He paused for a moment, frowning thoughtfully as though dreading to begin. I waited silently, and at last he spoke again.
"There is a world"--and he named a name which I shall not repeat, the name of the Forgotten Planet--"that is a festering sore upon the body of the Universe. As you know, for two centuries we have tried to pass on to these people an understanding of peace and friendship. I believe that nothing has been left undone. The Council and the forces behind it have done everything within their power. And now--"
He stopped again, and there was an expression of deepest pain written upon his wise and kindly face. The pause was for but an instant.
"And now," he went on firmly, "it is at an end. Our work has been undone. Two centuries of effort--undone. They have risen in revolt, they have killed all those sent by the Alliance of which this Council is the governing body and the mouthpiece, and they have sent us an ultimatum--a threat of war!"
Kellen nodded his magnificent old head gravely.
"I do not wonder that you start," he said heavily. "War! It must not be. It cannot be! And yet, war is what they threaten."
"But, sir!" I put in eagerly. I was young and rash in those days. "Who are they, to make war against a united Universe?"
"I have visited your planet, Earth," said Kellen, smiling very faintly. "You have a tiny winged insect you call bee. Is it not so?"
"The bee is a tiny thing, of little strength. A man, a little child, might crush one to death between a thumb and finger. But the bee may sting before he is crushed, and the sting may linger on for days, a painful and unpleasant thing. Is that not so?"
"I see, sir," I replied, somewhat abashed before the tolerant, kindly wisdom of this great man. "They cannot hope to wage successful war, but they may bring much suffering to others."
"Much suffering," nodded Kellen, still gently smiling. "And we are determined that this thing shall not be. Not"--and his face grew gray with a terrible and bitter resolve--"not if we have to bring to bear upon that dark and unwilling world the disintegrating rays of every ship of the Alliance, so that the very shell of the planet shall disappear, and no life ever again shall move upon its surface.
"But this," and he seemed to shudder at the thought, "is a terrible and a ruthless thing to even contemplate. We must first try once again to point out to them the folly of their ways. It is with this mission that we would burden you, John Hanson."
"It is no burden, but an honor, sir," I said quietly.
"Youth! Youth!" Kellen chided me gently. "Foolish, yet rather glorious. Let me tell you the rest, and then we shall ask for your reply again.
"The news came to us by a small scout ship attached to that unhappy world. It barely made the journey to Jaron, the nearest planet, and crashed so badly, from lack of power, that all save one man were killed.
"He, luckily, tore off his menore, and insisted in speech that he be brought here. He was obeyed, and, in a dying condition, was brought to this very chamber." Kellen glanced swiftly, sadly, around the room, as though he could still visualize that scene.
"Every agent of the Alliance upon that hateful planet was set upon and killed, following the working out of some gigantic and perfectly executed plan--all save the crew of this one tiny scout ship, which was spared to act as a messenger.
"'Tell your great Council,' was the message these people sent to us, 'that here is rebellion. We do not want, nor will we tolerate, your peace. We have learned now that upon other worlds than ours there are great riches. These we shall take. If there is resistance, we have a new and a terrible death to deal. A death that your great scientists will be helpless against; a horrible and irresistable death that will make desolate and devoid of intelligent life any world where we are forced to sow the seeds of ultimate disaster.
"'We are not yet ready. If we were, we would not move, for we prefer that your Council have time to think about what is surely to come. If you doubt that we have the power to do what we have threatened to do, send one ship, commanded by a man whose word you will trust, and we will prove to him that these are no empty words.'"
"That, as nearly as I can remember it," concluded Kellen, "is the message. The man who brought it died almost before he had finished.
"That is the message. You are the man we have picked to accept their challenge. Remember, though, that there are but the four of us in this room. There are but four of us who know these things. If you for any reason do not wish to accept this mission, there will be none to judge you, least of all, any one of us, who know best of all the perils."
"You say, sir," I said quietly, although my heart was pounding in my throat, and roaring in my ears, "that there would be none to judge me.
"Sir, there would be myself. There could be no more merciless judge. I am honored that I have been selected for this task, and I accept the responsibility willingly, gladly. When is it your wish that we should start?"
The three presiding members of the Council glanced at each other, faintly smiling, as though they would say, as Kellen had said a short time before: "Youth! Youth!" Yet I believe they were glad and somewhat proud that I had replied as I did.
"You may start," said Kellen, "as soon as you can complete the necessary preparations. Detailed instructions will be given you later."
He bowed to me, and the others did likewise. Then Kellen picked up his menore and adjusted it.
The interview was over.
"What do you make it?" I asked the observer. He glanced up from his instrument.
"Jaron, sir. Three degrees to port; elevation between five and six degrees. Approximate only, of course, sir."
"Good enough. Please ask Mr. Barry to hold to his present course. We shall not stop at Jaron."
The observer glanced at me curiously, but he was too well disciplined to hesitate or ask questions.
"Yes, sir!" he said crisply, and spoke into the microphone beside him.
