And he was. "Every power unit out there--suits and boats both--drained," Hilton reported. "Completely drained. Get some help out there fast!"
In an enormous structure deep below the surface of a far-distant world a group of technicians clustered together in front of one section of a two-miles long control board. They were staring at a light that had just appeared where no light should have been.
"Someone's brain-pan will be burned out for this," one of the group radiated harshly. "That unit was inactivated long ago and it has not been reactivated."
"Someone committed an error, Your Loftiness?"
"Silence, fool! Stretts do not commit errors!"
As soon as it was clear that no one had been injured, Sawtelle demanded, "How about it, Hilton?"
"Structurally, it was high-alloy steel. There were many bulges, possibly containing mechanisms. There were drive-units of a non-Terran type. There were many projectors, which--at a rough guess--were a hundred times as powerful as any I have ever seen before. There were no indications that the thing had ever been enclosed, in whole or in part. It certainly never had living quarters for warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing eaters of organic food."
Sawtelle snorted. "You mean it never had a crew?"
"Bah! What other kind of intelligent life is there?"
"I don't know. But before we speculate too much, let's look at the tri-di. The camera may have caught something I missed."
It hadn't. The three-dimensional pictures added nothing.
"It probably was operated either by programmed automatics or by remote control," Hilton decided, finally. "But how did they drain all our power? And just as bad, what and how is that other point source of power we're heading for now?"
"What's wrong with it?" Sawtelle asked.
"Its strength. No matter what distance or reactant I assume, nothing we know will fit. Neither fission nor fusion will do it. It has to be practically total conversion!"
The Perseus snapped out of overdrive near the point of interest and Hilton stared, motionless and silent.
Space was full of madly warring ships. Half of them were bare, giant skeletons of steel, like the "derelict" that had so unexpectedly blasted away from them. The others were more or less like the Perseus, except in being bigger, faster and of vastly greater power.
Beams of starkly incredible power bit at and clung to equally capable defensive screens of pure force. As these inconceivable forces met, the glare of their neutralization filled all nearby space. And ships and skeletons alike were disappearing in chunks, blobs, gouts, streamers and sparkles of rended, fused and vaporized metal.
Hilton watched two ships combine against one skeleton. Dozens of beams, incredibly tight and hard, were held inexorably upon dozens of the bulges of the skeleton. Overloaded, the bulges' screens flared through the spectrum and failed. And bare metal, however refractory, endures only for instants under the appalling intensity of such beams as those.
The skeletons tried to duplicate the ships' method of attack, but failed. They were too slow. Not slow, exactly, either, but hesitant; as though it required whole seconds for the commander--or operator? Or remote controller?--of each skeleton to make it act. The ships were winning.
"Hey!" Hilton yelped. "Oh--that's the one we saw back there. But what in all space does it think it's doing?"
It was plunging at tremendous speed straight through the immense fleet of embattled skeletons. It did not fire a beam nor energize a screen; it merely plunged along as though on a plotted course until it collided with one of the skeletons of the fleet and both structures plunged, a tangled mass of wreckage, to the ground of the planet below.
Then hundreds of the ships shot forward, each to plunge into and explode inside one of the skeletons. When visibility was restored another wave of ships came forward to repeat the performance, but there was nothing left to fight. Every surviving skeleton had blinked out of normal space.
The remaining ships made no effort to pursue the skeletons, nor did they re-form as a fleet. Each ship went off by itself.
And on that distant planet of the Stretts the group of mechs watched with amazed disbelief as light after light after light winked out on their two-miles-long control board. Frantically they relayed orders to the skeletons; orders which did not affect the losses.
"Brain-pans will blacken for this ..." a mental snarl began, to be interrupted by a coldly imperious thought.
"That long-dead unit, so inexplicably reactivated, is approaching the fuel world. It is ignoring the battle. It is heading through our fleet toward the Oman half ... handle it, ten-eighteen!"
"It does not respond, Your Loftiness."
"Then blast it, fool! Ah, it is inactivated. As encyclopedist, Nine, explain the freakish behavior of that unit."
"Yes, Your Loftiness. Many cycles ago we sent a ship against the Omans with a new device of destruction. The Omans must have intercepted it, drained it of power and allowed it to drift on. After all these cycles of time it must have come upon a small source of power and of course continued its mission."
"That can be the truth. The Lords of the Universe must be informed."
