Beginning a thrilling New Serial of Interplanetary Life and Travel by Edward E. Smith, Ph.D.
Author of "Skylark of Space" and "Skylark Three"
Spacehounds of IPC
A good many of us, who are now certain beyond a doubt that space travel will forever remain in the realm of the impossible, probably would, if a rocket that were shot to the moon, for instance, did arrive, and perhaps return to give proof of its safe arrival on our satellite, accept the phenomenon in a perfectly blase, twentieth century manner. Dr. Smith, that phenomenal writer of classic scientific fiction, seems to have become so thoroughly convinced of the advent of interplanetary travel that it is difficult for the reader to feel, after finishing "Spacehounds of IPC," that travel in the great spaces is not already an established fact. Dr. Smith, as a professional chemist, is kept fairly busy. As a writer, he is satisfied with nothing less than perfection. For that reason, a masterpiece from his pen has become almost an annual event. We know you will like "Spacehounds" even better than the "Skylark" series.
Illustrated by WESSO
The IPV Arcturus Sets Out for Mars
A narrow football of steel, the Interplanetary Vessel Arcturus stood upright in her berth in the dock like an egg in its cup. A hundred feet across and a hundred and seventy feet deep was that gigantic bowl, its walls supported by the structural steel and concrete of the dock and lined with hard-packed bumper-layers of hemp and fibre. High into the air extended the upper half of the ship of space—a sullen gray expanse of fifty-inch hardened steel armor, curving smoothly upward to a needle prow. Countless hundred of fine vertical scratches marred every inch of her surface, and here and there the stubborn metal was grooved and scored to a depth of inches—each scratch and score the record of an attempt of some wandering cosmic body to argue the right-of-way with the stupendous mass of that man-made cruiser of the void.
A burly young man made his way through the throng about the entrance, nodded unconcernedly to the gatekeeper, and joined the stream of passengers flowing through the triple doors of the double air-lock and down a corridor to the center of the vessel. However, instead of entering one of the elevators which were whisking the passengers up to their staterooms in the upper half of the enormous football, he in some way caused an opening to appear in an apparently blank steel wall and stepped through it into the control room.
"Hi, Breck!" the burly one called, as he strode up to the instrument-desk of the chief pilot and tossed his bag carelessly into a corner. "Behold your computer in the flesh! What's all this howl and fuss about poor computation?"
"Hello, Steve!" The chief pilot smiled as he shook hands cordially. "Glad to see you again—but don't try to kid the old man. I'm simple enough to believe almost anything, but some things just aren't being done. We have been yelling, and yelling hard, for trained computers ever since they started riding us about every one centimeter change in acceleration, but I know that you're no more an I-P computer than I am a Digger Indian. They don't shoot sparrows with coast-defense guns!"
"Thanks for the compliment, Breck, but I'm your computer for this trip, anyway. Newton, the good old egg, knows what you fellows are up against and is going to do something about it, if he has to lick all the rest of the directors to do it. He knew that I was loose for a couple of weeks and asked me to come along this trip to see what I could see. I'm to check the observatory data—they don't know I'm aboard—take the peaks and valleys off your acceleration curve, if possible, and report to Newton just what I find out and what I think should be done about it. How early am I?" While the newcomer was talking, he had stripped the covers from a precise scale model of the solar system and from a large and complicated calculating machine and had set to work without a wasted motion or instant—scaling off upon the model the positions of the various check-stations and setting up long and involved integrals and equations upon the calculator.
The older man studied the broad back of the younger, bent over his computations, and a tender, almost fatherly smile came over his careworn face as he replied:
"Early? You? Just like you always were—plus fifteen seconds on the deadline. The final dope is due right now." He plugged the automatic recorder and speaker into a circuit marked "Observatory," waited until a tiny light above the plug flashed green, and spoke.
"IPV Arcturus; Breckenridge, Chief Pilot; trip number forty-three twenty-nine. Ready for final supplementary route and flight data, Tellus to Mars."
"Meteoric swarms still too numerous for safe travel along the scheduled route," came promptly from the speaker. "You must stay further away from the plane of the ecliptic. The ether will be clear for you along route E2-P6-W41-K3-R19-S7-M14. You will hold a constant acceleration of 981.27 centimeters between initial and final check stations. Your take-off will be practically unobstructed, but you will have to use the utmost caution in landing upon Mars, because in order to avoid a weightless detour and a loss of thirty-one minutes, you must pass very close to both the Martian satellites. To do so safely you must pass the last meteorological station, M14, on schedule time plus or minus five seconds, at scheduled velocity plus or minus ten meters, with exactly the given negative acceleration of 981.27 centimeters, and exactly upon the pilot ray M14 will have set for you."
"All x." Breckenridge studied his triplex chronometer intently, then unplugged and glanced around the control room, in various parts of which half a dozen assistants were loafing at their stations.
"Control and power check-out—Hipe!" he barked. "Driving converters and projectors!"
The first assistant scanned his meters narrowly as he swung a multi-point switch in a flashing arc. "Converter efficiency 100, projector reactivity 100; on each of numbers one to forty-five inclusive. All x."
* * * * *
Two more gleaming switches leaped from point to point. "Converter efficiency 100, projector reactivity 100, dirigibility 100, on each of numbers one to thirty-two, inclusive, of upper band; and numbers one to thirty-two, inclusive, of lower band. All x."
"35,000. Drivers in equilibrium at ten degrees plus. All x."
"Upper lights and lookout plates!"
The second assistant was galvanized into activity, and upon a screen before him there appeared a view as though he were looking directly upward from the prow of the great vessel. The air above them was full of aircraft of all shapes and sizes, and occasionally the image of one of that flying horde flared into violet splendor upon the screen as it was caught in the mighty, roving beam of one of the twelve ultra-light projectors under test.
"Upper lights and lookout plates—all x," the second assistant reported, and other assistants came to attention as the check-out went on.
"Lower lights and lookout plates!"
"All x," was the report, after each of the twelve ultra-lights of the stern had swung around in its supporting brackets, illuminating every recess of the dark depths of the bottom well of the berth and throwing the picture upon another screen in lurid violet relief.
"Lateral and vertical detectors!"
"Laterals XP2710—all x. Verticals AJ4290—all x."
"15,270 kilofranks—all x."
"700,000 kilofrank-hours—all x."
Having thus checked and tested every function of his department, Breckenridge plugged into "Captain," and when the green light went on:
"Chief pilot check-out—all x," he reported briefly.
"All x," acknowledged the speaker, and the chief pilot unplugged. Fifteen minutes remained, during which time one department head after another would report to the captain of the liner that everything in his charge was ready for the stupendous flight.
"All x, Steve?" Breckenridge turned to the computer. "How do you check acceleration and power with the observatory?"
"Not so good, old bean," the younger man frowned in thought. "They figure like astronomers, not navigators. They've made no allowances for anything, not even the reversal—and I figure four thousands for that and for minor detours. Then there's check station errors...."
"Check-station errors! Why, they're always right—that's what they're for!"
"Don't fool yourself—they've got troubles of their own, the same as anybody else. In fact, from a study of the charts of the last few weeks, I'm pretty sure that E2 is at least four thousand kilometers this side of where he thinks he is, that W41 is ten or twelve thousand beyond his station, and that they've both got a lateral displacement that's simply fierce. I'm going to check up, and argue with them about it as we pass. Then there's another thing—they figure to only two places, and we've got to have the third place almost solid if we expect to get a smooth curve. A hundredth of a centimeter of acceleration means a lot on a long trip when they're holding us as close as they are doing now. We'll ride this trip on 981.286 centimeters—with our scheduled mass, that means thirty six points of four seven kilofranks plus equilibrium power. All set to go," the computer stated, as he changed, by fractions of arc, the course-plotters of the automatic integrating goniometer.
"You're the doctor—but I'm glad it's you that'll have to explain to the observatory," and Breckenridge set his exceedingly delicate excess power potentiometer exactly upon the indicated figure. "Well, we've got a few minutes left for a chin-chin before we lift her off."
"What's all this commotion about? Dish out the low-down."
"Well, it's like this, Steve. We pilots are having one sweet time—we're being growled at on every trip. The management squawks if we're thirty seconds plus or minus at the terminals, and the passenger department squalls if we change acceleration five centimeters total en route—claims it upsets the dainty customers and loses business for the road. They're tightening up on us all the time. A couple of years ago, you remember, it didn't make any difference what we did with the acceleration as long as we checked in somewhere near zero time—we used to spin 'em dizzy when we reversed at the half-way station—but that kind of stuff doesn't go any more. We've got to hold the acceleration constant and close to normal, got to hold our schedule on zero, plus or minus ten seconds, and yet we've got to make any detours they tell us to, such as this seven-million kilometer thing they handed us just now. To make things worse, we've got to take orders at every check-station, and yet we get the blame for everything that happens as a consequence of obeying those orders! Of course, I know as well as you do that it's rotten technique to change acceleration at every check-station; but we've told 'em over and over that we can't do any better until they put a real computer on every ship and tell the check-stations to report meteorites and other obstructions to us and then to let us alone. So you'd better recommend us some computers!"
