While not artificial, the Hill had been altered markedly by the Triplanetary engineers who had built into it the headquarters of the Secret Service. Its mile-wide top was a jointless expanse of gray armor steel; the steep, smooth surface of the truncated cone was a continuation of the same immensely thick sheet of metal. No known vehicle could climb that smooth, hard, forbidding slope of steel; no known projectile could mar that armor; no known craft could even approach the Hill without detection. Could not approach it at all, in fact, for it was constantly inclosed in a vast hemisphere of lambent violet flame through which neither material substance nor destructive ray could pass.
As the Silver Sliver, crawling along at a bare three-hundred miles an hour, approached that transparent, brilliantly violet wall of destruction, a violet light filled her control room and as suddenly went out; flashing on and off again and again.
"Giving us the once-over, eh?" Cleveland asked. "That is something new, isn't it, Fred?"
"Yes, it's a high-powered ultra-wave spy," Rodenbush returned. "The light is simply a warning, which can be carried if desired. It can also carry voice and vision...."
"Like this," Samms' voice interrupted from the powerful dynamic speaker upon the pilots' panel and his clear-cut face appeared upon the television screen. "I don't suppose Fred thought to mention it, but this is one of his inventions of the last few days. We are just trying it out on you. It doesn't mean a thing though, as far as the Sliver is concerned. Come ahead!"
A circular opening appeared in the wall of force, an opening which disappeared as soon as the plane had darted through it; and at the same time her landing-cradle rose into the air through a great trap-door. Slowly and gracefully the space-plane settled downward into that cushioned embrace. Then cradle and nestled Sliver sank from view and, turning smoothly upon mighty trunnions, the plug of armor drove solidly back into its place in the metal pavement of the mountain's lofty summit. The cradle-elevator dropped rapidly, coming to rest many levels down in the heart of the Hill, and Cleveland and Rodebush leaped lightly out of their transport, through her still hot outer walls. A door opened before them and they found themselves in a large room of full daylight illumination; the anteroom of the private office of Virgil Samms. Chiefs of Departments sat at their desks, concentrated upon problems or at ease, according to the demands of the moment; televisotypes and recorders flashed busily but silently; calmly efficient men and women went wontedly about the all-embracing business of Triplanetary's space-pervading Secret Service.
"Right of way, Norma?" Rodebush paused briefly before the desk of the Chief's private secretary; but even before he had spoken she had pressed a button and the door behind her swung wide.
"You two do not need to be announced," the attractive young woman smiled. "Go right in."
Samms met them at the door eagerly, shaking hands particularly vigorously with Cleveland.
"Congratulations on that camera, Lyman!" he exclaimed. "You did a wonderful piece of work on that. Help yourselves to smokes and sit down—there are a lot of things we want to talk over. Your pictures carried most of the story, but they would have left us pretty much at sea without Costigan's reports. But as it was, Fred here and his crew worked out most of the answers from the dope the two of you got; and what few they haven't got yet they soon will have."
"Nothing new on Conway?" Cleveland was almost afraid to ask the question.
"No." A shadow came over Samms' face. "I'm afraid ... but I'm hoping it's only that those creatures, whatever they are, have taken him so far away that he can't reach us."
"They certainly are so far away that we can't reach them." Rodenbush volunteered. "We can't even get their ultra-wave interference any more."
"Yes, that's a hopeful sign," Samms went on. "I hate to think of Conway Costigan checking out. There, fellows, was a real observer. He was the only man, I have ever known, who combined the two qualities of the perfect witness. He could actually see everything he looked at, and could report it truly, to the last, least detail. Take all this stuff, for instance; especially their ability to transform iron into a fluid allotrope, and in that form to use its intra-atomic energy as power. Something brand new—unheard of except in the ravings of imaginative fiction—and yet he described their converters and projectors so minutely that Fred was able to work out the underlying theory in three days, and to tie it in with our own super-ship. My first thought was that we'd have to rebuild it iron-free, but Fred showed me my error—you found it first yourself, of course."
"It wouldn't do any good to make the ship non-ferrous unless you could so change our blood chemistry that we could get along without hemoglobin, and that would be quite a feat," Cleveland agreed. "Then, too, our most vital electrical machinery is built around iron cores. No, we'll have to develop a screen for those forces—screens, rather, so powerful that they can't drive anything through them."
"We've been working along those lines ever since you reported," Rodebush said, "and we're beginning to see light. And in that same connection it's no wonder that we couldn't handle our super-ship. We had some good ideas, but they were wrongly applied. However, things look quite promising now. We have that transformation of iron all worked out in theory, and as soon as we get a generator going we can straighten out everything else in short order. And think what that unlimited power means! All the power we want—power enough even to try out such hitherto purely theoretical possibilities as the neutralization of gravity, and even of the inertia of matter!"
"Hold on!" protested Samms. "You certainly can't do that! Inertia is—must be—a basic attribute of matter, and surely cannot be done away with without destroying the matter itself. Don't start anything like that. Fred—I don't want to lose you and Lyman, too."
"Don't worry about us, Chief." Rodebush replied with a smile. "If you will tell me what matter is, fundamentally, I may agree with you ... No? Well, then, don't be surprised at anything that happens. We are going to do a lot of things that nobody ever thought of doing before."
Thus for a long time the argument and discussion went on, to be interrupted by the voice of the secretary.
"Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Samms, but some things have come up that you will have to handle. Knobos is calling from out near Mars. He has caught the Endymion, and has killed about half her crew doing it. Milton has finally reported from Venus, after being out of touch for five days. He trailed the Wintons into Thalleron swamp. They crashed him there, but he won out and has what he went after. And just now I got a flash from Fletcher, in the asteroid belt. I think that he has finally traced that dope line. But Knobos is on now—what do you want him to do about the Endymion?"
"Tell him to—no, put him on here, I'd better tell him myself," Samms directed, and his face hardened in ruthless decision as the horny, misshapen face of the Martian lieutenant appeared upon the screen. "What do you think, Knobos? Shall they come to trial or not?"
"I don't think so, either. It is better that a few gangsters should disappear in space than run the risk of another uprising. See to it."
"Right." The screen darkened and Samms spoke to his secretary. "Put Milton and Fletcher on whenever their rays come in." He then turned to his guests. "We've covered the ground quite thoroughly. Good-bye—I wish I could go with you, but I'll be pretty well tied up for the next week or two."
"Tied up, doesn't half express it," Rodebush remarked as the two scientists walked along a corridor toward an elevator. "He probably is the busiest man on the three planets."
"As well as the most powerful," Cleveland supplemented. "And very few men could use his power as fairly—but he's welcome to it, as far as I'm concerned. I'd have the pink fantods for a month if I had to do only once what he's just done—and to him it's just part of a day's work."
"You mean the Endymion? What else could he do?"
"Nothing—that's just what I'm talking about. It had to be done, since bringing them to trial would probably mean killing half the people of Morseca; but at the same time it's a ghastly thing to have to order a job of deliberate, cold-blooded, and illegal murder."
"You're right, of course, but you would...." he broke off, unable to put his thoughts into words. For while inarticulate, manlike, concerning their deepest emotions, in both men was ingrained the code of their organization; both knew that to every man chosen for it The Service was everything, himself nothing.
"But enough of that, we'll have plenty of grief of our own right here," Rodebush changed the subject abruptly as they stepped into a vast room, almost filled by the immense bulk of the Boise—the sinister space-ship which, although never flown, had already lined with black so many pages of Triplanetary's roster. She was now, however, the center of a furious activity. Men swarmed over her and through her, in the orderly confusion of a fiercely driven but carefully planned program of reconstruction.
"I hope your dope is right, Fred!" Cleveland called, as the two scientists separated to go to their respective laboratories. "If it is, we'll make a perfect lady out of this unmanageable man-killer yet!"
The Super-Ship Is Launched
After weeks of ceaseless work, during which was lavished upon her every resource of mind and material afforded by three planets, the Boise was ready for her maiden flight. As nearly ready, that is, as the thought and labor of man could make her. Rodebush and Cleveland had finished their last rigid inspection of the craft and, standing beside the center door of the main airlock, were talking with their chief.
"You say that you think that it's safe, and yet you won't take a crew," Samms argued. "In that case it isn't safe enough for you men, either. We need you too badly to permit you to take such chances."
"You've got to let us go; because we are the only ones who are thoroughly familiar with her theory," Rodebush insisted. "I said, and still say, that I think it is safe. I can't prove it, however, except mathematically; because she's altogether too full of too many new and untried mechanisms, too many extrapolations beyond all existing or possible data. Theoretically, she is sound, but you know that theory can go only so far, and that mathematically negligible factors may become operative at those velocities. We do not need a crew for a short trip. We can take care of any minor mishaps, and if our fundamental theories are wrong, all the crews between here and Jupiter wouldn't do any good. Therefore we two are going—alone."
"Well, be very careful, anyway. Start out slow and take it easy."
