The Project Gutenberg EBook of Captain of the Kali, by Gary Wright

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Title: Captain of the Kali

Author: Gary Wright

Release Date: February 11, 2020 [EBook #61371]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


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


By Gary Wright

Sail down the wind, Kali! Victory waits
across the seas—and so does death!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1963.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

John Ward, God Helper, hung in his chair like a damp, empty uniform. An open, four-foot port showed a circle of blazing blue sky and a regular glimpse of a high, curving topsail. The humid, hot salty flavor of a strange sea blanketed the cabin, and sparked a sudden thought:

"What the hell am I doing here?"

There was no prompt answer. The wind rushed and moaned. The roiling water crashed and hissed under the stern. The following ship heaved its topsail into sight again, and withdrew it. A lilting chant drifted like smoke on the wind.

We ride the wind down like sleek, skimming birds.
The seething foam furrows follow true.
The sky is clouded with our singing sails.
We ride the wind down, down the wind.

He was Comet Colonel John Ward, Terran Confederation, Earth; he was certain of that. Age? Forty-two, more or less. Specialty? Historical Naval Tactician. If you had to call it something you might as well call it that. Hobby? Sailing. But, God, Snipes and Lightnings aren't ships-of-the-line! Reading? Well ... lyric poetry and ancient history, if you must know. Present Occupation? God Helper. No, call that Commander Advisor to the Kali, Aqua. Future? Oh, hell-yes; right up the....

Wide shouldered, wave exploding, trim twin-hulled we come.
First, the sky tall, fine first-liners.
Then the seconds, flanking fast.
Lean and level slide the frigates.
All around us flash the corvettes.
Ride the wind down, Kali seamen, down the wind to Ande-Ke.

Six months ago he had a future all outlined, but six months ago he was a shining God Helper, come in glory. Now he was simply a God Helper, and sometimes not even that.

We are the Kali. The fortunate ones. Yes!
Heirs to our wind and water world.
Like our ships we are tall and proud.
Like our wind we are wild and restless.
Like our sea we are strong and savage.
This is our world, wide and lonely.
Ride the wind down. Kali brothers, down the wind to Anda-Ke.

Six months on this barely discovered, one per cent land area, behind-the-galaxy planet, with piercing Confederation insight: Aqua. Where the land was scattered about like pepper on an egg, and even the wind tried to run backwards.

Down the wind at Anda-Ke—there is trouble.
There we meet the stupid Grimnal.
There the challenging, groveling Grimnal.
He will plead for his wives and children.
And, as proper Kali seamen.
We will keep them soft and happy.
After, we send their men away,
Under the hungry gray-green water:
Under the wind as we ride the wind down, down the wind to victory.

And here he still was, trying to show some life-loving, song-singing, battle-mad, contrary-thinking, conceived of leather and salt spray, five-foot humanoids how to fight a sea war.

And that was really quite a joke. The Kali and the Grimnal had been at this for a hundred years, and doing quite well. They were in no danger of getting overpopulated for one thing, and had evolved a dual power political system over the entire planet before the invention of an explosive. But now, being newly discovered by bigger and better dual powers, they were being shown how to fight in a bigger and better way. Only the Grimnal seemed to be learning, however. Oh, the Kali listened, and even followed directions, but they seemed incapable of understanding that slamming two corvettes upwind into the guns of eight first-liners was simply not good military tactics.

They had a game. Something like Tag in reverse. One man was It, and everyone on ship tried to catch him. He could go anywhere, do anything, even cut the rigging as long as it didn't endanger the ship. The more daring he was, the better. Ward had watched one make a hundred and fifty foot dive from a skysail yard with the ship making about twenty knots in a heavy sea. How do you go about explaining caution to a people like that?

But he had to. Somehow. Since the big boys had taken sides the Kali had been losing. Or, more accurately, Ward had been losing.

All the Gods are busy Beings.
We know.
But even They have noticed now,

Ward's wandering mind snapped back. This was a new verse.

And sent a sky man down to help us;
Sent a Helper down to lead us.
But the ways of Gods are strange.
The Grimnal leaps from isle to island,
While the Kali stand and watch him.
While the Gods and Helpers falter.
Ride the wind down, Kali brothers. At Anda-Ke we stand the test.

