The Project Gutenberg eBook of Captain Chaos

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Title: Captain Chaos

Author: Nelson S. Bond

Illustrator: Don Lynch

Release date: May 15, 2020 [eBook #62139]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at




The Callisto-bound Leo needed
a cook. What it got was a piping-voiced
Jonah who jinxed it straight into Chaos.

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Summer 1942.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

We picked up our new cook on Phobos. Not Phoebus or Phoebe; I mean Phobos, Mars' inner moon. Our regular victual mangler came down with acute indigestion—tasted some of his own cooking, no doubt—when we were just one blast of a jet-tube out of Sand City spaceport. But since we were rocketing under sealed orders, we couldn't turn back.

So we laid the Leo down on Phobos' tiny cradle-field and bundled our ailing grub-hurler off to a hospital, and the skipper said to me, "Mister Dugan," he said, "go out and find us a cook!"

"Aye, sir!" I said, and went.

Only it wasn't that easy. In those days, Phobos had only a handful of settlers, and most of them had good-paying jobs. Besides, we were at war with the Outer Planets, and no man in his right senses wanted to sign for a single-trip jump on a rickety old patrolship bound for nobody-knew-where. And, of course, cooks are dime-a-dozen when you don't need one, but when you've got to locate one in a hurry they're as difficult to find as petticoats in a nudist camp.

I tried the restaurants and the employment agencies, but it was no dice. I tried the hotels and the tourist homes and even one or two of the cleaner-looking joy-joints. Again I drew a blank. So, getting desperate, I audioed a plaintive appeal to the wealthy Phobosian colonists, asking that one of the more patriotic sons-of-riches donate a chef's services to the good old I.P.S., but my only response was a loud silence.

So I went back to the ship. I said, "Sorry, sir. We're up against it. I can't seem to find a cook on the whole darned satellite."

The skipper scowled at me from under a corduroy brow and fumed, "But we've got to have a cook, Dugan! We can't go on without one!"

"In a pinch," I told him, "I might be able to boil a few pies, or scramble us a steak or something, Skipper."

"Thanks, Dugan, but that won't do. On this trip the men must be fed regularly and well. Makeshift meals are O.Q. on an ordinary run, but when you're running the blockade—"

He stopped abruptly. But too late; I had caught his slip of the tongue. I stared at him. I said, "The blockade, sir? Then you've read our orders?"

The Old Man nodded soberly.

"Yes. You might as well know, Lieutenant. Everyone will be told as soon as the Leo lifts gravs again. My orders were to be opened four hours after leaving Sand City. I read them a few minutes ago.

"We are to attempt to run the Outer Planets Alliance blockade at any spot which reconnaisance determines as favorable. Our objective is Jupiter's fourth satellite, Callisto. The Solar Federation Intelligence Department has learned of a loyalist uprising on that moon. It is reported that Callisto is weary of the war, with a little prompting will secede from the Alliance and return to the Federation.

"If this is true, it means we have at last found the foothold we have been seeking; a salient within easy striking distance of Jupiter, capital of the Alliance government. Our task is to verify the rumor and, if it be true, make a treaty with the Callistans."

I said, "Sweet howling stars—some assignment, sir! A chance to end this terrible war ... form a permanent union of the entire Solar family ... bring about a new age of prosperity and happiness."

"If," Cap O'Hara reminded me, "we succeed. But it's a tough job. We can't expect to win through the enemy cordon unless our men are in top physical condition. And that means a sound, regular diet. So we must find a cook, or—"

"The search," interrupted an oddly high-pitched, but not unpleasant voice, "is over. Where's the galley?"

I whirled, and so did the Old Man. Facing us was an outlandish little figure; a slim, trim, natty little Earthman not more than five-foot-two in height; a smooth-cheeked young fellow swaddled in a spaceman's uniform at least three sizes too large. Into the holster of his harness was thrust a Haemholtz ray-pistol big enough to burn an army, and in his right hand he brandished a huge, gleaming carving-knife. He frowned at us impatiently.

"Well," he repeated impatiently, "where is it?"

The Old Man stared.

"W-who," he demanded dazedly, "might you be?"

"I might be," retorted the little stranger, "lots of people. But I came here to be your new cook."

O'Hara said, "The new—What's your name, mister?"

"Andy," replied the newcomer. "Andy Laney."

The Old Man's lip curled speculatively. "Well, Andy Laney," he said, "you don't look like much of a cook to me."

But the little mugg just returned the Old Man's gaze coolly. "Which makes it even," he retorted. "You don't look like much of a skipper to me. Do I get the job, or don't I?"

The captain's grin faded, and his jowls turned pink. I stepped forward hastily. I said, "Excuse me, sir, shall I handle this?" Then, because the skipper was still struggling for words: "You," I said to the little fellow, "are a cook?"

"One of the best!" he claimed complacently.

"You're willing to sign for a blind journey?"

"Would I be here," he countered, "if I weren't?"

"And you have your space certificate?"

"I—" began the youngster.

