"Hold on!" snapped Bradley. "Somebody may be listening in on us!"
"They aren't. They can't, without my knowing it, and I'll cut off the second anybody tries to synchronize with my beam. To resume—making Vee-Two is a very simple process, and I've got everything around here that's hollow clear full of it...."
"How come they let you?" asked Clio.
"Oh, they don't know what I'm doing. They watched me for a few days, and all I did was make up and bottle the weirdest messes imaginable. Then I finally managed to separate oxygen and nitrogen, after trying hard all of one day; and when they thought they saw that I didn't know anything about either one of them or what to do with them after I had them, they gave me up in disgust as a plain dumb ape and haven't paid any attention to me since. So I've got me plenty of kilograms of liquid Vee-Two, all ready to touch off. I'm getting out of here in about three minutes and a half, and I'm coming over after you folks, in a new, iron-powered space-speedster that they don't know I know anything about. They've just given it its final tests, and it's the slickest thing you ever saw."
"But Conway, dearest, you can't possibly rescue me," Clio's voice broke. "Why, there are thousands of them, all around here. If you can get away, go, dear, but don't...."
"I said I was coming after you, and if I can get away I'll be there. A good whiff of this stuff will lay out a thousand of them just as easily as it will one. Here's the idea. I've made a gas mask for myself, since I'll be in it where it's thick, but you two won't need any. The gas is soluble enough in water so that three or four thicknesses of wet cloth over your noses will be enough. I'll tell you when to wet down. We're going to break away or go out trying—there aren't enough amphibians between here and Andromeda to keep us humans cooped up like menagerie animals forever! But here comes my specialist with the keys to the city; time for the overture to start. See you later!"
The Nevian physician directed his key-tube upon the transparent wall of the chamber and an opening appeared, an opening which vanished as soon as he had stepped through it; Costigan kicked a valve open; and from various innocent tubes there belched forth into the water of the central lagoon and into the air over it a flood of deadly vapor. As the Nevian turned toward the prisoner there was an almost inaudible hiss and a tiny jet of the frightful, outlawed stuff struck his open gills, just below his huge, conical head. He tensed momentarily, twitched convulsively just once, and fell motionless to the floor. And outside, the streams of avidly soluble liquefied gas rushed out into air and into water. It spread, dissolved, and diffused with the extreme mobility which is one of its characteristics; and as it diffused and was borne outward the Nevians, in their massed hundreds, died. Died not knowing what killed them; not knowing even that they died. Costigan, bitterly resentful of the inhuman treatment accorded the three and fiercely anxious for the success of his plan of escape, held his breath and, grimly alert, watched the amphibians die. When he could see no more motion anywhere he donned his gas-mask, strapped upon his back a large canister of the poison—his capacious pockets were already full of smaller containers—and two savagely exultant sentences escaped him.
"I am a poor, ignorant specimen of ape, that can be let play with apparatus, am I?" he rasped, as he picked up the key-tube of the specialist and opened the door of his prison. "Maybe they'll learn sometime that it ain't always safe to judge by the looks of a flea how far he can jump!"
He stepped out through the opening into the water, and, burdened as he was, made shift to swim to the nearest ramp. Up it he ran, toward a main corridor. But ahead of him there was wafted a breath of dread Vee-Two, and where that breath went, went also unconsciousness—an unconsciousness which would deepen gradually into permanent oblivion save for the prompt intervention of one who possessed, not only the necessary antidote, but the equally important knowledge of exactly how to use it. Upon the floor of that corridor were strewn Nevians, who had dropped in their tracks. Past or over their bodies Costigan strode, pausing only to direct a jet of lethal vapor into whatever branching corridor or open doorway caught his eye. He was going to the intake of the city's ventilation plant, and no unmasked creature dependent for life upon oxygen could bar his path. He reached the intake, tore the canister from his back, and released its full, vast volume of horrid contents into the primary air stream of the entire city.
And all throughout that doomed city Nevians dropped; quietly and without a struggle, unknowing. Busy executives dropped upon their cushioned, flat-topped desks; hurrying travelers and messengers dropped upon the floors of the corridors or relaxed in the noxious waters of the ways; lookouts and observers dropped before their flashing screens; central operators of communications dropped under the winking lights of their panels. Observers and centrals in the outlying sections of the city wondered briefly at the unwonted universal motionlessness and stagnation; then the racing taint in water and in air reached them, too, and they ceased wondering—forever.
Then through those quiet halls Costigan stalked to a certain storage room, where with all due precaution he donned his own suit of Triplanetary armor. Making an ungainly bundle of the other Solarian equipment stored there, he dragged it along behind him as he clanked back toward his prison, until he neared the dock at which was moored the Nevian space-speedster which he was determined to take. Here, he knew, was the first of many critical points. The crew of the vessel was aboard, and, with its independent air-supply, unharmed. They had weapons, were undoubtedly alarmed, and were very probably highly suspicious. They, too, had ultra-beams and might see him, but his very closeness to them would tend to protect him from ultra-beam observation. Therefore he crouched tensely behind a buttress, staring through his spy-ray goggles, waiting for a moment when none of the Nevians would be near the entrance, but grimly resolved to act instantly should he feel any touch of a spying ultra-beam.
"Here's where the pinch comes," he growled to himself. "I know the combination, but if they're suspicious enough and act quick enough they can seal that door on me before I can get it open, and then rub me out like a blot; but ... ah!"
The moment had arrived, before the touch of any revealing ray. He trained the key-tube, the entrance opened, and through that opening in the instant of its appearance there shot a brittle bulb of glass, whose breaking meant death. It crashed into fragments against a metallic wall and Costigan, entering the vessel, consigned its erstwhile crew one by one to the already crowded waters of the lagoon. He then leaped to the controls and drove the captured speedster through the air, to plunge it down upon the surface of the lagoon beside the door of the isolated structure which had for so long been his prison. Carefully he transferred to the vessel the motley assortment of containers of Vee-Two, and after a quick check-up to make sure that he had overlooked nothing, he shot his craft straight up into the air. Then only did he close his ultra-wave circuits and speak.