"You're getting rotten computation, that's a sure thing, and I don't blame you pilots for yelling, but I don't believe that you've got the right answer. I can't help but think that the astronomers are lying down on the job. They are so sure that you pilots are to blame that it hasn't occurred to them to check up on themselves very carefully. However, we'll know pretty quick, and then we'll take steps."
"I hope so—but say, Steve, I'm worried about using that much plus equilibrium power. Remember, we've got to hit M14 in absolutely good shape, or plenty heads will drop."
"I'll say they will. I know just how the passengers will howl if we hold them weightless for half an hour, waiting for those two moons to get out of the way, and I know just what the manager will do if we check in minus thirty-one minutes. Wow! He'll swell up and bust, sure. But don't worry, Breck—if we don't check in all right, anybody can have my head that wants it, and I'm taking full responsibility, you know."
"You're welcome to it." Breckenridge shrugged and turned the conversation into a lighter vein. "Speaking of weightlessness, it's funny how many weight-fiends there are in the world, isn't it? You'd think the passengers would enjoy a little weightlessness occasionally—especially the fat ones—but they don't. But say, while I think of it, how come you were here and loose to make this check-up? I thought you were out with the other two of the Big Three, solving all the mysteries of the Universe?"
"Had to stay in this last trip—been doing some work on the ether, force-field theory, and other advanced stuff that I had to go to Mars and Venus to get. Just got back last week. As for solving mysteries, laugh while you can, old hyena. You and a lot of other dim bulbs think that Roeser's Rays are the last word—that there's nothing left to discover—are going to get jarred loose from your hinges one of these days. When I came in nine months ago they were hot on the trail of something big, and I'll bet they bring it in...."
Out upon the dock an insistent siren blared a crescendo and diminuendo blast of sound, and two minutes remained. In every stateroom and in every lounge and saloon speakers sounded a warning:
"For a short time, while we are pulling clear of the gravitational field of the Earth, walking will be somewhat difficult, as everything on board will apparently increase in weight by about one-fifth of its present amount. Please remain seated, or move about with caution. In about an hour weight will gradually return to normal. We start in one minute."
"Hipe!" barked the chief pilot as a flaring purple light sprang into being upon his board, and the assistants came to attention at their stations. "Seconds! Four! Three! Two! One! LIFT!" He touched a button and a set of plunger switches drove home, releasing into the forty-five enormous driving projectors the equilibrium power—the fifteen-thousand-and-odd kilofranks of energy that exactly counterbalanced the pull of gravity upon the mass of the cruiser. Simultaneously there was added from the potentiometer, already set to the exact figure given by the computer, the plus-equilibrium power—which would not be changed throughout the journey if the ideal acceleration curve were to be registered upon the recorders—and the immense mass of the cruiser of the void wafted vertically upward at a low and constant velocity. The bellowing, shrieking siren had cleared the air magically of the swarm of aircraft in her path, and quietly, calmly, majestically, the Arcturus floated upward.
* * * * *
Breckenridge, sixty seconds after the initial lift, actuated the system of magnetic relays which would gradually cut in the precisely measured "starting power," which it would be necessary to employ for sixty-nine minutes—for, without the acceleration given by this additional power, they would lose many precious hours of time in covering merely the few thousands of miles during which Earth's attraction would operate powerfully against their progress.
Faster and faster the great cruiser shot upward as more and more of the starting power was released, and heavier and heavier the passengers felt themselves become. Soon the full calculated power was on and the acceleration became constant. Weight no longer increased, but remained constant at a value of plus twenty three and six-tenths percent. For a few moments there had been uneasy stomachs among the passengers—perhaps a few of the first-trippers had been made ill—but it was not much worse than riding in a high-speed elevator, particularly since there was no change from positive to negative acceleration such as is experienced in express elevators.
The computer, his calculations complete, watched the pilot with interest, for, accustomed as he was to traversing the depths of space, there was a never-failing thrill to his scientific mind in the delicacy and precision of the work which Breckenridge was doing—work which could be done only by a man who had had long training in the profession and who was possessed of instantaneous nervous reaction and of the highest degree of manual dexterity and control. Under his right and left hands were the double-series potentiometers actuating the variable-speed drives of the flight-angle directors in the hour and declination ranges; before his eyes was the finely marked micrometer screen upon which the guiding goniometer threw its needle-point of light; powerful optical systems of prisms and lenses revealed to his sight the director-angles, down to fractional seconds of arc. It was the task of the chief pilot to hold the screened image of the cross-hairs of the two directors in such position relative to the ever-moving point of light as to hold the mighty vessel precisely upon its course, in spite of the complex system of forces acting upon it.
For almost an hour Breckenridge sat motionless, his eyes flashing from micrometer screen to signal panel, his sensitive fingers moving the potentiometers through minute arcs because of what he saw upon the screen and in instantaneous response to the flashing, multi-colored lights and tinkling signals of his board. Finally, far from earth, the moon's attraction and other perturbing forces comparatively slight, the signals no longer sounded and the point of light ceased its irregular motion, becoming almost stationary. The chief pilot brought both cross-hairs directly upon the brilliant point, which for some time they had been approaching more and more nearly, adjusted the photo-cells and amplifiers which would hold them immovably upon it, and at the calculated second of time, cut out the starting power by means of another set of automatically timed relays. When only the regular driving power was left, and the acceleration had been checked and found to be exactly the designated value of 981.286 centimeters, he stood up and heaved a profound sigh of relief.
"Well, Steve, that's over with—we're on our way. I'm always glad when this part of it is done."
"It's a ticklish job, no fooling—even for an expert," the mathematician agreed. "No wonder the astronomers think you birds are the ones who are gumming up their dope. Well, it's about time to plug in on E2. Here's where the fireworks start!" He closed the connections which transferred the central portion of the upper lookout screen to a small micrometer screen at Breckenridge's desk and plugged it into the first check-station. Instantly a point of red light, surrounded by a vivid orange circle, appeared upon the screen, low down and to the left of center, and the timing galvanometer showed a wide positive deflection.
"Hashed again!" growled Breckenridge. "I must be losing my grip, I guess. I put everything I had on that sight, and missed it ten divisions. I think I'll turn in my badge—I've cocked our perfect curve already, before we got to the first check-station!" His hands moved toward the controls, to correct their course and acceleration.
"As you were—hold everything! Lay off those controls!" snapped the computer. "There's something screwy, just as I thought—and it isn't you, either. I'm no pilot, of course, but I do know good compensation when I see it, and if you weren't compensating that point I never saw it done. Besides, with your skill and my figures I know darn well that we aren't off more than a tenth of one division. He's cuckoo! Don't call him—let him start it, and refer him to me."
"All x—I'll be only too glad to pass the buck. But I still think, Steve, that you're playing with dynamite. Who ever heard of an astronomer being wrong?"
"You'd be surprised," grinned the physicist, "Since this fuss has just started, nobody has tried to find out whether they were wrong or not...."
"IPV Arcturus, attention!" came from the speaker curtly.
"IPV Arcturus, Breckenridge," from the chief pilot.
"You have been on my ray almost a minute. Why are you not correcting course and acceleration?"
"Doctor Stevens is computing us and has full control of course and acceleration," replied Breckenridge. "He will answer you."
"I am changing neither course nor acceleration because you are not in position," declared Stevens, crisply, "Please give me your present supposed location, and your latest precision goniometer bearings on the sun, the moon, Mars, Venus, and your Tellurian reference limb, with exact time of observations, gyroscope zero-planes, and goniometer factors!"
"Correct at once or I shall report you to the Observatory," E2 answered loftily, paying no attention to the demand for proof of position.
"Be sure you do that, guy—and while you're at it report that your station hasn't taken a precision bearing in a month. Report that you've been muddling along on radio loop bearings, and that you don't know where you are, within seven thousand kilometers. And speaking of reporting—I know already that a lot of you astronomical guessers have only the faintest possible idea of where you really are, plus, minus, or lateral; and if you don't get yourselves straightened out before we get to W41, I'm going to make a report on my own account that will jar some of you birds loose from your upper teeth!" He unplugged with a vicious jerk, and turned to the pilot with a grin.
"Guess that'll hold him for a while, won't it?"
"He'll report us, sure," remonstrated Breckenridge. The older man was plainly ill at ease at this open defiance of the supposedly infallible check-stations.
