"I check you to nineteen decimal places, Mart, and from your ideas I'm getting surer and surer that we can pull their corks. I can get into action in a hurry when I have to, and my idea now is to wait until they relax a trifle, and then slip a fast one over on them. One more bubble out of the old think-tank and I'll let you off for the day. At what time will their vigilance be at lowest ebb? That's a poser, I'll admit, but the answer to it may answer everything—the first shot will, of course, be the best chance we'll ever have."
"Yes, we should succeed in the first attempt. We have very little information to guide us in answering that question." He studied the problem for many minutes before he resumed, "I should say that for a time they would keep all their rays and other weapons in action against the zone of force, expecting us to release it immediately. Then, knowing that they were wasting power uselessly, they would cease attacking, but would be very watchful, with every eye fastened upon us and with every weapon ready for instant use. After this period of vigilance, regular ship's routine would be resumed. Half the force, probably, would go off duty—for, if they are even remotely like any organic beings with which we are familiar, they require sleep or its equivalent at intervals. The men on duty—the normal force, that is—would be doubly careful for a time. Then habit will assert itself, if we have done nothing to create suspicion, and their watchfulness will relax to the point of ordinary careful observation. Toward the end of their watch, because of the strain of the battle and because of the unusually long period of duty, they will become careless, and their vigilance will be considerably below normal. But the exact time of all these things depends entirely upon their conception of time, concerning which we have no information whatever. Though it is purely a speculation, based upon Earthly and Osnomian experience, I should say that after twelve or thirteen hours would come the time for us to make the attack."
"That's good enough for me. Fine, Mart, and thanks. You've probably saved the lives of the party. We will now sleep for eleven or twelve hours."
"Sleep, Dick! How could you?" Dorothy exclaimed.
The next twelve hours dragged with terrible slowness. Sleep was impossible and eating was difficult, even though all knew that they would have need of the full measure of their strength. Seaton set up various combinations of switching devices connected to electrical timers, and spent hours trying, with all his marvelous quickness of muscular control, to cut shorter and ever shorter the time between the opening and the closing of the switch. At last he arranged a powerful electro-magnetic device so that one impulse would both open and close the switch, with an open period of one one-thousandth of a second. Only then was he satisfied.
"A thousandth is enough to give us a look around, due to persistence of vision; and it is short enough so that they won't see it unless they have a recording observer on us. Even if they still have rays on us, they can't possibly neutralize our screens in that short an exposure. All right, gang? We'll take five visiplates and cover the sphere. If any of you get a glimpse of him, mark the exact spot and outline on the glass. All set?"
He pressed the button. The stars flashed in the black void for an instant, then were again shut out.
"Here he is, Dick!" shrieked Margaret. "Right here—he covered almost half the visiplate!"
She outlined for him, as nearly as she could, the exact position of the object she had seen, and he calculated rapidly.
"Fine business!" he exulted. "He's within half a mile of us, three-quarters on—perfect! I thought he'd be so far away that I'd have to take photographs to locate him. He hasn't a single ray on us, either. That bird's goose is cooked right now, folks, unless every man on watch has his hand right on the controls of a generator and can get into action in less than a tenth of a second! Hang on, gang, I'm going to step on the gas!"
After making sure that everyone was fastened immovably in their seats he strapped himself in the pilot's seat, then set the bar toward the strange vessel and applied fully one-third of its full power. The Skylark, of course, did not move. Then, with bewildering rapidity, he went into action; face glued to the visiplate, hands moving faster than the eye could follow—the left closing and opening the switch controlling the zone of force, the right swinging the steering controls to all points of the sphere. The mighty vessel staggered this way and that, jerking and straining terribly as the zone was thrown on and off, lurching sickeningly about the central bearing as the gigantic power of the driving bar was exerted, now in one direction, now in another. After a second or two of this mad gyration, Seaton shut off the power. He then released the zone, after assuring himself that both inner and outer screens were operating at the highest possible rating.
"There, that'll hold 'em for a while, I guess. This battle was even shorter than the other one—and a lot more decisive. Let's turn on the flood-lights and see what the pieces look like."
The lights revealed that the zone of force had indeed sliced the enemy vessel into pieces. No fragment was large enough to be navigable or dangerous and each was sharply cut, as though sheared from its neighbor by some gigantic curved blade. Dorothy sobbed with relief in Seaton's arms as Crane, with one arm around his wife, grasped his hand.
"That was flawless, Dick. As an exhibition of perfect co-ordination and instantaneous timing under extreme physical difficulties, I have never seen its equal."
"You certainly saved all our lives," Margaret added.
"Only fifty-fifty, Peg," Seaton protested, and blushed vividly. "Mart did most of it, you know. I'd have gummed up everything back there if he had let me. Let's see what we can find out about them."
He touched the lever and the Skylark moved slowly toward the wreckage, the scattered fragments of which were beginning to move toward and around each other because of their mutual gravitational forces. Snapping on a searchlight, he swung its beam around, and as it settled upon one of the larger sections he saw a group of hooded figures; some of them upon the metal, others floating slowly toward it through space.
"Poor devils—they didn't have a chance," he remarked regretfully. "However, it was either they or we—look out! Sweet spirits of niter!"
He leaped back to the controls and the others were hurled bodily to the floor as he applied the power—for at a signal each of the hooded figures had leveled a tube and once more the outer screen had flamed into incandescence.
As the Skylark leaped away, Seaton focussed an attractor upon the one who had apparently signaled the attack. Rolling the vessel over in a short loop, so that the captive was hurled off into space upon the other side, he snatched the tube from the figure's grasp with one auxiliary attractor, and anchored head and limbs with others, so that the prisoner could scarcely move a muscle. Then, while Crane and the women scrambled up off the floor and hurried to the visiplates, Seaton cut in rays six, two-seven, and five-eight. Ray six, "the softener," was a band of frequencies extending from violet far up into the ultra-violet. When driven with sufficient power, this ray destroyed eyesight and nervous tissue, and its power increased still further, actually loosened the molecular structure of matter. Ray two-seven was operated in a range of frequencies far below the visible red. It was pure heat—under its action matter became hotter and hotter as long as it was applied, the upper limit being only the theoretical maximum of temperature. Ray five-eight was high-tension, high-frequency alternating current. Any conductor in its path behaved precisely as it would in the Ajax-Northrup induction furnace, which can boil platinum in ten seconds! These three rays composed the beam which Seaton directed upon the mass of metal from which the enemy had elected to continue the battle—and behind each ray, instead of the small energy at the command of its Osnomian inventor, were the untold millions of kilowatts developed by a one-hundred-pound bar of disintegrating copper!
* * * * *
There ensued a brief but appalling demonstration of the terrible effectiveness of those Osnomian weapons against anything not protected by ultra-powered ray screens. Metal and men—if men they were—literally vanished. One moment they were outlined starkly in the beam; there was a moment of searing, coruscating, blinding light—the next moment the beam bored on into the void, unimpeded. Nothing was visible save an occasional tiny flash, as some condensed or solidified droplet of the volatilized metal re-entered the path of that ravening beam.
"We'll see if there's any more of them loose," Seaton remarked, as he shut off the force and probed into the wreckage with a searchlight.
No sign of life or of activity was revealed, and the light was turned upon the captive. He was held motionless in the invisible grip of the attractors, at the point where the force of those peculiar magnets was exactly balanced by the outward thrust of the repellers. By manipulating the attractor holding it, Seaton brought the strange tubular weapon into the control-room through a small air-lock in the wall and examined it curiously, but did not touch it.
"I never heard of a hand-ray before, so I guess I won't play with it much until after I learn something about it."
"So you have taken a captive?" asked Margaret. "What are you going to do with him?"
"I'm going to drag him in here and read his mind. He's one of the officers of that ship, I believe, and I'm going to find out how to build one exactly like it. This old can is now as obsolete as a 1920 flivver, and I'm going to make us a later model. How about it, Mart, don't we want something really up-to-date if we're going to keep on space-hopping?"
"We certainty do. Those denizens seem to be particularly venomous, and we will not be safe unless we have the most powerful and most efficient space-ship possible. However, that fellow may be dangerous, even now—in fact, it is practically certain that he is."
"You chirped it, ace. I'd much rather touch a pound of dry nitrogen iodide. I've got him spread-eagled so that he can't destroy his brain until after we've read it, though, so there's no particular hurry about him. We'll leave him out there for a while, to waste his sweetness on the desert air. Let's all look around for the Kondal. I sure hope they didn't get her in that fracas."