"Clio, Bradley—I got away clean, without a bit of trouble. Now I'm coming after you, Clio."
"Oh, it's wonderful that you got away, Conway!" the girl exclaimed. "But hadn't you better get Captain Bradley first? Then, if anything should happen, he would be of some use, while I...."
"I'll knock him into an outside loop if he does!" the captain snorted, and Costigan went on:
"You won't need to. You come first, Clio, of course. But you're too far away for me to see you with my spy, and I don't want to use the high-powered beam of this boat for fear of detection; so you'd better keep on talking, so that I can trace you."
"That's one thing I am good at!" Clio laughed in sheer relief. "If talking were music, I'd be a full brass band!" and she kept up a flow of inconsequential chatter, until Costigan told her that it was no longer necessary; that he had established the line.
"Any excitement around there yet?" he asked her then.
"Nothing unusual that I can see," she replied. "Why? Should there be some?"
"I hope not, but when I made my get-away I couldn't kill them all, of course, and I thought maybe they might connect things up with my jail-break and tell the other cities to take steps about you two. But I guess they're pretty well disorganized back there yet, since they can't know who hit them, or what with, or why. I must have got about everybody that wasn't sealed up somewhere, and it doesn't stand to reason that those who are left can check up very closely for a while yet. But they're nobody's fools—they'll certainly get conscious when I snatch you, maybe before ... there, I see your city, I think."
"What are you going to do?"
"Same as I did back there, if I can. Poison their primary air and all the water I can reach...."
"Oh, Conway!" Her voice rose to a scream. "They must know—they're all getting out of the water and are rushing inside the buildings as fast as they possibly can!"
"I see they are," grimly. "I'm right over you now, 'way up. Been locating their primary intake. They've got a dozen ships around it, and have guards posted all along the corridors leading to it; and those guards are wearing masks! They're clever birds, all right, those amphibians—they know what they got back there and how they got it. That changes things, girl! If we use gas here we won't stand a chance in the world of getting old Bradley. Stand by to jump when I open that door!"
"Hurry, dear! They are coming out here after me!"
"Sure they are." Costigan had already seen the two Nevians swimming out toward Clio's cage, and had hurled his vessel downward in a screaming power dive. "You're too valuable a specimen for them to let you be gassed, but if they can get there before I do they're traveling fast!"
He miscalculated slightly, so that instead of coming to a halt at the surface of the liquid medium the speedster struck with a crash that hurled solid masses of water for hundreds of yards. But no ordinary crash could harm that vessel's structure, her gravity controls were not overloaded, and she shot back to the surface; gallant ship and reckless pilot alike unharmed. Costigan trained his key-tube upon the doorway of Clio's cell, then tossed it aside.
"Different combinations over here!" he barked. "Got to cut you out—lie down in that far corner!"
His hands flashed over the panel, and as Clio fell prone without hesitation or question a heavy beam literally blasted away a large portion of the roof of the structure. The speedster shot into the air and dropped down until she rested upon the tops of opposite walls; walls still glowing, semi-molten. The girl piled a stool upon the table and stood upon it, reached upward, and seized the mailed hands extended downward toward her. Costigan heaved her up into the vessel with a powerful jerk, slammed the door shut, leaped to the controls, and the speedster darted away.
"Your armor's in that bundle there. Better put it on, and check your Lewistons and pistols—no telling what kind of jams we'll get into," he snapped, without turning. "Bradley, start talking ... all right, I've got your line. Better get your wet rags ready and get organized generally—every second will count by the time we get there. We're coming so fast that our outer plating's white hot, but it may not be fast enough, at that."
"It isn't fast enough, quite," Bradley announced, calmly. "They're coming out after me now."
"Don't fight them and probably they won't paralyze you. Keep on talking, so that I can find out where they take you."
"No good, Costigan." The voice of the old space-flea did not reveal a sign of emotion as he made his dread announcement. "They have it all figured out. They're not taking any chances at all—they're going to paral...." His voice broke off in the middle of the word.
With a bitter imprecation Costigan flashed on the powerful ultra-beam projector of the speedster and focused the plate upon Bradley's prison; careless now of detection, since the Nevians were already warned. Upon that plate he watched the Nevians carry the helpless body of the captain into a small boat, and continued to watch as they bore it into one of the largest buildings of the city. Up a series of ramps they took the still form, placing it finally upon a soft couch in an enormous and heavily guarded central hall. Costigan turned to his companion, Clio, and even through the helmets she could see plainly the white agony of his expression. He moistened his lips and tried twice to speak—tried and failed: but he made no move either to cut off their power or to change their direction.
"Of course," she approved, steadily. "We are going through. I know that you want to run with me, but if you actually did it, I would never want to see you or hear of you again, and you would hate me forever."
"Hardly that." The anguish did not leave his eyes and his voice was hoarse and strained, but his hands did not vary the course of the speedster by so much as a hair's breadth. "You're the finest little fellow that ever waved a plume, and I would love you no matter what happened. I'd trade my immortal soul to the devil if it would get you out of this mess, but we're both in it up to our necks and we can't dog it now. If they kill him we beat it—he and I both knew that it was on the chance of that happening that I took you first—but as long as all three of us are alive it's all three or none."
"Of course," she said again, as steadily, thrilled this time to the depths of her being by the sheer manhood of him who had thus simply voiced his Code; a man of such fiber that neither love of life, nor the infinitely more powerful love of her which she knew he bore, could make him lower its high standard.
"We are going through. Forget that I am a woman. We are three human beings, fighting a world full of monsters. I am simply one of us three. I will steer your ship, fire your projectors, or throw your bombs. What can I do best?"
"Throw bombs," he directed, briefly. He knew what must be done were they to have even the slightest chance of winning clear. "I'm going to blast a hole down into the auditorium, and when I do you stand by that port and start dropping bottles of perfume. Throw a couple of big ones right down the shaft I make, and the rest of them most anywhere, after I cut the wall open. They'll do good wherever they hit, land or water."