"The mining units, the carriers and the refiners have not been affected, Your Loftiness," a mech radiated.
"So I see, fool." Then, activating another instrument, His Loftiness thought at it, in an entirely different vein, "Lord Ynos, Madam? I have to make a very grave report...."
In the Perseus, four scientists and three Navy officers were arguing heatedly; employing deep-space verbiage not to be found in any dictionary. "Jarve!" Karns called out, and Hilton joined the group. "Does anything about this planet make any sense to you?"
"No. But you're the planetographer. 'Smatter with it?"
"It's a good three hundred degrees Kelvin too hot."
"Well, you know it's loaded with uranexite."
"That much? The whole crust practically jewelry ore?"
"If that's what the figures say, I'll buy it."
"Buy this, then. Continuous daylight everywhere. Noon June Sol-quality light except that it's all in the visible. Frank says it's from bombardment of a layer of something, and Frank admits that the whole thing's impossible."
"When Frank makes up his mind what 'something' is, I'll take it as a datum."
"Third thing: there's only one city on this continent, and it's protected by a screen that nobody ever heard of."
Hilton pondered, then turned to the captain. "Will you please run a search-pattern, sir? Fine-toothing only the hot spots?"
The planet was approximately the same size as Terra; its atmosphere, except for its intense radiation, was similar to Terra's. There were two continents; one immense girdling ocean. The temperature of the land surface was everywhere about 100F, that of the water about 90F. Each continent had one city, and both were small. One was inhabited by what looked like human beings; the other by usuform robots. The human city was the only cool spot on the entire planet; under its protective dome the temperature was 71F.
Hilton decided to study the robots first; and asked the captain to take the ship down to observation range. Sawtelle objected; and continued to object until Hilton started to order his arrest. Then he said, "I'll do it, under protest, but I want it on record that I am doing it against my best judgment."
"It's on record," Hilton said, coldly. "Everything said and done is being, and will continue to be, recorded."
The Perseus floated downward. "There's what I want most to see," Hilton said, finally. "That big strip-mining operation ... that's it ... hold it!" Then, via throat-mike, "Attention, all scientists! You all know what to do. Start doing it."
Sandra's blonde head was very close to Hilton's brown one as they both stared into Hilton's plate. "Why, they look like giant armadillos!" she exclaimed.
"More like tanks," he disagreed, "except that they've got legs, wheels and treads--and arms, cutters, diggers, probes and conveyors--and look at the way those buckets dip solid rock!"
The fantastic machine was moving very slowly along a bench or shelf that it was making for itself as it went along. Below it, to its left, dropped other benches being made by other mining machines. The machines were not using explosives. Hard though the ore was, the tools were so much harder and were driven with such tremendous power that the stuff might just have well have been slightly-clayed sand.
Every bit of loosened ore, down to the finest dust, was forced into a conveyor and thence into the armored body of the machine. There it went into a mechanism whose basic principles Hilton could not understand. From this monstrosity emerged two streams of product.
One of these, comprising ninety-nine point nine plus percent of the input, went out through another conveyor into the vast hold of a vehicle which, when full and replaced by a duplicate of itself, went careening madly cross-country to a dump.
The other product, a slow, very small stream of tiny, glistening black pellets, fell into a one-gallon container being held watchfully by a small machine, more or less like a three-wheeled motor scooter, which was moving carefully along beside the giant miner. When this can was almost full another scooter rolled up and, without losing a single pellet, took over place and function. The first scooter then covered its bucket, clamped it solidly into a recess designed for the purpose and dashed away toward the city.
Hilton stared slack-jawed at Sandra. She stared back.
"Do you make anything of that, Jarve?"
"Nothing. They're taking pure uranexite and concentrating--or converting--it a thousand to one. I hope we'll be able to do something about it."
"I hope so, too, Chief; and I'm sure we will."
"Well, that's enough for now. You may take us up now, Captain Sawtelle. And Sandy, will you please call all department heads and their assistants into the conference room?"
At the head of the long conference table, Hilton studied his fourteen department heads, all husky young men, and their assistants, all surprisingly attractive and well-built young women. Bud Carroll and Sylvia Bannister of Sociology sat together. He was almost as big as Karns; she was a green-eyed redhead whose five-ten and one-fifty would have looked big except for the arrangement thereof. There were Bernadine and Hermione van der Moen, the leggy, breasty, platinum-blonde twins--both of whom were Cowper medalists in physics. There was Etienne de Vaux, the mathematical wizard; and Rebecca Eisenstein, the black-haired, flashing-eyed ex-infant-prodigy theoretical astronomer. There was Beverly Bell, who made mathematically impossible chemical syntheses--who swam channels for days on end and computed planetary orbits in her sleekly-coiffured head.
