"Take it easy," Ben cautioned. "All because of that plate?"
Carson slumped back into his chair. "Yes. And because we have failed in our duty. Our only hope is that we may have time to make it up. I'll give you the facts: "Those tubes are made of Virium, but even Virium develops scale. After next week it will develop even more, because next week we make the changeover to the new fuel. If Wayne had made his mistake two weeks later there would have been so much deposit in the tubes that Gomez would not have noticed the difference.
"Now, Virium is one of the most standardized products in the world. So Gomez was rightly astonished that the tube didn't oxidize evenly. Jacobs saw further. Virium is the toughest metal we know of; if this piece was tougher it might be a discovery of major importance. So Britton analyzed the plate."
"Now we get to the point," Sessions grinned.
Carson stabbed a finger at him. "Right. And the point is that this one section of plate is not Virium! In fact, it is a substance which we are positive does not exist in our system!"
"Wait a second. What do you mean by 'system'?"
"I mean every single bit of matter that lies between here and Ventura B."
"Maybe it's not a natural substance. Not an element."
"We thought of that. It's an element, and one we know nothing of."
"Do you mind if I sit down, sir?" Ben asked suddenly.
The enormity of the thing had struck him, almost dazzling him with its implications. Carson laughed bitterly and waved him to a chair, then went on talking.
"Precisely, Ben. The question is: How did this strange substance get into the tube of an Interplanetary rocket called the Astra? To answer that we checked on the ship. The Astra is one of the few ships which have ever gone beyond Ventura B!"
"I almost expected to hear that," Sessions said.
"It adds up, all right, doesn't it? A foreign substance, a foreign system. But this substance had been made into a plate. That means the work of intelligent beings."
"Who took the Astra on that trip?" Sessions asked, his body tense.
"A licensed space explorer named Murchison. Two others went with him but he returned alone. Claims they fell into a chasm."
"But no explorer has reported life beyond Ventura B," Sessions said, taking up the thread of thought. He whistled softly. "You must have been busy this last week."
"Busy is no word for it. It's only three years since anyone has been allowed to go outside our system. For the purpose of science Interstellar Flight granted permits to six licensed explorers. All returned with charts showing only a desolate waste. In our own quiet way we have checked on each of these six men, including Murchison, in the last week."
"And . . . ?"
"And we discovered something very interesting. The six who returned from beyond Ventura B were not the same six who went! They are identical in every facial, bodily, and mental characteristic, identical enough to fool even the families of the lost explorers. But when we secretly photographed them with infra-red light we found that their skins contained elements foreign to our system!"
Ventura A and its sister star were the twin beacons that marked the last outposts of the Earth System. Past them was only a trackless waste of inter-stellar space. Ben Sessions knew that the charts he carried were probably worse than useless, were likely downright traps.
He and Carson had planned the trip. Carson had wanted to send a fighting fleet but Ben had opposed the idea. Wayne's mistake had led them to the uncovering of a gigantic hoax, a hoax which could have only a sinister purpose. Somewhere in the void ahead were sentient beings. To send a fleet would be to let them know that their existence was suspected.
Sessions let the automatic controls take over while he examined the charts once more. They showed the constellation which lay directly ahead, the one after that, and then nothing for hundreds of millions of miles. Those first two reflected a tiny amount of light from Ventura B and were visible through telescopes, therefore it would have created suspicion to falsify their position. Past them, however, the blackness was too intense to penetrate.
The speed of the rocket ship increased. Atomic blasts replaced those of the regular fuel. Sessions knew that an Earth measurement would have shown the ship to have shrunk to half its size. Only light and the radona beam which protected the ship from collisions could travel faster.
From now on it was just a matter of luck. Someone had pulled those six explorers out of space and Sessions was hoping the same thing would happen to him. On the third day it happened.
He was sitting in the pilot's chair, watching the radona chart before him. Most of the chart was blank, only the upper right hand corner showing a mass of black dots which indicated a planetary dispersal about a dead star. Sessions waited for the radona beam to swing the ship leftward.
Instead, the ship was curving in the direction of the dots! Ben's first thought was that the beam had gone out of order, and he switched to manual controls. No use. Despite all his efforts he was being carried toward those planets.
Habit made him shut off the tubes. Why waste fuel? A tight smile froze on his lips as his speed dropped to twenty million miles then lifted again as the ship by-passed a planet. With calm deliberation Ben switched on the camera he had installed before the flight and let it record his course as shown on the radona chart.
Only one dot remained on the chart. It grew larger and larger until it filled the entire screen. There was no longer any doubt as to the ship's destination, and as if to add further proof its speed dropped sharply. Ben clicked the switch on the camera and removed a tiny roll of microfilm. The roll fit snugly into the hollow cap which covered the stub of one of his molars.
The altitude indicator went on automatically, showed fifty thousand feet, then forty thousand, went down to hundreds. Ahead there was only blackness. Ben held his breath and waited for the crash. It never came. Long after the altimeter showed zero the ship still moved. Ben could think of only one explanation: he was below the surface of the dark planet! And then he could think no more; the blackness seemed to filter into the ship and into his mind.