"But Captain Bradley—he'll be gassed, too." Her fine eyes were troubled.
"Can't be helped. I've got the antidote, and it'll work any time under an hour. That'll be lots of time—if we aren't gone in less than ten minutes we'll be staying here. They're bringing in platoons of militia in full armor, and if we don't beat those boys to it we're in for plenty of grief. All right—start throwing!"
The speedster had come to a halt directly over the imposing edifice within which Bradley was incarcerated, and a mighty beam had flared downward, digging a fiery well through floor after floor of stubborn metal. The ceiling of the amphitheater pierced, the beam expired; and down into that assembly hall there dropped two canisters of Vee-Two; to crash and to fill its atmosphere with imperceptible death. Then the beam flashed on again, this time at maximum power, and with it Costigan burned away half of the gigantic building. Burned it away until room above room gaped open, shelf-like, to outer atmosphere; the great hall now resembling an over-size pigeon-hole surrounded by smaller ones. Into that largest pigeon-hole the speedster darted, and cushioned desks and benches crashed down, crushed flat under its enormous weight as it came to rest upon the floor.
Every available guard had been thrown into that room, regardless of customary occupation or of equipment. Most of them had been ordinary watchmen, not even wearing masks, and all such were already down. Many, however, were protected by masks, and a few were dressed in full armor. But no portable armor could mount defenses of sufficient power to withstand the awful force of the speedster's weapons, and one flashing swing of a projector swept the hall almost clear of life.
"Can't shoot very close to Bradley with this big beam, but I'll mop up on the rest of them by hand. Stay here and cover me, Clio!" Costigan ordered, and went to open the door.
"I can't—I won't!" Clio replied instantly. "I don't know the controls well enough. I'd kill you or Captain Bradley, sure; but I can shoot, and I'm going to!" and she leaped out, close upon his heels.
Thus, flaming Lewiston in one hand and barking automatic in the other, the two mailed figures advanced toward Bradley; now doubly helpless: paralyzed by his enemies and gassed by his friends. For a time the Nevians melted away before them, but as they approached more nearly the couch, upon which the captain was, they encountered six figures encased in armor fully as capable as their own. The beams of the Lewistons rebounded from that armor in futile pyrotechnics, the bullets of the automatics spattered and exploded impotently against it. And behind that single line of armored guards were massed perhaps twenty unarmored, but masked, soldiers; and scuttling up the ramps leading into the hall were coming the platoons of heavily-armored figures which Costigan had previously seen.
Decision instantly made, Costigan ran back toward the speedster, but he was not deserting his companions.
"Keep the good work up!" he instructed the girl as he ran. "I'll pick those jaspers off with a pencil ray and then stand off the bunch that's coming while you rub out the rest of that crew there and drag Bradley back here."
Back at the control panel, he trained a narrow, but intensely dense pencil of livid flame, and one by one the six armored figures fell. Then, knowing that Clio could handle the remaining opposition, he devoted his attention to the reenforcements so rapidly approaching from the sides. Again and again the heavy beam lashed out, now upon this side, now upon that, and in its flaming path Nevians disappeared. And not only Nevians—in the incredible energy of that beam's blast, floor, walls, ramps, and every material thing vanished in clouds of thick and brilliant vapor. The room temporarily clear of foes, he sprang again to Clio's assistance, but her task was nearly done. She had "rubbed out" all opposition and, tugging lustily at Bradley's feet, had already dragged him almost to the side of the speedster.
"'At-a-girl, Clio!" cheered Costigan, as he picked up the burly captain and tossed him through the doorway. "Highly useful, girl of my dreams, as well as ornamental. In with you, and we'll start out to go places!"
But getting the speedster out of the now completely ruined hall proved to be much more of a task than driving it in had been, for scarcely had the Terrestrials closed their locks than a section of the building collapsed behind them, cutting off their retreat. Nevian submarines and airships were beginning to arrive upon the scene, and were raying the building viciously in an attempt to entrap or to crush the Terrestrials in its ruins. Costigan managed finally to blast his way out, but the Nevians had had time to assemble in force and he was met by a concentrated storm of beams and of metal from every inimical weapon within range.
But not for nothing had Conway Costigan selected for his dash for liberty the craft which, save only for the two immense interstellar cruisers, was the most powerful vessel ever built upon red Nevia. And not for nothing had he studied minutely and to the last, least detail every item of its controls and of its armament during wearily long days and nights of solitary imprisonment. He had studied it under test, in action, and at rest; studied it until he knew thoroughly its every possibility—and what a ship it was! The iron-driven generators of his shielding screens handled with ease the terrific load of the Nevians' assault, his polycyclic screens were proof against any material projectile, and the machines supplying his offensive beams with power were more than equal to their tasks. Driven now at full rating those frightful weapons lashed out against the Nevian blocking the way, and under their impacts her screens flared brilliantly through the spectrum and went down. And in the instant of their failure the enemy vessel was literally blown into nothingness—no unprotected metal, however resistant, could exist for a moment in the pathway of those iron-driven tornadoes of pure energy.
Ship after ship of the Nevians plunged toward the speedster in desperately suicidal attempts to ram her down, but each met the same flaming fate before its mass could collide with the ship of the Terrestrials. Then, from the grouped submarines far below, there reached up red rods of force, which seized the space-ship and began relentlessly to draw her down.
"What are they doing that for, Conway? They can't fight us!"
"They don't want to fight us. They want to hold us, but I know what to do about that, too," and the powerful tractor rods snapped as a plane of lurid light drove through them. Upward now at the highest permissible velocity the speedster leaped, and past the few ships remaining above her she dodged; there was nothing now between her and the freedom of boundless space.
"You did it, Conway; you did it!" Clio exulted. "Oh, Conway, you're just simply wonderful!"
