"A high price truly," the Columbus of Nevia assented, "And after all, I may be wrong."
"You probably are—of course you are wrong," his host made a startling answer. "It is practically certain—it is almost a demonstrable mathematical fact—that no other sun within hundreds of thousands of light-years of our own has a planet. In all probability Nevia is the only planet in the entire Universe. We are the only intelligent life in the Universe. But there is one chance in numberless millions that, somewhere with the cruising range of your newly perfected space-ship, there may be an iron-bearing planet upon which you can effect a landing, and it is upon that infinitesimal chance that some of us are staking a portion of our wealth. We expect no return whatever, but if you should by some miracle happen to find stores of iron somewhere in space, what then? Deep seas being made shallow, civilization extending itself over the globe, science advancing by leaps and bounds, Nevia becoming populated as she should be peopled—that, my friend, is a chance well worth taking!"
The Secretary called in a group of guards, who escorted the small package of priceless metal to the space-ship, and before the massive door was sealed the friends bade each other farewell.
" ... I will keep in touch with you on the ultra-wave," the Captain concluded. "After all, I do not blame the Council for refusing to allow the other ship to go with us. Ten pounds of iron will be a fearful loss to the world. If we should find iron, however, see to it that the other vessel loses no time in following us."
"No fear of that! If you find iron all space will be full of vessels, as soon as they can possibly be built—good-bye!"
The last opening was sealed and Nerado shot the great vessel into the air. Up and up, out beyond the last tenuous trace of atmosphere, on and on through space it flew with ever-increasing velocity until Nevia's gigantic blue sun had been left so far behind that it became a splendid blue-white star. Then, projectors cut off to save the precious iron whose disintegration furnished them power, for week after week Captain Nerado and his venturesome crew of scientists drifted idly through the illimitable void. Sun after sun, as visible in their ultra-instruments as though the flying vessel were moving slower than light, they studied without finding a single planet.
Three months passed. Nerado had already applied the slight power which was to swing the vessel around in an immense circle, back toward his native world. In that course he was rapidly approaching a sun, an ordinary G-type dwarf, whose spectrum revealed a blaze of lines of the precious element for which he was searching. Now at close observing range—he had long since abandoned his former eager habit of studying a sun as soon as it showed the tiniest perceptible disk in his most powerful telescope—he turned on his powerful visiray beam without enthusiasm, swung it upon that very commonplace sun, and shrieked aloud in exultation. Not only one planet had that yellowish luminary—it had six, seven, eight; yes, possibly nine or ten; and several of those planets were themselves apparently centers of attraction around which were circling other tiny worlds! Nerado thrilled with joy as he applied a full retarding force, and every creature aboard that great vessel had to peer into a plate or through a telescope, before he could believe that planets other than Nevia did in reality exist!
Velocity checked to the merest crawl, as space-speed goes, and with electro-magnetic detector screens full out, the Nevian vessel crept toward our sun. Finally the detectors encountered an obstacle, a conductive substance which the patterns showed conclusively to be practically pure iron. Iron—an enormous mass of it—floating alone out in space! Without waiting to investigate the nature, appearance, or structure of the precious mass, Nerado ordered power into the converters and drove an enormous softening field of force upon the object—a force of such a nature that it would condense the metallic iron into an allotropic modification of much smaller bulk; a red, viscous, extremely dense and heavy liquid which could be stored conveniently in his tanks.
No sooner had the precious fluid been stored away than the detectors again broke into an uproar. In one direction was an enormous mass of iron, scarcely detectable; in another a great number of smaller masses; in a third an isolated mass, comparatively small in size. Space seemed to be full of iron, and Nerado drove his most powerful beam toward distant Nevia and sent an exultant message.
"We have found iron—easily obtained and in unthinkable quantity—not in fractions of milligrams, but in millions upon unmeasured millions of tons! Send our sister ship here as once!"
"Nerado!" The captain was called to one of the observation plates as soon as he had opened his key. "I have been investigating the mass of iron now nearest us, the small one. It is an artificial structure, a small space-boat, and there are three creatures in it—monstrosities certainly, but they must possess some intelligence or they could not be navigating space."
"What? Impossible!" exclaimed the chief explorer. "Probably, then, the other was—but no matter, we had to have the iron. Bring the boat in without converting it, so that we may study at our leisure both the beings and their mechanisms," and Nerado swung his own visiray beam into the emergency boat, seeing there the armored figures of Clio Marsden and the two Triplanetary officers.
"They are indeed intelligent," Nerado commented, as he detected and silenced Costigan's ultra-beam communicator. "Not, however, as intelligent as I had supposed," he went on, after studying the peculiar creatures and their tiny space-ship more in detail. "They have immense stores of iron, yet use it for nothing other than building material. They apparently have a rudimentary knowledge of ultra-waves, but do not use them intelligently—they cannot neutralize even these ordinary forces we are now employing. They are of course more intelligent than the lower ganoids, or even than some of the higher fishes, but by no stretch of the imagination can they be compared to us. I am quite relieved—I was afraid that in my haste I might slay members of a highly developed race."
The helpless boat, all her forces neutralized, was brought up close to the immense flying fish. There flaming knives of force sliced her neatly into sections and the three rigid armored figures, after being bereft of their external weapons, were brought through the air-locks and into the control room, while the pieces of their boat were stored away for future study. The Nevian scientists first analyzed the air inside the space-suits of the Terrestrials, then removed without ado the protective covering of the captives.
Costigan—fully conscious through it all and now able to move a little, since the peculiar temporary paralysis was wearing off—braced himself for he knew not what shock, but it was needless; their grotesque captors were not torturers. The air, while somewhat less dense than earth's and of a peculiar odor, was eminently breathable, and even though the vessel was motionless in space, an almost-normal gravitation gave them a large fraction of their usual weight. The space suits were removed with care, and after the three had been relieved of their pistols and other articles which the Nevians thought might prove to be weapons, the strange paralysis was lifted entirely. The earthly clothing puzzled the captors immensely, but so strenuous were the objections raised to its removal, but they did not press the point, but fell back to study their find in detail.
Then faced each other the representatives of the civilizations of two widely separated solar systems. The Nevians studied the human beings with interest and curiosity blended largely with loathing and repulsion; the three Terrestrials regarded the unmoving, expressionless "faces"—if those coned heads could be said to possess such things—with horror and disgust, as well as with other emotions, each according to his type and training. For to human eyes the Nevian is a fearful thing. Even to-day there are few Terrestrials—or Solarians for that matter—who can look at a Nevian, eye to eye, without feeling a creeping of the skin and experiencing a "gone" sensation in the pit of the stomach. The horny, wrinkled, drought-resisting Martian, whom we all know and rather like, is a hideous being indeed. The bat-eyed, colorless, hairless, practically skinless Venerian is worse. But they both are, after all, remote cousins of Terra's humanity, and we get along with them quite well whenever we are compelled to visit Mars or Venus. But the Nevians—
The horizontal, flat, fish body is not so bad, even supported as it is by four, short, powerful, scaly, flat-footed legs; and terminating as it does in the weird, four-vaned tail. The neck, even, is endurable, although it is long and flexible, heavily scaled, and is carried in whatever eye-wringing loops, knots, or angles the owner considers most convenient or ornamental at the time. Even the smell of a Nevian—a malodorous reek of over-ripe fish—does in time become tolerable, especially if sufficiently disguised with creosote, which purely Terrestrial chemical is the most highly prized perfume of Nevia. But the head! It is that member that makes the Nevian so appalling to earthly eyes, for it is a thing utterly foreign to all Solarian history or experience. As most Tellurians already know, it is fundamentally a massive cone, covered with scales, based spearhead-like upon the neck. Four great sea-green, triangular eyes are spaced equidistant from each other about half way up the cone. The pupils are contractile at will, like the eyes of the cat, permitting the Nevian to see equally well in any ordinary extreme of light or darkness. Immediately below each eye springs out a long, jointless, boneless, tentacular arm; an arm which at its extremity divides into eight delicate and sensitive, but very strong, fingers. Below each arm is a mouth: a beaked, needle-tusked orifice of dire potentialities. Finally, under the overhanging edge of the cone-shaped head are the delicately frilled organs which serve either as gills or as nostrils and lungs, as may be desired. To other Nevians the eyes and other features are highly expressive, but to us they appear utterly cold and unmoving. Terrestrial senses can detect no changes of expression in a Nevian's "face." Such were the frightful beings at whom the three prisoners stared with sinking hearts.
But if we human beings have always considered Nevians grotesque and repulsive, the feeling has always been mutual. For those "monstrous" beings are a highly intelligent and extremely sensitive race, and our—to us—trim and graceful human forms seems to them the very quintessence of malformation and hideousness.
"Good Heavens, Conway!" Clio exclaimed, shrinking against Costigan as his left arm flashed around her. "What monstrosities! And they can't talk—not one of them has made a sound—suppose they can be deaf and dumb?"
But at the same time Nerado was addressing his fellows.
"What hideous, deformed creatures they are! Truly a low form of life, even though they do possess some intelligence. They cannot talk, and have made no signs of having heard our words to them—do you suppose that they communicate by sight? That those weird contortions of their peculiarly placed organs serve as speech?"
Thus both sides, neither realizing that the other had spoken. For the Nevian voice is pitched so high that the lowest note audible to them is far above our limit of hearing. The shrillest note of a Terrestrial piccolo is to them so profoundly low that it cannot be heard.