A polite cough from behind reminded him that Captain Tahn was still in the cabin. The Kali coughed to express anything from rage to sheer joy, and this one probably meant that Ward's hearing the last verse was an accident. Ward swung around and glanced at him, but the Kali deliberately kept his slitted eyes on the chart before him. Ward was reminded again of the Kali likeness to the long vanished American Indian: black, straight hair; narrowed, snapping black eyes; high, angular cheek bones. But not much beyond that. If you took a fine featured Sioux of long ago ... shortened him about a foot, thinned him down—bones and all, raised his shoulders to a perpetual shrug, stretched his arms so that they still reached his hips, then starved him for a month ... you might be close. But if you took a picture of him then, and looked at it slightly sideways, you would almost have it. An extremely thin, short, shrugging strip of muscled rawhide.

Tahn coughed again; the your-attention-please cough. He swung a chart around for Ward to see. It was a rough drawing of Anda-Ke, the largest of the Grimnal Group, and more or less the home island. It looked somewhat like a startled elephant: mouth open, trunk arced out at an angle. The mouth was Anda Bay, and was guarded by Anda Passage where the lower lip came within two miles of the upper. The trunk was Pelo Head, and was broken about halfway down by Pelo Break. The area between the drooping trunk and the neck was the Grimnal Sea. It was into this that the Kali fleet was charging like a peanut sailing for the mouth.

Tahn tapped a pencil-like finger at the rearmost reach of Anda Bay.

"There," he said, in the Kali-Confederation mixture they found to be the shortest distance between two cultures. "Anchored there like marks on a sail. Feeling so safe in their home. Thinking we do not dare come after them. Grimnal rafts just waiting to go to the bottom."

"And the gliders?" Ward asked. "Are they returned? We have no information but the tales of two natives."

Tahn glanced at a water trickling, time-measuring device hanging from the overhead.

"Soon the gliders return, but...." He shrugged, somehow.

"And those are not rafts," Ward went on. "The natives said three, two and single gun rows. That means first and second-liners, frigates and probably corvettes. And they said 'many,' which means anywhere from fifty to two hundred."

Tahn coughed his agreement.

"But with Grimnal stupidity," he said, "they can do no more than run around in terror as we shell the city and fire their ships. We have this won."

Ward looked down at his bands, caught a deep breath, and continued.

"I have said before. We are not fighting just the Grimnal. We are fighting God Helpers too. Men like myself have come to help the Grimnal." He caught Tahn's flickering glance and added quickly, "Men who are probably better fighters than I am."

Tahn coughed and leaned his head sideways, fairly equivalent to a casual 'so what?'

"False Gods. False Helpers," he said.

Ward held his breath and swung back to face the port. Great, sizzling Hell! He wondered if his opposite with the Grimnal had such problems. Probably not. Problems weren't allowed in the United Peace Worlds. And with the Grimnal preference for island life over the sea, it apparently took little urging to make them want all the islands in the world.

"You realize," Ward said without turning, "that they have probably known of our coming for days."


"And what would they still be doing at anchor?"

Cough, cough. Probably meaning how the hell should I know?


If only they didn't have this towering independency and conceit, Ward thought. They used to fight as individual ships. Then they weren't the least surprised if a lonely frigate was blown to splinters by an overwhelming Grimnal force. In fact, it was a thing of joy and beauty forever.

It was only by the very fiercest thundering had he gotten this fleet together under Tahn, and only Tahn's high position had kept it together. And God only knew how much longer it would hold together. The Grimnal had shown remarkable organization. Ward had pointed that out, and that was a gross mistake.

The Kali wanted nothing to do with what the Grimnal did.

A sharp rap sounded on the cabin door and a Kali slipped in. He made the casual motion that could be a salute, a greeting or a wave good-by, depending on circumstances.

"Two gliders return," he said happily. "In the bay are two first-liners, four second-liners, five frigates and some corvettes. All at anchor. Just waiting for us."

Ward nodded.

"How many corvettes?"

The Kali's face wrinkled in dismay.

"Fifty-six," he said softly.

Ward smiled to himself, and ran the Kali fleet by in his mind.