"I haven't done it yet," Costigan cautioned her. "The worst is yet to come. Nerado. He's why they wanted to hold us back, and why I was in such a hurry to get away. That boat of his is bad medicine, girl, and we want to put plenty of kilometers behind us before he gets started."
"But do you think he will chase us?"
"Think so? I know so! The mere facts, that we are rare specimens and that he told us that we were going to stay there all the rest of our lives, would make him chase us clear to Dustheimer's Nebula. Besides that, we stepped on their toes pretty heavily before we left. We know altogether too much now to be let get back to Tellus; and finally, they'd all die of acute enlargement of the spleen if we get away with this prize ship of theirs. I hope to tell you they'll chase us!"
He fell silent, devoting his whole attention to his piloting, driving his craft onward at such velocity that its outer plating held steadily at the highest point of temperature compatible with safety. Soon they were out in open space, hurtling toward the sun under the drive of every possible iota of power, and Costigan took off his armor and turned toward the helpless body of the captain.
"He looks so ... so ... so dead, Conway! Are you really sure that you can bring him to?"
"Absolutely. Lots of time yet. Just three simple squirts in the right places will do the trick." He took from a locked compartment of his armor a small steel box, which housed a surgeon's hypodermic and three vials. One, two, three, he injected small, but precisely measured amounts of the fluids into the three vital localities, then placed the inert form upon a deeply cushioned couch.
"There! That'll take care of the gas in five or six hours. The paralysis will wear off before that, so he'll be all right when he wakes up; and we're going away from here with every watt of power we can put out. We have done everything I know how to do, for the present."
Then only did Costigan turn and look down, directly into Clio's eyes. Wide, eloquent blue eyes that gazed back up into his, tender and unafraid; eyes freighted with the oldest message of woman to chosen man. His hard young face softened wonderfully as he stared at her; there were two quick steps and they were in each other's arms. Clio's lithely rounded form nestled against Costigan's powerful body as his mighty arms tightened around her; his neck and shoulder were no less enthusiastically clasped, and less strongly only because of her woman's slighter musculature. Lips upon eager lips, blue eyes to gray, motionless they stood clasped in ecstasy; thinking nothing of the dreadful past, nothing of the fearful future, conscious only of the glorious, the wonderful present.
"Clio mine ... darling ... girl, girl, how I love you!" Costigan's deep voice was husky with emotion. "I haven't kissed you for seven thousand years! I don't rate you, by hundreds of steps; but if I can just get you out of this mess, I swear by all the space...."
"You needn't, lover. Rate me? Good Heavens, Conway? It's just the other way...."
"Chop it!" he commanded in her ear. "I'm still dizzy at the idea of your loving me at all, to say nothing of loving me this way! But you do, and that's all I ask, here or hereafter!"
"Love you? Love you!" Their mutual embrace tightened and her low voice thrilled brokenly as she went on: "Conway, dearest.... I can't say a thing, but you know.... Oh, Conway!"
After a time Clio drew a long and tremulous, but supremely happy breath as the realities of their predicament once more obtruded themselves upon her consciousness. She released herself gently from Costigan's arms.
"Do you really think that there is a chance of us getting back to the earth, so that we can be together ... always?"
"A chance, yes. A probability, no," he replied, unequivocally. "It depends upon two things. First, how much of a start we got on Nerado. His ship is the biggest and fastest thing I ever saw, and if he strips her down and drives her—which he will—he'll catch us long before we can make Tellus. On the other hand, I gave Rodebush a lot of data, and if he and Lyman Cleveland can add it to their own stuff and get that super-ship of ours rebuilt in time, they'll be out here on the prowl; and they'll have what can give even Nerado plenty of argument. No use worrying about it, anyway. We won't know anything until we can detect one or the other of them, and then will be the time to do something about it."
"If Nerado catches us, will you...." She paused.
"Rub you out? I will not. Even if he does catch us, and takes us back to Nevia, I won't. There's lots more time coming onto the clock. Nerado won't hurt either of us badly enough to leave scars, either physical, mental, or moral. I'd kill you in a second if it were Roger; he's dirty and he's thoroughly bad. But Nerado's a good enough old scout, in his way. He's big and he's clean. You know, I could really like that fish, if I could meet him on terms of equality sometime?"
"I couldn't!" she declared, vigorously. "He's crawly and scaly and snaky; and he smells so ... so...."
"So rank and fishy?" Costigan laughed deeply. "Details, girl; mere details. I've seen people who looked like money in the bank and who smelled like a bouquet of violets that you couldn't trust half the length of Nerado's neck."
"But look what he did to us!" she protested. "And they weren't trying to recapture us back there; they were trying to kill us."
"That was perfectly all right, what he did and what they did—what else could they have done?" he wanted to know. "And while you're looking, look at what we did to them—plenty, I'd say. But we all had it to do, and neither side will blame the other for doing it. He's a square shooter, I tell you."
"Well, maybe, but I don't like him a bit, and let's not talk about him any more. Let's talk about us. Remember what you said once, when you advised me to 'let you lay,' or whatever it was?" Woman-like, she wished to dip again lightly into the waters of pure emotion, even though she had such a short time before led the man out of their profoundest depths. But Costigan, into whose hard life love of woman had never before entered, had not yet recovered sufficiently from his soul-shaking plunge to follow her lead. Inarticulate, distrusting his newly found supreme happiness, he must needs stay out of those enchanted waters or plunge again. And he was afraid to plunge—diffident, still deeming himself unworthy of the miracle of this wonder-girl's love—even though every fiber of his being shrieked its demand to feel again that slender body in his clasping arms. He did not consciously think those thoughts. He acted them without thinking; they were inherent in his personality.
"I do remember, and I still think it's a sound idea, even though I am too far gone now to let you put it into effect," he assured her, half seriously. He kissed her, tenderly and reverently, then studied her carefully. "But you look as though you'd been on a Martian picnic. When did you eat last?"
"I don't remember, exactly. This morning, I think."
