Kendall cast a glance over his detector-instruments. The radio network was undisturbed, the magnetic and electric fields recognized only the slight disturbances occasioned by the planet itself. There was nothing, noth-- Five hundred miles away, a gigantic ship came into instantaneous being. Simultaneously, and instantaneously, the various detector systems howled their warnings. Kendall gasped as the thing appeared on his view screen, with the scale-lines below. The scale must be cock-eyed. They said the ship was fifteen hundred feet in diameter, and two thousand long!
"Retreat," ordered Kendall, "at maximum acceleration."
Talbot was already acting. The gyroscopes hummed in their castings, and the motors creaked. The T-247 spun on her axis, and abruptly the acceleration built up as the ion-rockets began to shudder. A faint smell of "heat" began to creep out of the converter. Immense "weight" built up, and pressed the men into their specially designed seats-- The gigantic ship across the way turned slowly, and seemed to stare at the T-247. Then it darted toward them at incredible speed till the poor little T-247 seemed to be standing still, as sailors say. The stranger was so gigantic now, the screens could not show all of him.
"God, Buck--he's going to take us!"
Simultaneously, the T-247 rolled, and from her broke every possible stream of destruction. The ion-rocket flames swirled abruptly toward her, the proton-guns whined their song of death in their housings, and the heavy pounding shudder of the Garnell guns racked the ship.
Strangely, Kendall suddenly noticed, there was a stillness in the ship. The guns and the rays were still going--but the little human sounds seemed abruptly gone.
"Talbot--Garnet--" Only silence answered him. Cole looked across at him in sudden white-faced amazement.
"They're gone--" gasped Cole.
Kendall stood paralyzed for thirty seconds. Then suddenly he seemed to come to life. "Neutrons! Neutrons--and water tanks! Old Nichols was right--" He turned to his friend. "Cole--the tender--quick." He darted a glance at the screen. The giant ship still lay alongside. A wash of ions was curling around her, splitting, and passing on. The pinprick explosions of the Garnell shells dotted space around her--but never on her.
Cole was already racing for the tender lock. In an instant Kendall piled in after him. The tiny ship, scarcely ten feet long, was powered for flights of only two hours acceleration, and had oxygen for but twenty-four hours for six men, seventy-two hours for two men--maybe. The heavy door was slammed shut behind them, as Cole seated himself at the panel. He depressed a lever, and a sudden smooth push shot them away from the T-247.
"DON'T!" called Kendall sharply as Cole reached for the ion-rocket control. "Douse those lights!" The ship was dark in dark space. The lighted hull of the T-247 drifted away from the little tender--further and further till the giant ship on the far side became visible.
"Not a light--not a sign of fields in operation." Kendall said, unconsciously speaking softly. "This thing is so tiny, that it may escape their observation in the fields of the T-247 and Pluto down there. It's our only hope."
"What happened? How in the name of the planets did they kill those men without a sound, without a flash, and without even warning us, or injuring us?"
"Neutrons--don't you see?"
"Frankly, I don't. I'm no scientist--merely a technician. Neutrons aren't used in any process I've run across."
"Well, remember they're uncharged, tiny things. Small as protons, but without electric field. The result is they pass right through an ordinary atom without being stopped unless they make a direct hit. Tungsten, while it has a beautifully high melting point, is mostly open space, and a neutron just sails right through it, or any heavy atom. Light atoms stop neutrons better--there's less open space in 'em. Hydrogen is best. Well--a man is made up mostly of light elements, and a man stops those neutrons--it isn't surprising it killed those other fellows invisibly, and without a sound."
"You mean they bathed that ship in neutrons?"
"Shot it full of 'em. Just like our proton guns, only sending neutrons."
"Well, why weren't we killed too?"
"'Water stops neutrons,' I said. Figure it out."
"The rocket-water tanks--all around us! Great masses of water--" gasped Cole. "That saved us?"