None of us wore menores when on duty, for several reasons. Our instruments were not nearly as perfect as those in use to-day, and verbal orders were clearer and carried more authority than mental instructions. The delicate and powerful electrical and atomic mechanism of our ship interfered with the functioning of the menores, and at that time the old habit of speech was far more firmly entrenched, due to hereditary influence, than it is now.
I nodded to the man, and made my way to my own quarters. I wished most heartily that I could talk over my plans with someone, but this had been expressly forbidden.
"I realize that you trust your men, and more particularly your officers," Kellen had told me during the course of his parting conversation with me. "I trust them also--yet we must remember that the peace of mind of the Universe is concerned. If news, even a rumor, of this threatened disaster should become known, it is impossible to predict the disturbance it might create.
"Say nothing to anyone. It is your problem. You alone should leave the ship when you land; you alone shall hear or see the evidence they have to present, and you alone shall bring word of it to us. That is the wish of the Council."
"Then it is my wish," I had said, and so it had been settled.
Aft, in the crew's quarters, a gong sounded sharply: the signal for changing watches, and the beginning of a sleep period. I glanced at the remote control dials that glowed behind their glass panel on one side of my room. From the registered attraction of Jaron, at our present speed, we should be passing her within, according to Earth time, about two hours. That meant that their outer patrols might be seeking our business, and I touched Barry's attention button, and spoke into the microphone beside my bunk.
"Mr. Barry? I am turning in for a little sleep. Before you turn over the watch to Eitel, will you see that the nose rays are set for the Special Patrol code signal for this enar. We shall be close to Jaron shortly."
"Yes, sir! Any other orders?"
"No. Keep her on her present course. I shall take the watch from Mr. Eitel."
Since there have been changes since those days, and will undoubtedly be others in the future, it might be well to make clear, in a document such is this, that at this period, all ships of the Special Patrol Service identified themselves by means of invisible rays flashed in certain sequences, from the two nose, or forward, projectors. These code signals were changed every enar, a period of time arbitrarily set by the Council; about eighteen days, as time is measured on the Earth, and divided into ten periods, as at present, known as enarens. These were further divided into enaros, thus giving us a time-reckoning system for use in space, corresponding roughly to the months, days and hours of the Earth.
I retired, but not to sleep. Sleep would not come. I knew, of course, that if curious outer patrol ships from Jaron did investigate us, they would be able to detect our invisible ray code signal, and thus satisfy themselves that we were on the Council's business. There would be no difficulty on that score. But what I should do after landing upon the rebellious sphere, I had not the slightest idea.
"Be stern, indifferent to their threats," Kellen, had counseled me, "but do everything within your power to make them see the folly of their attitude. Do not threaten them, for they are a surly people and you might precipitate matters. Swallow your pride if you must; remember that yours is a gigantic responsibility, and upon the information you bring us may depend the salvation of millions. I am convinced that they are not--you have a word in your language that fits exactly. Not pretending ... what is the word?"
"Bluffing?" I had supplied in English, smiling.
"Right! Bluffing. It is a very descriptive word. I am sure they are not bluffing."
I was sure of it also. They knew the power of the Alliance; they had been made to feel it more than once. A bluff would have been a foolish thing, and these people were not fools. In some lines of research they were extraordinarily brilliant.
But what could their new, terrible weapon be? Rays we had; at least half a dozen rays of destruction; the terrible dehydrating ray of the Deuber Spheres, the disintegrating ray that dated back before Ame Baove and his first voyage into space, the concentrated ultra-violet ray that struck men down in fiery torment.... No, it could hardly be a new ray that was their boasted weapon.
What, then? Electricity had even then been exhausted of its possibilities. Atomic energy had been released, harnessed, and directed. Yet it would take fabulous time and expense to make these machines of destruction do what they claimed they would do.
Still pondering the problem, I did fall at last into a fitful travesty of sleep.
I was glad when the soft clamor of the bell aft announced the next change of watch. I rose, cleared the cobwebs from my brain with an icy shower, and made my way directly to the navigating room.
"Everything tidy, sir," said Eitel, my second officer, and a Zenian. He was thin and very dark, like all Zenians, and had the high, effeminate voice of that people. But he was cool and fearless and had the uncanny cerebration of his kind; I trusted him as completely as I trusted Barry, my first officer, who, like myself, was a native of Earth. "Will you take over?"
"Yes," I nodded, glancing at the twin charts beneath the ground glass top of the control table. "Get what sleep you can the next few enaros. Presently I shall want every man on duty and at his station."
He glanced at me curiously, as the observer had done, but saluted and left with only a brief, "Yes, sir!" I returned the salute and turned my attention again to the charts.
The navigating room of an interplanetary ship is without doubt unfamiliar ground to most, so it might be well for me to say that such ships have, for the most part, twin charts, showing progress in two dimensions; to use land terms, lateral and vertical. These charts are really no more than large sheets of ground glass, ruled in both directions with fine black lines, representing all relatively close heavenly bodies by green lights of varying sizes. The ship itself is represented by a red spark and the whole is, of course, entirely automatic in action, the instruments comprising the chart being operated by super-radio reflexes.