"We have much to do." Nerado turned away from the captives. "We must postpone further study of the specimens until we have taken aboard a full cargo of the iron which is so plentiful here."
"What shall we do with them, sir?" asked one of the Nevian officers. "Lock them in one of the storage rooms?"
"Oh, no! They might die there, and we must by all means keep them in good condition, to be studied most carefully by the fellows of the College of Science. What a commotion there will be when we bring in this group of strange creatures, living proof that there are other suns possessing planets; planets which are supporting organic and intelligent life! You may put them in three communicating rooms, say in the fourth section—they will undoubtedly require light and exercise. Lock all exits, of course, but it would be best to leave the doors between the rooms unlocked, so that they can be together or apart, as they choose. Since the smallest one, the female, stays so close to the larger male, it may be that they are mates. But since we know nothing of their habits or customs, it will be best to give them all possible freedom compatible with safety."
Nerado turned back to his instruments and three of the frightful crew came up to the human beings. One walked away, waving a couple of arms in an unmistakable signal that the prisoners were to follow him. The three obediently set out after him, the other two guards falling behind.
"Now's our best chance!" Costigan muttered, as they passed through a low doorway and entered a narrow corridor. "Watch that one ahead of you, Clio—hold him for a second if you can. Bradley, you and I'll take the two behind us—now!"
Costigan stopped and whirled. Seizing a cable-like arm, he pulled the outlandish head down, the while the full power of his mighty right leg drove a heavy service boot into the place where scaly neck and head joined. The Nevian fell, and instantly Costigan leaped at the leader, ahead of the girl. Leaped; but dropped to the floor, again paralyzed. For the Nevian leader had been alert, his four eyes covering the entire circle of vision, and he had acted rapidly. Not in time to stop Costigan's first Berserk attack—the First Officer's reactions were practically instantaneous, and he moved like chain lightning—but in time to retain command of the situation. Another Nevian appeared and, while the stricken guard was recovering, all four arms wrapped tightly around his convulsively looping, knotting neck, the three helpless Terrestrials were lifted into the air and carried bodily into the quarters to which Nerado had assigned them. Not until they had been placed upon cushions in the middle room and the heavy metal doors had been locked upon them did they again find themselves able to use arms or legs.
"Well, that's another round we lose," Costigan commented, cheerfully. "A guy can't mix it very well when he can neither kick, strike, nor bite. I expected those lizards to rough me up, but they didn't."
"They don't want to hurt us. They want to take us home with them, wherever that is, as curiosities, like wild animals or something," decided the girl, shrewdly. "They're pretty bad, of course, but I like them a lot better than I do Roger and his robots, anyway."
"I think you have the right idea, Miss Marsden," Bradley rumbled. "That's it, exactly. I feel like a bear in a cage. I should think you'd feel worse than ever. What chance has an animal of escaping from a menagerie?"
"These animals, lots. I'm feeling better and better all the time," Clio answered, and her serene bearing bore out her words. "You two got us out of that horrible place of Roger's, and I'm pretty sure that you will get us away from here, somehow or other. They may think we're stupid animals, but before you two and the Secret Service get done with them they'll have another think coming."
"That's the old fight, Clio!" cheered Costigan. "I haven't got it figured out as close as you have, but I see you, eye to eye. These four-legged fish carry considerably heavier stuff than Roger did, I'm thinking; but they'll be up against something themselves pretty quick, that is NO light-weight, believe me!"
"Do you know something, or are you just whistling in the dark?" Bradley demanded.
"I know a little; not much. The Science Service has been working on a new ship for a long time; a ship to travel so much faster than light that it can go anywhere in the Galaxy and back in a month or so. New sub-ether drive, new power, new armament, new everything. Only bad thing about it is that it doesn't work so good yet—it's fuller of "bugs" than a Venerian's kitchen. It has blown up five times that I know of, and has killed twenty-nine men. But when they get it licked they'll have something!"
"When, or if?" asked Bradley, pessimistically.
"I said when!" snapped Costigan, his voice cutting like a knife. "When that gang goes after anything they get it, and when they get it it stays...." He broke off abruptly and his voice lost its edge. "Sorry. Didn't mean to get high, but I think we'll have help, if we can keep our heads up a while. And it looks good—these are first-class cages they've given us. All the comforts of home, even to lookout plates. Let's see what's going on, shall we?"
After some experimenting with the unfamiliar controls Costigan learned how to operate the Nevian visiray, and upon the plate they saw the Cone of Battle hurling itself toward Roger's planetoid. They saw the pirate fleet rush out to do battle with Triplanetary's massed forces, and with bated breath they watched every maneuver of that epic battle to its savagely sacrificial end. And that same battle was being watched, also with intense interest, by the Nevians.
"It is indeed a blood-thirsty combat," mused Nerado at his observation plate. "And it is peculiar—or rather, probably only to be expected from a race of such a low stage of development—that they employ only ether-borne forces. Warfare seems universal among primitive types—indeed, it is not so long ago that our own cities, few in number though they are, ceased fighting each other and combined against the semi-civilized fishes of the greater deeps."
He fell silent, and for many minutes watched the furious battle between the two navies of the void. That conflict ended, he watched the Triplanetary fleet reform its battle cone and rush upon the planetoid.
"Destruction, always destruction," he sighed, adjusting his power switches. "Since they are bent upon mutual destruction I can see no purpose in refraining from destroying all of them. We need the iron, and they are a useless race."
He launched his softening, converting field of dull red energy. Vast as that field was, it could not encompass the whole of the fleet, but half of the lip of the gigantic cone soon disappeared, its component vessels subsiding into a sluggishly flowing stream of allotropic iron. Instantly the fleet abandoned the attack upon the planetoid and swung its cone around, to bring the flame-erupting axis to bear upon the inchoate something dimly perceptible to the ultra-vision of the Secret Service observers. Furiously the gigantic composite beam of the massed fleet was hurled, nor was it alone.
For Roger in his floating citadel had realized at once that something untoward was happening; something altogether beyond even his knowledge and experience. He could not see anything—space was apparently empty—but he took his rays off the battleships and directed his every force just beyond the point in space where that red stream of transformed metal was disappearing. Then, for the first time in Triplanetary history, the forces of law and order joined hands with those of piracy and banditry against a common foe. Rods, beams, planes, and stilettoes of unbearable energy the doomed fleet launched, in addition to its main beam of annihilation, and Roger also hurled out into space every weapon at his command. Bombs, high-explosive shells, and deadly radio-dirigible torpedoes—all alike disappeared ineffective in that redly murky veil of nothingness. And the fleet was being melted. In quick succession the vessels flamed red, shrank together, gave out their air, and merged their component iron into the intensely red, sullenly viscous stream which was flowing through the impenetrable veil upon which Triplanetarians and pirates alike were directing their every possible weapon of offense.
The last vessel of the Triplanetary armada converted and the resulting metal stored away in their capacious reservoirs, the Nevians turned their attention upon the stronghold of the pirates. There ensued a battle royal. For this vast planetoid was no feeble warship, depending solely upon the limited power available in its accumulators. It was the product of a really mighty brain, a brain re-enforced by the many perverted but powerful intellects which Roger had won over to his cause. It was powered by the incalculable force of cosmic radiation, powered to drive its unimaginable mass through space, against any possible attractions, for an indefinite number of years. It was armed and equipped to meet any emergency which Roger's coldly analytical mind had been able to foresee.
The fact that the scientists of the Secret Service had discovered ultra-waves as yet unknown to him was unfortunate. That Service was itself unfortunate—impenetrable as it was, and incorruptible. He could learn nothing whatever about it. He had heard vague rumors of certain experiments—but even if they should discover something it would be too late to do them any good. Even without invisibility he would have no trouble in annihilating the massed Grand Fleet of the Triplanetary League. He would very shortly collect his tribute and disappear. And this new enemy, himself invisible and armed with heretofore unknown weapons of dire power, who was apparently unaffected by his beams—even he would discover that Roger the Great was no puny opponent. He would analyze those unknown forces, regenerate them, and hurl them back upon their senders.
Thinking thus, the man of gray sat coldly motionless at his great multi-shielded desk, whose top was now swung up to become a board of massed and tiered instruments and controls. He shut off his offensive beams and surrounded the entire planetoid with the peculiarly rigid and substantial shield which had so easily warded off Costigan's fiercest attacks. And that shield was more effective than even its designer had supposed—gray Roger had builded even better than he knew. For the voracious and all-powerful converting beam of the Nevians, below the level of the ether though it was, struck that perfectly transparent wall and rebounded, defeated and futile. Struck and rebounded, then struck and clung hungrily, licking out over that impermeable surface in darting tongues of red flame as the surprised Nerado doubled and then quadrupled his power. Fiercer and fiercer drove in the Nevian flood of force until the whole immense globe of the planetoid was one scintillant ball of scarlet energy, but still the pirates' shield remained intact—at what awful drain of resource, Roger alone knew.
"Here is the analysis of his screen, sir." A Nevian computer handed his chief a sheet of metal, upon which were engraved rows of symbols.
"Ah, a sixth-phase polycyclic. A screen of that type was scarcely to have been expected from such a low form of life," Nerado commented, and rapidly adjusted the many dials and switches before him.