"Right. I wonder if they've spotted us."
The stranger ship was moving slowly in relation to the T-247. Suddenly the motion changed, the stranger spun--and a giant lock appeared in her side, opened. The T-247 began to move, floated more and more rapidly straight for the lock. Her various weapons had stopped operating now, the hoppers of the Garnell guns exhausted, the charge of the accumulators aboard the ship down so low the proton guns had died out.
"Lord--they're taking the whole ship!"
"Say--Cole, is that any ship you ever heard of before? I don't think that's just a pirate!"
"Not a pirate--what then?"
"How'd he get inside our detector screens so fast? Watch--he'll either leave, or come after us--" The T-247 had settled inside the lock now, and the great metal door closed after it. The whole patrol ship had been swallowed by a giant. Kendall was sketching swiftly on a notebook, watching the vast ship closely, putting down a record of its lines, and formation. He glanced up at it, and then down for a few more lines, and up at it-- The stranger ship abruptly dwindled. It dwindled with incredible speed, rushing off along the line of sight at an impossible velocity, and abruptly clicking out of sight, like an image on a movie-film that has been cut, and repaired after the scene that showed the final disappearance.
"Cole--Cole--did you get that? Did you see--do you understand what happened?" Kendall was excitedly shouting now.
"He missed us," Cole sighed. "It's a wonder--hanging out here in space, with the protector of the T-247's fields gone."
"No, no, you asteroid--that's not it. He went off faster than light itself!"
"Eh--what? Faster than light? That can't be done--"
"He did it, I know he did. That's how he got inside our screens. He came inside faster than the warning message could relay back the information. Didn't you see him accelerate to an impossible speed in an impossible time? Didn't you see how he just vanished as he exceeded the speed of light, and stopped reflecting it? That ship was no ship of this solar system!"
"Where did he come from then?"
"God only knows, but it's a long, long way off."
The IP-M-122 picked them up. The M-122 got out there two days later, in response to the calls the T-247 had sent out. As soon as she got within ten million miles of the little tender, she began getting Cole's signals, and within twelve hours had reached the tiny thing, located it, and picked it up.
Captain Jim Warren was in command, one of the old school commanders of the IP. He listened to Kendall's report, listened to Cole's tale--and radioed back a report of his own. Space pirates in a large ship had attacked the T-247, he said, and carried it away. He advised a close watch. On Pluto, his investigations disclosed nothing more than the fact that three mines had been raided, all platinum supplies taken, and the records and machinery removed.
The M-122 was a fifty-man patrol cruiser, and Warren felt sure he could handle the menace alone, and hung around for over two weeks looking for it. He saw nothing, and no further reports came of attack. Again and again, Kendall tried to convince him this ship he was hunting was no mere space pirate, and again and again Warren grunted, and went on his way. He would not send in any report Kendall made out, because to do so would add his endorsement to that report. He would not take Kendall back, though that was well within his authority.
In fact, it was a full month before Kendall again set foot on any of the Minor Planets, and then it was Mars, the base of the M-122. Kendall and Cole took passage immediately on an IP supply ship, and landed in New York six days later. At once, Kendall headed for Commander McLaurin's office. Buck Kendall, lieutenant of the IP, found he would have to make regular application to see McLaurin through a dozen intermediate officers.
By this time, Kendall was savagely determined to see McLaurin himself, and see him in the least possible time. Cole, too, was beginning to believe in Kendall's assertion of the stranger ship's extra-systemic origin. As yet neither could understand the strange actions of the machine, its attack on the Pluto mines, and the capture and theft of a patrol ship.
"There is," said Kendall angrily, "just one way to see McLaurin and see him quick. And, by God, I'm going to. Will you resign with me, Cole? I'll see him within a week then, I'll bet."
