"And that is why you will take us to Earth, Lieutenant," barked the Ihelian warrior. "We do not want your arms or your men. What we must ask for is--ten thousand women."
Mason was nervous. It was the nervousness of cold apprehension, not simply that which had become indigenous to his high-strung make-up. He was, in his way, afraid; afraid that he'd again come up with a wrong answer.
He'd brought the tiny Scout too close to the Rim. Facing the facts squarely, he knew, even as he fingered the stud that would wrench them out of their R-curve, that he'd not just come too close. He'd overshot entirely. Pardonable, perhaps, from the view-point of the corps of scientists safely ensconced in their ponderous Mark VII Explorer some fifteen light-days behind. But not according to the g-n manual. According to it, he'd placed the Scout and her small crew in a "situation of avoidable risk," and it would make a doubtful record look that much worse.
The next time he'd out-argue Cain with his rank if he had to. Cain was big enough to grab things with his brawny fists and twist them into whatever shape he wanted when the things were tangible, solid, resisting. But R-Space was something else again. Nobody knew what it did beyond the Rim.
He materialized the Scout into E-Space, listened for trouble from her computers, but they chuckled softly on, keeping track of where they were, where they'd been, and how they'd get home.
It was as though nothing had happened. But Lieutenant Lansing Mason was still nervous, his slender fingers steady enough, but as cold as the alien dark outside the ship they controlled.
"You look a little shot again, skipper!" Cain said, grinning like a Martian desert cat. "What's the matter, Space goblins got you again?"
A retort started at Mason's taut lips, but his third officer was already speaking.
"Here's a dope sheet from the comps, if anybody's interested in knowing just where outside the Rim we are," she said. "I make it just a shade inside the outermost fringes of the Large Magellanic Cloud." Sergeant Judith Kent's voice had its almost habitually preoccupied tone, as though the words she said were hardly more than incidental to a host of more important thoughts running swiftly behind her wide-set, deep gray eyes. They were serious eyes, and in their way matched the solemn set of her small features and the crisp, military cut of her black hair and severe uniform.
"Our little boss-man knows where we are, all right!" Cain said.
Mason gave Cain's six-feet-two a quick glance, wondering as he always wondered why the big redhead's shoulders always seemed too broad for the Warrant Officer's stripes on them. "Sergeant Kent's right," he said. "Here's her comp-sheet. You can look for yourself. Fringe, Magellanic. And look at that while you can--" he jabbed a forefinger at the main scanner, its screen studded with unfamiliarly close constellations--"because we're on our way back. Set up a return on the comps, will you, Sergeant?" For all his tenseness his voice was low, and the words it formed were even and swift.
"Hell, Lance, this is the sort of stuff the brain trust pays us bonuses for."
"Not out here they don't. R-drive when you're ready, Sergeant!"
Cain turned from the deep control bank and gave his full attention to the scanner as the slender, efficient girl started feeding a tape of reversal co-ordinates into the computers.
Mason waited the few necessary seconds, pushed disarranged dark hair out of his eyes and felt the clammy dampness on his forehead, and wished silently to himself that opportunists like Cain were kept where they belonged--on the Slam-Bang Run out of Callisto. That's where the money was. That's where a Warrant like Cain ought to be.
"Ready, sir," he heard Judith saying quietly.
"Hey, skipper!" There was a sudden urgency in Cain's voice, and the equally sudden racket of an MPD alarm going off. Cain was gesturing at the scanner, stubby finger tracing a slewing pip of light. The alarm stopped, and Judith's cool voice was relaying information. "About a thousand miles," she was saying, "mass, approximately three hundred tons. Speed--"
But Mason wasn't listening. He was watching the pip of light as Cain got the scanner's directional going, tracked it. Suddenly there were others coming as though to meet it, and it swerved violently, obviously in flight. And now there were more yet, this time from the starboard quadrant of the screen.
"Radiation reading, Sergeant!" Mason clipped out.
While the two men watched, Judith read back the cryptic information interpolated by the ship's mass-proximity detector.
"That's not all engine junk!" Cain exclaimed as she finished.
