"Look, sir." The navigator pointed to the tv screen and a brilliantly clear image of Big Joe shimmering against the galaxy, lit by millions of stars. Every missile port, even the military numerals along her nose were clearly visible.
"They're rubbing it in, Rogers. Showing us what we look like to them." Heselton's face was chalk. "They could blast Big Joe apart, piece by piece--the most powerful ship in the galaxy."
"Maybe," said Rogers, "the second most powerful."
Without answering, Heselton turned and looked out again at empty space and millions of steady, unwinking stars. His mind formed an image of a huge, ethereal spaceship, missile ports open, weapons aimed directly at Big Joe.
The speaker interrupted his nightmare. "This is fire control, Admiral. With your permission I'll scatter a few C-bombs ..."
Heselton leaped for the microphone. "Are you out of your mind? We haven't the slightest idea of the forces that guy has. We might be in the center of a whole blooming fleet. Ever think of that?"
The alien's face, still smirking, appeared again on the screen. "He says," said the interpreter, "that he finds the presence of our armed ship very annoying."
Heselton knew what he had to do. "Tell him," he said, swallowing hard, "that we apologize. This part of the galaxy is strange to us."
"He says he is contemplating blasting us out of the sky."
Heselton said nothing, but he longed to reach out and throttle the grinning, alien face.
"However," the interpreter continued, "he will let us go safely if we leave immediately. He says to send an unarmed, diplomatic vessel next time and maybe his people will talk to us."
"Thank him for his kindness." Heselton's jaws clenched so tightly they ached.
"He says," said the interpreter, "to get the hell out."
The grinning face snapped off the screen, but the cackling laughter continued to reverberate in the control room until the radio shack finally turned off the receiver.
"Reverse course," the admiral ordered quietly. "Maximum drive."
A thousand missile launchers, designed to disintegrate solar systems, were deactivated, hundreds of gyros swung the mile-long ship end for end and stabilized her on a reverse course, drive units big enough to power several major cities whined into operation, anti-grav generators with the strength to shift small planets counterbalanced the external acceleration, and the ship moved, away, with a speed approaching that of light.
"Well," muttered Heselton, "that's the very first time Big Joe has ever had to retreat." As if it were his own personal failure, he walked slowly across the control room and down the corridor towards his cabin.
"Admiral!" Lost in thought, Heselton barely heard the call.
"Admiral, look!" Pausing at the door to his cabin, Heselton turned to face the ship's chief astronomer running up waving two large photographs.
"Look, sir," the professor gasped for breath. "We thought this was a spot on the negative, but one of the men got curious and enlarged it about a hundred times." He held up one of the photos. It showed a small, fuzzy, but unmistakable spaceship. "No wonder we couldn't spot it with our instruments."
Heselton snatched it out of his hand. "I see what you mean. This ship must have been thousands of miles ..."
The professor shook his head. "No, sir. As a matter of fact, it was quite close by."
"We figure that the total length of the alien ship was roughly an inch and a half."
by Walt Sheldon
The tiny spaceship had been built for a journey to a star. But its small, mischievous pilots had a rendezvous with destiny--on Earth.
I must admit that at first I wasn't sure I was hearing those noises. It was in a park near the nuclear propulsion center--a cool, green spot, with the leaves all telling each other to hush, be quiet, and the soft breeze stirring them up again. I had known precisely such a secluded little green sanctuary just over the hill from Mr. Riordan's farm when I was a boy.
Now it was a place I came to when I had a problem to thrash out. That morning I had been trying to work out an equation to give the coefficient of discharge for the matter in combustion. You may call it gas, if you wish, for we treated it like gas at the center for convenience--as it came from the rocket tubes in our engine.
Without this coefficient to give us control, we would have lacked a workable equation when we set about putting the first moon rocket around those extraordinary engines of ours, which were still in the undeveloped blueprint stage.
I see I shall have to explain this, although I had hoped to get right along with my story. When you start from scratch, matter discharged from any orifice has a velocity directly proportional to the square root of the pressure-head driving it. But when you actually put things together, contractions or expansions in the gas, surface roughness and other factors make the velocity a bit smaller.