"Start out slow? We can't! We can't neutralize half of gravity, nor half of the inertia of matter—it's got to be everything or nothing, as soon as the neutralizers go on. We could start out on the projectors, of course, instead of on the neutralizers, but that wouldn't prove anything and would only prolong the agony."
"Well, then, be as careful as you can."
"We'll do that, Chief," Cleveland put in. "We think a lot of us, and we aren't committing suicide just yet if we can help it. And remember about everybody staying inside when we take off—it's barely possible that we'll take up a lot of room. Good-bye to all of you."
The massive insulating doors were shut, the metal side of the mountain opened, and huge, squat caterpillar tractors came roaring and clanking into the room. Chains and cables were made fast and, mighty steel rails groaning under the load, the space-ship upon her rolling ways was dragged out of the Hill and far out upon the level floor of the surface before the tractors cast off and returned to the fortress.
"Everybody is under cover." Samms informed Rodebush. The chief was staring intently into his plate, upon which was revealed the control room of the untried super-ship. He heard Rodebush speak to Cleveland; heard the observer's brief reply; saw the navigator throw his switches—then the communicator plate went blank. Not the ordinary blankness of a cut-off, but a peculiarly disquieting fading out into darkness. And where the great space-ship had rested there was for an instant nothing. Exactly nothing—a vacuum. Vessel, falsework, rollers, trucks, the enormous steel I-beams of the tracks, even the deep-set concrete piers and foundations and a vast hemisphere of the solid ground; all had disappeared utterly and instantaneously. But almost as suddenly as it had been formed the vacuum was filled by a cyclonic rush of air. There was a detonation as of a hundred vicious thunderclaps made one, and, through the howling, shrieking blasts of wind, there rained down upon the valley, plain and metaled mountain a veritable avalanche of debris: bent, twisted, and broken rails and beams, splintered timbers, masses of concrete, and thousands of cubic yards of soil and rock. For inertia and gravitation had not been neutralized at precisely the same instant, and for a moment everything within the radius of action of the iron-driven gravity nullifiers of the Boise had continued its absolute motion with inertia unimpaired. Then, left behind immediately by the almost infinite velocity of the cruiser, all this material had again become subject to all of Nature's everyday laws and had crashed back to the ground.
"Could you hold your beam, Randolph?" Samm's voice cut sharply through the daze of stupefaction which held spellbound most of the denizens of the Hill. But all were not so held—no conceivable emergency could take the attention of the chief ultra-wave operator from his instruments.
"No, sir," Radio Center shot back. "It faded out and I couldn't recover it. I put everything I've got behind a tracer on that beam, but haven't been able to lift a single needle off the pin."
"And no wreckage of the vessel itself," Samms went on, half audibly. "Either they have succeeded far beyond their wildest hopes or else ... more probably...." He fell silent and switched off the plate. Were his two friends, those intrepid scientists, alive and triumphant, or had they gone to lengthen the list of victims of that man-killing space-ship? Reason told him that they were gone. They must be gone, or else his ultra-beams—energies of such unthinkable velocity of propagation that man's most sensitive instruments had never been able even to estimate it—would have held the ship's transmitter in spite of any velocity attainable by any matter under any conceivable conditions. The ship must have been disintegrated as soon as Rodebush released his forces. And yet, had not the physicist dimly foreseen the possibility of such an actual velocity—or had he? However, individuals could came and could go, but Triplanetary went on. Samms squared his shoulders unconsciously, and slowly, grimly, made his way back to his private office.
He had scant time to mourn. Scarcely had he seated himself at his desk when an emergency call came snapping in; a call of such import that his secretary's usually calm voice trembled as she put it on his plate.
"Commissioner Hinkle is calling, sir," she announced. "Something terrible is going on again, out toward Orion. Here he is," and there appeared upon the screen the face of the Commissioner of Public Safety, the commander of Triplanetary's every armed force—whether of land or of water, of air or of empty space.
"They've come back, Samms!" the Commissioner rapped out, without preliminary or greeting. "Four vessels gone—a freighter and a passenger liner, with her escort of two heavy cruisers. All in Sector M; Dx about 151. I have ordered all traffic out of space for the duration of the emergency, and since even our warships seem useless, every ship is making for the nearest dock at maximum. How about that new flyer of yours—got anything that will do us any good?" No one beyond the "Hill's" shielding screens knew that the Boise had already been launched.
"I don't know. We don't even know whether we have a super-ship or not," and Samms described briefly the beginning—and very probably the ending—of the trial flight, concluding: "It looks bad, but if there was any possible way of handling her, Rodebush and Cleveland did it. All our tracers are negative yet, so nothing definite has...."
He broke off as a frantic call came in from the Pittsburgh station for the Commissioner, a call which Samms both heard and saw.
"The city is being attacked!" came the urgent message. "We need all the reinforcements you can send us!" and a picture of the beleaguered city appeared in ghastly detail upon the screens of the observers; a view being recorded from the air. It required only seconds for the commissioner to order every available man and engine of war to the seat of conflict; then, having done everything they could, Hinkle and Samms stared in helpless, fascinated horror into their plates, watching the scenes of carnage and destruction depicted there.
* * * * *
The Nevian vessel—the sister-ship, the craft which Costigan had seen in mid-space as it hurtled earthward in response to Nerado's summons—hung poised in full visibility, high above the metropolis. Scornful of the pitiful weapons wielded by man she hung there, her sinister beauty of line sharply defined against the cloudless sky. From her shining hull there reached down a tenuous but rigid rod of crimson energy; a rod which slowly swept hither and thither as the detectors of the amphibians searched out the richest deposits of the precious iron for which the inhuman visitors had come so far. Iron, once solid, now a viscous red liquid, was sluggishly flowing in an ever-thickening stream up that intangible crimson duct and into the capacious storage tanks of the Nevian raider; and wherever that flaming beam went there went also ruin, destruction, and death. Office buildings, skyscrapers towering majestically in their architectural symmetry and beauty, collapsed into heaps of debris as their steel skeletons were abstracted. Deep into the ground the beam bored; flood, fire, and explosion following in its wake as the mazes of underground piping disappeared. And the humanity of the buildings died: instantaneously and painlessly, never knowing what struck them, as the life-bearing iron of their bodies went to swell the Nevian stream.
Pittsburgh's defenses had been feeble indeed. A few antiquated railway rifles had hurled their shells upward in futile defiance, and had been quietly absorbed. The district planes of Triplanetary, newly armed with iron-driven ultra-beams, had assembled hurriedly and had attacked the invader in formation, with but little more success. Under the impact of their beams the stranger's screens had flared white, then poised ship and flying squadron alike had been lost to view in a murkily opaque shroud of crimson flame. The cloud had soon dissolved, and from the place where the planes had been there had floated or crashed down a litter of non-ferrous wreckage. And now the cone of space-ships from the Buffalo base of Triplanetary was approaching Pittsburgh, hurling itself toward the Nevian plunderer and toward known, gruesome and hopeless defeat.
"Stop them, Hinkle!" Samms cried. "It's sheer slaughter! They haven't got a thing—they aren't even equipped yet with the iron drive!"
"I know it," the commissioner groaned, "and Admiral Barnes knows it as well as we do, but it can't be helped—wait a minute! The Washington cone is reporting. They're as close as the other, and they have the new armament. Philadelphia is close behind, and so is New York. Now perhaps we can do something!"
The Buffalo flotilla slowed and stopped, and in a matter of minutes the detachments from the other bases arrived. The cone was formed and iron-driven vessels in the van, the old-type craft far in the rear, it bore down upon the Nevian, vomiting from its hollow front a solid cylinder of annihilation. Once more the screens of the Nevian flared into brilliance, once more the red cloud of destruction was flung abroad. But these vessels were not entirely defenseless. Their iron-driven ultra-generators threw out screens of the Nevians' own formulae, screens of prodigious power to which the energies of the amphibians clung and at which they clawed and tore in baffled, wildly coruscant displays of power unthinkable. For minutes the furious conflict raged, while the inconceivable energy being dissipated by those straining screens hurled itself in terribly destructive bolts of lightning upon the city far beneath.
No battle of such incredible violence could long endure. Triplanetary's ships were already exerting their utmost power, while the Nevians, contemptuous of Solarian science, had not yet uncovered their full strength. Thus the last desperate effort of mankind was proved futile as the invaders forced their beams deeper and deeper into the overloaded, defensive screens of the war-vessels; and one by one the supposedly invincible space-ships of humanity dropped in horribly dismembered wreckage upon the ruins of what had once been Pittsburgh.
Only too well founded was Costigan's conviction that the submarine of the deep-sea fishes had not been able to prevail against Nerado's formidable engines of destruction. For days the Nevian lifeboat with its three Terrestrial passengers hurtled through the interstellar void without incident, but finally the operative's fears were realized—his far-flung detector screens reacted; upon his observation plate lay revealed Nerado's mammoth space-ship, in full pursuit of its fleeing lifeboat!
"On your toes, folks—it won't be long now!" Costigan called, and Bradley and Clio hurried into the tiny control room.