Eighteen first-liners mounting a hundred-twenty guns apiece. Eleven second-liners mounting eighty to ninety guns. Twenty-four frigates mounting fifty to sixty guns. Fifty-two corvettes mounting ten to twenty guns. A strong force, but not as strong as the Grimnal potential. Firmly, he said:

"We will run down almost to Anda Passage—then wait."

The Kali glanced at each other. Tahn coughed.

"Not to go in?"



Ward took a deep breath and told himself to stay calm.

"We know there are land guns along the Passage. We know that even without them three first-liners could hold it against anything. We know that those ships in the bay are not the whole fleet. Where are the rest?"

Double cough. Double head bob. Two helpless expressions.

"We outnumber," Tahn said hopefully.

Ward muffled a smile. At least they were learning something.

"We cannot go in, Tahn. It's a trap."

Tahn was quiet, his whole body slowly coming to what Ward knew was hurt pride and anger.

"Then we wait?"

"We wait."

Tahn was nearly rigid, his voice fighting its cage of control.

"We wait like before?"

It was Ward's turn to let a tingling moment pass. This was the first overt mention of his past actions. He must walk softly. Kali temper was like nitroglycerine; one touch the wrong way....

"We wait only to learn of the other Grimnal ships," he said evenly. "We let them make the first move in order to see what they are doing. Then we strike—hard!"

After a long, breathless moment, Tahn coughed. It was one that Ward never heard before, but judging by sound, it was not meant to be pleasant. Ward stood up, stared directly at Tahn and said quietly "I charge you with honesty, Tahn."

It was a serious phrase. Tahn made the equivalent of a nod.

"There is much talk," he began, his voice higher pitched. "We ask ourselves why we do not fight. The Grimnal takes many islands; land that is ours. He does not defeat us, but we do not stop him. We wait as you tell us. We wait and see our islands lost.

"The Kali are ashamed, and the Grimnal laughs. We cannot go home and face our women and children.

"You come to show us how to fight, you say. But we do not fight. We wait. You tell us things that will make us win, but we do not fight. We wait. You hold us back. We ask ourselves why."

He straightened, obviously grabbing a big piece of Kali courage.

"There is an answer why. Perhaps you help other Gods than ours. Or—perhaps you are afraid."

There it was. Stark and ugly. Ward looked at Tahn for a long time, then straightened to his full five-eleven.

"As a God Helper I am charged with honesty at all times," he said, and let it sink in for a second.

"I see many more things than the surface of the sea and the direction of the wind. What I do for the Kali is for the good of the Kali. If you follow me, you go to victory. If you do not follow, you go to the bottom."

The Kali glared with glittering eyes. Tahn's cough was a bark.

"Perhaps some will follow."

Their parting salute was crisp as they spun and left.

Ward eased himself back to the chair and stared at the door. This was the ragged edge. They fight the one coming, or else.... And if they lost it, the Confederation could mark off the Kali, John Ward and the planet.

He remembered all too clearly the other engagements, if you would call them that. And he remembered too the disappointment, chagrin and outright anger of the Kali, and his own frustration.

Engagement One: Taley Point. They had surprised a small Grimnal force close in to shore on the leeward side. After trading shots at extreme range. Ward gave the order to withdraw. Reasons? Shallows, reefs, a raising wind, and nightfall. The Grimnal was gone in the morning. The Kali had been stunned. It was the first time they had ever withdrawn with whole ships.

Engagement Two: Gola Island. They had chased a smaller force into port, but Ward had held off because of intense shore fire. The Kali did not sing for three days.

Engagement Three: Bari Sea. They were closing with a nearly equal force, yet out of range, when a large wind devil, one of the freak, contrary winds, had slashed across both fleets; shredding sails, splintering masts, effectively crippling both forces. Ward gave the order to heave to and repair damages, as the Grimnal did the same. The Kali were astonished. Such a thought was madness with the enemy in sight. But they followed orders, and did not smile when he appeared any more.

Engagement Four: Darel Sea. (Oh, the Darel Sea!) They were closing at glider range when a lucky Grimnal had sneaked in and managed to fire bomb a first-liner. Without that ship they were greatly out-gunned and, leaving a frigate to take off the crew, they slipped off downwind. It was a near rebellion, but Tahn had held them. Then the wind came up, bringing the Grimnal force with it. And both the frigate and the burning first went down fighting. The Kali had cried, probably, Ward thought, more in admiration than in sadness.