As he did so the character of the clinging mantle of force changed. From red it flamed quickly through the spectrum, became unbearably violet, then disappeared; and as it disappeared the shielding wall began to give way. It did not cave in abruptly, but softened locally, sagging into a peculiar grouping of valleys and ridges—contesting stubbornly every inch of position lost. And gray Roger knew that the planetoid was doomed. His supposedly impregnable screen was failing in spite of its utmost measure of energy, and, that defense down, the citadel would not last a minute. Therefore he summoned a chosen few of his motley crew of renegade scientists and issued brief instructions. For minutes a host of robots toiled mightily, then a portion of the shield bulged out, extended into a tube beyond the attacking layers of force, and from it there erupted a beam of violence incredible. A beam behind which was every volt and ampere that the gigantic generators and accumulators of the planetoid could yield. A beam that tore screamingly through the ether; that by the very vehemence of its incalculable energy tore a hole through the redly impenetrable Nevian field and hurled itself upon the inner screen of the fish-shaped cruiser in frenzied incandescence. And was there, or was there not, a lesser eruption upon the other side—an almost imperceptible flash, as though something had shot from the doomed planetoid out into space?
Nerado's looped neck straightened convulsively as his tortured drivers whined and shrieked at the terrific overload; but Roger's effort was far too intense to be long maintained. Even before his accumulators failed, generator after generator burned out, the defensive screen collapsed, and the red converter beam attacked voraciously the unresisting metal of those prodigious walls. Soon there was a terrific explosion as the pent-up air of the planetoid broke through its weakening container, and the sluggish river of allotropic iron flowed in an ever larger stream, ever faster.
"It is well that we had an unlimited supply of iron." Nerado tied a knot in his neck and spoke in huge relief. "With but the seven pounds remaining of our original supply, I fear that it would have been difficult to parry that last thrust."
"Difficult?" asked the second in command. "We would now be swimming in space. But what shall I do with this iron? Our reservoirs will not hold it all."
"Seal up one or two of the lower storage compartments, to make room for this lot. Immediately it is loaded, we return to Nevia. There we shall install reservoirs in all the spare space, and come back here for more."
The last drop of the precious liquid secured, the vessel moved away, sluggishly now because of its prodigious load. In their quarters in the fourth section the three Terrestrials, who had watched with strained attention the downfall and absorption of the planetoid, stared at each other with drawn faces. Clio broke the silence.
"Oh, Conway, this is ghastly! It's ... it's just simply perfectly horrible!" she gasped, then recovered a measure of her customary spirit as she stared in surprise at Costigan's face. For it was thoughtful, his eyes were bright and keen—no trace of fear or disorganization was visible in any line of his hard young face.
"It's not so good," he admitted frankly. "I wish I wasn't such a dumb cluck—if Lyman Cleveland or Ford Rodebush were here they could help a lot, but I don't know enough about any of their stuff to flag a hand-car. I can't even interpret that funny flash—if it really was a flash—that we saw."
"Why bother about one little flash, after all that really did happen?" asked Clio, curiously.
"You think Roger launched something? He couldn't have—I didn't see a thing," Bradley argued.
"I don't know what to think. I've never seen anything material sent out so fast that I couldn't trace it with an ultra-wave—but on the other hand, Roger's got a lot of stuff that I never saw anywhere else. However, I don't see that it has anything to do with the fix we're in right now—but at that, we might be worse off. We're still breathing air, you notice, and if they don't blanket my wave I can still talk."
He put both hands in his pockets and spoke.
"Samms? Costigan. Put me on a recorder, quick—I probably haven't got much time," and for ten minutes he talked, concisely and as rapidly as he could utter words, reporting clearly and exactly everything that had transpired. Suddenly he broke off, writhing in agony. Frantically he tore his shirt open and hurled a tiny object across the room.
"Wow!" he exclaimed. "They may be deaf, but they can certainly detect an ultra-wave, and the interference they can set up on it is enough to pulverize your bones. No, I'm not hurt," he reassured the anxious girl, now at his side, "but it's a good thing I had you out of circuit—it would have jolted you loose from six or seven of your back teeth."
"Have you any idea where they're taking us?" she asked, soberly.
"No," he answered flatly, looking deep into her steadfast eyes. "No use lying to you—if I know you at all you'd rather take it standing up. That talk of Jovians or Neptunians is the bunk—nothing like that ever grew in our Solarian system. All the signs say that we're going for a long, long ride!"
The Nevian space-ship was hurtling upon its way. Space-navigators both, the two Terrestrial officers soon discovered that it was even then moving with a velocity far above that of light and that it must be accelerating at a stupendous rate, even though to them it seemed stationary—they could feel only a gravitational force somewhat less than that of their native earth.
Bradley, seasoned old campaigner that he was, had retired promptly as soon as he had completed a series of observations, and was sleeping soundly upon a pile of cushions in the first of the three inter-connecting rooms. In the middle room, which was to be Clio's, Costigan was standing very close to the girl, but was not touching her. His body was rigid, his face was tense and drawn.
"You are wrong, Conway; all wrong," Clio was saying, very seriously. "I know how you feel, but it's false chivalry."
"That isn't it, at all," he insisted, stubbornly. "It isn't only that I've got you out here in space, in danger and alone, that's stopping me. I know you and I know myself well enough to know that what we start now we'll go through with for life. It doesn't make any difference, that way, whether I start making love to you now or whether I wait until we're back on Tellus—I've been telling you for half an hour that for your own good you'd better pass me up entirely. I've got enough horsepower to keep away from you if you tell me to—not otherwise."
"I know it, both ways, dear, but...."
"But nothing!" he interrupted. "Can't you get it into your skull what you'll be letting yourself in for if you marry me? Assume that we get back, which isn't sure, by any means. But even if we do, some day—and maybe soon, too, you can't tell—somebody is going to collect fifty grams of radium for my head."
"Fifty grams—and everybody knows that Samms himself is rated at only sixty? I knew that you were somebody, Conway!" Clio exclaimed, undeterred. "But at that, something tells me that any pirate will earn even that much reward several times over before he collects it. Don't be silly, dear heart—good-night."
She tipped her head back, holding up to him her red, sweetly curved, smiling lips, and his eager arms, hitherto kept away from her by sheer force of will, swept around her in almost fierce intensity. As his hot lips met hers, her arms crept up around his neck and they stood, clasped together in the motionless ecstasy of love's first embrace.
"Girl, girl, how I love you!" Costigan's voice was husky, his usually hard eyes were glowing with a tender light. "That settles that. I'll really live now, anyway, while...."
"Stop it!" she commanded, sharply. "You're going to live until you die of old age—see if you don't. You'll simply have to, Conway!"
"That's so, too—no percentage in dying now. All the pirates between Tellus and Andromeda couldn't take me after this—I've got too much to live for. Well, good-night, sweetheart, I'd better beat it—you need some sleep."
The lovers' parting was not as simple and straightforward a procedure as Costigan's speech would indicate, but finally he did seek his own room and relaxed upon a pile of cushions, his stern visage transformed. Instead of the low metal ceiling he saw a beautiful, oval, tanned young face, framed in a golden-blonde corona of hair. His gaze sank into the depths of loyal, honest, dark-blue eyes; and looking deeper and deeper into those blue wells he fell asleep. Upon his face, too set and grim by far for a man of his years—the lives of Sector Chiefs of the T. S. S. are never easy, nor as a rule are they long—there lingered as he slept that newly acquired softness of expression, the reflection of his transcendent happiness.
For eight hours he slept soundly, as was his wont; then, also according to his habit and training, he came wide awake, with no intermediate stage of napping.
"Clio?" he whispered. "Awake, girl?"
"Awake!" Her voice came through the ultra-phone, relief in every syllable. "Good heavens, I thought you were going to sleep until we got to wherever it is that we're going! Come on in, you two—I don't see how you can possibly sleep, just as though you were home in bed."
"You've got to learn to sleep anywhere if you expect to keep in...." Costigan broke off as he opened the door and saw Clio's wan face. She had evidently spent a sleepless and wracking eight hours. "Good Lord, Clio, why didn't you call me?"
"Oh, I'm all right, except for being a little jittery. No need of asking how you feel, is there?"
"No—I feel hungry," he answered cheerfully. "I'm going to see what we can do about it—or say, guess I'll see whether they're still interfering on Samms' wave."
He took out a small, insulated case and touched the contact stud lightly with his fingers. His arm jerked away powerfully.
"Still at it," he gave the necessary explanation. "They don't seem to want us to talk outside, but his interference is as good as my talking—they can trace it, of course. Now I'll see what I can find out about our breakfast."
He stepped over to the plate and shot its projector beam forward into the control room, where he saw Nerado lying, doglike, at his instrument panel. As Costigan's beam entered the room a blue light flashed on and the Nevian turned an eye and an arm toward his own small observation plate. Knowing that they were now in visual communication, Costigan beckoned an invitation and pointed to his mouth in what he hoped was the universal sign of hunger. The Nevian waved an arm and fingered controls, and as he did so a wide section of the floor of Clio's room slid aside. The opening thus made revealed a table which rose upon its low pedestal, a table equipped with three softly cushioned benches and spread with a glittering array of silver and glassware. Bowls and platters of dazzlingly white metal, narrow-waisted goblets of sheerest crystal; all were hexagonal, beautifully and intricately carved or etched in apparently conventional marine designs. And the table utensils of this strange race were peculiar indeed. There were tearing forceps of sixteen needle-sharp curved teeth; there were flexible spatulas; there were deep and shallow ladles with flexible edges; there were many other peculiarly curved instruments at whose uses the Terrestrials could no even guess; all having delicately fashioned handles to fit the long, slender fingers of the Nevians.
