"You will now be returned to your world," came the thought of Garboreggg. "We shall watch you through our cosmotel to see that you deliver our instructions. Unless the nations of Earth obey us, they will be obliterated at the end of seven days."
A wild impulse to smash that impassive, metallic monster passed from Phobar as quickly as it came. He was helpless. Sick and despairing, he felt the cold, baffling-colored metal close around him again; once more he was borne aloft for the journey to the laboratory, from there to be propelled back to Earth.
Seven days of grace! But Phobar knew that less than ten minutes remained to him. Only here could he possibly accomplish anything. Once off the surface of Xlarbti, there was not the remotest chance that all the nations of Earth could reach the invaders or even attempt to defy them. Yet what could he alone do in a week, to say nothing of ten minutes?
He sensed the amused, supercilious contempt of his captor. That was really the greatest obstacle, this ability of theirs to read thought-pictures. And already he had given them enough word-pictures of English so that they could understand....
In the back of Phobar's mind the ghost of a desperate thought suddenly came. What was it he had learned years ago in college? Homer--"The Odyssey"--Plutarch.... From rusty, disused corners of memory crept forth the half-forgotten words. He bent all his efforts to the task, not daring to think ahead or plan ahead or visualize anything but the Greek words.
He felt the bewilderment of his captor. To throw it off the track, Phobar suddenly let an ancient English nursery rime slip into his thoughts. The disgust that emanated from his captor was laughable; Phobar could have shouted aloud. But the Greek words....
Already the pair had left the mountain-high titan city far behind; they rippled across the smooth, black surface of Xlarbti, and bore like rifle bullets down on the swiftly looming laboratory. In a few minutes it would be too late forever. Now the lost Greek words burst into Phobar's mind, and, hoping against hope, he thought in Greek word-pictures which his captor could not understand. He weighed chances, long shots. Into his brain flashed an idea.... But they were upon the laboratory; a stupendous door dissolved weirdly into shimmering haze; they sped through.
Phobar's hand clutched a bulge in his pocket. Would it work? How could it?
They were beyond the door now and racing across the great expanse of the floor, past the central tower, past the control-panel which he had first seen....
And as if by magic there leaped into Phobar's mind a clear-cut, vivid picture of violet oceans of energy crackling and streaking from the heavens to crash through the laboratory roof and barely miss striking his captor behind. Even as Phobar created the image of that terrific death, his captor whirled around in a lightning movement, a long arm of metal flicking outward at the same instant to drop Phobar to the ground.
Like a flash Phobar was on his feet; his hand whipped from his pocket, and with all his strength he flung a gleaming object straight toward the fifth lever on the control-panel a dozen yards away. As a clumsy arrow would, his oversize bunch of keys twisted to their mark, clanked, and spread against the fifth control, which was the size regulator.
As rapidly as Phobar's captor had spun around, it reversed again, having guessed the trick. A tentacle of pliant metal snaked toward Phobar like a streak of flame.
But in those few seconds a terrific holocaust had taken place. As Phobar's keys spattered against the fifth lever, there came an immediate, growing, strange, high whine, and a sickening collapse of the very surface beneath them. Everywhere outlines of objects wavered, changed melted, shrank with a steady and nauseatingly swift motion. The roof of the laboratory high overhead plunged downward; the far-distant walls swept inward, contracted. And the metal monsters themselves dwindled as though they were vast rubber figures from which the air was hissing.
Phobar sprang back as the tentacle whipped after him. Only that jump and the suddenly dwarfing dimensions of the giant saved him. And even in that instant of wild action, Phobar shouted aloud--for this whole world was collapsing, together with everything on it, except he himself who came of a different universe and remained unaffected! It was the long shot he had gambled on, the one chance he had to strike a blow.
All over the shrinking laboratory the monsters were rushing toward him. His dwindling captor flung another tentacle toward the control-panel to replace the size-regulating lever. But Phobar had anticipated that possibility and had already leaped to the switchboard, sweeping a heavy bar from its place and crashing it down on the lever so that it could not be replaced without being repaired. Almost in the same move he had bounded away again, the former hundred-foot giant now scarcely more than his own height. But throughout the laboratory, the other metal things had halted in their tasks and were racing onward.
Phobar always remembered that battle in the laboratory as a scene from some horrible nightmare. The catastrophe came so rapidly that he could hardly follow the whirlwind events. The half dozen great leaps he made from the lashing tentacles of his pursuer sufficed to give him a few seconds' respite, and then the weird, howling sound of the tortured world swelled to a piercing wail. His lungs were laboring from the violence of his exertions; again and again he barely escaped from the curling whips of metal tentacles. And now the monster was hardly a foot high; the huge condensers and tubes and colossal machinery were like those of a pygmy laboratory. And overhead the roof plunged ever downward.