"Smart Aleck!" That was the Old Man, exploding into coherence at last. "Rat-tailed, clever-cracking little smart Aleck! Don't look like much of a skipper, eh? Well, my fine young rooster—"

I said quickly, "If you don't mind, sir, this is no time to worry over trifles. 'Any port in a storm,' you know. And if this young man can cook—"

The skipper's color subsided. So did he, grumbling. "Well, perhaps you're right, Dugan. All right, Slops, you're hired. The galley's on the second level, port side. Mess in three quarters of an hour. Get going! Dugan, call McMurtrie and tell him we lift gravs immediately—Slops! What are you doing at that table?"

For the little fellow had sidled across the control-room and now, eyes gleaming inquisitively, was peering at our trajectory charts. At the skipper's roar he glanced up at us eagerly.

"Vesta!" he piped in that curiously high-pitched and mellow voice. "Loft trajectory for Vesta! Then we're trying to run the Alliance blockade, Captain?"

"None of your business!" bellowed O'Hara in tones of thunderous outrage. "Get below instantly, or by the lavendar lakes of Luna I'll—"

"If I were you," interrupted our diminutive new chef thoughtfully, "I'd try to broach the blockade off Iris rather than Vesta. For one thing, their patrol line will be thinner there; for another, you can come in through the Meteor Bog, using it as a cover."

"Mr. Dugan!"

The Old Man's voice had an ominous ring to it, one I had seldom heard. I sprang to attention and saluted smartly. "Aye, sir?"

"Take this—this culinary tactician out of my sight before I forget I'm an officer and a gentleman. And tell him that when I want advice I'll come down to the galley for it!"

A hurt look crept into the youngster's eyes. Slowly he turned and followed me from the turret, down the ramp, and into the pan-lined cubicle which was his proper headquarters. When I was turning to leave he said apologetically, "I didn't mean any harm, Mr. Dugan. I was just trying to help."

"You must learn not to speak out of turn, youngster," I told him sternly. "The Old Man's one of the smartest space navigators who ever lifted gravs. He doesn't need the advice or suggestions of a cook."

"But I was raised in the Belt," said the little chap plaintively. "I know the Bog like a book. And I was right; our safest course is by way of Iris."

Well, there you are! You try to be nice to someone, and what happens? He tees off on you. I got a little sore I guess. Anyhow, I told the little squirt off, but definitely.

"Now, listen!" I said bluntly. "You volunteered for the job. Now you've got to take what comes with it: orders! From now on, suppose you take care of the cooking and let the rest of us worry about the ship—Captain Slops!"

And I left, banging the door behind me hard.

So we hit the spaceways for Vesta, and after a while the Old Man called up the crew and told them our destination, and if you think they were scared or nervous or anything like that, why, you just don't know spacemen. From oil-soaked old Jock McMurtrie, the Chief Engineer, all the way down the line to Willy, our cabin-boy, the Leo's complement was as thrilled as a sub-deb at an Academy hop.

John Wainwright, our First Officer, licked his chops like a fox in a hen-house and said, "The blockade! Oboyoboy! Maybe we'll tangle with one of the Alliance ships, hey?"

Blinky Todd, an ordinary with highest rating, said with a sort of macabre satisfaction, "I hopes we do meet up with 'em, that's whut I does, sir! Never did have no love for them dirty, skulkin' Outlanders, that's whut I didn't!"

And one of the black-gang blasters, a taciturn chap, said nothing—but the grim set of his jaw and the purposeful way he spat on his callused paws were mutely eloquent.

Only one member of the crew was absent from the conclave. Our new Slops. He was busy preparing midday mess, it seems, because scarcely had the skipper finished talking than the audio hummed and a cheerful call rose from the galley:

"Soup's on! Come and get it!"

Which we did. And whatever failings "Captain Slops" might have, he had not exaggerated when he called himself one of the best cooks in space. That meal, children, was a meal! When it comes to victuals I can destroy better than describe, but there was stuff and things and such-like, all smothered in gravy and so on, and huge quantities of this and that and the other thing, all of them unbelievably dee-luscious!

Beyond a doubt it was the finest feast we of the Leo had enjoyed in a 'coon's age. Even the Old Man admitted that as, leaning back from the table, he patted the pleasant bulge due south of his belt buckle. He rang the bell that summoned Slops from the galley, and the little fellow came bustling in apprehensively.

"Was everything all right, sir?" he asked.

"Not only all right, Slops," wheezed Captain O'Hara, "but perfect! Accept my congratulations on a superb meal, my boy. Did you find everything O.Q. in the galley?"

"Captain Slops" blushed like a stereo-struck school-gal, and fidgeted from one foot to another.

"Oh, thank you, sir! Thank you very much. Yes, the galley was in fine order. That is—" He hesitated—"there is one little thing, sir."

"So? Well, speak up, son, what is it? I'll get it fixed for you right away." The Old Man smiled archly. "Must have everything shipshape for a tip-top chef, what?"

The young hash-slinger still hesitated bashfully.