At the terrible discharge speed of nuclear explosion--which is what the drive amounts to despite the fact that it is simply water in which nuclear salts have been previously dissolved--this small factor makes quite a difference. I had to figure everything into it--diameter of the nozzle, sharpness of the edge, the velocity of approach to the point of discharge, atomic weight and structure-- Oh, there is so much of this that if you're not a nuclear engineer yourself it's certain to weary you.
Perhaps you had better take my word for it that without this equation--correctly stated, mind you--mankind would be well advised not to make a first trip to the moon. And all this talk of coefficients and equations sits strangely, you might say, upon the tongue of a man named Kevin Francis Houlihan. But I am, after all, a scientist. If I had not been a specialist in my field I would hardly have found myself engaged in vital research at the center.
Anyway, I heard these little noises in the park. They sounded like small working sounds, blending in eerily mysterious fashion with a chorus of small voices. I thought at first it might be children at play, but then at the time I was a bit absent-minded. I tiptoed to the edge of the trees, not wanting to deprive any small scalawags of their pleasure, and peered out between the branches. And what do you suppose I saw? Not children, but a group of little people, hard at work.
There was a leader, an older one with a crank face. He was beating the air with his arms and piping: "Over here, now! All right, bring those electrical connections over here--and see you're not slow as treacle about it!"
There were perhaps fifty of the little people. I was more than startled by it, too. I had not seen little people in--oh, close to thirty years. I had seen them first as a boy of eight, and then, very briefly again, on my tenth birthday. And I had become convinced they could never be seen here in America. I had never seen them so busy, either. They were building something in the middle of the glade. It was long and shiny and upright and a little over five feet in height.
"Come along now, people!" said this crotchety one, looking straight at me. "Stop starin' and get to work! You'll not be needin' to mind that man standin' there! You know he can't see nor hear us!"
Oh, it was good to hear the rich old tongue again. I smiled, and the foreman of the leprechauns--if that's what he was--saw me smile and became stiff and alert for a moment, as though suspecting that perhaps I actually could see him. Then he shrugged and turned away, clearly deeming such a thing impossible.
I said, "Just a minute, friend, and I'll beg your pardon. It so happens I can see you."
He whirled to face me again, staring open-mouthed. Then he said, "What? What's that, now?"
"I can see you," I said.
"Ohhh!" he said and put his palms to his cheekbones. "Saints be with us! He's a believer! Run everybody--run for your lives!"
And they all began running, in as many directions as there were little souls. They began to scurry behind the trees and bushes, and a sloping embankment nearby.
"No, wait!" I said. "Don't go away! I'll not be hurting you!"
They continued to scurry.
I knew what it was they feared. "I don't intend catching one of you!" I said. "Come back, you daft little creatures!"
But the glade was silent, and they had all disappeared. They thought I wanted their crock of gold, of course. I'd be entitled to it if I could catch one and keep him. Or so the legends affirmed, though I've wondered often about the truth of them. But I was after no gold. I only wanted to hear the music of an Irish tongue. I was lonely here in America, even if I had latched on to a fine job of work for almost shamefully generous pay. You see, in a place as full of science as the nuclear propulsion center there is not much time for the old things. I very much wanted to talk to the little people.
I walked over to the center of the glade where the curious shiny object was standing. It was as smooth as glass and shaped like a huge cigar. There were a pair of triangular fins down at the bottom, and stubby wings amidships. Of course it was a spaceship, or a miniature replica of one. I looked at it more closely. Everything seemed almost miraculously complete and workable.
I shook my head in wonder, then stepped back from the spaceship and looked about the glade. I knew they were all hiding nearby, watching me apprehensively. I lifted my head to them.
"Listen to me now, little people!" I called out. "My name's Houlihan of the Roscommon Houlihans. I am descended from King Niall himself--or so at least my father used to say! Come on out now, and pass the time o' day!"
Then I waited, but they didn't answer. The little people always had been shy. Yet without reaching a decision in so many words I knew suddenly that I had to talk to them. I'd come to the glen to work out a knotty problem, and I was up against a blank wall. Simply because I was so lonely that my mind had become clogged.
