Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
WANDL THE INVADER
by RAY CUMMINGS
ACE BOOKS, INC. 23 West 47th Street, New York 36, N.Y.
Copyright (C), 1961, by Ace Books, Inc.
Magazine version serialized in Astounding Stories, Copyright, 1932, by Clayton Publications, Inc.
* * * * *
"It's a planet," I said. "A little world."
"How little?" Venza demanded.
"One-fifth the mass of the Moon. That's what they've calculated now."
"And how far is it away?" Anita asked. "I heard a newscaster say yesterday...."
"Newscasters!" Venza broke in scornfully. "Say, you can take what they tell you about any danger or trouble and cut it in half; and even then you'll be on the gloomy side. See here, Gregg Haljan."
"I'm not giving you newscasters' blare," I retorted. Venza's extravagant vehemence was always refreshing. The Venus girl glared at me. I added: "Anita mentioned newscasters; I didn't."
Anita was in no mood for smiling. "Tell us, Gregg." She sat upright and tense, her chin cupped in her hands. "Tell us."
"For a fact, they don't know much about it yet. You can call it a planet, a wanderer."
"I should say it was a wanderer!" Venza exclaimed. "Coming from heaven knows where beyond the stars, swimming in here like a comet."
"They calculated its distance yesterday at some sixty-five million miles from Earth," I said. "It isn't so far beyond the orbit of Mars, coming diagonally and heading very nearly for the Sun. But it's not a comet."
The thing was indeed inexplicable; for many weeks now, astronomers had been studying it. This was early summer of the year 2070 A.D. All of us had recently returned from those extraordinary events I have already recounted, when we came close to losing Johnny Grantline's radiactum treasure on the Moon, and our lives as well. My ship, the Planetara, in the astronomical seasons when the Earth, Mars, and Venus were within comfortable traveling distances of each other, had carried mail and passengers from Greater New York to Ferrok-Shahn, of the Martian Union, and to Grebhar, of the Venus Free State. Now it was wrecked on the Moon.
[Footnote 1: See "Brigands of the Moon", Ace Book, D-324]
I had been under navigating officer of the Planetara. Upon her, I had met Anita Prince, whose only living relative, her brother, was among those killed in the struggle with the brigands; Anita and I were soon to marry, we hoped.
I was waiting now in Greater New York upon the decision of the Line officials regarding another spaceship. Perhaps I would have command of it, since Captain Carter of the Planetara had been killed.
It was a month or so before that adventure, April, 2070, that this mysterious visitor from interstellar space first appeared upon our astronomical horizon. A little thing, at first, a mere unusual dot, a pinpoint on a photo-electric star diagram which should not have been there. It occasioned no comment at the time, save that some thought it might be another planet beyond Pluto; but this was not taken seriously enough to get into the newscasts. None of us had heard about it as late as May, when the Planetara set out on what was to be her final voyage.
Presently, it was seen that the object could not be a planet of our solar system; Coming in at tremendous speed, it daily changed its aspect, gathering velocity until soon it was not a dot, but a streak on every diagram-plate.
In a week or so the thing passed from an astronomical curiosity to an item of public news. And now, early in June, when it had cut through the orbit of Jupiter and was approaching that of Mars, fear was growing. The visitor was a menace. No astronomical body could come among us, with a mass as great as a fifth of the Moon, without causing trouble.
The newscasters, with a ready skill for lurid possibilities, were blaring of all sorts of horrible events impending.
I told the girls all I knew of the approaching wanderer. The density was similar to that of Earth. The oncoming velocity and the calculated elements of its orbit now were such that within a few weeks more the new planet would round our Sun and presumably head outward again. It would pass within a few million miles of us, causing a disturbance to Earth's orbit, even a change of the inclination of our axis, affecting our tides and our climate.
"So I've heard," Venza interrupted me. "They say that, and then they stop. Why can't a newscaster tell you what is so mysterious?"
"For a very good reason, Venza: because you can't throw people into a panic. This whole thing, up to today, has been withheld from the public of Earth and Venus. The Martian Union tried to withhold it, but could not. Every heliogram between the worlds is censored."
"And still," said Venza sarcastically, "you don't tell us what is so mysterious about this wanderer."
"For one thing," I said, "it changes its direction. No normal heavenly body does that. They calculated the elements of its orbit last April. They've done it twenty times since, and every time the projected orbit is different. Just a little at first, but last week the accursed thing actually took a sudden turn, as though it were a spaceship."
The girls stared at me. "What does that mean?" Anita asked.
"They're beginning to make wild guesses but we won't go into that."
"What else is mysterious?" Venza demanded.
"The thing isn't normally visible."
Venza shifted her silk-sheathed legs. "Don't talk in code!"
"Not normally visible," I repeated. "A world one-fifth as large as the Moon could be seen plainly by our 'scopes when well beyond Pluto. It's now between Jupiter and Mars, invisible to the naked eye, of course, but still it's not very far away. I've been out there myself. With instruments, we ought to be able to see its surface; see whether it has land and water, inhabitants perhaps. You should be able to distinguish an object on its surface as large as a city, but you can't."
"Why not?" asked Anita. "Are the clouds too thick? What causes it?"
"They don't even know that," I retorted. "There is something abnormal about the light-waves coming from it. Not exactly blurred, but a distortion, a fading. It's some abnormality of the light-waves."
A swift rapping on our door-grid interrupted me, and Snap Dean burst in.
"Hola-lo, everybody! Is it a conference? You look so solemn."
He dashed across the room, kissed Venza, pretended that he was about to kiss Anita, and winked at me. He was a dynamic little fellow, small, wiry, red-headed and freckle-faced, and had been the radio-helio operator of the ill-fated Planetara. He was a perfect match for Venza, for all the millions of miles that separated their native lands. Venza, too was small and slim, her manner as readily jocular as his.
"And where have you been?" Venza demanded.
"Me? My private life is my own, so far. We're not married yet, since you insist on us going to Grebhar for the ceremony."
"Do stop it," protested Anita. "We've been talking of...."
"I know very well what you've been talking about. Everybody is. I've got news for you, Gregg." He went abruptly solemn and lowered his voice. "Halsey wants to see us, right away."
I regarded him blankly and my mind swept back. No more than a few short weeks ago Detective-Colonel Halsey of Divisional Headquarters here in Greater New York had sent for us, and we had been precipitated into the Grantline affair. "Halsey!" I burst out.
"Easy, Gregg." Snap cast a vague look around Anita's draped apartment. An open window was beside us, leading to a tiny catwalk balcony. It was moonlit now, and two hundred feet above the pedestrian viaduct.
But Snap continued to frown. "Easy, I tell you. Why shout about Halsey? The air can have ears."
Venza moved and closed and sealed the window.
"What is it?" I asked, more softly.
But Snap was not satisfied. "Anita, do you have a complete isolation barrage for this room?"
"Of course I haven't, Snap."
"Well, Gregg do you have a detector with you?"
I had none. Snap produced his little coil and indicator dial. "It's out of order, but let's see now. Shove over that chair, Gregg."
He disconnected one of the room's tube-lights and contacted with the cathode. It was a makeshift method, but as he dropped to the floor, uncoiling a little length of his wire for an external pick-up, we saw that the thing worked. The pointer on the dial-face was swaying.
"Gregg!" he muttered. "Look at that. Didn't I tell you?"
The pointer quivered in positive reaction. An eavesdropping ray was upon us.
Anita gasped, "I had no idea!"
"No, but I did." Snap added softly. "No one very close."
He and I carried the detector to the length of the hall. The indicator went nearer normal. "It must be the other way," I whispered.
We went to the moonlit balcony. "Way down there on the pedestrian arcade," I said.
"We'll soon fix that," Snap said.
Inside the room, we made connection with a newscaster's blaring voice. Under cover of it we could talk. Snap gathered us close around him.
"Halsey has something important, and it's about this interstellar invader. It all connects. His office paged me on a public mirror. I happened to see it at Park-Circle 40. When I answered it, Halsey's man wanted me to talk in code. I can't talk in code; I have enough to worry about with the interplanetary helios. Then they sent me to an official booth, where I got examined for positive legal identification, and then they put me on the official split-wave length. After all of which precautions I was told to be at Halsey's office tonight at midnight, and told a few other things."
"What?" demanded Venza breathlessly.
"Only hints. Why take chances, by repeating them now?"
"You said he wants me, too?" I put in.
"Yes. You and Venza. We've got to get into his office secretly, by the vacuum cylinders. We're to meet a man from his office at the Eighth Postal switch-station."
"Venza?" Anita said sharply. "What in the universe can he want with Venza? If she's going, I'm going too!"
Snap gazed at her and grinned. "That sounds like a logical deduction. Naturally he must want you; that's why he said Venza."
"I'm going," Anita insisted.
We left half an hour before midnight. The girls were both in gray, with long capes. We took the public monorail into the mid-Manhattan section under the city roof of the business district, and into the Eighth Postal switch-station where the sleek bronze cylinders came tumbling out of the vacuum ports to be re-routed and dispatched again.
A man was on the lookout for us. "Daniel Dean and party?"
"Yes. We were ordered here."
The detective gazed at the girls and at me. "It was three, Dean."
"And now it's four," said Snap cheerfully. "The extra one is Miss Anita Prince. Ever heard of her?"
He had indeed. "All right," he said. "If you and Haljan say so."
We were put into one of the oversized mail cylinders and routed through the tubes like sacks of recorded letters; in ten minutes, with a thump that knocked the breath out of all of us, we were in the switch-rack of Halsey's outer office.
We clambered from the cylinder. Our guide led us down one of the gloomy metal corridors. It echoed with our tread.
A door lifted.
"Daniel Dean and party."
The guard stood aside. "Come in."
The door slid down behind us. We advanced into the small blue-lit apartment, steel-lined like a vault.
Colonel Halsey sat at his desk, with a few papers before him and a bank of instrument controls at his elbow. He pushed his audiphone and mirror-grid to one side.
"Sit down, please." He gave us each the benefit of a welcoming smile, and his gaze finished upon Anita.