"But it's such a little thing, sir, I almost hate to bother you with it."

"No trouble at all. Just say the word."

"Well, sir," confessed Slops reluctantly, "I need an incinerator in the galley. The garbage-disposal system in there now is old-fashioned, inconvenient and unsanitary. You see, I have to carry the waste down two levels to the rocket-chamber in order to expel it."

The skipper's brow creased.

"I'm sorry, Slops," he said, "but I don't see how we can do anything about that. Not just now, at any rate. That job requires equipment we don't have aboard. After this jump is over I'll see what I can do."

"Oh, I realize we don't have the regular equipment," said Slops shyly, "but I've figured out a way to get the same effect with equipment we do have. There's an old Nolan heat-cannon rusting in the storeroom. If that could be installed by the galley vent, I could use it as an incinerator."

I said, "Hold everything, Slops! You can't do that! It's against regulations. Code 44, Section xvi, says, 'Fixed armament shall be placed only in gunnery embrasures insulated against the repercussions of firing charges, re-radiation, or other hazards accruent to heavy ordnance.'"

Our little chef's face fell. "Now, that's too bad," he said discouragedly. "I was planning a special banquet for tomorrow, with roast marsh-duck and all the fixings, pinberry pie—but, oh, well!—if I have no incinerator—"

The skipper's eyes bulged, and he drooled like a pup at a barbeque. He was a bit of a sybarite, was Captain David O'Hara; if there was anything he dearly loved to exercise his molars on it was Venusian marsh-duck topped with a dessert of Martian pinberry pie. He said:

"We-e-ell, now, Mr. Dugan, let's not be too technical. After all, that rule was put in the book only to prevent persons which shouldn't ought to do so from having control of ordnance. But that isn't what Slops wants the cannon for, is it, son? So I don't see any harm in rigging up the old Nolan in the galley for incineration purposes. Did you say all the fixings, Slops?"

Maybe I was mistaken, but for a moment I suspected I caught a queer glint in our little chef's eyes; it might have been gratitude, or, on the other hand, it might have been self-satisfaction. Whatever it was it passed quickly, and Captain Slops' soft voice was smooth as silk when he said:

"Yes, Captain, all the fixings. I'll start cooking the meal as soon as the new incinerator is installed."

So that was that. During the night watch two men of the crew lugged the ancient Nolan heat cannon from stores and I went below to check. I found young Slops bent over the old cannon, giving it a strenuous and thorough cleaning. The way he was oiling and scrubbing at that antique reminded me of an apprentice gunner coddling his first charge.

I must have startled him, entering unexpectedly as I did, for when I said, "Hi, there!" he jumped two feet and let loose a sissy little piping squeal. Then, crimson-faced with embarrassment, he said, "Oh, h-hello, Lieutenant. I was just getting my new incinerator shipshape. Looks O.Q., eh?"

"If you ask me," I said, "it looks downright lethal. The Old Man must be off his gravs to let a young chuckle-head like you handle that toy."

"But I'm only going to use it," he said plaintively, "to dispose of garbage."

"Well, don't dump your cans when there are any ships within range," I warned him glumly, "or there'll be a mess of human scraps littering up the void. That gun may be a museum piece, but it still packs a wallop."

"Yes, sir," said Slops meekly. "I'll be careful how I use it, sir."

I had finished my inspection, and I sniggered as his words reminded me of a joke I'd heard at a spacemans' smoker.

"Speaking of being careful, did you hear the giggler about the old maid at the Martian baths? Well, it seems this perennial spinster wandered, by accident, into the men's shower room and met up with a brawny young prospector—"

Captain Slops said, "Er—excuse me, Lieutenant, but I have to get this marsh-duck stuffed."

"Plenty of time, Slops. Wait till you hear this; it will kill you. The old maid got flustered and said, 'Oh, I'm sorry! I must be in the wrong compartment—'"

"If you don't mind, Mr. Dugan," interrupted the cook loudly, "I'm awfully busy. I don't have any time for—"

"The prospector looked her over carefully for a couple of seconds; then answered, 'That's O.Q. by me, sister. I won't—'"

"I—I've got to go now, Lieutenant," shouted Slops. "Just remembered something I've got to get from stores." And without even waiting to hear the wallop at the end of my tale he fled from the galley, very pink and flustered.

So there was one for the log-book! Not only did our emergency chef lack a sense of humor, but the little punk was bashful, as well! Still, it was no skin off my nose if Slops wanted to miss the funniest yarn of a decade. I shrugged and went back to the control turret.

All that, to make an elongated story brief, happened on the first day out of Mars. As any schoolchild knows, it's a full hundred million from the desert planet to the asteroid belt. In those days, there was no such device as a Velocity-Intensifier unit, and the Leo, even though she was then considered a reasonably fast little patroller, muddled along at a mere 400,000 m.p.h. Which meant it would take us at least ten days, perhaps more, to reach that disputed region of space around Vesta, where the Federation outposts were sparse and the Alliance block began.