For a minute, Cole hesitated. Then he shook hands with his friends. "Today!" And that day it was. They resigned, together. Immediately, Buck Kendall got the machinery in motion for an interview, working now from the outside, pulling the strings with the weight of a hundred million dollar fortune. Even the IP officers had to pay a bit of attention when Bernard Kendall, multi-millionaire began talking and demanding things. Within a week, Kendall did see McLaurin.
At that time, McLaurin was fifty-three years old, his crisp hair still black as space, with scarcely a touch of the gray that appears in his more recent photographs. He stood six feet tall, a broad-shouldered, powerful man, his face grave with lines of intelligence and character. There was also a permanent narrowing of the eyes, from years under the blazing sun of space. But most of all, while those years in space had narrowed and set his eyes, they had not narrowed and set his mind. An infinitely finer character than old Jim Warren, his experience in space had taught him always to expect the unexpected, to understand the incomprehensible as being part of the unknown and incalculable properties of space and the worlds that swam in it. Besides the fine technical education he had started with, he had acquired a liberal education in mankind. When Buck Kendall, straight and powerful, came into his office with Cole, he recognized in him a character that would drive steadily and straight for its goal. Also, he recognized behind the millionaire that had succeeded in pulling wires enough to see him, the scientist who had had more than one paper published "in an amateur way."
"Dr. Bernard Kendall?" he asked, rising.
"Yes, sir. Late Buck Kendall, lieutenant of the IP. I quit and got Cole here to quit with me, so we could see you."
"Unusual tactics. I've had several men join up to get an interview with me." McLaurin smiled.
"Yes, I can imagine that, but we had to see you in a hurry. A hidebound old rapscallion by the name of Jim Warren picked us up out by Pluto, floating around in a six-man tender. We made some reports to him, but he wouldn't believe, and he wouldn't send them through--so we had to send ourselves through. Sir, this system is about to be attacked by some extra-systemic race. The IP-T-247 was so attacked, her crew killed off, and the ship itself carried away."
"I got the report Captain Jim Warren sent through, stating it was a gang of space pirates. Now what makes you believe otherwise?"
"That ship that attacked us, attacked with a neutron gun, a gun that shot neutrons through the hull of our ship as easily as protons pass through open space. Those neutrons killed off four of the crew, and spared us only because we happened to be behind the water tanks. Masses of hydrogen will stop neutrons, so we lived, and escaped in the tender. The little tender, lightless, escaped their observation, and we were picked up. Now, when the 247 had been picked up, and locked into their ship, that ship started accelerating. It accelerated so fast along my line of sight that it just dwindled, and--vanished. It didn't vanish in distance, it vanished because it exceeded the speed of light."
"Isn't that impossible?"
"Not at all. It can be done--if you can find some way of escaping from this space to do it. Now if you could cut across through a higher dimension, your projection in this dimension might easily exceed the speed of light. For instance, if I could cut directly through the Earth, at a speed of one thousand miles an hour, my projection on the surface would go twelve thousand miles while I was going eight. Similar, if you could cut through the four dimensional space instead of following its surface, you'd attain a speed greater than light."
"Might it not still be a space pirate? That's a lot easier to believe, even allowing your statement that he exceeded the speed of light."
"If you invented a neutron gun which could kill through tungsten walls without injuring anything within, a system of accelerating a ship that didn't affect the inhabitants of that ship, and a means of exceeding the speed of light, all within a few months of each other, would you become a pirate? I wouldn't, and I don't think any one else would. A pirate is a man who seeks adventure and relief from work. Given a means of exceeding the speed of light, I'd get all the adventure I wanted investigating other planets. If I didn't have a cent before, I'd have relief from work by selling it for a few hundred millions--and I'd sell it mighty easily too, for an invention like that is worth an incalculable sum. Tie to that the value of compensated acceleration, and no man's going to turn pirate. He can make more millions selling his inventions than he can make thousands turning pirate with them. So who'd turn pirate?"