"Or maybe last night, or yesterday morning? I thought so! Bradley and I can eat anything that's chewable, and drink anything that will pour, but you can't. I'll scout around and see if I can't fix up something that you'll be able to eat."
He rummaged through the store-rooms, emerging with sundry viands from which he prepared a highly satisfactory meal.
"Think you can sleep now, sweetheart?" After supper, once more within the circle of Costigan's arms, Clio nodded her head against his shoulder.
"Of course I can, dear. Now that you are with me, out here alone, I'm not a bit afraid any more. You will get us back to the earth some way, sometime; I just know that you will. Good-night, Conway."
"Good-night, Clio ... little sweetheart," he whispered, and went back to Bradley's side.
In due time the captain recovered consciousness, and slept. Then for days the speedster flashed on toward our distant solar system; days during which her wide-flung detector screens remained cold.
"I don't know whether I'm afraid they'll hit something or afraid that they won't," Costigan remarked more than once, but finally those tenuous sentinels did in fact encounter an interfering vibration. Along the detector line a visibeam sped, and Costigan's face hardened as he saw the unmistakable outline of Nerado's interstellar cruiser, far behind them.
"Well, a stern chase always was a long one," Costigan said finally. "He can't catch us for plenty of days yet ... now what?" for the alarms of the detectors had broken out anew. There was still another point of interference to be investigated. Costigan traced it; and there, almost dead ahead of them, between them and their sun, nearing them at the incomprehensible rate of the sum of the two vessels' velocities, came another cruiser of the Nevians!
"Must be the sister-ship, coming back from our System with a load of iron," Costigan deduced. "Heavily loaded as she is, we may be able to dodge her; and she's coming so fast that if we can stay out of her range we'll be all right—she won't be able to stop for probably three or four days. But if our super-ship is anywhere in these parts, now's the time for her to rally 'round!"
He gave the speedster all the side-thrust she would take; then, putting every available communicator tube behind a tight beam, he drove it sunward and began sending out a long-continued call to his fellows of Triplanetary's Secret Service.
Nearer and nearer the Nevian flashed, trying with all her power to intercept the speedster; and it soon became evident that, heavily laden though she was, she could make enough sideway to bring her within range at the time of meeting.
"Of course, they've got partial neutralization of inertia, the same as we have," Costigan cogitated, "and by the way he's coming I'd say that he had orders to blow us out of the ether—he knows as well as we do that he can't capture us alive at anything like the relative velocities we've got now. I can't give her any more side thrust without overloading the gravity controls, so overloaded they've got to be. Strap down, you two, because they may go out entirely."
"Do you think that you can pull away from them, Conway?" Clio was staring in horrified fascination into the plate, watching the pictured vessel increase in size, moment by moment.
"I don't know, girl, but I'm going to try. Just in case we don't, though, I'm going to keep on yelling for help. In solid? All right, boat, DO YOUR STUFF!"
The Meeting of the Giants
"Check your blast, Fred, I think I hear something trying to come through!" Cleveland called out, sharply. For days the Boise had torn through the illimitable reaches of empty space, and now the long vigil of the keen-eared listeners was to be ended. Rodebush cut off his power, and through the deafening roar of tube-noise an almost inaudible voice made itself heard.
" ... all the help you can give us. Samms—Cleveland—Rodebush—anybody of Triplanetary who can hear me, listen! This is Costigan, with Miss Marsden and Captain Bradley, heading for where we think the sun is, from right ascension about six hours, declination about plus fourteen degrees. Distance unknown, but probably hundreds of light-years. Trace my call. One Nevian ship is overhauling us slowly, another is coming toward us from the sun. We may or may not be able to dodge it, but we need all the help you can give us. Samms—Rodebush—Cleveland—anybody of Triplanetary...."
Endlessly the faint, faint voice went on, but Rodebush and Cleveland were no longer listening. Sensitive ultra-loops had been swung, and along the indicated line shot Triplanetary's super-ship at a velocity which she had never before even approached; the utterly incomprehensible, almost incalculable velocity attained by inertialess matter, driven through an almost perfect vacuum by the Boise's maximum projector blast—a blast which would lift her stupendous normal tonnage against a gravity five times that of earth's! At the full frightful measure of that velocity the super-ship literally annihilated distance, while ahead of her the furiously driven, but scarcely faster spy-ray beam tore on in quest of the three Terrestrials who were calling for help.
"Got any idea how fast we're going?" Rodebush demanded, glancing up for an instant from the observation plate. "We should be able to see him, since we could hear him, and our range is certainly as great as anything he can have."
"No, can't figure velocity without any reliable data on how many atoms of matter exist per cubic meter out here." Cleveland was staring at the calculator. "It's constant, of course, at the value at which the friction of the medium is equal to our thrust. Incidentally, we can't hold it long. We're running a temperature, which shows that we're stepping along faster than anybody ever computed before. Taking Throckmorton's estimates it figures somewhere near the order of magnitude of ten to the twenty-seventh. Fast enough, anyway, so you'd better bend an eye on that plate. Even after you see him you won't know anything about where he really is, because we don't know any of the velocities involved—our own, his, or that of the beam—and we may be right on top of him."
"Or, if we are outrunning the beam, we won't see him at all. That makes it nice piloting."
"How are you going to handle things when we get there?"
"Lock to them and take them aboard if we're in time. If not, if they are fighting already—there they are!"
The picture of the speedster's control room flashed upon the plate and Costigan's voice greeted them from the speaker.
"Hello, fellows, welcome to our city! Where are you?"
"We don't know," Cleveland snapped back, "and we don't know where you are, either. Can't figure anything without data. I see you're still breathing air. Where are the Nevians? How much time we got yet?"
"Not enough, I'm afraid. By the looks of things they will be within range of us in a couple of hours, and you're so far away yet that it took our voices four minutes and about fifty seconds to make the round trip, on the ultra! Play that on your calculator, Lyman! You haven't even touched our detector screen yet. I'm mighty glad to have seen you fellows again, though, anyway."