"I came because you sent for Venza," Anita said quickly. "Please, Colonel Halsey, let me stay. I thought, whatever you want her for, you might need me, too."
"Quite so, Miss Prince. Perhaps I shall." It seemed that in his mind were many of the thoughts thronging my own, for he added: "Haljan, I recall I sent for you like this once before. I hope this may be a more auspicious occasion."
"So do I, sir."
Snap said, "We've been afraid hardly to do more than a whisper. But you're insulated here, and we're mighty curious."
Halsey nodded. "I can talk freely to you, and yet I cannot." His gaze went to Venza. "It is you in whom I am most interested."
"Me? You flatter me, Colonel Halsey." She sat gracefully reclining in the metal chair before his desk, seeming small as a child between its big, broad arms. Her long gray skirt had parted to display her shapely, gray-satined legs. She had thrown off the hood of her cloak. Her thick black hair was coiled in a knot low at the back of her neck; her carmine lips bore an alluring smile. It was all instinctive. To this girl from Venus it came as naturally as she breathed.
Halsey's gray eyes twinkled. "Do not look at me quite like that, Miss Venza, or I shall forget what I have to say. You would get the better of me; I'm glad you're not a criminal."
"So am I," she declared. "What can I do for you, Colonel Halsey?"
His smile faded at once. His glance included us all. "Just this. There is a man here in Greater New York, a Martian whom they call Set Molo. He has a younger sister, Setta Meka. Have any of you heard of them?"
We had not. Halsey went on, slowly now, apparently choosing his words with the greatest care. "There are things that I can tell you and there are things that I cannot."
"Why not?" asked Venza.
"My dear, for one thing, if you are going to help me you can do it best by not knowing too much. For another, I have my orders; this thing concerns the very highest authorities, not only of the U.S.W., but in Ferrok-Shahn and Grebhar too."
He paused, but none of us spoke. Then Halsey said quietly, "Well, this Martian and his sister are here now in Greater New York. They have some secret. They are engaged in some activity, and I want to find out what it is. I have picked up only little parts of it."
He stopped; and out of the silence Snap said, "If you don't mind, Colonel Halsey, it seems to me you are mostly talking in code."
"I'm not, but I'm trying to tell you as little as possible. You, Miss Venza, need only understand this: the Martian, Molo, must be induced to give you some idea of what he is doing here."
"And I am to induce him?" Venza asked calmly.
"That is my idea." The faint shadow of a smile swept Halsey's thin, intent face. "My dear, you are a girl of Venus. More than that, you have far more than your normal share of wits and brains."
It did not make Venza smile. She sat tense now, with her dark-eyed gaze fastened on Halsey's face. Anita, equally breathless, reached over and gripped her hand.
Then Venza said slowly, "I realize, Colonel Halsey, that this is something vital."
"As vital, my child, as it could be." He drew a long breath. "I want you to understand I am doing my duty. Doing, what seems the best thing, not for you, perhaps, but for the world."
I seemed to see into his mind at that moment. He might have been a father, sending a daughter into danger.
"I need not disguise the danger. I have lost a dozen men." He lighted a cigarette. "I don't seem to be able to frighten you?"
"No," she said. And I heard Anita murmur, "Oh, Venza!"
"But you frighten me," said Snap. "Colonel, look here; you know I'm going to marry this girl very soon."
"Yes, I know. You'll have to consider this a sacrifice, a voluntary descent into danger, for a great cause in a great crisis. You four have just come out of a very considerable danger. We know of what stuff you are made, all of you."
He smiled again. "Perhaps that prominence is unfortunate for you, but let me settle it now. Is there any one of you who will not take my orders and trust my judgement of what is best? And do it, if need be, blindly? Will you offer yourselves to me?"
We gazed at each other. Both the girls instantly murmured, "Yes."
"Yes," I said at last. It was not too hard for me, for I thought I was yielding him Venza, not Anita.
Snap was very pale. He stared from one to the other of us.
"Yes," he said finally. "But Colonel, surely you can tell us more."
Halsey tossed his cigarette away. "I will tell you as much as I think best. These Martians, Molo and his sister, do not know of Venza; at least, I think that they do not. They apparently have not been here very long. How they got here, we don't know. There was no passenger or freight ship. In Ferrok-Shahn, they have a dubious reputation at best; but I won't go into that.
"Venza, I will show you these Martians and the rest depends upon you. There is a mystery; you will find out what it is."
He reached for his inter-office audiphone. "I want to locate the Martian Set Molo. Francis, Staff X2, has it in charge."
The audible connection came in a moment. "Francis?"
We could hear the answering microphonic voice, "Yes Colonel."
"Is the fellow in a public place by any chance?"
"In the Red Spark Cafe, Colonel. With his sister and a party."
"Good enough. The Red Spark has an image-finder. Have you visual connection?"
"Yes, the whole room; they have a dozen finders."
"Use a magnifier. Get me the closest view you can."
"It's done, Colonel. I did it just in case you called."
In a moment our mirror-grid was glowing with the two-foot square image of the interior of the Red Spark Cafe. I knew the place by reputation: a fashionable, more or less disreputable eating, drinking and dancing restaurant, where money and alcholite flowed freely. The patrons were successful criminals of the three worlds, intermingled with thrilled, respectable tourists who hoped they would see something really evil.
The Red Spark was not far from Halsey's office; it was perched high in a break of the city roof, almost directly over Park-Circle 29.
"There he is," said Halsey.
We crowded around his desk. The image showed the interior of a large oval room, balconied and terraced; a dais dance-floor, raised high in the center with three professional couples gyrating there; and beneath them the public dance-grid, slowly rotating on its central axis. A hundred or so couples were dancing. The lower floor was crowded with dining tables; others were upon the little catwalk balconies, and still others in the terraced nooks and side niches, half-enshrouded, half-revealed by colored draperies.
The image now was silent, for Halsey was not bothering with audio connection. But it was a riot of color, flashing colored floodlights bathing the dancers in vivid tints; and there were twinkling spots of colored tube-lights on all the tables. I saw, too, the blank rectangles of darkness against the walls which marked the private dining rooms, insulated against sight and sound. Here one might go for frivolous indiscretion, or for conspiracy, perhaps, and be as secure from interruption as we were, here in Halsey's office.
Venza asked eagerly, "Which is he?"
"Over there on the third terrace to the left. That table. There seem to be six of them in the party."
We heard Francis' voice; he was in Halsey's lower Manhattan office, with this same image before him. "We'll get a closer view."
The table in question was no more than a square inch on our image. We could see an apparently gay party of men and women. One of the couples was gigantic, a Martian man and woman, obviously. The others seemed to be Earth or Venus people.
Francis' voice added: "I've got an audio magnifier on them. Foley's been listening for an hour. Nice, clear English. Much good it does us; this fellow is as cautious as a director of the lower air-lane. Here's your near-look."
Our image shifted to another view. The lens-eye with which we were connected now gave us a view directly over the Martian's table. We were looking down diagonally upon the table, at a distance of no more than ten feet.
There were three Earthwomen in the party. There was nothing peculiar about them. They were rather handsome, dissolute in appearance, all of them obviously befuddled by alcholite. There was a man who could have been Anglo-Saxon. A wastrel, probably, with more money than wit; he wore a black dinner suit edged with white.
Our attention focussed upon the other two. They were tall, as are all Martians. The young woman, Setta Meka, seemed perhaps twenty or twenty-five years of age, by Earth reckoning, in stature perhaps very nearly my own height, which is six feet two. It is difficult to tell a Martian's age, but she was very handsome, even by Earth standards; and in Ferrok-Shahn she would be considered a beauty. Her gray-black hair was parted and tied at the back with a plaited metal rope. Her short dark cloak, so luminous a fabric that it caught and reflected the sheen of all the gaudy restaurant lights, was parted, its ends thrown back over her shoulders. Beneath it she wore the characteristic Martian leather jacket, and short, wide leather trousers ornamented with spun metal fringes and tassels. Most Martian women have an amazonian aspect, but I saw now that Setta Meka was an exception.
Her brother, who sat beside her, was a full seven feet or more. A hulking sort of fellow, far less spindly than most of his race, he might have come from the polar outposts beyond the Martian Union. He was bare-headed, his gray-black hair clipped close upon a round bullet head, with the familiar Martian round eyes.
I gazed into the face of Molo, as momentarily he turned his head. It was a rough-hewn, strongly masculine face with a hawk-like nose, bushy black brows frowning above deepset round eyes. The face of a keen scoundrel, I could not doubt, though the smooth-plucked gray skin was flushed now with alcholite, and the wide, thin-lipped mouth was leering at the woman across the table from him.
Like his sister, he had thrown back his cloak, disclosing a brawny, powerful figure, leather clad, with a wide belt of dangling ornaments, some of which probably were weapons.
How long we gazed at this silent colored image of the restaurant table I do not know. I was aware of Halsey's quiet voice: "Look him over, Miss Venza. It depends on you."
Another interval passed. It seemed, as we watched, that Molo's interest in his party was very slight. I got the impression, too, that though at first he had seemed to be intoxicated, actually he was not. Nor was his sister. Anxiety seemed upon her; the smile she had for jests seemed forced; and at intervals she would cast a swift, furtive glance across the gay restaurant scene.
More drinks arrived. The Earthpeople at the table here seemed upon the verge of stupor; and suddenly it appeared that Molo had completely lost interest in them. With a gesture to his sister, he abruptly rose from his seat. She joined him. They left the table, and a red-clad floor manager of the restaurant came at their call. Then in a moment they were moving across the room.
Halsey called sharply into his audiphone: "Francis! Hold us to them if you can."
They were standing now by the opened door of one of the Red Spark's private insulated rooms. We caught a glimpse of its interior, a gaily set table with a bank of colored lights over it.
The figure of a man was in there. He was on his feet, as though he had just arrived to meet the Martians here, and a hooded long cloak enveloped him. It may have been a magnetic "invisible" cloak, with the current now off.
