"No. Nearly four centuries old--twentieth century physics. I'll have to try some other line of attack, I guess, but that did seem so darned right. It just sounded right. Something ought to happen--and it just keeps saying 'nothing more except the natural uncertainty of nature.'"
"Try it out, your math might be wrong somewhere."
Kendall laughed. "If it was--I'd hate to try it out. If it wasn't I'd have no reason to. And there's plenty of other work to do. For one thing, getting that apparatus in production. The IP board won't like me." Kendall smiled.
"They don't," replied McLaurin. "They're getting more and more and more worried--but they've got to keep the IP fleet in such condition that it can at least catch an up-to-date freighter."
Gresth Gkae looked back at Sthor rapidly dropping behind, and across at her sister world, Asthor, circling a bare 100,000 miles away. Behind his great interstellar cruiser came a long line of similar ships. Each was loaded now not with instruments and pure scientists, but with weapons, fuel and warriors. Colonists too, came in the last ships. One hundred and fifty giant ships. All the wealth of Sthor and Asthor had been concentrated in producing those great machines. Every one represented nearly the equivalent of thirty million Earth-dollars. Four and a half billions of dollars for mere materials.
Gresth Gkae had the honor of lead position, for he had discovered the planets and their stable, though tiny, sun. Still, Gresth Gkae knew his own giant Mira was a super-giant sun--and a curse and a menace to any rational society. Our yellow-white sun (to his eyes, an almost invisible color, similar to our blue) was small, but stable, and warm enough.
In half an hour, all the ships were in space, and at a given signal, at ten-second intervals, they sprang into the superspeed, faster than light. For an instant, giant Mira ran and seemed distorted, as though seen through a porthole covered with running water, then steadied, curiously distorted. Faster than light they raced across the galaxy.
Even in their super-fast ships, nearly three and a half weeks passed before the sun they sought, singled itself from the star-field as an extra bright point. Two days more, and the sun was within planetary distance. They came at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic, but they leveled down to it now, and slanted toward giant Jupiter and Jovian worlds. Ten worlds, in one sweep, it was--four habitable worlds. The nine satellites would be converted into forts at once, nine space-sweeping forts guarding the approaches to the planet. Gresth Gkae had made a fairly good search of the worlds, and knew that Earth was the main home of civilization in this system. Mars was second, and Venus third. But Jupiter offered the greatest possibilities for quick settlement, a base from which they could more easily operate, a base for fuels, for the heavy elements they would need-- Fifteen million miles from Jupiter they slowed below the speed of light--and the IP stations observed them. Instantly, according to instructions issued by Commander McLaurin, a fleet of ten of the tiniest, fastest scouts darted out. As soon as possible, a group of three heavy cruisers, armed with all the inventions that had been discovered, the atostor power system, perfectly conducting power leads, the terrible UV ray, started out.
The scouts got there first. Cameras were grinding steadily, with long range telescopic lenses, delicate instruments probed and felt and caught their fingers in the fields of the giant fleet.
At ten-second intervals, giant ships popped into being, and glided smoothly toward Jupiter.
Then the cruisers arrived. They halted at a respectful distance, and waited. The Miran ships plowed on undisturbed. Simultaneously, from the three leaders, terrific neutron rays shot out. The paraffin block walls stopped those--and the cruisers started to explain their feelings on the subject. They were the IP-J-37, 39, and 42. The 37 turned up the full power of the UV ray. The terrific beam of ultra-violet energy struck the second Miran ship, and the spot it touched exploded into incandescence, burned white-hot--and puffed out abruptly as the air pressure within blew the molten metal away.
The Mirans were startled. This was not the type of thing Gresth Gkae had warned them of. Gresth Gkae himself frowned as the sudden roar of the machines of his ship rose in the metal walls. A stream of ten-inch atomic bombs shrieked out of their tubes, fully glowing green things floated out more slowly, and immediately waxed brilliant. Gamma ray bombs--but they could be guarded against-- The three Solarian cruisers were washed in such frightful flame as they had never imagined. Streams of atomic bombs were exploding soundlessly, ineffectively in space, not thirty feet from them as they felt the sudden resistance of the magnetic shields. Hopefully, the 39 probed with her neutron gun. Nothing happened save that several gamma ray bombs went off explosively, and all the atomic bombs in its path exploded at once.