They diffused the rays of eight giant searchlights into a vertical fan, and with it swept slowly through almost a semi-circle before anything was seen. Then there was revealed a cluster of cylindrical objects amid a mass of wreckage, which Crane recognized at once.
"The Kondal is gone, Dick. There is what is left of her, and most of her cargo of salt, in jute bags."
As he spoke, a series of green flashes played upon the bags, and Seaton yelled in relief.
"They got the ship all right, but Dunark and Sitar got away—they're still with their salt!"
The Skylark moved over to the wreck and Seaton, relinquishing the controls to Crane, donned a vacuum suit, entered the main air-lock and snapped on the motor which sealed off the lock, pumped the air into a pressure-tank, and opened the outside door. He threw a light line to the two figures and pushed himself lightly toward them. He then talked briefly to Dunark in the hand-language, and handed the end of the line to Sitar, who held it while the two men explored the fragments of the strange vessel, gathering up various things of interest as they came upon them.
Back in the control-room, Dunark and Sitar let their pressure decrease gradually to that of the terrestrial vessel and removed the face-plates from their helmets.
"Again, oh Karfedo of Earth, we thank you for our lives," Dunark began, gasping for breath, when Seaton leaped to the air-gauge with a quick apology.
"Never thought of the effect our atmospheric pressure would have on you two. We can stand yours all right, but you'd pretty nearly pass out on ours. There, that'll suit you better. Didn't you throw out your zone of force?"
"Yes, as soon as I saw that our screens were not going to hold." The Osnomians' labored breathing became normal as the air-pressure increased to a value only a little below that of the dense atmosphere of their native planet. "I then increased the power of the screens to the extreme limit and opened the zone for a moment to see how the screens would hold with the added power. That instant was enough. In that period a concentrated beam, such as I had no idea could ever be generated, went through the outer and inner screens as though they were not there, through the four-foot arenak of the hull, through the entire central installation, and through the hull on the other side. Sitar and I were wearing suits...."
"Say, Mart, that's one bet we overlooked. It's a good idea, too—those strangers wore them all the time as regular equipment, apparently. Next time we get into a jam, be sure we do it; they might come in handy. Excuse me, Dunark—go ahead."
"We had suits on, so as soon as the ray was shut off, which was almost instantly, I phoned the crew to jump, and we leaped out through the hole in the hull. The air rushing out gave us an impetus that carried us many miles out into space, and it required many hours for the slight attraction of the mass here to draw us back to it. We just got back a few minutes ago. That air-blast is probably what saved us, as they destroyed our vessel with atomic bombs and hunted down the four men of our crew, who stayed comparatively close to the scene. They rayed you for about an hour with the most stupendous beams imaginable—no such generators have ever been considered possible of construction—but couldn't make any impression upon you. Then they shut off their power and stood by, waiting. I wasn't looking at you when you released your zone. One moment it was there, and the next, the stranger had been cut in pieces. The rest you know."
"We're sure glad you two got away, Dunark. Well, Mart, what say we drag that guy in and give him the once-over?"
* * * * *
Seaton swung the attractors holding the prisoner until they were in line with the main air-lock, then reduced the power of the repellers. As he approached the lock various controls were actuated, and soon the stranger stood in the control room, held immovable against one wall, while Crane, with a 0.50-caliber elephant gun, stood against the other.
"Perhaps you girls should go somewhere else," suggested Crane.
"Not on your life!" protested Dorothy, who, eyes wide and flushed with excitement, stood near a door, with a heavy automatic pistol in her hand. "I wouldn't miss this for a farm!"
"Got him solid," declared Seaton, after a careful inspection of the various attractors and repellers he had bearing upon the prisoner, "Now let's get him out of that suit. No—better read his air first, temperature and pressure—might analyze it, too."
Nothing could be seen of the person of the stranger, since he was encased in vacuum armor, but it was plainly evident that he was very short and immensely broad and thick. By means of hollow needles forced through the leather-like material of the suit Seaton drew off a sample of the atmosphere within, into an Orsat apparatus, while Crane made pressure and temperature readings.
"Temperature, one hundred ten degrees. Pressure, twenty-eight pounds—about the same as ours is, now that we have stepped it up to keep the Osnomians from suffering."
Seaton soon reported that the atmosphere was quite similar to that of the Skylark, except that it was much higher in carbon dioxide and carried an extremely high percentage of water vapor. He took up a pair of heavy shears and laid the suit open full length, on both sides, knowing that the powerful attractors would hold the stranger immovable. He then wrenched off the helmet and cast the whole suit aside, revealing the enemy officer, clad in a tunic of scarlet silk.
He was less than five feet tall. His legs were merely blocks, fully as great in diameter as they were in length, supporting a torso of Herculean dimensions. His arms were as large as a strong man's thigh and hung almost to the floor. His astounding shoulders, fully a yard across, merged into and supported an enormous head. The being possessed recognizable nose, ears, and mouth; and the great domed forehead and huge cranium bespoke an immense and a highly developed brain.
But it was the eyes of this strange creature that fixed and held the attention. Large they were, and black—the dull, opaque, lusterless black of platinum sponge. The pupils were a brighter black, and in them flamed ruby lights: pitiless, mocking, cold. Plainly to be read in those sinister depths were the untold wisdom of unthinkable age, sheer ruthlessness, mighty power, and ferocity unrelieved. His baleful gaze swept from one member of the party to another, and to meet the glare of those eyes was to receive a tangible physical blow—it was actually ponderable force; that of embodied hardness and of ruthlessness incarnate, generated in that merciless brain and hurled forth through those flame-shot, Stygian orbs.
"If you don't need us for anything, Dick, I think Peggy and I will go upstairs," Dorothy broke the long silence.
"Good idea, Dot. This isn't going to be pretty to watch—or to do, either, for that matter."
"If I stay here another minute I'll see that thing as long as I live; and I might be very ill. Goodbye," and heartless and bloodthirsty Osnomian though she was, Sitar had gone to join the two Terrestrial women.
"I didn't want to say much before the girls, but I want to check a couple of ideas with you two. Don't you think it's a safe bet that this bird reported back to his headquarters?"
"I have been thinking that very thing," Crane spoke gravely, and Dunark nodded agreement. "Any race capable of developing such a vessel as this would almost certainly have developed systems of communication in proportion."
"That's the way I doped it out—and that's why I'm going to read his mind, if I have to burn out his brain to do it. We've got to know how far away from home he is, whether he has turned in any report about us, and all about it. Also, I'm going to get the plans, power, and armament of their most modern ships, if he knows them, so that your gang, Dunark, can build us one like them; because the next boat that tackles us will be warned and we won't be able to take it by surprise. We won't stand a chance in the Skylark. With a ship like theirs, however, we can run—or we can fight, if we have to. Any other ideas, fellows?"
* * * * *
As neither Crane nor Dunark had any other suggestions to offer, Seaton brought out the mechanical educator, watching the creature's eyes narrowly. As he placed one headset over that motionless head the captive sneered in pure contempt, but when the case was opened and the array of tubes and transformers was revealed, that expression disappeared; and when he added a super-power stage by cutting in a heavy-duty transformer and a five-kilowatt transmitting tube, Seaton thought that he saw an instantaneously suppressed flicker of doubt or fear.
"That headset thing was child's play to him, but he doesn't like the looks of this other stuff at all. I don't blame him a bit—I wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of this hook-up myself. I'm going to put him on the recorder and on the visualizer," Seaton continued as he connected spools of wire and tape, lamps, and lenses in an intricate system and donned a headset. "I'd hate to have much of that brain in my own skull—afraid I'd bite myself. I'm just going to look on, and when I see anything I want, I'll grab it and put it into my own brain. I'm starting off easy, not using the big tube."
He closed several switches, lights flashed, and the wires and tapes began to feed through the magnets.
"Well, I've got his language, folks, he seemed to want me to have it. It's got a lot of stuff in it that I can't understand yet, though, so guess I'll give him some English."
He changed several connections and the captive spoke, in a profoundly deep bass voice.
"You may as well discontinue your attempt, for you will gain no information from me. That machine of yours was out of date with us thousands of years ago."