"Not that baby," returned the computer confidently. "I'll bet you a small farm against a plugged nickel that right now he's working his goniometer so hard that it's pivots are getting hot. He'll sneak back into position as soon as he can calculate his results, and pretend he's always been there."
"The others will be all right, then, probably, by the time we get to them?"
"Gosh, no—you're unusually dumb today, Breck. He won't tell anybody anything—he doesn't want to be the only goat, does he?"
"Oh, I see. How could you dope this out, with only the recorder charts?"
"Because I know the kind of stuff you pilots are—and those humps are altogether too big to be accounted for by anything I know about you. Another thing—the next station, P6, I think is keeping himself all x. If so, when you corrected for E2, which was wrong, it'd throw you all off on P6, which was right, and so on—a bad hump at almost every check-station. See?"
* * * * *
True to prediction, the pilot ray of P6 came in almost upon the exact center of the micrometer screen, and Breckenridge smiled in relief as he began really to enjoy the trip.
"How do we check on chronometers?" asked P6 when Stevens had been introduced. "By my time you seem to be about two and a half seconds plus?"
"All x—two points four seconds plus—we're riding on 981.286 centimeters, to allow for the reversal and for minor detours. Bye."
"All this may have been coincidence, Breck, but we'll find out pretty quick now," the computer remarked when the flying vessel was nearing the third check-station. "Unless I'm all out of control we'll check in almost fourteen seconds minus on W41, and we may not even find him on the center block of the screen."
When he plugged in W41 was on the block, but was in the extreme upper right corner. They checked in thirteen and eight-tenths seconds minus on the station, and a fiery dialogue ensued when the computer questioned the accuracy of the location of the station and refused point-blank to correct his course.
"Well, Breck, old onion, that tears it," Stevens declared as he unplugged. "No use going any further on these bum reference points. I'm going to report to Newton—he'll rock the Observatory on its foundations!" He plugged into the telegraph room. "Have you got a free high-power wave?... Please put me on Newton, in the main office."
Moving lights flashed and flickered for an instant upon the communicator screen, settling down into a white glow which soon resolved itself into the likeness of a keen-eyed, gray-haired man, seated at his desk in the remote office of the Interplanetary Corporation. Newton smiled as he recognized the likeness of Stevens upon his own screen, and greeted him cordially.
"Have you started your investigation, Doctor Stevens?"
"Started it? I've finished it!" and Stevens tersely reported what he had learned, concluding: "So you see, you don't need special computers on these ships any more than a hen needs teeth. You've got all the computers you need, in the observatories—all you've got to do is make them work at their trade."
"The piloting was all x, then?"
"Absolutely—our curve so far is exactly flat ever since we cut off the starting power. Of course, all the pilots can't be as good as Breckenridge, but give them good computation and good check points and you shouldn't get any humps higher than about half a centimeter."
"They'll get both, from now on," the director assured him. "Thanks. If your work for the trip is done, you might show my little girl, Nadia, around the Arcturus. She's never been out before, and will be interested. Would you mind?"
"Glad to, Mr. Newton—I'll be a regular uncle to her."
"Thanks again, Operator, I'll speak to Captain King, please."
"Pipe down that guff, you unlicked cub, or I'll crown you with a proof-bar!" the chief pilot growled, as soon as Stevens had unplugged.
"You and who else?" retorted the computer, cheerfully. "Pipe down yourself, guy—if you weren't so darn dumb and didn't have such a complex, you'd know that you're the crack pilot of the outfit and wouldn't care who else knew it." Stevens carefully covered and put away the calculating machine and other apparatus he had been using and turned again to the pilot.
"I didn't know Newton had any kids, especially little ones, or I'd have got acquainted with them long ago. Of course I don't know him very well, since I never was around the office much, but the old tiger goes over big with me."
"Hm—m. Think you'll enjoy playing nursemaid all the rest of the trip?" Breckenridge asked caustically, but with an enigmatic smile.
"Think so? I know so!" replied Stevens, positively. "I always did like kids, and they always did like me—we fall for each other like ten thousand bricks falling down a well. Why, a kid—any kid—and I team up just like grace and poise.... What's gnawing on you anyway, to make you turn Cheshire cat all of a sudden? By the looks of that grin I'd say you had swallowed a canary of mine some way or other; but darned if I know that I've lost any," and he stared at his friend suspiciously.
"To borrow your own phrase, Steve, 'You'd be surprised,'" and Breckenridge, though making no effort to conceal his amusement, would say no more.
In a few minutes the door opened, and through it there stepped a grizzled four-striper. Almost hidden behind his massive form there was a girl, who ran up to Breckenridge and seized both his hands, her eyes sparkling.
"Hi, Breckie, you old darling! I knew that if we both kept after him long enough Dad would let me ride with you sometime. Isn't this gorgeous?"
Stevens was glad indeed that the girl's enthusiastic greeting of the pilot was giving him time to recover from his shock, for Director Newton's "little girl, Nadia" was not precisely what he had led himself to expect. Little she might be, particularly when compared with the giant frame of Captain King, or with Steve's own five-feet-eleven of stature and the hundred and ninety pounds of rawhide and whalebone that was his body, but child she certainly was not. Her thick, fair hair, cut in the square bob that was the mode of the moment, indicated that Nature had intended her to be a creamy blonde, but as she turned to be introduced to him, Stevens received another surprise—for she was one of those rare, but exceedingly attractive beings, a natural blonde with brown eyes and black eyebrows. Sun and wind had tanned her satin skin to a smooth and even shade of brown, and every movement of her lithe and supple body bespoke to the discerning mind a rigidly-trained physique.
"Doctor Stevens, you haven't met Miss Newton, I hear," the captain introduced them informally. "All the officers who are not actually tied down at their posts are anxious to do the honors of the vessel, but as I have received direct orders from the owners, I am turning her over to you—you are to show her around."
"Thanks, Captain, I won't mutiny a bit against such an order. I'm mighty glad to know you, Miss Newton."
"I've heard a lot about you, Doctor. Dad and Breckie here are always talking about the Big Three—what you have done and what you are going to do. I want to meet Doctor Brandon and Doctor Westfall, too," and her hand met his in a firm and friendly clasp. She turned to the captain, and Stevens, noticing that the pilot, with a quizzical expression, was about to say something, silenced him with a fierce aside.
"Clam it, ape, or I'll climb up you like a squirrel!" he hissed, and the grinning Breckenridge nodded assent to this demand for silence concerning children and nursemaids.
"Since you've never been out, Miss Newton, you'll want to see the whole works," Stevens addressed the girl. "Where do you want to begin? Shall we start at the top and work down?"
"All right with me," she agreed, and fell into step beside him. She was dressed in dove-gray from head to foot—toque, blouse, breeches, heavy stockings, and shoes were of the one shade of smooth, lustrous silk; and as they strolled together down the passage-way, the effortless ease and perfect poise of her carriage called aloud to every hard-schooled fibre of his own highly-trained being.
"We're a lot alike you and I—do you know it?" he asked, abruptly and unconventionally.
"Yes, I've felt it, too," she replied frankly, and studied him without affectation. "It has just come to me what it is. We're both in fine condition and in hard training. You're an athlete of some kind, and I'm sure you're a star—I ought to recognize you, but I'm ashamed to say I don't. What do you do?"
"Oh, of course—Stevens, the great Olympic high and fancy diver! I would never have connected our own Doctor Stevens, the eminent mathematical physicist, with the King of the Springboard. Say, ever since I quit being afraid of the water I've had a yen to do that two-and-a-half twist of yours, but I never met anybody who knew it well enough to teach it to me, and I've almost broken my back forty times trying to learn it alone!"
"I've got you, now, too—American and British Womens' golf champion. Shake!" and the two shook hands vigorously, in mutual congratulation. "Tell you what—I'll give you some pointers on diving, and you can show me how to make a golf ball behave. Next to Norman Brandon, I've got the most vicious hook in captivity—and Norm can't help himself. He's left-handed, you know, and, being a southpaw, he's naturally wild. He slices all his woods and hooks all his irons. I'm consistent, anyway—I hook everything, even my putts."
"It's a bargain! What do you shoot?"
"Pretty dubby. Usually in the middle eighties—none of us play much, being out in space most of the time, you know—sometimes, when my hook is going particularly well, I go up into the nineties."
"We'll lick that hook," she promised, as they entered an elevator and were borne upward, toward the prow of the great interplanetary cruiser.
——But Does Not Arrive
"All out—we climb the rest of the way on foot," Stevens told his companion, as the elevator stopped at the uppermost passenger floor. They walked across the small circular hall and the guard on duty came to attention and saluted as they approached him.
"I have orders to pass you and Miss Newton, sir. Do you know all the combinations?"
"I know this good old tub better than the men that built her—I helped calculate her," Stevens replied, as he stepped up to an apparently blank wall of steel and deftly manipulated an almost invisible dial set flush with its surface. "This is to keep the passengers where they belong," he explained, as a section of the wall swung backward in a short arc and slid smoothly aside. "We will now proceed to see what makes it tick."
