Typographical errors have been corrected.
This etext was produced from Amazing Stories January, February, March and April 1934. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
By EDWARD E. SMITH, Ph.D.
We are sure that our readers will be highly pleased to have us give the first installment of a story by Dr. Smith. It will continue for several numbers and is a worthy follower of the "Skylark" stories which were so much appreciated by our readers. We think that they will find this story superior to the earlier ones. Dr. Smith certainly has the narrative power, and that, joined with his scientific position, makes him an ideal author for our columns.
Illustrated by MOREY
Pirates of Space
Apparently motionless to her passengers and crew, the Interplanetary liner Hyperion bored serenely onward through space at normal acceleration. In the railed-off sanctum in one corner of the control room a bell tinkled, a smothered whirr was heard, and Captain Bradley frowned as he studied the brief message upon the tape of the recorder—a message flashed to his desk from the operator's panel. He beckoned, and the second officer, whose watch it now was, read aloud:
"Reports of scout patrols still negative."
"Still negative." The officer scowled in thought. "They've already searched beyond the widest possible location of the wreckage, too. Two unexplained disappearances inside a month—first the Dione, then the Rhea—and not a plate nor a lifeboat recovered. Looks bad, sir. One might be an accident; two might possibly be a coincidence...." His voice died away. What might that coincidence mean?
"But at three it would get to be a habit," the captain finished the thought. "And whatever happened, happened quick. Neither of them had time to say a word—their location recorders simply went dead. But of course they didn't have our detector screens nor our armament. According to the observatories we're in clear ether, but I wouldn't trust them from Tellus to Luna. You have given the new orders, of course?"
"Yes, sir. Detectors full out, all three courses of defensive screen on the trips, projectors manned, suits on the hooks. Every object detected in the outer space to be investigated immediately—if vessels, they are to be warned to stay beyond extreme range. Anything entering the fourth zone is to be rayed."
"Right—we are going through!"
"But no known type of vessel could have made away with them without detection," the second officer argued. "I wonder if there isn't something in those wild rumors we've been hearing lately?"
"Bah! Of course not!" snorted the captain. "Pirates in ships faster than light—fifth order rays—nullification of gravity—mass without inertia—ridiculous! Proved impossible, over and over again. No, sir, if pirates are operating in space—and it looks very much like it—they won't get far against a good big battery full of kilowatt-hours behind three courses of heavy screen, and a good solid set of multiplex rays. Properly used, they're good enough for anybody. Pirates, Neptunians, angels, or devils—in ships or on sunbeams—if they tackle the Hyperion we'll burn them out of the ether!"
Leaving the captain's desk, the watch officer resumed his tour of duty. The six great lookout plates into which the alert observers peered were blank, their far-flung ultra-sensitive detector screens encountering no obstacle—the ether was empty for thousands upon thousands of kilometers. The signal lamps upon the pilot's panel were dark, its warning bells were silent. A brilliant point of white in the center of the pilot's closely ruled micrometer grating, exactly upon the cross-hairs of his directors, showed that the immense vessel was precisely upon the calculated course, as laid down by the automatic integrating course-plotters. Everything was quiet and in order.
"All's well, sir," he reported briefly to Captain Bradley—but all was not well.
* * * * *
Danger—more serious far in that it was not external—was even then, all unsuspected, gnawing at the great ship's vitals. In a locked and shielded compartment, deep down in the interior of the liner, was the great air purifier. Now a man leaned against the primary duct—the aorta through which flowed the stream of pure air supplying the entire vessel. This man, grotesque in full panoply of space armor, leaned against the duct, and as he leaned a drill bit deeper and deeper into the steel wall of the pipe. Soon it broke through, and the slight rush of air was stopped by the insertion of a tightly fitting rubber tube. The tube terminated in a heavy rubber balloon, which surrounded a frail glass bulb. The man stood tense, one hand holding before his silica-and-steel helmeted head a large pocket chronometer, the other lightly grasping the balloon. A sneering grin was upon his face as he awaited the exact second of action—the carefully pre-determined instant when his right hand, closing, would shatter the fragile flask and force its contents into the primary air stream of the Hyperion!
* * * * *
Far above, in the main saloon, the regular evening dance was in full swing. The ship's orchestra crashed into silence, there was a patter of applause and Clio Marsden, radiant belle of the voyage, led her partner out into the promenade and up to one of the observation plates.
"Oh, we can't see the earth any more!" she exclaimed. "Which way do you turn this, Mr. Costigan?"
"Like this," and Conway Costigan, burly young first officer of the liner, turned the dials. "There—this plate is looking back, or down, at Tellus; this other one is looking ahead."
Earth was a brilliantly shining crescent far beneath the flying vessel. Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable against a background of utterly indescribable blackness—a background thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance which were the stars.
"Oh, isn't it wonderful!" breathed the girl, awed. "Of course, I suppose that it's old stuff to you, but I—a ground-gripper, you know, and I could look at it forever, I think. That's why I want to come out here after every dance. You know, I ..."
Her voice broke off suddenly, with a queer, rasping catch, as she seized his arm in a frantic clutch and as quickly went limp. He stared at her sharply, and understood instantly the message written in her eyes—eyes now enlarged, staring hard, brilliant, and full of soul-searing terror as she slumped down, helpless but for his support. In the act of exhaling as he was, lungs almost entirely empty, yet he held his breath until he had seized the microscope from his belt and had snapped the lever to "emergency."
"Control room!" he gasped then, and every speaker throughout the great cruiser of the void blared out the warning as he forced his already evacuated lungs to absolute emptiness. "Vee-Two Gas! Get tight!"
Writhing and twisting in his fierce struggle to keep his lungs from gulping in a draft of that noxious atmosphere, and with the unconscious form of the girl draped limply over his left arm, Costigan leaped toward the portal of the nearest lifeboat. Orchestra instruments crashed to the floor and dancing couples fell and sprawled inertly while the tortured First Officer swung the door of the lifeboat open and dashed across the tiny room to the air-valves. Throwing them wide open, he put his mouth to the orifice and let his laboring lungs gasp their eager fill of the cold blast roaring from the tanks. Then, air-hunger partially assuaged, he again held his breath, broke open the emergency locker, donned one of the space-suits always kept there, and opened its valves wide in order to flush out of his uniform any lingering trace of the lethal gas.
He then leaped back to his companion. Shutting off the air, he released a stream of pure oxygen, held her face in it, and made shift to force some of it into her lungs by compressing and releasing her chest against his own body. Soon she drew a spasmodic breath, choking and coughing, and he again changed the gaseous stream to one of pure air, speaking urgently as she showed signs of returning consciousness. Now, it was Clio Marsden's life.
"Stand up!" he snapped. "Hang onto this brace and keep your face in this air-stream until I get a suit around you! Got me?"
She nodded weakly, and, assured that she could now hold herself at the valve, it was the work of only a minute to encase her in one of the protective coverings. Then, as she sat upon a bench, recovering her strength, he flipped on the lifeboat's visiphone projector and shot its invisible beam up into the control room, where he saw space-armored figures furiously busy at the panels.
"Dirty work at the cross-roads!" he blazed to his captain, man to man—formality disregarded, as it so often was in the Triplanetary service. "There's skulduggery afoot somewhere in our primary air! Maybe that's the way they got those other two ships—pirates! Might have been a timed bomb—don't see how anybody could have stowed away down there through the inspections, and nobody but Franklin can neutralize the shield of the air-room—but I'm going to look around, anyway. Then I'll join you fellows up there."
"What was it?" the shaken girl asked. "I think that I remember your saying 'Vee-Two gas.' That's forbidden! Anyway, I owe you my life, Conway, and I'll never forget it—never. Thanks—but the others—how about all the rest of us?"
"It was Vee-Two, and it is forbidden," Costigan replied grimly, eyes fast upon the flashing plate, whose point of projection was now deep in the bowels of the vessel. "The penalty for using it or having it is death on sight. Gangsters and pirates use it, since they have nothing to lose, being on the death list already. As for your life, I haven't saved it yet—you may wish I'd let it ride before we get done. The others are too far gone for oxygen—couldn't have brought even you around a few seconds later, quick as I got to you. But there's a sure antidote—we all carry it in a lock-box in our armor—and we all know how to use it, because crooks all use Vee-Two and so we're always expecting it. But since the air will be pure again in half an hour we'll be able to revive the others easily enough if we can get by with whatever is going to happen next. There's the bird that did it, right in the air-room! It's the chief engineer's suit, but that isn't Franklin that's in it. Some passenger—disguised—slugged the chief—took his suit and projectors—hole in duct—p-s-s-t! All washed out! Maybe that's all he was scheduled to do to us in this performance, but he'll do nothing else in this life!"
"Don't go down there!" protested the girl. "His armor is so much better than that emergency suit you are wearing, and he's got Mr. Franklin's Lewiston, besides!"
"Don't be an idiot!" he snapped. "We can't have a live pirate aboard—we're going to be altogether too busy with outsiders directly. Don't worry, I'm not going to give him a break. I'm taking a Standish and I'll rub him out like a blot. Stay right here until I come back after you," he commanded, and the heavy, vacuum insulated door of the lifeboat clanged shut behind him as he leaped out into the promenade.
Straight across the saloon he made his way, paying no attention to the inert forms scattered here and there. Going up to a blank wall, he manipulated an almost invisible dial set flush with its surface, swung a heavy door aside, and lifted out the Standish—a fearsome weapon. Squat, huge, and heavy, it resembled somewhat an overgrown machine rifle, but one possessing a thick, short telescope, with several opaque condensing lenses and parabolic reflectors. Laboring under the weight of the thing, he strode along corridors and clambered heavily down short stairways. Finally he came to the purifier room, and grinned savagely as he saw the greenish haze of light obscuring the door and walls—the shield was still in place; the pirate was still inside, still flooding with the terrible Vee-Two the Hyperion's primary air.