We caught only the fleetest of impressions before the insulated door closed and barred our vision. The glimpse was an accident. Molo, taken by surprise at this appearance of his visitor, could hardly have guarded against it. The waiting figure was very tall, some ten feet, and very thin. The hood shrouded his face and head. In his hand he held a large circular box of black shiny leather, of the sort in which women carry wide-brimmed hats. As Molo joined him he put the box gently on the floor. He handled it as though it were extraordinarily heavy; and as he took a step or two, he seemed weighted down. Just as the room door was hastily closing, Meka sliding it from the inside, we caught a fleeting glimpse of horror.
The lid of the hat box had lifted up. Inside was a great round thing of gray-white, a living thing; a distended ball of membrane, with a network of veins and blood-vessels showing beneath the transparent skin.
For the instant we gazed, stricken. The ball was palpitating, breathing! I saw convolutions of inner tissue under the transparent skin of membrane; a little tentacle, like an arm with a flat-webbed hand, was holding up the lid of the box. The lid rose a trifle higher; the colored lights overhead gave us a brief but clear view of it.
The thing in the box was a huge living brain. I saw goggling, protruding eyes; an orifice that could have been a nose, and a gash upended for a vertical mouth. It was a face. And the little tentacle arm holding up the box-lid was joined to where the ear should have been.
Was this something human? A huge distended human brain, with the body withered to that tiny arm?
The palpitating thing sank down in the box and the lid dropped. And upon our horrified gaze the insulated door of the room slid too.
"By the gods!" exclaimed Halsey. "One of them dares come to the Red Spark. Here, almost in public."
So Halsey knew what this meant. His eyes were blazing now; his face was white, with an intensity of emotion that transfigured it.
"Francis, tell Foley I'll be in the manager's office in five minutes."
He snapped off; our image connection with the Red Spark went dead.
"We're going to the Red Spark," he announced. "This changes everything, yet I don't know. Venza, I may need you more than ever, now."
Halsey herded us to the office door. From his desk he had snatched up a few portable instruments, and he flung on a cloak.
It was a brief trip to the Red Spark, on foot through the sub-cellar arcade to where, under Park Circle 29, we went up in a vertical lift to the roof. We were in the side entrance oval of the restaurant in five minutes.
In the dim metal room of Orentino, the Red Spark's manager, a barrage was up and Foley was waiting for us. We could hear it faintly humming. Now we could talk.
Halsey slammed the door down. He said swiftly, "My men caught one of these things this morning. They have it now and I think Molo does not yet know we captured it. A brain; we're convinced it understands English and can talk, but no one has been able to make it talk yet. Foley, order that damned Orentino to de-insulate the room Molo is in. Now, by the gods, we may see and hear something."
The frightened manager of the Red Spark was in the control room. Halsey killed our barrage to let the outside connections get through to us. We all crowded around the mirror-grid which stood on Orentino's desk. Foley gave us connection with the control room. We saw Orentino's face, his eyes nearly popping with fright. "Colonel Halsey, I will do whatever you tell me."
"What room is that Martian occupying?"
"Break off the insulation. Do it slowly and he may not notice. Then give us connection, audio and vision."
"But I have no image-finders in the insulated rooms."
"Cut off the barrage. I'll get connection there."
Foley was already setting up his eavesdropper on the desk. The mirror blurred a little; then it clarified. We had the interior of the secret room, and voices were coming out of Foley's tiny receiver.
The image showed the box on the floor, with its lid down. The tall hooded shape of the stranger stood with Molo and his sister by the table. They were talking in swift, vehement undertones. The language was Martian, a dialect principally used in Ferrok-Shahn. Our equipment brought it in and I could understand it.
Molo was saying: "But you are the fool to have dared to come here!"
"The master knows that there is danger. Something is wrong." The hooded stranger spoke like a foreigner, but not a Martian, nor an Earthman, and not like any person of Venus I had ever heard. It was a strange, indescribable intonation, a flat, hollow voice.
"I say the master is concerned."
"Let him be."
"And he demanded I bring him here to find you. He is displeased that you are here."
What gruesome thing was this? Their glances seemed to go to the box on the floor at their feet, as though the master were in there. But the lid of the box did not rise.
"Well, you have found me," Molo declared impatiently. "When you know me better, always you will find I have my wits. The thing is for tomorrow night, not tonight."
"But that, my master is not sure." The hollow voice was deferential but insistent. "He fears danger; something has gone wrong. He is working on it now, striving to receive the message! There is a message. He knows that much. Perhaps from our world, Wandl, itself."
For a moment Molo had no answer. His sister had not spoken. I noticed that her gaze seemed roving the room.
"What is it I should do?" Molo asked at last.
"Come with us to your home-room."
"But I have everything ready there. The contact is ready for tomorrow night. Your world will control Earth."
"But if it be tonight?"
Again Molo was silent. My breath stopped. On our mirror I saw the stranger's hood part just a little. There seemed to be no face; just the blur of something brownish.
"But if it be tonight?" the voice insisted.
"I will go," Molo said abruptly, "but your coming here was dangerous. Suppose we cannot get out undetected? You know I will never go to where all our instruments are set up and have some damnable spy follow me. Is all going well on Venus and Mars?"
"Yes. My master feels so. He seems to get messages. The contacts will be made simultaneously." A gruesome chuckle. "The capture of these three worlds. We shall have all three enchained at once. Helpless."
The lid of the black box seemed again about to rise when there came a sharp cry from Meka. "This room is not insulated!"
Our eavesdropping was discovered. Beside me, I heard Halsey give a low curse. On our mirror we saw sudden action. The ten-foot, cloaked figure laboriously lifted the black box, and swung with it toward the outer wall of the room. I saw now clearly with what a dragging, heavy tread that giant shape moved, as though it weighed, here on Earth, far more than the normal weight to which it was accustomed.
"Over there!" Molo gasped. "The escape-port; this room has one. Meka, go with him. I will join you. You know where."
Foley cried, "Colonel, I may be able to stop them!"
But Halsey saw on our image that Molo was staying. "Wait. Let them go. If we have the Martian here, that's better."
I saw the room's escape-port swing open as Meka and the hooded shape carrying the box moved for it. The moonlit darkness of the outer catwalk enveloped the disappearing figures.
Molo was left alone. He closed the port swiftly. His detector now was in his hand, but Halsey anticipated him by a second or two. Our listener went dead; our mirror darkened. Doubtless Molo was never sure whether he had been spied on or not.
Halsey was on his feet. "Foley, get out into the main room. Stay with him."
But there was no need to follow Molo. He had sent his visitor and sister out by the escape-port, which was usual enough; now he was back in the main room as though nothing of importance had happened, with an appearance of intoxication about him. He wavered jovially across the room, threading his way through the gay diners, and reached the table where his party still sat carousing.
Again Halsey shut us off.
"He's got a base somewhere in the city; you heard what they said about it. We've got to trick him into going there, unsuspecting."
Halsey seized the audiphone. "Your chance, Venza. It's the only way. Foley, keep away from that Martian. Shut off all contacts. I'll meet you out there in a moment. I'm sending a girl; she'll go after him."
"Now?" Venza asked.
"Yes. It's the only way. Perhaps you can get him drinking. Venza, use all the wiles you possess now."
"No!" gasped Snap. "It's too dangerous!"
Anita was clinging to Venza. "Colonel Halsey, I'm going too."
Halsey stared, then made a swift decision. "Right. That is still better."
I jumped to my feet. "Colonel, I should prefer that one of us men...."
He gripped me by the shoulders. "Gregg Haljan, I take no suggestions from you!" His blazing eyes bored into me. "There isn't a second to lose. Don't you realize this means destruction of our three inhabited planets? I'll sacrifice myself, you, or these girls! Venza, take Anita outside. I'll join you immediately, give you last instructions. Take a portable audiphone with you."
He turned to Snap. "This is the only way. These demons can't be forced. You know that."
The girls were moving toward the door. I met Snap's anguished gaze.
"Gregg, don't let them go!"
"No! No, I won't!"
I made a lunge past Halsey, with Snap after me. Halsey did not move, but one of his rays struck us. With all senses numbed, I felt myself falling.
Snap had tumbled upon me. My senses did not quite fade. I was aware of Anita's and Venza's horrified cries, but Halsey pushed them toward the door. It slid up. I vaguely saw the two girls going out with Halsey after them; and the door coming down.
I have no idea how long it was before Halsey came back. Snap and I were seated on a low metal bench against the wall. The effect of the paralysing ray was wearing off. We were tingling all over, our senses still confused.
Halsey stalked in upon us. "So you are recovered?"
Snap stammered, "We—I say, we're sorry as hell we acted like that."
"I know you are." His voice softened. "If I could have done anything else, believe me, I would have. But I don't think harm will come to them. They're clever."
"Are they outside?" I asked. "Did they find a way of meeting the Martians? How long have you been gone?"
Halsey merely stared at me as though he had no intention of answering. And then the audiphone on the desk buzzed.
"This is Halsey," he said. "Yes, I have them here. Bring them—did you say bring them?"
We could not hear the answering voice, for Halsey had the muffler in contact.
"No, I would prefer not to come. I'm watching something. I'm at the Red Spark Cafe. Well, I'm going back to my office presently to wait there."
He continued in code. Like Snap, I had never had occasion to learn it. The words were a strange sounding staccato gibberish. He ended, "I will send them, Grantline. Very well, I'll tell them to locate him. At once, yes." He closed off the audiphone.
Halsey swung on us. "You're all right now?"
"Yes." I stood up, drawing Snap up with me. "What is wanted of us Colonel?"
"That's better, Gregg." He smiled, but he was still grim. "I wanted you here to wait for this call from the Conclave of Public Safety. It met at midnight. They have ordered both of you there."
"That's a secret meeting, isn't it?" asked Snap. "There was no report of it over the air tonight."
"Yes. Secret." He was leading us to the door. "They won't need you for more than half an hour. When they finish, come back to my office. You can come openly." He stood with his finger on the door lever. "Good-by, lads. Foley will lead you to the service room. You are to take a mail cylinder for Postal Switch-station 20. They'll re-route you from there to the conclave auditorium."