Ladder after ladder of steel they climbed, and bulkhead after bulkhead opened at Stevens's knowing touch. At each floor the mathematician explained to the girl the operation of the machinery there automatically at work—devices for heating and cooling, devices for circulating, maintaining, and purifying the air and the water—in short, all the complex mechanism necessary for the comfort and convenience of the human cargo of the liner.
Soon they entered the conical top compartment, a room scarcely fifteen feet in diameter, tapering sharply upward to a hollow point some twenty feet above them. The true shape of the room, however, was not immediately apparent, because of the enormous latticed beams and girders which braced the walls in every direction. The air glowed with the violet light of the twelve great ultra-light projectors, like searchlights with three-foot lenses, which lined the wall. The floor beneath their feet was not a level steel platform, but seemed to be composed of many lenticular sections of dull blue alloy.
"We are standing upon the upper lookout lenses, aren't we?" asked the girl. "Is that perfectly all right?"
"Sure. They're so hard that nothing can scratch them, and of course Roeser's Rays go right through our bodies, or any ordinary substance, like a bullet through a hole in a Swiss cheese. Even those lenses wouldn't deflect them if they weren't solid fields of force."
As he spoke, one of the ultra-lights flashed around in a short, quick arc, and the girl saw that instead of the fierce glare she had expected, it emitted only a soft violet light. Nevertheless she dodged involuntarily and Stevens touched her arm reassuringly.
"All x, Miss Newton—they're as harmless as mice. They hardly ever have to swing past the vertical, and even if one shines right through you you can look it right in the eye as long as you want to—it can't hurt you a bit."
"No ultra-violet at all?"
"None whatever. Just a color—one of the many remaining crudities of our ultra-light vision. A lot of good men are studying this thing of direct vision, though, and it won't be long before we have a system that will really work."
"I think it's all perfectly wonderful!" she breathed. "Just think of traveling in comfort through empty space, and of actually seeing through seamless steel walls, without even a sign of a window! How can such things be possible?"
"I'll have to go pretty well back," he warned, "and any adequate explanation is bound to be fairly deep wading in spots. How technical can you stand it?"
"I can go down with you middling deep—I took a lot of general science, and physics through advanced mechanics. Of course, I didn't get into any such highly specialized stuff as sub-electronics or Roeser's Rays, but if you start drowning me, I'll yell."
"That's fine—you can get the idea all x, with that to go on. Let's sit down here on this girder. Roeser didn't do it all, by any means, even though he got credit for it—he merely helped the Martians do it. The whole thing started, of course, when Goddard shot his first rocket to the moon, and was intensified when Roeser so perfected his short waves that signals were exchanged with Mars—signals that neither side could make any sense out of. Goddard's pupils and followers made bigger and better rockets, and finally got one that could land safely upon Mars. Roeser, who was a mighty keen bird, was one of the first voyagers, and he didn't come back—he stayed there, living in a space-suit for three or four years, and got a brand-new education. Martian science always was hot, you know, but they were impractical. They were desperately hard up for water and air, and while they had a lot of wonderful ideas and theories, they couldn't overcome the practical technical difficulties in the way of making their ideas work. Now putting other peoples' ideas to work was Roeser's long suit—don't think that I'm belittling Roeser at all, either, for he was a brave and far-sighted man, was no mean scientist, and was certainly one of the best organizers and synchronizers the world has ever known—and since Martian and Tellurian science complemented each other, so that one filled in the gaps of the other, it wasn't long until fleets of space-freighters were bringing in air and water from Venus, which had more of both than she needed or wanted.
"Having done all he could for the Martians and having learned most of the stuff he wanted to know, Roeser came back to Tellus and organized Interplanetary, with scientists and engineers on all three planets, and set to work to improve the whole system, for the vessels they used then were dangerous—regular mankillers, in fact. At about this same time Roeser and the Interplanetary Corporation had a big part in the unification of the world into one nation, so that wars could no longer interfere with progress."
* * * * *
"With this introduction I can get down to fundamentals. Molecules are particles of the first order, and vibrations of the first order include sound, light, heat, electricity, radio, and so on. Second order, atoms—extremely short vibrations, such as hard X-rays. Third order, electrons and protons, with their accompanying Millikan, or cosmic, rays. Fourth order, sub-electrons and sub-protons. These, in the material aspect, are supposed to be the particles of the fourth order, and in the energy aspect they are known as Roeser's Rays. That is, these fourth-order rays and particles seem to partake of the nature of both energy and matter. Following me?"
"Right behind you," she assured him. She had been listening intently, her wide-spaced brown eyes fastened upon his face.
"Since these Roeser's Rays, or particles or rays of the fourth order, seem to be both matter and energy, and since the rays can be converted into what is supposed to be the particles, they have been thought to be the things from which both electrons and protons were built. Therefore, everybody except Norman Brandon has supposed them the ultimate units of creation, so that it would be useless to try to go any further...."
"Why, we were taught that they are the ultimate units!" she protested.
"I know you were—but we really don't know anything, except what we have learned empirically, even about our driving forces. What is called the fourth-order particle is absolutely unknown, since nobody has been able to detect it, to say nothing of determining its velocity or other properties. It has been assumed to have the velocity of light only because that hypothesis does not conflict with observational data. I'm going to give you the generally accepted idea, since we have nothing definite to offer in its place, but I warn you that that idea is very probably wrong. There's a lot of deep stuff down there hasn't been dug up yet. In fact, Brandon thinks that the product of conversion isn't what we think it is, at all—that the actual fundamental unit and the primary mechanism of the transformation lie somewhere below the fourth order, and possibly even below the level of the ether—but we haven't been able to find a point of attack yet that will let us get in anywhere. However, I'm getting 'way ahead of our subject. To get back to it, energy can be converted into something that acts like matter through Roeser's Rays, and that is the empirical fact underlying the drive of our space-ships, as well as that of almost all other vehicles on all three planets. Power is generated by the great waterfalls of Tellus and Venus—water's mighty scarce on Mars, of course, so most of our plants there use fuel—and is transmitted on light beams, by means of powerful fields of force to the receptors, wherever they may be. The individual transmitting fields and receptors are really simply matched-frequency units, each matching the electrical characteristics of some particular and unique beam of force. This beam is composed of Roeser's Rays, in their energy aspect. It took a long time to work out this tight-beam transmission of power, but it was fairly simple after they got it."
He took out a voluminous notebook, at the sight of which Nadia smiled.
"A computer might forget to dress, but you'd never catch one without a full magazine pencil and a lot of blank paper," he grinned in reply and went on, writing as he talked.
"For any given frequency, f, and phase angle, theta, you integrate, between limits zero and pi divided by two, sine theta d...."
"Hold it—I'm sinking!" Nadia exclaimed. "I don't integrate at all unless it is absolutely necessary. As long as you stick to general science, I'm right on your heels, but please lay off of integrations and all that—most especially stay away from those terrible electrical integrations. I always did think that they were the most poisonous kind known. I want only a general idea—that's all that I can understand, anyway."
"Sure, I forgot—guess I was getting in deeper than is necessary, especially since this whole thing of beam transmission is pretty crude yet and is bound to change a lot before long. There is so much loss that when we get more than a few hundred million kilometers away from a power-plant we lose reception entirely. But to get going again, the receptors receive the beam and from them the power is sent to the accumulators, where it is stored. These accumulators are an outgrowth of the storage battery. The theory of the accumulator is...."
"Lay off the theory, please!" the listener interrupted. "I understand perfectly without it. Energy is stored in the accumulators—you put it in and take it out. That's all that is necessary."
* * * * *
"I'd like to give you some of the theory—but, after all, it wouldn't add much to your understanding of the working of things, and it might mix you up, as some of it is pretty deep stuff. Then, too, it would take a lot of time, and the rest of your friends would squawk if I kept you here indefinitely. From the accumulators, then, the power is fed to the converters, each of which is backed by a projector. The converters simply change the aspect of the rays, from the energy aspect to the material aspect. As soon as this is done, the highly-charged particles—or whatever they are—thus formed are repelled by the terrific stationary force maintained in the projector backing the converter. Each particle departs with a velocity supposed to be that of light, and the recoil upon the projector drives the vessel, or car, or whatever it is attached to. Still with me?"
"Struggling a little, but my nose is still above the surface. These particles, being so infinitesimally small that they cannot even be detected, go right through any substance without any effect—they are not even harmful."
