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Planet Stories

Fall Issue, June-Aug., 1945

Battlefield In Black

By GEORGE A. WHITTINGTON

The Avenger was waging its deadliest fight—in a battlefield where weapons were useless.

A LOVELY IMAGE shimmered on the visaphone screen in Captain Jon McPartland's cabin. He stood before the instrument, drinking in the vision with his eyes, and feeling it race through his blood like a rocket wash. But his square jaw was set in a determined line, and his big hands were clenched hard.

The vision was Almira Denton, whose hair was a red-gold nebula, whose eyes were the cool green of Terra itself. To Jon McPartland, she was much more than just the daughter of his superior, Marshal Denton, Supreme Commander of all Solar System forces.

A memory of her soft lips had been with him through long weeks of dangerous outer planet patrol. Now, bringing his sleek battle cruiser, Avenger, howeward, he reached toward her over maximum visaphone range. Jon tried to keep anger from his blue eyes as he answered her suggestion.

"Almira, I don't care if you are a full-blown psychologist now and aching to qualify for the Congress of Specialists! You can't make a case report out of me."

"Now, Jon, dear," pleaded the girl softly, "you know how father needs help with Congress. Our scientists make the laws—but they think of science, and neglect System Defenses. I could make them listen!"

There was persuasion in her throaty voice that convinced McPartland she could dc exactly that. He knew, too, there was real cause for worry about System Defense. The planets had long been disarmed. Only the Congress of Specialists had power to maintain armed forces.

It had neglected bases and fighting units for years. The Space Patrol alone remained as a weapon for law and safety— and it took all the fighting heart of Marshal Denton to get purchase credits for that! If invaders ever struck—

Jon shuddered, his anger slipping away. "I know, Almira," he murmured, "I know. But why serve me up to the Specialists on a platter? You can psychoanalyze somebody else."

Almira shook her radiant head in dissent. "The Eligibility Committee only certifies candidates for election if they present outstanding work.

"An analysis of you would be outstanding because you're a popular hero, Jon. You've just destroyed a powerful alien ship—been promoted! I'd be certified. Earth would elect me to Congress!"

SHE STOOD before the visa-phone in the Denton home. Jon McPartland visualized her among the Specialists. He could see her slim, perfect figure in abbreviated formal dress, arresting attention like a shaft of warm sunshine in a musty vault. The Specialists would listen to her! An emotion from below his consciousness pushed the realization aside. He was a man, and this was the woman he loved! "Almira," he said slowly, "I wouldn't mind if it were someone else—but I can't —I won't be just a guinea pig to you!"

The girl came closer to the screen, her eyes alight with eagerness. "Think of what it would mean to the Marshal, Jon—and to the Patrol! You'd be a perfect subject Jon. You're—well, impulsive, and—"

"Before you studied psychology," he flared. "You called me quick-tempered, maladjusted!"

McPartland felt the muscles bunch along his jaw, and drew anger from the memory of a long forgotten quarrel to force back a sick heaviness in his stomach. "Maybe I am all that, Almira—even atavistic, you said then. But I'm more than a specimen in a glass box."

He stopped suddenly. Almira's beautiful face had faded from the visa-phone screen. There had been no cut-off click from her instrument, but she was gone.

"Almira," Jon called sharply, "Almira." There was no answer. His screen remained grey and empty. The connection was broken.

McPartland's blue eyes narrowed, as he shot out a big hand to pick up the intraship phone. He jabbed the Radio Room button vigorously.

"Holdern speaking," came the Radio Officer's crisp, efficient voice. "I was talking to Terra over visaphone," snapped the Captain. "Did you cut me?"

"No, sir!" came the instant reply, with a shocked intake of breath. "The ether is yours, Captain," Holdern added, recovering his dramatic flair in the next second.

"Then why is my instrument dead?"

"My controls are in order, Sir," said the Radio Officer. "May I send a machinist's mate to look at the instrument?"

"Carry on, Mister," agreed McPartland, smiling suddenly. Best crew in the System, he told himself. His officers acted fast, without hesitation or alibi. "Report progress to the Control Room."

With a last disgusted frown at the visaphone, McPartland left his cabin and walked through the narrow corridor to the Control Room. As he entered, Lieutenant-Commander Clemers turned from the view screen, his face achieving a masterpiece in worry.

"I was about to inform the Engineer, Sir," said the second-in-command, "The view screen is not functioning properly."

Engineer McTavish looked up from a chess game with Ray Control Officer Reynolds. Neither of the two had much to do in the way of duty, now that the patrol trip was ended. But the Control Room gave them an alert feeling to spice their chess board feud.

At the Lieutenant-Commander's words, McTavish rose with an alacrity that suggested a game not going to his liking. He reached the view screen with McPartland.

Most of the screen seemed normal. The three curved segments, representing joined fields of space extending around the sides and aft of the Avenger, showed the normal inky, star-studded black. But it was different with the forward screen. In the center, where the growing image of their green home planet should have been, was only blackness—unrelieved emptiness.

"From the looks of that, Mister McTavish," the Captain said sternly, "you have a few stalemated wires."

THE ENGINEER'S thin face flushed. His long nose twitched, and his grey eyes smouldered with professional indignation. "Begging your pardon, Sir," he objected. "If any coordinates had failed, the entire screen would blank out—and stay blanked, until I was notified. I would authorize partial operation only while the condition was being adjusted, Sir."

"Do you mean," asked Lieutenant-Commander Clemens, his voice dropping ominously, and one arm gesturing heavily at the empty blotch, "that—that—"

"That whatever you see is there," finished McTavish. "Or isn't there," he amended drily.

Captain McPartland saw Ray Control Officer Roberts get up quietly from before the chess board, and walk over to his station. Roberts, his round face impassive, brown eyes thoughtful, slid into the chair before his microphone, and ran long, slim fingers lovingly over his calculators.

The Engineer, too, at a nod from Jon moved over to his station. His grey eyes were soft with pride as they looked over the exact scale replica of the Avenger on the table before him. Within the transparent hull, vari-colored filaments glowed with the pulse of the ship, tracing out the perfect functioning of every mechanism.

McPartland looked at the other, then back at the view screen, and his full lips tightened. He could feel the tenseness of the three officers as he spoke into the intraship.

"Get me Terra Patrol Base on the ship vis...

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