Gresth Gkae knew what that meant. Neutron beam guns. Then this race was more intelligent than he had believed. They had not had them before. Had he perhaps given them too much warning and information?
There was a sudden, deeper note in the thrumming roar of the great ship. Eagerly Gresth Gkae watched--and sighed in relief. The nearer of the three enemy ships was crumbling to dust. Now the other two were beginning to become blurred of outline. They were fleeing--but oh, so slowly. Easily the greater ship chased them down, till only floating dust, and a few small pieces of-- Gresth Gkae shrieked in pain, and horror. The destroyed ships had fought in dying. All space seemed to blossom out with a terrible light, a light that wrapped around them, and burned into him, and through him. His eyes were dark and burning lumps in his head, his flesh seemed crawling, stinging--he was being flayed alive--in shrieking agony he crumpled to the floor.
Hospital attaches came to him, and injected drugs. Slowly torturing consciousness left him. The doctors began working over his horribly burned body, shuddering inwardly as the protective, feather-like covering of his skin loosened, and dropped from his body. Tenderly they lowered him into a bath of chemicals-- "The terrible light which caused so much damage to our men," reported a physicist, "was analyzed, and found to have some extraordinary lines. It was largely mercury-vapor spectrum, but the spectrum of mercury-atoms in an impossibly strained condition. I would suggest that great care be used hereafter, and all men be equipped with protective masks when observations are needed. This sun is very rich in the infra-X-rays and ultra-visible light. The explosion of light, we witnessed, was dangerous in its consisting almost wholly of very short and hard infra-X-rays."
The physicist had a special term for what we know as ultra-violet light. To him, blue was ultra-violet, and exceedingly dangerous to red-sensitive eyes. To him, our ultra-violet was a long X-ray, and was designated by a special term. And to him--the explosion of the atostor reservoirs was a terrible and mystifying calamity.
To the men in the five tiny scout-ships, it was also a surprise, and a painful one. Even space-hardened humans were burned by the terrifically hard ultra-violet from the explosion. But they got some hint of what it had meant to the Mirans from the confusion that resulted in the fleet. Several of the nearer ships spun, twisted, and went erratically off their courses. All seemed uncontrolled momentarily.
The five scouts, following orders, darted instantly toward the Lunar Bank. Why, they did not know. But those were orders. They were to land there.
The reason was that, faster than any Solarian ship, radio signals had reached McLaurin, and he, and most of the staff of the IP service had been moved to the Lunar Bank. Buck Kendall had extended an invitation in this "unexpected emergency." It so happened that Buck Kendall's invitation got there before any description of the Strangers, or their actions had arrived. The staff was somewhat puzzled as to how this happened-- And now for the satellites of great Jupiter.
One hundred and fifty giant interstellar cruisers advanced on Callisto. They didn't pause to investigate the mines and scattered farms of the satellite, but ten great ships settled, and a horde of warriors began pouring out.
One hundred and forty ships reached Ganymede. One hundred and thirty sailed on. One hundred and thirty ships reached Europa--and they sailed on hurriedly, one hundred and twenty-nine of them. Gresth Gkae did not know it then, but the fleet had lost its first ship. The IP station on Europa had spoken back.
They sailed in, a mighty armada, and the first dropped through Europa's thin, frozen atmosphere. They spotted the dome of the station, and a neutron ray lashed out at it. On the other, undefended worlds, this had been effective. Here--it was answered by ten five-foot UV rays. Further, these men had learned something from the destruction of the cruisers, and ten torpedoes had been unloaded, reloaded with atostor mercury, and sent out bravely.
Easily the Mirans wiped out the first torpedo-- Shrieking, the Miran pilots clawed their way from the controls as the fearful flood of ultra-violet light struck their unaccustomed skins. Others too felt that burning flood.
The second torpedo they caught and deflected on a beam of alternating-current magnetism that repelled it. It did not come nearer than half a mile to the ship. The third they turned their deflecting beam on--and something went strangely wrong with the beam. It pulled that torpedo toward the ship with a sickening acceleration--and the torpedo exploded in that frightful violet flame.