"Exactly. Now we are in position to go ahead with the lights, detectors, and so on. The energy aspect of the rays you can best understand as simply a vibration in the ether—an extremely high frequency one. While not rigidly scientific, that is close enough for you and me. Nobody knows what the stuff really is, and it cannot be explained or demonstrated by any model or concept in three-dimensional space. Its physical-mathematical interpretation, the only way in which it can be grasped at all, requires sixteen coordinates in four dimensions, and I don't suppose you'd care to go into that."
"I'll say I wouldn't!" she exclaimed, feelingly.
"Well, anyway, by the use of suitable fields of force it can be used as a carrier wave. Most of this stuff of the fields of force—how to carry the modulation up and down through all the frequency changes necessary—was figured out by the Martians ages ago. Used as a pure carrier wave, with a sender and a receiver at each end, it isn't so bad—that's why our communicator and radio systems work as well as they do. They are pretty good, really, but the ultra-light vision system is something else again. Sending the heterodyned wave through steel is easy, but breaking it up, so as to view an object and return the impulses, was an awful job and one that isn't half done yet. We see things, after a fashion and at a distance of a few kilometers, by sending an almost parallel wave from a twin-projector to disintegrate and double back the viewing wave. That's the way the lookout plates and lenses work, all over the ship—from the master-screens in the control room to the plates of the staterooms and lifeboats and the viewing-areas of the promenades. But the whole system is a rotten makeshift, and...."
"Just a minute!" exclaimed the girl. "I and everybody else have been thinking that everything is absolutely perfect; and yet every single thing you have talked about, you have ended up by describing as 'unknown,' 'rudimentary,' 'temporary,' or a 'makeshift.' You speak as though the entire system were a poor thing that will have to do until something better has been found, and that nobody knows anything about anything! How do you get that way?"
"By working with Brandon and Westfall. Those birds have got real brains and they're on the track of something that will, in all probability, be as far ahead of Roeser's Rays as our present system is ahead of the science of the seventeenth century."
"Really?" she looked at him in astonishment. "Tell me about it."
"Can't be done," he refused. "I don't know much about it—even they didn't know any too much about some of it when I had to come in. And what little I do know I can't tell, because it isn't mine."
"But you're working with them, aren't you?"
"Yes, in the sense that a small boy helps his father build a house. They're the brains—I simply do some figuring that they don't want to waste time doing."
Nadia, having no belief whatever in his modest disclaimer, but in secret greatly pleased by his attitude, replied:
"Of course you couldn't say anything about an unfinished project—I shouldn't have asked. Where do we go from here?"
"Down the lining of the hull, outside the passengers' quarters to the upper dirigible projectors," and he led the way down a series of steep steel stairways, through bulkheads and partitions of steel. "One thing I forgot to tell you about—the detectors. They're worked on the same principle as the lights, and are just about as efficient. Instead, of light, though, they send out cones of electro-magnetic waves, which set up induced currents in any conductor encountered beyond our own shell. Since all dangerous meteorites have been shown to contain conducting material, that is enough to locate them, for radio finders automatically determine the direction, distance, and magnitude of the disturbance, and swing a light on it. That was what happened when that light swung toward us, back there in the prow."
"Are there any of those life-boats, that I've heard discussed so much lately, near here?" asked the girl.
"Lots of 'em—here's one right here," and at the next landing he opened a vacuum-insulated steel door, snapped on a light, and waved his hand. "You can't see much of it from here, but it's a complete space-ship in itself, capable of maintaining a dozen or fifteen persons during a two-weeks' cruise in space."
"Why isn't it a good idea to retain them? Accidents are still possible, are they not?"
"Of course, and there is no question of doing away with them entirely. Modern ships, however, have only enough of them to take care of the largest number of persons ever to be carried by the vessel."
"Has the Arcturus more than she needs?"
"I'll say she has, and more of everything else, except room for pay-load."
"I've heard them talking about junking her. I think it's a shame."
"So do I, in a way—you see, I helped design her and her sister-ship, the Sirius, which Brandon and Westfall are using as a floating laboratory. But times change, and the inefficient must go. She's a good old tub, but she was built when everybody was afraid of space, and we had to put every safety factor into her that we could think of. As a result, she is four times as heavy as she should be, and that takes a lot of extra power. Her skin is too thick. She has too many batteries of accumulators, too many life-boats, too many bulkheads and air-breaks, too many and too much of everything. She is so built that if she should break up out in space, nobody would die if they lived through the shock—there are so many bulkheads, air-breaks, and life-boats that no matter how many pieces she broke up into, the survivors would find themselves in something able to navigate. That excessive construction is no longer necessary. Modern ships carry ten times the pay-load on one-quarter of the power that this old battle-wagon uses. Even though she's only four years old, she's a relic of the days when we used to slam through on the ecliptic route, right through all the meteoric stuff that is always there—trusting to heavy armor to ward off anything too small for the observers and detectors to locate. Now, with the observatories and check-stations out in space, fairly light armor is sufficient, as we route ourselves well away from the ecliptic and so miss all the heavy stuff. So, badly as I hate to see her go there, the old tub is bound for the junk-yard."
* * * * *
A few more flights of stairs brought them to the upper band of dirigible projectors, which encircled the hull outside the passengers' quarters, some sixty feet below the prow. They were heavy, search-light-like affairs mounted upon massive universal bearings, free to turn in any direction, and each having its converter nestling inside its prodigious field of force. Stevens explained that these projectors were used in turning the vessel and in dodging meteorites when necessary, and they went on through another almost invisible door into a hall and took an elevator down to the main corridor.
"Well, you've seen it, Miss Newton," Stevens said regretfully, as he led her toward the captain's office. "The lower half is full of heavy stuff—accumulators, machinery, driving projectors, and such junk, so that the center of gravity is below the center of action of the driving projectors. That makes stable flight possible. It's all more or less like what we've just seen, and I don't suppose you want to miss the dance—anyway, a lot of people want to dance with you."
"Wouldn't you just as soon show me through the lower half as dance?"
"So would I. I can dance any time, and I want to see everything. Let's go!"
Down they went, past battery after battery of accumulators; climbing over and around the ever-increasing number of huge steel girders and bracers; through mazes of heavily insulated wiring and conduits; past mass after mass of automatic machinery which Stevens explained to his eager listener. They inspected one of the great driving projectors, which, built rigidly parallel to the axis of the ship and held immovably in place by enormous trusses of steel, revealed neither to the eye nor to the ear any sign of the terrific force it was exerting. Still lower they went, until the girl had been shown everything, even down to the bottom ultra-lights and stern braces.
"Tired?" Stevens asked, as the inspection was completed.
"Not very. It's been quite a climb, but I've had a wonderful time."
"So have I," he declared, positively. "I know what—we'll crawl up into one of these stern lifeboats and make us a cup of coffee before we climb back. With me?"
"'Way ahead of you!" Nadia accepted the invitation enthusiastically, and they made their way to the nearest of the miniature space-cruisers. Here, although no emergency had been encountered in all the four years of the vessel's life, they found everything in readiness, and the two soon had prepared and eaten a hearty luncheon.
"Well, I can't think of any more excuses for monopolizing you, Miss Newton, so I suppose I'll have to take you back. Believe me, I've enjoyed this more than you can realize—I've...."
He broke off and listened, every nerve taut. "What was that?" he exclaimed.
"What was what? I didn't hear anything?"
"Something screwy somewhere! I felt a vibration, and anything that'd make this mountain of steel even quiver must have given us one gosh-awful nudge. There's another!"
The girl, painfully tense, felt only a barely perceptible tremor, but the computer, knowing far better than she the inconceivable strength and mass of that enormous structure of solidly braced hardened steel, sprang into action. Leaping to the small dirigible look-out plate, he turned on the power and swung it upward.
* * * * *
"Great suffering snakes!" he ejaculated, then stood mute, for the plate revealed a terrible sight. The entire nose of the gigantic craft had been sheared off in two immense slices as though clipped off by a gigantic sword, and even as they stared, fascinated, at the sight, the severed slices were drifting slowly away. Swinging the view along the plane of cleavage, Stevens made out a relatively tiny ball of metal, only fifty feet or so in diameter, at a distance of perhaps a mile. From this ball there shot a blinding plane of light, and the Arcturus fell apart at the midsection, the lower half separating clean from the upper portion, which held the passengers. Leaving the upper half intact, the attacker began slicing the lower, driving half into thin, disk-shaped sections. As that incandescent plane of destruction made its first flashing cut through the body of the Arcturus, accompanied by an additional pyrotechnic display of severed and short-circuited high-tension leads, Stevens and Nadia suddenly found themselves floating weightless in the air of the room. Still gripping the controls of the look-out plate, Stevens caught the white-faced girl with one hand, drew her down beside him, and held her motionless while his keen mind flashed over all the possibilities of the situation and planned his course of action.