But if the table and its appointments were surprising to the Terrestrials, revealing as they did a degree of culture which none of them had expected to find in a race of beings so monstrous, the food was even more surprising, although in another sense. For the wonderful crystal goblets were filled with a grayish-green slime of a nauseous and overpowering odor, the smaller bowls were full of living sea spiders and other such delicacies; and each large platter contained a fish fully a foot long, raw and whole, garnished tastefully with red, purple, and green strands of seaweed!
Clio looked once, then gasped, shutting her eyes and turning away from the table, but Costigan flipped the three fish into a platter and set it aside before he turned back to the visiplate.
"They'll go good fried," he remarked to Bradley, signaling vigorously to Nerado that the meal was not acceptable and that he wanted to talk to him, in person. Finally he made himself clear, the table sank down out of sight, and the Nevian commander cautiously entered the room.
At Costigan's insistence, he came up to the plate, leaving near the door three guards armed with projectors in instant readiness. The operative then shot the beam into the galley of the pirate's lifeboat, suggesting that they should be allowed to live there. For some time the argument of arms and fingers raged—though not exactly a fluent conversation, both sides managed to convey their meanings quite clearly. Nerado would not allow the Terrestrials to visit their own ship—he was taking no chances—but after a thorough ultra-ray inspection he did finally order some of his men to bring into the middle room the electric range and a supply of Terrestrial food. Soon the Nevian fish were sizzling in a pan and the appetizing odors of coffee and of browning biscuit permeated the room. But at the first appearance of those odors the Nevians departed hastily, content to watch the remainder of the curious and repulsive procedure in their visiray plates.
Breakfast over and everything made tidy and shipshape, Costigan turned to Clio.
"Look here, girl; you've got to learn how to sleep. You're all in. Your eyes look like you'd been on a Martian picnic and you didn't eat half enough breakfast. You've got to sleep and eat to keep fit. We don't want you passing out on us, so I'll put out this light, and you'll lie down here and sleep until noon."
"Oh, no; don't bother. I'll sleep to-night. I'm quite...."
"You'll sleep now," he informed her, levelly. "I never thought of you being nervous, with Bradley and me on each side of you. We're both right here now, though, and we'll stay here. We'll watch over you like a couple of old hens with one chick between them. Come on; lie down and go bye-bye."
Clio laughed at the simile, but lay down obediently. Costigan sat upon the edge of the great divan, holding her hand, and they chatted idly. The silences grew longer, Clio's remarks became fewer, and soon her long-lashed lids fell and her deep, regular breathing showed that she was sound asleep. The man stared at her, his very heart in his eyes. So young, so beautiful, so lovely—and how he did love her! He was not formally religious, but his every thought was a sincere prayer. If he could only get her out of this mess ... he wasn't fit to live on the same planet with her, but ... just give him one chance, just one!
But Costigan had been laboring for days under a terrific strain, and had been going very short on sleep. Half hypnotized by his own mixed emotions and by his staring at the smooth curves of Clio's cheek, his own eyes closed and, still holding her hand, he sank down into the soft cushions beside her and into oblivion.
Thus sleeping hand-in-hand like two children Bradley found them, and a tender, fatherly expression came over his face as he looked down at them.
"Nice little girl, Clio," he mused, "and when they made Costigan they broke the mould. They'll do—about as fine a couple of kids as old Tellus ever produced. I could do with some more sleep myself." He yawned prodigiously, lay down at Clio's left, and almost instantly was himself asleep.
Hours later, both men were awakened by a merry peal of laughter. Clio was sitting up, regarding them with sparkling eyes. She was refreshed, buoyant, ravenously hungry and highly amused. Costigan was amazed and annoyed at what he considered a failure in a self-appointed task; Bradley was calm and matter-of-fact.
"Thanks for being such a nice bodyguard, you two," Clio laughed again, but sobered quickly. "I slept wonderfully well, but I wonder if I can sleep to-night without making you hold my hand all night?"
"Oh, he doesn't mind doing that," Bradley commented.
"Mind it!" Costigan exclaimed, and his eyes and his tone spoke volumes that his tongue left unsaid.
They prepared and ate another meal, one to which Clio did full justice; and, rested and refreshed, had begun to discuss possibilities of escape when Nerado and his three armed guards entered the room. The Nevian scientist placed a box upon a table and began to make adjustments upon its panels, eyeing the Terrestrials attentively after each setting. After a time a staccato burst of articulate speech issued from the box, and Costigan saw a great light.
"You've got it—hold it!" he exclaimed, waving his arms excitedly. "You see, Clio, their voices are pitched either higher or lower than ours—probably higher—and they've built an audio-frequency changer. He's nobody's fool, that fish!"
Nerado heard Costigan's voice; there was no doubt of that. His long neck looped and angled in Nevian gratification, and, although neither side could understand the other, both knew that intelligent speech and hearing were attributes common to the two races. This fact altered markedly the relations between captors and captives. The Nevians admitted among themselves that the strange bipeds might be quite intelligent, after all; and the Terrestrials at once became more hopeful.
"It isn't so bad, if they can talk," Costigan summed up the situation. "We might as well take it easy and make the best of it, particularly since we haven't been able to figure out any possible way of getting away from them. They can talk and hear, and we can learn their language in time. Maybe we can make some kind of a deal with them to take us back to our own system, if we can't make a break."
The Nevians being as eager as the Terrestrials to establish communication, Nerado kept the newly devised frequency-changer in constant use. There is no need of describing at length the details of that interchange of languages. Suffice it to say that starting at the very bottom they learned as babies learn, but with the great advantage over babies of possessing fully developed and capable brains. And while the human beings were learning the tongue of Nevia, several of the amphibians (and incidentally Clio Marsden) were learning Triplanetarian; the two officers knowing well that it would be much easier for the Nevians to learn the logically-built common language of the Three Planets than to master the senseless intricacies of English.
In a few weeks the two parties were able to understand each other after a fashion, by using a weird mixture of both languages. As soon as a few ideas had been exchanged, the Nevian scientists built transformers small enough to be worn collar-like by the Terrestrials, and the captives were allowed to roam at will throughout the great vessel; only the compartment in which was stored the dismembered pirate lifeboats being sealed to them. Thus it was that they were not left long in doubt, when another fish-shaped cruiser of the world was revealed upon their lookout plates in the awful emptiness of interstellar space.
"That is our sister-ship, going to your Solarian system for a cargo of the iron which is so plentiful there," Nerado explained to his involuntary guests.
"I hope the gang has got the bugs worked out of our super-ship," Costigan muttered savagely to his companions as Nerado turned away. "If they have, that outfit will get something more than a load of iron when they get there!"
More weeks passed; weeks during which a blue-white star separated itself from the infinitely distant firmament and began to show a perceptible disk. Larger and larger it grew, becoming bluer and bluer as the flying space-ship approached it, until finally Nevia could be seen, apparently close beside her parent orb.
Heavily laden though the vessel was, such was her power that she was soon dropping vertically toward a large lagoon in the middle of the Nevian city. That bit of open water was strangely devoid of life, for this was to be no ordinary landing. Under the terrific power of the beams braking the descent of that unimaginable load of allotropic iron the water seethed and boiled; and instead of floating gracefully upon the surface of the sea, this time the huge ship of space sank like a plummet to the bottom. Having accomplished this delicate feat of docking the vessel safely in the immense cradle prepared for her, Nerado turned to the Terrestrials, who, now under guard, had been brought before him.
"While our cargo of iron is being discharged, I am to take you three Tellurians to the College of Science, where you are to undergo a thorough physical and psychological examination. Follow me."
"Wait a minute!" protested Costigan, with a quick and furtive wink at his companions. "Do you expect us to go through water, and at this frightful depth?"
"Certainly," replied the Nevian, in surprise. "You are air-breathers, of course, but you must be able to swim a little, and this slight depth—but little more than thirty of your meters—will not trouble you."
"You are wrong, twice," declared the Terrestrial, convincingly. "If by 'swimming' you mean propelling yourself in or through the water, we know nothing of it. In water over our heads we drown helplessly in a minute or two, and the pressure at this depth would kill us instantly."
"Well, I could take a lifeboat, of course, but that...." The Nevian Captain began, doubtfully, but broke off at the sound of a staccato call from his signal panel.
"Captain Nerado, attention!"
"Nerado," he acknowledged into a microphone.
"The Third City is being attacked by the fishes of the greater deeps. They have developed new and powerful mobile fortresses mounting unheard-of weapons and the city reports that it cannot long withstand their attack. The inhabitants are asking for all possible help. Your vessel not only has vast stores of iron, but also mounts weapons of power. You are requested to proceed to their aid at the earliest possible moment."
Nerado snapped out orders and the liquid iron fell in streams from wide-open ports, forming a vast, red pool in the bottom of the dock. In a short time the great vessel was in equilibrium with the water she displaced, and as soon as she had attained a slight buoyancy the ports snapped shut and Nerado threw on the power.
"Go back to your own quarters and stay there until I send for you," the Nevian directed, and as the Terrestrials obeyed the curt orders the fish-shaped cruiser of space tore herself from the water and flashed up into the crimson sky.