He set his peculiar weapon down, unfolded its three massive legs, crouched down behind it and threw in a switch. Dull red beams of frightful intensity shot from the reflectors and sparks, almost of lightning proportions, leaped from the shielding screen under their impact. Roaring and snapping, the conflict went on for seconds; then, under the superior force of the Standish, the greenish radiance gave way. Behind it the metal of the door ran the gamut of color—red, yellow, blinding whiter—then literally exploded; molten, vaporized, burned away. Through the aperture thus made Costigan could plainly see the pirate in the space-armor of the chief engineer—an armor which was proof against rifle fire and which could reflect and neutralize for some little time even the terrific beam Costigan was employing. Nor was the pirate unarmed—a vicious flare of incandescence leaped from his Lewiston, to spend its force in spitting, crackling pyrotechnics against the ether-wall of the squat and monstrous Standish. But Costigan's infernal machine did not rely only upon vibratory destruction. At almost the first flash of the pirate's weapon the officer touched a trigger; there was a double report, ear-shattering in that narrowly confined space; and the pirate's body literally flew into mist as a half-kilogram shell tore through his armor and exploded. Costigan shut off his beam, and, with not the slightest softening of one hard lineament, stared around the air-room; making sure that no serious damage had been done to the vital machinery of the air-purifier—the very lungs of the great space-ship.
Dismounting the Standish, he lugged it back up to the main saloon, replaced it in its safe and again set the combination lock. Thence to the lifeboat, where Clio cried out in relief as she saw that he was unhurt.
"Oh, Conway, I've been so afraid something would happen to you!" she exclaimed, as he led her rapidly upward toward the control room. "Of course you...." she paused.
"Sure," he replied, laconically. "Nothing to it. How do you feel—about back to normal?"
"All right, I think, except for being scared to death and just about out of control. I don't suppose that I'll be good for anything, but whatever I can do, count me in on."
"Fine—you may be needed, at that. Everybody's out, apparently, except those who, like me, had a warning and could hold their breath until they got to their suits."
"But how did you know what it was? You can't see it, nor smell it, nor anything."
"You inhaled a second before I did, and I saw your eyes. I've been in it before—and when you see a man get a jolt of that stuff just once, you never forget it. The engineers down below got it first, of course—it must have wiped them out. Then we got it in the saloon. Your passing out warned me, and luckily I had enough breath left to give the word. Quite a few of the fellows up above should have had time to get away—we'll see 'em all in the control room."
"I suppose that was why you revived me—in payment for so kindly warning you of the gas attack?" The girl laughed; shaky, but game.
"Something like that, probably," he answered, lightly. "Here we are—now we'll soon find out what's going to happen next."
In the control room they saw at least a dozen armored figures; not now rushing about, but seated at their instruments, tense and ready. Fortunate it was that Costigan—veteran of space as he was, though young in years—had been down in the saloon; fortunate that he had been familiar with that horrible outlawed gas; fortunate that he had had the presence of mind enough and sheer physical stamina enough to send his warning without allowing one paralyzing trace to enter his own lungs. Captain Bradley, the men on watch, and several other officers in their quarters or in the wardrooms—space-hardened veterans all—had obeyed instantly and without question the amplifiers' gasped command to "get tight." Exhaling or inhaling, their air-passages had snapped as that dread "Vee-Two" was heard, and they had literally jumped into their armored suits of space—flushing them out with volume after volume of unquestionable air; holding their breath to the last possible second, until their straining lungs could endure no more.
Costigan waved the girl to a vacant bench, cautiously changed into his own armor from the emergency suit he had been wearing, and approached the captain.
"Anything in sight, sir?" he asked, saluting. "They should have started something before this."
"They've started, but we can't locate them. We tried to send out a general sector alarm, but that had hardly started when they blanketed our wave. Look at that!"
Following the captain's eyes, Costigan stared at the high powered set of the ship's operator. Upon the plate, instead of a moving, living, three-dimensional picture, there was a flashing glare of blinding white light; from the speaker, instead of intelligible speech, was issuing a roaring, crackling stream of noise.
"It's impossible!" Bradley burst out, violently. "There's not a gram of metal inside the fourth zone—within a hundred thousand kilometers—and yet they must be close to send such a wave as that. But the Second thinks not—what do you think, Costigan?" The bluff commander, reactionary and of the old school as was his breed, was furious—baffled, raging inwardly to come to grips with the invisible and undetectable foe. Face to face with the inexplicable, however, he listened to the younger men with unusual tolerance.
"It's not only possible; it's quite evident that they've got something we haven't." Costigan's voice was bitter. "But why shouldn't they have? Service ships never get anything until it's been experimented with for years, but pirates and such always get the new stuff as soon as it's discovered. The only good thing I can see is that we got part of a message away, and the scouts can trace that interference out there. But the pirates know that, too—it won't be long now," he concluded, grimly.
He spoke truly. Before another word was spoken the outer screen flared white under a beam of terrific power, and simultaneously there appeared upon one of the lookout plates a vivid picture of the pirate vessel—a huge, black globe of steel, now emitting flaring offensive beams of force. Her invisibility lost, now that she had gone into action, she lay revealed in the middle of the first zone—at point-blank range.
Instantly the powerful weapons of the Hyperion were brought to bear, and in the blast of full-driven beams the stranger's screens flamed incandescent. Heavy guns, under the recoil of whose fierce salvos, the frame of the giant globe trembled and shuddered, shot out their tons of high-explosive shell. But the pirate commander had known accurately the strength of the liner, and knew that her armament was impotent against the forces at his command. His screens were invulnerable, the giant shells were exploded harmlessly in mid-space, miles from their objective. And suddenly a frightened pencil of flame stabbed brilliantly from the black hulk of the enemy. Through the empty ether it tore, through the mighty defensive screens, through the tough metal of the outer and inner walls. Every ether-defence of the Hyperion vanished, and her acceleration dropped to a quarter of its normal value.
"Right through the battery room!" Bradley groaned. "We're on the emergency drive now. Our rays are done for, and we can't seem to put a shell anywhere near her with our guns!"
But ineffective as the guns were, they were silenced forever as a frightful beam of destruction stabbed relentlessly through the control room, whiffing out of existence the pilot, gunnery, and lookout panels and the men before them. The air rushed into space, and the suits of the three survivors bulged out into drumhead tightness as the pressure in the room decreased.
Costigan pushed the captain lightly toward a wall, then seized the girl and leaped in the same direction.
"Let's get out of here, quick!" he cried, the miniature radio instruments of the helmets automatically taking up the duty of transmitting speech as the sound disks refused to function. "They can't see us—our ether wall is still up and their spy-sprays can't get through it from the outside, you know. They're working from blue-prints, and they'll probably take your desk next," and even as they bounded toward the door, now become the outer seal of an airlock, the annihilating ray tore through the space which they had just quitted in their flight.
Through the airlock, down through several levels of passengers' quarters they hurried, and into a lifeboat, whose one doorway commanded the full length of the third lounge—an ideal spot, either for defense or for escape outward by means of the miniature cruiser. As they entered their retreat they felt their weight begin to increase. More and more force was applied to the helpless liner, until it was moving at normal acceleration.
"What do you make of that, Costigan?" asked the captain. "Tractor beams?"
"Apparently. They've got something, all right. They're taking us somewhere, fast. I'll go get a couple of Standishes, and another suit of armor—we'd better dig in," and soon the small room became a veritable fortress, housing as it did, those two formidable engines of destruction. Then the first officer made another and longer trip, returning with a complete suit of triplanetary space armor, exactly like those worn by the two men, but considerably smaller.
"Just as an added factor of safety, you'd better put this on, Clio—those emergency suits aren't good for much in a battle. I don't suppose that you ever fired a Standish, did you?"
"No, but I can soon learn how to do it," she replied, pluckily.
"Two is all that can work here at once, but you should know how to take hold in case one of us goes out. And while you're changing suits you'd better put on some stuff I've got here—Service special phones and detectors. Stick this little disk onto your chest with this bit of tape; low down, out of sight. Just under your wishbone is the best place. Take off your wrist-watch and wear this one continuously—never take it off for a second. Put on these pearls, and wear them all the time, too. Take this capsule and hide it against your skin, some place where it can't be found except by the most rigid search. Swallow it in an emergency—it goes down easily and works just as well inside as outside. It is the most important thing of all—you can get along with it alone if you lose everything else, but without that capsule the whole system's shot to pieces. With that outfit, if we should get separated, you can talk to us—we're both wearing 'em, although somewhat different forms. You don't need to talk loud—just a mutter will be enough. They're handy little outfits, almost impossible to find, and capable of a lot of things."
"Thanks, Conway—I'll remember that, too," Clio replied, as she turned toward the tiny locker to follow his instructions. "But won't the scouts and patrols be catching us pretty quick? The operator sent a warning."
"Afraid the ether's empty, as far as we're concerned. They could neutralize our detector screens, and the scouts' detectors are the same as ours."
Captain Bradley had stood by in silent astonishment during this conversation. His eyes had bulged slightly at Costigan's "we're both wearing 'em," but he had held his peace and as the girl disappeared a look of dawning comprehension came over his face.
"Oh, I see, sir," he said, respectfully—far more respectfully than he had ever before addressed a mere first officer. "Meaning that we both will be wearing them shortly, I assume. 'Service Specials'—but you didn't specify exactly what Service, did you?"
"Now that you mention it, I don't believe that I did," Costigan grinned.
"That explains several things about you—particularly your recognition of Vee-Two and your uncanny control and speed of reaction. But aren't you...."