Armor donned and tested, the three Terrestrials stared into the observation plates, watching the rapidly enlarging pictures of the Nevian space-ship. Nerado had traced them and was following them, and such was the power of the great vessel that the nearly inconceivable velocity of the lifeboat was the veriest crawl in comparison to that of the pursuing cruiser.
"And we've hardly started to cover the distance back to Tellus. Of course you couldn't get in touch with anybody yet?" Bradley stated, rather than asked.
"I kept on trying until they blanketed my wave, but all negative. Thousands of times too far for my transmitter. Our only hope of reaching anybody was the mighty slim chance that our super-ship might be prowling around out here already, but it isn't, of course. Here they are!"
Reaching out to the control panel, Costigan shot out against the great vessel wave after wave of lethal vibrations, under whose fiercely clinging impacts the Nevian defensive screens flared white; but, strangely enough, their own screens did not radiate. As if contemptuous of any weapons the lifeboat might wield, the mother ship simply defended herself from the attacking beams, in much the same fashion as a wildcat mother wards off the claws and teeth of her spitting, snarling kitten who is resenting a touch of needed maternal discipline.
"They probably won't fight us, at that," Clio first understood the situation. "This is their own lifeboat, and they want us alive, you know."
"There's one more thing we can try—hang on!" Costigan snapped, as he released his screens and threw all his power into one enormous pressor beam.
The three were thrown to the floor and held there by an awful weight, as if the lifeboat darted away at the stupendous acceleration of the beam's reaction against the unimaginable mass of the Nevian sky-rover; but the flight was of short duration. Along that pressor beam there crept a dull rod of energy, which surrounded the fugitive shell and brought it slowly to a halt. Furiously then Costigan set and reset his controls, launching his every driving force and his every weapon, but no beam could penetrate that red murk, and the lifeboat remained motionless in space. No, not motionless—the red rod was shortening, drawing the truant craft back toward the launching port from which she had so hopefully emerged a few days before. Back and back it was drawn; Costigan's utmost efforts futile to affect by a hair's breadth its line of motion. Through the open port the boat slipped neatly, and as it came to a halt in its original position within the multilayered skin of the monster, the prisoners heard the heavy doors clang shut behind them, one after another.
And then sheets of blue fire snapped and crackled all about the three suits of Triplanetary armor—the two large human figures and the small one were outlined starkly in blinding blue flame.
"That's the first thing that has come off according to schedule." Costigan laughed, a short, fierce bark. "That is their paralyzing ray; we've got it stopped cold, and we've each got enough iron to hold it forever."
"But it looks as though the best we can do is to stalemate," Bradley argued. "Even if they can't paralyze us, we can't hurt them, and we are heading back for Nevia."
"I think Nerado will come in for a conference, and we'll be able to make terms of some kind. He must know what these Lewistons will do, and he knows that we'll get a chance to use them, some way or other, before he gets to us again," Costigan asserted confidently—but again he was wrong.
The door opened, and through it there waddled, rolled, or crawled a metal-clad monstrosity—a thing with wheels, legs, and writhing tentacles of jointed bronze; a thing possessed of defensive screens sufficiently powerful to absorb the full blast of the Triplanetary projectors without effort. Three brazen tentacles reached out through the ravening beams of the Lewistons, smashed them to bits, and wrapped themselves in unbreakable shackles about the armored forms of the three human beings. Through the door the machine or creature carried its helpless load, and out into and along a main corridor. And soon the three Terrestrials, without armor, without arms, and almost without clothing, were standing in the control room, again facing the calm and unmoved Nerado. To the surprise of the impetuous Costigan, the Nevian commander was entirely without rancor.
"The desire for freedom is perhaps common to all forms of animate life," he commented, through the transformer. "As I told you before, however, you are specimens to be studied by the College of Science, and you shall be so studied in spite of anything you may do. Resign yourselves to that."
"Well, say that we don't try to make any more trouble; that we co-operate in the examination and give you whatever information we can," Costigan suggested. "Then you will probably be willing to give us a ship and let us go back to our own world?"
"You will not be allowed to cause any more trouble," the amphibian declared, coldly. "Your co-operation will not be required. We will take from you whatever knowledge and information we wish. In all probability you will never be allowed to return to your own system, because as specimens you are too unique to lose. But enough of this idle chatter—take them back to their quarters!"
And back to their inter-communicating rooms the prisoners were led under heavy guard.
True to his word, Nerado made certain that they had no more opportunities to escape. All the way back to far-distant Nevia the space-ship sped, where at once, in manacles, the Terrestrials were taken to the College of Science, there to undergo the physical and psychical examinations which Nerado had promised them.
Clio and Costigan learned that the Nevian scientist-captain had not erred in stating that their co-operation was neither needed nor desired. Furious but impotent, the human beings were studied in laboratory after laboratory by the coldly analytical, unfeeling scientists of Nevia, to whom they were nothing more nor less than specimens; and in full measure they came to know what it meant to play the part of an unknown, lowly organism in a biological research. They were photographed, externally and internally. Every bone, muscle, organ, vessel, and nerve was studied and charted. Every reflex and reaction was noted and discussed. Meters registered every impulse and recorders filmed every thought, every idea, and every sensation. Endlessly, day after day, the nerve-wracking torture went on, until the frantic subjects could bear no more. White-faced and shaking, Clio finally screamed wildly, hysterically, as she was being strapped down upon a laboratory bench; and at the sound Costigan's nerves, already at the breaking point, gave way in an outburst of Berserk fury.
The man's struggles and the girl's shrieks were alike futile, but the surprised Nevians, after a consultation, decided to give the specimens a vacation. To that end they were installed, together with their earthly belongings, in a three-roomed structure of transparent metal, floating in the large central lagoon of the city. There they were left undisturbed for a time—undisturbed, that is, except by the continuous gaze of the crowd of hundreds of amphibians which constantly surrounded the floating cottage.
"First we're bugs under a microscope," Bradley growled, "then we're goldfish in a bowl. I don't know that...."
He broke off as two of their jailers entered the room. Without a word into the transformers, they seized Bradley and the girl. As those tentacular arms stretched out toward Clio, Costigan leaped. A vain attempt. In midair the paralyzing ray of the Nevians touched him and he crashed heavily to the crystal floor; and from that floor he looked on in helpless, raging fury while his sweetheart and his captain were carried out of their prison and into a waiting submarine.
The Boise Acts
But what of the super-ship? What happened after that inertialess, that terribly destructive take-off?
Doctor Frederick Rodebush sat at the control panel of Triplanetary's newly reconstructed space-ship, his hands grasping the gleaming, ebonite handles of two double-throw switches. Facing the unknown though the physicist was, yet he grinned whimsically at his friend.
"Something, whatever it is, is about to take place. The Boise is taking off, under full neutralization. Ready for anything to happen, Cleve?"
"All ready—shoot!" Laconically. Cleveland also was constitutionally unable to voice his deeper sentiments in time of stress.
Rodebush flipped the switches clear over in flashing arcs, and instantly over both men there came a sensation akin to a tremendously intensified vertigo; but a vertigo as far beyond the space-sickness of weightlessness, as that horrible sensation is beyond mere terrestrial dizziness. The pilot tried to reverse the switches he had just thrown, but his leaden hands utterly refused to obey the dictates of his reeling mind. His brain was a writhing, convulsive mass of torment indescribable; expanding, exploding, swelling out with an unendurable pressure against its confining skull. Fiery spirals, laced with streaming, darting lances of black and green, flamed inside his bursting eyeballs. The Universe spun and whirled in mad gyrations about him as he reeled drunkenly to his feet, staggering and sprawling. He fell. He realized that he was falling, yet he could not fall! Thrashing wildly, grotesquely in agony, he struggled madly and blindly across the room, directly toward the thick steel wall. The tip of one hair of his unruly thatch touched the wall, and the slim length of that single hair did not even bend as its slight strength brought to an instant halt the hundred-and-eighty-odd pounds of mass—mass now entirely without inertia—that was his body.
But finally the sheer brain power of the man began to triumph over his physical torture. By indomitable force of will he compelled his groping hands to seize a life-line, almost meaningless to his dazed intelligence; and through that nightmare incarnate of hellish torture he fought his way back to the control board. Hooking one leg around a standard, he made a seemingly enormous effort and drove the two switches back into their original positions; then fell flat upon the floor, weakly but in a wave of relief and thankfulness, as his racked body felt again the wonted phenomena of weight and of inertia. White, trembling, frankly and openly sick, the two men stared at each other in half-amazed joy.
"It worked." Cleveland smiled wanly as he recovered sufficiently to speak, then leaped to his feet. "Snap it up, Fred! We must be falling fast—we'll be wrecked when we hit!"
"We're not falling anywhere." Rodebush, foreboding in his eyes, walked over to the main observation plate and scanned the heavens. "However, it's not as bad as I was afraid it might be. I can still recognize a few of the constellations, even though they are all pretty badly distorted. That means that we can't be more than a couple of light-years or so away from the Solar System. Of course, since we had so little thrust on, practically all of our time and energy was spent in getting out of the atmosphere; but, even at that, it's a good thing that space isn't an absolutely perfect vacuum or we would have been clear out of the Universe by this time."