Five-foot diameter UV beams are nothing to play with. The Mirans were dodging these now as they loosed atomic bombs, only to see them exploded harmlessly by neutron guns, or caught in the magnetic screen. Gamma ray bombs were as useless. Again the beam of disintegrating force was turned on-- The present opponent was not a ship. It was an IP defense station, equipped with everything Solarian science knew, and the dome was an eight-foot wall of tungsten-beryllium. The eight feet of solid, ultra-resistant alloy drank up that crumbling beam, and liked it. The wall did not fail. The men inside the fort jerked and quivered as the strange beam, a small, small fraction of it, penetrated the eight feet of outer wall, the six feet or so of intervening walls, and the mercury atostor reserves.
"Concentrate all those UV beams on one spot, and see if you can blast a hole in him before he shakes it loose," ordered the ray technician. "He'll wiggle if you start off with the beam. Train your sights on the nose of that first ship--when you're ready, call out."
"Ready--ready--" Ten men replied. "Fire!" roared the technician. Ten titanic swords of pure ultra-violet energy, energy that practically no unconditioned metal will reflect to more than fifty per cent, emerged. There was a single spot of intense incandescence for a single hundredth of a second--and then the energy was burning its way through the inner, thinner skins with such rapidity that they sputtered and flickered like a broken televisor.
One hundred and twenty-nine ships retreated hastily for conference, leaving a gutted, wrecked hull, broken by its fall, on Europa. Triumphantly, the Europa IP station hurled out its radio message of the first encounter between a fort and the Miran forces.
Most important of all, it sent a great deal of badly wanted information regarding the Miran weapons. Particularly interesting was the fact that it had withstood the impact of that disintegrating ray.
Grimly Buck Kendall looked at the reports. McLaurin stood beside him, Devin sat across the table from him. "What do you make of it, Buck?" asked the Commander.
"That we have just one island of resistance left on the Jovian worlds. And that will, I fear, vanish. They haven't finished with their arsenal by any means."
"But what was it, man, what was it that ruined those ships?"
"Vibration. Somehow--Lord only knows how it's done--they can project electric fields. These projected fields are oscillated, and they are tuned in with some parts of the ship. I suspect they are crystals of the metals. If they can start a vibration in the crystals of the metal--that's fatigue, metal fatigue enormously speeded. You know how a quartz crystal oscillator in a radio-control apparatus will break, if you work it on a very heavy load at the peak? They simply smash the crystals of metal in the same way. Only they project their field."
"Then our toughest metals are useless? Can't something tough, rather than hard, like copper or even silver for instance, stand it?"
"Calcium metal's the toughest going--and even that would break under the beating those ships give it. The only way to withstand it is to have such a mass of metal that the oscillations are damped out. But--"
The set tuned in on the IP station on Europa was speaking again. "The ships are returning. There are one hundred and twenty-nine by accurate count. Jorgsen reports that telescopic observation of the dead on the fallen cruiser show them to be a completely un-human race! They are of mottled coloring, predominately grayish brown. The ships are returning. They have divided into ten groups, nine groups of two each, and a main body of the rest of the fleet. The group of eighteen is descending within range, and we are focusing our beams on them--"
Out by Europa, ten great UV beams were stabbing angrily toward ten great interstellar ships. The metal of the hulls glowed brilliant, and distorted slowly as the thick walls softened under the heat, and the air behind pressed against it. Grimly the ten ships came on. Torpedoes were being launched, and exploded, and now they had no effect, for the Mirans within were protected.
The eighteen grouped ships separated, and arranged themselves in a circle around the fort. Suddenly one staggered as a great puff of gas shot out through the thin atmosphere of Europa to flare brilliantly in the lash of the stabbing UV beam. Instantly the ship righted itself, and labored upward. Another dropped to take its place-- And the great walls of the IP fort suddenly groaned and started in their welded joints. The faint, whispering rustle of the crumbling beam was murmuring through the station. Engineers shouted suddenly as meters leapt the length of their scales, and the needles clicked softly on the stop pins. A thin rustle came from the atostors grouped in the great power room. "Spirits of Space--a revolving magnetic field!" roared the Chief Technician. "They're making this whole blasted station a squirrel cage!"
