"A field of meteorites sweeping into our path, sir." Kincaide's voice was tense. "I have altered our course as much as I dared and am reducing speed at emergency rate, but this is the largest swarm of meteorites I have ever seen. I am afraid that we must pass through at least a section of it."
"With you in a moment, Mr. Kincaide!" I dropped the microphone and snatched up my robe, knotting its cord about me as I hurried out of my stateroom. In those days, interplanetary ships did not have their auras of repulsion rays to protect them from meteorites, it must be remembered. Two skins of metal were all that lay between the Ertak and all the dangers of space.
I took the companionway to the navigating room two steps at a time and fairly burst into the room.
Kincaide was crouched over the two charts that pictured the space around us, microphone pressed to his lips. Through the plate glass partition I could see the men in the operating room tensed over their wheels and levers and dials. Kincaide glanced up as I entered, and motioned with his free hand towards the charts.
One glance convinced me that he had not overestimated our danger. The space to right and left, and above and below, was fairly peppered with tiny pricks of greenish light that moved slowly across the milky faces of the charts.
From the position of the ship, represented as a glowing red spark, and measuring the distances roughly by means of the fine black lines graved in both directions upon the surface of the chart, it was evident to any understanding observer that disaster of a most terrible kind was imminent.
Kincaide muttered into his microphone, and out of the tail of my eye I could see his orders obeyed on the instant by the men in the operating room. I could feel the peculiar, sickening surge that told of speed being reduced, and the course being altered, but the cold, brutally accurate charts before me assured me that no action we dared take would save us from the meteorites.
"We're in for it, Mr. Kincaide. Continue to reduce speed as much as possible, and keep bearing away, as at present. I believe we can avoid the thickest portion of the field, but we shall have to take our chances with the fringe."
"Yes, sir!" said Kincaide, without lifting his eyes from the chart. His voice was calm and businesslike, now; with the responsibility on my shoulders, as commander, he was the efficient, level-headed thinking machine that had endeared him to me as both fellow-officer and friend.
Leaving the charts to Kincaide, I sounded the general emergency signal, calling every man and officer of the Ertak's crew to his post, and began giving orders through the microphone.
"Mr. Correy,"--Correy was my first officer--"please report at once to the navigating room. Mr. Hendricks, make the rounds of all duty posts, please, and give special attention to the disintegrator ray operators. The ray generators are to be started at once, full speed." Hendricks, I might say, was a junior officer, and a very good one, although quick-tempered and excitable--failings of youth. He had only recently shipped with us to replace Anderson Croy, who--but that has already been recorded.
[Footnote 2: "The Dark Side of Antri," in the January, 1931, issue of Astounding Stories.]
These preparations made, I glanced at the twin charts again. The peppering of tiny green lights, each of which represented a meteoritic body, had definitely shifted in relation to the position of the strongly-glowing red spark that was the Ertak, but a quick comparison of the two charts showed that we would be certain to pass through--again I use land terms to make my meaning clear--the upper right fringe of the field.
The great cluster of meteorites was moving in the same direction as ourselves now; Kincaide's change of course had settled that matter nicely. Naturally, this was the logical course, since should we come in contact with any of them, the impact would bear a relation to only the difference in our speeds, instead of the sum, as would be the case if we struck at a wide angle.
It was difficult to stand without grasping a support of some kind, and walking was almost impossible, for the reduction of our tremendous speed, and even the slightest change of direction, placed terrific strains upon the ship and everything in it. Space ships, at space speeds, must travel like the old-fashioned bullets if those within are to feel at ease.
"I believe, Mr. Kincaide, it might be well to slightly increase the power in the gravity pads," I suggested. Kincaide nodded and spoke briefly into his microphone; an instant later I felt my weight increase perhaps fifty per cent, and despite the inertia of my body, opposed to both the change in speed and direction of the Ertak, I could now stand without support, and could walk without too much difficulty.
The door of the navigating room was flung open, and Correy entered, his face alight with curiosity and eagerness. An emergency meant danger, and few beings in the universe have loved danger more than Correy.
"We're in for it, Mr. Correy," I said, with a nod towards the charts. "Swarm of meteorites, and we can't avoid them."
"Well, we've dodged through them before, sir," smiled Correy. "We can do it again."
"I hope so, but this is the largest field of them I have ever seen. Look at the charts: they're thicker than flies."
Correy glanced at the charts, slapped Kincaide across his bowed, tense shoulders, and laughed aloud.
"Trust the old Ertak to worm her way through, sir," he said. "The ray crews are on duty, I presume?"
"Yes. But I doubt that the rays will be of much assistance to us. Particularly if these are stony meteorites--and as you know, the odds are about ten to one against their being of ferrous composition. The rays, deducting the losses due to the utter lack of a conducting medium, will be insufficient protection. They will help, of course. The iron meteorites they will take care of effectively, but the conglomerate nature of the stony meteorites does not make them particularly susceptible to the disintegrating rays.
"We shall do what we can, but our success will depend largely upon good luck--or Divine Providence."
