"Good grief, man! Where've you been? Get down here fast. But fast!"
"Listen, Cranly. I'm on my honeymoon. Or have you forgotten? Remember three days ago you were best man at a wedding? Well, the fellow at the altar was Case Damon."
That should have gotten a smile out of Cranly. But it didn't. He was even a little angry now.
"This is an order, Case! I'm giving you the honor of being the first non-official person to know about it. Supreme Emergency Mobilization and Evacuation Order. New York was blasted out of existence an hour ago!"
All flights grounded, the skyport in a turmoil, but that little silver card got him and Karin through. Nobody knew yet what was going on. They were readying for something big, but they didn't know what as yet.
Case hurried Karin to his own hangar, bustled her into the small speeder.
"The fishing cabin on the Columbia, honey. Stay there! And don't worry if you don't hear from me."
He didn't even wait to see her take off. Karin would be safe enough. The cabin was a hundred miles from any possible military objective. All he had to do was sit tight until things were straightened out. New York blasted! That could have been an accident. It must have been an accident. The only alternative would be war. And there were no more wars. Somebody at Supreme Council must have lost his head to issue the E.M.E. order.
Sure, that was it. Leave it to the politicos to get excited and jump out of their skins. Below him the glistening towers of Kansas City flashed and faded and were replaced minutes later by the towers of St. Louis. Chicago was batting out a "clear the sky order."
All three of those cities would have been gone by now if there were really a war, Case told himself. But Cranly was no politician. And he wasn't the kind that scared easily.
It was Cranly who met him at Washington skyport. Cranly was scared, all right. He was more frightened than he'd been the time their ship had started to tear loose from their mooring on that moon of Jupiter. His face was gray.
"I'll fill you in as we go," he said. The official car jerked into high speed and Cranly talked. "It was no accident. Get that straight. New York was hit from the outside."
"But how? By what? Under the Unified Council there's no one who'd have anything to gain by war. There isn't even anyone on Earth with the power to make war."
"That's why we wanted you here. It figures to be an enemy from another planet."
"That doesn't make sense." Case swivelled around to face Cranly. "You and I know our system as well as anyone alive. Cut out the guessing and give me the facts."
"All right. Enough people saw the thing from Jersey so that we know what happened. They say there was a rumble like thunder. Out of a clear sky, mind you. Then--get this--the sky seemed to open! There was a blast of light. That's all. New York was gone."
"Hardly. No mushroom cloud. Accident? No, and you'll learn why I'm so sure shortly."
Case Damon had met some of these men before. A few others he recognized from their pictures. The Supreme Council. They were plenty worried. Strogoff was chewing his mustache; Vargas drummed nervously with thick fingers. Cunningham and Osborn were pacing the floor.
"Thank heaven for one thing," Osborn said. Vargas looked up at him quickly, his dark eyes slits in his swarthy face.
"For what?" Vargas asked bitterly.
"That there has been no panic. Urban evacuations are proceeding quietly."
"I still think it could have been some natural phenomenon," Case interrupted. "Even a terrific bolt of lightning."
Cranly's big shoulders lifted as a recorder was wheeled into the room. He indicated where the machine was to be set down.
"We've wasted a little time in letting you make these guesses," he told Case. "All for a reason. We want you to realize fully what sort of weapon we are up against. Now listen to this message that was beamed onto the Council's private line a few minutes after the blast."
He went to the recorder and tripped a lever. The instrument settled to a low whine that soon disappeared as the recording tape entered the converter. The voice might have been in the room with them.
"To the Supreme Council of the Planet Earth: What happened to New York was only a token of what can be done to your entire planet. Our terms are complete and unconditional surrender, to be telecast within one week. To hasten your decision, there will be other tokens at twelve-hour intervals."
"Now you know," Cranly said heavily. "Either give up or be destroyed. And that ultimatum from an enemy which has no compunction about murdering ten million people to prove its power."
A thousand questions jumped to Case Damon's mind. The horror of the thing stilled most of them. He checked over possibilities quickly.
"You say many people outside of New York saw the flash. What about skyports, observatories, the fleet base on the Moon? Did they try to get a triangulation?"
"I can see why Cranly wanted you here," Vargas said, smiling faintly. His own people had been the last to join the Unified Council. He had held out to the last, had demanded and received concessions, but he was considered one of the Council's ablest men.