"A couple of hours!" In his relief Cleveland almost shouted the words. "That's time to burn. We can be clear out of the Galaxy in less than...." He broke off at a yell from Rodebush.
"Broadcast, Conway, broadcast!" that worthy had cried, as Costigan's image had disappeared utterly from his plate.
Now he cut off the Boise's power, stopping her instantaneously in mid-space, but the connection had been broken. Costigan could not possibly have heard the orders to change his beam signal to a broadcast, so that they could pick it up; nor would it have done any good if he had heard and had obeyed. So immeasurably great had been their velocity that they had flashed past the speedster without seeing it, even upon the ultra-plates, and now they were unknown billions of miles beyond the fugitives they had come so far to help—far beyond the range of any possible broadcast. But Cleveland had understood instantly what had happened. He now had a little data upon which to work, and his fingers were flying over the keys of the calculator.
"Back blast, maximum, seventeen seconds!" he directed, crisply. "Not exact, of course, but that'll put us close enough to find 'em with our detectors!"
Then for the calculated seventeen seconds the super-ship retraced her path, at the same awful speed with which she had come so far. The blast expired and there, plainly limned upon the observation plates, was the Nevian speedster.
"As a computer you're good," Rodebush applauded. "So close that we can't use the neutralizers to catch him. If we use a dyne of driving force we'll overshoot him a million kilometers before I can snap the switches out."
"And yet he's so far away and going so fast that if we keep our inertia on it'll take all day at full drive to overtake him." Cleveland was frankly puzzled. "What to do? Shunt in a potentiometer?"
"No, we don't need it." Rodebush turned to the transmitter. "Costigan! We are going to take hold of you with a very light tractor. Don't cut it!"
"A tractor—inertialess?" Cleveland wondered.
"Why not?" Rodebush launched the tractor, set at its absolute minimum of power, and threw in his master switches.
While hundreds of thousands of miles separating the two vessels and the tractor beam was exerting the least effort of which it was capable, yet the super-ship leaped toward the smaller craft at a pace which covered that distance in the twinkling of an eye. So rapidly were the objectives enlarging upon the plates that the automatic focusing devices could scarcely function rapidly enough to keep them in place. Cleveland flinched involuntarily and seized his arm-rests in a spasmodic clutch as he watched this, the first inertialess space-approach; and even Rodebush, who knew better than anyone else what to expect, held his breath and swallowed hard at the unbelievable rate at which the two vessels were rushing together.
And if these two, who had rebuilt the space-flyer, could hardly control themselves, what of the three in the speedster, who knew nothing whatever of the super-ship's potentialities? Clio, staring into the plate with Costigan, uttered a piercing shriek, as she sank her fingers into his shoulders. Bradley swore a mighty deep-space oath and braced himself against certain annihilation. Costigan stared for an instant, unable to believe his eyes, then his hand darted to the contacts which would cut the beam. Too late. Before his flying fingers could reach the studs the Boise was upon them; had struck them in direct central impact. Moving at the full measure of her unthinkable velocity though the super-ship was at the moment of impact, yet the most delicate recording instruments of the speedster could not detect the slightest shock as the enormous globe struck the comparatively tiny torpedo and clung to it; accommodating instantly and effortlessly her own terrific pace to that of the smaller and infinitely slower craft. Clio sobbed in relief and Costigan, one arm around her, sighed hugely.
"Hey, you space-fleas!" he cried. "Glad to see you and all that, but you might as well kill a man outright as scare him to death! So that's the super-ship, huh? SOME ship!"
"Hello, Conway!" "Clear ether, Conway!" The two scientists answered the hail of their fellow.
"I didn't realize that an inertialess approach would be quite such a terrifying spectacle, or I would have warned you," Rodebush went on. "Yes, thanks to you, the super-ship works as she should, at last. But you had better put on your suits and transfer. You might get your things ready...."
"'Things' is good!" Costigan laughed, and Clio giggled sunnily.
"We've made so many transfers already that what you see us in is all we have," Bradley explained. "We'll bring ourselves, and we'll hurry; that Nevian is coming up fast."
"Is there anything on this ship you fellows want?" Costigan asked.
"There may be, but we haven't any locks big enough to let her inside and we haven't time to study her now. You might leave her controls in neutral, so that Lyman can calculate her position if we should want her later on."
"All right." The three armor-clad figures stepped into the Boise's open lock, the tractor beam was cut off, and the speedster flashed away from the now stationary super-ship.
"Better let formalities go for a while," Captain Bradley interrupted the general introduction taking place. "I was scared out of nine years' growth when I saw you coming at us, and maybe I've still got the humps; but that Nevian is coming up fast, and if you don't already know it I can tell you that he's no light cruiser."
"That's so, too," Costigan concurred. "Have you fellows got enough stuff so that you think you can take him? You've got the legs on him, anyway—you can certainly run if you want to!"
"Run?" Cleveland laughed. "We have a bone of our own to pick with that ship. We licked her to a standstill once, until we burned out a set of generators, and since we got them fixed we've been chasing her all over space. We were chasing her when we picked up your call. See there? She's doing the running."
The Nevian was running, in truth. Her commander had seen and had recognized the great vessel which had flashed out of nowhere to the rescue of the three Terrestrials; and, having once been at grips with that vengeful super-dreadnaught, he had little stomach for another encounter. Therefore his side-thrust was now being exerted in the opposite direction; he was frankly trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and Triplanetary's formidable cruiser. In vain. A light tractor was clamped on and the Boise flashed up to close range before Rodebush threw on her inertia and Cleveland brought the two vessels relatively to rest by increasing gradually his tractor's pull. And this time the Nevian could not cut the tractor. Again that shearing plane of force bit into it and tore at it, but it neither yielded nor broke. The rebuilt generators of Number Four were designed to carry the load, and they carried it. And again Triplanetary's every mighty weapon was brought into play.