"No," Costigan interrupted, positively. "This situation is apt to get altogether too serious to overlook any bets. If we get away, I'll take them away from her and she'll never know that they aren't routine equipment in the Triplanetary Service. As for you, I know that you can and do keep your mouth shut. That's why I'm hanging this junk on you—I had a lot of stuff in my kit, but I flashed it all with the Standish, except what I brought in here for us three. Whether you think so or not, we're in a real jam—our chance of getting away is mightly close to zero. Now that I've gone this far, I might as well tell you that I don't believe these birds are pirates at all, in the ordinary sense of the word. And it may be possible that they're after me, but I don't think so—we've covered up too...."
He broke off as the girl came back, now to all appearances a small Triplanetary officer, and the three settled down to a long and eventless wait. Hour after hour they flew through the ether, but finally there was a lurching swing and an abrupt increase in their acceleration. After a short consultation Captain Bradley turned on the visiray set and, with the beam at its minimum power, peered cautiously downward, in the direction opposite to that in which he knew the pirate vessel must be. All three stared into the plate, seeing only an infinity of emptiness, marked only by the infinitely remote and coldly brilliant stars. While they stared into space a vast area of the heavens was blotted out and they saw, faintly illuminated by a peculiar blue luminescence, a vast ball—a sphere so large and so close that they seemed to be dropping downward toward it as though it were a world! They came to a stop—paused, weightless—a vast door slid smoothly aside—they were drawn upward through an airlock and floated quietly in the air above a small, but brightly-lighted and orderly city of metallic buildings! Gently the Hyperion was lowered, to come to rest in the embracing arms of a regulation landing cradle.
"Well, wherever it is, we're here," remarked Captain Bradley, grimly.
"And now the fireworks start," assented Costigan, with a questioning glance at the girl.
"Don't mind me," she answered his unspoken question. "I don't believe in surrendering, either."
"Right," and both men squatted down behind the ether-walls of their terrific weapons; the girl prone behind them.
They had not long to wait. A group of human beings—men and to all appearance Americans—appeared unarmed in the little lounge. As soon as they were well inside the room, Bradley and Costigan released upon them without compunction the full power of their frightful projectors. From the reflectors, through the doorway, there tore a concentrated double beam of pure destruction—but that beam did not reach its goal. Yards from the men it met a screen of impenetrable density. Instantly the gunners pressed their triggers and a stream of high-explosive shells issued from the roaring weapons. But shells, also, were futile. They struck the shield and vanished—vanished without exploding and without leaving a trace to show that they had ever existed.
Costigan sprang to his feet, but before he could launch his intended attack a vast tunnel appeared beside him—an annihilating ray had swept through the entire width of the liner, cutting instantly a smooth cylinder of emptiness. Air rushed in to fill the vacuum, and the three visitors felt themselves seized by invisible forces and drawn into the tunnel. Through it they floated, up to and over the buildings, finally slanting downward toward the door of a great high-powered structure. Doors opened before them and closed behind them, until at last they stood upright in a room which was evidently the office of a busy executive. They faced a desk which, in addition to the usual equipment of the business man, carried a bewilderingly complete switchboard and instrument panel.
Seated impassively at the desk there was a gray man. Not only was he dressed entirely in gray, but his heavy hair was gray, his eyes were gray, and even his tanned skin seemed to give the impression of grayness in disguise. His overwhelming personality radiated an aura of grayness—not the gentle gray of the dove, but the resistless, driving gray of the super-dreadnaught; the hard, inflexible, brittle gray of the fracture of high-carbon steel.
"Captain Bradley, First Officer Costigan, Miss Marsden," the man spoke quietly, but crisply. "I had not intended you two men to live so long. That is a detail, however, which we will pass by for the moment. You may remove your suits."
Neither officer moved, but both stared back at the speaker unflinchingly.
"I am not accustomed to repeating instructions," the man at the desk continued; voice still low and level, but instinct with deadly menace. "You may choose between removing those suits and dying in them, here and now."
Costigan moved over to Clio and slowly took off her armor. Then, after a flashing exchange of glances and a muttered word, the two officers threw off their suits simultaneously and fired at the same instant; Bradley with his Lewiston, Costigan with a heavy automatic pistol whose bullets were explosive shells of tremendous power. But the man in gray, surrounded by an impenetrable wall of force, only smiled at the fusillade, tolerantly and maddeningly. Costigan leaped fiercely, only to be hurled backward as he struck that unyielding, invisible wall. A vicious beam snapped him back into place, the weapons were snatched away, and all three captives were held in their former positions.
"I permitted that, as a demonstration of futility," the gray man said, his hard voice becoming harder, "but I will permit no more foolishness. Now I will introduce myself. I am known as Roger. You probably have heard nothing of me yet but you will—if you live. Whether or not you two live depends solely upon yourselves. Being something of a student of men, I fear that you will both die shortly. Able and resourceful as you have just shown yourselves to be, you could be valuable to me, but you probably will not—in which case you shall, of course, cease to exist. That, however, in its proper time—you shall be of some slight service to me in the process of being eliminated. In your case, Miss Marsden, I find myself undecided between two courses of action; each highly desirable, but unfortunately mutually exclusive. Your father will be glad to ransom you at an exceedingly high figure, but, in spite of that fact, I may decide to keep you for—well, let us say for certain purposes."
"Yes?" Clio rose magnificently to the occasion. Fear forgotten, her courageous spirit flashed from her clear, young eyes and emanated from her slender, rounded young body, erect in defiance. "Since I am a captive, you can of course do anything you please with me up to a certain point—but no further, believe me!"
With no sign of having heard her outburst Roger pressed a button and a tall, comely woman, appeared—a woman of indefinite age and of uncertain nationality.
"Show Miss Marsden to her apartment," he directed, and as the two women went out a man came in.
"The cargo is unloaded, sir," the newcomer reported. "The two men and the five women indicated have been taken to the hospital," was the report of the man.
"Very well, dispose of the others in the usual fashion." The minion went out, and Roger continued, emotionlessly:
"Collectively, the other passengers may be worth a million or so, but it would not be worth while to waste time upon them."
"What are you, anyway?" blazed Costigan, helpless but enraged beyond caution. "I have heard of mad scientists who tried to destroy the earth, and of equally mad geniuses who thought themselves Napoleons capable of conquering even the Solar System. Whichever you are, you should know that you can't get away with it."
"I am neither. I am, however, a scientist, and I direct many other scientists. I am not mad. You have undoubtedly noticed several peculiar features of this place?"
"Yes, particularly the artificial gravity, which has always been considered impossible, and those screens. An ordinary ether-wall is opaque in one direction, and doesn't bar matter—yours are transparent both ways and something more than impenetrable to matter. How do you do it?"
"You could not understand them if I explained them to you, and they are merely two of our smaller developments. I have no serious designs upon the earth nor upon the Solar System, nor have I any desire to rule over, or to control the destinies of masses of futile and brainless men. I have, however, certain ends of my own in view. To accomplish my plans I require hundreds of millions in gold, other hundreds of millions in platinum and noble metal, and some five kilograms of the bromide of radium—all of which I shall take from the planets of this Solar System before I leave it. I shall take them in spite of the puerile efforts of the fleets of your Triplanetary League.
"This structure, floating in a planetary orbit, was designed by me and built under my direction. It is protected from meteorites by certain forces of my devising. It is undetectable and invisible—your detectors do not touch it and light-waves are bent around it without loss or distortion. I am discussing these points at such length so that you may realize exactly your position. As I have intimated, you can be of assistance to me if you will."
"Now just what could you offer any man to make him join your outfit?" demanded Costigan, venomously.
"Many things." Roger's cold tone betrayed no emotion, no recognition of Costigan's open and bitter contempt. "I have under me many men, bound to me by many ties. Needs, wants, longings and desires differ from man to man, and I can satisfy practically any of them. Personally, I take delight in the society of young and beautiful women, and many men have that same taste; but there are other urges which I have found quite efficient. Greed, thirst for fame, longing for power, and so on, including many qualities usually regarded as 'noble.' And what I promise, I deliver. I demand only loyalty to me, and that only in certain things and for a relatively short period. In all else, my men do as they please. In conclusion, I can use you two conveniently, but I do not need you. Therefore you may choose now between my service and—the alternative."
"Exactly what is the alternative?"
"We will not go into that. Suffice it to say that it has to do with a minor research, which is not progressing satisfactorily. It will result in your extinction, and perhaps I should mention that that extinction will not be particularly pleasant."
"I say NO, you...." Bradley roared. He intended to give an unexpurgated classification, but was rudely interrupted.
"Hold on a minute!" snapped Costigan. "How about Miss Marsden?"
"She has nothing to do with this discussion," returned Roger, icily. "I do not bargain—in fact, I believe that I shall keep her for a time. She has it in mind to destroy herself, if I do not allow her to be ransomed, but she will find that door closed to her until I permit it to open."
"In that case, I string along with the Chief—take what he started to say about you and run it clear across the board for me!" barked Costigan.
"Very well. That decision was to be expected from men of your type." The gray man touched two buttons and two of his creatures entered the room. "Put these men into separate cells on the second level," he ordered. "Search them to the skin: all their weapons may not have been in their armor. Seal the doors and mount special guards, tuned to me here."
Imprisoned they were, and carefully searched; but they bore no arms, and nothing had been said or thought of communicators. Even if such instruments could be concealed, Roger would detect their use instantly. At least, so would have run his thought had the subject entered his mind. But even Roger had no inkling of the possibility of Costigan's "Service Special" phones, detectors and spy-ray—instruments of minute size and of infinitesimal power, but yet instruments which, working as they were, below the level of the ether, were effective at great distances and caused no vibrations in the ether by which their use could be detected. And what could be more innocent than the regulation, personal equipment of every officer of space? The heavy goggles, the wrist-watch and its supplementary pocket chronometer, the flash-lamp, the automatic lighter, the sender, the money-belt?
All these items of equipment were examined with due care; but the cleverest minds of Triplanetary's Secret Service had designated those communicators to pass any ordinary search, however careful, and when Costigan and Bradley were finally locked into the designated cells, they still possessed their ultra-instruments.