Jaron, the charts showed me at a glance, was now far behind. Almost directly above--it is necessary to resort to these unscientific terms to make my meaning clear--was the tiny world Elon, home of the friendly but impossibly dull winged people, the only ones in the known Universe. I was there but once, and found them almost laughably like our common dragon-flies on Earth; dragon-flies that grow some seven feet long, and with gauzy wings of amazing strength.
Directly ahead, on both charts, was a brilliantly glowing sphere of green--our destination. I made some rapid mental calculations, studying the few fine black lines between the red spark that was our ship, and the nearest edge of the great green sphere. I glanced at our speed indicator and the attraction meter. The little red slide that moved around the rim of the attraction meter was squarely at the top, showing that the attraction was from straight ahead; the great black hand was nearly a third of the way around the face.
We were very close; two hours would bring us into the atmospheric envelope. In less than two hours and a half, we would be in the Control City of what is now called the Forgotten Planet!
I glanced forward, through the thick glass partitions, into the operating room. Three men stood there, watching intently; they too, were wondering why we visited the unfriendly world.
The planet itself loomed up straight ahead, a great half-circle, its curved rim sharp and bright against the empty blackness of space; the chord ragged and blurred. In two hours ... I turned away and began a restless pacing.
An hour went by; an hour and a half. I pressed the attention button to the operating room, and gave orders to reduce our speed by half. We were very close to the outer fringe of the atmospheric envelope. Then, keeping my eye on the big surface-temperature gauge, with its stubby red hand, I resumed my nervous pacing.
Slowly the thick red hand of the surface-temperature gauge began to move; slowly, and then more rapidly, until the eyes could catch its creeping.
"Reduce to atmospheric speed," I ordered curtly, and glanced down through a side port at one end of the long navigating room.
We were, at the moment, directly above the twilight belt. To my right, as I looked down, I could see a portion of the glistening antarctic ice cap. Here and there were the great flat lakes, almost seas, of the planet.
Our geographies of the Universe to-day do not show the topography of the Forgotten Planet: I might say, therefore, that the entire sphere was land area, with numerous great lakes embedded in its surface, together with many broad, very crooked rivers. As Ame Baove had reported, there were no mountains, and no high land.
"Altitude constant," I ordered. "Port three degrees. Stand by for further orders."
The earth seemed to whirl slowly beneath us. Great cities drifted astern, and I compared the scene below me with the great maps I took from our chart-case. The Control City should be just beyond the visible rim; well in the daylight area.
"Port five degrees," I said, and pressed the attention button to Barry's quarters.
"Mr. Barry, please call all men to quarters, including the off-duty watch, and then report to the navigating room. Mr. Eitel will be under my direct orders. We shall descend within the next few minutes."
"Very well, sir."
I pressed the attention button to Eitel's room.
"Mr. Eitel, please pick ten of your best men and have them report at the forward exit. Await me, with the men, at that place. I shall be with you as soon as I turn the command over to Mr. Barry. We are descending immediately."
"Right, sir!" said Eitel.
I turned from the microphone to find that Barry had just entered the navigating room.
"We will descend into the Great Court of the Control City, Mr. Barry," I said. "I have a mission here. I am sorry, but these are the only instructions I can leave you.
"I do not know how long I shall be gone from the ship, but if I do not return within three hours, depart without me, and report directly to Kellen of the Council. To him, and no other. Tell him, verbally, what took place. Should there be any concerted action against the Tamon, use your own judgment as to the action to be taken, remembering that the safety of the ship and its crew, and the report of the Council, are infinitely more important than my personal welfare. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir. Too damned clear."
I smiled and shook my head.
"Don't worry," I said lightly. "I'll be back well within the appointed time."
"I hope so. But there's something wrong as hell here. I'm talking now as man to man; not to my commanding officer. I've been watching below, and I have seen at least two spots where large numbers of our ships have been destroyed. The remaining ships bear their own damned emblem where the crest of the Alliance should be--and was. What does it mean?"
"It means," I said slowly, "that I shall have to rely upon every man and officer to forget himself and myself, and obey orders without hesitation and without flinching. The orders are not mine, but direct from the Council itself." I held out my hand to him--an ancient Earth gesture of greeting, good-will and farewell--and he shook it vigorously.
"God go with you," he said softly, and with a little nod of thanks I turned and quickly left the room.
Eitel, with his ten men, were waiting for me at the forward exit. The men fell back a few paces and came to attention; Eitel saluted smartly.
"We are ready, sir. What are your orders?"
"You are to guard this opening. Under no circumstances is anyone to enter save myself. I shall be gone not longer than three hours; if I am not back within that time, Mr. Barry has his orders. The exit will be sealed, and the Tamon will depart immediately, without me."
"Yes, sir. You will pardon me, but I gather that your mission is a dangerous one. May I not accompany you?"
I shook my head.