"What a barefaced liar!" Bradley exclaimed. The three, transformers cut off, were back in the middle room of their suite. "You can outswim an otter, and I happen to know that you came up out of the old DZ83 from a depth of...."
"Maybe I did exaggerate a trifle," Costigan interrupted him, "but the more helpless he thinks we are the better for us. And we want to stay out of any of their cities as long as we can, because they may be hard places to escape from. I've got a couple of ideas, but they aren't ripe enough to pick yet.... Wow! how this bird's been traveling! We're there already! If he hits the water going like this, he'll split himself, sure!"
With undiminished velocity they were flashing downward in a long slant toward the beleaguered Third City, and from the flying vessel there was launched toward the city's central lagoon a torpedo. No missile this, but a capsule containing a full ton of allotropic iron, which would be of more use to the Nevian defenders than millions of men. For the Third City was sore pressed indeed. Around it was one unbroken ring of boiling, exploding water—water billowing upward with searing, blinding bursts of superheated steam, or being hurled bodily in all directions in solid masses by the cataclysmic forces being released by the embattled fishes of the greater deeps. Her outer defenses were already down, and even as the Terrestrials stared in amazement another of the immense hexagonal buildings burst into fragments; its upper structure flying wildly into scrap metal, its lower half subsiding drunkenly below the surface of the boiling sea.
The three Terrestrials involuntarily seized whatever supports were at hand as the Nevian space-ship struck the water with undiminished speed, but the precaution was needless—Nerado knew thoroughly his vessel, its strength and its capabilities. There was a mighty splash, but that was all. The artificial gravity was unchanged by the impact; to the passengers the vessel was still motionless and on even keel as, now a submarine, she snapped around like a very fish and attacked the rear of the nearest fortress.
For fortresses they were; vast structures of green metal, plowing forward implacably upon immense caterpillar treads. And as they crawled they destroyed, and Costigan, exploring the strange submarine with his visiray beam, watched and marveled. For the fortresses were full of water; water artificially cooled and aerated, entirely separate from the boiling flood through which they moved. They were manned by fish some five feet in length. Fish with huge, goggling eyes; fish plentifully equipped with long, armlike tentacles; fish poised before control panels or darting about intent upon their various duties. Fish with intelligent brains, waging desperate war upon a hated foe!
Nor was their warfare ineffectual. Their heat-rays boiled the water for hundreds of yards before them and their torpedoes were exploding against the Nevian defenses in one appallingly continuous concussion. But most potent of all was a weapon unknown to Triplanetary warfare. From a fortress there would shoot out, with the speed of a meteor, a long, jointed, telescopic rod, tipped with a tiny, brilliantly shining ball. Whenever this glowing tip encountered any obstacle, that obstacle disappeared in an explosion world-wracking in its intensity. Then what was left of the rod, dark now, would be retracted into the fortress—only to emerge again in a moment with a tip once more shining and potent.
Nerado, apparently as unfamiliar with the peculiar weapon as were the Terrestrials, attacked cautiously; sending out far to the fore his murkily impenetrable screens of red. But the submarine was entirely non-ferrous, and its officers were apparently quite familiar with the Nevian beams which licked at and clung to the green walls in impotent fury. Through the red veil came stabbing tiny ball after brilliant ball, and only the most frantic dodging saved the space-ship from destruction in those first few furious seconds. And now the Nevian defenders of the Third City had secured and were employing the vast store of allotropic iron so opportunely delivered by Nerado.
From the city there pushed out immense nets of metal, extending from the surface of the ocean to its bottom; nets radiating such terrific forces that the very water itself was beaten back and stood motionless in vertical, glassy walls. Torpedoes were futile against that wall of energy. The most fiercely driven rays of the fishes flamed incandescent against it, in vain. Even the incredible violence of a concentration of every available force-ball against one point could not break through. At that unimaginable explosion water was hurled for miles. The bed of the ocean was not only exposed, but in it there was blown a crater at whose dimensions the Terrestrials dared not even guess. The crawling fortresses themselves were thrown backward violently and the very world was rocked to its core by the concussion, but that iron-driven wall held. The massive nets swayed and gave back, and tidal waves hurled their mountainously destructive masses through the Third City, but the mighty barrier remained intact. And Nerado, still attacking two of the powerful tanks with his every weapon, was still dodging those flashing balls charged with the quintessence of destruction. The fishes could not see through the sub-ethereal veil, but all the rod-gunners of the two fortresses were combing it thoroughly with ever-lengthening, ever-thrusting rods, in a desperate attempt to wipe out the new and apparently all-powerful Nevian submarine, whose sheer power was slowly but inexorably crushing even their gigantic walls.
"Well, I think that right now's the best chance we'll ever have of doing something for ourselves." Costigan turned away from the absorbing scenes pictured upon the visiplate and faced his two companions.
"But what can we possibly do?" asked Clio, and
"Whatever it is, we'll try it!" Bradley exclaimed.
"Anything's better than staying here and letting them analyze us—no telling what they'd do to us," Costigan went on. "I know a lot more about things than they think I do. They never did catch me using my spy-ray—it's on an awfully narrow beam, you know, and uses almost no power at all—so I've been able to dope out quite a lot of stuff. I can open most of their locks, and I know how to run their small boats. This battle, fantastic as it is, is deadly stuff, and it isn't one-sided, by any means, either, so that every one of them, from Nerado down, seems to be on emergency duty. There are no guards watching us, or stationed where we want to go—our way out is open. And once out, this battle is giving us our best possible chance to get away from them. There's so much emission out there already that they probably couldn't detect the driving rays of the lifeboat, and they'll be too busy to chase us, anyway."
"Once out, then what?" asked Bradley, eagerly.
"We'll have to decide that before we start, of course. I'd say make a break back for our own Solarian system. We know the direction, from our own observation, and we'll have plenty of power."
"But good Heavens, Conway, it's so far!" exclaimed Clio. "How about food, water, and air—would we ever get there?"
"You know as much about that as I do. I think so, but of course anything might happen. This ship is none too big, is considerable slower than the big space-ship, and we're a long ways from home. Another bad thing is the food question. The boat is well stocked according to Nevian ideas, but it's pretty foul stuff for us to eat. However, it's nourishing, and we'll have to eat it, since we can't carry enough of our own supplies to the boat to last long. Even so, we may have to go on short rations, but I think that we'll be able to make it. On the other hand, what happens if we stay here? We will certainly strike trouble sooner or later, and we don't know any too much about these ultra-weapons. We are land-dwellers, and there is mighty little land on this planet. Then, too, we don't know where to look for what little land there is, and, even if we could find it, we know that it is all over-run with amphibians already. There's a lot of things that might be better, but they might be a lot worse, too. How about it? Do we try it or do we stay here?"
"We try it!" exclaimed Clio and Bradley as one.
"All right. I'd better not waste any more time talking—let's go!"
Stepping up to the locked and shielded door, he took out a peculiarly built torch and pointed it briefly at the Nevian lock. There was no light, no noise, but the massive portal swung smoothly open. They stepped out and Costigan relocked and reshielded the entrance.
"How ... what ...?" Clio demanded, almost stuttering in her surprise.
"I've been going to school for the last few weeks," Costigan grinned, "and I've picked up quite a few things here and there—literally as well as figuratively speaking. Snap it up, guys! Our armor is stored away with the pieces of the pirates' lifeboat, and I'll feel a lot better when we've got it on and have hold of a few fresh Lewistons."
They hurried down corridors, up ramps, and along hallways, with Costigan's spy-ray investigating the course ahead for chance Nevians. Bradley and Clio were unarmed, but the secret agent had found a piece of flat metal and had ground it to a razor edge.
"I think I can throw this thing straight enough and fast enough to chop off a Nevian's head before he can put a paralyzing ray on us," he explained grimly, but he was not called upon to show his skill with the improvised cleaver.
As he had concluded from his careful survey, every Nevian was at some control or weapon, doing his part in that frightful combat with the denizens of the greater deeps. Their part was open, they were neither molested nor detected as they ran toward the compartment within which was sealed all their Terrestrial belongings. The door of that room opened, as had the other, to Costigan's knowing beam; and all three set hastily to work. They made up packs of food, filled their capacious pockets with emergency rations, recharged and buckled on Lewistons and automatics, donned their armor, and clamped into their external holsters a full complement of additional weapons.
"Now comes the ticklish part of the business," Costigan informed them. His helmet was slowly turning this way and that, and the others knew that through his spy-ray goggles he was studying their route. "There's only one boat we stand a chance of reaching, and somebody's mighty apt to see us. There's a lot of detectors up there, and we'll have to cross a corridor full of communicator beams. There, that line's off ... scoot!"
At his word they dashed out into the hall and hurried along for minutes, dodging to right or left as the leader snapped out orders. Finally he stopped.
"Here's those beams I told you about. We'll have to roll under 'em. They're less than waist high—right there's the lowest one. Watch me do it, and when I give you the word, one at a time, you do the same. Keep low—don't let an arm or a leg get up into the path of a ray or they may see us."
He threw himself flat, rolled upon the floor a yard or so, and scrambled to his feet. He gazed intently at the blank wall for a space, then:
"Bradley—now!" he snapped, and the Interplanetary captain duplicated his performance.