In Roger's Planetoid
In the hall Clio glanced around her wildly, her bosom heaving, eyes darting here and there, seeking even the narrowest avenue of escape. Before she could act, however, her body was clamped inflexibly, as though in a vise, and she struggled, motionless.
"It is useless to attempt to escape, or to do anything except what Roger wishes," the guide informed her somberly, snapping off the instrument in her hand and thus restoring to the thoroughly cowed girl her freedom of motion.
"His lightest wish is law," she continued as they walked down a long corridor. "The sooner you realize that you must do exactly as he pleases, in all things, the easier your life will be."
"But I wouldn't want to keep on living!" Clio declared, with a flash of spirit. "And I can always die, you know."
"You will find that you cannot," the passionless creature returned, monotonously. "If you do not yield, you will long and pray for death, but you will not die unless Roger wills it. I was like you once. I also struggled, and I became what I am now—whatever it is. Here is your apartment. You will stay here until Roger gives further orders concerning you."
The living automaton opened a door and stood silent and impassive, while Clio, staring at her in unutterable horror, shrank past her and into the sumptuously furnished suite. The door closed soundlessly and utter silence descended as a pall. Not an ordinary silence, but the indescribable perfection of the absolute, complete absence of all sound. In that silence Clio stood motionless. Tense and rigid, hopeless, despairing, she stood there in that magnificent room, fighting an almost overwhelming impulse to scream. Suddenly she heard the cold voice of Roger, speaking from the empty air.
"You are over-wrought, Miss Marsden. You can be of no use to yourself or to me in that condition. I command you to rest; and, to insure that rest, you may pull that cord, which will establish about this room an ether wall: a wall cutting off even this my voice...."
The voice ceased as she pulled the cord savagely and threw herself upon a divan in a torrent of gasping, strangling, but rebellious sobs. Then again came a voice, but not to her ears. Deep within her, pervading every bone and muscle, it made itself felt rather than heard.
"Clio?" it asked. "Don't talk yet...."
"Conway!" she gasped in relief, every fiber of her being thrilled into new hope at the deep, well-remembered voice of Conway Costigan.
"Keep still!" he snapped. "Don't act so happy! He may have a spy-ray on you. He can't hear me, but he may be able to hear you. When he was talking to you you must have noticed a sort of rough, sandpapery feeling under that necklace I gave you? Since he's got an ether-wall around you the beads are dead now. If you feel anything like that under the wrist-watch, breathe deeply, twice. If you don't feel anything there, it's safe for you to talk, as loud as you please.
"I don't feel a thing, Conway!" she rejoiced. Tears forgotten, she was her old, buoyant self again. "So that wall is real, after all? I only about half believed it."
"Don't trust it too much, because he can cut it off from the outside any time he wants to. Remember what I told you: that necklace will warn you of any spy-ray in the ether, and the watch will detect anything below the level of the ether. It's dead now, of course, since our three phones are direct-connected; I'm in touch with Bradley, too. Don't be too scared; we've got a lot better chance that I thought we had."
"What? You don't mean it!"
"Absolutely. I'm beginning to think that maybe we've got something he doesn't know exists—our ultra-wave. Of course I wasn't surprised when his searchers failed to find our instruments, but it never occurred to me that I might have a clear field to use them in! I can't quite believe it yet, but I haven't been able to find any indication that he can even detect the bands we are using. I'm going to look around over there with my spy-ray ... I'm looking at you now—feel it?"
"Yes, the watch feels that way, now."
"Fine! Not a sign of interference over here, either. I can't find a trace of ultra-wave—anything below ether-level, you know—anywhere in the whole place. He's got so much stuff that we've never heard of that I supposed of course he'd have ultra-wave, too; but if he hasn't, that gives us the edge. Well, Bradley and I've got a lot of work to do.... Wait a minute, I just had a thought. I'll be back in about a second."
There was a brief pause, then the soundless, but clear voice went on:
"Good hunting! That woman that gave you the blue willies isn't alive—she's full of the prettiest machinery and communicators you ever saw!"
"Oh, Conway!" and the girl's voice broke in an engulfing wave of thanksgiving and relief. "It was so unutterably horrible, thinking of what must have happened to her and to others like her!"
"He's running a colossal bluff, I think. He's good, all right, but he lacks quite a lot of being omnipotent. But don't get too cocky, either. Plenty has happened to plenty of women here, and men too—and plenty may happen to us unless we put out a few jets. Keep a stiff upper lip, and if you want us, yell. 'Bye!"
The silent voice ceased, the watch upon Clio's wrist again became an unobtrusive timepiece, and Costigan, in his solitary cell far below her tower room, turned his peculiarly goggled eyes toward other scenes. In his pockets his hands manipulated tiny controls, and through the lenses of those goggles Costigan's keen and highly-trained eyes studied every concealed detail of mechanism of the great globe, the while he planned what must be done. Finally, he took off the goggles and spoke in a low voice to Bradley, confined in another windowless room across the hall.
"I think I've got dope enough, Captain. I've found out where he put our armor and guns, and I've located all the main leads, controls, and generators. There are no ether-walls around us here, but every door is shielded, and there are guards outside our doors—one to each of us. They're robots, not men. That makes it harder, since they're undoubtedly connected direct to Roger's desk, and will give an alarm at the first hint of abnormal performance. We can't do a thing until he leaves his desk. See that black panel, a little below the cord-switch to the right of your door? That's the conduit cover. When I give you the word, tear that off and you'll see one red wire in the cable. It feeds the shield-generator of your door. Break that wire and join me out in the hall. Sorry I had only one of these ultra-wave spies, but once we're together it won't be so bad. Here's what I thought we could do," and he went over in detail the only course of action which his surveys had shown to be possible.
"There, he's left his desk!" Costigan exclaimed after the conversation had continued for almost an hour. "Now as soon as we find out where he's going, we'll start something ... he's going to see Clio, the swine! This changes things, Bradley!" His hard voice was a curse.
"Somewhat!" blazed the captain. "I know how you two have been getting on all during the cruise. I'm with you, but what can we do?"
"We'll do something," Costigan declared grimly. "If he makes a pass at her I'll get him if I have to blow this whole sphere out of space, with us in it!"
"Don't do that, Conway." Clio's low voice, trembling but determined, was felt by both men and both gasped audibly: they had forgotten that there were three instruments in the circuit. "If there's a chance for you to get away and do anything about fighting him, don't mind me. Maybe he only wants to talk about the ransom, anyway."
"He wouldn't talk ransom to you—he's going to talk something else entirely," Costigan gritted; then his voice changed suddenly. "But say, maybe it's just as well this way. They didn't find our specials when they searched us, you know, and we're going to do plenty of damage right soon now. Roger probably isn't a fast worker—more the cat-and-mouse type, I'd say—and after we get started he'll have something on his mind besides you. Think you can stall him off and keep him interested for about fifteen minutes?"
"I'm sure I can—I'll do anything to help us, or you, get away from this horrible...." Her voice ceased as Roger broke the ether-wall of her apartment and walked toward the divan upon which she crouched in wide-eyed, helpless, trembling terror.
"Get ready, Bradley!" Costigan directed tersely. "He's left Clio's ether-wall off, so that any abnormal signals would be relayed to him from his desk—he knows that there's no chance of anyone disturbing him in that room. But I'm holding my beam on that switch—it's as good a conductor as metal—so that the wall is on, full strength. No matter what we do now, he can't get a warning. I'll have to hold the beam exactly on the switch, though, so you'll have to do the dirty work. Tear out that red wire and kill those two guards. You know how to kill a robot, don't you?"
"Yes—break his eye-lenses and his eardrums and he'll stop whatever he's doing and send out distress calls.... Got 'em both. Now what?"
"Open my door—the shield switch is to the right."
Costigan's door flew open and the Triplanetary captain leaped into the room.
"Now for our armor!" he cried.
"Not yet!" snapped Costigan. He was standing rigid, goggled eyes staring immovably at a spot upon the ceiling. "I can't move a millimeter until you've closed Clio's ether-wall switch. If I take this ray off it for a second we're sunk. Five floors up, straight ahead down a corridor—fourth door on right. When you're at the switch you'll feel my ray on your watch. Snap it up!"
"Right!" and the captain leaped away at a pace to be equaled by few men of half his years.
Soon he was back, and after Costigan had tested the ether-wall of the "bridal suite" to make sure that no warning signal from his desk or his servants could reach Roger within it, the two officers hurried away toward the room in which their discarded space-armor had been stored.
"Too bad they don't wear uniforms," panted Bradley, short of breath from the many flights of stairs. "Might have helped some as disguise."
"I doubt it—with so many robots around, they've probably got signals that we couldn't understand, anyway. If we meet anybody it'll mean a battle. Hold it!" Peering through walls with his spy-ray, Costigan had seen two men approaching, blocking an intersecting corridor into which they must turn. "Two of 'em, a man and a robot—the robot's on your side. We'll wait here, right at the corner—when they round it, take 'em!" And Costigan put away his goggles in readiness for strife.
All unsuspecting, the two pirates came into view, and as they appeared the two officers struck. Costigan, on the inside, drove a short, hard right low into the human pirate's abdomen. The fiercely driven fist sank to the wrist into the soft tissues and the stricken man collapsed. But even as the blow landed, Costigan had seen that there was a third enemy, following close behind the two he had been watching, a pirate who was even then training a ray projector upon him. Reacting automatically, Costigan swung his unconscious opponent around in front of him, so that it was into that insensible body that the vicious ray tore, and not into his own. Crouching down into the smallest possible compass, he straightened his powerful body with the lashing force of a mighty steel spring, hurling the corpse straight at the flaming mouth of the projector. The weapon crashed to the floor and dead pirate and living went down in a heap. Upon that heap Costigan hurled himself, feeling for the enemy's throat. But the pirate had wriggled clear, and countered with a gouging thrust that would have torn out the eyes of a slower man, following it up instantly with a savage kick for the groin. No automaton this, geared and set to perform certain fixed duties with mechanical precision, but a lithe, strong man in hard training, fighting with every foul trick known to his murderous ilk.