"Save your breath or talk sense," said Seaton, coldly. "I gave you English so that you can give me the information I want. You already know what it is. When you get ready to talk, say so, or throw it on the screen of your own accord. If you don't, I'll put on enough voltage to burn your brain out. Remember, I can read your dead brain as well as though it were alive, but I want your thoughts, as well as your knowledge, and I'm going to have them. If you give them voluntarily, I will tinker up a lifeboat that you can navigate back to your own world and let you go; if you resist I intend getting them anyway and you shall not leave this vessel alive. You may take your choice."
"You are childish, and that machine is impotent against my will. I could have defied it a hundred years ago, when I was barely a grown man. Know you, American, that we supermen of the Fenachrone are as far above any of the other and lesser breeds of beings who spawn in their millions in their countless myriads of races upon the numberless planets of the Universe as you are above the inert metal from which this, your ship, was built. The Universe is ours, and in due course we shall take it—just as in due course I shall take this vessel. Do your worst; I shall not speak." The creature's eyes flamed, hurling a wave of hypnotic command through Seaton's eyes and deep into his brain. Seaton's very senses reeled for an instant under the impact of that awful mental force; but after a short, intensely bitter struggle he threw off the spell.
"That was close, fellow, but you didn't quite ring the bell," he said grimly, staring directly into those unholy eyes. "I may rate pretty low mentally, but I can't be hypnotized into turning you loose. Also I can give you cards and spades in certain other lines which I am about to demonstrate. Being superman didn't keep the rest of your men from going out in my ray, and being a superman isn't going to save your brain. I am not depending upon my intellectual or mental force—I've got an ace in the hole in the shape of five thousand volts to apply to the most delicate centers of your brain. Start giving me what I want, and start quick, or I'll tear it out of you."
The giant did not answer, merely glared defiance and bitter hate.
"Take it, then!" Seaton snapped, and cut in the super-power stage and began turning dials and knobs, exploring that strange mind for the particular area in which he was most interested. He soon found it, and cut in the visualizer—the stereographic device, in parallel with Solon's own brain recorder, which projected a three-dimensional picture into the "viewing-area" or dark space of the cabinet. Crane and Dunark, tense and silent, looked on in strained suspense as, minute after minute, the silent battle of wills raged. Upon one side was a horrible and gigantic brain, of undreamed of power; upon the other side a strong man, fighting for all that life holds dear, wielding against that monstrous and frightful brain a weapon wrought of high-tension electricity, applied with all the skill that earthly and Osnomian science could devise.
Seaton crouched over the amplifier, his jaw set and every muscle taut, his eyes leaping from one meter to another, his right hand slowly turning up the potentiometer which was driving more and ever more of the searing, torturing output of his super-power tube into that stubborn brain. The captive was standing utterly rigid, eyes closed, every sense and faculty mustered to resist that cruelly penetrant attack upon the very innermost recesses of his mind. Crane and Dunark scarcely breathed as the three-dimensional picture in the visualizer varied from a blank to the hazy outlines of a giant space-cruiser. It faded out as the unknown exerted himself to withstand that poignant inquisition, only to come back in, clearer than before, as Seaton advanced the potentiometer still farther. Finally, flesh and blood could no longer resist that lethal probe and the picture became sharp and clear. It showed the captain—for he was no less an officer than the commander of the vessel—at a great council table, seated, together with many other officers, upon very low, enormously strong metal stools. They were receiving orders from their Emperor; orders plainly understood by Crane and the Osnomian alike, for thought needs no translation.
"Gentlemen of the Navy," the ruler spoke solemnly, "Our preliminary expedition, returned some time ago, achieved its every aim, and we are now ready to begin fulfilling our destiny, the Conquest of the Universe. This Galaxy comes first. Our base of operations will be the largest planet of that group of brilliant green suns, for they can be seen from any point in the Galaxy and are almost in the exact center of it. Our astronomers," here the captain's thoughts shifted briefly to an observatory far out in space for perfect seeing, and portrayed a reflecting telescope with a mirror five miles in diameter, capable of penetrating unimaginable myriads of light-years into space, "have tabulated all the suns, planets, and satellites belonging to this Galaxy, and each of you has been given a complete chart and assigned a certain area which he is to explore. Remember, gentlemen, that this first major expedition is to be purely one of exploration; the one of conquest will set out after you have returned with complete information. You will each report by torpedo every tenth of the year. We do not anticipate any serious difficulty, as we are of course the highest type of life in the Universe; nevertheless, in the unlikely event of trouble, report it. We shall do the rest. In conclusion, I warn you again—let no people know that we exist. Make no conquests, and destroy all who by any chance may see you. Gentlemen, go with power."
The captain embarked in a small airboat and was shot to his vessel. He took his station at an immense control board and the warship shot off instantly, with unthinkable velocity, and with not the slightest physical shock.
At this point Seaton made the captain take them all over the ship. They noted its construction, its power-plant, its controls—every minute detail of structure, operation, and maintenance was taken from the captain's mind and was both recorded and visualized.
* * * * *
The journey seemed to be a very long one, but finally the cluster of green suns became visible and the Fenachrone began to explore the solar systems in the area assigned to that particular vessel. Hardly had the survey started, however, when the two globular space-cruisers were detected and located. The captain stopped the ship briefly, then attacked. They watched the attack, and saw the destruction of the Kondal. They looked on while the captain read the brain of one of Dunark's crew, gleaning from it all the facts concerning the two space-ships, and thought with him that the two absentees from the Kondal would drift back in a few hours, and would be disposed of in due course. They learned that these things were automatically impressed upon the torpedo next to issue, as was every detail of everything that happened in and around the vessel. They watched him impress a thought of his own upon the record—"the inhabitants of planet three of sun six four seven three Pilarone show unusual development and may cause trouble, as they have already brought knowledge of the metal of power and of the impenetrable shield to the Central System, which is to be our base. Recommend volatilization of this planet by vessel sent on special mission." They saw the raying of the Skylark. They sensed him issue commands:
"Ray it for a time; he will probably open the shield for a moment, as the other one did," then, after a time skipped over by the mind under examination. "Cease raying—no use wasting power. He must open eventually, as he runs out of power. Stand by and destroy him when he opens."
The scene shifted. The captain was asleep and was awakened by an alarm gong—only to find himself floating in a mass of wreckage. Making his way to the fragment of his vessel containing the torpedo port, he released the messenger, which flew, with ever-increasing velocity, back to the capital city of the Fenachrone, carrying with it a record of everything that had happened.
"That's what I want," thought Seaton. "Those torpedoes went home, fast. I want to know how far they have to go and how long it'll take them to get there. You know what distance a parsec is, since it is purely a mathematical concept; and you must have a watch or some similar instrument with which we can translate your years into ours. I don't want to have to kill you, fellow, and if you'll give up even now I'll spare you. I'll get it anyway, you know—and you also know that a few hundred volts more will kill you."
They saw the thought received, and saw its answer: "You shall learn no more. This is the most important of all, and I shall hold it to disintegration and beyond."
Seaton advanced the potentiometer still farther, and the brain picture waxed and waned, strengthened and faded. Finally, however, it was revealed by flashes that the torpedo had about a hundred and fifty-five thousand parsecs to go and that it would take two-tenths of a year to make the journey; that the warships which would come in answer to the message were as fast as the torpedo; that he did indeed have in his suit a watch—a device of seven dials, each turning ten times as fast as its successor; and that one turn of the slowest dial measured one year of his time. Seaton instantly threw off his headset and opened the power switch.
"Grab a stopwatch quick, Mart!" he called, as he leaped to the discarded vacuum suit and searched out the peculiar timepiece. They noted the exact time consumed by one complete revolution of one of the dials, and calculated rapidly.
"Better than I thought!" exclaimed Seaton. "That makes his year about four hundred ten of our days. That gives us eighty-two days before the torpedo gets there—longer than I'd dared hope. We've got to fight, too, not run. They figure on getting the Skylark, then volatilizing our world. Well, we can take time enough to grab off an absolutely complete record of this guy's brain. We'll need it for what's coming, and I'm going to get it, if I have to kill him to do it."
He resumed his place at the educator, turned on the power, and a shadow passed over his face.
"Poor devil, he's conked out—couldn't stand the gaff," he remarked, half-regretfully. "However that makes it easy to get what we want, and we'd have had to kill him anyway, I guess—Bad as it is, I'd hate to bump him off in cold blood."
He threaded new spools into the machine, and for three hours, mile after mile of tape sped between the magnets as Seaton explored every recess of that monstrous, yet stupendous brain.