"They're apparently slicing us pretty evenly, and by the looks of things, one cut is coming right about here," he explained rapidly, as he found a flashlight and drew his companion through the door and along a narrow passage. Soon he opened another door and led her into a tiny compartment so low that they could not stand upright—a mere cubicle of steel. Carefully closing the door, he fingered dials upon each of the walls of the cell, then folded himself up into a comfortable position, instructed Nadia to do the same, and snapped off the light.
"Please leave it on," the shaken girl asked. "It's so ghastly!"
"We'd better save it, Nadia," he advised, pressing her arm reassuringly, "it's the only light we've got, and we may need it worse later on—its life is limited, you know."
"Later on? Do you think we'll need anything—later on?"
"Sure! Of course they may get us, Nadia, but this little tertiary air-break is a mighty small target for them to hit. And if they miss us, as I think they will, there's a larger room opening off each wall of this one—at least one of which will certainly be left intact. From any one of those rooms we can reach a life-boat. Of course, it's a little too much to expect that any one of the life-boats will be left whole, but they're bulkheaded, too, you know, so that we can be sure of finding something able to navigate—providing we can make our get-away. Believe me, ace, I'm sure glad we're aboard the old Arcturus right now, with all her safety-devices, instead of on one of the modern liners. We'd be sunk right."
"I felt sunk enough for a minute—I'm feeling better now, though, since you are taking it so calmly."
"Sure—why not? A man's not dead until his heart stops beating, you know—our turn'll come next, when they let up a little."
"But suppose they change the width of their slices, and hit this cubby, small as it is?"
"It'd be just too bad," he shrugged. "In that case, we'd never know what hit us, so it's no good worrying about it. But say, we might do something at that, if they didn't hit us square. I can move fairly fast, and might be able to get a door open before the loss of pressure seals it. We'll light the flash ... here, you hold it, so that I can have both hands free. Put both arms around me, just under the arms, and stick to me like a porous plaster, because if I have to move at all, I'll have to jump like chain lightning. Shine the beam right over there, so it'll reflect and light up all the dials at once. There ... hold on tight! Here they come!"
As he spoke, a jarring shudder shook one side of their hiding-place, then, a moment later, the phenomenon was repeated, but with much less force, upon the other side. Stevens sighed with relief, took the light, and extinguished it.
"Missed us clean!" he exulted. "Now, if they don't find us, we're all set."
"How can they possibly find us? I seem to be always worried about the wrong things, but I should think that their finding us would be the least of our troubles."
"Don't judge their vision system by ours—they've got everything, apparently. However, their apparatus may not be delicate enough to spot us in a space this small when their projectors flash through it, as they probably will. Then, too, there's a couple of other big items in our favor—nobody else is in the entire lower half, since all this machinery down here is either automatic or else controlled from up above, so they won't be expecting to see anybody when they get down this far; and we aren't at all conspicuous. We're both dressed in gray—your clothes in particular are almost exactly the color of this armor-plate—so altogether we stand a good chance of being missed."
"What shall we do now?"
"Nothing whatever—wish we could sleep for a couple of hours, but of course there's no hope of that. Stretch out here, like that—you can't rest folded up like an accordion—and I'll lie down diagonally across the room. There's just room for me that way. That's one advantage of weightlessness—you can lie down standing on your head, and go to sleep and like it. But I forgot—you've never been weightless before, have you? Does it make you sick?"
"Not so much, now, except that I feel awfully weird inside. I was horribly dizzy and nauseated at first, but it's going away."
* * * * *
"That's good—it makes lots of people pretty sick. In fact, some folks get awfully sick and can't seem to get used to it at all. It's the canals in the inner ear that do most of it, you know. However, if you're as well as that already, you'll be a regular spacehound in half an hour. I've been weightless for weeks at a stretch, out in the Sirius, and now I've got so I really like it. Here, we'd better keep in touch." He found her hand and tucked it under his arm. "Stabilize our positions more, besides keeping us from getting too lonesome, here in the dark," he concluded, in a matter-of-fact voice.
"Thanks for saying 'us'—but you would, wouldn't you?" and a wave of admiration went through her for the real and chivalrous manhood of the man with whom she had been forced by circumstances to cast her lot. "How long must we stay here?"
"As long as the air lasts, and I'd like to stay here longer than that. We don't want to move around any more than we absolutely have to until their rays are off of us, and we have no way of knowing how long that will be. Also, we'd better keep still. I don't know what kind of an audio system they've got, but there's no use taking unnecessary chances."
"All x—I'm an oyster's little sister," and for many minutes the two remained motionless and silent. Now and then Nadia twitched and started at some vague real or imaginary sound—now and then her fingers tightened upon his biceps—and he pressed her hand with his great arm in reassurance and understanding. Once a wall of their cell resounded under the impact of a fierce blow and Stevens instantly threw his arm around the girl, twisting himself between her and the threatened wall, ready for any emergency. But nothing more happened; the door remained closed, the cell stayed bottle-tight, and time wore slowly on. All too soon the unmistakable symptoms of breathing an unfit atmosphere made themselves apparent and Stevens, after testing each of the doors, drew the girl into a larger room, where they breathed deeply of the fresh, cool air.
"How did you know that this room was whole?" asked Nadia. "We might have stepped out into space, mightn't we?"
"No; if this room had lost its tightness, the door wouldn't have opened. They won't open if there's a difference of one kilogram pressure on the two sides. That's how I knew that the room we were in at first was cut in two—the door into that air-break wouldn't move."
"What comes next?"
"I don't know exactly what to do—we'd better hold a little council of war. They may have gone..." Stevens broke off as the structure began to move, and they settled down upon what had been one of the side-walls. Greater and greater became the acceleration, until their apparent weight was almost as much as it would have been upon the Earth, at which point it became constant. "... but they haven't," he continued the interrupted sentence. "This seems to be a capture and seizure, as well as an attack, so we'll have to take the risk of looking at them. Besides, it's getting cold in here. One or two of the adjoining cells have apparently been ruptured and we're radiating our heat out into space, so we'll have to get into a life-boat or freeze. I'll go pick out the best one. Wonder if I'd better take you with me, or hide you and come back after you?"
"Don't worry about that—I'm coming with you," Nadia declared, positively.
"Just as well, probably," he assented, and they set out. A thorough exploration of all the tight connecting cells revealed that not a lifeboat within their reach remained intact, but that habitable and navigable portions of three such craft were available. Selecting the most completely equipped of these, they took up their residence therein by entering it and closing the massive insulating door. Stevens disconnected all the lights save one, and so shielded that one before turning it on that it merely lightened the utter darkness into a semi-permeable gloom. He then stepped up to the lookout plate, and with his hand upon the control, pondered long the possible consequences of what he wished to do.
"What harm would it do to take just a little peek?"
"I don't know—that's the dickens of it. Maybe none, and then again, maybe a lot. You see, we don't know who or what we are up against. The only thing we know is that they've got us beat a hundred ways, and we've got to act accordingly. We've got to chance it sometime, though, if we can ever get away, so we might as well do it now. I'll put it on very short range first, and see what we can see. By the small number of cells we've got here I'm afraid they've split us up lengthwise, too—so that instead of having a whole slice of the old watermelon to live in, we've got only about a sixth of one—shaped about like a piece of restaurant pie. One thing I can do, though. I'll turn on the communicator receiver and put it on full coverage—maybe we can hear something useful."
Putting a little power upon the visiray plate, he moved the point of projection a short distance from their hiding-place, so that the plate showed a view of the wreckage. The upper half of the vessel was still intact, the lower half a jumble of sharply-cut fragments. From each of the larger pieces a brilliant ray of tangible force stretched outward. Suddenly their receiver sounded behind them, as the high-powered transmitter in the telegraph room tried to notify headquarters of their plight.
"Arcturus attacked and cut up being taken tow...."
Rapidly as the message was uttered the transmitter died with a rattle in the middle of a word, and Nadia looked at Stevens with foreboding in her eyes.
"They've got something, that's one thing sure, to be able to neutralize our communicator beams that way," he admitted. "Not so good—we'll have to play this close to our vests, girl!"
"Are you just trying to cheer me up, or do you really think we have a chance?" she demanded. "I want to know just where we stand."
"I'm coming clean with you, no kidding. If we can get away, we'll be all x, because I'll bet a farm that by this time Brandon's got everything those birds have, and maybe more. They beat us to it, that's all. I'm kind of afraid, though, that getting away isn't going to be quite as simple as shooting fish down a well."