"He awakens," a voice said. It was a pleasant voice, a feminine one, silky and soothing.
Ben Sessions sat up and said, "Huh?"
The first thing he noticed was the light. No more darkness, but a light that came from nowhere and yet was everywhere. He was on some sort of couch, in a huge room with a vaulted ceiling. Shaking his head groggily, Ben looked for the source of the silken voice. He was alone in the room.
His eyes ran down the length of his body. The flash gun was gone from his belt. That was hardly unexpected. But the belt was gone too. So were his clothes. He was clad in a loose robe of shimmering white cloth.
That meant he had been unconscious for some time. How long? Ben would have given much to know. Suddenly he let out an unearthly moan, threw his arms wide and rolled off the couch. He lay still.
The silken voice was raised again and added to it was another, more masculine. Then a door opened and two people stepped into the room. Ben sat up and grinned at them, especially at the woman.
"I thought that would get you," he said. "It's not hospitable to hide from your guest."
"Resourceful, isn't he?" The woman raised her eyebrows in mock admiration. Her companion growled a reply which Ben couldn't quite catch.
They were an odd pair, the woman towering well above ten feet but perfectly formed, her skin the color of pink marble; the man more beast than human. The women of Saturn were as tall as she, Ben had time to think, but not nearly as beautiful.
"Welcome to Teris, Ben Sessions," she said. Her smile was the smile of the serpent of Eden.
"You're pretty resourceful yourself," Ben grinned.
He had carried no papers except a blanket permit from Interstellar Flight. He wondered if the precaution he and Carson had taken would prove to be in vain. The woman spoke again.
"Ben Sessions, graduate of Neptune School of Rockets; born in Taos, New Mexico, Earth; third of four children; unmarried, unattached at present; first position, co-pilot Earth-Vega Express . . ."
She seemed to be choosing items at random from a memorized list. The exhibition was intended to impress Ben and it was succeeding. More than that, however, it was frightening. He held his breath as she neared the end.
". . . two years with Interstellar Communications; presently a licensed space explorer, non-affiliated."
"Pretty good," Ben said.
It was better than that. It was perfect. Only the end was wrong. He and Carson had worked that out with the psychoanalyst. The two of them had wanted to falsify the entire biography, but the analyst had convinced them he was right.
"One lie I might attempt to pound into your very subconscious by hypnotism; a dozen would be spread too thin. We would leave holes. Under the type of electroanalysis you seem to think might be used on you I can't even promise one lie will hold up."
Ben reminded himself to recommend the man for honors if he ever got back to Earth. He had certainly known his business; but then, if he hadn't he would not be working for "Two Eyes."
"Now that you've told me all about myself maybe you'll tell me what's going on," Ben said.
"One of your compatriots can do that," the woman told him. Her interest seemed suddenly to have waned.
She said a few words in a strange tongue to the man who stood at her side. He grunted, bowed, and advanced toward Ben. Long arms, covered with thick black hair, reached out. Ben dodged.
"You'll be sorry if you make him use force," the woman said.
"Nothing like trying," Ben told her. He avoided another grab and stepped in and smashed his fist to the hairy man's jaw.
He might as well have hit a wall. Before Ben could strike another blow he was lifted from his feet by an upward slap that threatened to tear loose one side of his face. Too dazed to resist, he felt both his wrists encircled by a tremendous hand. The woman's voice rose sharply in a tone of command.
The corridor through which Ben Sessions was being led was thronged with people. There seemed to be three classes: rosy-skinned giantesses like his escort; men of his own size, but also with pink complexions; and the squat, hairy men who appeared to be nothing more than slaves.
It was plain that women dominated this society, and from them Ben received curious but contemptuous glances. Any one of these Amazons would have been considered a beauty on Earth, so regular were their features, but they lacked an air of feminine softness. Instead, cruelty lay thinly masked beneath the surface.
At the end of the long corridor a huge door swung open and Ben was led through it into an immense room. At the far end of the room was a throne, and on it a woman. Ben blinked. As well proportioned as the others he had seen, she was half again as tall, twice as beautiful. He could not contain a gasp of appreciation.
Thick violet hair fell almost to her shoulders, her skin was luminous and flawless, her body breathtaking, more revealed than concealed by a clinging gown of some filmy material. At her breast, flashed a single violet jewel larger by far than the famed sapphires of Uranus.
"I brought him as soon as he awakened," said the woman with Ben.
A malevolent stare from the woman on the throne rested on Ben. "It was unnecessary," she said. "We have no further need of him. Take him to the field."
"Wait a minute," Ben snapped.
"You are addressing Arndis, Queen of Teris," he heard his escort say.
"I don't give a hoot . . ." He never finished the sentence. From behind the hairy slave seized him, lifted him and flung him bodily toward the doors. The interview was over.
They went for a while along the same corridor, then turned off and followed a side passage for a way. It led steadily downward to an arched opening and through that out of the building. Here too the light was diffused, but much brighter. Ben had to blink several times before he became adjusted to it.
