In the great gray moment of his dying, it all finally came to Stratch; the truth, the point and meaning of everything he had lived for; all that he once held sacred. The reason for his dedication, his devout belief in all he had ever been told by the Supreme Master and those who more closely served the Supreme Master than he. Everything that mattered in his life.

His very reason for living.

The war, the great and supreme war, the one event that gave purpose and meaning to his life was now clear. His value and importance to those he served and served with. How wonderful it was at last that the truth was revealed to him. The guidance that had formed his life and purpose ever since he was a child. It was all so clear to him, so real, In his final moments, nothing was with held.

At long last, Stratch knew just who he was, how important he was, exactly how he fit into the universe.

Nothing was withheld.

"Remember who and what you are," his leader said. The words came to Stratch directly through the same earpiece that carried the captain's commands. "Never forget the great destiny you serve. Never turn your back on fate or history or reason, which are all the same. You may die in this battle, but in dying you will serve those who commend you, those who carry the greatness which in you is only a seed."

Somewhere, out in space, something exploded, causing the ship to rock as the great forces of the explosion swept over it.

Next to Stratch, Mesar whimpered with fear.

The sergeant leaped to Mesar's side and struck him with the back of his hand. "Silence, you coward! Stop that whining or I will have you thrown out the airlock."

There was another explosion, causing the deck plates and hull of the ship to shake and rattle, to bend and warp. Mesar whimpered again.

Again the sergeant hit him. The blow was hard, sending Mesar from his chair before the sighting screen that guided his gun. He landed on the deck so hard it stunned him. This time the sergeant kicked him, buckling his nose, breaking teeth, causing blood to pour from his mouth. Mesar did not whimper now. He screamed in agony.

"You coward, you traitor," the sergeant said, delivering another kick to Mesar's head. He raised his voice. "Men at arms! You and you. Quickly. Come here!"

Two of the men at arms who stood by the door came forward at his command. The sergeant pointed at the whimpering creature at his feet. "He is a coward," the sergeant snarled. "Teach him what the failure of a Zargyte's courage means in time of battle."

One of the men at arms reached down and grabbed Mesar by the shoulders. Roughly he yanked the miserable crewman to his feet. Mesar lost all control now. He whimpered loudly and tried to struggle against the superior strength of the zargyte soldier who forced him to stand.

The sergeant glowered at Mesar. "You sicken me," he said, disgust running through the tone of his voice. "I've known you would collapse in whimpering fear ever since you joined this company!"

He grabbed a short club from his belt. "You men at arms stand back," he said. They did so quickly. The sergeant swung the club with great force against the side of Mesar's head.

Stratch recoiled as the club struck loudly. It made a dent along the poor being's temple. Mesar did not scream this time. He gave a heavy, breathy sound as if he was simply expelling air from his lungs. His green eyes opened widely like airlock doors. His legs gave way from under him and, the men at arms still clutching him, he fell to the floor in a seated position.

The sergeant leaned forward to look closely at Mesar's eyes. Yellowish blood poured from the soldier's head wound.

"I do not think you are likely to survive that," he sergeant said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "But you're still alive for now."

He glanced at one if the men at arms. "He is useless. We can not use such as waste of life force. Toss him out of the ship."

Mesar stared blankly as if he could not see anything. But at the sergeant's words, his eyes jerked round. He looked not at the sergeant but at his friend Stratch.

He tried to speak, but couldn't. There were bits of broken bone in his wound, Blood continued to flow. He sat on the deck of the weapons operation room, shaking.

The men at arms were frozen standing before their sergeant. They made no move to drag Mesar away.

The sergeant glanced at Stratch. "The men at arms are right. It is beneath their station to throw such garbage out the airlock." He paused. "This fool is your friend, is he not?"

The words were like a slap across the face to Stratch. His eyes widened with fear.

"Uh, he is not -- my friend, exactly."

Mesar moved weakly on the deck plates. He muttered something. Mesar thought he said, "Please don't kill me."

"You see?" said the sergeant. "A coward. Nothing but a coward. Throw his body out the airlock."

.Mesar could barely talk. He said, "He is not dead."

"He will be, if you throw him out the airlock. Do it now and then come back

here. If you hurry, you can get back in time to fight in the coming battle."

"Please don't kill me," Mesar said in weak tones.

The sergeant said, "It is an order, crewman."

An order. You could not question orders. No one could question orders.

He got out of the seat before the aiming screen of his great space gun. He looked down at Mesar, still whimpering and twitching on the floor.

He glanced then at the screen that was his operations station. It was filled now with earth ships. Hundreds of them. Moving toward the Zargyte fleets. Missiles and rays were already being fired and as he stared at the screen, Stratch saw one of the Zargyte hips explode. He thought it was the Admiral's ship.

"Perhaps I ought to assign one of the men at arms to help you," said the sergeant.

Stratch's head jerked round. Sharply he said, "No." Then, less sharply, "I mean, no, no. I will carry out my command."

He bent down and took Mesar by the shoulders.

"Do not be gentle with that traitor," said the sergeant. "If you are gentle, one might mistake you for a traitor like that one."

"I am no traitor," said Stratch. "I am loyal. I will carry out my command."

"See that you do," said the sergeant.

Pulling Mesar by his shoulders, Stratch dragged him roughly to the door. Mesar gave a weak cry as he banged into the sill of the door, going through it.