* * * * *
Far ahead of them a port opened, a lifeboat shot out at its full power, and again their receiver tried to burst into sound, but it was a vain attempt. The sound died before one complete word could be uttered, and the lifeboat, its power completely neutralized by the rays of the tiny craft of the enemy, floated gently back toward the mass of its parent and accompanied it in its headlong flight. Several more lifeboats made the attempt, as the courageous officers of the Arcturus, some of whom had apparently succeeded in eluding the vigilance of the captors, launched the little shells from various ports; but as each boat issued, its power was neutralized and it found itself dragged helplessly along in the grip of one of those mysterious, brilliant rays of force. At least one hidden officer must have been watching the fruitless efforts, for the next lifeboat to issue made no attempt, either to talk or to flee, but from it there flamed out into space a concentrated beam of destruction—the terrible ray of annihilation, against which no known substance could endure for a moment; the ray which had definitely outlawed war. But even that frightful weapon was useless—it spent its force harmlessly upon an impalpable, invisible barrier, a hundred yards from its source, and the bold lifeboat disappeared in one blinding explosion of incandescence as the captor showed its real power in retaliation. Stevens, jaw hard-set, leaped from the screen, then brought himself up so quickly that he skated across the smooth steel floor. Shutting off the lookout plate, he led the half-fainting girl across the room to a comfortable seat and sat down beside her—raging, but thoughtful. Nadia soon recovered.
"Why are you acting so contrary to your nature—is it because of me?" she demanded. "A dozen times I've seen you start to do something and then change your mind. I will not be a load on you nor hinder you in anything you want to do."
"I told your father I'd look after you, and I'm going to do it," he replied, indirectly. "I would do it anyway, of course—even if you are ten or twelve years older than I thought you were."
"Yes, Dad never has realized that I'm more than eight years old. I see—you were going out there and be slaughtered?" He flushed, but made no reply. "In that case I'm glad I'm here—that would have been silly. I think we'd better hold that council of war you mentioned a while ago, don't you?"
"I need a smoke—do you indulge?"
"No thanks. I tried it a few times at school, but never liked it."
He searched his pockets, bringing to light an unopened package and a tattered remnant which proved to contain one dilapidated cigarette. He studied it thoughtfully. "I'll smoke this wreck," he decided, "while it's still smokable. We'll save the rest of them—I'm afraid it'll be a long time between smokes. Well, let's confer!"
"This will have to be a one-sided conference. I don't imagine that any of my ideas will prove particularly helpful. You talk and I'll listen.
"You can't tell what ideas may be useful—chip in any time you feel the urge. Here's the dope, as I see it. They're highly intelligent creatures and are in all probability neither Martians nor Venerians. If any of them had any such stuff as that, some of us would have known about it and, besides, I don't believe they would have used it in just that way. Mercury is not habitable, at least for organic beings; and we have never seen any sign of any other kind of inhabitants who could work with metals and rays. They're probably from Jupiter, although possibly from further away. I say Jupiter, because I would think, judging from the small size of the ship, that it may still be in the experimental stage, so that they probably didn't come from any further away than Jupiter. Then, too, if they were very numerous, somebody would have sighted one before. I'd give my left leg and four fingers for one good look at the inside of that ship."
"Why didn't you take it, then? You never even looked toward it, after that one first glimpse."
"I'll say I didn't—the reason being that they may have automatic detectors, and as I have suggested before, our system of vision is so crude that its use could be detected with a clothesline or a basket full of scrap iron. But to resume: Their aim is to capture, not destroy, since they haven't killed anybody except the one crew that attacked them. Apparently they want to study us or something. However, they don't intend that any of us shall get away, nor even send out a word of what has happened to us. Therefore it looks as though our best bet is to hide now, and try to sneak away on them after a while—direct methods won't work. Right?"
"You sound lucid. Is there any possibility of getting back, though, if we got anywhere near Jupiter? It's so far away!"
"It's a long stretch from Jupiter to any of the planets where we have power-plants, all right—particularly now, when Mars and Tellus are subtending an angle of something more than ninety degrees at the sun, and Venus is between the two, while Jupiter is clear across the sun from all three of them. Even when Jupiter is in mean opposition to Mars, it is still some five hundred and fifty million kilometers away, so you can form some idea as to how far it is from our nearest planet now. No, if we expect to get back under our own power, we've got to break away pretty quick—these lifeboats have very little accumulator capacity, and the receptors are useless above about three hundred million kilometers...."
"But it'll take us a long time to go that far, won't it?"
"Not very. Our own ships, using only the acceleration of gravity, and both plus and minus at that, make the better than four hundred million kilometers of the long route to Mars in five days. These birds are using almost that much acceleration, and I don't see how they do it. They must have a tractor ray. Brandon claimed that such a thing was theoretically possible, but Westfall and I couldn't see it. We ragged him about it a lot—and he was right. I thought, of course, they'd drift with us, but they are using power steadily. They've got some system!"
"Suppose they could be using intra-atomic energy? We were taught that it was impossible, but you've shattered a lot of my knowledge today."
"I wouldn't want to say definitely that it is absolutely impossible, but the deeper we go into that line, the more unlikely intra-atomic energy power-plants become. No, they've got a real power-transmission system—one that can hold a tight beam together a lot farther than anything we have been able to develop, that's all. Well, we've given them quite a lot of time to get over any suspicion of us, let's see if we can sneak away from them."
* * * * *
By short and infrequent applications of power to the dirigible projectors of the life-boat, Stevens slowly shifted the position of the fragment which bore their craft until it was well clear of the other components of the mass of wreckage. He then exerted a very small retarding force, so that their bit would lag behind the procession, as though it had accidently been separated. But the crew of the captor was alert, and no sooner did a clear space show itself between them and the mass than a ray picked them up and herded them back into place. Stevens then nudged other pieces so that they fell out, only to see them also rounded up. Hour after hour he kept trying—doing nothing sufficiently energetic to create any suspicion, but attempting everything he could think of that offered any chance of escape from the clutches of their captors. Immovable at the plate, his hands upon the controls, he performed every insidious maneuver his agile brain could devise, but he could not succeed in separating their vehicle from its fellows. Finally, after a last attempt, which was foiled as easily as were its predecessors, he shut off his controls and turned to his companion with a grin.
"I didn't think I could get away with it—they're keen, that gang—but I had to keep at it as long as it would have done us any good."
"Wouldn't it do us any good now?"
"Not a bit—we're going so fast that we couldn't stop—we're out of even radio range of our closest power-plant. We'll have to put off any more attempts until they slow us down. They're fairly close to at least one of the moons of Jupiter, we'll have our best chance—so good, in fact, that I really think we can make it."
"But what good would that do us, if we couldn't get back?" Dire foreboding showed in her glorious eyes.
"Lots of things not tried yet, girl, and we'll try them all. First, we get away. Second, we try to get in touch with Norman Brandon...."
"How? No known radio will carry half that far."
"No, but I think that a radio as yet unknown may be able to—and there is a bare possibility that I'll be able to communicate."
"Oh wonderful—that lifts a frightful load off my mind," she breathed.
"But just a minute—I said I'd come clean with you, and I will. The odds are all against us, no matter what we do. If that unknown radio won't work—and it probably won't—there are several other things we can try, but they're all pretty slim chances. Even if we get away, it'll probably be about the same thing as though you were to be marooned on a desert island without any tools, and with your rescue depending upon your ability to build a high-powered radio station with which to call to a mainland for help. However, if we don't try to get away, our only alternative is letting them know we're here, and joining our friends in captivity."
"And then what?"
"You know as much as I do. Imprisonment and restraint, certain; death, possible; return to Earth, almost certainly impossible—life as guests, highly improbable."
"I'm with you, Steve, all the way."
"Well, it's time to spring off—we've both been awake better than fifty hours. Personally, I'm all in, and you're so near dead that you're a physical wreck. We'll get us a bite of supper and turn in."
An appetizing supper was prepared from the abundant stores and each ate a heartier meal than either would have believed possible. Stevens considered his unopened package of cigarettes, then regretfully put it back into his pocket still unopened and turned to Nadia.
"Well, little fellow, it's time to shove off, and then some. You might as well sleep here, and I'll go in there. If anything scares you, yell. Good-night, old trapper!"
"Wait a minute, Steve." Nadia flushed, and her brown eyes and black eyebrows, in comparison with her golden-blond hair, lent her face a quizzical, elfin expression that far belied her feelings as she stared straight into his eyes. "I've never even been away from the Earth before, and with all this happening I'm simply scared to death. I've been trying to hide it, but I couldn't stand it alone, and we're going to be together too long and too close for senseless conventions to affect us. There's two bunks over there—why don't you sleep in one of them?"
He returned her steadfast gaze for a moment in silence.
"All x with me, Nadia," he answered, keeping out of his voice all signs of the tenderness he felt for her, and of his very real admiration for her straightforward conduct in a terrifying situation. "You trust me, then?"
"Trust you! Don't be silly—I know you! I know you, and I know Brandon and Westfall—I know what you've done, and exactly the kind of men you are. Trust you!"
"Thanks, old golf-shootist," and promises were made and received in a clasp from which Nadia's right hand, strong as it was, emerged slightly damaged.