"Well, that's that," he declared finally, as, the last bit of information gleaned and recorded upon the flying tape, he removed the body of the Fenachrone captain into space and rayed it out of existence. "Now what to do?"
"How can we get this salt to Osnome?" asked Dunark whose thoughts were never far from that store of the precious chemical. "You are already crowded, and Sitar and I will crowd you still more. You have no room for additional cargo, and yet much valuable time would be lost in going to Osnome for another vessel."
"Yes, and we've got to get a lot of 'X', too. Guess we'll have to take time to get another vessel. I'd like to drag in the pieces of that ship, too—his instruments and a lot of the parts could be used."
"Why not do it all at once?" suggested Crane. "We can start that whole mass toward Osnome by drawing it behind us until such a velocity has been attained that it will reach there at the desired time. We could then go to 'X,' and overtake this material near the green system."
"Right you are, ace—that's a sound idea. But say, Dunark, it wouldn't be good technique for you to eat our food for any length of time. While we're figuring this out you'd better hop over there and bring over enough to last you two until we get you home. Give it to Shiro—after a couple of lessons, you'll find he'll be as good as any of your cooks."
* * * * *
Faster and faster the Skylark flew, pulling behind her the mass of wreckage, held by every available attractor. When the calculated velocity had been attained, the attractors were shut off and the vessel darted away toward that planet, still in the Carboniferous Age, which possessed at least one solid ledge of metallic "X," the rarest of all earthly metals. As the automatic controls held the cruiser upon her course, the six wanderers sat long in discussion as to what should be done, what could be done, to avert the threatened destruction of all the civilization of the Galaxy except the monstrous and unspeakable culture of the Fenachrone. Nearing their destination, Seaton rose to his feet.
"Well, folks, it's like this. We've got our backs to the wall. Dunark has troubles of his own—if the Third Planet doesn't get him the Fenachrone will, and the Third Planet is the more pressing danger. That lets him out. We've got nearly six months before the Fenachrone can get back here...."
"But how can they possibly find us here, or wherever we'll be by that time, Dick?" asked Dorothy. "The battle was a long way from here."
"With that much start they probably couldn't find us," Seaton replied soberly. "It's the world I'm thinking about. They've got to be stopped, and stopped cold—and we've got only six months to do it in.... Osnome's got the best tools and the fastest workmen I know of...." his voice died away in thought.
"That sort of thing is in your department, Dick."
Crane was calm and judicial as always. "I will, of course, do anything I can. But you probably have a plan of campaign already laid out?"
"After a fashion. We've got to find out how to work through this zone of force or we're sunk without a trace. Even with rays, screens, and ships equal to theirs, we couldn't keep them from sending a vessel to destroy the earth; and they'd probably get us too, eventually. They've got a lot of stuff we don't know about, of course, since I took only one man's mind. While he was a very able man, he didn't know all that all the rest of them do, any more than any one man has all the earthly science known. Absolutely our only chance is to control that zone—it's the only thing they haven't got. Of course, it may be impossible, but I won't believe that, until I've exhausted a lot of possibilities. Dunark, can you spare a crew to build us a duplicate of that Fenachrone ship, besides those you are going to build for yourself?"
"Certainly. I will be only too glad to do so."
"Well, then, while Dunark is doing that, I suggest that we go to this Third Planet, abduct a few of their leading scientists, and read their minds. Then do the same, visiting every other highly advanced planet we can locate. There is a good chance that, by combining the best points of the warfares of many worlds, we can evolve something that will enable us to turn back these invaders."
"Why not send a copper torpedo to destroy their entire planet?" suggested Dunark.
"Wouldn't work. Their detecting screens would locate it a thousand million miles off in space, and they would ray it. With a zone of force that would get through their screens, that would be the first thing I'd do. You see, every thought comes back to that zone. We've got to get through it some way."
The course alarm sounded, and they saw that a planet lay directly in their path. It was "X," and enough negative acceleration was applied to make an easy landing possible.
"Isn't it going to be a long, slow job, chopping off two tons of that metal and fighting away those terrible animals besides?" asked Margaret.
"It'll take about a millionth of a second, Peg. I'm going to bite it off with the zone, just as I took that bite out of our field. The rotation of the planet will throw us away from the surface, then we'll release the zone and drag our prey off with us. See?"
The Skylark descended rapidly toward that well-remembered ledge of metal to which the object compass had led them.
"This is exactly where we landed before," Margaret commented in surprise, and Dorothy added:
"Yes, and there's that horrible tree that ate the dinosaur or whatever it was. I thought you blew it up for me, Dick?"
"I did, Dottie—blew it into atoms. Must be a good location for carnivorous trees—and they must grow awfully fast, too. As to its being the same place, Peg—sure it is. That's what object compasses are for."
Everything appeared as it had been at the time of their first visit. The rank Carboniferous vegetation, intensely, vividly green, was motionless in the still, hot, heavy air; the living nightmares inhabiting that primitive world were lying in the cooler depths of the jungle, sheltered from the torrid rays of that strange and fervent sun.
"How about it, Dot? Want to see some of your little friends again? If you do, I'll give them a shot and bring them out."
"Heavens, no! I saw them once—if I never see them again, that will be twenty minutes too soon!"
"All right—we'll grab us a piece of this ledge and beat it."
Seaton lowered the vessel to the ledge, focussed the main anchoring attractor upon it, and threw on the zone of force. Almost immediately he released the zone, pointed the bar parallel to the compass bearing upon Osnome, and slowly applied the power.
"How much did you take, anyway?" asked Dunark in amazement. "It looks bigger than the Skylark!"
"It is; considerably bigger. Thought we might as well take enough while we're here, so I set the zone for a seventy-five-foot radius. It's probably of the order of magnitude of half a million tons, since the stuff weighs more than half a ton to the cubic foot. However, we can handle it as easily as we could a smaller bite, and that much mass will help us hold that other stuff together when we catch up with it."
* * * * *
The voyage to Osnome was uneventful. They overtook the wreckage, true to schedule, as they were approaching the green system, and attached it to the mass of metal behind them by means of attractors.
"Where'll we land this junk, Dunark?" asked Seaton, as Osnome grew large beneath them. "We'll hold this lump of metal and the fragment of the ship carrying the salt; and we'll be able to hold some of the most important of the other stuff. But a lot of it is bound to get away from us—and the Lord help anybody who's under it when it comes down! You might yell for help—and say, you might ask somebody to have that astronomical data ready for us as soon as we land."
"The parade ground will be empty now, so we will land there," Dunark replied. "We should be able to land everything in a field of that size, I should think." He touched the sender at his belt, and in the general code notified the city of their arrival and warned everyone to keep away from the parade ground. He then sent several messages in the official code, concluding by asking that one or two space-ships come out and help lower the burden to the ground. As the peculiar, pulsating chatter of the Osnomian telegraph died out, Seaton called for help.
"Come here, you two, and grab some of these attractors. I need about twelve hands to keep this plunder in the straight and narrow path."
The course had been carefully laid, with allowance for the various velocities and forces involved, to follow the easiest path to the Kondalian parade ground. The hemisphere of "X" and the fragment of the Kondal which bore the salt were held immovably in place by the main attractor and one auxiliary; and many other auxiliaries held sections of the Fenachrone vessel. However, the resistance of the air seriously affected the trajectory of many of the irregularly shaped smaller masses of metal, and all three men were kept busy flicking attractors right and left; capturing those strays which threatened to veer off into the streets or upon the buildings of the Kondalian capital city, and shifting from one piece to another so that none should fall freely. Two sister-ships of the Kondal appeared as if by magic in answer to Dunark's call, and their attractors aided greatly in handling the unruly collection of wreckage. A few of the smaller sections and a shower of debris fell clear, however, in spite of all efforts, and their approach was heralded by a meteoric display unprecedented in that world of continuous daylight.
As the three vessels with their cumbersome convoy dropped down into the lower atmosphere, the guns of the city roared a welcome; banners and pennons waved; the air became riotous with color from hundreds of projectors and odorous with a bewildering variety of scents; while all around them played numberless aircraft of all descriptions and sizes. The space below them was carefully avoided, but on all sides and above them the air was so full that it seemed marvelous that no collision occurred. Tiny one-man helicopters, little more than single chairs flying about; beautiful pleasure-planes, soaring and wheeling; immense multiplane liners and giant helicopter freighters—everything in the air found occasion to fly as near as possible to the Skylark in order to dip their flags in salute to Dunark, their Kofedix, and to Seaton, the wearer of the seven disks—their revered Overlord.