The mighty walls of eight-foot metal shuddered and trembled. The UV beams lashed out from the fort in quivering arcs now, they did not hold their aim steady, and the magnetic shield that protected them from atomic bombs was working and straining wildly. Eighteen great ships quivered and tugged outside there now, straining with all their power to remain in the same spot, as they passed on from one to another the magnetic impulses that were now creating a titanic magnetic vortex about the fort.
"The atostors will be exhausted in another fifteen minutes," the Chief Technician roared into his transmitter. "Can the signals get through those fields, Commander?"
"No, Mac. They've been stopped, Sparks tells me. We're here--and let's hope we stay. What's happening?"
"They've got a revolving magnetic field out there that would spin a minor planet. The whole blasted fort is acting like the squirrel cage in an induction motor! They've made us the armature in a five hundred million horsepower electric motor."
"They can't tear this place loose, can they?"
"I don't know--it was never--" The Chief stopped. Outside a terrific roar and crash had built up. White darts of flame leapt a thousand feet into the air, hurling terrific masses of shattered rock and soil.
"I was going to say," the Chief went on, "this place wasn't designed for that sort of a strain. Our own magnetic field is supporting us now, preventing their magnetic field from getting its teeth on metal. When the strain comes--well, they're cutting loose our foundation with atomic bombs!"
Five UV beams were combined on one interstellar ship. Instantly the great machine retreated, and another dropped in to take its place while the magnetic field spun on, uninterruptedly.
"Can they keep that up long?"
"God knows--but they have a hundred and more ships to send in when the power of one gives out, remember."
"What's our reserve now?"
The Chief paused a moment to look at the meters. "Half what it was ten minutes ago!"
Commander Wallace sent some other orders. Every torpedo tube of the station suddenly belched forth deadly, fifteen-foot torpedoes, most of them mud-torpedoes, torpedoes loaded with high explosive in the nose, a delayed fuse, and a load of soft clinging mud in the rear. The mud would flow down over the nose and offer a resistance foot-hold for the explosive which empty space would not. Four hundred and three torpedoes, equipped with anti-magnetic apparatus darted out. One hundred and four passed the struggling fields. One found lodgement on a Miran ship, and crushed in a metal wall, to be stopped by a bulkhead.
The Chief engineer watched his power declining. All ten UV beams were united in one now, driving a terrible sword of energy that made the attacked ship skip for safety instantly, yet the beams were all but useless. For the Miran reserves filled the gap, and the magnetic tornado continued.
For seventeen long minutes the station resisted the attack. Then the last of the strained mercury flowed into the receivers, and the vast power of the atostors was exhausted. Slowly the magnetic fields declined. The great walls of the station felt the clutching lines of force--they began to heat and to strain. A low, harsh grinding became audible over the roar of the atomic bombs. The whole structure trembled, and jumped slightly. The roar of bombs ceased suddenly, as the station jerked again, more violently. Then it turned a bit, rolled clumsily. Abruptly it began to spin violently, more and more rapidly. It started rolling clumsily across the plateau-- A rain of atomic bombs struck the unprotected metal, and the eighth breached the walls. The twentieth was the last. There was no longer an IP station on Europa.
"The difference," said Buck Kendall slowly, when the reports came in from scout-ships in space that had witnessed the last struggle, "between an atomic generator and an atomic power-store, or accumulator, is clearly shown. We haven't an adequate source of power."
McLaurin sighed slowly, and rose to his feet. "What can we do?"
"Thank our lucky stars that Faragaut here, and I, bought up all the mercury in the system, and had it brought to Earth. We at least have a supply of materials for the atostors."
"They don't seem to do much good."
"They're the best we've got. All the photocells on Earth and Venus and Mercury are at present busy storing the sun's power in atostors. I have two thousand tons of charged mercury in our tanks here in the 'Lunar Bank.'"
"Much good that will do--they can just pull and pull and pull till it's all gone. A starfish isn't strong, but he can open the strongest oyster just because he can pull from now on. You may have a lot of power--but."
"But--we also have those new fifteen-foot UV beams. And one fifteen-foot UV beam is worth, theoretically, nine five-foot beams, and practically, a dozen. We have a dozen of them. Remember, this place was designed not only to protect itself, but Earth, too."