"Huh? Impossible—where are we anyway? Then we must be making mil ... Oh, I see!" Cleveland exclaimed in disjointed sentences as he also stared into the plate.
"Right. We aren't traveling at all now." Rodebush replied. "We are perfectly stationary relative to Tellus, since we made the hop without inertia. We must have attained one hundred percent neutralization, which we didn't quite expect, and therefore we must have stopped instantaneously when our inertia was restored. But it isn't where we are that is worrying me the most—we can fix our place in space accurately enough by a few observations—it's when."
"That's right, too. Say we're two light-years away. You think maybe we're two years older than we were ten minutes ago, then? That's possible, of course, maybe probable: there's been a lot of discussion on that theory. Now's a good time to prove or to disprove it. Let's snap back to Tellus and find out."
"We'll do that, after a little more experimenting. You see, I had no intention of giving us such a long push. I was going to throw the switches over and back, but you know what happened. However, there's one good thing about it—it's worth two years of anybody's life to settle that relativity-time thing definitely, one way or the other."
"I'll say it is. But say, we've got a lot of power on our ultra-wave: enough to reach Tellus, I think. Let's locate the sun and get in touch with Samms."
"Let's work on these controls a little first, so we'll have something to report. Out here's a fine place to try the ship out—nothing in the way."
"All right with me. But I would like to find out whether I'm two years older than I think I am, or not!"
Then for hours they put the great super-ship through her paces, just as test-pilots check up on every detail of performance of an airplane of new and radical design. They found that the horrible vertigo could be endured, perhaps in time even conquered as space-sickness could be conquered, by a strong will in a sound body; and that their new conveyance had possibilities of which even Rodebush had never dreamed. Finally, their most pressing questions answered, they turned their most powerful ultra-beam communicator toward the yellowish star which they knew to be Old Sol.
"Samms ... Samms." Cleveland spoke slowly and distinctly. "Rodebush and Cleveland reporting from the 'Space-Eating Wampus', now directly in line with Beta Ursae Minoris from the sun, distance about two point two light years. It will take six banks of tubes on your tightest beam, LSV3, to reach us. Barring a touch of an unusually severe type of space-sickness, everything worked beautifully; even better than our calculations showed. There's something we want to know right away—have we been gone four hours and some odd minutes, or better than two years?"
He shut off the power, turned to Rodebush, and went on:
"Nobody knows how fast this ultra-wave travels, but if it goes as fast as we did coming out it's certainly moving. I'll give him about thirty minutes, then shoot in another call."
But in less than two minutes the care-ravaged face of their chief appeared sharp and clear upon their plates and his voice snapped curtly from the speaker.
"Thank God you're alive, and twice that the ship works!" he exclaimed. "You've been gone four hours, eleven minutes, and forty-one seconds, but never mind about abstract theorizing. Get back here, to Pittsburgh, as fast as you can drive. That Nevian vessel or another like her is mopping up the city, and has destroyed half the Fleet already!"
"We'll be back there in nine minutes!" Rodebush snapped into the transmitter. "Two to get from here to atmosphere, four from atmosphere down to the Hill, and three to cool off. Notify the full four-shift crew—everybody we've picked out. Don't need anybody else. Ship, batteries, and armament are ready!"
"Two minutes to atmosphere, and it took ten coming out? Think you can do it?" Cleveland asked, as Rodebush flipped off the power and leaped to the control panel.
"We could do it in a few seconds if we had to. We used scarcely any power at all coming out, and I'm not using very much going back," the physicist explained rapidly, as he set the dials which would determine their flashing course.
The master switches were thrown and the pangs of inertialessness again assailed them—but weaker far this time than ever before—and upon their lookout plates they beheld a spectacle never before seen by eye of man. For the ultra-beam, with its heterodyned vision, is not distorted by any velocity yet attained, as are the ether-borne rays of light. Converted into light only at the plate, it showed their progress as truly as though they had been traveling at a pace to be expressed in the ordinary terms of miles per hour. The yellow star that was the sun detached itself from the firmament and leaped toward them, swelling visibly, momentarily, into a blinding monster of incandescence. And toward them also flung the earth, enlarging with such indescribable rapidity that Cleveland protested involuntarily, in spite of his knowledge of the peculiar mechanism of the vessel in which they were.
"Hold it, Fred, hold it! Way 'nuff!" he exclaimed.
"I'm using only ten thousand dynes, so she'll stop herself as soon as we touch atmosphere, long before she can even begin to heat," Rodebush explained. "Looks bad, but we'll stop without a jar."
And they did. Weightless and without inertia, gravitation powerless against her neutralizing generators, the great super-ship came from her practically infinite velocity to an almost instantaneous halt in the outermost, most tenuous layer of the earth's atmosphere. Her halt was but momentary. Inertia restored and gravitation allowed again to affect her mass, she dropped at a sharp angle downward. More than dropped; she was forced downward by one full battery of projectors; projectors driven by iron-powered generators. Soon they were over the Hill, whose violet screens went down at a word.
Flaming a dazzling white from the friction of the atmosphere through which she had torn her way, the Boise slowed abruptly as she neared the ground, plunging toward the surface of the small but deep artificial lake below the Hill's steel apron. Into the cold waters the space-ship dove, and even before they could close over her, furious geysers of steam and boiling water erupted as the stubborn alloy gave up its heat to the cooling liquid. Endlessly the three necessary minutes dragged their slow way into time, but finally the water ceased boiling and Rodebush tore the ship from the lake and hurled her into the gaping doorway of her dock. The massive doors of the air-locks opened, and while the full crew of picked men hurried aboard with their personal equipment, Samms talked earnestly to the two scientists in the control room.
" ... and about half the fleet is still in the air. They aren't attacking; they are just trying to keep her from doing much more damage until you can get there. How about your take-off? We can't launch you again—the tracks are gone—but you handled her easily enough coming in?"
"That was all my fault," Rodebush admitted. "I should have neutralized inertia first, but I had no idea that the fields would extend beyond the hull, nor that they wouldn't act simultaneously. We'll take her out on the projectors this time, though, the same as we brought her in—she handles like a bicycle. The projector blast tears things up a little, but nothing serious. Have you got that Pittsburgh beam for me yet? We're about ready to go."
"Here it is, Doctor Rodebush," came the secretary's voice, and upon the screen there flashed into being the view of the events transpiring above that doomed city. "The dock is empty and sealed against your blast," and thereupon "Good-bye, and power to your tubes!" came Samms' ringing voice.
As the words were being spoken, mighty blasts of power raved from the driving projectors and the immense mass of the super-ship shot out through the portals and upward into the stratosphere. Through the tenuous atmosphere the huge ship rushed with ever-mounting speed, and while the hope of Triplanetary drove eastward Rodebush studied the ever-changing scene of battle upon his plate and issued detailed instructions to the highly trained specialists manning every offensive and defensive weapon.
But the Nevians did not wait to join battle until the newcomers arrived. Their detectors were sensitive—operative over untold thousands of miles—and the ultra-screen of the Hill had already been noted by the invaders as the earth's only possible source of trouble. Thus the departure of the Boise had not gone unnoticed, and the fact, that, not even with his most penetrant rays could he see into her interior, had already given the Nevian commander some slight concern. Therefore, as soon as it was determined that the great ship was being directed toward Pittsburgh the fish-shaped cruiser of the void went into action.
High in the stratosphere, speeding eastward, the immense mass of the Boise slowed abruptly, although no projector had slackened its effort. Cleveland, eyes upon interferometer grating and spectrophotometer charts, fingers flying over calculator keys, grinned as he turned toward Rodebush.
"Just as you thought, Skipper; an ultra-band pusher. C4V63L29. Shall I give him a little pull?"
"Not yet; let's feel him out a little before we force a close-up. We've got plenty of mass. See what he does when I put full push on the projectors."
As the full power of the Terrestrial vessel was applied the Nevian was forced backward, away from the threatened city, against the full drive of her every projector. Soon, however, the advance was again checked, and both scientists read the reason upon their plates. The enemy had put down re-enforcing rods of tremendous power. Three compression members spread out fanwise behind her, bracing her against the low mountainside, while one huge tractor beam was thrust directly downward, holding in an unbreakable grip a cylinder of earth extending deep down into bedrock.
"Two can play at that game!" And Rodebush drove down similar beams, and forward-reaching tractors as well. "Strap yourselves in solid, everybody!" he sounded a general warning. "Something is going to give way somewhere soon, and when it does we'll get a jolt!"
And the promised jolt did indeed come soon. Prodigiously massive and powerful as the Nevian was, the Boise was even more massive and more powerful; and as the already enormous energy feeding the tractors, pushers, and projectors was raised to its inconceivable maximum, the vessel of the enemy was hurled upward, backward; and that of earth shot ahead with a bounding leap that threatened to strain even her mighty members. The Nevian anchor-rods had not broken; they had simply pulled up the vast cylinders of solid rock that had formed their anchorages.