Finally the freight was landed without serious mishap and the Skylark leaped to the landing dock upon the palace roof, where the royal family and many nobles were waiting, in full panoply of glittering harness. Dunark and Sitar disembarked and the four others stepped out and stood at attention as Seaton addressed Roban, the Karfedix.
"Sir, we greet you, but we cannot stop, even for a moment. You know that only the most urgent necessity would make us forego the pleasure of a brief rest beneath your roof—the Kofedix will presently give you the measure of that dire need. We shall endeavor to return soon. Greetings, and, for a time, farewell."
"Overlord, we greet you, and trust that soon we may entertain you and profit from your companionship. For what you have done, we thank you. May the great First Cause smile upon you until your return. Farewell."
The Peace Conference
"Here's a chart of the green system, Mart, with all the motions and the rest of the dope that they've been able to get. How'd it be for you to navigate us over to the third planet of the fourteenth sun?"
"While you build a Fenachrone super-generator?"
"Right, the first time. Your deducer is hitting on all eight, as usual. That big ray is hot stuff, and their ray-screen is something to write home about, too."
"How can their rays be any hotter than ours, Dick?" Dorothy asked curiously. "I thought you said we had the very last word in rays."
"I thought we had, but those birds we met back there spoke a couple of later words. Their rays work on an entirely different system than the one we use. They generate an extremely short carrier wave, like the Millikan cosmic ray, by recombining some of the electrons and protons of their disintegrating metal, and upon this wave they impose a pure heat frequency of terrific power. The Millikan rays will penetrate anything except a special ray screen or a zone of force, and carry with them—somewhat as radio frequencies carry sound frequencies—the heat rays, which volatilize anything they touch. Their ray screens are a lot better than ours, too—they generate the entire spectrum. It's a sweet system and when we revamp ours so as to be just like it, we'll be able to talk turkey to those folks on the third planet."
"How long will it take you to build it?" asked Crane, who, dexterously turning the pages of "Vega's Handbuch" was calculating their course.
"A day or so—maybe less. I've got all the stuff and with my Osnomian tools it won't take long. If you find you'll get there before I get done, you'll have to loaf a while—kill a little time."
"Are you going to connect the power plant to operate on the entire vessel and all its contents?"
"No—can't do it without redesigning the whole thing and that's hardly worth while for the short time we'll use this old bus."
Building those generators would have been a long and difficult task for a corps of earthly mechanics and electricians, but to Seaton it was merely a job. The "shop" had been enlarged and had been filled to capacity with Osnomian machinery; machine tools that were capable of performing automatically and with the utmost precision and speed any conceivable mechanical operation. He put a dozen of them to work, and before the vessel reached its destination, the new offensive and defensive weapons had been installed and thoroughly tested. He had added a third screen-generator, so that now, in addition to the four-foot hull of arenak and the repellers, warding off any material projectile, the Skylark was also protected by an outer, an intermediate, and an inner ray-screen; each driven by the super-power of a four-hundred-pound bar and each covering the entire spectrum—capable of neutralizing any dangerous frequency known to those master-scientists, the Fenachrone.
As the Skylark approached the planet, Seaton swung number six visiplate upon it, and directed their flight toward a great army base. Darting down upon it, he snatched an officer into the airlock, closed the door, and leaped back into space. He brought the captive into the control room pinioned by auxiliary attractors, and relieved him of his weapons. He then rapidly read his mind, encountering no noticeable resistance, released the attractors, and addressed him in his own language.
"Please be seated, lieutenant," Seaton said courteously, motioning him to one of the seats. "We come in peace. Please pardon my discourtesy in handling you, but it was necessary in order to learn your language and thus to get in touch with your commanding officer."
The officer, overcome with astonishment that he had not been killed instantly, sank into the seat indicated, without a reply, and Seaton went on:
"Please be kind enough to signal your commanding officer that we are coming down at once, for a peace conference. By the way, I can read your signals, and will send them myself if necessary."
The stranger worked an instrument attached to his harness briefly, and the Skylark descended slowly toward the fortress.
"I know, of course, that your vessels will attack," Seaton remarked, as he noted a crafty gleam in the eyes of the officer. "I intend to let them use all their power for a time, to prove to them the impotence of their weapons. After that, I shall tell you what to say to them."
"Do you think this is altogether safe, Dick?" asked Crane as they saw a fleet of gigantic airships soaring upward to meet them.
"Nothing sure but death and taxes," returned Seaton cheerfully, "but don't forget that we've got Fenachrone armament now, instead of Osnomian. I'm betting that they can't begin to drive their rays through even our outer screen. And even if our outer screen should begin to go into the violet—I don't think it will even go cherry-red—out goes our zone of force and we automatically go up where no possible airship can reach. Since their only space-ships are rocket driven, and of practically no maneuverability, they stand a big chance of getting to us. Anyway, we must get in touch with them, to find out if they know anything we don't, and this is the only way I know of to do it. Besides, I want to head Dunark off from wrecking this world. They're exactly the same kind of folks he is, you notice, and I don't like civil war. Any suggestions? Keep an eye on that bird, then, Mart, and we'll go down."
* * * * *
The Skylark dropped down into the midst of the fleet, which instantly turned against her the full force of their giant guns and their immense ray batteries. Seaton held the Skylark motionless, staring into his visiplate, his right hand grasping the zone-switch.
"The outer screen isn't even getting warm!" he exulted after a moment. The repellers were hurling the shells back long before they reached even the outer screen, and they were exploding harmlessly in the air. The full power of the ray-generators, too, which had been so destructive to the Osnomian defenses, were only sufficient to bring the outer screen to a dull red glow. After fifteen minutes of passive acceptance of all the airships could do, Seaton spoke to the captive.
"Sir, please signal the commanding officer of vessel seven-two-four that I am going to cut it in two in the middle. Have him remove all men in that part of the ship to the ends, and have parachutes in readiness, as I do not wish to cause any loss of life."
The signal was sent, and, as the officer was already daunted by the fact that their utmost efforts could not even make the strangers' screens radiate, it was obeyed. Seaton then threw on the frightful power of the Fenachrone super-generators. The defensive screens of the doomed warship flashed once—a sparkling, coruscating display of incandescent brilliance—and in the same instant went down. Simultaneously the entire midsection of the vessel exploded into light and disappeared; completely volatilized.
"Sir, please signal the entire fleet to cease action, and to follow me down. If they do not do so, I will destroy the rest of them."
The Skylark dropped to the ground, followed by the fleet of warships, who settled in a ring about her—inactive, but ready.
"Will you please loan me your sending instrument, sir?" Seaton asked. "From this point on I can carry on negotiations better direct than through you."
The lieutenant found his voice as he surrendered the instrument.
"Sir, are you the Overlord of Osnome, of whom we have heard? We had supposed that one was a mythical character, but you must be he—no one else would spare lives that he could take, and the Overlord is the only being reputed to have a skin the color of yours."
"Yes, lieutenant, I am the Overlord—and I have decided to become the Overlord of the entire green system, as well as of Osnome."
He then sent out a call to the commander-in-chief of all the armies of the planet, informing him that he was coming to visit him at once, and the Skylark tore through the air to the capital city. No sooner had the earthly vessel alighted upon the palace grounds than she was surrounded by a ring of warships who, however, made no offensive move. Seaton again used the telegraph.
"Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the planet Urvania; greetings from the Overlord of this solar system. I invite you to come into my vessel, unarmed and alone, for a conference. I come in peace and, peace or war as you decide, no harm shall come to you, until after you have returned to your own command. Think well before you reply."
"If I refuse?"
"I shall destroy one of the vessels surrounding me, and shall continue to destroy them, one every ten seconds, until you agree to come. If you still do not agree. I shall destroy all the armed forces upon this planet, then destroy all your people who are at present upon Osnome. I wish to avoid bloodshed and destruction, but I can and I will do as I have said."
"I will come."
The general came out upon the field unarmed, escorted by a company of soldiers. A hundred feet from the vessel he halted the guards and came on alone, erect and soldierly. Seaton met him at the door and invited him to be seated.
"What can you have to say to me?" the general demanded, disregarding the invitation.
"Many things. First, let me say that you are not only a brave man; you are a wise general—your visit to me proves it."
"It is a sign of weakness, but I believed when I heard those reports, and still believe, that a refusal would have resulted in a heavy loss of our men," was the General's reply.