The door slid up. "When you disembark," he added, "Ask for Johnny Grantline. You are to sit with him."
He showed us out and the door slid down before him. We trudged the corridor, and Snap gripped me.
"For myself," he whispered swiftly, "I'll go to the damnable conclave because I'm ordered. But I won't stay there long. Once we get out of it, if I don't route myself back to the Red Spark, I'm a motor-oiler."
I agreed with him. We had a mental picture of Anita and Venza in the Red Spark's public room. Doubtless Orentino had created a way for them to meet Molo. They would sit there in the Red Spark with that drinking party, and in less than an hour we would be back.
But as we crossed diagonally across an end of the main room with Foley leading us, we caught a glimpse of Molo's table. The party was still there, but Molo, Anita, and Venza were gone!
We had no time to get any information. Foley abruptly left us and another man took his place. In the service room a passenger cylinder was waiting. Our guide entered it with us.
At the switch station we had the breath knocked out of us. After another ten minutes in the vacuum tube, we reached our unknown destination. The cylinder-slide opened. We found ourselves with a lone guard; and through a gloomy arcade opening, Johnny Grantline was advancing, to greet us.
"Well, so here you are, Gregg. Hell to pay heaven, going on here. Come on in; I'll tell you."
"We were sent for," Snap said.
"Yes, but they don't want you yet. Come in here."
He waved away the guard and led us through a padded arcade into a low-vaulted audience room, windowless and gloomy. Across it, a doorway panel stood ajar. Grantline peered through it. There was the glow of light from the adjoining room and the distant murmur of many voices.
Grantline closed the door. "Sit down and I'll tell you...."
"Where are we?" I asked.
"The ninth Conclave Hall."
I knew its location: Lower Manhattan, high under the city roof.
Grantline produced little cigarette cylinders. "Steady your nerves, lads; you'll need it."
He grinned at us. The hand with which he lighted my cylinder was steady as a tower-base, but he was excited. I could see it by the glint in his eyes, and hear it in his voice.
"What's going on?" Snap demanded.
"It's about this invading planet. By the gods, when you hear what's really been learned about it!"
"Well, what?" I asked.
He sketched what he had heard this night at the conclave. The mysterious invader was inhabited.
"How do they know that?" Snap put in.
"Wait. I'll tell you the rest of it. The accursed thing changes its orbit. It banks and turns like a spaceship! It stopped out in space; it's poised out there now between Mars and Jupiter. A world about a fifth the size of the Moon, and the beings on it can control its movements. They've brought it in from interstellar space, into our solar system. Evidently the point they've reached now is far as they want to come. They've poised out there, getting ready to attack, not only us, but Mars and Venus simultaneously."
Grantline gazed at us through the smoke of his cigarette. He was much like Snap, small, wiry, brisk of movement and manner, but older. His hair was graying at the temples; his voice carried the authority of one accustomed to commanding men.
"Don't ask me for the technicalities of how they reached these conclusions. I'm no astronomer. I'm only telling you their conclusions and what their discussions have been here for the past hour."
Heaven knows, we had no inclination to dispute him. What we had seen and heard at the Red Spark tallied with his words.
He went on swiftly, "The attack, of whatever nature it may be, is impending at once. Not next month, or next week, but now. Lord, Gregg, I don't blame you for staring like that. You don't know what's been going on for the past two days on Earth, and Venus and Mars. It's all been suppressed. Neither did I, until I heard it here tonight. The U.S.W., the Martian Union, the Venus Free State, are all preparing for war. Every government spaceship on Earth is being commissioned. We're not going to sit around and wait for invaders to land; the war won't be fought on Earth if we can help it."
We stared. Snap asked, "What makes them so sure?"
"That war is coming? Plenty. This new planet has sent out spaceships. The planet itself is hovering sixty million miles away from us, about forty million miles from Mars and close to ninety million from Venus. Perhaps its leaders think that's the most strategic spot.
"Then it sent out spaceships, three of them. One is hovering close to Venus. Another is near Mars, and the third is some 200,000 miles off Earth. Several of our interplanetary freighters are overdue; it seems now that they must have encountered these invading ships and been destroyed.
"Still more, and worse: these three hovering ships have already landed the enemy on Mars and Venus. The helio-reports mention mysterious encounters in Ferrok-Shahn and Grebhar. For three or four days, Mars has been in a panic of apprehension; Venus almost as bad. And some have landed here. Not many, perhaps; but one has been captured. A thing—God, it's almost beyond description."
We could well agree with that, since Snap and I had just seen one.
"They've got it here," Grantline was saying. "They've tried to make it talk. They can't but they're going to try again."
He jumped to his feet and went to the door. "They're bringing it in." Upon his face was a look of awed horror.
We stood crowding the small door-oval. It gave onto a darkened balcony of the conclave hall. The girders of the city roof were over us. There were a few official spectators sitting up here in the dark on the balcony, but none noticed us.
The lower floor of the hall was lighted. Around the polished oblong tables perhaps a hundred scientists and high governmental officials of the three worlds were seated. Near the center of the hall was a small dais-platform. On a table there, someone had just placed a circular black box, similar to the one we had seen previously.
The hall was hushed and tense. On the dais stood a group of Earth officials. One of them spoke. "Here it is, gentlemen. And this time, by God, we'll make it speak."
Grantline whispered, "That's the War Secretary from Greater London."
I recognized him: Brayley, Commander in Chief of the land, air, water and space armies of the United States of the World. He was gigantic in stature, with a great shock of gray-white hair. A commanding figure, if there ever was one.
Beside him, Nippor, the Japanese representative in Greater New York, seemed a pigmy. The acoustics of the silent hall carried his soft voice up to us. "I would be afraid of drugs. Will we use force? It is vital."
"Yes, by God! Anything."
It seemed that everyone in the hall must be shuddering: I could feel it like an aura pounding up at me. Brayley lifted the box-lid, reached in and raised the horrible thing. He held it up, a two-foot ball of palpitating gray-white membrane. Another living brain.
"Now, damn you, you're going to talk to us! Understand that? We're going to make you talk. Get that box out of the way."
They flung the box to the floor, and Brayley placed the brain on the table.
A glare of light, focussed on it, showed beneath the stretched taut membrane the convolutions of the brain, like tangled purple worms. The blood-vessels seemed distended almost to bursting now. The gruesome face, with popping eyes and that gaping mouth, showed a horrible travesty of terror. From where its ears should have been, a crooked little arm of flabby, gray-white flesh came down, one on each side and braced the table. And I saw now that it had a shriveled body, or at least little legs, bent, almost crushed under by its weight.
"Now, damn you," Brayley said, rubbing off his hands on a rough towel, "for the last time: will you talk?"
The goggling eyes held a terrified but baleful gaze upon Brayley's face. Did it understand? The eyes were fronted our way, and suddenly their glance swung up so that I seemed for an instant to see down into them. And it struck me then: this was a thing of greater intelligence than my own. A humanoid, with brain so developed that through myriad generations the body was shriveled, almost gone. A mind was housed here, an intelligence housed in this monstrous brain.
Were these the beings of the new planet which had come to attack us? But how could this helpless creature, incapable of almost everything, obviously, save thought, do the work of its world?
Then I recalled again that insulated room of the Red Spark Cafe: the thin, ten-foot hooded shape which was carrying the box. Was that, perhaps, an opposite type of being with the brain submerged, dwarfed, and the body paramount? Were there, on this mysterious planet, two co-existing types, each a specialist, one for the physical work and the other for the mental?
I stood with Snap and Grantline in that dark balcony doorway, gazing down to where the giant brain stood braced upon its shriveled arms and legs, and realized why we of Earth and Venus and Mars are all cast in the same mould we call human. It is a little family of planets, here in our solar system; for countless eons we have been close neighbors. The same sunlight, the same general conditions of life, the same seed, were strewn here by a wise Creator. A man from the Orient is different from an Anglo-Saxon; a man of Mars differs a little more. But basically they are the same.
Yet, confronting us now was a new type, from realms of interstellar space, far beyond our solar system.
"For the last time, will you talk?" snapped Brayley.
There was another interval of silence. The eyes of the brain were very watchful. Its gaze roved the hall as though it were seeking for help. It shifted its little arms on the table, seemingly exhausted from the physical effort of supporting itself.
Brayley's voice came again. "Doubtless you can feel pain acutely. We shall see."
With what effort of will to overcome his revulsion we may only guess, he reached forward and pinched the little arm. The result was electrifying. From the upended slit of mouth in that goggling face, came a scream. It pierced the heavy tense silence of the hall, ghastly in its timbre, like nothing any of us had ever heard before. And in it was conveyed agony as though Brayley had not merely pinched that flabby arm, but had thrust a red-hot knife into its vitals.
The brain could feel pain indeed. It crouched with stiffened arms and legs. The membrane of its great head seemed to bulge with greater distension; the knotted blood-vessels were gorged with purple blood. The eyes rolled. Then it closed its mouth. Its gaze steadied upon Brayley's face, so baleful a gaze that as I could see the reflection of its luminous purple glow a shudder of fear and revulsion swept me.
"So you did not like that?" Brayley steadied his voice. "If you don't want more, you had better speak. How did you get here on Earth? What are you trying to do here?"
There seemed an interminable silence; then Nippor took a menacing step forward. "Speak! We will force it from you!"
And then it spoke. "Do—not—touch—me—again."
Indescribable voice! Human, animal or monster no one could say. But the words were clear, precise; and for all their terror, they seemed to hold an infinite command.
A wave of excitement swept the hall, but Brayley's gesture silenced it. He leaped forward and bent low over the palpitating brain.
"So you can talk. You came as an enemy. We have given you every chance today for friendship, and you have refused. What are you trying to do to us?"
It only glared.
"I will not tell you anything."
"Oh, yes, you will."
All the men on the platform were crowding close to it now.
"Speak!" ordered Brayley again. "Here in Greater New York is a hiding place. Where is it?"
