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Medal Of Honor
by [?]

According to tradition,
the man who held the
Galactic Medal of Honor
could do no wrong. In a
strange way, Captain Don
Mathers was to learn
that this was true.

Don Mathers snapped to attention, snapped a crisp salute to his superior, said, “Sub-lieutenant Donal Mathers reporting, sir.”

The Commodore looked up at him, returned the salute, looked down at the report on the desk. He murmured, “Mathers, One Man Scout V-102. Sector A22-K223.”

“Yes, sir,” Don said.

The Commodore looked up at him again. “You’ve been out only five days, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir, on the third day I seemed to be developing trouble in my fuel injectors. I stuck it out for a couple of days, but then decided I’d better come in for a check.” Don Mathers added, “As per instructions, sir.”

“Ummm, of course. In a Scout you can hardly make repairs in space. If you have any doubts at all about your craft, orders are to return to base. It happens to every pilot at one time or another.”

“Yes, sir.”

“However, Lieutenant, it has happened to you four times out of your last six patrols.”

Don Mathers said nothing. His face remained expressionless.

“The mechanics report that they could find nothing wrong with your engines, Lieutenant.”

“Sometimes, sir, whatever is wrong fixes itself. Possibly a spot of bad fuel. It finally burns out and you’re back on good fuel again. But by that time you’re also back to the base.”

* * * * *

The Commodore said impatiently, “I don’t need a lesson in the shortcomings of the One Man Scout, Lieutenant. I piloted one for nearly five years. I know their shortcomings–and those of their pilots.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

The Commodore looked down at the ball of his thumb. “You’re out in space for anywhere from two weeks to a month. All alone. You’re looking for Kraden ships which practically never turn up. In military history the only remotely similar situation I can think of were the pilots of World War One pursuit planes, in the early years of the war, when they still flew singly, not in formation. But even they were up there alone for only a couple of hours or so.”

“Yes, sir,” Don said meaninglessly.

The Commodore said, “We, here at command, figure on you fellows getting a touch of space cafard once in a while and, ah, imagining something wrong in the engines and coming in. But,” here the Commodore cleared his throat, “four times out of six? Are you sure you don’t need a psych, Lieutenant?”

Don Mathers flushed. “No, sir, I don’t think so.”

The Commodore’s voice went militarily expressionless. “Very well, Lieutenant. You’ll have the customary three weeks leave before going out again. Dismissed.”

Don saluted snappily, wheeled and marched from the office.

Outside, in the corridor, he muttered a curse. What did that chairborne brass hat know about space cafard? About the depthless blackness, the wretchedness of free fall, the tides of primitive terror that swept you when the animal realization hit that you were away, away, away from the environment that gave you birth. That you were alone, alone, alone. A million, a million-million miles from your nearest fellow human. Space cafard, in a craft little larger than a good-sized closet! What did the Commodore know about it?

Don Mathers had conveniently forgotten the other’s claim to five years’ service in the Scouts.

* * * * *

He made his way from Space Command Headquarters, Third Division, to Harry’s Nuevo Mexico Bar. He found the place empty at this time of the day and climbed onto a stool.

Harry said, “Hi, Lootenant, thought you were due for a patrol. How come you’re back so soon?”