"It would have," said Seaton. "I repeat that your act was not weakness, but wisdom. The second thing I have to say is that I had not planned on taking any active part in the management of things, either upon Osnome or upon this planet, until I learned of a catastrophe that is threatening all the civilization in this Galaxy—thus threatening my own distant world as well as those of this solar system. Third, only by superior force can I make either your race or the Osnomians listen to reason sufficiently to unite against a common foe. You have been reared in unreasoning hatred for so many generations that your minds are warped. For that reason I have assumed control of this entire system, and shall give you your choice between co-operating with us or being rendered incapable of molesting us while our attention is occupied by this threatened invasion."
"We will have no traffic with the enemy whatever," said the general. "This is final."
"You just think so. Here is a mathematical statement of what is going to happen to your world, unless I intervene." He handed the general a drawing of Dunark's plan and described it in detail. "That is the answer of the Osnomians to your invasion of their planet. I do not want this world destroyed, but if you refuse to make common cause with us against a common foe, it may be necessary. Have you forces at your command sufficient to frustrate this plan?"
"No; but I cannot really believe that such a deflection of celestial bodies is possible. Possible or not, you realize that I could not yield to empty threats."
"Of course not," said Seaton, "but you were wise enough to refuse to sacrifice a few ships and men in a useless struggle against my overwhelming armament, therefore you are certainly wise enough to refuse to sacrifice your entire race. However, before you come to any definite conclusion, I will show you what threatens the Galaxy."
* * * * *
He handed the other a headset and ran through the section of the record showing the plans of the invaders. He then ran a few sections showing the irresistible power at the command of the Fenachrone.
"That is what awaits us all unless we combine against them."
"What are your requirements?" the general asked.
"I request immediate withdrawal of all your armed forces now upon Osnome and full co-operation with me in this coming war against the invaders. In return, I will give you the secrets I have just given the Osnomians—the power and the offensive and defensive weapons of this vessel."
"The Osnomians are now building vessels such as this one?" asked the general.
"They are building vessels a hundred times the size of this one, with the same armament."
"For myself, I would agree to your terms. However, the word of the Emperor is law."
"I understand," replied Seaton. "Would you be willing to seek an immediate audience with him? I would suggest that both you and he accompany me, and we shall hold a peace conference with the Osnomian Emperor and Commander-in-Chief upon this vessel. We shall be gone less than a day."
"I shall do so at once."
"You may accompany your general, lieutenant. Again I ask pardon for my necessary rudeness."
As the Urvanian officers hurried toward the palace, the other Terrestrials, who had been listening in from another room, entered.
"It sounded as though you convinced him, Dick; but that language is nothing like Kondalian. Why don't you teach it to us? Teach it to Shiro, too, so he can cook for, and talk to, our distinguished guests intelligently, if they're going back with us."
As he connected up the educator, Seaton explained what had happened, and concluded:
"I want to stop this civil war, keep Dunark from destroying this planet, preserve Osnome for Osnomians, and make them all co-operate with us against the Fenachrone. That's one tall order, since these folks haven't the remotest notion of anything except killing."
A company of soldiers approached, and Dorothy got up hastily.
"Stick around, folks. We can all talk to them."
"I believe that it would be better for you to be alone," Crane decided, after a moment's thought. "They are used to autocratic power, and can understand nothing but one-man control. The girls and I will keep out of it."
"That might be better at that," and Seaton went to the door to welcome the guests. Seaton instructed them to lie flat, and put on all the acceleration they could bear. It was not long until they were back in Kondal, where Roban, the Karfedix, and Tarnan, the Karbix, accepted Seaton's invitation and entered the Skylark, unarmed. Back out in space, the vessel stationary, Seaton introduced the emperors and commanders-in-chief to each other—introductions which were acknowledged almost imperceptibly. He then gave each a headset, and ran the complete record of the Fenachrone brain.
"Stop!" shouted Roban, after only a moment. "Would you, the Overlord of Osnome, reveal such secrets as this to the arch-enemies of Osnome?"
"I would. I have taken over the Overlordship of the entire green system for the duration of this emergency, and I do not want two of its planets engaged in civil war."
The record finished, Seaton tried for some time to bring the four green warriors to his way of thinking, but in vain. Roban and Tarnan remained contemptuous. They would have thrown themselves upon him, but for the knowledge that no fifty unarmed men of the green race could have overcome his strength—to them supernatural. The two Urvanians were equally obdurate. This soft earth-being had given them everything; they had given him nothing and would give him nothing. Finally Seaton rose to his full height and stared at them in turn, wrath and determination blazing in his eyes.
"I have brought you four together, here in a neutral vessel in neutral space, to bring about peace between you. I have shown you the benefits to be derived from the peaceful pursuit of science, knowledge, and power, instead of continuing this utter economic waste of continual war. You all close your senses to reason. You of Osnome accuse me of being an ingrate and a traitor; you of Urvania consider me a soft-headed, sentimental weakling, who may safely be disregarded—all because I think the welfare of the numberless peoples of the Universe more important than your narrow-minded, stubborn, selfish vanity. Think what you please. If brute force is your only logic, know now that I can, and will, use brute force. Here are the seven disks," and he placed the bracelet upon Roban's knee.
"If you four leaders are short-sighted enough to place your petty enmity before the good of all civilization, I am done with you forever. I have deliberately given Urvanians precisely the same information that I have given the Osnomians—no more and no less. I have given neither of you all that I know, and I shall know much more than I do now, before the time of the conquest shall have arrived. Unless you four men, here and now, renounce this war and agree to a perpetual peace between your worlds, I shall leave you to your mutual destruction. You do not yet realize the power of the weapons I have given you. When you do realize it, you will know that mutual destruction is inevitable if you continue this internecine war. I shall continue upon other worlds my search for the one secret standing between me and a complete mastery of power. That I shall find that secret I am confident; and, having found it, I shall, without your aid, destroy the Fenachrone.
"You have several times remarked with sneers that you are not to be swayed by empty threats. What I am about to say is no empty threat—it is a most solemn promise, given by one who has both the will and the power to fulfill his every given word. Now listen carefully to this, my final utterance. If you continue this warfare and if the victor should not be utterly destroyed in its course, I swear as I stand here, by the great First Cause, that I shall myself wipe out every trace of the surviving nation as soon as the Fenachrone shall have been obliterated. Work with each other and me and we all may live—fight on and both your nations, to the last person, will most certainly die. Decide now which it is to be. I have spoken."
* * * * *
Roban took up the bracelet and clasped it again about Seaton's arm, saying, "You are more than ever our Overlord. You are wiser than are we, and stronger. Issue your commands and they shall be obeyed."
"Why did not you say those things first, Overlord?" asked the Urvanian emperor, as he saluted and smiled. "We could not in honor submit to a weakling, no matter what the fate in store. Having convinced us of your strength, there can be no disgrace in fighting beneath your screens. An armlet of seven symbols shall be cast and ready for you when you next visit us. Roban of Osnome, you are my brother."
The two emperors saluted each other and stared eye to eye for a long moment, and Seaton knew that the perpetual peace had been signed. Then all four spoke, in unison:
"Overlord, we await your commands."
"Dunark of Osnome is already informed as to what Osnome is to do. Say to him that it will not be necessary for him to build the vessel for me; the Urvanians will do that. Urvan of Urvania, you will accompany Roban to Osnome, where you two will order instant cessation of hostilities. Osnome has many ships of this type, and upon some of them you will return your every soldier and engine of war to your own planet. As soon as possible you will build for me a vessel like that of the Fenachrone, except that it shall be ten times as large, in every dimension, and except that every instrument, control, and weapon is to be left out."
"Left out? It shall be so built—but of what use will it be?"
"The empty spaces shall be filled after I have returned from my quest. You will build this vessel of dagal. You will also instruct the Osnomian commander in the manufacture of that metal, which is so much more resistant than their arenak."
"But, Overlord, we have...."
"I have just brought immense stores of the precious chemical and of the metal of power to Osnome. They will share it with you. I also advise you to build for yourselves many ships like those of the Fenachrone, with which to do battle with the invaders, in case I should fail in my quest. You will, of course, see to it that there will be a corps of your most efficient mechanics and artisans within call at all times in case I should return and have sudden need for them."
"All these things shall be done."
The conference ended, the four nobles were quickly landed upon Osnome and once more the Skylark traveled out into her element, the total vacuum and absolute zero of the outer void, with Crane at the controls.