"At any rate, sir," replied Correy, and his voice had lost some of its lightness, "we are upon routine patrol and not upon special mission. If we do crack up, there is no emergency call that will remain unanswered."
"No," I said dryly. "There will be just another 'Lost in Space' report in the records of the Service, and the Ertak's name will go up on the tablet of lost ships. In any case, we have done and shall do what we can. In ten minutes we shall know all there is to know. That about right, Mr. Kincaide?"
"Ten minutes?" Kincaide studied the charts with narrowed eyes, mentally balancing distance and speed. "We should be within the danger area in about that length of time, sir," he answered. "And out of it--if we come out--three or four minutes later."
"We'll come out of it," said Correy positively.
I walked heavily across the room and studied the charts again. Space above and below, to the right and the left of us, was powdered with the green points of light.
Correy joined me, his feet thumping with the unaccustomed weight given him by the increase in gravity. As he bent over the charts, I heard him draw in his breath sharply.
Kincaide looked up. Correy looked up. I looked up. The glance of each man swept the faces, read the eyes, of the other two. Then, with one accord, we all three glanced up at the clocks--more properly, at the twelve-figured dial of the Earth clock, for none of us had any great love for the metric Universal system of time-keeping.
Ten minutes.... Less than that, now.
"Mr. Correy," I said, as calmly as I could, "you will relieve Mr. Kincaide as navigating officer. Mr. Kincaide, present my compliments to Mr. Hendricks, and ask him to explain the situation to the crew. You will instruct the disintegrator ray operators in their duties, and take charge of their activities. Start operation at your discretion; you understand the necessity."
"Yes, sir!" Kincaide saluted sharply, and I returned his salute. We did not shake hands, the Earth gesture of--strangely enough--both greeting and farewell, but we both realized that this might well be a final parting. The door closed behind him, and Correy and I were left together to watch the creeping hands of the Earth clock, the twin charts with their thick spatter of green lights, and the two fiery red sparks, one on each chart, that represented the Ertak sweeping recklessly towards the swarming danger ahead.
In other accounts of my experiences in the Special Patrol Service I feel that I have written too much about myself. After all, I have run my race; a retired commander of the Service, and an old, old man, with the century mark well behind me, my only use is to record, in this fashion, some of those things the Service accomplished in the old days when the worlds of the Universe were strange to each other, and space travel was still an adventure to many.
The Universe is not interested in old men; it is concerned only with youth and action. It forgets that once we were young men, strong, impetuous, daring. It forgets what we did; but that has always been so. It always will be so. John Hanson, retired Commander of the Special Patrol Service, is fit only to amuse the present generation with his tales of bygone days.
Well, so be it. I am content. I have lived greatly; certainly I would not exchange my memories of those bold, daring days even for youth and strength again, had I to live that youth and waste that strength in this softened, gilded age.
But no more of this; it is too easy for an old man to rumble on about himself. It is only the young John Hanson, Commander of the Ertak, who can interest those who may pick up and read what I am writing here.
I did not waste the minutes measured by that clock, grouped with our other instruments in the navigating room of the Ertak. I wrote hastily in the ship's log, stating the facts briefly and without feeling. If we came through, the log would read better thus; if not, and by some strange chance it came to human eyes, then the Universe would know at least that the Ertak's officers did not flinch from even such a danger.
As I finished the entry, Correy spoke: "Kincaide's estimate was not far off, sir," he said, with a swift glance at the clock. "Here we go!" It was less than half a minute short of the ten estimated by Kincaide.
I nodded and bent over the television disc--one of the huge, hooded affairs we used in those days. Widening the field to the greatest angle, and with low power, I inspected the space before us on all sides.
The charts, operated by super-radio reflexes, had not lied about the danger into which we were passing--had passed. We were in the midst of a veritable swarm of meteorites of all sizes.
They were not large; I believe the largest I saw had a mass of not more than three or four times that of the Ertak herself. Some of the smaller bodies were only fifty or sixty feet in diameter.
They were jagged and irregular in shape, and they seemed to spin at varying speeds, like tiny worlds.
As I watched, fixing my view now on the space directly in our path, I saw that our disintegrator ray men were at work. Deep in the bowels of the Ertak, the moan of the ray generators had deepened in note; I could even feel the slight vibration beneath my feet.
One of the meteorites slowly crumbled on top, the dust of disintegration hovering in a compact mass about the body. More and more of it melted away. The spinning motion grew irregular, eccentric, as the center of gravity was changed by the action of the ray.
Another ray, two more, centered on the wobbling mass. It was directly in our path, looming up larger and larger every second.
Faster and faster it melted, the rays eating into it from four sides. But it was perilously near now; I had to reduce power in order to keep all of it within the field of my disc. If-- The thing vanished before the very nose of the ship, not an instant too soon. I glanced up at the surface temperature indicator, and saw the big black hand move slowly for a degree or two, and stop. It was a very sensitive instrument, and registered even the slight friction of our passage through the disintegrated dust of the meteorite.
Our rays were working desperately, but disintegrator rays are not nearly so effective in space as in an atmosphere of some kind. Half a dozen times it seemed that we must crash head on into one of the flying bodies, but our speed was reduced now to such an extent that we were going but little faster than the meteorites, and this fact was all that saved us. We had more time for utilizing our rays.