The "cans" were thrown, ultra-and infra-beams were driven, the furious macro-beam gnawed hungrily at the Nevian's defenses; and one by one those defenses went down. In desperation the enemy commander threw his every generator behind a polycyclic screen; only to see Cleveland's even more powerful drill bore relentlessly through it. Punctured that last defense, the end came soon. A secondary SX7 beam was now in place on mighty Ten's inner rings, and one fierce blast blew a hole completely through the Nevian cruiser. Into that hole entered Adlington's terrific bombs and their gruesome fellows, and where they entered, life departed. All defenses vanished, and under the blasts of the Boise's projectors, now unopposed, the metal of the Nevian vessel exploded instantly into a widely spreading cloud of vapor. Sparkling vapor, with perhaps here and there a droplet or two of material which had only been liquefied.
So passed the sister-ship, and Rodebush turned his plates upon the vessel of Nerado. But that highly intelligent amphibian had seen all that had occurred. He had long since given over the pursuit of the speedster, and he did not rush in to do hopeless battle beside his fellow Nevians against the Terrestrials. His analytical detectors had written down each detail of every weapon and of every screen employed; and even while prodigious streamers of red force were raving out from his vessel, braking her terrific progress and swinging her around in an immense circle back toward far Nevia, his scientists and mechanics were doubling and redoubling the power of his already Titanic installations, to match and if possible to overmatch those of Triplanetary's super-dreadnaught.
"Do we kill him now or do we let him suffer a while longer?" Costigan demanded.
"I don't think so, yet," replied Rodebush. "Would you, Lyman?"
"Not yet," replied Cleveland, grimly, reading the thought of the other and agreeing with it. "Let him pilot us to Nevia; we might not be able to find it without a guide. While we're at it we want to so pulverize that crowd that if they never come near the Solarian system again they'll think it's twenty minutes too soon!"
Thus it was that the Boise, under only a few dynes of propulsion, pursued the Nevian ship. Apparently exerting every effort, she never came quite within range of the fleeing raider; yet never was she so far behind that the Nevian space-ship was not in clear register upon her observation plates. Nor was Nerado alone in strengthening his vessel. Costigan knew well and respected highly the Nevian scientist-captain, and at his suggestion the entire time of the long and uneventful flight was spent in re-enforcing the super-ship's armament to the iron-driven limit of theoretical and mechanical possibility.
Thus, when Nevia and her hot, blue sun appeared upon his plates Rodebush was ready for any emergency, and hurled his battleship upon the Nevian with every weapon aflame. But so was Nerado ready; and, unlike her sister-ship, his vessel was manned by scientists well versed in the fundamental theory of the weapons with which they fought. Beams, rods, and lances of energy flamed and flared; planes and pencils cut, slashed, and stabbed; defensive screens glowed redly or flashed suddenly into intensely brilliant, coruscating incandescence. Crimson opacity struggled sullenly against violet curtain of annihilation. Material projectiles and torpedoes were launched under full beam control; only to be exploded harmlessly in mid-space, to be rayed into nothingness, or to disappear innocuously against impenetrable polycyclic screens. Both vessels were equipped completely with iron-driven mechanisms; both were manned by scientists capable of wringing the last possible watt of power from their sources. They were approximately equal in size, and each ship now wielded the theoretical ultimate of power for her mass; therefore neither could harm the other, furiously though each was trying. And more and more nearly they were approaching the red atmosphere of the world of the amphibians. Down into that crimson blanket the two warring space-ships dropped, down toward a city which Costigan recognized as that in which Nerado made his headquarters.
"Better hold off a bit," Costigan cautioned. "If I know that bird at all, he's cooking up something," and even as he spoke there shot upward from the city a multitude of flashing balls. The Nevians had mastered the secret of the explosive of the fishes of the greater deeps and were launching it in a veritable storm against the Terrestrial visitor.
"Those?" asked Rodebush, calmly. The detonating balls of destruction were literally annihilating even the atmosphere beyond the polycyclic screen, but that barrier was scarcely affected.
"No, that," pointing out a hemispherical dome which, redly translucent, surrounded a group of buildings towering high above their neighbors. "Neither those high towers nor those screens were there the last time I was in this town. They're stalling for time down there, that's all those fireballs are for. Good sign, too—maybe they aren't ready for us yet. If not, you'd better take 'em while the taking's good; and if they are ready for us, we'd better get out of here while we're all in one piece."
And in fact Nerado had been in touch with the scientists of his city; had been instructing them in the construction of converters and generators of such weight and power that they could crush even the defenses of the super-ship. They were not, however, quite done; the entirely unsuspected possibilities of speed inherent in absolute inertialessness had not entered into Nerado's calculations.
"Better drop a few cans down on that dome, fellows, before they make trouble for us," suggested Rodebush to his gunners.
"We can't," came Adlington's instant reply. "We've been trying it, but that's a polycyclic screen. Can you drill it? If you can, I've got a real bomb here—that special we built—that will do the trick if you can protect it from their beams until it gets down into the water."
"I'll try it," Cleveland answered, at a nod from the physicist. "I couldn't drill Nerado's polycyclics, but I couldn't use any momentum on him. Couldn't ram him—he fell back with my thrust. But that screen down there can't back off, so maybe I can work on it. Get your special ready, and hang on, everybody!"
The Boise looped upward, and from an altitude of miles dove downward through a storm of force-balls, rays, and shells; a dive checked abruptly as the hollow tube of energy, which was Cleveland's drill, snarled savagely down ahead of her and struck the shielding hemisphere with a grinding, lightning-splitting shock. As it struck, backed by all the enormous momentum of the plunging space-ship and driven by the full power of her mightiest generators, it bored in, clawing and gouging viciously through the tissue of that rigid and unyielding barrier of pure energy. Then, mighty drill and plunging mass against iron-driven wall, eye-tearing and furiously spectacular warfare was waged. Well it was for Triplanetary, that day, that its super ship carried ample supply of allotropic iron; well it was that her originally Gargantuan converters and generators had been doubled and quadrupled in power on the long Nevian way! For that oven-girdled fortress was powered to withstand any conceivable assault; but the Boise's power and momentum were now inconceivable, and every watt and every dyne was solidly behind that hellishly flaming, that voraciously tearing, that irresistibly ravening cylinder of energy incredible!