But Clio, unused to the heavy and cumbersome space-armor she was wearing, could not roll in it with any degree of success. When Costigan barked his order she tried, but stopped, floundering, almost directly below the invisible network of communicator beams. As she struggled one mailed arm went up, and Costigan saw in his ultra-goggles the faint flash as the beam encountered the interfering field. But already he had acted. Crouching low, he struck down the arm, seized it, and dragged the girl out of the zone of visibility. Then in furious haste he opened a nearby door and all three sprang into a tiny compartment.
"Shut off all the fields of your suits, so that they can't interfere!" he hissed into the utter darkness. "Not that I'd mind killing a few of them, but if they start an organized search we're sunk. But even if they did get a warning by touching your glove, Clio, they probably won't suspect us. Our rooms are still shielded, and the chances are that they're too busy to bother much about us, anyway."
He was right. A few beams darted here and there, but the Nevians saw nothing amiss and ascribed the interference to the falling into the beam of some chance bit of charged metal. With no further misadventures the Terrestrials gained entrance to the Nevian lifeboat, where Costigan's first act was to disconnect one steel boot from his armor of space. With a sigh of relief he pulled his foot out of it, and from it carefully poured into the small power-tank of the craft fully thirty pounds of allotropic iron!
"I pinched it off them," he explained, in answer to amazed and inquiring looks, "and maybe you don't think it's a relief to get it out of that boot! I couldn't steal a flask to carry it in, so this was the only place I could put it in. These lifeboats are equipped with only a couple of grams of iron apiece, you know, and we couldn't get half-way back to Tellus on that, even with smooth going; and we may have to fight. With this much to go on, though, we could go to Andromeda, fighting all the way. Well, we'd better break away."
Costigan watched his plate closely, and, when the maneuvering of the great vessel brought his exit port as far away as possible from the Third City and the warring citadels of the deep, he shot the little cruiser out and away. Straight out into the ocean it sped, through the murky red veil, and darted upward toward the surface. The three wanderers sat tense, hardly daring to breathe, staring into the plates—Clio and Bradley pushing at metal levers and stepping down hard upon metal brakes in unconscious efforts to help Costigan dodge the beams and rods of death flashing so appallingly close upon all sides. Out of the water and into the air the darting, dodging lifeboat flashed in safety; but in the air, supposedly free from menace, came disaster. There was a crunching, grating shock and the vessel was thrown into a dizzy spiral, from which Costigan finally leveled it into headlong flight away from the scene of battle. Watching the pyrometers which recorded the temperature of the outer shell, he drove the lifeboat ahead at the highest safe atmospheric speed while Bradley went to inspect the damage.
"Pretty bad, but better than I thought," the captain reported. "Outer and inner plates broken away on a seam. Inter-wall vacuum all lost, and we wouldn't hold carpet-rags, let alone air. Any tools aboard?"
"Some—and what we haven't got we'll make," Costigan declared. "We'll put a lot of distance behind us, then we'll fix her up and get away from here."
"What are those fish, anyway, Conway?" Clio asked, as the lifeboat tore along. "The Nevians are bad enough, Heaven knows, but the very idea of intelligent and educated FISH is enough to drive one mad!"
"You know Nerado mentioned several times the 'semi-civilized fishes of the greater deeps'?" he reminded her. "I gather that there are at least three intelligent races here. We know two—the Nevians, who are amphibians, and the fishes of the greater deeps. The fishes of the lesser deeps are also intelligent. As I get it, the Nevian cities were originally built in very shallow water, or perhaps were upon islands. The development of machinery and tools gave them a big edge on the fish; and those living in the shallow seas, nearest the islands, gradually became tributary nations, if not actually slaves. Those fish not only serve as food, but work in the mines, hatcheries, and plantations, and do all kinds of work for the Nevians. Those so-called 'lesser deeps' were conquered first, of course, and all their races of fish are docile enough now. But the deep-sea breeds, who live in water so deep that the Nevians can hardly stand the pressure down there, were more intelligent to start with, and more stubborn besides. But the most valuable metals here are deep down—this planet is very light for its size, you know—so the Nevians kept at it until they conquered some of the deep-sea fish, too, and put 'em to work. But those high-pressure boys were nobody's fools. They realized that as time went on the amphibians would get further and further ahead of them in development, so they let themselves be conquered, learned how to use the Nevians' tools and everything else they could get hold of, developed a lot of new stuff of their own, and now they're out to wipe the amphibians off the slate completely, before they get too far ahead of them to handle."
"And the Nevians are afraid of them, and want to kill them all, as fast as they possibly can," guessed Clio.
"That would be the logical thing, of course," commented Bradley. "Got pretty nearly enough distance now, Costigan?"
"There isn't enough distance on the planet to suit me," Costigan replied. "We'll need all we can get. A full diameter away from that crew of amphibians is too close for comfort—their detectors are keen."
"Then they can detect us?" Clio asked. "Oh, I wish they hadn't hit us—we'd have been away from here long ago."
"So do I," Costigan assented, feelingly. "But they did—no use squawking. We can rivet and weld those seams and pump out the shell, and we'd have to fill our air-tanks to capacity for the trip, anyway. And things could be a lot worse—we are still breathing air!"
In silence the lifeboat flashed onward, and half of Nevia's mighty globe was traversed before it was brought to a halt, in the emptiest reaches of the planet's desolate and watery waste. Then in furious haste the two officers set to work, again to make their small craft sound and spaceworthy.
Worm, Submarine, and Freedom
Since both Costigan and Bradley had often watched their captors at work during the long voyage from the Solar System to Nevia, they were quite familiar with the machine tools of the amphibians. Their stolen lifeboat, being an emergency craft, of course carried full repair equipment; and to such good purpose did the two officers labor that even before their air-tanks were fully charged, all the damage had been repaired.
The lifeboat lay motionless upon the mirror-smooth surface of the ocean. Captain Bradley had opened the upper port and the three stood in the opening, gazing in silence toward the incredibly distant horizon, while powerful pumps were forcing the last possible ounces of air into the practically unbreakable storage cylinders. Mile upon strangely flat mile stretched that waveless, unbroken expanse of water, merging finally into the violent redness of the Nevian sky. The sun was setting; a vast ball of purple flame dropping rapidly toward the horizon. Darkness came suddenly as that seething ball disappeared, and the air became bitterly cold, in sharp contrast to the pleasant warmth of a moment before. And as suddenly clouds appeared in blackly banked masses and a cold, driving rain began to beat down in torrents.
"Br-r-r, it's cold! Let's go in—Oh! Shut the door!" Clio shrieked, and leaped wildly down into the compartment below, out of Costigan's way, for he and Bradley also had seen slithering toward them the frightful arm of the Thing.
Almost before the girl had spoken Costigan had leaped to the levers, and not an instant too soon; for the tip of that horrible tentacle flashed into the rapidly narrowing crack just before the door clanged shut. As the powerful toggles forced the heavy screw threads into engagement and drove the massive disk home into its bottle-tight, insulated seat, that grisly tip fell severed to the floor of the compartment and lay there, twitching and writhing with a loathsome and unearthly vigor. Two feet long the piece was, and larger than a strong man's leg. It was armed with spiked and jointed metallic scales, and instead of sucking disks it was equipped with a series of mouths—mouths filled with sharp metallic teeth which gnashed and ground together furiously, even though sundered from the horrible organism which they were designed to feed.
The little submarine shuddered in every plate and member as monstrous coils encircled her and tightened inexorably in terrific, rippling surges eloquent of mastodonic power; and a strident vibration smote sickeningly upon Terrestrial eardrums as the metal spikes of the monstrosity crunched and ground upon the outer plating of their small vessel. Costigan stood unmoved at the plate, watching intently; hands ready upon the controls. Due to the artificial gravity of the lifeboat it seemed perfectly stationary to its occupants. Only the weird gyrations of the pictures upon the lookout screens showed that the craft was being shaken and thrown about like a rat in the jaws of a terrier; only the gauges revealed that they were almost a mile below the surface of the ocean already, and were still going downward at an appalling rate. Finally Clio could stand no more.
"Aren't you going to do something, Conway?" she cried.
"Not unless I have to," he replied, composedly. "I don't believe that he can really hurt us, and if I use a ray of any kind I'm afraid that it will kick up enough disturbance to bring Nerado down on us like a hawk after a chicken. However, if he takes us much deeper I'll have to go to work on him. We're getting down pretty close to our limit, and the bottom's a long way down yet."
Deeper and deeper the lifeboat was dragged by its dreadful opponent, whose spiked teeth still tore savagely at the tough outer plating of the craft until Costigan reluctantly threw in his power switches. Against the full propellant thrust the monster could draw them no lower, but neither could the lifeboat make any headway toward the surface. The Terrestrial then turned on his rays, but found that they were ineffective. So closely was the creature wrapped around the submarine that his weapons could not be brought to bear upon it without melting the vessel's own outer skin.
"What can it possibly be, anyway, and what can we do about it?" Clio asked.
"I thought at first it was something like a devilfish, or possibly an overgrown starfish, but it's too flat, and has no body that I can see," Costigan made answer. "It must be a kind of flat worm. That doesn't sound reasonable—the thing must be all of a hundred meters long—but there it is. The only thing left to do now, as I see it, is to try to boil him alive."
He closed other circuits, diffusing a terrific beam of pure heat, and the water all about them burst into furious clouds of steam. The boat leaped upward as the metallic fins of the gigantic worm fanned vapor instead of water, but the creature neither released its hold nor ceased its relentlessly grinding attack. Minute after minute went by, but finally the worm dropped limply away—cooked through and through; vanquished only by death.