"Naturally there were attempts at fixing the source of the flash," he continued. "Had those attempts met with success the fleet would already be on its way."
"I don't get it," Case said bluntly. "If they attempted triangulation, they must have got it."
"Precisely," Cranly interjected. "They got it. The source of the flash was an empty space between Mars and Venus!"
Case was rocked back on his heels by Cranly's disclosure. This was something. An enemy who loosed his blasts out of unoccupied space, who could cut into the Council's own line at will!
"What about a fast moving asteroid? That could have been gone before it was observed."
"Not a chance," Cranly said.
And Cranly should know. So should the rest. Every one of them was in charge of a department of the Earth's services. But there was that emphasis on Mars and Venus. Strogoff interrupted that line of thought.
"I say we might as well give in." Even his thick mustache drooped in despondency. "Why have millions more killed?"
"Never!" Osborn thundered.
"I should hesitate to admit defeat," Vargas shrugged. "But how can we defend ourselves?"
Outside the chambers, in the corridor, Cranly gripped his friend's shoulder hard. "That's been going on for an hour," he said, "this one for, and that one against."
"And meanwhile the fleet can't do a thing," Cranly added.
"Exactly. Whoever blasted New York is doing it from an invisible base. That's my guess. It's an invader from space. My job will be to stay here and keep the Council from giving up. Your job is to find the base."
"Are you sure the attack was from space?"
"Well," Case mused, "I've found uncharted planets, even discovered a city on Mars that the experts said didn't exist. Maybe I can get beyond the thunder, through a hole in the sky."
It was night, and that was a good break. Cranly had been sure he could hold the Council together another twelve hours. Even through a second attack. Fine. For a job like this, Case thought, twelve hours of night were better than twenty of daylight.
He grabbed an aero-cab for the skyport. The pilot looked twice at the silver tab, finally nodded. Case had a few minutes with his thoughts. He'd wanted to talk to Karin, but Cranly had turned thumbs down.
"You can talk to her if and when you get back," he'd said. Fine stuff for a guy who was supposed to be enjoying a honeymoon.
"Hey!" the pilot blurted, cutting into Case's thoughts. He pointed out the window.
Case saw a red streak cut through the sky toward them. A rocket ship, and moving fast. It flashed closer. No mistake about this, it was aiming right for them. They were a couple of dead ducks.
"Look out," Case said.
His big hands flung the pilot out of his seat. Case took over the controls. A whoosh of fire swept past the cabin, missed them as Case sent the ship into a dive.
"Break out the glider chutes," he called back over his shoulder.
Luckily, the pilot didn't try to argue. He was too scared. He snapped a chute around his own shoulders, fought his way forward and got the other one around Case. Another blast cut past the cabin, then another. The rocket ship was using all guns now. They were over the Potomac, then over a wooded area.
"We'll jump at a hundred feet," Case yelled.
A streak of flame caught the cab's right edge, and Case told himself they'd be lucky to jump at all. The little craft was almost out of control. His pretended spin was turning into the real thing. Keeping his eyes glued on the plummeting altimeter, he got his left foot up and kicked out the side window. A flash melted the dial and singed his sleeve. One-fifty.
"Go!" Case barked.
The pilot's heels vanished out the window and Case banked sharply to the right and flung himself out of the seat. Hard earth of a clearing looked like it was going to smack him right in the face.
[Illustration: The chute billowed out as he hit the ground, and he pulled hard at the cords to get his footing]
Then the small chute billowed and pulled out glider wings. Case pulled cords and dropped leftward. The cab hit the ground to his right, the rocket ship on its tail for a final blast. He saw that, and then got his hands in front of him and hit the ground in a rolling fall.
The pilot was a still shape near him in the gloom. Case got out of the chute and ran to him, slid expert hands over the man, and felt the messy pulp that had once been a face. The pilot hadn't known how to fall properly.
Case took a quick look upward. His trick hadn't worked. The rocket was making a tight curve for a landing. Smart operators; they weren't taking any chances. Case cursed them, whoever they were, even as he dug his silver identification plate out of his pocket and slid it into the dead pilot's flying jacket.
Then he ran. Maybe he'd fool them. Maybe he wouldn't. They'd probably take a few minutes to think it over. He skipped around a bush and heard voices and the pound of running feet behind him.
