"No," I admitted, still staring with a fixed fascination at the strange scene in the television disk. "Perhaps this is what we've been searching for. Please call Mr. Correy and Mr. Hendricks, and ask them to report here immediately."
Kincaide hastened to obey the order, while I watched the strange things in the field of the television disk, trying to ascertain their nature. They were not solid bodies, for even as I viewed them, one was superimposed upon another, and I could see the second quite distinctly through the substance of the first. Nor were they rigid, for now and again one of the crescent arms would move searchingly, almost like a thick, clumsy tentacle. There was something restless, hungry, in the movement of the sharp arms of the things, that sent a chill trickling down my spine.
Correy and Hendricks arrived together; their curiosity evident.
"I believe, gentlemen," I said, "that we're about to find out the reason why two ships already have disappeared in this vicinity. Look first at the charts, and then here."
They bent, for a moment, over the charts, and then stared down into the television disk. Correy was first to speak.
"What are they?" he gasped. "Are they ... alive?"
"That is what we don't know. I believe they are, after a fashion. And, if you'll observe, they are headed directly towards us at a speed which must be at least as great as our own. Is that correct, Mr. Kincaide?"
Kincaide nodded, and began some hasty figuring, taking his readings from the finely ruled lines which divided the charts into little measured squares, and checking speeds with the chronometers set into the wall of the room.
"But I don't understand the way in which they register on our navigating charts, sir," said Hendricks slowly. Hendricks, my youthful third officer, had an inquiring, almost scientific mind. I have often said he was the closest approach to a scientist I have ever seen in the person of an action-loving man. "They're a blur of light on the charts--all out of proportion to their actual size. They must be something more than material bodies, or less."
"They're coming towards us," commented Correy grimly, still bent over the disk, "as though they knew what they were doing, and meant business."
"Yes," nodded Kincaide, picking up the paper upon which he had been figuring. "This is just a rule-of-thumb estimate, but if they continue on their present course at their present speed, and we do likewise, they'll be upon us in about an hour and a quarter--less, if anything."
"But I can't understand their appearance in the charts," muttered Hendricks doggedly, still turning that matter over in his mind. "Unless ... unless ... ah! I'll venture I have it, sir! The charts are operated by super-radio reflexes; in others words, electrically. They would naturally be extremely sensitive to an electrical disturbance. Those things are electrical in nature. Highly so. That's the reason for the flare of light on the charts."
"Sounds logical," said Correy immediately. "The point, as I see it, is not what they are, but what we're to do about them. Do you believe, sir, that they are dangerous?"
"Let me ask you some questions to answer that one," I suggested. "Two ships are reported lost in space--in this immediate vicinity. We come here to determine the cause of those losses. We find ourselves the evident objective of a horde of strange things which we cannot identify; which Mr. Hendricks, here, seems to have good reason to believe are somehow electrical in nature. Putting all these facts together, what is the most logical conclusion?"
"That these things caused the two lost ships to be reported missing in space!" said Hendricks.
I glanced at Kincaide, and he nodded gravely.
"And you, Mr. Correy?" I asked.
"I believe you're, right, sir. They seem like such rather flimsy, harmless things, though, that the disintegrator rays will take care of without difficulty. Shall I order the ray operators to their stations, sir?"
"Do that, please. And take personal charge of the forward projectors, will you? Mr. Hendricks, will you command the after projectors? Mr. Kincaide and I will carry on here."
"Shall we open upon them at will, or upon orders, sir?" asked Correy.
"Upon orders," I said. "And you'll get your orders as soon as they're in range; I have a feeling we're in for trouble."
"I hope so, sir!" grinned Correy from the door.
Hendricks followed him silently, but I saw there was a deep, thoughtful frown between his brows.
"I think," commented Kincaide quietly, "that Hendricks is likely to be more useful to us in this matter than Correy."
I nodded, and bent over the television disk. The things were perceptibly nearer; the hurtling group nearly filled the disk, now.
There was something horribly eager, horribly malignant, in the way they shone, so palely red, and in the fashion in which their blunt tentacles reached out toward the Ertak.
I glanced up at the Earth clock on the wall.
"The next hour," I said soberly, "cannot pass too quickly for me!"
We had decelerated steadily during the hour, but we were still above maximum atmospheric speed when at last I gave the order to open the invaders with disintegrator rays. They were close, but of course the rays are not as effective in space as when operating in a more favorable medium, and I wished to make sure of our prey.
I pressed the attention signal to Correy's post, and he answered instantly.
"Ready, Mr. Correy?"
"Then commence action!"