I knew that if I could just once hear the old tongue again, and talk about the old things, I might be able to think the problem through to a satisfactory conclusion.
So I stepped back to the tiny spaceship, and this time I struck it a resounding blow with my fist. "Hear me now, little people! If you don't show yourselves and come out and talk to me, I'll wreck this spaceship from stem to stern!"
I heard only the leaves rustling softly.
"Do you understand? I'll give you until I count three to make an appearance! One!"
The glade remained deathly silent.
I thought I heard a stirring somewhere, as if a small, brittle twig had snapped in the underbrush.
And with that the little people suddenly appeared.
The leader--he seemed more wizened and bent than before--approached me slowly and warily as I stood there. The others all followed at a safe distance. I smiled to reassure them and then waved my arm in a friendly gesture of greeting.
"Good morning," I said.
"Good morning," the foreman said with some caution. "My name is Keech."
"And mine's Houlihan, as I've told you. Are you convinced now that I have no intention of doing you any injury?"
"Mr. Houlihan," said Keech, drawing a kind of peppered dignity up about himself, "in such matters I am never fully convinced. After living for many centuries I am all too acutely aware of the perversity of human nature."
"Yes," I said. "Well, as you will quickly see, all I want to do is talk." I nodded as I spoke, and sat down cross-legged upon the grass.
"Any Irishman wants to talk, Mr. Houlihan."
"And often that's all he wants," I said. "Sit down with me now, and stop staring as if I were a snake returned to the Island."
He shook his head and remained standing. "Have your say, Mr. Houlihan. And afterward we'll appreciate it if you'll go away and leave us to our work."
"Well, now, your work," I said, and glanced at the spaceship. "That's exactly what's got me curious."
The others had edged in a bit now and were standing in a circle, intently staring at me. I took out my pipe. "Why," I asked, "would a group of little people be building a spaceship here in America--out in this lonely place?"
Keech stared back without much expression, and said, "I've been wondering how you guessed it was a spaceship. I was surprised enough when you told me you could see us but not overwhelmingly so. I've run into believers before who could see the little people. It happens every so often, though not as frequently as it did a century ago. But knowing a spaceship at first glance! Well, I must confess that does astonish me."
"And why wouldn't I know a spaceship when I see one?" I said. "It just so happens I'm a doctor of science."
"A doctor of science, now," said Keech.
"Invited by the American government to work on the first moon rocket here at the nuclear propulsion center. Since it's no secret I can advise you of it."
"A scientist, is it," said Keech. "Well, now, that's very interesting."
"I'll make no apologies for it," I said.
"Oh, there's no need for apology," said Keech. "Though in truth we prefer poets to scientists. But it has just now crossed my mind, Mr. Houlihan that you, being a scientist, might be of help to us."
"How?" I asked.
"Well, I might try starting at the beginning," he replied.
"You might," I said. "A man usually does."
Keech took out his own pipe--a clay dudeen--and looked hopeful. I gave him a pinch of tobacco from my pouch. "Well, now," he said, "first of all you're no doubt surprised to find us here in America."
"I am surprised from time to time to find myself here," I said. "But continue."
"We had to come here," said Keech, "to learn how to make a spaceship."
"A spaceship, now," I said, unconsciously adopting some of the old manner.
"Leprechauns are not really mechanically inclined," said Keech. "Their major passions are music and laughter and mischief, as anyone knows."
"Myself included," I agreed. "Then why do you need a spaceship?"
"Well, if I may use an old expression, we've had a feelin' lately that we're not long for this world. Or let me put it this way. We feel the world isn't long for itself."
I scratched my cheek. "How would a man unravel a statement such as that?"
"It's very simple. With all the super weapons you mortals have developed, there's the distinct possibility you might be blowin' us all up in the process of destroying yourselves."
"There is that possibility," I said.
"Well, then, as I say," said Keech, "the little people have decided to leave the planet in a spaceship. Which we're buildin' here and now. We've spied upon you and learned how to do it. Well--almost how to do it. We haven't learned yet how to control the power--"