"Where is it? You are perhaps a leader of your world. I lead ours, and I'm going to master you now. Where is this hiding place?"
The thing suddenly laughed, a gruesome, eerie cackle. "You will know when it is too late. I think it is too late already."
"Too late for what?"
"To save your world. Doomed, your three worlds! Don't touch—me!"
It ended with a scream of apprehension as Nippor grasped the crooked little arm. "Tell us!"
"No!" It screamed again. "Let—me—go!"
"Tell us!" Nippor strengthened his squeezing grip. The thing was writhing, the thin ball of membrane palpitating, heaving. And suddenly it burst. Over all its purpled surface, blood came with a gush.
Nippor and Brayley staggered backward. The scream of the brain ended in a choking gurgle. The little legs and tiny body wilted under it; the round ball of membrane sank to the table. It rolled sidewise upon one arm and ear, and in a moment its palpitation ceased. A purple-red mass of blood, it lay deflated and flabby.
It was dead.
"But see here," I said, "did they mention the Martian, Molo, at all?"
"They were discussing Molo before you arrived," Grantline told us.
We had drawn back from the doorway. The conference, with the dead thing removed, was proceeding. Snap and I had momentarily forgotten Anita and Venza; but now we were in a panic to get back to the Red Spark.
"But you can't go," said Grantline. "Brayley ordered you here. He'll want to see you in a moment."
"Well, why doesn't he see us now?" Snap protested. "I'm not going to cool myself off sitting here."
"Oh yes, you are."
Grantline sent word to Brayley that we were here. In a moment the answer came. We were to wait a short time; he would want to see us.
We swiftly told Grantline what had happened at the Red Spark, and found that already he knew. Francis had relayed it to the conference, and Halsey was in constant communication with the officials here.
"Then what is happening?" I demanded. "Where are the girls? Has Halsey heard from them?"
Again Grantline went to a nearby room.
"Anita sent a message," he said, when he returned. "They are with Molo. Halsey is ordering a squad of men to be ready."
Grantline told us what had been happening in the Red Spark. Anita and Venza, simulating drunkenness with a skill for acting which I knew both of them possessed, had joined Molo's party. Perhaps if Meka had been there she would have seen through them.
But Molo did not. And they have since told me that the Martian himself was far from sober, although he was probably not aware of it. He yielded to their demands to leave the restaurant with him. He wanted, as we know, to leave unobtrusively; and Venza threatened a scene unless she could go.
He took them, leaving openly in a public fare-car. Doubtless he at first intended to de-rail them somewhere, but they convinced him that he was not being followed. Twice he used his detector, and Anita and Halsey were clever enough to throw off their rays in time to avoid it. Then Halsey lost connection with the fleeing car, and after that Molo changed his mind about ditching the girls.
"But where are they now?" I demanded.
"You," said Grantline sternly, "are out of it. Do you think that Halsey, under Brayley's orders, will neglect any chance to find out where Molo is hiding? Something is about to happen. This conference is wrestling with it. In Grebhar and Ferrok-Shahn they're striving to find out what it is. Something impending now. Helios are pouring in here from Venus and Mars. They're mobilizing their spaceships, just as we are."
Grantline at last was letting out all his apprehensions on us, with this burst. "Halsey didn't tell you that the entire resources of his organization are out upon this thing tonight. Here at this conclave there's a room of information-sorters. That's just where I came from a moment ago. Every country on our Earth is making ready—for what, nobody knows!
"He's had two fragmentary calls from Anita. He has a hundred men ready to rush to their aid, and to capture Molo's lair. He expects another message from Anita any moment. This conference here knows every movement that is being made, within ten or twenty seconds of its making. Perhaps upon Anita and Venza the whole outcome of this thing may hang."
We had no answer to that. "Do you know who Molo is? He's an interplanetary pirate; his ship is the Star-Streak."
We had heard of him. For five years past, a gray spaceship, with a base supposedly hidden in the Polar deserts of Mars, had been terrorizing interplanetary shipping.
"They think," Grantline went on, "that Molo was cruising with his pirate ship. He has, as you know, a band of criminals drawn from all the three worlds. There are about fifty of them, commanded by his sister and himself. We think that Molo encountered the three ships which that new planet sent out. The Star-Streak was captured, perhaps destroyed. Molo and his band, joined with this new enemy, to save themselves, and because they have been promised rewards."
"But why should these brains want their help?" Snap demanded.
"Wouldn't you say it was because, in Ferrok-Shahn, Grebhar and here in Greater New York, simultaneously tonight, something has to be accomplished, something the brains themselves could not do? Molo and his band know all three cities. How they landed here in Greater New York nobody knows; the enemy spaceship is 200,000 miles out. Obviously they came from it, landed secretly with some smaller ship somewhere on Earth and made their way here."
A buzzer sounded beside us. A voice commanded: "Grantline, bring Gregg Haljan and Daniel Dean to room six at once."
* * * * *
In room six we stood before the War Secretary, who had arrived there a moment ahead of us.
"Ah, Haljan and Dean. I'm glad to see you."
He was still white and shaken. Beads of perspiration stood upon his forehead. He mopped them off.
"I've just had a rather terrible experience." He did not suggest that we sit down. He went on crisply: "Grantline no doubt has told you of what's going on. Disturbing, terrifying. Haljan, we have a ship being rushed into commission tonight. You know her, the Cometara."
"I know her," I said.
"Quite so. She is taking off as soon as we can ready her. She will carry about fifty men. Grantline is in charge of the armament and men. You, Dean, we want to handle her radio-helio."
"Right," said Snap.
"And you, Haljan, we can think of no one better to navigate her."
He waved away my appreciation. "Within a brief time we shall have thirty such ships in space. Mars and Venus also are mobilizing."
He stood up. "We feel, Haljan, that if anyone can handle the Cometara with skill enough to combat this lurking enemy, it will be you."
"I'll do my best, sir."
"We know that. The ship is leaving from the Tappan Interplanetary Stage shortly after dawn. When have you and Dean last slept?"
"Last night," we both said.
"Quite so. Then you need sleep now. I want you to go at once to the Tappan Fieldhouse. The commander there will make you comfortable. Eat, and sleep if you can. We want you in good shape. You're to keep out of this night's activities here in the city; you understand?"
An orderly was approaching behind Brayley. "I'll be back in a moment, Rollins."
He shook hands with us. "I may not see you again before it's over. Good luck, lads. Grantline, they need you for a moment in the hall; something about electronic space weapons, further equipment for the Cometara. Then you'd better go to Tappan House too, and get some sleep."
We were dismissed. Snap and I regarded each other hesitantly. I said impulsively, "Mr. Brayley, Detective-Colonel Halsey is using two girls."
"Yes, we're watching that, Haljan."
"They're the girls we're to marry," I added. "May we communicate with Colonel Halsey?"
"Yes. Call him from here." He smiled wanly. "But keep out of it; we need you at dawn."
The Tappan departure-stage was only a few miles up the Hudson; we could get there in half an hour. It was now nearly trinight, halfway between midnight and dawn. I had my portable audiphone and got Halsey at once.
"Yes. They're through with us at the Conclave. Where is Anita?"
"We heard from her twice. I'm expecting...."
We could hear someone interrupting him. Then he came back. "Gregg? Molo took them somewhere. I didn't dare fling after them. He had his detector going, and Anita warned me not to try it. She had to stop connection herself. God knows how she was able to whisper to me at all."
His voice, like Brayley's, had the ring of a man strained to the breaking point. I could appreciate how Halsey must feel, forced to remain at his desk with its encircling banks of instruments; holding all the network of his farflung activities centralized; his decisions, his commands in a hundred places almost simultaneously, while his body sat there inactive.
"Gregg, the girls must have arrived at Molo's place by now. If only they know where they are! I have lookouts throughout the city with intricate and complete connecting equipment. Gregg, I must disconnect."
"Colonel, give me Anita's frequency. Maybe Snap or I can pick up the message."
He named the oscillating frequency, then disconnected.
"Try that frequency," Snap suggested. "We've got to do something."
The door-slide opened suddenly and an orderly appeared. "Haljan?"
"Get the hell away," roared Snap. "We've had our orders; we don't want any from you."
"Gregg Haljan and Daniel Dean are paged on the mirrors."
Someone in the city wanted us; our names were appearing on the various mirror-grids publicly displayed throughout the city in the hope that we would answer.
"That's different," said Snap. "Answer it for us, that's a good fellow. We're busy."
"It must be important," the orderly insisted. "The caller registered a fee at the Search Bureau; that's how they located you here. He paid the highest fee to search you. An emergency call."
It was against the law to invoke the services of the Search Bureau unless based upon actual impending danger. "We'll take it," I said.
"Come with me." He turned to the left and down the corridor.
We hastened with him to a corridor cubby. Upon the audiphone there I was at once connected with a voice, and an anxious man's face with a two-day growth upon it.
"Haljan! Thank God you answered. This is Dud Ardley. Me and Shac are here. Listen, this is the lower cellar corridor, Lateral 3, under Broadway. Me and Shac just have seen your girls down here."
News of Anita and Venza! I could see in the mirror-image, behind Dud's head the outlines of the little public cubby from which he was calling. He and his brother, on some illicit errand of their own in East Side lower Manhattan, had seen figures alighting from a fare-car. They had caught a glimpse of the faces of Anita and Venza. The girls were hooded and cloaked; a hooded man was with them. The fare-car quickly rolled away, and the hooded figures, suddenly becoming invisible within their magnetic cloaks, had vanished.
"S'elp me, we couldn't do nothin'. You know we take no chances with the police by carryin' cylinders. So I paged you in a hurry."
"Dud, that's damn nice of you. Where are you now? Tell me again."
The Ardleys, knowing nothing of the events of this night, supposed that the girls were being abducted, and decided I should be informed.
"Damn right, Dud. We'll come at once. You two wait for us?"
"Sure. If you got instruments, maybe we can track 'em. It wasn't a quarter of a mile from here, over toward the river. Plenty of rotten dumps down there."