And now, as a result of a vote of ships' captains, they were headed straight for the Grimnal's heart; and Ward wondered if he was anything more than a passenger. He knew he had been tactically right in each case, but the Kali knew he was morally wrong. So who had it, the head or the heart?

And what about this thing of being afraid? That hurt. He didn't believe he was afraid. Honestly, he really couldn't say. He had, as a fact, never fought a battle in his life.

He used to play a game in the scouts. What did they call it? Capture the Flag, or something like that. Each side had a hidden flag and the other tried to get it. He was always the planner. How'll we do it, John? And he would tell them, and keep away from the rough stuff, and they nearly always won.

But violence fascinated him as a spectator. Later his reading took him in that direction, and later still his studies. In the middle of his life he found he was one of the leading historical naval tacticians in the world. He started writing historical novels, under a pseudonym, of course, and soon became the world's authority.

Then someone blundered into Aqua.

For a couple hundred years the Terran Confederation and the United Peace Worlds had been at war. Not an open, honest, stand-up-and-get-it war; but an undercover, half ignored, let's-get-the-kids-to-fight war. A galaxywide game, played for planets, using local cultures. And always according to the rules. No new technologies. No new weapons. Use what you have at hand. Play it fair. Because if you do not, neither will we—and together we will eliminate the universe.

Aqua was a natural. It had a war already underway. Deep in the secretmost catacombs of Confederation Central a voice said: "Find a man who knows ancient naval tactics. Find a man who knows sailing. Find a man who knows combustion firearms. Find a man. Now!"

And the order went rattle-rattle, click-click, wink, blink ... and reached out and touched Doctor John Ward.

Although Colonel Ward's training had filled three straight days, there was one thing they forgot to tell him—what do you think about, really, when someone fires a cannon in your face?

A knock came at the door. Ward rubbed his face back into an expression of awareness.


Tahn entered briskly and strode to the opposite side of the table. His eyes held a level, challenging look.

"Gliders say there are Grimnal coming up behind us along the coast. About—uh—two hours distant."

"How many?"

"There are four firsts, five seconds, twelve frigates and some corvettes."

Ward patiently tapped the table.

"How many corvettes?"


Ward was thoughtful for a moment.

"We still have them. But it still is not their whole force."

"We hit them?"

I'd better answer this one right, he told himself. They were now just below Pelo Break, about two hours from the Passage. There was about an hour of daylight left.

"After the sun dies," he said, avoiding the word "wait," "we will swing to meet this new force. If the wind holds straight and steady, we will come across to them like sharks in the night."


Ward grinned.

"A very savage deep sea fish of my world."

Tahn relaxed, and a twisted smile came over his narrow face.

"It will be a short fight," he said softly.


Aqua's sizzling sun was getting hazy as it settled behind lower Pelo Head, outlining the violent peaks like teeth in some savage jaw. Ward stood on the bridge of the first-liner, Bad Weather, and watched the fleet and the late returning gliders. He never failed to marvel at these ships—sleek, sea-flying catamarans, steady, tall and wonderously beautiful. Their twin hulls skimmed the seas with hardly a roll. Their speed was something you had to feel to believe.

He watched the second-liner. South Bird, come around to catch her glider.

Both soaring upwind, they aimed for an intersection. As they drew closer, two long booms with netting between were extended over the stern. Slowly they angled together. When it appeared that the glider would crash the bridge it pulled up, stalled and fell softly into the net.

He never failed to exhale a long breath after such a landing—catching, rather.

Launching was even more spectacular. The ship raced out on fast beam reach with its glider poised upwind on its two poles. Then a streaking corvette hissed up under the stern, swung slightly upwind, caught the braided stretch-line and actually yanked the glider aloft. Ward was quite sure it was something he never wanted to try.

The Bad Weather was coming around now. He caught the white flash of her glider high downwind. Tahn came to stand by him, his quick, cat-like motions betraying his eagerness.

"They bring more news," he grinned. "The Grimnal in Anda Bay is starting to raise sail."

Ward frowned.

"They think to trap us between them. Perhaps they expect us to race into the Passage after dark."