We nosed upward through the trailing fringe of the swarm in safety. The great field of meteorites was now below and ahead of us. We had won through! The Ertak was safe, and-- "There seems to be another directly above us, sir," commented Correy quietly, speaking for the first time since we had entered the area of danger. "I believe your disc is not picking it up."
"Thank you, Mr. Correy," I said. While operating on an entirely different principle, his two charts had certain very definite advantages: they showed the entire space around us, instead of but a portion.
I picked up the meteorite he had mentioned without difficulty. It was a large body, about three times the mass of the Ertak, and some distance above us--a laggard in the group we had just eluded.
"Will it coincide with our path at any point, Mr. Correy?" I asked doubtfully. The television disc could not, of course, give me this information.
"I believe so; yes," replied Correy, frowning over his charts. "Are the rays on it, sir?"
"Yes. All of them, I judge, but they are making slow work of it." I fell silent, bending lower over the great hooded disc.
There were a dozen, a score of rays playing upon the surface of the meteorite. A halo of dust hung around the rapidly diminishing body, but still the mass melted all too slowly.
Pressing the attention signal for Kincaide, I spoke sharply into the microphone: "Mr. Kincaide, is every ray on that large meteorite above us?"
"Yes, sir," he replied instantly.
"Very well; carry on, Mr. Kincaide." I turned to Correy; he had just glanced from his charts to the clock, with its jerking second hand, and back to his charts.
"They'll have to do it in the next ten seconds, sir," he said. "Otherwise--" Correy shrugged, and his eyes fixed with a peculiar, fascinated stare on the charts. He was looking death squarely in the eyes.
Ten seconds! It was not enough. I had watched the rays working, and I knew their power to disintegrate this death-dealing stone that was hurtling along above us while we rose, helplessly, into its path.
I did not ask Correy if it was possible to alter the course enough, and quickly enough, to avoid that fateful path. Had it been possible without tearing the Ertak to pieces with the strain of it, Correy would have done it seconds ago.
I glanced up swiftly at the relentless, jerking second hand. Seven seconds gone! Three seconds more.
The rays were doing all that could be expected of them. There was only a tiny fragment of the meteorite left, and it was dwindling swiftly. But our time was passing even more rapidly.
The bit of rock loomed up at me from the disc. It seemed to fly up into my face, to meet me.
"Got us, Correy!" I said hoarsely. "Good-by, old-man!"
I think he tried to reply. I saw his lips open; the flash of the bright light from the ethon tubes on his big white teeth.
Then there was a crash that shook the whole ship. I shot into the air. I remember falling ... terribly.
A blinding flash of light that emanated from the very center of my brain, a sickening sense of utter catastrophe, and ... blackness.
I think I was conscious several seconds before I finally opened my eyes. My mind was still wandering; my thoughts kept flying around in huge circles that kept closing in.
We had hit the meteorite. I remembered the crash. I remembered falling. I remembered striking my head.
But I was still alive. There was air to breathe and there was firm material under me. I opened my eyes.
For the first instant, it seemed I was in an utterly strange room. Nothing was familiar. Everything was--was inverted. Then I glanced upward, and I saw what had happened.
I was lying on the ceiling of the navigating room. Over my head were the charts, still glowing, the chronometers in their gimballed beds, and the television disc. Beside me, sprawled out limply, was Correy, a trickle of dried blood on his cheek. A litter of papers, chairs, framed licenses and other movable objects were strewn on and around us.
My first instinctive, foolish thought was that the ship was upside down. Man has a ground-trained mind, no matter how many years he may travel space. Then, of course, I realized that in the open void there is not top nor bottom; the illusion is supplied, in space ships, by the gravity pads. Somehow, the shock of impact had reversed the polarity of the leads to the pads, and they had become repulsion pads. That was why I had dropped from the floor to the ceiling.
All this flashed through my mind in an instant as I dragged myself toward Correy. Dragged myself because my head was throbbing so that I dared not stand up, and one shoulder, my left, was numb.
For an instant I thought that Correy was dead. Then, as I bent over him, I saw a pulse leaping just under the angle of his jaw.
"Correy, old man!" I whispered. "Do you hear me?" All the formality of the Service was forgotten for the time. "Are you hurt badly?"
His eyelids flickered, and he sighed; then, suddenly, he looked up at me--and smiled!
"We're still here, sir?"
"After a fashion. Look around; see what's happened?"
He glanced about curiously, frowning. His wits were not all with him yet.
"We're in a mess, aren't we?" he grinned. "What's the matter?"
I told him what I thought, and he nodded slowly, feeling his head tenderly.
"How long ago did it happen?" he asked. "The blooming clock's upside down; can you read it?"
I could--with an effort.
"Over twenty minutes," I said. "I wonder how the rest of the men are?"
With an effort, I got to my feet and peered into the operating room. Several of the men were moving about, dazedly, and as I signalled to them, reassuringly, a voice hailed us from the doorway: "Any orders, sir?"