So Cranly was wrong. This wasn't strictly a space job. There was a tie-up on Earth, and the tie-up had to be on the very inside of the Supreme Council! Nobody else knew Case Damon was in on this deal. He ought to head back and warn Cranly.
No, that wasn't right. He had to trust Cranly to handle his end. Only nine hours now till the next blast, and if he took time out to reach Cranly he wouldn't ever make it. Besides, his stunt might have worked. Why tip them off he was still alive?
Brilliant headlights came up the road and Case stepped out onto the highway. The lights came on at two hundred miles an hour, caught him and made him blink. Then there was the hiss of automatic brakes.
"Hey!" a man yelled "What if those brakes hadn't worked?"
Case jerked the car door open and saw that the man was alone. A young fellow, and plenty frightened at sight of Case's torn clothes and scratched and dirty face.
"Don't take your hands off that wheel," Case said sharply. "Head for Washington skyport and keep your foot on the floor all the way."
The young fellow's hand fell away from the dash compartment. He gulped, nodded, and threw the car into gear. He got his foot all the way down and kept it there. They took a sweeping curve at full speed.
Washington was a dot of light, then a haze, a glare. All departments working overtime tonight, Case thought. They hurtled toward the city, smack toward Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Slow down," Case said. "I don't want to be picked up."
The young fellow slowed down. He must be thinking he's got a desperate character next to him, Case mused. If he only knew how desperate! The skyport was less than a mile away now.
"Take the side road around to where the hangars are," Case directed.
The young fellow took the side road. They swept past the main gate, along the ten-mile fence, slid without lights now behind the row of hangars. The hangars looked like rows of cigars standing on end, the ships inside them pointing up and ready to go.
"This is where we get out," Case said. He shoved the driver out of the door and followed him. His fist came up in a short arc and cracked against a jaw-bone.
"Sorry," Case told the inert figure. "I just can't take any chances."
He dumped the unconscious man beside the road and then went back to the car. Wheeling it around so it pointed back toward the main gate, he left the motor whirring and stepped out. One hand depressed the accelerator button, the other held the motor release.
When he jumped clear, the car spurted. With lights off in the darkness the automatic brake wouldn't work. A hundred yards down the car slowed, swerved, hit a concrete abutment. Quite a crash, Case thought. That ought to turn a few heads the wrong way for a while.
He was at the high fence in a flash. His fingers searched for and found crevices. Those fingers were strong as steel. They hauled Case Damon upward and over the top. He grinned into the darkness.
Men were running from the hangars toward the site of the crash. With no incoming traffic slated, the control tower had swung all lights that way. Somewhere a crash siren sang its song.
Case dropped completely relaxed. His feet hit first as he fell forward. His hands hit next, then his head was down between his shoulders and he was rolling forward onto the back of his neck and then onto his feet again. He came up running.
It was going to be a slow start without rocket-boosters. But rockets made light and sound. This had to be a silent takeoff.
He knew his way around this tiny ship even in complete blackness. He had designed it himself, and it was completely functional. Case Damon had wanted no comforts; those came at the end of a journey. When there was a race for a newly discovered ore field, it was the man who got there first, not most comfortably, who won out.
A sharp click told Case that the anti-grav was on. He was looking through his forward visalloy plate straight up into a starlit sky. That wasn't too good. Small as the ship was, it still would make a dark blot.
His eyes roved, discovered a few wisps of cloud. He prayed them closer. Now!
This wasn't the first time he'd taken off in darkness, depending on spring power to lift him silently out of the hangar cradle. He'd beaten them all to Trehos only because they'd figured to catch his takeoff by the rocket flashes. They'd figured to tail him that way, too, only by the time the competition had found out he was gone, he'd been half way there.
Cranly hadn't called him in on this without good reason. Together, he and Cranly had made many a rocket jaunt to distant and dangerous places. They'd been a good team before Cranly had sought election to the Council. Cranly was the cautious kind; but when he knew exactly where he stood, he could move fast enough.
Case slid the ship behind a cloud and felt his speed slacken. He had to risk a short burst of the jets. The odds were against anyone seeing the flash now.
At his present low speed, it would be a while before he was out of range of detection apparatus. He had time to wonder whether he ought to buzz Karin on the telecast. Better not; there was always the chance his call might be picked up.