Tahn coughed his pleased cough.

"But our—uh—tactics, is it? They are to keep out of the Passage?"

Ward smiled.

"For now. We fight them as two separate fights, not as one. We will overwhelm each in turn."

Tahn's cough was one of agreement.

"Yes," he breathed. "Just as long as we fight."

They turned to watch the glider make its long floating approach. It had dumped its spoilers and was losing altitude, when it suddenly climbed impossibly fast, spun completely around and exploded in a hundred pieces.

Tahn leaped to the rail, stared, then keened the Kali howl of alarm. Ward squinted downwind in puzzlement, then saw it—the seething, wild slice of a wind devil arcing toward the fleet.

Curling, lashing, faster than any ship, it bore down on them in a track of boiling foam. Other ships took up the cry. Knives flashed as sheets were cut and sails crashed down. Seamen ran aloft to furl the wild cloth. Some of the leading corvettes tried to turn and run out of the way, but the wind was too fast.

A corvette suddenly lifted her bows, flipped over backwards and slammed down like a thrown stone. A frigate lost her sails and masts in less than two seconds. Another corvette rose sideways on one hull, spun and broke in two. The wind shriek became deafening.

Another frigate lost its masts, lifted on its stern and fell back in an explosion of water. The first-liner, Thunder, lost its masts and rigging, put its bows down as if stepped on, spun a full ninety degrees and finally relaxed. A corvette went tumbling end over end into the side of a second liner, which immediately lost its masts and half its bridge. A corvette went streaking out of the fleet at blinding speed, one hull hiked entirely out of the water, and disappeared in a wall of spray.

It was abruptly silent.

The foaming wind track left the fleet and slashed toward the open sea. With a soft flutter, then a breeze, the westerly quietly resumed its push. The Kali appeared on deck again and slowly gazed about them. And the fleet lay dead in the water.

Ships lay heading in all directions. Wreckage, lines and bits of sail littered the water. A frigate lay listed hard over. Damage reports were coming in to the Bad Weather: the Thunder dismasted and leaking; another first dismasted; one second leaking badly, perhaps going down; three other seconds dismasted; one frigate sinking fast; two more dismasted and leaking; two more dismasted; six corvettes lost; four dismasted and damaged.

Tahn was grim as he scratched marks on a slate. Twenty-one ships out of action in less than a minute. Ward cursed and slammed the rail. Damned planet! Damned Grimnal! Damned everything! Tahn coughed beside him. And damned coughing!

"There is more news," Tahn said quietly. "We just fished out a glider flyer who had returned from cruising Pelo Head."

Ward turned. There seemed to be a smile flickering on Tahn's swarthy face.

"He says there is a great Grimnal force coming into the Break from the north. Sixteen firsts, eighteen seconds and ten frigates. There are no corvettes."

Ward's whole body seemed to tighten. Thanks to a damned wind the trap was sprung.

"Can they come through the Break?" he asked, more to stall for time than gain information. Tahn coughed three times.

"It is a brave thing to do. Even for Kali it would be brave. It is bad water in the Break. The wind goes up; the current comes down. It is slow, but it can be done."

"How slow?"

Tahn tilted his head, stared at where the slice of the Break was barely visible on the horizon, and shrugged, almost.

"Maybe—uh—two hours. Maybe more." He coughed. "Maybe less."

Ward glared at the crippled ships.

"And they would try it at night?"

Tahn coughed assent.

"There will be a good moon. I would try it."

Damn. Forces from three sides that, united, would blow them right out of the water. They could meet any of them alone, but....

"If we could slip south," he pondered aloud, "we could—"

Tahn snarled, his face an unearthly mask in the dimming light. His breath whistled between his teeth.

"You polasti!" he hissed. Ward straightened and faced him. The Kali around froze in their tracks. Polasti was the foulest word in their language.

"Kali have died in this water just now," Tahn was barely able to manage his voice. "They are down there right now. We will not run and disgrace them! We will stand here. We will put a wall of sails and guns around this spot, and if we die it will be in honor. We will run no more. We will run no more!"

He was trembling when he finished, and Ward expected a knife to make one final arc. It was impossible to try to explain. It was broken....

That thought crashed through as a knife never could.