"Grab him now!" Rodebush yelled, and even while an avalanche of falling rock was burying the countryside, Cleveland snapped a tractor ray upon the flying fish and pulled tentatively.
Nor did the Nevian now seem averse to coming to grips. The two warring super-dreadnaughts darted toward each other, and from the invader there flooded out the dread crimson opacity which had theretofore meant the doom of all things Solarian. It flooded out and engulfed the immense mass of humanity's hope in its spreading cloud of redly impenetrable murk. But not for long. Triplanetary's super-ship boasted no ordinary Terrestrial defense, but was sheathed in screen after screen of ultra-vibrations: imponderable walls, it is true, but barriers impenetrable to any unfriendly wave. To the outer screen the red veil of the Nevians clung tenaciously, licking greedily at every square inch of the shielding sphere of force, but unable to find an opening through which to feed upon the steel of the Boise's armor.
"Get back—'way back! Go back and help Pittsburgh!" Rodebush drove an ultra-communicator beam through the murk to the instruments of the Terrestrial admiral; for the surviving warships of the Fleet—its most powerful units—were hurling themselves forward, to plunge into that red destruction. "None of you will last a second in this red field. And watch out for a violet field pretty soon—it'll be worse than this. We can handle them alone, I think; but if we can't, there's nothing in the System that can help us!"
And now the hitherto passive screen of the super-ship became active. At first invisible, it began to glow in livid, violet light, and as the glow brightened to unbearable intensity the entire spherical shield began to increase in size. Driven outward from the super-ship as a center, its advancing surface of seething energy consumed the crimson murk as a billow of blast-furnace heat consumes a cloud of snowflakes in the air above its shaft. Nor was the red death-mist all that was consumed. Between that ravening surface and the armor skin of the Boise there was nothing. No debris, no atmosphere, no vapor, no single atom of material substance—the first time in Terrestrial experience that an absolute vacuum had ever been attained!
Stubbornly contesting every foot of way lost, the Nevian fog retreated before the violet sphere of nothingness. Back and back it fell, disappearing altogether from all space as the violet tide engulfed the enemy vessel; but the flying fish did not disappear. Her triple screens flashed into furiously incandescent splendor and she entered, unscathed, that vacuous sphere, which collapsed instantly into an enormously elongated ellipsoid, at each focus a madly warring ship of space.
Then in that tube of vacuum was waged a spectacular duel of ultra-weapons—weapons impotent in air, but deadly in empty space. Beams, rays, and rods of Titanic power smote cracklingly against ultra-screens equally capable. Time after time each contestant ran the gamut of the spectrum with his every available ultra-force, only to find all channels closed. For minutes the terrible struggle went on, then:
"Cooper, Adlington, Spencer, Dutton!" Rodebush called into his transmitter. "Ready? Can't touch him on the ultra, so I'm going onto the macro-bands. Give him everything you have as soon as I collapse the violet. Go!"
At the word the violet barrier went down, and with a crash as of a disrupting Universe the atmosphere rushed into the void. And through the hurricane there shot out the deadliest material weapons of Triplanetary. Torpedoes—non-ferrous, ultra-screened, beam-dirigible torpedoes charged with the most effective forms of material destruction known to man. Cooper hurled his canisters of penetrating gas, Adlington his atomic iron explosive bombs, Spencer his indestructible armor-piercing projectiles, and Dutton his shatterable flasks of the quintessence of corrosion—a sticky, tacky liquid of such dire potency that only one rare Solarian element could contain it. Ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred were thrown as fast as automatic machinery could launch them; and the Nevians found themselves adversaries not to be despised. Size for size, their screens were quite as capable as those of the Boise. The Nevians' destructive rays glanced harmlessly from their shields, and the Nevians' elaborate screens, neutralized at impact by those of the torpedoes, were impotent to impede their progress. Each projectile must needs be caught and crushed individually by beams of the most prodigious power; and while one was being annihilated dozens more were rushing to the attack. Then, while the twisting, dodging invader was busiest with the tiny but relentless destroyers, Rodebush launched his heaviest weapon.
The macro-beams! Prodigious streamers of bluish-green flame which tore savagely through course after course of Nevian screen! Malevolent fangs, driven with such power and velocity that they were biting into the very walls of the enemy vessel before the amphibians knew their defensive shells of force had been punctured! And the emergency screens of the invaders were equally futile. Course after course was sent out, only to flare viciously through the spectrum and to go black!
Outfought at every turn, the now frantically dodging Nevian leaped away in headlong flight, only to be brought to a staggering, crashing halt as Cleveland nailed her with a tractor beam. But the Terrestrials were to learn that the Nevians held in reserve a means of retreat. The tractor snapped—sheared off squarely by a sizzling plane of force—and the fish-shaped cruiser faded from Cleveland's sight, just as the Boise had disappeared from the communicator plates of Radio Center, back in the Hill, when she was launched. But though the plates in the control room could not hold the Nevian, she did not vanish beyond the ken of Randolph, now Communications Officer in the super-ship. For, warned and humiliated by his losing one speeding vessel from his plates in Radio Center, he was now ready for any emergency. Therefore as the Nevian fled, Randolph's spy-ray held her, automatically behind it as there was the full output of twelve special banks of iron-driven power tubes; and thus it was that the vengeful Terrestrials flashed immediately along the Nevians' line of flight. Inertialess now, pausing briefly from time to time to enable the crew to accustom themselves to the new sensations, the Boise pursued the invader; hurtling through the void with a velocity unthinkable.
"He was easier to take than I thought he would be," Cleveland grunted, staring into the plate.
"I thought he had more stuff, too," Rodebush assented; "but I guess Costigan got almost everything they had. If so, with all our own stuff and most of theirs besides, we should be able to take them. They must have neutralization, too, to take off like that; and if it's one hundred per cent we'll never catch them ... but it isn't—there they are!"
"And this time I'm going to hold her or burn out all our generators trying," Cleveland declared, grimly. "Are you fellows down there able to handle yourselves yet? Fine! Start throwing out your cans!"
Space-hardened veterans all, the other Terrestrial officers had fought off the horrible nausea of inertialessness, just as Rodebush and Cleveland had done. Again the ravening green macro-beams tore at the flying cruiser, again the mighty frames of the two space-ships shuddered sickeningly as Cleveland clamped on his tractor rod, again the highly dirigible torpedoes dashed out with their freights of death and destruction. And again the Nevian shear-plane of force slashed at the Terrestrial's tractor beam; but this time the mighty puller did not give way. Sparkling and spitting high-tension sparks, the plane bit deeply into the stubborn rod of energy. Brighter, thicker, and longer grew the discharges as the gnawing plane drew more and more power; but in direct ratio to that power the rod grew larger, denser, and ever harder to cut. More and more vivid became the pyrotechnic display of electric brilliance, until suddenly the entire tractor rod disappeared. At the same instant a blast of intolerable flame erupted from the Boise's flank and the whole enormous fabric of her shook and quivered under the force of a terrific detonation.
"Randolph! I don't see them! Are they attacking or running?" Rodebush demanded. He was the first to realize what had happened.
"Just as well, perhaps, but get their line. Adlington!"
"Good! Was afraid you were gone—that was one of your bombs, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Well launched, just inside the screens. Don't see how it could have detonated unless something hot and hard struck it in the tube; it would need about that much time to explode. Good thing it didn't go off any sooner, or none of us would have been here. As it is, Area Six is pretty well done in, but the bulkheads held the damage to Six. What happened?"
"We don't know, exactly. Both generators on the tractor beam went out. At first, I thought that was all, but my neutralizers are dead and I don't know what else. When the G-4's went out the fusion must have shorted the neutralizers. They would make a mess; it must have burned a hole down into number six tube. Cleveland and I will come down, and we'll all look around."
Donning space-suits, the scientists let themselves into the damaged compartment through the emergency air-locks, and what a sight they saw! Both outer and inner walls of alloy armor had been blown away by the awful force of the explosion. Jagged plates hung awry; bent, twisted, and broken. The great torpedo tube, with all its intricate automatic machinery, had been driven violently backward and lay piled in hideous confusion against the backing bulkheads. Practically nothing remained whole in the entire compartment.
"Nothing much we can do here," Rodebush said finally, through his transmitter, "Let's go see what number four generator room looks like."
That room, although not affected by the explosion from without, had been quite as effectively wrecked from within. It was still stiflingly hot; its air was still reeking with the stench of burning lubricant, insulation, and metal; its floor was half covered by a semi-molten mass of what had once been vital machinery. For with the burning out of the generator bars the energy of the disintegrating allotropic iron had had no outlet, and had built up until it had broken through its insulation and in an irresistible flood of power had torn through all obstacles in its path of neutralization.
"Hm-m-m. Should have had an automatic shut-off—one detail we overlooked," Rodebush mused. "The electricians can rebuild this stuff here, though—that hole in the hull is something else again."
"I'll say it's something else," the grizzled Chief Engineer agreed. "She's lost all her spherical strength—anchoring a tractor with this ship now would turn her inside out. Back to the nearest Triplanetary shop for us, I would say."