"They can still pull, can't they?"
"They'll stop pulling when they get their fingers burned. In the meantime, why not use some of those IP ships to bring in a few more cargoes of charged mercury?"
"They aren't good for much else, are they? I wonder if those fellows have anything more we don't know?"
"Oh, probably. I'm going to work on that crumbler thing. That's the first consideration now."
"So we can move a ship. As it is, even those two we built aren't any good."
"Would they be anyway?"
"Well--I think I might disturb those gentlemen slightly. Remember, they each have a nose-beam eighteen feet across. Exceedingly unpleasant customers."
"Score: Strangers; magnetic field, atomic bombs, atomic power, crumbler ray. Home team; UV beams."
Kendall grinned. "I'd heard you were a pessimistic cuss when battle started--"
"Pessimistic, hell, I'm merely counting things up."
"McClellan had all the odds on Lee back in the Civil War of the States--but Lee sent him home faster than he came."
"But Lee lost in the end."
"Why bring that up? I've got work to do." Still smiling, Kendall went to the laboratory he had built up in the "Lunar Bank." Devin was already there, calculating. He looked unhappy.
"We can't do anything, as far as I can see. They're using an electric field all right, and projecting it. I can't see how we can do that."
"Neither can I," agreed Kendall, "so we can't use that weapon. I really didn't want to anyway. Like the neutron gun which I told Commander McLaurin would be useless as a weapon, they'd be prepared for it, you can be sure. All I want to do is fight it, and make their projection useless."
"Well, we have to know how they project it before we can break up the projection, don't we?"
"Not at all. They're using an electric field of very high frequency, but variable frequency. As far as I can see, all we need is a similar variable electric field of a slightly different frequency to heterodyne theirs into something quite harmless."
"Oh," said Devin. "We could, couldn't we? But how are you going to do that?"
"We'll have to learn, that's all."
Buck Kendall started trying to learn. In the meantime, the Mirans were taking over Jupiter. There were three IP stations on the planet itself, but they were vastly hindered by the thick, almost ultra-violet-proof atmosphere of Jupiter. Their rays were weak. And the magnetic fields of the Mirans were unaffected. Only their atomic bombs were hindered by the heavier gravity that pulled the rocks back in place faster than the bombs could throw them out. Still--a few hours of work, and the IP stations on Jupiter had rolled wildly across the flat plains of the planet like dented cans, to end in utter destruction.
The Mirans had paid no attention to the fleeing passenger and freighter ships that left the planet, loaded to the utmost with human cargo, and absolutely no freight. The IP fleet had to go to their rescue with oxygen tanks to take care of the extra humans, but nearly three-quarters of the population of Jupiter, a newly established population, and hence a readily mobile one, was saved. The others, the Mirans did not bother with particularly except when they happened to be near where the Mirans wanted to work. Then they were instantly destroyed by atomic bombing, or gamma rays.
The Mirans settled almost at once, and began their work of finding on Jupiter the badly needed atomic fuels. Machines were set up, and work begun, Mirans laboring under the gravity of the heavy planet. Then, fifty ships swam up again, reloaded with fuel, and with crews consisting solely of uninjured warriors, and started for Mars.
Mars was half way between her near conjunction and her maximum elongation with respect to Jupiter at that time. The Mirans knew their business though, for they started in on the IP station on Phobos. They were practiced by this time, and this IP station had only seven five-foot beams. In half an hour that station fell, and its sister station on Deimos followed. Three wounded ships returned to Jupiter, and ten new ships came out. The attack on Mars itself was started.
Mars was a different proposition. There were thirty-two IP stations here, one of them nearly as powerful as the Lunar Bank station. It was equipped with four of the huge fifteen-foot beams. And it had fifteen tons of mercury, more than seven-eighths charged. The Mars Center Station was located a short ten miles from the Mars Center City, and under the immediate orders of the IP heads, Mars Center City had been vacated.