But Phobar was cornered at last. He stood in the center of a circle of the foot-high things. His captor suddenly shot forth a dozen rope-like arms toward him as the others closed in. He had not even a weapon, for he had dropped the bar in his first mad bound away from the control-panel. He saw himself trapped in his own trick, for in minutes at most the laboratory would be crushing him with fearful force.
Blindly Phobar reverted to a primitive defense in this moment of infinite danger and kicked with all his strength at the squat monster before him. The thing tried to whirl aside, but Phobar's shoe squashed thickly through, and in a disorder of quivering pieces the metal creature fell, and subsided. Knowing at last that the invaders were vulnerable and how they could be killed, Phobar went leaping and stamping on those nearest him. Under foot, they disintegrated into little pulpy lumps of inert metal.
In a trice he broke beyond the circle and darted to the control-panel. One quick glance showed him that the roof was now scarcely a half dozen yards above. With fingers that fumbled in haste at tiny levers and dials, he spun several of them--the repulsion-ray full--the attraction-ray full. And when they were set, he picked up the bar he had dropped and smashed the controls so that they were helplessly jammed. He could almost feel the planet catapult through the heavens.
The laboratory roof was only a foot over his head. He whirled around, squashed a dozen tiny creeping things, leaped to a disk that was now not more than a few inches broad. Stooping low, balancing himself precariously, he somehow managed to close the tiny switch. A haze of orange light enveloped him, there came a great vertigo and dizziness and pain, he felt himself falling through bottomless spaces....
So exhausted that he could scarcely move, Phobar blinked his eyes open to brilliant daylight in the chill of a November Indian summer noon. The sun shone radiant in the heavens; off in the distance he heard a pandemonium of bells and whistles. Wearily he noticed that there were no flame-paths in the sky.
Staggering weakly, he made his way to the observatory, mounted the steps with tired limbs, and wobbled to the eyepiece of his telescope which he had left focused on the dark star two hours before. Almost trembling, he peered through it.
The dark star was gone. Somewhere far out in the abysses of the universe, a runaway world plunged headlong at ever-mounting speed to uncharted regions under its double acceleration of attraction and repulsion.
A sigh of contentment came from his lips as he sank into a heavy and profound sleep. Later he would learn of the readjustments in the solar system, and of the colder climate that came to Earth, and of the vast changes permanently made by the invading planet, and of a blazing new star discovered in Orion that might signify the birth of a sun or the death of a metallic dark world.
But these were events to be, and he demanded his immediate reward of a day's dreamless slumber.
By JIM WANNAMAKER
Of course if Man is to survive, he must be adaptable, as any life form must. But that's not enough; he must adapt faster than the competing forms. And on new planets, that can be tricky....
The faxgram read: REPORT MA IS INSTANTER GRAVIS. The news obelisk just off the express strip outside Mega Angeles' Galactic Survey Building was flashing: ONE OF OUR STAR SHIPS IS MISSING!
Going up in the lift, I recalled what I had seen once scrawled upon the bulkhead of a GS trainer: Space is kind to those who respect her. And underneath, in different handwriting: Fear is the word, my boy.
The look given me by the only other passenger, a husky youngster in GS gray, when I punched Interstel's level, didn't help. It was on the tip of my tongue to retaliate: Yes, and I'd turn in my own mother if she were a star chaser and I caught her doing something stupid. But I let it ride; obviously, it was a general-principles reaction; he couldn't have known the particulars of my last assignment: the seldom kind that had given Interstel its reputation.
The lumer over the main entrance glowed: INTERSTELLAR SECURITY, INVESTIGATION, AND SPECIAL SERVICES BRANCH, GALACTIC SURVEY, NORTH AMERICAN FEDERATION.
At the end of the long corridor between offices was a door labeled: CHIEF SPECIAL AGENT.
Gravis hadn't changed a bit in the thirty-six hours since I'd last seen him: a large, rumpled man who showed every year of the twenty he'd spent in Interstel.
"It's a nasty job, Ivy."
"Always has been," I said, completing the little interchange that had been reiterated so often that it had become almost a shibboleth.
I took advantage of his momentary silence. I'd had an hour during the air-taxi hop from Xanadu, the resort two hundred miles off the coast of California, to prepare my bitter statement. Words come fluently when an earned leave has been pulled peremptorily out from beneath you; a leave that still had twenty-nine days to go. But I was brief; the news flasher had canceled much of the bite of my anger; it took me something under one hundred and twenty seconds, including repetition of certain words and phrases.