"Wait for us, Dud. We'll come in a rush."
I slammed shut the audiphone. Snap, beside me, had heard it all. He shoved the astonished orderly out of the way.
"What's the nearest exit-route out of here?"
"To the city roof, sir. Up this incline."
We dashed up the spiral incline, through a low exit-port, and were in the starlight of the city roof.
* * * * *
"Connect it, Gregg! You can't tell; her message might come over any minute."
I tuned my coils to the seldom used oscillation frequency which Halsey had told us Anita's transmitter was sending.
"No. Dead channel."
The air, in Anita's channel, was bafflingly silent.
We had been challenged by a roof-guard when we appeared from the upper port of the Conclave Hall; the city roof was not open to public traffic. But with our identifications, he found us a single-seat hand-tram, and started us southward on the deserted route.
It was a cloudless night, with stars like thickly-strewn diamonds on purple velvet. The city roof lay glistening in the starlight. In my great-grandfather's time there had been no roof here; the open city was exposed to all the inclement weather. But gradually the arcades and overhead viaducts, cross balconies and catwalks which spanned the canyon street between the giant buildings became a roof. It spread, now terraced and sloped to top the lofty buildings, like a great rumpled sheet propped by the knees of sleeping giants. Some of the roof was of opaque alumite, dark patches, alternating with the great glassite panes which in places admitted the daylight.
Our little tram sped along southward, wending its way over the terraces. Save for the guards and lookouts in their occasional cubbies, and the air-traffic directors in their towers, we were alone up here. The roof was tangled with air-pipes, line-wire conduits, aerials, arterial systems of the ventilating and lighting devices. As far as one could see the ventilators stood fronting the night breeze like listening ears. There were water tanks, great cross-bulkheads and flumes to handle the rain and snow. A few traffic towers maintained order in the overhead air-lanes. Their beacons shot up into the sky when the passing lights marked the thinly-strewn trinight traffic.
We were stopped at intervals, but in each case were passed promptly.
"Nothing yet, Gregg?"
Anita's channel remained empty. It was, I suppose, no more than ten minutes during which we sped south along the grotesque maze of the roof; but to us it was an eternity. If only some message would come!
"I'll pull up here."
I gathered up my little audiphone, thrust it under my dark flowing cloak. If only our cloaks were magnetic!
We leaped from our car. "In a rush, Haljan?" asked a guard.
"That's us. Orders from Mr. Brayley."
We left him and plunged into a descending automatic lift. A drop of a thousand feet; we shot downward past all the deserted levels, past the ground-level, the undersurface transportation lanes, the sub-river tubes, the sub-cellar, down to the very bottom of the city.
"Come on, Gregg. Two segments from here."
We advanced at a run. At this hour of night, hardly a pedestrian was in evidence. It was an arched vaulted corridor, almost a tunnel, dimly blue-lit with short lengths of fluorescent tubes at intervals on the ceiling. For all the vaunted mechanisms of our time, the air here was heavy and fetid. Moisture dripped from the concrete roof. It lay on the metal pavement of the ground; the smell of it was dank, tomb-like.
There were frequent cross-tunnels. We turned eastward into one of them. For a segment there were the lower entrances to the cellars of the giant buildings overhead. We passed a place where the tunnel-corridor widened into a great underground plaza. The sewerage and wire-pipes lay like tangled pythons on its floor. Half across it, by the glow of temporary lights strung on a cable, a group of repairmen were working. We passed them, headed in to where the tunnel narrowed again and there were now occasional cubby entrances to underground dwellings.
It was a rabbit warren from here to the river, haunted by criminals and by miserable families, many of whom never saw the daylight for weeks at a time. The giant voices of the city hardly carried down here, so that an oppressive silence hung upon everything.
"That next crossing, Gregg. They said they'd wait for us there."
Occasional escalators led upward. In advance of us was a narrow intersection. There were a few lights in the bullseyes of the subterranean dwelling rooms, but most of them were dark.
"Easy, Snap. Not so fast."
I pulled Snap to a walk. We edged over against the tunnel side. We had passed a small lighted audiphone cubby, evidently the one from which Dud and Shac had paged us. They should have been here waiting; but there was nothing but the empty, gloomy tunnels.
"Something is coming!" Snap clutched at me; we drew our cloaks around us and waited in a shadowed recess. Down a side incline, a segment behind us, a small automatic food truck came lurching. It pulled up at an arcade entrance. Its driver slid the portals, deposited his cases of food, locked the panel after him; and in a moment he and his truck were gone up the incline.
We heard, in the ensuing silence, a low groan near at hand; then abruptly it stopped. We saw, within twenty feet of us, two dark figures lying on the pavement grid in a black patch of shadow where the mailtube came down in a curve and disappeared into the tunnel wall.
We bent over the figures of two men. They lay together, one half upon the other, black-garbed figures with white, staring faces. One twitched a little and then lay still.
They were Shac and Dud Ardley.
"Murdered, Gregg! Good Lord!"
Both were dead, but we could see no marks on either of them.
I found my wits. "Snap, we can't stand like this wholly visible."
I pulled Snap away. We darted a few feet. The light of the tunnel intersection was directly over us. "Not here, Snap! Run!"
Under the curving vacuum tube a little further along, we found shelter. Snap murmured: "The girls went past here. But which way, Gregg?"
As though I knew!
I felt at that moment, under the shirt against my skin, the anode of my audiphone tingling. A receiving signal! In the gloom, I could see Snap's white face as he watched me bring it out.
We heard a tiny microphonic voice, Anita's voice.
"Colonel Halsey. Yes I have the location. Lafayette 4—East corridor, lowest level. A descending entrance. Don't you speak again; I've only a minute! Venza safe—but send help. Something we don't understand—a strange mechanism here."
Then Halsey's interrupting voice. "Anita, escape! You and Venza!"
"We can't. They've got us!"
"I'm sending men. They'll be there in ten minutes."
"Ten minutes will be too late. Molo is...."
It seemed that we heard her scream; then the waves blurred and died.
Lafayette 4—East corridor, lowest level. "Snap, that's here! A descending entrance."
We stood back against the great curving side of the postal vacuum tube. Within it I heard the hiss and clank as a mail cylinder flashed past. Halsey's secret orders must be going out now. His men nearest this place would come in a rush. But Anita said that would be too late.
Snap and I were frantically searching. Somewhere here was an entrance to Molo's lair. It seemed in the silence that Anita's scream was still ringing in my ears. Had it been entirely from the instrument, or were we so close that we had heard its distant echoes?
"Gregg, help me." Snap was tugging at a horizontal door-slide, like a trap in the tunnel floor, partly under the vacuum tube. "Stuck!" he gasped.
It yielded with our efforts. It slid aside. Steps led downward into blackness. We plunged in, caution gone from us. The steps went down some twenty feet; we were in another smaller corridor. It was vaguely lighted by a glow from somewhere, and as my pupils expanded, I could see this was a shabby alley, opening ahead into a winding passage with the slide-port above us like its back gate. A warren of cubbies was here, a little sequestered segment of disreputable dwellings.
We stood peering, listening. "Shall I try the eavesdropper, Gregg?"
"Yes. No, wait!" I thought I heard distant sounds.
"Voices, Snap. Listen."
More than voices. A thud: footsteps running. A commotion, back in this warren, within a hundred feet of us.
"This way," I murmured.
We plunged into a black gash. There was a glow of light, a glassite pane in a house wall nearby. The commotion was louder, and under it now we heard a vague humming: something electrical. It was an indescribably weird sound, like nothing I had ever heard before.
Snap clutched at me. "In here, but where is the accursed door?"
There was a glassite pane, but we could find no door. In our hands we held small electronic bolt-cylinders, short-range weapons.
The hum and hissing was louder. It seemed to throb within us, as though vibration were communicating to every fiber of our bodies.
Light was streaming through the glassite pane, and we glimpsed the interior of the room. The light now came from a strange mechanism set in the center of the metal cubby. I caught only an instant's glimpse of it, a round thing of coils and wires. The metal floor of the room was cut away, exposing the gray rock of Manhattan Island. And against the rock, in a ten-foot circle, a series of discs were contacted, with wires leading from them to the central coils.
The whole was glowing with opalescent light. It was dazzling, blinding. Within in it the goggled figure of Molo was moving, adjusting the contacts. He stooped. He straightened, drew back from the light.
Only an instant's glimpse, but we saw the girls, crouching with black bandages on their eyes. Meka, goggled like her brother, was holding them. A tall shape carrying a round black box darted through the light and ran. Molo leaped for the girls; the hum had mounted to a wild electrical scream. Molo flung his sister back out of the light.
They all vanished. There was nothing but the light, and the mounting dynamic scream.
Beside me, Snap was pounding on the glassite panel. I joined him. Everything was dreamlike, blurring as though unconsciousness was upon me.
Where was Snap? Gone? Then I saw him nearby. He had found a door, but it wouldn't yield. I saw his arm go up in a gesture to me.
He ran; I found myself running after him, but I stumbled and fell. Then over me the scream burst into a great roar of sound. It seemed so intense, so gigantic a sound that it must ring around the world.
And the light burst with an exploding puff. The black metal cubby walls seemed to melt like phantoms in a dream. A titan's blowtorch, the opalescent light shot upward, a circular ten-foot beam, eating its way through all the city levels as though they were paper, up through the city roof.
Molo's cubby was gone. His mechanism was eaten by the light and destroyed. There was only this motionless, upstanding beam, contacted here with the Earth, streaming like an opalescent sword into the starry sky.
I must paint now upon a broader canvas to depict the utter chaos of this most memorable night in the history of the Earth, Venus and Mars.
From that point in the bowels of Greater New York, near the southern tip of Manhattan Island, the mysterious light-beam shot up. It screamed with its weird electrical voice for an hour, so penetrating a sound that it was heard with the unaided ears as far away as Philadelphia. A titan voice it was, shrill as if with triumph. There were millions of people awakened by it this night; awakened and struck with a chill of fear at this nameless siren shrilling its note of danger. The sound gradually subsided; it seemed to reach its peak within a few minutes of the appearance of the light, and within an hour it had ceased.