Outside the gunnery station, where the sergeant could not see unless he peered out the door, Stratch was more gentle. But Mesar moaned in agony as he dragged him. Mesar was dying. He was dying slowly.

He dragged Mesar to the corner of the passage and around it.

When he was sure he could not be seen by the sergeant, Stratch bent down beside hid friend.

Mesar stared up at him with wide open eyes, though somehow Stratch did not believe the crewman could see him any longer. "Don't kill me, Stratch. Please don't kill me."

Almost whispering, Stratch said, "I don't want to. But don't you see? Your only hope is if I kill you before the sergeant comes after us and does it himself."

"What do you mean?"

"I will be more gentle than he would be," Stratch said.

"Of course you would," said Mesar. "The trouble is, you really aren't a killer, are you?"

"In war time," said Stratch, putting his hands on either side of his friend's head, "we must sometimes become thing we do not want to be."

Afterward, he picked up the limp, dead body of his friend and carried him to the nearest airlock.

It was a simple utility airlock. He put Mesar's body inside it, closed and sealed the door and pulled the lever that operated the hatch that opened on empty space..

As he did what he had to do, he knew with certainty that Mesar was right. Stratch was not a killer. But Mesar was right too. In wartime, of necessity, you become many things.

He stood in the passageway outside the airlock and listened as the pumps sucked the air out and the outer door mechanism opened the outside door. There was a quickly diminishing rush of air, and it was done. From experience, from years of tours of duty where he would fill an airlock with containers of waste and garbage, he knew that Mesar had been expelled from the ship with enough force to put him into his own orbit, and send him coursing through space probably for eons.

When it was over, he pumped air back into the airlock; when that was done, he went back to his station.

No one spoke when he returned. The crewmen were all hunched over their gun sights. The sergeant stood to one side, watching as Stratch came in and took his place at his sight.

The battle was going full strength. In the screens he could see ships exploding, hurling the bodies of their crewmembers into space, while other ships were fortunate enough to kill their targets.

Fortunate enough to kill.

Was that ever fortunate?

If survival of a battle meant anything, it was certainly fortunate to kill your enemy. That was how you stayed alive.

Only, who was your enemy?

His fingers ran deftly over the controls of his gun sight. Carefully he closed the weapon down.

He got up.

The sergeant was watching him. The club he had beaten Mesar with was in his hand.

Stratch made no haste in walking toward him, but he moved with purpose, with thoughtful deliberation. The sergeant swung the club.

Stratch was a full head taller than the sergeant, broader, more muscular. It was possible he could tear the sergeant apart with just his two hands.

He began by breaking the man's fingers.

The sergeant yelled. One of the other crewmen closed the door to block further sound from leaving the room. Stratch drove his knee into the sergeants groin, the slapped him first with one open hand, then the other. The sergeant's sounds were completely incoherent. Stratch made no sound at all, except for the sound of the blows he struck the sergeant with.

One of the crewmen, a corporal, leaped from his chair and started toward Stratch. The man next to him stretched out his foot and tripped the corporal. The corporal's face was bloodied when it struck the deck. Stratch saw none of this.

He hit the sergeant again and again. Now the sergeant was barely able to make any noise that was not just groaning.

The other men, except for the corporal on the floor, remained in their seats. They watched and there were smiles on their faces. Stratch took his time with the sergeant and the other men let him.

At last the sergeant was just a bloody mess, whining and whimpering and crying.

Stratch took him by the collar and dragged him out of the room. The sergeant begged for mercy but there was no mercy in Stratch. Not for the sergeant.

He went along the passage to the same utility hatch he had tossed Mesar out of.

He began to cycle the door open. The sergeant yelled and started begging him not to do it. "Please don't, please don't, please don't!" Stratch paid no attention to him.

When the door was open, he lifted the sergeant by his collar and threw him in. The sergeant tried to crawl back out. Stratch stomped one of the sergeant's broken hands with his heavy boot. The sergeant screamed a scream that was filled with more fear than pain.

Stratch hauled him to his feet, turned him around and propelled him across the airlock into the heavy outer hatch.

The sergeant hit the heavy steel door with an impact that brought blood streaming from his face. Stratch slammed the airlock's inner door shut.

"Please, Stratch. Don't do this. They'll court-martial you. They'll put you in front of a firing squad."

"I guess so," Stratch said, quietly. "I guess I'll deserve what I get. Just like you."

He pulled the release handle for the outer hatch and heard the sudden rush of air as the hatch came open.

He heard the sergeant screaming, too. But not for long.

When it was over, he turned around and went back to his station.

The battle was under way, now. He could see the wreckage of a ship that he thought was one of the enemy's. Another enemy ship was heading straight toward his ship.

He realized then the price of his leaving his station. It had left a hole in the ship's defenses. Three of the ship's guns were knocked out.

Not his gun, though. He blew apart a small gunship, then turned his attention to another.

The ship shuttered. He had never in his whole life thought about what this sort of thing might mean. He really didn't think it had a meaning. He had a bank of guns, he fired them. If he didn't fire them fast enough, he would die.

And probably so would every other person on his ship. Other than that, it all seemed to him to be pointless.

But he did his job. He did it well.

He did it well right up until the moment an enemy torpedo ripped through the hull of the ship and blew him up.

The End


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