It's over. The Grimnal will surround this pitiful fleet like a storm. It's over; we've lost the fight, the war and the planet. And I've done it. It's my baby.

The thing seared him, roared through him, shook him—and touched a secret place. A deep place where he stored his anger. All his past angers, big and little; covered stifled, caught and hidden. Old hurts, old dreams, old reproaches screamed and gibbered through him like a thousand ghosts and devils. They swamped the gentle man. They dragged him down and gagged him. And something else took his place—something that had never been allowed to stand before.

"You stupid bastards!" he roared, wheeling to face them all. "You God-forsaken fools! A Grimnal baby is a greater fighter than your bravest man. Look what he has done to you. Look! Like blind animals you have been led into a trap. You have been put in a cage of your own ignorance. You call me polasti! I am the only one who can show you how to win. The only thing you know is to bunch together and be killed like animals at slaughter. You stand together in one tight group to make it easy for him. You know how it will be? Look!"

He sprang to the glass globe that held the magnetized needle, seized it and hurled it to the deck. It exploded like a small bomb. The Kali moved back.

"That is what the Grimnal will do to you. Your bravery will be as that glass, nice to see—but look at it now!"

Water from the globe trickled slowly through the shattered glass. The chips winked red in the dying sun. Only the cry of the wind sounded through the ship. Ward forced his choking breath to an even rhythm.

"Now go die like the fools you are."

He left the quiet bridge and threaded his way to his cabin. Night was coming softly to the Grimnal Sea.

It was dark in the cabin when the knock sounded. There was no answer, and it came again.

"Come," Ward said in a very tired, hollow voice.

The door swung open and someone entered. After a long moment, Tahn's voice came softly in the dark.

"No one has ever spoken to the Kali like that."

Ward did not answer.

"It is a brave man that can do that. And bravery is something we understand." There was a silent moment. Tahn coughed. "May I light the lamp?"

Ward swung around in the chair.


Flint flicked on steel, a spark glowed, caught, and light wavered in the cabin. The two faced each other, Ward sagged low in the chair, the Kali by the lamp. Tahn coughed again.

"There is a way?"

Ward let a moment pass.

"There is a way to try."


"Yes, fighting."

Tahn paused the barest second.

"Tell me."


The frigate, Windsong, skimmed downward like a low, lean cloud. Behind her, vague in the dim moonlight, followed four more frigates and the skating corvettes. Before her, like a gate to hell, gaped the jagged mouth of Pelo Break. Ward leaned against the bridge rail beside Resi, the scarred and battered captain of Windsong.

"Keep close to the eastern side," Ward said. "In the shadow of the cliffs, out of the moonlight."

Resi spoke softly to the helmsman, and the Windsong eased into the shadow. Ward turned and watched the following ships as, one by one, they slipped out of the moon and all but vanished. He swung back and squinted ahead. As far as he could see, high, broken cliffs reared straight from the water on both sides, angling together in the distance. There Tahn had said, they stood a scant two hundred yards apart, and the Break turned nearly sixty degrees to the west. That was the narrows. Ward turned to Resi, wondering if the old Kali fully understood the plan.

"If we do not meet them before, we wait for them at the narrows."

There was no acknowledgement that he could tell. Not even a cough. He doesn't like this, Ward thought. He relishes the fight coming, but not me. Despite Tahn's heated pep talk, I am a bad totem. But Tahn had accomplished one thing—an honor promise from each ship's captain to follow orders. Ward knew they would, as long as everything went along with fighting, but the moment something went wrong.

He remembered Tahn's bark of surprise as the plan unfolded. Then the argument, and his own firm stand that he command this force. For this was the crucial contact. The Key. If this failed—it all failed.

He was sure that Tahn and the rest of the feverishly anxious Kali would more than whip their end. They were outnumbered, but had an overwhelming firepower edge. For the hundredth time he reviewed the thing, looking for the fatal flaw.

One frigate for the crippled ships, which gave them quite a bit of firepower right there. Two firsts, four seconds, five frigates (the Storm Bird had gone down) and four corvettes. They were to make fast repairs, jury rig, then stand by in the shadow at the mouth of Pelo Break. If the Kali came back out—fine; they would all rejoin Tahn. If not—and the Grimnal came—they were a last stand.