But Costigan was no tyro in the art of dirty fighting. Few indeed are the maiming tricks of foul combat unknown to even the rank and file of the highly efficient Secret Service of the Triplanetary League; and Costigan, a Sector Chief of that unknown organization, knew them all. Not for pleasure, sportsmanship, nor million-dollar purses do those secret agents use Nature's weapons. They come to grips only when it cannot possibly be avoided, but when they are forced to fight in that fashion they go into it with but one grim purpose—to kill, and to kill in the shortest possible space of time. Thus it was that Costigan's opening soon came. The pirate launched a particularly vicious kick, the dreaded "coup de sabot," which Costigan avoided by a lightning shift. It was a slight shift, barely enough to make the kicker miss, and two powerful hands closed upon that flying foot in midair like the sprung jaws of a bear-trap. Closed and twisted viciously, in the same fleeting instant. There was a shriek, smothered as a heavy boot crashed to its carefully pre-determined mark: the pirate was out, definitely and permanently.
The struggle had lasted scarcely ten seconds, coming to its close just as Bradley finished blinding and deafening the robot. Costigan picked up the projector, again donned his spy-ray goggles, and the two hurried on.
"Nice work, Chief—it must be a gift to rough-house the way you do," Bradley exclaimed. "That's why you took the live one?"
"Practice helps some, too! I've been in brawls before, and I'm a lot younger and maybe some faster than you are," Costigan explained briefly, penetrant gaze rigidly to the fore as they ran along one corridor after another.
Several more guards, both living and mechanical, were encountered on the way, but they were not permitted to offer any opposition. Costigan saw them first. In the furious beam of the projector of the dead pirate they were riven into nothingness, and the two officers sped on to the room which Costigan had located from afar. The three suits of Triplanetary space armor had been sealed into a cabinet whose doors Costigan literally blew off with a blast of force, rather than consume time in tracing the power leads.
"I feel like something now!" Costigan, once more encased in his own armor, heaved a great sigh of relief. "Rough-and-tumble's all right with one or two, but that generator room is full of grief, and we won't have any too much stuff as it is. We've got to take Clio's suit along—we'll carry it down to the door of the power room, drop it there, and pick it up after we've wrecked the works."
Contemptuous now of possible guards, the armored pair strode toward the room which housed the pulsating heart of the immense fortress of space. Guards were encountered, and captains—officers who signaled frantically to their chief, since he alone could unleash the frightful forces at his command, and who profanely wondered at his unwonted silence—but the enemy beams were impotent against the mighty ether-walls of that armor; and the pirates, without armor in the security of their own planet as they were, vanished utterly in the ravening beams of the twin Lewistons. As they paused before the door of the power room, both men felt Clio's voice raised in her first and last appeal, an appeal wrung from her against her will by the extremity of her position.
"Conway! Hurry! Oh, hurry! I can't last much longer—good-bye, dear!" In the horror-filled tones both men read clearly the girl's dire extremity. Each saw plainly a happy, care-free young earth girl, upon her first trip into space, locked inside an ether-wall with an over-brained, under-conscienced human machine—a super-intelligent but lecherous and unmoral mechanism of flesh and blood, acknowledging no authority, ruled by nothing save his own scientific drivings and the almost equally powerful urges of his desires and passions! She had fought with every resource at her command. She had wept and pleaded, she had stormed and raged, she had feigned submission and had played for time—and her torment had not touched in the slightest degree the merciless and gloating brain of the being who called himself Roger. Now his tantalizing, ruthless cat-play was done, the horrible gray-brown face was close to hers—she wailed her final despairing message to Costigan and attacked that hideous face with the fury of a tigress.
Costigan bit off a bitter imprecation. "Hold him just a second longer, sweetheart!" he cried, and the power room door vanished.
Through the great room the two Lewistons swept at full aperture and at maximum power, two rapidly opening fans of death and destruction. Here and there a guard, more rapid than his fellows, trained a futile projector—a projector whose magazine exploded at the touch of that frightful field of force, liberating instantaneously its thousands upon thousands of kilowatt-hours of stored-up energy. Through the delicately adjusted, complex mechanisms the destroying beams tore. At their touch armatures burned out, high-tension leads volatilized in crashing, high-voltage sparks, masses of metal smoked and burned in the path of vast forces now seeking the easiest path to neutralization, delicate instruments blew up, copper ran in streams like water. As the last machine subsided into a semi-molten mass of metal the two wreckers, each grasping a brace, felt themselves become weightless and knew that they had accomplished the first part of their program.
Costigan leaped for the outer door. His the task to go to Clio's aid.... Bradley would follow more slowly, bringing the girl's armor and taking care of any possible pursuit. As he sailed through the air he spoke.
"Coming, Clio! All right, girl?" Questioningly, half fearfully.
"All right, Conway." Her voice was almost unrecognizable, broken in retching agony. "When everything went crazy he ... found out that the ether-wall was up ... forgot all about me. He shut it off ... and seemed to go crazy, too ... he is floundering around like a wild man now.... I'm trying to keep ... him from ... going down-stairs."
"Good girl—keep him busy one minute more—he's getting all the warnings at once and wants to get back to his board. But what's the matter with you? Did he ... hurt you, after all?"
"Oh, no; not that. But I'm sick—horribly sick. I'm falling.... I'm so dizzy I can scarcely see ... my head is breaking up into little pieces ... I just know I'm going to die, Conway! Oh ... oh!"
"Oh, is that all!" In his sheer relief that they had been in time, Costigan did not think of sympathizing with Clio's very real present distress of mind and body. "I forgot that you're a ground-gripper—that's just a little touch of space-sickness. It'll wear off directly.... All right, I'm coming! Let go of him and get as far away from him as you can!"
He was now in the street. Perhaps two hundred feet distant and a hundred feet above him was the tower room in which were Clio and Roger. He sprang directly toward its large window, and as he floated "upward" he corrected his course and accelerated his pace by firing backward at various angles with his heavy service pistol, uncaring that at the point of impact of each of those shells a small blast of destruction erupted. He missed the window a trifle, but that did not matter—his flaming Lewiston opened a way for him, partly through the window, partly through the wall. As he soared through the opening he trained projector and pistol upon Roger, now almost to the door, noticing as he did so that Clio was clinging convulsively to a lamp-bracket upon the wall. Door and wall vanished in the Lewiston's terrific beam, but the pirate stood unharmed. Neither ravening ray nor explosive shell could harm him—he had snapped on the protective shield whose generator was always upon his person.
But Roger, while not exactly a ground-gripper, did not know how to handle himself without weight; whereas Costigan, given six walls against which to push, was even more efficient in weightless combat than when handicapped by the force of gravitation. Keeping his projector upon the pirate, he seized the first club to hand—a long, slender pedestal of metal—and launched himself past the pirate chief. With all the momentum of his mass and velocity and all the power of his mighty right arm he swung the bar at the pirate's head. That fiercely driven mass of metal should have taken Roger's head from his shoulders, but it did not. That shield of force was utterly rigid and impenetrable; the only effect of the frightful blow was to set him spinning, end over end, like the flying baton of an acrobatic drum-major. As the spinning form crashed against the opposite wall of the room, Bradley floated in, carrying Clio's armor. Without a word the captain loosened the helpless girl's grip upon the bracket and encased her in the suit. Then, supporting her at the window, he held his Lewiston upon the captive's head while Costigan propelled him toward the opening. Both men knew that Roger's shield of force must be threatened every instant—that if he were allowed to release it he probably would bring to bear a hand-weapon even superior to their own.
Braced against the wall, Costigan sighted along Roger's body toward the most distant point of the lofty dome of the artificial planet and gave him a gentle push. Then, each grasping Clio by an arm, the two officers shoved mightily with their feet and the three armored forms darted away toward their only hope of escape—an emergency boat which could be launched through the shell of the great globe. To attempt to reach the Hyperion and to escape in one of her lifeboats would have been useless; they could not have forced the great gates of the main air-locks and no other exits existed. As they sailed onward through the air, Costigan keeping the slowly-floating form of Roger enveloped in his beam, Clio began to recover.
"Suppose they get their gravity fixed?" she asked, apprehensively. "And they're raying us and shooting at us!"
"They may have fixed it already. They undoubtedly have spare parts and duplicate generators, but if they turn it on the fall will kill Roger too, and he wouldn't like that. They'll have to get him down with an airship, and they know that we'll get them as fast as they come up. They can't hurt us with hand-weapons, and before they can bring up any heavy stuff they'll be afraid to use it, because we'll be too close to their shell.
"I wish we could have brought Roger along," he continued, savagely, to Bradley. "But you were right, of course—it'd be altogether too much like a rabbit capturing a wildcat. My Lewiston's about done right now, and there can't be much left of yours—what he'd do to us would be a sin and a shame."
Now at the great wall, the two men heaved mightily upon a lever, the gate of the emergency port swung slowly open, and they entered the miniature cruiser of the void. Costigan, familiar with the mechanism of the craft from careful study from his prison cell, manipulated the controls. Through gate after massive gate they went, until finally they were out in open space, shooting toward distant Tellus at the maximum acceleration of which their small craft was capable.
Costigan cut the other two phones out of circuit and spoke, his attention fixed upon some extremely distant point.
"Samms!" he called, sharply. "Costigan. We're out ... all right ... yes ... sure ... absolutely ... you tell 'em, Sammy; I've got company here."
Through the sound-disks of their helmets the girl and the captain had heard Costigan's share of the conversation. Bradley stared at his erstwhile first officer in amazement, and even Clio had often heard that mighty, half-mythical name. Surely that bewildering young man must rank high, to speak so familiarly to Virgil Samms, the all-powerful head of the space-pervading Secret Service of the Triplanetary League!