That period of jetting was a mingled joy and pain in the britches. Captain Slops was responsible for both.

For one thing, as I've hinted before, he was a bit of a panty-waist. It wasn't so much the squeaky voice or the effeminate gestures he cut loose with from time to time. One of the roughest, toughest scoundrels who ever cut a throat on Venus was "High G" Gordon, who talked like a boy soprano, and the meanest pirate who ever highjacked a freighter was "Runt" Hake—who wore diamond ear-rings and gold fingernail polish!

But it was Slops' general attitude that isolated him from the command and crew. In addition to being a most awful prude, he was a kill-joy. When just for a lark we begged him to boil us a pot of spaghetti, so we could pour a cold worm's nest into Rick Bramble's bed, he shuddered and refused.

"Certainly not!" he piped indignantly. "You must be out of your minds! I never heard of such a disgusting trick! Of course, I won't be a party to it. Worms—Ugh!"

"Yeah!" snorted Johnny Wainwright disdainfully, "And ugh! to you, too. Come on, Joe, let's get out of here before we give Slops bad dreams and goose-flesh!"

Nor was hypersensitiveness Slops' worst failing. If he was squeamish about off-color jokes and such stuff, he had no compunctions whatsoever against sticking his nose in where it didn't belong.

He was an inveterate prowler. He snooped everywhere and anywhere from ballast-bins to bunk-rooms. He quizzed the Chief about engine-room practices, the gunner's mate on problems of ballistics, even the cabin-boy on matters of supplies and distribution of same. He was not only an asker; he was a teller, as well. More than once during the next nine days he forced on the skipper the same gratuitous advice which before had enraged the Old Man. By sheer perseverance he earned the title I had tagged him with: "Captain Slops."

I was willing to give him another title, too—Captain Chaos. God knows he created enough of it!

"It's a mistake to broach the blockade at Vesta," he argued over and over again.

"O.Q., Slops," the skipper would nod agreeably, with his mouth full of some temper-softening tidbit, "you're right and I'm wrong, as you usually are. But I'm in command of the Leo, and you ain't. Now, run along like a good lad and bring me some more of this salad."

So ten days passed, and it was on the morning of the eleventh day out of Sand City that we ran into trouble with a capital trub. I remember that morning well, because I was in the mess-hall having breakfast with Cap O'Hara, and Slops was playing another variation on the old familiar theme.

"I glanced at the chart this morning, sir," he began as he minced in with a platterful of golden flapjacks and an ewer of Vermont maple syrup, "and I see we are but an hour or two off Vesta. I am very much afraid this is our last chance to change course—"

"And for that," chuckled the Old Man, "Hooray! Pass them pancakes, son. Maybe now you'll stop shooting off about how we ought to of gone by way of Iris. Mmmm! Good!"

"Thank you, sir," said Slops mechanically. "But you realize there is extreme danger of encountering enemy ships?"

"Keep your pants on, Slops!"

"Eh?" The chef looked startled. "Beg pardon, sir?"

"I said keep your pants on. Sure, I know. And I've took precautions. There's a double watch on duty, and men at every gun. If we do meet up with an Alliance craft, it'll be just too bad for them!

"Yes, sirree!" The Old Man grinned comfortably. "I almost hope we do bump into one. After we burn it out of the void we'll have clear sailing all the way to Callisto."

"But—but if there should be more than one, sir?"

"Don't be ridiculous, my boy. Why should there be?"

"Well, for one thing," wrangled our pint-sized cook, "because rich ekalastron deposits were recently discovered on Vesta. For another, because Vesta's orbit is now going into aphelion stage, which will favor a concentration of raiders."

The skipper choked, spluttered, and disgorged a bite of half-masticated pancake.

"Eka—Great balls of fire! Are you sure?"

"Of course, I'm sure. I told you days ago that I was born and raised in the Belt, Captain."

"I know. But why didn't you tell me about Vesta before? I mean about the ekalastron deposits?"

"Why—why, because—" said Slops. "Because—"

"Don't give me lady-logic, you dope!" roared the Old Man, an enraged lion now, his breakfast completely forgotten. "Give me a sensible answer! If you'd told me that instead of just yipping and yapping about how via Iris was a nicer route I'd have listened to you! As it is, we're blasting smack-dab into the face of danger. And us on the most vital mission of the whole ding-busted war!"

He was out of his seat, bustling to the audio, buzzing Lieutenant Wainwright on the bridge.

"Johnny—that you? Listen, change traj quick! Set a new course through the Belt by way of Iris and the Bog, and hurry up, because—"

What reason he planned to give I do not know, for he never finished that sentence. At that moment the Leo rattled like a Model AA spacesled in an ionic storm, rolled, quivered and slewed like a drunk on a freshly-waxed floor. The motion needed no explanation; it was unmistakeable to any spacer who has ever hopped the blue. Our ship had been gripped, and was now securely locked, in the clutch of a tractor beam!