"Right." McLaurin nodded. "I see your point. Now before I'd accept your statements in re the 'speed of light' thing, I'd want opinions from some IP physicists."
"Then let's have a conference, because something's got to be done soon. I don't know why we haven't heard further from that fellow."
"Privately--we have," McLaurin said in a slightly worried tone. "He was detected by the instruments of every IP observatory I suspect. We got the reports but didn't know what to make of them. They indicated so many funny things, they were sent in as accidental misreadings of the instruments. But since all the observatories reported them, similar misreadings, at about the same times, that is with variations of only a few hours, we thought something must have been up. The only thing was the phenomena were reported progressively from Pluto to Neptune, clear across the solar system, in a definite progression, but at a velocity of crossing that didn't tie in with any conceivable force. They crossed faster than the velocity of light. That ship must have spent about half an hour off each planet before passing on to the next. And, accepting your faster-than-light explanation, we can understand it."
"Then I think you have proof."
"If we have, what would you do about it?"
"Get to work on those 'misreadings' of the instruments for one thing, and for a second, and more important, line every IP ship with paraffin blocks six inches thick."
"The easiest form of hydrogen to get. You can't use solid hydrogen, because that melts too easily. Water can be turned into steam too easily, and requires more work. Paraffin is a solid that's largely hydrogen. That's what they've always used on neutrons since they discovered them. Confine your paraffin between tungsten walls, and you'll stop the secondary protons as well as the neutrons."
"Hmmm--I suppose so. How about seeing those physicists?"
"I'd like to see them today, sir. The sooner you get started on this work, the better it will be for the IP."
"Having seen me, will you join up in the IP again?" asked McLaurin.
"No, sir, I don't think I will. I have another field you know, in which I may be more useful. Cole here's a better technician than fighter--and a darned good fighter, too--and I think that an inexperienced space-captain is a lot less useful than a second-rate physicist at work in a laboratory. If we hope to get anywhere, or for that matter, I suspect, stay anywhere, we'll have to do a lot of research pretty promptly."
"What's your explanation of that ship?"
"One of two things: an inventor of some other system trying out his latest toy, or an expedition sent out by a planetary government for exploration. I favor the latter for two reasons: that ship was big. No inventor would build a thing that size, requiring a crew of several hundred men to try out his invention. A government would build just about that if they wanted to send out an expedition. If it were an inventor, he'd be interested in meeting other people, to see what they had in the way of science, and probably he'd want to do it in a peaceable way. That fellow wasn't interested in peace, by any means. So I think it's a government ship, and an unfriendly government. They sent that ship out either for scientific research, for trade research and exploration, or for acquisitive exploration. If they were out for scientific research, they'd proceed as would the inventor, to establish friendly communication. If they were out for trade, the same would apply. If they were out for acquisitive exploration, they'd investigate the planets, the sun, the people, only to the extent of learning how best to overcome them. They'd want to get a sample of our people, and a sample of our weapons. They'd want samples of our machinery, our literature and our technology. That's exactly what that ship got.
"Somebody, somewhere out there in space, either doesn't like their home, or wants more home. They've been out looking for one. I'll bet they sent out hundreds of expeditions to thousands of nearby stars, gradually going further and further, seeking a planetary system. This is probably the one and only one they found. It's a good one too. It has planets at all temperatures, of all sizes. It is a fairly compact one, it has a stable sun that will last far longer than any race can hope to."
"Hmm--how can there be good and bad planetary systems?" asked McLaurin. "I'd never thought of that."
Kendall laughed. "Mighty easy. How'd you like to live on a planet of a Cepheid Variable? Pleasant situation, with the radiation flaring up and down. How'd you like to live on a planet of Antares? That blasted sun is so big, to have a comfortable planet you'd have to be at least ten billion miles out. Then if you had an interplanetary commerce, you'd have to struggle with orbits tens of billions of miles across instead of mere millions. Further, you'd have a sun so blasted big, it would take an impossible amount of energy to lift the ship up from one planet to another. If your trip was, say, twenty billions of miles to the next planet, you'd be fighting a gravity as bad as the solar gravity at Earth here all the way--no decline with a little distance like that."