"Come again, Chief!" Cleveland advised the engineer. "None of us would live long enough to get there. We can't travel inertialess until the repairs are made, so if they can't be made without very much traveling, it's just too bad."
"I don't see how we could support our jacks...." The engineer paused, then went on. "If you can't give me Mars or Tellus, how about some other planet? I don't care about atmosphere, or about anything but mass. I can stiffen her up in three or four days if I can sit down on something heavy enough to hold our jacks and presses; but if we have to rig up space-cradles around the ship herself it'll take a long time—months, probably. Haven't got a spare planet on hand, have you?"
"We might have, at that," Rodebush made surprising answer. "A couple of seconds before we engaged we were heading toward a sun with at least two planets. I was just getting ready to dodge them when we cut the neutralizers, so they should be fairly close somewhere—yes, there's the sun, right over there. Rather pale and small; but it's close, comparatively speaking. We'll go back up into the control room and find out about the planets."
The strange sun was found to have three large and easily located children, and observation showed that the crippled space-ship could reach the nearest of these in about five days. Power was therefore fed to the driving projectors, and each scientist, electrician, and mechanic bent to the task of repairing the ruined generators; rebuilding them to handle any load which the converters could possibly put upon them. For two days the Boise drove on; then her acceleration was reversed, and finally a landing was effected upon the forbidding, rocky soil of the strange world.
It was larger than the earth, and of a somewhat stronger gravitation. Although its climate was bitterly cold, even in its short daytime, it supported a luxuriant but outlandish vegetation. Its atmosphere, while rich enough in oxygen and not really poisonous, was so rank with indescribably fetid vapors as to be scarcely breathable.
But these things bothered the engineers not at all. Paying no attention to temperature or to scenery and without waiting for chemical analysis of the air, the space-suited mechanics leaped to their tasks; and in only a little more time than had been mentioned by the chief engineer the hull and giant frame of the super-ship were as staunch as of yore.
"All right, Skipper!" came finally the welcome word. "You might try her out with a fast hop around this world before you shove off in earnest."
Under the fierce blast of her projectors the vessel leaped ahead, and time after time, as Rodebush hurled her mass upon tractor beam or pressor, the engineers sought in vain for any sign of weakness. The strange planet half girdled and the severest tests passed flawlessly, Rodebush reached for his neutralizer switches. Reached and paused, dumfounded, for a brilliant purple light had sprung into being upon his panel and a bell rang out insistently.
"What the blue blazes!" Rodebush shot out an exploring beam along the detector line and gasped. He stared, mouth open, then yelled:
"Roger is here, rebuilding his planetoid! STATIONS ALL!"
Roger Carries On
For gray Roger had not perished in the floods of Nevian energy which had destroyed his planetoid. While those terrific streamers of force emanating from the crimson obscurity surrounding the amphibians' space-ship were driving into his defensive screens, Roger sat impassive and immobile at his desk. His hard gray eyes moved methodically over his instruments and recorders; and after a few minutes he smiled coldly, while an expression of relief struggled fleetingly to move his expressionless face. Even though his screens were better than anyone had supposed, why admit it?
"Baxter, Hartkopf, Chatelier, Anandrusung, Penrose, Nishimura, Mirsky...." He called off a list of names. "Report to me here at once!"
"The planetoid is lost," he informed his select group of scientists when they had assembled, "and we must abandon it in exactly fifteen minutes, which will be the time required for the robots to fill this first section with our most necessary machinery and instruments. Pack each of you one box of the things he most wishes to take with him, and report back here in not more than thirteen minutes. Say nothing to anyone else."
They filed out calmly, and as they passed out into the hall Baxter, perhaps a trifle less case-hardened than his fellows, at least voiced a thought for those they were so brutally deserting.
"I say, it seems a bit thick to dash off this way and leave the rest of them; but still, I suppose...."
"You suppose correctly." Bland and heartless Nishimura filled in the pause. "A small part of the planetoid may be able to escape; which, to me at least, is pleasantly surprising news. It cannot carry all of our men and mechanisms, therefore only the most important of both are saved. What would you? For the rest it is simply what you call 'the fortune of war,' no?"
"But the beautiful...." began the amorous Chatelier.
"Hush, fool!" snorted Hartkopf. "One word of that to the ear of Roger and you too are left behind. Of such non-essentials the Universe is full, to be collected in times of ease, but in times hard to be disregarded. Und this is a time of schrecklichkeit indeed!"
The group broke up, each man going to his own quarters; to meet again in the First Section a few minutes before the zero time. Roger's "office" was now packed so tightly with machinery and supplies that but little room was left for the scientists. The gray monstrosity still sat unmoved behind his dials.
"But of what use is it, Roger?" the Russian physicist demanded. "Those waves are of some ultra-band, of a frequency immensely higher than anything heretofore known. Our screens should not have stopped them for an instant. It is a mystery that they have held so long, and certainly this single section will not be permitted to leave the planetoid without being destroyed."
"There are many things you do not know, Mirsky," came the cold and level answer. "Our screens, which you think are of your own devising, have several improvements of my own in the formulae, and would hold forever had I the power to drive them. The screens of this section, being smaller, can be held as long as will be found necessary."
"Power!" the dumfounded Russian exclaimed. "Why, we have almost infinite power—unlimited—sufficient for a lifetime of high expenditure!"
But Roger made no reply, for the time of departure was at hand. He pressed down a tiny lever, and a robot in the power room threw in the gigantic plunger switches which launched against the Nevians the stupendous beam which so upset the complacence of Nerado the amphibian—the beam into which was poured recklessly every resource of power afforded by the planetoid, careless alike of burn-out and of exhaustion. Then, all the attention of the Nevians and the greater part of their power output devoted to the neutralization of that last desperate thrust, the metal wall of the planetoid opened and the First Section shot out into space. Full-driven as they were, Roger's screens flared white as he drove through the temporarily lessened attack of the Nevians; but in their preoccupation the amphibians did not notice the additional disturbance and the section tore on, unobserved and undetected. Far out in space, Roger raised his eyes from the instrument panel and continued the conversation as though it had not been interrupted.
"Everything is relative, Mirsky, and you have misused gravely the term 'unlimited.' Our power was, and is, very definitely limited. True, it then seemed ample for our needs, and is far superior to that possessed by the inhabitants of any solar system with which I am familiar; but the beings behind that red screen, whoever they are, have sources of power as far above ours as ours are above those of the Solarians."
"How do you know?"
"That power, what is it?" "We have, then, the analyses of those fields recorded!" Came simultaneous questions and explanations.
"Their power-source is very probably the intra-atomic energy of iron; and if so, much remains to be done before I can proceed with my plan. I must have the most powerful structure in the known Universe before I can act. In the light of what I have just learned, the loss of the planetoid is but a trifle." Roger, as unmoved as one of his own automatons, was coldly analyzing the situation, thinking the thing through to its logical conclusion, paying no attention whatever to the losses of life, time and treasure now behind him.
"But what can you do about it?" growled the Russian.
"Many things. From the charts of the recorders we can compute their fields of force, and from that point it is only a step to their method of liberating the energy. We shall build robots. They shall build other robots, who shall in turn construct another planetoid; one this time that, wielding the theoretical maximum of power, will be suited to my needs."
"And where will you build it? We are marked. Invisibility now is useless. Triplanetary will find us, even if we take up an orbit beyond that of Pluto!"
"We have already left your Solarian system far behind. We are going to another system; one far enough removed so that the spy-rays of Triplanetary will never find us, and yet one that we can reach in a reasonable length of time with the energies at our command. Some fifteen days will be required for the journey, however, and our quarters are cramped. Therefore make places for yourselves wherever you can, and lessen the tedium of those fifteen days by working upon whatever problems are most pressing in your respective researches."
The gray monster fell silent, immersed in what thoughts no one knew, and the scientists set out to obey his orders. Baxter, the British chemist, followed Penrose, the lantern-jawed, saturnine American engineer and inventor, as he made his way to the furthermost cubicle of the section.
"I say, Penrose, I'd like to ask you a couple of questions, if you don't mind?"
"Go ahead. Ordinarily it's dangerous to be a cackling hen anywhere around him, but he can't hear anything here now. His system is pretty well shot to pieces. You want to know all I know about Roger?"
"Exactly so. You have been with him so much longer than I have, you know. In some ways he impresses one as being scarcely human, if you know what I mean. Ridiculous, of course, but of late I have been wondering whether he really is human. He knows too much, about too many things. He seems to be acquainted with many solar systems, to visit which would require life-times. Then, too, he has dropped remarks which would imply that he actually saw things that happened long before any living man could possibly have been born. Finally, he looks—well, peculiar—and certainly does not act human. I have been wondering, and have been able to learn nothing about him; as you have said, such talk as this aboard the planetoid was impossible."