They were standing in the center of a vast level plain, apparently endless and roofless, for overhead there was no sky, only an increasing intensity of light. Ranged in rows on the plain were thousands of space ships. Ben turned once as they approached the first line of ships and saw behind him the building from which he had just come. It rose upward, a single block of shining stone, for almost a mile. Alongside it were other buildings of the same material, but none so large.
Then Ben and his two escorts were past the first rows of ships. His eyes roved over them, trying to discover what armament they carried. None was visible. Their firing tubes were much the same as those of Earth design, but slightly smaller.
His attention was diverted from his study by a sudden disturbance aboard the closest ship. The sound of an angry feminine voice came clearly through an open porthole, and mingled with it was a pleading, deeper tone. An instant later a door was flung open and out of it came hurtling one of the men of Teris. He hit the ground, rolled over, and came to his knees facing the open door and the giant woman who stood framed in it.
That the man was pleading for his very life was obvious to Ben, but it was equally plain that his pleas were having no effect. The woman on the ship uttered a single contemptuous word that cut the pleas short. On her face was a sadistic anticipation such as Ben had never before seen. Slowly she raised a cylinder in her hand and pointed it at the man on the ground.
From the cylinder came a violet light, weak at first, but growing in intensity as she pressed some sort of trigger. The man shrieked in agony as the light played on him. Then the smell of burning flesh came to Ben's nostrils, and the shriek became a single high pitched scream which choked off suddenly.
Ben's escort laughed with ghoulish enjoyment, said something to the woman in the doorway, and gestured at the charred body on the ground. The violet light grew to blinding intensity. A puff of smoke and the body was gone.
"What was that for?" Ben gasped.
His escort smiled indulgently and shot a question at the other woman. The reply was a shrug of shoulders and a few short syllables.
"He did something that displeased her," she told Ben. At his look of horror she laughed again, apparently pleased to have shocked him.
He noticed, as they went along, that the space ships decreased in size. Those in the first rows had been comparable to Earth's battle cruisers, those in the last were one or two man jobs. His own ship, the Rapier, was at the very end of the last line.
Beyond was a vast army of men, both rosy skinned and hairy, at work on a gigantic excavation project. Great power shovels scooped load after load of earth. But most of the work was being done by the men who labored with primitive pick and shovel.
Above the sound of digging rose the sharp voices of the giant women of Teris, each with a battalion under her command. As far as Ben's eyes could reach men were digging at the ground.
He was hustling along to a point where a dirt spattered group struggled with a metallic lining for the half-mile hole it had excavated. At that point his escort turned him over to the woman who bossed that crew. Ben saw in the hand of the overseer one of the violet ray cylinders.
"Down there," she said curtly, pointing to where a small knot of men worked on a terrace fifty feet below. "They will tell you what to do."
Ben had found nothing strange in the fact that his escort had spoken English fluently. She had been present at his electroanalysis. But he doubted that all the women of Teris could have the same command of the language. Nevertheless he said nothing and clambered down the ladder to the terrace beneath. Ben's unasked question was answered when he saw the five faces turned up toward him.
Earth men! Even the grime that covered them could not hide that. And there was added proof in their widening eyes. They were sorry to see another Earth man captive, yet happy at sight of one of their own kind. Willing hands helped Ben down from the bottom rung of the ladder.
"We'd heard they had picked up another ship," one of the men said. "But we weren't sure the rumor was true."
"True enough, as you can see. I'm Ben Sessions."
His outstretched hand was grasped and shaken cordially. Names were flung at him. Murchison, Davies, Kennard, Bannon, Murchison.
"Wait a second," Ben said. "I thought I heard Murchison twice."
"You did," said the big, rawboned man at whom he was staring. "The first is my daughter Sally."
It was only then that Ben noticed how small and slender was the figure of the one next to Murchison. Even the girl's loose robe, similar to that of the men, could not quite conceal her femininity. Her hair was cut short, her hands toil hardened.
"Carson didn't tell me," Ben muttered. He grinned at Murchison. "I expected to find you and two assistants, but I didn't know one would be your daughter."
"Expected--?" Hope glinted in five pairs of eyes. Above them there was a shouted command to get to work, and a cylinder was waved threateningly.
"I'll explain as we go along," Ben said hastily. "Show me what to do."
Bannon, a short, thickset man with a mop of unruly black hair shoved a pair of tongs into Ben's hands and quickly explained how to hold the rivets with which the group was working. In effect they were constructing a huge cylinder. Looking down, Ben saw that it descended into the bowels of Teris.
The others were pressing Ben for his explanation but he insisted that they tell their stories first. The same thing had happened to them as to him. Within some thousands of miles of Teris they had felt a force pull them toward it. Then they had passed out and awakened to find themselves prisoners.
"I know all that," Ben said. "But in all the time you've been here you must have found out a good deal. What goes on here? Why are they taking prisoner every one who approaches the planet? Why do they conceal its existence from our system?"
Murchison paused between blows of his hammer, as though to wipe sweat from his brow.
"Since you seem in a hurry," he said, "I will tell it in brief. You are in the center of a planet whose evil people are engaged in one enterprise: the conquering and subjugating of our universe."
"I thought that might be it," Ben nodded. "But subjugating billions of people may prove tougher than they think."