Before I could repeat the command to Hendricks, I heard the deepening note of the atomic generators, and knew Correy had already begun operations.
Together, and silently, Kincaide and I bent over the television disk. We watched for a moment, and then, with one accord, lifted our heads and looked into each other's eyes.
"No go, sir," said Kincaide quietly.
I nodded. It was evident the disintegrator rays were useless here. When they struck into the horde of crescent-shaped things coming so hungrily toward us, the things changed from red to a sickly, yellowish pink, and seemed to writhe, as though in some discomfort, but that was all.
"Perhaps at closer range...?" ventured Kincaide.
"I think not. If Mr. Hendricks is correct--and I believe he is--these things aren't material; they're not matter, as we comprehend the word. And so, they can't be disintegrated."
"Then, sir, how are to best them?"
"First, we'll have to know more about them. For one thing, their mode of attack. We should know very soon. Please recall Mr. Hendricks, and then order all hands to their posts. We may be in for it."
Hendricks came rushing in breathlessly.
"The rays are useless, sir," he said. "They'll be on us in a few minutes. Any further orders?"
"Not yet. Have you any ideas as to their mode of attack? What they can do to us?"
"No, sir. That is, no reasonable idea."
"What's your unreasonable theory, then, Mr. Hendricks?"
"I'd prefer, sir, to make further observation first," he replied. "They're close enough now, I think, to watch through the ports. Have I your permission to unshutter one of the ports?"
"Certainly, sir." The Ertak, like all Special Patrol ships of the period, had but few ports, and these were kept heavily shuttered. Her hull was double; she was really two ships, one inside the other, the two skins being separated and braced by innumerable trusses. Between the outer and the inner skin the air pressure was kept about one half of normal, thus distributing the strain of the pressure equally between the two hulls.
In order to arrange for a port or an exit, it was necessary to bring these two skins close together at the desired point, and strengthen this weak point with many braces. As a further protection against an emergency--and a fighting ship must be prepared against all emergencies--the ports were all shuttered with massive doors of solid metal, hermetically fitted. I am explaining this so much in detail for the benefit of those not familiar with the ships of my day, and because this information is necessary that one may have a complete understanding of subsequent events.
Hendricks, upon receiving my permission, sprang to one of the two ports in the navigating room and unshuttered it.
"The lights, please?" he asked, over his shoulder. Kincaide nodded, and switched off the ethon tubes which illuminated the room. The three of us crowded around the recessed port.
The things were not only close: they were veritably upon us! Even as we looked, one of them swept by the port so close that, save for the thick crystal, one might have reached out into space and touched it.
The television disk had represented them very accurately. They were, in their greatest dimension, perhaps twice the height of a man, and at close range their reddish color was more brilliant than I had imagined; in the thickest portion of the crescent, which seemed to be the nucleus, the radiance of the thing was almost blinding.
It was obvious that they were not material bodies. There were no definite boundaries to their bodies; they faded off into nothingness in a sort of fringe, almost like a dim halo.
An attention signal sounded sharply, and Kincaide groped his way swiftly to answer it.
"It's Correy, sir," he said. "He reports his rays are utterly useless, and asks for further orders."
"Tell him to cease action, and report here immediately." I turned to Hendricks, staring out the port beside me. "Well, what do you make of them now?"
Before he could reply, Kincaide called out sharply.
"Come here, sir! The charts are out of commission. We've gone blind."
It was true. The charts were no more than twin rectangles of lambent red flame, with a yellow spark glowing dimly in the center of each, the fine black lines ruled in the surface showing clearly against the wavering red fire.
"Mr. Hendricks!" I snapped. "Let's have your theory--reasonable or otherwise."
Hendricks, his face pressed at an angle against one side of the port, turned toward me, and swung the shutter into place. Kincaide snapped on the lights.
"It's no longer a theory, sir," he said in a choked, hushed voice, "although it's still unreasonable. These things--are eating us!"
"Eating us?" Correy's voice joined Kincaide's and mine in the exclamation of amazement. He had just entered the navigating room in response to my order.
"Eroding us, absorbing us--whatever you want to call it. There's one at work close enough to the port so that I could see it. It is feeding upon our hull as an electric arc feeds upon its electrodes!"
"Farewell Ertak!" said Correy grimly. "Anything the rays can't lick--wins!"
"Not yet!" I contradicted him. "Kincaide, what's the nearest body upon which we can set down?"