"By the way, what is your first name, fellow-traveller?" she asked in lighter vein. "Nobody, not even Dad or Breckie, ever seems to call you anything but 'Steve' when they talk about you." She was amazed at the effect of her innocent question, for Stevens flushed to his hair and spluttered.
"It's Percy!" He finally, snorted. "Percival Van Schravendyck Stevens. Wouldn't that tear it?"
"Why, I think Percival's a real nice name!"
"Silence!" he hissed in burlesque style. "Young woman, I have revealed to you a secret known to but few living creatures. On your life, keep it inviolate!"
"Oh, very well, if you insist. Good-night—Steve!" and she gave him a radiant and honest smile: the first smile he had seen since the moment of the attack.
Castaways Upon Ganymede
Upon awakening, the man's first care was to instruct the girl in the operation of the projectors, so that she could keep the heavily-armored edge of their small section, which she had promptly christened "The Forlorn Hope," between them and the grinding, clashing mass of wreckage, and thus, if it should become necessary, protect the relatively frail inner portions of their craft from damage.
"Keep an eye on things for a while, Nadia," he instructed, as soon as she could handle the controls, "and don't use any more power than is absolutely necessary. We'll need it all, and besides, they can probably detect anything we can use. There's probably enough leakage from the ruptured accumulator cells to mask quite a little emission, but don't use much. I'm going to see what I can do about making this whole wedge navigable."
"Why not just launch what's left of this lifeboat? It's space-worthy, isn't it?"
"Yes, but it's too small. Two or three of the big dirigible projectors of the lower band are on the rim of this piece-of-pie-shaped section we're riding, I think. If so, and if enough batteries of accumulators are left intact to give them anywhere nearly full power, we can get an acceleration that will make a lifeboat look sick. Those main dirigibles, you know, are able to swing the whole mass of the Arcturus, and what they'll do to this one chunk of it—we've got only a few thousand tons of mass in this piece—will be something pretty. Also, having the metal may save us months of time in mining it."
He found the projectors, repaired or cut out the damaged accumulator cells, and reconnected them through the controls of the lifeboat. He moved into the "engine-room" the airtanks, stores, and equipment from all the other fragments which, by means of a space-suit, he could reach without too much difficulty. From the battery rooms of those fragments—open shelves, after being sliced open by the shearing ray—he helped himself to banks of accumulator cells from the enormous driving batteries of the ill-fated Arcturus, bolting them down and connecting them solidly until almost every compartment of their craft was one mass of stored-up energy.
Days fled like hours, so furiously busy were they in preparing their peculiar vessel for a cruise of indefinite duration. Stevens cut himself short on sleep and snatched his meals in passing; and Nadia, when not busy at her own tasks of observing, housekeeping, and doing what little piloting was required, was rapidly learning to wield most effectively the spanner and pliers of the mechanic and electrician.
"I'm afraid our time is getting short, Steve," she announced, after making an observation. "It looks as though we're getting wherever it is we're going."
"Well, I've got only two more jobs to do, but they're the hardest of the lot. It is Jupiter, or can you tell yet?"
"Jupiter or one of its satellites, I think, from the point where they reversed their power. Here's the observation you told me to take."
"Looks like Jupiter," he agreed, after he had rapidly checked her figures. "We'll pass very close to one of those two satellites—probably Ganymede—which is fine for our scheme. All four of the major satellites have water and atmosphere, but Ganymede, being largest, is best for our purposes. We've got a couple of days yet—just about time to finish up. Let's get going—you know what to do."
"Steve, I'm afraid of it. It's too dangerous—isn't there some other way?"
"None that I can see. The close watch they're keeping on every bit of this junk makes it our only chance for a get-away. I'm pretty sure I can do it—but if I should happen to get nipped, just use enough power to let them know you're here, and you won't be any worse off than if I hadn't tried to pull off this stunt."
He donned a space-suit, filled a looped belt with tools, picked up a portable power-drill, and stepped into the tiny air-lock. Nadia deftly guided their segment against one of the larger fragments and held it there with a gentle, steady pressure, while Stevens, a light cable paying out behind him, clambered carefully over the wreckage, brought his drill into play, and disappeared inside the huge wedge. In less than an hour he returned without mishap and reported to the glowing girl.
"Just like shooting fish down a well! Most of the accumulator cells were tight, and installing the relays wasn't a bad job at all. Believe me, girl, there'll be junk filling all the space between here and Saturn when we touch them off!"
"Wonderful, Steve!" Nadia exclaimed. "It won't be so bad seeing you go into the others, now that you have this one all rigged up."
* * * * *
Around and around the mass of wreckage they crept, and in each of the larger sections Stevens connected up the enormous fixed or dirigible projectors to whatever accumulator cells were available through sensitive relays, all of which he could close by means of one radio impulse. The long and dangerous task done, he stood at the lookout plate, studying the huge disk which had been the upper portion of the lower half of the Arcturus and frowning in thought. Nadia reached over his shoulder and switched off the plate.
"Nix on that second job, big fellow!" she declared. "They aren't really necessary, and you're altogether too apt to be killed trying to get them. It's too ghastly—I won't stand for your trying it, so that ends it."
"We ought to have them, really," he protested. "With those special tools, cutting torches, and all the stuff, we'd be sitting pretty. We'll lose weeks of time by not having them."
"We'll just have to lose it, then. You can't get 'em, any more than a baby can get the moon, so stop crying about it," she went over the familiar argument for the twentieth time. "That stuff up there is all grinding together like cakes of ice in a floe; the particular section you want is in plain sight of whoever is on watch; and those tools and things are altogether too heavy to handle. You're a husky brute, I know, but even you couldn't begin to handle them, even if you had good going. I couldn't help you very much, even if you'd let me try; and the fact that you so positively refuse to let me come along shows how dangerous you know the attempt is bound to be. You'd probably never even get up there alive, to say nothing of getting back here. No, Steve, that's out like a light."
"I sure wish they'd left us weightless for a while, sometime, if only for an hour or two," he mourned.
"But they didn't!" she retorted, practically. "So we're just out of luck to that extent. Our time is about up, too. It's time you worked us back to the tail end of this procession—or rather, the head end, since we're traveling 'down' now."
Stevens took the controls and slowly worked along the outer edge of the mass, down toward its extremity. Nadia put one hand upon his shoulder and he glanced around.
"Thanks, Steve. We have a perfectly wonderful chance as it is, and we've gone so far with our scheme together that it would be a crying shame not to be able to go through with it. I'd hate like sin to have to surrender to them now, and that's all I could do if anything should become of you. Besides..." her voice died away into silence.
"Sure, you're right," he hastily replied, dodging the implication of that unfinished sentence. "I couldn't figure out anything that looked particularly feasible anyway—that's why I didn't try it. We'll pass it up."
Soon they arrived at their objective and maintained a position well in the van, but not sufficiently far ahead of the rest to call forth a restraining ray from their captors. Already strongly affected by the gravitational pull of the mass of the satellite, many of the smaller portions of the wreck, not directly held by the tractors, began to separate from the main mass. As each bit left its place another beam leaped out, until it became apparent that no more were available, and Stevens strapped the girl and himself down before two lookout plates.
"Now for it, Nadia!" he exclaimed, and simultaneously threw on the power of his own projectors and sent out the radio impulse which closed the relays he had so carefully set. They were thrown against the restraining straps savagely and held there by an enormous weight as the gigantic dirigible projectors shot their fragment of the wreck away from the comparatively slight force which had been acting upon it, but they braced themselves and strained their muscles in order to watch what was happening. As the relays in the various fragments closed, the massed power of the accumulators was shorted dead across the converters and projectors instead of being fed into them gradually through the controls of the pilot, with a result comparable to that of the explosion of an ammunition dump. Most of the masses, whose projectors were fed by comparatively few accumulator cells, darted away entirely with a stupendous acceleration. A few of them, however, received the unimpeded flow of complete batteries. Those projectors tore loose from even their massive supports and crashed through anything opposing them like a huge, armor-piercing projectile. It was a spectacle to stagger the imagination, and Stevens grinned as he turned to the girl, who was staring in wide-eyed amazement.
"Well, ace, I think they're busy enough now so that it'll be safe to take that long-wanted look at their controls," and he flashed the twin beams of his lookout light out beyond the upper half of the Arcturus—only to see them stop abruptly in mid-space. Even the extremely short carrier-wave of Roeser's Rays could not go through the invisible barrier thrown out by the tiny, but powerful globe of space.
"No penetration?" Nadia asked.
"Flattened them out cold. 'However,' as the fox once remarked about the grapes, 'I'll bet they're sour, anyway.' We'll have some stuff of our own, one of these days. I sure hope the fireworks we started back there keep those birds amused until we get out of sight, because if I use much more power on these projectors we may not have juice enough left to stop with."