What happened next was everything at once. Officers Wainwright and Bramble were in the turret, and they were both good sailors. They knew their duties and how to perform them. An instant after the Leo had been assaulted, the ship bucked and slithered again, this time with the repercussions of our own ordnance. Over the audio, which Sparks had hastily converted into an all-way, inter-ship communicating unit, came a jumble of voices. A call for Captain O'Hara to "Come to the bridge, sir!" ... the harsh query of Chief McMurtrie, "Tractor beams on stern and prow, sir. Shall I attempt to break them?" ... and a thunderous groooom! from the fore-gunnery port as a crew went into action ... a plaintive little shriek from somebody ... maybe from Slops himself....

Then on an ultra-wave carrier, drowning local noises beneath waves of sheer volume, came English words spoken with a foreign intonation. The voice of the Alliance commander.

"Ahoy the Leo! Calling the captain of the Leo!"

O'Hara, his great fists knotted at his sides, called back, "O'Hara of the Leo answering. What do you want?"

"Stand by to admit a boarding party, Captain. It is futile to resist. You are surrounded by six armed craft, and your vessel is locked in our tensiles. Any further effort to make combat will bring about your immediate destruction!"

From the bridge, topside, snarled Johnny Wainwright, "The hell with 'em, Skipper! Let's fight it out!" And elsewhere on the Leo angry voices echoed the same defi. Never in my life had I felt such a heart-warming love for and pride in my companions as at that tense moment. But the Old Man shook his head, and his eyes were glistening.

"It's no use," he moaned strickenly, more to himself than to me. "I can't sacrifice brave men in a useless cause, Dugan. I've got to—" He faced the audio squarely. To the enemy commander he said, "Very good, sir! In accordance with the Rules of War, I surrender into your hands!"

The firing ceased, and a stillness like that of death blanketed the Leo.

It was then that Andy Laney, who had lingered in the galley doorway like a frozen figuring, broke into babbling incredulous speech.

"You—you're giving up like this?" he bleated. "Is this all you're going to do?"

The Old Man just looked at him, saying never a word, but that glance would have blistered the hide off a Mercurian steelback. I'm more impetuous. I turned on the little idiot vituperatively.

"Shut up, you fool! Don't you realize there's not a thing we can do but surrender? Dead, we're of no earthly use to anyone. Alive, there is always a chance one of us may get away, bring help. We have a mission to fulfil, an important one. Corpses can't run errands."

"But—but if they take us prisoners," he questioned fearfully, "what will they do with us?"

"A concentration camp somewhere. Perhaps on Vesta."

"And the Leo?"

"Who knows? Maybe they'll send it to Jupiter with a prize crew in command."

"That's what I thought. But they mustn't be allowed to do that. We're marked with the Federation tricolor!"

A sharp retort trembled on the tip of my tongue, but I never uttered it. Indeed, I swallowed it as comprehension dawned. There came to me the beginnings of respect for little Andy Laney's wisdom. He had been right about the danger of the Vesta route, as we had learned to our cost; now he was right on this other score.

The skipper got it, too. His jaw dropped. He said, "Heaven help us, it's the truth! To reach Jupiter you've got to pass Callisto. If the Callistans saw a Federation vessel, they'd send out an emissary to greet it. Our secret would be discovered, Callisto occupied by the enemy...."

I think he would have turned, then, and given orders to continue the fight even though it meant suicide for all of us. But it was too late. Already our lock had opened to the attackers; down the metal ramp we now heard the crisp cadence of invading footsteps. The door swung open, and the Alliance commandant stood smiling triumphantly before us.

There are soldiers and soldiers. Fighting men, as a rule, are pretty decent guys at the core. Having experienced danger, violence and the crawling horror of death themselves, they know the meaning of mercy. They respect their foes, and extend a fine magnanimity in the moment of victory.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ras Thuul, commander of the Third Outer Planets' Alliance Flotilla, was not this type of enemy. Half-breed spawn of a Jovian tribal priestess and a renegade Earthman, he retained the worst characteristics bequeathed by each of his parents.

From his father he had inherited height—he towered a full head above the squat, gnarled Jovian "runts" he led—and a festering hatred of the planet Earth. From his priestess mother he had suckled the milk of sadistic savagery which typified Jovian civilization before space-spanning Earthlings carried enlightenment to the far-flung sisterhood of the Sun.

His first words demonstrated clearly how slender was the mercy we might expect at his hands. To Captain O'Hara he said coldly, bluntly, rudely, "Your sidearms, Captain!" Then as the Old Man silently proffered his personal weapons: "You will walk before me, sir, on a tour of inspection. You might advise your men I hold you as hostage. One hostile move from any source means your death."

The skipper's reply was richly disdainful.

"I have surrendered myself to you under the Rules of War, Colonel. This play-acting is childish and altogether unnecessary."

Ras Thuul's swarthy cheeks sallowed; he took a swift step forward and, before one could guess his intention, slapped the Old Man viciously across the mouth with his gauntlet. The heavy, asbestos-lined space-glove cut and bruised; a thin trickle of blood split the skipper's lips.