Gravis lived up to his name; he didn't bat an eye. He handed me a thin folder; three of its sheets were facsimile extrapolations of probot reports; the fourth was an evaluation-and-assignment draft; all were from Galactic Survey Headquarters, NAF, in Montreal. The top three were identical, excepting probot serial numbers and departure and arrival times. GSS 231 had been located in its command orbit above a planet that had not yet been officially named but was well within the explored limits of the space sector assigned NAFGS by the interfederational body, had been monitored by three robot probes--described as being in optimum mechanical condition--on three distinctly separate occasions, and all devices that could be interrogated from outside had triggered safe and secure. But no human contact had been accomplished. The fourth sheet--which bore the calligraphy on its upper right corner: Attention Callum--assumed that the crew of 231, a survey team and con alternate, had met with an accident or series of accidents of undetermined origin and extent in the course of carrying out the duty described as follow-up exploration on the Earth-type planet, herein and heretofore designated Epsilon-Terra, and must therefore be considered-- "The news is--" I started to say.
"Pure delirium," Gravis interrupted. "Haven't you read Paragraph Six? We know exactly where the ship is because it's exactly where it should be. It's the crew that's missing."
Paragraph Seven concluded: We therefore recommend that an agent of experience be dispatched soonest to the designated star system.
"Experienced or expendable?" I muttered.
"Ivy, after ten years in Interstel, you should know that experience and expendability are synonymous."
Inside the GS section of the Lunar Complex, I had the occasion to think semantically again.
Words like instanter and soonest seldom match their literal meaning when applied to the physical transport of human beings, but in my job--I hadn't even had time to get my gee-legs.
I stepped off the glide strip in front of the ramp marked OUTGOING PERSONNEL, handed the efficient looking redhead my Q-chit and ID, and said: "Priority one."
"Quarantine, O.K.," she checked, smiling. "Feeling antiseptic?"
I had to admit, privately, that I did not. As applied to her, the term: coveralls, regulation, gray was strictly a euphemism. Perhaps it was the combination of low gravity and controlled conditions that made Lunatics of female persuasion blossom so anatomically. Or maybe she was a plant, a deliberate psych experiment to put outbound starmen in a particular frame of mind.
She flashed my identification on the screen, took a long look, and became coldly efficient. Callum, Ivor Vincent. Age: 40. Height: 5'8". Weight: 142. Hair: brown. Eyes: green. Rank: Special Agent, Interstel. "You look much older, Mr. Callum."
She consulted her assignment list.
I snapped the identoflake back in its bracelet, picked up my jump bag and briefing kit, and headed up the ramp, feeling more eyes than the redhead's. The anonymity of a GS working uniform hadn't lasted very long.
By the time I was able to capture enough breath to make coherent sounds, the shuttler was already approaching parking orbit. The pilot had used maximum grav boost, and the trip must have crowded the record.
"That wasn't exactly SOP, was it?"
"Priority one, sir," the youngster replied, showing teeth wolfishly.
I was still trying to think up an adequate rebuttal when I came out of the air lock and into the ship. Then I felt better. P 1 means, among other things, first available transportation--but this giant was the newest type, crammed to the buffers with the results of science's latest efforts to make star voyageurs as safe as express-strip commuters inside a Terran dome. Even the vibrations of the great Gatch-Spitzer-Melnikov generators, building toward maximum output, had been dampened to a level more imaginary than tangible. Internal gravity was momentarily in operation, as an additional blessing; and, walking down the blue-lit corridor toward Astrogation, I could feel the occasional, metallic, thermal thump that meant the IP drive was hot and critical.
I got a second lift when I saw who was bending over the robopilot console: Antonio Moya, Mexico City's gift to Galactic Survey some thirty-five years earlier; a cafe-con-leche type with shrewd eyes, nervous hands, silver-streaked hair that showed a defiance of geriatric injections, a slight, wiry body that couldn't have gone more than one hundred and twenty pounds at 1.0 gee, and probably the best Master Spaceman extant. Only discipline kept the grin off my face. But he was on the horn, getting traffic clearance, so I didn't interrupt.
The others were unknowns, the sort characterized by old spacers as "pretty boy, recruitment ad types," but they looked competent; I figured a medic and a spread of ratings; counting Moya, a basic GS unit. I'd expected both a con crew and a standby. Either this was the total of available personnel, or the brass had decided not to risk more men than absolutely necessary. If I'd had illusions about the assignment, they would have faded at that instant.