"You needn't worry about being paid your price; that's one thing. If we live—and that was part of the agreement, you know—we will all get what we sold out for. You will become a belted earl. I have already made millions, and shall make many more. Similarly, Chatelier has had and will have his women, Anandrusung and Nishimura their cherished revenges. Hartkopf his power, and so on." He eyed the other speculatively, then went on:
"I might as well spill it all, since I'll never have a better chance and since you should know what the rest of us do. You're in the same boat with us and tarred with the same brush. There's a lot of gossip, that may or may not be true, but I know one very startling fact. Here it is. My great-great-grandfather left some notes which, taken in connection with certain things I myself saw on the planetoid, prove beyond question that our Roger went to Harvard University at the same time he did. Roger was a grown man then, and the elder Penrose noted that he was marked, like this," and the American sketched a cabalistic design.
"What!" Baxter exclaimed. "An adept of North Polar Jupiter—them?"
"Yes. That was before the First Jovian War, you know, and it was those medicine-men—really high-caliber scientists—that prolonged that war so...."
"But I say, Penrose, that's really a bit thick. When they were wiped out it was proved a lot of hocus-pocus...."
"Some of it was, but most of it wasn't," Penrose interrupted in turn. "I'm not asking you to believe anything except that one fact; I'm just telling you the rest of it. But it is also a fact that those adepts knew things and did things that take a lot of explaining. Now for the gossip, none of which is guaranteed. Roger is undoubtedly of Tellurian parentage, and the story is that his father was a moon-pirate, his mother a Greek adventuress. When the pirates were chased off the moon they went to Ganymede, you know, and some of them were captured by the Jovians. It seems that Roger was born at an instant of time sacred to the adepts, so they took him on. He worked his way up through the Forbidden Society as all adepts did, by various kinds of murder and job lots of assorted deviltries, until he got clear to the top—the seventy-seventh mystery...."
"The secret of eternal youth!" gasped Baxter, awed in spite of himself.
"Right, and he stayed Chief Devil, in spite of all the efforts of all his ambitious sub-devils to kill him, until the turning-point of the First Jovian War. He cut away then in a space-ship, and ever since then he has been working—and working hard—on some stupendous plan of his own that nobody else has ever got even an inkling of. That's the story. True or not, it explains a lot of things that no other theory can touch. And now I think you'd better shuffle along; enough of this is a great plenty!"
Baxter went to his own cubby, and each man of the adept's cold-blooded crew methodically took up his task. True to prediction, in fifteen days a planet loomed beneath them and their vessel settled through a reeking atmosphere toward a rocky and forbidding plain. Then for another day they plunged along, a few thousand feet above the surface of that strange world, while Roger with his analytical detectors sought the most favorable location from which to wrest the materials necessary for his program of construction.
It was a world of cold; its sun was distant, pale, and wan. It had monstrous forms of vegetation, of which each branch and member writhed and fought with a grotesque and horrible individual activity. Ever and anon a struggling part broke from its parent plant and darted away in independent existence; leaping upon and consuming or being consumed by a fellow creature equally monstrous. This flora was of a uniform color—a lurid, sickly yellow. In form some of it was fern-like, some cactus-like, some vaguely tree-like; but it was all outrageous, inherently repulsive to all Solarian senses. And no less hideous were the animal-like forms of life, which slithered and slunk rapaciously through that fantastic pseudo-vegetation. Snake-like, reptile-like, bat-like, the creatures squirmed, crawled, and flew; each covered with a dankly oozing yellow hide and each motivated by twin common impulses—to kill and insatiably and indiscriminately to devour. Over this reeking wilderness Roger drove his vessel, untouched by its disgusting, its appalling ferocity and horror.
"There should be intelligence, of a kind," he mused, and swept the surface of the planet with an exploring beam. "Ah, yes, there is a city, of sorts," and in a few minutes the outlaws were looking down upon a metal-walled city of roundly conical buildings.
Inside these structures and between and around them there scuttled formless blobs of matter, one of which Roger brought up into his vessel by means of a tractor ray. Held immovable by the beam it lay upon the floor, a strangely extensile, amoeba-like metal-studded mass of leathery substance. Of eyes, ears, limbs, or organs it apparently had none, yet it radiated an intensely hostile aura; a mental effluvium concentrated of rage and of hatred.
"Apparently the ruling intelligence of the planet," Roger commented. "Such creatures are useless to us; we can build robots in half the time required for their subjugation and training. Still, it should not be permitted to carry back what it may have learned of us." As he spoke the adept threw the peculiar being out into the air and dispassionately rayed it out of existence.
"That thing reminds me of a man I used to know, back in Penobscot." Penrose was as coldly callous as his unfeeling master. "The evenest-tempered man in town—mad all the time!"
Eventually Roger found a location which satisfied his requirements of raw materials, and made a landing upon that unfriendly soil. Sweeping beams denuded a great circle of life, and into that circle leaped robots. Robots requiring neither rest nor food, but only lubricants and power; robots insensible alike to that bitter cold and to that noxious atmosphere.
But the outlaws were not to win a foothold upon that inimical planet easily, nor were they to hold it without effort. Through the weird vegetation of the circle's bare edge there scuttled and poured along a horde of the metal-studded men—if "men" they might be called—who, ferocity incarnate, rushed the robot line. Mowed down by hundreds, still they came on; willing, it seemed to expend any number of lives in order that one living creature might once touch a robot with one out-thrust metallic stud. Whenever that happened there was a flash as of lightning, the heavy smoke of burning insulation, grease and metal, and the robot went down out of control. Recalling his remaining automatons, Roger sent out a shielding screen, against which the defenders of their planet raged in impotent fury. For days they hurled themselves and their every force against that impenetrable barrier, then withdrew: temporarily stopped, but by no means acknowledging defeat.
Then, while Roger and his cohorts directed affairs from within their comfortable and now sufficiently roomy vessel, there came into being around it an industrial city of metal, peopled by metallic and insensate mechanisms. Mines were sunk, furnaces were blown in, smelters belched forth into the already unbearable air their sulphurous fumes, rolling mills and machine shops were built and equipped: and as fast as new enterprises were completed additional robots were ready to man them. In record time the heavy work of girders, members, and plates was well under way; and shortly thereafter light, deft, and multi-fingered mechanical men began the interminable task of building and installing the prodigious amount of precise machinery required for the vast structure. Roger was well content: but one day he was rudely awakened from his dream of complete isolation.
Even though he had no reason to believe that there was anything dangerous within hundreds of millions of miles, it was Roger's cautious custom to release the screens from time to time, in order to allow his detectors to range out. This day, as he sent out his beams, his hard gray eyes grew even harder.
"Mirsky! Nishimura! Come here!" he snapped, and showed them upon his plate an enormous sphere of steel, its rays flaming viciously. "Is there any doubt whatever in your minds as to the System to which that ship belongs?"
"None at all—Triplanetarian," replied the Russian. "While larger than any I have seen before, its construction is unmistakable. They managed to trace us, and are testing out their weapons before attacking. Do we attack or do we run away?"
"If Triplanetarian, and it surely is, we attack," coldly. "This one section is armed and powered to defeat Triplanetary's entire navy. We shall take that ship, and shall add its slight resources to our own. And it may even be that they have picked up the three who escaped me.... I have never yet been balked for long. Yes, we shall take that vessel. And those three sooner or later. Bradley I care nothing about ... but Costigan handled me ... and the woman...." Diamond-hard eyes glared balefully at the urge of thoughts to a clean and normal mind unthinkable.
"To your posts," he ordered. "The robots will continue to function under their automatic controls during the short time it will require to abate this nuisance."
"One moment!" A strange voice roared from the speakers. "Consider yourselves under arrest, by order of the Triplanetary Council! Surrender and you shall receive impartial hearing; fight us and you shall never come to trial. From what we have learned of Roger, we do not expect him to surrender, but if any of you other men wish to avoid immediate death, leave your vessel at once. We will come back for you later."
"Any of you wishing to leave this vessel have my full permission to do so," Roger announced, disdaining any reply to the challenge of the Boise. "Any such, however, will not be allowed inside the planetoid area after the rest of us return from wiping out that patrol. We attack in one minute."
"Would not one do better by stopping on?" Baxter, in the quarters of the American, was in doubt as to the most profitable course to pursue. "I should leave immediately if I thought that that ship could win; but I do not fancy that it can, do you?"
"That ship? One Triplanetary ship against us?" Penrose laughed raucously. "Do as you please. I'd go in a minute if I thought that there was any chance of us losing; but there isn't, so I'm staying. I know which side my bread's buttered on. Those cops are bluffing, that's all. Not bluffing exactly, either, because they'll go through with it as long as they last. Foolish, but it's a way they have—they'll die trying every time, instead of running away, even when they know they're licked before they start. They don't use good judgment."
"None of you are leaving? Very well, you each know what to do," came Roger's emotionless voice. The stipulated minute having elapsed, he advanced a lever and the outlaw cruiser slid quietly into the air.