"One in your position," snarled the invader, "should learn not to insult his betters! Now, lead the way, Captain. There is much to be done, and no time to waste."

Thus began our painful journey through the conquered Leo. As Ras Thuul had said, there was much to be done by his forces—nor had they delayed in getting about their task. A laboring crew was busily engaged in stripping the food-stuffs from our supply bins, other workmen were dismantling all hypo and radio equipment, verifying our belief that the O.P.A. was desperately in need of such material. Grim-faced Jovians had herded our marksmen from the gun embrasures, and were quickly dismantling every piece of ordnance the Leo boasted.

From room to room we went, from passage to sector to cabin. Nothing escaped the eagle eye of our foeman. By word and sign he designated to his henchmen those items which were to be removed, those which were to be destroyed. Only in the control-room was everything left untouched. It was here that Ras Thuul volunteered the explanation which proved the depths of his infamy. With a grin of sheer savagery he explained:

"I find it needless to waste energy in smashing this equipment, Captain. I am sure the rocky fragments of the Bog will do that most efficiently."

The Old Man stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"You—you mean you're going to wreck the Leo in the Bog? Just turn it loose and let the grindstone smash it?"

Ras Thuul shrugged. "It is the easiest way."

"But—" puzzled the skipper confusedly—"how about us? I mean, are you going to take us aboard your ship, or do we get camped on one of the asteroids, or—"

The half-breed shrugged negligently. "Why, Captain, you wouldn't want to desert your ship? I've always heard you Earthmen made it a point of honor to stand by your decks. Of course I would not think of forbidding you this signal honor."

The skipper's face turned white, but it was not fear that drained his cheeks of color; it was righteous rage. His words exploded like a fused hypatomic.

"What! You dare do a thing like this, Colonel! You accepted my surrender under military covenant—"

"That will do, Captain!" rapped Ras Thuul. "It will do you no good to prate of technicalities. I acknowledge but one rule of war—destroy your enemy! When this vessel has been stripped of its fuel and supplies, I shall turn it loose in the Bog. What happens then to it—or you—is none of my concern. Your pleas are vain, sir!

"And now, have we seen the entire ship?"

It was his selection of the word "pleas" that ended the Old Man's protestations. O'Hara needed no microscope to read our adversary's character; he knew that Ras Thuul would enjoy nothing more than listening to pleas for mercy. If we had to die, we could at least die like men. His jaw clamped forever on argument.

"We have," he said. "We are now where we started."

And so we were, back in the Officers' Mess. A half hour ago our troubles had begun here; now they threatened to end abruptly and, for us, horribly.

But the half-breed's eyes had narrowed. A liar and dastard himself, he had a liar's distrust for everyone else. He nodded toward the closed door on the farther wall.

"We haven't been in there. Where does that lead?"

I said caustically, "No, and there's one mouse-trap you haven't crawled into yet, too. What's the matter? Got a tapeworm? That's just the kitchen."

It sounds right daring now that I see it in writing, but it was pure braggadocio. I figured my number was up, and a few healthy insults wouldn't make me die any deader. But our captor paid no attention. Prodding Captain O'Hara before him, he pushed into the galley.

Of course Captain Slops was on duty. The little guy was a study in technicolor; sort of pink around the eyebrows, white around the lips, and green around the gills. But I had to hand it to him, he was a game little fighting cock. Never a cringe for the Jovian commander, who brushed by him to peer about the cookhouse, and though the runt warriors had taken his massive old Haemholtz when they stripped us all, I saw he had a very large, and a very sharp, cleaver hanging not too far from his grasp.

Naturally, there wasn't anything for our foe to find in the galley. But he went through all the motions, just the same. Squinted in the stove, the refrigerator, the vegetable bins. And finally—

"Ah, ha!" rasped he. "What have we here? A cannon! So, Captain O'Hara—a concealed weapon, eh? Sergeant—"

He wheeled to one of his subalterns. But Andy Laney stepped forward awkwardly.

"It—er—it's not really a cannon, sir," he piped. "If you'll just open the breech, sir, you'll see—Oh! Do be careful, sir! Oh, my goodness!"

Because Lieutenant-Colonel Ras Thuul had hurled open the breech, and the incinerator-cannon was full—or had been a moment before. Now it was half empty, and the accumulation of slops and refuse as yet unincinerated had dumped backwards all over him!

It was the one bright spot in an otherwise dull day. Thuul howled and bellowed, and that was a mistake because his mouth opened. Then he spluttered. And gagged. And coughed. And backed, slipping and sliding on cold gravy, away from the incinerator. He wasn't the impressive figure he had been ten minutes ago. Coffee-grounds mottled his gold tunic, and lima beans tangled coyly with his once-gleaming epaulets. Potato-peelings draped gracefully from his ears, and the exotic odor of a slightly antique egg exuded from his shirt-front.

Well, what would you do? Even if you knew your life was in danger, what would you do at such a moment?