"H-m-m-m--quite true. Then I should say that Mira would take the prize. It's a red giant, and it's an irregular variable. The sunlight there would be as unstable as the weather in New England. It's almost as big as Antares, and it won't hold still. Now that would make a bad planetary system."
"It would!" Kendall laughed. But as we know--he laughed too soon, and he shouldn't have used the conditional. He should have said, "It does!"
Gresth Gkae, Commander of Expeditionary Force 93, of the Planet Sthor, was returning homeward with joyful mind. In the lock of his great ship, lay the T-247. In her cargo holds lay various items of machinery, mining supplies, foods, and records. And in her log books lay the records of many readings on the nine larger planets of a highly satisfactory planetary system.
Gresth Gkae had spent no less than three ultra-wearing years going from one sun to another in a definitely mapped out section of space. He had investigated only eleven stars in that time, eleven stars, progressively further from the titanic red-flaming sun he knew as "the" sun. He knew it as "the" sun, and had several other appellations for it. Mira was so-named by Earthmen because it was indeed a "wonder" star, in Latin, mirare means "to wonder." Irregularly, and for no apparent reason it would change its rate of radiation. So far as those inhabitants of Sthor and her sister world Asthor knew, there was no reason. It just did it. Perhaps with malicious intent to be annoying. If so, it was exceptionally successful. Sthor and Asthor experienced, periodically, a young ice age. When Mira decided to take a rest, Sthor and Asthor froze up, from the poles most of the way to the equators. Then Mira would stretch herself a little, move about restlessly and Sthor and Asthor would become uninhabitably hot, anywhere within twenty degrees of the equator.
Those Sthorian people had evolved in a way that made the conditions endurable for savage or uncivilized people, but when a scientific civilization with a well-ordered mode of existence tried to establish itself, Mira was all sorts of a nuisance.
Gresth Gkae was a peculiar individual to human ways of thinking. He stood some seven feet tall, on his strange, double-kneed legs and his four toed feet. His body was covered with little, short feather-like things that moved now with a volition of their own. They were moving very slowly and regularly. The space-ship was heated to a comfortable temperature, and the little fans were helping to cool Gresth Gkae. Had it been cold, every little feather would have lain down close against its neighbors, forming an admirable, wind-proof and cold-proof blanket.
Nature, on Sthor, had original ideas of arrangement too. Sthorians possessed two eyes--one directly above the other, in the center of their faces. The face was so long, and narrow, it resembled a blunt hatchet, with the two eyes on the edge. To counter-balance this vertical arrangement of the eyes, the nostrils had been separated some four inches, with one on each of the sloping cheeks. His ears were little pink-flesh cups on short, muscular stems. His mouth was narrow, and small, but armed with quite solid teeth adapted to his diet, a diet consisting of almost anything any creature had ever considered edible. Like most successful forms of intelligent life, Gresth Gkae was omnivorous. An intelligent form of life is necessarily adaptable, and adaptation meant being able to eat what was at hand.
One of his eyes, the upper one, was fully twice the size of the lower one. This was his telescopic eye. The lower, or microscopic eye was adapted to work for which a human being would have required a low power microscope, the upper eye possessed a more normal power of vision, plus considerable telescopic powers.
Gresth Gkae was using it now to look ahead in the blank of space to where gigantic Mira appeared. On his screens now, Mira appeared deep violet, for he was approaching at a speed greater than that of light, and even this projected light of Mira was badly distorted.
"The distance is half a light-year now, sir," reported the navigation officer.
"Reduce the speed, then, to normal velocity for these ranges. What reserve of fuel have we?"
"Less than one thousand pounds. We will barely be able to stop. We were too free in the use of our weapons, I fear," replied the Chief Technician.