Toward the poised Boise Roger steered. Within range, he flung out a weapon new-learned and supposedly irresistible to any ferrous thing or creature, the red converter-field of the Nevians. For Roger's analytical detectors had stood him in good stead during those frightful minutes in the course of which the planetoid had borne the brunt of Nerado's superhuman attack; in such good stead that from the records of those ingenious instruments he and his scientists had been able to reconstruct not only the generators of the attacking forces, but also the screens employed by the amphibians in the neutralization of similar beams. With a vastly inferior armament the smallest of Roger's vessels had defeated the most powerful battleships of Triplanetary; what had he to fear in such a heavy craft as the one he now was driving, one so superlatively armed and powered? Well it was for his peace of mind that he had no inkling that the harmless-looking sphere he was so blithely attacking was in reality the much-discussed, half-mythical "super-ship" of Triplanetary's Secret Service; nor that its already unprecedented armament had been re-enforced, thanks to that hated Costigan, with Roger's own every worth-while idea, as well as with every weapon and defense known to that arch-Nevian, Nerado!
Unknowing and contemptuous, Roger launched his converter field, and instantly found himself fighting for his very life. For from Rodebush at the controls down, the men of the Secret Service countered with wave after wave and with salvo after salvo of vibratory and material destruction. No thought of mercy for the men of the pirate ship could enter their minds. The outlaws had each been given a chance to surrender, and each had refused it. Refusing, they knew, as the Triplanetarians knew and as all modern readers know, meant that they were staking their lives upon victory. For with modern armaments it is seldom indeed that a single man lives through the defeat in battle of a war-vessel of space.
Roger launched his field of red opacity, but it did not reach even Boise's screens. All space seemed to explode into violet splendor as Rodebush neutralized it, drove it back with his obliterating zone of force; but even that all-devouring zone could not touch Roger's peculiarly efficient screen. The outlaw vessel stood out, unharmed. Ultra-violet, infra-red, pure heat, infra-sound, solid beams of high-tension high-frequency current in whose paths the most stubborn metals would be volatilized instantly; all iron-driven, every deadly and torturing vibration known was hurled against that screen; but it, too, was iron-driven, and it held. Even the awful force of the macro-beam was dissipated by it—reflected, hurled away on all sides in coruscating torrents of blinding, dazzling energy. Cooper, Adlington, Spencer, and Dutton hurled against it their bombs and torpedoes—and still it held. But Roger's fiercest blasts and heaviest projectiles were equally impotent against the force-shields of the super-ship. The adept, having no liking for a battle upon anything like equal terms, sought safety in flight, only to be brought to a crashing, stunning halt by a massive tractor beam.
"That must be that sixth-phase polycyclic screen that Conway reported on," Cleveland frowned in thought. "I've been doing a lot of work on that, and I think I've calculated an opener for it, Fred, but I'll have to have number ten projector and the whole output of number ten power room. Can you let me play with that much juice for a while? All right, Blake, tune her up to fifty-five thousand—there, hold it! Now, you other fellows, listen! I'm going to try to drill a hole through that screen with a hollow, quasi-solid beam: like a diamond drill cutting out a core. You won't be able to shove anything into the hole from outside the beam, so you'll have to steer your cans out through the central orifice of number ten projector—that'll be cold, since I'm going to use only the edge. I don't know how long I'll be able to hold the hole open, though so shoot them along as fast as you can. Ready? Here goes!"
He pressed a series of contacts. Far below, in number ten converter room, massive switches drove home and the enormous mass of the vessel quivered under the terrific reaction of the newly-calculated, semi-material beam of energy that was hurled out, backed by the mightiest of all the mighty converters and generators of Triplanetary's super-dreadnaught. That beam, a pipe-like hollow cylinder of intolerable energy, flashed out, and there was a rending, tearing crash as it struck Roger's hitherto impenetrable wall. Struck and clung, grinding, boring in, while from the raging inferno that marked the circle of contact of cylinder and shield the pirates' screen radiated scintillating torrents of cracking, streaming sparks, lightning-like in length and in intensity.
Deeper and deeper the gigantic drill was driven. It was through! Pierced Roger's polycyclic screen; exposed the bare metal of Roger's walls! And now, concentrated upon one point, flamed out in seemingly redoubled fury Triplanetary's raging rays—in vain. For even as they could not penetrate the screen, neither could they penetrate the wall of Cleveland's drill, but rebounded from it in the cascaded brilliance of thwarted lightning.
"Oh, what a dumb-bell I am!" groaned Cleveland. "Why, oh why didn't I have somebody rig up a secondary SX7 beam on Ten's inner rings? Hop to it, will you, Blake, so that we'll have it in case they are able to stop the cans?"
But the pirates could not stop all of Triplanetary's projectiles, now hurrying along inside the pipe as fast as they could be driven. In fact, for a few minutes desperate Roger, knowing that he faced his long life's gravest crisis, paid no attention to them at all, nor to any of his own useless offensive weapons: he struggled only and madly to break away from the savage grip of the Boise's tractor rod. Futile. He could neither cut nor stretch that inexorably anchoring beam. Then he devoted his every resource to the closing of that unbelievable breach in his shield; the barrier which through all previous emergencies had kept death at bay. Equally futile. His most desperate efforts resulted only in more frenzied displays of incandescence along the curved surface of contact of that penetrant cylinder. And through that terrific conduit came speeding package after package of destruction. Bombs, and armor-piercing shells, gas shells, and shells of poisonous and corrosive fluids followed each other in close succession. The surviving scientists of the planetoid, expert gunners and ray-men all, destroyed many of the projectiles, but it was not humanly possible to frustrate them all. And the breach could not be forced shut against the all but irresistible force of Cleveland's "opener". And with all his power Roger could not shift his vessel's position in the grip of Triplanetary's tractors sufficiently to bring a projector to bear upon the super-ship along the now unprotected axis of that narrow, but deadly tube.
Thus it was that the end came soon. A war-head touched steel plating and there ensued a world-wracking explosion of atomic iron. Gaping wide, helpless, with all defenses down, other torpedoes entered the stricken hulk and completed its destruction even before they could be recalled. Explosive bombs literally tore the pirate vessel to fragments, while vials of pure corrosion dissolved her substance into dripping corruption and reeking gases filled every cranny of the wreckage as its torn and dismembered fragments began their long plunge to the ground. The space-ship followed the pieces down, and Rodebush sent out an exploring ray.
" ... resistance was such that it was necessary to use corrosive, and ship and contents were completely disintegrated," he dictated into his vessel's log, some time later. "While there were of course no remains recognizable as human, it is practically certain that Roger and his last eleven men died.
"Look here, Fred," Cleveland called his attention to the plate, upon which was pictured a horde of the peculiar inhabitants of the ghastly planet, wreaking their frenzied electrical wrath upon everything within the circle bared by Roger. "I was just going to suggest that we clean up that planetoid Roger started, but I see that the local boys are attending to it."
"Just as well, perhaps. I would like to stay and study these people a little while, but we must get back on the trail of the Nevians," and the Boise leaped away into space, toward the line of flight of the amphibians.
They reached that line and along it they traveled at full normal blast. As they traveled their detecting receivers and amplifiers were reaching out with their utmost power; ultra-instruments capable of rendering audible any signal originating within many light-years of them, upon any known frequency. And constantly at least two men were listening to those instruments with every sense concentrated in their ears. Listening—straining to distinguish in the deafening roar of background noise from the over-driven tubes any sign of voice or signal. Listening—while, millions upon untold millions of miles beyond even the prodigious reach of those ultra-instruments, three human beings, pitted against overwhelming odds, were even then sending out into empty space an almost hopeless appeal for the aid so desperately needed!
The Specimens Escape
Knowing well that conversation with its fellows is one of the greatest needs of any intelligent being, the Nevians had permitted the Terrestrial specimens to retain possession of their ultra-beam communicators. Thus it was that Costigan had been able to keep in touch with his sweetheart and with Bradley. He learned that each had been placed upon exhibition in a different Nevian city: that the three had been separated in response to an insistent popular demand for such a distribution of the peculiar, but highly interesting creatures from a distant solar system. They had not been harmed. In fact, each was visited daily by a specialist, who made sure that his charge was being kept in the pink of condition.
As soon as he became aware of this condition of things Costigan became morose. He sat still, drooped, and pined away visibly. He refused to eat, and of the worried specialist he demanded liberty. Then, failing in that as he knew he would fail, he demanded something to do. They pointed out to him, reasonably enough, that in such a civilization as theirs there was nothing he could do. They assured him that they would do anything they could to alleviate his mental suffering, but that since he was a museum piece he must see, himself, that he must be kept on display for a short time. Wouldn't he please behave himself and eat, as a reasoning being should? Costigan sulked a little longer, then wavered. Finally he agreed to compromise. He would eat and exercise if they would fit up a laboratory in his apartment, so that he could continue the studies he had begun upon his own native planet. To this they agreed, and thus it came about that one day the following conversation was held:
"Clio? Bradley? I've got something to tell you this time. Haven't said anything before, for fear things might not work out, but they did. I went on a hunger strike and made them give me a complete laboratory. As a chemist I'm a darn good electrician; but luckily, with the sea-water they've got here, it's a very simple thing to make...."