"We don't know what drive they've got," Mason answered. "Could be anything--"
"Nuts! You wouldn't get that much from an old-fashioned ion-blast, skipper! That's a shooting war, that's what it is!" There was a glitter in Cain's narrowed brown eyes; a new edge on his heavy voice. "Which side do we take, boss-man?"
"No side at all," Mason said, hardly moving his lips. "We're getting the hell out of here."
"Look, Lance. We've got a crew of ten--we've got a couple of m-guns aboard because we're a Scout. No telling how one of those outfits may show their gratitude if we pitch in, help their side out. That's what we're out here for, isn't it? Dig up new stuff for the double-domes to sink their slide-rules into? Think of the bonus, skipper! Hell, this is made to order--"
Mason turned a quick glance to the girl, but her face told him nothing. It never did when things like this came up between himself and Cain. And it was something he knew he had no right to expect. But he was tired ... too damn much Space, and there was nothing else he knew how to do.
But this time Cain had a point. Aliens--extra-galactic, even if almost neighbors--and his help one way or the other could mean an engraved invitation, a key to the city.
He turned back to the screen, watched as the careening pips massed, mixed, whirled in an insensate jumble. He didn't want any more mistakes. They'd ground him for good, tell him he'd had his limit of Space, and park him on one of the rest-planets with a pension for the rest of his life.
No, he had to think, and quickly.
Earth had only too recently gotten an entire history of wars out of her system. Perhaps for good, this time. And that was it; that was his answer. Better keep his nose clean-- "For God's sake, skipper," Cain snapped. "Come out of it! This is a natural, we'll clean up!"
"Sergeant Kent! R-drive!"
There was a moment's sensation of nothingness as the Scout made the Euclidean-Riemannian Transition; the scanner paled and the segment of the universe it framed twisted, changed.
Cain didn't say anything. He glowered, and Mason could feel the big man's contempt. But he didn't have time for it.
This time there wouldn't be any error. This time he'd be a step ahead of the situation and stay there. "Scratch those reversal co-ordinates, Sergeant! Set up to diverge thirty degrees!"
Cain's sarcasm was little disguised. "Mind if I ask a question?"
"Just stay at ease, Mister Cain, until we're out of this!"
Mason watched the scanner's distorted image as the Scout hurtled through a curved pencil of four-point Space; she didn't have a fraction of a powerful Explorer's speed, and her small powerframe physically limited her to that of light. Yet it could be fast enough, for the aliens might know nothing of Transition technique, or could be as wary as Earthmen of the Rim. His precautions could be needless. But he had seen them and they were war-like, and he had no intention of being followed, either back to the Explorer, or ultimately to Earth itself. He'd have to maintain the diverged course until he was certain.
There was a black pip on the fog-colored scanner. Judith saw it even as he did. There was a fleeting look of fright on her intent young face that she hadn't been able to mask.
Cain saw it too.
"You got a tail, skipper!" he said, and the grin was back on his big freckled face.
Cain was right. The alien was capable of Transition. And he obviously had little fear of the Rim. His ship grew larger in the scanner.
Mason felt his fingers grow cold again.
Lance told the girl to eject the tape of co-ordinates from the nav-computers, and he took over manually, hoping the comps would keep up. It would be up to him where they went, and up to the comps to keep track of the Scout's position relative to both the Solar System and the Explorer.
His fingers played across the control-banks as though they were the keyboards of a great organ, and he felt his insides writhe as he slipped the hurtling ship back into E-Space, then back to R-level again. He played the tiny craft between levels as though it were a stone skipping across water, and altered course with each Transition with no attempt at plan or pattern. Rivulets of ice water trickled down across his ribs, and the flesh of his thin face was stiff.
"Wrong again," he heard Cain saying. "At least we can tell the brain trust that their precious R-factor is constant beyond the Rim ... maybe that'll be worth a buck or two. At least those kids back there are playing around in this galaxy like it was their own front yard. Go on, skipper, take a look yourself!"
Mason didn't have to look. He knew that he hadn't lost the alien; had known somehow that he wouldn't be able to. Too apparently, their own galaxy, near as it was to the Milky Way, was of the same Space, its continuum forged in the same curvature matrices.