"Well, what would you? We needed those things in our reports. Besides, we could extract fuel from that ore we took on at Planet Nine of Phahlo. It is merely that I wish speed in the return."
"As we all do. How soon do you believe the Council will proceed against the new system?"
"It will be fully a year, I fear. They must gather the expeditions together, and re-equip the ships. It will be a long time before all will have come in."
"Could they not send fast ships after them to recall them?"
"Could they have traced us as we wove our way from Thart to Karst to Raloork to Phahlo? It would be impossible."
Steadily the great ship had been boring on her way. Mira had been a disc for nearly two days, gigantic, two-hundred-and-fifty-million-mile Mira took a great deal of dwarfing by distance to lose her disc. Even at the Twin Planets, eight thousand two hundred and fifty millions of miles out, Mira covered half the sky, it seemed, red and angry. Sometimes, though, to the disgust of the Sthorians it was just red-faced and lazy. Then Sthor froze.
"Grih is in a descendant stage," said the navigation officer presently. "Sthor will be cold when we arrive."
"It will warm quickly enough with our news!" Gresth laughed. "A system--a delightful system--discovered. A system of many close-grouped planets. Why think--from one side of that system to the other is less of a distance than from Ansthat, our first planet's orbit, to Insthor's orbit! That sun, as we know, is steady and warm. All will be well, when we have eliminated that rather peculiar race. Odd, that they should, in some ways, be so nearly like us! Nearly Sthorian in build. I would not have expected it. Though they did have some amazing peculiarities! Imagine--two eyes just alike, and in a horizontal row. And that flat face. They looked as though they had suffered some accident that smashed the front of the face in. And also the peculiar beak-like projection. Why should a race ever develop so amazing a projection in so peculiar and exposed a position? It sticks out inviting attack and injury. Right in the middle of the face. And to make it worse, there is the air-channel, and the only air channel. Why, one minor injury to the throat would be certain to damage that passage beyond repair, and bring death. Yet such relatively unimportant things as ears, and eyes are doubled. Surely you would expect that so important a member as the air-passage would be doubled for safety.
"Those strange, awkward arms and legs were what puzzled me. I have been attempting to manipulate myself as they must be forced to, and I cannot see how delicate or accurate manual manipulation would be possible with those rigid, inflexible arms. In some ways I feel they must have had clever minds to overcome so great a handicap to constructive work. But I suppose single joints in the arms become as natural to them as our own more mobile two.
"I wonder if life in any intelligent form wouldn't develop somewhat similar formations, though. Think, in all parts of Sthor, before men became civilized and developed communication, even so much as twenty thousand years ago, our records show that seats and chairs were much as they are today, and much as they are, in all places among all groups. Then too, the eye has developed in many different species, and always reached much the same structure. When a thing is intended and developed to serve a given purpose, no matter who develops it, or where or how, is it not apt to have similar shapes and parts? A chair must have legs, and a seat and arm-rests and a back. You may vary their nature and their shape, but not widely, and they must be there. An eye must, anywhere, have a sensitive retina, an adjustable lens, and an adjustable device for controlling the entrance of light. Similarly there are certain functions that the body of an intelligent creature must serve which naturally tend to make intelligent creatures similar. He must have a tool--the hand--"
"Yes, yes--I see your point. It must be so, for surely these creatures out there are strange enough in other ways."
"But tell me, have you calculated when we shall land?"
"In twelve hours, thirty-three minutes, sir."
Eleven hours later, the expedition ship had slowed to a normal space-speed. On her left hung the giant globe of Asthor, rotating slowly, moving slowly in her orbit. Directly ahead, Sthor loomed even greater. Tiny Teelan, the thousand-mile diameter moon of the Insthor system shone dull red in the reflected light of gigantic Mira. Mira herself was gigantic, red and menacing across eight and a quarter billions of miles of space.