"You've turned in a general call-out," Bradley stated, rather than asked.
"Long ago—I've been in touch right along," Costigan answered. "Now that they know what to look for and know that ether-wave detectors are useless, they can find it. Every vessel in seven sectors, clear down to the scout patrols, is concentrating on this point, and the call is out for all battleships and cruisers afloat. There are enough operatives out there with ultra-waves to locate that globe, and once they spot it they'll point it out to all the other vessels."
"But how about the other prisoners?" asked the girl. "They'll all be killed, won't they?"
"Hard telling," Costigan shrugged. "Depends on how things turn out. We lack a lot of being safe ourselves yet, and it's my personal opinion that there's going to be a real war."
"What's worrying me mostly is our own chance," Bradley assented. "They will chase us, of course."
"Sure, and they'll have more speed than we have. Depends on how far away the nearest Triplanetary vessels are. Anyway, we've done everything we can do—it's in the laps of the gods now."
Silence fell, and Costigan cut in Clio's phone and came over to the seat upon which she was reclining, white and stricken—worn out by the horrible and terrifying ordeals of the last few hours. As he seated himself beside her she blushed vividly, but her deep blue eyes met his gray ones steadily.
"Clio, I ... we ... you ... that is," he flushed hotly and stopped. This secret agent, whose clear, keen brain no physical danger could cloud; who had proved over and over again that he was never at a loss in any emergency, however desperate—this quick-witted officer floundered in embarrassment like any schoolboy, but continued, doggedly: "I'm afraid that I gave myself away back there, but...."
"We gave ourselves away, you mean," she filled in the pause. "I did my share, but I won't hold you to it if you don't want—but I know that you love me, Conway!"
"Love you!" The man groaned, his face lined and hard, his whole body rigid. "That doesn't half tell it, Clio. You don't need to hold me—I'm held for life. There never was a woman who meant anything to me before, and there never will be another. You're the only woman that ever existed. It isn't that. Can't you see that it's impossible?"
"Of course I can't—it isn't impossible, at all." She released her finger shields, four hands met and tightly clasped; and her low voice thrilled with feeling as she went on: "You love me and I love you. That is all that matters."
"I wish it were," Costigan returned bitterly, "but you don't know what you'd be letting yourself in for. It's who and what you are and who and what I am that's eating me. You, Clio Marsden, Curtis Marsden's daughter. Nineteen years old. You think you've been places and done things. You haven't. You haven't seen or done anything—you don't know what it's all about. And who am I to love a girl like you? A homeless space-flea who hasn't been on any planet three weeks in three years. A hard-boiled egg. A trouble-shooter and a brawler by instinct and training. A sp...." He bit off the word and went on quickly: "Why, you don't know me at all, and there's a lot of me that you never will know—that I can't let you know! You'd better lay off me, girl, while you can. It'll be best for you, believe me."
"But I can't Conway, and neither can you," the girl answered softly, a glorious light in her eyes. "It's too late for that. On the ship it was just another of those things, but since then we've come really to know each other, and we're sunk. The situation is out of control, and we both know it—and neither of us would change it if we could, and you know that, too. I don't know very much, I admit, but I do know what you thought you'd have to keep from me, and I admire you all the more for it. We all honor the Service, Conway dearest—it is only you men who have made and are keeping the Three Planets fit places to live in—and I know that Virgil Samms' chief lieutenant would have to be a man in four thousand million...."
"What makes you think that?" he demanded sharply.
"You told me so yourself, indirectly. Who else in the known Universe could possibly call him 'Sammy'? You are hard, of course, but you must be so—and I never did like soft men, anyway. And you brawl in a good cause. You are very much a man, my Conway; a real, real man, and I love you! Now, if they catch us, all right—we'll die together, at least!" she finished, passionately.
"You're right, sweetheart, of course," he admitted. "I don't believe that I could really let you let me go, even though I know you ought to," and their hands locked together even more firmly than before. "If we ever get out of this jam I'm going to kiss you, but this is no time to be taking off your helmet. In fact, I'm taking too many chances with you in keeping your finger shields off. Snap 'em on, Clio mine; the pirates ought to be getting fairly close by this time."
Hands released and armor again tight, Costigan went over to join Bradley at the control board.
"How're they coming, Captain?" he asked.
"Not so good. Quite a ways off yet. At least an hour, I'd say, before a cruiser can get within range."
"I'll see if I can locate any of the pirates chasing up. If I do, it'll be by accident; this little spy-ray isn't good for much except close work. I'm afraid the first warning we'll have will be when they take hold of us with a beam or spear us with a ray. Probably a beam, though; this is one of their emergency lifeboats and they wouldn't want to destroy it unless they have to. Also, I imagine that Roger wants us alive pretty badly. He has unfinished business with all three of us, and I can well believe that his 'not particularly pleasant extinction' will be even less so after the way we rooked him."
"I want you to do me a favor, Conway." Clio's face was white with horror at the thought of facing again that unspeakable creature of gray. "Give me a gun or something, please. I don't want him to touch me again while I'm alive."
"He won't," Costigan assured her, narrow of eye and grim of jaw. He was, as she had said, hard. "But you don't want a gun. You might get nervous and use it too soon. I'll take care of you at the last possible moment, because if he gets hold of us we won't stand a chance of getting away again."
For minutes there was silence, Costigan surveying the ether in all directions with his ultra-wave device. Suddenly he laughed, deeply and with real enjoyment, and the others stared at him in surprise.
"No, I'm not crazy," he told them. "This is really funny; it had never occurred to me that all these pirate ships are invisible to any ether wave as long as they're using power. I can see them, of course, with this sub-ether spy, but they can't see us! I knew that they should have overtaken us before this. I've finally found them. They've passed us, and are now tacking around, waiting for us to cut off our power for a minute so that they can see us! They're heading right into the Fleet—they think they're safe, of course, but what a surprise they've got coming to them!"
But it was not only the pirates who were to be surprised. Long before the pirate ship had come within extreme visibility range of the Triplanetary Fleet, it lost its invisibility and was starkly outlined upon the lookout plates of the three fugitives. For a few seconds the pirate craft seemed unchanged, then it began to glow redly, with a red that seemed to become darker as it grew stronger. Then the sharp outlines blurred, puffs of air burst outward, and the metal of the hull became a viscous, fluid-like something, flowing away in a long, red streamer into seemingly empty space. Costigan turned his ultra-gaze into that space and saw that it was actually far from empty. There lay a vast something, formless and indefinite even to his sub-ethereal vision; a something into which the viscid stream of transformed metal plunged. Plunged, and vanished.
Powerful interference blanketed his ultra-wave and howled throughout his body; but in the hope that some part of his message might get through he called Samms, and calmly and clearly he narrated everything that had just happened. He continued his crisp report, neglecting not the smallest detail, while their tiny craft was drawn inexorably toward a redly impermeable veil; continued it until their lifeboat, still intact, shot through that veil and he found himself unable to move. He was conscious, he was breathing normally, his heart was beating; but not a voluntary muscle would obey his will.
Fleet Against Planetoid
One of the newest and fleetest of the Law Enforcement Vessels of the Triplanetary League, the heavy cruiser Chicago, of the North American Division of the Tellurian Contingent, plunged stolidly through interplanetary vacuum. For five long weeks she had patrolled her allotted volume of space. In another week she would report back to the city whose name she bore, where her space-weary crew, worn by their long "trick" in the awesomely oppressive depths of the limitless void, would enjoy to the full their fortnight of refreshing planetary leave.
She was performing certain routine tasks—charting meteorites, watching for derelicts and other obstructions to navigation, checking in constantly with all scheduled space-ships in case of need, and so on—but primarily she was a warship. She was a mighty engine of destruction, hunting for the unauthorized vessels of whatever power or planet it was, that had not only defied the Triplanetary League, but were evidently attempting to overthrow it; attempting to plunge the Three Planets back into the ghastly sink of bloodshed and destruction from which they had so recently emerged. Every space-ship within range of her powerful detectors was represented by two brilliant, slowly moving points of light; one upon a great micrometer screen, the other in the "tank"—the immense, three-dimensional, minutely cubed model of the entire Solar System.
A brilliantly intense red light flared upon a panel and a bell clanged brazenly the furious signals of the sector alarm. Simultaneously a speaker roared forth its message of a ship in dire peril.
"Sector alarm! N. A. T. Hyperion gassed with Vee-Two. Nothing detectable in space, but...."
The half-uttered message was drowned out in a crackling roar of meaningless noise, the orderly signals of the bell became a hideous clamor, and the two points of light which had marked the location of the liner disappeared in widely spreading flashes of the same high-powered interference. Observers, navigators, and control officers were alike dumfounded. Even the captain, in the shell-proof, shock-proof, and doubly ray-proof retreat of his conning compartment, was equally at a loss. No ship or thing could possibly be close enough to be sending out interfering waves of such tremendous power—yet there they were!
"Maximum acceleration, straight for the point where the Hyperion was when her tracers went out," the captain ordered, and through the fringe of that widespread interference he drove a solid beam, reporting concisely to G. H. Q. Almost instantly the emergency call-out came roaring in—every vessel of the Sector, of whatever class or tonnage, was to concentrate upon the point in space where the ill-fated liner had last been known to be.
Hour after hour the great globe drove on at maximum acceleration, captain and every control officer alert and at high tension. But in the Quartermaster's Department, deep down below the generator rooms, no thought was given to such minor matters as the disappearance of a Hyperion. The inventory did not balance, and two Q. M. privates were trying, profanely, and without much success, to find the discrepancy.
"Charged cells for model DF Lewistons, none requisitioned, on hand eighteen thous...." The droning voice broke off short in the middle of a word and the private stood rigid, in the act of reaching for another slip, every faculty concentrated upon something, imperceptible to his companion.
"Come on, Cleve—snap it up!" the second commanded, but was silenced by a vicious wave of the listener's hand.