"Shall I order our m-guns placed, sir?" It was Judith, and he knew she had grasped the implications of the situation as quickly as she always did. Sometimes he wondered if she were a computer herself, clad in the graceful body of a young woman rather than in a shell of permasteel. And other times....
He didn't even think about his answer. The "No" was automatic.
"I'll give the order, then, myself!" Cain said flatly.
"As you were, Mister Cain!"
"So it's rank, now, is it?" And he was grinning that damn grin again.
"Take it any way you want. If you think three meson cannon will stop a ship that's obviously built for battle, you're hardly thinking well enough for the responsibilities of your post."
"Well listen to who's sounding off! So we're just going to let 'em overhaul us; just let 'em blast us out of Space, or come tramping aboard if they want to!"
Mason didn't reply. He looked at the scanner, and now the alien craft was no longer a dot, but taking definite shape. It would be a couple of hours, yet, perhaps. And then it would have to be the way Cain had said.
The alien overhauled them hardly a billion miles inside the Rim, and Mason offered no resistance when he felt their magnetics touch the Scout and draw it gently to the flank of their great ship. It was necessary to scale down the scanner's field to see the huge shape in its entirety. Beside it, the Scout was like a sparrow's egg.
He punched the stud that would swing in the outer lock as the two craft touched with but the slightest jar.
Cain's ham-like fists were knotted at his sides, and Judith stood quietly, as though waiting for nothing more than the presence of an inspecting officer. But her delicate face was white, and Mason wondered if the brain under that crisp, dark hair was still functioning as a well disciplined piece of machinery, or if it felt the same fear that was in his own. He knew what was in Cain's thoughts. But at least when he'd told their small crew the score, they had accepted his decision--and his order to keep the m-guns where they were. So maybe this time it was Cain who was wrong.
The three of them stood in the compact confines of the control bubble, silent, waiting.
And when the alien stepped through their inner airlock port and faced them, Mason knew he was not succeeding in keeping his surprise from his features.
The alien could have been human. Even clad in his Spacegear, he was little taller than Cain, and his hair and eyes could have been those of an Earthly Viking of another day. Humanoid, so far as physical appearances went But in thought--?
There was a smile on the Viking face as the alien removed the transparent globe of his helmet. He seemed to realize instinctively that Mason was the Scout's commander.
"I am Kriijorl," he said. "I extend the greetings of Ihelos." And he proffered his right hand, Earth fashion, toward Mason!
Lance grasped it as he tried to organize the sudden scramble of his thoughts. It was a strong hand. He could feel the sinews of it beneath its gauntlet; like Cain's, yet different, somehow. "You are peacefully received, and welcome," he said. But there was a hollow sound to his words that he had not been able to help.
The smile still played on the alien's sun-darkened face.
"Thank you. I hope that I use your language not too clumsily. Our teleprobes may leave something to be desired in the matter of semantics. You will, I hope, forgive us for taking the liberty of their use. But since you employed no protective screens, and because of the necessity of our meeting--"
Cain broke in without hesitation. "I don't know what you've been up to while you've been tagging us, mister, but I--"
"At ease, Mister Cain!" Mason snapped. "We must allow our guest to explain his action and his mission."
The alien nodded slightly, glanced at Judith.
"It was your woman officer aboard," he began. "When we became aware that you also represented a bi-sexual race, as do we, we realized at once that you afforded us an unexpected opportunity. Otherwise, we should have remained at our business and spared you this intrusion.
"We of Ihelos, as you doubtless have noted, are at war. It is perhaps not war as your culture understands it; it is perhaps more accurately described by your word 'feud,' I think, and it has continued between us and our only similar neighbor, the planet of Thrayx, for many thousands of your years.
"We have been quite self-sufficient cultures for all that time, and have taken great care that our conflict not infect any other area in either our galaxy or yours, for neither of us, by inherent nature, is war-like in the sense of aggressiveness. Our conflict is between us and us alone.