But the light beam remained. Those who inspected it closely have given a clear description of its aspect; but to this day its real nature has never been determined.
It was a circular beam of about a ten-foot diameter. In color it was vaguely opalescent, rather more brilliant at night than in the day. With the coming of the sun it did not fade, but remained clearly visible, with a spectrum sheen when the sunlight hit it so that it had somewhat the appearance of a titanic, straightened rainbow.
From that contact point with our Earth, the inexplicable beam stood vertically upward. It ate a vertical hole like a chimney up through all the city levels, through the roof and into the sky. It had a tremendous heat, communicable by contact so that it melted the city above it with a clean round hole. But the heat was non-radiant.
I was found lying within fifty feet of the base of the beam. There had been an explosion, so that Molo's metal room was gone; but from where I lay there was only a warmth to be felt from the light.
Halsey's men found me within half an hour. I was unconscious but not injured. I think now that the sound and not the light overcame me. I presently recovered consciousness; for another hour I was blind and deaf, but that quickly wore off. They rushed me through the chaos of the city to the Tappan Headquarters. Grantline was there, but not Snap. I sent them back when once I was fully conscious. They searched all the vicinity at the base of the light. Snap, alive or dead, was not to be found.
Anita and Venza were gone. I had seen Molo and Meka plunge away with them as the light-beam burst forth. They were gone, and Snap was gone.
There was, by now, a turmoil unprecedented throughout all the metropolitan area. The motionless light-beam itself had done little damage, but its appearance brought instant chaos. Within a radius of five miles of its base, the city was plunged into darkness. All power was cut off. Every vehicle, even the aeros passing overhead, and, the ventilating system stopped. Audiphones were wrecked; it subsided within an hour, though, and after that, lights and instruments brought into the area were not affected.
But during that hour, south Manhattan was in panic. A multitude of terrified people awakened in the night to find blackness and that screaming sound. The streets and corridors and traffic levels were jammed with throngs trampling and killing one another in their efforts to escape.
This was in the stricken area; but everywhere else the panic was spreading. Transportation systems were almost all out of commission. The panic spread until by dawn there was a wild exodus of refugees jamming the bridges and viaducts and tunnels, streaming from all the city exits.
This was Greater New York. But from Venus and Mars came similar reports. In Grebhar and in Ferrok-Shahn, doubtless almost simultaneous with Greater New York, similar light-beams appeared.
"But what can it be?" I demanded of Grantline. "Something Molo contacted there? He did it. That was what he was working for, and he accomplished his purpose. But what will the beam do to us?"
"It's doing plenty," said Grantline grimly.
"He didn't intend that. There was something else."
But what? As yet, no one knew. I had already told the authorities what I had seen. I was the only eye-witness to Molo's activities; and heaven knows I had but a brief, confused glimpse.
The beam remained; it streamed upward from the rock. They thought, this night, that Molo's strange current had set up a disintegration of the atoms, and that electronic particles from them were streaming into space.
The light-beam seemed impervious to attack. Within a few hours the authorities were attacking its base with various vibratory weapons but without success.
From where Grantline and I sat, we saw the dawn coming. But the radiance-beam remained unaffected. "Gregg, look there at Venus!"
To the east of us there was a distant line of metal structures surmounting the mid-Westchester hills; above them, in the brightening sky of dawn, Venus was just rising. Mars had already set at our longitude. Venus, fairly close to the Earth now, was the "Morning Star."; it mounted now above that line of metal stages in the distance.
And as Grantline gestured, I saw from Venus the same sword-like beam streaming off almost to cross our own.
Grantline and I, with a mutual thought, ran around the balcony and gazed to where Mars had set. A narrow radiance was streaming up among the stars off there.
Three swinging swords of light in the sky! With the rotation of the planets, they swept the firmament. The mysterious enemy had planted them—but why? What was coming next?
And as though to answer us, from far to the south, over mid-Jersey, came a new manifestation. We saw a speck rising, a distant mounting speck of something dark, with streamers of tiny radiance flowing from it.
"A spaceship, Gregg."
It seemed so. It came slowly from above the maze of distant structures, gathered speed, and in a moment was gone.
But others, better equipped, had observed it. It was a cylindrical projectile, with stream-fluorescence propelling it upward, an unusual form of spaceship. Telescopically it was seen until well after dawn. Speeding out in the direction of the Moon.
Molo and his weird allies had escaped, I thought. With their work done here on Earth, they were off to rejoin the hovering enemy ship 200,000 miles out.
I stood gripping Grantline on that balcony, and gazed with sinking heart. Were Anita and Venza prisoners on that mounting ship? And Snap: I prayed he was there with the girls to lend them the protection I had failed to give.
"Haljan and Grantline wanted below."
The voice of a mechanic on the balcony behind us roused us from our thoughts. We went down through the busy building.
The workshops of Tappan Interplanetary Headquarters had for hours been ringing with busy activity. The Cometara rested upon her departure stage outside, with a score of workmen conditioning her. Newly-installed additional armament was aboard, ready to be assembled after the start. The men to handle it were embarked. My half dozen officers and the ten members of the crew I had already briefly met. They were waiting for me.
"On we go, Gregg. Let's wish ourselves luck." From grim, silent abstraction, Grantline had now sprung into his familiar dynamic self.
There was a solemn group of officers and a hundred or so workmen here; they stopped their fevered labors now to watch the Cometara get away, first of Earth's ships speeding into space to confront this nameless enemy. Grantline and I went past them with silent handshakes and murmured good-bys. I saw the towering figure of Brayley. He raised an arm for a farewell gesture to us.
We mounted the incline to the Cometara. She rested upon her stage, a great, sleek bronze ship, low and rakish, with pointed ends and a flattened, arched turtle-back dome of glassite covering the superstructure and the decks from bow to stern. She lay quiescent, gleaming in the glow of the departure beacons; but there was an aspect of latent power upon her.
My ship! My first command! As we went through the opened port of the domeside and I touched foot upon the deck, I prayed that I might justify the faith reposed in me.
Men crowded the narrow, covered deck. I saw the space-guns at the deck pressure-ports, partly assembled. My chief officer, a young fellow named Drac Davidson, who with his twin brother had been in the Interplanetary Freight Service, rushed up to me.
"We're ready, sir."
"Very good, Drac."
He hurried me to the turret control room. Grantline instantly had plunged into details of assembling the weapons.
"Her ports are all closed," said Drac. He spoke calmly, but his thin face was pale and his dark eyes glowed with excitement. "The interior pressure is set at fifteen pounds. You can ring us up at once."
No formalities to this departure! With pounding heart I entered the small circular turret and mounted its tiny spiral stairs to the upper control room. But as I touched the levers, calmness came to me with these familiar tasks at which I was skilled.
I slid a central-hull gravity-plate. It went smoothly, perfectly operated by the magnets. The vessel trembled, lifted; outside the enclosing dome I could see the dawn-light of the sky and paling floodlights of the stage. Figures of men out there, made silent gestures of farewell, dropping slowly beneath our hull as we lifted.
The bow gravity-plates slid into the repulsive-force positions. The bow lifted. The Cometara responded smoothly. We went up, poised at a forty-five degree angle. I saw the outer beacons on the stage swing upward with their warning to passing traffic in the lower lanes.
"Light our bow-beacon, Drac."
We lifted through the lower thousand and two thousand-foot lanes. The lights of Tappen were dwindling beneath us. The interior of the Cometara was humming with the whirr of its circulators and air-receivers, mingled with the throb of air pressure pumps. At three thousand feet I started the air-rocket engines. They came on with a gentle purring. The fluorescence from them streamed along our hull and down past the stern, like twin rocket tails.
With gathering speed we slid smoothly upward through the highest traffic lanes, out of the atmosphere, through the stratosphere and into space.
Leaving the stratosphere, I cut off the air-rocket engines, slid the stern gravity-plates for the Earth's repulsion and the bow plates for the attraction of the Moon and Sun. The firmament swung, in a slow arc, and steadied with the Earth behind us and the Sun and Moon in advance of our bow. We were on our course, plunging through space with accelerating velocity toward the unknown enemy ship hovering two hundred thousand miles ahead of us. My orders were to find the ship and maneuver us close to it; and Grantline's orders were to assail it.
I gazed down at the convex North Atlantic with the reddening coastline of North America spread like a map.
What was the nature of this strange enemy whom we sought? That opalescent beam from Greater New York mounted with its radiance into the dome-like starfield; the one from Venus and the other from Mars seemed crossing overhead amid the stars.
Three swords crossing the sky! What did they mean?
* * * * *
"Will you swing east or west of the Moon?"
"We haven't decided."
Drac Davidson and I were alone in the Cometara's control turret.
We were some ten hours out from Earth. Over such short astronomical distances it was impossible to attain any great velocity. When once we were clear of the Earth's atmospheric envelope, the rocket-stream engines were useless. The Cometara was equipped also with tail-streamers of electronic nature. They exerted a slight pressure, useful for sudden curving and turning; but they had only negligible influence upon the main velocity of the vehicle.
I used the repulsion of the Earth upon our negatively charged stern gravity-plates; and with those of the bow electronified to the positive reaction, we were drawn forward by the Sun and the Moon.
For three or four hours I held to this combination with steady acceleration; but then I had to retard. In close quarters such as this, the retarding velocity must be calculated with a nicety many hours in advance.
We hung now, very nearly poised, within some forty thousand miles of the surface of the Moon. Bleak and cold, sharply black and white, it hung in a gigantic crescent in advance of our bow. The Sun, whose attraction I had ceased using some hours back, was visible sharply to one side now. Its great gas streams of giant flame licked up into the blackness of the firmament. The sunlight caught the lunar mountains with a white glare, and left the valleys black with shadow; moonlight and the mingled sunlight painted our bow. Behind our stem the great disk of Earth hung somber and glowing.