Tahn had the main force of sixteen firsts, seven seconds and thirteen frigates. He was to intercept the Grimnal coming from behind. He would run their fleet through, come about, rake them again and run out to sea. He was to hit them hard enough to stop them, then make them believe he was running away. After any pursuit was discouraged he was to come downwind and fly for Anda Passage.

If the timing was right, he would run right over the force from the bay, and with a little effort clear them off the water.

"Then," Ward had added with a half smile, "you can shell the land guns in the Passage in your spare time. If the first Grimnal force comes limping in you shouldn't have any trouble."

No, Tahn wouldn't have any trouble. In the Kali's present mood they could probably do it with half their ships.

But hell would be open in the Break tonight. Five slim frigates and forty-two tiny corvettes against sixteen firsts, eighteen seconds and ten frigates. Ship for ship; but what unbalanced firepower! Their advantage would be surprise, if nothing slipped, and maneuverability where the Grimnal ships would have their hands full just keeping clear of the cliffs. And this was the fulcrum.

A sudden flare from the maindeck.

"Cover that!" Resi snapped. Then to Ward, "They are cooking the liquor."

Ward nodded. Apparently Resi had a good idea of what was expected. That was one good thing. The liquor, as they called it, was their explosive. A revolting, highly inflammable slime brewed of seaweed and fats. It was prepared in port, but had to be brought to a firing temperature on board. This was done by heating in large kettles and kept just below boiling. When a gun was to be fired, a certain measure of this soup was poured down the muzzle to a sizzling hot firing chamber, kept hot by a covered charcoal packing and quickly sealed by a lava-stone ball. It was the gunner's sense of timing then to know when the gun was ready, and slam the firing stud with a hammer. This slapped flint to steel inside the chamber—and wham.

But it was touchy. If the gunner swung too soon, nothing. If he waited too long, it fired itself. If the chamber was too cool, it would not fire at all; if too hot, it might go the second the ball was rammed. A very delicate operation. And in the midst of battle—with charcoal flying, hot shot coming in, glowing fires under the kettles and spilled hot liquor everywhere—it was hard to see what kept a ship from blowing the whole battle apart. But that never happened. The liquor was easily diluted with water, and they went into battle with special water crews sloshing down the decks. And the stuff was fast. In the Gola Island fight, with fairly hot guns, they were loading, aiming and firing in about ten seconds.

The Windsong eased along, the narrows loomed closer and Ward began to tighten. Any second he expected the double bows of a Grimnal first-liner to slide into sight, followed by another, and another, and another....

He felt the urge to move about, to do anything as long as he was moving. He noticed the Kali were the same. They were as restless as the troubled waters of the Break—lunging, hissing, swirling, rocking up and down. They were constantly at the rail relieving themselves, or rattling the dipper at the water barrel. And he could see the glint of their eyes as they threw quick glances in his direction. He caught Resi watching too, and moved away.

They didn't trust him. They were waiting for him to call it off. They expected him to; probably wanting him to.

He suddenly found he was quivering like a captured bird. He gripped the rail hard with both hands to stop. But it wouldn't stop. It galloped through him, ran him down and trampled him. And in panic he saw what it was.


Not simply the fear of failing. It was....

God! The reality of it! This wasn't like reading a book or writing a story. This was going to be real shot and flame instead of words and paper. Real people were going to die, with their blood warm and sticky and horror in the eyes—and he wouldn't be able to glance away to ponder it. It was going to roll from start to finish with the reality of Now and the surety of Death. It was going to flame as fights have flamed since something first snatched up a rock. And he was going to be right in the middle of it with these Kali, win or lose, live or die. And what was he doing here with these strange, alien Kali?

He raised his head and glanced around. Resi was standing by the helmsman, talking with his deck lieutenant. Water splashed down on the maindeck; the water crews at work. There was a breathless quiet over the ship. He could see them standing like shadows, watching the curve of the narrows.

The Spartans must have stood like that at the Pass of Thermopylae!

And the Athenians on the Plains of Marathon.

And the Americans at Bastogne.

And men anywhere, any time before a battle.

A single, whispering line from an old poem sang through him:

Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred.

There was no alien here but himself.