For two days the Mirans hung off Mars, solidifying their positions on Phobos and Deimos. Then, with sixty-two ships, they attacked. They had made some very astute observations, and they started on the smaller stations just beyond the range of the Mars Center Station. Naturally, near so powerful a center, these stations had never been strong. They fell rapidly. But they had been counted on by Mars Center as auxiliary supports. McLaurin had sent very definite orders to Mars Center forbidding any action on their part, save gathering of power-supplies.
At last the direct attack on Mars Center was launched. For the first time, the Mirans saw one of the fifteen-foot beams. Mars' atmosphere is thin, and there is little ozone. The ultra-violet beams were nearly as effective as in empty space. When the Mirans dropped their ships, a full thirty of them, into the circle formation, Mars Center answered at once. All four beams started.
Those fifteen-foot beams, connected directly to huge atostor release apparatus, delivered a maximum power of two and three-quarter billion horsepower, each. The first Miran ship struck, sparkled magnificently, and a terrific cascade of white-hot metal rolled down from its nose. The great ship nosed down and to the left abruptly, accelerated swiftly--and crashed with tremendous energy on the plain outside of Mars Center City. White, unwavering flames licked up suddenly, and made a column five hundred feet high against the dark sky. Then the wreck exploded with a violence that left a crater half a mile across.
Three other ships had been struck, and were rapidly retreating. Another try was made for the ring formation, and four more ships were wounded, and replaced. The ring did not retreat, but the great magnetic field started. Atomic and gamma ray bombs started now, flashing sometimes dangerously close to the station as its magnetic field battled the rotating field of the ships. The four greater beams, and many smaller ones were in swift and angry action. Not more than a ten-second exposure could be endured by any one ship, before it must retreat.
For five minutes the Mirans hung doggedly at their task. Then, wisely, they retreated. Of the fleet, not more than seven ships remained untouched. Mars Center Station had held--at what cost only they knew. Five hundred tons of their mercury had been exhausted in that brief five minutes. One hundred tons a minute had flowed into and out of the atostor apparatus. Mars Center radioed for help, when the fleet lifted.
There was one other station on Mars that stood a good chance of survival, Deenmor Station, with three of the big beams installed, and apparatus for their fourth was in the station, and being rapidly worked over. McLaurin did a wise and courageous thing, at which every man on Mars cursed. He ordered that all IP stations save these two be deserted, and all mercury fuel reserves be moved to Deenmor and Mars Center.
The Mirans could not land on the North Western section of Mars, nor in the South Central region. Therefore Mars was not exactly habitable to Miran ships, because the great beams had been so perfectly figured that they were effective at a range of nearly twelve hundred miles.
Deenmor station was attacked--but it was a half-hearted attack, for Mirans were becoming distinctly skittish about fifteen-foot UV beams. Two badly blistered ships--and the Mirans retreated to Jupiter. But Mira held Phobos and Deimos. In two weeks, they had set up cannon there, and proved themselves accurate long-range gunners. Against the feeble attraction of Deimos, and with Mars' gravity to help them, they began bombarding the two stations, and anything that attempted to approach them, with gamma and atomic explosive bombs. Meanwhile they amused themselves occasionally by planting a gamma-ray bomb in each of Mars' major cities. They made Mars uninhabitable for Solarians as well as for Mirans, at least until the deadly slow-action atomic explosives wore off, or were removed.
Then the Mirans, after a lapse of three weeks while they dug in their toes on Jupiter, prepared to leap. Earth was the next goal. Miran scout-ships had been sent out before this--and severely handled by the concentrated fleets of the IP that hung grimly off Earth and Luna now. But the scouts had learned one thing. Mirans could never hope to attain a firm grasp on Earth while terribly armed Luna hung like a Sword of Damocles over their heads. Further, attack on Earth directly would be next to impossible, for, thanks to Faragaut's Interplanetary Company, nearly all the mercury metal in the system was safely lodged on Earth, and saturated with power. Every major city had been equipped with great UV apparatus. And neutron guns in plenty waited on small ships just outside the atmosphere to explode harmlessly any atomic or gamma bombs Miran ships might attempt to deposit.
An attack on Luna was the first step. But that terrible, gigantic fort on Luna worried them. Yet while that fort existed, Earth ships were free to come and go, for Mirans could not afford to stand near. At a distance of twenty thousand miles, small Miran ships had felt the touch of those great UV beams.