It's this way in Interstel: you're taught to be a loner. You're expected to have absolute confidence in your own abilities and complete skepticism about the talents of others. You're supposed to be suspicious, cynical, courageous, and completely trustworthy. And you're not expected to have friends. Which, obviously, in the light of the aforementioned and part of what is yet to come, could serve as the definition of redundancy. You're required to weed out incompetents wherever you find them without prejudice, mercy, or feeling. The standing order is survival, yet you are expected to lay down your life gladly if the sacrifice will save one, pink-cheeked, short-time, assistant teamer who gives the barest suggestion that he might some day grow up to be a man and repay the thousands of credits squandered upon his training in that profound hope. Which, stated another way, has become the Eleventh Commandment of special agents: Remember the body corporeal and keep it inviolate; and, if the reaction of the rank-and-file of Galactic Survey to Interstel is used as criterion, is the best-kept secret in the explored, physical universe. "The agent's burden," Gravis calls it.
Moya's jaw dropped when he caught sight of me--apparently he had been told only to expect an agent--but he recovered quickly.
"Hello, Callum," he barked. "I won't say it's a pleasure. Stow your gear and strap down."
The claxon sounded stridently, and the inflectionless voice of the robopilot said: "Sixty seconds."
I got into the indicated gee couch and squirmed around seeking some measure of comfort. It had been designed for a much larger man, and I gritted my teeth in the expectation of taking a beating.
After a bruising few minutes, we went weightless, then the servos put us back on internal gravity, and the crew unstrapped.
They ignored me studiously; it wasn't entirely bad manners; there's plenty to be done in the interval prior to the first hop, and it isn't all in just checking co-ordinates and programming master con.
The usual space plan calls for several accelerations and a lot of distance between Terra-Luna proximity and Solar System departure. But Space Regs are disregarded on Priority One missions. So, for probably less than an hour, things were going to be busy in Astrogation.
I retrieved my kit and looked for an unoccupied cubicle.
GS star ships are designed to accommodate twenty-four men in reasonable comfort--a figure arrived at more historically--the sum of experience--than arbitrarily, as the minimum number necessary for the adequate exploration of a new star system.
It breaks down this way: six men to a team, four teams maximum; three for planetary grounding, one for ship's con; since any given team can do either task, they are interchangeable, who gets which depends upon rotation; three for exploration, then, because averages spread over several generations of interstellar capability bear out the fact that mother primaries generally possess no more than three planets that are in the least amicable to humans.
I was more than cursorily familiar with the drill. The basic requirement for Interstel is five years' service with a survey team. I'd spent nine. Which is another reason for general GS enmity: the turncoat syndrome. That and the fact that prospective agents are not even considered unless they rate in the top one per cent in service qualification and fitness reports: the jealousy angle. I'd known Moya from my last regular duty ship. I'd worked up from assistant under his tutelage. I'd been ready for the Team Co-ordinator/Master Spaceman exams when I'd applied for transfer. Moya had raged for hours. But he'd given me a first-rate recommendation. Call it service pride.
I was just getting a start on the vid tapes when the cubicle's panel dilated and Moya stamped in, bristling like a game cock.
"What's all this about Epsilon-Terra?"
I removed the ear bead and grinned at him.
"Hello, Tony, you old space dog! You're looking fine. What happened? Did they pull you off leave, too?"
He held the acid face until the panel closed, then he brightened a little. At least, he didn't refuse my proffered hand.
He stood fists on hips, glaring at me.
Finally, he growled: "I had hopes you'd wash out. When I heard you'd made it, I was plenty disappointed." He shook his head. "You seem healthy enough, but I still think it's a waste of a good spacer." And that, apparently, was as close as he was going to come to saying that he was glad to see me again, because, in the next breath, he reverted to Starship Master.
"Now, let's have the nexus. All I know is that I got orders to round up a short crew, was handed a space plan with co-ordinates that were originally filed for GSS 231 a few months back, with an ultimate destination of a planet I orbited five years ago."
"You've been there?"
"I just said so, didn't I? Don't they teach you vacuum cops to listen?"
I gave him the background.
He nodded soberly a couple of times, but his only comment was: "I heard rumors." Then he said: "That's all I've got time for now. We make our first jump shortly. That'll take us to where 231 went on GSM. From there on out, we follow her plan precisely."
"Until we locate and grapple, Tony, then we start making our own mistakes."
"I don't doubt that."
Moya moved to leave, paused, said over his shoulder: "What's this about old Ben Stuart being cashiered for misconduct?"