And everywhere else was the great black enclosing firmament. The stars blazed with a new white glory never seen through the haze of an atmosphere. Like a little world in the vastness of this awesome void, we hung poised.
Grantline came into the turret. "I've got everything ready, Gregg. By the gods, once you can lay telescope upon that accursed enemy ship, I'm ready to open fire on it."
"Good," I said.
But the thought of hurling our bolts at this enemy ship had struck terror into my heart for hours past. I was convinced that the three who in all the world were dearest to me—Anita, Venza, and Snap—were upon that enemy vessel.
Grantline asked, "Are you going closer to the Moon?"
"The ship couldn't be between us and the Moon. Waters and I have been in the helio room for the past hour, searching with the 'scope there. Nothing doing, Gregg. Not a sign."
"I know. Our instruments here show that."
"There might be a way of sighting them," Drac put in.
"I'll try the Zed-ray," I suggested. "Drac and I have it corrected. But I doubt if it would penetrate the sort of invisibility this enemy would use."
Grantline nodded. "Or the Benson curve-light. You think the ship went behind the Moon? Or landed on the Moon?"
"It could have done either. Has Waters still got contact with the Earth? Have they seen it?"
I made a sudden decision. It would take us two hours at least to make a careful scanning with the Zed-ray; and to take an elaborate series of spectro-heliographs of the Moon's surface, which might show the enemy vessel if it had landed there, was a laborious process.
After brief thought, I discarded the idea. "We'll go to the helio room," I told Grantline. "I'm going to try the Benson curve-light."
Grantline and I left the turret, heading along the catwalk under the glassite dome toward the helio cubby where the rotund, middle-aged Waters was in charge. It made my heart sink to think of the helio room. Snap should have been there.
We crossed the transverse catwalk. The superstructure roof was under us. Farther down, the narrow decks showed with Grantline's men grouped at the firing ports, where his weapons were mounted and ready. As I saw those grouped men loitering on the deck, waiting for me to give them a sighting, I prayed I could do so; and yet there was the shuddering fear that the first blast would bring death to Anita.
Waters met us at the door of his cubby. His face was red; he mopped the perspiration from his bald head. "I'm so glad you came! Will you want the Benson-light? I say, I've lost connection with the Earth. I had the Washington transmitter. Five minutes ago they sent me a flash of the Mars and Venus news. They both sent ships, out."
He gasped for breath, then added in a rush: "Both the Mars and Venus ships were destroyed and the enemy escaped!"
Grantline and I gasped with horror.
"Destroyed?" I said. "How?"
Waters did not know. The news came; then, immediately after, the Washington transmitter changed its wavelength and he lost connection.
"But why, in heaven's name, man, didn't you ring and tell us?" Grantline demanded. "Destroyed—only that! Just destroyed."
"I was afraid to leave my instruments," Waters said. "How could I tell? I might be able to renew connections with Washington any minute. Come on in. Do you want to try the Benson curve-light, Mr. Haljan?"
"Yes," I said. "I do." We entered the dim helio cubby. "See here, Waters, what about the projectile that ascended from Earth last night? Did the Washington observatory report what happened to it?"
"No, not a word. They lost it, evidently."
Our 'scopes on the Cometara had not been able to locate the projectile. The large instruments of Earth had lost it. Was that because, with tremendous velocity, it had sped directly for the new planet out beyond Mars?
Or, with some form of invisibility, might it be close to us now, just as the lurking ship might be somewhere around here?
From the little circular helio cubby, perched here under the dome like an eagle's nest, I could see down all the length of the ship, and out the side ports of the dome to the blazing firmament. The Sun, Moon and Earth and all the starfield were silently turning as Drac swung us upon our new course.
Waters bent over the projector of the Benson curve-light, making connections. The cubby was silent and dim, with only a tiny spotlight where Waters was working, and a glow upon his table where his recent messages from Earth were filed. Grantline and I glanced at them.
Panic in Greater New York, Grebhar, and Ferrok-Shahn. The three strange beams which the enemy had planted on Earth, Venus and Mars still remained unchanged. I could see them now plainly from the helio cubby windows, great shafts of radiance sweeping the firmament.
Waters straightened from his task. "That will do it, Mr. Haljan." He met me in the center of the cubby. "When you locate the enemy, do you think they'll destroy us as they did those other ships?"
Grantline laughed grimly. "Maybe so, Waters. But let's hope not."
Fat little Waters was anything but a coward, but being closed up here all these hours with a stream of dire messages from Earth had shaken him.
"What I mean, Mr. Grantline, is that prudence is sometimes better than reckless valor. The Cometara is no warship. If Earth had sent an international patrol vessel...."
Grantline did not answer. He joined me at the Benson projector. "Can we operate it from here, Gregg, or will you mount it in the bow?"
"From here. Drac's swinging. When he's on the course I gave him, I can throw the Benson-ray through the bow dome-port. Waters, you're all done in. Go below and sleep awhile."
But he stood his ground. "No, sir; I don't want to sleep."
"We've had ours," said Grantline. "We'll call you if anything shows up."
We sent Waters away. "Ready, Gregg?"
"Yes. I've got the range."
The coils hummed and heated with the current, and in a moment the Benson curve-beam leaped from the projector.
The Benson curve-light was similar to an ordinary white searchlight beam, except that its path, instead of being straight could be bent at will into various curves—hyperbola, parabola, and for its extreme curve, the segment of an ellipse—gradually straightening as it left its source. It was effective for police work, with hand torches for seeing around opaque obstructions. It had also another advantage, especially when used at long range: the enemy, when gazing back at its source, would under normal circumstances conceive it to be a straight beam and thus be misled as to the location of its source. Or even realizing it to be curved, one had no means of judging the angle of the curve.
A narrow white stream of light, it flung through our window-oval, forward under the dome and through the bow dome bullseye, into space. I saw the men on the deck spring into sudden alertness with the realization we were using it. The bow lookout on the forward observation bridge crouched at his 'scope-finder to help us search.
From the control turret came an audiphone buzz, and Drac's voice: "Am I headed right? The swing is almost completed."
"Finish the job and don't bother me now."
I bent over the field-mirror of the projector. On its glowing ten-inch grid the shifting image of my range was visible, a curving, brilliant limb of the Moon, with the sunlight on the jagged mountain peaks; everywhere else was the black firmament and the blazing dots of stars.
Grantline crouched beside me. "I'll work the amplifiers. Going to spread it much, Gregg?"
"Yes. A full spread first. We're in no mood for a detailed narrow search."
I gradually widened the light. Three feet here at its source, it spread in a great widening arc. With the naked eye we could see its white radiance, fan-shaped as an edge of it fell upon the Moon. And though optically it was not apparent, the elliptical curve of it was rounding the Moon, disclosing the hidden starfield to our instruments.
"Nothing yet?" I murmured.
"I'll try a narrower spread and less curve."
Grantline was searching the magnified images on the series of amplifier grids. There was nothing. For an hour we worked; then suddenly Grantline cried: "Gregg! Wait! Hold it!"
I tensed, stricken. I held the angle and the spread of light steady.
"Two seconds of arc, east; try that. The damned thing is shifting." He gripped me. "It's at the eastern edge of the field; it shifts off. It must be in rapid motion."
Then I saw it, a mere moving dot of black; but suddenly it clarified. I saw a dot which I could imagine was a shape with discs along its edge, moving with high velocity. Grantline was shifting our field to hold it.
"Got it, Gregg. By God, that's it! Now we'll see."
Then presently we saw that from its bow a very faint radiant beam was streaming. Beside me I heard Grantline gasp, "Gregg, am I crazy or is that bow beacon like the light-beam planted in Greater New York?"
There did seem to be a similarity, but thought of it abruptly was swept from my mind. Our cubby was alive with signals. Both the bow and the stern observers saw the enemy ship now with their 'scopes gazing directly along our Benson-light. And Drac was calling, "I've got the measurement of its velocity. Doubling every ten seconds. God, what acceleration!"
I flung off the Benson-light. The enemy ship had come from behind the limb of the Moon; our straight-light telescopes showed it clearly. It was heading unmistakably in our direction.
Drac was pleading, "We need velocity! Are you coming to the turret?"
Grantline and I rushed out upon the catwalk. Waters was mounting the spiral ladder from the deck. "Into your cubby," I shouted. "Call Earth. Keep calling until you get them."
Grantline rushed for the deck. I gained the control turret, Drac, with his thin face white and set, met me at the door. "We need velocity."
I nodded. "We'll get it, Drac; have no fear of that."
I set the gravity-plates for the greatest possible acceleration forward and added the stern rocket engines for narrow-angle maneuvering.
With gathering speed we plunged directly for the oncoming enemy ship.
"But there's something wrong, Drac."
"We've got grade five acceleration."
Grantline had joined us in the control turret. "How far would you say, at a rough guess, that ship is from us now?"
"Thirty thousand miles; about that." Drac scanned his page of calculations. "Impossible to gauge with any exactness; they change their pace so often and I can't figure out how large the damn thing is."
"Say they've got a forty thousand velocity; added to our ten, that's fifty."
"And we're accelerating. In half an hour we'll be within range."
"But there's something wrong," I persisted.
For several minutes now I had been aware that the Cometara was acting strangely. A sluggish response to the controls, I thought, but when I called engine chief Franklin, he had not noticed it. Yet I was certain.
Grantline stared at me. "Something wrong?"
"Yes. Drac, try orienting us. I did it ten minutes ago." I shoved him at my equations, giving the angles with the Sun, Earth and Moon which we should now have. "There's our flight course as it ought to be. Measure how we're heading, actual position. If it's what it ought to be, with the plate-combinations I'm using, then I'm crazy."
"Oh, you're just naturally apprehensive," Grantline said.
But we were not where we should be. The Cometara was off her predetermined course. And then I realized the factor of error. There was a gravitational force here for which I was not allowing. The error was not within the Cometara; she was responding perfectly. But there was a force upon her, and not that of the Sun, Earth, Moon or the distant starfield. I had calculated all of these. It was something else. Some gravitational pull, so that we were not upon the course of flight we should have been on.