"N-127, sir," he replied promptly. "Just logged her a few minutes ago." He poured hastily through a dog-eared index. "Here it is: 'N-127, atmosphere unbreathable; largely nitrogen, oxygen insufficient to support human life; no animal life reported; insects, large but reported non-poisonous; vegetation heroic in size, probably with edible fruits, although reports are incomplete on this score; water unfit for drinking purpose unless distilled; land area approximately--'"
"That's enough," I interrupted. "Mr. Correy, set a course for N-127 by the readings of the television instrument. Mr. Kincaide, accelerate to maximum space speed, and set us down on dry land as quickly as emergency speed can put us there. And you, Mr. Hendricks, please tell us all you know--or guess--about the enemy."
Hendricks waited, moodily silent, until the ship was coming around on her course, picking up speed every instant. Kincaide had gradually increased the pull of the gravity pads to about twice normal, so that we found it barely possible to move about. The Ertak was an old-timer, but she could pick up speed when she had to that would have thrown us all headlong were it not for the artificial gravity anchorage of the pads.
"It's all guess-work," began Hendricks slowly, "so I hope you won't place too much reliance in my theories, sir. I'll just give you my line of reasoning, and you can evaluate it for yourself.
"These things are creatures of space. No form of life, as we know it, can live in space. Therefore, they are not material; they are not matter, like ourselves.
"From their effect upon the charts, we decided they were electrical in nature. Not made up of atoms and electrons, but of pure electrical energy in an unfamiliar form.
"Then, remembering that they exist in space, and concluding that they were the destroyers of the two ships we know of, I began wondering how they brought about the destruction--or at least, the disappearance--of these two ships. Life of any kind must have something to feed upon. To produce one kind of energy we must convert, apparently consume, some other kind of energy. Even our atomic generators slowly but surely eat up the metal in which is locked the power which makes this ship's power possible.
"But, in space, what could these things feed upon? What--if not those troublesome bodies, meteorites? And meteorites, as we know, are largely metallic in composition. And ships are made of metal.
"Here are the only proofs, if proofs you can call them, that these are not wild ideas: first, the disintegrator rays, working upon an electrical principle, reacted upon but did not destroy these things, as might be expected from the meeting of two not dissimilar manifestations of energy; and the fact that I did, from the port, see one of these space-things, or part of one, flattened out upon the body of the Ertak, and feeding upon her skin, already roughened and pitted slightly from the thing's hungry activities."
Hendricks fell silent, staring down at the floor. He was only a youngster, and the significance of his remarks was as plain to him as it was to the rest of us. If these monsters from the void were truly feeding on the skin of our ship, vampire-like, it would not be long before it would be weakened; weakened to the danger point, weakened until we would explode in space like a gigantic bomb, to leave our fragments to whirl onward forever through the darkness and the silence of outer space.
"And what, sir, do you plan to do when we reach this N-127?" asked Correy. "Burn them off with a run through the atmosphere?"
"No; that wouldn't work, I imagine." I glanced at Hendricks inquiringly, and he shook his head. "My only thought was to land, so that we would have some chance. Outside the ship we can at least attack; locked in here we're helpless."
"Attack, sir? With what?" asked Kincaide curiously.
"That I can't answer. But at least we can fight--with solid ground under our feet. And that's something."
"You're right, sir!" grinned Correy. It was the first smile that had appeared on the faces of any of us in many minutes. "And fight we will! And if we lose the ship, at least we'll be alive, with a hope of rescue."
Hendricks glanced up at him and shook his head, smiling crookedly.
"You forget," he remarked, "that there's no air to breathe on N-127. An atmosphere of nitrogen. And no water that's drinkable--if the reports are accurate. A breathing mask will not last long, even the new types."
"That's so," said Kincaide. "The tanks hold about a ten-hours' supply; less, if the wearer is working hard, or fighting."
Ten hours! No more, if we did not find some way to destroy these leeches of space before they destroyed the Ertak.
During the next half hour little was said. We were drawing close to our tiny, uninhabited haven, and both Correy and Kincaide were busy with their navigation. Working in reverse, as it were, from the rough readings of the television disk settings, an ordinarily simple task was made extremely difficult.
I helped Correy interpret his headings, and kept a weather eye on the gauges over the operating table. We were slipping into the atmospheric fringe of N-127, and the surface-temperature gauge was slowly climbing. Hendricks sat hunched heavily in a corner, his head bowed in his hands.
"I believe," said Kincaide at length, "I can take over visually now." He unshuttered one of the ports, and peered out. N-127 was full abreast of us, and we were dropping sideways toward her at a gradually diminishing speed. The impression given us, due to the gravity pads in the keel of the ship, was that we were right side up, and N-127 was approaching us swiftly from the side.