"Now we've put our foot in it, clear to the knee!" Costigan exclaimed, as he shot the lifeboat upward at its maximum power. "Look at that! I knew that Nerado could trace us, but I didn't have any idea that they could. It's a good thing these ultra-vision plates don't need light to see by or we'd be 'spurlos versenkt' in a hurry!"
Staring with Costigan into the plate, Bradley and the girl saw, not the Nevian sky-rover they had expected, but a fast submarine cruiser, manned by the frightful fishes of the greater deeps. It was coming directly toward the lifeboat, and even as Costigan hurled the little vessel off at an angle and then upward into the air one of the deadly offensive rods, tipped with its glowing ball of pure destruction, flashed through the spot where they would have been had they held their former course.
But powerful as were the propellant forces and fiercely though Costigan applied them, the denizens of the deep clamped a tractor ray upon the flying vessel before it had gained a mile of altitude. Costigan aligned his every driving projector as his vessel came to an abrupt halt in the invisible grip of the beam, then experimented with various dials.
"There ought to be some way of cutting that beam," he pondered audibly, "but I don't know enough about their system to do it, and I'm afraid to monkey around with things too much, because I might accidentally release the screens we've already got out, and they're stopping altogether too much stuff for us to do without them right now."
He frowned as he studied the flaring defensive screens, now radiating an incandescent violet under the concentration of the forces being hurled against them by the warlike fishes, then stiffened suddenly.
"I thought so—they can shoot 'em!" he exclaimed, throwing the lifeboat into a furious corkscrew turn, and the very air blazed into flaming splendor as a dazzlingly scintillating ball of energy sped past them and high into the air beyond.
Then for minutes a spectacular battle raged. The twisting, turning, leaping airship, small as she was agile, kept on eluding the explosive projectiles of the fishes, and her screens neutralized and re-radiated the full power of the attacking beams. More—since Costigan did not need to think of sparing his iron, the ocean around the great submarine began furiously to boil under the full-driven offensive beams of the tiny Nevian ship. But escape Costigan could not. He could not cut that tractor beam and the utmost power of his drivers could not wrest the lifeboat from its tenacious clutch. And slowly but inexorably the ship of space was being drawn downward toward the ship of ocean's depths. Downward, in spite of the utmost possible effort of every projector and penetrator, and the two Terrestrial spectators, sick at heart, looked once at each other. Then they looked at Costigan, who, jaw hard set and eyes unflinchingly upon his plate, was concentrating his attack upon one turret of the green monster as they settled lower and lower.
"If this is ... if our number is going up, Conway," Clio began, unsteadily.
"Not yet, it isn't!" he snapped. "Keep a stiff upper lip, girl. We're still breathing air, and the battle's not over yet!"
Nor was it; but it was not Costigan's efforts, mighty though they were, that ended the attack of the fishes of the greater deeps. The tractor beam snapped without warning, and so prodigious were the forces being exerted by the lifeboat that, as it hurled itself away, the three passengers were thrown violently to the floor, in spite of the powerful gravity controls. Scrambling up on hands and knees, bracing himself as best he could against the terrific forces, Costigan managed finally to force a hand up to his panel. He was barely in time; for even as he cut the driving power to its normal value the outer shell of the lifeboat was blazing at white heat from the friction of the atmosphere through which it had been tearing with such an insane acceleration!
"Oh, I see—Nerado to the rescue," Costigan commented, after a glance into the plate. "I hope that those fish blow him clear out of the Galaxy!"
"Why?" demanded Clio. "I should think that you'd...."
"Think again," he advised her. "The worse Nerado gets licked the better for us. I don't really expect that, but if they can keep him busy long enough, we can get far enough away so that he won't bother about us any more."
As the lifeboat tore upward through the air at the highest permissible atmospheric velocity Bradley and Clio peered over Costigan's shoulders into the plate, watching in absorbed interest the scene which was being kept in focus upon it. The Nevian ship of space was plunging downward in a long, slanting dive, her terrific beams of force screaming out ahead of her. The rays of the little lifeboat had boiled the waters of the ocean; those of the parent craft seemed literally to blast them out of existence. All about the green submarine there had been volumes of furiously-boiling water and dense clouds of vapor; now water and fog alike disappeared, converted into transparent superheated steam by the blasts of Nevian energy. Through that tenuous gas the enormous mass of the submarine fell like a plummet, her defensive screens flaming an almost invisible violet, her every offensive weapon vomiting forth solid and vibratory destruction toward the Nevian cruiser so high in the angry, scarlet heavens.
For miles the submarine dropped, until the frightful pressure of the depth drove water into Nerado's beam faster than his forces could volatilize it. Then in that seething funnel there was waged desperate conflict. At that funnel's wildly turbulent bottom lay the submarine, now apparently trying to escape, but held fast by the tractor rays of the space-ship; at its top, smothered almost to the point of invisibility by billowing masses of steam, hung poised the Nevian cruiser.
As the atmosphere had grown thinner and thinner with increasing altitude Costigan had regulated his velocity accordingly, keeping the outer shell of the vessel at the highest temperature consistent with safety. Now beyond measurable atmospheric pressure, the shell cooled rapidly and he applied full touring acceleration. At an appalling and constantly increasing speed the miniature space-ship shot away from the strange, red planet; and smaller and smaller upon the plate became its picture. Long since the great vessel of the void had plunged beneath the surface of the sea, more closely to come to grips with the vessel of the fishes; for a long time nothing of the battle had been visible save immense clouds of steam, blanketing hundreds of square miles of the ocean's surface. But just before the picture became too small to reveal details a few tiny dark spots appeared above the banks of cloud, now brilliantly illuminated by the rays of the rising sun—dots which might have been fragments of either vessel, blown bodily from the depths of the ocean and, riven asunder, hurled high into the air by the incredible forces at the command of the other.
Nevia a tiny moon and the fierce blue sun rapidly growing smaller in the distance, Costigan swung his visiray beam into the line of travel and turned to his companions.
"Well, we're off," he said, scowling. "I hope it was Nerado that got blown up back there, but I'm afraid it wasn't. He whipped two of those submarines that we know of, and probably half their fleet besides. There's no particular reason why that one should be able to take him, so it's my idea that we should get ready for great gobs of trouble.
"They'll chase us, of course; and I'm afraid that with their immense power, they'll catch us."
"But what can we do, Conway?" asked Clio.
"Several things," he grinned. "I managed to get quite a lot of dope on that paralyzing ray and some of their other stuff, and we can install the necessary equipment in our suits easily enough."
They removed their armor, and Costigan explained in detail the changes which must be made in the Triplanetary field generators. All three set vigorously to work—the two officers deftly and surely; Clio uncertainly and with many questions, but with undaunted spirit. Finally, having done all they could do to strengthen their position, they settled down to the watchful routine of the flight, with every possible instrument set to detect any sign of the pursuit they so feared.
The heavy cruiser Chicago hung motionless in space, thousands of miles distant from the warring fleets of space-ships so viciously attacking and so stubbornly defending the planetoid of the enemy. In the captain's sanctum Lyman Cleveland crouched tensely above his ultra-cameras, his sensitive fingers touching lightly their micrometric dials. His body was rigid, his face was set and drawn. Only his eyes moved: flashing back and forth between the observation plates and smoothly-running rolls which were feeding into the cameras the hardened steel tapes upon which were being magnetically recorded the frightful scenes of carnage and destruction there revealed.
Silent and bitterly absorbed, though surrounded by staring officers, whose fervent, almost unconscious cursing was prayerful in its intensity, the visiray expert kept his ultra-instruments upon that awful struggle to its dire conclusion. Flawlessly those instruments noted every detail of the destruction of Roger's fleet, of the transformation of the armada of Triplanetary into an unknown fluid, and finally of the dissolution of the gigantic planetoid itself. Then furiously Cleveland drove his beams against the crimsonly opaque obscurity into which the peculiar, viscous stream of substance was disappearing. Time after time he applied his every watt of power, with no result. A vast volume of space, roughly ellipsodial in shape, was closed to him by forces entirely beyond his experience or comprehension. But suddenly, while his rays were still trying to pierce that impenetrable murk, it disappeared instantly and, without warning, the illimitable infinity of space once more lay revealed upon his plates and his beams flashed on and on through the void, unimpeded.
"Back to Tellus, sir?" The Chicago's captain broke the strained silence.
"I wouldn't say so, if I had the say." Cleveland, baffled and frustrate, straightened up and shut off his cameras. "We should report back as soon as possible, of course, but there seems to be a lot of wreckage out there yet, that we can't photograph in detail at this distance. A close study of it might help us a lot in understanding what they did and how they did it. I'd say that we should get close-ups of whatever is left, and do it right away, before it gets scattered all over space; but of course I can't give you orders."
"You can, though," the captain made surprising answer. "My orders are that you are in command of this vessel."
"In that case we will proceed at full emergency acceleration to investigate the wreckage," Cleveland replied, and the cruiser—sole survivor of Triplanetary's supposedly invincible force—shot away with every projector delivering its maximum blast.
As the scene of the disaster was approached there was revealed upon the plates a confused mass of debris; a mass whose individual units were apparently moving at random: yet which was as a whole still following the orbit of Roger's planetoid. Space was full of machine parts, structural members, furniture, flotsam of all kinds; and everywhere were the bodies of men. Some were encased in space-suits, and it was to these that the rescuers turned first—space-hardened veterans though the men of the Chicago were, they did not care even to look at the others. Strangely enough, however, not one of the floating figures spoke or moved, and space-line men were hurriedly sent out to investigate.