"You certainly sounded savage, Dick. I almost thought you really meant it!" Dorothy chuckled.
"I did mean it, Dot. Those fellows are mighty keen on detecting bluffs. If I hadn't meant it, and if they hadn't known that I meant it, I'd never have got away with it."
"But you couldn't have meant it, Dick! You wouldn't have destroyed the Osnomians, surely—you know you wouldn't."
"No, but I would have destroyed what was left of the Urvanians, and all five of us knew exactly how it would have turned out and exactly what I would have done about it—that's why they all pulled in their horns."
"I don't know what would have happened," interjected Margaret. "What would have?"
"With this new stuff the Urvanians would have wiped the Osnomians out. They are an older race, and so much better in science and mechanics that the Osnomians wouldn't have stood much chance, and knew it. Incidentally, that's why I'm having them build our new ship. They'll put a lot of stuff into it that Dunark's men would miss—maybe some stuff that even the Fenachrone haven't got. However, though it might seem that the Urvanians had all the best of it, Urvan knew that I had something up my sleeve besides my bare arm—and he knew that I'd clean up what there was left of his race if they polished off the Osnomians."
"What a frightful chance you were taking, Dick!" gasped Dorothy.
"You have to be hard to handle those folks—and believe me, I was a forty-minute egg right then. They have such a peculiar mental and moral slant that we can hardly understand them at all. This idea of co-operation is so new to them that it actually dazed all four of them even to consider it."
"Do you suppose they will fight, anyway?" asked Crane.
"Absolutely not. Both nations have an inflexible code of honor, such as it is, and lying is against both codes. That's one thing I like about them—I'm sort of honest myself, and with either of these races you need nothing signed or guaranteed."
"What next, Dick?"
"Now the real trouble begins. Mart, oil up the massive old intellect. Have you found the answer to the problem?"
"What problem?" asked Dorothy. "You didn't tell us anything about a problem."
"No, I told Mart. I want the best physicist in this entire solar system—and since there are only one hundred and twenty-five planets around these seventeen suns, it should be simple to yon phenomenal brain. In fact, I expect to hear him say 'elementary, my dear Watson, elementary'!"
"Hardly that, Dick, but I have found out a few things. There are some eighty planets which are probably habitable for beings like us. Other things being equal, it seems reasonable to assume that the older the sun, the longer its planets have been habitable, and therefore the older and more intelligent the life...."
"'Ha! ha! It was elementary,' says Sherlock." Seaton interrupted. "You're heading directly at that largest, oldest, and most intelligent planet, then, I take it, where I can catch me my physicist?"
"Not directly at it, no. I am heading for the place where it will be when we reach it. That is elementary."
"Ouch! That got to me, Mart, right where I live. I'll be good."
"But you are getting ahead of me, Dick—it is not as simple as you have assumed from what I have said so far. The Osnomian astronomers have done wonders in the short time they have had, but their data, particularly on the planets of the outer suns, is as yet necessarily very incomplete. Since the furthermost outer sun is probably the oldest, it is the one in which we are most interested. It has seven planets, four of which are probably habitable, as far as temperature and atmosphere are concerned. However, nothing exact is yet known of their masses, motions, or places. Therefore I have laid our course to intercept the closest one to us, as nearly as I can from what meager data we have. If it should prove to be inhabited by intelligent beings, they can probably give us more exact information concerning their neighboring planets. That is the best I can do."
"That's a darn fine best, old top—narrowing down to four from a hundred and twenty-five. Well, until we get there, what to do? Let's sing us a song, to keep our fearless quartette in good voice."
"Before you do anything," said Margaret seriously, "I would like to know if you really think there is a chance of defeating those monsters."
* * * * *
"In all seriousness, I do. In fact, I am quite confident of it. If we had two years, I know that we could lick them cold; and by stepping on the gas I believe we can get the dope in less than the six months we have to work in."
"I know that you are serious, Dick. Now you know that I do not want to discourage any one, but I can see small basis for optimism," Crane spoke slowly and thoughtfully. "I hope that you will be able to control the zone of force—but you are not studying it yourself. You seem to be certain that somewhere in this system there is a race who already knows all about it. I would like to know your reasons for thinking that such a race exists."
"They may not be upon this system; they may have been outsiders, as we are—but I have reasons for believing them to be natives of this system, since they were green. You are as familiar with Osnomian mythology as I am—you girls in particular have read Osnomian legends to Osnomian children for hours. Also identically the same legends prevail upon Urvania. I read them in that lieutenant's brain—in fact, I looked for them. You also know that every folk-legend has some basis, however tenuous, in fact. Now, Dottie, tell about the battle of the gods, when Osnome was a pup."
"The gods came down from the sky," Dorothy recited. "They were green, as were men. They wore invisible armor of polished metal, which appeared and disappeared. They stayed inside the armor and fought outside it with swords and lances of fire. Men who fought against them cut them through and through with swords, and they struck the men with lances of flame so that they were stunned. So the gods fought in days long gone and vanished in their invisible armor, and——"
"That's enough," interrupted Seaton. "The little red-haired girl has her lesson perfectly. Get it, Mart?"
"No, I cannot say that I do."
"Why, it doesn't even make sense!" exclaimed Margaret.
"All right, I'll elucidate. Listen!" and Seaton's voice grew tense with earnestness. "Visitors came down out of space. They were green. They wore zones of force, which they flashed on and off. They stayed inside the zones and projected their images outside, and used rays through the zones. Men who fought against the images cut them through and through with swords, but could not harm them since they were not actual substance; and the images directed rays against the men so that they were stunned. So the visitors fought in days long gone, and vanished in their zones of force. How does that sound?"
"You have the most stupendous imagination the world has ever seen—but there may be some slight basis of fact there, after all," said Crane, slowly.
"I'm convinced of it, for one reason in particular. Notice that it says specifically that the visitors stunned the natives. Now that thought is absolutely foreign to all Osnomian nature—when they strike they kill, and always have. Now if that myth has come down through so many generations without having that 'stunned' changed to 'killed', I'm willing to bet a few weeks of time that the rest of it came down fairly straight, too. Of course, what they had may not have been the zone of force as we know it, but it must have been a ray of some kind—and believe me, that was one educated ray. Somebody sure had something, even 'way back in those days. And if they had anything at all back there, they must know a lot by now. That's why I want to look 'em up."
"But suppose they want to kill us off at sight?" objected Dorothy. "They might be able to do it, mightn't they?"
"Sure, but they probably wouldn't want to—any more than you would step on an ant who asked you to help him move a twig. That's about how much ahead of us they probably are. Of course, we struck a pure mentality once, who came darn near dematerializing us entirely, but I'm betting that these folks haven't got that far along yet. By the way, I've got a hunch about those pure intellectuals."
"Oh, tell us about it!" laughed Margaret. "Your hunches are the world's greatest brainstorms!"
"Well, I pumped out and rejeweled the compass we put on that funny planet—as a last resort, I thought we might maybe visit them and ask that bozo we had the argument with to help us out. I think he—or it—would show us everything about the zone of force we want to know. I don't think that we'd be dematerialized, either, because the situation would give him something more to think about for another thousand cycles; and thinking seemed to be his main object in life. However, to get back to the subject, I found that even with the new power of the compass the entire planet was still out of reach. Unless they've dematerialized it, that means about ten billion light-years as an absolute minimum. Think about that for a minute!... I've just got a kind of a hunch that maybe they don't belong in this Galaxy at all—that they might be from some other Galaxy, planet and all; just riding around on it, as we are riding in the Skylark. Is the idea conceivable to a sane mind, or not?"
"Not!" decided Dorothy, promptly. "We'd better go to bed. One more such idea, in progression with the last two you've had, would certainly give you a compound fracture of the skull. 'Night, Cranes."
Far from our solar system a cigar-shaped space-car slackened its terrific acceleration to a point at which human beings could walk, and two men got up, exercised vigorously to restore the circulation to their numbed bodies, and went into the galley to prepare their meal—the first since leaving the Earth some eight hours or more before.
Because of the long and arduous journey he had decided upon, DuQuesne had had to abandon his custom of working alone, and had studied all the available men with great care before selecting his companion and relief pilot. He finally had chosen "Baby Doll" Loring—so called because of his curly yellow hair, his pink and white complexion, his guileless blue eyes, his slight form of rather less than medium height. But never did outward attributes more belie the inner man! The yellow curls covered a brain agile, keen, and hard; the girlish complexion neither paled nor reddened under stress; the wide blue eyes had glanced along the barrels of so many lethal weapons, that in various localities the noose yawned for him; the slender body was built of rawhide and whalebone, and responded instantly to the dictates of that ruthless brain. Under the protection of Steel he flourished, and in return for that protection he performed, quietly and with neatness and despatch, such odd jobs as were in his line, with which he was commissioned.