The ominous walls of the narrows closed and filled the sky. Beyond the curve, some two miles up, the Grimnal ships were slowly beating upwind. Suddenly, like a touch of fire to old ashes, he knew what he was doing here. A long imprisoned breath escaped from him, and a great sigh seemed to come from the whole ship.

Resi turned. Ward could barely make out what must be a smile in that old Kali face.

"We made it, ho?"

"Just barely, by God. Have the ships string out as planned, with the lead frigate in the tip of the shadow where the Break turns into the moonlight. And be careful of noise. It will carry in here like a cannon shot."

Resi coughed and was gone like a cat.

The Windsong fell dead in the water. The others whispered past like ghosts. Voices called softly, and the small, shielded signal lights licked from ship to ship. And the Windsong was alone. Her bows swung out slightly to allow the foreguns a field of fire. Ward climbed down from the bridge, strode the water-slick maindeck and gained the foredeck. The gun crews turned, glanced at him, then turned back. He could not tell if they were smiling or not. So what. They would have plenty to smile at in a moment.

The lead first-liner was about a mile now and keeping well to their side. Ward squinted at the point of the shadow, but there was no light flickering there that he could see. Damn!

The Grimnal ship looked huge in the moonlight, and the Break behind it seemed filled with sails. It was nearly abreast of the shadow tip, still holding to their side, and the tiniest flicker of light danced in the shadow beside it. Ward grinned. David and Goliath.

The giant first-liner started its slow tum on the very edge of the shadow, drifting into the dark until only its sails held the moon. The sails came around, fluttered and filled. The silent hulls came into sight.

Ward let out a breath, echoed by Resi. The lead liner was well on its new tack. The next was starting to edge into the shadows, and behind that was another, and another, and another. Resi muffled a cough.

"You tell when?" he whispered.

Ward nodded. "I'll tell when."

The Grimnal rode closer, the crash of its bow waves sounding louder. Ship after ship was coasting past the hidden frigate. Ward's excitement grew to a pounding thing. They would be able to get them all in range.

The sails towered over them. A hundred yards. Almost abreast; just at the narrowest point. Ward took a deep breath, and said quietly:


Resi turned and hissed. Steaming liquor trickled down hungry cannon mouths. Lava balls were softly rammed home. Muzzles came down. Aimed. The gunners tensed, raised their hammers—and swung.

The night came apart.

A crashing roar racketed through the Break. The walls blasted back the echo. The Windsong rocked and trembled. Smoke boiled into the moonlight and dimmed the Grimnal ship. And that was only a small sound. Over a mile of fire smashed from the shadow and for a quivering second, it seemed the world had exploded. Then came the thunder, and Ward flinched.

Waterspouts climbed in the moonlight. Wreckage spun from the Grimnal ships. Holes splintered in their sides. The Windsong roared again; the bobbing corvettes answered. And a deafening, mind dulling thunder covered the break.

And the Grimnal did not answer.

The lightning flared steady now from the Kali line. Resi climbed halfway up the ratlines for a better look. And still the wounded giants had not answered. Grimnal were running in all directions on their decks. Resi let out a howl of sheer triumph.

"They do not have their liquor cooked!" he cried, swinging to the deck. "We have them with cold guns!"

The Kali cheered, and the firing seemed to cease. Ward was shaking again, but for a different reason.

"Hey, Resi," he bellowed. "Let's get in there closer."

Sails snapped and the Windsong came alive. She seemed to leap into the moonlight. Then a corvette appeared beside her, and another, then two racing side by side into the smoke. And all the Kali were moving. The Windsong's men were laughing like children, and the water crews had everything soaked halfway up the mainsails. What people! Ward laughed, ducking another bucketful. Resi slid to a halt beside him.

"We fool them, ho? We fool them!"

"Closer," Ward yelled. "Under their guns!"

"But they are not firing."

"Under their guns anyway," Ward laughed, and added to himself—away boarders! A few scattered shots were coming from the Grimnal, ripping overhead. Ward stood a little taller. The Windsong came about, her starboard bow nearly slashing the looming first-liner. Ward felt Resi's hand on his arm.

"It was really you that fool them."

Ward grinned foolishly.

"But we whip them, ho?"

Ward wanted to answer, but it was the starboard guns' turn to speak.

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