The same as we did, of course. We laughed. The Old Man and I, we burst out in a guffaw and rocked till we almost split our surcingles. And Slops laughed, too, in that piping little squeal of his, though even through his laughter he was gasping spasmodically, "I—I tried to warn you, sir. I'm so sorry! But you see it's only a garbage incinerator."

But he who laughs last, laughs last. And if our foe had been despicable before, he was a raging fury now. He did not even stop to scrape the last clinging turnip-top from his jacket. He spun to his subordinates and screamed, "Come! We are finished here! Back to our ship! I'll show these Earthmen one does not insult a Jovian commander with impunity!"

And his face a thundercloud of wrath, he dashed from the galley. We heard him calling his men, heard them exiting through the airlock, and then—silence again.

It was then, his paroxysms of mirth stifled by sober recollection, that the Old Man turned and said, "Well, it was fun while it lasted. But it's all over now, Dugan. Call the men together. This is the last act, and we might as well all face it together."

But before I could leave the room, Slops clutched my arm with fingers tense and hot as live wires.

"No, Joey! Don't go! I need your help. And yours, Skipper! Hurry! We haven't a minute to lose!"

I stared at the Old Man and he at me. "H-huh?" said the two of us. "Help? Help for what?"

"Oh, don't talk so much!" bleated Andy. "Work! Get this garbage out of here—like this!"

And recklessly he plunged both arms into the channel of the incinerator, recklessly hurled it about the previously immaculate floor of the galley. As he worked, he panted: "An incinerator, yes ... but ... it was a good cannon ... in its ... day. It will still work. I cleaned ... and oiled it ... and connected it to the charger. It still shoots!"

Shoots! That was all we had to hear. We fell all over ourselves trying to get an armload of that goo. I never thought I'd live to see the day I'd go fond and blissful over a gallon of boiled noodles, but that's just what happened. I dug in, and so did the skipper. In less time than I've taken to tell it, we had that incinerator-cannon empty, swabbed out and ready for use as a cannon-incinerator.

Then the captain clapped a hand to his forehead.

"Omigawd—I clean forgot! The firing-plate! There ain't no vision-field for this gun!"

"Oh, yes there is!" cried Captain Slops. "Over your head, there—the galley-vent. I—I removed the atmosphere-duct and installed a vision-field. Use the crossed wires for a target centering device."

I flung open the vent. As he had said, the vent had been converted into a perfect firing-plate. There before me, a fat and gladsome target, was the largest of the enemy ships which had captured us, the flagship of Ras Thuul's fleet. As I watched, I saw the commander and his boarding party re-enter their own craft.

I said grimly, "Well, it's six against one. They'll blast us out of space, but by the purple gods of Pluto, we'll take at least one of them with us. This thing is connected?"

And I reached for the trigger. But once again Slops held my hand.

"No, Joey! There's a fighting chance we can get all of them. Wait till they cut the tractor beams and we're free of them. Then turn the cannon upward toward the Belt—"

"Upward?" I repeated dazedly. It didn't make sense. I glanced outside to make sure. Here was the situation. The planetoid Vesta lay about a mile or so below us. Larger than most of the meteoric and planetesimal fragments that comprise the Belt, its orbit was irregular. The smaller hunks of rock—and of course when you talk about "smaller" asteroids that means shards ranging anywhere from a yard to several miles in diameter, with weights ranging from a hundred pounds to twice that many thousands of tons—were whirling and swirling above our ships in a tight, lethal little huddle. That, of course, was the melee into which Ras Thuul planned to plunge us after he cut his tractor beams.

Surprisingly, it was O'Hara who seconded Andy Laney.

"Do what he says, Joe. I don't know exactly what he has in mind, but it's his pigeon. He's steered us right this far; we might as well go whole-hog."

"Thank you, Captain!" said Slops gratefully. And as he spoke the words, the Leo rocked violently. With gathering speed we began to move away from our erstwhile captors, their tractor beams now released. Upward we surged toward the web-work of flailing missiles that spelled pure destruction.

"Now, Joey!" almost screamed Slops. "Aim the cannon at the rubble. Hold it firm. Full strength!"

And I did. I yanked the controls over to full power and aimed the heat gun straight into the heart of the rubble. The radiation was invisible, of course. Our enemies couldn't know we had an operative weapon. I held it for seconds which dragged like centuries. Nearer we were hurtling toward doom, nearer and nearer.

I cried, "Nothing's happening, Skipper! We're going to crash in a minute. I might as well turn the gun on one of their ships—"

"Hold it!" shrieked Captain Slops. "It's working as I hoped. Hold it steady, Joey!"

And now, returning my gaze to the target, I saw what he meant. Something strange and weird was happening—not to us or to the enemy spacecraft, but to the Bog itself! Like a huge, churning kettle it was seething, rolling, boiling! And even as I cried aloud my astonishment, one of the tinier bits of matter plummeted down from the overhanging canopy of death to rattle against the hull of Ras Thuul's flagship.