"What!" the rigid one exclaimed. "Reveal ourselves! Why, it's ... Oh, all right.... Oh, that's it.... Uh-huh.... I see.... Yes, I've got it solid. Maybe I'll see you again some time. If not, so long!"
The inventory sheets fell unheeded from his hand, and his fellow private stared after him in amazement as he strode over to the desk of the officer in charge. That officer also stared as the hitherto easy-going and gold-bricking Cleve saluted briskly, showed him something flat in the palm of his left hand, and spoke.
"I've just got some of the funniest orders ever put out, Lieutenant"—his voice was low and intense—"but they came from 'way, 'way up. I'm to join the brass hats in the Center. You'll know about it directly, I imagine. Cover me up as much as you can, will you?" And he was gone.
Unchallenged he made his way to the control room, and his curt "urgent report for the Captain" admitted him there without question. But when he approached the sacred precincts of the Captain's own and inviolate room, he was stopped in no uncertain fashion by no less a personage than the Officer of the Day.
" ... and report yourself under arrest immediately!" the O. D. concluded his brief but pointed speech.
"You were right in stopping me, of course," the intruder conceded, unmoved. "I wanted to get in there without giving everything away, if possible, but it seems that I can't. Well, I've been ordered by Virgil Samms to report to the Captain, at once. See this? Touch it!" He held out a flat, insulated disk, cover thrown back to reveal a tiny golden meteor, at the sight of which the officer's truculent manner altered markedly.
"I've heard of them, of course, but I never saw one before," and the officer touched the shining symbol lightly with his finger, jerking backward involuntarily as there shot through his whole body a thrilling surge of power, shouting into his very bones an unpronounceable syllable—the password of the Secret Service. "Genuine or not, it gets you to the Captain. He'll know, and if it's a fake you'll be breathing space in five minutes."
Projector at the ready, the Officer of the Day followed Cleve into the Holy of Holies. There the grizzled four-striper touched the golden meteor lightly, then drove his piercing gaze deep into the unflinching eyes of the younger man. But that captain had won his high rank neither by accident nor by "pull"—he understood at once.
"It must be an emergency," he growled, half-audibly, still staring at his lowly Q. M. clerk, "to make Samms uncover his whole organization." He turned and curtly dismissed the wondering O. D. Then: "All right! Out with it!"
"Serious enough so that every one of us afloat has just received orders to reveal himself to his commanding officer and to anyone else, if necessary to reach that officer at once—orders never before issued. The enemy have been located. They have built a base, and have ships better than our best. Base and ships cannot be seen nor detected by any ether wave. However, the Service has been experimenting for years with a new type of communicator beam; and, while pretty crude yet, it was given to us when the Dione went out without leaving a trace. One of our men was in the Hyperion, managed to stay alive, and has been sending data. I am instructed to attach my new phone set to one of the universal plates in your conning room, and to see what I can find."
"Go to it!" The captain waved his hand and the operative bent to his task.
"Commanders of all vessels of the Fleet!" The Headquarters speaker, receiver sealed upon the wave-length of the Admiral of the Fleet, broke the long silence. "All vessels, in sectors L to R, inclusive, will interlock location signals. Some of you have received, or will receive shortly, certain communications from sources which need not be mentioned. Those commanders will at once send out red K4 screens. Vessels so marked will act as temporary flagships. Unmarked vessels will proceed at maximum to the nearest flagship, grouping about it in regulation squadron cone in order of arrival. Squadrons most distant from objective point designated by flagship observers will proceed toward it at maximum; squadrons nearest it will decelerate or reverse velocity—that point must not be approached until full Fleet formation has been accomplished. Heavy and Light Cruisers of all other sectors inside the orbit of Mars ..." the orders went on, directing the mobilization of the stupendous forces of the League, so that they would be in readiness in the highly improbable event of the failure of the massed power of seven sectors to reduce the pirate base.
In those seven sectors perhaps a dozen vessels threw out enormous spherical screens of intense red light, and as they did so their tracer points upon all the interlocked lookout plates also became ringed about with red. Toward those crimson markers the pilots of the unmarked vessels directed their courses at their utmost power; and while the white lights upon the lookout plates moved slowly toward and clustered about the red ones—the ultra-instruments of the Secret Service operatives were probing into space, sweeping the neighborhood of the computed position of the pirate's stronghold.
But the object sought was so far away that the small spy-ray sets of the Secret Service men, intended as they were for close-range work, were unable to make contact with the invisible planetoid for which they were seeking. In the captain's sanctum of the Chicago, the operative studied his plate for only a minute or two, then shut off his power and fell into a brown study, from which he was rudely aroused.
"Aren't you even going to try to find them?" demanded the captain.
"No," Cleve returned shortly. "No use—not half enough power or control. I'm trying to think ... maybe ... say, Captain, will you please have the Chief Electrician and a couple of radio men come in here?"
They came, and for hours, while the other ultra-wave men searched the apparently empty ether with their ineffective beams, the three technical experts and the erstwhile Quartermaster's clerk labored upon a huge and complex ultra-wave projector—the three blindly and with doubtful questions; the one with sure knowledge at least of what he was trying to do. Finally the thing was done, the crude but efficient graduated circles were set, and the tubes glowed redly as their solidly massed output was driving into a tight beam of ultra-vibration. "There it is, sir," Cleve reported, after some ten minutes of delicate manipulation, and the vast structure of the miniature world flashed into being upon his plate. "You may notify the fleet—co-ordinates H 11.62, RA 124-31-16, and Dx about 173.2."
The report made and the assistants out of the room, the captain turned to the observer and saluted gravely.
"We have always known, sir, that the Service had men; but I had no idea that any one man could possibly do, on the spur of the moment, what you have just done—unless that man happened to be Lyman Cleveland."
"Oh, it doesn't ..." the observer began, but broke off, muttering unintelligibly at intervals; then swung the visiray beam toward the earth. Soon a face appeared upon the plate, the keen but careworn face of Virgil Samms!
"Hello, Lyman." His voice came clearly from the speaker, and the Captain gasped—his ultra-wave observer and sometime clerk was Lyman Cleveland himself, probably the greatest living expert in beam transmission! "I knew that you'd do something, if it could be done. How about it—can the others install similar sets on their ships? I'm betting that they can't."
"Probably not," Cleveland frowned in thought. "This is a patchwork affair, made of gunny-sacks and hay-wire. I'm holding it together by main strength and awkwardness, and even at that it's apt to go to pieces any minute."
"Can you rig it up for photography?"
"I think so. Just a minute—yes, I can. Why?"
"Because there's something going on out there that neither we nor the so-called pirates know anything about. The Admiralty seems to think that it's the Jovians again, but we don't see how it can be—if it is, they have developed a lot of stuff that none of our agents has even suspected," and he recounted briefly what Costigan had reported to him, concluding: "Then there was a burst of interference—on the ultra-band, mind you—and I've heard nothing from him since. Therefore I want you to stay out of the battle entirely. Stay as far away from it as you can and still get good pictures of everything that happens. I will see that orders are issued to the Chicago to that effect."
"But listen ..."
"Those are orders!" snapped Samms. "It is of the utmost importance that we know every detail of what is going to happen. The answer is pictures. The only possibility of obtaining pictures is that machine you have just developed. If the fleet wins, nothing will be lost. If the fleet loses—and I am not half as confident of success as the Admiral is—the Chicago doesn't carry enough power to decide the issue, and we will have the pictures to study, which is all-important. Besides, we've probably lost Conway Costigan to-day, and we don't want to lose you, too."
Cleveland remained silent, pondering this startling news, but the grizzled Captain, veteran of the Fourth Jovian War that he was, was not convinced.
"We'll blow them out of space, Mr. Samms!" he declared.
"You just think you will, Captain. I have suggested, as forcibly as possible, that the general attack be withheld until after a thorough investigation is made, but the Admiralty will not listen. They see the advisability of withdrawing a camera ship, but that is as far as they will go."
"And that's plenty far enough!" growled the Chicago's commander, as the beam snapped off. "Mr. Cleveland, I don't like the idea of running away under fire, and I won't do it without direct orders from the Admiral."
"Of course you won't—that's why you are going...."
He was interrupted by a voice from the Headquarters speaker. The captain stepped up to the plate and, upon being recognized, he received the exact orders which had been requested by the Chief of the Secret Service—now not as secret as it had been heretofore.
Thus it was that the Chicago reversed her acceleration, cut off her red screen, and fell rapidly behind, while the vessels following her in their loose cone formation shot away toward another crimson-flaring leader. Farther and farther back she dropped, back to the limiting range of the ultra-cameras upon which Cleveland and his highly trained assistants were furiously and unremittingly at work. And during all this time the forces of the seven sectors had been concentrating. The pilot vessels, with their flaming red screens, each followed by a cone of space-ships, drew closer and closer together, approaching the Fearless—the British super-dreadnaught which was to be the flagship of the Fleet—the mightiest and heaviest space-ship which had yet lifted her stupendous mass into the ether.
Now, systematically and precisely, the great Cone of Battle was coming into being; a formation developed during the Jovian Wars while the forces of the Three Planets were fighting in space for their very civilizations' existence, and one never used since the last space-fleets of Jupiter's murderous hordes had been wiped out.
The mouth of that enormous hollow cone was a ring of scout patrols, the smallest and most agile vessels of the fleet. Behind them came a somewhat smaller ring of light cruisers, then rings of heavy cruisers and of light battleships, and finally of heavy battleships. At the apex of the cone, protected by all the other vessels of the formation and in best position to direct the battle, was the flagship. In this formation every vessel was free to use her every weapon, with a minimum of danger to her sister ships; and yet, when the gigantic main projectors were operated along the axis of the formation, from the entire vast circle of the cone's mouth there flamed a cylindrical field of force of such intolerable intensity that in it no conceivable substance could endure for a moment!