"First, we'll have a get-together," Hilton said. "Nothing recorded; just to get acquainted. You all know that our fourteen departments cover science, from astronomy to zoology."
He paused, again his eyes swept the group. Stella Wing, who would have been a grand-opera star except for her drive to know everything about language. Theodora (Teddy) Blake, who would prove gleefully that she was the world's best model--but was in fact the most brilliantly promising theoretician who had ever lived.
"No other force like this has ever been assembled," Hilton went on. "In more ways than one. Sawtelle wanted Jeffers to head this group, instead of me. Everybody thought he would head it."
"And Hilton wanted Eggleston and got me," Sandra said.
"That's right. And quite a few of you didn't want to come at all, but were told by the Board to come or else."
The group stirred. Eyes met eyes, and there were smiles.
"I myself think Jeffers should have had the job. I've never handled anything half this big and I'll need a lot of help. But I'm stuck with it and you're all stuck with me, so we'll all take it and like it. You've noticed, of course, the accent on youth. The Navy crew is normal, except for the commanders being unusually young. But we aren't. None of us is thirty yet, and none of us has ever been married. You fellows look like a team of professional athletes, and you girls--well, if I didn't know better I'd say the Board had screened you for the front row of the chorus instead of for a top-bracket brain-gang. How they found so many of you I'll never know."
"Virile men and nubile women!" Etienne de Vaux leered enthusiastically. "Vive le Board!"
"Nubile! Bravo, Tiny! Quelle delicatesse de nuance!"
"Three rousing cheers for the Board!"
"Keep still, you nitwits! Let me ask a question!" This came from one of the twins. "Before you give us the deduction, Jarvis--or will it be an intuition or an induction or a ..."
"Or an inducement," the other twin suggested, helpfully. "Not that you would need very much of that."
"You keep still, too, Miney. I'm asking, Sir Moderator, if I can give my deduction first?"
"Sure, Bernadine; go ahead."
"They figured we're going to get completely lost. Then we'll jettison the Navy, hunt up a planet of our own and start a race to end all human races. Or would you call this a see-duction instead of a dee-duction?"
This produced a storm of whistles, cheers and jeers that it took several seconds to quell.
"But seriously, Jarvis," Bernadine went on. "We've all been wondering and it doesn't make sense. Have you any idea at all of what the Board actually did have in mind?"
"I believe that the Board selected for mental, not physical, qualities; for the ability to handle anything unexpected or unusual that comes up, no matter what it is."
"You think it wasn't double-barreled?" asked Kincaid, the psychologist. He smiled quizzically. "That all this virility and nubility and glamor is pure coincidence?"
"No," Hilton said, with an almost imperceptible flick of an eyelid. "Coincidence is as meaningless as paradox. I think they found out that--barring freaks--the best minds are in the best bodies."
"Could be. The idea has been propounded before."
"Now let's get to work." Hilton flipped the switch of the recorder. "Starting with you, Sandy, each of you give a two-minute boil-down. What you found and what you think."
Something over an hour later the meeting adjourned and Hilton and Sandra strolled toward the control room.
"I don't know whether you convinced Alexander Q. Kincaid or not, but you didn't quite convince me," Sandra said.
"Nor him, either."
"Oh?" Sandra's eyebrows "No. He grabbed the out I offered him. I didn't fool Teddy Blake or Temple Bells, either. You four are all, though, I think."
"Temple? You think she's so smart?"
"I don't think so, no. Don't fool yourself, chick. Temple Bells looks and acts sweet and innocent and virginal. Maybe--probably--she is. But she isn't showing a fraction of the stuff she's really got. She's heavy artillery, Sandy. And I mean heavy."
"I think you're slightly nuts there. But do you really believe that the Board was playing Cupid?"
"Not trying, but doing. Cold-bloodedly and efficiently. Yes."
"But it wouldn't work! We aren't going to get lost!"
"We won't need to. Propinquity will do the work."
"Phooie. You and me, for instance?" She stopped, put both hands on her hips, and glared. "Why, I wouldn't marry you if you ..."