Through the Nevian shield that cylinder gnawed its frightful way, and down its protecting length there drove Adlington's "Special" bomb. "Special" it was indeed; so great of girth that it could barely pass through the central orifice of Ten's mighty projector, so heavily charged with sensitized atomic iron that its detonation upon any planet would not have been considered for an instant if that planet's integrity meant anything to its attackers. Down the shielding pipe of force the "Special" screamed under full propulsion, and beneath the surface of Nevia's ocean it plunged.
"Cut!" yelled Adlington, and as the scintillating drill expired, the bomber snapped his detonating switch.
For a moment the effect of the explosion seemed unimportant. A dull, low rumble was all that was to be heard of a concussion that jarred red Nevia to her very center; and all that could be seen was a slow heaving of the water. But that heaving did not cease. Slowly, so slowly it seemed to the observers now high in the heavens, the waters rose up and parted; revealing a vast chasm blown deep into the ocean's rocky bed. Higher and higher the lazy, mountains of water reared; effortlessly to pick up, to smash, to grind into fragments, and finally to toss aside every building, every structure, every scrap of material substance pertaining to the whole Nevian city.
Flattened out, driven backward for miles the tortured waters were urged, leaving exposed bare ground and broken rock where once had been the ocean's busy floor; while tremendous blasts of incandescent gas raved upward, buffeting even the enormous masses of the two space-ships, poised by their breathless crews so high above the site of the explosion. Then the displaced millions of tons of water rushed back into that newly rived pit, seeming to seek in that mad rush to make even more complete the already total destruction of the city. The raging torrents poured into that yawning cavern, filled it, and piled mountainously above it; receding and piling up, again and again, causing tidal waves which swept a full half of Nevia's mighty, watery globe.
The city forever silenced, Rodebush again directed his weapons upon Nerado's vessel, but the Nevian was no longer fighting. For the first time in that long and bitter engagement, not a Nevian beam was in operation. His screens, however, were as capable as ever, and after a few fruitless attempts to make an impression upon them, Rodebush cut off his own offensive and turned to Costigan.
"What do you make of it, Conway? You know these people better than we do; what are they up to?"
"I wish to talk to you," Nerado's voice came from the speaker, "and I could not do so while the beams were operating. You are, I now perceive, a much higher form of life than any of us had thought possible; a form perhaps as high in evolution as our own. It is a pity that we did not meet you when we first neared your planet, so that much life, both Tellurian and Nevian, might have been spared. But what is past cannot be recalled. As reasoning beings, however, you will see the futility of continuing a contest in which neither of us is capable of injuring the other. You may, of course, destroy more of our Nevian cities, in which case I should be compelled to go and destroy similarly upon your earth; but, to reasoning minds, such a course of procedure is sheerest folly."
Rodebush cut the communicator beam.
"Does he mean it?" he demanded of Costigan. "It sounds reasonable, but...."
"But fishy," broke in Cleveland. "Altogether too reasonable for a...."
"Yes, he means it; every word of it," interrupted Costigan in turn. "That's the way they are. Reasonable, passionless. Funny—they lack a lot of things we have, but they've got a lot of things that I wish more of us Tellurians had too. Give me the plate—I'll talk for Triplanetary," and the beam was restored.
"Captain Nerado." he greeted the Nevian commander. "Having been with you and among your people, I know that you mean what you say and that you speak for your race. Similarly, I believe that I can speak for the Triplanetary Council—the government of three of the planets of our solar system—in saying that there need be no more conflict between our peoples. I also was compelled by circumstances to do certain things which I now wish could be undone; but as you have said, the past is past. Our two races have much to gain from each other by friendly exchanges of materials and of ideas, while we can expect nothing except mutual extermination, if we elect to continue this warfare. I offer you the friendship of Triplanetary. Will you release your screens and come aboard to sign a treaty?"
"I will come; my screens are down." Rodebush likewise cut off his power, although somewhat apprehensively, and a Nevian lifeboat entered the main airlock of the Boise.
* * * * *
Then, at a table in the control room of Triplanetary's first super-ship, there was written the first Inter-Systemic Treaty. Upon one side the three Nevians; amphibious, cone-headed, loop-necked, scale-bodies, four-legged things to us monstrosities: upon the other the three humans, air-breathing, rounded-headed, shortnecked, smooth-bodied, two-legged creatures equally monstrous to the fastidious Nevians. Yet each of these representatives, of two races so different, felt respect for the other race increase within him minute by minute as the conversation went on.
The Nevians had destroyed Pittsburgh, but Adlington's bomb had blown an equally populous Nevian city out of existence. One Nevian vessel had wiped out an entire unit of Triplanetary's fleet; but Costigan, practically unaided, had depopulated one Nevian city and had seriously damaged another. He had also beamed down many Nevian ships. Therefore loss of life and material could be balanced. The Solarian system was rich in iron, to which the Nevians were welcome; red Nevia possessed abundant stores of substances which upon earth were extremely rare and of vital importance. Therefore commerce was to be encouraged. The Nevians had knowledges and skills unknown to earthly science, but were entirely ignorant of many things, to us commonplace. Therefore interchange of students and of books was highly desirable. And so on.
Thus was signed the Triplanetario-Nevian Treaty of Eternal Peace. Nerado and his two companions were escorted ceremoniously to their vessel, and the Boise took off in an inertialess dash toward earth, bearing the good news that the Nevian menace was no more.
Clio, now a hardened space-flea, immune even to the horrible nausea of inertialessness, wriggled lithely in the curve of Costigan's arm and laughed up at him.
"You can talk all you want to, Conway, but I don't like them a bit. They give me the purple jitters! I suppose that they are really estimable folks; talented, cultured, and everything; but just the same I'll bet that it will be a long, long time before anybody on earth will really, truly like them!"