Then another ... and another ... and then a large piece. A hunk of rock which must have weighed half a ton. It struck one of the Jovian vessels like a sledgehammer, and a huge gap split in the spaceship's seams. There came signs of frenzied activity from aboard the enemy boat; fire spurted from stern-jets as engineers hurriedly warmed their rockets.

We saw two warships, desperately trying to get under way, ram each other head on. Three more were crushed, beaten shapeless, by the tons of stony metal that smashed their very girders. The last, Ras Thuul's flagship, met its doom most horribly. It was caught as in a vise between two mountainous boulders which rolled tangentially over it. When they separated, all that remained of a once proud ship was a flattened, lacerated shred of tortured steel.

In the unbelievable shambles, two of the cruisers collided.

It was then, and then only, that Slops said to me:

"That's all, Joey. You can turn it off now." There was something akin to sadness in his voice. I understood. I didn't feel any too good myself, watching those Jovians, foes though they were, die so frightfully. "Captain O'Hara, if we can repair the damage done by the marauders, we can now go on to Callisto and complete our mission. I—What's the matter, Captain?"

Cap O'Hara was glaring at his little finger irately.

"Matter? Why, confound it, I cut myself on that tin can. Look at this!"

He thrust before our noses a pudgy paw, the pinky of which was leaking very feebly. I chuckled. Not so Slops; he loosed one horrified gasp, and—

"Blood!" he screamed. "Oh, gracious, I simply can't stand the sight of blood! Oooooohh!"

His face went suddenly white. And—just like that!—Captain Slops fainted dead away!

The skipper said, "Well, I'll be damned!" Dazed, he knelt beside the little fellow, fumbled at his jacket collar. "Ain't that the funniest you ever saw, Dugan? Sees six ships scuttled without batting an eye-lash, and passes out at seeing a pinprick! Aw, well, it's probably shock more than anything else. I'll unloose his shirt, give him a little air—"

I said, "He's the queerest guy I ever met. But he's a man, Skipper."

Then a funny thing happened. The Skipper, strangely scarlet of face, rose suddenly from Andy's side. He croaked, "You—you wouldn't like to lay a little bet on that, Dugan?"

"Huh?" I said. "On what? I don't understand—"

The Old Man moaned softly.

"Neither do I, Dugan. But you were wrong! Slops, here, ain't no man at all, and never was! He—he's a girl!"

Well, looking back on it now I can see how we should have realized it from the beginning. Sure, Captain Slops was a girl! That high, mellow voice ... the oversized uniform coat ... that prudishness which was not prudishness at all, but understandable modesty.

Later, as we were streaking the spaceways toward our Callisto rendezvous, the Leo completely repaired, we demanded and received an explanation. I might add that in female togs the pint-sized chef looked just the right size, and a hundred percent O.Q.

"I didn't exactly lie about my name," she explained. "It is 'Andy Laney'—only you spell it a bit differently. I am really 'Ann Delaney.' My father was a spaceman, so was my grandfather and my great-grandfather. Daddy was always sorry he had a daughter instead of a son. He wanted to see the old tradition of a 'Delaney in space' go on. But you thick-headed males have rules against allowing women to take to the spaceways except as passengers, so there was nothing I could do."

"You," I told her admiringly, "did all right."

"More than all right!" acknowledged the Skipper. "If it hadn't been for you—Don't worry, Miss Delaney. I'll see that the proper authorities hear all about this. Only—" A crease puckered his forehead—"There's something I ain't yet puzzled out. How come you ordered Mr. Dugan to shoot not at, but above the ships? At the Bog? And how come the rocks came tumbling down thataway?"

"Why," smiled Ann Delaney shyly, "it was really very simple. Heat, Captain."


"Of course. As any student of thermodynamics knows, heat has a definite attractive force, varying directly as the difference in temperature. Space, being a vacuum, lacks heat entirely. Its temperature is that of Absolute Zero. Our gun emitted a heat-force equivalent to that of ten solar degrees. Thus the radiation we discharged at the bitter cold fragments of rock and ore comprising the Bog created a sort of passageway, an attractive channel down which the detritus was drawn. To state the problem more simply: have you ever watched a pot of beans boil? A seething whirlpool is created; the beans seek the heat."

"By golly!" said O'Hara. "I think you got something there, Miss Delaney. Why—why, that's terrific! That gives us a brand-new combat technique for locations where there are small cosmic bodies. Wait till the War Department hears it!"

But Ann Delaney just sniffed.

"New?" she repeated disdainfully. "New? Why, every woman cook knows that, Captain!"

You'll find the rest in the history books. Callisto did sign a pact with us ... the Federation did open a new front almost within spitting distance of Jupiter....

We've got a better universe to live in now. For one thing, there's peace throughout the Solar System. Because of Ann Delaney, the government changed its ruling about women in space; you'll find 'em everywhere, nowadays, doing everything and anything men do.

But I'm glad to say Ann isn't one of those void-vampires any more. She and I—oh, sure! We're married now. I couldn't let a swell cook like her get away, could I?