"All dead." Quickly the dread report came back. "Been dead a long time. The armor is all stripped off the suits, and the generators and the other apparatus are all shot. Something funny about it, too—none of them seem to have been touched, but the machinery of the suits seems to be about half of it missing."
"I've got it all on the spools, sir." Cleveland, his close-up survey of the wreckage finished, turned to the captain. "What they've just reported checks up with what I've photographed everywhere. I've got an idea of what might have happened, but it's so dizzy that I'll have to have a lot of reenforcement before I'll believe it myself. But you might have them bring in a few of the armored bodies, a couple of those switchboards and panels floating around out there, and half a dozen miscellaneous pieces of junk—the nearest things they get hold of, whatever they happen to be."
"Then back to Tellus at maximum?"
"Right—back to Tellus, as fast as we can possibly go there."
While the Chicago hurtled through space at full power, Cleveland and the ranking officers of the vessel grouped themselves about the salvaged wreckage. Familiar with space-wrecks as were they all, none of them had ever seen anything like the material before them. For every part and instrument was weirdly and meaninglessly disintegrated. There were no breaks, no marks of violence, and yet nothing was intact. Bolt-holes stared empty, cores, shielding cases and needles had disappeared, the vital parts of every instrument hung awry, disorganization reigned rampant and supreme.
"I never imagined such a mess," the captain said, after a long and silent study of the objects. "If you have any theory to cover that, Cleveland, I would like to hear it!"
"I want you to notice something first," the visiray expert replied. "But don't look for what's there—look for what isn't there."
"Well, the armor is gone. So are the shielding cases, shafts, spindles, the housings and stems...." The captain's voice died away as his eyes raced over the collection. "Why, everything that was made of wood, bakelite, copper aluminum, silver, bronze, or anything but steel hasn't been touched, and every bit of steel is gone. But that doesn't make sense—what does it mean?"
"I don't know—yet," Cleveland replied, slowly. "But I'm afraid that there's more, and worse." He opened a space-suit reverently, revealing the face; a face calm and peaceful, but utterly, sickeningly white. Still reverently, he made a deep incision in the brawny neck, severing the jugular vein, then went on, soberly:
"You never imagined such a thing as white blood, either, but it all checks up. Someway, somehow, every particle—probably every atom—of free or combined iron in this whole volume of space was made off with."
"Huh? How come? And above all, why?" from the amazed and staring officers.
"You know as much as I do," grimly, ponderingly. "If it were not for the fact that there are solid asteroids of iron out beyond Mars, I would say that somebody wanted iron badly enough to wipe out the fleets and the planetoid to get it. But anyway, whoever they were, they carried enough power so that our armament didn't bother them at all. They simply took the metal they wanted and went away with it—so fast that I couldn't trace them with an ultra-beam. There's only one thing plain; but that's so plain that it scares me stiff. This whole affair spells intelligence, with a capital "I", and that intelligence is anything but friendly. As for me I want to get Fred Rodebush at work on this soon—think I'll hurry it up a little."
He stepped over to his ultra-projector and called the Terrestrial headquarters of the T. S. S. Samms' face soon appeared upon his screen.
"We got it all, Virgil," he reported.
"It's something extraordinary—bigger, wider, and deeper than any of us dreamed. It may be urgent, too, so I think I had better shoot the pictures in on the ultra-wave and save a few days. Fred has a telemagneto recorder there that he can synchronize with this camera outfit easily enough. Right?"
"Right. Good work, Lyman—thanks," came back terse approval and appreciation, and soon the steel tapes were again flashing between the feed-rolls. This time, however, their varying magnetic charges were modulating an ultra-wave so that every detail of that calamitous battle of the void was being screened and recorded in the innermost private laboratory of the Triplanetary Secret Service.
Eager though he naturally was to join his fellow-scientists, Cleveland did not waste his time during the long, but uneventful journey back to earth. There was much to study, many improvements to be made in his comparatively crude first ultra-camera. Then, too, there were long conferences with Samms, and particularly with Rodebush, the mathematical physicist, whose was the task of solving the riddles of the energies and weapons of the Nevians. Thus it did not seem long before green Terra grew large beneath the flying sphere of the Chicago.
"Going to have to circle at once, aren't you?" Cleveland asked the chief pilot. He had been watching that officer closely for minutes, admiring the delicacy and precision with which the great vessel was being maneuvered preliminary to entering the earth's atmosphere.
"Yes," the pilot replied. "We had to come in in the shortest possible time, and that meant a velocity here that we can't check without a spiral. However, even at that we saved a lot of time. You can save quite a bit more, though, by having a rocket-plane come out to meet us somewhere around fifteen or twenty thousand kilometers, depending upon where you want to land. With their power-to-mass ratio they can match our velocity and still make the drop direct."
"Guess I'll do that—thanks," and the operative called his chief, only to learn that his suggestion had already been acted upon.
"We beat you to it, Lyman," Samms smiled. "The Silver Sliver is out there now, looping to match your course, acceleration, and velocity at twenty-two thousand kilometers. You'll be ready to transfer?"
"I'll be ready!" and the Quartermaster's ex-clerk went to his quarters and packed his dunnage-bag.
In due time the long, slender body of the rocket-plane came into view, creeping 'down' upon the space-ship from 'above,' and Cleveland bade his friends good-bye. Donning a space-suit, he stationed himself in the starboard airlock. Its atmosphere was withdrawn, the outer door opened, and he glanced across a bare hundred feet of space at the rocket-plane which, keel ports fiercely aflame, was braking her terrific speed to match the slower pace of the gigantic ship of war. Shaped like a toothpick, needle-pointed fore and aft, with ultra-stubby wings and vanes, with flush-set rocket ports everywhere, built of a lustrous silvery alloy of noble and almost infusible metals—such was the private speedboat of the chief of the T. S. S. The fastest thing known, whether in planetary air, the stratosphere, or the vacuus depth of interplanetary space, her first flashing trial spins had won her the nickname of the Silver Sliver. She had had a more formal name, but that title had long since been buried in the Departmental files.
Lower and slower dropped the Silver Sliver, her rockets flaming even brighter, until her slender length lay level with the airlock door. Then her blasting discharges subsided to the power necessary to match exactly the Chicago's deceleration.
"Ready to cut, Chicago! Give me a three-second call!" snapped from the pilot room of the Sliver.
"Ready to cut!" the pilot of the Chicago replied. "Seconds! Three! Two! One! CUT!"
At the last word the power of both vessels was instantly cut off and everything in them became weightless. In the tiny airlock of the slender craft crouched a space-line man with coiled cable in readiness, but he was not needed. As the flaring exhausts ceased Cleveland swung out his heavy bag and stepped lightly off into space, and in a right line he floated directly into the open doorway of the rocket-plane. The door clanged shut behind him and in a matter of moments he stood in the control room of the racer, divested of his armor and shaking hands with his friend and co-laborer, Frederick Rodebush.
"Well, Fred, what do you know?" Cleveland asked, as soon as greetings had been exchanged. "How do the various reports dovetail together? I know that you couldn't tell me anything on the wave, but there's no danger of eavesdroppers here."
"You can't tell," Rodebush soberly replied. "We're just beginning to wake up to the fact that there are a lot of things we don't know anything about. Better wait until we're back at the Hill. We have a full set of ultra-screens around there now. There's a couple of other good reasons, too—it would be better for both of us to go over the whole thing with Virgil, from the ground up; and we can't do any more talking, anyway. Our orders are to get back there at maximum, and you know what that means aboard the Sliver. Strap yourself solid in that shock-absorber there, and here's a pair of ear-plugs."
"When the Sliver really cuts loose it means a rough party, all right," Cleveland assented, snapping about his body the heavy spring-straps of his deeply cushioned seat, "but I'm just as anxious to get back to the Hill as anybody can be to get me there. All set."
Rodebush waved his hand at the pilot and the purring whisper of the exhausts changed instantly to a deafening, continuous explosion. The men were pressed deeply into their shock-absorbing chairs as the Silver Sliver spun around her longitudinal axis and darted away from the Chicago with such a tremendous acceleration that the spherical warship seemed to be standing still in space. In due time the calculated mid-point was reached, the slim space-plane rolled over again, and, mad acceleration now reversed, rushed on toward the earth, but with constantly diminishing speed. Finally a measurable atmospheric pressure was encountered, the needle prow dipped downward, and the Silver Sliver shot forward upon her tiny wings and vanes, nose-rockets now drumming in staccato thunder. Her metal grew hot: dull red, bright red yellow, blinding white; but it neither melted nor burned. The pilot's calculations had been sound, and though the limiting point of safety of temperature was reached and steadily held, it was not exceeded. As the density of the air increased so decreased the velocity of the man-made meteorite. So it was that a dazzling lance of fire sped high over Seattle, lower over Spokane, and hurled itself eastward, a furiously flaming arrow; slanting downward in a long, screaming dive toward the heart of the Rockies. As the now rapidly cooling greyhound of the skies passed over the western ranges of the Bitter Roots it became apparent that her goal was a vast, flat-topped, and conical mountain, shrouded in livid light; a mountain whose height awed even its stupendous neighbors.