposite mistakes there, he thought. He stopped thinking and started observing. He saw the Chairman of the Promotion Board sitting bolt upright in a throne-like seat. The Chairman was an old, wizened monkey of a man. He had the appearance of a parrot plus the eyes of a hawk. Those glittering orbs missed nothing. Brian felt as if they were looking right through him, dissecting him, analysing him. They were studying his mind, his body, his very soul. He felt like a specimen on a glass slide under a powerful microscope. As the Board studied Brian so he studied them, but he did it swiftly and unobtrusively. At least he hoped he was doing it unobtrusively. In normal circumstances his gaze would have been almost undetectable but these were scarcely normal circumstances. He was not under the surveillance of normal eyes. The Board were all trained observers, highly trained observers at that. There were security chiefs and psychoanalysts among them. The dice were loaded in their favour, he reckoned. The deck was stacked and they had stacked it. The wheel was crooked and they knew where it would stop. The eyes outnumbered him twenty to two; some odds! How could he hope to win the battle of observations when he was so completely outgunned?
On the Chairman’s immediate right sat a long, rapier thin individual with a face like a serrated hatchet blade. On the Chairman’s immediate left sat a hideously fat, moon-faced character in a uniform that dripped gold braid. Perhaps half a minute passed before anyone spoke. To Brian Blake it seemed like half a century. Finally the parrot-faced Chairman said: “Good morning Mr Blake.”
“Good morning, sir; good morning, gentlemen.” Blake was looking directly at the Chairman. There was a tense pause and a shuffling of papers.
“I have your application for promotion to Space Corps Captain First Class, Mr Blake.” The Chairman turned to the Board members surrounding him. “File 29KQ, folio 96, page 34 et cet.,” he said quietly. There was a further shuffling of papers.
“I see that you have had just over twenty years’ service,” said the Chairman.
“I have, sir. I enlisted on January 6th, 2253,” answered Brian.
“You have a good memory, Mr Blake,” commented the Chairman.
“The Service means a great deal to me, sir. I couldn’t very well forget my enlistment day,” answered Brian. There was just a touch of pride in his voice. He hoped he wasn’t overdoing the altruism. Better be careful he told himself. Don’t overdo it. They’ll think I’m too good to be true.
“You commanded a system vessel in the Martian Patrol campaign of 2260 and were mentioned in despatches,” said the Chairman.
“That’s true, sir,” agreed Blake.
“You were second officer on the Stratocruiser when she evacuated the Algol Six colonists in the face of heavy Algolian native bombardment in 2268. I believe you took over for forty-eight hours when the Captain was killed by a heatray blast and the First Officer was temporarily disabled by a paralyser ray?” The Chairman’s voice was interrogative.
“I did what I could, sir. Command naturally fell to me until the First Officer had recovered,” answered Blake.
“We are quite impressed by your record,” averred the Chairman. “However, there are certain questions which we would like to put to you, before we reach any final decision on your application.” He glanced around the Board. “Captain Noakes, have you a question?” Noakes was a tall, frigid looking officer of apparent Prussian descent. He sported a monocle and scowled ferociously.
“You are commanding a subvidic system ship,” he began. “A hostile vessel of superior speed and fire power appears. You must win at all costs. What action would you take?”
“I would order my crew to the life-capsules and set a course for collision, sir,” answered Blake promptly. Noakes scribbled something on a pad. He seemed satisfied. His scowl looked a little less ferocious. He passed the top leaf of his pad to the Chairman.
The fat man in the broad nudged the Chairman with a ponderous elbow.
“This is Commander Flegstein,” said the Chairman.
“How would you tackle a Sirian Colpa-vessel with supervidic drive and warp entry apparatus?” demanded the fat man
“May I ask what type of vessel I’m commanding in this instance, sir?” asked Blake with brisk efficiency.
“We’ll say you’ve got an Asterlink Mark IV,” said Flegstein.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but a Mark IV is not equipped with supervidic drive or warp e. . .
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