"However, we of Ihelos recently received a staggering setback from our traditional enemy due to a certain unexpected innovation in their battle techniques, and we realized that our cause could end only in eventual defeat. As it shall, unless your people will help us."
There was a moment of silence, and Mason found himself wondering how often this had happened in Earth's own bitter past. It was, wherever men lived, an old story.
"What," Cain was asking, "is in this for us?"
"Could you tell us," Judith said before the alien could answer Cain, "just why you chose us? Certainly, you must have noticed our techniques of warfare are quite inferior to your own. We have not employed them for more than two hundred years--"
"Nor," Mason finished for her, "do we intend to again. You must seek help elsewhere, sir."
"That, for us, would be quite impossible," the alien replied slowly. "The chances of finding other life forms like our own are billions to one, the immensity of both our galaxies notwithstanding. Had you not ventured within range of our screens we would in all probability never known you existed. And to organize a search...." and now the smile on his lips was almost a sad thing, "a search of two galaxies--it would take us aeons, even at a thousand times the speed of light, simply to cover the vast distances involved, to say nothing of finding a similar life and thought form. And we do not have aeons, Lieutenant. We have but two--three, at most--generations.
"There is too little time to search for allies. We have no other choice, as you can see, than to take what advantage we can of those upon whom we may chance."
"But as my sergeant has already pointed out," Mason said, "our arms would be worthless to you. And, more importantly, we wish no more part in warfare. I am afraid, in that respect, you must excuse us, sir.... It has been a pleasure to have you aboard."
And suddenly, the smile was gone from the alien's face.
"I must demand of you, then--force you, if necessary--to take us to your planet, Lieutenant. For you can quite obviously help us. It is not your arms we want."
"I fail to understand you sir." Mason felt the icy sweat start again, repressed a shiver as it trickled the length of his spare body.
"Our planet, as our enemy's, is encircled by a wide ring of floating cosmic debris," the alien said. "In both instances, the rings are remnants of what once may have been satellites. In the ring which encircles us, we have successfully secreted refrigerated, lead-sheathed stores of male sperm, quite impossible for our enemy to locate. That is a necessity, of course, for any race that is constantly at war and is obliged to take all possible safeguards to insure its continued existence. We assume that Thrayx has done the same.
"However, our cell stores are useless if they lack ova to fertilize. On their last attack, Thrayxite ships succeeded in penetrating our innermost planetary defenses, and heavily damaged a number of our cities. Many of our women and young were victims.
"We therefore evacuated our planet's entire female population to an uninhabited world far distant. It was a young world and covered with thick forests, much like the labor planetoid which circles Thrayx, and we believed our breeders would be quite sufficiently camouflaged."
"Breeders?" Cain broke in.
"Our philosophy concerning women is slightly different than your own," the alien said. And then he resumed, "But in our haste we underestimated our enemy's cleverness. Thrayxite scouts located the planet, destroyed it, our women, and our seeds.
"And that is why you will take us to Earth, Lieutenant. We do not want your arms or your men. What we must ask for is--ten thousand of your women!"
A Cepheid Variable winked tauntingly at the edge of the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud strewn like diamonds in a vast cosmic spume behind it. It corruscated in glorious display as, far off, a great silvery ship of Space and a tiny jot of man-made metal resumed their headlong motion through the mighty legion of the stars.
And then for an instant, the Cepheid's bright wink was dulled; eclipsed. A tapering streamlined shape slipped silently across it, and then was gone in the blackness, and the white dwarf resumed its brilliant display.
But the commander of the Cepheid's interruptor had been giving little time to appreciation of the myriad beauties in the great darkness that had swallowed her ship. She had trebled her screens and had taxed her craft's colossal power installation to its limit, forcing it to absorb and reconvert every erg of radiant energy possible as it labored to maintain the awful output necessary to cling to the very edge of R-Space, barely clear of the E-continuum itself.
She might have been an Amazon of Earth save for the great intelligence behind the high plane of her forehead, yet she was not without beauty, nor were those of her ship's complement. On their close-fitting uniforms were emblazoned the Planet-and-Circle insignia of their homeland, for they were of the galactic hosts of Thrayx.