The artificial planet of metal was now close enough so that it was visible to the ultra-vision of the Secret Service men, so plainly visible that the warships of the pirates were seen issuing from the enormous air-locks. As each vessel shot out into space it sped straight for the approaching fleet without waiting to go into any formation—gray Roger believed his structures invisible to Triplanetary eyes, thought that the presence of the fleet was the result of mathematical calculations, and was convinced that his mighty vessels of the void would destroy even that vast fleet without themselves becoming known. He was wrong. The foremost globes were allowed actually to enter the mouth of that conical trap before an offensive move was made. Then the vice-admiral in command of the fleet touched a button, and simultaneously every generator in every Triplanetary vessel burst into furious activity. Instantly the hollow volume of the immense cone became a coruscating hell of resistless energy, an inferno which, with the velocity of light, extended itself into a far-reaching cylinder of rapacious destruction. Ether-waves they were, it is true, but vibrations driven with such fierce intensity that the screens of deflection surrounding the pirate vessels could not handle even a fraction of their awful power. Invisibility lost, their defensive screens flared briefly; but even the enormous force backing Roger's inventions, greater far than that of any single Triplanetary vessel, could not hold off the incredible violence of the massed attack of the hundreds of mighty vessels composing the Fleet. Their defensive screens flared briefly, then went down; their great spherical hulls first glowing red, then shining white, then in a brief moment exploding into flying masses of red hot, molten, and gaseous metal.
A full two-thirds of Roger's force was caught in that raging, incandescent beam; caught and obliterated: but the remainder did not retreat to the planetoid. Darting out around the edge of the cone at a stupendous acceleration, they attacked its flanks and the engagement became general. But now, since enough beams were kept upon each ship of the enemy so that invisibility could not be restored, each Triplanetary war vessel could attack with full efficiency. Magnesium flares and star-shells illuminated space for a thousand miles, and from every unit of both fleets was being hurled every item of solid, explosive, and vibratory destruction known to the highly scientific warfare of that age. Offensive beams, rods and daggers of frightful power struck and were neutralized by defensive screens equally capable; the long range and furious dodging made ordinary solid or high-explosive projectiles useless; and both sides were filling all space with such a volume of blanketing frequencies that such radio-dirigible torpedoes as were launched could not be controlled, but darted madly and erratically hither and thither, finally to be exploded harmlessly in mid-space by the touch of some fiercely insistent, probing beam of force.
Individually, however, the pirate vessels were far more powerful than those of the fleet, and that superiority soon began to make itself felt. The power of the smaller ships began to fail as their accumulators became discharged under the awful drain of the battle, and vessel after vessel of the Triplanetary fleet was hurled into nothingness by the concentrated blasts of the pirates' rays. But the Triplanetary forces had one great advantage. In furious haste the Secret Service men had been altering the controls of the radio-dirigible torpedoes, so that they would respond to ultra-wave control; and, few in number though they were, each was highly effective.
A hard-eyed observer, face almost against his plate and both hands and both feet manipulating controls, hurled the first torpedo. Propelling rockets viciously aflame, it twisted and looped around the incandescent rods of destruction so thickly and starkly outlined, under perfect control; unaffected by the hideous distortion of all ether-borne signals. Through a pirate screen it went, and under the terrific blast of its detonation one entire panel of the stricken battleship vanished, crumpled and broken. It should have been out, cold—but, to the amazement of the observers, it kept on fighting with scarcely lessened power! Three more of the frightful space-bombs had to be exploded in it—it had to be reduced to junk—before its terrible rays went out; Not a man in that great fleet had even an inkling of the truth; that those great vessels, those terrible engines of destruction, did not contain a single living creature: that they were manned and fought by automatons; robots controlled by keen-eyed, space-hardened veterans inside the planetoid so distant by means of tight, interference-proof communicator beams!
But they were to receive an inkling of it. As ship after ship of the pirate fleet was blown to pieces, Roger realized that his navy was beaten, and forthwith all his surviving vessels darted toward the apex of the cone, where the heaviest battleships were stationed. There each hurled itself upon a Triplanetary warship, crashing to its own destruction, but in that destruction insuring the loss of one of the heaviest vessels of the enemy. Thus passed the Fearless, and twenty of the finest space-ships of the fleet as well. But the ranking officer assumed command, the war-cone was re-formed, and, yawning maw to the fore, the great formation shot toward the pirate stronghold, now near at hand. It again launched its stupendous cylinder of annihilation, but even as the mighty defensive screens of the planetoid flared into incandescently furious defense, the battle was interrupted and pirates and Triplanetarians learned alike that they were not alone in the ether.
Space became suffused with a redly impenetrable opacity, and through that indescribable pall there came reaching huge arms of force incredible; writhing, coruscating beams of power which glowed a baleful, although almost imperceptible, red. A vessel of unheard-of armament and power, hailing from a distant solar system of the Galaxy, had come to rest in that space. For months her commander had been investigating sun after sun in quest of one precious substance. Now his detectors had found it; and, feeling neither fear of Triplanetarian weapons nor reluctance to sacrifice those thousands of Triplanetarian lives, he was about to take it!
Within the Red Veil
Nevia, the home planet of the marauding space-ship, would have appeared peculiar indeed to Terrestrial senses. High in the deep red heavens a fervent blue sun poured down its flood of brilliant purplish light upon a world of water. Not a cloud was to be seen in that flaming sky, and through that dustless atmosphere the eye could see the horizon—a horizon three times as distant as the one to which we are accustomed—with a distinctness and clarity impossible in our Terra's dust-filled air. As that mighty sun dropped below the horizon the sky would fill suddenly with clouds and rain would fall violently and steadily until midnight. Then the clouds would vanish as suddenly as they had come into being, the torrential downpour would cease, and, through that huge world's wonderfully transparent, gaseous envelope, the full glory of the firmament would be revealed. Not the firmament as we know it—for that hot blue sun and Nevia, her one planet-child, were many light-years distant from Old Sol and his numerous brood—but a strange and glorious firmament containing not one constellation familiar to earthly eyes.
Out of the vacuum of space a fish-shaped vessel of the void—the vessel that was shortly to attack so boldly both the massed fleet of Triplanetary and Roger's planetoid—plunged into the rarefied outer atmosphere, and crimson beams of force tore shriekingly the thin air as it braked its terrific speed. A third of the circumference of Nevia's mighty globe was traversed before the velocity of the craft could be reduced sufficiently to make a landing possible. Then, approaching the twilight zone, the vessel dived vertically downward, and it became evident that Nevia was neither entirely aqueous nor devoid of intelligent life. For the blunt nose of the space-ship was pointing toward what was evidently a half-submerged city, a city whose buildings were flat-topped, hexagonal towers, exactly alike in size, shape, color, and material. These buildings were arranged as the cells of a honeycomb would be if each cell were separated from its neighbors by a relatively narrow channel of water, and all were built of the same white metal. Many bridges and more tubes extended through the air from building to building, and the watery "streets" teemed with surface craft, and with submarines.
The pilot, stationed immediately below the conical prow of the space-ship, peered intently through the thick windows of crystal-clear metal which afforded unobstructed vision in every direction except vertically upward and behind him. His four huge and contractile eyes were active, each operating independently in sending its own message to his peculiar but capable brain. One was watching the instruments, the others scanned narrowly the immense, swelling curve of the ship's belly, the water upon which his vessel was to land, and the floating dock to which it was to be moored. Four hands—if hands they could be called—manipulated levers and wheels with infinite delicacy of touch, and with scarcely a splash the immense mass of the Nevian sky-wanderer struck the water and glided to a stop within a foot of its exact berth.
Four mooring bars dropped neatly into their sockets and the captain-pilot, after locking his controls in neutral, released his safety straps and leaped lightly from his padded bench to the floor. Scuttling across the floor and down a runway upon his four short, powerful, heavily scaled legs, he slipped smoothly into the water and flashed away, far below the surface. For Nevians are true amphibians. Their blood is cold; they use with equal comfort and efficiency gills and lungs for breathing; their scaly bodies are equally at home in the water or in the air; their broad, flat feet serve equally well for running about upon a solid surface or for driving their stream-lined bodies through the water at a pace few of our fishes can equal.
Through the water the Nevian commander darted along, steering his course accurately by means of his short, vaned tail. Through an opening in a wall he sped and along a submarine hallway, emerging upon a broad ramp. He scurried up the incline and into an elevator which lifted him to the top floor of the hexagon, directly into the office of the Secretary of Commerce of all Nevia.
"Welcome, Captain Nerado!" The Secretary waved a tentacular arm and the visitor sprang lightly upon a softly cushioned bench, where he lay at ease, facing the official across his low, flat "desk." "We congratulate you upon the success of your final trial flight. We received all your reports, even while you were traveling with many times the velocity of light. With the last difficulties overcome, you are now ready to start?"
"We are ready," the captain-scientist replied, soberly. "Mechanically, the ship is as nearly perfect as our finest minds can make her. She is stocked for two years. All the iron-bearing suns within reach have been plotted. Everything is ready except the iron. Of course the Council refused to allow us any of the national supply—how much were you able to purchase for us in the market?"
"Nearly ten pounds...."
"Ten pounds! Why, the securities we left with you could not have bought two pounds, even at the price then prevailing!"
"No, but you have friends. Many of us believe in you, and have dipped into our own resources. You and your fellow scientists of the expedition have each contributed his entire personal fortune; why should not some of the rest of us also contribute, as private citizens?"
"Wonderful—we thank you. Ten pounds!" The captain's great triangular eyes glowed with an intense violet light. "A full year of cruising. But ... what if, after all, we should be wrong?"
"In that case you shall have consumed ten pounds of irreplaceable metal." The Secretary was unmoved. "That is the viewpoint of the Council and of almost everyone else. It is not the waste of treasure they object to; it is the fact that ten pounds of iron will be forever lost."