When they were seated at an excellent breakfast of ham and eggs, buttered toast, and strong, aromatic coffee, DuQuesne broke the long silence.
"Do you want to know where we are?"
"I'd say we were a long way from home, by the way this elevator of yours has been climbing all night."
"We are a good many million miles from the Earth, and we are getting farther away at a rate that would have to be measured in millions of miles per second." DuQuesne, watching the other narrowly as he made this startling announcement and remembering the effect of a similar one upon Perkins, saw with approval that the coffee-cup in midair did not pause or waver in its course. Loring noted the bouquet of his beverage and took an appreciative sip before he replied.
"You certainly can make coffee, Doctor; and good coffee is nine-tenths of a good breakfast. As to where we are—that's all right with me. I can stand it if you can."
"Don't you want to know where we're going, and why?"
"I've been thinking about that. Before we started I didn't want to know anything, because what a man doesn't know he can't be accused of spilling in case of a leak. Now that we are on our way, though, maybe I should know enough about things to act intelligently, if something unforeseen should develop. If you'd rather keep it dark and give me orders when necessary, that's all right with me, too. It's your party, you know."
"I brought you along because one man can't stay on duty twenty-four hours a day, continuously. Since you are in as deep as you can get, and since this trip is dangerous, you should know everything there is to know. You are one of the higher-ups now, anyway: and we understand each other thoroughly, I believe?"
"I believe so."
Back in the bow control-room DuQuesne applied more power, but not enough to render movement impossible.
"You don't have to drive her as hard all the way, then, as you did last night?"
"No, I'm out of range of Seaton's instrument now, and we don't have to kill ourselves. High acceleration is punishment for anyone and we must keep ourselves fit. To begin with, I suppose that you are curious about that object-compass?"
"That and other things."
"An object-compass is a needle of specially-treated copper, so activated that it points always toward one certain object, after being once set upon it. Seaton undoubtedly has one upon me; but, sensitive as they are, they can't hold on a mass as small as a man at this distance. That was why we left at midnight, after he had gone to bed—so that we'd be out of range before he woke up. I wanted to lose him, as he might interfere if he knew where I was going. Now I'll go back to the beginning and tell you the whole story."
* * * * *
Tersely, but vividly, he recounted the tale of the interstellar cruise, the voyage of the Skylark of Space. When he had finished, Loring smoked for a few minutes in silence.
"There's a lot of stuff there that's hard to understand all at once. Do you mind if I ask a few foolish questions, to get things straightened out in my mind?"
"Go ahead—ask as many as you want to. It is hard to understand a lot of that Osnomian stuff—a man can't get it all at once."
"Osnome is so far away—how are you going to find it?"
"With one of the object-compasses I mentioned. I had planned on navigating from notes I took on the trip back to the Earth, but it wasn't necessary. They tried to keep me from finding out anything, but I learned all about the compasses, built a few of them in their own shop, and set one on Osnome. I had it, among other things, in my pocket when I landed. In fact, the control of that explosive copper bullet is the only thing they had that I wasn't able to get—and I'll get that on this trip."
"What is that arenak armor they're wearing?"
"Arenak is a synthetic metal, almost perfectly transparent. It has practically the same refractive index as air, therefore it is, to all intents and purposes, invisible. It's about five hundred times as strong as chrome-vanadium steel, and even when you've got it to the yield-point, it doesn't break, but stretches out and snaps back, like rubber, with the strength unimpaired. It's the most wonderful thing I saw on the whole trip. They make complete suits of it. Of course they aren't very comfortable, but since they are only a tenth of an inch they can be worn."
"And a tenth of an inch of that stuff will stop a steel-nosed machine-gun bullet?"
"Stop it! A tenth of an inch of arenak is harder to pierce than fifty inches of our hardest, toughest armor steel. A sixteenth-inch armor-piercing projectile couldn't get through it. It's hard to believe, but nevertheless it's a fact. The only way to kill Seaton with a gun would be to use one heavy enough so that the shock of the impact would kill him—and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if he had his armor anchored with an attractor against that very contingency. Even if he hasn't, you can imagine the chance of getting action against him with a gun of that size."
"Yes, I've heard that he is fast."
"That doesn't tell half of it. You know that I'm handy with a gun myself?"
"You're faster than I am, and that's saying something. You're chain lightning."
"Well, Seaton is at least that much faster than I am. You've never seen him work—I have. On that Osnomian dock he shot twice before I started, and shot twice to my once from then on. I must have been shooting a quarter of a second after he had his side all cleaned up. To make it worse I missed once with my left hand—he didn't. There's absolutely no use tackling Richard Seaton without an Osnomian ray-generator or something better; but, as you know, Brookings always has been and always will be a fool. He won't believe anything new until after he has actually been shown. Well, I imagine he will be shown plenty by this evening."
"Well, I'll never tackle him with heat. How does he get that way?"
"He's naturally fast, and has practiced sleight-of-hand work ever since he was a kid. He's one of the best amateur magicians in the country, and I will say that his ability along that line has come in handy for him more than once."
"I see where you're right in wanting to get something, since we have only ordinary weapons and they have all that stuff. This trip is to get a little something for ourselves, I take it?"
"Exactly, and you know enough now to understand what we are out here to get for ourselves. You have guessed that we are headed for Osnome?"
"I suspected it. However, if you were going only to Osnome, you would have gone alone; so I also suspect that that's only half of it. I have no idea what it is, but you've got something else on your mind."
"You're right—I knew you were keen. When I was on Osnome I found out something that only four other men—all—dead—ever knew. There is a race of men far ahead of the Osnomians in science, particularly in warfare. They live a long way beyond Osnome. It is my plan to steal an Osnomian airship and mount all its ray screens, generators, guns, and everything else, upon this ship, or else convert their vessel into a space-ship. Instead of using their ordinary power, however, we will do as Seaton did, and use intra-atomic power, which is practically infinite. Then we'll have everything Seaton's got, but that isn't enough. I want enough more than he's got to wipe him out. Therefore, after we get a ship armed to suit us, we'll visit this strange planet and either come to terms with them or else steal a ship from them. Then we'll have their stuff and that of the Osnomians, as well as our own. Seaton won't last long after that."
"Do you mind if I ask how you got that dope?"
"Not at all. Except when right with Seaton I could do pretty much as I pleased, and I used to take long walks for exercise. The Osnomians tired very easily, being so weak, and because of the light gravity of the planet, I had to do a lot of work or walking to keep in any kind of condition at all. I learned Kondalian quickly, and got so friendly with the guards, that pretty soon they quit trying to keep me in sight, but waited at the edge of the palace grounds until I came back and joined them.
"Well, on one trip I was fifteen miles or so from the city when an airship crashed down in a woods about half a mile from me. It was in an uninhabited district and nobody else saw it. I went over to investigate, thinking probably I could find out something useful. It had the whole front end cut or broken off, and that made me curious, because no imaginable fall will break an arenak hull. I walked in through the hole and saw that it was one of their fighting tenders—a combination warship and repair shop, with all of the stuff in it that I've been telling you about. The generators were mostly burned out and the propelling and lifting motors were out of commission. I prowled around, getting acquainted with it, and found a lot of useful instruments and, best of all, one of Dunark's new mechanical educators, with complete instructions for its use. Also, I found three bodies, and thought I'd try it out...."
"Just a minute. Only three bodies on a warship? And what good could a mechanical educator do you if the men were all dead?"
"Three is all I found then, but there was another one. Three men and a captain compose an Osnomian crew for any ordinary vessel. Everything is automatic, you, know. As for the men being dead, that doesn't make any difference—you can read their brains just the same, if they haven't been dead too long. However, when I tried to read theirs, I found only blanks—their brains had been destroyed so that nobody could read them. That did look funny, so I ransacked the ship from truck to keelson, and finally found another body, wearing an air-helmet, in a sort of closet off the control room. I put the educator on it...."
"This is getting good. It sounds like a page of the old 'Arabian Nights' that I used to read when I was a boy. You know, it really isn't surprising that Brookings didn't believe a lot of this stuff."